Weekly Video/DVD Picks

The Emperor's Club (2002)

Unlike most teachers in inspirational-teacher movies, William Hundert (Kevin Kline) isn't charismatic or cool; in fact, he's stiff and a bit boring. I like that about him. He isn't selling students (or the audience) his own personality, authenticity or commitment; he isn't selling education as self-actualization (Dead Poets Society), doesn't work miracles with disaffected kids (Dangerous Minds) and doesn't succeed with every single student (Mr. Holland's Opus).

He's overly pedantic: Instead of merely urging a student to stay off the grass, he exhorts, “Walk where the great men who have gone before you have walked” — not just because it's good for the grass, but “because it's good for you.” By the time we meet Mr. Hundert's one and only problem student, it almost looks as if the movie is going to be about the free-spirited youngster inspiring the inhibited teacher to seize the day rather than the inspirational teacher transforming the unmoti-vated student.

Refreshingly, The Emperor's Club is about neither of these things. Instead, it's a thoughtful look at the purpose and limits of education, the importance of character and principle, and the meaning of success and failure.

Moral considerations: Adolescent sexually-themed dialogue and behavior (no sex or nudity, apart from fleeting glimpses of a girlie magazine); some crude and profane language; implied divorce and remarriage. Suitable for mature, discerning teens.

Atlantis (1991)

Following his 1988 aquatic feature The Big Blue, director Luc Besson spent two years capturing the extraordinary footage for Atlantis, a pure documentary that eschews educational Discovery Channel-type narration in favor of sheer wonder at the exotic, mysterious world under the sea.

Loosely structured into thematic “chapters” such as “light,” “rhythm” and “grace,” accompanied by an eclectic Eric Serra score, Atlantis is a sort of documentary Fantasia, a poetic marriage of image and music (though the score, apart from an aria from Bellini's La Sonnambula, lacks the pedigree of Disney's masterpiece).

Marred only by a brief opening voiceover, which muses pretentiously about man's evolutionary origins in the ocean, Atlantis lets the beauty of the undersea world speak for itself.

No matter how many ocean documentaries you've seen, Besson's film will show you things you've never seen before — and things well worth seeing again. From the alien majesty of the giant octopus in his seaweed-forest home, to the hypnotic undulations of the striped-sweater sea snake, to the dirigible-like bulk and mailbox-slot mouth of the whale shark, to the bovine placidity of the Florida manatee (whose comically graceful bulk evokes the hippo ballerinas of Fantasia), Atlantis is an unparalleled look at a fascinating world.

Moral considerations: Documentary footage of a shark feeding frenzy and sea animals mating should not pose an obstacle to most children.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

You haven't seen Zorro till you've seen Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in this 1920 silent I swashbuckling classic (not to be confused with the fine 1940 Tyrone Power remake).

A born action hero, a natural acrobat and stuntman, Fairbanks was in a class by himself, and the last reel of this film contains some of the most amazing acrobatics in any black-and-white action movie, and certainly in any silent film.

This telling of the Zorro tale also outdoes later portrayals in its depiction of the main character as a champion of faith as well as justice, and of his Catholic milieu. As one of his enemies puts it, “Pick on a priest or a native, and — presto! Zorro!”

In one sequence, an old Franciscan, falsely accused of fraud, tells the corrupt magistrate, “If I were a supporter of the licentious governor, I would be innocent. I am a robed Franciscan — therefore I am guilty!”

When the priest is beaten, Zorro angrily confronts the blue-blooded caballeros: “You sit idly sipping wine while the naked back of an unprotesting soldier of Christ is beaten!” We also see the priest being carted off to safety, blessing his rescuers with the sign of the cross.

Moral considerations: Action violence, brief flogging of an elderly priest and a brief depiction of a man assaulting a woman are sufficiently restrained to pose little difficulty for young viewers.