It was called a splendid little war, but 99 years later only one moment of splendor from our four-month conflict with Spain sticks in the American mind: Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders' taking San Juan Hill in Cuba. (Actually it was Kettle Hill, but who cares about the details?) Macho moviemaker John Milius (Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian) has always reveled in combat, but the writer-director's challenge in this four-hour mini-series is to hold viewer interest till TR (Tom Berenger, miscast but enthusiastic) yells "Charge!" in Part 2. Milius fills the time with a little politics (to dwell unduly on burgeoning U.S. imperialism might strike some as churlish) and a lot of military preparation as flinty Capt. Bucky O'Neil (Sam Elliott) whips the volunteers into shape, and former bandit Henry Nash (a composite character played by Brad Johnson) contemplates deserting.
So what if rowdy Gen. Joe Wheeler (Gary Busey) thinks he's still commanding Confederate troops? The validity of the cause, Milius suggests, is beside the point. Honor and adventure are all men need to fight for. Even the enemy is irrelevant. The Spanish forces are represented entirely by faceless, voiceless extras. As a result, the climactic battle is oddly bloodless—figuratively if not literally. Even jingoistic newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (played by George Hamilton as if he were the Zorro of yellow journalism) and tippling correspondent Stephen Crane (Adam Storke), who puts down his flask long enough to deliver an ecstatic play-by-play, can't sufficiently hype the famous victory to give Rough Riders the glory it seeks.
Showtime (Sun., July 20, 9 p.m. ET)
Edgy," "sophisticated" and "bizarre." That's how Showtime describes this anthology series, which premieres with a 90-minute trilogy (single episodes air weekly starting July 27 at 10). The first story of the July 20 trio hits all the required notes. A nightclub entertainer (Amanda Ryan) with a bizarre act—she plunges a sword into her belly and does not bleed—falls for a customer (Balthazar Getty), has sex with him a couple of times, goes back to work, gets pierced as usual and bleeds to death onstage. Ouch, that's edgy. After witnessing the incident, Getty takes a sophisticated attitude: "I should have felt more but, strangely, I didn't." And we thought he showed so little expression because he wasn't much of an actor.
This charming tale was directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun), one of the series' six executive producers (along with Ridley Scott, his director brother). Back in 1983, Tony Scott made a vampire movie called The Hunger. Like the TV show, it was all style, no sense. But at least it had Catherine Deneuve. The big attraction in the second story of the trilogy is Karen Black's hairdo—a modified beehive that really does border on the bizarre. As if that weren't enough of a turnoff, a woman (Celine Bonnier) in the third story grows a tail during sex, and series host Terence Stamp lounges in a bathtub as he speaks of the human body as "yard upon yard of coiled, steaming gut."
Sci-Fi Channel (Mondays, 7:30 p.m. ET)
You want to know what we're doing here—six complete strangers with almost blank memories on a crippled ship in unknown space," one crew member says to another in the second episode (July 28) of this Canadian-made sci-fi series. Frankly we would have expected such a basic question to be answered in the July 21 premiere, but the characters spend that half hour shaking the cobwebs off their brains after a 500-year cryogenic snooze, arguing over who's in charge and dodging a hostile spacecraft. Once the premise is finally laid out, it's fairly intriguing: The crew is on a mission to repopulate plague-devastated Earth.
Although the Sci-Fi Channel labels the crew members "20-somethings," actors Gordon Michael Woolvett, Craig Kirkwood, Nicole deBoer, Jason Cadieux, Sara Sahr and Kelli Taylor look more like the Saved by the Bell kids in low-rent Star Trek costumes. It's no shock that their characters turn out to be clones.
PBS (Tues., July 22, 10 p.m. ET)
This clear-eyed P.O.V. documentary by Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, offers telling snapshots of four working-class Philadelphia teenagers over a four-year period. Anna, a first-generation Vietnamese-American, is dutifully studious but chafes under her parents' strict rules. De'Yona is an African-American with a drugged-out mother, a loving grandmother and a desire to make it in music. Lisa is an Italian-American with an amused tolerance for her thrice-divorced mother, a mixed-up view of boys and a resolve not to miss a day of school. Finally, and most memorably, there's Raelene, a girl of European-Native American background, who one minute says condoms spoil sex and the next minute says she can't believe she's pregnant again.
Sometimes we're disappointed in these girls; other times we're pleasantly surprised. But the documentary never judges them, and that openness is its main strength. After a little less than an hour, we only wish we could have gotten to know the subjects better.
>Alexandra Romeo and Annie Petrillo
A MOTHER MOURNED
THE NEW YEAR'S EVE 1993 BEATING OF Anne Scripps Douglas (she died six days later) shocked the nation. The 47-year-old heiress to the Scripps newspaper fortune was bludgeoned with a hammer at her Bronxville, N.Y., estate by her hard-drinking carpenter husband, Scott Douglas, 38, who then leaped to his death from a nearby bridge. The murder was the nadir of an abusive four-year marriage that filled Scripps Douglas with shame. "Where we lived, nobody was coming out about domestic abuse," says Alexandra Romeo, 27, the older daughter from Anne's first marriage (Anne had one daughter, Victoria, now 7, with Scott). "Everybody wanted to make a perfect picture."
With the stated aim of helping battered women, Alexandra and her sister Annie Petrillo, 26, cooperated with the USA Network on Our Mother's Murder, a two-hour drama airing on July 16. The decision has further divided a distant family. According to Annie, her mother's sister Mary Scripps (who has custody of Victoria) "is absolutely fumed about the movie." Adds Romeo: "Mary was afraid it would hurt Victoria." And, says Petrillo, Anne's brother James "thinks we're exploiting Mom." Still, the sisters are not apologizing. "If the movie gets information out there and saves women, that's good. Mom would want us to do it."
- Elizabeth McNeil.
TNT (Sun., July 20, and Mon., July 21, 8 p.m. ET)