CHINA Unrated, 1987, 55 minutes, Paramount Home Video, $29.95.
Producer Dan Moss and his crew spent six weeks and traveled 9,000 miles making this film, and the result is the most beautiful portrait of China one could imagine. It's not the bustling, urban, modern China of news reports, but a rural, earth-connected, timeless land. One senses the rhythms of day-to-day experiences in a flow of tableaux -- a languid sea of bicycle riders, vendors in a rural open-air market, a calligrapher's painstaking detail work, the motion of travelers on a train and workers on a river, people at their work. There is no dialogue -- all of the scenes are subtly underscored by various artists on the Windham Hill label -- but if nothing is explained, everything is revealed. The photography is exquisite, the camera floating through the land with dreamlike grace. The music, by Shadowfax, Philip Aaberg, William Ackerman and others, is evocative in its own right, and though none of it was written specifically for this video, it's astounding how empathetic it is. This is not just another travelogue, but a hearteningly straight look into the heart of a country that's still a mystery to most Americans.
HOOSIERS PG-13, 1986, 115 minutes, HBO Home Video, $89.95.
Gene Hackman stars in this story about a former big-time basketball coach who comes to a small-town high school in Indiana during the '50s to salvage his career. The story is straightforward enough: The town is basketball-crazy and its high school hasn't had a winning season in ages. The coach's job is to do the impossible -- transform a bunch of hicks into a championship team, and that's what he does. The process by which these boys are turned into world-beating round-ballers is fairly rousing in a "Pee Wee-wins-the-state-championship" sort of way. There are some solid performances (Dennis Hopper was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of an alcoholic assistant coach) but, all things considered, the movie doesn't amount to much. It's a thrill-of-the-big-game movie, but the thrill isn't there because the game is rigged: You know the team is going to pull it off, and there's not much else going on to sustain your interest. The director, David Anspaugh, shoots the basketball sequences well enough, but the thunderous synthesizer music seems entirely inappropriate to the period or the sport. In the final championship sequences you'd think the War of 1812 were being shown on screen.
-- Hal Hinson
SQUARE DANCE PG-13, 1986, 112 minutes, Pacific Arts Video, $79.95.
Winona Ryder, a 10th-grade acting student, has the central role in this tepid Texas girl's memoir that vaguely recalls Horton Foote's "Trip to Bountiful." Director-producer Daniel Petrie also salutes "The Wizard of Oz" every chance he gets in this ailing adaptation of the Alan Hines novel of the same name. Ryder, wooden as the 13-year-old Gemma, is raised by Pop, a sullen subsistence farmer overplayed by Jason Robards. After a quarrel with the cantankerous oldster, Gemma runs off to Fort Worth to be with her wayward mother Juanelle -- an urban cowgirl acted like crazy by Jane Alexander. In the course of her stay, Gemma falls in love with a retarded boy, Rory, played with surprising sweetness by former pack brat Rob Lowe. Tragedy befalls all and sundry in the big city and Gemma goes back to Pop, who is there to greet her with a square dance, explaining that you always start at a place called "home." They do-si-do. We do-si-doze.
-- Rita Kempley
FROM THE HIP PG, 1987, closed captions, 112 minutes, Lorimar Home Video, $89.95.
Here's an irreverent and immaterial courtroom comedy-drama brought to you by "Porky's" creator Bob Clark. Nondescript Judd Nelson stars as a brash young attorney whose unorthodox, unbelievable lawyering turns him into a statutory superstar virtually overnight. He is made a partner with a conservative Boston firm but fears he's in over his head when assigned to defend a psychotic English professor (ingenious John Hurt) in a tricky murder trial. A subplot involving his loyal, liberal girlfriend (perky Elizabeth Perkins) seems to have been cut to make more room for Nelson's injudicious showboating -- such as pulling a vibrator from the briefcase of the prosecuting attorney. This might have begun as a solid coming-of-age-in-the-courtroom vehicle, but as doctored by Clark, it becomes a pandering, potty-snotty sitcom.
-- Rita Kempley
THE MIKADO Unrated, 1982, 141 minutes, Home Vision, $49.95.
This "Mikado," produced by the Stratford (Ontario) Festival, was much enjoyed and admired when it played at the Kennedy Center last March. It is equally enjoyable in its video format, based on a Canadian television broadcast and featuring brilliantly comic performances in the character roles -- notably those of Eric Donkin (Ko-Ko), and Richard McMillan (Pooh-Bah). The choreography and stage direction by Brian Macdonald are both energetic and imaginative. The Gilbert and Sullivan text is enlivened by contemporary topical references, some of which will be meaningful mostly to Canadians or experts on the Trudeau family. This is completely in the spirit of the original, which now needs footnotes for some jokes that laid them in the aisles in Victorian England. From the same source (1983, 149 minutes, $49.95) also comes an excellent production of "The Gondoliers" -- much better than the one shown on PBS a few years ago. This also features Macdonald's staging (even better, in some ways, than for "The Mikado"), with Donkin as the Duke of Plaza Toro and McMillan as Don Alhambra del Bolero, the chief inquisitor. -- Joseph McLellan