The Liberator: Blu-ray
Turn: The Complete First Series: Blu-ray
Because American students have never been required to be proficient in the history of the Americas south of the Alamo, the vast region continues to be something of a mystery to us. After learning how the conquistadors demolished and/or converted the indigenous population and sent their treasures back to Spain to fill the depleted coffers of the monarchy, we were left only with misconceptions. It took the martyrdom of Che Guevara, fear of communism and outrages of fascism to rekindle our interest in the affairs of South and Central America. The scourge of cocaine, black-tar heroin and illegal immigrants added a sense of urgency heretofore unwarranted. Affordable airfares and improved tourist accommodations have done more to educate Americans about the new realities of life in the western hemisphere than all of the textbooks that ignored imperialism and CIA meddling in national politics. Among the handful of things we think are true about Spain’s legacy in the New World are legends surrounding the spread of syphilis and deification of Simon Bolivar. Contrary to popular belief, yet confirmed by considerable scientific research, Spanish soldiers weren’t responsible for bringing the STDs with them on the Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria. Apparently, syphilis was here all along and the natives used herbal remedies to combat it, if such a thing was even possible. Also left largely unchallenged is the notion that Simon Bolivar was “the George Washington of South America.” While it’s true that Bolivar was a great military leader and crusader for personal freedom, he left the door open for despotic rule by home-grown dictators. And, while director Alberto Arvelo and writer Timothy J. Sexton’s soaring historical epic, The Liberator, introduces us to a flesh-and-blood Bolivar distinctly more realistically drawn that the man found in our textbooks, it still leaves plenty of questions about his vision for a unified South America unanswered.
Even so, The Liberator is as entertaining as any recent movie in which most of the male characters wear impractical uniforms and brandish swords. As the man known far and wide as El Libertador, Edgar Ramirez’ portrayal is spot-on. After revealing Bolivar’s aristocratic Creole roots and European education, Arvelo demonstrates how he was able to use the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson to inspire a popular uprising would spread from Venezuela to Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, northern Peru (Bolivia) and northwest Brazil. The Caracas-born director avoids the common trap of relying on polemics to advance the narrative, leaving ample time to remind viewers of Venezuela’s natural beauty and other sources of pride for its citizens. Especially well dramatized is Bolivar’s long march through the frozen Andes, into Colombia, where his outnumbered army could regroup and find inspiration from other entrenched freedom fighters. Things do get complicated, however, when the war for independence ends and the liberated states are asked to accept Bolivar as a president for life and, in 1830, a hand-picked successor. By contrast, George Washington only reluctantly served a second term as president of the United States and it was left to the American citizenry – white property owners, at least – to decide the length of his incumbency and successor. The Liberator doesn’t ignore Bolivar’s divisive positions, which included freedom for all races, but, by the time they’re advanced, viewers will have come to regard his detractors as counter-revolutionaries. (The movie opens with a failed 1828 assassination attempt, thwarted only by the quick thinking of his mistress.) Finally, Arvelo and Sexton advance the theory that Bolivar wasn’t a victim of tuberculosis, as recorded, but was kidnaped and murdered before he could return to Venezuela from Gran Colombia (or, perhaps, to exile in Europe). It isn’t a new theory, but one discredited in a recent investigation by the Venezuelan government and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ speculative novel, “The General in His Labyrinth.” The conceit is explained in interviews included in the lengthy making-of featurette, which also includes an introduction by Venezuelan composer Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His score for The Liberator adds greatly to its significance and power.
It can be persuasively argued, I think, that Hollywood has had better luck dramatizing the Crusades and extinction of the dinosaurs than anything particularly enlightening about the Revolutionary War. The 2008 HBO mini-series, “John Adams,” stands out from a small crowd of competitors that typically includes The Patriot, 1776, The Devil’s Disciple, Revolution, Drums Along the Mohawk, a couple of obscure TV movies and Disney’s fondly recalled Johnny Tremain and “The Swamp Fox.” Curiously, George Washington has rarely been portrayed as anything more than a caricature, based on famous paintings, or a secular saint. Although he only appears in half of the 10 episodes of the thrilling AMC mini-series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” the general is shown to be a flesh-and-blood leader of men and a brilliant strategist. Despite its title, the first season of the mini-series doesn’t begin and end with Washington inventing the nation’s first espionage network. It opens on a failing cabbage farm on Long Island, not far from a fishing and trading village controlled by the British. The citizens of Setauket haven’t been especially mistreated by the Redcoats, who see it as a relatively comfortable place to sit out what they expect to be a short war. Nonetheless, a couple of the more brutish officers spark an incident that reverberates throughout the inaugural season. Jamie Bell stars as Abe Woodhull, the apolitical farmer, who, in smuggling vegetables to the rebels across Long Island Sound, reluctantly is enlisted into a silent conspiracy for which he’s uniquely suited. His loyalist father is the town magistrate and a businessman who regularly travels to New York to sell goods to the British. Once enlisted by the rebels into the Culper Ring, Abe delivers information so valuable that it can’t help but impress Washington, then headquartered in New Jersey. That may oversimplify the narrative, but it’s all one really needs to know before getting hooked. In addition to the brave farmer, there are numerous heroes and villains for viewers to admire or despise. The history is sound and the soap-opera elements are compelling. The Blu-ray package adds, “The History of Turn: Washington’s Spies,” “From Art to Image” and 25 minutes of deleted scenes.
Watchers of the Sky
Sadly, “genocide,” a word only coined 70 years ago, has become so much a part of our vocabulary that it might as well belong to the ages. Certainly, the crime it describes is nothing new. As chronicled in Edet Belzberg’s haunting documentary Watchers of the Sky, it was the Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist Raphael Lemkin, who, saw the need for a legally recognized term to describe the mass atrocities committed against races of people – based on religion, traditions, color or caste — in the minority of a country. His concern was prompted by the simple question, posed by the slaughter of Turkey’s Armenian population and prosecution of a survivor who assassinated an Ottoman pasha-in-exile responsible for it, “Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” In minimalizing the Nazi invasion of Poland and the mass murder of its people, Adolph Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Among the issues facing prosecutors at the Nuremberg tribunals was the lack of international law even describing what specifically constituted genocide, other than the catch-all “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “crimes against peace.” It exists today primarily through Lemkin’s determination to push through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1948, as General Assembly Resolution 260. It wasn’t until 1988 that the United States would finally agree to ratify the convention. Fifty years passed, as well, before anyone would be convicted of genocide (Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu) and another nine before a state (Serbia) was to be found in breach of the convention. The fact that the president of oil-rich Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, one of the premier monsters of our time, has been able to escape prosecution at International Criminal Court, attests to the difficulty in getting co-religionist leaders and trading partners to cooperate in the interest of world peace and ethical unity. Also prominent in Watchers of the Sky are, Benjamin Ferencz, chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg; Luis Moreno Ocampo, first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of operations for UN refugee camps in Chad; and Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” was the film’s prime source of information.
Massacre Mafia Style: Blu-ray
Based solely on the evidence presented in the bonus material contained in Grindhouse Releasing’s Massacre Mafia Style package, the life of Italian-American actor and nightclub singer Duke Mitchell (né, Dominic Miceli) is a biopic waiting to happen. Because he died in 1981, at 55, Millennials and Boomers can be excused for never having heard of him. Before and during the Rat Pack era, Mitchell was a popular enough entertainer to be accorded the nickname, Mr. Palm Springs and Unofficial Mayor of Palm Springs. Before going solo and eventually providing the singing voice of Fred Flintstone, he was best known for impersonating Dean Martin opposite Sammy Petrillo’s Jerry Lewis in a popular nightclub act. It was on that mob-controlled circuit that Mitchell encountered the underworld characters who would influence Massacre Mafia Style and whose stories informed “The most violent movie ever made.” Nearly 40 years later, it remains as pure an example of grindhouse exploitation as any of the Italian poliziotteschi gangster films it resembles. Working with a budget that may have equaled the proceeds from a tip jar on a piano in a Palms Springs lounge, he made Massacre Mafia Style (a.k.a., “The Executioner” or “Like Father, Like Son”) at the twilight of the Blaxploitation era. In it, Mitchell plays Mimi Miceli, the son of a powerful mob boss, who, after being expelled to Sicily from the U.S., loses control of his “family.” After learning the ropes, Mimi returns to America with a plan to make Hollywood the center of the underworld, from racketeering and prostitution to controlling how movies are made. Naturally, Mimi and his old partner in crime, Jolly (Vic Caesar), meet resistance from the incumbent gangsters. In scenes reminiscent of the bloody day of reckoning at the end of The Godfather, they almost manage to eliminate the opposition … “almost,” being the key word.
Even if the hi-def resolution of the Blu-ray restoration makes it extremely clear that the blood and special makeup effects are fake as all get-out, viewers with a low tolerance for screen violence may have a difficult time stomaching Massacre Mafia Style. What’s also great about the GR package is the extensive bonus package, which overflows with Mitchell’s excellent singing and name-dropping interviews with friends, relatives and admirers. Among those providing testimony here are “exploitation king” Matt Cimber and son Jeffrey Mitchell, a fine singer and guitar player, who, as a boy, became a key part of the act and commuted from southern California to wherever his dad was crooning on weekends. Besides the documentary, “Like Father, Like Son” and more than an hour of home movies –accompanied by songs performed by the Mitchells — the two-disc set contains film- and discographies, photo galleries, a bunch of truly wild Grindhouse previews, the full-length, “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla,” a 1952 film that introduced the comedy team of Mitchell and Petrillo; “An Impressionistic Tribute to Jimmy Durante,” a television special featuring Mitchell, made up as the great entertainer, sharing songs and thoughts with an audience; and a 12-page booklet containing liner notes by cult-movie specialist David Szulkin. Mitchell’s only other directorial effort, Gone With the Pope, which he finished shooting in 1976, but wasn’t fully assembled and restored until 2010. It arrives on Blu-ray on March 24.
The Pet: Special Director’s Cut
Both of these films have their roots in the BDSM underworld, if only at the margins of genre fantasy. Neither owes anything to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey or 9½ Weeks. Before R100, Hitoshi Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu collaborated on such strange Japanese films as Saya-zamurai, Symbol and Big Man Japan. Their latest provocation is a transgressive satire on the emptiness of life as a Japanese salaryman. In it, a sales clerk in the bedding department of a large store decides that the only way to add some meaning or excitement to his mundane life is to sign a year-long contract with a company that supplies dominatrices to its clients. Instead of meeting the leather-clad women in hotel rooms, they appear at unexpected times and in places the client can’t predict. For instance, he might be in a restaurant enjoying some sushi and sashimi, when, out of nowhere, a black patent-leather shoe, with a 6-inch heel, stomps his food and moshes it to the consistency of a pancake. Or, he’ll be walking home after work when the same woman – or one very much like her – kicks him down a flight of stairs. He digs it, but it definitely leaves bruises. It’s only until he’s unexpectedly confronted at work, home or at the hospital, where his wife lies comatose in a bed, that he tries to get out of his contract. First, though, he must deal with “CEO,” a blond westerner (Lindsay Kay Hayward) who stands 6-foot-8 in her fishnets and could play Brünnhilde in anyone’s “Ring” cycle. Even for fans of unusual Asian fare, R100 will require some time to digest. They’ll probably find the inky black comedy, as well as the uneasy laughter it prompts, well worth the effort.
The Pet is another story, altogether. First released in 2006, D. Stevens’ BDSM fantasy depicts consensual relationships between young women in desperate need of money and middle-aged men of means, looking for something, well, different. The women agree to behave exactly like house pets might, sans clothing, and for long periods of time. The protagonist here, Mary/GG (Andrea Edmondson), sleeps in a triangular cage, eats from a bowl, defecates on the floor or outdoors, and fetches sticks for exercise. She isn’t beaten or mistreated any more than the average house pet and, generally speaking, live in the lap of luxury. The conceit here is that money, when combined with extreme need, will make people agree to do strange things, even push aside the humiliation that comes with such sport. What separates a true professional from a part-timer, however, is the love for the game that comes with real submission. The drama escalates when the dapper owner of Mary/GG realizes that he’s being played by a higher force, who’s less interested in her as a companion than a commodity. We’re told that such relationships occur in real life and maybe they do. (The Master, here, can’t bear to replace his longtime pet with another canine, and occasionally beds women who don’t wear a leash.) That doesn’t make the movie any easier to stomach, let alone enjoy. If it weren’t for the release of “Fifty Shades,” it might not have been re-released in a “special edition.”
The Breakfast Club: 30th Anniversary Edition
My Girl: Blu-ray
My goodness, it only feels as if 4½ years have passed since Universal released the 25th anniversary edition of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. Time certainly flies by in this crazy business. I suppose that there will come a time when Hughes’ depictions of teen life in the 1980s don’t resonate with any current generation of teenagers, but, really, how much has changed in the suburban landscape in the past 30 years? Will naughty boys and girls not be assigned to detention periods? Will the caste system and archetypes of high school life disappear? Will teachers not be burdened with such bureaucratic obligations as baby-sitting miscreants on their hours or days off? Probably not, but, even if they did, you’d have another 30-40 years of the same shenanigans that inform The Breakfast Club. Hughes’ best films – and this is right up there with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 16 Candles – began to appear just as Hollywood only suspected the future of the industry lay in teens and young adults comfortable in the multiplex setting. His movies never pandered to the growing suburban-teen demographic or neutralized the off-campus fun simply to mollify parents or studio executives. I don’t remember any furor caused by the scene in which the students shared a joint in the library, but, at the time, I’m sure it raised more than a few eyebrows. The MPAA hasn’t changed its outdated standards much in 30 years, either, so it’s likely that the movie would still go out with an “R” rating. If ever a PG-16 or PG-17 status would have been warranted, it would have been for Breakfast Club. The “30th Anniversary Edition” is enhanced by a fresh digital face peel and a new trivia track. It retains bonus features from the “25th Anniversary” package.
More than a few parents in 1991 misidentified My Girl as being a product of Hughes’ movie factory in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It was widely reported that Macaulay Culkin, who’d just busted out in Home Alone, would share his first on-screen kiss with newcomer Anna Chlumsky (“Veep”) and the movie would be rated PG-13, which differentiated it from Disney pre-teen fodder. Chlumsky plays the precocious 11-year-old, Vada Margaret Sultenfuss, who grows up in an apartment above her father’s funeral parlor and blames herself for mother’s death. Culkin plays the allergy-ridden Thomas J. Sennett, who digs her despite her sometimes off-putting behavior. In time, Vada will have to deal with the cruelest form of tragedy, as well as the sense of loss that comes when her father (Dan Aykroyd) puts aside his grief long enough to fall for his new makeup artist (Jamie Lee Curtis). If that makes My Girl sound too heavy for adolescents, know that Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) and Laurice Elehwany (The Amazing Panda Adventure) maintain a firm balance between drama and comedy. Besides, the movie represented one of the rare coming-of-age pictures targeted at girls. The Blu-ray adds Elehwany’s commentary, “A Day on the Set” and original behind-the-scenes featurette.
White Haired Witch: Blu-ray
Not all historical epics from China require a working knowledge of the country’s long history and transitions from one dynasty to another. Some, however, do benefit from a quick perusal of reviews from knowledgeable Pacific Rim critics – try IMDB.com’s external reviews listings – while others can be enjoyed with the same suspension of historical disbelief required of Hollywood Westerns. Zhang Zhiliang’s White Haired Witch (a.k.a., “The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom”) is the latest adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel, which was serialized in a Hong Kong newspaper between August, 1957, and December, 1958. Each time it’s been reborn, the story’s been modified to accentuate different aspects of the mythology. From what I can gather, White Haired Witch was widely criticized for attempting to do too much in one adaptation and, as such, was compared unfavorably, to Ronny Yu’s 1993 epic The Bride With White Hair. Set in the twilight of the Ming Dynasty, the Imperial court is plagued by corruption and tyranny. Machiavellian plotters conspire to unseat the Emperor, who would be succeeded by an easily manipulated child. In star-crossed lovers Lian Nishang (Fan Bingbing) and Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming), they have ready-made dupes to serve to those wondering who is responsible for this crime and the subsequent murder of a popular general. Bingbing also plays the titular protagonist, Jade Rackshasa, whose memory will be corrupted to pit her against Zhou. There’s plenty enough action here to satisfy martial-arts enthusiasts, as well as some wonderful production-design work. Sometimes, it’s all too obvious that White Haired Witch was shot to be exhibited in 3D IMAX, which required choices that don’t translate naturally into 2D. Sharp-eyed viewers might also be able to pick up on the scenes shot after Xiaoming broke his foot in a wire stunt. It also required taking certain shortcuts to avoid expensive production delays. The Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette, during which a producer explains how a financial backed asked him to use the accident to justify making a “B”-quality movie from an “A”-level budget, perhaps to sock away a little extra on the side. It’s easy to read the frustration on his face.
There are times when the number of hospital shows on television is so great that it’s impossible to separate the fictional stories from the documentary series. “ER” wasn’t the first series that depicted what happens in big-city emergency rooms, but it was among the first to use advanced technology to capture the often frenetic pace of treatment and range of emotions registered by doctors, nurses, patients, loved ones and paramedics. The chaos was necessarily balanced by soap-opera throughlines, involving romance, addictions, career advancement and extreme behavior. It became, of course, one of the most popular and honored shows on network television. Code Black borrows several of the story-telling and production techniques that made “ER” so entertaining, but in the service of non-fiction. Because it was shot by intern Ryan McGarry, while he was interning, the documentary is several degrees more intimate than almost every other hospital show. The term, “code black,” refers to the periods when nurses, doctors, receptions and janitors are completely slammed by the number of patients being treated and waiting for treatment at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center. The craziness is compounded by hospital, city and state regulators and bean-counters, who require mountains of paperwork. Code Black is an amazing production, which, of course, already has been picked up by CBS. How they’ll be able to improve on reality is anyone’s guess.
If the subject of substance abuse and recovery weren’t already so familiar, Heath Jones and Cindy Joy Coggins’ extremely compelling drama, Grace, might have found a lot more traction than it did in the pre-DVD marketplace. Set and shot in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Grace looks good and is populated by characters and actors with whom we don’t mind sharing 95 minutes of our time. It’s no fault of the filmmakers that the narrative’s flow could be predicted after being introduced to Gracie Turner (Annika Marks), lying face down in the sand with no memory of how she got there or that she’s demolished her car in the process. After resisting arrest in barroom scuffle, Gracie is given a choice of spending several months in jail for repeated offenses or agreeing to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Among the fellow alcoholics who will figure in her life for at least the next three months are a kind café owner (Sharon Lawrence), who gives her a job, clothes and shelter; a handsome surfer dude (Chase Mowen) and his closest friends; and several women who used alcohol to soften the blows of abusive relationships. As played by Marks, Grace is an especially hard nut to crack. She refuses to admit that she’s lost control of her life and continues to blame her father for the death of her alcoholic mother. She was subconsciously drawn to New Smyrna Beach — 1,600 miles from her New York home — because of a photograph she carries of a family vacation there when she was a child. Although Grace remembers it as being the last happy time she spent with her mother, it isn’t until she completely gives in to sobriety that the fog begins to clear around recollections of the woman’s suicidal behavior and misdirected outbursts of anger. The more we get to know about the other characters, of course, the thicker the plot becomes. Even with the large number of things working in Grace’s favor, I suspect that it will have a difficult time finding its intended demographic target: teens and young adults – women, especially – who have been led to believe that substance abuse is a problem limited to men and women who share their parents’ age and social brackets. The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes, as well as alternate openings and closings.
Stop Pepper Palmer
Beyond a plot that defies logic, Stop Pepper Palmer is a comedy with no more than a couple of cheap laughs and acting that gives lackluster new meaning. As for the story, co-directors Lonzo Liggins and Danny James demand that we forget for a minute that Salt Lake City has a NBA team and Utah is home to several fine universities. Apparently, there are only three black men living in the state and even fewer African-American women of dating age. When a “new” woman arrives in town from a city with a bona-fide ghetto, the slackers come to believe they might be “too white” to capture her fancy. To rectify that sad situation, the guys hire a world-famous lothario named Pepper Palmer, who presumably is from Cleveland and looks and talks as if he’s studied ancient VCR copies of “Soul Train” and Jimmie Walker on “Good Times.” If filmmakers were fined every time they used a racial stereotype or clichéd depiction of a minority character, Stop Pepper Palmer’s budget would be right up there with most other Hollywood comedies, instead of looking as if it were financed with the proceeds of recycled bottles and aluminum. There’s a decently handled plot twist near the end of the film, but nothing that couldn’t be seen coming when Pepper Palmer enters the narrative.
Syfy: Dark Haul: Blu-ray
While there’s some debate over whether the seventh son of a seventh son is likely to grow up to become an angel or devil, it’s almost certain that no good can come from being the 13th child of a 13th child. Or, so we’re led to believe in the Syfy-original movie Dark Haul (a.k.a., “Monster Truck”), during which just such a creature is born half-human and half-beast. The only thing worse for the unfortunate parents would be for the fruits of their loins to be twins … in this case, a half-human girl with a tail and a winged beast with the power to induce hallucinatory visions. Born in 1735, the offspring have been kept under wraps all this time by a cabal of devil-worshippers known as “Keepers.” When their secret threatens to unravel, the Keepers lease a semi-trailer to carry the beasts to a safer harbor. Traffic conditions being what they are off the Interstate highways, it isn’t long before they break out of their cages and threaten to fulfill their apocalyptic prophesy. As Syfy movies go, Dark Haul isn’t as conspicuously ridiculous as most of the network’s hybrid-monster thrillers or meteorological disasters. The special-effects are adequate and the actors don’t embarrass themselves. They include Tom Sizemore, Evalena Marie, Rick Ravanello, Kevin Shea, Anthony Del Negro and Adrienne LaValley. First-timers Daniel Wise and Ben Crane are responsible for the direction and screenplay.
Sundance: The Red Road
Lifetime: The Red Tent
Nickelodeon: Hey Dude: The Complete SeriesFireball XL5: The Complete Series
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5: Special Edition
PBS: Nature: Penguin Post Office
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: Book Four: Balance: Blu-ray
The Sundance mini-series, “The Red Road,” looks as if it could have been set anywhere in the U.S. or Canada where a community of indigenous Americans abuts a town primarily populated with residents of a more European persuasion. While life is, for the most part, peaceful and absent controversy, there are times when long-held prejudices and rivalries collide with the implications of newly signed treaties and cold economic realities. European-Americans will always resent efforts to restore land they argue was stolen fairly and squarely from the original inhabiitants. The Lenape of Pennsylvania, western Connecticut and northern New Jersey were among the first tribes displaced by English and Dutch settlers. Unlike other tribes, the primary governing group of remaining Lenapes have refused to square the raw deal they received by opening a casino within spitting distance of New York City and northern New Jersey. The scenic rural location, when viewed alongside the economic disparity between Indians and Anglo residents, provides a compelling setting for mystery, violence and intrigue. The protagonists are a local cop, Harold (Martin Henderson), who grew up in the area and is familiar with most of Lenapes living just outside the town, and a charismatic hell-raiser of multiracial background, Phillip (Jason Momoa), newly paroled from prison. In addition to his official duties, Harold’s mind is consumed with problems relating to his mentally fragile wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), and two rapidly maturing daughters. Phillip appears to have resumed control of tribal vice and rackets, but, in the interim, outside criminal elements have entered the picture. There are other complications, of course, some of which involve secrets in Jean and Phillip’s past. “The Red Road” takes a bit more time to get rolling than other modern-crime mini-series on cable, but, by the fourth episode, most viewers will be hooked.
Not being a biblical scholar, I went into Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” as blind as anyone unfamiliar with the nuances and subtexts of Old Testament drama. It didn’t take me long, however, to begin to wonder how kosher this adaptation of Anita Diamant’s 1997 best-seller might be. In the novel, the red tent is a place in the family compound where menstruating women are quartered for seven days, or until they’re no longer “unclean.” Women also gave birth in the tent, surrounded by other female members of the tribe. Scholars appear to be undecided as to whether this segregation was punishment ordained by God, via tribal elders, or an opportunity for kindred women and girls to chill out for week and free themselves from the men in their lives and their superstitions. Here, Diamant favors the latter explanation. It is from the wisdom exchanged under the red tent that Dinah — daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph – learned the skills of midwifery, for which she would become known throughout the course of the two-part mini-series. Upon closer examination, I learned that Dinah is considered to be a relatively insignificant figure in bible history, but one whose presence caused significant things to happen. Instead of being raped by a Shalem, the prince of Shechem, as the bible argues, here Dinah and the prince experience love at the first sight and, on second sight, sexual bliss. When the king goes to Jacob to seal the deal with a “bride price,” the sons misinterpret the sexual liaison and demand that all of the men in Shechem be circumcised. If it appears, even today, to be a drastic price to pay for forgiving the consummation of an unofficial marriage, consider that Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi use the men’s extreme pain to advance their murderous plan for revenge. Jacob berates his sons for their unapproved act, but is willing to sacrifice Dinah’s love for the sake of his sons’ lives. For attempting to stop the massacre, Joseph (of amazing Technicolor dream coat fame) is beaten, buggered and sold into slavery in Egypt. The second half of the four-hour production involves Dinah’s life after giving birth to the prince’s son and subsequently being banished from the palace by her mother-in-law. Joseph, too, will make an encore appearance. Allowing Dinah tell her own story not only opens up the biblical narrative to include a woman’s point of view, but it also plays right into the wheelhouse of the Lifetime audience. Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen”) does a nice job as Dinah, who is required to age more than 20 years during the course of the mini-series. Minnie Driver and Debra Winger play Leah and Rebecca, respectively. The set arrives with bonus making-of material.
Nickelodeon’s second original live-action television series, “Hey Dude” was, by definition, one of the very few cable shows aimed directly at ‘tween audiences. Watching it 25 years later isn’t nearly as painful an experience as other such targeted fare, if only because it was shot near Tucson, on a dude ranch that’s still in business. Even better, there’s no laugh track. Populated with youthful characters who one might expect to grow up have sitcoms of their own, “Hey Dude” sometimes feels as if it’s an entry point for kids who soon will grow into avid fans of utterly predictable prime-time network shows. Typically, though, its diverse cast and non-stereotypical plots hold up pretty well. Apparently, the primary reason for the show’s cancellation was the network’s decision to move its productions to Florida, and there’s no way Orlando can approximate the Sonoran Desert.
“Fireball XL5: The Complete Series” is the latest installment in Shout Factory’s wonderfully nostalgic “The Gerry Anderson Collection.” As only the third Anderson project to employ Supermarionation puppetry, “Fireball XL5” looks primitive even by the standards established two years later in “Stingray.” It was the last of the series to be filmed in black-and-white – making the wires even more visible – as well as the last in which the marionette characters didn’t have interchangeable heads, allowing a variety of expressions. Under the command of the rugged Captain Steve Zodiac, the fleet’s flagship Fireball XL5 investigates the deepest corners of Galactic Sector 25 in search of faraway planets, alien life and adventure. His crew includes the glamorous Venus, a doctor of space medicine and dead-ringer for Zsa Zsa Gabor; middle-aged navigator and engineer, Professor Matthew Matic; and co-pilot Robert, a transparent anthropomorphic robot. Among the new extras are commentary with director Alan Patillo and voice artist David Graham, and the documentary, “The Noble Art of Fireball XL5.”
The only problem with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5: Special Edition” is that, unlike Shout Factory’s “Complete Series” collection, it only arrives on DVD. That won’t matter much to viewers unaccustomed to hi-def playback, as the production values and color are both fine. The episodes have been re-mastered from the original film elements, as well. Besides the final 23 shows, the package includes “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special” and new interviews with members of the cast and crew. Jasper: Journey to the End of the World
If there’s any unwritten of wildlife programming, it would appear to be: when in doubt, play the penguin card. With its variety of flightless birds, crystalline waters and extreme weather, Antarctica is a one-stop destination for the production of such appealing, cross-demographic shows as PBS’ “Nature: Penguin Post Office.” It tells the story of the 3,000-strong Gentoo colony that lives in the shadow of the British post office on the peninsula, 700 miles south of Argentina and Chile. Unlike other feathered species, the Gentoo display a rather sophisticated approach to mating. It includes building rock nests, stone theft, promiscuity, punishment for cheating and a breeding ritual right out of the “Kama Sutra.” The producer have some fun with the tourists, who also arrive in the summer, sometimes at a rate of two shiploads a day. Given the lack of accommodations available to visitors, it’s almost as they’re accorded a couple of hours on shore, a period roughly divided between staring at the Gentoo, from a distance of no less than 15 feet; kayaking among the ice floes; and writing wish-you-were here postcards to friends back home. The post office handles between 50,000-80,000 of them each year. On a cautionary note: parents should know ahead of time that breeding scenes might be too explicit for younger children, as might examples of the attacks on eggs and chicks by predatory birds and excremental habits the producers found interesting. More suitable for the youngest viewers, if decidedly more fanciful, is the animated German export, Jasper: Journey to the End of the World. In it, a pair of penguin brothers team up with a 9-year-old girl to upend a scheme by an evil doctor to steal some rare parrot eggs.
The fourth season of Nickelodeon’s hit animated season, “The Legend of Korra,” wraps up the 52-episode cycle that began after “Avatar: The Last Airbender” ended its three-year run on the network. It’s the kind of show that geeks take very seriously for its artistic value, complex characters and addressing all sorts of sociopolitical issues, while being appreciated by parents and kids for its sheer entertainment value. “Balance” picks up three years after the events of the third season, “Change,” as Korra slowly recovers from the injuries incurred in the fight with Zaheer. Meanwhile, things are getting nasty at the new, totalitarian Earth Empire, where loyalties have been severely tested and unrest reigns. I can’t imagine how difficult it might be to jump into the series in mid-run, but I’d advise against it. The color palette is brilliant, especially in Blu-ray, and the it adds commentary for all 13 episodes; a poster by co-creator Bryan Konietzko; “Kuvira vs. Prince Wu”; “Republic City Hustle: Part 1, 2, and 3”; a New York Comic-Con featurette; and “The Making of a Legend: The Untold Story: Part II.” Also new from Nickelodeon this week are new compilations of episodes from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Retreat” and “Blue’s Clues: Get Clued Into School Pack.”