China’s Great Wall (2006)

chinaMovie – China’s Great Wall is a great documentary using rare aerial shots, and lavish reenactments in high definition.  It reveals the myths, legends and technological marvels behind the massive structure, exploring construction techniques, and its history, featuring interviews with archaeologists, scientists and scholars. In 1907, Aurel Stein a British explorer and adventurer, making his way through the Taklimakan desert discovered the Jade Gate, the westernmost point of a more than 2,000-year-old fortification system. The walls, there are more than one, actually stretch for over 13,000 miles.  They were built to defend the Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty and his people from the barbarians (Mongolians) living in the steppes to the north (around 130 BC). Other dynasties and other emperors continued work on the Great Wall and branches of it, for thousands of years, using forced labor. The purposes of the Great Wall have included border patrols, imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, and regulation of trade and immigration. The Wall includes watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signaling capabilities (using smoke or fire).  The main Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Lake in the West, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of inner Mongolia. Before bricks, the Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones and wood. I found this documentary fascinating as well as educational. Of course, some areas of the Wall, near tourist centers, have been preserved and renovated, but in many locations it is in disrepair.

Missing (2012)

missingTV Show – If you like action thrillers packed with spies then you should watch the TV series Missing.  The series follows Rebecca “Becca” Winstone,   a florist, widow, and mother of 18-year-old son, Michael.   Michael has been accepted to a summer architecture program in Rome, Italy and Becca hesitant about letting him go, consents knowing what a wonderful opportunity it is for her son.  Mother and son stay in touch on a regular basis, but when she doesn’t have any communication from him for over a week and is informed by the school that Michael has vacated his dorm room, Becca is alarmed and heads to Rome to find him.  As a mother, she will go to any lengths and will not let anyone or anything stand in her way to find out what has happened to her child and to get him back.  And this may work to her advantage or against her, but we find out that she is a former deadly and relentless CIA agent.  Her husband Paul, also CIA, was killed in a car bombing witnessed by their son.  Becca finds herself in the middle of an international conspiracy involving the CIA and Interpol and doesn’t know who she can trust.  Intense action and drama and beautiful scenery from Italy, Russia, Turkey, Austria, etc. will keep viewers riveted.  Becca is wonderfully portrayed by Ashley Judd, who was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie.  Sadly, there is only one season, since ABC decided to cancel the show.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

louisa may alcottMovie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.

Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea

ernestMovieErnest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.

Love in Portofino by Andrea Bocelli

Love in PortofinoMovie - Love in Portofino by Andrea Bocelli is a CD/DVD set which is THE perfect date night, romantic, video.  On this release, Andrea delivers the performance of a lifetime from the beautiful surroundings of the Pizzetta in Portofino, Italy.  Playing to an intimate crowd at sunset, the legendary tenor sings the most famous love songs in the world accompanied by 16-time Grammy Award winner David Foster and a 40 piece orchestra.  Bocelli has sold over 80 million albums worldwide, making him the biggest-selling singer in the history of Classical music. He holds the 1, 2 and 3 positions in the Guinness Book of World Records on the Classical music charts, and a record six of his albums have reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, and a record-setting eight have topped the classical albums charts in the United States. Andrea, who has a law degree and plays many musical instruments, has been blind since age 12. Although the PBS special of this performance has more songs on it, and many of the songs were previously recorded on his album Passione, the background of the truly picturesque harbor on the Italian Riviera just takes your heart away.  I loved the songs like “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “Love in Portofino,” and “Champagne,” but all of the songs are wonderful and the night could not have been more romantic.  Andrea has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (as of 2010). Take this DVD/CD set along on your next date.

Marley (2012)

marleyMovie – This new DVD is the definitive life story of Bob Marley, the musician, revolutionary, and legend. It is the story of the man from his humble beginnings in the Jamaican slums to his rise to international superstardom. Over 30 years after his death, Marley remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music. He is credited for helping spread Jamaican music to the worldwide audience. Working with official rights to the music and access to Marley’s family and friends, Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald creates a thorough account of Bob’s life. The film features rare footage, never before seen performances, previously unreleased music, and revelatory interviews with the people that knew him best. His death, at age 36 in 1981, does not dominate the movie. Instead, the message of hope and freedom from oppression for people everywhere is the theme, as much as the great music. Marley’s music and imagery was popular during the protests in the Middle East and Africa and at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Bob’s album Legend is the second-longest charting album in the history of Billboard magazine’s record-keeping. Marley is an impressive and thoughtful portrait that will remain one of my favorite documentaries.

Hannibal (2013)

HannibalSeason1_DVD_CoverArt_small1TV Show – Before he was a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter was a psychiatrist.

Actually, that’s not quite right. He’s already a serial killer, it’s just that nobody knows it yet. Not even FBI profiler Will Graham, who’s being treated by Dr. Lecter for the depression and instability he suffers as a result of his work with deranged minds. Graham is obsessed by the hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper, a serial killer who’s been taunting him for some time but continues to escape his grasp.

While it’s based on characters from the books by Thomas Harris, Hannibal is set before any of those books take place. It’s a gruesome show, definitely not for everyone – even I, a veteran Criminal Minds fan, have to look away from some of the murder scenes. But there’s a grim kind of humor to the show, too, courtesy of producer and writer Brian Fuller, creator of such whimsical series as Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. If you enjoy serious psychological drama (and cannibal puns) you should love Hannibal.

Season two of Hannibal premieres tonight on NBC at 9pm.

Half the Sky (2012)

halfMovieHalf the Sky: turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide is the two-disc, four hour PBS documentary based on the bestselling book Half the Sky written by Pulitzer Prize-winning  journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Kristof and WuDunn risk their lives interviewing women in these countries about education for girls seen as second class citizens, maternal mortality and female genital mutilation, forced prostitution and sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and microfinance. Half the Sky is a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, and a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to these enormous humanitarian issues. You will be touched by the brave, resourceful and resilient women it features, and their personal journeys from utter despair to a sense of hope and direction. This video shows how despite the unimaginable atrocities endured by women across the planet and particularly in developing countries, with some practical help, they absolutely have the potential to move beyond the enslavement, disempowerment and suffering to become positive role models, movers and leaders in their communities and to break the cycle of abuse in future generations.

Breaking Bad (2008)

breaking badTV SeriesBreaking Bad features brilliant but timid high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. A father of a special needs son and husband of a pregnant stay-at-home wife, he worries about how he can possibly pay for his treatments and care for his family in case of his death. He decides to produce meth to subsidize his income. He enlists the aid of a former student and naively embarks on his new moonlighting career. What ensues is chaos, tragedy and hilarity as Walt and his hapless associate encounter ruthless kingpins, territory squabbles and bumbling employees. To complicate matters, Walt’s brother-in-law is a DEA Officer who is (unknowingly) hot on his trail. Juggling matters with his wife (annoyed at his frequent unexplained absences), teaching responsibilities, drug operations and cancer treatments keep Walter busy and viewers entertained. I’m just finishing Season 2 and all other non-essential activities in my household are on hold until we finish the series. Breaking Bad, which was first aired in 2008, ended in 2013 and won over fifty awards.

Scandal (2012)

scandalTV Show – If you want fast paced juicy escapism then you should watch the TV series Scandal. This is about dirty politics and politicians in Washington, D.C. and their greed for power. Sometimes reputations get tarnished and scandals arise. That’s where Olivia Pope comes in.  She is a professional “fixer” who makes problems go away before anyone knows they exist. Kerry Washington stars as Olivia who worked previously as the White House Communications Director for the current President of the United States and was instrumental in helping him get elected to the Oval Office. Her crisis management firm has a staff of intelligent devoted operatives, who like Olivia, are very good at keeping secrets, perhaps because they all have secrets of their own.  These people devote their lives to managing crisis after crisis and they work very hard at trying to punish the bad guys and reward the deserving.  The characters are well developed and the twists and turns in the storylines will keep you watching. Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice is the creator of Scandal.