‘In the Age of AI,’ ‘Fire in Paradise’ and ‘Nature’s Biggest Beasts’ Among PBS Docs on DVD and Digital in January

In the Age of AI, Frontline: Fire in Paradise, Nature: Nature’s Biggest Beasts, American Masters — Rothko: Pictures Must be Miraculous and Nova: Why Bridges Collapse are among the documentaries on DVD and digital from PBS Distribution this January.

A year after the devastating Camp Fire, who’s to blame and why was it so catastrophic? Fire in Paradise explores this question with accounts from survivors and first responders, telling the inside story of the most destructive fire in California history, its causes and the impact of climate change.

In the Age of AI, due Jan. 14, takes a journey into how this new technology will transform our world — and some of the ways it already has. It’s been called “The New Space Race.” This time it’s China taking on the United States, and the race is to seize control of a technology with the potential to change everything — the way we work; how we play; how our democracy functions; how the world could be realigned. “Frontline” explores some of the ways in which our world is being re-shaped and reimagined by the technology of artificial intelligence, whose development has been compared to the industrial revolution and the discovery of electricity as an epochal event in human history. The film traces the battle between the U.S. and China to harness its power, examining fears about what AI advances mean for the future of work and revealing how AI algorithms are ushering in an age of both great problem-solving potential and of new and troubling threats to privacy and democracy.

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Okavango: River of Dreams, explores the Okavango River in Southern Africa, an unlikely oasis and lush paradise in the middle of a hostile desert that supports and feeds an incredible abundance of wildlife. Unlike most rivers that flow toward the shores of a nearby ocean, it instead runs inland through Botswana, creating a huge river delta before finally disappearing into the Kalahari Desert. An all-star cast of charismatic African wildlife lives and dies in the timeless drama of survival revealed in the program.

Nature’s Biggest Beasts, due Jan. 14, covers the ingenious strategies that nature’s biggest beasts employ to conquer their environments, from the Komodo dragon with a deadly bite to the tallest giraffe to the bird-eating Armored ground cricket. Being massive can have its advantages, but it brings equally immense challenges to survive. Big bodies need more fuel, more space and can attract unwanted attention.

Bears, due Jan. 28, covers animals from the mighty grizzly bear to the endearing spectacled bear (the real-life “Paddington Bear”), from the bamboo-eating panda to the bizarre-looking sloth bear. Among the biggest land mammals on the planet, bears need a lot of resources to survive and must use all of their skills, brawn and brains to get what they need — whether they’re foraging for honeycombs or tasty plants, standing up to their rivals or raising cubs.

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Available now is Why Bridges Collapse, which experts compare what happened to the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, with other deadly bridge collapses, including Minnesota’s I-35W bridge over the Mississippi and the ill-fated Silver Bridge over the Ohio River. Thousands of bridges across the United States and Europe that are listed as structurally deficient. How can new technologies and engineering improvements make bridges across the world safer and more durable than ever before?

Look Who’s Driving, coming Jan. 14, explores autonomous vehicles, which are now being tested on public roads around the world. Dozens of startups have sprung up alongside established auto and tech giants — which are also testing the waters — to form what many hope will be a transformative new industry. But as innovators rush to cash in on what they see as the next high-tech pot of gold, some experts warn there are still daunting challenges to overcome — like how to train computers to make life-and-death decisions as well as humans can. “Nova” peers under the hood of the autonomous vehicle industry to investigate how driverless cars work, how they may change the way we live, and whether we will ever be able to entrust them with our lives.

Rise of the Mammals, due Jan. 21, explores how the course of life on Earth changed radically on a single day 66 million years ago. Blasting our planet, an asteroid caused the extinction of three of every four kinds of living things. The impact ended the Age of Dinosaurs and launched our age, the Age of Mammals. But our understanding of the asteroid’s aftermath has been spotty. Who survived? How quickly did mammals and their habitats spring back? How did our planet recover from this global cataclysm? Now a remarkable find — a trove of exceptionally preserved fossils from the critical first million years after the catastrophe — shines a revelatory light on what followed Earth’s darkest hour. With exclusive access, viewers see the discovery from the first moments of the initial find in 2016. Providing a rare record that combines plants, animals, and precise dates, the discovery paints a vivid portrait of the emergence of a brand-new world.

Dead Sea Scroll Detectives, coming Jan. 21, explores one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time — the Dead Sea Scrolls — was made by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1947. Since the 2,000-year-old scrolls were first taken from a cave, they’ve intrigued scholars, religious leaders and profiteers alike. These fragile parchment relics include the oldest known versions of the Hebrew Bible and hold vital clues about the birth of Christianity. While some scrolls have survived intact, others have been ravaged by time — burnt, decayed, or torn to pieces — and remain an enigma. Now, scientists are using new technologies to read the unreadable, solve mysteries that have endured for millennia, and even discover million-dollar fakes.

Rothko: Pictures Must be Miraculous is a portrait of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Mark Rothko, whose luminous canvasses now set records at international auctions. Rothko’s signature style helped define Abstract Expressionism, the movement that shifted the center of the art world from Paris to New York. Interviews with Rothko’s children, Kate and Christopher, as well as leading curators, art historians and conservators present a comprehensive look at the artist’s life and career, complemented by scenes with Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko. Molina performs segments from Rothko’s writings, and the documentary features clips from the six-time Tony-winning play Red.

HBO Max Orders CNN Content, Anthony Bourdain Doc and Floral Competition Series

WarnerMedia’s pending SVOD service HBO Max is ordering and partnering with CNN on documentaries and films for the service and has ordered a competition series, “Full Bloom,” about floral arranging.

HBO Max is sent to launch in spring 2020. WarnerMedia is the also the parent corporation of CNN.

HBO Max, CNN Films and Focus Features are partnering for a documentary film about celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, to be directed and produced by Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?).  Focus Features will first release the documentary exclusively in theaters worldwide before the film premieres on television on CNN and streams via HBO Max. CNN Films and HBO Max will executive produce the film. The late Bourdain worked for CNN for five years on his series “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” and at CNN Films on a theatrical documentary about a chef who inspired him, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, in 2016.

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“It requires a filmmaker as expert and prolific as Morgan Neville to capture the essence of a raconteur and world explorer like Anthony Bourdain,” said Sarah Aubrey, head of original content, HBO Max, in a statement.

HBO Max has also greenlit four original unscripted projects from CNN. The slate includes “Heaven’s Gate” and “Generation Hustle” (working title) from CNN Original Series and two feature-length documentaries, The Scoop and Persona (working title), from CNN Films. “Heaven’s Gate” is a four-part HBO Max original from CNN Original Series that explores the infamous religious movement that culminated in the biggest mass suicide to ever take place on U.S. soil. “Generation Hustle” (working titleis a 10-part HBO Max original from CNN Original Series about the lengths young people will go to for fame, fortune and power. The Scoop (working title) is a documentary feature produced by CNN Films and will following the lives of CNN’s female political reporters as they cover the most unpredictable presidential campaign in American history. Persona (working title) is a documentary feature produced by CNN Films that explores the unexpected origin story of America’s obsession with personality testing.

Finally, HBO Max has ordered “Full Bloom,” an eight-episode, hour-long competition series featuring 10 of America’s budding florists vying to be crowned America’s best. Contestants will design and execute elaborate floral creations. Each episode features themed challenges centered around a unique stem of the floristry world, including fashion, art, events and weddings. Contestants’ designs and creations will be mentored and judged by floristry artists Maurice Harris and Elizabeth Cronin with celebrity florist Simon Lycett serving as host. At the end of each episode, unsuspecting people will be surprised with a floral arrangement.

OVID.tv Adds Six Latin American Documentaries

Indie film streaming service OVID.tv has added six Latin American documentaries to its lineup.

The films include:

Elena, in which a young Brazilian woman travels to New York with the same dream as her mother, to become a movie actress. She leaves behind her childhood, which was spent hiding during the years of the military dictatorship.

The Other Side of The Wall, about two siblings who have to believe in each other to find hope on the other side of the wall that threatens to separate them.

Beyond My Grandfather Allende, in which Salvador Allende’s granddaughter explores his legacy 40 years after he was ousted by a military coup in Chile.

The Tiniest Place, about resilient residents of a small mountain village in El Salvador rebuilding their homes in the wake of their country’s bloody civil war.

10th Parallel, which ventures into the Amazon and into close proximity with the rainforest’s uncontacted populations to reveal the fascinating and complex issues at stake in the National Indian Foundation of Brazil’s policy on isolated tribes.

El Velador: The Night Watchman, about a man named Martin who watches over El Jardin, a large cemetery used by Mexico’s most notorious drug lords.

OVID.tv is currently available on Apple TV, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Android devices. Customers in the U.S. can subscribe to OVID for $6.99 per month, or $69.99 annually, with an introductory seven-day trail. Service in Canada is slated to begin in fall 2019.

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‘Star Trek’ Documentary ‘What We Left Behind’ Available on Disc Aug. 6

The documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ will arrive on Blu-ray, DVD and digitally Aug. 6 from Shout! Factory.

The film, which was financed through an Indiegogo campaign, examines the third live-action “Star Trek” series, “Deep Space Nine,” which ran from 1993 to 1999 and stood out among the franchise as the only show set on a space station as opposed to a ship of exploration.

Series showrunner Ira Steven Behr co-directs with David Zappone and interviews cast members and behind-the-scenes crew to get their memories of making the show and insights about its legacy.

Behr also brings back some of the show’s original writers to imagine what a new episode of the show would look like 20 years after the series ended.

In addition, clips from the series have been remastered in high-definition for the first time.

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The Blu-ray will include an introduction from Behr, deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, the filmmakers discussing the HD remastering process, behind-the-scenes footage of the Variety cast reunion photoshoot, and the featurettes “A Brief History of Deep Space Nine” and “More From the Fans.”

ShoutFactory.com is offering an exclusive special edition of the Blu-ray, limited to 1,500 copies, which will have a special second Blu-ray disc containing a 50-minute roundtable with the documentary filmmakers, and a “Musical Reunion” featurette with composers Dennis McCarthy and Kevin Kiner. The $29.95 limited edition can be preordered here.

Apollo 11

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 5/14/19;
Universal;
Documentary;
Box Office $8.56 million;
$22.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘G.’

In preparing this 50th anniversary retrospective of the first moon landing, director Todd Douglas Miller and his team uncovered troves of previously unreleased film from the NASA archives.

Much of the footage was in 70mm, making the project a natural fit for an Imax presentation. And while the impact of the large-format screen is undeniable, the high-definition re-creation of the historic mission is just as stunning in a home-viewing setting.

According to the three-minute behind-the-scenes featurette included on the Blu-ray, this well-preserved footage was scanned at 8K and 16K using brand new equipment to remaster it at the highest resolutions yet possible.

The 93-minute documentary lets the footage itself tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, using no narration or retrospective interviews. Exposition is similarly handled through whatever someone might have said to explain it at the time, primarily through the audio feeds of the technicians and astronauts, or newscasts from famous voices such as Walter Cronkite.

Miller does provide bits of animation to demonstrate key mission details, as well as on-screen graphics denoting mission times and spacecraft speeds when such information would be most pertinent to understanding what is going on.

The clarity of the newly found footage really puts the audience in the moment, be it at mission control, at the launch pad or among the millions of onlookers camped out along the Florida coast to get a glimpse of the massive Saturn V rocket blasting into space.

The film is as much a tribute to the men and women working at all levels of the space program to put a man on the moon, giving audiences a view beyond the grandeur, at all-too-human moments that seem like almost a footnote today, and details that even many space enthusiasts may be surprised by.

For example, as the world focused on astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins heading to the launch pad, technicians were working to fix a leak in one of the rocket’s engines, just a few hours before lift-off.

Then, a few days into the mission, we’re reminded that the Apollo missions weren’t the only source of major news in the world, as we overhear some NASA engineers discussing the Chappaquiddick incident, when Teddy Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and left his female passenger to drown. That happened two days after Apollo 11 launched.

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The documentary also enlightens us with some otherwise mundane information, such as the heart rates of the astronauts during the more stressful phases of the mission — Armstrong’s pulse during the lunar landing passed 150 beats per minute — that continues to ground the events in a common humanity.

There’s also some lip service to the cosmic radiation the astronauts would have been exposed to — often brought up by conspiracy theorists who don’t believe humans could survive long durations in space. The truth is, passing through the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding Earth, the speed of the Apollo capsule would have been sufficient enough so that its occupants would have absorbed a radiation dose equivalent to a typical X-ray scan.

Aside from the spectacular launch footage, another highlight of the film is the presentation of the landing sequence in real time, using mission audio synced to camera footage taken from a camera mounted on the lunar module during its descent.

Rounding out the documentary is a mixture of still photographs and archival footage from a variety of sources, some familiar and some offering new perspectives on known events.

For fans of the space program, history buffs in general, or just plain people who could use a reminder of the technological achievements man is capable of, Apollo 11 is a documentary that should not be missed.

Apollo 11

Imax Documentary ‘Pandas’ Arrives on Digital April 9 From Warner

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will release the nature documentary Pandas through digital retailers and Movies Anywhere April 9.

The film, shot for Imax screens by David Douglas and Drew Fellman, the filmmakers behind Born to be Wild and Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, focuses on efforts by China’s Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding to prepare captive-born cubs for release in the wild.

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The film, which is narrated by Kristen Bell, will be available April 16 through cable and satellite video on demand services and on select gaming consoles.

Netflix Acquires Sundance Award Winning Political Doc ‘Knock Down the House’

Netflix has acquired worldwide distribution rights to the Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary Knock Down the House, which chronicles the campaigns of four female progressive candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, against powerful incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Sundance Institute also announced Knock Down the House as the winner of the Festival Favorite Award, selected by audience votes from the 121 features screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The film, directed by Rachel Lears and produced by Lears, Robin Blotnick, and Sarah Olson, also features Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin.

When tragedy struck her family in the midst of the financial crisis, Bronx-born Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her home from foreclosure. After losing a loved one to a preventable medical condition, Amy Vilela didn’t know what to do with the anger she felt about America’s broken health care system. Cori Bush was drawn into the streets when the police shooting of an unarmed black man brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer and die from the environmental effects of the coal industry. At a moment of historic volatility in American politics, Knock Down the House follows these four women as they decide to fight back despite having no political experience.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Netflix on the release of Knock Down the House,” said director Lears, who also co-wrote the film in addition to producing, in a statement. “This platform will allow us to reach huge audiences worldwide, including viewers who may not usually watch independent documentaries. We’re also very excited to be working with Netflix on a campaign to spark wider cultural conversations about our democracy and how it can continue to evolve.”

“It is a transcendent moment when skilled filmmakers are able to train their lens on a major transformation,” said Lisa Nishimura, VP of Original Documentaries for Netflix, in a statement. “With intimacy and immediacy, Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnik, bring viewers to the front lines of a movement, as four women find their voice, their power and their purpose, allowing all of us to witness the promise of true democracy in action.”

Netflix Inks Deal With ‘Blue Planet II’ Creator

Netflix has signed a multiyear overall deal with James Honeyborne, creator and executive producer of the award-winning documentary series “Blue Planet II,” to produce new nature and science series.

“James has created some of the most captivating natural history series of our time, with breathtaking sweep and vision,” Lisa Nishimura, VP of documentaries and comedy at Netflix, said in a statement. “I am thrilled that he will be working with us at Netflix, bringing his unique exploration of the wonders of the natural world to our viewers.”

Honeyborne and partner Renee Godfrey will make all their productions through their company Freeborne Media Ltd.

“Freeborne is excited to be working with Netflix and for the new creative opportunities that will arise from our partnership,” Honeyborne said in a statement. “Today, wildlife and wild places are facing unprecedented challenges. There is a pressing need to tell important, surprising and inspiring stories about our world. Working with Netflix means we can create game-changing documentaries that can reach and engage a huge global audience.”

Honeyborne’s BBC work includes the BAFTA-winning “Big Blue Live” and the Emmy-nominated series “Wild New Zealand.” He was also the series producer of “Africa.” Honeyborne, who trained as a biologist, has overseen some 35 films during his time as an executive producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit.

Godfrey trained as an anthropologist before working on the acclaimed series “Tribe” and “Human Planet.” Her recent credits include “Enchanted Kingdom 3D,” “Wild Atlantic” and “Wild New Zealand.”

Freeborne will be based in Bristol, England.

‘American Masters’ Documentary ‘Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me’ Due on Digital and DVD Feb. 19 From PBS

The “American Masters” program Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is coming out on DVD and digital Feb. 19 from PBS Distribution.

This is the first major film documentary to examine the performer’s vast career and his journey for identity through the shifting tides of civil rights and racial progress during 20th century America, according to PBS. Davis strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting political territory. He was a veteran of increasingly outdated show business traditions and worked tirelessly to stay relevant, even as he frequently found himself bracketed by the bigotry of white America and the distaste of black America. Davis was a public black figure who embraces Judaism, thereby yoking his identity to that of another persecuted minority. In Duke Ellington’s words, he was “beyond category.”

The documentary features interviews with Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Novak, with never-before-seen photographs from Davis’ vast personal collection and footage of his performances.

‘Frontline’ Series ‘Documenting Hate, ‘American Experience: The Swamp’ Due on Digital and DVD Feb. 12 From PBS

PBS Distribution is releasing two documentaries, Frontline: Documenting Hate and American Experience: The Swamp, on digital and DVD Feb. 12.

Frontline: Documenting Hate is a two-part investigation into today’s white supremacy groups in the United States. In the first part, “Charlottesville,” correspondent A.C. Thompson tracks down some of those at the center of the infamous and deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., revealing that one participant in the violence was an active-duty Marine, and the other worked for a major defense contractor and held a U.S. government security clearance. This part also shows just how ill-prepared law enforcement was to handle an influx of white supremacists from across the country, some of whom had been part of a series of earlier violent confrontations in California and descended on Charlottesville specifically to fight. The second part, “New American Nazis,” presents a new investigation into white supremacist groups in America, in particular a neo-Nazi group, Atomwaffen Division, that has actively recruited inside the U.S. Military. This joint investigation documents the group’s terrorist objectives, examines how civilian and military authorities have responded, and shows how the group gained strength after the 2017 Charlottesville rally.

Also due on digital and DVD Feb. 12 is American Experience: The Swamp. Told through the eccentric lives of hucksters, politicians and activists, the documentary explores the Florida Everglades, which has some of natures’ most mysterious and unique ecosystems. The program is based, in part, on the book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald.