Critic Roger Ebert Immortalized in Poignant Film Bio

Life Itself posterThe biggest surprise about Steve James‘ touching documentary chronicling the legacy and final days of film critic Roger Ebert is Ebert himself. While it’s always been clear that Ebert was mad about the movies, the general public really never knew the extent to which Roger Ebert’s “love story” also included the woman who would become his wife and business partner during the last two decades of his life.

As a critic myself and an admirer of Ebert’s work, I regularly sought out and trusted his reviews in print and on TV. I always made a point to catch him and fellow critic Gene Siskel trading barbs on their PBS and syndicated film review shows and during their entertaining appearances on “The Tonight Show.”

In Life Itself, a two-hour documentary based upon Ebert’s memoir of the same name and currently screening in theatres, on iTunes and Video On Demand, director Steve James takes viewers back to the place where Ebert’s love affair with movies began–his home turf of Chicago–and his transition from neighborhood news hound to Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.  While Ebert put film criticism on the Pulitzer map and turned his “thumbs-up” into a coveted endorsement, he was no saint. He drank to excess, caroused with “weird’ women and had a difficult relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, with whom Ebert partnered on TV to wide success.  He met his wife at an AA meeting. They were introduced by advice columnist Ann Landers.

A fine romance.  Chaz and Roger Ebert.

A fine romance. Chaz and Roger Ebert on their wedding day. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

In his later years, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the treatments ultimately left him physically disfigured and unable to speak.  With his devoted wife, Chaz, by his side, he tackled his mounting physical challenges and grueling medical protocols with amazing positivity.  And he never stopped writing.

Although it becomes apparent during the film that his illness was terminal, he remained feisty and focused and determined to participate fully in the production. He shares his thoughts on his illness, pivotal memories and movies and their makers via his “voice”-activated laptop.  An avid blogger, Ebert continued to ply his journalist chops on the Internet until the end of his days. His blog became his voice as he expanded his commentary into the social and political arena.  He died in April 2013.

The most engaging portions of the film recall and include input from Ebert’s pals and colleagues:  his Chicago newsroom cronies; fellow film critics; the filmmakers whose friendships never compromised Ebert’s honest evaluation of their films; his touching love affair and late-in-life marriage to Chaz; and his conflicted, competitive partnership with Gene Siskel (whose wife provides some not-so-flattering memories of her own).

An early advocate of Martin Scorsese, who is also Executive Producer of Life Itself, (along with director Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball), Werner Herzog, Gregory Nava and Errol Morris, among other trailblazing independent filmmakers, Roger Ebert turned the American public on to serious film criticism without, as Scorsese says here, drowning his prose in ideologies.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert "At the Movies."

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert “At the Movies.” Photo: Kevin Horan. Magnolia Pictures.

“I was born inside the movie of my life,” Ebert says in Life Itself.   As the camera rolls for the last time, he hides nothing, not the worm holes that littered his early career, or the ravages that ate away at his body as his career and his life drew to a close. Ebert’s journey is rolled out for everyone to see; it’s often bumpy, but it’s well worth the ride.

For film buffs and students, aspiring film critics, Ebert/Siskel fans, and for those facing their own life and death struggles with debilitating illness, Life Itself will fascinate and inspire.  But, most importantly, this is a film for anyone who craves a good love story… that is, for anyone who needs assurance that it’s possible to make a marriage that works, movies that matter and mount a “third act” with courage and dignity. –Judith Trojan 

Life Itself is currently in limited theatrical release and is available on iTunes and Video On Demand.  You can check out Roger’s blog at  http://www.RogerEbert.com

 

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Halle Berry Flies High on CBS with Eerie Extant

Halle Berry cracks another universe in EXTANT.  CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Halle Berry cracks a new universe in EXTANT. c 2014 CBS Broadcasting.

Oscar-winner Halle Berry makes a smooth transition to broadcast TV in her new 13-episode series, Extant, debuting tonight on CBS (Wednesday, July 9, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT).   With executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Allen (The Sopranos) Coulter at the helm, atmospheric cinematography and equally distinctive music, plus a top-notch supporting cast, the premiere episode of Extant does not disappoint.

If you’re a fan of The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, which Extant seems to reference at this early stage, you’ll be hooked from the get-go. Berry stars as Molly Watts, an astronaut who returns home after a 13-month solo mission in outer space. In a perfect world, Molly’s transition back to her family and work on terra firma would be challenging.  But in this scenario set in the not-so-distant future, she is short circuited by seen and unseen menace.

Molly must come to grips with the fallout from a mysterious encounter in her space station and the shady goings-on by her superiors at the International Space Exploration Agency (ISEA). Also muddying the waters are the loss of two beloved colleagues and the moral issues swirling around her scientist husband, John (Goran Visnjic), whose Humanics project aims to humanize robots.  Exhibit #1 at John’s fund-raising show-and-tell is the Woods’ creepy son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon).

Will Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) ever learn to love?  Photo: Robert Voets/CBS c 2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Will Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) ever learn to love? Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Broadcasting.

A tantalizing mix of sci-fi, mystery and thriller, the premiere episode of Extant, the brainchild of screenwriter Mickey Fisher, is riveting. Hopefully, his next 12 episodes will match the promise shown here and will prove to be a savvy vehicle for Halle Berry’s return to series TV.

You can watch the premiere of Extant tonight, Wednesday, July 9, on CBS (9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT).–Judith Trojan 

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Freedom Summer a Must-See on PBS

FreedomSummer-Poster (1)“I just wanted the right to vote.”  How many of us take that right for granted?  In his powerful and poignant new documentary, Freedom Summer, filmmaker Stanley Nelson reminds us that a mere five decades ago, voting was virtually off-limits to Mississippi’s African-American community.

By turns troubling and uplifting, the film is, most of all, a timely reminder that racism can been upended when blacks and whites work together to implement change.  Freedom Summer debuts on the PBS series American Experience tonight. (Tuesday, June 24, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere airtime and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Contrived literacy tests and threats of home and job loss, violence and death were the tactics used by the segregationist white establishment to bully black Mississippians out of the polls and elected office.  As the summer of 1964 dawned, only 6.7% of African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi, in contrast to 50-70% in other Southern states.  While African Americans made up the majority of the population in rural Mississippi, they remained frozen in time–tipping their hats and bowing their heads as their white neighbors strolled by.

Mississippi Summer Project volunteers and locals canvas for new voters.  Photo: Ted Polumbaum/ Newseum.

Mississippi Summer Project volunteers and locals canvas for new voters. Photo: Ted Polumbaum/ Newseum.

Somehow, Mississippi had fallen off the radar and remained the land that time and the rest of America forgot. Until, that is, the Mississippi Summer Project aka Freedom Summer was launched by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to transport almost 1,000 white and black student volunteers down from the North for 10 weeks to aid local civil rights activists in their efforts to register black voters.

Freedom Summer clearly sets the stage on which these idealistic young Northerners (average age 19-20) found themselves. Mississippi was in the grip of the Citizens’ Council, who answered any perceived threat to white supremacy with violence. Early casualties were Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who disappeared en route to investigate a church bombing. Their bodies were later found buried in shallow graves.  The summer played out with beatings, the burning of 35 churches and bombing of 70 homes and community centers.

Poster Of Missing Civil Rights Workers

Freedom Summer seamlessly integrates well-chosen period archival and news footage, photos and letters with articulate recollections by surviving volunteers, organizers and civil rights leaders who reflect on what they faced, how they survived the ever-present fear of being shot, tortured, raped or killed and what they garnered from their commitment.  Their stories are often chilling.

Standout witnesses here are the women who departed states like Iowa, New York and Vermont as fervent but naive young volunteers, as well as the locals who opened up their homes to them at great personal danger to themselves and their families (African Americans housing white young women were especial targets).  Anthony Harris, then a youngster and now a Ph.D., is a particularly engaging witness.  He attended a life-altering Freedom School set up by the volunteers to introduce young African-American Mississippians to literature (blacks were barred from local libraries) and to the black history and culture they were sorely missing.

Fannie Lou Hamer M00575 MH

Fannie Lou Hamer rallied volunteers and the nation with pleas for justice and voter rights. Photo: George Ballis/Take Stock.

Two fearless women posed a special problem for President Lyndon Johnson, who opposed the black voter registration drive in Mississippi, afraid it would cost him the next election.  Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and SNCC field secretary, passionately supported unseating the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City; and Rita Schwerner, a Freedom Summer organizer and the young widow of Mickey Schwerner, worked relentlessly to keep her husband’s loss and memory alive in the public eye.

The film includes snippets from what appear to be Oval Office phone conversations, including those between LBJ and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, that are pretty damning, as are the backdoor machinations used by LBJ to stifle the Mississippi Freedom delegates at the National Democratic Convention.  And yet, once elected, LBJ is shown signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, abolishing literacy tests and protecting voter rights in the seven Southern states.

A direct result of the volunteers’ daunting efforts during the summer of 1964, the relevance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 can’t be understated, nor can the importance of this film as a reminder of a time when a long hot summer brought courageous young people of both races together to make a difference.

Volunteers  Johnny Waters, Ceola Wallace and Jake Plum explain voter registration procedures to Willie McGee.  Photo:  Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

Volunteers Johnny Waters, Ceola Wallace and Jake Plum explain voter registration procedures to Willie McGee. Photo: Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

American Experience presents Freedom Summer tonight, Tuesday, June 24, at 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET on PBS. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area.  It will be available on DVD and on-line (for three weeks) from PBS.  –Judith Trojan

 

 

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Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun Debuts on PBS

Francisco Moncion and Tanquil Le Clercq perform in Jerome Robbins' ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, in 1953.  Photo: Augusta Films.

Francisco Moncion and Tanquil Le Clercq perform in Jerome Robbins’ ballet, “Afternoon of a Faun,” in 1953. Photo: Augusta Films.

If you’re not a dancer, ballet aficionado or George Balanchine acolyte, chances are you’ve never heard of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929 – 2000).  Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski aims to rectify that lapse in her new documentary Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun, making its PBS debut tonight on American Masters. (Friday, June 20 on PBS, 9:00 p.m. ET; and 10-11:30 p.m. nationally. Check local listings for premiere airtime and repeat broadcasts in your region).

Blending a flourish of classical music, home movies, intimate photos and letters, riveting vintage performance footage and recordings of her voice, the film introduces us to the meteoric rise and heartbreaking demise of Le Clercq’s career as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.  At 27 on a triumphant world tour, “Tanny,” as she was known to intimates, was tragically stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down at the height of her career.

It was 1956, and the scourge of polio had yet to be contained.  At the time, I was a fearless tot, clueless to the life-altering paralysis and death that could result from infection by the virus.  But I can remember not being allowed to frequent crowds or public pools due to the epidemic and remember lining up at my grammar school for three doses of the Salk vaccine as soon as it was deemed safe.  Tanny was not so lucky.  In fact, one of the most moving and ever-present voices in the film, her friend and fellow dancer Jacques d’Amboise, recalls when and how Tanny fell ill, immediately after postponing their pre-tour vaccination.

American Masters - "Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a FaunÓ

Tanaquil Le Clercq and George Balanchine, circa Balanchine’s 1952 ballet “Metamorphoses.” Photo: Clifford Coffin/Ballet Society.

Tanny’s early life in Paris and New York City, as a sheltered child of privilege, and her dance training overseen by a domineering mother are too briefly sketched here.  Taking center stage instead are the two principal men in her life: choreographer George Balanchine, to whom Tanny became muse and subsequent wife, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. While her pal and fellow dancer Robbins could not compete with Balanchine for her ultimate affection, her ties to Robbins survived his broken heart, her debilitating illness and their periodic estrangement to provide her with a sounding board and an emotional lifeline during her later years.  Their intimate and, at times, passionate letters thread throughout this film.

Although Tanny is the film’s subject, you’ll come away learning as much or more about George Balanchine’s proclivities–the allure of new, young dancers who incited a seductive pattern of creative collaboration, leading often to career milestones, marriage and finally separation.  Yet surprisingly, he remained with polio-stricken Tanny at first, believing that the right treatment and therapy would restore her ability to dance again.

While revelations from Balanchine’s long-time assistant, Barbara Horgan, dancer Arthur Mitchell and Tanny’s girlhood chum Pat McBride Lousada give a sense of the backstage drama that played out around her at various periods in her life, it is Tanny’s dance partner and a star in his own right, Jacques d’Amboise, who brings the soul to this story.  d’Amboise opens the film; and whether visible on-camera or in voice over or in performance footage with Tanny, his presence is a definite asset to this film.

Jacques d’Amboise is an emotional firecracker who conveys clearly and passionately the challenges Tanny faced in the hothouse environment in which they worked and the implications of the tragedy that befell her.  At one point, he is so wrenched with emotion that he simply can’t continue.  Having met and worked with d’Amboise during two Christopher Award galas for which he was both an Award recipient and a presenter respectively, I am not surprised by the depth and quality of d’Amboise’s input and am happy that director/writer/producer Nancy Buirski included him to the extent that she did.

Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jerome Robbins.  Photo: Augusta Films.

Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jerome Robbins. Photo: Augusta Films.

As you watch the generous selection of archival footage and kinescopes of Ms. Le Clercq’s performances in this film, you’ll be captivated by her stage presence and, most especially, by her extraordinarily long legs, elongated arms and angular body (principal female dancers at the time, according to d’Amboise, were primarily short and stocky). You’ll immediately understand why Tanaquil Le Clercq inspired the hearts and art of visionary choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins and why her untimely loss to the world of ballet was a loss for us all.

American Masters–Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun premieres on PBS on Friday, June 20, at 9:00 p.m. in the NY metro area, and 10-11:30 p.m. nationally. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area. A DVD will be available June 24 from Kino Lorber. For three years after its original airdate, the film will stream in the USA @ www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/tanaquil-le-clercq/watch-tanaquil-le-clercq-afternoon-of-a-faun/3023/   –Judith Trojan

 

 

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Tony Awards Telecast Hits the Jackpot with Jackman

Hugh Jackman and Tony, "hoppy" together!

Hugh Jackman and Tony, “hoppy” together!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with “Awards” telecasts.  I’ve had my fill of the meaningless hype surrounding these shows that seem to focus more and more of their attention on designer gowns, million dollar gems, unseasoned presenters and off-color and demeaning shtick instead of on the craft they’re supposed to be honoring.  Audience demographics and ratings are the engines that drive most of this drivel.

But after watching Sunday night’s telecast of the 68th annual Tony Awards® on CBS (6/8/14), hosted with vim and a lot of vigor by actor Hugh Jackman, I’m happy to report that I’m back on board with Tony.

Granted the annual Tony Awards telecast is usually classier than most awards shows.  Afterall, the mission of the American Theatre Wing is to honor legit Broadway dramas and musical theatre. But last year’s Tony extravaganza, despite the tireless performance by multi-talented host Neil Patrick Harris, quickly lost its luster.  Tedious self-serving speeches and editing glitches turned those festivities into a snooze fest.

In contrast, the 2014 Tony Awards presented on Sunday by Tony Award Productions, a joint venture of The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, were the best ever!  They were again broadcast from New York City’s landmark Radio City Music Hall, a perfectly appointed venue to showcase complex live performance vignettes from Broadway shows.  And Hugh Jackman was more than a match for beloved serial host Neil Patrick Harris.  It’s no surprise that Jackman can hold his own as a talented actor, singer and dancer, but who knew he also hops, taps and raps?

Actor Hugh Jackman captivated the crowd as host of the 68th annual TONY AWARDS on Sunday, June 8. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions.

Actor Hugh Jackman captivated the crowd as host of the 68th annual TONY AWARDS on CBS, Sunday, June 8. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions.

Jackman literally hopped his way through a comical opening segment, maneuvering his way into and around Radio City’s cavernous backstage, orchestra, audience and onto the stage, welcoming nominees, their guests and seamlessly seguing into a rousing number from Best Musical nominee After Midnight featuring Fantasia, Glady’s Knight, Patti Labelle and a cast of world-class hoofers. It should be noted that throughout this tour de force opener, Jackman was barely winded.

Also cleverly entertaining were his musical intros to the Best Actress nominees and his rap twist of “Music Man” lyrics with LL Cool J and T.I., whoever that is.  In short, Hugh was fabulous and always gracious–no-off color, snarky remarks–and on his game throughout the show.

Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart brought down the house in this number from ALADDIN.  Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions.

Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart brought down the house in this number from ALADDIN. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions.

Other highlights included the performances by Tony winners Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Jessie Mueller (Beautiful–The Carole King Musical) and James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin); as well as the surprise arrival of singer/songwriter Carole King and her show-stopping performance of “I Feel the Earth Move” with Ms. Mueller. Best Actor in a Musical nominee Jefferson Mays performed a riotous quick costume change intro to the Award-winning Best Musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. And the magic of live theatre was clearly in evidence during the climactic fight from Scenic Design Award-winner Rocky and the precision exhibited by Best Choreographer nominee Susan Stroman’s tapping mobsters from Bullets Over Broadway.

Can Bryan Cranston's year get any better?  Now he's a Tony winner for his riveting turn as LBJ in ALL THE WAY.

Can Bryan Cranston’s year get any better? Now he’s a Tony winner for his riveting turn as LBJ in ALL THE WAY. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions.

The musical numbers were well-integrated and, for the most part, excellent incentives to buy tickets, as were the wins and speeches by actor Bryan Cranston for “All the Way”; actress Audra McDonald (A record-breaking sixth Tony win!) for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”; and supporting actor Mark Rylance (whose win for “Twelfth Night” prompted him to remember and honor blacklisted American actor Sam Wanamaker for his contributions to Shakespearean theatre in the U.K.).  In short, the show was a great showcase for Broadway and the theatre, in general, while still giving space to cross-over talent from other mediums, including Sting, Jennifer Hudson and Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who all represented upcoming Broadway shows.

True, I wasn’t enamored by overhyped Idina Menzel and her lackluster number from “If/Then,” or the long-winded, self-aggrandizing thank-you speech by one of the producers of the Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.  And he may have an intriguing name–Darko Tresnjak–but this Broadway newcomer, who also won a Tony for “A Gentleman’s Guide,” seemed a tad too impressed with himself.  I found it amusing that he appeared oblivious and unimpressed by the fact that he was receiving his directorial award from Clint Eastwood.

While I thought the Oscarcast in March hit an all-time low–essentially it played out like a commercial for social media, selfies and Ellen, who made some insensitive blunders–the 68th Tony Awards telecast soared. When producers of these shows start to worry more about satisfying viewer demographics than how best to showcase the craft they’re honoring, then the Awards lose their credibility.  Kudos to Tony Awards telecast director Glenn Weiss, also an executive producer with Ricky Kirshner, for getting it right this year.–Judith Trojan

If you missed the 68th annual Tony Awards® telecast on CBS, Sunday, June 8, 2014, you can watch it at http://www.cbs.com/shows/tony_awards/

 

 

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Why We Celebrate Earth Day

Like me, you probably carry plastic water bottles around wherever you go.  They’re cheap, easy to use and too easy to discard.  They’re also dangerous.  Aside from the toxins that have been targeted in their manufacture, their disposal is choking our planet.

According to the latest statistics:  “Bottled water produces 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. Plastic waste is at such a high volume that it sits on barges and floats endlessly around in our oceans.”  First in line for genetic damage and death are the marine animals and birds who mistake our garbage for food.  Next up?  Us.

from American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire

A local boy in Niagara Falls, NY, protests toxic contamination of the Love Canal, from AMERICAN MASTERS: A FIERCE GREEN FIRE. Photo: Buffalo State College Archives, Courier Express collection.

Of course, responsible recycling programs are a positive step in the right direction.  Other efforts to save our planet and its inhabitants from suffocating under a sea of garbage and pollution are recapped in A Fierce Green Fire, the latest installment in the PBS American Masters series. (The film debuts tonight on PBS in honor of Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, at 9:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area.)

A departure from American Masters’ tradition of focusing on a single individual, A Fierce Green Fire recaps the work of various environmental activists and organizations — from the 1960s to 2009, grassroots and global — that have put their lives and reputations on the line to salvage the health of our planet. Inspired by the book of the same name by environmental journalist Philip Shabecoff, the film is divided into five brief acts that are self-explanatory: The Conservation Movement; Pollution and Cleanup; Greenpeace; Global Resources; and Climate Change.

American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire

The Amazon rainforest under siege. Photo: Rob Bierregaard.

Unlike the powerful feature-length documentaries of the past that zero in on individual environmentalists or issues, A Fierce Green Fire takes viewers on a dizzying trip down memory lane with an incendiary array of news clips, sound bites from “experts” and a handful of notable narrators, including Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Ashley Judd, Van Jones and Isabelle Allende.

There is no doubt that this film will serve as a wake-up call for budding activists and a reminder to those of us who have become complacent.  However, writer/director/producer Mark Kitchell‘s ambitious attempt to tackle 50 years of environmental triumphs and tragedies in one hour borders on overkill.  Kitchell reduces the work of the heroic, often visionary men, women and children and the organizations they represent to virtual sound bites.

A Fierce Green Fire reminds us of the wreckage heaped upon our planet and the fruits of environmental activism, but the back stories are weakly drawn.  While it’s important, for example, to be reminded (in Act 2: Pollution and Cleanup) of the work that Lois Gibbs and her neighbors did to bring down the toxic wasteland that was the Love Canal (Niagara, NY); and it’s especially heartbreaking (in Act 3) to hear what it was like for Greenpeace activists to thwart the slaughter of whales and baby seals, these stories and others touched on here deserve better. There is little on the odds the activists overcame to attain positive outcomes and the actual toll such activism took on its participants and the communities affected.

American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire

Greenpeace activist Robert Hunter in front of the “Phyllis Cormack” in the Pacific Ocean, during the first Greenpeace anti-whaling campaign. From AMERICAN MASTERS: A FIERCE GREEN FIRE. Photo c Greenpeace/Rex Weyler.

If the film’s conclusion about the politically contentious efforts to address climate change – “what a Hell of a way to run a planet”– doesn’t dampen your ardor, I suggest you check out the many fine documentaries that address environmental challenges and solutions with more depth and sensitivity, from Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS series, The National Parks, and Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim‘s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth to the numerous documentaries that focus directly on such environmental trailblazers as Pete Seeger (see my January 31, 2014 post on Pete), Lois Gibbs, Jane Goodall, Chico Mendes, et al.  I also recommend that kids and adults of all ages and persuasions take a second or third look at WALL*E, the touching Disney Pixar animated feature that beautifully and simply underscores the impact of taking our planet for granted.  And don’t forget to Recycle! –Judith Trojan

American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire premieres on PBS on Tuesday, April 22, at 9:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area.  For information on the film’s back story and availability on DVD and iTunes and other formats and for additional First Run Features documentaries on environmentalism, go to  http://www.firstrunfeatures.com

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My Bionic Pet Premieres on PBS Tonight and Online Tomorrow

Chris P. Bacon takes a spin on his home turf in NATURE: MY BIONIC PET.

Chris P. Bacon takes a spin on his home turf in NATURE: MY BIONIC PET. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bachar. c 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

If, like me, you’ve been dodging the depressing  influx of documentaries about the decimation and mistreatment of whales, dolphins, chimps, elephants and other endangered animal species, I suggest you tune in the latest episode of NATURE on PBS tonight (Weds., April 9, at 8:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings. ) for some much better news. 

In a mere 55 minutes, My Bionic Pet will lift your spirits and your respect for the animal kingdom and some remarkably good people who are giving physically challenged animals a second chance at life.  The film, produced by Kevin Bachar and Andy Seestedt for THIRTEEN, highlights the work being done in the U.S., from coast to coast, and Canada, by some dedicated veterinarians, prosthetic specialists and animal guardians to transform the lives of disabled animals. 

The animals featured here–ranging from dogs, a pig and pony to an alligator, llama and a swan–have through birth deformity, disease, mistreatment or accidents been left without functioning limbs, beaks or tails.  But all show remarkable resilience when fitted with prostheses.  The meticulous creation of their prostheses is case driven and often a matter of trial and error; the tie between human and animal anatomy and technologies is reciprocal and a necessity. 

Molly, one of the stars of MY BIONIC PET.

Molly, one of the stars of NATURE: MY BIONIC PET. Photo courtesy of Lizette Gesuden. c 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

The transformation in the lives of these animals (and those of their caregivers and guardians) is immediate and joyous to behold.  You’ll fall in love with Chris. P. Bacon, the adorable piglet who now zips around on his wheelie and is the subject of the first in a series of children’s books published by Hay House. There’s Molly, the pony whose remarkable survival, from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and her subsequent post-storm attack by a dog, has led to her therapeutic work with disabled children in New Orleans.  And certified therapy dog Journey, born without a front left paw, is a welcome guest at a Florida children’s hospital and an inspiration and comfort to adult human amputees adjusting to prosthetics. 

And perhaps just as moving are the humans here who will inspire you with their love and dedication to these animals.  In the end you may ask, “Can prosthetics make animals happy?”  My Bionic Pet answers that question. 

Journey at Westcoast Brace and Limb in Tampa.

Journey inspires visitors at Westcoast Brace and Limb in Tampa, FL. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bachar. c 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

It is clear from the evidence presented in this film, both through the extraordinary example of its subjects and the articulate input from caregivers and specialists, that the animals’ quality of life and emotional well-being are elevated and even restored with prosthetic intervention.  And in the end, if we, as their guardians, can do it, then aren’t we obligated to try?  I think after watching this film, your answer will be a resounding “Yes!” –Judith Trojan

NATURE: My Bionic Pet premieres on PBS on Wednesday, April 9, at 8:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts.  After its debut, My Bionic Pet will be available on DVD and for online streaming at www.pbs.org/nature  For information about the Chris P. Bacon children’s book series, check out http://www.hayhouse.com/chris-p-bacon-1

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