PBS Rebroadcasts The Boys of ’36 on American Experience

Yes, I’m on vacation and I’m surrounded by water…the optimum venue from which to give you a shout-out about the rebroadcast of American Experience’s rousing documentary about Olympic rowers.  The Boys of ’36 reruns on PBS tonight, Tuesday, August 1, 2017, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for repeat broadcasts in your region.)

The Boys of ’36 is really an inspiring story,” says Mark Samels, WGBH Executive Producer for American Experience. “These remarkable young men–with nothing more than strength of character, hard work and determination–triumphed over unimaginable odds.”

Adapted from the New York Times #1 bestseller, The Boys in the Boat (Penguin/Random House), by Daniel James Brown, the documentary recounts the individual economic, physical and psychological obstacles faced by nine working-class young rowers from the University of Washington as they prepared to compete for a Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Author Daniel James Brown, period and sports historians, and the children of several of the rowers discuss the Depression-era hardships faced by these sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers who not only went on to beat the favored U.S. Ivy League rowing teams but Hitler’s elite German rowers as well…with the ever-present Hitler and his minions hovering nearby.

The University of Washington's varsity crew team at the Poughkeepsie Regatta Races in June 1936. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

The University of Washington’s varsity crew team at the Poughkeepsie Regatta Races in June 1936. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

With succinct voice-over narration delivered by actor Oliver Platt in Ken Burns’-cadence, The Boys of ’36 includes wonderful vintage sports footage of the individual team members, their competitions leading up to the Olympic Games and their Gold Medal victory in Nazi Germany circa 1936.

Kudos to Margaret Grossi, the director and producer of this uplifting, sharply focused hour-long documentary, and to the film’s co-producer, NBC-News Olympic Games analyst Mary Carillo.

If you need a shot of hope and some positive reinforcement during our current mind-numbing chapter of U.S. history, I suggest you catch the rebroadcast of American Experience: The Boys of ’36 on PBS tonight, Tuesday, August 1, 2017, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for repeat broadcasts in your region.) You can read my original review at http://JudithTrojan.com/2016/08/02 –Judith Trojan

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Presenting Princess Shaw Makes Its Broadcast Debut on PBS

Singer/songwriter Samantha Montgomery's leap from anonymity to YouTube sensation is recalled in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW. Photo: Ido Haar. Courtesy Atzmor Productions.

Singer/songwriter Samantha Montgomery’s leap from anonymity to YouTube sensation is recalled in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW. Photo: Ido Haar. Courtesy Atzmor Productions.

“There are so many people with so much talent, original thinking and unique voices. Most of them weren’t born with the ‘right cards in their hand’…What are the chances that we will hear about them?”–filmmaker Ido Haar.

Israeli director Ido Haar  made sure that one of those “unique voices” had her chance by heralding her story and, most especially, her voice in his latest film, Presenting Princess Shaw. The feature-length documentary, which gave its star–and the Israeli artist who discovered her–welcome exposure on the festival circuit and in theatrical release last year, makes its broadcast debut on the PBS series POV tonight, Monday, July 17, 2017, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET.  (Check listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

With her cherry red hair, braces and engaging spirit, Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery brought a little song and dance into the lives of the elderly residents under her care in a New Orleans nursing home. She also shared her considerable vocal and songwriting talents, personal heartache and career aspirations with followers of her YouTube channel.  She invited them along as she performed during open mic nights in dismal local clubs and derailed yet another audition for NBC’s “The Voice.”  Despite the roadblocks and loneliness, she never seemed to lose her hope or enthusiasm for the next adventure around the corner or the upcoming gig that could put her career aspirations over the top.

Israeli video artist/composer/musician Ophir “Kutiman” Kutiel became Princess Shaw’s unlikely benefactor. Photo: Ido Haar. Courtesy Atzmor Productions.

Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, on a kibbutz in Israel, musical prodigy Ophir “Kutiman” Kutiel was making a name for himself in international music and art circles with audacious audiovisual mixtapes or musical mash-ups he created from audio and video snippets culled from amateur performances on YouTube.  By turning “sampling” into multimedia art, Kutiman’s talent is uniquely driven by the Internet and social media.  His work has been exhibited and performed at venues like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and on stage at Israel’s National Theater, garnering such kudos as “the future of music” and “the Internet’s new frontier.” You can check out his work at  http://www.youtube.com/kutiman

Kutiman discovered Princess Shaw’s singular voice, confessional songs and personal revelations on YouTube.  He was captivated… and you will be too as you experience clips of her haunting songs in Presenting Princess Shaw, sung a cappella with a voice reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys, and are privy to the memory fragments that litter her back story with broken relationships, poverty and a childhood darkened by physical and sexual abuse.  

Happy endings prevail as Samantha "Princess Shaw" Montgomery and Kutiman meet and collaborate in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Happy endings prevail as Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery and Kutiman meet and collaborate in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

The film climaxes with her discovery that Kutiman has featured clips from one of her YouTube solos as a centerpiece in one of his own compositions and posted it on the Internet. With heart in hand, she travels to Israel to meet Kutiman and perform on stage at Israel’s National Theater as his video composition unfolds on screens behind her.

Although there are questions left unanswered in Presenting Princess Shaw about her career prospects going forward and Kutiman’s back story and degree of personal and financial involvement with Princess Shaw and other amateur performers, past and present, the film showcases two unique talents in a style that befits them–open-ended, eclectic and, above all, celebratory–as their voices, hearts and skill sets unite across cultures.

“When an extraordinary artist recognizes another from across the world, and their talents come together,” concludes director Ido Haar, “it brings the idea of collaboration and creativity to a whole new level.”  And let’s face it, were it not for the Internet and social media, this story would probably not have a beginning, middle or… such an uplifting ending.

Presenting Princess Shaw makes its broadcast debut on the PBS series POV tonight, Monday, July 17, 2017, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET.  (Check listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, as well as On Demand and DVD availability and  http://www.pbs.org/pov/princessshaw/  for streaming updates.) –Judith Trojan 

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Watch and Remember The Words That Built America

Congress adopts The Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, PA, on July 4, 1776.

Congress adopts The Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, PA, on July 4, 1776.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “— from The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, July 4, 1776.

Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, July 4, 2017, and enjoy the fruits of our nation’s bounty and the freedom to do so, I encourage you to set aside 45 minutes to watch Alexandra Pelosi’s timely The Words That Built America, debuting tonight on HBO and various other HBO and free streaming and on-demand channels (see below). In a political climate that seems to be playing fast and loose with the charters drafted by our founding fathers, it’s imperative for all of us to become reacquainted with the documents crafted by these brilliant visionaries more than two hundred years ago. The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and The Bill of Rights remain the world’s longest surviving written charters of government and have been used as democratic templates internationally as well.

Alexandra Pelosi, producer/director of THE WORDS THAT BUILT AMERICA. Photo: Janet Van Ham. Courtesy HBO.

Alexandra Pelosi, producer/director of THE WORDS THAT BUILT AMERICA. Photo: Janet Van Ham. Courtesy HBO.

Emmy® Award-winning producer/director Alexandra Pelosi makes the process easy for us. She corralled more than 100 prominent Americans from all sides of the political aisle and encouraged them to face her camera and read unabridged passages from those three documents. Featured are U.S. presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries, governors, U.S. senators and representatives, as well as notable celebrities and middle school students from the United Nations International School.  As each individual reads his or her assigned passage from the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David (John Adams) McCullough narrates and interjects historical context and timelines.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence

The Words That Built America debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, July 4, 2017, 7:00 – 7:45 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW and HBO Go, and through streaming partners.) The film will also be accessible to non-HBO subscribers, who will be able to view the full program on HBO.com and the HBO YouTube channel, and through participating TV and streaming partners’ platforms and free on-demand channels.

In addition, a companion curriculum is being developed to support educators in the classroom; and the film will be donated to the National Constitution Center  in Philadelphia for its use in ongoing educational programming.

There is no better day than today to revisit and celebrate the powerful documents that gave birth to the United States of America more than two centuries ago.  And, going forward, The Words That Built America and its supplementary components will be evergreen educational tools for young people and adults in school, library and college programs focusing on U.S. History and American Government.  Now and forever, educated voters are among our nation’s most valuable assets.

The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution

Happy 241st birthday, USA!–Judith Trojan

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Transgender Teen Speaks Out as a Real Boy on PBS

Transgender teen Bennett explores his transition in REAL BOY debuting on the PBS series, INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

Transgender teen Bennett explores his transition in REAL BOY debuting on the PBS series, INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

“I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts,” remarks 19-year-old Bennett in the hour-long documentary, Real Boy. Feeling comfortable in one’s skin is never easy, especially during adolescence. But for someone like Bennett aka Ben aka Rachael, the roadblocks are especially daunting… and lonely.

In Real Boy, filmmaker Shaleece Haas gives transgender teen Bennett the space to reflect on the obstacles he’s faced as he affirms his rightful gender. We also meet his mom, Suzy, whose journey to accept her former daughter’s gender reorientation surgery and young adult male identity is equally challenging… and lonely. Real Boy debuts on the PBS series Independent Lens tonight, Monday, June 19, 2017, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings to confirm air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for online streaming info.)

Real Boy is framed by the family’s home movies, circa 1999, when sweet little Rachael appears on camera cheerfully enjoying playful antics with her mom, dad and sister. In footage shot by Ms. Haas over a four-year period, Rachael–the daughter, sister and tomboy who was applauded for her childhood eccentricities–has morphed into Bennett, who at age 19, is self-injecting testosterone shots and struggling to find his voice as a musician, a son, a brother and, most especially, as a young man.

Bennett, then Rachael, with his mom, Suzy. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

As he navigates this rocky road, his mother strives to understand the intricacies of her child’s transition and provide the unconditional love and support that he needs. It’s not easy for her to contemplate the bodily changes that will result from his surgery, which is made clear when she muses that she too would rather have a new body… so she can look like Charlize Theron.

Bennett recalls how his incompatibility with all things female reached a breaking point at puberty, leading him to experiment with substance abuse, theft and a life-threatening pattern of cutting. Facing disbelief and rejection at home, he connected with other trans teens on the Internet and forged a supportive relationship with transgender musician Joe Stevens. Although he’s acknowledged as a loving, life-saving presence in Bennett’s life, Joe faces dramatic substance abuse problems of his own which are introduced and abruptly glossed over.

Bennett Skypes with his best friend, Dylan, as they anticipate their surgeries, as seen in REAL BOY on INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

Bennett Skypes with his best friend, Dylan, as they anticipate their surgeries, as seen in REAL BOY on INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

As Bennett and his best friend, Dylan, also transgender, move to their new apartment, begin college life and face their first surgeries together out-of-state, their moms bond. Dylan’s mother encourages Suzy to accept and embrace Bennett’s transition.

Happily for her son, Suzy shows up at his hospital bedside and fulfills her care-giving responsibilities as his mom. However, his dad and sister fail to make an appearance, and their continuing rejection is given little more than a painful nod: “I just want to be loved by my family… it’s complicated for them,” says Bennett. Regretfully so; but as he yearns for their love and acceptance, he never seems to grasp, and the film fails to acknowledge, how the complex process of grief and grieving for Rachael has upended his mom, dad, sister, extended family and childhood friends.

In REAL BOY, trans teen Bennett shows his first chin hair to his friend, Joe Stevens, a celebrated transgender musician. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

There are other missed opportunities here as well. How did Rachael/Bennett fare in school, and when did it become apparent to her family and peers that Rachael was not simply a tomboy. And what about dating? There is passing mention of a dangerous cutting incident that sounds like it might have served as a transformative epiphany. The healing aspects of Bennett’s obvious talent as a singer/guitarist/songwriter are underplayed, and the relevent back stories of his mom and dad and Bennett’s mentor, musician Joe Stevens, are unfortunately never fully explored.

Those quibbles aside, Real Boy honors and respects Bennett’s voice and, for that, it should be a welcome and comforting addition to programs for other adolescents in the process of questioning their own gender identities and transitioning, as well as for family members and the friends who love them.

Real Boy debuts on the PBS series, Independent Lens tonight, Monday, June 19, 2017, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings to confirm air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will also be available for online streaming beginning June 20, 2017, at http://pbs.org/independentlens  –Judith Trojan

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If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast Debuts on HBO

Ninety-five-year-old Carl Reiner celebrates his peers as host and prime subject of IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST debuting on HBO. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ninety-five-year-old Carl Reiner celebrates his peers as host and prime subject of IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST debuting on HBO. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ninety-five-year-old comedy legend Carl Reiner has a lot more shtick to share before he calls it quits. “Every morning before having breakfast,” he says, “I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed. If not, I have my breakfast.” Never one to let a good idea go south, Reiner parlayed that humorous A.M. confession into an engaging film project.

If you only see one film this week… or next week… or the week after that, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll thank Carl Reiner for good timing and me for pointing you in the right direction. The documentary debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, June 5, 2017, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

Three of these talented guys are living well into their nineties. From left: Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Photo courtesy HBO.

Directed by Danny Gold and produced by Carl Reiner’s nephew and agent, George Shapiro, who also appears in the film, If You’re Not in the Obit proves what fellow humorist Mark Twain asserted more than 100 years ago, that “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Carl Reiner, who remains actively engaged as a comedy writer, director, actor, author, raconteur and dad of film director Rob “Meathead” Reiner, researched and introduces a thriving bunch of nonagenarians and a few centenarians who defy negative American ageist stereotypes and encourage the rest of us by their example.

Reiner didn’t have to venture too far afield for his subjects.  Some of his closest pals and colleagues–Mel Brooks (90), Norman Lear (94), Dick Van Dyke (91) and Betty White (95)–were more than willing and able to participate. Mel Brooks’ repartee with Reiner on-camera and in vintage animated “2000 Year Old Man” clips are priceless. But even more important is Brooks’ role as Reiner’s nearest and dearest old friend. Lifelong friendships are key to healthy longevity.

Dick Van Dyke and his wife, Arlene Silver, enjoy the their successful May-December marriage in IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT. Photo courtesy HBO.

Dick Van Dyke and his wife, Arlene Silver, enjoy the their successful May-December marriage in IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT. Photo courtesy HBO.

Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke’s lives initially intersected on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66). Vintage clips from that sitcom and shared memories recap highlights from their early comedy careers and showcase Van Dyke’s ongoing effervescence and agility and the touching rationale behind his late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman.

In contrast to bubbly Dick Van Dyke, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee (94) is all business as he recounts unapologetically the trajectory of his transition to comic book writer, publisher, media mogul, actor and nonretirement.

Since my early twenties and throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to and have written extensively about individuals and films about individuals who in advanced age continue to engage, excel and inspire.  If You’re Not in the Obit is by far one of the best and most refreshing examples of that genre. It doesn’t hurt that my favorite singer, 90-year-old Tony Bennett, opens the show with a wonderful performance of “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

The film blends no-nonsense life lessons from a fascinating mix of nonagenarians and centenarians who’ve surmounted family losses, debilitating illnesses and depression and continue to dance; practice and teach yoga; sky dive; sing; perform as classical pianists and instrumentalists; act; run marathons; author books; paint; and serve as fashion icons.

At 101, Ida Keeling works out an hour every day. In IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT, she and her daughter recall her transition at age 67 from a depressed mom mourning the murder of her sons to a healthy marathon runner. Photo courtesy HBO.

At 101, Ida Keeling works out an hour every day. In IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, she and her daughter recall her transition at age 67 from a depressed mom mourning the murder of her sons to a healthy marathon runner. Photo courtesy HBO.

Aside from the inspiration and insights garnered from Carl Reiner and his remarkable peer group, there are some younger voices here as well. Longevity expert Dan Buettner sheds light on why some people flourish in advanced age and how the rest of us can do the same. And comedian Jerry Seinfeld caught me, a fellow Baby Boomer, by surprise with his sensitive take on the subject and some serious personal revelations.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.”–George Burns

I laughed out loud when I read that quote from one of Seinfeld’s role models, George Burns.  I also winced a little…because I can relate to it. Burns was in his nineties and sharp as a tack when I was lucky to catch his stand-up routine at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. He had long ago booked, but eventually was unable to perform, a gig at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on his 100th birthday.  He died a month after turning 100 on March 9, 1996.

Laughter is the best medicine according to Carl Reiner and Betty White, who share the secrets of their longevity in IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST. Photo courtesy HBO.

Laughter is the best medicine according to Carl Reiner and Betty White, who share the secrets of their longevity in IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST. Photo courtesy HBO.

If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, June 5, 2017, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

No access to HBO?  Then you owe it to yourself to find another way to watch and even own a copy of this entertaining, inspiring and timely film.  It’s an evergreen reminder, as per feature film director Luis Buñuel, that “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.” –Judith Trojan

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De Niro and Pfeiffer Debut on HBO in The Wizard of Lies

Robert De Niro not only looks the part of Bernie Madoff in HBO's THE WIZARD OF LIES, but he also believably talks the talk of the bloodless family man and Ponzi schemer. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy HBO.

Robert De Niro not only looks the part of Bernie Madoff in HBO’s THE WIZARD OF LIES, but he also believably talks the talk of the bloodless family man and Ponzi schemer. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy HBO.

In today’s divisive political climate where the line between “alt facts” and actual facts has been obliterated, it’s not surprising that Robert De Niro, an outspoken critic of the “alt fact” administration, has made his HBO debut as executive producer and star of a film entitled The Wizard of Lies. The film’s infamous protagonist, Bernie Madoff, now serving a 150-year sentence in prison, was a highly respected mover and shaker in the world of finance who built his reputation on a massive web of lies fueled by his bloodless and, many would agree, sociopathic personality disorder.

The Wizard of Lies, directed by Academy Award® winner Barry Levinson, makes a strong case for the moral of the story:  nothing good comes from lies and those who disseminate them.  The film debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, May 20, 2017, 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

The Wizard of Lies follows the downward spiral of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff during the days leading up to the crash of his bogus $50 billion empire and the detritus he left behind for his victims: his investors and those guilty by association…his staffers and most especially his wife and sons. The screenplay, primarily adapted from New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques’ book of the same name, smartly frames the Madoff debacle with re-creations of Henriques’ jail house interviews with Madoff.  The interviews were hard-won by Henriques, who effectively plays herself in the film. Her professional, no-nonsense face-to-face offs with Madoff add documentary flavor to the film.

Without delving into the complex how-tos of Madoff’s swindle, the film lays the groundwork for his endgame, his high-profile arrest and the collateral damage that ensued, especially as it impacted his family. As the stock market tumbled in 2008 and his nervous investors began draining his faux coffers, he scrambled to pay them off with money he charmed out of new high rollers who were flattered by his 11th hour invitation to join his rarefied stable of investors in what he promised would be a rebounding market.

“People would think it was an honor for him to take your money,” said De Niro.  “That’s a classic con situation… he was in that position and he used it.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as star-crossed husband and wife Bernie and Ruth Madoff in THE WIZARD OF LIES. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy HBO.

Fine performances by Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff and especially Michelle Pfeiffer, as Madoff’s loyal spouse Ruth, drive this film exploration of the scandal that played out like a Shakespearean tragedy. His arrest in 2008 for perpetuating what has been called “the largest financial fraud in U.S. history” was followed by a fire-storm of incriminations from his desperate investors. A media circus culminated with Bernie’s trial and incarceration.

As Bernie Madoff’s house of cards came tumbling down, so did his family. Shown here to have been deliberately sheltered from Bernie’s longtime con, Ruth and their sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), and their young families were demoralized by the accusations swirling around them in the media and their ostracism by longtime friends and family members. Shocked and bewildered by her husband’s betrayal, Ruth questioned her own possible unwitting role in the scam and struggled to maintain equilibrium as her elitist lifestyle and family disintegrated. Michelle Pfeiffer’s outstanding performance taps into Ruth’s vulnerability as a dutiful wife and mother of a certain age, whose definitions of love and trust were determined when, as a young teenager, she met and fell under the spell of lifeguard Bernie Madoff.

Con man Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro) claimed to have kept his sons, Andrew Madoff ( Nathan Darrow) and Mark Madoff (Alessandro Nivola), in the dark in THE WIZARD OF LIES. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy HBO.

Con man Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro) claimed to have kept his sons, Andrew Madoff (Nathan Darrow) and Mark Madoff (Alessandro Nivola), in the dark in THE WIZARD OF LIES. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy HBO.

“Bernie’s con never sounded too good to be true, ”recalled journalist Diana Henriques. “One of my favorite lines is ‘if it sounds too good to be true, you’re dealing with an amateur.’ Bernie never did that. What you need to understand is how plausible con men like this are, how utterly they can seize your trust and your imagination and make you believe.”

The Wizard of Lies is not only a well-acted and directed reenactment of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but a timely reminder that we would do well to learn from Bernie Madoff’s tragic example… that the endgame for those who promote and accept lies as fact is never a good one.

The Wizard of Lies debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, May 20, 2017, 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.) –Judith Trojan 

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Oprah Owns The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

HBO Films’ THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS centers on a daughter’s search for her mother’s truth. The best seller’s adaptation stars Rose Byrne as author Rebecca Skloot and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks. Photo: Quantrell Colbert. Courtesy HBO.

“The story is about loss and identity, the power of knowing your own story and how it manifests itself inside of you,” says George C. Wolfe.  “It’s about the desire to know so that you can be a more complete human being.” Wolfe, the mega-Award-winning film, theater and TV writer/director, is referring to his film adaptation of The New York Times  nonfiction best seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by science journalist Rebecca Skloot. The film, directed and co-adapted for the screen by Wolfe, debuts on HBO tonight, April 22, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31. The poor African-American wife and mother from rural Clover, Virginia, not only left behind five young children, but also her remarkable “immortal cell line” that changed the face of medical research forever and became one of the medical profession’s best kept secrets.

Renée Elise Goldsberry stars as Henrietta Lacks in THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. Photo: Quantrell Colbert. Courtesy HBO.

During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, tissue from Henrietta’s malignant tumor was harvested for cellular research, without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. This ethically suspect activity was apparently standard practice at the time. Henrietta’s cancer cells not only tragically multiplied rapidly in her body, ultimately killing her, but unexpectedly broke precedent and continued to multiply in the lab and unbelievably still do in medical research labs around the world. They’ve also been used in studies conducted in outer space. And Dr. Oz even whipped out a test tube of her cells on a recent segment of his TV show promoting the film.

While Henrietta’s name and provenance were seemingly of no consequence to those in the biomedical field, her so-named “HeLa cells” retooled the industry and quietly led to breakthroughs in cloning, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping, as well as the development of drugs and vaccines for, among other things, polio, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease.

Dorothy Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) and her mother’s cousin, Sadie (Leslie Uggams), share memories of the past. Photo: Quantrell Colbert. Courtesy HBO.

Then along came freelance science journalist Rebecca Skloot. Her obsession with the ethically challenged origins of HeLa cells led her on a 10-year odyssey to research a book that would honor the life and legacy of the human being whose cells continue to be the lifeblood of millions. Rebecca’s efforts to gain the cooperation of Henrietta’s family serve as the linchpin for the screen adaptation and call to mind Emma Stone’s pivotal role in The Help. As played by actress Rose Byrne, Rebecca comes across as a caring, patient and ultimately restorative friend to Dorothy Lacks.

George Wolfe’s expressionistic vision celebrates Henrietta’s immortality through her family’s reflections and fragmented memories, especially those of Henrietta’s middle-aged, emotionally fragile daughter, Dorothy (played by Oprah Winfrey). Winfrey’s manic-depressive Dorothy is the center of the film’s universe, as she comes to terms with her mother’s medical legacy, her sister’s horrific death in a state asylum and a childhood scarred by emotional and sexual abuse and the grieving hole in her heart for the mother she never really knew.

Winfrey wasn’t initially keen on tackling the role of Dorothy.  “It wasn’t until I saw George’s breakdown of the script that I understood it was actually about a daughter in search of her mother,” explains Winfrey. “It’s about a daughter who is, really, in search of her mother’s love and connection in order to validate, verify and affirm for herself that she was loved. Knowing that part of the story is what allowed me to take it on.”

Dorothy Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) struggled with emotional demons stemming from the loss of her mother at an early age. From THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. Photo: Quantrell Colbert. Courtesy HBO.

Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Dorothy Lacks is truly heartfelt and award-worthy but, at times, just too much for the story Wolfe is trying to tell. The same goes for the profuse roots and jazz-inspired score by Branford Marsalis. However, special kudos to Renée Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Uggams in lovely, much too brief performances as Henrietta Lacks and her cousin, Sadie, respectively.

Although the film introduces the woman from whom millions of life-enabling cells have come, it pretty much glosses over the back story of the 1950’s medical, racist and sexist culture that propelled Henrietta’s life and cancer treatment to its tragic end. For a better understanding of America’s mid-century medical and cultural mindset and Henrietta Lacks’ biography, you would do well to read the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now available as a movie tie-in edition; or check out Rebecca Skloot’s website @ http://rebeccaskloot.com

The film will be an evergreen supplement to the book in classes and discussions focusing on biomedical research, medical marvels, women’s issues, grief and African-American studies in schools, libraries and universities. You can watch the Harpo Films/Your Face Goes Here Entertainment/Cine Mosaic production of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tonight, April 22, 2017, on HBO at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT, or during additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead. Also look for it on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals. –Judith Trojan

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