Octopus Is People Pleaser on PBS Nature and in Oscar-winning Documentary

They may have been miscast in the movies, but, in real life, they're smart, social and sassy! See why in OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT on PBS NATURE and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER on Netflix. Photo ©Minden Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo.

They may have been miscast in the movies, but, in real life, they’re smart, social and sassy! See why in OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT on PBS NATURE and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER on Netflix. Photo ©Minden Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo.

“What would I find out if I invited an octopus into my home?”Professor David Scheel, Alaska Pacific University.

Dr. David Scheel asked himself that question after spending more than two decades studying rare octopus species in remote regions around the world.  So the marine biologist decided that the time was right to move his work to a more hospitable environment closer to home… his living room.

Dr. Scheel’s unorthodox plan to observe an octopus up close and personal is documented in Octopus: Making Contact, a fascinating 2019 film set for rebroadcast on PBS NATURE tonight, Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.

If, like me, you’ve been known to grimace or cringe at the sight of an octopus and its eight suckered tentacles in aquariums or at fine dining establishments, I encourage you to give the creature a second chance.  I guarantee that after viewing Octopus: Making Contact and the Academy Award®-winning feature-length documentary, My Octopus Teacher, also covered in this review, you’ll never regard octopuses with a cringe or a grimace again… or, it turns out, you may hurt their feelings!

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observes Heidi, the day octopus, in his living room aquarium in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observes Heidi, the day octopus, in his living room aquarium in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Octopus: Making Contact, directed by Emmy® Award-winner Anna Fitch, has a lot to say about the sea animal’s built-in wow factor.  With the blessing of his 16-year-old daughter, Laurel, Dr. Scheel introduced a female day octopus into a large salt water tank situated in their Anchorage, Alaska, living room.  The Scheels named their new “pet,” Heidi, because she, like all octopuses, was a talented escape artist that could disappear into the tiniest cracks and crevices or creative camouflage at whim.

Heidi proved to be a quick study and a surprisingly social addition to the Scheel household.  Heidi engaged physically and emotionally with the Scheels as they fed and played with her.  She was clearly excited to see them come through the front door, which was visible from the tank as was the family’s TV, which Heidi watched over Laurel’s shoulder.

Laurel Scheel and Heidi, the octopus, bonding in her family living room in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Laurel Scheel and Heidi, the octopus, bonding in her family living room in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

There was little that Heidi didn’t miss or respond to.  Heidi’s curiosity and lack of shyness when it came to interacting with the Scheels enabled them to experience her transformative physical beauty and agility, extraordinary intelligence and problem-solving and social skills firsthand from a front row seat in their living room.

“Octopuses followed a different evolutionary path than other intelligent animals on this planet,” said Dr. Scheel in retrospect. “I’m less intrigued by the differences and more interested in our similarities.  It’s been a privilege to have a relationship with such a strange and wonderful creature.”

Once you’ve been charmed by the film’s offbeat premise and outstanding cinematography, the latter a refreshing trademark of films produced for the PBS NATURE series, I highly recommend that you follow Octopus: Making Contact with a screening of the 2021 Oscar®-winning Best Feature Documentary, My Octopus Teacher, now available for streaming via its co-producer Netflix.  But be forewarned:  Keep a box of Kleenex handy!

My Octopus Teacher

With its breathtaking cinematography, evocative music and insightful narration by the film’s human protagonist, filmmaker Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher is worth every film award, critical accolade and audience huzzah it generated during its original theatrical release in late 2020.  It’s an exploration of one man’s remarkable relationship with a young octopus in her own turf… a mystical kelp forest along the Cape Town coastline in South Africa.

The 85-minute chronicle of Craig Foster’s life-altering return to the kelp forest that he enjoyed exploring as a youngster was stunningly filmed by avid divers Pippa Ehrlich, Roger Horrocks and Foster himself.  Numbed by career burnout and malaise, his restorative daily dives would soon center on one solitary female octopus whose life story literally played out in front of his eyes, ears and camera lens.

“Unknowingly, I had met the greatest teacher of my life, a young female common octopus, Octopus vulgaris,” recalled Craig Foster. “I visited her den every day for weeks.  After a few months, she gradually realized that I posed no threat, and she began to trust me.  I was allowed into her wild inner world and felt as though an ancient door to nature had been opened to me.”

As Foster’s year-long journey to enlightenment unfolds in the Great African Seaforest, we are witness to the blossoming bond that develops between Foster and his resilient, brave, inquisitive, tender and, above all, super intelligent octopus pal. The film documents her savvy ability to trap her prey, dodge predators, cope with fear and physical trauma, mate, and creatively contort and camouflage her boneless body and change the color and texture of her skin to match her surroundings.

Craig Foster’s octopus pal shows him around her neighborhood in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. Photo courtesy Netflix.

Craig Foster’s octopus pal shows him around her neighborhood in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. Photo courtesy Netflix.

“I started to wonder how octopuses experience time,” said Foster.  “Their time is not like ours; one of her months is equivalent to almost five years of my life.  Each moment spent with her as she guided me around our forest was deeply precious to me.”

My Octopus Teacher is chockablock with awe-inspiring beauty, drama, suspense and heart-tugging emotion.  I can’t imagine anyone not being moved when the octopus reaches out to connect with Foster, at first with a tentative tentacle, then a playful snatch of his camera, and finally with a full body hug.  Her magnificence changed Foster’s life forever.

“She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other, especially wild creatures,” reflected Foster.  “That connection with an animal is absolutely mind blowing.  The boundaries seemed to dissolve.”

My Octopus Teacher is a must-see film about one of my favorite topics… our connection to every living being on this planet, and our responsibility to respect and treasure their singular attributes and protect their habitats, even if they live and look differently than we do.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER was filmed in the Great African Seaforest, a giant underwater forest that fringes the shores of Cape Town. Photo courtesy The Sea Change Project.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER was filmed in the Great African Seaforest, a giant underwater forest that fringes the shores of Cape Town. Photo courtesy The Sea Change Project.

“I think what’s powerful about the film is that there’s this big South African guy who is telling a deeply intimate story about an animal that is essentially a modified snail,” said co-director Pippa Ehrlich. “He takes us into this fragile creature’s world, and she transforms from an underwater alien into a protagonist that we can really relate to and care about.”

My Octopus Teacher is available for streaming from Netflix, which also offers subscribers the opportunity to host educational community screenings free-of-cost.  Check out the the Sea Change Project Website @ http://www.seachangeproject.com to find out more about the Netflix offer and the film’s supplemental discussion guide. The Sea Change Project was co-founded by the team responsible for My Octopus Teacher and is a collective of filmmakers, journalists, and scientists working to protect the Great African Seaforest and study and film the lives of kelp forest animals. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street Bows on HBO

“We don’t play down to kids.  We just have a very short audience.”Joe Raposo, Sesame Street composer.

There are few more pleasurable strolls than the one kids take every day down Sesame Street.  Since its debut on public TV on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street immediately put a new face on preschool education. Under the auspices of the nonprofit educational organization, Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), its staff of visionary educators, programmers, writers, performers, puppeteers, filmmakers, designers and composers were encouraged from the start to experiment and redefine the scope of educational TV.

Thanks to director Marilyn Agrelo’s delightful new feature-length documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, we get a chance to travel back in time to witness the show’s seminal first two decades, meet its tireless creative team (flesh and felt) and bask in the sheer joy of their journey.

On the heels of its popular festival and theatrical release earlier this year, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT. (See below for complete screening and streaming info.)

Joan Ganz Cooney and her SESAME STREET pals. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Joan Ganz Cooney and her SESAME STREET pals. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Inspired by Michael Davis’s New York Times best seller, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, the film deftly incorporates vintage behind-the-scenes clips, interviews filmed specifically for this project and those culled from archival footage to introduce the players who tackled major roles in this wildly innovative experiment, from concept development through production.

Key to this story are Children’s Television Workshop co-founders: documentary film producer Joan Ganz Cooney and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett.  Ms. Ganz Cooney quickly became the public face and driving force behind the project.

Joan Ganz Cooney recalls the early skepticism she encountered as she challenged tired, old-school perceptions of children’s TV.  As a woman dodging sexism in the male-dominated field of broadcasting in the late 1960’s, she jokes that she couldn’t be sidelined because she carried the project’s entire concept in her head.  She’s featured here at length, as are the pivotal contributions of the show’s dedicated producer/director Jon Stone and Muppets’ creator/puppeteer Jim Henson.

Others instrumental in originating the cast of characters and ambiance on the street were the actors and actresses, who discuss the importance of their racially and culturally diverse roles, as well as such prominent creatives as composer Joe Raposo, writer/composer Christopher Cerf, and puppeteer Caroll (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch) Spinney.

“We all felt lucky to be a part of the exciting new adventure,” recalled Bob McGrath, the multi-talented performer who originated the beloved character of Bob on the show.

Master puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a ball with best buds Ernie and Bert on SESAME STREET.  Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Master puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a ball with best buds Ernie and Bert on SESAME STREET.  Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Originally earmarked for inner city preschoolers, ages 3-5, most especially children of color, Sesame Street had immediate cross-over appeal.  Through the artful use of puppets, animation and live-action sequences, the show blurred ethnic, racial, gender and income barriers to encourage all children, no matter what their backgrounds, to develop the skills and attitudes they needed to live happy, productive lives.

Far exceeding anyone’s expectations, Sesame Street quickly set a new standard for children’s TV programming.  Three months into its first season, studies determined that regular viewers were already testing higher than non-viewers, especially those who watched the show with their parents.  Apparently, preschoolers were learning their letters and numbers and, consequently, how to read at younger ages due, in large part, to the innovative programming they enjoyed on Sesame Street.

According to master puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who originated the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the show and played them for 49 years until his retirement in 2018, Sesame Street‘s appeal to parents was also key to its success from the start.

“I think that part of the genius of the creation of the show was that it was important that grown-ups enjoy it, too,” said Spinney.  “Because if they liked it, it was more apt that the show was going to be turned on and not tuned to some other station.”

Oscar the Grouch and his right hand man, master puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO.

Oscar the Grouch and his right hand man, master puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO.

If you’re as big a fan of Kermit and the Muppets as I am, you’ll relish the chronicle of Kermit’s evolution and you’ll enjoy the hilarious repartee, on and off script, between Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s dynamic duo, Bert and Ernie.  Sweet interludes between nonpro kids and the Muppets will touch your heart, as will Joe Raposo’s charming recollection of composing Kermit’s signature song, “Being Green.”

And you might want to keep a box of Kleenex handy as the film revisits “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” the 1983 Thanksgiving Day episode when Big Bird, age 6, learned of Mr. Hooper’s death, and seven years later when Big Bird sang a poignant rendition of “Being Green” during Jim Henson’s funeral.

From its initial broadcast on some 170 stations, Sesame Street has expanded its reach worldwide, now airing in more than 150 countries and embracing an ever-growing line of ancillary curriculum-based materials produced to educate, entertain and support the content of the show.  Sesame Street‘s Website http://www.sesamestreet.org  provides child and parent friendly activities, videos and games that extend the show’s shelf-life by engaging kids interactively.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.  I encourage you not to miss it! –Judith Trojan

Posted in Books, Cable, Education, Film, Puppetry, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

My Life as a Turkey Makes Timely Return to PBS Nature

The year-long parenting experiment of wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in 1991 has been dramatically recreated in the marvelous PBS film, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY, starring Jeff Palmer.  Photo © David Allen.

The year-long parenting experiment of wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in 1991 has been dramatically recreated in the marvelous PBS film, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY, starring Jeff Palmer.  Photo © David Allen.

“I realized that this was going to be a very personal, emotional ride for me, and not just a science experiment.”Joe Hutto, wildlife artist & naturalist.

What better way to usher in the Thanksgiving holiday than with a film about one man’s remarkable relationship with a clutch of young turkeys…the wild kind that is, not their farm-raised cousins served up on a platter for Thanksgiving dinner.

I’ve always loved films featuring the work of Jane Goodall and others who share her passion to protect, rehabilitate and bond with endangered wildlife.  My Life as a Turkey takes a more unorthodox dive into that milieu…one that began with a gamble and ended as a touching family saga.  As fresh and timely as it was when it debuted on PBS in 2011, the film returns to PBS NATURE tonight, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.

Based on the true story documented by wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in a journal that subsequently became a book, the film recreates the year (1991) that Joe spent “parenting” more than a dozen wild turkey hatchlings in the terrain surrounding his isolated cabin in the Florida Panhandle.  As portrayed in the film by Jeff Palmer, Joe Hutto is a sensitive loner who parlayed his fascination with imprinting and the wild turkeys that populated the region into a transformative life experience.

Jeff Palmer (Joe Hutto) and a fellow performer during the filming of Joe Hutto's real life saga, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY. Photo © David Allen.

Jeff Palmer (Joe Hutto) and a fellow performer during the filming of Joe Hutto’s real life saga, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY. Photo © David Allen.

A bowl full of abandoned turkey eggs, an incubator, and Joe’s knack for “talking turkey” to the eggs and, Voila!, more than 20 baby chicks emerged from their shells, made eye contact and instantly bonded with their new “mom” and protector, Joe Hutto!   Joe was hooked, but he had no idea what it would take to single parent this brood of dependent chicks through the most difficult transitions of their first year.

“I’m ignorant about being a turkey mother,” Hutto lamented.  But his learning curve was swift.

The imprinted chicks were relentlessly needy.  They wanted to cuddle.  They followed him over hill and dale to explore the terrain and hunt for food.  He followed them into their pen every night and sat with them until they fell asleep.  He worried about predators and strange diseases that struck when he least expected it.

It was a grueling parenting gig, but one that enlightened him about the birds’ surprising intelligence, innate survival instincts, emotional attachments and distinctive personalities.  Joe even named a few.  The tiniest of the lot, Sweet Pea, loved to be petted when she snuggled with him; and the boldest, Turkey Boy, briefly bonded with Joe like a brother.  But first feathers led to first flights.  Male-female shenanigans spurred fights for sexual dominance. And finally, like all cute kids, Joe’s turkeys grew up and flew the coop.  Off they went, for better or worse, leaving Joe with an empty nest and a broken heart.

On set in Central Florida during the filming of MY LIFE AS A TURKEY for the PBS NATURE series.  Photo © David Allen.

On set in Central Florida during the filming of MY LIFE AS A TURKEY for the PBS NATURE series.  Photo © David Allen.

Jeff Palmer’s understated performance as Joe Hutto, seasoned with Joe’s sensitive original journal musings and drawings, and highlighted by extraordinary nature footage all mesh marvelously to turn My Life as a Turkey into a touching evergreen family film that underscores not only how much we have to learn about species of wildlife that seem foreign to us but also the common threads that bind us as co-inhabitants of this planet.

Produced by David Allen and narrated by Joe Hutto, My Life as a Turkey is a production of Passion Pictures, THIRTEEN and the BBC in association with WNET New York Public Media.

The hour-long film will be rebroadcast on PBS tonight, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info, concurrent with broadcast; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.

And if you’re interested in finding out more about Joe Hutto’s backstory and his turkeys, check out his book, Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey (Lyons Press).  Happy Thanksgiving!–Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, Publishing, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

My Garden of a Thousand Bees Makes Buzzworthy Debut on PBS Nature

Gathering pollen from a dandelion, this Ashy Mining Bee is one of more than 60 species of wild bees found in Brit wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn's urban backyard garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

Gathering pollen from a dandelion, this Ashy Mining Bee is one of more than 60 species of wild bees found in Brit wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn’s urban backyard garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”–renowned landscape architect Elizabeth Lawrence.

As a kid, family gardens were my playground. What happy memories my cousins, friends and I forged among those beautiful flowers and that tasty vegetation. But frankly, we took it all for granted. I had no idea how much work it took for my grandparents to maintain their robust crop of vegetables, flowers, fruit trees and vines, or my mom to plant, weed and water her lovely flowers year after year.

The only downside?  Bees!  They were not to be messed with. We had no idea that those stinging pests were not pests at all. They worked as hard or harder than my grandparents and parents to preserve the gardens we loved.

Now, I’m an avid gardener and am proud that my garden is buzzworthy.  I weed and prune surrounded by bees that used to terrify me.  On any given day in my garden, bees outnumber birds, butterflies, bunnies and groundhog Bob and his buddies, all of whom seem to enjoy snacking there.  Sadly, as an adult living in the 21st century, I have to face the fact that the worldwide honey bee population is dwindling due to parasitic and toxic chemical overload; and that without bees, our gardens, crops and planet would be toast.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that “Honey bees pollinate 80% of the U.S. insect crops–over $20 billion worth of crops each year.”  Albert Einstein once predicted, “No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Martin Dohrn filming bees in his garden in Bristol, UK. Photo courtesy Hugh Campbell/©Passion Planet.

Martin Dohrn filming bees in his garden in Bristol, UK. Photo courtesy Hugh Campbell/©Passion Planet.

British photographer Martin Dohrn was accustomed to travelling the world, capturing the comings and goings of a wide array of wildlife on film.  But when COVID-19 deemed his canvas off-limits, he was confined to his home in Bristol, England.  Like many of us…me included…he turned to his backyard garden for solace.  It worked for me, and it sure worked for him.

His tiny, wildly unmanicured urban garden not only served as a much needed oasis for Dohrn and his family, but also provided a fascinating new focus for his work.  His garden was home to more than 60 species of wild bees, and Dohrn decided to tell their story.

Martin Dohrn’s breathtaking bee footage and charming narrative grace the Season 40 opener of the PBS Nature series.  My Garden of a Thousand Bees premieres tonight, Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check  local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.

A Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) enjoys a forget-me-not in Martin Dohrn's garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

A Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) enjoys a forget-me-not in Martin Dohrn’s garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

During the Spring 2020 COVID lockdown, Martin Dohrn unapologetically became enamoured with bees, perhaps the most difficult critters in any landscape to film. Their size and speed initially stymied Dohrn, but his determination to get up close and personal with his wild backyard bee buddies (more than 60 species!) paid off.  Dohrn literally rebuilt his extensive camera equipment on his kitchen table to meet the challenge.

Thanks to Dohrn’s patience and enhanced equipment, he was not only able to close in on the common bumblebee, eyeball to eyeball, but individuals of other unique bee species as well.  At first, Dohrn’s amazing close-ups may conjure up memories of those huge, scary faux Hollywood insects popular on screen in the 1950s.  But soon, you’ll marvel at the amount of detail Dohrn was able to record, including the sight and sound of bee wings flapping (they sound like helicopters!).

Dohrn misses nothing in Bee City, as he calls it.  From tunnel scouting and nest building, mating and egg laying, pollen collecting and tackling marauding bee opportunists and arch enemies like wasps and spiders, it’s clear that the short life of a bee is filled with high drama.  And much of it occurs in crevices, holes and tunnels.  In fact, Dohrn became so entranced with his backyard bee community that he embellished their habitats with additional holes, and soon began to identify and follow specific individuals.  One bee, whom he called Nicky for her nicked wing, even seemed to recognize him and allow him to film her without buzzing off.

British wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn comes face-to-face with his backyard obsession, bees! Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

British wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn comes face-to-face with his backyard obsession, bees! Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

“My hope is that Martin Dohrn’s emotional connection with the bees in his garden will resonate and lead to a new appreciation for these vital insects,” said Fred Kaufman, executive producer for #NaturePBS.

Thanks to Martin Dohrn and his determination to shine a light on bees’ complex lives and importance to our  ultimate well-being, I guarantee that after watching Nature: My Garden of a Thousand Bees, you’ll never take them for granted again.

Directed by David Allen, Nature: My Garden of a Thousand Bees is a production of Passion Planet, The WNET group and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios in association with Ammonite Films.  The film premieres on PBS tonight, Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info, concurrent with broadcast; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, Science, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rita Moreno Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It Debuts on PBS

Legendary actress, singer, dancer RITA MORENO. Photo courtesy Austin Hargrave.

“I always wanted to be a movie star.”–Rita Moreno.

Rita Moreno’s dreams of movie stardom did come true, and then some. A boatload of prestigious awards and honors continues to replenish her trophy shelf and cap her amazing 70-year career, including an EGOT–she is the rare performer and the first Latina to have won an Emmy (2!), Grammy, Oscar and Tony. But it sure wasn’t easy.

Rita Moreno, feisty and fabulous at 87, recounts the highs and lows of her personal life and remarkable career in Mariem Pérez Riera’s delightful new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It.  Following its successful theatrical run earlier this year, the 90-minute film debuts on the Award-winning PBS American Masters series tonight, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET (Check local listings and below for streaming info).

Culture shock best describes five-year-old Rita Moreno’s transition from her humble Puerto Rican farming community to Manhattan’s racially and ethnically insular neighborhoods.  After immigrating to NYC with her seamstress mom, Moreno studied dance and soon performed in clubs as a young teen to pay the rent.  A Hollywood talent agent spotted her at one of her dance recitals and arranged a meeting with powerful MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. With contract in hand, the young Hollywood hopeful headed West, determined to become a star like her idol, Elizabeth Taylor.

Rita Moreno during her grueling rehearsals for WEST SIDE STORY (1961). Photo courtesy MGM Media Licensing.

Rita Moreno during her grueling rehearsals for WEST SIDE STORY (1961). Photo courtesy MGM Media Licensing.

Mayer took one look at the 16-year-old Latina Liz Taylor wannabe and rubber-stamped her casting in an endless stream of sexy generic ethnic minority roles.  Like many young women in the industry, then and now, she was also targeted by the lascivious white, male film titans and flacks who ran the show in mid-century Hollywood.  Yes, she was propositioned by Hollywood heavyweights, tragically assaulted by her agent and pigeonholed into stereotypic ethnic and indigenous character roles dumbed down with muddy make-up, obscure accents and dire fates; but Rita Moreno persevered.

“Rita is an incredible inspiration … hers is a success story for all women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves with courage and bravery against heavy odds,” said director Mariem Pérez Riera.

A night to remember! April 9, 1962. Winners of the 1961 Academy Awards® for Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno) and Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) for their performances in WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of Everett Collection.

Moreno built her career in small roles on the big screen, culminating with her breakthrough performance and historic 1961 Oscar® win for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story.  When the substantial film roles she coveted still passed her by, she segued to PBS, cable, Broadway and Netflix, where she continues to thrive.

Pérez Riera jampacks Moreno’s profile with an impressive line-up of notable film pros, cultural historians and celebrated Latinx performers who speak to the star’s barrier-breaking influence across the board in the entertainment industry and beyond.

But fasten your seatbelts!   Rita Moreno is by far the liveliest on-camera participant here, there and everywhere as she revisits the good, the bad and the ugly influences and influencers that shaped her life and career. In the mix are her beloved daughter and grandsons; the husband who adored her; the toxic relationship with Marlon Brando; the racist discrimination; the rape, suicide attempt and botched abortion.  Also noteworthy is her decades long, off-screen role as an outspoken Civil Rights and Women’s Rights’ activist.

Rita Moreno’s co-stars in Norman Lear’s Latinx reboot of ONE DAY AT A TIME. From lower left: Justina Machado, Isabella Gomez, Rita Moreno and Marcel Ruiz. Photo courtesy Everett Collection Inc/Alamy.

Glorious clips from Moreno’s feature film, TV and cable performances remind us of the wide range of iconic characters she originated, including Anita in West Side Story, Sister Pete on HBO’s Oz, and family matriarch Lydia in Norman Lear’s 2017-2020 Latinx reboot of One Day at a Time (Netflix/Pop TV). Especially dear to her heart is her character work with Jim Henson and The Muppets and five-year stint on The Electric Company.

Rita Moreno travels full circle and returns to the big screen as Valentina, a character reimagined just for her in Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated remake of West Side Story.  She also serves as Executive Producer. The film opens on December 10, 2021.

“I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever met in the business who lived the American dream more than Rita Moreno,” said Norman Lear.

And I can’t think of a better, more spirit boosting film than Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It. Going forward, it will definitely fit the bill in college and university classrooms and library and community programs focusing on Latinx culture and film history, systemic racism, and women’s issues, especially those related to the #MeToo movement.

RITA MORENO always knew where she was going. Right to the top! Photo courtesy of Thirteen.

A production of American Masters Pictures and Act III in association with Maramara Films and Artemis Rising Foundation, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It debuts on the PBS American Masters series tonight, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air dates and repeat broadcasts in your region. It will be available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org/ritamoreno, the PBS Video App and PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan 

Posted in Film, Theater, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

New PBS Doc Profiles 7 Young Adults Who Lost Dads on 9/11

Photo courtesy Arrow International Media.

Photo courtesy Arrow International Media.

“My father was a firefighter on 9/11.  I never met him.”Megan Fehling, born October 2001.

September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Sadly, the number of casualties continues to grow.  9/11 First Responders have faced chronic illness and many have succumbed to cancer. And those who lost loved ones continue to carry the debilitating burden of grief.

Generation 9/11, directed by documentarian Liz Mermin and produced for PBS by a Brit-based team helmed by Emmy®-winner John Smithson, zeroes in on a unique population tragically affected by the 9/11 debacle. Among the victims of the terrorist attacks were 105 expectant fathers. The two-hour film introduces us to six of their children, born after the death of their dads.  The seventh was a toddler who had yet to meet his dad at the time of his death.

Generation 9/11 debuts on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for streaming info.)

Young Nick Gorki at the 9/11 Memorial site in NYC honoring his dad, Sebasian Gorki. Photo courtesy of the Gorki family.

I was anxious to meet the seven young people profiled in this film. Born at the dawn of the 21st century, these culturally diverse young men and women, now 20-year olds and counting, don’t disappoint. Their stories contribute much needed  perspective to post 9/11 media coverage.

Megan Fehling’s firefighter dad was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, leaving a pregnant wife behind. Nick Gorki’s mother, Paula, worked in the South Tower. On 9/11, her morning sickness made her late to work; but her partner, Nick’s expectant dad Sebastian, had an unexpected meeting in the South Tower and did not survive. Fares Malahi was three in September 2001, living in Yemen with his older brother and mother while awaiting their U.S. visas. Fares never met his father, Abdu, who was working as an AV engineer at the Marriott in downtown Manhattan and died helping guests evacuate the hotel.

Ronald Milam, Jr., modeling as a youngster. Photo courtesy of the Milam family.

Ronald Milam, Jr.’s parents both served in the military and were working at the Pentagon on 9/11 on opposite sides of the building. After Ronald Sr. was killed, Ronald’s mother left the Army and moved the family to Texas. Dina Retik’s father was a venture capitalist and a passenger on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11. Claudia Szurkowski’s father worked for the union of painters and wallpaper hangers in the North Tower on 9/11. Luke Taylor’s father, Lt. Colonel Kip Taylor, died in the Pentagon attack.  Luke’s mom passed away of cancer two years later.

Their lives may have begun on a horrific note, but their reflections, in retrospect, are surprisingly stoic.  As babies and toddlers, they were oblivious to why and how they lost their dads.  Some of their moms remarried, had more babies and, overall, the youngsters welcomed their new siblings and stepdads.  How do you miss someone you never met?  They adapted, and lived the hand they were dealt.

Their insights and those of their moms, stepparents and siblings are embellished with extensive period photos, home movies and media footage spotlighting various family, sports, and educational milestones, as well as the trajectory of 9/11 and the anniversaries that have commemorated it.

Claudia Szurkowski has family in Poland. Photo courtesy of the Szurkowski family.

That these young people grew up to be seemingly healthy, well-adjusted young adults during a 20-year period when our political, cultural, racial, environmental and global climate was anything but healthy and stable is pretty amazing.  Of course, as a young black man, Ronald, and his mom fear the ever-present threat of racist policing.  And Fares, who did know his dad, at least from afar, faces discrimination due to his ethnicity and sadly seems to have struggled to gain a footing in America.

Generation 9/11 is engaging when it focuses directly on the seven young people and their personal journeys. Clips of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are clearly relevant to their stories. But attempts to broaden the film’s reach by piggybacking such topical hot button issues as Black Lives Matter, school shootings, the Capitol riot, the pandemic, climate change and Trump vs. Biden are clumbsy and distracting.

Fares Malahi spent his first three years in Yemen, never meeting his dad who worked and died in NYC on 9/11. Photo courtesy of the Malahi Family.

It’s at times like this that I remember how much I miss the late, great British filmmaker, Michael Apted (the brilliant director of the 7 Up documentary series).  How wonderful to imagine Apted’s take on the seven young people profiled in Generation 9/11. He would have followed them every seven years, in successive films, focusing squarely on their personal hopes, dreams, loves and loss, and the psycho-social issues that impacted them individually at those specific ages. Parameters matter!!

Instead, Generation 9/11 is an overlong film that covers 20 years in their lives… and frankly, ours too (via the inclusion of ongoing national and international issues facing all of us).  It bites off more than it can chew. Hopefully, the press screener that I viewed has been fine-tuned before broadcast.

Generation 9/11 will have potential in high school, university and college classrooms and counseling programs dealing with grief recovery, family trauma, single parenting, and, of course, post-9/11 studies.

Generation 9/11 premieres on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including www.pbs.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mare of Easttown Nabs 16 Emmy Nods and an Upcoming HBO Marathon

“I had a very specific vision. I wanted to tell a story about home and the people I grew up with and yet make it entertaining and wrap a mystery around it.”Brad Ingelsby, screenwriter and creator, Mare of Easttown.

The lifelong friendship between Lori (Julianne Nicholson) and Mare (Kate Winslet) is shaken to its core in HBO'S MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

The lifelong friendship between Lori (Julianne Nicholson) and Mare (Kate Winslet) is shaken to its core in HBO’S MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Brad Ingelsby, the Emmy®-nominated creator and screenwriter of the HBO limited series, Mare of Easttown, didn’t have to dig too deeply to recreate the Central PA working-class milieu that drives the series’ gripping family drama and murder mystery.  He grew up in the vicinity.

A microcosm of small town, blue collar America, Easttown, PA, is awash with vintage row houses, cookie cutter mid-century split levels and neighborhood bars. The distinctive dialect, deeply rooted Catholicism and faded memories of past basketball triumphs forever bind the town’s citizenry. The abduction of two young women and the murder of another open a Pandora’s box of long-standing secrets and lies that threaten to upend the town’s faux complacency–familial depression and suicide, teen pregnancy and prostitution, rape and marital infidelity–much of it tragically fueled by drug and alcohol abuse.

Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) must come to terms with her own family tragedies before she can solve a township murder and double abduction in HBO's MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) must come to terms with her own family tragedies before she can solve a township murder and double abduction in HBO’s MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Following in the footsteps of her beloved dad, seasoned Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is theoretically positioned to save the day. But she is deadened by grief over the suicides of her dad and son and fearful of losing custody of her tiny grandson. As she slowly works to overcome her demons, her skills as a detective begin to shine through. The seven episode series builds in intensity as Mare and her affable colleague, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), investigate the murder and double abduction.

This is powerful stuff.  It’s a rare and welcome family drama and murder mystery focusing on flawed, resilient three-dimensional characters, most especially women, who as friends, lovers, mothers and daughters of all ages carry the ball to the finish line.

Mare Sheehan and her mom, Helen (Jean Smart), have a lot of weighty family baggage to unpack in HBO's MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Mare Sheehan and her mom, Helen (Jean Smart), have a lot of weighty family baggage to unpack in HBO’s MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen female relationships more sensitively rendered on screen.  It’s moving to watch the interplay between Mare (Kate Winslet) and her childhood friends, especially her best friend, Lori (Julianne Nicholson); Mare and her sassy mom, Helen (Jean Smart); Mare and her grandson’s troubled young mom, Carrie (Sosie Bacon); and Mare and her college bound daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), whose lesbianism is refreshingly never an issue.  I truly hope that these women (the characters and the actresses who play them) will return to Easttown  and HBO for a second season.

Mare of Easttown is destined to have a long shelf life in college and university classrooms and grief and drug counseling programs, as well as in film screenwriting, directing and acting classes. The series has been nominated for 16 well-deserved Emmy® Awards, including series creator/screenwriter Brad Ingelsby, director Craig Zobel, and four of the series’ actors–Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart and Evan Peters.

Although the drama debuted in April and May 2021, you can catch a marathon rebroadcast of HBO’s seven-part series Mare of Easttown today, Saturday, August 14, 2021, from 12 Noon – 6:00 p.m. ET/PT. The series is also available on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. Be sure not to miss it! –Judith Trojan

And the Winners Are…

Mare of Easttown swept the 73rd Annual Emmy® Awards in the “Acting in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie 2021” categories on Sunday, September 19, 2021:  Outstanding Lead Actress (Kate Winslet). Outstanding Supporting Actor (Evan Peters). Outstanding Supporting Actress (Julianne Nicholson).  Mare of Easttown also won Emmys for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (one hour or more).  Bravo, Mare!–Judith Trojan 

Posted in Cable, Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Super Hummingbirds Fly Again on PBS Nature

A Chestnut-breasted Coronet Hummingbird sips nectar from a flower in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

A Chestnut-breasted Coronet Hummingbird sips nectar from a flower in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

“It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.”–Aesop.

I love birds… and have loved them since I bonded with my chatty, cuddly (yes, cuddly!) little parakeet pal as a kid.  I also love gardening.

I weathered “pandemic isolation” by building a wildlife-friendly habitat in my backyard.  It’s amazing how much pleasure you can derive watching birds of various shapes, sizes and personalities feeding and nest building in your garden and jockeying for a cooling drink or a splash in an inviting birdbath. The list is endless: bullying Blue Jays, docile Doves, sweet-natured Robins, bonded Cardinals and loquacious Mockingbirds.  The daily show at their spa (my garden birdbath!) is a priceless lesson in interspecies conflict resolution, and the melodious summertime serenade that Mr. Mockingbird performs 24-hours-a-day sure beats the sound of silence during a pandemic shutdown.

Bird-watching was already on my radar four years ago when I previewed Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum’s 2016 documentary, Super Hummingbirds. The hour-long film, her second film featuring these dazzling, tiny creatures, returns tonight in a welcome rebroadcast on the Award-winning PBS series, Nature.

A production  of Coneflower Productions and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, Nature: Super Hummingbirds makes its return visit on PBS tonight, Wednesday, July 14, 2021 (8:00-9:00 p.m. ET).  Check  local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.

A Green-crowned Brilliant Hummingbird guards his turf as another hungry hummer interloper tries to take a sip of precious nectar. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

A Green-crowned Brilliant Hummingbird guards his turf as another hungry hummer interloper tries to take a sip of precious nectar. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

If you live in the Americas and have a flower garden or have passed through one at some point in your life, you’ve possibly met up with one or two hummers.  However, they move so fast and are so small (the world’s smallest birds!), chances are you were unaware of their presence.  That is unless you’ve mounted a specially designed hummer feeder outside your window.

Thanks to the marvels of high-speed photography, Super Hummingbirds literally brings us eye-to-eye with various colorful species of hummingbirds, a rare occurrence in everyday life. We are privy to their intimate mating, birthing, nest-building and parenting rituals, as well as their amazing aerial feats. They can fly backwards, upside down and hover in mid-air, with wing speeds of up to 80 times per second.

The film also introduces the work being done with hummingbirds by ornithologists, behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists based at such institutions as UC Berkeley, the University of New Mexico and Cornell.  Marvelous footage highlights hummingbird feeding studies conducted by Dr. Alejandro Rico-Guevara in  Colombia; the astounding hummer high altitude oxygen comparables tabulated in the Peruvian Andes by Dr. Christopher Witt; and the flashy hummer mating dances  filmed by Dr. Marcelo Araya-Salas in the Costa Rican rain forest.

 

Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Joseph Sinnott/©2016 THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC.

Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Joseph Sinnott/©2016 THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC.

Fast, feisty and focused on fueling up at the nearest nectar-rich flower, hummingbirds may be small, but their high-energy lifestyle makes extraordinary demands on their tiny bodies. Hence, their waking, sleep and feeding cycles are unique to the species and quite remarkable. Significant pollinators (pollen sticks to their heads as they hover and draw nectar from flowers), hummingbirds are also noteworthy for their adaptability to new terrain, climates and altitudes.

Super Hummingbirds will introduce you to tiny, breathtakingly beautiful, ever-evolving creatures that defy categorization. Even if you’re not an avian aficionado, I encourage you to take a step outside your comfort zone and catch the rebroadcast of Nature: Super Hummingbirds on PBS tonight, Wednesday, July 14, 2021 (8:00-9:00 p.m. ET).  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Returns with Gripping New Episode

Journalist and true crime sleuth MICHELLE McNAMARA (1970-2016) first became obsessed with solving unsolved violent crimes as a teenager in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper class enclave harboring a backlog of cold case rapes and murders. Photo courtesy HBO.

Journalist and true crime sleuth MICHELLE McNAMARA (1970-2016) first became obsessed with solving unsolved violent crimes as a teenager in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper class enclave harboring a backlog of cold case rapes and murders. Photo courtesy HBO.

“A violent crime never ends with a victim. A singular act reverberates, its wounds appearing in other people, sometimes months and years later. The pain ricochets.”Michelle McNamara.

Nothing fascinates me more than twisty murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. Binging on smart fiction and nonfiction PBS and HBO whodunits helped me survive the pandemic shutdown and take a much-needed break from the political horror show playing out on the news every night.  One welcome discovery was Michelle McNamara, the author and journalist, and one of the most dogged online true crime junkies whose blog, TrueCrimeDiary.comchronicled her obsession with solving unsolved crimes.

During the 1970’s and ’80s, roughly about the same time serial killer Ted Bundy was on the prowl in the Pacific Northwest, a string of idiosyncratic home burglaries, 50 brutal home invasion rapes and 12 murders were terrorizing clusters of low-crime neighborhoods in Northern and Southern California.  Dubbed variously as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Raper (EAR), the Original Night Stalker (ONS) and the Golden State Killer, the predator or predators stymied original investigators who failed to link cases occurring beyond their jurisdictions. The cases went cold, and 37 boxes of case files were stockpiled and forgotten.

Left behind were a long list of traumatized survivors–those who were brutally raped as teenagers and young women; the parents, spouses and children of those women; the families and friends of the men and women who were murdered; the detectives who failed them–and the amateur and professional sleuths who kept the EAR/ONS cases alive in online chat rooms and crime blogs.

Michelle McNamara's compulsion to reopen cold case rapes and murders eventually took a toll on her health, but resulted in the capture and conviction of the Golden State Killer. Photo courtesy HBO.

Michelle McNamara’s compulsion to reopen cold case rapes and murders eventually took a toll on her health, but resulted in the capture and conviction of the Golden State Killer. Photo courtesy HBO.

Michelle McNamara was determined to bring the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EAR/ONS), whom she dubbed the “Golden State Killer,” to justice and assure closure for the rape victims, their families and the families of the murder victims.  She began building bridges with the EAR/ONS victims, many of whom had never even shared their stories with their closest friends and families (rape victims were systematically marginalized by the criminal justice system in the 1970’s and ’80s).  Disturbing patterns emerged through her research, connecting the burglaries, rapes and murders in disparate California communities to a single perpetrator.  McNamara was hooked.

You can revisit the backstory of the case and McNamara’s obsession with it in my lengthy June 28, 2020 piece in FrontRowCenter– I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Makes Chilling Debut on HBO.  Based on her best-selling book of the same name, the gripping six-part HBO series documents the roadblocks she faced in her efforts to right a boatload of horrific wrongs perpetrated almost a half century ago and left unpunished. Did she, in fact, fulfill her dream to bring the diabolically evil perpetrator out of the shadows of time, enabling his victims and the criminal justice system to finally see him, as she had hoped to see him, in the light of day–old and powerless?

Thankfully, the filmmakers responsible for the original series, including Award-winning documentarians Liz Garbus and Elizabeth Wolff, answer that question and bring closure to a community of survivors in a new hour-long HBO film, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face, that I encourage you not to miss.  It also opens a window on an unsolved rape and murder case that first intrigued Michelle McNamara as a teenager in her privileged hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, June 21, 2021, 10:00 -11:00 p.m. ET/PT (see below for complete screening and streaming details for the new episode and the original series).

Unlike other young couples savagely attacked during home invasions and rapes by the Golden State Killer in the 1970's and '80s, Gay and Bob Hardwick managed to sustain their marriage and heal. Photo courtesy HBO.

Unlike other young couples savagely attacked during home invasions and rapes by the Golden State Killer in the 1970’s and ’80s, Gay and Bob Hardwick managed to sustain their marriage and heal. Photo courtesy HBO.

This new episode brings us face to face with the Golden State Killer, former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, as he plays the physical and mental “incompetence card” to no avail and is sentenced to life in prison several times over without parole for the 50 home invasion rapes and dozen murders he committed during his reign of terror in the 1970’s and ’80s in California.

Several of the sociopath’s victims and their family members are reintroduced here as they convene with others for DeAngelo’s public sentencing hearing in August 2020.  We are privy to their powerful survivor impact statements spoken directly to wheelchair-confined DeAngelo.  He acknowledges his guilt to each individual charge and makes a blanket apology to his victims.  Michelle McNamara may not have lived to see this day (she passed away in 2016); but her determination to solve the case made DeAngelo’s capture and his victims’ closure possible.

As with the original six episodes of the series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face is riveting.  The hour-long film seamlessly updates the case history, its resolution and the emotional scars that remain.  It closes one chapter in McNamara’s investigative work, but introduces yet another pivotal cold case that she credited with igniting her lifelong obsession with unsolved murders:  the 1984 rape and murder of Kathleen Lombardo in McNamara’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.

Although she was only 14 at the time, McNamara felt compelled to visit the crime scene.  Its impact was life-changing.  She returned to her hometown in 2013 to revisit the case and was immediately drawn to the ineptitude of the original investigation and missed connections between similar cases in the vicinity.

In 1982, teenager Grace Puccetti survived a brutal attack and rape in Oak Park, Illinois, two years before Kathy Lombardo was raped and murdered in the same vicinity.  Photo courtesy HBO.

In 1982, teenager Grace Puccetti survived a brutal attack and rape in Oak Park, Illinois, two years before Kathy Lombardo was raped and murdered in the same vicinity.  Photo courtesy HBO.

The filmmakers incorporate the late Michelle McNamara’s own archival research, voice recordings and interviews, most especially with Ms. Lombardo’s brother Chris, and another victim, Grace Puccetti, who survived a shockingly similar attack in the same vicinity just two years before Ms. Lombardo’s murder.  McNamara was unable to close this case before she died, but she incited like-minded community and family members to reopen the case and push for release of the evidence.

“Inside everyone lurks a Sherlock Holmes that believes that given the right clues, they could solve a mystery,” said Michelle McNamara.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face not only explores the long road that Joseph DeAngelo’s victims travelled toward healing… a journey that Michelle McNamara set in motion.  The film also opens a window on another cold case with wide reach that first captivated Michelle McNamara at 14 and remained an obsession until her untimely death at 46.  Hopefully, there will be additional “special episodes”  tracking new developments and a viable perpetrator in that case that will make the Oak Park victims, their survivors and McNamara’s unrequited dream come true.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, June 21, 2021, 10:00 -11:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability in tandem with the original 2020 six-episode series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Books, Cable, Film, Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments