Review: ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,’ starring Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Lloyd Morrisett

May 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.

Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.

Caroll Spinney in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.

The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.

But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.

And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.

The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.

“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.

Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.

Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”

At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.

And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.

Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”

One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.

Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”

Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.

In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.

The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.

Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.

Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”

The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.

After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”

Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”

Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”

During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”

Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.

Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.

Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”

Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.

Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”

The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”

Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”

Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”

Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.

Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.

In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”

Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.

Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)

And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.

“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.

Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on December 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Hero Dog: The Journey Home,’ starring Natasha Henstridge and Steve Byers

May 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Steve Byers in “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Hero Dog: The Journey Home”

Directed by Richard Boddington

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city in Ontario, the family drama “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” features a nearly all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A blind man who’s stranded on a boat with his sister’s dog decides the best way to get rescued is to walk through the woods with the hope that the dog will lead the way back home.

Culture Audience: “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a silly rescue film with terrible acting and a very predictable plot.

Morgan DiPietrantonio, Zackary Arthur, John Tench and Natasha Henstridge in “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Let’s say you’re a blind person with an Alaskan Malamute dog on a boat that’s crashed near a wooded area because the boat’s captain had a heart attack. You, the dog and the unconscious captain are the only living beings on the boat. The crashed boat can be seen by a rescue helicopter that’s sure to be on its way when you’ve been reported missing on the boat. Instead of waiting for the rescue helicopter, you decide to take the dog and walk through the dense woods (where you won’t be seen by the rescue helicopter) because you think the dog will lead you back to your home.

That’s the plot of the mind-numblingly awful “Hero Dog: The Journey Home,” written and directed by Richard Boddington. The movie is so bad that the only heroic thing that the dog does is show some common sense when the humans in the movie make very dumb decisions. Meanwhile, viewers who sit through this junkpile film will either laugh or groan as one absurd thing after another keeps happening. This pseudo-adventure movie really is as corny and stupid and you might think it is.

In “Hero Dog: The Journey Home,” Royce Davis (played by Steve Byers) is the protagonist who makes blind people look bad because the filmmakers want viewers to think that someone who doesn’t have eyesight also doesn’t have common sense. In the beginning of the film, Royce gets on a small boat captained by Fred Boggs (played by Colin Fox), who will be taking widower Royce back to Royce’s family home in the woods, in an unnamed rural part of Ontario, Canada.

Royce has an Alaskan Malamute seeing-eye male dog named Chinook with him on this boat trip. For reasons that aren’t clearly explained in the movie, the dog doesn’t belong to Royce. Instead, the dog belongs to his married sister Susan Wade (played by Natasha Henstridge), who has been taking care of Royce’s two kids while Royce was away on a trip. Apparently, the best way to get to the Davis family’s isolated home is by boat and then by taking a long trek through the woods.

The movie doesn’t say when Royce’s wife died, but his two children are 13-year-old Max Davis (played by Zackary Arthur) and Erin Davis (played by Morgan DiPietrantonio), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. During his conversation with Captain Boggs, Royce mentions that he got a job offer in the city, so the family will be moving there soon. However, Max isn’t too happy about this impending move because he’s an outdoorsy boy who loves the rural area where they currently live. Royce also tells Captain Boggs that he lost his eyesight at age 19, when he was blinded by a roadside bomb when he served in the Afghanistan War.

Not long after the boat sets sail, Captain Boggs has a heart attack, and the boat crashes near an embankment. The boat’s radio can only get static. Royce fumbles for his cell phone and can’t get a signal. Captain Boggs is still alive but unconscious, and Royce doesn’t know how much longer Captain Boggs has to live. Not knowing what to do, Royce waits in the boat until help can arrive. Food and bottled water are in the boat, so he and the dog have enough to survive for at least two days.

Meanwhile, Susan knows something is wrong when Royce doesn’t show up as scheduled, so she contacts the local authorites. Since it’s already night when she reports Royce missing, the police officer in charge, named Captain Walker (played by John Tench), tells Susan and the kids that the rescue operation can’t begin until the morning. Everyone in the family is naturally upset and panic-stricken.

Luckily for Royce, his boat is at an embankment that’s visible from the air. But the next morning, instead of waiting to be rescued, Royce says out loud that he needs to find his way back home so that Captain Boggs can get a chance to get medical help. Royce tells Chinook that they’re going to leave Captain Boggs in the boat and walk through the woods until they find their way back home. It’s at this point in the movie, viewers might be yelling at the screen at how moronic this decision is, but there would be no “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” if Royce acted sensibly in this story.

Before Royce leaves the safety of the boat, he leaves a note to say that he’s going back home. Instead of waiting to be rescued from a boat that can be seen by helicopter, Royce goes into the dense woods with Chinook where they can’t be seen by helicopter and where Royce could possibly fall down and hurt himself. And yes, that fall does happen in the movie. Viewers won’t have much sympathy for this dimwit when it happens.

Meanwhile, Max and Erin think they can do a better job than the adult professionals in finding Royce. And so, they both sneak off to go into the woods to find their father. At first, Erin is reluctant and thinks it’s a bad idea. But when she sees that Max is determined to go with or without her, she huffs, “I can’t let you get all the credit!” And so, off they go with just a backpack filled with the bare minumim of food and supplies.

When Susan finds out that Max and Erin have gone missing, she immediately knows that they’ve gone in the woods to look for their father. Susan wants to go in the woods too, so she can look for Max, Erin and Royce. But then, Captain Walker says the most sensible thing that anyone says in this asinine movie: “Mrs. Wade, I already have three members of your family lost in the wildnerness. I don’t need a fourth.”

Of course, because this movie has to pile on the drama, people who go in the woods encounter wild animals who attack. A mountain lion makes an appearance. In another scene, there’s a wolf. The kids encounter a skunk. This movie is so heavy-handed and unrealistic with the large wild animal encounters, why not bring out a whole managerie of wild animals at this point? Bears need representation too.

Royce and Chinook inevitably get lost. So much for a “hero dog.” One of the worst things about this movie is that during his foolish walk in the woods, Royce brings out a flare gun, which he could’ve easily used when he was on the boat. And then there’s the idiotic scene with Royce trying to start a fire, without any thought of what a disaster it would be to accidentally start a forest fire that Royce can’t put out quickly because he can’t see. It’s not as if Royce has access to any fire hoses or buckets of water.

The scenes with Max and Erin aren’t much better. Erin is a whiny brat, while Max is an insufferable know-it-all. And, of course, it starts to rain and something happens to their backpack of food and supplies. And what is the “hero dog” doing during all of this drama? Just trying to stay alive, while Royce makes one stupid decision after another.

One of these nonsensical decisions is to destroy his cell phone so he can use the mirror interior as some kind of glare signal in the woods, where a glare signal wouldn’t be seen anyway because there are too many trees. Royce is supposed to be someone with military training, but he seems to have no survival skills. The absurdity goes on and on. And so does the bad acting by most of the cast.

Henstridge and Tench are the only cast members whose acting approaches anything close to believable. Everyone else overacts and they sound like they’re reciting lines, not having natural-looking conversations. Everything about this film is done with such unrelenting, self-important ridiculousness, with no humor whatsoever. There isn’t much to like about this movie except the dog. And it’s too bad this innocent dog was forced to be in this embarrassing mess.

Lionsgate released “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” on digital, VOD and DVD on March 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Gunda,’ a documentary about farm life from the perspectives of animals

April 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gunda and one of her piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Gunda”

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky

Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.

Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.

Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.

Two of Gunda’s piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.

A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.

In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.

Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.

Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.

“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”

It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.

In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.

“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.

If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.

“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.

As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.

Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Stray’ (2021), starring Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal

March 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zeytin in “Stray” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Stray” (2021)

Directed by Elizabeth Lo

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2017 to 2019, in Istanbul, Turkey, the documentary “Stray” follows the lives of a select number of stray dogs in the city.

Culture Clash: Syrian refugee teens who are homeless take care of some of the dogs, but their vagrant and unstable lifestyles make their ability to care for the pets very dubious.

Culture Audience: “Stray” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a documentary about dogs that live on the streets and how the city of Istanbul handles these homeless pets.

Zeytin and another dog in “Stray” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

People who’ve seen director Ceyda Torun’s 2017 documentary “Kedi” (about stray cats in Istanbul) can view director Elizabeth Lo’s documentary “Stray” (about stray dogs in Istanbul) as a great companion piece. You don’t have to see one documentary to enjoy the other, but it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two films. “Stray” is a more heart-wrenching movie than “Kedi” because homeless dogs in Istanbul seem to have it much harder than homeless cats.

Whereas “Kedi” focused on seven cats (male and female) and gave each about the same amount of screen time, “Stray” features three dogs (all female) in the spotlight, but one dog in particular gets the majority of the screen time. Her name is Zeytin, a tan Labrador Retriever mix with a personality that’s utterly endearing. She is friendly, smart and independent. And even in harsh circumstances, she maintains her dignity. A lot of humans could learn from a dog like Zeytin.

“Stray” begins with a prologue stating: “Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century … Widespread protests against the killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.”

What does that mean for stray dogs like Zeytin? They are allowed to roam free on the streets, but there doesn’t seem to be the type of organized system for animal adoptions that other countries have. Stray dogs in Istanbul wear government tags on their ears to indicate if they have been spayed or neutered. The documentary (which was filmed from 2017 to 2019) is cinéma vérité style, from the point of view of the dogs, with no interviews and no background information on Istanbul’s animal shelters.

Zeytin has a close female companion named Nazar, a beige Labrador Retriever mix with a darker-toned face than Zeytin. Nazar also has blue pen markings all over her fur. By comparison, Zeytin looks remarkably well-kept for a stray dog.

Zeytin’s fur looks clean and doesn’t show any signs of mange or flea infestations. And she doesn’t look injured. The ages of Zeytin and Nazar are unclear, but an unknown person in the movie mentions that Zeytin looks young.

There’s a scene in the movie that shows the dogs near the beach. And although there’s no scene in the movie of the dogs swimming in the water, you get the feeling that Zeytin knows a place where she can wash herself on a regular basis. She’s smart and resourceful. If you believe that dogs have souls, then she has a good one.

Zeytin and Nazar begin following a group of Syrian refugee teenage boys (who look to be about 13 to 16 years old) who are also homeless. The dogs end up staying with the boys in an abandoned building. A few of the boys’ names are heard here and there. One is named Jamil. Another one is named Halil. They make money by asking for handouts or selling random items.

There’s a core group of about four or five of these refugee teens who hang out together and take care of Zeytin and Nazar. In the abandoned building, one of the boys talks about how he went to an immigration office with his family to apply for a refugee work permit, but the government only had a record of his family members, not him.

The personal stories of the other boys are not told in the documentary. But they all habitually sniff glue in plastic bags to get high, which is an indication of their emotional pain. The teens are eventually kicked out of the building by the apparent owner, who threatens to have them arrested for trespassing and loitering. The kids beg him to let them stay there and say they won’t make any trouble, but he refuses. He also scolds them about sniffing glue.

One of the things that people might dread in watching a documentary like this is the sight of any dogs being abused. Fortunately, there is no animal abuse in the movie, but it doesn’t sugarcoat how rough life on the streets can be for these dogs. The teen refugees often talk about how hungry they are, so it’s probably the same for the dogs. When a charity food truck comes by during its scheduled stop, the refugees run to it and get enough food for themselves and the dogs.

Zeytin and other stray dogs also get food by rummaging through garbage or by hanging out near restaurants and street food vendors. There’s a scene of Zeytin sleeping outside near tables at a café. And like clockwork, Zeytin is shooed away by an employee about the same time every day until she finds somewhere else for her daytime nap.

Food vendors will usually chase the dogs away, but a few will give the dogs their scraps. And on rare occasions, a random stranger will stop to give the dog some store-bought food. But most people on the street ignore the strays.

Some people with their own pet dogs are afraid to let their pets near the strays. One woman who’s walking her Jack Russell Terrier named Bella reacts to seeing Zeytin by nervously scooping up Bella and saying about Zeytin, “She might kill you,” even though Zeytin is harmless and shows no signs of aggression.

Zeytin and Nazar have an overall congenial relationship, but they show their contrasting temperaments in two different scenes. Nazar is more ill-tempered and has a tendency to be greedy and possessive, compared to Zeytin who tends to be calmer and more generous. However, Zeytin is not afraid to defend herself if necessary.

In one scene, some meaty bones are discarded on the street. Nazar growls and snaps at Zeytin to prevent Zeytin from getting near the bones, because Nazar wants all the bones to herself. Zeytin is able to sneak off with one of the bones though. In another scene, Nazar playfully greets another dog named Zilli, but Nazar (who is nearby) seems to get jealous and starts a vicious fight with Zeytin. The teenagers have to separate the two dogs, and one of the boys comforts Zeytin, who looks sad that her friend turned on her for no good reason.

Zeytin’s demeanor with other dogs is so approachable and friendly that the documentary shows that she can win over dogs who look mean and tough. She encounters a pack of about 10 to 12 dogs, and some of them try to bully her. But when she defends herself, she earns their respect, and they let her hang out with their pack for a while. Zeytin is never seen instigating a fight.

She also has an independent streak because she doesn’t seem to want to stay with one pack for too long. In the production notes for “Stray,” director Lo commented: “Zeytin quickly emerged as the focus of our production because she was one of the rare dogs we followed who did not inadvertently end up following us back. To the very last day of shooting, she remained radically independent.”

When strangers approach Zeytin on the street, she is curious and amiable. A man with a daughter who looks about 3 years old encourages his daughter to pet Zeytin. In another scene, a passerby remarks that Zeytin is a beautiful dog.

And in one of the film’s scenes that can be considered laugh-out-loud funny, Zeytin and some other dogs are wandering in the streets while a feminist protest is happening, with women holding signs and shouting about their rights. In the middle of this protest, a male dog mounts Zeytin and starts having sex with her. One of the women in the crowd shouts jokingly to the dogs, “Not now, guys! Please!” Another woman says to the male dog about his sexual intercourse with Zeytin, “Do it only if she wants to! Ask her first!”

Another dog that’s featured in the documentary, but not as prominently as Zeytin and Nazar, is a black and white pitbull mix puppy named Kartal, who’s about four or five months old. Zeytin first meets Kartal when Zeytin and some other dogs walk near a family home where Kartal is outside with another puppy from the litter and Kartal’s mother. Zeytin approaches as if to greet the other dogs, but Kartal’s mother growls protectively and doesn’t let the other dogs get too close.

Later in the movie, some of the teenage refugees go back to the house and beg the dog’s owner to let them take one of the puppies. The owner refuses but hints that they can come back at night and steal the puppy they want. The boys end up stealing Kartal, whom they rename Sari. The puppy often looks confused, but the boys make sure that she’s kept safe, and there’s a moment when Kartal/Sari finds another puppy as a temporary play companion.

Zeytin seems to have mixed feelings toward Kartal/Sari as a new arrival to this pack. Zeytin is not hostile to Kartal/Sari, but she’s not overly welcoming either. When Kartal/Sari tries to snuggle up to Zeytin or try to play with her, Zeytin moves away, as if she’s uncomfortable being a babysitter. Kartal/Sari’s time with this group of homeless teens doesn’t last long though. (Don’t worry, she didn’t get hurt.)

You don’t have to be an animal enthusiast to enjoy “Stray,” although it certainly makes a difference in how you might look at and remember this film. Even though the dogs in the movie do not have an ideal life, they are protected under Istanbul law. And that probably gives them a better chance not to be openly abused and murdered by people on the streets.

There’s a resilience to these dogs but also a constant sense of worry about where and how they are going to get their next meal, as well as how they are going to stay safe. Life on the streets means these strays can belong to anyone and no one at the same time. Unlike homeless humans, homeless dogs can’t sign up for emergency shelters or apply for government aid. But the last five minutes of “Stray” (which has the best scene in the movie) is a clear indication that dogs can have feelings and reactions just like a lot of humans do. And they also deserve to be seen, heard and treated with kindness.

Magnolia Pictures released “Stray” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Through the Night’ (2020), starring Deloris Hogan and Patrick Hogan

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

“Through the Night” (2020)

Directed by Loira Limbal

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Rochelle, New York, the documentary “Through the Night” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and Latinos) who are connected in some way to Dee’s Tots Childcare, a family-owned business that does 24-hour childcare.

Culture Clash: Many of the parents who are clients of Dee’s Tots Childcare are overworked and have financial strains that make it hard to afford childcare.

Culture Audience: “Through the Night” will appeal primarily to people who want an insightful look at how a childcare business works when it’s open 24 hours a day.

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

Affordable childcare is big issue for a lot of parents who have to work outside the home. And it becomes even more complicated and difficult if parents work the night shift, since many childcare facilities are only open during the day. “Through the Night” (directed by Loira Limbal) takes an intimate look at a family-owned business called Dee’s Tots Childcare (located in New Rochelle, New York) that is one of the few 24-hour childcare places in the area.

The husband and wife who own Dee’s Tots Childcare are Deloris Hogan (nicknamed Nunu) and Patrick Hogan (nicknamed PopPop), who co-founded the business sometime in the late 1990s. Deloris and Patrick take turns in their work shifts to watch the children in their care. The Hogans also have about five or six employees who help with running the business, which cares for children of a wide age range, from infants to those attending high school.

In addition to providing childcare needs (shelter, food, drinks and a place a sleep), Dee’s Tots Childcare gives some basic education in math and English for the children who need it. The childcare center also teaches gardening in a small nearby garden. The atmosphere is very much like a family home, and most of the clients come from working-class households.

Although Deloris and Patrick share duties in running their childcare center, when someone in the documentary comments, “PopPop is king,” Deloris is quick to clarify by declaring: “Actually, I’m queen and the king.” She also talks about why she started the childcare center. Deloris used to be a homemaker, but the idea to start a childcare business happened after a female friend of Patrick’s got into a car accident and asked the couple to look after her son while she was recuperating in the hospital.

Deloris comments on being in the childcare business: “It’s not just a job. This really is our life. My children, ever since they were the age of 2 years old, they had to share me with other children.” The children shown in this documentary are well-behaved and respectful. If people are looking for a comedy-styled film where the childcare center has to contend with some unruly brats, this isn’t that movie. There are plenty of fictional films with a story about kids who make trouble for babysitters.

To make their childcare center as home-like as possible, the Hogans celebrate children’s birthdays. They also give Christmas gifts to the parents and kids who are their regular clients. (Two kid siblings named Naima Harrell and Noah Harrell get a lot of screen time.) And when children in their care age out and become too old for childcare, the Hogans have a graduation ceremony for them. It’s made clear that children who are “alumni” of Dee’s Tots Childcare are welcome to come back and visit. And many of them often do.

“Through the Night” is a bare-bones documentary that is more “slice of life” than groundbreaking. A few parents are interviewed on camera and predictably praise Dee’s Tots Childcare. A registered nurse (who is unidentified) says, “It was hard to make the adjustment to leave my child with someone else for 14 years, but I felt secure with Nunu.” Another unidentified woman, who says she’s a single mother who has two part-time jobs, comments: “If I didn’t have Nunu, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Deloris, who is more talkative and has more screen time than her husband Patrick, also talks about the couple’s courtship. Deloris says that when she met Patrick, she knew pretty quickly that he was “the one” and predicted on their first meeting that they would get married. He was fixing her brother’s bicycle, and Patrick confessed later that this repair job was intentional because he had a crush on Deloris and wanted to be closer to her.

Not everything goes smoothly in the documentary. Deloris experienced major health problems during the course of filming. During a doctor’s visit for numbness in her shoulder, the doctor tells Deloris that if the numbness continues, she will have to have surgery. Deloris says that her shoulder numbness is the result of years of heavy lifting and other physical strains because of her job.

Later in the movie, things get even more serious for Deloris, as she has emergency surgery for a large tumor in her head. After the surgery, she lost 50% of the vision in one of her eyes. Her senses of taste and smell were also significantly diminished.

Despite these health problems, Deloris remains determined to still work in childcare. She also refuses to wallow in self-pity. Deloris says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself because “I could’ve been dead … I have to keep moving because I have something to do.”

Although Deloris mentions that the state of New York could improve its childcare resources, the documentary doesn’t get too much into details about what child caregivers such as the Hogans can do about it. Instead, the documentary shows that Dee’s Tots Childcare is more focused on being involved in community outreach activities. For example, there’s a scene where Dee’s Tots Childcare participates in a local Thanksgiving parade.

“Through the Night” might seem boring to some people who are expecting this documentary to be a faster-paced film. Ultimately, the movie gives a realistic and endearing portrait of how a family-owned business is surviving as a 24-hour childcare center. (“Through the Night,” which had been scheduled for a world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered the childcare industry.) “Through the Night” doesn’t pretend to have any solutions to long-term childcare industry problems, but the documentary presents a story that is relatable to a lot of people.

Long Shot Factory released “Through the Night” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The PBS series “POV” will premiere the movie on May 10, 2021.

ABC announces American version of ‘Pooch Perfect’ series, hosted by Rebel Wilson

January 13, 2021

The following is a press release from ABC:

“Pooch Perfect” (Tuesdays, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET/PT) on ABC

Premiere date: March 30, 2021.

Hosted by award-winning actress Rebel Wilson, “Pooch Perfect” is the ulti-mutt dog grooming competition series. The eight-episode serieswill showcase 10 of the best dog groomers in the country, along with their assistants, competing in a series of paw-some themed challenges. 

Each week on “Pooch Perfect,” teams will compete in the Immunity Puppertunity challenge, where one team will earn immunity from elimination. Then, in the Ultimutt Challenge showdown, the remaining teams will face off in an epic grooming transformation, which they will show off on the illustrious dogwalk. The trio of all-star celebrity judges – Lisa Vanderpump, Jorge Bendersky and Dr. Callie Harris – will be tasked with voting on the incredible creations and ultimately force one team back to the doghouse every week. It all leads up to the season finale where the top three teams compete for a giant cash prize and the coveted “Pooch Perfect” first place trophy.

“Pooch Perfect” is produced by Beyond Media Rights Limited. Elan Gale, Sonya Wilkes and Rebel Wilson serve as executive producers. Nicole Anthony, Mike Rosen, Carley Simpson and Matthew Silverberg serve as co-executive producers. ABC’s “Pooch Perfect” is based off of the Australian format. Episodes can also be viewed the next day on demand and on Hulu.

The Host, Judges and Season 1 Contestants

Episode Photos

2021 Puppy Bowl: see photos and videos

January 6, 2021

Puppy Bowl (Photo by Elias Weiss Friedman/Discovery+/Animal Planet)

 

The following is a press release from Discovery Networks:

“We need puppies now more than ever!” said everyone. Have no fear because television’s cutest sports competition and the original call-to-adoption TV event “Puppy Bowl” returns on Sunday, February 7, 2021 for the biggest, most exciting game to date, now as a 3-hour event that can be viewed on both Discovery+, the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service that features a landmark partnership with Verizon that gives their customers with select plans up to 12 months of Discovery+ on Verizon, and Animal Planet on February 7, 2021, at 2PM ET/11AM PT. Join Discovery+ and Animal Planet for this special three-hour event to experience all the fuzzy puppy faces from Team Ruff and Team Fluff who go paw to paw to win the Chewy “Lombarky” trophy in “Puppy Bowl’s” all-new venue, a ‘stadium within a stadium’ that’s bigger and better than ever before. Be sure to be on the lookout for Team Ruff who is looking to reclaim their title after last year’s loss – they’re coming back with a vengeance! Gear up because it’s officially the most wonderful time of the year for the biggest game of the year – “Puppy Bowl XVII”!

“Puppy Bowl” celebrates adoptable pups in all their cuteness and showcases the incredible shelters and rescues, as well as their staffers, who dedicate their lives to helping animals find their loving homes. In years past, “Puppy Bowl” is 16 for 16 with the adoption rate at 100% as all puppies and kittens featured in “Puppy Bowl” to date have found their forever homes with loving families. And even though this past year has been different from year’s past, one thing is for certain—there will be a “Puppy Bowl”—and discovery+ and Animal Planet continue this annual tradition to highlight these special puppy players and kittens so that they can finally find the place they are meant to call ‘home.’

This year, 22 shelters and rescues from nine Northeastern States are enlisted to bring 70 incredible adoptable puppy players out for “Puppy Bowl” to sport their Team Ruff ‘Tail Mary Tangerine’ and Team Fluff ‘Bark Blue’ bandana colors. What genetic traits are these pups bringing to the game? With the Wisdom Panel™ dog DNA test, we’ll find out what’s beyond those big puppy dog eyes and how each dog’s breed mix might give them an advantage on the field. We’ll see their skills playout in the brand-new Geico Stadium, where these adoptable players have even more room to rumble and fumble!  Fan-favorite elements, including slow motion replays, nose-to-nose action from the famous water bowl cam, and aerial shots of the field from the brand-new Temptations Sky Box are all back this year, along with epic drone shots of puppy players across the arena that bring audiences as close as possible to all the game-play action. The Home Depot goal post nets serve as the backdrop to every touchdown and field goal as audiences have a front row seat view through lens of the cameras in the Chewy end zone pylons.

Joining this year as “Puppy Bowl XVII” announcers are ESPN’s Monday Night Football play- by- play announcer Steve Levy and SportsCenter host Sage Steele who will be providing puppy analysis throughout the game! The “Puppy Bowl XVII” Pre-Game Show begins at 1 PM ET/ 10 AM PT where long-time “Puppy Bowl” sports correspondents Rodt Weiler, James Hound and Sheena Inu, and field reports Brittany Spaniel and Herman Shepard pump up the crowd with pup insights on the furry matchups before the big game. Sponsored by [ yellow tail ]® wine, the Pre-Game Show will also offer ideas on how to create a “Puppy Bowl” “tail”gate party for the perfect viewing experience. The game opens with a special performance of the National Anthem by singing-group and internet sensation, Boys World, before kicking off with the pups of the Pedigree Starting Lineup, who are giving it their all to compete for the one and only Bissell MVP (Most Valuable Puppy) award by scoring the most touchdowns. Who will take home the title this year to join the greats of puppies past in the Puppy Bowl MVP Hall of Fame? Tune in to find out this and which lucky pup will also take home the coveted Subaru of America Inc. Underdog Award!

Joining the game for the 10th year in a row is America’s favorite “Rufferee,” Dan Schachner, who, after a decade, is ready to call the puppy penalties, ruffs & tumbles, and pawsome touchdowns for a game unlike any other. Award-winning animal advocate and television correspondent Jill Rappaport also returns to introduce the Subaru of America, Inc. Pup Close and Personal segments that shine a light on some of these adorable athletes and other adoptable puppies across the country, in addition to the special Senior Spotlight stories which showcase that age is just a number with senior dogs who are ultimately puppies at heart.

This year’s Pup Close and Personal highlights include a special profile of actress and animal advocate Kristen Bell who has teamed up with Annenberg PetSpace in Los Angeles to spend time with Java, a Labrador mix puppy looking for a fur-ever home to snuggle in; Biscuit, a very special Maltese mix pup from Paw Works in LA, who gets a special day out with one lucky kid baker from Food Network’s ‘Kid Baking Championship,’ where we’ll also hear from hosts Valerie Bertinelli & Duff Goldman; Fozzie, a Foster Dogs Inc. Norwegian Elkhound who experiences his first ever grooming from Harlem Doggie Day Spa; and Foofur, a Shepherd mix puppy who is cared for by a very special foster under the PAWS Chicago foster program. Other in-depth profiles include Marshall, a deaf Boston Terrier mix rescue pup who’s training with Green Dogs Unleashed to be a therapy dog, where at a local hospital, he will provide a group of COVID ER nurses with a much-needed mental break in the midst of the pandemic; Jett, a double front amputee Labrador mix from Pets With Disabilities in Maryland, who is prepping for the big game with regular jaunts along the countryside with his fellow special needs cat and dog companions; and Stitch, a Hound mix, who at Wilburton Inn-New England dog friendly resort in Vermont, enjoys a special day out at the Inn on a mission to meet an adopter, before getting scrappy on the field.

Audiences will also see four incredible Senior Spotlight profiles that include Scoobert, an 8-year-old Chihuahua Boxer mix from mix from Young at Heart Sanctuary in Chicago who even though is a senior pooch with medical needs, has a special zest for life; veterinarian Dr. Kwane Stewart, aka @thestreetvet, who treats homeless dogs off the streets of Los Angeles at no cost; Mona, a 10-year-old Toy Poodle mix who undergoes reiki healing sessions at Den Retreat in Los Angeles for a more peaceful state of mind; and Blossom, an American Staffordshire Terrier, who has become the poster pup for the ‘Pitbulls in flower crowns’ series by rescue advocate and photographer Sophie Gamand. Puppy Bowl XVII will also feature five special needs players who are looking forward to finding their loving home including Jett, and four hearing impaired pups including Marshall, a Boston Terrier; Fletcher, an American Bull Dog; Theodore, a Pyr Border Collie; and Rumor, a Heeler mix.

Additionally, for the first time ever on the sidelines, our Team Ruff and Team Fluff players will be cheered on by none other than adoptable puppy cheerleaders who will root and howl for their favorite players. These cheerleading pups will turn up the volume with cuteness overload by shaking their pom poms as the Puppy Bowl XVII players make their way down the field! Midway through the game, get ready to turn up the beat and put on your dancing shoes for the Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal™ Kitty Half-Time Show. Audiences will experience the neon dance party they’ve been waiting for all year and rave to the purr-fect beats dropped by senior rescue cat DJ Grand Master Scratch. As an after-party treat, viewers will even be able to see a special adoption update on where these dancing felines found their loving new homes with their loving new forever dance partners.

As a bonus treat for this year’s Puppy Bowl XVII, audiences will also see exciting new ‘Adoptable Pup’ segments, hosted by Dan Schachner and sponsored by Chewy. Sprinkled throughout the program, 11 shelters from around the country will feature one of their special pups (and a few kittens during Kitty Half-Time!) that are all up for adoption during the game!

Puppy Bowl digital audiences can point their paws to PuppyBowl.com to vote for their favorite pup in the ‘Pupularity Playoffs’ bracket style tournament featuring photos by Instagram sensation @TheDogist. Audiences can also check out an exciting live puppy playtime scrimmage on Animal Planet’s TikTok in the lead up to Puppy Bowl XVII. Fans may also be able to see their own animal featured in a photo gallery on PuppyBowl.com when they post a pic of their fur-baby watching Puppy Bowl XVII and tag #PuppyBowl. For more fun social content, head to FacebookInstagramTwitter, and TikTok for original videos, GIFs, Instagram Stickers, a Puppy Bowl AR Filter, and more. Audiences can also follow discovery+ on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Fans can also access even more furry fun and exclusive content by downloading Discovery+. Leading up to “Puppy Bowl,” Discovery+ and Animal Planet GO users will find exclusive in-app original programming, including the “Puppy Bowl” midform series “Pupclose & Personal”, where NFL stars Chris Godwin, Ronnie Stanley, and Ryan Kerrigan reveal their personal pup adoption stories to share why they’re so passionate about canine causes. Pus, we’ll also see Dan the Ref take us down memory lane, highlighting the very best and firsts of “Puppy Bowl’s” 17-year history. Additionally, fans are also invited to Tweet along with game day commentator Meep The Bird and vote in real time, for the winner of the Most Valuable Puppy award. Results will be revealed during the epic program.

Official “Puppy Bowl XVII” sponsors include Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal, Bissell, Chewy, Geico, The Home Depot, Pedigree, Subaru of America Inc., Temptations, Wisdom Panel dog DNA test and [ yellow tail ]® wine.

For more information about the shelters, rescues and organizations that participated in “Puppy Bowl XVII” Animal Planet audiences can visit Puppybowl.com/Adopt.

“Puppy Bowl XVII” is produced for Animal Planet by Bright Spot Content, an All3Media America company. Simon Morris is executive producer and showrunner with Cindy Kain and Sandy Varo Jarrell also serving as executive producers. For Animal Planet, Dawn Sinsel serves as senior executive producer and Pat Dempsey is supervising producer.

Pet Valu announces closure of all U.S. operations; Canada operations to remain open

November 4, 2020

(Photo courtesy of Pet Valu)

The following is a press release from Pet Valu:

Pet Valu, Inc. (“Pet Valu U.S.”), a specialty retailer of pet food and supplies in the United States, today announced plans to commence a wind down of its operations due to severe impact from COVID-19. The Company expects that all of its 358 stores and warehouses in the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S., as well as its corporate office in Wayne, PA, will close by the end of the wind-down process.

Pet Valu U.S. licenses its name and contracts for certain services from Pet Valu Canada, which is a separate company based in Markham, Ontario that is not impacted by this wind down. Pet Valu Canada is a market leading, highly profitable and growing business with a tremendous history and a very bright future. Pet Valu Canada will continue to serve customers across Canada through its approximately 600 stores, franchise locations and e-commerce site at www.petvalu.com/ca/, offering its usual assortment of thousands of pet products and supplies and in-store services such as dog washes and grooming. 

All Pet Valu stores in the U.S. are currently open and ready to serve their devoted pet lover customers through the wind-down process. Customers in the U.S. can continue to use Pet Valu gift cards and loyalty rewards for purchases. Effective immediately, U.S. customers will no longer be able to place orders on the Pet Valu U.S. e-commerce site at www.petvalu.com/us/.

Jamie Gould, Pet Valu, Inc.’s recently appointed Chief Restructuring Officer, said, “The Pet Valu U.S. team is proud to have met the needs of our devoted pet lover customers in the U.S. for more than 25 years. However, the Company’s stores have been significantly impacted by the protracted COVID-19-related restrictions. After a thorough review of all available alternatives, we made the difficult but necessary decision to commence this orderly wind down.”

He continued, “During the store closing process, we will continue to provide our customers with the same great in-store experience, offering them even better deals and value. We will work to assist our dedicated associates through the transition. We thank all of them for their commitment to our company and our customers, and especially for going above and beyond so we could help customers as an essential service during the pandemic.”

Pet Valu U.S. expects to commence store closing sales at all locations in the U.S. in the coming days. The Company will continue to take necessary precautions to keep its stores safe for customers and employees.

The Company has retained Malfitano Partners as its restructuring advisor, SB360 Capital Partners, LLC to assist with store closing sales and A&G Realty Partners, LLC to assist on U.S. real estate-related matters. Mr. Gould joins Pet Valu, Inc. from a successful career of retail restructuring in global assignments in the apparel, eyewear and office products industries. William Transier, Chief Executive Officer of Transier Advisors, has been appointed as independent director to the Board of Directors of Pet Valu, Inc.

AMC Networks partners with Adopt-A-Pet.com for FurFest adoption promotion

October 20, 2020

The following is a press release from AMC Networks:

AMC Networks today announced it has teamed up with Adopt-a-Pet.com, North America’s largest non-profit pet adoption website, for AMC’s annual horror marathon FearFest, to raise awareness for pet adoption with ‘FurFest.’ All month long, AMC, AMC+, and Shudder are encouraging viewers to support Adopt-a-Pet.com’s mission to end the overpopulation of companion animals in shelters and help pets find loving forever homes through custom, PET-tacular spots airing across linear, digital, and social channels.

The custom spots, featuring a few four-legged horror fans, encourage viewers to find their perfect watch buddies through adoptions and especially raise awareness for black cat and black dog adoptions this spooky season. Halloween may be the season for magical black cats, but in reality, they are most often left behind in shelters because of the color of their fur. Many animal welfare organizations call this “black cat syndrome,” with the phenomenon happening with black dogs as well. Through the collaboration, audiences are encouraged and inspired to help fight “black cat syndrome” by adopting these furry friends or by donating to Adopt-a-Pet.com. See the custom spot: 

“We all know that spooky season is best enjoyed with a buddy by your side, which is why we’re thrilled to join forces with Adopt-a-Pet.com to help viewers find their perfect four-legged watch companions,” said Linda Schupack, President of Marketing, AMC Networks Entertainment Group. “The movies on AMC’s FearFest and Shudder are already scary enough. How great to cuddle up with a lovely black cat or black dog for Halloween and beyond.”

“Teaming up with AMC Networks is an exciting and unique way to spread the word about pet adoption,” said Dana Puglisi, Chief Marketing Officer of Adopt-a-Pet.com. “We appreciate AMC and Shudder’s efforts to help get more pets into loving homes. And we love all the extra snuggles those newly adopted pets will receive while their people binge through the FearFest thrills!”

Now in its 24th consecutive year, AMC’s annual horror marathon FearFest brings the frights with an entire month of genre programming from iconic franchises like Halloween and Insidious, and the return of award-winning docuseries Eli Roth’s History of HorrorShudder, dubbed “the ultimate in streaming horror” by Newsweek, offers the best selection of original and classic horror, thriller and supernatural films and series, uncut and commercial free. Both are also now available as part of the new AMC+, a premium streaming bundle featuring only the good stuff, which also includes IFC Midnight’s best genre cinema from independent, foreign and documentary films. In addition to the largest slate of classic horror movies such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, AMC+ also includes all series within The Walking Dead Universe, as well as AMC’s Eli Roth’s History of Horror, and new Shudder programming, such as Joe Bob’s Halloween Hideaway Special and A Creepshow Animated Special, and much more.

See the full FearFest lineup.


Find the Best in Horror at Shudder.

About AMC Networks

Known for its groundbreaking and celebrated original content, AMC Networks is the company behind the award-winning brands AMC, BBC AMERICA, IFC, SundanceTV, WE tv, and IFC Films. Its diverse line-up of popular and critically-acclaimed series and independent films include Killing EveBetter Call Saul and The Walking Dead, which has been the #1 show on ad-supported cable television for ten consecutive years, as well as PortlandiaBrockmireLove After Lockup, and the films BoyhoodDeath of Stalin, and many more. Its original series Mad Men and Breaking Bad are widely recognized as being among the most influential and acclaimed shows in the history of TV. The Company also operates AMC Studios, its production business; AMC Networks International, its international programming business; the subscription streaming services Acorn TV, Shudder, Sundance Now, and UMC; and Levity Entertainment Group, the Company’s production services and comedy venues business. For more information, visit http://www.amcnetworks.com.

About Shudder

AMC Networks’ Shudder is a premium streaming video service, super-serving members with the best selection in genre entertainment, covering horror, thrillers and the supernatural. Shudder’s expanding library of film, TV series, and originals is available on most streaming devices in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. For a 7-day, risk-free trial, visit ​www.shudder.com​.

About Adopt-a-Pet.com

Adopt-a-Pet.com is North America’s largest non-profit pet adoption website, helping over 19,000 animal shelters, humane societies, SPCAs, pet rescue groups, and pet adoption agencies advertise their purebred and mixed breed pets for free to millions of adopters each month. Sponsored by companies including Purina, Chewy, and Elanco Animal Health LLC, Adopt-a-Pet.com helps homeless dogs, cats, and even rabbits and other animals go from alone to adopted.

CBS All Access announces ‘That Animal Rescue Show’

September 22, 2020

“That Animal Rescue Show” (Photo by Danny Matson/CBS Interactive, Inc.)

The following is a press release from CBS All Access:

 CBS All Access, ViacomCBS’ digital subscription video on-demand and live streaming service, today revealed the official trailer and key art for its upcoming original docuseries “That Animal Rescue Show.” Executive produced by five-time Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater and two-time Academy Award winner Bill Guttentag, all 10 episodes will be available to binge exclusively for CBS All Access subscribers on Thursday, October 29, 2020.

“That Animal Rescue Show” follows the animal rescue community in and around Austin, Texas, where Linklater lives. The 10-episode docuseries provides a window into this captivating world through moving, humorous and powerful stories of animals, the humans who love them and the inspiring, life-changing bond that occurs between people who have dedicated their lives to rescue and the animals who rescue them right back.

“That Animal Rescue Show” is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Dr. Phil’s Stage 29, Linklater’s Detour Filmproduction, and Guttentag and Nayeema Raza’s 1891 Productions. The series is distributed internationally by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group. An episode of the series was accepted as part of the official selection for the 2020 Telluride Film Festival. In addition to Linklater, Guttentag and Raza, the series is also executive produced by Phil McGraw, Jay McGraw and Julia Eisenman.

“That Animal Rescue Show” joins CBS All Access’ growing slate of original series that currently includes “The Good Fight,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Tooning Out the News,” “No Activity,” “Why Women Kill,” “Interrogation,” “The Thomas John Experience” and “Tell Me a Story,” as well as the upcoming limited event series “The Stand,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Harper House” and “Guilty Party.” CBS All Access is also the exclusive domestic home to “Star Trek: Discovery,” “Star Trek: Picard,” the animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks” and the U.S.S Enterprise set series “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”

About CBS All Access:

CBS All Access is ViacomCBS’ direct-to-consumer digital subscription video on-demand and live streaming service. CBS All Access gives subscribers the ability to watch more than 20,000 episodes and movies on demand – including exclusive original series, current and past seasons of hit shows from the CBS Television Network and growing libraries from brands across the ViacomCBS portfolio including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Smithsonian and more, as well as a wealth of films from Paramount Pictures. The service is also the streaming home to unmatched sports programming, including every CBS Sports event, from golf to football to basketball and more, plus exclusive streaming rights for major sports properties, including some of the world’s biggest and most popular soccer leagues. CBS All Access also enables subscribers to stream local CBS stations live across the U.S. in addition to the ability to stream ViacomCBS Digital’s other live channels: CBSN for 24/7 news, CBS Sports HQ for sports news and analysis, and ET Live for entertainment coverage.

The service is currently available across all major device platforms including online, mobile and connected TV and OTT platforms and services. Versions of CBS All Access have launched internationally in Canada and Australia (10 All Access), with unique but similar content and pricing plans. For more details on CBS All Access, please visit https://www.cbs.com/all-access.

About CBS Television Studios:

CBS Television Studios is one of the industry’s leading suppliers of programming with more than 70 series currently in production across broadcast and cable networks, streaming services and other emerging platforms. The Studio’s expansive portfolio spans a diverse slate of commercially successful and critically acclaimed scripted programming, genre-defining franchises including the ever-growing “Star Trek” universe, award-winning late night and daytime talk shows, and an extensive library of iconic intellectual property.

EDITOR’S NOTE: CBS All Access will rebrand as Paramount+, which goes into effect in early 2021.

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