Monday, October 16, 2017

Beyond The Spectrum Is Must-See TV



It's the sheer honesty and deep commitment of two parents that should immediately strike you when watching the brilliant new TVOntario documentary Beyond The Spectrum: A Family's Year Confronting Autism.
The 86-minute production premieres on TVOntario Wednesday Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. and is must-see TV at its best.
Canadian director Steven Suderman is telling me the committed parents contacted him rather than the usual way and after listening to their story he thought it might make a riveting TV documentary. He was right on that point.
"And I had a history with TVOntario," he says over the phone. In 2011 Suderman directed and produced  the film To Make A Farm for TVO and won awards for that one.
The resulting film premieres during Autism Aware Month which is entirely appropriate.
First off we are made aware of these very remarkable parents Carly and Stef and their realization that when Oskar is 2 he is diagnosed with autism.
They decide to drop everything else to care for their son for a year to try and give him a head start and make sure he won't get too far behind.
Suderman also was the cameraman on his production and he shot and shot and he's so good at what he does the parents and the other children in the family soon became basically unaware of the camera's presence.
Suderman tells me he never knew what would happen but he wanted to obtain a complete record of this amazing struggle.
We see the anxious parents consulting experts and feeling that what they're being offered may sometimes be contradictory.
So, in effect, they take charge of Oskar's treatment.
For a long time they try various diets --that same philosophy worked when treating an older son who has emerged as a talkative and inquisitive young boy.
"I think we show the couple experienced good days and some not as good," Suderman sayIs. ""The supplements had worked so much better with the other boy."
We also see how all this attention on Oskar affects the other children and how they become vastly supportive to helping their youngest brother.
The approach Suderman uses goes all the way back to Allan King's masterful documentary A Married Couple. Close observation draws the viewer in and we begin rooting for this family.
It worked then and it works here. Under Suderland's masterful direction we get drawn into the struggles of this couple and recognize how far they are determined to go in helping their son.
A few"experts" are plopped in to explain the progress or lack thereof. But basically this is one family's story.
We get to understand why Oskar wants to continually jump in the same place, what frightens him, how he can finally make eye contact with his mother.
These little victories become dramatically compelling.
But at one point the parents ask Suderman to stop filming which he did for almost three months.
There are reasons for this which I can't reveal here but had he not finally be invited back there would only have been half a film.
"They just needed some space," explains director Suderman.
We watch how this family celebrates Christmas --these scenes are dramatically very satisfying.
"Carly had been through this twice," Suderman is telling me."Her patience is amazing as she finds  it's nothing the same as with the older boy."
I think the saddest moment comes when the parents ask "How are we going to cope with this?"
But cope they do. And survive. And grow as parents.
Suderman captures all these highs and lows in such a fashion it's impossible to turn away from his compelling family portrait.
There's also a free interactive app titled My Autism Passport (M.A.P.).
Suderman made it for Merit Motion Pictures and Orangeville Road Pictures.
BEYOND THE SPECTRUM PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 18 AT 9 P.M. and MIDNIGHT WITH REPEAT SHOWINGS ON OCTOBER 21 (9 P.M. AND 1:30 A.M.) AND OCTOBER 22 (8 P.M. AND 1 A.M.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Old Friends Get Together





fliIt's that time of the year as four old friends get together: a prominent TV actress, veteran publicist and a famous TV producer. Here are highlights of our luncheon chatter:
ME: The big news is the crash in ratings of the old line US networks as more viewers than ever turn to alternate viewing devices.
ACTRESS: For me it's the disappearance of the Canadian community TV channels. Why should Rogers and Bell finance these local access channels when the hot new viewing tool Netflix has been allowed by the CRTC to do absolutely no Canadian content?
PUBLICIST: The big new TV series I'm crazy about is Ken Burns' incredible Vietnam war series on PBS which is magnificent view but nobody knows what happened to it.
PRODUCER:I can no longer make any Canadian TV movie or series until I have an American co-producer. And Americans are not particularly interested in all things Canadian.
ME: I went to the movies for the first tim e in years to watch the masterful new British movie Dunkirk which will surely win Oscars including the one for best picture.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian TV series is Suits --I know its made by and for Americans but because it is shot here I call it Canadian.
PUBLICIST: I was so busy this summer. So many U.S. films and TV things shooting here. The wonderfully low Canadian dollar meant lots of work for yours truly.
ACTRESS: I just saw Victoria And Abdul starring Judi Dench and it was very rewarding. Victoria was Queen and Empress of a quarter of the world's surface and yet she never travelled to any of her loyal dominions or to India where she was empress.
ME: The hottest Canadian writer right now is Margaret Atwood. Her miniseries The Handmaid's Tale was great and shot here. Let's forget the awful movie that I found unwatchable. Let's also agree not to discuss that unwatchable version of her novel Surfacing.
PRODUCER: Maybe Morley Callaghan will be the next great Canadian writer to be rediscovered. After all didn't Edmond Wilson hail him as the "Chekov of the North"?
PUBLICIST: I'm so old I once met Mazo de la Roche. I think she had passed by the time that stinker of a CBC TV series Jalna was released.
ME: There was also a French TV version that shot in Quebec and starred Danielle Darrieux.
ME: Who thinks CBC-TV's revamping of The National with four anchors warring in the bosom of a single jour will be successful?
PRODUCER: I remember when CBC introduced The Journal in 1981 and insisted it be a separate program so at every event there'd be two gigantic TV trucks covering the same event. It didn't work then and it won't work now.
ME: When I retired from The Star Peter Mansbridge was nice enough to come to my farewell bash. I think he wants to go on to other things at the CBC and Lloyd Robertson did --Lloyd moved over to W5 and just kept going. Ratings for CBC and CTV newscasts are way down anyway --Knowlton Nash told me both were on at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film could be shot in Washington and Ottawa and developed and flown to Toronto.
ACTYRESS: Canadian TV has never had a long running day soap --they are needed to develop young actors. Another big minus is the lack of a late night Canadian talk show --it's just far cheaper to import the American ones rather than making one of our own. Global should have kept Mike Bullard going.
PRODUCER: I have a pal who spent a year in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. The wealth of material is amazing. She watched the kinescope of Dame Edith Evans in The Importance Of Being Earnest --the only time Ecvans did it was on CBC not BBC. And one wonders why this material remains locked up. One CBC source told me the Corp doesn't want viewers to realize how vital CBC was way back then.
ME: I remember the last time I interviewed great producer Norman Campbell he shared a tiny office with Frank Shuster. Norman told me he'd never directed a production in the Norman Campbell studio because there were no resources left to finance it.
PUBLICIST: The teenagers who live next door are still crazy after CBC-TV's Heartland. That's their favorite Canadian TV show. I went to HMV to buy a box set of The Beachcombers and was told it has never been rteleased on DVD.
ME: CBC-TV's Kim's Convenience is a hit that could build over time to rival the popularity of Corner Gas. American friends are always raving about Schitt's Creek.
ACTRESS: There are Canadian TV stars I always check out.:Wendy Crewson has a new TV series. Art Hindle. Sonja Smits and Nick Campbell are big TV names in what ever they do. I guess I miss the decline and fall of Canadian TV movies. They were vastly popular but hard to sell overseas.
PRODUCER: I miss Brian Linehan. Such a character! I miss Elwy Yost and his gloriously golden oldies on TVOntario.
PUBLICIST: Elwy got those black and white oldies at fire sale prices. Some nights he'd beat the hockey game on CBC. I know other stations started buying up these packages just to keep him form using them. CBC had a secretary watching each episode to make sure he added the educational talks.
ME: The decline and fall of DVD stores is another blow to Canadian TV producers who needed that valuable revenue stream.
ACTRESS: The teens I know watch everything in groups on their cell phones! They'd never be caught in a department store! They never read newspapers. It's a different world out there for sure.
ME: Now that we've solved all the ills of Canadian TV let's be sure to meet again at summer's end!

















Monday, October 2, 2017

I REMEMBER HUGH HEFNER!








Way back in 1976 I hailed a taxi at the Century Plaza hotel in Century City and simply said "The Playboy Mansion, Please!"
And there I was at the Tudor style estate, the home of Hugh Hefner and a bevy of scantily clad young beauties.
The occasion was the 1976 premiere of Playboy TV on First Choice, Canada's first Pay-TV service.
That was more than 40 years ago and even then the sprawling Playboy empire was in steep decline.
I remembered a few days earlier I'd been at an NBC party for the new western series The Orgeon Trail and that was held at the Playboy Club in Century City.
I'd thought all these clubs had closed but there were apparently a few stragglers --this one shuttered the very next year.
So I knocked on the ornate door and a scantily clad sweet young thing opened and beamed "Hi! I'm the upstairs maid."
"I just bet you are," I answered and I was shown upstairs to meet Mr, Hefner who was lounging in his bedroom opposite a buxom blonde in a black negligee. And this was at 2 p.m.! A late riser indeed!
He jumped up, put on a robe and took me on a tour of his impressive residence.
There was a huge movie theater and he showed me his collection of films all recorded on Beta which these days no longer exists.
"I had a hundred in last night for a screening of The Garden Of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich" he enthused. "And some day when the copyrights have elapsed I'll be able to release them all on the Playboy label for home consumption.
This has yet to happen as the U.S. government has extended the copyright dates of classical films.
'The boardroom was impressive, the living room huge and expansive but the kitchen to me seemed terribly dated.
We went out into the huge backyard where Hugh kept his own mini-zoo. As we watched his monkeys copulating he shouted "Go for the gold!"
He then clapped as we watched the goldfish making out.
Back in the house we sat around a great table as he amiably answered my questions:
JB: "Are you the godfather of modern  pornography?"
HH (Laughing): "No way. I have always celebrated the beauty of the female form."
JB: "How many girl friends have you had?"
HH: "Who's counting?"
JB: "Some people I know actually buy the magazine for the interviews!"
HH: We put them all into a book which still sells like silly.
JB: Talk about your legacy.
'HHL:  We've fought the good fight against state censorship. It's not the state's right what you chose to do in your own bedroom."
JB: "Your first cover girl in 1953 was Marilyn Monroe. Why did she wind up so badly?"
HH: "Society puritans had it out for her. She was a darling comedienne and I agree with you she deserved better treatment by American society."
JBL "Why are the Playboy clubs going out of business?"
HH: "Bad business deals. Not by me, I'm out of the daily running of the business."
JB: "Was it inevitable magazines like Hustler would try to topple Playboy's dominance?"
HHL: "You got it. I never dealt in pornography. All the lumps and moles on our models were airbrushed out. Hustler isn;t at all erotic--it's as boring as slides on anatomy, that's all."
JB: "How do you want to be remembered?"
HH (chuckling): "As an innovator who banished Puritanism and favored a liberal society without guilt. And I think I succeeded at that, I really do.."
AS my taxi arrived Hef stood at the door waving goodbye. He was still in his silk pyjamas.
And Playboy TV predictable failed on Canadian TV and eventually even First Choice folded.
Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday September 27. aged 91. He was buried  in the Corridor of Memories Mausoleum next to Marilyn Monroe.





Tuesday, September 26, 2017

WELCOME BACK CBC'S KIM'S CONVENIENCE!



Last season CBC-TV's new sitcom Kim's Convenience was the surprise hit of the year.

I still think the decision of a past management to fold RCAF was a major mistake --here was a Canadian staple that could have been refreshened with the addition of newer cast members.
But at least Kim's Convenience is coming back for a second season at 9 p.m.
I was lucky at the CBC fall launch to chat a bit with playwright and executive producer Ins Choi, co-creator Kevin White and actors Paul Sun-Hyung and Jean Yoon.
The one I wanted to see wasn't there --executive producer Yvan Fecan but I talked to him the year before.
Fecan at one point was head programmer at CBC-YV and knows how to grow a situation comedy --he had one of the best on the boards with Material World but Fecan didn't have enough money for a full season.
With Kim's Convenience there's 13 episodes --needed in a vastly competitive TV world --as well as the expertise of playwright Choi who first developed her characters as a play.
Hey, it worked the first season establishing Kim's Convenience as a popular new comedy that should if anything improve in the second season. And there were three Canadian Screen Awards : Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Best Performer and Andrew Phung as Best Supporting Performance.
With the right kind of careful care this series might evolve into another Corner Gas --created when Fecan was running CTV.
I've been around so long I remember when CBC's big comedic hit was King Of Kensington.
I'd go to a taping every season at the Yorkville Studios --the same venue for Pierre Berton's shows.
But star Al Waxman left after five seasons because CBC used a closet as his dressing room --he later jumped to another hit --Cagney And Lacey (the pilot was shot in the US.).
CBC then disbanded its sitcom department for awhile and then made some major mistakes with such stinkers as Mosquito Lake and Not My Department.
It's hard to keep that sitcom tradition --after the huge hit of Corner Gas CTV had two stinkers in Dan For Mayor and Hiccups.
I think Kim's Convenience's success has happened because it was first a play.
In Canada we don't have the dough needed for test pilots which are subsequently discarded..
The creator of Malcolm In The Middle told me ABC went through three pilots costing $2 million before hitting the right note.
I'm honor bound not to reveal much of the new season's plots except to state Janet (Andrea Bang) is searching for an apartment.
The situations so far are funny but not outlandish --everything makes sense because the actors already know their characters.
And so right now CBC has the only watchable TV sitcom on Canadian TV. Over to you CTV.




Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Much Too Young: Must-See Canadian TV






Don't get distracted by the glut of new and returning TV series  popping up all over your TV screens this fall.
Save some time for the brilliant new Canadian made TV documentary Much Too Young which has its world premiere Thursday September 21 at 9 p.m. --which is World Alzheimer's Day.
I was told in advance to expect something special but I wasn't really prepared for my entirely appropriate emotional response.
Co-directors Christopher Wynn and Russell Giernapp made it with total compassion and honesty that I felt emotionally wasted at the end.
This one moves above the sheer scary statistics: 564,000 Canadians currently live with the disease including 16,000 with young onset Alzheimer's who were diagnosed at 65 years, clearly not in the senior citizens category and often caring for young families still at home.
But the major force in this intense group profile are the children who are the force holding their families together and they range from age 13 to 27 --they've had to put their own lives on hold and return to homes where they have assumed the role of parents.
Wynn is telling me on the phone he went through the whole wrenching process when helping hid father in Montreal.
"I moved back to Montreal when my father needed me. So I understand the stresses and pull of family versus career. And I made my first documentary on that titled Forgetful Not Forgotten."
"We wanted a cross section of families because the disease strikes in different ways. And we needed complete cooperation from the families. A few families seemed disinclined to offer so much and we had to drop them. But we travel light --there's just three of us coming into these homes --a director, cinematographer and a sound man. And after a while we just blended in --nobody looked at the camera after the first visit or so."
In Montreal there's Francois Bouliane who was diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia aged 51.
He appears to strangers as withdrawn from life and more eager to work on his gigantic puzzles than conversing.
We follow him to his doctor and find he can still speak fluently in both official languages but his 13-year old daughter who was his pride and joy cannot understand why he doesn't seem to want to play sports with her anymore.
Wife Gloria notes the stillness of the once active sports participant, a strange serenity that suggests he is drifting away.
We also meet Moira Fraschetti, diagnosed with Alzheimer's at 51. Her devoted daughter Kathleen notes friends do not understand the pressures of looking after a parent with the disease. We watch as she takes her mom to medical appointments--she can only work part time these days because her family needs her so much.
It's different again for Peter Wekeles, 57, who studies Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, a full time occupation to be sure, but he then must drive an hour each way to help his father. The pull of career with family responsibilities is best expressed by his dilemma.
The method here is keen observation. The participants do not appear to be aware of the film crew most of the times.
The group profile documents the everyday experiences which are spiraling out of control. One of the women can't quite figure how to walk down stairs anymore. One of the husbands had left home when his children were quite young--he has returned to look after a wife who may not always recognize him.
Says Wynn: "We think Alzheimer's strikes very old people. But our subjects are middle aged. The families want them to stay in their homes as long as possible and bed spaces are hard to come by and very expensive."
I was amazed the caregivers seemed so determined, rarely losing their tempers, such compassion is amazing but is being done on a daily basis. As a group snapshot the theme surely must be that families stick together through some terrible situations.
Nomad Films has been a Toronto fixture for two decades but long form documentaries are a disappearing breed on TV --An hour on CBC or CTV means 42 minutes plus commercials.
The best thing about Much Too young is its measured stance that allows us to watch and be amazed at the dedication of families who want to stick together.It Runs 88 minutes and you won't be able to turn away.
MUCH TOO YOUNG PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO  THURSDAY SEPTEMBER  21 AT 9 P.M. AND MIDNIGHT. THERE ARE REPEATS SAT. SEPT.23  at 9 PM AND MIDNIGHT AND WED. SEPT. 27 AT 9 P.M. AND MIDNIGHT.
BEGINNING SEPT. 22 IT CAN BE STREAMED ON WWW.TVO.ORG.
MY RATING: ****.






Monday, July 31, 2017

CBC-TV's 21 Thunder Is Promising



In ye olden days --say about a decade or so ago --every major TV network would sport summer series worth watching.
So three cheers to CBC-TV for trying to revive that tradition with the Montreal made 21 Thunder. which premieres Monday night at 9 on CBC-TV.
At one time every section of Canada got to make its own dramatic series.
CBC Montreal gave us Urban Angel which I thought deserved a bigger run.
And before that there even was an English language talk show out of Montreal fronted by Al Hamel.
CTV countered in 1974 with a sitcom about English French tensions called Excuse My French . Remember that one?
And, of course, way way back there was The Plouffe Family with the same cast doing the French version one night and the English the next --and it was live!
Montreal, of course, Montreal also fronted as the sdite for many U.S. made productions.
Does anybody else out there remember Connie Stevens in the 1988 sitcom Starting From Scratch made in MOntreal.
21 Thunder is set in Montreal starring as --Montreal.
The dramatics center around the farm team U21 which feeds players into Montreal Thunder.
Other Canadian shows like Saving Hope or Rookie Blue simply do not mention what city they are dramatizing.
Some Canadian producers tell me they simply won't make a series up here if they're not guaranteed a U.S. sale in advance.
Stephanie Bennett plays Christy Cook who was an Olympics star and is hirted to coach a male soccer team.
Montreal is front and center here which I truly like although it may make for difficulties in peddling the show to the U.S. market.
The creators of the show Kenneth Hirsch and Adrian Wills (plus Riley adams) have created an unabashedly  quality Canadian product.
So three cheers!
This is also a show I wanted to watch. And I previewed the first two episodes which ran smoothly.
Some Canadian series I dutifully must watch but this one is terrific and should go into regular fall prime time on its second season.
Highlights? There's a greatish Scottish soccer star Davey Gunn played by real life Scottish soccer ace Ryan Pierce.
Emmanuel Kabongo plays a dazzling talent from Ivory Coast called Junior Lolo--this is a star turn as far as I'm concerned
Historically, series about sports team do not play well with audiences.
I was on the set of the Jim Bouton sitcom Ball Four which lasted for four episodes in 1976.
Even the great  producer  Steven Bochco tried valiantly with  the baseball saga Bay City Blues (1983) but it only lasted eight episodes.
I was on the set, thought it wonderful, but it sank like a stone in the ratings.
And more recently there was  Sports Night created but Aaron Sorkin which won many awards but female viewers stayed away from --it ran 32 episodes in 1998-99).
CBC once had the hockey saga He Shoots, He Scores and it ran from 1986 through 1989
with high ratings --and it was shot in Montreal.
21 Thunder needs careful handling and starting it in the summer where  competition is less fierce is a great idea.
CBC is cagily marketing it as "Sex, guns and gangs" which should attract all kinds of fans.
21 THUNDER PREMIERES ON CBC-TV MONDAY JULY 31 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.




Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Tea Explorer May Be The Year's Best TV Documentary




Did I really want to preview the new documentary The Tea Explorer? I wasn't sure but since it was directed by Andrew Gregg I figured it had to be of high quality.
Well, I brewed a big pot of Scottish Breakfast tea and I couldn't stop watching,it's that extraordinary.
The premiere is on the Documentary Channel premiering Sunday July 23 at 9 p.m.
The real subject matter is one man's obsession with all facets of tea.
That man is Jeff Fuchs from Manotick, Ontario, who has spent more than a decade pursuing all aspects of the tea culture that still predominates across China and into Nepal and Tibet.
"I was completely fascinated by him," says filmmaker Andrew Gregg. "A mutual friend introduced us originally. I could see a film right away. And the camera certainly does favor him --he was a model for a bit."
Fuchs gives us a complete course in how tea should be brewed, where it is cultivated, how it affects these ancient civilizations.
And this is not the tea you and I consume in tea bags in smartly packaged  tea cases.
We see how the ancient Chinese way of treating tea as more than a drink --it's almost a meal in itself, a sort of stew that Tibetans consume as their main breakfast and sold in large hard blocks where portions are chiseled off.
Gregg was his own cinematographer and the images captured are stark and gorgeous --the rocky trails he, Fuch and travel guides take us have been used for thousands of years but are not much used since China invaded Tibet.
"We shot it in October and November 2015," Gregg tells me. "You can see the first snows in some scenes. We weren't afraid of avalanches. But it was  such a journey."
The "ground zero" of the tea culture is China's Yunnan Province --in one shot Fuchs shows a tea tree still producing tea leaves  after 750 years.
The tea craze spread out from Yunnan although these days there are more regional coffee houses than tea stores --Gregg thinks this might be due to the feeling coffee is more "western".
Fuchs is the perfect presenter --he talks tea with tea house proprietors whose family run businesses go back through many generations.
So now I know the proper way the leaves must be harvested, how they get "fried and dried" and then the various ways the tea houses treat them and serve them.
Fuchs says he started hearing about the Tea Horse Road which lasted thousands of years and so we're off on a dazzling journey through very disparate cultures.
Gregg says to make that arduous journey which included time in Tibet he was accompanied by a Chinese "minder", actually a girl educated in the West, who became enthusiastic about a subject she knew little.
We also get to know the indigenous people, many worked in the tea trade until the 1960s when the trade routes were completely closed by the invading Chinese.
There are a few hardy survivors of those days and they have stories to tell.
There is also a gentleness of demeanor which I think may be a result of their religious training.
And they also had to be supremely physical --carrying huge packs and one false step would send them spiraling down and into treacherous gorges.
Fuchs is such a great interviewer he gets these characters to talk freely about their lives and it makes for wonderful TV.
Gregg thinks there may be a glimpse of a red panda on the wild in one scene --I also spotted a herd of what looked like black oxen being driven up one mountain slope.
"These are yaks being driven to winter quarters," Gregg tells me.
This was one of the few recent TV documentaries I've watched where I could have watched for at least another half hour.
On Tuesday July 18 The Tea Explorer premieres with a special screening at the Wolf Performance Hall, 251 Dundas St. London Ontario. at 7 p.m. Admission is free -- sponsored by The Tea Lounge of London.
Andrew Gregg will be there in person and Jeff Fuchs will be there vis Skype.
The Tea Explorer comes from 90th Parallel Productions and runs 74 minutes without commercials --the time just whizzed by and I hoped it could be longer it's that well made.
THE TEA EXPLORER PREMIERES ON THE DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY JULY 23 AT 9 P.M. E.T.
MY RATING: ****.