Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Missing: TV At Its Best




The opening of The Missing, the new British miniseries, is exquisite and totally horrifying.
An average British couple are on vacation in rural France when their five-year old goes completely missing.
There are no clues, no one saw him vanish, he has just ceased to exist.
In other words here is a parent's worst ever nightmare and as the continuing stories over the investigation of Madeleine McCann prove that search may never be over.
This immaculately made eight-hour miniseries is so well done you'll want to watch it even if the subject matter is so very terrifying.
Part One is on Super Channel Wednesday November 26 at 10 p.m. Got that?
But how much is enough?
British TV has recently been hit with a rash of accusations about an unmistakeable to the sordid.
And there are times I wanted to turn away from the first two episodes which I've premiered.
The story is simplicity enough: Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O'Connor) and adorable Oliver (Oliver Hunt) are stuck in rural France after their rental breaks down.
The location is Chalons du Bois and it is during the World Cup fever of 2006.
Tony loses sight of Oliver in a crowded bar --he releases the boy's hand to clap for victory and the child simply disappears.
The French police are a lumbering lot and it is not until Chief Inspector Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) arrives by train from Paris that the investigation gets into high gear.
The timeline is a bit blurry because it hops and skips from the present to the past of six years ago --Olivier would now be 12.
Tony has arrived back in Chalons du Bois and he tries to entice the inspector out of retirement --the little boy's scarf has been found and traced back to a used clothing store proving there may be hope.
The miniseries was written (beautifully) by Harry and Jack Williams, sons of playwright Nigel Williams and was directed by Tom Shankland with the emphasis on nuance.
Filming was mostly done in and around Brussels and the sunsets are beautifully caught, the laid back lifestyle of the locals a counter point to what is happening in the hearts and minds of the principals.
But let us not forget The Missing is a thriller.
Everything is geared to put that knot back in your stomach as often as possible every hour.
There is the screeching soundtrack that really got to me.
It's like a jigsaw puzzle that you can't completely solve.
And at the center of the action there's Nesbitt who is quite remarkable in holding everything together.
I couldn't turn away even when wanting to which is the mark of great TV.
THE MISSING PREMIERES ON SUPER CHANNEL WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 26 AT 10 P.M.
MY RATING:****.




Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Next Step :Must Viewing for Teens







Every year I venture onto the set of The Next Step.
Never heard of this Toronto made TV series?
Then I'm afraid, my friend, you are definitely out of it.
A few days ago I was visiting a Grade Six class across the street from where I live and I asked for a show of hands for anybody who watched this terrific dance series.
A forest of hands went up --far more than when I asked who was watching Degrassi: The Next Generation these days.
"I think we've got Degrassi on the run," laughs creator and director Frank van Keeken (of Temple Street productions).
I look at him closely because he's that familiar.
Way back when he wrote for The Kids In The Hall. But I'm remembering him as an actor on Maniac Mansion and Seinfeld.
When I visited the TLS set in late August van Keeken was shooting all the dance finale scenes one after another at cavernous O'Keefe Centre.
And just to prove his point real life kids from across the city were forking out $5 each to sit in the audience for two hours and just enjoy themselves.
"We shoot a new half hour episode every 1 1/2 days," he says. Take that Degrassi which takes 2 1.2 days for the same effort.
One big plus is the presence of five cameras recording every scene --I've been on L.A. sitcoms where there were three or four cameras but never five.
"The kids have talking points for each dramatic scene," Vvn Keeken  explains. "But there's no memorization of lines. It's what they feel comfortable saying.  Basically they're playing themselves, they know what their character would say."
But since this is the saga of a dance troupe some new members must appear each season and some others must depart.
"It's sad seeing them go," he acknowledges. "But they come back from time to time. And hopefully we've instilled in them a passion for acting which mixed with their great dancing might take them to other heights."
I got to spend some time with the incredibly gorgeous Victoria Baldesarra who is one of the youngest cast members but also just about the prettiest.
She says "it was strange playing the character all last summer and then going back to school and everywhere I'd look the younger school kinds would be looking up at me. My peers tried to have me believe they were above that. But even some of them were awe struck."
When I met her in the summer she has thinking of going the home schooled route this season --I still wonder if that happened.
The past two years have been largely filmed out at Scarborough's Timothy Eaton Technical School which is slated for demolition shortly.
"Any big empty school will do," chuckles van Keeken. "We need a real large gymnasium and a spacious auditorium. Empty classrooms become loading stations for props and scenery."
I remember last year when I ventured up to the school it was lunch break and I watched in awe as some of the guys were involved in a competition out on the front lawn to see who could jump the highest from a standing position.
Not only is The Next Step a TV hit here it also plays to high ratings in England. and Australia.
"That's why we've imported an English girl, this season she's our villain and she's delicious.
"We went over to the U.K. and held auditions and had huge turnouts. I picked Ella because she's lovely but she can
also dance really well".
And as if on cue Gilling steps up and we chat. Working 10 hours a day in humid Toronto weather wasn't her first option for a summer vacation.
"But I'm learning so much. The dancing --every day --it's the best possible training for me. My parents are here for me but as far as visiting and seeing the Toronto sites: too busy!"
She says before she's back on a place for home "I just have to visit Niagara Falls. It's a must!"
Then I had a chance to chat up Lamar Johnson who everyone on set predicts will be the big break out star.
Self taught as a dancer, he later jumped into acting before rediscovering his roots on TNS.
"But this dancing bug didn't desert me. I taught myself hip hop and now I'm into ballet, I really am. The other guys in class were out doing sports, I was always dancing instead.
A graduate of the Wexford school for the Arts he says "Now I can combine acting and dancing and not have to make that choice at least not yet."
Says van Keeken:"The biggest learning curve for these kids is seeing that acting and dancing can mix --just being a dancer is very restrictive in terms of job opportunities. Here we let them explore both sides of their personalities."
The third season of 30 new episodes premieres in Spring 2015 on Family Channel.





Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Secret Life Of Pigeons: Timely And Moving




I previewed a brilliant new CBC documentary the other day and then I rushed out to feed the pigeons at the parkette near where I live.
I swear there is a connection!
The CBC documentary I watched  titled The Secret Life Of Pigeons is director-writer Scott Harper's often moving take on the plight of urban pigeons.
Of course I feed the birds in my area when I can remember to which is often not enough during these chilly November days.
Harper's take is quite compelling. I know a lot of my neighbors think pigeons are just nuisances and certainly among the dirtiest of urban critters out there.
"Winged rodents!" is one of the nicer comments I've heard recently.
Not so says Harper on the telephone.
"They're just about the smartest animal around --look at the way they can find their way back home from distant places."
Indeed in some experiments we watch scientists try to figure out the amazing homing tendencies of these birds.
Is it scent? Do they use familiar landmarks or fly by the sun and the stars?
I'm told it's a TV first but a miniaturized camera is trapped onto the head of a pigeon --don't worry the animal doesn't suffer --and off we go getting a bird's eye view of how it travels home!
I never knew these were the first animals to be domesticated by early man --there are references to these birds right back to ancient Egypt.
"They certainly intrigued me," Harper says. "There's the public image and then reality. They form tight knit families although the males are not always monogamous.
Sounds like some human families I know.
"But both parents help in the baby rearing."
We see the kinds of shelters they prefer in the urban landscape to escape from predators including hawks.
Says Harper: "Their lives are very short, they frequently starve to death in brutal winters. They manage to mate and bring up the next generation and then they die."
Harper tells me today's city pigeons are the ancestors of domesticated pigeons brought over by immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Somehow the genteel European traditions of breeding them got challenged in the tough environment of the modern city.
"The birds either escaped or were deliberately set free and then adapted fairly quickly to the harsh new realities.
Here's where I must declare a potential conflict of interest.
Relatives of mine have bred and shown pigeons over the years --my favorite has always been the fan tail which Harper also likes.
I'm confessing all this because I really liked the section on the wonderful world of pigeon fanciers who take their birds to fairs and even release them in pigeon races.
One thing Harper stays clear of and I must thank him for that: a certain European craving for pigeon pie and like delicacies is never mentioned here.
This pigeon profile is well scheduled --just before the wintry bursts which deprive all outdoor birds of food supplies.
One Quebec professor shows us how pigeons evenly distribute themselves over a city so there are never too many pigeons to feed at any one park.
This one is tightly edited and cleverly shot and I tell Harper he could make a big sale to U.S. TV with the addition of a few shots of pigeons in Central Park.
And he says he's already working on it.
But The Secret Life Of Pigeons will have really succeeded if it gets you to cut up your stale dated bread and feed it to man's best friend in the winged category.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PIGEONS DEBUTS ON CBC-TV'S THE NATURE OF THINGS THURSDAY NOVEMBER 20 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.



Friday, November 7, 2014

A Brilliant TV Plea For Justice






Tommy Ziegler has spent more than half his life in prison, convicted of murders he could not have possibly committed.
He stares out at us in his orange prison jump suit. The big glasses make him seem even more frail and lost.
Now 68 Tommy has spent more than half his life in a Florida jail for killing his wife and her parents.
But forensic experts have been saying for decades he could not have done it.
Now there's renewed interest to free Zeigler based on a brilliant new Canadian documentary titled A Question Of Innocence.
It runs on Investigation Discovery channel Sunday night at 8 and is a must see for anyone interested in truth and justice.
Zeigler was convicted of the Christmas Eve murders in 1975 and has been fighting for a fair trail ever since.
But he has exhausted virtually every means of appeal and the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, just re-elected has a fast track program  titled "Death Ready"to speed inmates of Death Row to their executions.
"It was the kind of story I've always been interested in," says veteran producer Christian Bruyere.
"I started investigating in 2001 and all the pieces effortlessly fell into place.
" I first met Tommy on his 67th birthday,a kind, sweet guy, resigned to his fate, but not the mass killer depicted by the state".
Bruyere's company Mystique Films is renowned for these type of films going right  the 2001 TV movie scorn which copped an Emmy as Best TV picture.
I remember 2005's Children Of The Tsunami, a look at Sri Lankan orphans.
His latest CBC documentary Naked garnered the highest audience of any one hour documentary on CBC Newsworld.
"Obviously during the recent Florida gubernatorial race I was hoping Scott was not going to make it but he squeaked through. It just makes it that little bit harder."
The motives for killing Zeigler family members has never been clearly stated.
"Even today he still loves his wife," Bruyere says.
"He loved walking the dog with her. They were in the furniture store late that night to pick out a gift for her visiting parents.
"State made much of the insurance policies taken out on Mrs. Ziegler's life but that was legally necessary as she was joining the firm as a partner."
Bruyere approaches the evidence already gathered and lays it out for us --he meticulously reconstructs  everything that is known about that fateful night.
One big question is: who was the other man whose corpse was also found that night --he had the DNA of another man's blood also on his jersey.
"The fourth victim --who was he? Was he perhaps the perpetrator , the hired killer along with another man? "
And then there's the conduct of Judge Whitehead during the trial --he and Zeigler had previously clashed and on every piece of evidence the judge ruled against the defense.
Bruyere advances a dazzling theory who had ordered the deaths --watch the hour and see if you agree with me that this theory fits perfectly.
Superb editing and the inclusion of well staged dramatic bits makes this a compelling hour, a very model of how to present evidence.
I couldn't turn away and neither will you.
Instead I now firmly believe in Tommy Zeigler's innocence.
A QUESTION OF INNOCENCE PREMIERES ON INVESTIGATION DISCOVERY SUNDAY NOVEMBER 9 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.




See No Evil: Reality TV Worth Catching


 


 I admit I hesitated just a bit when it came to previewing the first installments of the latest TV reality series titled See No Evil.
But the show is Canadian after all so I decided to go with it.
The first hour premieres on Slice Friday November 7 at 9 p.m.
Well, I was never as pleasantly surprised --this one is expertly stitched together from actuality, recreated scenes, comments of the main participants.
I ended watching both hours and understanding that the tension never lets up.
Quite a few of these recreations of true life murders are readily available these days on American TV.
This one has a very different angle --it's the thesis that in today's world we are constantly being monitored whether we like it or not.
In both cases the crimes are cracked with the help of surveillance cameras plus some pretty fancy footwork by local police.
The first episode is truly a stunner as a well respected man and his wife are viciously gunned down by assailants right in their home. --it is July, 2009.
Their extended family includes adopted children who scatter to hide but the killers are not interested in them.
The Billings family seemed exemplars of Christian family virtues in their neighborhood of Pensacola, Florida, until their grisly executions.
I can understand the local cops wanting to get on camera and explain everything but also interviewed is a next door neighbor and even the grown Billings daughter.
The family had 16 surveillance cameras everywhere except in the bedrooms where the killings took place.
Police are able to spot the two vehicles the killers used but not the license plates.
Dressed in military garb with masks, the killers thought they'd get away with it.
But gradually police begin honing in, looking for one of the vehicles as a starting point.
Then a local convenience store supplies its own video of the same car and the chase is on.
The second hour is if anything even more bizarre as a well liked teenager disappears from her bedroom one night in Star City --her door was locked but the window is wide open.
Again I'm stunned the parents would be willing to be interviewed during a time of grief.
But the girl had run off to party before and they thought she'd surely return home within days.
Says the mom "I knew something was bad wrong."
Her two best teen friends are distraught and then their stories begin changing.
Surveillance video at the housing estate captures teen Shuyler running into a parked car and whizzing off but it is so dark the car cannot be identified.
Police take us through their interrogations of choice suspects but the solving of this one will leave you completely stunned and upset.
Of course my TV critic's oath of honor prevents me giving away either ending.
This one is a co-production between Canada's Saloon Media and the UK's Arrow Media.
It really works because in both cases there is a ton of "actuality" and the puzzle pieces are expertly stitched together proving that in our Brave New World society surveillance is everything.
See No Evil premieres on Slice Friday November 7 at 9 p.m.
My rating: ***1/2.

 






Monday, November 3, 2014

King Tut UnMasked





It's only taken 3,000 years but the secrets of the boy pharaoh King Tut have finally been unmasked.
And as revealed in a new TV documentary it's not a pretty sight.
Catch it all in the new Discovery special King Tut UnMasked which revs up Sunday November 9 at 8 p.m.
After an hour of previewing this one I felt right sorry for the troubled teen who hobbled around with a club foot --he also had a cleft palate.
Basically this is an hour long virtual autopsy performed in high tech style by Egyptian antiquarian expert Dr. Zahi Hawass. assisted by surgeon Hutan Ashrafian and radiologist Dr. Ashraf Selim.
Contributing historical nuggets is Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson.
First up there are complicated procedures to identify his father and mother. Try extracting DNA from such mummified remains!
It can only be done these days and the results are startling.
Of course we know all about the Curse of King Tut --his mummy was discovered in 1922 by British archeologist Dr. Howard Cain in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.
Dr. Carter's benefactor Lord Carnaveron died suddenly after the tomb was opened leading to all sorts of story.
First Hawass must establish that deceased pharaoh Akhenaten was actually Tut's father and that is done.
But the surprise here is Tut's mother was a sister of Akhenaten --her mummy is discovered. Nefretri was Akhenaten's official consort.
But after all at the age of 10 Tut married his half sister. Incest ran rampant in the royal family because pharaohs were believed descended from the gods.
Inbreeding destroyed the young boy's health --there are over 100 cames left for him in his tomb to help him in the after life.
All this is played out as an engulfing mystery.
One thing is debunked: the hole at the back of the head was probably made by Carver in trying to dislodge the golden mask from the mummy.
This of course means the assassination theory of his death is not true.
More intriguing is a leg fracture that may have resulted from malaria and caused sudden death.
The tomb was so hastily constructed the paintings were made while the plaster was still moist causing mold to form.
What evolves is an intriguing guide in ancient Egyptian history with visits to the Valley of the Kings and the Sphinx.
Tut became pharaoh aged just 10 in 1333 B.C. and he died just nine years later, the last of his dynasty.
KING TUT UNMASKED PREMIERES ON DISCOVERY SUNDAY NOVEMBER 9 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.



Sunday, November 2, 2014

War Story: One Of Canadian TV's Best !


 


I usually don't herald TV shows so early but in the case of the third season of War Story on History the entire six new episodes are worth cancelling all outside plans.
War Story is all Canadian, real life stories told by physically feeble veterans of the D-Day landings.

Their bodies may be frail but their encounters are riveting and told with compassion and tears making this must-see TV.
This season the focus is on battles in Europe and series director and co-executive producer Barry Stevens says sadly it will be the last season.
"We're talking events of 70 years ago. Even if a guy was 18 back then he'd be very old today. And this we forgot as the cameras were on them because they were pitch perfect in memory.
"Events like that stayed with them, never leaving. Then at the end of the interview session we'd have to help them get to their feet. Our oldest vet was 99 so...."
And Stevens is right --how remarkable it is for the viewer to share these defining moments in our nation's history by the actual participants and as they disappear they will be our last contact with  such nation building moments.
As with the first two seasons there is no omniscient narrator. The veterans themselves tell everything with an occasional prompt from an unseen interviewer (Stevens).
Stevens (partnered with David York) also got to the exact locations of the landings and the battles and also discovered contemporary Europeans who witnessed these epochal days.
First Up  Saturday November 8 at 8 on History is the magnificent Dieppe Survived.
All I knew about this defeat was watching the British commander Lord Mountbatten being very cross with CBC's Laurier LaPierre on TV at the time his memoirs came out.
The Dieppe assault on August 18, 1942 was one of the blackest days in Canadian military history. Participants interviewed call it a massacre and it certainly seemed doomed from the start.
In a bizarre way it showed the Russians the  western Allies were not yet ready for a full scale invasion.
But in just eight hours over 900 Canadian soldiers perished. The 2,000 captives were shipped off to Nazi camps where they describe simply surviving as acts of heroism.
Stevens says the mission may have planned all along to capture an Enigma cyphering machine.
 Sunday November 9 at 8 there's D-Day Plus One which looks at what happened to Canadian soldiers as that fateful day progressed.
"We talk to Canadian tank commander Bill McCormick who by all estimates was the Allied soldier who got furthest into France that day," Stevens tells me.
"But he's so danged modest we could never get him to admit this on film!"
Brilliant inter-cutting between French, German and Canadian combatants makes this one enthralling.


A second episode, Whistle For A Tiffy, follows at 8:30 p.m.
It examines the Tactical Air Force through exceptional POV aerial footage --Hawker Typhoon bomber fighters were pivotal in the Allied success.
Monday November 10 at 8 comes Falaise: The Corridor Of Death looking at the battle in August 1944 between Polish and Canadian forces and German forces who were being encircled in Normandy.
I knew almost nothing about this bloody encounter which is told by combatants in great detail.
It is followed at 8:30 with  by Canadians Jim Wilkinson and Lawrence Levy (describing how he changed his dog tags so the Nazis wouldn't know he was Jewish if he got captured) and German participants Erich Bissoir and Edgar Vogel.
Best of the bunch at 8:30 is Where The Hell Is The Leopold and Scheldt as the Germans in the fall of 1944 fought viciously in canals that assisted them in hiding. Canadian endured huge casualties described in painful detail by survivors.
Finally on Tuesday at 8 p.m. there's Liberation an hour long recreation of the fighting in Holland as Canadian forces liberated the starving country.
The key account comes from Betty Laron who was a Dutch Jewish girl around the same age as Anne Frank.
Her family was hidden by Dutch friends but in a house with paper thin walls where conversations could be heard by neighbors.
This one looks at the acts of collaboration by many young Dutch men who were unemployed and the meticulous recreation of events is sensational --this story could be re-told in a feature length film, I feel.
The newsreel shots of Liberation Day are amazing, so much so that Stevens wondered if they had been staged later. Then he concluded such spontaneity could not be replicated.
"It was a sad day when we were wrapping up the interviews," Stevens says. Many of the participants were reached just in time to tell their stories
Expert cross cutting between archival shots, interviews and new footage of the areas covered makes each story spring to life --there isn't a wasted moment.

Stevens says "It's important we don't forget them. They left Canada as kids, returned as heroes, 70 years later the horrors they witnessed are still with them."
I agree --if we ever forget these sacrifices then Canada will be diminished --that's what I took away from this anecdotal history.
It's important young people watch particularly in public and high schools where teaching history has become a slap dash affair.
I watched all the episodes in one marathon preview sitting. I just couldn't stop.
I  felt that pride --hat it must have been like to be young and Canadian 70 years ago.
WAR STORY PREMIERES ON HISTORY FRIDAY NOVEMBER 8 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.



c