Wednesday, May 24, 2017

CBC: All Guns Firing For the New 2017-18 Season

Fighting Back!
That's the response of the beleaguered CBC as it struggles to hold its audience while still trying to fiull all roles as the country's public broadcaster.
At a star studded affair at CBC's downtown Toronto studios the mood seemed positively upbeat after years of budget cuts and constraints.There's even going to be a new summer drama series 21 Thunder set in Montreal and starring Christy Cook (Sephanie Bennett from The Romeo Section).
I thoroughly enjoyed chatting her up and Michael Levine (Republic Of Doyle).
It's been a bit since CBC had a hit Montreal series and this could be the one.
And coming on the heels of The Handmaiden's Tale there's going to be a new miniseries titled Alias Grace written and produced by Sarah Polley starring Sarah Gadon as a young, poor Irish immigrant and co-starring Paul Gross, Anna Paquin and Kerr Logan.
I also got to cat up Allan Hawco whose new drama series Caught is set in 1978.
Hawco told me it was a mighty difficult decision to close down the phenomenally popular The Republic Of Doyle but "I'm an actor. I had to move on as hard as that was for me."
Co-starring are Paul Gross, Tori Anderson, Eric Johnson, Charlotte Sullivan.
The Frankie Drake Mysteries comes from executive producer Christina Jennings --she is currently responsible for the long running Murdoch Mysteries.
This time out we'll follow the adventures of two female detectives in the Toronto of the 1920s. Starring are Lauren Lee Smith and Chantal Riley.
I suggested importing the cast of Murdoch in a mystery that starts in Toronto in 1900 and gets solved 20 years later.Hey, I really like that idea.
A new CBC drama series premiering in winter 2018 stars Canadian TV star Kristin Kreuk(Smallville) as an attorney returning to her small town roots.
I had a long conversation with Ilana Frank whose fine series records includes The 11th Hour, Rookie Blue and Saving Hope.
Returning CBC hour series hits include the venerable Heartland, Murdoch Mysteries and When Calls The Heart,
I finally met the great comedy talents responsible for Baroness Von Sketch Show which returns Tuesday June 27 at 9 p.m. for seven new half hours.
I think it deserves a fall prime time slot next.
And I re-met the creative team behind Kim's Convenience which returns for 13 new half hours in the fall. I think it's almost as funny as Schitt's Creek.
One new inexpensive series and all most  certain success will be The Great Canadian Baking Show which gets paired Wednesday nights with the original The Great British Baking Show.
Also returning Mr. D, Rick Mercer Report, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Workin' Moms.
CBC is also investing in 15 original digital series.
 There was a lot of talk at the opening meeting of using different platforms and how to fight back.
And there was one nostalgic note as Peter Mansbridge made his last appearance to TV critics --he's been anchoring The National for decades and retires from front line duty this summer.
And I'm still hearing one replacement could well be Ian Hanomansing.
There seemed to be more CBC employees in attendance this year--I'm told the Liberal government is promising more money for programming which is the best news of all.
What is immediately needed are av few miniseries on Canadian history like such pas successes as Pierre Berton's The Last Spike amnd the one with Riel.
CBC needs to win back the artsy crowd who have drifted over to PBS.
I remember in 1979 when CBC was in a similar financial bind the archives were opened and a "new" series Rearview Mirror created to run several Sundays with host Veronica Tennant.
Reruns of great opera and ballet specials were run plus choice episodes of such hits as Front Page Challenge and even an old Telescope interview with Charles Templeton quizzing Somerset Maugham.
In fact I think CBC should revive Front Page Challene and stock it with current Canadian stars and add Peter Mansbridge as host and for relatively little money have yet another hit.
How about it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sonita Is Must-See TV

I almost gave up on the brilliant new documentary Sonita --the first 15 minutes are hard going as we are introduced to an introverted Afghan refugee struggling to survive in Iran.
But I stuck with it and so should you --this profile touches most of the emotional bases and emerges as a must see profile of a young girl determined to survive in a male dominated culture.
You can catch it on TVOntario Wednesday May 18 at 9 p.m. --it's a North American premiere.
What an incredible character Sonita turns out to be.
If she had her way Michael Jackson  would be her father and she'd be a rapper commenting on the violence in her society and the way women are disrespected.
We first see Sonita performing for her mates in a Tehran shelter --they are refugees from the civil war in Afghanistan.
The pert teen was originally into rock music but has turned to rap because it allows her to comment on the ways society has turned against her generation.
And we get to know her and love her for her courage.
Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami bonds with her 18-year old subject and builds up a portrait of  survival and identity in a region of the world perpetually at war.
This film took three years of shooting as we see the plight of Afghan  refugee in Iranian society.
In fact the 40-year old Maghami became completely involved in the life and goals of this courageous teen to the point she put up $2,000 to ensure Sonita's future.
You see under Afghan law Sonita is expected to return home and marry someone she does not even know so her dowry of $9,000 can go to her brother so he can purchase a wife of his own.
At the beginning it is taken for granted that Sonita's story will not have a happy ending --everything is so stacked against her.
A refugee, she lacks a passport and it seems a music scholarship in the U.S. will be out of her reach.
The director has said that she only interviewed Sonita as a favor to a cousin who worked at a hostel for child laborers.
At first Sonita was sullen and uncommunicative but there was something about her inner strength that was oddly appealing.
Sonita wanted to be a rapper although Iranian society bans female singers.
Sonita is but one of three million Afghan refugees struggling to survive in an often hostile environment.
Only 18 per cent of Afghan women are literate compared to 45 per cent of men, The girls marry as soon as possible as protection.
Sonita's journey becomes our journey. We see her blossom under tutelage and her songs are courageous laments about the problems of her people.
From timidity she evolves to bold rapper and the "happy ending" is wondrous to behold.
So Sonita becomes must see TV.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cancellation Row

It's that time of the year for the ailing U.S. networks to cancel all the series which they figure aren't working.
FOX surprised us all by dumping Sleepy Hollow after four seasons--the wonderful period drama with Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane lost a quarter of its audience this season.
Just as surprising was the axing of the police procedural Rosewood after a mere two seasons--it lost fully half its first year viewers.
It was three strikes and you're out for Pitch about the first female MLB player --trouble was sports fans simply were not interested.
The Live Action CGI Son Of Zorn starring Jason Sudekis lost fully half its fans over its first season and is out.
Also cancelled: Making History and APB.
I was surprised ABC dumped Last Man Standing but the web says the Tim Allen starrer had lost its punch after six seasons.
After only five episodes ABC pulled Time After Time with Freddie Stroman as H.G. Wells.
ABC also canned Conviction with Hayley Atwell as a wrongly convicted former First Daughter.
ABC also canned American Crime with Felicity Huffman and Regina King after three years.
Also gone: Secrets And Lies, Imaginary Mary, Dr. Ken, The Catch and The Real O'Neals.
NBC's time travel drama Timeless was dumped after a mere season.
Emerald City set in Oz expired after one year. Powerless all about superheroes isn't coming back. And the spinoff The Blacklist: Redemption lasted but a season.
CW pulled Frequency as well as No Tomorrow.
CBS axed Doubt with Katherine Heigl after only two episodes.
CBS's medical drama Pure Genius with Dermot Mulroney is also out.
Disney cancelled Girl Meets World-the spinoff of Boy Meets World--after three years.
That's all I know but it's a pretty damning indictment of the way old form network TV is slowly but surely unraveling.

Friday, May 5, 2017

From Elwy Yost to Frederick Wiseman --that's the saga of TVOntartio on Saturday night.
What once was TVO's old movies nights with Elwy Yost now becomes the place to watch Wiseman's very long but completely affecting take on a choice New York city neighborhood in In Jackson Heights.
You can check it out Saturday night at 9 on TVO.
My advice is to make a big pot of tea and have a tray of sandwiches on a side table because Wiseman's films are very long --and very compelling.
Made in 2015 On Jackson Heights makes its world TV premiere which is certainly a coup,
The Wiseman style is present here --there are no voiceovers and scenes stay lovingly focused on the people being presented without any resort to editing or even close-ups.
I always find it difficult to get into a Wiseman film --the movement is so very slow but the longer I watch the more mesmerized I become.
I get the feeling here that I am right there in the room with these various citizens who are always treated so very reverently.
Here Wiseman focuses on a peoples' profile of a distinct neighborhood of New York city that is undergoing tremendous changes.
The film starts and ends with a discussion of how a gay man Julio Rivera was brutally murdered in 1990.
From this flow a series of vignettes showing how diverse cultures mix so freely --the area seems ripe for gentrification which is opposed by many residents who fear their relaxed way of live us being threatened.
Some highlights: the Muslim prayer meeting, LGBT members forming a boycott against ugly discriminatory projects, elderly women in a knitting bee talking about such favorite movie stars as Tyrone power, going out of business in a small shopping mall slated for demolition, a tattoo parlor's clientele, a delightful seniors resident telling us "I was happy until I was 98.", how chickens are decapitated before being broiled, a beauty parlor filled with older women, a belly dancing school, Tibetan monks chanting.
The underlying fear is that Jackson Heights is under threat as big box stores move in and destroy its very bohemian cultural roots.
I think my favorite scene is a driving school for potential taxi drivers as various cultural forces meet and clash..
Wiseman treats all his subjects reverentially --the way he treats older people made this film for me such as the dinner scene for an icon of the neighborhood who had spent his time helping others.
The movie has a poetical quality --it celebrates all kinds of residents without making any judgmental calls.
Wiseman gives as much time to all his people profiled . You see Wiseman cares about everyone, salutes their individuality,  and shows us what living in Jackson Heights is all about.
And the result is a minor masterpiece of  humanism.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another TV Luncheon

Had a perfect time at lunch today on the Danforth with three great friends: a veteran TV actress, a publicist I've known since 1970 and a TV producer with dozens of critics.
Here are highlights of our chatter:
ME: The big new CBC TV offering, yet another remake of Anne Of Green Gables, was pretty good although darkish compared with previous versions --the best one remains the one made with Sullivan Films starring Megan Follows.
PUBLICIST: My CBC  sources say the network was taken aback by the low ratings. I think they wanted 2 million viewers but had to settle for over 800,000 at least in the overnights I've seem. It may be just a case of a story being overly familiar.
ACTRESS: The irony at CBC this year has been the strong showing of such long running series as Heartland with the poor results of some of the new shows. I mean Rick Mercer routinely hovers just under 900,000 a week.
PRODUCER: Most in my position will not mount a new drama series for Canadian TV until they get an American producer and a U.S. sale. Having said that I still enjoy Saving Hope which ends this season --cheers to CTV for keeping it going after NBC quickly cancelled it.
ACTRESS: U.S. production in T.O. is very high right now because of the low standing of the Canadian dollar. But it never will revert to the glory days of the Nineties when it seemed that every other U.S. miniseries and TV movie was being shot here. That's because American TV movies are no longer made in such huge amounts.
ME: I liked Kim's Convenience which got very big audiences. I's say that's due to Ivan Fecan the executive producer who ran CTV for years and before that reinvigorated production at CBC.
ACTRESS: When Kevin O'Leary says he wants a downsized CBC where only news would be left I shuddered. But as ratings continue to fall I simply wonder how long any federal government can pour such funds into the CBC entertainment arm.
ME: When I started off in 1970 as TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator CBC's dictionary definition of a hit was 1.5 million for a series and 2 million for a TV movie or miniseries like Laurier. In those days CBC made its own dramas and comedies.
ACTRESS: There is no high arts left on any Canadian TV network. Adrienne Clarkson Presents was CBC's last desperate attempt at making operas and ballets. It's too expensive these days. I remember bumping into Norman Campbell --he still had a tiny office at CBC but never could produce anything in the Norman Campbell Theater on the top floor of CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters because there simply was no money.
ME: I once asked CTV President Murray Chercover why CTV never had a fall launch and he said "Our big entertainment shows are Littlest Hobo and Stars On Ice --you want me to publicize these?" But I did --I went on those sets every year and also I was on Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour and The Pat Paulsen Show both up at CFTO.
PUBLICIST: I remember when I first met you Jim in 1971 --Ed Sullivan was giving a press conference at CBC's "Kremlin" headquarters. He was taping a Christmas special to run on CBC which had Canadian rights but he had to tape it up at CFTO because CBC's facilities were so antiquated.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian show right now is Schitt's Creek. It's a perfectly made comedy gem.
ME: I told my CBC contacts the network should revive Front Page Challenge with a new cast of young names. I'm saying this only because the last FPC contestant Betty Kennedy just passed. And CTV should revive Headline Hunters --I visited that set in 1971 when Charles Templeton was the moderator.
ACTRESS: In the late Seventies CBC-TV had a similar revenue problem to today so they took old ballets and operas and repackaged the lot as a Sunday afternoon series called Rearview Mirror. Veronica Tennant was the charming hostess and ratings were sturdy. They should do something like that again to retain the loyalty of the artsy crowd.
ME: Just before HM Video folded I asked the store manager on Yonge Street which Canadian series not yet on DVD he was frequently asked about . He mention the CTV hit ENG, CBC's Beachcombers and Tommy Hunter as being on the top of the list
ACTRESS: My young nieces and nephews never watch conventional TV. They group together and watch everything on their devices. So maybe all TV is going to change?
ME: And my final question: Who's footing this bill?


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Truth Reigns In My First 150 Days

The shock of the truth.
It's all there in the brilliant new documentary My First 150 Days  premiering on TVOntario Wednesday April 12 at 9 p.m.
Because "Reality TV" these days is all the rage but it's actually Un-Reality TV where forced situations and staged moments predominate.
Not so with My First 150 Days which documents the highs and lows of a new family arriving at Pearson Airport to lives they never quite anticipated.
The 58-minute documentary was commissioned by TVO to mark Canada's 150th year as a nation and looks at the cultural adjustments made by a family struggling to learn new ways in a new land.
Producers Stuart Henderson and Romilla Karnick chose the family, explains director Diana Dai, before she was selected to direct.
I ask if the film was being commissioned today would it have focused on Syrian immigrants?
"No!" says Dai  on the phone. "Because it is not about refugees but the larger world of immigrants. No doubt I was asked to direct because I, too, am an immigrant. We connected when I met them at the airport. I knew what they were going through, I surely did."
Dai's accomplished group profile is filled with small moments of recognition not melodramatic staged events.
"Of course I didn't know what we all were getting into," she explains. "It was after all a film about them and not me."
"I filmed about every five days. It was very early into this when I learned the children of the mother, Melona who was already in Canada were having great difficulties. They finally said they did not want to be filmed anymore."
Canada just wasn't what they thought it would be. They'd journeyed from rural Philippines to an urban Canadian environment. They scarcely knew their mother who had preceded them eight years earlier.
Dai expertly captures these tension filled encounters as the newcomers seriously think of returning to a more leisurely lifestyle in their native country.
"I could understand all those conflicting emotions,"Dai  admits."I was born in China, took my M.A. in film at Leeds University in England and later emigrated to Canada. I knew how difficult the adjustment process could be. In their cases they were unskilled, that meant very tough jobs and long hours.
"What we are showing is the initial cultural shock which can last for many months. Some newcomers decide it is not worthwhile and want to return home to a land where they feel safe."
Dai is such an accomplished film maker that the family seem unaware of the cameras most of the time. The newcomers emerge as caring, feeling people without the usual cultural cliches.
Dai makes us feel for these people and we become interested in their struggles. It turns into an emotional roller coaster ride for viewers as well.
The production was shot between January and July 2016 but Dai notes "It is a difficult adjustment for everybody going to a new country"--she remembers meeting an Indian-born cabbie at Pearson who had university degrees and expected something better as an immigrant.
But how has the family fared since Dai stopped filming?
"I keep in touch. I still care. They are doing better. They are getting to know each other again. It's a long climb. My heart goes out to them. Their struggles are the struggles of all newcomers."
The film will be shown at a later date on CBC Documentary channel.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Secrets Of Survival Among the Year's Best

I wonder if Malka Rosenbaum and Juergen Ulloth have ever met?
Because they are the dual subjects of one of the best Canadian documentaries I've seen in years: Secrets Of Survival.
Malka was a student at the University of Toronto when she told her mother about the difficulties of being an only child.
And her mother then told her that she had an older sister who had been given to Polish neighbors during the height of the Holocaust.
Juergen Ullroth found out about his past when he went to the Kassel Municipality in west Germany to retrieve his birth certificate for his marriage license.
And the municipal clerk told a shocked young Juergen that his family name was actually Raenold, his mother's maiden name.
Juergen's mother had married Mr. Ullroth in 1951 four years after his birth.
"And that was the beginning of this dual profile," says veteran film masker Martin Himel on the line from Tel Aviv.
You can check out Secrets Of Survival for yourself --it premieres on the CBC Documentary Channel Sunday April 9 at 9 p.m.
"Originally I chose three subjects," Himel tells me. "But the first two worked out so well I could drop the third."
"Both Malka and Juergen were affected by World War II more than they had ever imagined. And our search for closure for these two extraordinary people turned out so much better than I had ever imagined."
Himel's odyssey took him and his two subjects "all over the place. On several continents.  Part of it depended on good luck, part on the dogged research of people who cared about this theme.It turned out better than I could ever have hoped for."
In Juergen's case Himel and his camera crew follow the resolute German right across the Atlantic where he learns his father was an 18-year old American soldier who very much wanted to marry his 16-year old German girlfriend.
"Juergen told me he didn't think his mother would ever consent to be on camera but just before we were preparing to leave he phoned and said she was ready. First surprise was how well she speaks English. But she also gives us the perspective of a scared teenager --Americans in 1946 were still very much considered to be the enemy."
The scenes of Juergen slowly researching his ancestry in America constitute highs and lows. His father Malcolm continued to visit until Juergen was three and then left forever.
Juergen's voyage of discovery takes him to relatives in North Carolina he never knew existed and one scene finds him in an evangelical church embraced by parishioners.
" An uptight European man suddenly found what it is to be treated as an American," laughs Hiimel.
Forty-five years after hearing of her sister's existence Malka is stunned to learn from an aged aunt that her sibling might indeed have survived the war.
Using extraordinary detection a young researcher in Poland is able to track down some valuable information about the sister.  Malka and her family visit the isolated farm deep in the Polish woods where the baby was secreted.
And what they discover is heart warming and heart breaking --you'll have to watch the entire film to learn more.
Himel says agrees these are only two of thousands of unresolved family secrets --a war that ended 72 years ago still reverberates.
"In both cases the survivors merely wanted to go on with their lives as best as they could," he tells me. "All became victims in some way or another. Juergen and Malka are more closely related than they could ever know."
MY RATING: ****.