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: ****.





Thursday, June 29, 2017

Little India: Village Of Dreams A Must See










It's entirely appropriate for the brilliant new documentary Little India: Village Of Dreams to premiere on Canada Day --it runs Saturday July 1 at 9 p.m. on TVOntario.
Filmmaker Nina Beveridge tells me on the phone the ambitious film took a year and a half to plan and make --and that included multiple shooting days in the neighborhood.
I well know the location in east end Toronto along Gerrard St. East just before Coxwell--I attended Riverdale College at Gerrard and Jones, graduating in 1964, when Riverdale was an all white Protestant bastion.
Today all that is changed and Little India has become an important hub of South Asian commerce--in the 1980's and 1990's on a Saturday night Gerrard was so packed with tourists the Carlton streetcar often got stuck.
"I wasn't exactly sure of the focus at the beginning," Beveridge says. "It was always going to be a group portrait of the two generations of immigrants who have made it such a vibrant area to visit."
"I live only a few blocks away so I can walk there in 5 minutes."
Says Beveridge "The street is changing all the time. It has to for survival. There are other India concentrations out in suburban malls.
"In the summer weekends crowds will still gather. I thought I knew the area but it became a voyage of exploration for the whole crew."
Beveridge's method closely resembles the best work of master documentary maker Frederick Wiseman.
She concentrates on the people who live and work there and how they have changed while still cherishing their vital culture.
"It's about two generations --the immigrant parents and their Canadian raised offspring."
The original store keepers emigrated from South Asia starting in the early Seventies and built their businesses along Gerrard Street --the historic Naaz cinema was surely the backbone of the community.
"But now it has gone --a victim of changing times."
And the last time I took a streetcar ride I noticed the street seemed depopulated with many key shops shuttered --the next generation have moved out to Brampton and no longer live over their stores.
"The culture is still there. But gentrification is happening. Those who own their stores seem to be better off than the renters. The traditional fashion stores are still there and the beauty parlors but the next generation want more modern facilities.
"But even the culture back in India is changing."
Beveridge's challenge was to get these normally reticent people to open up. Her interviewing skills really shine forth.
"I had to get them used to the camera. In a very early shot I had two boys talk about their late father --they showed me the memory box they'd collected with things like his socks. It's a great moment, it just happened spontaneously.
"Really, it was a matter of trust, getting people to talk personally about their way of life and how it may be changing.
"The basic theme is what happens next. Two of the second generational girls aim for careers in criminology. Some accept the traditional arranged marriages, others do not."
Little moments illuminate this group profile
Like the joyous woman finally planning to movein the 1980s and 1990's into her own home in Brampton  after living in a huge home as part of an extended family. Her feeling of liberation at this is brilliantly captured.
The two brothers who lost their hard working father to a sudden heart attack seem conflicted --keeping his restaurant has been their goal working with the mother. But the older brother now goes to Upper Canada College and could have a brilliant future in other professions.
We get to visit the Forever Young Beauty Salon and Spa which peddles traditional Pakistani beauty secrets and cosmetician Yasmeen Zulfiqar-Khan is passionate about her great successes but her daughters seem rather ambivalent.
One daughter has stated her own event company which is already heavily booked while the pert teenager thinks policing might be her future.
While Indian themed business drift away other cultures are being featured in the new stores.
"Ethnic awareness is an basic theme. These people have survived and thrived and we should celebrate their uniqueness. I think the city should be proud of being so inclusive."
Beveridge says boiling the TVO print down to 58 minutes was "very rough. There'll be a longer version. And there are other materials including web shorts  coming up on the TVO website."
LITTLE INDIA: VILLAGE OF DREAMS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO SATURDAY JULY 1 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.






Monday, June 26, 2017

The River Of My Dreams: A Portrait Of Gordon Pinsent






It's entirely appropriate Documentary Channel is presenting the brilliant new TV biography  titled The River Of My Dreams : A Portrait Of Gordon Pinsent on Canada Day at 8 p.m.
Because there never has been a more commanding Canadian icon than Gordon Pinsent.
Sure, there are other Canadian superstars out there but Chris Plummer and Donald Sutherland went away to gain their fame and fortune.
Pinsent stubbornly stayed behind except for a strange sojourn in Los Angeles making appearances on such TV series as Cannon and such flicks as Blacula.
Pinsent functions as his own tour guide of his life as he looks way backwards and reflects on the key players in his life.
There's the Dickensian poverty of his upbringing in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, and an education that did not get past Grade 8, an early interest in drawing and the determination to get off "the Rock" and find a better way of life.
Acting as the host of his own life there's Pinsent providing a running commentary and looking quite fit  at age 86.
Pinsent's anecdotes are priceless from the moment he convinced a Canadian immigration officer he had a job (he didn't) to his time in a Winnipeg dance studio as as instructor (who couldn't really dance).
In Winnipeg Pinsent learned the fundamentals of acting from the great John Hirtsch but moved to Toronto because it provided a bigger platform.
In Winnipeg Pinsent had married and had two small children who he left behind.
One of the best parts of this biography is meeting them as adults and seeing how that desertion affected them for years --but today they have reconciled with their wandering father.
In Toronto Pinsent met the incredibly talented actress Charmion King --I remember some of her dazzling turns at the Crest theater and I still think in terms of pure talent she was more than a match for Pinsent's easy going charm.
Contemporaries offering anecdotes include Chris Plummer, director Norman Jewison, R.H. Thomson and Mary Walsh among the younger generation affected by  Pinsent's presence.
One of the best things about this filmed portrait is its leisurely 88 minutes length that enables us to get deep into the Pinsent psyche.
I first met and interviewed him on the set of his CBC series A Gift To Last where the imported guest star Melvyn Douglas thanked Pinsent for treating him so well. But that's the way Pinsent treated all the actors working for him.
But I've always had this idea about a sequel to Pinsent's first series Quentin Durgens which nicely cast him as a Canadian M.P. I'd cast daughter Leah Pinsent as Durgens's daughter who takes over the seat and
gets involved in scandal which can only be resolved by her father rushing to the rescue.
Pinsent's own stories abnout encounters with Plummer at Stratford and Marlon Brando in the hills of Hollywood are rich.
Berman has stitched everything together seamlessly. The breadth of Pinsent's career is indeed remarkable.
But I wish there were a bit more details about the making of such Pinsent classic movies as The Rowdfyman and John And The Missus.
The finished film sports all the quality characteristics of those choice CBC-TV "Raskymentaries" --those long form profiles by Harry Rasky which used to flourish on CBC.
It does show that in so many ways Pinsent's journey was well worth all the emotional turmoil and heartaches.
Director Brigitte Berman has dedicated this remarkable profile to her husband Victor Solnicki who produced it and passed away on the day of the film's premiere at TIFF.
THE RIVER OF MY DREAMS PREMIERES ON DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SATURDAY JULY 1 AT 8 P.M. REPEATED SUNDAY JULY 2 AT 1 P.M. ON CBC-TV AND AT 9 P.M. ON DOCUMENTARY.
MY RATING: ****.




Sunday, June 25, 2017

Farewell To Peter Mansbridsge



So there I was  was covering CBC-TV's fall launch in  September 1976 when the head of CBC news Knowlton Nash marched to the podium to exclaim "I've just lost my Mr. Clean!"
CBC news anchor Lloyd Robertson had just jumped to CTV as co-anchor with Harvey Kirck.
An hour later we all were up at CTV headquarters on Charles St.  for an impromptu press conference and in dashed Harvey Kirck who had been on a promotional tour of CTV western affiliates and was dubious from the star the idea of two anchors would fly.
Two anchors! Now that was new!
And now all these years later Peter Mansbridge who replaced Nash who replaced  Peter Kent who replaced Lloyd Robertson will bid adieu to the daily grind of anchoring the news on July 1. But he'll stick around the CBC for special assignments.
And I'm thinking Mansbridge may well be the last white guy to read thew news at CBC.
Don't forget Mansbridge succeeded Nash as The National anchor 29 years ago and the TV news landscape is vastly changed since then.
Back in Robertson's day that's all the anchor did --read the news.
It was written by others and if Robertson veered from the text the  unions hollered --after all Robertson was in the announcer's union and not considered a journalist.
CBC's The National back then was the leader in ratings and prestige.
Indeed I remember once when The Toronto Star'sTV guide Starweek was going to run a cover on all the competing news anchors and CBCrefused to let Mansbridge pose with his competitors saying CBC was that far ahead of the pack.
Starweek had the others including Robertson and Global's Peter Trueman pose in front of a TV set and a standard shot of Mansbridge was pasted into the picture.
When CBC moved The National from 11 p.m. where it daily outstripped CTV to 10 p.m. I argued this was a mistake and I still think was right.
At 10 p.m. CBC faced a plethora of top rated American hour long dramas and ratings never bounced back to the highs at 11 p.m.
I also argued CBC made a bad mistake in having two separate shows --The National followed by The Journal with separate hosts and separate teams that often covered the same events.
Several CBC vice presidents from Ottawa stormed into the office of The Star's managing editor to argue that I was anti-CBC but in the long run I think I was proved right.
Peter Mansbridge is still there but after Barbara Frum's untimely passing her replacements at The Journal including  Pam Wallin and Hana Gardner were both found wanting and Mansbridge emerged as the sole anchor for the entire hour.
Of course back in 1980 there were no all day TV newscasts.
I once asked Nash why the two national newscasts had always been at 11 p.m.
And he answered "Because that was the earliest film from Ottawa and Washington could be flown to Toronto headquarters to be processed.There were no live feeds until well into the 1980s. Anchors could only read the news --we were not allowed to voice opinions."
In recent years The National's traditional viewers on the old line CBC have been tanking.
Younger viewers now catch the broadcast on Facebook  or the CBC News channel.
That's why CBC is saying three anchors may replace Mansbridge and they may be stationed throughout the country rather than at CBC's Toronto headquarters.
When Robertson left CTV News he stayed at the network as host of W5. Similarly Nash hosted various TV series on CBC News Channel.
Mansbridge at 68 is the kid of that group and he's a valuable asset for CBC in whatever he choses to do.
And he doesn't hold grudges.
When I retired as TV critic at The Toronto Star Peter even popped into my retirement party and said some nice things.
And as I told him that night retirement is only part of a grand new adventure.



Friday, June 23, 2017

Celebrate Canada Day Early With Jonathan Torrens





You can celebrate Canada Day early with Jonathan Torrens in the exceptional new CBC-TV  special Your Special Canada.
It premieres on CBC Sunday June 25 at 9 p.m. with a repeat on July 1 at 7 p.m. on CBC-TV. Got all that?
"It's a comedic valentine to the joys of being Canadian," Torrens is saying on the phone from his Nova Scotia home.
"I thought it would be fun to re-visit Charlottetown where I was born and where Canada was born in 1864."
Along the way Torrens invites a certain jaded politician named Sir John A. Macdonald to comment on the proceedings as he visits a maple syrup bunker in Quebec, soldiers stationed in the northernmost Canadian base of Nunavut (closer to Stockholm than Ottawa) and even dives into a gigantic butter tart for a socko finish,
"I think we covered a lot of territory --the intention was to show Canadian diversity," Torrens is saying. "There's a lot to be proud of in this country."
The last time I remember hearing about Torrens he was announcing farewell to a remarkable 10-year stint on the TV series hit Trailer Park Boys.
Torrens was nicely cast as the white rapper J-Roc. He says leaving was hard particularly since the series shows no signs of dipping in popularity.
"It's one of those Canadian TV hits that keeps on going" he says and certainly to be placed in the same category as Red Green, Corner Gas and the current comedy hit Schitt's Creek.
Torrens' work on TPB includes 10 seasons of TV episodes, three movies and two specials.
He also toiled as a director and writer on the series --it won a deserved Gemini as best ensemble performance in a comedy.
"I couldn't do anything more with the character," Torrens tells me. "But it was always a pleasure to be part of that company."
I first interviewed Torrens when he was fronting a talk show called Jonovision --I'm reminding him of the time the arranged for the first reunion of the cast of Degrassi.
It was the great reception these grown ups received that spurred interest in the revival of the series which lasted far longer than the original series.
I tell Torrens he should get an agent's fee for setting the groundwork.
Torrens' salute to the uniqueness of Canada ranges from a Zamboni race to a salute to the world's oldest drag queen all done in a light comedy style that's fresh and funny.
One of the highlights is a sweet and touching salute to aging drag queen, Russell Alldread (as Michelle DuBarry),  a proud Canadian, that shows how talented Torrens is as an interviewer.
The visit to the maple syrup vaults is amazing --all that liquid gold held in a gigantic bunker just in case there's another world wide shortage.
"Then we have a race between ice resurfacers --as they prefer to be called and what could be more Canadian than that."
At Toronto's Harbourfront Torrens asks such daring questions as who is the sexier Canadian-- Pamela Wallin or Pamela Anderson? A wrong answer gets a beaver tail in the face.
"We got in and out of Nunavut in 36 hours. It's the most amazing place."
And there's a cute Anne of Green Gables parody with Torrens as Jonathanne.
Mention must also be made of producer Lynn Harvey who was integral to the special right along.
Next Torrens is off to shoot the fourth season of Mr. D --he plays vice principal Robert Cheeley.
But I'm suggesting CBC look at Your Special Canada as a possible pilot for a new comedy series showing the breadth of Torrens's talent.
It's been a long time since CBC had a decent late night talk and comedy show. How about it CBC?
YOUR SPECIAL CANADA PREMIERES ON CBC-TV SUNDAY JUNE 25 AT 9 P.M. On CBC (REPEATED JULY 1 AT 7 P.M._
MY RATING: ****.
B

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Time To Bid Adieu To Orphan Black







So there I was at the local street bash in my Toronto neighborhood and a neighbor from several blocks away is telling me she never watches Canadian TV drama series.
"But you've just said you're a loyal fan of Orphan Black," I told her. "And it's made right here in Toronto."
And boy did she look surprised and chagrined!
I'm always getting that kind of guff from people addicted to American serialized TV dramas.
So it pains me a bit to report this is the last season for Orphan Black which certainly blew back on a lot of stereotypes.
Here is a Canadian series that is beautifully made in all departments and lead Tatiana Maslany has soared to super stardom --and even won an Emmy as best series actress which I think must be a first for a Canadian TV show.
But this isn't all a rave --I felt the death of a beloved clone on last week's episode went far too far.
One could hear the crunching of the bones and the scene was far too violent for other fans, too, judging from reactions on the fan base.
"Clonicide" was the word used.
Star Tatiana says the staged death scene was "awful"and she had a sort of rig installed as the character got stomped to death.
Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson say the death scene was planned for last year's Season Four but delayed until the final outing to make maximum dramatic impact.
I found the first few episodes of Season 5 to be a bit disappointing and that's because on all serialized drama cliffhangers have to be resolved or explained away.
But what has always distinguished this show is the sheer professionalism, call it "the look" of each episode.
Production designer John Dondertman deserves a lot of credit along with his whole staff and the same goes with costume designer Debra Hanson and director of photographer Aaron Morton.
And then there are the Canadian directors: Helen Shaver, David Wellington, Grant Harvey, David Frazee, and Morton again.
I visited with Maslany at the end of the first batch of shooting --I'd long admired her for her guest work on such other series as Heartland.
She didn't seem to believe me when I told her her career would be changed --for the better --and was off to New York for the first batch of publicity.
Garnering an Emmy was big news --I'm trying to remember other actors on Canadian series who were similarly noticed.
Indeed when the Toronto version of Queer As Folk was running the executive producers told me it would garner no acting Emmy nominations because the voters were U.S. based and not likely to nominate "runaway productions".
Anyhow I'm determined to watch the last batch of Orphan Black and wonder what's next for Canadian TV series drama --what will be the next great show or is it already in the works?
.