Monday, December 31, 2012

David Sutcliffe Returns To Canadian TV

I thoroughly enjoyed that afternoon in 2005 I spent on the set of the TV flick Murder In The Hamptons interviewing Canadian actor David Sutcliffe.
It was a sunny, summer day with Oakville unsteadily subbing for Long Island and the location was a $10 million mansion situated snugly up to Lake Ontario.
Sutcliffe was then a rising TV name. And he's still rising.
After studying English at University of Toronto he jumped into acting starting with small parts in such Toronto series as Forever Knight and Nancy Drew.
I remember his first U.S. TV series was Cold Feet in 1999 --TV critics loved it but a bum time slot (Saturdays at 8) was its ruin.
But Sutcliffe is better remembered as wayward dad Christopher Hayden on the long running Gimore Girls (2001-07).
A bigger break came with the amiable sitcom I'm With Her (2003-04) loosely based on the real life romance of creator Chris Henchy and Brooke Shields but it petered out after a season.
And after I spoke to him he had a terrific season on Private Practice (2007-08) as the blue collar boyfriend of star  Kate Walsh.
When we chatted Sutcliffe was adamant about maintaining his L.A. roots --he didn't want to lose career momentum in a Canadian series.
But in seven short years the TV universe has changed --Canadian made shows like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue are getting on the U.S. webs and enjoying some measure of popularity.
So when I talked again to Sutcliffe on the phone he was philosophical about his return to Toronto to star in the new series Cracked.
The first hourlong episode premieres on CBC-TV Tuesday January 8 at 9 p.m.
Snagging Sutcliffe is a big plus for the 13-part series guaranteeing it will eventually sell to a U.S. network.
And Sutcliffe is excellently cast as a cop on the edge most of the time. The creator is writer Tracey Forbes (Flashpoint) plus Toronto Emergency Task Force veteran Callum de Hartog.
Veteran Peter Raymont (The Border) and Karen LeBlanc are the respected executive producers for White Pine Productions.
"It wasn't the kind of role I'd ever done," Sutcliffe is saying over the phone this time. "It really is a 10 p.m. show, very edgy and challenging. We shot the pilot and then went back months later to spend four days of reshoots."
Sutcliffe  as Detective Aidan Black is  effectively co-starred with Stefanie von Pfetten (NCIS) as Psychiatrist Dr. Daniella Ridley.
"Definitely, an odd teaming," Sutcliffe says. "They have to learn to trust each other. He's instinctual, she is scientific. When they find out how to cooperate they'll make a great team."
Co-starring are Luisa d'Oliveira as Detective Poppy Wisnefski, Dayo Ade as psychiatric nurse Leo Beckett, andKaren LeBlanc as Inspector Diane Caligra.
Cracked is the second White Pine series to hit CBC --the first, The Border, ran for three season and was sold to 21 countries.
Cracked is unremittingly Canadian from its all Canadian cast to the extensive use of Toronto locations which thankfully are not disguised. One positive is the seamless photography of  Norayr Kasper which shows off Toronto neighbourhoods far from the downtown core.
The show worked for me although the pilot sported the usual bumps in plotting. Sutcliffe seems right into his character, a troubled Toronto cop who has killed two people in the line of fire and is suffering from mental anguish. It's interesting watching him and von Pfetten sort each other out as a new team and presumably over the 13 weeks they'll bond because the characters truly need each other.
Do we need another procedual. No we don't but Cracked uses the procedural motif to get deeper into characterizations than other cop shows. The focus is on psychotic crimes which could get scary if not properly handled.
And the idea to be resolutely a Toronto show and not set in some pretend part of the U.S. (like Night Heat and many successors) is a huge plus.
And I know I'm intrigued enough to want to see more.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Interviewing the Odd Couple

I'm thinking it all happened in the spring of 1979 when I still flourished as TV critic for The Spectator in Hamilton.
Anyway there I was chugging along the Gardiner Expressway into downtown Toronto to meet and interview Tony Randall and then Jack Klugman.
Yeah, TV's Odd Couple.
Not the first by any means --Art Carney and Walter Matthau had created the parts on Broadway. Then Walter and Jack Lemmon did the movie smash.
Tony and Jack were then recreating their TV roles in a revival of the play at the O'Keefe Centre for a short summer run and the next week were going on to Hamilton Place for an additional week.
First I had an hour with Tony --we'd never met but I was told by the publicist he could be pretty difficult.
He was staying at the King Edward hotel as I recall and I nervously tapped on the door. Tony opened on the third tap saying "You are 2 seconds late, kidoo." Yeah, I knew I was in for a rough ride.
First off he despatched his very sweet wife to the bathroom saying "I smell cigaret smoke! Go smoke in there!"
I tried to make small talk saying "My favorite Tony Randall movie is The Mating Season (1959) with Debbie Reynolds."
Tony shot back "Who wrote it. What was the original title."
"H.E. Bates. Originally titled The Darling Buds Of May."
Then I said I liked him as Inspector Poirot.
"Who was the first Poirot in movies?" Tony shot back.
"Austin Trevor in three British movies starting in 1931," I answered calmly, serenely.
Randall frowned again.
"What was the first play I was in to play Toronto?"
"The Corn Is Green with Ethel Barrymore," I shot back. I wanted him to know I had done my homework.
"And the second was repertory with Katharine Cornell," I stuttered. The pressure was starting to get to me.
Eventually Tony  tired of his game of cat and mouse. He'd just been up to Canada's Stratford he said but found Maggie Smith in rehearsal ever so mannered. I merely nodded.
"I have no mannerisms as you may have noticed. I always play the character."
The hour ended and Randall gave me distinct instructions how to get to Klugman on the fourth floor.
Once there I had to bang and bang. Eventually Jack waddled to the door with a drumstick in his mouth.
"Oh, it's you." he said and showed me to a cluttered sofa. There were books and magazines everywhere, a half eaten club sandwich on the floor, beer bottles on the piano and a bottle of whiskey half consumed.
"What can I get for ya," he hoarsely hollered.
 Already he was having major voice problems. there had already been one throat operation and more would follow. Finally part of his larynx was removed and he learned how to talk again using breathing tricks.
Only then did it dawn on me.
Tony's suite was impeccable and he was dressed to the nines.
Jack's rooms were a disaster.
Tony really was Felix Unger. Jack really was Oscar Madison.
They were not playing parts. They were being themselves.
Jack was having none of that when I asked him. "I'm neat," he whispered although there were ketchup stains all over his rumpled T-shirt.
No matter I had my angle.
I met up with Tony once more on the set of Love, Sidney in 1981 and he remembered me.
I was on the set of Quincy with Klugman in 1983 and he agreed it had been partly based on the true stories of Toronto coroner Morty Shulman.
"My wife Brett Sommers was in a Broadway play with the star of  CBC's Wojeck John Vernon and he told her about it.  She told me and our show got started."
I also saw Klugman again in 1986 on the set of a series stinker called You Again? co-starring John Stamos. He seemed relieved when I assured him it would not last.
Tony Randall, who popped dozens of vitamin pills a day. died May 17 2004 aged 84.
His old pal Jack Klugman died December 25, 2012, aged 90.
Both had only great things to say about each other.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Penelope Corrin Deserves Her Own Series

Has it really been all of five years since I first interviewed the new girl on Royal Canadian Air Farce, Penelope Corrin?
"Yes, that seems right," Corrin is saying on the phone about the time she joined RCAF as the latest farceur joining a TV cast that included veteran founders Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, Luba Goy as well as newcomers Alan Park and Craig Lauzon and Jessica Holmes.
And most of them are back at it again with the annual Air Farce New Tear's Eve special returning to CBC Monday December 31 at 8 p.m.
Abbott passed 18 months ago. And Holmes has gone out on her own to excel in Christmas pantomime.
Corrin says "It's good to get going again" but like a lot of Canadians out there she misses the weekly outings on CBC that ran for over 25 years before an abrupt cancellation.
Joining the cast this year there are guest bits by Paul Henderson, Olympic gold medalist Rosie MacLennan, Victoria Duffield, Yannick Bisson and Dragon's' Den star David Chilton.
Justin Trudeau was sheduled as well but had to bow out at the last moment.
Without the RCAF to weekly deflate our pompous politicians and cast merriment on national stories what's a harassed Canadian viewer to do?
For Corrin it's been a time to broaden her acting horizon. She tried stand up weeks ago, something she plans to get into although with all the texting and tweeting being done by audiences these day keeping their undivided attention is a real challenge.
And she'd like to do more drama --she tried out for a part on Rookie Blue but was far funnier than the director expected.
"I also want to do more outside things with Craig. We were lamenting we only get together once a year."
In Vancouver she was on Stargate SG-1 (2005) and had a running part on Kingdom Hospital (2004).
In the latest RCAF outing she shines as Paulina Gretzky, a comedy caricature that's full of fun.
And in a parody of Murdoch Mysteries opposite Yannick Bisson she contributes solid laughs.
"Yannick was very helpful in getting the language straight. And we also rib his commercials for CIBC. I think it really works."
As with all RCAF specials the preparations start weeks early will the filmed sketches  --there's a particularly great commercial take off on a possible Canadian Hobbit movie that has Corrin in full costume.'
Other highlights: In a viral video Craig Lauzon praces around as a repentant Stephen Harper. Lauzon also plays a fruity Don Cherry matching trampoline moves with MacLennan.
I watched this with the studio audience and I wondered how Lauzon could be standing after his jumping and cavorting.
Park as usual nails Barrack Obama --it helps they have the same shaped faces but Park also captures that annoying voice inflection.
Corrin says in past years the troupe would "over tape" by several sketches --there are two shows done on consecutive nights and enough material that didn't make it for an entire second hour.
"We were more conservative this season with few skits completely discarded. Instead some got parred down."
And at the end there's the inevitable F-Bomb routine which can end up in a great big mess for studio viewers in the first few rows --one reason I always sit high up.
I became a Corrin fan after watching her ace Nancy Grace in one of her first RCAF appearances. RCAF needed a temporary replacement for Jennifer Holmes and Corrin scored so highly she quickly became a regular --a bit ironical since she remembered Holmes as a fellow student from  Ottawa's Canterbury High School.
But I'm suggesting it's Corrin's turn to get her own CBC series perhaps a subversive sitcom opposite Park --Ferguson has his own production company working away on projects. So how about it?
For now there's the New Year's Eve show well up to RCAF's high standards to remind us what Canadian TV satire is all about.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Meg Tilly Is Back In Bomb Girls

"Yes, I know I'm very lucky. Very lucky indeed."
Meg Tilly is on the line chatting about her dramatic and very successful return to acting after a 17-year lapse in the Global TV series Bomb Girls.
The first season was a huge hit both with viewers and the critics. And Tilly says her initial apprehension about getting back into the acting game quickly vanished.
"Actors had told me about bad experiences on other sets. But we're here to work and so far we all get along because with multiple stories there really is room for all."
The Oscar nominated (The Big Chill, Agnes Of God) Tilly says she realized something special was happening on the Toronto set almost from the first day.
"We're telling a specific story and it's true," is her explanation for the wide public acceptance.
I'd add the cast has no weak links and Canadians are eager to embrace a story set specifically in Canada. Most "Canadian" series are located in a strange universe that's neither Canadian nor American.
"At first there was talk about making the  whole thing rather non specific," Tilly reports. "I'm glad that option didn't happen. Viewers seem so pleasantly surprised this is a real Canadian series."
Younger viewers especially are picking up on details they never thought happened in Canada.
Tilley who lives on Vancouver Island says some people have been shocked by the racist attitudes of the day. When her character says she wants to move in the kitchen her boss says that would mean working with Chinese
"People are saying we've moved beyond those attitudes but have we? There was an outburst against Islamic Americans after 9/11 that shows it is still very much around."
And female viewers note the way women are portrayed which is historically correct.
"For those brief years of World War II women were suddenly emancipated. They were doing men's work while the men went off to fight the war. Then at war's end the men came home to reclaim their jobs and the women moved out to the suburbs to become wives and mothers.
"My character Lorna Corbett is heading a munitions unit where women are making bombs to blast the enemy. It's highly dangerous. One false move and the explosive could go off. We do show one girl getting mangled because her hair got caught in the machinery.
"Lorna was seen by a lot of viewers as this very harsh woman. but she had to be strict. A lot was riding on this plant's ability to make bombs. She was doing a rob only men normally do. It was a rough time for her."
Tilly says with a laugh her three children were "all grown up and they had left the roost. I had time on my hands which I thought I could completely fill with writing. Couldn't. So when I was asked to do this I hesitated only a little bit. It just was the right time.
Tilly had already tested the waters with a dazzling turn in Victoria B.C. in a theatrical revival of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
By the time she flew to Toronto she was ready for almost everything. To save expenses some scenes use block shooting --scenes are shot from one camera angle and then reshot from another.
Tilly has said writer Adrienne Mitchell's brilliant dialogue "won me over" This season the episode order has been doubled from six to 12 hours which Tilly thinks is just about enough.
She has a book coming out in spring and wants to do more theater. "And I want to do important things like hiking. That's what I said hiking."
This new season Rosie O'Donnell has been nabbed as a guest star. I'm honor bound not to give away plot details but Tilly shines in the first two new hours I've seen when she has to confront a personal crisis.
Tilly says "It's been extremely worthwhile. To be in a success. And be part of such a talented ensemble. Many of my scenes are with Peter Outerbridge who is so giving as my husband --he spends his spare moments working with the younger cast members.
"I klnow they say you can't come back to acting. That's what I was told. But I did it. And I'm so very glad."
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ron James Rings In The New Year

Memo to the entire federal government: Ron James is on the comical warpath so look out !
His New Year's Eve special this time out is filled with cunning political invective, the type James once told me he'd leave to CBC's RCAF.
"But now it's different," James is saying on the phone from his Toronto office.
"Now I'm mad, like really mad."
Catch The Ron James Show: New Year's Eve Edition Monday Dec. 31 at 9 p.m. (repeated at midnight) to see how comically angry he can become. He gets belly laughs when he starts criticizing the crazy policies of Tea Party Tories currently controlling Parliament.
"They're not the conservatives of Bob Stanfield or John Diefenbaker," he is saying.
"So I think it's about time I gave them a little push for all the strange things they've been doing."
In James's case he's fighting fire with tough talking comical lines that may zing and even hurt just a bit.
"They've got it coming, they really have."
James's New Year's Eve show also rings in another season of his special brand of comedy.
I tell him I've never seen a stand up specialist so adapt himself to the rigors of comedy sketch playing.
And as soon as I said it I remembered first spotting James at Toronto's Second City doing perfectly realized characters in dozens of skits.
I also remember him on NBC's Sisters in a drama outing. And what about his part on Made In Canada that carried such a wallop.
"Been doing it all along," he says. "But in the one man shows it's a different kind of atmosphere."
"For long periods especially in L.A. I made my living as a character guy."
James goes back to his comedic roots in a brilliantly executed sketch on the two survivors of the Franklin Expedition --it's so well presented I never noticed the other guy was Patrick McKenna until I saw the credits.
Then there's Ron in drag as Aunt Vivien in her annual message to the Queen --it's suitably hilarious on the subject of Prince Harry losing his clothes in Vegas but James notes the sketch was taped in November well before we knew Princess Kate was pregnant.
And James is even better as radio radio talk show and tea partyist Buell Crawford. Canadian radio really does have such nut bars.
And in a crazy confrontation Linda Kash shines as a government official determined to make James record his New Year's Eve resolution --failure to do so could result in a stiff penalty.
In Cape Breton all the friends of a family are suddenly turning Tory --is it due to a comet landing nearby? The title is "Night Of The Young Conservatives"!
The skits are working better than ever, James agrees, because they are taped in advance in a filmic style and out on actual locations.
"The first year I did them in the studio in sequence before an audience. You never saw a guy as rushed, getting the  costumer on and off, rushing to get back to the stage. Now we do them in a leisurely fashion and that makes for a pleasant atmosphere. And more jokes."
I asked James about the difference between CBC's treatment of him and the way Global treated him when he made the series Blackfly.
"No comparison. CBC is committed to Canadian programs. With Global they always said hurry up and finish."
About James's comical mood change: "We have a government spending millions to celebrate the War of 1812--Canada didn't exist at that time."
And what about the United Nations naysaying the federal treatment of aboriginals: "Go a hundred miles north of Calgary and you can visit the Third World.
"It isn't a time for politeness. I'm going to rock this apple cart. But with quips I think I can accomplish things. You saw the TV audience's response. I really think I'm onto something."
With taping concluded on Season Four (starting Monday Jan. 7 at 8:30 p.m.) James is planning a national tour.
"I call it being in the trenches. Finding out what makes Canadians tick. And I'll be tackling all the hot button issues."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I Remember, I Remember

This is that awful time of the year when TV critics past and present remember all the talented people who have departed .
Like the incredibly gifted Andy Griffith. On TV it is often said there are no second acts but Andy had huge, roaring hits with The Andy Griffith Show as well as Matlock in different TV eras.
I remember hanging around the Matlock set one afternoon waiting for Andy in his dressing room to rewrite a scene so he'd get all the good lines.
But ask him his proudest show biz moment and he'd say "Playing Lonesome Rhodes in the 1957 movie A Face In The Crowd. Decades later Warners asked Tom Cruise to remake it. So Tom watched it in the screening room and stated 'Can't be done. Already perfect.'"
Like Michael Clarke Duncan who was so memorable in The Green Mile he garnered a supporting Oscar nomination.
Off camera he was pure fun, kidding me for my chubbiness, threatening to toss me across the interview room if I asked any more impertinent questions.
A giant of a man, he ate a whole turkey for lunch, then asked "What's for desert?"
His death from a heart attack at 47 was a shock but how great he'd already morphed from  a security man to a respected character actor.
Like Phyllis Diller who I once spotted doing laps in the pool at the Manulife Centre with the vivacious Helen Miller, wife of The Star's TV critic Jack Miller.
And Phyllis's raucous laughter could be heard for miles.
How pleasant to discover in person she was thoughtful and well read and that her stage persona was entirely her own creation.
And she did pave the way for Joan Rivers,  Rosie O'Donnell,  Whitney Cummings, Tina Fey.
Like Ernie Borgnine, probably the ugliest guy to ever become a movie and TV star. Also one of the nicest.
He gave great interviews and was never nasty to anybody even ex-wife Ethel Merman who in her autobiography devoted several blank pages to their marriage.
And he could do it all from Fatso in From Here To Eternity to Marty to McHale's Navy.
And he never ceased being grateful for his 50-year acting career.
Like Larry Hagnman and those wild and crazy parties he gave at his Malibu homestead for visiting TV critics.
To interview him all one had to do was doff outer clothing and jump into the world's largest hot tub which took up all of his living room.
And how great he died in harness with the reboot of Dallas such a success.
Like Dick Clark who was TV's greatest ever salesman. He was supreme at selling himself from his American bandstand hey day to quiz shows like The $25,000 Pyramid to New Year's Eve on ABC which just won't be the same without him.
To Mike Wallace who clawed his way up the TV ladder and stayed on top at 60 Minutes for decades.
He was ultra hot in a cool medium --no wonder fabled Edward R. Murrow would have nothing to do with him.
It didn't matter who he was interviewing he always gave them hell: Jimmy Carter, Burt Lancaster (who threatened to break his nose), Iranian president Ahmadinejad who said "I thought you'd retired."
I met him in Morley Safer's office when the two veterans went at each other. I asked Morley later if Mike was always so pugnacious.
"Oh, no, this is just a warm up. to the afternoon's idea conference."
I was on The Jeffersons sets several times but never to interview Sherman Hemsley. He usually refused all requests.
Days later at the Shubert Theater in Century City he walked up to me at a performance of Evita and cooed "Imd scared shitless of you guys. So don't take it personally, OK?"
Like Toronto born Ann Rutherford who became a dear friend after I interviewed her at her Beverly Hills home. After all she was the Canadian girl who at 15 played Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister in the the most popular movie of all time, Gone With The Wind.
Like Oscar winner Celeste Holm who when I asked her to describe working with Bette Davis harrumphed "Two words Im-possible."
Like Andy Williams who told me after crooning Moon River for the zillionth time at concerts "I start thinking of the laundry list."
Like Ron Palillo and Robert Hegyes-- I interviewed both when Welcome Back Kotter premiered on ABC in 1975. Sadly the gifted Palillo never had another hit although Hegyes later co-starred on Cagney and Lacy.
Like Bill Asher who directed two of the funniest ever iconic TV sitcoms: I Love Lucy and Bewitched starring wife Liz Montgomery.
Like Jonathan Frid who starred as Barnaby Collins on TV's Dark Shadows.  When I asked if anything scared him he snorted "Hardly. After all I grew up in Hamilton, you know."
Like Ray Bradbury who I found sitting alone in the foyer during an NBC shindig for the miniseries Brave New World.
 We talked for the next hour about fave sci fi flicks. I was delighted he loved Forbidden Planet, things To Come and 2001 as much as I did.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Horses Of McBride Is (Almost) All Canadian

When the new TV season began in September CTV deservedly received some media flack for the conspicuous lack of scripted Canadian drama series on its schedule.
There was just one --Flashpoint which last week ended its five year run with a bang.
But the network redeems itself with its Canadian holiday TV movie --The Horses Of McBride which revs up on CTV Sunday Dec. 16 at 7 p.m.
This is exactly what we've been waiting for.
The story is literally yanked from the headlines.
American import Aidan Quinn (Elementary) is excellently cast as the financially strapped outfitter Matt Davidson whose business just isn't what it used to be.
These days as he tells his feisty young daughter Nicki ( (MacKenzie Porter) the rich people don't really want to rough it at all. They want all the amenities and that Davidson just can't afford to provide.
So he's seeing his business of catering to tourists slowly trickle away and now he's contemplating selling the family farm nestled deep in the woodlands.
The actual story took place near Mount Renshaw B.C. but this was too remote for shooting in terms of accessibility and logistics.
So the Kananaskis Valley of Alberta proved the perfect visual backdrop with easy access to Calgary.
near Jasper National Park.
The story is inspired by the true adventures of two pack horses who were abandoned in fall 2008 by a wealthy hunter near McBride.
The two horses stayed together and  somehow survived until a severe winter storm trapped them --they were discovered emaciated and were reduced to eating each other's tails.
Based on the real Jeck family the TV movie tells a rare story of courage among both humans and animals.
The horses are trapped high in the Rockies and there are only two ways to save them.  At first there's hope they might be airlifted out but that plan is nixed by a vet who says they are way too thin to survive such an ordeal. He recommends they be put down.
Nicki has a different idea --she wants her supporters to literally dig them out --to dig a route all the way to a neighboring trucking road. But that would require the concerted labor of dozens of people and additional winter storms are on the way.
Of course the whole story was already told on an episode of the series Heartland which may be one reason CTV and not CBC is carrying this two-hour effort.
But a great story can be told any number of ways.
Veteran director Anne Wheeler (By Bye Blues) also wrote it. And Paul Gross and Frank Siracusa executive produced it. Why gross passed on the Davidson part beats me but Quinn seems right at home.
The sturdy cast also includes Kari Matchett as wife Avril Davidson and Edward Ruttle (Three Kids) as son Kenny. And as the grumbling grand dad there's Scott Hylands who I first interviewed in 1973 on the set of Toronto's Night Heat.
I remember one afternoon with Matchett in the CBC cafeteria (she'd just made the TV movie  Plague City) and she was ruminating about moving to L.A. for work.
I wasn't sure that was a good thing but she went and scored heavily in the last seasons of ER, the sci fi series Invasion, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. So Canadian TV is lucky to get her back.
One of the stars surely is the crisp photography of Peter Woesate making the location look spectacularly beautiful as well as ominous.
Although I  already knew the ending it all worked for me and CTV has cagily scheduled it Sunday night at 7  so the whole family can watch together.
And as far as  wholesome Canadian stories go all I can plead is simply this: More Please!
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Welcome To Unreality TV

I remember my shocked public school teacher telling our class that it appeared portions of the NBC hit quiz show 21 as well as CBS's The $64,000 Question were faked.
To me the fact she admitted watching such trash was more telling than her shock it was all made up.
The year was 1958 and even this callow Grade Eight student could tell a scam when he saw it.
The resulting public furor knocked  21 and The $64,000 Question right off TV.
But in today's cynical world of mass manipulation it just might stay around awhile.
Consider the bizarre world of so-called "Reality TV".
TMZ a few years back showed the reality stars of The Hills rehearsing and then re-doing a scene until they got it right.
And recently one of the co-stars, the last one to be featured in fact, Kristen Cavallieri admitted she was acting most of the time.
Other reality stars have publicly said they had to read "talking points" memos so they'd be sure and advance the plot.
You didn't think the cameras were on them all the time did you? Most of the juicy tidbits were brought up to satisfy the producers.
Now in a lawsuit Storage Wars star Dave Hester is alleging he was fired after complaining scenes were staged.
Of course Storage Wars is staged to a point. I was certain from the start that items had to be placed in these storage lockers or else the cast and crew would be at it day and night.
I mean in one episode Elvis Presley's old BMW was found buried under worthless trash. Who put it there? One guess only!
To quote a biography from The Wrap the plaintiff was working in a Goodwill Store when" he saw the potential in the operation and converted his own furniture store into a thrift store."
Strictly for professional reasons I forced myself to watch episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians last night.
It all seemed scripted to me including the scenes in the doctor's office where Kim exposed her psoriasis for the cameras. And later she mooned around with her upcoming basketball star fiance--the one she is subsequently trying to divorce.
The thing is we live in a different world. Any moron can spot that most reality shows are scripted to keep the plot lines percolating.
The fact we accept such diddling says a lot about our culture.
Ratings on the Kardashian nonsense only drooped a bit after Kim's hasty retreat to get a divorce.
We simply do not believe anything we see on TV these days and that includes most TV news.
I'll still watch Storage Wars just to spot the fab items miraculously appearing amid heaping loads of  dirty old clothing.
I don't care how that BMW got there. Just tell me what it is selling for these days.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Fond Farewell To Flashpoint

CTV can be forgiven its torrent of publicity announcing this is it for the Canadian series Flashpoint.
The final episode revs up Thursday Dec. 13 at 10 p.m. on CTV.
But let's not go overboard.
The Toronto based series was always well directed and edited and the episodes fast paced and watchable.
But it's not a compulsively viewable show, it was never intended to be that.
Instead CTV craftily made it to break into the U.S. market and for a few years Flashpoint ran on the CBS prime time schedule.
As opposed to those other CTV staples from way back when Night Heat (1985-89)  and Adderly (1986-89) which ran on The CBS Late Night Movies.
What is different this time out is that CTV kept the series running after CBS cancelled the series.
When CBS previously cancelled Due South (1994-99)  CTV requested one final order of 26 episodes which it sold in syndication to the U.S. market and then split into two more series for Canadian TV consumption.
Other CTV efforts including E.N.G.(1989-94) and Counterstrike (1990-94) point never got that all important U.S. network release and suffered from CTV indifference.
A total of 75 episodes of Flashpoint have been made guaranteeing the series visibility in the rerun market for years to come.
And I checked with my local DVD buyer last week and he reports boxed sets are selling briskly for the Christmas trade.
Some CTV shows from E.N.G. to Power Play never even made it to the DVD market which is most important in securing profits for a series.
It's the way CTV treated Flashpoint that deserves mention.
When that fine Global series Combat Hospital was cancelled by ABC after one season Global quickly pulled the plug.
Global also cancelled King, a pretty good police saga after two seasons because it couldn't find an American outlet.
As some CTV veterans told me at last September's fall launch having CBS run Flashpoint was a double edged sword.
One the one hand revenues flowed it. But CBSroutinely  moved the show around the schedule without informing CTV which had to move accordingly to keep that all important simulcast.
But was Flashpoint  ever in the "must see" category like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire? Hardly.
It was conceived as a broad based cop show with a high action quota and it delivered.
We still haven't seen a Canadian TV series as greatish as Homeland or Mad Men.
And CTV has come a long way from Night Heat which disguised its location --Flashpoint never did.
Flashpoint also benefited from strong executive producers Anne Marie la Traverse and CTV veteran Bill Mustos who was in charge of CTV's TV movies for years.
The last show titled The Long Goodbye is capably photographed by Mathias Herndl with production design by John Dondertman, a taut script by Stephanie Morgenstern and direction by David Frazee. A model of tight editing, it uses Toronto locations superbly.
And let's not forget the Canadian stars: Enrico Colantoni, Hugh Dillon, Amy Jo Johnson, David Paekau and Sergio Di Zio.
Other fine Canadian hour dramas from CTV including The City and Power Play were not quite so lucky in getting the network behind them.
And maybe with this positive change in CTV's attitude to home grown series, just maybe we'll soon get a Canadian series that's on the must see list. That surely would not be asking for too much?

Monday, December 3, 2012

A New Wave of Canadian Spin-Offs?

Are we in line for a new wave of Canadian TV spin-offs?
Veteran TV scribe Bill Brioux thinks so --read his always fascinating TV blog TV Feeds My family for his take on the proposed "new" series The Amazing Race Canada.
As Brioux points out Bachelor Canada hardly did sensational ratings.
And there have been other notable flops along the way including Deal Or No Deal Canada, Who Wants To e A Canadian Millionaire.
And what about Canadian Idol which hasn't been seen since its mighty ratings crash in 2008?
Well, I have new for everybody. Canadian networks are hot to trot after the next big Canadian sequel.
What about How I Met Your French Canadian Mother?
I swear it's on CTV's drawing table and, of course, Neil Patrick Harris would be around to introduce the first episode.
Then there's CSI: Hamilton as the undercover squad digs deep into the sleazy underbelly of Canada's Steel City.
The deal here is all the stars must be from Hamilton.
Which means the starry cast will include Wendy Crewson, Martin Short in a rare dramatic outing, Stoney Creek's Paul Popowich and Burlington's Michael Riley.
I'm also informed of the bid to revive West Wing and this time give it an Ottawa spin.
Turns out President Martin Sheen is determined to annex Canada to get all that dirty Alberta crude needed to keep the American economy afloat.
To do so he needs the help of the veteran Governor General played by Gordon Pinsent as the former Member of Parliament Quentin Durgens..
And together they alert the head of Alberta's Wild Rose party played by Dave Broadfoot who insists Alberta should be the one annexing both Canada and the U.S.
Should make a dandy mini-series, I believe.
SUNTV is already to completely switch over to FOX TV's heady mixture of sensationalism and Tea Party philosophizing with the new show Dancing with the Politicians Canada.
In the pilot PM Stephen Harper does a mean fox trot hoping to stay ahead of Justin Trudeau's latest rant against all Alberta MPs.
A Canadian version of Gossip Girl would be set at Branksome Hall and co-star Justin Bieber as a dumb but sexy teaching assistant who lures the gal students downtown to Holt Renfrew's in hope of turning their pretty little heads.
The Walking Dead has been updated to Canada and looks at the curious non-dead creatures roaming the halls of Parliament Hill.
They're otherwise known as the remnants of the once proud Liberal party.
And in New Girl In Town, Sudbury Shania Twain returns to her roots as a country star fearing her real parents may have been American gold prospectors who struck it poor in the gold rush of the Sixties.
But it's a repositioned Mad Men, Canada that seems to have the most potential.
In this take on Canada in the Fifties John Diefenbaker, played by Donald Sutherland, faces down John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis only to be thwarted by lusty German groupie Gerda Munsinger played by Canada's
I can hardly wait.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why You Should See The Last Movie

Here I go trying to explain why a veteran TV scribe is telling you to put your winter boots on and go out and see a new Canadian movie.
There's really one on reason I guess: The Last Movie is that exciting and well made.
And let's face it when was the last time you went out to see a movie that told a coherent story, had fine acting and impeccable direction, editing and cinematography.
Besides which it's Canadian.
Bruce Pittman directed it, he's not a household name but should be.
After all he was the original director on TVO's Saturday Night At The Movies. I watched once in 1974 as he gently but firmly guided the often sputtering Elwy Yost through another arduous hosting chore.
And Pittman also journeyed to L.A. every year to set up the golden oldies Yost so dearly loved to interview.
I'm guessing the first Pittman "movie" I watched was one he screened for me down at Toronto's old Film House called Hailey's Gift starring Barry Morse and Kate Parr. It ran 24 minutes and was completely watchable.
Later Pittman segued into episodic TV series almost always shot in Toronto: Adderly, Airwolf, The Twilight Zone, Friday The 13th, Street Legal, Road To Avonlea, Pittman seemed to do them all.
Then came a rafter of carefully crafted Canadian TV movies: Undue Influence, To Brave Alaska, To Dance With Olivia, Flood, Stolen From The Heart.
Now Bruce has outdone himself by shooting his own movie mostly at his Riverdale area home and using non-union actors.
He sent me a DVD. I've watched it twice in amazement.
It's better than fine, it's mesmerizing, compulsively viewable, a mystery well plotted and written.
BRuce did almost everything --he even did the catering, he tells me.
Technical aspects are superb --the editing, cinematography, acting, this is a major production.
Pittman was telling me recently how depressing he found the current state of Canadian cinema.
What  cinema? There's nowhere to get Canadian films run.
And so Bruce's film premieres Friday November 30 at 7:30 p.m. not at the Revue cinema which Bruce co-founded but rather at The Royal because of better projection equipment. The movie runs a full week at The Royal which is a beautifully restored cinema at 608 College St. Phone 416-466-4400 for more information.
I'll be there one night because I'm curious to see what it looks like on the really big screen.
And you should amble over one night, too.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Remembering Larry Hagman

Mary Martin liked to tell the story of the phone call she once got from one of her son Larry Hagman's teachers.
Miss Martin had been unable to attend a home and school interview concerning Hagman's marks and when asked why the ever sly Larry (then a teenager) retorted :"My mother is busy these days running around with a fairy known as Tinker Bell."
Panic ensued and Miss Martin was telephoned by the principal and asked to explain herself.
As Martin told me: "It was all so very true but it was the way Larry told it that sparked the crisis."
Martin was, of course, the Broadway luminary of such hits as South Pacific and The Sound Of Music.
And indeed she had been acting up with a fairy named Tinker Bell but that was in the long Broadway run of the musical Peter Pan.
And that's the first thing about Hagman one must understand: he was the son of one of show business's iconic figures.
But even so Hagman would surpass all his mother's fame when he became Texas oilman J.R Ewing.
Hagman passed away on Friday from the effects of throat cancer at 81 as he was starring in a cable TV revival of Dallas. And his death as J.R. will accordingly be written into the script.
I should tell you I first met Hagman on the set of a very pleasant but thin 1972 NBC TV sitcom titled The Good Life where his co-star was Donna Mills. That was years both became famous prime time soap villains. Mills co-starred on the Dallas spinoff Knots Landing.
And even then Hagman had a past. Born in Texas in 1931 he had started out as a stage extra in his mother's long running Broadway hit South Pacific. He'd first hit TV in 1957 in the series Decoy and even played a recurring part on Search For Tomorrow in 1957.
"Hell, I even did Sea Hunt to make ends meet," he joked. Think of it --J.R. snorkeling! But he hadn't
made it there either and in 1961 commenced a two-year run on the CBS soap Edge Of Night.
In 1965 opposite Barbara Eden he'd turned I Dream Of Jeannie into a solid five year hit  that ran 139 episode and is still see in reruns. But the flop of The Good Life had dimmed his TV stardom.
He didn't hit in big again until Dallas which premiered on CBS in  April  1978 and was not a hit.
Initially the story revolved around patriarch Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) and his long suffering wife Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes).
Cast as the covetous son J.R. Hagman told me he was marking time --eventually he struck by ad-libbing great gobs of dialogue, acting outrageously, making sure J.R, was the firm focus of every hour.
That's when I first met Hagman in the summer of 1978 as 100 U.S. TV critics-- and me-- boarded buses to Hagman's Malibu retreat for a night of wild partying.
At the door greeting one and all stood Mary Martin who whispered to me: "Larry is a sensation, true, but I'm the real luminary here."
As the night wore on she became miffed she wasn't asked to sing and I was able to talk to her for the longest time out on the balcony.
Larry's living room was entirely a huge hot tub and scribes had to strip to their underwear and dive in to get exclusive quotes from Larry holding court in a swim suit and holding a gigantic glass of brandy.
Later on he ran up and down the sandy beach with a flag of Texas as next door neighbor Burgess Meredith peered at the mess created by a faltering septic tank and roared "You're all pigs!"
But the evening ended when a New York critic was discovered in Hagman's bedroom counting the number of underwear shorts in Larry's drawers --he was promptly expelled from the tour for years to come.
In fact we critics did make a return visit to Malibu in 1984 when Donna Reed joined the case as the new Miss Ellie. Hagman's antics at his house were just as outrageous as ever but the absence of most cast members was noted.
And Reed only lasted a year until Barbara Bel Geddes returned from heart surgery.
What really made Dallas take off was the brilliant 1980 CBS publicity ploy of "Who Shot J.R.?" In fact Hagman had asked for too much money and CBS balked and had Robert Culp ready to stand by and take over.
By accident I bumped into Culp that summer on the press tour and he spilled the beans and then begged me not to say anything. And, of course, Larry did finally settle and the show lasted another decade.
Hagman tried yet another series  as Judge Luther Charbonnet in New Orleans which ran  all of six episodes in 1997.
He guested on other people's shows until Dallas was revived last season on cable. As usual J.R. was supposed to be in support but nobody bother to tell Larry.
He dominated every scene through sheer force of personality and he was at it again filming a second season before death finally claimed him.
Hagman once said he thought of  death as simply the last cancellation but how great it happened in the middle of another personal triumph.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Strip The City Is Simply Great

Viewers are always grousing that the expanding Canadian TV universe has created dozens of new cable channels packed with cheaply made Reality TV.
And then along comes something as unique and compelling as Strip The City, financed by Discovery Canada. It's the first TV series I'd ever dare call "inspiring".
The new six-part series from Britain's Windfall Films and Montreal's Handel Productions is absolutely guaranteed to inspire feelings of  wonder in any TV viewer.
You'll quickly become hooked --that's what I'm predicting.
Using state-of-the-art CGI the series literally takes the tops of six major cities of the world to show what makes them livable.
The cities are San Francisco, Toronto, ancient Rome, Dubai, Sydney and London.
I talked on the phone to the London based producer Robert Hartel of Windfall Films who told me it all started when Discovery Canada put up the seed development money "and we went from there.
Our company if you know our history is interested basically in the engineering--we did  the series Big, Bigger, Biggest . Here we wanted to show how world class cities can keep functioning while faced with adversity."
In San Francisco's case it's quite simply the earthquakes --the city is constructed right beside the infamous San Andreas fault line and tremors are part of the daily lives of the inhabitants.
"Dubai was the first city we tackled and we had to show how it has sprouted from sand in just a few decades. There really should not be a city there."
Then there's Sydney "which is built in a region where there are no rivers" --it means underground caverns store the water necessary for the inhabitants to live in such an area.
Ancient Rome offered a different set of challenges --still home to 3 million inhabitants it was once the world's largest city and the construction of such iconic works as the Coliseum and the Via Appia remain wonders of the world.
A Canadian city was needed and Toronto selected although the title of "Ice City" jokes Hartel "may make the people of Edmonton or Alberta laugh." And last year's non-winter certainly was an anomaly.
The first hour episode  which is on San Francisco is compulsively viewable.
The city has been plagued with earthquakes --there is archival footage of the 1906 earthquake which virtually leveled the city. The last major quake in 1989 inflicted major damage as older expressways collapsed on top of cars filled with commuters.
The next big earthquake may come at any time --engineers show us how the fault lines endanger everyone. And we see how modern building techniques are used to ensure buildings move with the tremors rather than buckle --the rebuilding of the bridge to Oakland is one test and another is the construction of the city's first subway system.
You'll surely gasp at the spectacular special effects as skyscrapers appear to pop out of the ground exposing the construction below. One amazing shot shows how the waterfront is built on the shipwrecks of old sailing vessels.
Hartel  says each episode utilizes about 22 of these effects and each one lasts about 45 seconds to a minute.
In one scene of the Golden Gate bridge the water seems to drain away so we can inspect the solid foundations. In terms of time and money the images are sensational and very expensive although Hartel says they cost a fraction of those seen in a $100 million high concept movie.
But it certainly works --now all viewers have to do is wait for an earthquake to test the episode's premises.
The Toronto episode is no less spectacular and H says "I was unfamiliar at the first with how Toronto worked" --but we get right down to the ancient lake bed to show how the tallest buildings are constructed and even go as far as Niagara Falls to see how hydro lines keep downtown Toronto buzzing with heat and lighting.
H says  "getting partners was the hardest part of the process."Toronto based Handel Productions was chosen because "they have the same interests and they understood the Canadian tax breaks system particularly in Quebec."
There were three directors each handling two episodes and each had an associate producer and researcher.
Hartel says "certainly" when asked if he was lucky in not tackling New York --the recent Hurricane Sandy would have made any New York profile immediately dated but the city is certainly  in the running for season two.
"Yes, I feel there will be a second season. We're already thinking about a modern Asian city as one candidate and probably Paris or even Venice."
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Norse: An Arctic Mystery Is Must-See TV

The Norse: An Arctic Mystery is so well made you'll watch it no matter what.
But it has also become the lynch pin in an astonishing example of government interference --more on that later.
The images are everything with The Norse.
We are on a desolate cape of treeless Baffin Island where famed northern archeologist Pat Sutherland is searching and sifting through the remains of perhaps the earliest known example of European settlement in North America.
Forget what your history high school teachers told you about Christopher Columbus discovering the continent.
After three decades of toiling away Sutherland has really hit a rich lode of history --examples of the first known permanent Norse settlement in Canada.
Centuries before Columbus the Norse were trading with the native Dorset people as Sutherland has discovered --there is evidence of metal possibly from knives being sharpened.
And in one key but bizarre find she discovers evidence of rat remains --imported from Norse ships because the rats were not native to the area.
And the scope of the settlement which had a stone foundation and the presence of many rooms and seems entirely Norse like in its construction techniques.
This exciting new documentary from Toronto's 90th Parallel Productions was directed, produced and written by Andrew Gregg (We Will Remember Them) whose work I've been following for some time.
It's constructed like a jigsaw puzzle, opening up the world of the Norse whose geographical world knowledge extended from the Black Sea all the way over to Greenland and an neighboring island they called Helluland (today's Baffin Island).
We go with Sutherland from the Baffin site to the Outer Hebrides. In Denmark we're shown the replica of the kind of ship the Norse used to hop and skip across the northern Atlantic from the Faroes to Iceland and then Greenland.
Baffin Island is clearly designated on their maps although they were hardly enthusiastic about sharing their find with potential rivals.
From the Dorset people the Norse would have wanted furs and ivory (from walruses) and metals.
And all this is unraveled in an exquisite hour that is one of the best NOT I've seen in years.
The kicker comes not in this actual hour but in news reports Sutherland was subsequently dismissed from her post after spending the last 13 years on her Helluland project. She was dismissed by the Canadian Museum of Civilization after three decades of outstanding research and world class recognition for her discoveries.
Sutherland is continuing to fight her dismissal which comes after two other northern archeologists were also dismissed.
Politics is suspected as the museum undergoes a name change. As part of the Conservative government's political agenda work on the Dorsets --who preceded the current Inuit --is being discontinued --a startling example of how politics and science must never be allowed to intermingle.
Knowing all this and one watches The Norse in a different light --as an incredible historical find rich in imagery. Sutherland's own research has been dismantled, some of it packed off to other museums.
And if that isn't enough there's also a salutary article in November issue of National Geographic.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saving Hope Saved

I remember in the summer when CTV launched its medical drama Saving Hope the network promised that whatever the outcome in the U.S. the Canadian series would be back for a second season.
And true to form the sinking NBC network cancelled the low rated medical opus because ratings sucked.
CTV has just announced it is applying artificial resuscitation TV style and will re-float Saving Hope for a second season. And that's just one problem with manufacturing dramas designed to play on both sides of the border.
First of all CTV had to simulcast its Canadian version at the time solely decided by NBC programmers.
For one daffy moment it seemed that Rookie Blue and Saving Hope would be running against each other --both are made by that cagey Canadian veteran producer Ilana Frank.
Then NBC blinked and ran Saving Hope an hour earlier.
The gold rush to make shows that sell to the big U.S. networks seems about over.
NBC bombed out badly with The Firm which was shot in Toronto --NBC had contracted to run 26 episodes the first year but ran off most episodes on Saturday nights where nobody watches.
It all started with CTV's Due South in 1994 which initially ran on both CTV and CBS.
When CBS subsequently bowed out CTV ordered one more run of 26 episodes it could sell in American  syndication and also run the episodes over two seasons on CTV affiliates.
Things didn't go as well for CBC's fine drama show Intelligence (2006-07).
It failed to nab a U.S. sale but creator-producer Chris Haddock subsequently made pilots for both CBS and Fox (and failed both times to sell them).
Other CBC shows did not fare well either: Being Erica ran on the American Soap network which has since been cancelled.
Global's first rate Combat Hospital ran for one summer but ABC declined to pick it up  again and it disappeared.
It was a very expensive show --I visited the sprawling set in Mississauga-- and Global claimed it simply could not afford to make the show on its own.
Another Global series designed fort U.S. sale was  the procedural King which ran for two seasons on Showtime  (2011-12) . Veteran Bernie Zuckerman was the producer--but Global finally gave up, convinced it would get a U.S. sale.
Over at Shaftesbury Films ReGenesis was finally sold into U.S. syndication after three seasons of filming --but the syndication market has been weakening lately. I simply winder how Shaftesbury's other big series Murdoch Mysteries will fare when offered to U.S. stations.
One idea: it would make a perfect buy for PBS stations --just like British TV's currently running MI5.
CTV soldiered on with more seasons of The Listener which was quickly dropped in the U.S. When it builds up enough episodes it might yet garner a syndication deal.
I happen to think it better than CBS's similar show The Mentalist.
Trying to make that all important U.S. sale has always preoccupied Canadian producers.
Way back in 1972 I covered the premiere of CBC's miniseries  Jalna at the St. Lawrence Centre. It was a star studded (for Canada) event but the audience grew listless and I spotted producer Fletcher Markle and star Kate Reid downing martinis at the bar.
CBC tried to peddle Jalna to PBS. Masterpiece Theatre's  veteran producer Joan Wilson told me of her excruciating pain in having to sit in a darkened screening room next to Markle and wondering "when the thing would end".
All these decades later Canadian producers still haven't learned the lessons of Jalna: Make Canadian shows for Canadians.
And the best ones will always find audiences abroad.

The 2012 TV Season: Sinking Fast

What happened to the 2012 TV season. The  much hyped new shows are fast expiring.
ABC has just announced plans to yank two of its most expensive and ambitious new series.
The network says it will axe both Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue after they have concluded their 13 week runs.
For 666 it's a simple case of ratings fading by the week. A healthy lead in from the hit Revenge turned sour and viewers have been bailing out by the week.
My ABC sources say 666's fate was known inside the network for weeks.
But the decision to also kill off Last Resort  (starring Toronto's Scott Speedman) is a shocker since it got pretty positive reviews.
ABC says it may well revive either or both shows for the next season.
Yeah, right. The web made the same promise with Pan Am and whatever happened to that one?
ABC can afford to cancel these two because it has a large inventory of midseason replacements including Red Window and Zero Hour.
CBS has also announced it was canceling its dog awful new series Partners which was a bad step backwards. There were a few laughs but I squirmed every time I tuned in.
It's strange that ABC gave a full order to struggling Nashville which averages 9.4 million viewers a month while dumping Last resort which averaged 9.2 million. I'm only including the 18 to 49 category because ABC is not interested in older viewers.
By contrast 666 Park avenue was down to 6.7 million viewers a week on one of the most watched nights of the week.
One veteran executive I recently talked to said there are now so many competing cable channels that viewers can no longer be counted on to sample all the new TV fare starting up in the fall. Hence midseason launches seem to becoming the new normal.
For many viewers the new seasons simply means new episodes of returning favorites.
Two other series have already departed: NBC's Animal Practice and CBS's Made In Jersey.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

There Is Hope For Canadian TV

I'm suddenly encouraged by the state of Canadian TV and all it took to turn my mind around was one exemplary documentary.
Titled The Mystery Of San Nicandro this 67-minute look at the lost and found Jews of a tiny Southern Italian village has everything going for it. The premiere is Sunday November 18 at 8 p.m. on CBC's Documentary channel.
Here is a saga of human struggles, of hope, of triumph and all contained in a hardy band of just 80 believers.
"I first got the idea from John Davis's book The Jews Of San Nicandro," says respected veteran producer Vanessa Dylyn. "He looked at a community in a tiny place where some inhabitants had chosen to abandon Christianity and find religion in the Old Testament."
The charismatic leader Donato Manduzio had been severely injured fighting for his native Italy in the Great War. In the 1920s he was given an Italian translation of the Old Testament and what he read struck him as a revelation.
He yearned to go back to that way of life, the way God was celebrated in a different way than in his Catholic faith. As he read more he became an apostle for a pure form of Judaism and eagerly started converting family members and friends.
If Manduzio had been too successful church authorities would surely have stepped in and stamped out the "heretics". As it was Mussolini's Fascist system fined the congregation for unlawful religious observances. --just as Protestant congregations were fined.
But in the widespread rounding up of Italian Jews in Italy in 1944-45 this band escaped harm's way because of geography --they were in the Allied occupied part of Italy.
And after? All but three women joined the Jewish exodus to the new state of Israel where they were scorned by conservative rabbis as not really being Jewish at all.
"It's a historical story first," explains Dylyn. "The central character wasn't sophisticated at all. Yet it was his beliefs that sustained the flock for 20 years.
"Davis's book ends with the emigration to Israel. We wanted to pick up the story but at first we couldn't find anyone who wanted to talk. It was the way they'd been treated when they arrived. Were they really Jews or some sort of Christian sect."
And indeed they were first housed in what looks suspiciously from the photos like internment camps. Young boys and men were forced to undergo circumcision.
It took a powerful lot of prodding by writer/director Roger Pyke to get some comments from the descendants. They simply did not want to face additional discrimination.
What was discovered is according to Dylyn's phrase "the gift of documentary heaven".
Pyke discovers a rich treasure trove of artifacts proving southern Italy once had a thriving Jewish community --all this was erased during the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews converted to avoid torture or death but they carried elements of their Judaism with them and passed this rich heritage on to their children.
One woman refurbishing her old inn discovered deep caverns where Jewish practices had thrived in Roman times.
And one woman who denied there ever was a Jewish influence sees her husband trot out with the original deed naming Jews as the first owners of their house.
The real life stories are riveting. A woman named Incoronata is delighted to be remarried in the Jewish faith. An Ontario woman now understands why her "Catholic" family set a white table cloth and two candles every Friday.
A nearby female rabbi who continues to document this saga says these days she has better relations with the Catholic priest than the conservative rabbis who distrust her.
This powerhouse of a film  (from Matter Of Fact Media) moves very swifty and opens up an important part of history few of us could have known about.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Saturday Night At The Movies: The Axeman Cometh

What would Elwy Yost say?
"Gee"? Or "Golly"? Or would Elwy understand?
Because every show on TV gets cancelled. And so cancellation is the fate for Elwy's 40-year old treasure Saturday Night At The Movies.
The move was announced by TVOntario's wobbly management who must move carefully or the whole ramshackle provincial network might get cut sooner than later.
Let's time travel back to 1972 when we lived in a TV universe composed of just 10 basic channels.
And then TVOntario and Citytv broke the mold and we were in a new era of multi-channels.
I had started interviewing Yost in 1971 when he was a prominent member of the fledgling Ontario Educational Authority.
In 1972 TVO found itself stuck with a package of Ingmar Bergman flicks and asked Yost to step in front of the camera to introduce them.
Within weeks Elwy's compendium of old films titled Saturday Night At The Movies was born.
There was a lot of angst at TVO. They were producing all sorts of  deadly serious educational series and along came a show of old movies that consistently topped all others in popularity.
"You've created a monster!" Yost once snapped at me. The stories I was writing for The Hamilton Spectator portrayed him as a slightly befuddled ex-high school teacher whose favorite expression was "Golly".
But it was a different era back then.
The other stations had ditched black and white films and Elwy was able to buy up packages for peanuts.
When Yost began challenging NHL hockey ratings on Saturday evening his competition began buying up packages just to keep him away from them.
But Yost truly revered his celluloid classics. The films ran without commercials and Yost would travel every summer to L.A. to interview the greats and near greats.
When he first met Joseph Cotten he burst into tears sobbing "Kane...Kane" -a reference to his favorite ever film.
On his other show Magic Shadows he'd dress up and strut around, how he loved putting on disguises.
Says Risa Shuman, Yost's long standing producer :"When we ran a film you'd also get the interviews with people who made it.  That's still something nobody else does."
"But to be truthful we never thought we'd last this long. We were always threatened by technology. The viewers stayed with us because we were unique."
I'd argue Saturday Night At The Movies should have closed down with Yost's retirement. But TVO soldiered on with more recent films that simply did not pull in the once vast ratings.
And some of management's decisions were just plain weird. Recently the staff were told "No more Marilyn Monroe flicks" But without Marilyn where would Madonna or Lady Gaga be today?
And let's face it Turner Classic Movies has gradually taken over as the place to watch classic films.
TVO is saying it will cut 40 positions and put more money into its digital operations.
But TVO employees are telling me the network will eventually wither away because of government indifference.
Yost died last year at 85 and I'm glad he did not live to see the shoddy way TVO has treated SNATM.
I was privileged to be part of a crowd that gathered months ago at the Revue Cinema to celebrate his life and thank him for treating classic movies with such reverence.
Who would have thought back in 1972 that an ex-high school teacher would spark a movement that resulted in a four decade run of using old movies as part of the educational process.

Faking The Grade Is No Fake

I'm trying to conjure up the ghosts of high school past to think if cheating went on in my day.
Of course it did. One kid was walking past the English teacher's home room, spied the final exam on the desk and made notes.
His downfall came when he started spreading the new to his peers and got caught by an irate high school principal.
So the quite brilliant new CBC documentary Faking The Grade doesn't really surprise me. Except that the ways of cheating have been incredibly refined with the advancement of technology.
I remember in a University of Toronto final exam at Hart House one kid was caught with his shirt cuffs piled with detailed knowledge.
And at Carleton University in a graduate Sociology course we were told we could bring in one piece of paper. The teacher forgot to define how long that piece could be so one enterprising student came with a scroll sized resume of the course. And got away with it.
Surveys cited by director Andy Bicq indicate fully half of us admit to cheating at university and three/quarters say they cheated in high school.
Today the methods, modes and art of cheating are just an Internet click way.
We met the brain who wrote term papers at $10 a page for students --provided they also supplied him with a bag of weed. He claims he was making $50,000  annually from this racket.
In fact that premise forms one of the plot points in the currently running TV series Suits.
That's nothing --when I was at U of T there was a clearing house for old student papers that could be purchased for the sum of $25.
One student I know bought a history paper and submitted it in the very same course for which it was written. When he got a C+ (compared to the original A-) he was furious until he learned the  professor had started farming out the task to his wife who happened to be a much tougher marker.
So who was cheating who in this case?
There's the tiny earpiece that can transmit answers to the exam.
Or what about the posted notes placed in a nearby washroom --the student then asks to be excused and can refresh his knowledge before returning to the examination hall.
There's the fine art of sabotage --I'd heard of students cutting out the choice parts of library books so no one else could possess the answers.
Its not in this documentary but I recently heard from a university official that many Ontario high schools routinely inflate their marks to ensure university positions for their graduates.
Parents seem to know their kids are cheating. But in a competitive atmosphere where only 2 per cent of university graduates get into graduate school can we really blame them?
One author (The Cheating Culture) says kids get these ideas from watching TV newscasts of cheaters in society. And indeed every level of society seems to get caught cheating once in a while. These days it's U.S. general David Petraeus --his case, of course, came too late to be included here.
One card sharp admits he has easily cheated casinos out of $20 million --one wonders what this bright fellow would have achieved if he'd gone straight.
Plagiarism is another turn in the story with computer systems routinely used by educators to trap plagiarists --they didn't have this in my day.
And some people are asking why we don't cultivate the values of honesty. One Ohio high school cancelled its entire graduation ceremony when widespread cheating was discovered --outraged parents had their own ceremony for both the honest and cheating students.
Director Blicq hits a home run with this one, I couldn't stop watching and agreeing with his points. I couldn't stop watching --no fast forward cheating for me.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Name's The Same But...

I got a great question the other day during a talk to a bright group of Grade Sixers.
One very smart preteen asked me simply "Why is there a TV network called Arts And Entertainment when it shows Pawn Stars and Storage Wars?
Didn't she forget Dog The Bounty Hunter which started the whole "Unreality" thing on A%E? Actually that venerable classic has been cancelled.
Hey, I just happened to already be at the Toronto Star when the original A&E network was launched in 1984.
And what an ambitious schedule it first had: there was a night for ballet and opera, a nightly biography of a famous person, prestigious documentaries and high blown British dramas.  At one point British classics like Lovejoy and Inspector Morse accounted for 40 per cent of the weblet's content.
And then along came BBC America and A&E's British imports faded fast.
Tuesday nights as I recall Tammy Grimes hosted telecasts of notable plays and concerts. And there was another wonderful series called Breakfast With The Arts.
Conceived as a sort of PBS with commercials A&E slowly morphed into  a rerun network with such faves as The Equalizer and Law & Order in reruns. Then the reality craze took over proving once again that high class programming does not sell to the vast American viewing public.
And I have to admit that late at night I couldn't stop watching the Dog and his marvelously disfunctional family.
In Canada we witnessed the same phenomenon when C Channel came on the air --and it quickly folded because viewers were loathe to pay a little more for a quality TV cable service.
When the Canadian Bravo debuted all sorts of promises were made about providing a night of British drama plus devoting big bucks to televising opera and ballet.
And today? Well Canadian Bravo still does offer the occasional great moment like its recent reconstruction of the life of Tom Thompson but it also reruns such U.S. exports as Suits and White Collar and reruns of such CTV fare as The Mentalist and Criminal Minds. All popular shows, yes, but uplifting?
Let's move on to Outdoor Life, a Canadian cable weblet I've always thought suffered from a split personality.
There are some dandy outdoors shows like Mantracker but there also are Pawn Stars and Storage Wars. What is "outdoorsy" about a storage locker I ask you?
Let's move on to AMC --American Movie Classics.
It actually was the first old movie channel on the block with runs of pre-1948 Paramount, Universal, RKO and Fox titles.
Copycat Turner Classic Movies came to town providing stiff entertainment and AMC dumped most of its old flicks for more recent action flicks.
And today? The weblet now has two of the greatest TV series: Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
So why still call it AMC?
Sometimes stations go whole hog in renaming their product. Hamilton's Channel 11 started off as CHCH. Then it was just CH. Then it was ON TV for a nano second. Then it was E!. Now it is back to where it all started --CHCH.
Of course I could say that a whole lot of programming on Canada's History channel is only slimly related to history like its current repeats of M*A*S*H.
So what,s in a name? As far as most TV networks are concerned not much at all.

Friday, November 9, 2012

TV Class of 2012: Winners, Losers

Don't say I didn't warn you! This new TV season has to be about the worst in living memory.
There have been no break outs --most seasons sport at least one big new hit everyone has to see.
And let's admit the World Series and the U.S. presidential debates have both disrupted viewing schedules.
One stat I'm closely watching is the huge increase in viewers using their DVRs to shift when they watch their faves --it can be as high as 30 per cent of a show's total audience which is huge.
But if there are no big hits there have been fewer early cancellations than in recent past seasons.
Some hugely hyped new shows have yet to catch fire. I'm thinking of Vegas on CBS especially but also Nashville which seems to change focus every week.
Cancelled turkeys so far include Made In Jersey (CBS) and Animal Practice (ABC).
That's fewer than expected --I think it's because the fading networks have empty closets whereas they once had a half dozen new shows  waiting in the wings for a time slot.
And there are some winners already. Like Revolution (NBC) which has scored strong enough it has a pick up for an entire series. And it surely helps that NBC desperately needs hits.
I'm not as sure about the long term survivability of Elementary (CBS) which has been drooping a bit since a strong debut. The two leads just don't click. But after some hesitation CBS has ordered a full season pick up.
Guys With Kids (NBC) is one I'm just not sure about. The plot is amiable but there are very few laughs. But NBC says it will hang on a bit longer.
It's strange but NBC's The New Normal has already gotten its pick up for another nine shows and a full season. But its 1.7 rating continues to plummet.
I keep hearing stories ABC may not carry 666 Park Avenue for a full season. Ratings are flat and if you really want to get scared you'll tune to American Horror Story.
But when I talk about the new season I'm also thinking of old shows back for new episodes.
And after nine seasons ABC's Grey's Anatomy is still the leader among viewers 18 to 49. Think about that for a bit.
New comedies are faring poorly and I'm including both Fox's The Mindy Project and Ben And Kate --pre-emptions for baseball have hurt both.
Biggest surprise for me is the huge success of NBC's The Voice which consistently saves NBC from bottom of the ratings status.
Geezer TV is a new name for all those shows that exist because of the devotion of viewers over 50. In this category I can include Dancing With The Stars, The Voice and CBS's latest drama Vegas.
In fact ratings king CBS would be nowhere without its older viewers.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Photograph Springs Alive on TSN

The lot of a TV critic is not a happy one.
I spend my evenings in the dark relentlessly searching for something passable on my flickering TV set.
And then something as evocative as The Photograph comes along. Surely it's one of the best Remembrance Day specials I have seen in a while.
And, yes, it is on TSN. What a great surprise.
The Photograph plays like an old time movie --at its core is a great, involved mystery concerning Jake Gaudaur.
Now I thought I knew all about  Gaudaur because I spent the first decade of my writing career at The Hamilton Spectator.
And Gaudaur and Hamilton were intertwined --he helped the Tiger Cats win two Grey Cups and he managed the team to four more historic wins.
And after that he went on to serve 16 years --a record --as commissioner of the Canadian Football League.
I remember spotting him at several football games, white haired and beneficent, a fine reminder of all the glories of the CFL. And it was big news everywhere when he passed in 2007.
That was the public man. In private his two daughters say he was taciturn, loathe to discuss the past. His generation did not display emotions. But for decades Gaudaur carried this aching void within himself.
And it all goes back to a specific photograph --a locker room snap from 1942 showing the winning Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes who won the Grey Cup 8 to 5 over the Winnipeg Bombers.
The Photograph is all about the odyssey of Gaudaur's two daughters Jackie and Diane to find out why Gaudaur kept that picture for so long but refused to ever discuss it or even to identify his fellow players.
What emerges is a splendid portrait of a generation willing to put their lives on the line for their beliefs
We follow these guys through basic training at the Canadian National Exhibition  barns in 1941 and into advanced training as pilots.
Over 1130,000 young men trained as pilots to fight in Europe and in rare archival footage we see them put through their paces. They seem so incredibly young, boys still, and so very upbeat and joyous --they never understood the terrible fate that awaited so many of them.
And after the Grey Cup Victory on Dec. 5, 1942, the gang slowly disbanded. In the particular photograph of 27 a total of 15 were sent to Europe.
And eight never made it back home.
One of those was Jake's best friend, American expat Ed Poscavage who even married a Toronto girl but eventually chose to fly with the U.S. air force. A relative plays a radio interview with Poscavage done weeks before he died in action.
The Gaudaur women get important tips from their mom, Molly, still sprightly at 89 --she's able to fill in some of the blanks of the story as are relatives of some of the other fliers.
At the heart of this story masterfully directed by Manfred Becker (The Fatherland) for Infield Fly Productions there's this incredible sense of loss and of young lives snuffed out before the boys ever really lived.
Gaudaur did not go to Europe with his mates --he was ordered to remain behind to train more pilots. And certainly in some sense he suffered from survivor loss. He never got that chance to fight and it haunted him forever.
His daughters have made The Photograph spring alive as a salute to a generation of airmen who never returned. They are remembered 70 years on still as young and exhuberant as they appear in that one particular photograph.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Remembering On History

I'm wondering how much Canadians remember these days.
As a test I asked several kids on my Toronto street what they knew about Remembrance Day and I sadly drew a blank.
So I'd like to suggest you sit down with your kids and watch several outstanding new Canadian made documentaries that vividly conjure up the realities of World War II.
First up there's the challenging new series War Story which in its first two hours examines the reality of Bomber Command. It premieres Thursday November 8 at 8 p.m.
And immediately following there's another superb Canadian documentary The Real Inglorious Basterds which looks at the exploits of several OSS recruits who served behind enemy lines --specifically in Nazi held Australia.
War Story's first two episodes are bound to provoke controversy and may indeed even be as controversial as the TV program The Valour And The Horror.
I feel the producers of War Story got to the Canadian veterans just in time --in the early 1940s many were still teenagers who'd enthusiastically volunteered and became part of Bomber Command determined to take the war to the Germans.
The reminiscences of these survivors who are now extremely old men make this a vivid and compelling story --they tell of the hugely dangerous night time sorties made over Germany and all the difficulties these bombing missions entailed.
Flying by night without lights of any kind made for harrowing tales of bombers crashing into each other. Once over German cities they were the lumbering targets of German search lights and artillery.
And there also was the question of bombing civilians. Or were there any civilians in a country that so eagerly supported Nazi war plans?
These veterans have complete recall of the events. They remember the comrades who did not return. They remember the devastation of Nazi bombers over London during the Blitz.
For months Britain had stood alone but by 1942 Bomber Command under the direction of Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris began a strategic campaign of bombing British cities. How much this affected German morale is unclear. The Canadian pilots talk about watching as  huge fires engulfed whole city blocks. And we go through what a strategic bombing sortie meant and how the crews were told not to expect to return to their bases.
Of the 125,000 who served in Bomber Command 55,000 were killed --nearly 10,000 were Canadians --it took 30 sorties to complete an operational tour.
But the experiences of German civilians are also documented with interviews  --the stories they tell are equally harrowing giving the first two hours of War Story a particular poignancy.
Barry Stevens is the director-executive producer who has done an outstanding job in finding archival materials and interviewing the Canadian veterans. In war both sides were victims.
Then at 9 comes The Real Inglorious Basterds which looks at one particular OSS operation during the war.
This one starts off rather light heartedly --two young refugees from the evils of Naziism Fred Mayer and Hans Wijnberg (from Germany and Austria) decide to emlist in the U.S. army and go to boot camp for special intelligence services.
At a former Washington country club they become best buddies and seem perfectly matched for intelligence work --Fred is determined to avenge his family who died in the camps and befriends the younger Hans.
They are despatched to German controlled Austria--parachuting out to land on a ice flow --their job is to monitor the railway traffic through Innsbruck where the Nazis are shipping munitions and tanks to the Italian front.
Director Min Sook Lee and producer Ed Barreveld (for Storline Entertainment)  expertly interweave archival material, new interviews with Wijnberg and Meyer and dramatic reconstructions to create a true story more compelling than any Hollywood movie.
Mayer survived capture and torture and even tried to negotiate with the Nazi head of Tyrol about his surrender at war's end.
The story only works because Hans and Fred (pictured above) are at hand to offer their reminiscences and Fred even goes back to the actual sites but sadly Hans passed on a day after filming his last interview.
The Real Inglorious Basterds shows how with the help from an Austrian (Wehrmacht deserter Franz weber) they were able to make a significant contribution to defeating the Nazis.
MY RATING: ****.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hit And Miss: 2012's Best TV Series?

I'm about to alter my opinion that Homeland is the best TV series for the 2012 season.
You see I've just previewed the first two episodes of the British smash Hit And Miss.
And I was blown away by its courage.
The first hour long episode premieres on Super Channel Monday night at 9.
Chloe Sevigny who once reigned supreme as the darling of idie film makers stars as a contract killer who stylishly goes around in her hoodie knocking off the guys she's paid to kill.
After the first killing Sevigny as Mia returns to her barren loft and strips and we instantly notice a fake penis swinging between her legs.
That's because Mia is a transsexual, a man who kills to get enough dough to undergo the next stage of sexual change.
Sevigny as cold blooded assassin is tops --she rarely shows emotion even when accepting bulky cash payments for her latest killing.
We see her shoot a victim in a car park and just to make sure when he drops she shoots another round into his back --a clear case of over kill.
We also see her stalking a family man, waiting patiently while he bids his kids goodbye as they trot off to school --and then she enters and calmly slots his throat (gun fire might disturb the neighbors).
"You're like a machine" her boss grudgingly tells her and again there's no response until she opens a letter from an ex-girlfriend who says she's expiring from cancer and Mia as a man sired a son who now needs her.
So Sevigny has a challenge: she's a woman playing a man who is slowly turning into a woman.
The six part series was created by Paul Abbott  (State Of Play) and written by Sean Conway and directed by Hettie MacDonald and Sheree Folkson for Britain's Sky Television.
It's the British network's first attempt at scripted Drama but there's uncertainty whether additional episodes will be ordered.
Executive producer Nicola Sheridan said a transsexual actor was considered but the network wanted Sevigny who instantly agreed but wanted to research her part and feared any adverse reaction from transsexuals.
Filmed in Manchester, the episodes challenge viewers at every turn. Because Mia does meet up with her former family and attempts to help the children who have mixed feelings about her sexuality.
The children are wonderfully played by Karla Crome, Roma Christensen and Reece Noi as her step children and Jorden Bennie as her son Ryan. Also impressive: Peter Wright as her portly mob boss Eddie.
Accepting Sevigny as a former man is a tough stretch because she's so right as the female assassin --look at the way she beats up a burly lout who steps in her way right down to standing on his hand and crunching his knuckles.
And three cheers to Super Channel for finding this gem that is tough and uncompromising. Mia is a completely convincing character who knows how to kill but remains unsure how to love.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Crash: Must See TV

The first thing you'll notice about Calgary Stampeder lineman Edwin Harrison is how much he resembles his fabled grandfather, Winnipeg Blue Bomber linesman Calvin Jones.
That physical likeness is indeed amazing but after you get over that settle back to watch The Crash, the fifth installment of TSN's excellent Engraved On A Nation, a centenary salute to the Grey Cup.
The hourlong The Crash premieres on TSN Friday night at 8 and is must see TV.
It documents the terrifying crash of  Trans Canada flight 810 which crashed right into a mountain near Chilliwack, British Columbia, killing all 62 people onboard including Harrison's grandfather Calvin Jones plus four members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders (Mel Beckett, Mario DeMarco, Gordon Sturtridge, Ray Syrnyk).
Certainly Jones, 23, was an amazing talent. At 23 he already was an All Star and had just finished his rookie season in the CFL after a dazzling college football career.
"I took on the assignment from Infield Fly Productions without realizing the great story I had," says writer-director Paul Cowan.
Because Cowan soon discovered that Jones had just learned he was the father of a baby boy --who he'd never see.
His grilfriend Sandra Lee discovered she was pregnant and rerurned to live with her parents.
After Jones' death the grandparents adopted the boy, Edwin Harrison and raised him as their own.
"I got into the story just as it was enfolding some more," Cowan says. He actually got to document the sometimes awkward reunion of the Jones and Harrison families in an airport waiting room. All there is a wonderfully happy wedding ceremony with Edwin Harrison II in Houston that is a must see.
It turns out he is Edwin's son (and also named Edwin Harrison) and had been researching his family tree and already was beginning to piece together his grandfather's remarkable  but tragically short career.
It's hard to believed but despite his storied college career  (he was a three time All American) Jones was never a first place draft pick of any of the NFL teams.
Racism still dominated U.S. pro-football and indeed all American sports and Jones was black in a lily white era.
So he opted to become a player in the CFL. The salary was actually more at the time --remember this was before TV coverage inflated NFL salaries.
And Canadians couldn't have cared less about Jones' color --it was his ability on the field that dazzled them. Cowan's first rate documentary touches all the bases. The family reunion scenes will have you in tears.
There's genuine suspense as a research team tries to locate the reasons the crash happened crash --the Canadian government has declared it a national cemetery. But Cowan reports "Looting has been going on for a long time. There were stories that an Asian businessman had a large cash stash on board.
"But avalanches have pushed the debris down the slope. Remember at the time there were no satellites. Nobody knew what had happened or where the crash was even located."
For the two Edwins this was a journey to closure.
For the elder Edwin  who has suffered two heart attacks and a broken neck it involved uniting with a part of his family he had never met. For Edwin Jr. it involved constructing a biography of what a great footballer his grandfather really was.
The Crash takes the great game of Canadian football and uses it as a metaphor for survival and continuance. It proves a great ride for viewers like me who only vaguely knew about this tragedy.
MY RATING: ****.