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: ****.