Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Slaves Of Habit: First New Must-See TV of 2014

It's entirely appropriate that the first new TV show I watched for 2014 should be Slaves To Habit.
Look, I knew it would be well made because the director is veteran Andy Blicq and he's directed and produced such fine documentaries as Faking The Grade and The Truth About Shoplifting in recent years.
But the subject matter makes this a virtual must-see.
It's all about kicking our bad habits and why we make New Year's resolutions and then strive mightily to keep them.
Slaves To Habit premieres on CBC-TV's Doc Zone Thursday January 2 at 9 p.m. Got that?
The reasoning for making resolutions goes something like this: the holiday season is for many people one of over indulgence and that engenders guilty feelings.
It seems to easy to make a resolution to be better in some way. The problem lies in keeping that declaration as the months pass by. Basically the New Year gives most of us the opportunity to restructure our lives and get rid of nasty habits and basically rewind our lives.
What Blicq has done very nicely is to personalize this quest.
Yes, there are the talking heads experts and what they say seems so logical. Best of the bunch are psychologist Dr. John Norcross and Pultizer reporter Charles Duhigg.
Duhigg hits gold when explaining the three stages of a habit: a cue jump starts the behavior and then the routine takes over and then there must a a reward so you'll want to do it again.
In this case this constant striving gets personalized by a nifty cross section of three people fighting their addictions.
First up we meet corporate head hunter Marc who lives in a swank partment and is trying to stop smoking any which way he can.
Then there's  student Hallae who is a binge shopper and can spent $3,000 on fashion without blinking an eye just because it makes her feel better.
And what about Tom who feels angry and betrayed because at 325 pounds he is perceived by those around him as morbidly obese.
Blicq gets his three subjects together to talk about what makes their problems seem so common. Then he separates them and we watch to see if they will slide back into bad old habits.
For Kelly it involves a shopping trip to New York city which is already planned.
For Chareles it's working on an old house he must hurry and refurbish even through constant rainstorms are against him.
For Mark it's a weekend with the boys --how can he cope during such a stressful time?
Slaves To Habit follows them over six weeks and their epic struggles to break the very cycles that have made them unhappy.
What is Kelly really shopping for? Does Charles need that next cigaret? Is Mark angry at himself or others for his obesity.
Slaves To Habit (from Merit Motion Pictures)  is completely satisfying seasonal fare. If you've made a resolution you really must watch to test your resolve against the three subjects.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I Remember Audrey Totter

Audrey Totter remembered the day in the MGM commissary when Lionel Barrymore threw his cane at her and started shouting.
"You're too versatile," the old trouper shouted. "Every picture you're different. Continue in that vein and you'll never be a star. June Allyson is always June Allyson. Lana Turner is always Lana. But you! You're a female Lon Chaney!"
When I first met Totter in 1974 she chuckled over the anecdote and then said "I should have taken his advice. Louis Mayer never quite knew what to make of me."
Totter's death this week at 94 was not unexpected.
I offered to come out and see her at the Motion Picture home a few years ago and she said over the telephone "Please don't. I want to remember happier times with you."
In 1974 when we first met she had been busy in the middle of co-starring in the CBS hit Medical Center which ran from 1969 through 1976. Totter replaced Jayne Meadows in the cast starting in 1972.
"Jaynie said she didn't want to do it anymore. They needed a new veteran nurse to work just one day an episode. I happened to go out for dinner with my husband at Hamburger Hamlet and the producers saw me and hired me right then.
"That's L.A. for you --thank goodness for Hamburger Hamlet."
And so Totter found herself back at MGM's Culver City lot for the first time since the studio had dropped her contract in 1951.
"It was all so different when I arrived there in 1944. Mr. Mayer said he hired me although at 26 I was a bit old to be a starlet. He immediately typed me as a bad girl and my early competition was with a Southern gal named Ava Gardner and another one was Gloria Grahame.
First off she had bit parts in Main Street After Dark (1945) and Dangerous Partners (1945) as well as contributing her voice only to Bewitched (1945).
"I'd gotten my start in radio doing up to six live radio soap operas a day from Manhattan. And that was the reason Bob Montgomery hired me for The Lady In The Lake --he shot it and starred in it but you only saw him in mirrors. The camera took the subjective view meaning we saw the action through Philip Marlowe's perspective. As a radio actress I was unafraid of peering right at the camera which movie actresses would not do."
The film was a minor success and Totter began a great career as a dark dame.
"We didn't call them film noirs. We called them B flicks!"
Next came The Unsuspected  (1947) on loan to Warners. "I was the naughty niece. Claude Rains was the star and he came in the first day wearing enormous elevator shoes. Hurd Hatfield was also on loan to Warners. The star was Lauren Bacall who worked one day and walked, she was that petrified of Claude-- Joan Caulfield was rapidly hired from Paramount. I loved doing that one. Decades later I spotted Claude at Columbia where both of us were doing TV. I reminded him of his fabulous dinners presided over by a much younger wife.
"'My dear that is all so long ago,' he murmured, his eyes filling with tears. Because she had long since left him --he had six wives I believe."
Back at MGM Totter excelled as a psychiatrist in High Wall (1948) trying to discover if Robert Taylor is guilty of murder. "We did one scene until 1 a.m. and neither of us had any supper. The restaurants were all closed so Bob said 'I know where we can find the best scrambled eggs in town!' So he drove me to his home, woke wife Barbara Stanwyck up and Missy scrambled some mighty fine eggs. The fact she had an early cal next day didn't faze her."
Totter's biggest disappointment? "Missing out on The Killers because I was busy making Lady In The Lake. Mr. Mayer told Universal 'I gotta another sexy gal here, can't act, but a real looker.' And they took Ava Gardner and she whizzed to stardom on it."
I told Totter how much I enjoyed her and Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1949).
"It was well set up but they got cold feet and changed the title so it gave away the trick ending that Ray Milland really is the devil. One night at the conclusion of shooting I told Ray I had an appointment with a famous Paramount director about a future part. He said 'X is a notorious womanizer. I shall come with you.' When director X saw I had come with reinforcements he was very curt and I never did get that part."
Then came Totter's favorite movie: 1949's The Set-Up. "Photographed in real time. Bob Wise gave it a superbly gritty texture. As the deteriorating boxer Bob Ryan is terrific. The greatest ever fight picture. But RKO panicked upon hearing Champion with Kirk Douglas was coming out. They released it quickly with out publicity and it just died."
For years Totter was the most dated actress in Hollywood. "Clark Gable asked to marry me and I said no. He was still in love with Carole Lombard who had died in a war time plane crash. And, yes, I did go steady with Ross Hunter until he realized he was gay. Then I met my future husband Dr. Leo Fred and that was that. He was a teaching doctor at UCLA. Had never heard of me --that I loved. At our engagement Mr. Mayer told him 'You are marring the only virgin at Metro!' A lot of famous actresses were in the room and looked really bummed out!"
By 1951 MGM was faltering and Totter's contract was terminated. She went to Columbia on the promise of Harry Cohn that she'd be co-starred in From Here To Eternity. "It didn't happen. Director Fred Zinnemann chose Donna Reed instead. Instead I made stuff like Cruisin' Down The River and Massacre Canyon."
But it didn't matter --now happily married and with a young daughter Totter only acted for the money. She made two  TV series that quickly folded: the western Cimarron City (1958-59) and Our Man Higgins (1962-63) --"that one was quite good with Stanley Holloway as our butler but it opened against a new CBS series The Dick Van Dyke Show."
After Medical Center folded and Totter worked less frequency retiring completely after a 1988 guest appearance on Murder She Wrote.
Fred died in 1995 and when I picked her up at her Westwood apartment in 1998 for dinner she chose a local Italian eatery. At 81 she still looked chic and glamourous in a Chanel pant suit. Leafing throgh the stills I'd brought she joked "Nobody should look that young or that slim!"
But she admitted "Sure, I'm lonely. But I had quite a successful marriage. Do you know whom I'm dating these days? Turhan Bey! We were starlets together and now we are old together! Now I'm known as a cult figure.
At the party for That's Entertainment in 1974 in Vegas Ava Gardner came up to me and said 'Audrey you had what I never had --a successful marriage and a child.' And she was right, I have been blessed."
Audrey Totter died December 12 2013 eight days short of her 95th birthday.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joan Fontaine: Tough And Temperamental

I had three tries at interviewing Joan Fontaine the lovely Oscar winner who died Sunday aged 96.
Told in advance never to mention  the name "Olivia de Havilland" her older (by one year) sister, I  nevertheless got a lot out of the lady who won her Oscar for 1941's Suspicion and was still acting on TV until 1997 when she voluntarily retired.
Here are a few highlights from our conversations:
BAWDEN: "You once danced with Fred Astaire?"
FONTAINE: "Not really, I walked along and he danced around me. The movie was A Damsel In Distress (1937) and his dance partner was supposed to be Jessie Matthjews but she couldn't get over from England in time."
BAWDEN: "Another early credit is Gunga Din (1939)."
FONTAINE: "Mine was a tiny part. But one night as I was leaving RKO I spied Doug Fairbanks Jr. coming out in his tux with Marlene Dietrich on his arm all bejeweled and thought them the most romantic couple. I don't think Doug gave me much thought in our kissing scenes though. He had Marlene on the brain!"
BAWDEN: "You've said your part in The Women (1939) made you."
FONTAINE: I was coached by Norma Shearer, the empress of MGM. My part was tiny but I had one key tlephone scene where my husband pleads with me to leave Reno and come back. And our director George Cukor spent hours on it with many takes until I hit just the right note. David Selznick saw it and asked me for a test."
BAWDEN: "The test was for....?"
FONTAINE: "Gone with The Wind but I didn't want to play Melanie and told him my sister Olivia de Havilland would better and she was! But he then asked me to test for the second wife in Rebecca and I got that instead."
BAWDEN: "It was a huge success."
FONTAINE: "I felt on set nobody wanted me. Alfred Hitchcock had favored Maggie Sullavan but David thought her too American. Laurence Olivier wanted his wife Vivien Leigh who did test but David said she was still playing Scarlett. I got it on the rebound and Larry was very nasty to me and so was Judith Anderson but she was always nasty to everybody. I think only the dog liked me, really."
BAWDEN: "Was Hitch a help to you?"
FONTAINE: "Not really. He was feuding with David. One scene Hitch had Larry and I doing a love scene in the tight hotel elevator. David said to redo it in the breakfast restaurant because he'd spent a fortune on the set. Hitch did it mumbling all the way."
BAWDEN: "How did you get Suspicion (1941)?"
FONTAINE: After Rebecca Selznick owned my contract for seven years. Never used me again but hired me out and collected a fortune. He became a glorified  manager of talent and most of us including Joe Cotten, Greg Peck, Ingrid Bergman, we made him rich while we mostly worked for others. He sold me and Hitch as a package deal to RKO for Suspicion."
BAWDEN: "Do you consider it an inferior film to Rebecca?"
FONTAINE: No, superior. Cary Grant was expertly cast as the lady killer but right at the last minute the RKO head said 'Cary must not kill her at the end'. So we shot a new ending that makes no sense. Up to that point is is psychologically sound."
BAWDEN: "I notice you were not at the AFI salute to Orson Welles.
FONTAINE: "David sold me. the script of Jane Eyre and director  Bob Stevenson to Fox as another package. Orson was cast as Rochester and was already believing his publicity. Tried to take over. Lots of tussling with Bob. The film was a huge hit with wartime audiences, I liked doing it but I wish Orson had stuck to acting. But he couldn't you see, he had to play at being a genius"
.BAWDEN: "Why did you make The Constant Nymph (1943) at Warners?"
FONTAINE: "Well, I should not have have. It was at Olivia's home studio. She had tested for 12-year old Tessa but director Teddy Goulding said she was too womanly, too many curves. I did the test, got it and Olivia cut me off for years. I'd won the Oscar before her. I'd taken this role from her at her home studio. The movie is wonderful but can't be seen these days. Turner gave me a screening and I watched myself at 27 playing a 16-year old and I stumbled into the daylight and demanded a drink. I thought it was very wonderful."
NOTE: The film has since been screened on TCM.
BAWDEN: "What do you think of Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)?"
FONTAINE: It's so wonderfully perverse. It plays with the audience's expectations. The ending is tragic, the woman is tragic.  Our director Max Ophuls thought it would make him in Hollywood. Instead he was quickly back in Europe because it really flopped."
BAWDEN: "Without Selznick you had problems."
FONTAINE: "We all did. It was that monster child, television. Oh, I thought Ivy (1947) where I poisoned the men in my life was well made but obviously popular.  Born To Be Bad (1950) was just OK.  Ivanhoe (1952) was a huge hit. On Island In The Sun (1957) Harry Belafonte and I were lovers and the censors freaked when we held hands. But no kissing was permitted."
BAWDEN: "You did tons of TV."
FONTAINE: "They give one a tiny trailer and a few sandwiches and lukewarm coffee for lunch. You rehearse and try for a first take and it's all shot at 10 pages a day. The lighting is atrocious. But there are no great producers anymore. I may have fought with selznick but he always spent the money and it showed on the screen. Not today.".
BAWDEN: "Your last big film was Tender Is The Night (1961)."
FONTAINE: I was trying to dial out one day and on a crossed wire overheard Jennifer Jones in the next dressing room talking to Selznick who had sold the property to Fox. He was giving her precise instructions how to do the next scene and when we assembled that's exactly how she played it. Henry King was an old pro who told us 'I'll be d-d if any of my principals will be seen pawing each other in bed.' But that was exactly what the story needed and we deservedly flopped."
BAWDEN: "Future goals?"
FONTAINE: To dance on Broadway with Tommy Tune. Recently I opened my nightclub act at The Plaza and I was really good. I could have been singing and dancing all these years instead of mooning after Olivier and Boyer. I know I would have been much happier.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sheepdogs Are Top Dogs

In recent years Super Channel has been the place to go for top U.S. imports and many fine foreign TV series as well.
Now it's time for the specialty service to shine in the dreaded area of "Cancon".
I'd like to direct you to a delightful rock documentary that premieres on Super Channel Monday December 16 at 8 p.m.
Titled The Sheepdogs Have At It, the group profile from director John Barnard looks at the meteoric rise of the Saskatoon based rockers The Sheepdogs.
Whoops, did I say meteoric?
Actually these guys had been struggling in a friend's basement for years before they hit pay dirt by winning a contest to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
They were very lucky to have some experience under their belts as they struggled across the nation opening to crowds that numbered from zero to 15 on a good night.
Too poor to afford a tour bus they made do with a van and frequently would return from gigs with absolutely no money in their pockets.
Barnard's inside story of how success affected them is a tightly edited chronicle of the rise and rise again of a group of veterans who chose to play music their way --or classical rock as they call it
Getting the cover was just the first step. they could have slipped back into anonymity faster than you can say "American Idol".
They quickly had to produce a record album for a major label that had to be a hit or they'd be finished before they ever really started.
Barnard cuts closely from interviews with doting parents to the managers and promoters who control the business tightly.
And we go on a road trip with the four fellas--Ewan Currie, Leot Hanson, Ryan Gullen and Sam Corbett-and we see the momentum as they sell out in Downsview, sell out in Nashville and New Orleans.
The fans discover them and become increasingly enthusiastic about what the foursome mean in terms of good thumping rock music.
If they had been mere beginners they would have been eaten alive by the all demanding biz.
But they have been together for years, they know what they want and that refusal to compromise could keep them professionally active at least over the next few years.
This well made documentary begins in August 2011 as they are among the contestants for RS cover consideration.
It zig zag backs to their roots as one mom takes us on a guided tour of her basement where they hung out for six very long years. Their first album was so rough they only had two microphones but they managed to sell 1,000 copies mainly at gigs and were on their way.
We listen as the booking agent tells what he's doing to keeping the momentum alive. We listen in to the vastly professional recording of their second album. And they even get a gig on Project Runway all dolled up in slightly ridiculous garb.
As an inside peek at the industry this one is tops but it also helps that the guys are articulate about what they want and how they know it's a tough road ahead for them.
Barnard directs effectively aided by cinematographer Dave Gaudet and editor Andrew Wall for Farpoint Films.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Remember Eleanor Parker

"Hello, Mr. Bawden-- this is Eleanor Parker calling. You know, the recluse."
It was 1988 and I was at my desk as TV critic of the Toronto star when I took the long distance call.
Naturally I jumped when I got it.
Then I shared a laugh with "the recluse" who had just read a recent Star piece I'd written on a CBC-TV tribute that included 10 of her best movies. I'd written that she never gave interviews so she phoned up to prove I was wrong.
We talked for over an hour as Parker provided insights on why her 40-year movie career had produced so many memorable performances.
"I've never been on a talk show," she whispered."And I never will be. Not even Password. My private life is private."
"Let's talk about your movies then "I ventured.
"Fire away!" she laughed.
BAWDEN: "You came to Warners in 1941 as a shy 19-year old. Weren't you originally going to be one of the stars of  the big hit of that year Kings Row?"
PARKER: "How did you know that? I was cast as the terrified Cassie who eventually turns out to be mentally ill and is killed by her father-- played by Claude Rains. I tested with Jeffrey Lynn as Paris. Then he was replaced by Robert Cummings who was hot at the time. Eventually the director Sam Wood told me I didn't have the experience and he went for Betty Field. I cried for days."
BAWDEN: "Your first movie was Busses Roar (1942). What do you remember about that one?"
PARKER "Only that it was a very bad B. But I photographed OK and then in 1943 I had my first real part as Ambassador Davies' daughter Emlen in Mission To Moscow (1943). And the next year I had a big part in Between Two Worlds (1944). Jack Warner said he would promote me because he needed some big new female stars."
BAWDEN: "How did you feel about co-starring with John Garfield in Pride Of The Marines (1954)?"
PARKER: "A wonderfully talented actor but mixed up emotionally. Then I got too big for my britches and was in the remake of Of Human Bondage (1946) --I had the Bette David part and she sent me a sweet note. But it truly bombed and I just wasn't at all good."
BAWDEN: "Then you were opposite Ronnie Reagan in Voice Of The Turtle (1947)?"
PARKER: It had been a great Broadway hit with Margaret Sullavan but she balked at signing a long term Warners contract. They plopped me in and I even was made to look like her right down to the bangs. Ronnie couldn't do comedy. I was lucky to escape alive!"
BAWDEN: "You got your first Oscar nod for Caged (1950)?"
PARKER: "It was written for Joan Crawford as the female convict and Bette Davis as the warden. But Bette left the studio and Jack said Joan was getting too leathery. I put my all into it but the opposition Oscar night was Anne Baxter and Bette Davis for All About Eve, Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. I never expected to win and I didn't."
BAWDEN: "A year later you got another nod for Detective Story (1951)."
PARKER:" That threw me as Kirk Douglas had the bigger part as my husband and didn't get one. But I did! I could never figure that out except that Kirk was not popular among his fellow actors. It was my sole film for Willie Wyler and he put me through the emotional ringer and it really worked."
BAWDEN: "The third was for Interrupted Melody in 1955."
PARKER: "It was the story for Marjorie Lawrence who survived polio to become a great opera star. I took the records up to Lake Arrowhead and for three  weeks I just lip synched all day long. MGM had bought it for Greer Garson but hey I'll take mark downs if they come my way."
BAWDEN: "Why leave Warners for MGM?"
PARKER "Better scripts, more choices. My MGM deal meant I could do one for them and then one for freelance. I got to work with Bob Taylor (Above And Beyond), Stew Granger (Scaramouche), Bill Holden( Escape From Fort Bravo) at MGM and outside there was Chuck Heston (Naked Jungle), Frankie Sinatea (The Man with the Golden Gun), Dana Andrews (Madison Avenue)."
BAWDEN" Watching al, those red ants coming at you in Naked Jungle scared me as a kid."
PARKER: "Well, the assistant director actually did say 'Cue the ants!' I was scared and very itchy afterwards.'"
BAWDEN: "Why take the secondary position in The Sound Of Music(1965)?"
PARKER: "Did that one for my children. Something I could take them to without flinching. And it just goes on and on. I still get letters about that one."
BAWDEN: "Now it's TV."
PARKER: "Thank God for The Love Boat, Fantasy Island. Aaron Spelling gives all us old girlies a break or two. And maybe just maybe another great movie role will come up."
An hour later she rang off saying "Goodbye from the recluse."
Eleanor Parker died December 9 2013 aged 92 at a hospital near her home in Palm Springs.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Good Son: TV At Its Best

Three decades ago boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini killed his opponent in the ring.
He hasn't forgotten that stunning moment, an accident to be sure, but something that also ripped apart his life forever.
And now it's all back to haunt him in a must-see documentary The Good Son: The Life Of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini.
You can catch it on Super Channel Tuesday December 10 at  9 p.m.
In 1982 Macini was fighting South Korean Duk-koo Kim and as the existing footage demonstrates this was a knock-'em-out affair for the World Lightweight title with both opponents blooded and bowed after 14 rounds of sheer brutality.
This new film based on Mark Kriegel's book published last year captures all the emotions of that night as right at the end Kim slumps into unconsciousness --a sudden hematoma of the brain and he was near death until the plug was pulled leaving behind a grieving widow and an unborn son.
This biography of Mancini goes over everything before and after that fateful night.
One of the stars surely is Ian Kerr's atmospheric cinematography which evokes its era so poignantly and is beautifully complimented by Schaun Tozer's musical score (Jesse James Miller directed it ).
The first hour has a rollicking, raucous quality as it bounds all over Mancin's boyhood in blue collar Younghstown, Ohio. We see the deep bond with the father who also was a fighter but he gave it up for duty in World War II.
The son spurned college football scholarships because he wanted to avenge his father's short career and simply become the champion his dad had never been.
Mancini himself guides us through these highs and lows right back to the house where he was born and on to the other houses in the burb where he'd hang out.
And others weight in on his greatness, too, including actors Ed O'Neill and Mickey Rourke.
Then the narrative shifts drastically to the saga of Korean Kim who grew up in the starkest poverty, using his fists to get ahead, finally marrying the prettiest girl around and then being within one fight of being named World Lightweight boxing champeen.
It never happened. A life was destroyed that fateful night, another man's reputation was in tatters. Mancini continued to box for awhile but nothing in his life could ever be the same.
What emerges is a sort of modern Rocky --only this story is all truth and revelations.
The closing of Youngstown's mills meant the struggling city needed a real hero and Mancini fit the bill perfectly.
The real fight that killed Kim is hard to watch --Mancini plummets him with punches to the head. Death seemed inevitable.
And the final scenes while emotional are necessary. Mrs. Kim and son visit the Mancini family. Both sides need answers.
But there are no blinding revelations. Both sides continue  to suffer. Mancini experienced dizzying celebrity, then came the backlash that even affect his children.
Even today with this film he is seeking forgiveness.  The Kims seek memories of a young husband and father they barely knew.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Six By Sondheim: TV's Best For 2013

I've just previewed the new HBO special Six By Sondheim which is a sort of That's Stephen Sondheim as it ranges far and wide through the extraordinary Broadway career of the famed composer.
And I'm prepared to say it is by far the best TV special I've seen this year.
The special debuts on HBO Canada Monday night at 9. Got that?
The method is simplicity itself. Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine has collected virtually every TV interview Sondheim ever gave from the young and dewey composer on Mike Douglas, David Frost, Dick Cavett to the aging great man to finally today the 83-year old legend.
Lapine organizes the 90-minute batch of reminiscences around six key songs written by Sondheim.

First up there's "Something's Coming" which he wrote on the road for a very young Larry Kert to give the character range near the beginning of West Side Story --or rather Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music.
Five other songs get highlighted starting with "Opening Doors" from the flop Merrily We Roll Along which get re-staged (unnecessarily I feel) by theee bright young things: Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Jeremy Jordan.
There is amazing archival footage of Dean Jones singing "Being Alive" from the original Broadway cast recording session of Company --Jones really socks it.
Also highlighted is "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music which ends with a masterful refrain of all the performers who have used this bright song including Liz Taylor, Sinatra, Carol Burnett, you name it..
"I'm Still Here" is the song Sondheim chose from Follies which he says he originally wrote based on the career of Joan Crawford.
 There's an archival clip of Yvonne De Carlo belting it out and then surprise! it's a newly staged version with a male performer  (Jarvis Cocker).
"Sunday" from Sunday In The Park With George finds Bernadette Peters and Mandy Pstinkin in an archival clip.
Weaving everything together are Sondheim's reminiscences --some are newly filmed and then click we're back with the composer chatting up Mike Douglas or Andre Previn.
What emerges is a history of the Broadway musical over the past 50 years starting with West Side Story.
Then comes Gypsy with Ethel Merman who refused permission for Sondheim to wrote the music --she wanted the more established Julie Styne so Sondheim settled for the lyrics.
And footage of the original cast on stage has been unearthed --obviously some fan was shooting home movies in the big Broadway theater and got away with it.
In personal asides Sondheim talks about his parents' unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce and the heartbreaking letter his mother wrote to him before she underwent heart surgery.
He says that starting as a teenager his real father was certainly famed Broadway wroter Oscar Hammerstein who he has always wanted to emulate.
In one anecdote Hammerstein savages a 15-year-old's first musical compositions and Sondheiom today says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Because he has never been full of himself but always questioning every line of every lyric.
The anecdotes about writing to Ethel Merman's strengths and weaknesses are choice but I wish more had been made of what a bombshell Company was when it opened.
The skill of editing makes all the interviews seem as one with the composer aging gracefully into the octogenarian eager to share his talents and experiences with younger talent.
As a trip down memory lane Six By Sondheim will have you wanting more. And more.
MY RATING: ****.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Where Am I?: Top CBC Fare

The burning question of the day is the future survivability of the CBC.
So I'm asking every one to tune in to this week's Nature Of Things offering, a fantastic hour documentary titled Where Am I?
It revs up on CBC-TV Thursday night (Dec. 5)  at 8. Got that?
You'll watch --as I did with a preview copy --and all doubts about the ability of CBC to continue as public TV will surely be resolved.
Where Am I? certainly could not exist on any other network.
It's a long labor of love from director/writer Bruce Mohun and looks at a persistently nagging question I've always had: how do we get from here to there and still know the way.
"Years ago we pitched this idea to Nature Of Things," says Bruce Mohun on the line from his Vancouver office, "and we were told the subject had already been snapped up."
But Mohun is persistent and he asked several years later why the anticipated documentary had never shown up only to be told it was abandoned.
"We snapped it up and here we are," he says with a chuckle.
The broad subject is navigation skills. Some of us have the ability in spades. Others like yours truly can get lost walking down any long, winding street.
Which is what I did the first time I was in London.
I deposited my bags at the Russell Hotel took a walk and found myself going in the wrong direction as night fell. A very nice bus conductor told me the points of reference I was using were just plain wrong and I wound up hailing a cab to get back to Russell Square.
Mohun says some people are good at it, others less so.
He also tries to come to grips with the notion men are better at directions than women thinking this goes back ten thousand years when males were the hunters and gatherers.
Some of the studies he looks at say taxi drivers are much better at this than bus drivers as they do not proceed over the same fixed routes all the time.
But since many taxi drivers are now using GPS the actual size of those brain muscles that help them out are expected to shrink to the size of a bus driver's.
I agree this hour could have turned out deadly dull.
Instead it is chock full of exciting visual moments.
One test expertly caught by Mohun looks at veteran Inuit hunters who even in "blowing snow" conditions can find their way home.
I'm not going to ruin your pleasure by explaining how here --just watch and understand it's a technique not always being passed on to the next generation.
Another great scene involves desert ants in a Spanish made game of survivability and navigation skills. Just how do those tiny pin prick brains of theirs always manage to steer them in the right direction?
The talking heads interviewed here really do talk up a storm: University of Calgary's neuroscientist Giuseppe Iaria who ventures into the frozen north, Canadian psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University, Roboticist Michael Mangan of the University of Edinburgh, and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings who constantly immerses himself in maps and when tested is indeed at the head of the class for navigational skills.
Visuals are excellent and there's even the warning that turning off your GPS and trying to solve problems of dislocation could be aids in battling Alzheimer's,
Where Am I? took a long time to make and no other network but CBC would be prepared to run such a challenging hour --and remember Nature Of Things tosses these off effortlessly every week.
Mohun made it for Dreamfilm Productions which has won Geminis in the past and may win more awards with this one.
Cheers also go to the director of photography (John Collins) and the editor (Tim Wanlin) and veteran producer Sue Ridout.
Mohun claims I once reviewed a TV comedy show he'd written "in the 1980s" --that would have to be 1989's Starting From Scratch starring Connie Stevens, right Bruce?
Right then Mohun apologized for ringing off --"we have another one for NOT on allergies coming up in February --we're editing it right now."
MY RATING: ***1/2.