Monday, October 30, 2017

Into The Fire Burns With Intensity

When I spotted the name Leora Eisen I just knew I'd be watching her brilliant new documentary Into The Fire which premieres on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Sunday November 5 at 8 p.m.
Over the years I've admired such TV productions from this talented director including Beauty Quest (2005) and Think Like An Animal (2016).
I guess the last one I caught was a beautifully modulated docu-biography of her deep relationship with her identical twin sister Linda: Two Of A Kind.
Her latest documentary (for 90th Parallel Productions) is , well, literally on fire.
It follows in the wake of the devastation of a whole Canadian city: Fort McMurray.
And I was just on the phone with friends who've moved to Bellingham, Washington who notice the smog in the air caused by gigantic wild fires in British Columbia.
"I'd started the research and then the B.C. wildfires raged. There had been Fort McMurray --an entire city of 90,000 evacuated.
"I also wanted to hook into the people who spend their lives studying fires," Eisen says ". And there are a lot of them out there.
"The fires are getting bigger. It's important to understand the science. I was told each rise in temperature of just 1 degree means a 12 per cent increase in lightning."
Eisen got her big break making mini-documentaries for CTV's Canada AM and here she's able to squeeze into 44 minutes a whole heck a lot of information without making the story seem hurried.
Now that's a real advantage--you can't turn away from it for a minute.
And she also has the knack of interviewing the fire watchers who emerge not so much as strange but really dedicated to their rare craft.
And Eisen can relate to a shared fear of fire --she was 21 and living in a high rise when a fire broke out  and she had to struggle to get down the staircase with smoke burning her eyes.
You'll be fascinated by wildfire expert Mike Flannigan who explains how one spark can ignite a gigantic forest fire.
Says Eisen: "In some cases a huge amount of rain in the spring will cause grasses to grow and grow and later during hot summer these can explode into huge fires."
Consultant Alan Westhaver takes us on a tour of burned out blocks of Fort McMurray.
Some houses have burned into nothingness yet right next door a perfectly preserved home sits intact.
Houses that resist fire might have features like a non-flammable roof or vegetation in the backyard less prone to ignition.
Eisen was on location with scientists and firefighters as they carry out a "test burn" on a living room.
"I know it sounds strange,"Eisen tells me "but modern homes are far more inflammable than a house built a century ago."
I like the philosophy of  veteran fire fighter Josh Johnston that we have to respect the ferocity of fire and work much better as this planet continues to warm up.
And I think IntoThe Fire would be of interest to American TV viewers suffering through dozens of uncontrollable California fires and Australian viewers concerned about the ferocity of fires on their parched continent.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Alun Armstrong Shines In Discovery's Frontier

I specifically asked to interview the brilliant British character star Alun Armstrong in Toronto to promote the second season of Discovery Channel's first dramatic series Frontier.
You can catch it Wednesday October 18 at 10 p.m. --it's virtually a must-see.
The gritty series has an all star cast besides Armstrong: Jason Monoa (Game Of Thrones), Landon Liboiron (DeGrassi). Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), and Alan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle).
The prestigious Telegraph hailed the series with this headline: "Blood and fur is Netflix's Frontier the new Taboo?"
And this: "Since it landed on Netflix this Friday, fans have been quick to spot the many siliarities between these two meaty colonial feasts."
Armstrong tells me on the phone he's "delighted" with the critical reception to the series.'
It turns out Discovery made the audacious move to hire a talented actor (Jason Momoa) as the throat slitting trader Declan Harp --contrast this with Tom Hardy as beardy cannibal James Delaney.
And Armstrong says he shoots his scenes in Newfoundland as well as Cornwall.
"It was my first time acting in Canada. And it was a part I could really get into."
"I just got a call from my agent one day and here was a character without any redeeming features.  Dastardly Lord Benton. A bad character! Maybe it's my voice. But I've never been that nasty before. And it is a grand success."
Armstrong had been acting for just over a year when he got his first juicy role opposite star Michael Caine in Get Carter.
In one interview Armstrong acknowledged "I always play very colorful characters, often a bit crazy, despotic, psychotic."
Armstrong is also an accomplished stage actor who spent nine years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
And he originated the role of Thenardier in the London production of Les Miserables and he also won an Olivier Award for playing the title role in the London production of Sweeney Todd.
Armstrong says the most painful scene he's been involved in on Frontier was a sort of torture sequence which had to go on and on --"and this had to be shot from various directions and filming never seemed to end."
"And now I'm in Toronto. I wanted to see the city --walking around this morning I noticed how many young people were downtown."
Although Armstrong has never worked in Toronto he was in the mammoth eight-hour production of Nicholas Nickleby starring Roger Rees "which as I recall was partly financed by your Ed Mirvish."
Speaking to The Daily Mail in 2014 Armstrong said "My peasant's face has been my fortune."
And I especially liked him as a snooty butler ion the Christmas 2014 special of Downtown Abbey.
Frontier has been such a success it has already been renewed for a third season which is great news for Alun Armstrong fans.'

Monday, October 16, 2017

Beyond The Spectrum Is Must-See TV

It's the sheer honesty and deep commitment of two parents that should immediately strike you when watching the brilliant new TVOntario documentary Beyond The Spectrum: A Family's Year Confronting Autism.
The 86-minute production premieres on TVOntario Wednesday Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. and is must-see TV at its best.
Canadian director Steven Suderman is telling me the committed parents contacted him rather than the usual way and after listening to their story he thought it might make a riveting TV documentary. He was right on that point.
"And I had a history with TVOntario," he says over the phone. In 2011 Suderman directed and produced  the film To Make A Farm for TVO and won awards for that one.
The resulting film premieres during Autism Aware Month which is entirely appropriate.
First off we are made aware of these very remarkable parents Carly and Stef and their realization that when Oskar is 2 he is diagnosed with autism.
They decide to drop everything else to care for their son for a year to try and give him a head start and make sure he won't get too far behind.
Suderman also was the cameraman on his production and he shot and shot and he's so good at what he does the parents and the other children in the family soon became basically unaware of the camera's presence.
Suderman tells me he never knew what would happen but he wanted to obtain a complete record of this amazing struggle.
We see the anxious parents consulting experts and feeling that what they're being offered may sometimes be contradictory.
So, in effect, they take charge of Oskar's treatment.
For a long time they try various diets --that same philosophy worked when treating an older son who has emerged as a talkative and inquisitive young boy.
"I think we show the couple experienced good days and some not as good," Suderman sayIs. ""The supplements had worked so much better with the other boy."
We also see how all this attention on Oskar affects the other children and how they become vastly supportive to helping their youngest brother.
The approach Suderman uses goes all the way back to Allan King's masterful documentary A Married Couple. Close observation draws the viewer in and we begin rooting for this family.
It worked then and it works here. Under Suderland's masterful direction we get drawn into the struggles of this couple and recognize how far they are determined to go in helping their son.
A few"experts" are plopped in to explain the progress or lack thereof. But basically this is one family's story.
We get to understand why Oskar wants to continually jump in the same place, what frightens him, how he can finally make eye contact with his mother.
These little victories become dramatically compelling.
But at one point the parents ask Suderman to stop filming which he did for almost three months.
There are reasons for this which I can't reveal here but had he not finally be invited back there would only have been half a film.
"They just needed some space," explains director Suderman.
We watch how this family celebrates Christmas --these scenes are dramatically very satisfying.
"Carly had been through this twice," Suderman is telling me."Her patience is amazing as she finds  it's nothing the same as with the older boy."
I think the saddest moment comes when the parents ask "How are we going to cope with this?"
But cope they do. And survive. And grow as parents.
Suderman captures all these highs and lows in such a fashion it's impossible to turn away from his compelling family portrait.
There's also a free interactive app titled My Autism Passport (M.A.P.).
Suderman made it for Merit Motion Pictures and Orangeville Road Pictures.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Old Friends Get Together

fliIt's that time of the year as four old friends get together: a prominent TV actress, veteran publicist and a famous TV producer. Here are highlights of our luncheon chatter:
ME: The big news is the crash in ratings of the old line US networks as more viewers than ever turn to alternate viewing devices.
ACTRESS: For me it's the disappearance of the Canadian community TV channels. Why should Rogers and Bell finance these local access channels when the hot new viewing tool Netflix has been allowed by the CRTC to do absolutely no Canadian content?
PUBLICIST: The big new TV series I'm crazy about is Ken Burns' incredible Vietnam war series on PBS which is magnificent view but nobody knows what happened to it.
PRODUCER:I can no longer make any Canadian TV movie or series until I have an American co-producer. And Americans are not particularly interested in all things Canadian.
ME: I went to the movies for the first tim e in years to watch the masterful new British movie Dunkirk which will surely win Oscars including the one for best picture.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian TV series is Suits --I know its made by and for Americans but because it is shot here I call it Canadian.
PUBLICIST: I was so busy this summer. So many U.S. films and TV things shooting here. The wonderfully low Canadian dollar meant lots of work for yours truly.
ACTRESS: I just saw Victoria And Abdul starring Judi Dench and it was very rewarding. Victoria was Queen and Empress of a quarter of the world's surface and yet she never travelled to any of her loyal dominions or to India where she was empress.
ME: The hottest Canadian writer right now is Margaret Atwood. Her miniseries The Handmaid's Tale was great and shot here. Let's forget the awful movie that I found unwatchable. Let's also agree not to discuss that unwatchable version of her novel Surfacing.
PRODUCER: Maybe Morley Callaghan will be the next great Canadian writer to be rediscovered. After all didn't Edmond Wilson hail him as the "Chekov of the North"?
PUBLICIST: I'm so old I once met Mazo de la Roche. I think she had passed by the time that stinker of a CBC TV series Jalna was released.
ME: There was also a French TV version that shot in Quebec and starred Danielle Darrieux.
ME: Who thinks CBC-TV's revamping of The National with four anchors warring in the bosom of a single jour will be successful?
PRODUCER: I remember when CBC introduced The Journal in 1981 and insisted it be a separate program so at every event there'd be two gigantic TV trucks covering the same event. It didn't work then and it won't work now.
ME: When I retired from The Star Peter Mansbridge was nice enough to come to my farewell bash. I think he wants to go on to other things at the CBC and Lloyd Robertson did --Lloyd moved over to W5 and just kept going. Ratings for CBC and CTV newscasts are way down anyway --Knowlton Nash told me both were on at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film could be shot in Washington and Ottawa and developed and flown to Toronto.
ACTYRESS: Canadian TV has never had a long running day soap --they are needed to develop young actors. Another big minus is the lack of a late night Canadian talk show --it's just far cheaper to import the American ones rather than making one of our own. Global should have kept Mike Bullard going.
PRODUCER: I have a pal who spent a year in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. The wealth of material is amazing. She watched the kinescope of Dame Edith Evans in The Importance Of Being Earnest --the only time Ecvans did it was on CBC not BBC. And one wonders why this material remains locked up. One CBC source told me the Corp doesn't want viewers to realize how vital CBC was way back then.
ME: I remember the last time I interviewed great producer Norman Campbell he shared a tiny office with Frank Shuster. Norman told me he'd never directed a production in the Norman Campbell studio because there were no resources left to finance it.
PUBLICIST: The teenagers who live next door are still crazy after CBC-TV's Heartland. That's their favorite Canadian TV show. I went to HMV to buy a box set of The Beachcombers and was told it has never been rteleased on DVD.
ME: CBC-TV's Kim's Convenience is a hit that could build over time to rival the popularity of Corner Gas. American friends are always raving about Schitt's Creek.
ACTRESS: There are Canadian TV stars I always check out.:Wendy Crewson has a new TV series. Art Hindle. Sonja Smits and Nick Campbell are big TV names in what ever they do. I guess I miss the decline and fall of Canadian TV movies. They were vastly popular but hard to sell overseas.
PRODUCER: I miss Brian Linehan. Such a character! I miss Elwy Yost and his gloriously golden oldies on TVOntario.
PUBLICIST: Elwy got those black and white oldies at fire sale prices. Some nights he'd beat the hockey game on CBC. I know other stations started buying up these packages just to keep him form using them. CBC had a secretary watching each episode to make sure he added the educational talks.
ME: The decline and fall of DVD stores is another blow to Canadian TV producers who needed that valuable revenue stream.
ACTRESS: The teens I know watch everything in groups on their cell phones! They'd never be caught in a department store! They never read newspapers. It's a different world out there for sure.
ME: Now that we've solved all the ills of Canadian TV let's be sure to meet again at summer's end!

Monday, October 2, 2017


Way back in 1976 I hailed a taxi at the Century Plaza hotel in Century City and simply said "The Playboy Mansion, Please!"
And there I was at the Tudor style estate, the home of Hugh Hefner and a bevy of scantily clad young beauties.
The occasion was the 1976 premiere of Playboy TV on First Choice, Canada's first Pay-TV service.
That was more than 40 years ago and even then the sprawling Playboy empire was in steep decline.
I remembered a few days earlier I'd been at an NBC party for the new western series The Orgeon Trail and that was held at the Playboy Club in Century City.
I'd thought all these clubs had closed but there were apparently a few stragglers --this one shuttered the very next year.
So I knocked on the ornate door and a scantily clad sweet young thing opened and beamed "Hi! I'm the upstairs maid."
"I just bet you are," I answered and I was shown upstairs to meet Mr, Hefner who was lounging in his bedroom opposite a buxom blonde in a black negligee. And this was at 2 p.m.! A late riser indeed!
He jumped up, put on a robe and took me on a tour of his impressive residence.
There was a huge movie theater and he showed me his collection of films all recorded on Beta which these days no longer exists.
"I had a hundred in last night for a screening of The Garden Of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich" he enthused. "And some day when the copyrights have elapsed I'll be able to release them all on the Playboy label for home consumption.
This has yet to happen as the U.S. government has extended the copyright dates of classical films.
'The boardroom was impressive, the living room huge and expansive but the kitchen to me seemed terribly dated.
We went out into the huge backyard where Hugh kept his own mini-zoo. As we watched his monkeys copulating he shouted "Go for the gold!"
He then clapped as we watched the goldfish making out.
Back in the house we sat around a great table as he amiably answered my questions:
JB: "Are you the godfather of modern  pornography?"
HH (Laughing): "No way. I have always celebrated the beauty of the female form."
JB: "How many girl friends have you had?"
HH: "Who's counting?"
JB: "Some people I know actually buy the magazine for the interviews!"
HH: We put them all into a book which still sells like silly.
JB: Talk about your legacy.
'HHL:  We've fought the good fight against state censorship. It's not the state's right what you chose to do in your own bedroom."
JB: "Your first cover girl in 1953 was Marilyn Monroe. Why did she wind up so badly?"
HH: "Society puritans had it out for her. She was a darling comedienne and I agree with you she deserved better treatment by American society."
JBL "Why are the Playboy clubs going out of business?"
HH: "Bad business deals. Not by me, I'm out of the daily running of the business."
JB: "Was it inevitable magazines like Hustler would try to topple Playboy's dominance?"
HHL: "You got it. I never dealt in pornography. All the lumps and moles on our models were airbrushed out. Hustler isn;t at all erotic--it's as boring as slides on anatomy, that's all."
JB: "How do you want to be remembered?"
HH (chuckling): "As an innovator who banished Puritanism and favored a liberal society without guilt. And I think I succeeded at that, I really do.."
AS my taxi arrived Hef stood at the door waving goodbye. He was still in his silk pyjamas.
And Playboy TV predictable failed on Canadian TV and eventually even First Choice folded.
Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday September 27. aged 91. He was buried  in the Corridor of Memories Mausoleum next to Marilyn Monroe.