Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Twins Documentary Gets Double The Exposure

It's entirely right that filmmaker Leora Eisen's new must-see documentary on  identical twins should get a double exposure on both CBC-TV and the Documentary channel.
The shorter 42-minute version is on first --on The Nature Of Things CBC Thursday night at 8.
Then there's a longer, more substantial version running on the Documentary channel starting November 30 --it's on during a free preview week.
I'm not giving away too much by saying Eisen is herself a twin and she documents meticulously her relationship with her twin Linda Lewis who was suffering from leukemia during the filming.
"I think we looked very much alike" she says over the phone. "Friends could spot each of us but newcomers might be perplexed a bit.
"We certainly had different personalities. Intellectually we were the same but Linda was shyer than me. I always felt like a big sister to her."
The more Leora got into her subject the more she was surprised how different twins can be while remaining on another level quite the same.
"Only three births in 1,000 result in truly identical twins. Its when one egg splits in two. Identical twins have 100 per cent the same DNA but they might not look completely the same. In some cases one will be right handed, the other left."
Leora digs deep into the psychological relationship. She finds one set of twins who have never been separated for more than four hours.
She also interviews two British male twins who are star acrobats with Cirque du Soleil --they seem very similar except one is straight, the other gay.
"Yes, I admit it, the looking at the differences, that fascinated me."
When leukemia struck Linda Leora says she was already well into production of the story.
But it shifted a bit because she needed to know more about the "why" --why Linda had contracted a disease and she had not although they shared the same DNA.
Was it a case of "nurture" or "nature"?
Her discoveries elevate these twin documentaries into the "must see" category.
For one thing the production seems so expensive as she treks both to England and Australia in search of world authorities on twins.
"Ah, yes, I went," she laughs. "Had to! But I couldn't afford to take my standard camera crew. I had to pick them up in both places you see. "
What Leora finds is a complicated world --she finds identical twin girls, both adopted by Canadian parents in China and brought back to Canada.
"The girls live quite a ways apart but get together as an extended family. They are quite alike with the same likes and dislikes."
Leora talks about separated twins growing in teeth at the same time "it's so orchestrated,so close."
She says of her twin "We lived on different streets, we did have separate lives. But we never could be mad at each other."
Leora accomplished everything in "just 20 filming days." Planning ahead was everything.
As Linda's disease progressed Leora discovered "It was both our stories. And it deserved to be told."
And as a viewer I think Linda would approve of the choices. made.
I saw the 42-minute version first which is tightly edited but rewarding viewing and highly recommended.
And if you do have the time for a second journey into "twindom" check out the feature length version on Documentary Sunday November 30 at 9 p.m. --it's almost like watching a completely different but equally moving TV account.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Missing: TV At Its Best

The opening of The Missing, the new British miniseries, is exquisite and totally horrifying.
An average British couple are on vacation in rural France when their five-year old goes completely missing.
There are no clues, no one saw him vanish, he has just ceased to exist.
In other words here is a parent's worst ever nightmare and as the continuing stories over the investigation of Madeleine McCann prove that search may never be over.
This immaculately made eight-hour miniseries is so well done you'll want to watch it even if the subject matter is so very terrifying.
Part One is on Super Channel Wednesday November 26 at 10 p.m. Got that?
But how much is enough?
British TV has recently been hit with a rash of accusations about an unmistakeable to the sordid.
And there are times I wanted to turn away from the first two episodes which I've premiered.
The story is simplicity enough: Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O'Connor) and adorable Oliver (Oliver Hunt) are stuck in rural France after their rental breaks down.
The location is Chalons du Bois and it is during the World Cup fever of 2006.
Tony loses sight of Oliver in a crowded bar --he releases the boy's hand to clap for victory and the child simply disappears.
The French police are a lumbering lot and it is not until Chief Inspector Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) arrives by train from Paris that the investigation gets into high gear.
The timeline is a bit blurry because it hops and skips from the present to the past of six years ago --Olivier would now be 12.
Tony has arrived back in Chalons du Bois and he tries to entice the inspector out of retirement --the little boy's scarf has been found and traced back to a used clothing store proving there may be hope.
The miniseries was written (beautifully) by Harry and Jack Williams, sons of playwright Nigel Williams and was directed by Tom Shankland with the emphasis on nuance.
Filming was mostly done in and around Brussels and the sunsets are beautifully caught, the laid back lifestyle of the locals a counter point to what is happening in the hearts and minds of the principals.
But let us not forget The Missing is a thriller.
Everything is geared to put that knot back in your stomach as often as possible every hour.
There is the screeching soundtrack that really got to me.
It's like a jigsaw puzzle that you can't completely solve.
And at the center of the action there's Nesbitt who is quite remarkable in holding everything together.
I couldn't turn away even when wanting to which is the mark of great TV.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Next Step :Must Viewing for Teens

Every year I venture onto the set of The Next Step.
Never heard of this Toronto made TV series?
Then I'm afraid, my friend, you are definitely out of it.
A few days ago I was visiting a Grade Six class across the street from where I live and I asked for a show of hands for anybody who watched this terrific dance series.
A forest of hands went up --far more than when I asked who was watching Degrassi: The Next Generation these days.
"I think we've got Degrassi on the run," laughs creator and director Frank van Keeken (of Temple Street productions).
I look at him closely because he's that familiar.
Way back when he wrote for The Kids In The Hall. But I'm remembering him as an actor on Maniac Mansion and Seinfeld.
When I visited the TLS set in late August van Keeken was shooting all the dance finale scenes one after another at cavernous O'Keefe Centre.
And just to prove his point real life kids from across the city were forking out $5 each to sit in the audience for two hours and just enjoy themselves.
"We shoot a new half hour episode every 1 1/2 days," he says. Take that Degrassi which takes 2 1.2 days for the same effort.
One big plus is the presence of five cameras recording every scene --I've been on L.A. sitcoms where there were three or four cameras but never five.
"The kids have talking points for each dramatic scene," Vvn Keeken  explains. "But there's no memorization of lines. It's what they feel comfortable saying.  Basically they're playing themselves, they know what their character would say."
But since this is the saga of a dance troupe some new members must appear each season and some others must depart.
"It's sad seeing them go," he acknowledges. "But they come back from time to time. And hopefully we've instilled in them a passion for acting which mixed with their great dancing might take them to other heights."
I got to spend some time with the incredibly gorgeous Victoria Baldesarra who is one of the youngest cast members but also just about the prettiest.
She says "it was strange playing the character all last summer and then going back to school and everywhere I'd look the younger school kinds would be looking up at me. My peers tried to have me believe they were above that. But even some of them were awe struck."
When I met her in the summer she has thinking of going the home schooled route this season --I still wonder if that happened.
The past two years have been largely filmed out at Scarborough's Timothy Eaton Technical School which is slated for demolition shortly.
"Any big empty school will do," chuckles van Keeken. "We need a real large gymnasium and a spacious auditorium. Empty classrooms become loading stations for props and scenery."
I remember last year when I ventured up to the school it was lunch break and I watched in awe as some of the guys were involved in a competition out on the front lawn to see who could jump the highest from a standing position.
Not only is The Next Step a TV hit here it also plays to high ratings in England. and Australia.
"That's why we've imported an English girl, this season she's our villain and she's delicious.
"We went over to the U.K. and held auditions and had huge turnouts. I picked Ella because she's lovely but she can
also dance really well".
And as if on cue Gilling steps up and we chat. Working 10 hours a day in humid Toronto weather wasn't her first option for a summer vacation.
"But I'm learning so much. The dancing --every day --it's the best possible training for me. My parents are here for me but as far as visiting and seeing the Toronto sites: too busy!"
She says before she's back on a place for home "I just have to visit Niagara Falls. It's a must!"
Then I had a chance to chat up Lamar Johnson who everyone on set predicts will be the big break out star.
Self taught as a dancer, he later jumped into acting before rediscovering his roots on TNS.
"But this dancing bug didn't desert me. I taught myself hip hop and now I'm into ballet, I really am. The other guys in class were out doing sports, I was always dancing instead.
A graduate of the Wexford school for the Arts he says "Now I can combine acting and dancing and not have to make that choice at least not yet."
Says van Keeken:"The biggest learning curve for these kids is seeing that acting and dancing can mix --just being a dancer is very restrictive in terms of job opportunities. Here we let them explore both sides of their personalities."
The third season of 30 new episodes premieres in Spring 2015 on Family Channel.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Secret Life Of Pigeons: Timely And Moving

I previewed a brilliant new CBC documentary the other day and then I rushed out to feed the pigeons at the parkette near where I live.
I swear there is a connection!
The CBC documentary I watched  titled The Secret Life Of Pigeons is director-writer Scott Harper's often moving take on the plight of urban pigeons.
Of course I feed the birds in my area when I can remember to which is often not enough during these chilly November days.
Harper's take is quite compelling. I know a lot of my neighbors think pigeons are just nuisances and certainly among the dirtiest of urban critters out there.
"Winged rodents!" is one of the nicer comments I've heard recently.
Not so says Harper on the telephone.
"They're just about the smartest animal around --look at the way they can find their way back home from distant places."
Indeed in some experiments we watch scientists try to figure out the amazing homing tendencies of these birds.
Is it scent? Do they use familiar landmarks or fly by the sun and the stars?
I'm told it's a TV first but a miniaturized camera is trapped onto the head of a pigeon --don't worry the animal doesn't suffer --and off we go getting a bird's eye view of how it travels home!
I never knew these were the first animals to be domesticated by early man --there are references to these birds right back to ancient Egypt.
"They certainly intrigued me," Harper says. "There's the public image and then reality. They form tight knit families although the males are not always monogamous.
Sounds like some human families I know.
"But both parents help in the baby rearing."
We see the kinds of shelters they prefer in the urban landscape to escape from predators including hawks.
Says Harper: "Their lives are very short, they frequently starve to death in brutal winters. They manage to mate and bring up the next generation and then they die."
Harper tells me today's city pigeons are the ancestors of domesticated pigeons brought over by immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Somehow the genteel European traditions of breeding them got challenged in the tough environment of the modern city.
"The birds either escaped or were deliberately set free and then adapted fairly quickly to the harsh new realities.
Here's where I must declare a potential conflict of interest.
Relatives of mine have bred and shown pigeons over the years --my favorite has always been the fan tail which Harper also likes.
I'm confessing all this because I really liked the section on the wonderful world of pigeon fanciers who take their birds to fairs and even release them in pigeon races.
One thing Harper stays clear of and I must thank him for that: a certain European craving for pigeon pie and like delicacies is never mentioned here.
This pigeon profile is well scheduled --just before the wintry bursts which deprive all outdoor birds of food supplies.
One Quebec professor shows us how pigeons evenly distribute themselves over a city so there are never too many pigeons to feed at any one park.
This one is tightly edited and cleverly shot and I tell Harper he could make a big sale to U.S. TV with the addition of a few shots of pigeons in Central Park.
And he says he's already working on it.
But The Secret Life Of Pigeons will have really succeeded if it gets you to cut up your stale dated bread and feed it to man's best friend in the winged category.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Brilliant TV Plea For Justice

Tommy Ziegler has spent more than half his life in prison, convicted of murders he could not have possibly committed.
He stares out at us in his orange prison jump suit. The big glasses make him seem even more frail and lost.
Now 68 Tommy has spent more than half his life in a Florida jail for killing his wife and her parents.
But forensic experts have been saying for decades he could not have done it.
Now there's renewed interest to free Zeigler based on a brilliant new Canadian documentary titled A Question Of Innocence.
It runs on Investigation Discovery channel Sunday night at 8 and is a must see for anyone interested in truth and justice.
Zeigler was convicted of the Christmas Eve murders in 1975 and has been fighting for a fair trail ever since.
But he has exhausted virtually every means of appeal and the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, just re-elected has a fast track program  titled "Death Ready"to speed inmates of Death Row to their executions.
"It was the kind of story I've always been interested in," says veteran producer Christian Bruyere.
"I started investigating in 2001 and all the pieces effortlessly fell into place.
" I first met Tommy on his 67th birthday,a kind, sweet guy, resigned to his fate, but not the mass killer depicted by the state".
Bruyere's company Mystique Films is renowned for these type of films going right  the 2001 TV movie scorn which copped an Emmy as Best TV picture.
I remember 2005's Children Of The Tsunami, a look at Sri Lankan orphans.
His latest CBC documentary Naked garnered the highest audience of any one hour documentary on CBC Newsworld.
"Obviously during the recent Florida gubernatorial race I was hoping Scott was not going to make it but he squeaked through. It just makes it that little bit harder."
The motives for killing Zeigler family members has never been clearly stated.
"Even today he still loves his wife," Bruyere says.
"He loved walking the dog with her. They were in the furniture store late that night to pick out a gift for her visiting parents.
"State made much of the insurance policies taken out on Mrs. Ziegler's life but that was legally necessary as she was joining the firm as a partner."
Bruyere approaches the evidence already gathered and lays it out for us --he meticulously reconstructs  everything that is known about that fateful night.
One big question is: who was the other man whose corpse was also found that night --he had the DNA of another man's blood also on his jersey.
"The fourth victim --who was he? Was he perhaps the perpetrator , the hired killer along with another man? "
And then there's the conduct of Judge Whitehead during the trial --he and Zeigler had previously clashed and on every piece of evidence the judge ruled against the defense.
Bruyere advances a dazzling theory who had ordered the deaths --watch the hour and see if you agree with me that this theory fits perfectly.
Superb editing and the inclusion of well staged dramatic bits makes this a compelling hour, a very model of how to present evidence.
I couldn't turn away and neither will you.
Instead I now firmly believe in Tommy Zeigler's innocence.
MY RATING: ****.

See No Evil: Reality TV Worth Catching


 I admit I hesitated just a bit when it came to previewing the first installments of the latest TV reality series titled See No Evil.
But the show is Canadian after all so I decided to go with it.
The first hour premieres on Slice Friday November 7 at 9 p.m.
Well, I was never as pleasantly surprised --this one is expertly stitched together from actuality, recreated scenes, comments of the main participants.
I ended watching both hours and understanding that the tension never lets up.
Quite a few of these recreations of true life murders are readily available these days on American TV.
This one has a very different angle --it's the thesis that in today's world we are constantly being monitored whether we like it or not.
In both cases the crimes are cracked with the help of surveillance cameras plus some pretty fancy footwork by local police.
The first episode is truly a stunner as a well respected man and his wife are viciously gunned down by assailants right in their home. --it is July, 2009.
Their extended family includes adopted children who scatter to hide but the killers are not interested in them.
The Billings family seemed exemplars of Christian family virtues in their neighborhood of Pensacola, Florida, until their grisly executions.
I can understand the local cops wanting to get on camera and explain everything but also interviewed is a next door neighbor and even the grown Billings daughter.
The family had 16 surveillance cameras everywhere except in the bedrooms where the killings took place.
Police are able to spot the two vehicles the killers used but not the license plates.
Dressed in military garb with masks, the killers thought they'd get away with it.
But gradually police begin honing in, looking for one of the vehicles as a starting point.
Then a local convenience store supplies its own video of the same car and the chase is on.
The second hour is if anything even more bizarre as a well liked teenager disappears from her bedroom one night in Star City --her door was locked but the window is wide open.
Again I'm stunned the parents would be willing to be interviewed during a time of grief.
But the girl had run off to party before and they thought she'd surely return home within days.
Says the mom "I knew something was bad wrong."
Her two best teen friends are distraught and then their stories begin changing.
Surveillance video at the housing estate captures teen Shuyler running into a parked car and whizzing off but it is so dark the car cannot be identified.
Police take us through their interrogations of choice suspects but the solving of this one will leave you completely stunned and upset.
Of course my TV critic's oath of honor prevents me giving away either ending.
This one is a co-production between Canada's Saloon Media and the UK's Arrow Media.
It really works because in both cases there is a ton of "actuality" and the puzzle pieces are expertly stitched together proving that in our Brave New World society surveillance is everything.
See No Evil premieres on Slice Friday November 7 at 9 p.m.
My rating: ***1/2.


Monday, November 3, 2014

King Tut UnMasked

It's only taken 3,000 years but the secrets of the boy pharaoh King Tut have finally been unmasked.
And as revealed in a new TV documentary it's not a pretty sight.
Catch it all in the new Discovery special King Tut UnMasked which revs up Sunday November 9 at 8 p.m.
After an hour of previewing this one I felt right sorry for the troubled teen who hobbled around with a club foot --he also had a cleft palate.
Basically this is an hour long virtual autopsy performed in high tech style by Egyptian antiquarian expert Dr. Zahi Hawass. assisted by surgeon Hutan Ashrafian and radiologist Dr. Ashraf Selim.
Contributing historical nuggets is Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson.
First up there are complicated procedures to identify his father and mother. Try extracting DNA from such mummified remains!
It can only be done these days and the results are startling.
Of course we know all about the Curse of King Tut --his mummy was discovered in 1922 by British archeologist Dr. Howard Cain in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.
Dr. Carter's benefactor Lord Carnaveron died suddenly after the tomb was opened leading to all sorts of story.
First Hawass must establish that deceased pharaoh Akhenaten was actually Tut's father and that is done.
But the surprise here is Tut's mother was a sister of Akhenaten --her mummy is discovered. Nefretri was Akhenaten's official consort.
But after all at the age of 10 Tut married his half sister. Incest ran rampant in the royal family because pharaohs were believed descended from the gods.
Inbreeding destroyed the young boy's health --there are over 100 cames left for him in his tomb to help him in the after life.
All this is played out as an engulfing mystery.
One thing is debunked: the hole at the back of the head was probably made by Carver in trying to dislodge the golden mask from the mummy.
This of course means the assassination theory of his death is not true.
More intriguing is a leg fracture that may have resulted from malaria and caused sudden death.
The tomb was so hastily constructed the paintings were made while the plaster was still moist causing mold to form.
What evolves is an intriguing guide in ancient Egyptian history with visits to the Valley of the Kings and the Sphinx.
Tut became pharaoh aged just 10 in 1333 B.C. and he died just nine years later, the last of his dynasty.
MY RATING: ****.