Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Must See Docu And It's Canadian

You are correct in thinking this has been one of the bleakest seasons for Canadian TV with an incredible run of series carefully crafted for sale to the U.S. and nothing much else of value.
And then along comes the new documentary Love At The Twilight Motel produced and directed by Alison Rose and it is so mesmerizing I'm betting you won't be able to turn away even for a glass of water.
Shot on one of Miami's seediest streets in a neighborhood of decaying strip motels this one starts off all lyrical images and gauzy thoughts of love and slowly descends into a bleak world of recriminations and sex for sale.
To get from there to there requires a lot of talent and a steady hand at interviewing as Rose (always off camera) listens to the boastful descriptions of lovemaking by a disparate group of Latin Americans who frequently use the motel facilities.
There are some 20 motels located along SW 8th Street in downtown Miami and the facilities are busiest from noon to late afternoon as couples meet and mate and then go their ways (often back to jobs or families).
The talk is boastful, how love is necessary for the men and a business for the women, how nobody seems to care when couples rent room for $25 for two hours, sigh the register as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and then depart into the blazing afternoon sun.
Shot seductively by cinematographer Daniel Grant, the assignations take place behind motel rooms with secluded areas for parking, huge railings to block sight lines and brightly decorations of Cuban art. One can almost smell the moldy curtains and cigaret smoke.
Mr. R tells us of his need for sex outside of his marriage to a puritanical wife he is devoted to. The rail thin Haitian prostitute Rose talks of breaking free from her family at 19 and getting everything she wanted, servicing clients from politicians to plumbers.
Chubby and effusive Gigi says she started out taking orders at a dating service and then found she was wanted despite her excessive poundage while Sara left her small American town with husband in tow determined to be a swinger.
Then there is Richard, the masseur, who services female clients who are often married and boastful Cadillac who was a love them or leave them kind of guy.
But there's nothing in this 82-minute film (made for the NFB) that is in any way titillating. Rose is after deeper emotions and as she peels away the layers we see dark, anguished souls.
Gigi never felt wanted and now feels merely used, she is desperately seeking respectability.
Sara is finding swinging unsatisfying and somehow lonely. Mr. R. is addicted to heroin but only in the motel in the afternoon and Cadillac is struggling with his addictions and had to sign away his daughter for adoption because he couldn't take care of her.
Rose is banned from seeing her children and her dreams of becoming a medical professional slipped away a long time ago. Richard brings home his medical case and is utterly alone.
Director Rose's manner is to cut back and forward from her subjects who are remarkably candid and relaxed. And they're surprised at being treated with such compassion, too.
Ultimately, Love At The Twilight Hotel is an intensely moving human document about survival with flashes of insight that are stunning. At the end the beautiful images have faded and the artifice of the location now seems merely squalid and drab.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, April 26, 2010

An Americanized Torchwood out

Big news of the day is the decision by Fox TV to pass on a proposed Americanized remake of Torchwood, the BBC's top rated (for sci fi anyway) spin off of Dr. Who.
Some of tou Torchwood fans out there are singing the blues while others are happy the Fopx version will never get made.
When it ran last summer, the third season --five episodes running over a single week--was a huge ratings hit both on U.S. TV and on Canada's Space TV.
Since then Russell Davies who created the show from a character he introduced on Dr. Who has left the Dr. Who camp entirely.
Now I get my information from the Hollywood Reporter but it appears Davies as well as his co-writers Jane Tranter and Julie Gardiner were in L.A. working on a proposed scenario for a 13-episode run of stories that would take place in America.
Would star John Barrowman be involved or not? It's not certain but to fans he was (and still is) Captain Jack and any replacement would be frowned on.
And how much of the curious sexuality of the story would survive the translation to American TV I'm wondering.
I spoke with Davies when he was over in T.O. for the Canadian-American version of Queer as Folk which ran for five years on Showcase and American Showtime.
But a subsequent effort by HBO for a U.S. version of his BBC hit Bob And Rose never saw the light of day.
When American TV "remakes" shows from other countries the results can be deadly.
Sure, there have been a few hits like the currently running The Office and of course decades ago All In The Family.
Anybody out there remember the pallid NBC version of Coupling? Another bomb was Life on Mars, a BBC hit that ran only 17 episodes on American TV despite the presence of Harvey Keitel.
Both CBS and Fox took turns trying for a U.S. version of the CBC hit Intelligence which never got beyond the pilot stage.
I'm hearing that Torchwood may surface elsewhere perhaps on Showtime or even STARZ (home of the new hit Spartacus) or even AMC which currently makes the best drama series on U.S. TV, Mad Men.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is Larry King Finished?

Larry King has been dominating CNN since 1985. But these days his ratings are really drooping --he's down at least 40 per cent from his glory days during the inauguration of President Obama.
And with his ongoing divorce proceedings against wife number seven King has become the fodder for some very cruel jokes by the late night comics.
So is he finished or what?
At 76 the gaunt King obviously needs rest periods.
But his big problem is technology. The younger set just aren't tuned in to CNN anymore --it's their parents' network.
They're twittering and tweeting to each other and if they watch TV it's Jon Stewart who is having a great roll covering Sarah Palin and all those Tea Party antics.
The biggies seem to have stopped coming to Larry King. I mean in his days he cornered such elusives as Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando besides the inevitable roll call of U.S. Presidents.
Take the night of the Conan O'Brien exit from CNN. In the old days Conan would have announced all that live on King. But these days King had to rely on a panel of show biz reporters.
King's nights are spent with third rate reality "celebrities" and panels of talking heads who also make the rounds on Anderson Cooper and John King.
President Obama's sliding poll ratings with the American public aren't helping. These days the unofficial opposition to Obama is over at Fox News which rips apart the Democrats on a nightly basis.
King can survive a bit longer but his program needs refreshing and he has got to bet back the "A" list guests he used to have.
I used to make sure I caught the top of his program every night at 9 but these days I often forget to do so.
On the "other" CNN there's Joy Behar offering a humorous glance at the same topics as King. She'd be his logical successor but I'm also hearing CBS's Katie Couric and even Jon Stewart are in contention.
Larry's fighting competitiveness should keep him going and besides he needs the money for all those alimony payments.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What's Buzzing?

The important new documentary of the week is The Last Beekeeper which closely examines the phenomenon of "colony collapse disorder" among North American bees.
These days beekeepers make most of their money not on honey but pollinating crops and none is more profitable than the annual almond pollination in California.
Jeremy Simmons' first rate account focuses on individual beekeepers making the trek with their bees. They live in in South Carolina, Montana and Washington and must truck their hives across a continent to reach this destination. What that does to the bees in terms of stress is problematical.
However in 2007 just before this annual trek over 20 billion bees mysteriously died or went missing.
If this continues there'll be no bees left by 2035 and crops across North America will correspondingly suffer.
The girl from Montana has just taken over her late father's honey company and desperately wants to succeed.
The guy from Montana is accused of giving his bees more attention than the people around him and he says it's probably true.
And the family man from Washington knows he must get this order just to survive another disappointing year.
By making the story so personal Simmons keeps us on the edge of our chairs. Every up and down becomes personal.
And at the right time he introduces the academic talking heads who tell what they suspect: a virus is eating away at the bees and operates like AIDS --bees can't remember where their colony is located. That plus an infestation of mites from Japan spells disaster.
With bees pollinating a third of the food we eat it's time for answers and quickly.
The Last Beekeeper is far more attention grabbing than the latest movie thriller because everything is true and unstaged. I couldn't believe how quickly its 90-minute running time whistled by.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Conan Back On TV --On TBS!

Conan O'Brien predictably is coming back to late night TV in the fall.
We all knew that didn't we?
But what's extraordinary is his destination. It's not Fox TV as was heavily predicted.
It's TBS.
In a press release Conan says "In three months I've gone from network television to Twittrer to performing live in theaters and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly."
George Lopez's TBS show which runs at 11 gets moved back to midnight but Lopez says following Conan can only increase his ratings.
Apparently the deal with FOX just couldn't be cobbled together. Some network executives were caught mumbling about the costs.
O'Brien's deal calls for four new shows a week with Fridays off or in reruns compared to his five nights a week deal with NBC.
So why did Fox back out?
Ratings for all late night talk shows are down and so is revenue. And the Fox conglomerate has been battered by the boycott of its news channel by powerful sponsors upset at the antics of Glenn Beck.
One question: will a Canadian network try to local rights because not everybody up here gets TBS?
But TBS now becomes a gigantic player in the late night wars with O'Brien and Lopez who attracts a younger audience.
It looks like the late night battle will really steam up come fall.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Catch The New Canadian Flick Fakers

Once upon a time a new film by a promising first time direcgtor would have found a spot on the publically funded CBC.
In fact CBC used to have a spot specially dedicated to Canadian movies that needed a bit of a promotional push.
And these days?
Taxpayer dollars support a CBC containing such American fare as Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy as well as seemingly endless reruns of that masterpiece of American TV, The Ghost Whisperer.
That's why The Movie Network (and its western companion Movie Central) deserve praise for fimding a slot for Fakers.
It's an original movie from director Pierre Gill who made his name as cinematographer on Polytechnique and as director of The Last Casino.
Don't worry, the film isn't one of those Canadian efforts you feel obliged to sit through. It's very good, face paced, beautifully shot and showcasing a cast of young Canadians deserving some attention.
The only name in the cast is Gregory Smith who ever since Everwood has been chosing unconventional fare like Guns. Here he's a nutty gun-totting crazy with indulgent parents. His code name: The Lesbian because he was born on the island of Lesbos.
But rest assured Smith is going back to the straight and narrow very soon. I've interviewed him on the set of Copper, a Toronto made series for ABC and Global due out this spring.
Fakers follows three teens at a prestigious private school, St. Francis Xavier. Cousins Tanner (Greyston Holt from Durham County) and Ben (Andrew Francis from Dark Angel) are into counterfeiting in an increasingly big way.
Tanner is the swim team champeen and all round good guy. Ben is into drugs and peddles alcohol to his underaged classmates.
They're discovered manufacturing bad money by the sprightly principal's daughter Emma (Alexia Fast from Flashpoint).
Gill is accomplished at getting inside up the culture of the private school and showing how everybody there seems to be an operator of some sort.
Jesse McKeown and Steve Westren wrote the script which keeps us guessing --it was shot in and around Montreal.
Fakers moves at a fast pace, showcases promising young Canadians and is a portent of what they might aghieve in the future.
And I'd rather watch it than a dozen episodes of Wheel Of Fortune.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Friday Night Blues

Check out the amazing article in AdWeek that sums up the current plight of Friday night shows.
Once Friday nights was among the most watched TV nights of the week.
As a kid in the Fifties I'd hunker down for an evening of TV.
Let's see now what shows were my favorites?
I remember 77 Sunset Strip, Desilu Playhouse, Twilight Zone, Schlitz Playhouse, The Detectives to name a few.
Years later the titles changed to The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Star Trek, THe Name Of The Game, Rockford Files.
And today?
Families go out grpcery shopping on Fridays and kids go to the movies. That leaves seniors as the most likely to be watching TV Friday nights.
The AdWeek piece suggests Friday is the new Saturday meaning only poorly rated shows are left. Saturdays is now filled with reruns from other nights.
Adweek says CSI was the last big network show to flourish on Fridays and it has been changed to Thursdays.
When Smallville was moved to Fridays it lost a huge chunk of its audience.
As ratings seep away so do advertisers. And even the public seems to have given up on Fridays as an entertainment source.
NBC runs the low rated but critically appreciated Friday Night Lights while ABC has 20/20 one of its least expensive shows.
So let's see what the U.S. networks are planning for the fall. So far the rafter of new pilots seem designed for other nights than Fridays.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Disappearing Audience For U.S. TV News

Media sites are all a-twitter over the recent ow ratings posted for CNN news shows --the ratings have fallen almost 40 per cent since the election of President Obama.
According to Newsweek the Top 13 cable newscasts are all on FOX TV (which many Canadians can not get) and Anderson Cooper is ranked 17th with a measly 746,000 American viewers a night.
So what went wrong?
When Cooper was dropped into CNN's flagship newcast at 10 p.m. (displacing the older and widser Aaron Brown) he was supposed to herald a new day in TV News.
He was bright, witty, liked to swin with sharks and presumably could better attract the younger viewers CNN was after.
And during the 2008 election campaign it all seemed to be working for CNN as ratings surged.
Now it's a whole new environment and the U.S. public's love affair with Barack Obama seems over.
After a long, bruising fight over health care the young president is posting low approval ratings comparable to President Bush's first term presidency.
News is supposed to be free of ideological slanting. right? Anyway that's why I watched Walter Cronkite on CBS for so many years. Cronkite told it as it was and when he said it was time for the U.S. to wind up the Vietnam war, President Johnson certainly listened.
But the CNN news shows are in danger of becoming pep rallies for Obamaism.
We see the same talking heads on Cooper every night and they give us the party line and soon it becomes downright boring.
Cooper's predecessors including John King and Campbell Brown weight in with the same slant on the same stories.
The 24/7 news cycle has made a mess out of traditional TV journalism,. It's time to reinvent the model for what TV journalism could and should be.
lips, the same stories, the same perspective. By the time Cooper gets into the act the news has become stale and predictable.
Meanwhike the yahoos at FOX are scoring big points. Everybody wants to listen in to Glenn Beck precisely because he's such an adorable loon.
CNN made a bad mistake in dumping Lou Dobbs at 7 because he was too opinionated.
Another thing --live coverage of the disaster in Haiti did not play well in an America beset with unemployment and a nasty recession. americans do not take kindly to foreign news unless it directly affects them.
And there's a problem with octogenarian Larry King who seems extremely disinterested many nights. He's even being out rated by fellow CNNer Joy Behar who could be jousting for his spot, who knows?


Remembering John Forsythe

Yes, the late, great John Forsythe was a polite, sensitive, considerate man. And also a TV icon.
How do I know all this?
Because I spent time on the set of Dynasty before it ever got on the air.
I was following series creator Esther Shapiro around--she was already beginning epic battles with creative co-producer Aaron Spelling.
And she suggested I sit down and talk for a bit with series star John Forsythe. Already he was a big TV name.
"Alfred Hitchcock told me to stick with TV and he was right," smiled Forsythe.
"Series television has been very good to me."
Originally a Broadway actor (Mr. Roberts), Forsythe was on TV in the early and dangerous days of live TV. He remembered on one live show where the corpse simply got up and walked off camera.
Soon Forsythe with his smooth good looks soon was co-starring in all the big live shows of the day: Robert Monthomerty Presents, Lights Out, Suspense, Philco Playhouse, Danger.
But movies had always been his intended destination. "I was in Loretta Young's last movie ever --before she jumped into series TV. That was 1953 and it was called It Happens Every Thursday. Then made the movie The Glass Web, Escape From Ft. Bravo, still in 1953. Then in '54 I went to Hollywood to make The Trouble With Harry for Hitch."
It was Hitchcock who thought Forsythe's charm and easy mannerisms would be better suited for television. "After a few more movies like The Ambassador's Daughter (1956) with Olivia de havilland I took his advice."
From 1957 through 1962 Forsythe was TV's Bachelor Father as the utterly suave Bentley Gregg, bachelor millionaire lawyer with a young niece to look after.
"Went back to movies. Kitten With A Whip is the title people seem to remember. But there was also Madame X with Lana Turner."
Forsythe tried sitcom land a second time with The John Forsythe Show cast as Major John Foster but it only ran 29 episodes (1965-66). Then came a third sitcom, 48 episodes of To Rome With Love (1969-71).
His most famous series Charlie's Angels ran 109 episodes (1976-81) and Forsythe famously was never seen only heard as the voice of the Angels' boss Charles Townsend. He repeated the assignment in the subsequent movies.
"Easiest job I ever had. I'd saunter into the recording studio, do my stuff and get out in time for a day of golf."
By the time we met in 1981 he was back at it as Blake Carrington in Dynasty which ran 217 episodes (1981-89). "To be perfectly frank I was not the first choice."
Aaron Spelling first envisaged George Peppard and Angie Dickinson as Blake and Krystal Carrington and both first choices respectively declined.
And there was still one more series, a return to sitcoms in The Powers That Be (1992-93).
See, Forsythe's acting style borrowed from Cary Grant. Both famously played debonair gentlemen who never strained for effect. And despite Hitchcock's admonition Forsythe could be startlingly effective in movies (In Cold Blood or And Justice For All).
In recent years he'd survived quadruple bypass surgery and colorectal cancer.
I was grateful for the time he gave me that busy day but he always made everything seem so easy and gracious. It's why TV audiences trusted him for almost 60 years.
And why fans still watch him in Dynasty reruns.