Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Borgias Is A Splendidly Overripe Morality Tale

Take TV's J.R. Ewing. Mix in a dash of Tony Soprano. Reset everything to 1492 --the year Columbus "discovered" America.
And you have the splendidly overripe new TV miniseries The Borgias.
It's a tale TV tried once before to tell only to fall flatly.
I remember in 1981 Masterpiece Theater executive Joan Wilson telling me she had plopped a bundle into a new-coproduction with the BBC of The Borgias to star Italian star Adolfo Celli.
But the first episode which I managed to see was shot with murky photography and a European cast who could not be understood.
Celli went around muttering what seemed to be "I need nipples" but he was actually saying "I need Naples".
That version never made it to video and PBS sold off all its rights and refused to run the miniseries.
It's vastly different with the sparkling new version of The Borgias starring Jeremy Irons.
Irish director Neil Jordan (Danny Boy) had long planned a movie of the Renaissance dynasty but couldn't get backing until he switched to TV.
After months of shooting in Budapest he's come up with nine hours of melodramatic sin and sex centered on Pope Alexander VI impersonated by Irons as a man caught up in his own mortal sins.
This Borgia patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard, crassly bribes his way into the Papacy and keeps an enemies list of cardinals he must bring down to survive.
Joanne Whalley co-stars as his long suffering chief mistress and the mother of his illegitimate offspring who has always craved the finer things of life.
Their children include the impetuous oldest son Cesare played to the hilt by Canadian star Francois Arnaud and their beautiful and lusting daughter Lucretia by Holliday Grainger.
Canadian Colm Feore steals scenes as Borgia's arch enemy Cardinal Della Rovere who would eventually succeed him as pope.
The fact the drama stairs in 1492 is not accidental. The Borgias epitomized all that was crass about the papacy but here Jordan does not portray them as monsters. They were very much politicians of their particular era.
"Of course Neil could not shoot on actual locations," Feore told me on the phone --I'd last interviewed him on a LIberty ship in Toronto's harbour during shooting of 2005's miniseries Haven which starred Natasha Richardson and Ann Bancroft.
Instead huge standing sets were built at Budapest's Korda studios. "Take the scenes in the College of Cardinals. It's a tight space and everything would be cramped in the real article. So a set was needed --one where walls could come down so Neil could shoot from behind."
There's little if no Renaissance architecture in the Hungarian capital. Some real locations had to be redressed --"the Turkish bath scenes for example"--but others had to be meticulously constructed to look exactly like the era.
Jordan had a large budget of $45 million to play with and indeed all the principals look like they're wearing new clothes, Everyone is so very clean and neat which supports the look of the miniseries even if citizens rarely took baths in those days.
Irons does not at all look like the real Alexander VI who was fat and squat, Instead Irons aquiline features give his character a certain air of grace under pressure. Certainly he's quite a family man, this pope, always trying for the advancement of his family.
The real Alexander was one of the most notoriously squalid of popes but there have been recent attemots to rehabilitate his image: he carved up the new World for Portugal and spain and prevented war and was an anle if brutal administrator.
Feore as the main adversary Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) looks every inch the dashing cardinal with his long, lean face. He is as expert as he was in that ancient TV saga Empire way back in 2005. Other actors who stand out include Sean Harris (Micheletto), Lotte Verbeek (Giula), Aidan Alexander (Joffre Borgia) and Canadioan Emmanuelle Chriqui as seductress Duchess Sancia.
And you'll certain spot veterans Derek Jacobi Cardinal Orsini) and Steven Berkoff (Savonarola).
Canadian Sheila Hockin (Queer As Folk) is among the executive producers and the Canadian contingent includes director Jeremy Podeswa, who directs the final three episodes, cinematographer Paul Sarossy and production designer Francois Seguin.
I watched the two-hour premiere and was completely enthralled, others with less liking for historical epics may flounder if they're unfamiliar with the era and its emotions.
Feore says he's on board for a second season should ratings warrant this.
It's certainly among the most expensive miniseries in some time, an indication producers are trying for the same balance of history that made The Tutors compulsively viewable.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Gulp! No New Mad Men This Year!

There's good news and bad news about Mad Men, arguably American TV's finest current series.
AMC which makes the show in Los Angeles has admitted the series will be stalled and won't return for Season Five until early 2012.
I've been hearing various stories which say there was an impasse between the brilliant creator and writer Matt Weiner and the cable network which was worried about spiraling costs.
Mad Men up to now has always debuted on AMC in August as a respite from summer's battery of reruns.
AMC sources have been quick to dispute recent news stories that the show is somehow finished,
"We are getting a later start than in years past due to ongoing, key non-cast negotiations. Mad Men will be back for a fifth season in early 2012."
Some industry analysts are saying the weblet will proceed with or without Weiner who certainly has always been the heart and soul of the brilliant drama.
One source says Weiner has been offered $30 million to stay with the series as show runner which would make him among the highest paid talents in the industry.
The series and Breaking Bad have made AMC a contender in the upscale cable TV drama sweepstakes and both series have the Emmy awards to provie that.
But ratings wise Mad Men gets very small numbers precisely because AMC is a discretionary weblet without the audience pull of a CBS or NBC.
Canadian viewers are already getting stymied because after CTV declined to renew the series up here there have been no other Canadian takers --I'm hearing the price per episode is considered too high for a show that debuts in the summer doldrums.
Anyhow I'll be missing Mad Men this August,
And I'm wondering how it will fare come 2012 when the competition at that midseason junction is already something fierce.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chasing The Royals A Timely New Expose

Talk about timing! The new Canadian made documentary Chasing The Royals is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the upcoming nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton.
It was made by Gemini Award-winning Montreal filmmaker John Curtin who last season fashioned that intriguing TV biography Elizabeth II: Monarchy In Peril and this one is just as relevant.
Curtin sees the press and the shaky monarchy as needing each other but refusing to admit it.
And he's gathered a grand bunch of British press types who'll stop at nothing to get across their latest scoop.
Here's the guy who go into Buckingham Palace by posing as a footman. He duly reported back to his readers that Queen Elizabeth has her breakfast cereal delivered in plastic containers.
And when she ordered a plateful of upscale tea scones she crumpled them all up to feed to her ravenous corgis.
Another veteran says he followed Princess Diana to her tryst on the Mediterranean with her new toy boy and got the pictures that shocked a nation.
Days later Diana and her party took off at high speed to evade the snoopers. The Princess died in a Paris car crash and a nation mourned.
Curtin is spot on when he suggests this history of acrimony could prove deeply divisive to William and Kate's future happiness.
In key scenes we watch as William performs a royal duty and disappears into his car.
But Kate works the crowd and obviously enjoys this side of her job despite the scowls of her future husband who partly blames the media for his mother's untimely demise.
As Curtin says the press and the royals may hate each other but they need each other, too.
Some of the clips are amazing. Prince Charles is seen whispering "I hate that man" as he spots a press adversary at one function.
The attempt by some reporters to hack into royal phone lines shows how far the tabloid side will go.
But scenes of the Queen milling about during her last Canadian tour are positively sedate. The British reports who are accompanying her are furious there's so little real news.
As Curtin points out it was not always so predatory. The British public were startled by the abdication of Edward VIII because the press had completely blacked out stories of the king's infatuation with Mrs. Simpson.
To show how different the world is these days one reporter gives us the backstory on how he found the Duchess of York getting her toe nibbled on by an admirer in the South of France and how that splash ruined her career as a royal.
"The goal posts have been changed" --that just about sums it all up in this witty and sometimes wild take on royal manners and morals.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Remembering Roger Abbott

How many times did I interview Roger Abbott over the decades?
It all started way back in 1979 when I was TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator and met up with Abbott and his RCAF gang at Hamilton Place where they were putting on a CBC radio show.
At that time they were very much radio comics. CBC's then head of TV production Jack Craine told me they lacked the necessary visuals for TV success.
Which was just plain crazy.
Abbott who died yesterday of acute lymphocytic leukemia which he had been battling for 14 years was a sensitive, smart man.
He told me first off the troupe was performing in the Wayne and Shuster tradition of supposing fans knew what was happening in the news.
These days that would be a false assumption as Reality TV has dumbed down most comical TV series.
Born In England, Abbott grew up in Montreal and met close friend and co-worker Don Ferguson when both were high school students.
They formed RCAF in 1973 along with Dave Broadfoot, John Morgan and Lubay Goy and continued to delight Canadians until CBC pulled the plug two seasons back --the charge was RCAF catered to an increasingly older audience base which simply was not true.
I enjoyed the several times I sat in on rehearsals --this troupe had a ball during the writing of the sketches as well as during the performances. They would regularly fill a cavernous CBC soundstage with audiences who were deeply devoted to their peculiar form of satire.
I found Abbott in person to be pleasant and introspective. He shone in his impersonations of Jean Chretien and CBC's Peter Mansbrige and was very collegial in letting other members also shine in the spotlight.
When CBC closed down its expert makeup and costuming department Abbott told me his fear that the show was finished as far as CBC management was concerned. By contrast NBC's Satur
In the final seasons Jessica Holmes, Craig Lauzon, Alan Park and Penelope Corrin were added to great effect and Abbott mentored them with care.
Like Wayne and Shuster before them RCAF decided it was all important to remain resolutely Canadian --Abbott once turned down the firm offer to join the U.S. sitcom Taxi.
In my last long interview with him I decided to ask only questions he'd never been asked before --this was for the show's 15th anniversary on TV.
Abbott was ready and for several hours regaled me and staff in nearby CBC offices with choice anecdotes.
I simply can't think of a nicer guy deserving of stardom. Roger Abbott was 64.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mildred Pierce Is Must-See TV

I visibly cringed when I read that TV was about to remake that classic film noir Mildred Pierce.
The 1945 classic got Joan Crawford her only Oscar and boosted the careers of its other stars: Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden.
And it's been on the Late Show so often I almost know whole scenes from heart. And that thundering score by Max Steiner!
But it's not James M. Cain's story.
His 1941 novel bristles with the authenticity of Depression South California. Less noir and more an insightful character study of a determined working class woman, it certainly deserves a more modern, reverential treatment.
Director Todd Haynes who loves to recreate the American past --witness his study of the 1950s Far From Heaven--went back to the original source material and drained most of the melodrama that had been inserted in the Warners original.
This time out it's recent Academy Award winner Kate Winslet. Forget the Crawford shoulder pads and that pained aura of nobility.
Winslet is soft spoke, modulated --none of the grand gestures. She so sinks into this portrait she's hard to recognize --her hair is an unbecoming brunette, she wears little if any makeup save a slash of red lipstick.
In the original movie Crawford was a hard working mother and wife in Glendale who became a waitress when her husband deserted her and turned her ability at making pies into a money-making chain of restaurants.
The basic story is still there but fleshed out. Winslet is in fact so mousey that the character's masochistic tendencies become irritating at times.
And the character of her older, narcissistic daughter Veda is still unexplained..
Ann Blyth turned Veda into a little monster and was nominated as best supporting actress.
Here Veda is initially played (and very well) by Morgan Turner and as a grown up by Evan Rachel Wood.
But Haynes' recreation of Glendale and Hollywood circa 1931 is completely believable but never over blown.
The Crawford version inserted a killing to make the melodrama snap and crackle. Here a series of precise character studies is substituted --one scene where Mildred is interviewed about a housekeeping position by a grand lady does not advance the plot but expertly sums up the desperate nature of the early Depression.
The film's meticulousness might be misinterpreted as a certain slowness by viewers used to great blobs of emotion leading up to the next commercial break.
But this Mildred PIerce runs over 5 1/2 hours and five episodes. It's a viewing experience directly challenging the conventional TV way of story telling.
The production is chock full of memorable acting turns: Guy Pearce (the Zachary Scott role) as the drunken playboy lover, Evan Rachel Ward (replacing Ann Blyth) as the nasty older sister Veda, Mare Winnigham (replacing Eve Arden) as true friend Ida and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo is well cast as Mildred's best buddy who lives next door.
The movie meanders its way through the story like a dream and reintroduces the subplot of Veda becoming an opera star that was dropped from the film.
In the end it all revolves around Winslet's portrayal of mother love.
Was Mildred something of a sucker for pandering to her daughter? Or did she just feel guilty and over compensate with lavish gifts? You'll be fascinated if you buy into Mildred's grand plan for remaking her family and discarding the past.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Remembering Dame Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor lived and died as a genuine screen goddess, perhaps the last of her kind.
But at the time of her death from congestive heart failure she had not been a major motion picture star for decades.
She "granted" a mass interview in 1989 to adoring TV critics for what would prove to be her last substantial role: as the aging screen queen in the TV movie remake of Sweet Bird Of Youth opposite Mark Harmon.
Up close she still looked dazzling. But her performance? She was quite dreadful.
The only thing I remember about the interview was her refusal to admit some of her eight marriages had been disasters.
"There was always a reason," she said. "Everybody at MGM got married young --Donna Reed, Lana Turner, Esther Williams. If you were married the dirty old men producers left you alone."
In Sweet Bird Of Youth Geraldine Page had done the original 1962 movie opposite Paul Newman and had been wonderful.
But Liz who was the real thing either couldn't or wouldn't simulate the ravages of encroaching old age.
And so she retreated from full blown stardom to a kind of nether world where she promoted her perfumes and cosmetics and made a few ill conceived cameos.
Like other divas of her ilk: Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth her body of work contains few genuine cinematic treasures.
But several directors could challenge her to acting greatness: George Stevens in A Place In The Sun and Giant (not not in The Only Game In Town), Richard Brooks in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Joe Mankiewicz in Suddenly, Last Summer (but not in Cleopatra) and Mike Nichols in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
She called Butterfield 8 which won her an Oscar "a piece of sh--t". And she was right. She basically won over worthier contenders because she'd almost died from pneumonia.
Watching her onstage in The Little Foxes was a strain --she was only in character when saying her lines. Sitting on a sofa in other scenes and she'd be looking around.
Her Cleopatra was one of the biggest bores of all time.
The only decent film she made with her fourth and fifth husband Richard Burton was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. She got a second Oscar and really deserved it.
But few of her other movies are worth sitting through.
Talking about her once Dame Anna Neagle told me Taylor did not recognize her actions often had dark comnsequences.
"Michael Wilding --her second husband --was my frequent co-star but as her husband he became a glorified valet and when she left him his career never recovered. The same thing happened to Eddie Fisher who deserted his wife and children for her and when she ditched him his career was never the same."
ERnest Lehman who wrote the screenplay for Woolf told me he was first enchanted by her child like qualities. " Then on set she demanded expensive jewels as presents and would pout when I couldn't deliver them. Basically her goldfish bowl existence made her will full --she never truly grew up."
Along with Rock Hudson and Audrey Hepburn she was among the last of the studio manufactured stars.
Others like Turner and Hayworth slipped into alcoholism when their careers floundered and for awhile Taylor battled her own addictions.
However, fighting for AIDS research gave her life a new purpose and she became famous all over again as a star emeritus.
She wasn't especially introspective and she really believed in the cinematic version of a happy ending said Hedda Hopper who visited her in her first apartment and noticed the only reading matter was movie mafazines..
Her movies are mostly nonsense like Rhapsody, The Girl Who Had Everything, The Last Time I Saw Paris, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper.
In 1984 I watched her act on the Toronto set of the TV flick Between Friends opposite Carol Burnett. Burnett was warm and accommodating but Liz really pulled the star trick. She was on Yorkville and had to cross a street to get to the next set. She refused to walk and the studio had to order up a limousine before she'd move.
She was married eight times --besting the record of Lana Turner.
Most of her husbands outside of Richard Burton were mere accoutrements.
She seemed wasted in last year's long interview with Larry King although he looked even more ravaged.
In the last 20 years she battled various ailments.
Her contemporary Debbie Reynolds --who lost husband Eddie Fisher to Liz in one daring 1958 scandal-- has by contrast continued robustly with her performance career.
So precarious was Liza's health over the past few years that The Toronto Star commissioned me to write the definitive obituary way back in 1985 when she had surgery for a brain tumor.
But it was never used --once again Liz Taylor bounced back again to live another 25 years

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Yonge Street Is Must-See TV!

Simply stated the three-part music documentary Yonge St. is the kind of TV event worth staying home for.
I knew it was going to be something when I heard Bruce McDonald was going to direct it.
Bruce and I go as far back as the 1998 CBC TV comedy series Twitch City with Don McKellar --I hung around the set entranced with the conception and the presence pf such Canadians as Callum Keith Rennie and Molly Parker.
Later on I watched in awe as McDonald flawlessly directed episode after episode of the trend setting Toronto-made series Queer As Folk.
On Yonge Street McDonald told me everything "just seemed to come together. We've been shooting and editing it since October.
"A lot of it had to be done on the road --with Robbie Robertson at his L.A. office, to Nashville, Chicago, everywhere we could find survivors."
Yonge Street takes us on a giddy tour of the Toronto's downtown music scene during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
McDonald who is 51 says a lot of the stuff he'd just heard about. And getting to meet and interview the remaining legendary performers was "a dream come true."
Well, I did grow up in the staid Toronto of the 1950s and I read the entertainment pages of The Telegram every night. But some of the names are even new to me.
And this was all happening when Toronto had one local TV outlet --Channel 9's CBLT (it moved to Channel 6 in the Sixties).
Coverage of fringe musicians was not CBC's thing to begin with. There's one great clip from later on as CBC begins a kind of anthropological investigation into the growing phenomenon known as Yorkville.
"Some of the clips we use came from basements. Some even from crawlspaces. We'd be talking and the subject would suddenly remember there was some film somewhere."
One clip unseen for 50 years has Robbie Robertson, aged 16-17, performing in one of his very first gigs.
And there's color footage as the camera crawls up Yonge with all the neon signs flashing: the Edison hotel, Coq d'Or tavern, Blue Note, Sam The Record Man's. All have vanished save for the Zanzibar tavern.
"That's the surprise," says McDonald. "How vital the scene was. How many great perfprmers were all in Toronto in the Fifties. There was a lot of activity."
How was such a wealth of material discovered? "Jan Haust functioned as our archivist and he came up with incredible finds that make the series. The producer David Brady (The Grey Fox) and our creative consultant Duff Roman made similar contributions. WE got very lucky time and time again."
One high light for McDonald was getting Robertson to sit down and spew forth the most wonderful stories. "He'd just been recording and it was a good day for him and his stories were fantastic, his memory is so sharp about that specific period."
Equally compelling is Stompin' Ronnie Hawkins --every time the camera widens he's seen petting a different tiny dog."But his knowledge of the scene is very essential."
Layer on in Episode 2 on The Sixties there's Gordon Lightfoot in his home giving anecdotes about the growth of the Yorkville scene. "He was very gracious, offered us tea and as we walked in his guitars were lined up at the door. It was quite a moment for me."
If there's anyone most deserving of being rediscovered it's the black singer Jackie Shane who usually dressed as a woman. In the all white community of the time Shayne really stuck out and his musicality and way of selling a song is simply stunning.
There are stories he was later asked to return to the U.S. by Canadian immigration officials. Shayne today lives in complete onscurity and no one has recently contacted him.
"The only one I needed who couldn't make it was Joni Mitchell," McDonald says. "I was told she wasn't feeling up for it."
For the folk music segment in Episode 2 McDonald got both Ian and Sylvia (although separately). "Sylvia is naturally older. But she's still one of the sexiest singers around."
It seems to me that Episode 3 about the height of the "Toronto sound" and its inevitable decline is the sdaddest.
At first the scene is vibrant, filled with the likes of Neil Young, Rick James, John Kay and The Paupers.
But McDonald is correct in pointing out that the lack of sustained air time contributed to the exodus of prime talent to the U.S.
It's noted here that by the early 1970s strip clubs outnumbered music clubs and the Yonge strip was no more so far as first class music was cxoncerned.
"We shot for 30 days and we've got so much extra stuff a sequel would work," McDonald laughs. "
And many of the talent is at an age where McDonald was still able to capture them on good days when they could look back with pride at the era they were a part of.
MY RATING: ****.

Watch Junk Raiders 2!

Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of Reality TV.
And if half backed Las Vegas starlets can have a reality series based on their exploits why not one based on green concepts?
That's where totally relevant Junk Raiders 2 comes in.
It's an irresistibly watchable Toronto-based series taking us step by step through a process whereby a crack team of contractors build a public space clubhouse out of nothing more than discarded materials. Or garbage and junk if you must be
The series contains all the elements of reality TV: there's tension as the deadline day approaches. There's conflict among a burly gang of contractors each of whom has a separate opinion how this thing is going to look and function.
In the first season the seven professionals attempted to renovate an old steel factory in downtown Toronto and turn it into a high tech loft on a budget of only $5,000.
How could they possibly do this? By urging Torontonians to donate anything and everything they wanted to throw out.
The series' creators even sought an exemption from police so they could sort through curbside garbage --looking through other people's garbage is usually a criminal offense in T.O.
This time out the builders have exactly a month to build a futuristic clubhouse out of discarded steel shipping containers. How they do this while all the time trolling streets for the necessary steel underpinnings makes for some very tense moments.
At the center is the tough but fair taskmaster Geoff Woodmanesey --yes that's actually his name,
He has to cajole, order, intimidate, threaten, lead and manage a highly volatile team of workers and cradftsmen --he must know all the tricks of the trade of leadership to keep his project from floundering.
There are times he has to crack his whip and times he doles out praise. And that forms the irresistible human drama at the core of this six-episode show.
It's the human element that kept me watching. Like Gordie Wornoff who is an ace salvager. Or the tough blacksmith Tom Mourgas. Merv Lane is the iron maker, Katrina Tompkins the expert furniture maker, Paul Graham the tech expert, Andy Berry handles design and John Johnson is the handyman/inventor.
How they interact and improvise makes this hour fairly whizz by. I can't wait to watch more episodes --I previewed the first new hour and found it exciting.
And relevant, too, with its emphasis on recycling and reinvention.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Magical Mystery Cures Is Funny And Scary

It takes an amiable host like Quirks And Quarks' Bob McDonald to guide us through all those modern snakeoil claims about reversing the aging process.
The documentary is called Magical Mystery Cures and is made specifically for people like me --an aging Babny Boomer who is fighting old age with everything I've got.
And McDonald has a wonderful batch of bogus products to rail against.
He's specifically after those products not considered drugs or pharmaceuticals but rather "nutraceuticals". Meaning they don't have to prove anything and have never been tested in clinical studies.
They only have to be non-toxic --the labels can make the most outrageous claims and get away with it.
I think in the old days we'd call them "patent medicines".
McDonald has a deceiving low-voltage charm that enables him to go along with some of these practitioners and all the while he's showing just how deceiving they really are.
And anti-aging is a huge growth industry generating sales in excess of $20 billion annually.
He finds the perfect venue at a packed convention in Las Vegas where every sort of device is on sale to gullible consumers.
At one booth he takes a 30-minute ionic foot bath which supposedly detoxifies the body by drawing poisons out through the feet.
And the water does indeed turn into a putrefying sludge very quickly --but it also turns that way without feet placed in the water.
The sludge looks like it's coming from Bob's feet but it's actually rust from a whirling machine placed in there.
A maker of a rejuvenating cream claims the product has active horse cells in it and the action of your skin trains your cells to be younger.
At another booth he is made to stare at a video screen of mathematical patterns called fractals. A psyoanalysist says the mathematical formulas will surely balance his quantum codes.
A young man in a white coat and a pennant looking like that of the medial association says that consuming the water he's peddling can help cure anything from gout to cancer.
In this case McDonald goes right back to the company spokesman who admits the man may have been overly dramatic.
And at the end McDonald says it all goes back to grandma telling you to eat healthily and exercise every day.
And he accosts one woman at the convention who has had one side of her face rejuvenated but it's hard to tell which side. With her beautiful smile and personality she's a winner to begin with.
And McDonald asks why this isn't enough.
Because if it is why is the convention packed with desperate people willing to pay almost any price to look a few years younger?
MY RATING: *** 1/2.
she looks

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Can 2 1/2 Men Survive Charlie Sheen's Departure?

"Have you ever seen a situation like this before?" huffs my taxi driver
"I mean a network firing the star of one of its biggest rated series?
Well, sure I have. Lots of times.
CBS and Charlie Sheen are playing a particularly deadly r form of entertainment brinksmanship.
Stars depart TV series all the time and many of these shows have continued to prosper.
Take M*A*S*H (1972-83) for example.
Wane Rogers departed as Trapper John after the first season and was replaced adequately enough after a bit by Mike Farrell.
Then McLean Stevenson decamped after three seasons. to be replaced by Harry Morgan.
And the series continued and prospered. Now if Alan Alda had ever quit --and why would he since it was his show --then the series might have floundered.
When Valerie Harper left the sitcom Valerie after but one season (1986-87) NBC was in a quandary. How to replace the star of the show when her name is in the title?
I remember discussing the situation with Harper in her trailer while she made a TV movie in Toronto.
Somebody joked the sitcom might be renamed Where's Valerie but the new title was Valerie's Family and her character got bumped off.
In as the new lead was a wary Sandy Duncan --I had lunch with her and she said she hoped it might all come off.
In 1988 the series became Valerie's Family. And the series lasted --if it hardly was a rating champ --until 1991--renamed again as The Hogan Family.
Co-starring as one of Valerie's sons was Danny Ponce and his sister in 1990 got a gig on a short lived CBS sitcom called City starring --you guessed it --Valerie Harper.
"I'll bet dinner conversations at the Ponce household are something," Harper joked to TV critics..
Even farther back there was a rating blip when Pernell Roberts elected to leave Bonanza in 1965 after six seasons.
Star Lorne Greene once told me he'd told Roberts who wanted to return to stage work that if he'd only stay a few more seasons he could own his own theater.
Bonanza soldiered on --it was only in 1972 that the series faltered when Dan Blocker suddenly died --the show ended abruptly in 1973.
When Raymond Burr died in 1993 one would have thought NBC would conclude its Perry Mason TV movie mysteries.
But, no, NBC tried again with two new lawyers played by Hal Holbrooke and Paul Sorvino --but also featuring as Della Street stalwart Barbara Hush. NBC was forced to cancel after anemic ratings.
In 2002 Michael J. Fox was forced to leave the cast of Spin City because of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was successfully replaced by --Charlie Sheen!-- and the show ran another season.
Cheers survived the defection of Shelley Long in 1987 after five seasons by Kirstie Alley who stayed onboard for six more seasons.
And after one season Farrah Fawcett left in 1977 to be successfully replaced by Cheryl Ladd.
In 1994 David Caruso was dumped from NYPD Blue after one season and Jimmy Smits successfully took over.
But when David Duchovny left The X-Files after seven years Robert Patrick proved Duchovny irreplaceable --the show sputtered along for two more seasons of anemic ratings.
So the verdict is out on whether Charlie Sheen can really be replaced.
It all depends on the calibre of the actor replacing him.
CBS has already offered a ton of dough to John Stamos but Stamos quite rightly backed away.
Similarly NBC is trying to entice Will Ferrell to take over on The Office.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kirk Douglas Isn't Old, Is He?

Everywhere I go this week people have been bombarding me with comments about the dull Academy Awards.
Yeah, it was virtually starless. Yeah, there was no excitement.
But everybody is unanimous on one subject.
"Kirk Douglas was great!" said a little old lady on the subway. "And please no old jokes. That guy had more zip than those young Oscar hosts that's for sure."
Kirk Douglas gave a startling demonstration of star power. And the evergreen super star is "only" 94.
What's more there a lot more stars like him out there and some of them are working as hard as ever.
In fact I just watched a great Kirk Douglas classic, 1950's Young Man With A Horn --and both his female co-stars are still thriving --Doris Day (b. April 3, 1922) and Lauren Bacall (b. Sept. 16, 1924).
Another of Kirk's co-stars Eleanor Parker is still around too (b. June 26, 1922).
Before she was America's First Lady Nancy Reagan was a promising MGM starlet (b. July 6, 1921).
And for sheer durability what about funster Betty White on the current hit Hot In Cleveland (b. Jan. 17, 1922).
Recently she welcomed former co-star Mary Tyler Moore for a aep --but Mary is still a kid next to Betty (b. Dec. 29, 1936).
However another MTM alumnus, Cloris Leachman, was strong enough two years back to go out on Dancing With The Stars (b. April 30, 1926).
If you're thinking there are more female oldies out there than males you're totally correct.
Don't forget those two Oscar winning sisters. First up there's double winner Olivia de Havilland (b. July 1, 1916).
And there's younger sister Joan Fontaine(Oct. 22, 1917).
Even today they're not speaking!
And any age list must be double Oscar winner Luise Rainer who later acted on TV's Love Boat (b. Jan. 12, 1910).
The best that the male side can offer is singer Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse's widower --they were married 60 years (he was born Dec. 25, 1913).
Also appearing at this year's Oscars was a winner for achievement --Eli Wallach (b. Dec. 7, 1915).
The oldest female singing sensation I can recall is Dame Vera Lynn (March 20, 1917) --and yes, she did make some movies along the way.
I fondly remember the times on the TV critics' tour when I'd slip out the back door of the Century Plaza hotel in L.A. and onto the Fox lot to have lunch with M*A*S*H's Harry Morgan (b. Apr. , 1915).
And later I did his last ever interview in Toronto on the set of Outer Limits.
And last season Broadway had the occasion to once again witness the artistry of Angela Lansbury (in A Little Night Music) (b. Oct. 16,1925).
She was replaced in the long run by another shimmering veteran Elaine Stritch (Feb. 2, 1925).
I could go on and on: Michael Gough is 95, Jerry Lewis 85, Jack Klugman 89, Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds two young sprigs of 79 each.
But I've made my point I think.
It's how young you feel not how old the calendar says.
Don't believe me? Just ask Kirk Douglas.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Event Is Back

If you've been watching NBC shows over the past few weeks you'll have noticed all those ads telling us The Event is coming back.
Just what exactly is "the event" has not as yet been explained.
When I sat down last fall to sample all the new series I thought the Event was about as good as it gets.
And so did NBC which poured vast amounts of dough into its ad campaign.
And it's not as if nobody watched. The Event initially drew strong numbers only to have viewer interest trickle away in succeeding weeks.
The plot is another conspiracy thingy starring Jason Ritter --looking exactly like late great father John --as Sean Walker who stumbles into this nationwide mystery after the disappearance of his pert girlfriend Leila (Sarah Roemer) during a Caribbean cruise.
Over at the White House Blair Underwood channeling Barack Obama as President Elias Martinez must deal with the problems of a group of detainees kept at a far away Alaskan camp. They are led by freedom fighter Sophia Maguire (Laura Innes).
Sturdy national security chief Blake Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek) completely disagrees with the decision --he knows more about this situation than viewers do.
Think Lost. Think Flashforward. Or The 440. Or V. The intial conception of The Event as a meandering strand of two separate stories that rarely meet became a turn off for potential fans.
Conspiracy stories on TV go right back to The Fugitive. This story wastold almost entirely in retroversions and later episodes will offer flashbacks to "solve" some of the plot questions.
Reviewing the first episode which was titled I Haven't Told You Anything was next to impossible because NBC hadn't really told us anything.
I think "potential" was the word I spotted in so many of the initial reviews. And as the ratings began seeping away NBC panicked and put the show on hiatus. Which is better than cancellation,right?
Now NBC has sent out review copies of the first two new episodes. The series is taut and exciting in places, still confusing as all out heck in some scenes.
So far acting honors go to Blair Underwood as the recently elected president (here a child of Cuban refugees) and he becomes our guide through the mysteries of this terrific story.
If Underwood is all cautious diplomacy Ivanek is a real pepper pot of a security adviser (possible based on vice president Cheyney). He sees conspiracies everywhere and even gets to battle the baddies in a vicious gunfight inside the secret alaskan compound.
Also adding dramatic clout is Virginia Madsen as the new senator from Alaska who has inherited the seat from her late husband, a veteran of sex terms. She suspects something isn't right at the containment center.
Strong acting also comes from Scott Patterson as Leila's father and Clifton Collins Jr. as an alien turned guerrilla.
In a telephone conversation with TV critics Ivanek laughed off suggestions he is having a terrific career playing a wide assortment of extremely creepy characters. I think he said something like it keeps him busy. It also keeps him scene stealing right and left.
On the same call Underwood said, sure, it was strange continuing to work on a series nobody was really aware of. He supported NBC's decision to reboot the show in the New Year and said the network had promised to run the series for nine weeks straight without any pre-emptions.
That way there's the hope momentum can be carefully built. To get into the series one must have patience and a long memory --this is one series not designed for casual viewers.
Technical details including cinematography and a spectacularly staged stunts are up to the standard of any current movie hit.
Now all The Event needs is adequate viewer support to be picked up for a second event. That and some explanation sooner than later what "The Event" really means.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Inside Hana's Suitcase Comes To TV

Having been a TV critic for 40 years I don't often get to the cinema these days --I'm sure most readers like me prefer to wait for the TV premiere of exceptional movies.
So I'm happy to report CBC-TV has snagged the broadcast TV premiere of the exceptional 2009 documentary Inside Hana's Suitcase.
It's on CBC Sunday night at 8 and marks a welcome return to form for CBC in its role as a public broadcaster.
Brilliant and moving but never exploitative, Larry Weinstein's documentary seamlessly blends dramatic recreations with reminiscences by the few remaining eye witnesses who help him recreate the extraordinary life and times of Hana Brady, born May 16, 1931, killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1944.
This 90-minute true story is must viewing for every young viewer who cannot envisage the horrors of the Holocaust that exterminated six million Jews and millions of others.
But concentrating on one victim instantly personifies the story, makes it real and vivid.
And Weinstein had a lot of luck along the way.
Brady might have been forgotten by all but a few friends and her surviving brother were it not for the extraordinary efforts of a teacher Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tpkyp Holocaust Education Resource Center, who asked museum authorities at Aushwitz to donate items that might illustrate what the Jewish refugees went through while at the slave labor camp.
They send a suitcase clearly labelled with Hana Brody's name and destination as well as a canister of the deadly Cyclone B gas used to kill inmates in the "showers".
Weinstein gets all these details near perfect: how the Japanese pre-teens studying the Holocaust with Ishioka bond with this little girl leading the teacher to research what if anything else could be learned about Hana Brody.
By luck she actually finds in the archives drawings by the little girl when first imprisoned and reminisces from school friends who say Hana had a brother.
In fact he is George Brady who is still alive and now living as a white-haired grandfather in Toronto. Plagued by guilt, he reaches out to the teacher and the children, even journeying to Japan for an emotional meeting.
Weinstein very cleverly recreates key scenes in the childhood of George and Hana in Moravia (part of Czechoslovakia) where they were the only two Jewish children in town. We come to care about their fate as first the mother and then the father are taken away by the Nazis. And finally the two children are sent to Aushwitz in cattle cars.
In some scenes the docudrama recreations merge with the reality of the actual present day events --as we are taken through Hana's prison her childish drawings seem to spring to life and fill the screen.
And as George, the boy, opens a present from his jailed mother, George, the old man, shows these little slices of dried bread still preserved in a tin box all these decades later.
An old Japanese woman, a survivor of Hiroshima, meets George in Japan, a stark reminder that many suffered in the war and that Japan had her own war crimes which still need confronting.
Inside Hana;' Suitcase is especially relevant for the pre-teenagers who are near Hana's age when she was killed. As long as they react so emotionally to her fate then Hana and her suitcase will not be forgotten.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

All Hail The WB Archives!

Being an old movie buff from way back I'm still feeling there aren't enough great vintage films on TV to satisfy my needs.
It took me more than a decade of columns at the Toronto Star to get the CRTC to budge and allow Turner Classic Movies onto the Canadian cable TV universe.
But lately TCM has been running far too many current movies for my liking.
And then along came a solution: the WB Archives.
Now let me hasten to report Warners currently owns rights to three gigantic old movie collections: Warners, MGM and RKO.
How it got hold of those thousands of titles is a story in itself. At one point MGM even owned all the Warners titles --except in Canada.
Lately DVD sales have been dwindling in retail outlets across North America. One problem I'm sure is the high price tags on many items.
So Warners created its own way of dealing directly with vintage movie fans: it set up a website where you can order directly --the promise has been made to get all the films it owns onto the site.
Instantly there was trouble from this side of the border: the site did not accept Canadian orders for various copyright reasons. I understand that:up to seven percent of all TCM films shown in any given week are substituted for others on the Canadian feed.
To get around that restriction I asked a buddy in the U.S. to buy three titles for me --he could watch them first and then send them onto me.
The parcel quickly came: Cain And Mabel (1936) is an overstuffed but enjoyable Depression musical starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable.
I've always looked for it on TCM but never could find it and now I'm glad I've got it in my DVD library. Trouble is there are no extras not even scene selections --a few titles have the original trailers.
The second title I chose was We Were Dancing (1941) with Norman Shearer and Melvyn Douglas. It rightly gets only two stars but I wanted to catch it to find out why Shearer chose it over Gone with The Wind and Mrs. Miniver.
And it's not all that bad --it had the misfortune to be released right after Pearl Harbor and moviegoers were no longer interested in the adventures of a bogus Russian countess.
My third choice was Goodbye My Fancy (1952) because I knew director Vincent Sherman and wanted to see this strange venture into comedy by the usually melodramatic Joan Crawford.
Each DVD cost $29.99 but the price has since come down to $19.99. I have one friend who rents a Buffalo post office box and orders from Warners that way.
But now the WB collection is also available through, and, And a few titles from the WB archive have actually been appearing the the downtown Toronto DVD outlets: The Mortal Storm (1940) and Forsaking All Others (1934) --but these in store treats are selling as high as $32.99!
I tried ordering three more from and I got Cry Havoc (1943), a good all-female war story with Margaret Sullavan and Ann Sothern, Son Of The Gods (1930) with Richard Barthlemess in a strange tale of racial insensitivity and When Ladies Meet (1941): Crawford, Greer Garson, Robert Taylor all looking mighty uncomfortable in a teacup drama/comedy of infidelity.
My WB sources say next month's "premieres" will include June Allyson in the Opposite Sex (1956), Olivia de Havilland in My Love Came Back (1940), Bette Davis in That Certain Woman (1937), Barbara Stanwyck In BF's Daughter (1948) and the 1923 and 1933 versions of The Whte Sister.
The alternative is to sit patiently for years until TCM shows these gems again.