Sunday, November 20, 2016

Discovery's Frontier Is Sheer Fun

I remember in my august history classes at the University of Toronto we were always taught what a peaceable kingdom Canada was --and is.
But all that gets dispelled with merry abandonment in the rollicking new six-part series from Allan Hawco titled Frontier and currently running on Discovery Sunday nights at 9.
The scripted series has already been renewed for a second season and the premiere attracted almost 600,000 hearty Canadian viewers which is a new high for a cable drama.
And in an unique programming partnership Frontier will soon be seen on Netflix as well.
For me this one is a guilty pleasure just as much fun as Reign.
Characters snarl at each other, brawl, kill with glee and the scenery is threatening in all its savage beauty.
Filming of the second season is now underway in St,. John's (Newfoundland), Cape Breton Island and Cornwall (U.K.).
Starring are Landon Linoiron (Hemlock Grove), Alun  Armstrong (Braveheart), Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), Allan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle), Jessica Matten (Red Girl's Reasoning), Shawn Doyle (House Ofd Cards).
The saga is the fur trade and the early days of the Hudson's Bay Fur Trading Company.
Does anybody out there remember the terrible 1941 Hollywood saga with  Paul Muni as Radisson? If you don't you're truly lucky it was that awful.
Declan Harp (Momoa) is the Irish-native outlaw who trying to wrest control of the lucrative trade.
Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) must travel to the frontier of James Bay to try and teach this upstart a lesson.
A stoway on his voyage Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron) is conned into getting close with Harp and help Lord Benton's side.
Then there's Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) who wants to get in on the lucrative business.
The Blackie brothers have created a rollicking saga and like Reign it might be too historically correct but it sure is fun.
And those of you with very long memories swill recall a CBC series from 1958 titled Radisson --the last time I lcontacted at the CBC archives I was told no copiers exist at all!


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vital Bonds Will Challenge You

I had just about determined I would not watch Vital Bonds, CBC-TV's new documentary on organ donors.
That's because I had a dear friend who did not long survive his heart transplant and after a decade ago  memory is still painful to me.
Then curiosity got the best of me and I thought I'd watch the first 10 minutes.
Well, the next thing I realized was I'd watched the entire hour --it's that well made, an often brilliant pastiche of interviews with survivors and donors' families stitched in with min-profiles of the doctors and nurses who seem to toil around the clock.
You can check it out on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thursday night at 8.
This one could have degenerated into a welter of statistics.
Hey, I go way back with NOT and I remember a similarly riveting documentary at least a decade ago directed by David Tucker that looked at the inner workings of a big city heart and stroke unit.
Now it's director Niobe Thompson's chance  to weave threads of true stories into one cohesive whole and keep us watching through all those disparate themes.
I knew in advance Thompson might be up to it based on such docus he'd made like Tipping Point: Age Of The Oil Sands and The Perfect Runner.
Thompson has the ability to personalize a subject and here he concentrates on intense close-ups of the faces of people desperately needing transplants or they will surely die.
This one could have degenerated into a welter of statistics.
Instead we are instantly engrossed in the study of Lee whose every gasp of air is difficult.
And there is a distressed baby Harlow, a mere two-year old, whose young parents understand if she doesn't get a heart transplant very quickly she will expire.
And surely one theme is how many patients die before an organ becomes available.
And what about 28-year old Matthew who is brain dead after a terrible accident and now his parents must decide whether to permit his organs to be harvested.
The excruciatingly painful decisions by the parents is captured here in all its awfulness--they are certainly brave.
And we learn one donor can save up to eight lives and enhance 75 lives.
And we're told 246 Canadians died waiting for that elusive transplant.
Set mostly at an Alberta hospital, it shows how transplants east of Quebec cannot be accepted simply because the time of air transport is over five hours.
The strangest scenes are those of hope and we see if science can truly clone organs --the answer is not yet but the research is fascinating.
At the Texas Heart Institute we see researchers "washing" cadavers of their living cells
and using stem cells to fill the matrix of connective tissue.
And clinical trials with human patients using the re-grown human hearts may be just five years in the future.
At the end we see who gets heart transplants and how they have fared --I can't reveal names here.
In other words Vital Bonds takes us all on a vital journey of growth and renewal.
MY RATING: ****/

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

How To Prepare For Prison Is A Must See

Of course I immediately wanted to watch How To Prepare For Prison as I soon as I spotted the brilliant title.
 But when I popped in the preview DVD there was a space of about 10 minutes when the sound went off.
I kept watching anyway because of the terrific images which are riveting --most TV documentaries are shot in a flat, unimpressive style.
Here the images are muted, sometimes in silhouette as the camera lingers over eyes filled with tears, lonely figures on the landscape and sometimes grit and determination.
That's because director Matt Gallagher also functions as cinematographer.
Check it out Wednesday night at 9 on TVOntario (available the next day on
Gallagher has produced a real winner, the kind of challenging premise one used to find all the time on CBC but here it's TVOntario.
I was once accused at university of a crime which I never committed --it was somebody else with a similar name!
But it took me weeks and a high priced lawyer to clear my name so I know all about that creeping feeling of sickness in the stomach and night sweats and trembling.
This is the real reality TV --we come to know these accused as caring, feeling people trapped in a system they do not full comprehend.
What astonished me was Gallagher's compassion,his refusal to pass judgment and his constant search for the humanity of each of these accused subjects.
Are they innocent or guilty? Or is it the system which does not seem to always work.
Some viewers may wonder why Gallagher has selected both American and Canadian accused subjects.
And I think I know the reason : with the Americans we get to go into the courtroom and watch how justice is meted out.
But cameras are not allowed in Canadian courtrooms which I think reduces the degree of tension in tv storytelling.
Gallagher shows the judicial system is a competitive race of retribution versus rehabilitation.
And here we meet Lee Burrell, a Dallas man sentenced to four decades in jail after a botch armed robbery --he was shot in his legs and these days gets around legless in a wheel chair.
The tension of watching these people wait around for their sentencing is palpable --I simply couldn't turn away.
Gallagher who is also a skilled interviewer spent three years talking to judges, lawyers, family members and even the police.
What these accused have to go through as they await their future is, I submit, a form of cruelty in itself.
We meet the three accused and we feel for them as caring people.
There's Joe who was arrested for marijuana production --he says he rented out a facility --and traffickers were growing marijuana and he never knew what was going on.
The toll on his wife and little children is unbelievable.
Then there's Detroit based Demarco who is accused of striking a female which he denies --he is coming out as gay and feels intense pressure from this charge.
And there's Alberta's Christy accused of embezzlement --she says she lost her baby because of the ongoing tension and her husband left her.
Then she hires a prison consultant who coaches her on what to expect if she is indeed sentenced to a jail term.
I won't give away the three endings but viewers will surely suffer along with the accused.
I think viewers will surely wonder how they'd react in similar circumstances.
And I think that emotion makes How To Prepare For Prison a TV documentary to be remembered.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Black Watch Snipers: Must See TV

The best way to observe Remembrance Day ? Reserve time to watch the brilliant new documentary Black Watch Snipers which premieres Friday night at 9 on History.
Look, I thought I knew a fair bit about Canada's role in World War II But Black Watch Snipers opens up a whole new perspective.
It's a docudrama finely directed by Robin Bicknell (for Yap Films) that profiles four young Canadians from Montreal's Black Watch regiment who operated behind German lines.
The four survivors interviewed here are Jimmy Bennett, Jim"Hook" Wilkinson, Russell "Sandy" Sanderson and Mike Brunner.
"They were very young men then," Bicknell says. "And now they are very aged, at the ends of their lives. And the stories just came pouring out, Many of these harrowing details they had never even told to their families."
The story has texture and substance through their shared experiences of working under a charismatic leader --Ontario's Dale Sharpe and I'm not giving anything away by saying he died in battle aged just 27.
Says Bicknell :"His family never knew much of this story, they never knew his truly heroic characteristics. He led his men brilliantly."
Certainly the most heart wrenching moment comes when his son comes to the simple graveyard in Holland and begins talking to the dead father he barely knew.
"That just came out," Bicknell says. "And it tried everything together, the young father who died heroically, his son now old himself.
 And he had never been there--perhaps he felt it would be too much. But it becomes a sort of tieing up of the story."
Over 5,000 Canadians served in the Black Watch but time has taken most of them and less than 20 are still alive.
"We ended up traveling across Canada and interviewing just eight survivors. We use four of these stories here --we may do another film on the others."
The four she chose were all fast friends back then and have stayed in touch at reunions.
"Their memories were so strong. They could describe every minute of their heroic encounters. They operated behind the German lines collecting information on troop movements and causing disruption."
And here's where this film becomes particularly important although in a macabre way.
"We got to two of them just in time. Two have died --Sanderson and Wilkinson. This is their bequest  because they tell a story few know anything about."
Because so much of the work of the snipers was done undercover very little actual footage exists.
Bicknell brilliantly uses dramatic recreations  shot at Elora, Ontario  with actors and period weapons and uniforms to show the utter confusion of these battles.
In one true scene a large number of German soldiers were rounded up and captured by just one Canadian sniper who pretended to have other Canadians hidden in the nearby woods.
"In one new scene I bring them together except Bennett who could not fly and we took them to a rifle range and their sharp shooting was still completely accurate!
"In some Dutch towns I found old people who were children when the Canadians liberated them and it's a touching moment because they can recall every thing vividly. It's an example of living history jumping out at you."
An hour earlier comes an equally fascinating new documentary War Story in which veterans of conflicts in Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Vietnam talk to each other and director Barry Stevens and find they have the same problems despite different distances from their wars.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Questions, I Get Questions

I was invited to be questioned by a local Grade 6 class near my home in Riverdale, Toronto
My first surprise was to learn these kids watch almost no "regular" TV.
Instead they watch their programs in groups on their cell phones no matter that these screens are terribly small.
Another surpriser unlike their older siblings they are completely uninterested in computers using the cell phone for all means of communication.
When I was growing up we all collected stuff from comics to stamps,These kids don't do anything like that.
One girl down the street told me she graduated from high school without reading a single boo. When her class studied Wuthering Heights she simply
They seem to tweet all day --I heard the story of one 11-year old who had a twitter addiction --she was tweeting 134,000 times a month until her parents intervened and took her to twitter addiction camp.
Here's a sampling of what I was asked:
Q: What Canadian TV series are you watching these days.
ME: Motive, Murdoch Mysteries, Saving Hope are among the new Canadian series I look for. But I'm also watching on cable reruns of Cold Case which is a dandy show. And I'm even revisiting Due South when I can find it.
Q: Why isn't there a Canadian TV section in the DVD stores like HMV?
ME: Most CBC shows are locked up in the archives in Mississauga. CBC says it has no rights to put them out on DVD as opposed to BBC which has a huge inventory out there and making money. I asked the clerk what Canadian show he's most asked for and he said CBC's Beachcombers.
Q: How rich are these archives.
ME: THere are hundreds of great hours locked up. Including the best ever black and white TV dramatic special: a CBC version of Pale Pale Rider starring Joan Hackett and Keir Dullea, directed by Eric Till. Another gem: the only TV version of The Importance Of Being Earnest starring Dame Edith Evans.
Q: Has a Canadian show ever been remade for the U.S. market?
ME: Well, The Plouffe Family was later turned into the series about Latinos titled Viva Valdez. More recently Love It Or LIst It moved south for some episodes and so did Property Virgins. And Love It Or List It spawned a British spinoff which I think is a first.
Q: Is there a big new Canadian TV hit this season?
ME: Yes, Kim's Convenience --it could be the first breakout sitcom smash since Gas Cafe. TV critics used to write all the time how sketch comedy shows were flourishing but right now only This Hour Has 30 Minutes is left of that genre.
Q: What was the biggest Canadian blooper of the new season?
ME: CTV cancelled its flagship series Canada AM and the replacement is a silly compendium of reality shows which has lost half the audience.
Q: When the CRTC allows subscribers to pick and choose cable networks which ones will disappear?
ME: I've never met anyone to watched Outdoor Life Network  But I  like Slice, HGTV.  I watch BBC Canada all the time, Discovery Canada, MLB network, Friends down the street watch baseball and football channels all the time.
Q: Why can't I find on DVD my favorite Canadian series Party Game?
ME: Because tapes no longer exist on that one. Made at CHC with such great funsters as Jack Duffy and Dinah Christie the tapes of the show were bicycled across the country --small stations found it an inexpensive source of Canadian content. At the end of the season producer Randy Dandy Markowitz would recycle them for next year's episodes --he wiped them because he never saw them as potential future revenue. But panelist Billy Van swiped five of those tapes and they exist today on bootleg DVDs which I've seen.