Saturday, March 30, 2013

I Remember Fay Kanin

I'd been trying for years to interview screen writer Fay Kanin but it seemed every time I was in L.A. she was out of town.
And then one Saturday afternoon when I was at my desk in the Toronto Star newsroom I saw a familiar figure walking over to greet me.
"Hello, I'm Fay Kanin. Looking for me?"
And we both had a laugh.
Fay Kanin died on March 27 aged 95.
But I only met her once so here is my story,
She was in the Star newsroom in the summer of 1984 as executive producer of a new TV movie Heartsounds starring Mary Tyler Moore and James Garner. Beautifully coiffed and dressed, she carried her script with her.
And ever the hands on executive Kanin wanted to watch the filming --after all she'd written the script!.
I found her, aged 66, to be a bright and witty woman, one who co-wrote with husband Michael many of the great screen hits of the past 30 years.
"Our first script was Blondie For Victory (1942)," she said with a grimace.
"Then we wrote Goodbye, My Fancy for Broadway about a congess woman going back to the college where she was once expelled.
"And you know the other day at our lunch break I was walking along King Street with (co-star) Sam Wanamaker and we stopped at the Royal Alex theater. My play was there in 1949 and Sam was the original star!"
I mentioned I'd just seen the movie version on TV and she made another face. "They turned it into a Joan Crawford vehicle with Bob Young as her love interest."
Better movie scripts followed: Rhapsody (1953) with Liz Taylor, The Opposite Sex (1956) with June Allyson and then Teacher's Pet (1958) with Clark Gable and Doris Day which won the Oscar for best original scenario.
"It made us. But originally it had been turned down by every studio. We rewrote it with more romance and when Gable signed we had our biggest hit."
I wondered out loud why Kanin turned to TV in 1972 for the TV movie Heat Of Anger with Susan Hayward.
"Originally titled Fitzgerald and Pride it was going to be a series. Then Susie started having seizures. Brain cancer. But I learned I could tackle subjects movies wouldn't touch. So I switched to TV."
Next came Tell Me Where It Hurts (1974) with Maureen Stapleton and Paul Sorvino. "It was about a middle aged housewife who questions where she is going. Stapleton gave it a huge punch, it was a big ratings hit. No movie studio wanted it."
"Then I did Hustling (1975) with Lee Remich as a reporter investigating the pornography trade in New York city. Friendly Fire (1979) had Carol Burnett as a mother devastated by the knowledge her soldier son in Vietnam died by fire from his side,
"Heartsounds has a neurologist played by Jim Garener suffering a heart attack and confronting a medical establishment that has forgotten how to treat the patient. Based on the dailies Jim and Mary are amazing in it."
When I interviewed Kanin she had just finished a five year stint as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "I was the only woman on the board," she said with a wry smile.
In later years Fay tended to the needs of her husband --Michael died in 1993.
I should have taken her up on an offer to visit the next time I was in L.A.
But on that Saturday she made one invaluable contribution to the Toronto Star.
She personally persuaded a reluctant Mary Tyler Moore to pose in the news room with Sunday editor Lou Clancy.
And the front page picture the next day had the picture plus inevitable headline :"Mary? Lou?"

Monday, March 25, 2013

Orphan Black: Exciting new Sci Fi Series

Tatiana Maslany is first glimpsed sitting very still and composed in a CTV interview room at the network's Queen Street West headquarters.
It's the last interview of the day for her and her travel bag is all packed --she must soon rush off to fly to New York city for even more interviews.
She doesn't look at all tired. But rather apprehensive about the future that awaits her.
Because Tatiana Maslany is about to emerge from anonymity to become TV's latest hot star.
Her vehicle, the terrific new series Orphan Black, revs up on Space Saturday night at 9.
And already the insider buzz has been very encouraging.
She's pretty dazzling in the lead or rather the leads.
There are multiples of her character in play here. Her major character is Sarah a street wise waif from the lower British classes who sports a street Brit accent and has a daughter she's trying to reclaim after initially abandoned her.
But she's also another character, a cop named Beth who is up on charges of mishandling a major case.
And she's also a  mysterious German woman named Katjia.
Yes, Tatiana Maslany is playing clones.
They look alike although they dress differently, talk differently and live in different worlds.
It all makes for quite a dramatic challenge for Maslany and one early review calls her effort "excellent".
First up she had to get the job and she describes the audition process as grueling --it went on for several days and she had to deliver scenes in various accents viewers would find acceptable.
She also had to act  opposite possible co-stars most notably Jordan Gavaris who plays her foster brother Felix, another street urchin trying to find his way.
"I didn't know until the end that I had gotten it, "She says with a nervous laugh.
"I can be playing different characters in the same day. Most challenging are the scenes when I'm interacting with --myself!"
In the old days when Bette Davis or Olivia de Havilland were playing twins half the screen would be photographed and then the rest.
Maslany says the technology has so improved it can look as if she's touching the other character. But these scenes take hours to complete.
"I just have to remember what I'll be doing on the other side."
And then there's the different accents which she works on with a coach. "Sarah is number one but I sometimes play several the same day."
Orphan Black is BBC America's first North American made series --co-produced with Space and staffed with first rate Canadian actors.
Those of us from Toronto can spot the CN tower in an early shot but there's been some effort to make sure there are no street car tracks visible --here T.O. stands in for any North American major metropolis.
But Maslany laughs at the suggestion Sarah has an English accent because after all Orphan Black is on BBC America in the States.  "Besides the voice I have to change body movements as I go from character to character. Beth is more professional than Sarah, she has a demanding occupation,a settled life with a devoted boyfriend."
She would agree, I'm sure, that she's still at 27 relatively unknown. But I spotted her years ago on an early Heartland episode and then she co-starred in the CBC drama series Being Erika.
Her potential is enormous. She tackles every challenging scene in the first episode which I've watched twice.
Ten hour episodes have been shot. The executive producers are two cagey veterans of the TV series game: John Fawcett (Rookie Blue) and Graeme Manson (Flashpoint). As long as the plot has us guessing and not explaining away everything the show could take off.
The first hour is sleek to look at and filled with dense plotting --plus some nudity which is requisite on cable TV.
As I leave I tell Maslany I think she's in a winner.
Meaning that treasured life of anonymity will soon be over.
MY RATING: ***1/2.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Second Sight: Seed is Funny and Frantic

Second sight: it's a gift few TV critics possess.
Like most of my tribe I usually review the first episode of a new series and then practically forget about it.
So when Seed --Citytv's only scripted Canadian series-- came on in early February I was enthusiastic particularly after meeting star Adam Korson. His comic timing reminded me of Dustin Hoffman in The
Korson effortlessly plays bartender Harry who sold his sperm to the highest bidder only to discover he has kids all over the place.
It's not a conventional premise for a feel good network sitcom.
And I was surprised at City's scheduling decision: plopping Seed at 8:30 p.m. on Mondays.
Whatever happened to TV's Family Hour? Or maybe we're being told this is the ultimate family tale?
In my decades of covering Canadian TV I was always being told Canadians just couldn't make respectable sitcoms.
For every hit like King Of Kensington there was a Delilah. And if you can remember Delilah--I had to sit through several tapings in the line of duty -then you deserve a special award.
Canadian comedy was more of the sketch variety, some critics said pointing to SCTV, Kids In The Hall, RCAF.
And that interpretation reigned until the magnificent break out successes of The Newsroom and Corner Gas.
But subsequent sitcoms including Hiccups and Dan For Mayor simply couldn't match it..
I've been studying Seed since it came on the air. The writing is light and airy (thanks to executive producer Mark Farrell) and some of the principals really nail their characters.
For purely econiomic reasons Seed is shot in Halifax. Production values are very room comy meaning it could really be made everywhere.
And I'm hoping the presence of guest star Tom Green, well cast as psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Meinertzhagen, will hook in stragglers watching for the first time.
As with many Canadian sitcoms (Intelligence, Men With Brooms) the series is "block shot" meaning scenes in the bar will be shot one after another.
I'd prefer a live audience approach which always makes the principals act on a higher level but this might be considered too expensive.
Corner Gas worked without an audience because Brent Butt as a stand up instantly knew what would work and expertly guided the rest of his cast.
Korson has a hard assigment -- to play likable yet slightly dumb. I think he's  already found the right balance. Obviously Harry had to sell his sperm to make ends meet without realizing the consequences.
Equally funny is Carrie-Lynn Neales (L.A. Complex) as a single girl who ends up pregnant with Harry's sperm and then wants a relationship.
Harry already has a kid)William Ainscought) who has two moms (Amanda Brudge and Stephanie Anne Mills) and a 15-year old daughter Anastasia (Abby Ross) with two extremely neurotic marrieds (Matt Baram and Laura De Carteret).
Previewing Monday's episode made me realize how these comedy actors have grwn into their roles over the past two months.
In short Seed deserves a second season --the kinks are being ironed out--and given another season the show is set to soar..
But a later in the evening time change would surely be beneficial, am I right here?
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Beaver Whisperers A Delight

I've just finished reviewing a CBC documentary about dogs.
Now I'm being asked to review one on beavers?
I was skeptical but after plopping in the DVD I couldn't stop watching.
The Beaver Whisperers makes the startling premise that beavers may be the saviors of Canada. In this challenging new age where water is becoming just as expensive as oil beavers can help us turn bone dry landscapes back into lush paradises.
The Beaver Whisperers premieres on The Nature Of Things Thursday March 28  at 8 p.m. and is highly recommended.
The director Jari Osborne isn't the first name I'd associate with a Nature Of Things documentary --she made the wonderful factual film Unwanted Soldiers (1999).
But Osborne told me the more she researched the story the more she was convinced beavers were being overlooked for their environmental contributions.
And she's provided some wonderful (and true) stories about how beavers can positively change the landscape.
"They have a reputation as pests which is undeserved.  Some Canadian provinces still have bounties on them."
The most wonderful scenes are in Nevada where Osborne looks at a parched valley where cattle have eaten most of the vegetation and the water supply is typical of streams in that area.
Ecologists fenced out cattle from the area and began rebuilding the fragile ecosystem.
"And two beavers suddenly appeared and began dam constructions --there were no trees so they used mostly mud dams where vegetation has since sprouted. Now there is available water all year around and we see cranes now nesting and in the ponds. And it's quite a story."
Another great story Osborne came upon is the experience of former trapper Michel Leclair who operates out of Quebec's Gatineau Park. For years he'd been battling the beavers as they built dams in the wrong places. Leclair would trap them, blow up the dams.
And a day later the dams would reappear.
He discovered beavers respond to the sound of running water --the sound determines where they'll build dams. Now Leclair uses a playback machine to get the beavers building dams where they are needed.
"He has the beavers working for him," says one colleague in amazement.
Another true incident looks at a little beaver kit adopted by an ecologist who is training him to be re-introduced to the wild.
Many transfers fail but in this case "Timber" does meet up with a beaver family who make room for him (beavers are usually territorial).
The lady recently fell through the ice near her pond and reports "Timber" showed up to make sure she was OK before heading home to his beaver pond.
To her credit Osborne seeks out the experts who argue beavers can bring back long neglected wetlands. They may be one part of our ecological survival --miniature animal flood control engineers.
And the amount of U.S. footage guarantees Osborne's fine production should get an American TV sale sooner than later.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

TV And Agism

It all started a few weeks back when Joy Behar, 70, announced just like that she was leaving The View after 16 years.
I met Joy within a week of The View's arrival when I sat in on a live show in the audience and then went backstage to chat up "the girls".
Only Barbara Walters refused to talk to me. Too busy I was told. She owned the show but clearly disdained press interviews and stormed off to her ABC office to do other things.
I noticed during the commercial breaks that Barbara called the director over and read the riot act about what segment should come up next.
But I got to chatter with the other three co-stars Joy, Meredith Viera and Debbie Mantenopoulos.
When Joy decamps only Barbara, 83, will be left among the originals.
Joy said in her statement she's longing to get back to her roots as a stand up comic. But I strongly suspect her age had something to do with her leave taking.
On TV age is everything. And it always has been.
It's the reason Walter Cronkite left CBS News as chief anchor when he turned 65. CBS didn't want to lose the long running second-in-command Dan Rather.
But in picking Rather CBS so upset Roger Mudd that he left for NBC.
These days Jay Leno, 62, is in the line of fire.
He's used to being bounced by NBC. A few years back he lost his coveted Tonight slot for a chance to anchor a prime time nightly talk outing at 10 p.m.
That did not turn out and neither did his replacement at Tonight: perennial dauphin Conan O'Brien.
When the dust cleared Conan quit in a huff rather than being bumped back for the return of Leno.
Conan left for TBS where his ratings are infinitesimal and Leno seemed back in the saddle for a few years.
But when ABC gave Jimmy Kimmel, a mere child of 45, its 11:30 slot then a lot of youthful viewers began migrating from Tonight and Leno.
Leno still dominates  but NBC bases its advertising revenues on the number of young viewers. Johnny Carson never had such worries because in his day his show was often the only one in town.
So the story goes NBC is planning to dump Leno, bring in Fallon at 11:30 and watch him duke it out with Kimmel. NBC also wants to move Tonight back to New York city and is going to build a new TV studio to that effect.
Leno's contract doesn't expire until 2014 and includes a huge pay out if NBC cancels him early.
CBS's Letterman now operated on a yearly contract. How all this affects him is anybody's guess. Letterman is already number three --Kimmel's premiere week had him at 1.07 million viewers (18-49) versus 1.04 for Leno and 820,000 for Letterman. In week Leno was back on top.
If Letterman does  quit as he's often threatened then maybe Conan can make a jump back to network TV.
And, yes, agism also affects Canadian TV.
On September 1, 2011, CTV's Lloyd Robertson, 77,  retired as CTV's anchor after 41 years as national newscaster for CBC and CTV.  As late as February, 2010, he'd decried one press report about retirement as "a work of fiction.
His surprise replacement was Lisa LaFlamme,47, and CTV  ratings did not falter as some predicted.
That leaves CBC's Peter Mansbridge, 64, as the "grand old man" Of Canadian TV news. And to think I remember him as the youngest kid on the block.
Mansbridge replaced Knowlton Nash in 1988 --Nash, 61, voluntarily stepped down because CBC feared it might lose Mansbridge to CBS's Morning News.
I happen to think Mansbridge is currently operating at the top of his form but it's interesting to watch the current jockeying for position among such heirs to the throne as Ian Hanomansing, 52,  and Amanda Lang,42.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Death On TV

I'm thinking Larry Hagman would have loved how the sudden death of  his character J.R. Ewing on Dallas was all set up.
Hagman's anticipated death from cancer forced the producers to review every foot of film both used and unused starring Hagman. And enough was cobbled together from lines of dialogue and key face movements to set up a second "Who shot J.R. Ewing".
And viewers are being told that we'll all know the culprit before the end of the season.
But Hagman's death isn't the first time the lead actor on a big series died.
I remember going right back to 1972 when I was the kid TV critic for The Spectator and veteran star Dan Blocker died when Bonanza was still riding high.
Co-star Pernell Roberts had already departed the series in 1965 (Bonanza debuted on NBC in September 1959).
But Blocker as another son Hoss constituted the heart and soul of the show,
Star Lorne Greene who played Pa (and was only six years Blocker's senior) told me "That knocked the stuffing out of us."
The series only lasted one more season although in 1988 there was an attempt to reboot the series with Gillian Greene (Lorne's daughter), Michael Landon Jr. and Dirk Blocker (Dan's son) in a TV movie pilot that did not sell.
I remember venturing on the set of ABC's Eight Is Enough in L.A. in June 1977 as cast prepared for the first full season (it had debuted as a mini-series in March).
But trouble was co-star Diana Hyland who co-starred as wife Joan Bradford  succumbed to cancer after five episodes and newcomer Betty Buckley was understandably nervous about replacing the much liked Hyland.
She need not have been --the show was not yet well established and viewers instantly accepted her and the series ran two more seasons until expiring in 1981..
There were numerous TV movie reunions and when Buckley was unavailable for the 1987 edition she was replaced in turn by Mary Frann from The Bob Newhart Show.
The death of a peripheral cast member is easier to handle. Like the sad case of The Jeffersons in 1978 when long time co-star Zara Cully (Mother Jefferson) died at an advanced age,
The show continued on for another seven seasons but there's no doubt she was always missed.
And I was on the set of Hill Street Blues multiple times but in 1983 I had to cover the death of a beloved cast member: Michael Conrad who handled the roll call as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus.
This one was such a heavily populated ensemble series that HSB merely forged onward not expiring until 1987.
Of course the death may only be onscreen. I covered M*A*S*H even before it debuted on CBS (and CBC). In July 1972 I had lunch with the show's ingenue Loretta Swit  in a Belgian restaurant on L.A.'s Sunset Strip.-- in September she who would instantly hit screen stardom as Hot Lips Houlihan.
At the end of the third season McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers both left the show.
Stevenson's character, Colonel Blake, was promptly killed off in a plan crash. Stevenson was replaced by Harry Morgan Colonel Sherman Potter and Rogers was replaced by Mike Farrell as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt.
But I happened to think Larry Hagman's death was the best covered of all.
Of course it brought back memories of the original "Who Shot J.R.?" episode which climaxed the 1979-80 TV season.
At a CBS gala years later I told Hagman I had cracked the case and knew it was all because Hagman wanted a new contract. Had he refused to re-sign CBS had decided that when the bandages were taken off his face --Robert Culp would then appear! as the new J.R.
Hagman blanched and whispered :"You got that right."


Monday, March 18, 2013

I Give Dog Dazed Four Woofs

At first I was going to bypass Dog Dazed the new CBC documentary on Doc Zone --it's on Thursday March 21 at 9 p.m.
My reasons? Pure prejudice! I've always been a determined cat person simply because cats don't require daily walks in the park. Also cats don't bark loudly and the barn cats I acquired leave me alone most of the time and I try to leave them alone all the time..
I intended to glance briefly at Dog Dazed and go on to a more congenial subject but Vancouver based director Helen Slinger has done such a top notch job I quickly got hooked.
And the subject, I must admit, is one that I've been wondering about.
Like my own observation the number of dogs has surely skyrocketed in recent decades.
There's a parkette near my home where dogs can run without a leash and at twilight it is thickly populated by pooches chasing each other. The owners congregate to chat up each other.
We cat lovers would never give in to such displays of affection.
The North American statistics Slinger trots forth support my thesis. In 2010 38 million households had children while 43 million had dogs. In other words dogs are the new kids.
The consequences include the 30,000 daily tons of dog dirt that litter the parks and streets not to say the incessant barking I hear every morning --I'm across from a public school and mothers drop off their kids and also walk their dogs.
And there are very serious concerns about the amount of dog bacteria present in major metropolitan areas.
Sling covers the continent in her search for unusual canine stories. There's the strange tale of a Vancouver dog owner fined $1,500 for walking her dog without a leash on a Vancouver Beach.
She has broken the law but this dog lover is fighting mad at the verdict.
Then there's Toronto city councillor Karen Stintz (also TTC commissioner) who says she spends a large part of her time mediating dog issues.
This includes the huge problem of tiny Ledbury Park which was turned into a zone where dogs could run free. Presently the park was overrun by barking dogs beginning at dawn and ending at dusk causing local residents to bark back at politicians in their dismay.
We see how hordes of dogs can disrupt nesting birds causing some species to go into rapid decline.
But dog owning has become such a big business when we visit Woofstock we see how many people are trying to turn a buck from canine chiropractors to dog.
There's a shot of a dog being the ring bearer at a wedding and a visit to a pet cemetery where owners petitioned for the right to be buried next to their pet pooch.
Strangest scene has one building superintendent determined to find the owner of any dog who has dirtied her lawn --she keeps the DNA of every dog on file and rapidly dispatches a sample to a CSI lab to find the culprit.
Slinger has so roamed the continent in her rapid fire stories of strange dog doings she should be able to make a sale to the U.S. --perhaps there's even a TV doggie network out there I don't know about.
MY RATING: ****.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alien Mysteries: I Was Wrong

With regards to Alien Mysteries, Discovery's terrific new sci fi series I have to make a confession.
I was wrong.
The new show opened on one of the busiest weekends of the TV season and I had to drop one series to get everything in.
So I ignored Alien Mysteries and boy was I mistaken.
"You blew it this time," said a little old lady in the coffee shop I sometimes frequent.
And she's right.
I've been playing catch up with this show ever since.
I knew after watching a few episodes that I had missed one of the creative wonders of the season.
The title seems to imply another cheesy show about aliens all done up in the panoply of reality TV.
But this has to be one of the most expensive productions Discovery has ever attempted.
The CGI effects are as good as in any blockbuster movie courtesy of EPI (Exploration Production Inc.) and green screen techniques created by Toronto's Acme Digital Pictures.
What the show does is dramatize actual encounters each within the space of an hour. These are all first person accounts and most can be verified by other people or government agencies.
The dramatic reenactments are deliberately toned down without any of the screechings found in most sci fi movies. And this makes each tale all that more frightening.
First up there was the experience of Matthew Reed of Brownsburg, Indiana in 2009 who followed a strange light when driving home. When he woke up hours later he was bloodied and his SUV a wreck.
The first one was partnered with the story of residents of Stephenville, Texas, in 2008 who witnessed the lights of a huge aircraft that was subsequently chased by F-16 fighters across the sky.
The next two on the next week were even better: British Columbia housewife Corina Sabels in 1991 witnessed a huge spaceship hovering over her Aldergrove home. And the fourth hour looked at the sighting of an UFO on Christmas 1980 by U.S. airmen in England's Rendelsham Forest.
This Sunday at 8 there are the final two hours with the best reserved for the last.
Bucks County is the title of the hour looking at resident Denise Murter who awakens to see a huge spaceship hovering over her back yard.
The technicals are amazing and the way the drama is directed you'll fully believe in her encounter.
As with all the segments a wide range of experts tells us all the possibilities but never is there any sensationalism and that makes the hour compulsively watchable.
And the finale at 9 looks at the strange events in December 1965 in the tiny village of Kecksburg Pennsylvania as 16-year old Stan Gordon and veteran Bill Bulebosh witness a fiery object streaking through the night sky only to crash in the woods. NASA officials are soon on the scene trying to suppress all details of the encounter.
In telling these stories there is absolutely no effort to explain away or debunk the stories.  Each tale is extremely personal and became almost life altering for the participant.
The interviews with the real participants make the story --it is not effects driven but the startling images add a depth to each tale never seen before on TV.
Discovery has a real big hit on its hands --surely a second season is already being planned.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, March 8, 2013

CBC's Jack: Unabashedly CanadianJoe;

Sunday night on CBC comes a sturdy new biopic Jack and it's highly unusual.
It's a Canadian TV movie made by Canadians for Canadians with no pandering to assure international sales.
Jack is CBC-TV's unabashed love letter to the late great Jack Layton. It premieres on CBC Sunday night at 8.
"I'm not even ordering up an international print for possible sales," chuckles executive producer Lazlo Barna.
Last season Barna's CBC TV movie of Don Cherry sold in just one international market.
"It sold in Finland," Barna declares. And he sincerely doubts even Finland TV will not be interested in the saga of Canada's first socialist Leader of the Opposition.
Shot In Winnipeg "purely for costs" the once over lightly look at the politician shows what a good and decent man he always was. But missing is any sort of dramatic conflict until his final fight against cancer. That's because and so rare among politicians Layton was respected and even admired by all sides.
Rick Roberts gives an in depth portrayal as Layton.  Roberts looks the part and eerily captures the essence of the man.
The starry Canadian cast includes Sook-Yin Lee as devoted wife Olivia Chow,Wendy Crewson as chief of staff Anne McGrath, Erin Karpluk as a rival Conservative operative, Zachary Bennett as NDP National Director Brad Lavigne, Joel Keller as Karl Belanger, Victoria Snow as Layton's sister and Diana Ha as Chow's mother.
Says Barna "Crewson asked me to be in it, she believed in it. And we got the great cast needed to make it."
It seems CBC has a real love affair with politicians of the left.
Over the years CBC movies have tackled the lives and achievements of Laurier, Mackenzie King, Tommy Douglas and Mackenzie King.
Hey, what about the right?
By contrast a proposed multiple episode look at Sir John A. Macdonald got cancelled last year after only one episode.
And Sir Robert Borden, John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney? So far CBC has resisted dramatizing their lives.
Barna has always veered to Canadian subjects in his long and honorable Canadian TV producing career. The last time I interviewed him in person was for the fine 2008 TV biography of Celine Dion which was shot entirely in Hamilton with Hamilton Place substituting as a Las Vegas night club.
Among his series success: Blue Murder (2001-04) and Da Vinci's Inquest (1998-2005) which ran 91 episodes.
These days Canadian shows are cynically being made made for a quick sale to the U.S. market which means not mentioning the country of origin and using Canadian stars known to the American market.
Says Barna: "I call this the summer rep period for Canadian TV. For the price of a pilot an American network gets a series they can show in the summer. But that does not interest me."
With Jack Lazlo is back to telling the Canadian stories he prefers.
The screenplay by Andrew Wreggitt skillfully unfurls Layton's life during the tumultuous 2011 campaign that saw the NDP become the number two national party for the first time.
Director Jeff Woolnough has fashioned an interesting juxtaposition of actual news footage intermingled with dramatized episodes as Layton faces increasingly difficult health issues.
It's been less than two years since Layton's death which took place at the height of his political triumph.
"That's the theme," Barna says. "At the apex he certainly didn't deserve it. But he was plucky. He fought on. No self pity which is great."
Rick Roberts scores heavily as Layton and achieves an eerie physical resemblance he says came about by getting his head shaved. "I studied the shots of him, how he walked and spoke." And Roberts lives in Layton's old riding of Broadview-Greenwood which must have been some help.
"Says Roberts: "He was the optimist. Always strumming the guitar. Guitars were always right there. I mean he broke the Liberal stronghold and he broke the BQ in Quebec. But he always thought he could do it. I wanted to capture that energy, that ability to convince voters."
I've been covering Roberts since he co-starred on Global's Traders. Then came a year stint in L.A. making the CBS drama series L.A. Doctors (1998-99) but Roberts moved right back to a Canadian sitcom (An American In Canada) that should have lasted longer. In 2011 he played Mayor Clarke on Republic of Doyle.
Roberts says he's been mulling over a life of Mackenzie King either on stage or TV.
The fact Jack was made so soon after Layton's death makes the movie a bit uncritical.
But it does show the inner workings of Canadian politics.
And it demonstrates how Layton never faltered in the message he so believed in. And then four months after his greatest success he was dead.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Next Step Is TV's New Fame

I hesitated about plopping in the DVD preview of the new Canadian series The Next Step.
After all the series which debuts Friday night at 7 on Family Channel is specifically designed for teenagers and seems on first glance to be another reality show.
But I started watching. And watching. And I couldn't stop until I'd previewed the first three shows which are very well made indeed.
The Next Step profiles 11 extremely talented teenagers aged 14 to 16 who get together after school as they prime themselves to win the regional dance festival.
The structure is very much in the reality mode. We see them come together, rehearse, form cliques, bicker and plot against each other.
But somewhere along the way they bond as a team and begin the arduous journey to (hopefully) become champs.
First up we watch the winnowing process that separates the real champions from the also rans who are regulated ignominiously to the B team.
The Next Step is a major step by Family Channel to corral the attention of younger teenagers and even pre teens.
But if you are expecting the crudities of those Kardashian shows, well, forget it.
These kids are awfully young. And they're fully motivated. They don't swear or make out or smoke or do drugs.
They can't. Every episode they must dance all out in routines that had me aching just watching from my armchair.
They're also not a bunch of goody goodies either. Highly motivated, some of them will do almost anything to succeed.
I kept thinking of the movie and TV series Fame as the best example of what a dancing and singing story can become.
And I'm fully expecting The Next Step to carefully evolve into must-see TV --provided one is under 18 years.
To further complicate things these youngsters appear to be playing themselves even though they all are dancer first and few have any prior acting experience. But the show is fictional --they sport other names and there are cliff hangers at the end of each episode (followed by that inevitable The Next Step Aftershow which will be on line).
To learn more about the show I talked to two of the break out stars Victoria Baldesarra who plays Michelle and Trevor Tordjman who is James.
Both of them had to audition for the show and at the first rehearsals over 200 kids were present.
"They shot a pilot," Trevor told me. And then there were more auditions and rehearsals which is very unusual for a new Canadian series. Usually everything shot has to be used because of costs.
Victoria tells me she heard about the show from her dance teacher who urged her to try out. The competition was tough because there were many talented girls present. But only 11 finalists were chosen --seven girls and four guys.
So now after the first season was shot (last summer) do they think of themselves as actors or dancers?
"I'm a dancer but I'm playing a role," Trevor insists. "I've only acted a little bit before this."
"I think I'm basically playing myself," says Victoria. "We shoot everything out of order. It's called block shooting and we'd do four episodes a week. We did everything out of order."
Trevor says they are given situations to play off but not much dialogue. "I can relate to my character so it wasn't tough to do."
In the first block Victoria plays the new girl in the group and she's the nice one, too. "I'm a humble person." she says with a laugh.
Every story has to have a "bitch" and this plumb assignment goes to Alexandra Beaton as the domineering Emily who creates quite an impression with her acting skills.
The other dancers include Brittany Raymond (as Riley), Isaac Lupien (Eldon), Samantha Grecchi (Stephanie), Tamina Pollack-Paris (Tiffany), Jennifer Pappas (Chloe), Brennan Clost (Daniel), Lamar Johnson (West),  Jordan Clark (Giselle) and as coaches Bree Wasylenko (Kate)  and Shamier Anderson (Chris).
Technical details are well executed, each episode tells a story but the dancing is what will keep you watching.  Made by Temple Street Productions by executive producers Frank van Keeken (Billable Hours), Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier (Being Erica), the show has already been sold to BBC Worldwide for syndication.
So what's next for these talented teens?
"I kind of found a passion for acting," Trevor says. He's 17 and has a bright future ahead, he literally jumps out of this ensemble.
Victoria, 14, insists "Im the baby of this group." But she's already a real beauty as well as a fine dancer
"We have contracts to do a second season," Victoria says
It would be shot this summer if the show takes off as expected.  How could The Next Step not take its next step after all this?
Episodes 1 through 5 run Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. March 11 to 15 to ensnare all those kids home for March break.
And then there's The Next Step Aftershow online at step. Got all that?
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Homeland Comes To Bravo

I usually don't write about reruns.
But Homeland is premiering on Bravo Wednesday night at 10 and for most Canadians this will be the first look at the best U.S. TV show of the past few years.
So this is a new show as far as I'm concerned --several friends have confided they just don't currently have the funds to buy into Super Channel which has Homeland's first run.
I've seen other TV series with somewhat the same plot --think 24 which boasts the same creators in producer Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa.
So I was apprehensive about watching this one until I watched the entire season one in advance thanks to DVDs loaned by Bravo.
And I'm hooked.
Thrillers are one of the staples of TV. And this one could have gone any number of ways.
The heroine is Carrie Mathison who is already a bit crazy at the beginning of the saga and gets progressively more unbalanced as the plot zithers along.
Played brilliantly, compulsively by Claire Danes, she is a dedicated CIA analyst. She even uses the same antidepressants her father takes for his manic depressive state
What I like is that Danes never overdoes the desperation, rher she builds on it scene after scene. I haven't seen much of her since she so captivated audiences in the series My So Called Life.
But as an adult she has grown and stretched into a difficult part.
Equally challenges is the British actor Damien Lewis who I liked a lot in the short lived series Life. He plays a recently released prisoner who has suffered eight years of psychological torture. In some ways his story arc takes up where The Manchurian Candidate left off.
Equally brilliant is the man who in effect plays her caretaker at the agency --Mandy Patinkin is back in another series just as troubling as his last (Criminal Minds).
The imminent threats are as potent as in 24 but because this is cable story lines fairly lumber along. This makes for meaty characterization, In some ways the slow pace is lulling as we get to know Carrie and how she always feel betrayed by her own personal failings.
Anyhow I now feel Homeland is the best U.S. series currently running. That's right, I've shed my Mad Men allegiance and that was pretty hard.
So watch and tell me what you think.

Monday, March 4, 2013

I Remember Jeannine Locke

CBC producer Jeannine Locke was a real pepper pot.
I remember in 1977 I was sitting in a CBC screening room with her as we watched her latest TV production: The Family Prince, a look at Prince Charles.
At the end the young prince turns to Jeanine off camera and asks "Was that good enough?"
And Locke then explained she was taking that line out because she didn't want Charles to think she was taking advantage of his  camera innocence.
I thought it was a line that humanized Charles but she would not budge.
She never would bend, you see.
A talented writer, Locke died last week, aged 87, still feisty and argumentative to the end.
The last time I bunped into her she took me to Timothy's coffee shop in Toronto's Manulife Center and calmly dissected all the current ailments of her beloved CBC.
"Public Television is worth preserving, worth fighting for," she maintained --it was a line of hers I had often heard.
Born in Saskatchewan she jumped into the newspaper world finally winding up at the Toronto Star for a decade before jumping again in 1969 to CBC.
By 1980 she was specializing in docudramas including the three parter You've Come Along way Katie with Lally Cadeau .
I tried to get on the set of every Locke TV movie because she always gave great copy.
She usually wrote the scripts and was on set every minute to aid, assist  and occasionally harass the director.
I remember particularly the force of Chautauqua Girl (1983) because after privately previewing it CBC President Pierre Juneau predicted it would fail with viewers.
Enraged, Locke forced him to sit beside her at a special press screening and had the last laugh when Chautauqua Girl won its time slot and launched the career of young director Rob Iscove.
Also highly praised and highly rated were such Locke TV movies as The Other Kingdom (1984) with Gordon Clapp and Terence Kelly and The Private Capital (1989), a four hour look at life and love in Ottawa in Laurier era with Marha Kelly, Clapp and Michael Riley.
Her final CBC effort, The Greening Of Ian Elliott (1992) starred Carol Sinclair and Helen Carscallen. and was a highly unusual drama with an ecology theme.
Locke left CBC because she feared the private broadcaster was only attempting highly commercialized fare.
She had quite a dust up with CBC's Yvan Fecan but in the long run her fears were justified --there's nothing on the CBC schedule these days to compare with any of those well remembered Locke TV movies.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is History's Bible Remake Really Cool?

"How cool was that?"
Survivor and Apprentice producer Mark Burnett says that was his reaction as a kid when he first saw Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments on TV.
Specifically he was referring to De Mille's parting of the Red Sea which star Charlton Heston once explained to me was done using great blocks of jello which were then blown up to super size.
So now in the latest TV version of The Bible Burnett gets to part the Red Sea, fill Noah's Arc with thousands of furry friends, plop Daniel in the lions' den and even send Jesus to the crucifixion.
And it's all with a brand of special effects that were not available to past marauders of The Bible.
The results are on display starting Sunday March 3 at 8 p.m. on History.
Co-producer is Burnett's wife, Irish actress Roma Downey who toiled on TV in the hit series Touched By An Angel which for its long run remarkably avoided mentioning the "J" word.
And this TV saga from Burnett and Downey is similarly straddling the fence.
Out is the majestic syntax of the King James version of the Bible.
In its place is the dull (almost prosaic) translation called the New International Version which is favored by evangelical Christians.
Now this isn't the first time TV has attempted such a mammoth undertaking.
Starting in 1994 A&E undertook a four year project called Mysteries Of The Bible with Richard Kiley as narrator and Jean Simmons reading select passages.
Filming was undertaken at the actual sites and as packaged by David Wolper the entire opus ran for years with guest appearances from leading archeologists and even evangelist Jerry Falwell.
Let's just call this latest remake "The Compact Edition" and leave it at that.
In just 10 hours the story fairly whistles by as narrator  Keith David solemnly intones what we are seeing until I longed to tell him to shut up.
The actors are largely unknown but some of them do very well --like Jake Canuso  who is well cast as Daniel although in one of my favorite stories, Daniel in the lions' den, the screeching cats clearly have been printed in and never come into direct eye contact with the hero.
Also in the rto hours I saw Peter Guinness made something of Nebuchadnezzer and Greg Hicks was a solemn Pontius Pilate.
The narrative hops and skips at such a frenzy that one moment we're with Daniel and then plop 500 years have passed and Jesus is born to an extremely youthful and bewildered Joseph and his teen bride Mary.
A few set pieces later and Jesus is all grown up, gets baptized by John and then encounters Satan and a snake in the desert. This Jesus, Diogo Morgado, is perhaps too handsome but his interpretation is all sincerity.
In other words everything is at a fast clip which is the way they do things on reality TV.
The special effects which I've seen only in the fifth and final two-hour installment are, however, special. The siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is a miracle of CGI and concludes with the spectacle of hundreds of flaming arrows zinging through the night sky to set the city on flame.
There's a lot of violence shown here but very little sex.
For that sort of thing you'll have to rent the DVD of Samson And Delilah produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille who certainly knew how to present that kind of thing.
Production details are often lavish but some key scenes are presented in a strangely pestrian fashion.
Made for $20 million but looking twice as expensive,  TV's latest  Bible remake packs in too much --telling everything from Genesis to the Resurrection in just 10 hours always was a near impossibility.
But it covers most of the major stories albeit in a too hurried fashion.
What is missing is much of the majesty and greatness of the text along the way.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Vikings Are Coming!

I had trouble settling into the new miniseries The Vikings but the problem was entirely my fault.
Visions of a Monthy Python skit danced in my head and  later I wondered if this was going to be the Norse version of Spartacus.
It's the first scripted original drama series to run on the U.S. History channel and Canada's History.
And the credentials are impeccable. A joint Canada/Ireland co-production, it boasts the respected Canadian executive producer Sheila Hockin (QAF, The Tudors).
The much anticipated premiere is on History Sunday March 3 at 10 p.m.
Vikings was created and written by Michael Hirst (The Tudors) and he's joined as executive producer by Morgan O'Sullivan (The Tudors), and John Weber (The Borgias).
The Canadian director is Ken Girotti (Bomb Girls) who joins Johan Renck (The Walking Dead) who directs the first three hours.
Both History channels are hoping Vikings becomes the next Game Of Thrones with its strong emphasis on action --if it succeeds it will attract the same young males who crave GOT.
Vikings takes us back to 739 A.D.
Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) is a young Viking farmer and farmer who yearly joins hunting parties that ravage the eastern Baltic sea nations. But he has heard there are wealthier countries to the west, countries which local chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabe Byrne)  imagines to be dangerous, uncharted territory.
So Ragnar joins the local boat builder Floki (Gustav Skarsgard) to build a new ship capable of sailing on the northern Atlantic.
Mostly shot in Ireland and featuring wondrous CGI shots of great ship sailing the open seas, Vikings has a huge $40 million budget although the lack of star names may hurt a bit in North America.
Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick scores as Ragnar's wife who is described as a "shield maiden". Another Canadian, Jessalyn Gilsig, plays Earl's saucy wife.
Technically the eight-hour series soars with magnificent coastal scenery and a series of bloody, pitched battles every time the story threatens to lag.
Obviously History has restrained Hirst's usual penchant for nudity. At times Vikings plays like a family saga as Ragnar and his wife quarrel over the children and his long absences from home.
And as with all these sagas the accents frequently clash. But Hirst gets some drama about the plight of the Vikings as they first encountered the Christian inhabitants of Great Britain --one young monk Athelstan (played by George Blagden) is taken into slavery and gradually, insidiously tries to convert his heathen masters.
Hirst gets it right when dealing with the big issues like the awakening of the Vikings as they meet people of more advanced cultures.
To attract young males there are bloody battles particularly the one that opens the series --the battlefield is strewn with corpses as hundreds of ravens screech in the sky (a nice CGI touch).
But there's also humor --the young monk tries to explain celibacy to the lusty Vikings and grows morose when his shaved head begins sprouting hair.
Fimmel once bombed out as TV's Tarzan but a decade later has the presence to carry this story and makes a good team with Skarsgard (brother of Alexander from True Blood).
Vikings doesn't quite pack all the punch of Game Of Thrones but comes a very close second which is saying a lot.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Red Widow Is An Intriguing New Thriller

This is the midseason of the midseason, that odd time when the U.S. networks unveil series they're just not that sure about.
Last week CBS started it all with the new cop show Golden Boy.
Sunday  March 3 at 9 p.m. comes  ABC's Red Widow on CTV Two.
A lot of money was spent on the pilot which I've just seen. Cinematically this one is an outstanding combination of thrills and revelations all set in the San Francisco area.
It's based on a Dutch TV series called Penoza and was written for American TV by Melissa Rosenberg who scripted the Twilight movies as well as the TV success Dexter.
When you watch you'll certainly think of the series Missing with Ashley Judd because it features an equally strong heroine in Radha Mitchell. She has an intensity that makes you want to stay with the plot despite standard opening bumps ad twists.
Directed compellingly by Mark Pellington the opening hour takes us into the seemingly secure world of a Bay area housewife who one the surface seems to have everything.
As Marta Walraven, she lives in a grand glass house in upscale Marin County and has three photogenic children and a strong marriage.
But wait a minute. Her husband (Anson Mount) is a fisherman. How can he afford to keep the family going with such a lavish lifestyle.
And her father  (Rade Serbedzija) has had some kind of connection with the mob the rest of the family has mostly ignored.
It's all told from the female perspective which is still unusual on mainstream TV.
And some very compelling character stars pop up to hold the wobbling narrative in place.
Let's see, there's gangland don Nicholae Schiller (Goran Visnjic)i as a Russian mobster.
Her late husband's partner Mike (Lee Tergesen) wanted to make some fast cash. Is he involved?
Marta seems surprised that her nine-year old is suspended from his elementary school after confronting a bully with a gun borrowed from his father.
Obviously there are echoes of The Sopranos in the plot. But it might also remind you of Revenge.
Mitchell is good enough to switch from innocent housewife to vigilante without it all  seeming absurd . Her character is determined to find out who killed her husband even if it involves working with the Russian mob.
The first hour whistles by there's so much story. ABC is saying to stick with the second episode which immediately follows.
At eight hours in total this is a limited series ABC hopes will grow to become a fixture next season.
It really all depends on Mitchell's acting ability to keep us watching subsequent installments.