Monday, April 21, 2014

The Lost Highway: Superb TVO Documentary

Depressed about the current state of Canadian TV?
May I suggest as a quick pick-me-up the beautifully realized new TVOntario documentary The Lost Highway premiering on TVO Wednesday April 23 at 9 p.m?
The fact it is so good just doesn't surprise me at all.
That's because it's the work of veteran documentary film makers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham who won the Gemini for direction for their last documentary Last Call At The Gladstone Hotel.
"We were lucky then in hooking into a narrative that unfolded in a special way," Graham (or is it Roemer) is saying --I interviewed the partners on the telephone and couldn't always distinguish between the two --they sometimes finish each other's sentences.
In Last Call they documented an attempt to transform the aging Victorian relic Toronto's Gladstone Hotel which turned out to be so thorough all the former tenants of the upper floors could no longer afford to live there.
In Lost Highway they examine nostalgically a part of an iconic Ontario highway --Highway Seven --that has deteriorated with the decades and is now a seldom travelled backwater.
They claim they're lucky again but both times it's far more than luck.
Roemer and Graham have a knack of latching onto true characters who first surprise us with their sheer individuality and then cause us to be concerned about their future.
I know a lot about Highway 7 having spent summers in the Havelock-Marmora area in the Fifties when it was an extremely busy and bustling through fare from Toronto to Peterborough to Smith's Falls to Ottawa.
"No more," says Graham.
For one thing travellng habits have changed and an outing these days to the nation's capital might take the average family along the 401 to Kingston and then up to Ottawa.
So Highway 7 has been depopulated into dilapidated motels that seem right out of Psycho and deserted farm houses that speak of another era.
Everything changes seems to be the moral of this story and to illustrate it Roemer and Graham have found some deliciously odd ball characters along the route.
There's the nostalgic senior Howard Gibbs who is never short of words.
His family (beginning with his father) have owned Gibbs Gasoline for 80 years. In the early days the big oil companies vied to build gas stations and install state-of-the-art pumps.
These days Gibbs gas needs a new lining in the underground tank before it can re-open for business.
And most drivers these days prefer traveling from Peterborough to Ottawa without a break.
Gibbs is the ex-warden of Frontenac county, a melancholiac at heart as he talks about a way of life that has vanished.
Daughter Melanie is trying to revive the station but wife Hope is never seen --she's moved out to nurse a neighbor--and it seems like she'll never return..
"We wanted to interview her but she declines," Roemer says.
At one point Howard goes missing for days. Suicide? Murder? Melanie says he went away with another woman.
Neighbors David Draski and wife Linda Tremblay have their own set of challenges as they try to repair a crumbling farmhouse into an elegant bed and breakfast called Nomad's Rest.
Arden's last remaining retailer (profiled here) is batik artist Sarah Hale who closes down for the winter because business is so scarce.
The village  actually has a name --Arden -- it used to be a bustling center of the logging industry with three general storers all of which have closed. The few villagers left prefer shopping these days in the larger town of Madoc.
The Lost Highway has that great capacity to surprise. One ends up caring about these great individuals and wanting them not merely to survive but flourish.
And because Lost Highway runs on TVO Roemer and Graham have an elongated 58 minutes to tell their story (CBC documentaries run 44 minutes).
A story this well made deserves to be savored --here is Canadiana at its best.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Orphan Black Is Must See Canadian TV

So there I was at a high end dinner party and I was doing what every TV critic does in such august company.
I asked every guest in turn for his or her list of "must see " TV shows.
I'm always doing this and I got the usual list of suspects in return: Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Sherlock Holmes.
Then one guest ventured "Orphan Black" and I froze.
This was the first Canadian made series I'd heard mentioned in many years. Not since The X Files (made in Vancouver) had a Canadian show made it into the list of lists.
Look, there are some very well made Canadian dramas out there: Murdoch Mysteries, Heartland, Saving Hope, Rookie Blue.
But none are aywhere near the "must see" category.
Orphan Black is and it sort of crept up on us.
First there was the annual TV Critics Awards where its Canadian star Tatiana Maslany snatched the Best Acress in a Series award away from far more familiar faces.
Then Tatiana made the cover of Entertainment Weekly --when did a Canadian show accomplish such a feat?
In fact just last night I caught Maslany in an old rerun of CBC-TV's Heartland --five years back she was just another struggling young actress with buckets of potential.
Now she's dazzling because she plays a whole host of strangers who look like each other.
And she's certainly convincing in each portrayal catching the right accents and being just enough different to be more than a little spooky.
When I chatted her up last year the series had yet to debut and she was still unknown.
She was preparing to depart that afternoon to New York city for her first round of interviews and didn't quite know what to expect.
One thing is certain --she'll never be unknown again.
I told her an anecdote about interviewing the great Bette Davis who played twins on two occasions and said the experience was unnerving and Tatiana laughed nervously.
I'm sure playing twins would be considered relatively easy after what she's been through.
After all she is first glimpsed as con artist Sarah who soon discovers she has a twin in cop Beth.  And then there's assassin Allison and scientist Cosima and....and....
I still relate best to clone number one Sarah although I also like clone number two Beth.
Maslany gave me a detailed description of the trick photography that makes it possible to have the two of her not only chat each other up but touch each other.
But the point is expert makeup and hairstyles are not enough. At the end of the day it all evolves around Tatiana's mesmerizing power to become other identical looking people and be convincing about it.
A lot of the success goes to creators Graeme Manson (Cube)  and John Fawcett  (Ginger Snaps) who have insisted on a look that is very expensive indeed.
The show, of course, does have a problem as it begins Season Two: the element of surprise is gone. And I'm thinking too many clones could simply result in mass confusion.
Let us all remember more new series fail in their second season than in their first.
In a way it all devolves on Maslany --can she keep us guessing?
One thing about Orphan Black: it shows a series can be Canadian and still be creative and audacious  and that's a major step forward.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mad Men: A Bit Disappointing

I have to admit the first new episode of Mad Men's truncated season (just seven episodes) was , well, pretty disappointing.
First of all Don Draper had nothing much to do. Still considered an ad genius he's at home but still getting paid.
Peggy was supposed to have taken over but she is still working for a man and desperate;y trying to please.
Don is reduced to the ads from Playboy and squiring his wife around L.A. while she tries to get a gig on Bracken's World on NBC.
Don only heated up on the return flight to Manhattan when he sat next to an attractive wodow played by a suddenly mature Neve Campbell.
Pete already out in L.A. is sun tanned and dippy.
Roger has a cautious reunion with his daughter before heading home to the next orgy.
Nothing much happened at all. Is this the kind of must-see TV we're used to or is the series finally showing its age?
I think a lot of viewers out there agreed with me as MM drew its lowest ever ratings with 1.1 million fewer viewers than watched last June's season finale.
I feel splitting the season into two bits a mistake. And frankly there are other shows around that are fresher and better written.
MM never did attract the ratings of a Walking Deadat the best of times but its sluggish return is a cause for real concern.
Or are we just that much through with Don Draper, we know him too well, and his swings into drinking and dalliance are no longer surprising.
I just hope the quality bounces back next week.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

CBS And Colbert: A Perfect Fit

CBS has moved with lightning speed to announce Stephen Colbert will be replacing the retiring David Letterman sometime next year.
The speed is such there are industry critics who think CBS had set this all up some time ago.
Thank goodness Colbert will not be taking his stupid but smart anchor persona with him.
He's got enough wit and wisdom to play himself and when one thinks about it there was never any other contender to replace Letterman.
Not Conan O'Brien who blew it when he took over (briefly) the Tonight Show reins and tanked in the ratings.
Not Jon Stewart who is far too politically oriented for CBS.
The fact is the late show format has been bleeding younger viewers for years. Fallon, Meyers, Ferguson they all ape Johnny Carsopn with the standard desk 'n couch 'n guests 'n monologue schtick.
Colbert can turn the formula around. The best thing is viewers do not know the real Colbert and he can rearrange everything and everything.
By the way with all the Canadian TV critics writing about Colbert what about a more obvious question.
Which is why Canadian TV has never been able to fashion a successful late night show.
It's laziness that's what it is.
Why make a new show when an imported U.S. show can be bought for $1.99?
I was on the set of CBC'S late night contender Peter Gzowski several times. Peter got all fluffed and puffed up but always seemed uncomfortable.
After he got his cancellation notice he appeared for his last few weeks as unkempt, rude, slightly obnoxious --all the characteristics that made for great journalism
And suddenly he was watchable.
His successor Take 30's Paul Soles only lasted half a season but I thought he was fine working with a limited format.
Then there was comedy's Mike Bullard who was so intimidating it was fascinating watching him bluster.
He moved to Global the week Conan O'Brien came to Toronto do do some shows and got blown out of the water so badly Global quickly cancelled him.
But I'n still thinking Canadian TV needs a late night show to call its own.
Of course we also need our own afternoon soap operas, our own daytime chat shows, our own must see TV shows as daring as Mad Men .
The only must see TV show currently being made in Canada is Orphan Black and it is being produced by BBC America.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

CBC Once Again Faces The Axe

My CBC sources have been busy all day phoning me with stories of impending doom.
So what else is new?
I've been writing about CBC-TV's death by a thousand cuts for decades. And still nobody at CBC will get out there and simply state it has all gone too far.
Look, I interviewed CBC president Hubert Lacroix the very day he was appointed to the job in 2007.
He said at that time his biggest problem was money.
And guess what? Seven years later it's still the same problem.
CBC on Thursday is supposed to be facing new cuts and staff reductions to paper over the loss of all that lush advertising revenue from Hockey Night In Canada which has been grabbed away by Rogers TV.
The revenue gap CBC is facing is as much as $100 million for the next year.
When I started out as TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator in 1971 CBC was at the zenith of its power.
The public network actually telecast operas live in those days. One was especially commissioned by CBC.
Then there were Norman Campbell's impeccably staged ballets starring Karen Kain and Veronica Tennant.
Harry Rasky's documentaries won international Emmys and great prestige for CBC.
Every year we'd get to see superb live productions from Stratford and the Shaw Festival.
One by one these glittering diamonds disappeared.
One year it would be the cancellation of the popular nature series This Land.
Then Elwood Glover's live interview show Luncheon Date went.
Rasky once phoned me mightily upset CBC had sold off some of his best work (on Tennessee Williams and Bernard Shaw) to BBC Video without even telling him.
Soon because of contnuing cuts CBC was no longer able to afford to make such mammoth TV epics as Pierre Berton's The National Dream.
One by one the dominoes toppled: The Journal was melded into CBC National News to save a few bucks. Then Midday disappeared.
A lot of CBC departments like variety and schools simply vanished. CBC Schools had once made a 1962 TV special adaptation of Macbeth starring then unknown Sean Connery that was sensational.
Another time Eric Till's sparkling adaptation of Pale Horse Pale Rider with Keir Dullea won awards everywhere.
The uniqueness of CBC crumbled long before the Harper Tories got their claws on the ailing Corp.
All along we were always told that private broadcasters would take up the slack.
But when was the last time you saw a Canadian ballet or opera or TV movie on Shaw or Bell or Rogers?
Lacroix has weapons to use against the Tories.
To save money he could simply cancel all the local newscasts actoss the country.
CBC did it once before and Tory backbenchers heard back from their constituents and reinstated the cuts immediately.
CBC should simply refuse to any more cuts until there's been a full investigation of the incredibly shrinkage of public television.

Monday, April 7, 2014

I Remember Mickey Rooney

Once asked to name the best actor and actress in movies veteran James Mason instantly said "Mickey Rooney and  Margaret Rutherford."
Odd choices to be sure but right on in terms of acting ability.
I have this feeling Mason wasn't joking at all. In Rooney's case the guy always delivered.
Mickey Rooney who has just died aged 93 had a range few actors could match.
He was a brilliant 14-year-old Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) climbing from tree to tree with such abandon that "I slipped and broke my foot at the end of one wild  take."
By 1939 he was voted the world's most popular movie star, aged just 18.
"The next day I walked into the MGM commissary and had to walk past Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Bill Powell all of whom had lost to me. It was the longest walk I ever took."
Watching old Rooney performances on TV's Late Show makes for a breathtaking experience. Just watch The Human Comedy (1943) or National Velvet (1945) and you'll be amazed it's the same actor.
Meeting up with the Mick was an altogether different experience.
I first had to interview him in a New York city hotel room in late November 1982 where he was promoting one of his short lived TV comedies that went nowhere fast.
This one was for NBC titled One Of the Boys and it faded fast.
Also in attendance were two up and comers named Nathan Lane and Dana Carvey who looked totally apprehensive as the Mick answered each and every question addressed to them.
Carvey was so nervous he stuttered a lot --he kept searching for the Mick who'd be running in and out of doors, banging on plates, singing a song from one of the musicals he'd made with Judy Garland.
Rooney was then red hot again following his smash comeback on Broadway in Sugar Babies.
In fact he was still doing the sold out Broadway gig by night and doing his sitcom out in some Brooklyn studio by day.
The very next year in the very same New York hotel (The Plaza) I interviewed him again, splendidly cast as an autistic man struggling with the world in the TV movie Bill: On His Own (1983).
This time he copped an Emmy for his sheer brilliance. Again when I interviewed his co-stars Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid they were apprehensive he'd come storming into their hotel suite at any moment --which he did.
Born Joe Yule Jr. in 1920 in New York, he said he'd been acting since his vaudevillian parents had him teeter on stage at age three.
"I always said I'd willingly take 10 years off my life if the Lord would only make me six inches taller."
What about all those luscious starlets he'd romanced in the Andy Hardy movies: Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed, and series regular Ann Rutherford?
"All taller than me. Esther was stronger, too, she'd toss me in the pool if ever I got fresh which happened frequently."
Rooney had a theory why the Andy Hardy movies were so popular: "We celebrated the ideal family. MGM built an Andy Hardy street on the back lot. Almost all the films were directed by Uncle George Seitz. But we stayed too long at it. By the end I'd been divorced several times and my talks with Lewis Stone who played my dad were so wholesome the preview audiences laughed out loud."
Rooney admitted to me "I became a bit of a prick. I asked them to cast me as a prize fighter (in Killer McCoy) but it wasn't plausible and then the musical version of Ah Wilderness titled Summer Holiday tanked. And so I was deservedly fired, a has been aged 27."
As he told me "Many lean years ensued. I'd do any kind of a film just to earn enough for my alimony payments."
But the only film Rooney regretted making was his bizarre appearance as Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961).
"It was racist humor and we didn't know it at the time. But I should not have done it at all."
Gradually Rooney worked his way back to such "A" list films as Requiem For A Heavyweight (1962) opposite Tony Quinn and Jackie Gleason and he garnered another Oscar nomination for 1979's The Black Stallion.
He finally had a successful TV series with The Adventures Of The Black Stallion which ran from 1990 through 1993.
I interviewed Rooney one last time when he was appearing in dinner theater in Toronto --he'd already breezed through town several times on road tours of Sugar Babies.  All I can remember is his co-star was Canadian actress Linda Goranson and I think the original title was something like  Man With The Dirty Mind which he insisted be changed on the marquee.
But he appeared at the CNE within the last five years at Ontario Place in a song and dance act with his  eighth wife Jan. They subsequently divorced and he died a single man after eight failed marriages.
His first wife was 21-year old Ava Gardner who complained in her divorce petition he was never home.
About his womanizing constant co-star Ann Rutherford told me "He never thought of the consequences. He had a slew of children he never knew.
"I was on a British version of This Is Your Life in the Seventies and some of the kids were there. I told them to cash in their first class air tickets for coach and pocket the cash. That's all they'd ever get from their father anyhow."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Silicone Valley Is Bloody Brilliant

I have just seen the future of the TV situation comedy and it is titled Silicone Valley.
This brand new, hysterically funny half hour gets a special premiere Sunday night  at 10 on HBO Canada immediately following red hot Game Of Thrones.
Look, every other TV critic out there will be fixated on the return of ratings smash GOF and good luck to them.
As a TV critic I've always been the contrarian and I'd like to instead highlight something that's going to be very big in the future.
First up getting the prized slot right after GOTis akin a new show coming after the Super Bowl.
In one fell swoop viewers are going to become addicted or they'll never turn in again.
All I have to mention is that the creator is Mike Judge who gave us Beavis And Butt Head and I'll stand back and let viewers stampede to the preview.
Silicone Valley is what Big Bang Theory could be if only it didn't have to pander to the masses in the network ratings wars.
Judge and co-writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky (both from King Of the Hill) have created the driest, wittiest sitcom I think I've ever seen.
Starring as nondescript programmer Richard is the wonderfully understated Thomas Middleditch from The Office. He's perfectly cast as an addled computer programmer who like thousands of others lives in Palo Alto and dreams of devising a computer program he can peddle to the big boys and emerge a millionaire.
He peddles it to the bizarre leader of computer millionaires Peter Gregory played with magnificent touches by the talented but sadly late Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch).
In a stunning loss for the show the incredibly gifted Welch died Dec. 2 2013 at the age of 48 from lung cancer --you'll remember him from the TV series Rubicon and such movies as The Good Shepherd.
I'm told 5 1/2 episodes with Welch had been filmed at the time of the actor's death and that the planned plot will continue as is for the first season.
Partly inspired by Judge's own experiences as a Silicone Valley engineer in the late 1980s, Silicone Valley is beautifully under written and under acted.
Since there's no studio audience to mug to the actors are very careful about their characterizations. Humor comes from the actual situations and is truly believable.
Other "types" are the long suffering best friend called Bighead played with just the right insouciance by Josh Brener ((The Internship), the totally pompous and fraudulent Gilfoyle (Martin Starr from Freaks And Geeks) and Kumail Nanjiani (Funny As Hell) as dry Dinesh.
J.K. Miller (High School USA) is the self-made millionaire Erlich and Zach Woods is Jared the very irriating middle manager.
Middleditch must get us to like him and root for him even though he is so shy and unassuming. He does so by showing what a nice guy Richard can be as all around him press him to simply fire slacker and best bud Big Head.
There are many laugh-out-loud jokes especially when we're in the company called Hooli which plays like a magnificent send up of Google. It's wacky campus is all a dot com billionaire company should be.
Pitched against the screaming sitcoms on the commercial webs and Silicone Valley might strike viewers as agonizingly slow. Which it is. As the nuances build it acquires "must see" status. I watched the first four episodes and couldn't stop.because every character even if exaggerated still seemed achingly real.
Silicone Valley points the way to a new era of intelligent and funny sitcoms that are completely satisfyingly because of the characters who star in them.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Letterman Will Be Missed

Thursday night on his CBS Late night talk show seemed just another show for David Letterman.
Until he announced he's retiring sometime next year.
"We don't have the timetable precisely down" Letterman told his stunned audience.
I've been covering Letterman since his days as host of NBC's late late night show that followed Johnny Carson.
In fact Carson's company produced Letterman who was always seen as the logical successor.
Except by NBC powers who turned around and picked Jay Leno precipitating a Letterman walk out that only ended when he was allowed to jump ship to CBS.
Who was the winer in that tense stand off I often wondered. Leno proved the ratings king but Letterman had Carson on his show every time he went out to California --Carson never would appear on Leno for anything.
I covered both Carson and Leno in my four decades as TV critic for The Globe And Mail, The Hamilton Spectator and for the last 28 years with The Toronto star.
That doesn't necessarily mean I ever met them on a person-to-person basis.
I once sat beside Carson at an NBC lunch --he was there because his production company was making a sitcom pilot with Angie Dickinson.
He was supposed to chat up visiting TV critics but was clearly uncomfortable by the whole business.
Another time I spent a day behind the scenes at Carson's Tonight offices hanging out with legendary director Fredddie De Cordova.
At a certain point Carson slipped into the seat next to me in Freddie's office and made a few comments and then disappeared again.
"Johnny's like that," Freddie said.
With Letterman I had even less contact.
The only time he appeared before TV critics was when he jumped ship in 1993 to CBS. He was polite but distant, took some questions and then left the stage.
His show was always off limits to visiting TV critics when they happened to be in New York. I did have lunch once with his Canadian side kick Paul Shaffer but even he could not get me on the set.
Letterman survived 32 years in a time slot that can be unforgiving on most comedians.
His upscale chatter and that twinge of negativity gave him a die hard audience. Stand up was something he did every night but it wasn't foolish talk that he peddled.
Letterman survived quadruple bypass surgery in 2000 --but his surgery had hardly mellowed him.
In October 2009 he was the victim of a bizarre  blackmail scheme that he publicly disclosed to a shocked audience.
I think it will be tough for him to let go. Carson intended to go on to other things but found he couldn't do anything else the way he had controlled Tonight.
Letterman has given us a deadline of about a year before we finally say good bye to him.
Who'll be his successor? One CBS wag told me he thought it might be --get ready for it --Conan O'Brien.
But another CBS source says Chris Rock, Craig Ferguson and Jon Stewart are top candidates.