Sunday, June 29, 2014

Great Canadian TV Documentaries Still Being Made

As soon as I spotted Ric Esther Bienstock as the director of the disquieting new documentary Tales From the Organ Trade I requested a screener.
This brilliant 82-minute look at a highly controversial subject manages to successfully portray most sides of the issue.
It debuts Monday July 7 at 9 p.m. on History and ranks as a must-see Canadian documentary.
It will have you thinking for days afterward and you'll also be completely upset by the current state of organ donations.
Bienstock's name may mean nothing to you but for me she exemplifies the highest order of the lonely TV documentary film maker.
She has a U.S. Emmy, two Geminis, a Genie, you name it she's got it and deservedly so.
The titles I remember are: AIDS In Africa (1990), Ebola: Inside An Outbreak (1996), Sex Slaves (2006), The Lost Tomb Of Jesus (2007), The Age Of Anxiety (2012).
I reviewed them all at release, four star productions all the way.
Tales From The Organ Trade which premiered on U.S. HBO in April has already garnered her a fistful of new awards.
What is amazing is the people she has managed to interview on camera and the world wide filming that looks at the patients, the poor donors and a few doctors reaping millions in profits.
Although she arouses our indignation I think she also finds common threads with both sides. There are people who are about to die within a few years unless they get a new kidney --and the waiting list is up to 10 years.
We become acquainted with a beautiful working mother in her 30s who shows us the dialysis she must perform at home every other day --her mother also has kidney disease and is shrinking away and now her brother must also undergo dialysis.
In Denver we meet Walter nervously waiting for a kidney to come his way --an awkward encounter has his daughter refusing to help simply because it is too frightening for her.
And we share time with Raul who paid $100,000 for his successful transplant.
Bienstock handles all these scenes in a poignant manner. But she also looks at the actions of several Israeli doctors who have moved first to Turkey and then again to Kosovo to evade authorities.
What is amazing is Bienstock's ability to get both these doctors to appear on camera and plead their cases. They do not emerge as monsters but brilliant practitioners determined to keep their patients alive.
And what they are saying is that payment for kidneys may be the only way to proceed. Currently people are expected to donate on an altruistic basis and this simply isn't working.
Scenes shot in the Philippines  break one's heart --we see desperately poor young men --one lives in a crawl space under another hut --and each has sold one kidney so they can get on with life.
One donor, however , is having pains --an ultrasound indicates the renal failure that is now plaguing his lone kidney --soon he will need a transplant for himself.
We also learn there are kidney brokers who take a commission for each kidney they sell.
The personalized stories make us understand how people will do almost anything to get a new kidney.
The affluent can afford to buy a new kidney --those selling them are dirt poor.
Who is using who in this trade? I'm not sure after watching this well edited documentary which is filled with superb moments that linger in the memory.
Will kidney lottaries become the new normal? Or will we simply continue to tolerate this black market in human parts?
Tales From The Organ Trade is just the best Canadian documentary I've seen in recent months.
But I already knew it would be as soon as I spotted the credit "directed by Ric Esther Bienstock".
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What CBC-TV Documentary Unit?

The Globe And Mail's intrepid reporter Simon Houpt has gotten his hands on a letter sent to CBC management about the future of CBC-TV's documentary unit.
The letter signed by the likes of Peter Mansbridge, David Suzuki and Anna Maria Tremonti plus 30 other news and current affairs biggies hopes management will not free lance more of its documentaries.
Excuse me but this has been going on for the past decade.
Suzuki's once flagship series The Nature of Things uses almost all freelance contributions these days --in the old days under executive editor Jim Murray CBC made most of its shows on its own.
On CBC-TV's big weekly series Hot Docs almost all contributions are from freelancers who are expected to sell their products to other broadcasters around the world to break even.
When I started as TV critic of The Hamilton Spectator in 1970 I'd go into CBC headquarters on College street once a year to interview the great Harry Rasky.
His productions were so fine the New York Times dubbed them "Raskymentaries" and they won Emmy for CBC --sparkling life portraits of Raymond Massey, Chris Plummer, the Durants --all were made by Rasky one a year for the CBC.
And then about 10 years ago the pendulum swung and Rasky publicly complained to me his wonderful stuff was no longer appreciated --his very last called Nobody Swings On Sundays languished on the shelf for more than a year before being dumped sans publicity.
Then one day while browsing at Sam The Record Mans Rasky noticed two of his greatest TV profiles --on Tennessee Williams and G.B . Shaw --were included in various BBC Video collections.
CBC had sold off the rights without even informing him in advance!
Another big CBC series that I covered early on was the almost perfect history chronicle --The Tenth Decade --which examined the Canadian political landscape between 1957 and 1967 --years prime ministers Diefenbaker and Pearson battled each other.
It ran to rapturous praise in 1971.
Of course a sequel was ordered up but prime minister Pierre Trudeau refused to cooperate. The Eleventh Decade was never made.
Instead an insipid look at the Trudeau Years that featured P.E.T. lounging with rival Ed Broadbent ran once and was promptly forgotten.
A look at the Mulroney Years was started and then stopped because of enveloping "scandals". I don't think one on Jean Chretien has ever been attempted.
But veteran executive editor Mark Starowicz did make a memorable one on the second Quebec referendum on independence --I'd love to see Breaking Point (1995) again..
But the truth is CBC has outsourced most documentaries just as it rarely makes dramas on its own any more.
This past season I simply feel TVOntario had a better slate of commissioned documentaries than CBC.
And more cuts are coming I hear.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I Remember Martha Hyer

It was 8 a.m. and the telephone in my Century Plaza hotel room kept ringing.
Finally I picked up and the sultry voice said "James, confirming your interview today.
"The limousine will pick you up at precisely 9:30 a.m."
"But I thought this was for lunch?" I said.
"James!" The voice was irritated by now.
"We're at our Rancho Mirage pad today. It will take the driver three hours to get you here. See you then!"
That was Martha Hyer. The date was July, 1982, and I was about to embark on one of my greatest Hollywood adventures.
I'm remembering that day after reading that Martha Hyer Wallis died at her Santa Fe home on May 31, aged 89.
"You're the last person to interview me!" she laughed when we last chatted on the phone about a year ago.
In 1982 CBC was running a Martha Hyer Film Festival late nights and I just had to see the stunning blonde actress in person so I wrote to her in advance of my trip to Los Angeles..
I should also mention Martha Hyer was married to the greatest movie producer of all time --Hal Wallis whose credits included The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Come Back Little Sheba, True Grit --over 300 films in all.
He also discovered Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston --and Martin and Lewis and even signed Elvis Presley to a lucrative movie career.
Exactly at 9:30 the stretch limo pulled up and I was off --I joked to the driver my tiny bachelor apartment back home wasn't half as large.
There was room in the back for a small couch, a well stocked bar and fridge and even a TV set.
And exactly three hours later there I was at the gorgeous Palm Springs estate of Mr. and Mrs. Wallis.
I had the grand tour and out in the back yard Martha Hyer kept snapping pictures of the three of us snatching oranges from the trees or sitting around the pool.
Later came a lavish lunch at the country club --the Wallis estate backed onto a golf course and across the street was the Eisenhower Medical Center which Wallis had helped finance --"at my age I like to be near a state-of-the-art hospital.," he joked.
Martha Hyer turned out to be just as beautiful and gracious in person as I had always imagined her to be.
Born in 1924 in Fort Worth Texas, she was the daughter of Julien C. Hyer who took part in the Nuremberg trials.
After graduating in drama at Northwestern University, she signed a deal with RKO Pictures and made her movie debut in Thunder Mountain (1947) "a terrible Tim Holt western.
"RKO saw me as a cowgirl on the range. Then I was signed by Universal and played second fiddle to Abbott and Costello and Francis The Talking Mule.
"Billy Wilder saw something classy in my looks and I had the second femme lead in Sabrina (1954) where I was Bill Holden's socialite gal friend and lost him temporarily to Audrey Hepburn.
"Then I lost Cary Grant to Sophia Loren in Houseboat (1954) --but at least I was upper class."
Vincente Minnelli insisted she be cast as Frank Sinatra's bookish girl friend in Some Came Running (1958) and for a time she had a hot career and even copped an Oscar nomination.
"Frankie was magical and the scene where he seduces me as I start to cry made an impact. Oscar night I was a bundle of nerves. Had I won I think I would have shot up as a box office star."
Hyer told me her biggest disappointment of all came with her co-starring role in The Best Of Everything (1959) an all star soap opera that featured Joan Crawford, Hope Lange and Suzy Parker.
"I had my scenes with Don Harron who was so intense audiences reacted unfavorably at the previews and many of our scenes were slashed to the bone."
Then came more disappointment with Psycho (1961).
"Alfred Hitchcock told me I'd get the part of Marion Crane if Janet Leigh turned him down. But Janet took it and the shower scene made her red hot. I cried for days after that rejection."
So Hyer settled for leading lady status to the likes of Richard Burton (Ice Palace), Robert Mitchum (The Last Time I Saw Archie), George Peppard (The Carpetbaggers) and John Wayne (The Sons Of Katie Elder).
Her favorite role?
"As the alcoholic wife of Bobby Duvall in The Chase (1966). What a cast we had: Brando, Redford, Jane Fonda, James Fox, E.G. Marshall, script by Lillian Hellman and direction by Arthur Penn. And it laid the biggest egg!"
She last acted in 1971"in a stinker called Day Of The Wolves".
But Hyer rewrote much of the dialogue for a Hal Wallis picture--1975's Rooster Cogburn which co-starred John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.
Wallis died in 1986 and Hyer phoned to tell me that "Hal was very stoical near the end. No complaints --after all he had one of the greatest ever movie careers."
She found life without Wallis "very difficult" and later moved to Santa Fe to escape the memories.
Martha Hyer Wallis died on May 31, aged 89, and I have lost one of my best friends from that golden age of movie making.

Friday, June 6, 2014

CTV: The Biggest And The Best

"CTV always gives the biggest and best parties," said the veteran ad agency executive as he chewed away on tiny beefcakes washed down with white wine.
And he was completely right as an overflow audience of advertising executives and media buyers watched a spectacular show put on by media giant Bell Media.
But despite all the hoopla and all those TV stars up there on the stage there was an elephant in the room.
It was third ranked Rogers Media which has snatched away TV rights to NHL hockey for the next --gulp --12 years.
How that will impact on the CTV brands particularly its cable weblet TSN remains the big unknown.
I remember when I was starting my career as TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator in the early 1970s and I asked CTV President Murray Chercover why he steadfastly refused to have a new season press preview.
"Jimminy!" he shouted."My two big Canadian shows are Littlest Hobo and Headline Hunters!
"You want me to promote these?"
Not these days!
CTV actually had a lot of its Canadian TV stars up there on the Sony Centre stage to take bows.
Some years I can remember when only the  American imports would be up there.
At CTV News out trotted anchor Lisa LaFlamme along with Kevin Newman and even Lloyd Robertson plus others from Canada AM.
As far as scripted Canadian series go CTV kept The Listener and Saving Hope going after cancellations by NBC and guided them into solid hits.
Some of CTV's biggest imports are being rescheduled. Should CTV stick with simulcasting or go it alone?
CTV is moving aging but still popular Grey's Anatomy out of simulcast to Wednesdays at 10 p.m --ABC is running it Thursdays at 10 p.m.
That means reverting to something I haven't heard of in years --pre-releasing.
And CTV is cobbling together its own Thursday night block of CBS comedies including The Millers which CTV bought away from Global TV.
CTV bought away Resurrection from City and will run it simulcast Sundays at 9.
In the old days this is how CBC used to work --CBC let CTV have the first season of Laugh-In and when it turned into a huge hit CBC casually bought it away in its second season.
Fridays still zings on Canadian TV unlike the U.S. where it's the least watched night of the week after Saturdays.
So CTV has Amazing Race  Grimm and Blue Bloods.
MasterChef Canada gets bumped to CTV Two which is interesting.
And then there's the big news: CTV has dropped American Idol (does anybody out there remember Canadian Idol).
Big theme of the year has CTV going for super heroes as it adds to Arrow and Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. new series Gotham, The Flash and midseasonal entry Agent Carter.
CTV has ordered another season for its Canadian series Motive, Spun Out, Saving Hope and Bitten.
And don't forget Space has Orphan Black which has emerged as an amazing must-see Canadian show.
CTV isn't quite there in its Canadian content quota but at least it has a gaggle of home grown shows anybody can watch in a competitive situation.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shaw Media Fights Back

The first thing one notices about Shaw Media's fall series is the sheer lack of Canadian content.
But that's intended say my Shaw sources because new Canadian shows would get roughed up in the fall stampede of new American imports.
That being said Shaw has managed to buy some of the best new shows around.
And rather than being hurt by Rogers Media gouging on all that NHL hockey which will dominate City on Saturdays and Sundays Shaw is fighting back.
City is getting out of pricey U.S. series weeknights at 10 to help pay down its NHL bill.
So Global has gobbled up the new 10 p.m. series State Of affairs which will start late in November.
Katherine Heigl stars and initial word is strong.
Wednesdays at 10 Global will simulcast Stalker --the title explains all.
And Global will also simulcast the new comic strip actioner Constantine.
This past season Global gambled and won ratings gold with hot imports Sleepy Hollow and The Blacklist
Global will move Bones to shore up its Thursday at 10 spot. And later on there'll be the American version of Broadchurch with David Tennant repeating his role but not with a Yankee accent.
Sundays has always been problematic for Global so a new series Madame Secretary starring Tea Leoni goes at 8 with the CBS venerable hit the Good wife.
Everyone has noticed Global has dumped its simulcast of The Simpsons after a record two decades.
Also acquired: the third hour of NCIS:New Orleans with Scott Bakula, Kate Walsh in Bad Judge, Partners starring Kelsey Grammer and Mulaney starring John Mulaney of SNL fame as a struggling stand up.
Also bought: The miniseries The Dovekeepers and the sitcom A To Z. This new season I count 14 1/2 hours of simulcasting U.S. series
which is a bit down from last season.
Trouble is the lack of home grown shows and an utter dependency on U.S, imports means Global lacks name recognition among Canadian viewers.
One would think the network could afford a 60 Minutes type series but with Canadian themes.
Global, of course, will later have such Canadian dependables as the last year of Rookie Blue, Big Brother Canada and Package Deal.
CRTC rules state there must be 50 per cent Canadian content but that's over an entire year. And don't forget an hour of Rookie Blue counts as 90 minutes of Canadian content --don't ask me why.
Global has come a long way from its debut years as The Love Boat network.
These days it seem ready to challenge CTV for sheer ratings ascendancy.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rogers Media Launches A Blazing New TV Season

Rogers Media outdid tself Tuesday evening.
First there was the venue: Rogers Centre where I and thousands of media buyers got to roam freely on the astroturf and feast in the splendors of the place.
The Rogers empire owns both the Sky Dome and the Blue Jays.
Which should be enough. But isn't.
Because Rogers just snatched up 12 years of Maple Leafs hockey which it plans on running on its TV network City Saturdays and Sunday nights.
Also, this kind of acquisition instantly puts Rogers Sportsnet as the leader of the pack in all things relating to Canadian sports.
So Rogers had the chance to celebrate and did so before an overflow crowd of industry movers and shakers who basically direct the buying of air time on TV and radio.
For years City seemed like the littlest guy in the TV race for supremacy.
But president Keith Pelley today can point to 24 TV stations, 52 radio stations, 57 print publications and 90 original websites.
City has a whole bunch of new U.S. acquisitions to shout about: Scorpion, Black-ish, the midseasonal Backstrom plus the reality series Utopia and the new live musical special Peter Pan.
There'll be all new seasons of the sophomore The Bachelor Canada  (the new guy jumped up on stage and looked sheepish) and Package Deal.
Saturdays Hockey Night In Canada moves over to City as well as more NHL on Sunday nights.
Other series returning to City include Hell's Kitchen, The Middle, Mike & Molly, Parks And Recreation, Revenge and Scandal.
What's missing from fall at l;east are scripted Canadian shows but this could improve after the fall TV shootout.
City also announced its NHL Play-by-Play team: Jim Hughson leads as play-by-=play announcer with Dave Randorf as commentator and Paul Romanuk as additional commentator. And there'll be veteran Bob Cole who has notched five decades of hockey announcing.
Eric Schrier, president of FX Networks, talked about his network's upcoming new series including The Stain which was shot right here in Toronto and the wonderfully titled Tyrant.
Also Billy Crustal will be returning in a new sitcom.
Guests got two free tickets to see the Blue Jays and feasted on booze and dainties.
All in all Rogers and City surely have have a lot of excuses to celebrate.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

I Remember Ann B. Davis

One of the first TV sets I ever visited as the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator in 1971 was Mission: Impossible shot in Hollywood..
It had been arranged in advance that I'd watch the filming and then interview star Peter Graves.
But it was there that I suddenly bumped into Ann B. Davis.
Wait! I know you are going to say "But wasn't she the co-star of The Brady Bunch?" Yes, true, and if you look at her credits there's nary a mention of  Mission: Impossible.
Well, Graves was away in makeup when I arrived and the complicated scene being filmed involved opening a gigantic mummy tomb.
There was a rehearsal and then co-star Greg Morris manfully pried open the sarcophagus.
And out walked Ann B. Davis.
"Hi gang" she blurted out as the director bawled cut and had a fit.
And Ann B. Davis simply walked out of the scene and back to her own set.
Because she worked next door on the Paramount lot making The Brady Bunch.
Comedy great Davis won two Emmy awards as the lovable single ssecretary Schultzy Schultz on the Bob Cummings which ran from 1955 through 1959.
"She could get a laugh just out of saying hello," star Bob Cummings once complained to me. " I had to stifle laughter every time she looked at me."
When I met Davis that day I followed her to the stage door and got a few quotes.
"Doing MI must be easy compared to the Bradss," she said. "Every day our kids have to get schooling. So we're all a bit rambunctious as the clock ticks away."
After the initial series was cancelled in 1994 Davis continued to appear on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976-77), The Brady Brides (1981), A Very Brady Christmas (1988) and The Bradys (1990) and the 1995 big-screen spoof The Brady Bunch Movie.
In the late 1970s she chose a quieter life as part of a religious community where she said she had found peace of mind.
I later caught her on TV commercials using her maid character to banish kitchen grime and grease.
She had a bad fall last week hitting her head and never regaining consciousness.
She was 88.
But I still remember her from her burst of hilarity of Mission Impossible.
A few minutes later Peter Graves appeared and we had a good hour's talk.
About Davis's chuckling cameo he shrugged and said "We can't keep her away."