Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Fond Farewell For Justified

The best thing about the wonderful U.S. cable drama Justified is how deliberately slow the dramatic proceedings usually are.
One of my favorite American imports begins its sixth and final season on Super Channel Tuesday January 27 at 10 p.m.
Of course if you watched last season you could spot the finale coming as U.S. marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) goes after his best bud from childhood ace criminal Boyd Crowther (Walton Goggins).
Well, I'm not giving away much by saying Sam Elliott no less is the new danger to be faced but he won't amble into place until the third episode.
See, that's Elmore Leonard's style story telling.
Every episode is jam packed with the craziest characters you'll ever expect to meet and all of them played by actors who seem right at home in the land of sagebrush and coyotes.
I just  happen to consider Justified FX's most satisfying hour drama which is saying a lot.
But nobody connected with this one is simply out to garner publicity --they're all assembled to tell the story as well --and as slowly-- as they can.
I once sat down with Oyphant in a Toronto screening room to talk about his greatish work on HBO's Deadwood.
And there he was starring in the most talked about new Tv series of the season and he didn't really want to be there.
He'd walk down a Toronto street and heads would turn because everyone was watching the show.
But nobody seemed to know his name and that's the kind of priceless anonymity an actor craves if he wants a long career.
Besides Elliott there's Garret Dillahunt as his menacing surrogate. And just what is Mary Steenburgen up to anyway--she seems to want to help Boyd rob a bank or two.
No wonder a Southern family I know positively hate this one --it mocks every facet of deep fried Southern gentility.
Of course the real shocker here is the "executive producer" credit given to the late great Leonard. He passed away two years back leaving a magnificent legacy.
And I'm also watching because the show runner is Graham Yost, son of the first guy I ever interviewed when I became a TV critic in 1970--the late, great Elwy Yost.
If I had a beef with season 5 it had to be the plot got too twisty.
And that's perfectly OK in a conventional TV drama but this one is special. The simpler Justified is the better.
If anything Season 5 had too many baddies --the atmospheric details tended to get lost in the background.
This time out it's back to Plan One: Raylan versus Boyd which is fine by me.
Look for some great scenes from Joelle Carter early on as Raylan's informant but one stuck on Boyd-- she shines in all of them.
All of which has me wondering why Justified has to die off after this season.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

19-2: Back For A Compelling second Season

I had a bunch of friends over for dinner and asked them to serve as TV critics for the second season premiere of 19-2.
I was floored no one had even heard of the Montreal based series even after it garnered solid reviews for its first season.
"Gritty" is I think the word often used by other TV critics to describe their first impressions.
But 19-2 comes from a Quebec cop show now into its third season.
And the episode we watched is a meticulous reconstruction of a high school shooting --it ran in the first year on the French language Radio-Canada also titled 19-2.
The creator is Daniel Grou who uses the name of Podz for his work.
He directed all episodes of the original Quebec version but did not direct any of the episodes in the first season of the English language 19-2.
But he did direct the first new episode which I saw with my friends --the story was filmed in the same school as it appeared on Radio-Canada but with different characters.
Bruce M. Smith (Cracked) is the executive producer and show runner of the English version.
And it still has that bravura shot that goes on and on without any cuts for over 13 minutes.
The English 19-2 was the top rated new original series ever on Bravo and it garnered 10 nominations at the Canadian screen awards.
The story has the two Montreal cops Chartier (Jared Keeso) and Barron (Adrian Holmes) arriving at a Montreal high school during initial stages of a Columbine-style massacre by one of the students who has gone berserk.
Until very recently TV cop series were regarded as somehow :"unCanadian". One of our national myths is that we don't have a violent culture unlike our American cousins.
I remember one top CBC programmer boasting he'd only green light one cop series and that was about neighborhood police --anybody out there remember that one --it was titled Sidestreet (1975) and starred Donnelly Rhodes and Jonathan Welsh.
these days there are a number of law and order Canadian shows like Rookie Blue and Motive cleverly disguised so they can be resold to American TV networks.
This second season debut plays like a mini-TV movie. It almost all takes place in a real high school.
Kids get blown up on camera, cops freeze in dangerous situations, they have to act on impulse and people do get seriously wounded.
No motive is ever given for the actions of the baby faced killer --this one is more about how the cops who are trained for situations like this must face their inner demons.
I couldn't turn away but several ladies said they'd have nightmares for a month.
In short this is not your average cookie cutter cop show.
CBC had first dibs on an English language version but after watching the violent pilot passed on ordering a full season.
It was a good decision because 19-2 is a bale show --it is far too realistic for network audiences.
And if you cant to catch the original be advised 19-2 is back on Radio Canada for is third season starting Jan. 28.
MY RATING: ***1.2.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sex, Fame & Murder: Scary And Compelling

There's a lot of anticipation involved in the compelling new documentary Sex, Fame & Murder which premieres Friday night at 8 on Investigation Discovery.
Originally set to air last August the documentary was suddenly pulled when the broadcaster was slapped with a publication ban that also got it withdrawn from the Montreal World Film Festival.
Well, now the ban has been lifted and the trial of Luka Magnotta is over with Magnotta convicted of first degree murder.
The documentary remains compulsively viewable even though those who read about the trial will be familiar with most of the details.
It has already aired in the U.S. and Australia .
Toronto film makers Jonathan and Naomi Hiltz have done a sensational job of finding footage of every aspect of this sordid story.
They begin with the police discovery  in May 2012 of the dismembered body of Chinese student Lin Jun whose body parts began turning up across the country.
And they have accurately documented the meticulous police hunt for suspected killer Magnotta.
The portrait presented here is of a deeply disturbed teenager who gradually descended into madness,somebody who grew up in the same Toronto suburb as serial killer Paul Bernardo.
As a teen Magnotta --his real name was Eric Clinton Newman-- became mesmerized by the sordid exploits of Bernardo and wanted some how to achieve that level of fame.
He tried to become a male model in Toronto but wasn't tall enough or good looking enough. Instead he had to settle for work as an escort and sometime performer in adult films.
Actuality exists of his desperate attempts to get on a Toronto-based reality show but the test shows he wasn't handsome enough or had much of a personality at all.
He started rumors about himself and then appeared at the Toronto Sun to refute those rumors.
Magnotta began fabricating  dozens of Facebook profile pages under different aliases.
He moved on to killing kitten on the Internet and posting these disgusting videos to gain attention.
The documentary might have had more impact if allowed to air back in August.
Now it has a different purpose: the meticulous reconstruction of Margotta's sad life shows that at several points he could have been stopped if law authorities had any inclination.
In fact Naomi and Jonathan Hiltz had even met him when they produced a series for OUT tv called Cover Guy and he auditioned (and failed to make the cut).
If he had possessed any talents would he have gone over the brink?
The fact he came from a troubled home and had a father who deserted the family is played up --but many people have similarly troubled childhoods.
What tipped him over the edge? There are many clues but no simple answers.
I think the best point made is that more attention has to be paid in this Internet world to such monsters who can and should be caught before they tip over the edge.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Schitt's Creek: Far Better Than Its Name

I wasn't even sure I wanted to watch the previews of Schitt's Creek which CBC sent my way.
I mean the title is terribly off putting but eventually curiosity got the better of this TV critic and I watched three episodes one after the other, barely pausing for a cup of tea.
And you know what?
At times this sitcom starring Eugene and Dan Levy and Catherine O'Hara is funny and crazy as hell.
Quirky is the word that I kept popping off in my head.
Yes, it is daring but so was Twitch City which CBC ran for two years and never really understood.
I'm hoping that with Schitt's Creek CBC's new bunch of programmers realize they have a potential hit that needs careful handling and promoting.
It could mark one giant step for Canadian TV which is stuck these days in the ratings doldrums.
You chose for yourself: Episode One premieres Tuesday January 13 at 9 p.m.
CBC used to be in the niche marketing business with Ken Finkleman's  comedic outbursts including multiple seasons of The Newsroom.
I'm sure a lot of the older audience who cling to CBC are going to be pretty perplexed by Schitt's Creek.
Best thing about this "schittcom" is its lack of a laugh track and the fact the cast are playing for characterization ahead of the next anticipated laugh.
After all Levy and O'Hara both come from SCTV and they know what's funny and what isn't.
Not having to strain for every laugh gives this show a wonderfully bent nature --photographed on actual locations is another big plus.
Dan who was one of the stars of the completely silly and hilarious After Show understood all that as co-creator with dad Eugene who I first met on the set of that great TV flick Frontier Rabbi.
Levy Senior plays a disgustingly rich video-store millionaire whose empire has collapsed --in the first scene we watch as the family's mansion and treasures are all repossessed for the creditors.,
Then he's told that leaves him with only one assett: a dirt poor town he once bought because he thought the title was somehow funny.
And so the foursome depart for the decrepit motel at oddly named Schitt's Creek.
O'Hara brilliantly plays the increasingly wacky former TV soap star who is addicted to this and that as she seeps further away from reality.
 Dan Levy plays the narcissistic son David whose only concern is getting his next airmailed batch of under-the-eyes cream.
And there's the flighty daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) who is not sure she can exist in a dingy motel without her accoutrements --she continues to text friends who no longer want to be associated with her.
Each episode looks at very simple experiences that plague this family.
At one point David tries to be a bag boy at the local grocery store to earn minimum scale wages so he can buy more cream.
But he's being constantly paged and finally quits in a huff.
Alexis tries to strike up a friendship with a buff stranger she thinks is the town bum because people are always giving him rotten food --but he's only advancing the cause of composting.
Eugene Levy's best scenes are with guest star Chris Elliott who has a wacky turn as the dim witted mayor who runs everything the way his great grandfather would do.
Does CBC know that Schitt's Creek needs a massive publicity campaign to "sell" viewers on the fact the people's network has the funniest new show on Canadian TV this season.
With Twitch City as a reminder here's hoping Schitt's Creek gets that big chance to succeed.
And by the way SC is so funny it has already been picked up on  U.S.  cable by Pop  the rebranded TV Guide Network.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sunnyside: Bringing Laughs Back To Canadian TV

Something strange has happened to the state of Canadian TV comedy this season.
The laughs stopped coming.
Think of it --the number of brilliant Canadian sketch TV comedy shows which dominated the medium: Wayne And Shuster, SCTV, Kids In The Hall, The Frantics, RCAF, Ron James.
All expired for different reasons leaving only the venerable This Hour Has 22 Minutes to hold down the fort.
Maybe the pendulum is swinging again because a new Canadian sketch comedy series called Sunnyside premieres on City Thursday night at 8,
The good news is this one is very funny from the start.
I've seen the first two half hours and laughed out loud several times --the jokes keep coming from a talented bunch of farceurs.
"We filmed them in Winnipeg --standing in for Toronto," reports co-creator and showrunner Gary Pearson.
"I had pitched a comedy idea to Rogers and so had Dan Redican around the same time. And we just decided to join forces. I was long a favorite of Dan's going back to Puppets Who Kill. And it's been a great fix."
Pearson's solid comedy credentials include a stint on The Chumps once a CBC radio hit. Later he switched to comedy writing for MADtv and then wrote and produced for This Hour Has 22 Minutes as well as Corner Gas. Later still came The Ron James Show.
About the lack of sketch comedies on TV he says "I can't entirely figure that out. RCAF pulled in a huge number on New Year's Eve with the special. I can only say I was told by CBC they are not interested in doing that kind of comedy right now."
At Rogers "we met nothing but enthusiasm. In fact a second batch has been ordered and we're not on air yet."
As Pearson saw it he wanted to get out of the studio and into actual locations.  Originally he was thinking of a weird comedy set in a coffee shop. As for the title Sunnyside, well, some of us out there still remember when Sunnyside was Toronto's yearlong amusement park in the west end.
Shooting on location instead of inside a studio is more time consuming and costly.
"You need performers who know what they're doing --without a studio audience to guide them along."
Pearson chose a cast of accomplished comics headed by Kathleen Phillips (Dan For mayor) and Pat Thornton (Satisfaction).
"We wanted story lines to be centered in a neighborhood like Toronto's Parkdale where rich mingle with poor. So, yes Winnipeg is standing in for Toronto for cost reasons.
"Pat and Kathleen are seasoned at this type of comedy more so than the others, they led the way. We'll have recurring characters as well as introduce others along the way."
And then there's the talking manhole --voiced by none other than SNL's Norm Macdonald.
Says Pearson : "It feels like a sitcom in a way but that's also how it was shot. Dan and I have worked well together, we compliment each other. He was very familiar with what I had done. We have very similar comedy sensibilities."
Pearson says working with Rogers has been a plus. "We said we have an episode coming up where there is an infestation of little ponies in the neighbhourhood. Not rats, ponies. And after some hesitation we were told if we think that can be funny, well, go ahead with it."
Pearson says of the episodes "It's all very Canadian. And the Winnipeg crews are great, I asked Mark McKinney who shoots there a lot for a list and he gave us names of seasoned veterans to work with."
Other actors featured include Alice Moran, Kevin Vidal, Rob Norman, Patrice Goodman..
If given time to grow an audience (CTV's Big Bang Theory is the opposition)  Sunnyside could fill that big black hole in Canadian TV comedy.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Of Negroes: A CBC-TV Event

So far this has been a terrible TV season for Canadian scripted drama.
Each year as more foreign cable networks get licensed the number of Canadian dramas gets a bit smaller.
This year mighty Rogers seems to have all but abandoned any commitment to scripted Canadian stories with its huge ratings roar of weekends plugged with prime time NHL games.
I've been subsisting on such worthwhile CTV Canadian dramas as Saving Hope which offer proof positive cagey veteran Wendy Crewson can steal any scenes she's in anytime she wants to.
And then along comes CBC's must-watch new miniseries The Book Of Negroes.
It's the kind of quality fare Canadian TV should be offering every week.
In fact I once suggested a CBC version of Masterpiece Theater to dramatize the great Canadian novelists we never see on TV.
Lawrence Hill's sprawling saga of kidnapped child slave Aminata Diallo has been turned into a spectacular six-hour CBC-TV event that is virtually a must see.
In fact it plays as a sort of female take on Roots --instead of Kunta Kinte we have Aminata who is stolen from her loving parents in Guinea, west Africa, abducted onto a stench filled slave ship and sold for a pittance to a lecherous slave owner.
Hill adapted his 2007 novel with director Clement Virgo and locations included  South Africa and Nova Scotia.
And before detractors say "But we never had slavery in Canada so what part of the story is Canadian?" --well,  you'll just have to wait and see the unfolding narrative.
Because Diallo must meander all through the American Revolution in New York state before boarding a ship for an isolated refugee camp in Nova Scotia.
Wait a minute! There were black Loyalists who the British transported from revolutionary America to Nova Scotia as the price for their freedom.
I studied Canadian history and I barely knew of the story --here it is told completely and compellingly.
The Book Of Negroes is an actual 150-page ledger documenting the thousands of former black slaves who were granted their freedom by the British government and a promise of safe transportation to Nova Scotia.
Yes, it is an American narrative at first but one that later bleeds into Canada.
It opens brilliantly in London as aged Aminata Diallo (played compellingly by Aunjanue Ellis) narrates her story of being captured as a child in Africa, transported across the great river and landing on a South Carolina plantation.
We think of slavery as something foreign to the Canadian psyche.
Think again --the transported blacks face platoons of Loyalists some of whom had come to Nova Scotia with their own slaves .
And the drama also looks at the plights of the blacks who sold other blacks into slavery --here it includes Aminata's prospective husband Chekura Tiano.
I've been covering director Virgo since he was a window designer for Harry Rosen and watching him climb mightily into the designation as one of Canadian TV's finest film makers.
He now has the experience and maturity to turn BON into a real TV event, chock full of memorable scenes and with great performances along the way.
But this is the kind of spectacular home grown TV Canadians deserve every week and not merely as a once yearly TV event.
We can only hope BON is the first step in a New Deal for Canadian TV viewers..
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ron James: Back on TV And Wildly Funny


I usually get to interview Ron James once a year when  his TV series comes back on CBC.
And once is enough for me --the guy is wickedly funny and once my ribs hurt a bit after a nonstop telephone chat filled with his joking.
This year it's different.
James's well liked series is gone from CBC-TV because a new administration is trying to remake the schedule to its own liking.
So the only opportunity you'll have to catch him is in a New Year's eve special on CBC-TV Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
I just watched a preview and it plays like one of the funniest hours I've seen on TV in quite awhile.
Yes, I did like his series which ran five seasons although it was moved all over the dial and fans continually groused they never knew where to find him..
I think it took James some time to find the right metier for his skits which really rocked in his final season.
At the beginning he was trying to integrate them into one seamless half hour but later on spent time honing them and retaping bits until he was satisfied and only then would he edit them into each show.
But the stand up hour format works even better for James.
The guy must be the most traveled Canadian comic out there.
It really all came together in his first big hour Up And Down In Shaky Town which garnered huge ratings and the recognition here was authentic Canadian humor that spoke to every one of us watching.
I think the new one coming up is just as startling good --From Fallsview Casino --Ron James --The Big Picture.
James knows how to trap an audience in his stories, draw them into his unique take on anything and everything and then let them explode in laughter.
"This one was taped in October," he tells me on the phone. Meaning the jokes could be topical but not too topical. There's some distancing  because it comes on two months later."
James says on the phone that from the first time he played Fallsview "they treated me so fine. And the theater is so welcoming, it's huge but the audience isn't that far from you either. It's perfect to tell my stories, test the waters, let the audience get involved with me. I got a such a great feeling from that crowd, I think it shows."
Great camera work makes the hour seem to fairly rush by --the camera operators seem to be almost running at James for some super camera angles that induce a feeling of momentum.
"But if the audience isn't with you it's all over," he says. "And they really wanted me to say some of that stuff."
I'm not going to step on Ron's lines which he carefully crafted with assistance from Paul Pogue and Scott Montgomery (Lynn Harvey co-executive produced).
But as James admits "Yeah, I do go after Harper and he deserves it and the audience gets right into it. Same with the CBC. They get a bit of a licking, too. And they deserve it."
James says he remembers a decade ago when the Harper band wagon was building "and I'd say something and the audience would make a kind of whooshing sound. Like they were a bit ticked off. No longer. I give my two cents and they were laughing heartily.
Also talking a verbal licking: Burger King, Mike Duffy, Gwyneth Paltrow, oil spills, you name it.
With James's show gone and RCAF down to a special a year the great Canadian CBC tradition ok sketch comedy seems about to disappear.
Only the venerable This Hour Has 22 Minutes still holds down the foor while 4 On The Floor and Kids In The Hall are but dim memories.
"Oh, there's so much to satirize these days,"laughs James. "The oil spills, the crazy TV reality shows, texting. It's a never ending source. And I find audiences are generally just as fed up as I am ."
Says James "This was the year we had two Fords running for mayor. Who could have seen what would eventually happen? Now we're back bombing Iraq again. I couldn't have asked for more pungent material."
James thinks this hour is right up there with Shaky Town as among the best he's ever delivered.
"Then I'll' go back on the road, reminding Canadians of all the ups and downs of this great country country we live in."
MY RATING: ***1/2.