The good news is that "Great News" is kinda good


"Great News" may not be great, but it is pretty good. It's sort of worthy of the timeslot (9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC) that just had "Truak & Error," the season's best new comedy. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Amid the comedy and
chaos of NBC's “Great News,” one person stands out.

She fills her
daughter's days with perpetual advice. She's odd and outrageous and
... well, sort of real. “My mom is very much the character,”
Tracey Wigfield said.

Wigfield co-created
the show, mining a lifetime of mom-watching.

“My mother would
constantly come to work,” she said, “back when I was writing
(for) '30 Rock' .... The good thing about her is she sort of talks to
everyone exactly the same, whether it's the lady at the grocery store
or, like, Alec Baldwin.”

Now she visits this
show. “I love her,” Briga Heelan said. “Everything's better
with Tracy's mom.”

Heelan plays Katie,
a TV reporter whose mom becomes an intern at the station. It's a big,
splashy role for Andrea Martin. “I definitely grew up watching
Andrea on 'SCTV,'” Tina Fey said.

Consider this a
merger of generations: Martin, 70, co-wrote and co-starred in “SCTV”
from 1976 to '84, when comedy was male-dominated. A generation later,
Fey, now 46, did the same for “Saturday Night Live” and “30
Rock.” She and Wigfield co-wrote the Emmy-winning script for the
latter's finale.

Now both produce
“Great News,” which has a mom and daughter at a show anchored by:

-- A news veteran,
almost obsolete. “There's just a hair's breadth between him and
me,” said John Michael Higgens, 54, who plays him.

-- A young anchor
who “wants to report about Snapchat and lipstick and anything kind
of pertaining to her,” said Nicole Richie, 35, who plays her

Richie knows the
type. As the frequent subject of tabloid journalism, did she ever
wonder why people weren't reporting on real news? “All the time.”

Now she plays such a
person, at a make-believe show dominated by Katie's mom.

-- “Great News,”
9 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC, starting April 25

 

Buried history emerges: Tunneling under Nazis, Jews found freedom


The "Nova" episode Wednesday (April 19) is fairly interesting; the real-life history it's based on is fascinating. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

On a June day in
Lithuania, scientists made a remarkable discovery.

Here was proof of a
classic story: Surrounded by Nazis, Jewish prisoners had tunneled to
freedom.

Finding the tunnel
“was one of the luckiest things, I think, that's happened to me in
all the years I've been doinng 'Nova,'” said Paula Apsell, who has
run the acclaimed PBS show for 32 years.

And it was a jolt
for the descendants of the tunnel-makers. “I had a phone call from
a friend, who said, 'Listen, they found your father's tunnel,'”
Hana Amir said. “And I said, 'Impossible!'”

It seemed
impossible, anyway. The tunnel was in the Ponar forest, which became
a mass burial ground. The entrance was discovered in 2004, but the
bodies above the tunnel couldn't be disrupted.

Then a Canadian
oil-and-gas company loaned equipment for a non-invasive, underground
search. “No university, no institute could ever afford this
technology,” said Richard Freund, a Jewish history professor at the
University of Hartford.

He planned to use
the equipment for a “Nova” film, viewing the underground remains
of a Nazi-destroyed synagogue. He also agreed to briefly search the
forest ... and found the tunnel quickly.

There was a time,
Apsell said, when Jews thrived in the Lithuanian capital. “This
place was once an epicenter of Jewish culture and learning. It was
called the Jerusalem of the North.”

But in 1941 –
prior to the Holocaust in other countries – the Nazis killed an
estimated 100,000 Lithuanians, including 70,000 Jews. Later, Jewish
workers – 76 men, four women – were ordered to burn the remains.
“My father found one of his brothers as they were unearthing
bodies,” Abe Gol said.

Amir's dad was only
17 at the time; Gol's was 31 and, Gol said, took a leadership role.
“He was basically one of the two guys who said, 'We have to dig our
way out of here, because there's no other way to escape. And when we
finish, .... we're going to be next and they'll burn us.'”

So the workers dug
each night for two-and-a-half months, starting in the pit where they
slept. They used spoons, plus things taken from the bodies and a
compass stolen from a German. They convinced the commandant that they
needed wood to separate the women's quarters ... then used some of it
to prop the tunnel. They made mistakes, Gol said, but corrected them
when they learned one of the prisoners was a Russian engineer.

They tunnelled 100
feet, then ran; 11 people reached freedom. Most eventually got to
Israel, where they lived full lives. For “someone who survived it,
everything is good,” Amir said. “You eat a lot, you drink a lot.”

Still, she said,
there were shadows of the past. “My father ... kept on washing his
hands. He kept on washing my hands” and his grandsons' hands. “So
I slowly told him, 'Daddy, they were not in Ponar. They don't need to
wash their hands.'”

-- “Nova,” 9
p.m. Wednesday (April 19), PBS

 

Film fesival: A delightful "Maze," an amiable gorilla and some sage time travel


By Mike Hughes

It's film-festival time in Lansing, which is always a good thing.
If you don't live in Michigan, you can skip this and catch the TV stories and columns. If you do, try the Capital City Film Festival, with details at www.capitalcityfilmfest.com.
Things started cheerily, with a free night that had the Lansing Symphony playing background music to scenes from Disney movies. The crowd was enthusiastic – and varied. The lady sitting next to me mentioned she was born in 1937; one kid I saw appeared to have been born earlier that day.
Now comes the rest of the fest, despite some nasty weather. A concert tonight (Thursday, April 6, at The Loft) has been cancelled, the Website says, but the rest booms ahead. That starts “Dave Made a Maze,” which happens to  be a delight. Let's start there, with a few reviews:

The gem: “Dave Made a Maze” (7:30 p.m. today, April 6, Potter's Mill, 701 E. South Street).
By now, we know things can be much bigger inside than they are outside. “Doctor Who” told us that; so, I'm told, did the Harry Potter stories and even “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
But Annie seems geuinely surprised when she gets home from a trip. In their small living room, her boyfriend Dave has built a maze out of boxes and such ... and is now lost inside. Friends and onlookers gather; there's even a homeless guy, because he's considered an expert on cardboard. Then, despite Dave's warning, they plunge inside.
Nimbly directed by Bill Watterson (who co-wrote it with Steven Sears), the result is fresh and fun, a little bit “Being John Malkovich” and a little “Alice in Wonderland.” It's probably what Lewis Carroll would have written, if he'd lived in a Los Angeles apartment and had access to better drugs.
What could have been a one-joke story instead keeps rippling with new ideas. There's a maze-within-a-maze ... and a point where the explorers temporarily (and inexplicably) turn into puppets ... and a wonderfully offbeat way to render the first death scene. There are movie references and more, with lots of great little touches that will delight some people and be missed by others.
And what could have been silly is boosted by the likable leads. Nick Thune makes Dave seem like a decent chap, trying to finally get something right. Meera Kumbhani (fresh from being one of the stars of the Fox series “Weird Loners”) avoids any impulse to make Annie a stereotyped nag; she's simply a bit perplexed by the fact that her boyfriend has somehow managed to lose himself in the living room.

Also a winner:
“Future '38” (8 p.m. Friday, Lansing Public Media Center, 2500 S.
Washington Ave.)

This is a long-lost
film from 1938, we're told. It had a man time-travel to 2018, to save
the world; and it saw the future with uncanny accuracy.

It predicted the
electro-mesh; simply go to a computer parlor and ask a question and
you can get a ticker-tape reply. It even foresaw the 24-hour news
cycle ... which is, of course, a guy bicycling through New York with
fresh edtions of the paper.

OK, we suspect this
wasn't really made in '38; still, it's a wonderfully clever idea.
Jamie Greenberg spent years writing for “Where in the World is
Carmen Sandiego?” and for MTV; now he's shown what he can do with
an open slate and an expansive mind.

The beginning and
end really do look like a 1938 low-budget film -- black-and-white and
kind of sketchy. Then the core of the movie looks like someone's
wobbly view of the future. It's filled with glowing colors, odd
inventions ... and people who still talk like jazz-age hipsters.

On a low budget,
Greenberg gives us a great-looking film, skilled actors and even a
couple celebrities: Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson does the
introduction; Sean Young is a futuristic (sort of) phone operator.

The plot does
eventually lose some logic and succumb to silliness, but soon all is
forgiven. The world has been saved – oops, did we give too much
away? – and there's a wonderfully awful, 1938-style closing song.


The disappointment: “Without Name” (10:15 p.m. Friday, Lansing Public Media Center, 2500 S. Washington Ave.).
For a long stretch, you'll think the real title is “Without Plot.” A surveyor has been sent to a distant part of Ireland, to measure a woods that no one seems terribly interested in. The place is mostly dark and empty and unwanted.
Gradually, tough moments pile up. A beautiful assistant arrives. A squatter invites them to sample the local mushrooms. Life gets dimmer and grimmer. By the end, you may vow never to try mushrooms ... or never to visit an Irish woods ... or never again to try a film festival. Please don't.

In between:
-- “Sylvio” (5 p.m. Saturday, Potter's Mill). The low-budget, hand-made quality of this film is its biggest limitation, but it's also its charm. This is the simple story of a gorilla (played by Albert Birney in a gorilla suit) who finds accidental stardom on a micro-budget TV show. It's a sparse story, but one with a quiet likability. Birney and Kentucker Audley co-wrote and co-directed it, with Audley bringing a nice touch as a Johnny Carson-type host.
-- “Chasing the Moment” (noon Saturday, LPMC) is a documentary about people in all fields, chasing perfection. Let's credit director Bob Albers for sheer range; when was the last time one film encompassed a sniper, a ballerina, a sprinter, a yo-yo champion and more? One of the people, a film editor, doesn't quite fit here, but most of the others are interesting. Albers skillfully mixes interviews and old footage that ranges from battlefields to the Olympics, to get fairly interesting results.
-- “Eliminadora” (2 p.m. Saturday, Impression 5, 200 Museum Drive). There are plenty of young girls that don't want to be ballerinas, it seems. This one wants to be a wrestler like her dad. The story is OK, some of the performances are so-so, but director P.J. Gaynard adds lots of visual dazzle and young Nadia Renteria is thoroughly likable, with star potential. You can meet her at the free, family-oriented showing. After the 20-minute film, she'll talk to the audience along with her father (who co-wrote the film) and mother (who co-produced it).
-- “Pleasant Peninsulas” (5:30 p.m. Friday, LPMC). This four-minute short (preceding the world premiere of “Ed's Whale”) offers aerial views of Michigan. The jump-cut style clashes with the material, which needs to be savored in a smooth, soaring style. Still, the views are gorgeous; these are really pleasant peninsula.

Pandemics are faster and fiercer now ... but science is ready (maybe)


At some times, Dr. Sanjay Gupta focuses on one person; he continues to be a neurosurgeon. At others, his focus is on the world; he was a producer and consultant for an involving CNN special (April 7-8) viewing pandemics. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Amid waves of health
crises, there are reasons for hope.

Yes, the world keeps
having pandemics; they seem to be more frequent, more fierce. But
people gradually learn how to combat them.

“In 1918, the
'Spanish flu' killed 50 million,” said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a producer
and consultant for CNN's “Unseen Enemy” documentary. “In 1968,
the 'Asian flu' killed a million.” It was a disaster, but not of
the same proportion, as mankind learned more about vaccines,
antibiotics and containment.

Events don't come in
tidy, half-century intervals, but what if they did? Would we be ready
in 2018?

Sort of, Gupta said.
Modern mobility causes crises to move faster. Some approaches have
been upgraded; some haven't. “Vaccine producers ... are literally
still using hen's eggs.”

That issue – the
speed of vaccine production – can be crucial. Gupta points to one
projection: If the vaccine is ready in six weeks, there are 24,000
deaths; if it takes 30 weeks, there are 27 million.

The CNN special
skips the numbers and focuses on the doctors on the front line. They
include:

-- Soka Moses, who
left his family in Liberia to deal with the Ebola crisis.

-- Vanessa Van der
Linden, a Brazilian who first alerted the world to the Zika virus.

-- Larry Brilliant,
the American who was key, 40 years ago, in the global eradication of
smallpox.

A generation apart,
Brilliant and Gupta have much in common. Both grew up in the Detroit
area and started at the University of Michigan; both have balanced
personal medicine and broader public issues.

Brilliant, 72, has
led philanthropic agencies started by Google and by former eBay
president Jeff Skoll; Gupta, 47, has done his CNN work and written
three books ... but remains an Atlanta neurosurgeon.

Why continue the
surgery? “Part of it is that I enjoy it,” he said. “On that
day, I have a very precise idea of what I'm supposed to do.”

And precision is
important, even for a media star. The son of two engineers, Gupta
talks of data-driven work. “A two- or three-minute segment (on CNN)
can involve days of preparation.”

That leaves him
upset by eccentric views that streak across the Internet. “As a
science-driven guy, I don't have that luxury,” he said. “We're
not able to conjure up things .... We deal in a world of facts.”

That's part of the
modern health world. Modern transportation spreads a disease;
communication spreads information and misinformation. The next global
crisis may or may not be quashed quickly.

-- “Unseen Enemy,”
CNN (barring breaking news)

-- 10 p.m. ET Friday, April 7
(World Health Day), rerunning at 2 a.m.; 9 p.m. ET April 15, rerunning
at 11.

 

No ski slope will stop Hannah/Alison from catching killers


The strange thing about Minnesota stereotypes is that they're basically true. Garrison Keillor and "Fargo" are only exaggerating by a tad; "Minnesota nice" is a real thing, as is that sense of calm. And somehow, Alison Sweeney seems perfect for the role of Hannah Swenson in "Murder, She Baked" movies. Sweeney may be a California blonde with an Irish background, but she projects a Swedish sense of calm ... even when recalling a ski accident. Her new film arrives Sunday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

This is the true
sign of a show-business professional:

You've just had a
skiing injury; now your life should be flashing before your eyes.
Instead, you wonder if this will disrupt the filming schedule.

“It's the first
thing that occurred to me, as I was laying in the snow,” Alison
Sweeney said.

After all, she's not
just a hired hand in the “Murder, She Baked” movies. Sweeney
produces them and stars in them as Hannah Swenson, a small-town
Minnesota baker, strong of will and warm of heart; Sunday's film,
“Just Desserts,” will be her fifth in less than two years.

That's the one that
has a hobbled Hannah. “It really came out of necessity,” Sweeney
said. “I didn't want to write it in, but it would be hard to work
around it.”

She couldn't have
predicted her first accident in 36 years on the slopes. “I've been
skiing my whole life,” Sweeney said. “My parents took me up when
I was 4 years old.”

The latest movie has
someone stalking the judges in a baking contest, so the rewrite was
basic: Now Hannah is the first one stalked. She's injured, bringing
some humor and a limp: Her action-hero moment – pursuing a villain
down the school hallways – becomes a very slow-speed chase.

These movies require
a merger of three key talents:

-- Joanne Fluke,
whose novels the films are based on. She's written 36 novels under
that name and others under six pseudonyms, but Hannah may be her
alter ego. Fluke is a lifelong baker who grew up in Swanville, a tiny
town – its population plunged from 351 in 2000 to 350 in 2010 –
in Minnesota.

-- Kristoffer
Tabori, a veteran actor, directing his fourth Hannah movie. He
sometimes uses the name K.T. Donaldson, which makes sense: His
initials are K.T. and he is Donald's son; his dad, Don Siegel, was a
highly regarded director who made four Clint Eastwood films,
including “Dirty Harry.”

-- And Sweeney, who
fits the role neatly. Yes, she grew up Irish in California and Hannah
grew up Scandinavian in Minnesota; still, they seem to share a
practicality.

For Sweeney, that
comes from more than 20 years (and 1,785 episodes) in the “Days of
Our Lives” soap opera. “When you're working crazy fast,”
filming a movie in 15 days, it still seems workable, she said.
“Nothing compares to when you have 120 (script) pages a day on a
soap.”

She was 16 when she
started playing Sami. By then, she'd been acting for more than a
decade, ranging from a well-known “Tales From the Darkside”
episode (as the little girl who knew when people were about to die)
to a pair of short-lived situation comedies. Later, she also hosted
“The Biggest Loser,” getting insight about weight loss and about
people.

“The biggest
take-away was the importance of the human side,” Sweeney said.
“Ultimately, believing in yourself is No. 1.”

Lately, Hallmark has
believed in her. After she did the first “Murder, She Baked,” she
was directed by Tabori in the clever “Love on the Air.” Since
then, she's hired him for the “The Irresistible Blueberry Farm”
and the next four Hannah films. “He's not afraid to tell you,
'You're playing it too safe now.'”

Often, life can't be
safe. That's true of skiing or chasing small-town killers.

-- “Murder, She
Baked: Just Desserts,” Hallmark Movies and Mysteries

-- Debuts 9 p.m.
Sunday, preceded by the other Hannah Swenson films at 1, 3, 5 and 7
p.m.

-- Also: 5 p.m.
Monday, 7 p.m. Friday (March 31), 5 p.m. April 2, with other Hannah
films at 1 and 3

-- The
Sweeney/Tabori “Irresistible Blueberry Farm” airs at 5 p.m.
Tuesday (March 28)