Childhood ends ... and a busy sci-fi screak begins

Sure, cable seems to have a deluge of mediocrity. Still, there are fine exceptions -- channels that are suddenly trying bigger, more ambitious projects. That explains National Geographic's "Breakthrough" (see previous blog); it also explains a Syfy Channel push that starts Monday (Dec. 14). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

“Childhood's End”
arrived in 1953, in a world not yet saturated with science fiction.

Readers approved.
C.S. Lewis praised it, Stan Lee called it one of his favorite books,
the New York Times printed two rave reviews. An adaptation would
follow ... slowly.

Now, 62 years later,
a miniseries is finally debuting on the newly ambitious Syfy Channel.
“We're taking the biggest swings in our history,” said Dave Howe,
Syfy's programming chief.

Coming later are
projects from Steven Spielberg, Gale Anne Hurd (“Terminator”) and
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; first is a big start: “End” runs for
three nights and leads into the debuts of two series.

Many people had
tried to adapt this Arthur C. Clarke story. When Stanley Kubrick
couldn't get the rights, he compromised and made Clarke's “2001: A
Space Odyssey.”

That leaves the
current producers with a high profile: “As people who love the
book, ... we talked about feeling a pressure to do it the right way,”
Michael De Luca said.

That's minor
compared to the pressure on the main character, Stormgren: He's the
Earth's only contact with Karellen, who represents the new alien
overlords who plan to end poverty, pollution and more.

“In the book,
(he's) like a 60-year-old head of the UN,” said Mike Vogel, 36, who
plays him. Now Stormgren is a Missouri farmer, pushed into a vital
role. He “is rejecting the idea, (saying) 'I'm not your guy. I'm
not worthy.'” Vogel said. “And he all of a sudden finds himself
in the forefront.”

This is a
straight-shooting guy, someone Vogel says he can imagine easily. He
conjures “memories of my grandfather and great-grandfather.”

Vogel grew up as a
plumber's son near Philadelphia; two grandfathers were World War II
veterans and one of them had a farm nearby. “There wasn't a lot of
fanfare about him,” he said. “He would look you in the eye .... I
just found myself drawn to him, listening to his stories of the Great

The kid had picked
up some work ethic by helping his dad, but he also commuted to New
York for modeling and acting. He starred in an MTV variation on
“Wuthering Heights” and other roles followed, including ABC's
“Pan Am” as a romantic pilot ... a role that met some
disapproval: “My daughter said, 'Why is Daddy kissing someone who's
not Mommy?'”

Vogel lives near
Nashville with his wife and three kids and is currently on a
science-fiction streak -- “Under the Dome” and “Childhood's
End.” The latter was filmed in Melbourne, Australia, where “I was
dumbfounded by how much they could create.”

That ranged from
planting corn for the farm scenes to using Melbourne government
buildings for officialdom. There was also lots of work on sound
stages – especially for talks with Karellen, who remains unseen
until the story's mid-section.

Charles Dance (the
commanding Tywin in “Game of Thrones”) voiced Karellen. For the
early scenes, Vogel was just playing against his recorded voice ...
which sufficed, he said. “When Charled Dance just says, 'Excuse
me,' you stand at attention.”

And when an overlord
speaks, the world listens. A sci-fi classic is belatedly reaching TV.

-- “Childhood's
End,” 8-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday (Dec. 14-16), Syfy.

-- First two episode
reruns at 11:03 p.m.; Wednesday one reruns at 10:53.

-- Also, first
episode reruns at 6 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Wednesday, with the
second at 6 p.m. Wednesday; all three also air from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sunday (Dec. 20).

-- “The Expanse”
has its first episodes at 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, then stays at
10 p.m. Tuesdays.

-- “The Magicians”
debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday, then returns in January.

Water shortage: From annoying to devastating

Sometimes, a crisis can seem far away. We were sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel, fresh from swimming in the pool, with water pitchers nearby. And people were talking about a water shortage -- both global and right there in California. It's an ongoing issue and a worthy subject for the finale of the excellent "Breakthrough" series on the National Geographic Channel. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

On a big, blue
planet, this crisis seems bizarre.

The Earth has more
water than land, yet it's rarely the right water in the right places.
The shortage ranges from:

-- Mere annoyance.
“My gardener said, 'There's a water shortage here in California and
we cannot plant the rose garden for you now,'” said Hollywood
director Brett Ratner.

-- To devastation.
In a documentary that debuts Sunday (Dec 13), we meet Ethiopians who live an
hour from water. “The women are the ones who are charged with
walking six hours out of their day – three separate trips per day –
to gather water,” said actress-turned-director Angela Bassett.

At least, they end
up with drinkable water; others are less fortunate. “The problem is
getting clean water (that) won't kill you because it's filled with
parasites,” said producer Kurt Sayenga.

He's the overall
producer of the “Breakthrough” series, which views huge issues
through the eyes of Hollywood people. Ratner viewed research into the
brain; Bassett closes the series with water.

“It's live-giving;
we need it desperately,” she said. “And if we look ... at our
Earth, we see all these beautiful blue (patches, but) only one
percent of it is fresh water that we can consume.”

Scientists say 97
percent is salt water and almost two per cent is locked in snow and
ice. That leaves one per cent to consume ... if it's free of disease.

“We used to worry
about patches of the world,” said Sandra Postel, who has been
studying water issues for 30 years. “Now it's really a global

The global
approaches vary; for instance:

-- Australia faced a
14-year stretch it called “the big dry.” Its solutions ranged
from drastic water-use reduction to building giant desalination

-- California –
where 80-percent of the water goes to agriculture – now has its own
drought. Bassett's film shows one town where wells have simply gone
dry; some people have abandoned their homes and others are dependent
on gifts of bottled water.

-- American efforts
range from a lush Arizona town that cleans and re-uses its sewage
water to a project in the California sun. “We're using solar energy
to convert an infinite supply of salt water or impaired water sources
to fresh water,” said Aaron Mandell of Water FX. “We built a
small test plant in the Central Valley and we now have plans to
expand that.”

-- In Ethiopia,
Bassett found a different sort of project. “One of the scientists
has come up with a sculpture” to capture rain and mist, she said,
building it from local material. “The people there can fix it, if
it needs fixing, (and) can build others.”

That's part of an
ongoing struggle. “There are interesting, smart, brilliant people
who would come up with innovative ways,” she said. “And (they)
may save us.”

-- “Breakthrough:
Water Apocalypse,” 9 p.m., Sunday (Dec. 13), National Geographic;
reruns at midnight and then at 10 a.m. Dec. 20.

-- Concludes a
six-week series. Previous hour, Akiva Goldsman's “Energy on the
Edge,” reruns at 11 a.m. Dec. 13,


It's a new-old world for stars like Harry Lennix

A chat with Harry Lennix brings a slalom ride through the changing worlds of show business. He does it all -- big and little, traditional and trendy. With "Chi-Raq" opening Friday (Dec. 4) in theaters and "The Blacklist" returning Jan. 21, this is a typically busy time for him; here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

In this new-old
world, show-business juggles extremes.

A few big movies
pack theaters; a lot of little ones don't even get to theaters.
Traditional TV exists alongside new streaming services.

Harry Lennix manages
to balance all of that, plus one more contrast: He's in “Chi-Raq,”
a movie that's as new as current protests ... yet borrows a plot
that's about 2,426 years old.

“It's about the
violence that's happening right now in Chicago,” Lennix said. “It's
brave and bold.”

It's also a bit of
movie history: This is the first project by Amazon Studios, with
plans to have it both ways – a big-time opening (at the historic
Chicago Theatre), a brief run in theaters and then streaming.

“I think this is
the future, with multi-platforms,” Lennix said. “If you want to,
you can still see it in theaters .... But there are people who
wouldn't see it until it gets to their homes.”

He's all for
variety. Lennix has supporting roles in big movies (“Man of Steel,”
“Batman v Superman”) and TV shows (“Blacklist”); he also has
a company that makes low-budget art films.

Often, he plays
authority figures, something that Lennix – 51 and 6-foot-4 – fits
easily. He's Commissioner Blades in “Chi-Raq,” a movie that seems
to have overstepped Amazon's ambitions. It has a top cast – Nick
Cannon, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer
Hudson – and a big-deal director, Spike Lee.

And yes, that
creates the intriguing image of Lennix receiving commands from
someone who is 11 inches shorter. “He has such a commanding
presence,” he said of Lee. “He seems taller.”

Lee and writer Kevin
Willmott started with a notion that Aristophanes created in 419 B.C.:
Women on both sides withhold sex until the men stop perpetual their

The issue has
concerned Lennix since his own Chicago boyhood. “There were warring
factions you always had to worry about,” he said.

That was on the
south end, near Gary, Ind., in a neighborhood where Elijah Muhammed's
Black Muslim movement was big. Lennix, however, went to Catholic
schools and Northwestern University.

He was 2 when his
dad – a machinist who grew up in Louisiana, with Creole roots –
died. That left his mother raising four kids as a laundress. Lennix
had his first job at 10, but he also played baseball, did school
plays and got academic scholarships.

After college, he
was a substitute teacher in Chicago schools, until his acting career
took off. Now he seems to be everyone's boss – a general in the
Superman movies, an assistant FBI director in “Blacklist,” Echo's
handler in “Dollhouse,” the president's chief of staff in
“Commander in Chief” ... and the president himself in “Little
Britain USA.”

Those are big-budget
projects, but Lennix also has a company making low-budget movies.

With a rise in the
affordability and speed of quality equipment, he said, it's possible
to make slick-looking films for less. “People are happy to do it,
so you've got a glut.”

This works best, he
said, when aiming at a niche. Lately, some people have scored with
faith-based films; Lennix has resisted all trends for black films,
often transplanting Shakespeare stories. Lately, he's been King Henry
IV in “H4,” Banquo in “Macbeth,” Capulet in “Romeo and
Juliet in Harlem.”

Most small movies
reach a few theaters, then find alternate media. “If out of 10 you
get one or two” that do more, Lennix said, it all works out.

And occasionally, a
film -- like “Chi-Raq,” grabbing attention and strong reviews –
outstrips its goals.

Lots of Lennix

-- “Chi-Raq”
reaches theaters Friday (Dec. 4), then Amazon

-- “The
Blacklist,” a ratings hit, returns to NBC at 9 p.m. Thursdays,
starting Jan. 21

-- Many more on the
way (including “Batman v Superman,” March 25) or already on video


Sure, pilgrims were thankful ... just to have (barely) survived

It all seems bountiful now -- turkey and football and pie and parades and such. But that first Thanksgiving, in the fall of 1621, marked survival against fierce odds. A well-crafted mini-series starts Sunday, focusing on that. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When the Pilgrims
had that first feast, almost 400 years ago, there was a good reason
to give thanks.

They had survived
... barely. A flawed idea had worked out.

“They were very
average people who took this kind of amazing leap,” said Vincent
Kartheiser, who stars in the new “Saints & Strangers”
mini-series. “(They) were faced with really daunting tasks.”

They needed to farm
and hunt ... skills few had. “They had previously been cobblers,
store owners,” said Seth Fisher, who co-wrote the film. “Suddenly,
they had to learn how to use a musket, build a house, form a

Previous colonies
had floundered. One, on Roanoake Island, N.C., disappeared; another,
at Jamestown, Va., had temporarily disbanded, after 80 per cent of
its people died, then re-formed.

Now the Mayflower
headed toward Virginia, was pushed north by strong currents and ended
up the less-known Massachusetts. Onboard were the mariners and 102
settlers, including:

-- More than 50
separatists. To avoid the Church of England, they had fled first to
the Netherlands and then helped charter this voyage, looking for a
new life. “It was decidedly a more conservative life,” Fisher
said. “They refrained from singing hymns .... They didn't celebrate
Christmas as a holiday.”

-- Others who wanted
fresh starts. “The Mayflower's journey was a commercial venture,”
Fisher said. “The whole group was supposed to send back any sort of
profit, any harvests.”

-- And a guy who
knew what to expect. “Stephen Hopkins is the only one who actually
had been to the New World,” producer Gina Matthews said.

Previously, he'd
been shipwrecked on an island, led a failed mutiny, was sentenced to
die and then ws pardoned. He'd worked at Jamestown, returned home
after his wife died in England ... then headed back on the Mayflower
with his second wife Elizabeth, who was pregnant.

He'd promised “that
the baby would be born in Virginia,” said Natascha McElhone, who
plays Elizabeth. “Not only is it not born in Virginia, but it's
born at sea. It survives and is called Oceanus .... She married quite
late, ... then did go on to bear five children, amazingly.”

Mostly, though, the
plan for a vibrant population failed. By the time of the harvest
feast – almost a year after they'd arrived – about half the
Pilgrims had died, including 13 of the 18 adult women.

One of the deaths
was John Carver, the first governor. William Bradford – whose own
wife had fallen overboard and died while he was in the landing party
– took over. He would be elected four more times, leading during
the majority of the next 36 years.

“He was actually
such a modest and humble guy that he rarely mentioned himself in”
his books, said Kartheiser, who plays him.

Bradford became “the
moral compass of the new colody,” said Tim Pastore, National
Geographic's chief of original programming.

And yes, Kartheiser
said, that's a leap from his “Mad Men” character. “Pete
Campbell was the opposite of that – almost no moral compass at

The mini-series was
filmed in South Africa, with a flood of historical advisors. The
native characters, Pastore said, speak “Abenaki, a dialect today
spoken by less than 20 people.”

We'll hear the
Pilgrims' biases against them ... and tne natives' anger at other

“They're letting
us de-santize the idea of Thanksgiving,” said Raoul Trujillo, who
plays Massasoit, a tribal chief. “We bring it down to the
nitty-gritty of ... human beings and trying to make a better life.”

-- “Saints &
Strangers” two-parter, 9-11 p.m. Sunday and Monday (Nov. 22-23),
National Geographic.

-- Full miniseries
airs 7-11 p.m. Monday (repeating 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and at those same
times on Thanksgiving; also, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 29, 3-7 p.m. Nov.


The art of more TV ... and of indie-style shows

We don't usually expect the entertainment world to talk about high-end art dealers. Cops and killers and robots are favorite subjects; auction houses are not.

But lately, there have been exceptions: Steve Martin's excellent novel "An Object of Beauty" ... the movies "Woman in Gold" and "The Monuments Men" ... and now "The Art of More" -- an interesting series that starts Thursday (Nov. 19) in the new world of Internet streaming services. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The birth of a movie
or a TV show can be slow, stready and safe.

“You've got 50
executives sitting around .... It's film by committee,” Cary Elwes

Then there's the new
flip side: “There is a revolution going on with television ....
where you feel like the inmates have taken over the asylum,” Dennis
Quaid said.

New places – with
fewer executives and fewer delays – keep adding shows. Beyond
cable, there's Netflix and Hulu and Amazon. And now Crackle has “The
Art of More,” an ambitious drama with Quaid, Elwes, Kate Bosworth
and Christian Cooke. “This is the new independent film,” Elwes

He knows the value
of independent-thinking; one of his first films, “The Princess
Bride” (1987), became a classic. It “boggles the mind – how
such a quirky and modestly conceived film could achieve such a lofty
position,” Elwes wrote in “As You Wish” (Touchstone, 2014), his
book about the movie.

For that matter,
Quaid found fame in “Breaking Away,” a small film about Indiana
bike-racers. Both men went on to make movies that were bigger, but
(usually) not better.

Now they're in this
new world of original shows made for Internet streaming services. In
“Art of More,” Arthur Davenport (Elwes) and Samuel Brukner
(Quaid) are art collectors.

They're “complete
opposites, (but really) the same,” Quaid said. “They're
collectors of people and objects. Only he had a silver spoon ... when
he was born and (Brukner) was more roughened.”

Both collectors are
sought by people working for big art dealers. There's Graham Connor,
the assumed name of Cooke's character, a tough Iraq veteran from
Brooklyn. And there's Roxanna Whitman.

“She's a very
strong woman,” said Bosworth, who plays her. “I love her drive
.... You see the little cracks of vulnerability in a very tough
exterior .... All the characters have little cracks.”

Bosworth, 32, never
used to get roles like this. “I moved out to Los Angeles at 18, to
try this acting thing,” she said.

She'd been a
champion equestrian in Massachusetts, which led to a teen role in
Robert Redford's “Horse Whisperer.” After a few lesser projects,
Bosworth coveted the role of a young surfer. “I wanted 'Blue
Crush' more than any person on the planet. (It was a) very intensive
process for me.”

She got the role and
other big ones; Bosworth may be the only person to portray both the
fictional Lois Lane and the real-life Sandra Dee. But more and more,
she's leaned to independent films; she married an indie director
(Michael Polish) and has been in three of his films, plus the
acclaimed “Still Alice.”

Elwes, 43, started
in indies. “Princess Bride” director Rob Reiner spotted him in
“Lady Jane” and visited him in Germany, where he was filming
“Maschenka,” from a Vladimir Nabokov novel.

“He resembles a
young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and he's so handsome and he's a terrific
actor,” Reiner wrote in Elwes' book. “But I didn't know if he was

The verdict came
quickly: “He was just a naturally funny guy.”

Elwes has gone on to
play roles ranging from a comic Robin Hood to a serious astronaut
Michael Collins, from serial killer Ted Bundy to Pope John Paul II as
a young man. Still, few shows fit him as neatly as “The Art of

In real life, Elwes'
brother, father and grandfather have all been painters. “My mother
was an interior desigher,” he said. “She used to take us to some
of the high-end auction houses in England, so it is somewhat of a
familiar world for me.”

Bostwick and Quaid
both profess a non-expert fondness for art. Cooke makes no such
claim: “I know nothing about art. That's the beauty of being an
actor. We get to become experts with each job.”

Now he can become an
expert on art, combat, manipulation and TV's new, independent world.

-- “The Art of
More”; the 10-part first season is available beginning Thursday on

-- Crackle is owned
by Sony and primarily offers – with commercials – Sony's past TV
series (including “Seinfeld”) and movies (from “Easy Rider”
to “Glory” to “District 9”).