Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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A “smart” Dirty Dancing?

When I was describing weekend plans to go see the musical Strictly Ballroom in Toronto, a friend asked if it was like a smart Dirty Dancing.

Must say that I’ve never thought of Strictly Ballroom as such. Or spent much time comparing those two movies.

But it is true that they have the same basic plot line: Hunky male dance instructor teaches promising if slightly gawky young woman (from a different background) to dance, and they fall in love.

So how do they differ? I’m not so sure it’s on IQ points.

1. Point of view

Dirty Dancing is Baby’s story. It’s about her coming of age. It’s directed by a woman, and we see most everything from her perspective. Johnny is there to support her narrative.

Whereas Strictly Ballroom is about Scott. It’s about him breaking free of family expectations and becoming his own person. Fran helps on that journey. Yes, she does that blossoming thing, but that’s really just to make her attractive enough to become Scott’s love interest.

2. Setting

Dirty Dancing is a bit of nostalgia for a time that was and no longer is, when teenagers would happily go off with their parents to a summer vacation resort. Whereas Strictly Ballroom both salutes and mocks the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.

And as I write that, I’m thinking maybe that’s another similarity: That both movies are about the struggle to preserve a tradition against the forces of change. Hmm.

3. Style

Despite the romance at the centre of it and plenty of humourous moments, Dirty Dancing  is basically a drama, the story told in a “realistic” way. Whereas Strictly Ballroom is very much an over-the-top, exaggerated comedy, albeit with some touching moments.

Which is why Dirty Dancing opens itself up to criticism when some of the dialog is clunky or if a character seems more like a caricature. Strictly Ballroom is in-your-face with ridiculous dialog and absurd characters; that’s part of its charm.

And that also may be why, in my opinion, another difference between these two is that Strictly Ballroom made its transition to the stage much more effectively than Dirty Dancing did.


It’s been a while since I saw Dirty Dancing: The Musical, but I recall thinking that they shouldn’t have stuck so close to the movie. That this might have an opportunity to, for example, fix some of the sillier plot points.

Strictly Ballroom also stuck pretty close to the movie template. But in this case,  just the nature of the stage presentation improved the product.

A lot of it is ballroom dance competition, for example. In the movie, these scenes are largely funny and absurd. On stage, they still have that to a degree, but they also enchanting and beautiful. It just feels more “natural” to see that kind of dancing and those wild costumes on a theatre stage than a movie screen.

And then there’s what musicals do, which is allow the characters to give voice to their inner thoughts in song. And that really brought a lot of depth to the story, making many of the characters less cartoonish. They even bring in some of that Dirty Dancing nostalgia by including popular songs of the 1980s as part of the soundtrack. It really widens the range of emotion of the whole enterprise.

I love the movie Strictly Ballroom. But I think I loved the musical even more.


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

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Post-its for possible future travels

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

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As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

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Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

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And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

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The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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Summer vacation, abbreviated

We had planned to take a week’s vacation the first week of June, but Jean’s work obligations necessitated changing those plans on relatively short notice. Fortunately, we hadn’t made any grand travel plans—it was just going to be a driving trip to parts of Ontario and Québec. But we had to scale it back.

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We started with a weekend in Timmins, where Jean went off on fishing trip with his brothers. He expected, I think, that it would be a fairly leisurely couple of days. Instead, it was early mornings and late nights of fishing, cleaning, filleting, and vacuum packing. “I was not prepared for that!” he confessed on his return.

But, now we do have some very nice Northern Ontario pickerel.

I, on the other hand, really did have a leisurely time. I flew up and stayed with my Dad, visited with a Timmins friend, had a dinner with my brother’s family (hosted by Dad), watched some Netflix…

We traveled back on Monday and Jean had to work the rest of the week. I decided to take Thursday off to go see Guys and Dolls in Stratford. I picked it mainly because it was the matinee that day—I didn’t know anything about it, really. But it proved a good choice. Deservedly well-reviewed, it was a fun musical with beautiful costumes and some absolutely stunning dance sequences. The songs were great, and included two that I knew: “If I Were a Bell” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”.

30-second look at Guys and Dolls

I had taken the train to Stratford (thereby learning you can take a train to Stratford) on what was an absolutely gorgeous day, and after the play Jean drove in to join me for dinner. We went to Bar Fifty-One, which is a new part of the Prune restaurant, a Stratford institution we’d never eaten at. I stuck with the bar menu, and was quite happy with my grilled asparagus with Parmesan appetizer and seafood pie entree. Jean tried the restaurant menu and was very impressed with the chicken liver mousse appetizer, but somewhat less so with his smoked Muscovy duck breast main.

For the following weekend, we’d had an Ottawa hotel booked, so we decided to keep that and book some flights to get there and back. I flew up earlier, with plans to tour Parliament and meet some friends for dinner. Neither of those plans quite worked out. The tours were sold out for the day, and I messed up my communication with my friends so they had the wrong Friday in their calendar. Still, it was a nice day there, and the meal at Play Food and Wines was delicious.

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Incredible gnocchi with edamame, shiitake, sunflower seeds, and truffle oil

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Pastry with chocolate cream filling and dulce de leche. Yum.

And Jean did arrive at the expected time. We took a walk, and enjoyed our funky, European-style Alt hotel.

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Ottawa has a lot of interesting street art

I did get my Parliamentary tour the next day, and it was pretty interesting. (It’s also the last year you can do so before the place closes for renovation for 10 years!) We saw the House of Commons, the Parliamentary Library, the Senate…

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Statue of the Queen who selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital, inside Parliament’s Centre Block

Ottawa was in full prep mode for Canada 150 celebrations on July 1, meaning a lot of construction and sections of museums down for renovation. We visited the Museum of Canadian History, where they had a pretty interesting exhibit on hockey—even for people not deeply into hockey—and another small one on the Canadian immigration experience. But the main gallery was inaccessible, so it did make the whole visit seem a bit “slight”.

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A rather cool statue in the Museum of Canadian History

We thought we had reservations at Whalesbone that evening, but they have this annoying phone-only system, and our two calls to them weren’t sufficient to hold it. We would have had to have make a third. We were still able to dine at the bar, and I have to say that the food was just delicious: Really fresh seafood with lovely, tasty sauces and sides. But not sure we’ll be back, given the difficulty of making a reservation (not as if they ever answer the phone…).

Sunday we went to the Market, where they had an Ignite 150 exhibit area highlighting different parts of Canada. Buskers were also on deck that day. That was fun. I also purchased a couple tops from one of the market vendors. And we went back to Play for a late lunch. It was really good again!

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Fig and prociutto appetizer on the right, cheese selection on the left

Then we did some more walking, shopping, and (mainly Jean) photography-ing on this warm but beautiful day. And our joint flight back to Toronto and even the drive back to Waterloo all went very well.

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Performances tinged with nostalgia

About ten years ago around this time of year, I was scrambling to get myself to get myself to Centre in the Square. Jean was away—canoeing, I assume—and I’d made a last-minute decision to get tickets to the introductory concert of the KW Symphony’s new conductor, Edwin Outwater.

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It was busier than I expected—symphony concerts just hadn’t been very well-attended that year—so I had to park further away than expected and made it to my seat just moments before the show started. Which was all very awkward, because my seat was front row centre.

So my first look at the young, handsome conductor from California was a close-up one. He was very personable in talking to the audience. I believe they played Beethoven’s Fifth, and he dared us to be rebels and applaud between movements if we felt like it.

We originally didn’t have tickets to the final performance of Edwin Outwater as KW Symphony principal conductor last weekend, but it seems apropos that we did attend in the end. The symphony was not in a good place, artistically or financially, when he took over. It’s been great to watch the crowds grow over the past 10 years in response to his efforts to present classical music in innovative ways that still respect the tradition.

But if we hadn’t jumped on tickets for the final show immediately, it’s because it was definitely Outwater-ian: Not just a set of classical music’s greatest hits, but something that would challenge the ears.

We made it to (most of) the concert prelude that explained what we were about to hear, which is always helpful. The first piece was a very short number composed for (and about) Edwin Outwater by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire. That was followed by a longer choral piece by John Adams called Harmonium, featuring two full choirs singing music inspired by poetry.

It was very strange-sounding. At intermission, one Jean’s friends we ran into commented that some of the harmonies hurt her eyes. But from the prelude, we had some appreciation of how hard it was to sing. And I just found it riveting to listen to (though I wouldn’t buy the CD).

We were kind of worried about retaining focus through a 53-minute Mahler Symphony in the second half, but we needn’t have. Mahler writes beautiful and lively music. We agreed with the prelude commentary that the third movement was the most interesting, a mournful one built around the melody of … “Frère Jacques”, and interrupted by other bursts of whimsical sound that undercut the tragedy with comedy. Then the fourth movement is full of grandiosity.

There was rather a resounding ovation at the end.


As a teenager, I was really taken with the story of Terry Fox, the young man who tried to run across the country on one leg to raise money for cancer research, only to be stopped when the cancer returned. I followed the story on the news. I kept a scrapbook . I read books about him. I saw The Terry Fox Movie.

So when I heard they wrote a musical based on his life, I wanted to go. I missed the initial run in Waterloo, but we managed to get to the shorter one in Cambridge.

It was quite well done. Admittedly, the songs aren’t the sort you’re going to be humming for days—this is no Hamilton or West Side Story. But the story is just so compelling, and they found an effective way to fit it into a two-hour stage narrative. I don’t feel that any other medium, really, as well gave the sense of just what it meant to do so much running daily under the physical challenges he faced.


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How this “Conservative” feels about the leadership results

I never would have thought that the first political party I ever joined would be the Conservative Party of Canada.

Not only had I never voted for them, I had expended a certain amount of effort (and money) trying to ensure that others didn’t vote for them, either.

But Trump is certainly an inspirational figure, in that he has inspired people to act in ways they never previously did. In the US, you see it in the huge number of protesters, the anger evident at town halls, the number of phone calls made to members of Congress.

In Canada, I think it’s at least partly responsible for the record number of people who joined the Conservative Party of Canada this time out.

Anecdotally, some people joined the party just to stop Kellie Leitch from winning the leadership.

I’m an anecdote! (And I’m still hoping to find and attribute the article where the columnist wrote the above sentence (or one similar to that), but onward for now!)

Many months ago, Kellie Leitch, first in the leadership race but not making much headway, decided to hitch her train to Trump wagon and immediately vaulted to first place in the polls. And this time I do have her exact quote:

Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president.

It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well.

— Kellie Leitch, November 9, 2016

Lord.

I was not in a happy place after that US election and the very idea that something similar could happen here… Well, I felt I had to do something.

There was the question of the ethics of joining a party you whose policies you didn’t necessarily, entirely, agree with. But, the fact is I was qualified to join (Canadian, didn’t belong to any other political party) and they were perfectly happy to take my $15 and sign me up.

And, my goals were not to harm the party. I wasn’t trying to saddle them with some horribly un-electable leader. In fact, I was hoping to find someone I actually could see myself voting for in a federal election.

Amazingly, I did, in one Michael Chong, a very principled politician with a set of policies I could get behind. Unfortunately, his stance against Islamophobia and, especially, his promotion of a revenue-neutral carbon tax led to him being booed at every single candidate’s debate.

Conservative MP Chong speaks during a news conference in Ottawa

But still, I had my guy. Only, this was a ranked ballot, so I couldn’t stop there. To put Kellie Leitch last, I had to make decisions about all the other candidates, too. And there were 13 of them! (At one point, 14.) The early assumptions that at least some of these more obscure, hopeless candidates would drop out—just didn’t happen.

There was so much email, people. 13 people emailing me about policies I often disagreed with, often mixed in with an assumption that I hated the Liberals. (Plus, then the party started asking me for more money. As if.)

But I got there. I managed to put 9 of them in order (of a maximum 10 allowed). Erin O’Toole got my #2, simply by being the only other candidate with any kind of plan to combat climate change—even if it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Chong’s.

(If there is one thing that drives me most mental about this party, it is their refusal to do anything about the biggest environmental problem the human race has ever faced. It’s nice that all but one of the candidates now admit the problem is real, but doesn’t that also make it even worse their “plan” is to just watch the planet burn? Anyway…)

We were out when results came in, so I followed along on Twitter as I could.

Polls (plus all the booing) had told me Chong’s chances of actually winning this thing were, uh, remote, so I was pretty happy with the results. Fifth is not a bad showing, overall. And he beat Kellie Leitch!

I wasn’t the only one pleased about that.

The goal here was for someone to get to 50% to take this thing. After each round, the bottom vote-getter dropped off and whoever voted for them #1 got their votes distributed to their #2 choice, and so on.

Well, it was a squeaker. It went the maximum number of rounds. Michael Chong stayed on to round 10, at which point my vote transferred to # 2 O’Toole, then finally to my #6 Maxime Bernier (choices 3-5 already gone by then), a candidate running on an interesting but somewhat radical Libertarian platform. However, on that final ballot, Bernier was eclipsed by Andrew Scheer, my #7 choice.

Political life in Canada would have been more interesting had Bernier won. We might have had debates about a number of issues that are unanimous among political parties now, but maybe shouldn’t be—like supply management and “corporate welfare”.

Scheer is a more boring choice, and also one I don’t see myself voting for. He had few policy ideas, and the ones he did, I found kind of dumb. It’s kind of still Stephen Harper, but with a more agreeable tone.

Still, a more agreeable tone is a welcome thing, as the simple nastiness of the Harper years was very off-putting and hardly necessary.

Today I decided to check how things played out in my riding, and was truly shocked at the results of the first ballot:

  1. Brad Trost – 29.4%
  2. Michael Chong – 19.4%
  3. Maxime Bernier – 15.9%
  4. Andrew Scheer – 10.5%
  5. Erin O’Toole – 8.3%
  6. Pierre Lemieux – 7.6%
  7. Kellie Leitch – 5.1%
  8. Lisa Raitt – 2.1

(The rest earned less than 1%.)

Brad Trost is an anti-gay, pro-life candidate, who doesn’t believe in climate change. He did far better in the overall race, as well, than anyone had been predicting.

All a reminder that those social conservatives, who really have no other home in politics, are highly motivated to get party memberships and vote. (Me, I didn’t rank him at all, would you believe.) But if you actually want to win this swing riding, note that Chong got twice the vote than the eventual winner….

So, that was sort of interesting. But my work here is done, and I’m so happy to have unsubscribed from all Conservative email lists!

PS: Should add that I actually didn’t unsubscribe from Michael Chong’s email list, and he just sent a lovely “Thank you for your support” email. He’s still young—remains to be seen how much of a future he still has in this party.


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Movie review: Get Out

We saw this movie only recently, though it was released in February (and is now available on DVD / streaming). What convinced me to go despite horror not being one of my go-to genres was its 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with:

mv5bnte2nzg1njkznv5bml5banbnxkftztgwotgyodmymti-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_All this advance research proved correct. Of course the movie had violence, but not much more than you’d see on network TV. It was about suspense, not gore.

And yes, the startling moments, the twists, the laughs, were more enjoyable with a crowd to share them (though this was a sparsely attended showing).

It is a good movie. Just on the surface level, it’s fun trying to figure out the plot, and it does have a good mix of humour in with the mysterious goings-on. The lead character, Chris, is going to spend the weekend with his girlfriend’s family for the first. She’s white; the family does not know that he’s black.

She assures him that it will not be a problem, but in fact, his interactions with the family are uncomfortable, whether by over-compensating (“my man!” exclaims her father) or by thinly veiled hostility of her brother. As well, the few black people in the area behave rather strangely, almost zombie-like. Things only get weirder and, for Chris, more alarming from there.

So if you want to get analytical, there’s also a lot to work with here: issues of cultural appropriation and white liberal racism and even gender issues (the victim here is not the pretty white girl). One of the smarter movies out there.


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25th wedding anniversary party: An inside look

I did write a more detailed account of our anniversary party in early May, and I posted it here:

25th wedding anniversary party: An inside look

In that article, you will discover:

  • The perils of using evites
  • The effect of heavy rain on travel plans
  • The tragedy of the missing chocolate mousse with ginger ice cream
  • The secret campaign my sister waged against me for years
  • My ongoing struggles with footwear
  • Why some people thought that Jean and I might be in a rock band (or that Jean likes to disguise himself as a rock star)

And more!

(Any commenting will have to be done back here, though, where WordPress helps me manage any spam-bots.)