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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the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.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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Not the news

A lot of grim things are happening in the world, the sun was awol for much of January, and I succumbed to one of the season’s cold viruses last week. (And now Jean is complaining of chills.)

But hey, instead complaining at length about all that, I’ll list a few things that made me happy in the past few weeks.

1. KW Glee: Redux

Two years ago we were blown away by a KW Glee (show choir) + KW Symphony concert. This year they did it again. There’s just deep entertainment value in watching a huge group of talented, enthusiastic, and attractive young people sing and dance to popular songs, in costume, while accompanied by a full orchestra.

Last time I had mentioned that I didn’t know a lot of the songs performed—they were too current for me. This time they rectified that with a set from various eras. To the point where I felt kind of bad that they were played so little of of their own generation’s music, though there was one Imagine Dragons song and one by David Guetta / Sia, both very powerful performances.

Other highlights were:

  • That old Gap commercial come to life during “Jump, Jive, and Wail”
  • The outstanding youth singer (a girl—don’t know any names) wailing through the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and “I Want You Back”
  • The beautiful contemporary dance accompanying “Falling Slowly”, from Once
  • Not one, not two, but four different lead female singers proving they were up to the challenge of singing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.
  • “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Performed in full, featuring two lead singers, one male, one female, and treated not as campy fun, but as the somber piece it actually is. Outstanding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjgbj45yXmA

  • The virtual re-enactment of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” music video.
  • The youth choir’s 80s attire during one segment, some of which looked like it actually dated from that time. The “Frankie Say Relax” T-shirt was my favourite.
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Remember the 80s? These kids don’t, but they’re dressing the part anyway.

  • The youth boys running scared during “Ghostbusters” only to be have the youth girls toughly emerge, declaring that they were “Bad”.
  • The use of sign language during “Imagine”—very touching, somehow.
  • The terrific soul singer who performed “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)”. (It is great that so many of the participants get to try a lead, but with some of them, you do wish for more than one song!)
  • The reprise of “Hallelujah” that blew everyone away last time, performed by the same quartet, back from university for the occasion.

A Spotify playlist of their set list!

2. The Good Place

Holy motherforking shirtballs, The Good Place was good.

This is a half-hour, 13-episode, network TV show starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, debuted this year to very little notice—Jean’s the only other person I know who watches it.

But it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. And I’m loathe to even say that much about it, as it was so much fun to go along for the ride. And it’s so full of twists! Also, hilarious! Week to week, it was the show I found myself looking forward to most.

I will give the premise. Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a not-so-stellar human being while alive, is surprised to find herself in “the good place” (yeah, that one) after she dies. They have somehow mixed her up with some good Eleanor! How does she stay in the good place?

Look, I know there’s too much good TV, no one can keep with it all. So I won’t say you must watch The Good Place. I will just point out that if you do, it might make you happy. And that at 13 22-minute episodes, it’s less time-consuming that many series. And that despite mediocre ratings, it has already been renewed for season 2, so you don’t have to worry about being left hanging.

If nothing else, you can watch this Season 1 trailer—just 2:20

3. Sandra Shamas: The Big What Now

We were in Toronto last weekend.

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And by the way, Jean won another photo contest recently. (Not with this photo. Just thought I’d mention it now.)

8875While there, we went to Sandra Shamas’ one-woman show about “climbing mount menopause”. Despite that intro and the predominantly female audience, it wasn’t all about the hormonal challenges of being over 50. She covered a gamut of topics from her life.

Having recently dealt with a series of similar plumbing issues, we could relate to the mix of disgust and determination in which she handled the events that started when she flushed her toilet and it “came up my bathtub”. I took (hypothetical) heart in her discovery—having failed to make herself lesbian (“turns out it’s not a choice!”)—via dating apps, that plenty of 20-something men will seek the attention of women in their 50s. (She can’t bring herself to take advantage. “Does your mother know what you’re up to?”)

I wonder if I, too, will soon be entering my “ranting” years. (“I always talked to myself. Now I do it in public. And I’m angry!”) And it was hard not to be inspired by how she made it through a serious ice storm two years ago: “I was without hydro for 8 days. But I was never without power.”

Toronto Star review of the show

4. Queen + Adam Lambert

They’re back! In North America, back! And they kicked it off with an appearance on the Late Late Show that soon went viral:

Front man battle: Adam Lambert vs. James Corden foronting Queen


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A most terrible year?

The year-end reviews certainly are gloomy this year. A sort of consensus that it’s hard to find anything good to say about 2016.

And for residents of some countries, that was certainly true. Poor Haiti had yet another earthquake. Syria! A daily dose of tragedy, made all the worse because our countries were involved in trying to stop it. And the Venezuelans—suffering under an incompetent President, their economic situation already bad and getting worse daily.

But as a global aggregate, the fact is that a lot of things are improving. (These charts don’t all include 2015—and can’t include 2016 yet, as it’s not done!—but the trends shown did not reverse themselves last year.)

Extreme poverty is down, and real incomes are up.

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This one is for Canada specficially

People are healthier.

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Life expectancy is also up, globally

Education rates are much higher.

literate-and-illiterate-world-populationHomicide (and other crime rates) are down, even in gun-happy US.

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I think the source of all this gloom is the US election and its highly unfortunate result. Had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College, Brexit would seem a weird mess the Brits got themselves into rather than part of an alarming global trend. We could celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and some actual action on the front (carbon pricing in Canada! Mon dieux!) instead of feeling it’s all a bit for naught now. The loss of beloved celebrities, some at alarmingly young ages (had not realized just how contemporaneous George Michael and I were), would be just a sad thing that eventually happens to us all, and not a pile-on when we don’t want more bad news (on Christmas Day? Really?).

However… while the mood is understandable, it’s still troubling. Because it’s pessimism, and a nostalgic belief that things were better before, and a denial of the inconvenient fact that things are actually pretty good right now—that the President-Elect ran on and got himself elected with.

It’s not a good place to settle in, mentally. It leads to hopelessness, and inactino. This one bad event didn’t make all of 2016 terrible. (And not to bring down the room, but won’t it be worse once he’s actually in office?)

But in 2016, the US had a great President.

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The 2016 Olympics were fun and kind of inspiring.

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The number of women of colour elected to the US Senate in 2016 has quadrupled.

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After a serious health scare last year, Roger Daltrey came back with a Who 2016 tour.

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In 2016 the Canadian federal government and its gender-balanced cabinet made significant progress on trade with Europe, climate change, safe injection sites, assisted dying legislation, pipeline approvals (and rejections), and improvements to the Election Act.

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The Hamilton Mixtape, released December 2016, was awesome.

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And Saturday Night Live (and other satirical programs) provided some catharsis.

“I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”


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Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

Just because you find that life’s not fair it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.

My interest in seeing the musical Matilda was mainly that the music was written by Tim Minchin, a comedian-musician whose songs often promote reason, science, and humanism. And also cheese.

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The show has also received a number of awards, though, and a great review in the Globe and Mail, so I was pleased when my sister and brother-in-law agreed to go see it with me while Jean was off canoeing.

The play opens with a chorus of children whose doting, self-esteem-boosting parents lead them to be believe they are special little princes and princesses. “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days / Specialness seems de rigueur.” By contrast, Matilda really is remarkable—a genius. Her thick parents don’t know what to make of her love of books and stories; they can barely stand to have her around.

In her big number, Matilda’s mother explains that “People don’t like smarty-pants / What go round claiming / That they know stuff / We don’t know / Content, has never been less important… You’ve just got to be loud.” (This is truly a musical of our time.)

School should be an oasis for such a child, but Matilda’s school is run by the authoritarian Miss Trunchbull. Played by a large man (Dan Chameroy), she cuts a ridiculous-looking figure, but is a terrifying adversary nonetheless—a bully who brooks no dissent, who cares little about fainess (once she decides you’re guilty, you’re guilty), and who favours cruel punishments.

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Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

Besides the town librarian (delightfully played by Keisha T. Fraser), the only one on Matilda’s side is her teacher, Miss Honey, who calls herself pathetic for not being more effective at standing up to Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents. Matilda, endowed with a sense of justice as deep as her intelligence, realizes that this is a battle she must fight for herself. (With a little help from her schoolmates.)

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me
Nobody but me is gonna change my story
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Three young girls alternate the role of Matilda in the Toronto production. We got Hannah Levinson, who was dang amazing, delivering each line with such clarity and perfect timing that you never doubted her sharp, mature mind. She also had a lovely singing voice.

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Hannah Levinson as Matilda. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

With intermission, the play runs just over 2.5 hours. It moves along well, with none of the numbers seeming to drag—proving that Tim Minchin can write songs advocating intelligence, self-determination, justice, and education, without expletives in them. Much like the rest of his oeuvre, Matilda is often thought-provoking and moving—but still kind of fun!

Trailer for Matilda the Musical in Toronto


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Mozart in the what-now?

The fact that Mozart in the Jungle won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes caused some consternation. I’m not going to argue that it was the best among the nominees, three of which I haven’t seen the nominated seasons of, and two of which—Silicon Valley and Transparent—I’d concede are more daring programs than Mozart.

But (even though the Globes are basically ridiculous), I couldn’t help be happy that this little show no one’s heard of got some attention. It is a fun one to watch!

So back to my list of TV shows of 2015:

Under the radar

  1. The Americans – Shomi / FX
  2. Borgen – TVO (originally on Danish television)
  3. Catastrophe – Shomi / BBC
  4. iZombie – Shomi / CW

5. Today’s feature: Mozart in the Jungle – Shomi / Amazon

The premise: Mozart in the Jungle looks at the workings of the New York Symphony as it ushers in a new, young, edgy maestro known simply as Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). He’s determined to shake up and revitalize the Symphony. In this effort, he has the support of symphony President, Gloria (Bernadette Peters), but not necessarily of the major donors and symphony union members.

Aching to join this organization is young oboe player, Hailey (Lola Kirke). She befriends cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), which gives her a bit of an in, but it’s not going to be a smooth ride for Hailey. The series shifts between the symphony goings-on and Hailey’s jobs (oboe teaching, mostly), roomates, and potential love interests.

Notable participants: Apart from Gael Garcia Bernal and Bernadette Peters (whom I can’t believe is 68—she looks amazing!), the series has notable guest stars such as Malcolm McDowell as Thomas, the previous maestro; Jason Schwartzman as an arts blogger; and John Hodgman as an arts patron.

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What’s good about it: It’s funny, and not too heavy, and it’s nice to have shows like that in the mix. The characters are varied and vibrant, with both genders well represented. The characters are passionate and attractive, and sexy scenes do sometimes ensue.

And as a regular symphony attendee, I really enjoy this “behind the scenes” look, even though events are clearly (I hope!) heightened for entertainment value. But I don’t think you have to be a classical music fan to enjoy the series; it’s not as though they play entire symphonies during episodes.

Mozart in the Jungle Season one trailer

Any qualms? Much of the humour derives from the eccentricities of artistic temperaments, with very odd behavior on the part of some characters. Sometimes walks that line between this is weird but interesting and kind of funny and what the hell is going here?.

  1. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Netflix

Critically acclaimed

  1. Agent Carter – CTV / ABC
  2. The Jinx – HBO
  3. Transparent – Shomi / Amazon

Popular successes

  1. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – CTV / ABC
  2. Amazing Race Canada – CTV
  3. Grace and Frankie – Netflix
  4. Silicon Valley – HBO


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2015 TV shows Part 1: iZombie and friends

Is there any more First World problem than “peak television”? “Wah! There’s too much stuff to watch!” But it’s kind of true. Between the various streaming services, HBO, and the networks, there have never been more hours of quality viewing available. There’s no keeping up with it all (and also having a life).

So, no one needs another list of TV shows to watch. Nevertheless, with apologies and with recognition that it most certainly leaves out many fine programs that I didn’t have the time or the inclination to watch, herewith is my best TV viewing of 2015.

Note: I was going to attempt to describe each listed series in this one post, but then I realized that could get really long. And who would have time to read all that, what with all this TV to watch? So let’s just make this a series. (Though like any series, one subject to cancellation at any time.) What could be more fitting for this medium?

Within each category, programs are listed in alphabetical order, as I can’t imagine ranking such vastly different series against each other.

Under the radar

Programs that, seems to me, aren’t that well-known.

  1. The Americans – Shomi / FX: I wrote about The Americans earlier in the year. Season 3 on Shomi later this month!
  2. Borgen – TVO (originally on Danish television)
  3. Catastrophe – Shomi / BBC: I wrote about Catastrophe as well. Season 2 available about now…

 

4. Today’s feature: iZombie – Shomi / CW

The premise: Based on a comic book, iZombie stars Rose McIver as Liv Moore, an over-achieving medical resident who, as shown in flashbacks, is zombified at a party a few months before the series starts. In this world, zombies retain their mental capacity as long as they regularly consume human brains. Liv manages her dietary needs by working at the coroner’s office, where her partner, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti, clues into her condition in episode 1. Everyone else in her life is mystified by her new behavior and look.

Adding to Liv’s challenges is that when she eat someone’s brain, she temporarily takes on some of their characteristics, be it passionate artist, warm country singer, reclusive computer genius, or psychopath killer. She also gets visions of what the deceased went through, and she uses these to work with police detective Babineaux (who thinks she’s a psychic) to solve murders.

iZombie official trailer

Notable participants: It’s produced by the same people responsible for Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero, and shares with that series the rapid-fire wit. As for the actors, though, I personally am not familiar with any of them. But Rose McIver is very good in what must be a challenging (but fun!) role. The casting, generally, is nicely diverse, and Robert Buckley, as Liv’s former finance Major, reminds me a lot of Scott Speedman.

What’s good about it: I like that that this series has self-contained, weekly murders to solve along with ongoing, season-long storylines. And that the characters have complexity and evolve and are generally likeable (even the villains). And that it’s mega-funny, yet delves into complex moral issues of what it means to be human. Happiness is complicated and rare for these characters (especially Liv and Major), but it’s not a depressing show.

It’s not quite at Buffy levels, but like that show, there’s more to it than its title and premise would suggest.

Any qualms? Whenever the characters apply actual science to zombie-ism (Liv and Ravi are doctors, after all), it doesn’t quite work for me. Zombie-ism just doesn’t seem scientifically possible.


 

  1. Mozart in the Jungle – Shomi / Amazon
  2. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Netflix

Critically acclaimed

We’ve all heard these ones are good. I generally agree—though some are likely overrated.

  1. Agent Carter – CTV / ABC
  2. The Jinx – HBO
  3. Transparent – Shomi / Amazon

(I’d add Netflix’ Jessica Jones here—or in some category—except that we haven’t finished the first season yet.)

Popular successes

A fair number of people watch these shows. The public isn’t always wrong.

  1. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – CTV / ABC
  2. Amazing Race Canada – CTV
  3. Grace and Frankie – Netflix
  4. Silicon Valley – HBO


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My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre)

My Internship in Canada is that rarest of things: a comedy about Canadian politics. The only other I can think of CBC’s adaptation of Terry Fallis’ fine novel The Best Laid Plans, which CBC rather made a hash of.

My Internship in Canada is more successful. It tells the story of independent MP (another rare thing!) from northern Quebec, Steve Guibord, who—in a parliament where the Conservatives have a very slim majority—finds himself with the deciding vote on whether Canada should join a war effort in the middle east.

My Internship in Canada (official trailer) – YouTube

Following all the drama with great excitement and interest is Guibord new Haitian assistant / intern, Souverain. Souverain proves of great help to Guibord, as he’s intelligent and very well-read on the subject of Canadian democracy. (His explanations to his fellow Haitians back home are also useful to any audience who might themselves not be so familiar with the intricacies of Canadian democracy.) He’s also not above sneaking around behind Guibord’s back, if it’s for the greater good.

Several women play important roles as well: his wife, who’s for the war; his daughter, who’s against it; a local reporter playing out the sometimes-tense relationship between media and politics; and the mayor of one of the main towns in his riding, who becomes increasingly (and hilariously) exasperated with Guibord’s last-minute cancellations.

Geography is also incredibly prominent. The riding is very large (“30 fois la grandeur de l’Haiti!”), and Guibord’s fear of flying make him entirely dependent on the highway system, targeted for protests by natives and truckers.

The laughs at the expense of a stuttering union spokesperson (get it?) are unfortunate, and I’m not entirely sure about the portrayal of the Haitians. Overall, though, this is a good-spirited, funny, and intelligent comedy.

In French with English subtitles.