“Hunger Games” a trip back to high school

The movie that’s all the hype this week is The Hunger Games. I hadn’t planned on seeing it, but its $155 million opening at the box office and the fact I have a little more free time than usual this week changed my mind. So I took in a matinee yesterday along with six or seven other people.

I knew very little about the story going into it. I haven’t read the book. I am not a member of any of its fansites. But I can see why this franchise has hit a nerve with young people.

Three thumbs up for "The Hunger Games."

The author has said she came up with the concept by combining the worlds of reality TV and the Iraq war. Makes total sense. However, as I watched the movie, I thought a lot about high school.

School can be a harsh battlefield. It’s not just about studying and getting good grades, but learning to get along with teachers and fellow students to survive. Yes, survive.

Friendships can end as fast as they begin. Some people are cool and others are immediately labeled geeks. Pressure is a constant. You form alliances to get yourself as far to the end as possible. But in the back of your mind you know you will be competing with these same people at some point.

There can only be one valedictorian. There can only be one captain of the football team. There can only be one prom Queen.

I hear many high schools have put The Hunger Games on the reading list, putting it up there with the likes of 1984 and Lord of the Flies. I am glad to see it. This is the kind of book that should be taught and discussed, and not merely dismissed as a “tween” obsession.

This is not another stupid love story about vampires that has teenagers flocking to theatres. Teens – and former teens – are going for a good reason this time.

Thanks for sharing, Jim Steele

I love people like Jim Steele. Not only does he live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, he shares its breathtaking imagery with family and friends – and strangers – every day.

I read about Steele in The Toronto Star over the weekend. The photographer shoots the sunrise from his home in Indian Brook in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia every morning and e-mails the pictures to his list of subscribers. We should all be so lucky – to start each day viewing a masterpiece of Mother Nature. And thanks to Steele and modern technology, we can.

Jim's photo.

Beyond that, this story says a lot about the relationship between art, artist and audience. Jim could easily take the photographs for himself and file them away. He could enjoy them on his own and no one would know the difference.

Instead, he takes four hours a day to prepare the photos for distribution. This act of sharing has created connections with people he never could have otherwise – like me. That’s because Jim not only has the drive to create the photographs, but also to make them available to his fans beyond the local gallery. Now he is known around the world.

This story particularly touched me because of my fond memories of Nova Scotia when I travelled there in 2008. I spent three days driving the famed Cabot Trail and sampling seafood chowder and lobster sandwiches at every stop. It was quite an adventure and I will jump at any chance to go back there. Thank you, Jim Steele, for making it possible.

Andy's photo.


A century of Broadway in two hours

I do love the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s “pops” concerts. I was introduced to them, as many of us were, by legendary conductor Erich Kunzel, who was widely known as the “king of pops.” Although he passed away in 2009 it’s good to see the tradition he started continues here and in other cities.

Listening to a world-class orchestra playing favourite tunes from film and theatre is a great way to spend an afternoon, whether you’re a senior (the bulk of the audience) or have a child in daycare (my wife and I).

This week, guest conductor Jeff Tyzik guided us through a programme that spanned 100 years, starting with “Give My Regards to George” and ending with three numbers from Phantom of the Opera. Providing vocals were two stars from Broadway – Christiane Noll and Doug LaBrecque.

I enjoyed the whole show, but there were a few numbers that stood out, such as the medley from Showboat, selections from My Fair Lady and the West Side Story overture. But nothing topped Christiane’s rendition of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” which moved the audience – and herself – to tears.

What I looked forward to most was the medley from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which was arranged by the great Henry Mancini. I wasn’t disappointed. It contained the main theme, as well as my two favourite songs, “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

The music from Superstar is still fresh in my mind from last summer’s excellent Stratford Festival production, which officially opens on Broadway today. This is probably as good a time as any to wish the show’s all-Canadian cast the best of luck in the Big Apple. It’s a hit show – let’s just hope the critics see it that way.

The last pops concert of the TSO season is the “Sci-Fi Spectacular” in May and will be hosted by Star Trek‘s own Mr. Sulu (George Takei). Needless to say I already have my tickets. Do you?

Another Stratford star joins Star Trek family

A third actor has made the leap from the Stratford (Ontario) stage to the set of a Star Trek movie – Nazneen Contractor.  As everyone knows, the talented Canadian performer follows in the footsteps of fellow Shakespearean thespians Christopher Plummer (General Chang) and William Shatner (Captain Kirk).

With her casting in JJ Abrams sequel to "Star Trek," Nazneen Contractor becomes the third Stratford (Ontario) Festival star to become part of the Star Trek family.

While she’s probably best known for her roles in the popular TV series 24 and The Border, she made a big impression during her short time at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the town of Stratford, Ontario. She was only with the festival for two seasons, during which she performed in Pericles and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both shows were directed by Leon Rubin and received excellent reviews, especially Pericles (2003), which I enjoyed (mostly because of her).

She’s not only a welcome addition to the Star Trek family because she’s Canadian, but because she’s a damn fine actor. Check out what Toronto Star theatre reviewer Richard Ouzounian had to say about Contractor’s performance in Pericles:

Add to this the single most impressive Stratford debut I can recall: that of Nazneen Contractor as Pericles’ daughter, Marina. This young woman blazes with intensity and turns the character’s virtuous integrity (which can seem cloying) into a positive life-force.

She, too, speaks the verse with beauty, and her recognition scene with Goad is played at such emotional intensity that most of the opening night audience was moved to tears.

Star Trek could be a breakout role for Contractor, which is obviously good for career, but bad for anyone hoping she might make it back to Stratford one day.

What do we know about Contractor’s role in Star Trek? Absolutely nothing. Well, that’s not quite true. We know she plays the “wife of family man,” who is played by Noel Clarke. If you count that as a spoiler, I feel sorry for you.

We’ll learn more about her character closer to the film’s release date in May 2013. Until then, at least we have more reason to hope the movie won’t suck.

Christopher Plummer (Stratford, 1967)

William Shatner (Stratford, 1954)

The Phantom Menace: to 3D or not 3D?

The re-release of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 3D is officially a box office success. The film has grossed nearly $80 million worldwide and has crossed the $1 billion threshold – the first Star Wars film to join the prestigious billon-dollar club.

It may surprise you to know that I have not contributed a penny to its box office receipts. Not that I’m opposed to seeing the Star Wars saga in 3D. I would simply prefer to see the films in the order that I originally saw them, which is the order I think everyone should see them. PRODUCTION ORDER.

Out of order: Once again, George Lucas puts dollars before sense.

One of the reasons the Star Wars prequels work for me is that the original trilogy came first. Having experienced the adventures of Luke and Han, what fan wouldn’t be curious to know the Skywalker family history? What happened to Luke and Leia’s mother? Why did Anakin turn to the Dark Side? Was Yoda always green?

I pity any Star Wars fan that watches The Empire Strikes Back today and doesn’t share Luke’s utter shock and disgust when Darth Vader reveals hismself to be Luke’s father. But if you start with Episode I, this is not news to you. However, when I first saw the film in 1980, my friends and I debated for three years whether it was the truth or a lie.

George Lucas is a great filmmaker, but an even greater business man. He knows that releasing films in chronological order will mean more box office bucks for him and his Empire. I know legions of fans are going to see The Phantom Menace, and pay premium 3D ticket prices, just to ensure the release of the Original Trilogy down the line.

Thanks to all of you! I look forward to joining you all in line in 2015, with my son (who will be about 6 by then), to see A New Hope – the best of all the Star Wars films – in its 3D incarnation. Until then, Lucas will have to wait a little bit longer to get more of my money.

Takei exits “Celebrity Apprentice” like a gentleman

When I first heard George Takei was going to be a participant on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” I was excited and afraid at the same time. You see, my gut told me that being a “nice guy” meant he would not last long and, as we recently found out, he did not.

He may have played a great Starship Captain on the silver screen, but Takei didn’t strike me as having the right attributes to succeed on Donald Trump’s show. After all, he is honest, well mannered, and respectful. So I worried that he would be eaten alive.

Well, I was glad to see that I was only partially right. Takei did fail at his first task as project manager, and the loss for the team proved to be his undoing. He was fired.

Fired but not fired up: George Takei shows us how to make a classy exit.

But he maintained every ounce of his integrity until the end. He didn’t deny his mistakes. He didn’t throw the blame on to other teammates that probably deserved it (you hear me Arsenio?). Like a true leader he took the fall and walked out of Trump Tower – unlike many other contestants – with all the class in the world.

I don’t think the task was a fair test of his abilities and I would have liked to see him have another shot at project management. But even though he lost, I must say I have more respect for George Takei than ever before because of the dignified way he handled the situation. Way to go, George! You are a true winner in my eyes.

I can’t wait to see him on stage soon with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. If you don’t have your tickets yet, get them now.


Shakespeare recited by an “original Klingon”

Christopher Plummer is one of the world’s finest Shakespearean actors. Whether on the stage of the Stratford Festival or the soundstage of a “Star Trek” movie, his command of Shakespeare would even move the Bard himself to tears. He was a star before his recent Oscar win, but it’s still nice to see a fellow Canadian win Hollywood’s top prize.

I regret missing his concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last September, Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario, in which he combined readings from the Shakespeare play with music from the 1944 film adaptation. However, I stumbled upon a similar concert that is available online.

The opening gala Concert of Ottawa’s Music and Beyond Festival featured Plummer, who created a “Shakespeare and Music” concert. He recites famous Shakespearean passages in between selections by Mendelssohn, Korngold, Rota,  and others.

Any fan of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” knows Plummer played General Chang, the Shakespeare-obsessed Klingon warrior that featured an eye-patch and bald head. I haven’t counted how many Shakespearean lines rolled off his tongue during the movie, but there are a lot, and I know it made me hungry to see and hear more of him doing Shakespeare.

You can't appreciate Shakespeare until you've heard it in the original Klingon languarge.

The Ottawa concert is available online here:


If you like it as much as I did, you’ll definitely want to follow up with a repeat viewing of “Star Trek VI.”

Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.

Loving “I Hate You”

Why would the soundtrack to “Star Trek IV” be in the news again? After all, the movie came out in 1986.

We can thank an expanded edition of the soundtrack released by Intrada a few months ago.

I always loved this album. Composer Leonard Rosenman (“Rebel Without A Cause,” “Fantastic Voyage”) brought a new sound to “Star Trek” to match the wit and humour of the script. The music was just as refreshing as the story itself.

The new disc has a lot going for it. Alternate cues. Unreleased takes. New material. But why this re-release put such a big smile on my face is the inclusion of a track entitled “I Hate You.” It was heard during one of the movie’s many lighter moments. You will remember it well. A “punk on the bus” refuses to turn down his loud and obnoxious music, so Spock takes matters into his own hands – literally – by giving him a Vulcan neck pinch. He wins a round of applause from fellow bus riders, including Captain Kirk.

This track includes such memorable lyrics as:

The sins of all our fathers, being dumped on us the sons.

The only choice we’re given is how many megatons?

And I eschew you! And I say, screw you!

Like many others, I tried to learn more about this song by scrutinizing the film’s end credits, which state the composer as “Edge of Etiquette.” But that was a dead end. Indeed, the brains behind it was “Star Trek IV” associate producer Kirk Thatcher, who not only wrote the lyrics – he played the punk as well!

The song appears for the first time on this re-released soundtrack, and if you want to laugh like you did the first time you saw this movie, I suggest you pick up this disc. It’s the best 20 bucks I’ve spent in 2012.


Photos reveal “Star Trek” sequel filming with IMAX cameras

The first unofficial set pictures from the as-yet-untitled “Star Trek” sequel have been leaking all over the Web. We’ve seen Zach Quinto chatting casually on a cellphone wearing his pointy ears and Zoe Saldana and Christ Pine sitting together in a golf cart. Exciting stuff.
But the most revealing photo is not Zoe Saldana in her skimpy Trek uniform. It’s a picture that contains a camera. An IMAX Camera.

Did you spot the IMAX camera in this shot?

This guarantees a release of the film in IMAX theatres when it debuts in May 2013. It’s great news for “Star Trek” fans and IMAX fans, many of whom are the same people. Director JJ Abrams himself is on the record as an IMAX fan and it should be interesting to see how he makes use of the giant-screen format.

More and more filmmakers in Hollywood are experiementing with IMAX. For instance, about half of the upcoming “Dark Knight Rises” is being filmed in IMAX following on the success of “The Dark Knight,” which had about 20 minutes shot in IMAX.

It’s not a surprising decision by Paramount. The first “Star Trek” film was a $250 million (North America) hit and had a successful two-week run in IMAX theatres. Seeing the new “Star Trek” movie in IMAX 3D will be an added thrill and definitely worth the few extra few bucks. Let’s just hope the movie doesn’t suck.

Nice outfit: Zoe Saldana in a tense moment on the set of "Star Trek 2."