Les Miserables is a triumph on the big screen, with stellar performances by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, and many others. But the one who took my breath away was relative unknown Samantha Barks, who played the lovely Eponine.

For those unfamiliar with Les Misérables, Éponine is the young daughter of an innkeeper (played by Cohen) during the 1832 June rebellion in France. Although she is madly in love with her best friend, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), he only has eyes for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the film’s protagonist, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Terribly saddened and disappointed that her Marius loves another, Éponine has to decide whether to help him find his beloved Cosette.

George Saintsbury, literary scholar, once said that Éponine was the most interesting character in the novel, but that its author Victor Hugo, like Marius, did not take enough notice of her. I could not agree with him more.

Samantha Barks plays Éponine with such a grace, sweetness and sadness that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. For the time that she was on-screen, she really stole the movie, with her passion and a voice that could only come from Heaven. Although other more well known actors in the film will receive most of the recognition (most notably, the spectacular Hugh Jackman), Barks is the actress who really made the movie for me.

With the spectacular performance Barks put into the film, you would think she had been in a wide variety of movies before, but actually, she has no big screen experience at all. Barks, now age 22, recorded her first album in 2007 and the following year she placed third in a talent competition hosted by Andrew Lloyd Webber. From 2010 to 2011, she played Éponine in the London stage production of Les Misérables, and from 2011 to 2012, she played Nancy in the UK tour of Oliver.

She left the play in order to put her heart and soul into the film version of Les Misérables.

I would watch the entire film over again just to see Barks sing. I hope to see more of this surprising young talent as the years progress.


After much anticipation, I finally had the opportunity to watch Spike Lee’s documentary, Bad 25, about Michael Jackson’s historic album. And what a treat it was!

I have been a fan of Michael Jackson for many years and so was thrilled when director Spike Lee decided to air the documentary on American Thanksgiving.

The film focuses on the creation of the album, Bad, as this is the 25th anniversary of its release. It brings together key players who worked on the album, including the one and only Quincy Jones. It shows Martin Scorsese and his crew, directing Michael and a slew of dancers in a  New York City subway station, filming the video for the album’s title song. It features a young Wesley Snipes in his ‘movie’ acting debut – remember him from  the Bad video? And it includes comments about the album from contemporary artists like Chris Brown and Kanye West.

There were so many wonderful moments in Michael’s career that Lee managed to capture in this film. Highlights for me  included interviews with songwriters, composers, studio musicians and choreographers who collaborated with Michael to make the album and its music videos the works of art that they are today.

As a dance fan, I enjoyed hearing how the choreographers got their inspiration and put together their moves, and how they worked with Michael to bring these moves to fruition. Michael always knew what he wanted to portray and how he wanted to portray it but the choreographers added to his creative process significantly. From the ‘pop and lock’ moves of ‘Bad’ to the Fred Astaire-type stylings of ‘Smooth Criminal,’ Michael’s videos  were always a tribute to dance.

Here are a few pieces of information that I did not previously know, about my favourite songs off the album:

-In ‘Smooth Criminal,’ did you ever question why Michael sang the lyric ‘Annie, are you OK?’ over and over? This is  something I always wondered about and apparently so did Chris Brown and Kanye  West. It turns out that at the time he had an interest in learning CPR, and the dummies used in training for CPR are named Anne. That’s one mystery solved! However, we are still left with the greater mystery of how the dancers managed to do the ‘Smooth Criminal Lean’ dance move. It is a move I have tried to recreate countless times in my living room.

-The ‘pretty girl’ who basically stole the entire ‘Way You Make Me Feel’ video was model/actress Tatiana Thumbtzen, and she is still beautiful today. She holds the distinction of being the only person from the documentary – other than Michael – that my Facebook friends actually commented about. Apparently many young men had huge crushes on her.

-‘Liberian Girl’ was a tribute to beautiful African women, as many may have already known. What I did not know is that despite the constant criticism Michael received about wanting to ‘look  white,’ he actually had a great interest in African people and visited the continent many times.

-The songwriter for ‘Man in the Mirror’ was Siedah Garrett, who also sang ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ in a duet with  Michael. As a writer, I really enjoyed learning about what inspired her to come up with the lyrics for Man in the Mirror, especially the title, and how she  lobbied Quincy Jones to consider the song for the album. I can only imagine how  thrilling it must have been for her to hear Quincy say how much he loved the song, to have Michael record it in his own unique and captivating way, and then to see the reaction from people all over the world.

The film ends with just Michael on  stage, singing a stirring rendition of that very song. After watching an hour and a half of dazzling choreography with scores of dancers and many other people in the King of Pop’s career, it was refreshing to see just Michael, singing his heart out, and remembering what a great entertainer he truly was.

Note: The television version of Bad 25, reviewed in this article, was edited from the original version. About half hour was edited out for TV. The original, full-length documentary will be available on DVD in February.

Just in time for Movember…

A man recently found one of his ex-girlfriend’s unused pregnancy tests in his apartment. As a joke, he took the test. Much to his surprise, it turned out positive. Little did he know at the time, but this test may have saved his life.

As reported by The  Huffington Post, when the man told friends about his positive pregnancy test, they laughed and decided to post a cartoon about it on Reddit. Some who  commented on the post had a good laugh too. But others raised concern about the positive test, telling the man to get tested for testicular cancer.

It turns out that the pregnancy test screens for elevated levels of a hormone called HCG (human chorionic  gonadotropin), and men with testicular cancer also have increased levels of this hormone.

The man took his test result to a doctor, who confirmed that he did indeed have a small testicular tumour. Luckily, it was caught at an early enough stage that it could be treated.

Before all men start running out and getting pregnancy tests though, The American Cancer Society has informed CNN that most men with testicular cancer do not have high enough levels of the HCG hormone to be caught by a pregnancy test. The best way to screen for testicular cancer is to do a self examination for lumps on the testicles.

The American Cancer Society  representative, Dr. Ted Gansler, went on to say that other types of cancer, such  as pancreas, lung, stomach or other cancers, may sometimes have HCG levels high enough to cause a positive pregnancy test result.

Some feel pole dancing is a wonderful way to get aerobic exercise. Others think of its traditional sexual connotations. But what do you think about a dance and fitness studio that offers pole dancing basics for kids as young as five?

The Twisted Grip Dance and Fitness Studio in British Columbia is offering weekend pole aerobics classes this fall aimed at children called  “Little Spinners.” Lessons are offered down to age five, says The National Post. Other studios are joining in the trend.

Twisted Grip studio owner and certified  fitness instructor Kristy Craig says she is simply catering to her adult clients’ demands. Apparently some of her clients have daughters that play on the  poles at home; they wanted their daughters to learn how to do the moves safely.

Ryan Gosling once said in the movie Crazy Stupid Love that “We won [the war between the sexes] the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.” Regardless what we think of that  statement, one thing is true: pole dancing still holds a sexual stigma. Do we really want to draw our young girls into this activity when their thoughts about body image and sexuality have not even formed yet?

Now just imagine an 11-year-old girl  who takes pole dancing lessons. She tells her friends at school. Gossip goes around. Regardless of how much exercise benefit there is, people, and preteens especially, will judge. Depending on her popularity level, it could be seen at school as a ‘cool thing.’ Or it could make her the victim of sexual bullying and  ostracization from her peers.

And what about the effect of this  activity on a girl’s body image and self esteem? With all the other more empowering sports available, does she really need to do pole dancing? Will she start judging herself and wonder if she is ‘sexy enough’ to do the sport? Girls  have enough self image issues to deal with as it is.

I think this is just one more example of the sexualization of young girls by businesses and the media. Moms eager to get their girls into an activity they can enjoy together may not realize the  risks.

As the AboutKidsHealth  website from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children puts it:

Clothing stores sell thongs for seven- to ten-year-olds, some with  slogans like “wink, wink” or “eye candy.” In child beauty pageants, girls as young as five wear fake teeth, make-up, and hair extensions, and are encouraged  to flirt with the audience by batting their false-eyelash-laden eyes. Magazines, television, and the Internet abound with images portraying girls… as sexualized objects. There is growing evidence that this sex-saturated culture harms healthy psychological development among both boys and girls.

I have no problem with pole dancing but  I think it should be done by women and not impressionable young girls who don’t understand the sexual background and connotations of the sport. What’s your opinion?

We originally thought yes, but our kids convinced us no. Much as I love downtown Toronto, it is not a place we will be raising our children.

When kids are little, before they start school, you can live anywhere. When they get a bit older, they are still quite malleable and adjust easily to your wishes. Once they reach tween age, though, they get pretty set in  their ways. So you can imagine when we tried to convince our brood, age 10 and 12, to move from the heart of small town suburbia to the big city of Toronto: their response was a resounding “No Way!”

The fact is, we were bored to tears in our pretty little small town. Bless all the lovely residents there but I  don’t know how they can stand it. Once the kids get past a certain age and lose  interest in kiddie bands at the bandstand, there is absolutely nothing to do.  Life revolves mostly around shuttling kids from one sporting activity to the  next. That’s great but we needed more. We wanted to move to downtown Toronto,  home of awesome festivals, parks, cultural activities, a thriving arts scene,  ethnic restaurants galore, and beautiful green spaces.

The kids were divided on the prospect  of moving but united on their idea of avoiding downtown Toronto. The older one,  our son, was fine with moving but, despite his love of architecture  and cities, he did not want to live downtown. Our daughter was dead set against  moving at all. Both worried that the kids in the areas of Toronto we could  afford would be far more street smart/tough and prone to bullying. I must admit,  that is the main reason we did not move to Toronto.

Affordable areas in Toronto, like Leslieville, seem hit and miss in terms of their safety, as far as I’m concerned, and if the area doesn’t look that safe, I don’t feel confident that the schools will be. I could be far off base on that assumption but it is how I  have always felt.

More snazzy areas like Harbourfront or family friendly spots like The Beach are just way too  expensive. Now that I think of it, I don’t see how people are going to be able  to afford these proposed three-bedroom condo units at King St. and John St. but it seems many don’t mind being house poor. And everything costs more in Toronto: daycare if you need it, camps, activities, everything.

So we settled on a compromise: Markham, located just outside Toronto. This place is perfect. It has its share of awesome festivals, parks, cultural activities, a thriving arts scene, restaurants galore and beautiful green spaces but is more affordable than downtown Toronto. Markham  also has some of the top schools in Ontario and amazing extracurricular  activities — everything from rock climbing to fashion design to Flash animation  to curling and every other sport imaginable. It is a thriving city in its own  right, with a bustling business community and a good public transit system. Most  important, it is ethnically diverse, something that was missing in our previous ‘burb.

Markham is close to downtown Toronto, which comes in handy if we have to run down to the Hospital for Sick Children — something we had to do a lot of this year — or if we just want to visit our  favourite big city. Markham is near Stouffville, which is more ‘farmy’ and has  wonderful horseback riding, an activity that occupies much of our time. Markham  is also close to Musselman’s Lake, which we go to almost every weekend because  it offers a fun and inexpensive camping resort with tons of great summer  activities.

Our goal is still to move to downtown  Toronto someday, when the kids are finished with high school. Until then, we can  visit often and experience all the city has to offer. In fact, every Thursday we  drive to Harbourfront to do fun stuff with the kids and our dog at PawsWay,  go kayaking in the little man made pond, check out the boats, and catch some  Latin dancing. That’s our Toronto fix for now, and it’s enough.

Just when you thought you heard all the remakes of Carly Rae Jepsen’s mega hit “Call Me Maybe,” the one and only Cookie Monster has done his own version, belting out lyrics about his cookie cravings.

This YouTube video is adorable for two reasons. First, it’s Cookie Monster, singing about his incessant cookie addiction to the tune of Carly Rae’s catchy song. Cookie’s version is called ‘Share It Maybe.’ Here’s a sampling of the lyrics:

You cookie showing, and me hunger growing, let’s get skim milk flowing, we’ll start this snack going baby!
Hey, me just met you, and this is crazy, but you got cookie so share it maybe.

Second, as Huffington Post points out, the video is set in an office similar to where most parents will likely (want to) be munching cookies and checking out YouTube videos. The office workers break into a dance number while Cookie tries to get his hands on his favourite treat.

Sesame Street built some buzz on June 18 by tweeting out lyrics from the Cookie-fied song. And now we have the video! Is it better than the original?

To date, Carly Rae’s original song, which hit number one in June on the iTunes singles chart and Billboard’s Hot 100, has received over 148 million views. According to Mashable, the song has been “covered, parodied, lip-dubbed and danced to by countless athletes, half-naked models, musicians, digital versions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a public relations agency and many more people on YouTube.”

It seems a lot of teens are emailing or texting nude pictures of themselves to other teens even if the request to do so made them feel uncomfortable.

In a recent study, 948 public high school students, age 14 to 19 years, were asked about their history of dating, sexual behaviours, and sexting. For the purposes of this study, the term ‘sexting’ was limited to the sending or requesting of nude photographs. The investigators also asked the teens who received requests for naked photos whether they were bothered by such requests.

The researchers found that 57 percent of teens had been asked to send a nude photo by text or e-mail, 28 percent had sent such a photo, and 31 percent had asked another teen for a naked photo. The proportion of teens who said they were asked to send a nude photo peaked at age 16 or 17, then declined in those age 18 and older.

As might be expected, boys were more than twice as likely to have requested a nude photo than girls. Of those who received requests to send a nude picture, almost all girls and more than half of boys felt uncomfortable with the request.

Girls who had sent or received nude photos were more likely to have participated in risky sex behaviour, including multiple sex partners, and use of drugs or alcohol before sex. The same was not true for boys.
The researchers concluded that health care providers need to talk to their teen patients about sexting and risky sexual behaviours.

All of this makes me wonder: what can we do as parents to help our teens understand that sending nude photos can hurt them in the long run? The study findings show that girls, in particular, are likely to send such a picture even if they feel uncomfortable about the request. Does this mean they are doing it as a way of keeping a boy impressed, or out of some sort of pressure? How can parents instill confidence in their girls to say no, and to know that a boy who is really worth their time will stand by them even if they don’t send a photo? This is the sort of question I would like to see psychologists addressing.