Graphic Content – Hellboy

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
92/501Title: Hellboy
Mike Mignola
Year: 1994-now
Country: USA

From Life in Hell to Hellboy – that was not done on purpose, but it does make for a nice case of a chain name. Especially when the comics are nothing like each other. Seeing that Hellboy himself is a character that appears in comics other than his namesake, I just wanted to put it here that I just stuck with the Hellboy comics and followed the number guide on the Wikipedia page.

I had no idea that Hellboy was even a comic when I saw the second of the Guillermo Del Toro Hellboy films in the cinema. Now that I have read the original source material, granted Hellboy II: The Golden Army was an original story, I understand why people were so happy with Del Toro’s adaptation. I also get why he was the perfect director to bring it to the screen – the character designs and the occult supernatural elements are right in his wheelhouse.

As a comic, Hellboy has both a long running storyline involving demons, Nazis and other supernatural nasties as well as really well-done one-shots. The story that really has stuck with me, and I think would have made for an excellent short, The Wolves of Saint August. I guess a story of a sudden massacre in a remote Eastern European town at the hands of cursed werewolf spirits really spoke to me.

It feels like a long time since I have read a western superhero comic that I actually could not wait to start the next issue of. I have yet to finish my pile completely, so there will be a gap before I make my next comic post. Also it is Christmas and, other than the Hellboy Christmas special, this isn’t really a comic to be reading over Christmas.

XL Popcorn – Papillon

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 881/1009Title: Papillon
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Year: 1973
Country: USA

Patton, Planet of the Apes and Papillon. These aren’t just films on the 1001 list beginning with the same letter, but also the three entries on the list by Franklin J. Schaffner – a director who I wouldn’t have been able to name, but am now retroactively amazed at the quality and range of his output on this list. Really puts Godard’s eight entries and their lack of difference into perspective.

Okay, that was a low blow – but wow to have directed one of the most iconic sci-fi movies of all time and then go on to win an Oscar for a war film and then produce this story based on the (somewhat fictionalized) memoir of a man who was shipped off to the French penal colony of French Guyana and had to endure it’s many many hardships and made a number of escape attempts.

Weirdly the first time I had heard of this penal colony was not in this film, but in an episode of Time TunnelWho knew, a TV show with such a goofy credit sequence would end up being mildly educational. Although, obviously the on location shoots in tropical locales as depicted in Papillon really helped to put the isolation and the danger into a better perspective than the reusable sets of Time Tunnel.

If you are going into Papillon and are expecting something close to The Great Escape – then get ready for something a lot grittier. There is no levity in this film, instead it is a pretty straightforward and sometimes brutal tale of what man will do to one another – for good or for ill.

We see our main character – the titular Papillon, played by Steve McQueen in typically great form – go through two separate stints in solitary confinement (the second one being for five years) where he is starved, ages severely and ends up eating insects to make up for the lack of food. We also see him go through all this whilst maintaining his own thirst for freedom and his honor in not giving up the names of the people that helped him. It is one hell of a role and McQueen is great in it.

Over the course of the film’s two and a half hours you really do see the best and the worst in people. There’s the honour in friendship, then there’s the mother superior who steals the main character’s pearls and sells him back to the penal colony where he ends up spending 5 years in solitary. There’s ingenuity, desperation, joy in murder and betrayal by those back home. It’s an interesting film that is an uptick on the last few I have seen for this list.

World Cooking – Republic of the Congo

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Republic of the Congo
Progress: 95/193

Researching recipes for some nations can be pretty difficult because of similarities and my, for some reason, desire to find something unique where possible. When you have countries whose names have a significant overlap, things get especially hard. With Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRoC) – you have both issues seeing as all articles you end up finding refer to a joint Congolese cuisine. You have similar issues with North and South Korea – but I found a way around it.

With today’s post, I could have easily done a repeat of making Moambé Chicken as this is a national dish shared by both Congo nations. However, I wanted to go with something different as, in the end, they have had quite different histories. For example, during the colonial era, both nations were invaded and ruled by different European countries. So where the DRoC gained independence from Belgium, the Republic of the Congo fought against France to regain theirs. They also had a distinct first government after independence where the DRoC becoming an American-backed dictatorship whereas the Republic of the Congo aligned themselves with the Communist bloc.

Through all this, when you look at their different histories, the food culture is one that is shared. So, for today’s post I will be doing a recipe that I found online that has rarely been linked to just the Republic of the Congo.

Main: Babute

By cooking babute for the Republic of the Congo, I am following a long line of cook around the world blogs who have made this for this particular nation. The name and the style harken back to bobotie – which I made for South Africa. Both of them are beef dishes flavoured with curry powder and topped with a type of custard and bay leaves.

There is a lot of similarity there but it would appear there is a chance that babute and bobotie co-evolved. If the very stub-like Wikipedia page for ‘babute’ is to be believed, the name is a place in the Congo, whereas ‘bobotie’ comes Indonesian words. There is also a difference in preparation.

For babute (recipe from a web archive snapshot taken from Aussie Tastes) you mix half of the custard mix into the meat until fully incorporated – unlike bobotie where it is just poured over it. In this way, babute is a type of meatloaf whereas bobotie is specifically left as mince meat with ingredients mixed in. When comparing the two though, I think I prefer the meat in the babute and the custard of the bobotie. Maybe I’ll make a fusion dish one day and have the best of both worlds.

So that’s me now halfway through Africa, Asia and Oceania – with my halfway country for Europe already locked in for a New Years Day treat. I am not sure if I am going to get another food country in between now (mid-December) and New Years Day because of Christmas in between, but I guess I’ll just have to see where the chips land. Maybe I’ll find some cool street food!

XL Popcorn – The Asthenic Syndrome

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 880/1009Title: Astenicheskiy Sindrom (The Asthenic Syndrome)
Director: Kira Muratova
Year: 1989
Country: Soviet Union

Bleak. If I were to do a one word review of this film, it would be that: bleak. A bleak film that throws a lot of cinematic storytelling convention out of the window in order to give an experience that is critiqued within the film itself a third of the way through – that when you have a time as bleak as those you are watching, why would you want to watch it on the screen.

Now whilst I am not meaning to draw a comparison between the living and mental conditions of the character of The Asthenic Syndrome with my own, at the end of 2020 whilst sat in semi-lockdown having had a year that brought me to the mental edge – this was the wrong film for me. Like I am not opposed to a film that can make you cry, or shock you or completely screw with your adrenaline. I love that films are able to make me feel things to the extreme, but this is just beyond.

Here’s the thing though – I can see what Muratova was getting at. If she had released the film in two sections, rather than having the first be a film within a film, I would probably be viewing them very differently. In the first part, where we see a doctor have a breakdown after the death of her husband is bleak, sure, but ultimately moving. This initial section is one that I thought was particularly powerful and is then dragged down by the remaining 100 minutes.

The second half, featuring a narcoleptic teacher as a main, is far more experimental but also just failed to engage me. I don’t think it helps that you have a number of scenes of animal cruelty and person-on-person cruelty – for example an extended scene where a person with mental difficulties is tormented for an awfully long time by two girls.

I ended up needing some good ASMR time (not Godard) in order to properly get some thoughts together as, honestly, I just wanted to leave it at ‘bleak’. However, as much as this didn’t agree with me, this is an unusual film that brings the awful conditions to the screen that many were living in at the time and how much worse it is if you have any kind of condition, whether it be depression or narcolepsy, that makes you something other than ‘normal’.

XL Popcorn – Fat City

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 879/1009Title: Fat City
Director: John Huston
Year: 1972
Country: USA

Like my previous postFat City is the penultimate film that I need to see from one of the more prolific directors to feature on the list. I had seen most of his entries prior to starting the blog – including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which is my favourite John Huston film – which left me with three to blog about. Now that I have only The Asphalt Jungle left, to be watched as part of a final batch, it’s just making that finish line feel all the closer.

If I was on a gameshow and I had to name as many John Huston films as possible, I don’t think I would have been able to name Fat City. As the film that helped him out of his 1960s slump, got an Academy Award nomination and even showed at festivals – it feels like this has really slumped into the background. Was it because this is a sports film that came a decade before Hollywood became obsessed with telling stories based in various national past times? More likely, it’s because this is a story about failure.

To make no bones about it, Fat City is a depressing film. So often we are fed stories about sports glory like Bull Durham and Breaking Away as people tend to like to be uplifted by this genre. However, the reality is the many people with the talent that don’t quite make and whose lives are wrecked by the psychological or financial toll. That their dream of the good life (the ‘fat city’ of the title) is never reached. This is the story this film tells.

After a chance meeting, a down-and-out boxer convinces a young man (a good looking young Jeff Bridges) that he would make for a great boxer. Whilst there is promise, this is a cursed meeting as he starts training, doesn’t take precautions to the point of having a shotgun wedding and just coast along somewhat stuck in a world that he cannot get out of… and he isn’t even twenty yet.

The character I’ll remember most from this, however, is neither of the boxers but the tragic alcoholic Oma. She is overly dramatic about everything as a counter-weight to a life that never amounted to much. It’s hard to know what she wants or needs – other than a lot of help even when she says she doesn’t need it. It is such a hard performance to watch at times, but it is extraordinarily done.

This is not going to end up being my top John Huston film, but considering his output there is a lot of choice available. It is however one to think on and one where I am glad that we didn’t fall into any of the cliched traps that annoys me about a lot of sports films.

XL Popcorn – Two or Three Things I Know About Her

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 878/1009Title: Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Year: 1967
Country: France

If I include a short, this is the 8th film that I have seen by Jean-Luc Godard – at this point these really are crossing films off for the sake of crossing them off rather than getting hopes dashed. There aren’t too many directors that I have seen more movies by, which puts Godard in the weird position as one of my most watched auteurs.

I am not going to go too deep into this film for my post because I feel like I have said my peace about his style in other entries and I don’t want to repeat myself too much. There are probably two real points of interest that I got from this watch that feel unique among his filmography that I have watched so far.

First, there is the ambiguity of the ‘Her’ in the title. Watching this, the straight forward conclusion is that ‘her’ refers to one of the two women who we see most – who have been driven to prostitution to pay their bills in an increasingly capitalist society. Being a gendered language (which is more the rule than the exception, I know that English is different in that) ‘her’ can also take on other meanings such as Paris herself, various political ideas or the utilitarian architecture of the suburbs.

The there is the continuous fourth-wall breaking, not including Godard’s whispered narration which sadly did not induce an ASMR response in me. It would be more interesting for me to have these moments of the characters addressing the camera if it didn’t always have to go overtly philosophical. There’s a moment early in the film where a child talks about a dream they had involving twins where his 6 year old deduces that these twins must represent a separated Vietnam – because children obvious think this way and the boy clearly wasn’t having trouble remembering what the script said. This moment wasn’t a complete fourth-wall break, but given how ridiculous the words and sentiment were, it might as well have been.

One more Godard on the list. Just one more. It’ll be another year or so before I close the book on this director – remains to be seen if I ever watch him again once I have no real obligation to.

Acclaimed Albums – Metallica by Metallica

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 240/250Title: Metallica
Artist: Metallica
Year: 1991
Position: #220

Today I break up for Christmas. I want to remember just how good that felt after one of the worst years of my working life – I would say worst, but I think I am actively repressing a lot about teaching that I actively hated. This means that it’ll likely be a while before I do another album, so wanted to end on a bang and also to end with a nice round number to complete in the new year.

Metallica is the second of two Metallica albums in the Top 250 and is one where I actually found myself recognising two of the tracks. I guess that both ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ are probably the ones that have entered pop culture – my recognition of the latter being thanks to a cover by Shakira that I saw at my in-laws house on New Years Eve because the television was showing her live set in Paris. It’s a good cover, but the original is clearly better.

As with Master of Puppets that I heard (wow) four years ago, this is an album that I liked. I think in terms of metal style I prefer this heavy metal sound as opposed to the thrash metal that I heard in the previous. Probably because it’s a bit slower and not as aggressive which, on a bad day, can really up the anxiety. Then again, Bitches Brew nearly gave me an anxiety attack so I am not exactly sure what my musical triggers really are.

Acclaimed Albums – Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 239/250Title: Zen Arcade
Artist: Hüsker Dü
Year: 1984
Position: #223

There is nothing like it being the end of the calendar year to make you want to race to the end of goals. As of writing this I am halfway through December and I know that it is yet another year that I have been unable to finish out the 250. Doesn’t mean that I won’t try and narrow the gap as much as possible so I can complete in early 2021 (at this rate, to be posted in August/September 2021).

Zen Arcade has always been one of the longest albums in the 250 and, given how it has always hovered at the lower end, I didn’t want to dive into it lest it fall out of the list and I have had a rotten time listening to it. I guess a lot of my early experiences in having to plough through a lot of 1960s music I didn’t particularly like has really skewed my view on tackling a long album.

In retrospect, I should have done this earlier because Zen Arcade rocks. Sure, this is 70 minutes long with 20+ songs and a final instrumental jam track that is 14 minutes long, but this album helped birth alternative rock and it shows. Like, for me, this is a weird word to use for an album like this – but when I think about the scope of the album and what was around at the time, it is fearless.

Is this an album that works 100% of the time across the many tracks and the long runtime? Probably not. I mean, I wouldn’t say the entire line-up is necessary to this being a great album. Also, I don’t think that this really works as a ‘concept album’ as I didn’t quite get the story they were trying to tell. Then again, I think this might be more of them cosying up to what was happening in a lot of other rock albums at the time.

In the end through, Zen Arcade still managed to entertain. There’s only one track that I can really single out as being special – ‘Turn On The News’ – as the others all do a great job of running into each other. I also did enjoy the rock appropriation going on in ‘Hare Krsna’ – reminded me of better times when I would see them walking through the streets of London and chanting in their flowy orange get-up.

🎻♫♪ – The Rio Grande by Constant Lambert

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
100/501Title: The Rio Grande
Composer: Constant Lambert
Nationality: British

I know, mainly because of Porgy & Bess, that there isn’t too far a bridge to cross between the latter classical pieces and what would eventually become musical theatre. In the end, what is a modern stage musical other than an opera with a different style of singing and, usually, more dancing. This thought really hit my head with today’s piece The Rio Grande. Once I had finished listening to it, all I wanted to do was listen to the opening track of Wicked to hear the chorus bits (and then Kristin Chenowith, because she is a treasure).

There isn’t anything as dramatic in The Rio Grande as ‘No One Mourns The Wicked’ from Wicked – so I guess it was the chorus singing together. If anything, it should have made me think of Carmen Jones or the Cuban scene of Guys and Dolls in how Lambert brings together jazz and Latin rhythms to make something that is undoubtedly cool.

In the middle there is a bit of a dip in the mood that takes us out to the end, where there are more mournful solos and prominent piano movements. As this is based on a poem, it would appear that this slower section is meant to take us out of the noisy towns the Rio Grande flows through and makes its way to the sea and it becomes one with the ocean. Listening to it again, with the poem to hand, really does help understand the moods.

XL Popcorn – The Horse Thief

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 877/1009Title: Dao ma zei (The Horse Thief)
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Year: 1986
Country: China

This is the second Tian Zhuangzhuang film that I have done a blog post for but, due to a weird update that seemed to value correcting a printing error over consistency, The Blue Kite was removed and so left The Horse Thief as his only entry on the 1001 list. I felt the loss of that film as it was one I got a lot out of and feel that still deserves its position due to it being a brave and brilliant dissenting work that halted his career.

The Horse Thief is a very different film to The Blue Kite and tells a far smaller story. Zhuangzhuang is apparently known in pockets of his filmography to bring tales of different Chinese ethnic minorities to the big screen. In this film, he goes back to the 1920s and tells a story in a remote corner of the Tibetan plateau – of a man who steals horses to keep his family fed and then, after stealing the wrong horse, leads to him being exiled else have his hands chopped off and be prevented from reincarnating once he dies.

For most of us in the West, The Horse Thief is a glimpse into a type of life that we have no connection to. It’s like a Chinese Nanook of the North except that this is clearly a film and, as far as I am aware, there was nowhere near the level of exploitation here as you saw in all those ethnographic Hollywood.

In this way, so much of this film succeeds by the way Zhuangzhuang presents us with a different way of life that is interesting and alien which is in a stark, beautiful and unforgiving environment. Good thing it has that beauty of the unknown going for it as there isn’t much of a plot to drive the film along to the end.