Monthly Archives: October 2017

Let’s Get Literal – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 39/100Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year: 1878
Country: Russia

Well that was a step up from UlyssesI mean, you would get pages and pages of text that didn’t deviate completely from the main plot line. Okay so that isn’t the highest bar to set when reading a book – but try reading a large tome of Russian fiction between hospital visits and unsuccessful job interviews.

Having read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina I am in the rather cool position of covering both of the big Leo Tolstoy books. Doing a rudimentary comparison between the two books I have to say that I preferred War and Peace. Why would that be?

Simply – it’s the plot lines. For a book called Anna Karenina I was surprised the more of the book wasn’t about her and her story. So much of the book gets bogged down in Levin (who is the Tolstoy surrogate) and his relationship with Kitty that my interest started to wain. In War and Peace all the main threads kept me interested – not so much here.

The thing is, this book would have worked with just the Anna and Vronsky sections – which is what I imagine most of the cinematic adaptations have done. These are the best sections, but even then the whole thing is shrouded by the spectre of punishing the woman who loses her virtue.

It’s one of those tropes that you can spot a mile off in these older books – a woman loses her virtue and she must be punished. It is infuriating. She has an affair because, much like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, she is bored with her life to the point that she can no longer feel anything.

In the case of both Bleak House and Anna Karenina it’s not like the women have married mean or abusive husbands. It’s just that there is no passion in their lives because the men are more concerned with station and reputation. Both husbands love their wives, but the age gap is so great that the life of the still youthful wife is being wasted.

The love triangle is more sad than romantic in this book. No one ends up happy and no one gets anything they really want. You can see it coming a mile off (especially if you know about that ending), which is what made the Levin and Kitty story rankle with me.

With Levin and Kitty it is meant to be a story of marrying for love despite initial obstacles. However, their relationship isn’t that interesting despite the fact that they have their issues. We also end up with Levin going away from his atheism/agnosticism and reverting to his Christian values because of this relationship – which I know is of it’s time, but that also left a bad taste.

I think I missed something with this book and that is likely because I have not been in the right frame of mind to read something so heavy and, in places, tragic. Then again there aren’t a lot of light reads on this list, so if I want to complete this list I will need to find a way around all that.

For now it’s back to the world of comics as I follow up Hajime no Ippo with a boxing manga from the 1960s.

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What’s On TV – Eureka

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 192/501
Title: Eureka
Episodes Aired: 77
Year(s): 2006-2012
Country: USA

Eureka is one of those TV shows that has been my long-term ‘to watch’ list for years. Mainly because the hub seemed very keen on it and, as with most things he wants to watch, I wanted to give it a go before I gave it a definitive yay or nay. Now that I have watched this for the list I really wish I had started this earlier. It was one of the most pleasant surprises that I have encountered so far for the TV show list.

Being a show that originally aired on the Sci-Fi channel (aka the home of Sharknado) my expectations weren’t too high. However, a few episodes in I was hooked. I had to make my way through the rather rickety pilot in order to get there, but I got there.

The premise of the show is interesting enough – a secret town in the US that houses residents of genius intellect who are the progenitors of all the major technical leaps in the last 50-60 years. Our way into this rather eccentric town is through the (initially relucant) new sheriff who isn’t book smart, but uses his layman knowledge to help solve the cases of the week.

Okay, so it feels like a riff on the standard fish out of water cliche, which it totally is, but Eureka plays with this by making the problems outlandish and firmly in the realms of science fiction. One week people are being flash-fossilized, the other sees the main characters being trapped by an artificial intelligence who is petrified of abandonment. Sure, the science can be a bit off, but that’s part of the fun.

The real thing that impressed me about this show, however, is what they did in Season 4. Between Seasons 1-3 we get to know the cast of characters incredibly well. They live and grow with decisions having lasting impacts for many episodes to come. Two characters in particular that benefited from this are deputy sheriff Jo Lupo and a geeky (and adorable) scientist called Fargo whose roles become greatly expanded from how they were initially introduced in the pilot.

Then everything changes. Where shows like Parks and Recreation and Desperate Housewives used a time jump to bring fresh storylines and inject new life into a show, Eureka does something more daring. They change timelines. This means that 5 of the main characters are transplanted into a alternative world and have to come to terms with the differences that this brings.

This could have been a catastrophic story decision since established relationships are effectively retconned and new relationships are introduced that are already in progress. I can see how, if done poorly, this would have led to an extreme backlash from fans who have lost their favourite shipping or just feel a sense of unease at no longer being able to make certain assumptions about the world of Eureka.

Amazingly, they pull this timeline jump off incredibly well. The show still remains a light sci-drama with a lot of the same beats, but it allows for a lot of development in a quick time as nearly all the major characters are now promoted to higher positions than those they had before they jump. Also, and this is more impressive, this shift is permanent rather than part of a smaller story arc.

It’s not a highbrow show, but it sure is an addictive one if you want an alternative sort of procedural. From what I’ve read this might just be the sci-fi/geeky alternative to Northern Exposure – which just makes me want to check out Northern Exposure all the more.

XL Popcorn – The Towering Inferno

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 603/1007
Title: The Towering Inferno
Director: John Guillermin
Year: 1974
Country: USA

In a number of my write-ups I have maintained that I follow the 1001 list not because it features the 1001 best films of all time, but because it gives an interesting cross-section of cinematic history. With recent watches of Ugetsu Monogatari and The Wages of Fear I have been neglecting the less… critically loved films on this list.

Yes. I know that The Towering Inferno was the highest grossing film of 1974, won 2 Oscar and even got a nomination for Best Picture. However, let’s remember that Suicide Squad became an Oscar winning film this year and films like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have gained Best Picture nominations. The system ain’t perfect.

So yes, the reason that The Towering Inferno made it’s way onto the list is because it is seen as the best example of the disaster movie craze of the 1970s (other examples including Airport and The Poseidon Adventure). They are the movies that Airplane! was pastiching to such a successful extent that it is still hilarious without having seen any movie it’s referring to.

The basic premise of The Towering Inferno is simple: corners have been cut in the building of a super-tall skyscraper (this building in the film is so tall that, in reality, the first real world building to surpass it was the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) a fire breaks out and disaster ensues.

The amount of death in this film is so gratuitous that by the end they say 200 people have died and you can kinda believe it. As someone who still gets upset at the thought of the plane crash scene in Die Hard 2 it takes a lot to desensitise me to the deaths of innocent people in the film.

There is a bit in The Towering Inferno where a whole lift full of panicking people are basically flambed and I, true to form, got upset at the very idea. By the end of the film I felt a bit more blase about the death count – mainly because of the ridiculous manikins and models used to depict people falling to their death. Some of them were just stupid and actually helped to make this film fun again. Still don’t like the lift scene though. That’s a nope.

On the whole The Towering Inferno is a good film if you are in the need of a brainless afternoon. It’s actually worth it to see Fred Astaire (seriously, why the hell did he agree to be in this film) show the kids how it’s done. Only Paul Newman (as the angry architect) is able to hold some sort of candle to Astaire in this orgy of fiery death.

I know that Steve McQueen shared top billing with Paul Newman and, rather famously, insisted on having the exact same number of lines as Newman… but I honestly didn’t notice him at all. I’ve seen him in films before, but his scenes just blew by me completely until an explosion got my attention again.

So yes, as a part of cinema history or as a film to watch on a slow afternoon The Towering Inferno is a good pick. It’s not great, but it’s a good enough diversion.

Level One – Final Fantasy VI

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 69/100Title: Final Fantasy VI
Developer: Square
Original Platform: SNES
Year: 1994

I am going to start this with, what might be considered, a controversial statement: I think that Final Fantasy VI is much better than Final Fantasy VII. I know I haven’t crossed off Final Fantasy VII yet, but that’s only because my attempt to play it some 6 years ago did keep me interested enough to keep going. As a gamer I am aware that saying this is heresy, but there you go.

Considering that I do not have a SNES to hand, I played the version that can currently be found on Steam and used an Xbox 360 controller. It’s not necessarily the genuine experience because of some of the updates (including art that makes Terra look unnecessarily vapid), but it was successful enough that I know that I am going to end up playing this game to completion.

The big thing that got me with Final Fantasy VI was the scope. The world is huge, the roster of 14 characters gives you plenty of scope for experimentation and the variety of battle mechanics makes sure that you can use many different strategies for the random encounters.

Of course you end up having favourites (the party I have used for most of my game so far is made of Celes, Cyan, Sabin and Edgar) but I can see that should I complete this and come back to this game in a few years time I will be able to have a completely different experience. That’s the mark of a great JRPG and what I didn’t get with Final Fantasy VII, but did with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy X.

Keeping with the character theme, Final Fantasy VI really invests in character development. I enjoyed the fact that your experience of an area can vary depending on the characters you have in your party – which can help you get to know them better. For example, there is an optional cut-scene where you learn about Sabin and Edgar’s relationship and how it was Edgar that ascended to the throne after their father’s death. It’s a scene you can completely miss, I just got lucky.

Also, how can I talk about characters without mentioning Kefka. He has got to be one of those rare pure villains who is evil for the sadistic pleasure and not because of some trauma or some ulterior motive. There is no real attempt to generate pathos, Kefka is just Kefka and he is a few nuns short of a nunnery.

So yes, it’ll be a while before I get to the next game because (as I am writing this) I have yet to complete this. And I will complete this, as I need to heal the ruined world before I walk away from this game.

(✿◠‿◠) Anime!!! – Hajime no Ippo

List Item:  Watch the 100 best anime TV series
Progress: 23/100Title: Hajime no Ippo
Episodes Aired: 75
Year(s): 2000-2002

It has been about two months since I last completed an anime series and even longer since I last saw a sports anime that wasn’t Yuri!!! On Ice.

I think I can now remember why it’s been such a big gap: I’m not exactly a sports fan so watching a lot of episodes that would essentially be watching a sports event takes a lot to get me interested. Same with anything related to the nuts and bolts of sports training.

Now, to give Hajime no Ippo credit, it did keep me interested for pretty much the entire run. There were only two time where this show failed for me: the flashback episodes and the general love story between Ippo and Kumi. This makes it sound that this show had poorly constructed characters, which isn’t true at all.

The thing that keeps you watching is Ippo himself. He starts out as a nobody who is bullied at school and he turns to the world of boxing to both gain confidence and find his purpose. He is your typical shy, clumsy and endearing underdog who finds out that he is a natural at boxing.

It feels like it could be a little by the numbers since it is obvious that Ippo will be the champion by the end of the series. However, there are enough diversions along the way, including a rather devastating loss and a boxing match with a bear, that meant I kept watching this show rather than giving it up… unlike One Piece which managed to turn me off very quickly.

I guess that the mix of the characters and the sense of humour was enough to keep me going. Also, I feel that I have learned an awful lot about boxing. However, 75 episodes is a lot to binge on any show let alone one about a subject that you don’t exactly have a lot of interest in.

At the end of the day I honestly did think that Hajime no Ippo was a good show, but I probably should have interspersed this with another lighter anime or at least something completely different like Aria or Space Brothers. I don’t know what I’ll be watching next but I know that I’ll need a break from sports anime for a little while.

XL Popcorn – Ugetsu Monogatari

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 602/1007
Title: Ugetsu Monogatari
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Year: 1953
Country: Japan

After a long time of watching films rather sparingly it feels like I am on a roll. I think that I burned out on films after the splurge I had to keep me sane during my wrist injury. It’s taken nearly a year to get that film watching itch, now (thanks in part to Feud) it is very much back and I am keen to start taking large bites out of this list where possible.

So here I am ending this May bank holiday weekend with another film – one that I have been wanting to see for years. Why did it take me so long? Well, at 98 minutes Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the shorter films on the list and I keep trying to purposely watch longer ones so that I can accelerate my film watching as I cross the finish line.

Then I thought: why wait, let’s just watch the damned thing. So I did and I enjoyed it.

Ugetsu Monogatari is a Japanese film that takes two fables from the collection of the same name. Both fables share the themes of ghosts and being careful what you wish for. You also have some pretty strong anti-violence messages – ergo the setting of this in the 1500s where widespread war and pillaging.

It takes a while before things become fantastical, in fact it feels very much like a simple fable of being thankful for what you have – until a ghost starts singing through a samurai’s helmet. Things get weirder and more fantastical from then on with the film very much grabbing hold of the fable angle with both hands.

Ugestsu Monogatari is one of those films where it helps to know things about either Japanese films or Japanese history. Having watched films like Rashomon  and Onibabaand having a vested interest in Japan in general, it made more sense to me. Still, I had by questions about a bunch of the historical details and names as the film isn’t one for exposition.

Still, exposition be damned as not only is this film beautifully shot (especially the shots with the leading man and the aristocratic woman who insists on being his bride). Honestly there is a lot that can be said about this film on the subjects of patriarchy, dreams and war. This is a film that regularly ranks highly on critics list and whilst it probably wouldn’t end up in my Top 50 – it is a film definitely worthy of notice.

However, it isn’t a good film as a gateway into classic live-action Japanese cinema. I still think Ran, The Burmese Harp or Banshun would work better. I also have a soft spot for Shall We Dansu? but I am not sure if that would be considered a classic…

Good Eatin’ – Torta Di Castagne

One of the benefits of having baked goods on the 1001 food list is that, when push comes to shove, you can make them yourself. Seeing how I have had a pack of chestnut puree at the back of my cupboard for a few years (it was an online shopping substitute for sun-dried tomatoes… no I have no clue how either) it seemed right to give this a go.

Me being me I ended up making this at about 8:30 in the morning. Sometimes when it’s a Sunday you just want to get started on your baking straight away, right? Baking and trying to stop wasps from feeding on a big bowl of melted dark chocolate and butter. Don’t blame them for trying, but that’s how you end up with a gaming magazine to the face.

This was one of the easiest cakes that I have made for a long time, and contained a lot more chocolate than I had first expected. Thanks to 1796 Foods for the recipe, even though I had unsweetened chestnut puree and a vanilla grater this was so simple to follow.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Torta Di Castagne

The outcome of making this was two very moist and very chocolatey cakes. In all honesty these cakes were just a hop and a skip away from being a large brownie circle. Actually, who am I kidding, this was very much a chestnut and dark chocolate brownie – just a slightly more cakey brownie than normal.

I am guessing it was the chestnut puree in the recipe that helped to keep this cake so moist. I mean even a day later this cake had not dried out at all. Actually rather impressive.

Seeing how this is a cake I have made myself I am not completely sure if I got it right. However, when compared to pictures of this cake that I’ve found online… it appears that I am pretty much there. Definitely something I can see myself baking again – as long as I can find more chestnut puree.

Progress: 645/751

XL Popcorn – The Sorrow and the Pity

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 601/1007
Title: The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitié)
Director: Marcel Ophüls
Year: 1969
Country: France

When I said I might be sticking around in France for a while The Sorrow and the Pity was not the film I quite had in mind. Honestly, I thought I would be watching Masculine-Feminine and end up complaining about, yet again, not understanding Jean-Luc Godard. Instead, we went for one of the longest films left on the 1001 list and ended up with a 4 hour documentary about the German occupation of France in World War II.

With the exception of the OJ: Made in America documentary (which is really more a TV series than a film) the last documentary film that I saw was The Thin Blue LineWhen I think about how long ago that was (just over a year) I am appalled at how long it has been.

Considering the political climate of the moment (as in I watched this before the final round of the French presidential elections) a film like this is one that needs to be shown more often. Never have I come across a documentary that is able to explain the psychology of a nation so succinctly.

It has become a bit of a running gag in English-language pop culture that the French will surrender at the first sign of trouble. This is despite the fact that other nations did pretty much the same thing in the face of an unstoppable war machine. Having watched The Sorrow and the Pity I have a greater deal of understanding how this all came to be.

It’s complicated and I’m unlikely to ever completely understand it, but that’s okay. As former UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden so succinctly put it at the end of the film: “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.” These are words (that need to be repeated ad nauseum on news broadcasts) which make for the perfect summary of this film.

Over the course of 4 and a bit hours Marcel Ophüls takes us through France’s occupation, collaboration and liberation. Through the use of interviews and archive footage we meet so many people from leaders to resistance-fighting farmers and get to know them through their actions in this period.

As you listen to stories such as those of Prime Minister Laval sending 4000 Jewish children to their death, a woman framing a friend for denouncing her husband and naive French citizens who took the Nazi invaders’ words for truth you end up asking the impossible question – how would I have acted?

The answer for this just circles back to Eden’s quote – unless you have been a citizen in an occupied nation, you can never judge. With all the history and all the information that The Sorrow and the Pity imparts it is this weird feeling that I am left with. It’s not a comfortable one either.

I know that Shoah is seen by many to be THE documentary about World War II, but a real case can be argued for The Sorrow and the Pity. The scope of the documentary is grander and, where Shoah was an onslaught of pain, this film creates a compelling narrative that answers questions about Vichy France that I never knew I had.

Acclaimed Albums – Disraeli Gears by Cream

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 135/250Title: Disraeli Gears
Artist: Cream
Year: 1967
Position: #174

As album titles go, Disraeli Gears has to be one of the best on this list. Much like A Hard Day’s Night it came about as a slip of the tongue in conversation and the band liked the phrase so much that it immediately became the title of the album. It’s little things like this that can really endear an album to you.

With this ticked off I am officially done with albums from 1967. It’s one of those miniature landmarks on the way to completing this list that just forces you to look back a bit. This was a year where the predominant acclaimed music was psychedelic in nature, with Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen being the only artists to provide some degree of contrast.

Taking all these other albums into account Disraeli Gears falls onto the harder side of the rock spectrum. Arrangements on songs like ‘Swlabr’ are feel a lot more loud and forceful than you would find on other psychedelic albums of the time, and yet they keep with the feel of the times with lyrics like “You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard”

The 1001 Songs list picked up on this, but ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is the real standout track of this album. While the rest of the album is a good listen, they never really live up to the second track.

The exception to this is ‘Outside Woman Blues’ which, for me, is another highlight of the album. Not entirely sure this song worked for me, maybe it was all the repeated motifs.

Now, let’s have a quick word about the final track, ‘Mother’s Lament’. It’s awful. It’s bloody awful and doesn’t belong on this album at all. It’s a completely different genre and, whilst it is clear they had fun singing it, should have been relegated to the archives to be found on some sort of anniversary re-release.

Is this an album I would listen to again? Yes, as long as you take off that god-awful final track. It’s not an album I would pay full attention to, but makes for a good background.

XL Popcorn – The Wages of Fear

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 600/1007
Title: The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Year: 1953
Country: France

It really has been a long time since I last watched a French film. I think I was beginning to have a crisis of faith after a bunch of them left me cold. But with so many French films left to watch I thought I figured that it would be best to jump feet first into one of the most acclaimed French films I had yet to watch.

Going into The Wages of Fear I had no idea what to expect. Arguably you could be about half an hour into this film and still not guess how the majority of this film was going to go. That is the strange genius of the opening act – it sets the scene perfectly and, unless you read up on it, you have no idea what’s to come.

At the beginning we find ourselves in an unidentified South American town populated by locals and a substantial community of expats (including Americans, Brits, Germans and the French). Pretty much all the foreigners are trapped in this town (which I assumed was meant to be in Venezuela or Colombia) because it is way too expensive to leave.

It is this feeling of entrapment that explains why any of them would volunteer to take on the job of driving a truck containing material so volatile that a slight knock can make it explode. These are men who are so so desperate that no matter how this job goes this provides them with a way out of this dead end town.

The tension that is maintained through over an hour of driving through poorly maintained roads, pools of slick oil and other obstacles is impressive. Like, incredibly impressive. At any point in watching this sequence you are legitimately unsure of whether the next bump they hit will be their deaths.

This is why the first 30-45 minutes of the film is so important – you need to get to know, care and understand the plight of these drivers. Why are they so willing to trade their lives at a shot at $2000 and why should we care whether they live or die; two questions that need to be answered to make this a great movie, and they are answered brilliantly.

To say that The Wages of Fear has completely restored my faith in French-language cinema is an understatement. This film is an absolute triumph and I am really looking forward to watching this director’s other entry on the list: Les Diaboliques. That probably won’t be for a while though, but I might be tempted to stick around in France for a while.