Monthly Archives: July 2018

Level One – Assassin’s Creed II

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 76/100Title: Assassin’s Creed II
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Original Platform: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Year: 2009

In the original iteration of the Play That Game list Assassin’s Creed IV found itself in the Top 100. A few years and a lot of work later and it’s pretty much all change, which means Assassin’s Creed II is now the highest ranked of the franchise.  To be fair, there’s a reason for this – Assassin’s Creed II is significantly better.

As of writing this there have been 10 instalments in the Assassin’s Creed franchise and, if you believe most of the reviews, it still ranks as the best version out there. Why? Well, the answer can be broken down into three – excellent setting, the best main character and it was the game that perfected the formula.

 

Full disclosure, if I was making my own ‘best of’ list I would include Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood over Assassin’s Creed II, but that’s only because of the ability to recruit other assassins to your cause. Brotherhood works because of the excellent foundations that it’s predecessor set down, so it’s fair to say that Assassin’s Creed II is the most worthy of this franchise to appear in the Top 100.

Still, I have a lot of affection for this game. I’ve played later entries without Ezio as the main character and, honestly, they felt the worse for it. I’m pretty much on my own when I say that I didn’t enjoy Assassin’s Creed IV , but that’s just opinions in the end.

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XL Popcorn – The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 665/1007
Title: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Directors: Liu Chia-liang
Year: 1978
Country: Hong Kong

Whenever I finish a film like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin I always wonder why I haven’t been watching more of them. At least this time I didn’t have to cleanse my mind of massacre films… I just thought this would be a cool film to watch when trying out a new Thai takeaway place.

One gripe that I have with this film, as well as other martial arts films like Come Drink With Meis the lack of a satisfying final boss battle. I know that, in movies, most of these martial arts fights take far less time than what is depicted, which means the final battles actually make sense. It’s just that after all the time we’ve spent watching him train up… it just comes a little too easily. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

After all, most of the film is taken up by our hero taking on the various trials of the Shaolin Temple. These between hitting a gong with a 15 foot long hammer and practising battle poses whilst sitting down. Some of these trials are ridiculous, but I love the fact that everything comes in useful after his expulsion from the monastery.

It would appear that after 6 years of intense training and an extreme force of will made our hero a God amongst men. I mean, how else can you explain his reflexes and the way he can take out entire rooms by himself – especially when he got two men to kill each other with throwing knives; that was especially cool.

So yes, this is a fantastic kung fu movie to watch. Sure, I missed a bit of the magic realism from the wuxia films, but there’s still a lot of magic to be found in the weird trials of the Shaolin’s chambers despite the quick resolution to his battle against the big bad.

Good Eatin’ – Golden Needles

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 701/751Food item: Golden Needles

One of the most important things to remember when doing this food list is the number of different names that foods can go by. It’s how found beauty heart radishes and honeyed jujubes, now I can add golden needles to this list. Knowing that golden needles and dried lily flowers are synonymous is probably a very basic piece of Chinese cuisine knowledge… so consider me basic at cooking Chinese food.

Going into this (with the 9 hour cooking time of the green flageolets on my mind) I wanted to make sure I was able to get these properly re-hydrated and prepared before I started cooking. Honestly, I wish these were a bit less of a pain with the whole ‘chopping off the hard’ bits, but that’s small potatoes compared to some of the preparation I’ve had to do.

In order to properly enjoy the golden needles it made sense that made something semi-traditional: moo shu pork. I know that the recipe requires egg, and that this picture is eggless, but my husband doesn’t like eggs… so I hid the scrambled egg underneath amongst the fried rice.

A quick comment on the recipe – this actually tasted like something I have had in Chinatown before. I would heartily recommend making the moo shu pork from the link above. It was delicious and I look forward to the leftovers I am having for dinner tomorrow.

So how did these re-hyrdrated lily flowers taste? Well, if you have ever had enoki mushrooms then you’ll have an idea. They’re a bit sweet and have a fragrant and musky flavour. It’s almost like if you crossed jasmine tea and mushrooms… if that makes any sense at all.  The texture of the golden needles is also worth noting. It’s like having some chewy noodles in your food, which makes for a nice change of pace.

This leaves me with 50 to go before I hit the big landmark of 75%. Will I reach it by this time next year? Not sure, but I really hope so.

🎻♫♪ – The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 28/501Title: The Rite of Spring
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1913

Previously for the classical music list I listened to Bolero having been inspired by a rather heartbreaking edition of the Radiolab podcast. For this post I listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as a companion piece because of two things that they have in common. Firstly, and more cosmetically, Bolero and The Rite of Spring have had stories as part of Radiolab. The more interesting commonality is how these two have been used in cartoons.

You see, as I mentioned before, Bolero was used in Fantasia spoof Allegro non troppo as the backdrop to a cartoon about evolution in a fantastical/alien setting. The Rite of Spring, on the other hand was used for the more serious evolution piece in Disney’s Fantasia. So you see these two pieces are united through real-life and animated science stories.

As someone who grew up with Fantasia on VHS, it proved practically impossible to listen to The Rite of Spring without thinking about it within the context of the cartoon. I would listen to flourishes and see the soaring pterodactyls. I’d hear outrageous blasts from the horn section and envisage the quaking of the earth and the creation of mountains. It really speaks to the power of the power of those Disney images and, actually, the weight of responsibility on taking pieces like The Rite of Spring and interpreting them outside of the composer’s original vision.

One look at the track titles (and even the title of the whole piece) demonstrates that this piece was intended to represent a pagan ritual whose endpoint is a sacrifice and a whole lot of dancing. Seeing how this was written for a ballet, I can only imagine just how visceral some of these dances would have been.

Now, I didn’t just listen to the Fantasia version of this on earphones. I figured that Disney would have altered the arrangements to better suit their visuals… and I was right. If anything, the original music is a whole lot darker than what I first got to know as a child. Some parts are more muted and others incredibly more complex. As this had to be a film that also appealed to children I can see why some edits were made, but it does dumb down the piece somewhat.

I’m not sure if it’s because Stravinsky sought to create something dissonant or because of my own memories of the battle between the stegosaurus and the T-rex, but there parts of this piece that generated a visceral reaction. At times I could feel myself getting a bit on edge, and others a bit upset. The 30+ minutes is an interesting experience and one that should be experienced outside of the Disney scope. Might be worth seeking out a YouTube video of the ballet at some point in the future.

Acclaimed Albums – xx by The xx

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 148/250Title: xx
Artist: The xx
Year: 2009
Position: #226

One of the side-effects of spending the month of December working out the best album of the year is that I end up putting the album list on ice for an absurdly long time so that I can focus. So that I can better phase myself back into the ‘acclaimed albums’ mindset I had a listen to an album that entered the list on the most recent update, which I happened to know very well.

In my final year of university I wrote reviews for the Culture section for one of the news outlets, which resulted in my having a lot of discussions about music with some serious music fans.  My first listen to xx came because of one of the many recommendations that flew around the room coupled with the increase in awareness of Spotify.

Whilst it wasn’t love at first listen, I was left intrigued. So intrigued that I ended up listening to this enough times that I have become a big fan of both the band (as evidenced by the high placement of I See You in my 2017 countdown) and Jamie xx’s solowork.

What really attracted me to this album (and songs like ‘Crystallised’ and ‘Shelter’ in particular) was how they could create musical caverns, just like Nick Drake used to do. I also loved the breathy vocals and the fact that this band just felt so normal. This band also filled a niche that I never knew I needed – they were the first queer band that I became a fan of. So yes, I’m very fond of this album.

Next time I tick something off this list I’ll be heated back to the late sixties/early seventies to continue my quest to catch-up to where I currently am with the 1001 songs list. Until then, I’m going to switch my current musical obsession back on (STOP- by Jeff Rosenstock) and count out the clock before the end of the day.

Graphic Content – Giraffes in My Hair

And the award for the comic with the weirdest name goes to…

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
Progress:
41/501Title: Giraffes in My Hair
Creators: Carol Swain and Bruce Paley
Years: 2008
Country: USA

Well honestly Giraffes in My Hair is a bizarre title for some comics. Then again, it’s because of the title that this was picked up as the next comic. I didn’t even get that this was a reference to song lyrics, I just figured this was going to be a surreal comic involving a lot of drugs or hallucinations. At least I was a little bit close on that one.

Giraffes in My Hair is a collection of comics telling the life of Bruce Paley between the ages of 18-30. We see him dabble in a lot of drugs, dodge the Vietnam draft, get imprisoned on numerous occasions and eventually get his life together. Honestly, it is a wonder that he survived all of this and lived to be able see this put onto paper.

The stories that Paley tells aren’t out of the ordinary when it comes to debauched tales of the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of what he experienced are things that many authors and film makers (contemporary and modern) have been telling us for decades. Some have an interesting spin on things – like when he ended up in court for stealing a watermelon, or how Disneyland had stricter entry rules than Mexico – but it mostly feels well trodden.

Giraffes in My Hair is the story of a man who survived a lot of drink and drugs and managed to find a way to mature. However, for all the people that he managed to outlast (including the Vietnam soldiers who died whilst he dodged the draft with a fake mental illness) there is little remorse or survivors guilt. Hell, a friend of his ends up traumatised after being in a Moroccan prison after an ill fated attempt to smuggle drugs and all Paley can do is think about the money he lost. He has no self-awareness and, ultimately, that makes him unlikable. At least to me.

Whilst this comic wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, it did whet my appetite for more comics before returning to the written word. Going to be moving onto I Hate Fairyland (I saw this on sale in Waterstones and couldn’t resist the twisted artwork) and then will see where I end up.

Good Eatin’ – Flageolets + Vichy Mints = 700!

I have written many times about the pace slowing down for the 1001 food list only for me to be proven wrong. As of today, I have eaten my way through 700 different foods from this list in just over three and a half years. Will I have reached 750 by this time next year? I don’t know, but it’s going to be fun to try.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 699/751Food item: Green Flageolets

I picked up this bag of flageolets back when I bought the rocamadour cheese. I’ve waited for ages to find a meal to have these with and figured that it would be nice for New Years Day with some pork belly. That was a plan for lunch anyway….

Right, so the recipe that I used from MyRecipes said that this would take four hours in the slow cooker. Nine hours later and then the beans were actually ready. The carrots were getting mushy, but at least the beans were cooked. At least I had some pearl barley to make up for the lack of sides.

The thing that sets flageolets apart is that they are picked pre-mature in order to preserve the green colour. This means that they have more chlorophyll , resulting in a slightly metallic (or more minerally) taste than regular beans. Also, the beans have a creamy texture which, although not worth nine hours of waiting, makes these nicer than butter beans. Also helps that these were flavoured with garlic and some herbs.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 700/751Food item: Vichy Mints

Here we are, number 700. Can you believe that I spent £12 on tin of mints? I certainly can’t. Then again this tin does come from France, seeing as these mint pastilles are made from water from the spa town of Vichy. Sounds a bit exclusive right? I mean, the water from this town was especially mentioned in In Search For Lost Time for it’s medicinal properties.

These Vichy mints were first invented in 1825 and soon became popular with members of the aristocracy. I assume that this is the reason for these mints in particular to be put on the list rather than a more general peppermint or Altoids (which were invented back in 1780).

As mints go, the Vichy mints are very refreshing. They aren’t too strong or two sweet like a lot of the other mints you can buy. Honestly they are one of the better breath mints that I have had, but I wouldn’t pay £12 for the pleasure. Still they’re worth trying and make for an interesting 700th food item crossed off the list.

What’s On TV – Veronica Mars

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 206/501
Title: Veronica Mars
Episodes Aired: 64
Year(s): 2004-2007
Country: USA

The thing that I am loving most about the 1001 TV Shows list is that it has given me a greater sense of agency when it comes to watching the criminally long list of recommended shows. Veronica Mars has been on this list for a decade and, for whatever reason, I have never gotten around it. I guess this is the issue with living in this incredible age of television – unless you spend all day every day watching television, there is no way you can catch-up.

Well, I am glad that fate (and the random picking hat) gifted me the pick of Veronica Mars as this has been one of the more enjoyable watches I have done for this blog. That says a lot considering the number of things I have watched, read and listened to for the first time as part of my obsessive list completionism. Guess this speaks for the quality of Veronica Mars.

I’ve spoken in the past about something I expected to tick certain boxes and was left wanting (Middlemarch is something that immediately slips to mind). Going into Veronica Mars I had equally high expectations. You see – I love good neo-noir, TV series with a season long mystery and Kristen Bell… so I was expecting something that was a good bit of fun, but was somewhat hesitant because, after all, this is a show made by The WB.

Having finished the first season for this blog, I realise that I should have had more faith. A show like this (which is a teen procedural with a long-running plot thread) requires smart writing, good performance and twists that you don’t always see coming in order to break it out of the teenage audience and give it wider appeal. Veronica Mars succeeds on all counts and then some.

Whilst the whole show does not hang purely on Kristen Bell’s shoulders (as her father and Logan are both excellent), but it would have likely not have done anywhere near as well without her front and centre. Watching this it is little wonder that she has become the star she is not, nor is it surprising that her role get bigger and more interesting as the series goes on. They knew what they had and they were going to use it for all they got as, who knows, each season could have been their last.

So this adds yet another show to the backlog to be watched. Who knows when I’ll have time to finish this Cheers, Fringe, Roseanne, Eureka, As Time Goes By, The Bridge and Unit One.

XL Popcorn – Adam’s Rib

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 664/1007
Title: Adam’s Rib
Directors: George Cukor
Year: 1949
Country: USA

Onscreen chemistry is hard to manufacture, which is why you find certain pairings (actor-actor, actor-director etc.) repeated multiple times. This appeared to be far more prevalent in Hollywood’s Golden Age with the Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn films being some of the most famous. Adam’s Rib is the sixth of the nine films that they made together and arguably the most acclaimed.

Knowing how Hepburn and Tracey were already an item at the time of filming Adam’s Rib and the script was especially written with them in mind,  it is hard to not see to see a lot of their interactions in this film as a window into their private lives. It might be me projecting my own ideas here, but the tenderness and the joy in a lot of their scenes seems utterly genuine. Also helps that these two were among the best actors of their generation.

In Adam’s Rib we see Hepburn and Tracey take on the roles of Amanda and Adam Bonner – a pair of happily married lawyers who end up going toe-to-toe in court. The case? A woman who shot and injured her husband because of his infidelity. With Amanda on the defense team and Adam as the prosecutor Adam’s Rib becomes a classic ‘battle of the sexes’ film with the crux of the defense’s arguments being around gender equality.

As a film Adam’s Rib is an interesting look at gender dynamics in the 1940s with the central couple being depicted as incredibly equal. However, the views of the time about the places of men and women are still prevalent – which keeps ramping up the tension between this once secure couple until they reach breaking point.

Could this film be made nowadays? I’m not entirely sure. Equality between the sexes isn’t there yet, but it’s so much closer than it was back in 1949. An important thing to do when watching  Adam’s Rib is to remember that historical context. Both Adam and Amanda are at fault for their marriage splitting up, but as for who is more at fault… well that’s a debate worth having when you’ve seen the film.

Level One – Mario Kart 64

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 75/100Title: Mario Kart 64
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Original Platform: Nintendo 64
Year: 1996

At the end of 2017, I did a major update of the list on Play That Game which did alter a lot of the entries. As luck would have it, most of the games that left were ones I had not played yet (hurrah) so the number of games that I’ve yet to play remained the same. Sure makes my life a lot easier. Also means that I have a reason to play Mario Kart 64.

For a gamer of my age I think I am unusual in that my first exposure to the Mario Kart series was Mario Kart: Double Dash on the Gamecube. In my younger years I was a PS1 kid who got a Nintendo 64 towards the end of the generation and, at that point, had not developed a love for the Mario franchise. I did, however, have most of the N64 games for Pokémon.

As someone who has since become a huge fan of Mario Kart: Double Dash, Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 8 it was a weird step back to the original 3D Mario Kart. Not as big a step back as Super Mario Kart (where I think I said a lot of similar things as I have just written), but a step back nonetheless.

Compared to it’s SNES predecessor Mario Kart 64 feels like the better game. In fact, I would argue that this game is the Mario Kart franchise in purest form. A lot of the gimmicks we love in the later versions of the game just aren’t present and instead we have Super Mario Kart with better driving, better graphics and the addition of, what would become, the blue shell.

I turned on my N64 with the intent to play Mario Kart 64 for 20 minutes and ended up playing it for an hour and a half. There is something miraculously addictive in this game that can still be found in the later editions. In terms of console games I cannot think of a more consistently great franchise than the Mario Kart games and I don’t think it really gets enough credit for that.