Monthly Archives: August 2018

XL Popcorn – Come and See

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 669/1007
Title: Idi i smotri (Come and See)
Directors: Elem Klimov
Year: 1985
Country: Soviet Union

A few months ago I watched The Ascent – an exceptional Soviet film about Russian partisan forces in World War Two. It was an incredibly moving film that had an almost mystical feel to it. I mention this for two reasons, firstly Come and See was directed by the husband of Larisa Sheptiko (the director of The Ascent), which makes for an interesting comparison. Secondly, where The Ascent went for a quiet tension, Come and See is an undeniable hellscape of Nazi war crimes.

During the entire two and a half hours of Come and See we view the merciless annihilation of rural Belarus through the eyes of a 14 year old boy. It cannot be understated just what an amazing performance is given by young Aleksei Kravchenko. His expressions of distress and terror are beyond what you would expect from a child actor… which is why you can see this boy physically age as the film progresses to the point that, when he went back to school, he had started to go grey.

In the same way that it is difficult to overstate the excellence of Kravchenko’s performance, so too it is difficult to overstate how harrowing this is for a World War Two film. What makes it all the worse is knowing that not only did these village massacres occur in Belarus (with one scene showing an entire village being shepherded into a church, before being set on fire), but just how many of these massacres actually occurred.

What’s impressive about all this tension and horror is that you rarely see someone actually being killed. We see the aftermath, but pretty much all the violence (other than punching and kicking) happens off screen. It goes that show that, as long as you are skilled enough to create the right atmosphere, you can mine enough tension from dread.

When I look back on Darkest Hour in comparison to a movie like Come and See – there really is no contest when it comes to the better World War Two film. I know that there is a world of difference between the type of film, but there is a central issue with how both countries choose to deal with the subject matter. For the most part, it is probably better if films set in this era is best left to the continent.

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Good Eatin’ – Oven Roasted Teal

Like all good boys, I received a box of frozen game. Inside were three birds and a haunch of hare, all of which I will be enjoying for the food list. One of the birds still has its head on… so I’m going to leave that one until last.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 703/751Food item: Teal

Today I am breaking out two of the birds – a type of wild ducks known as teal (interesting fact, the colour teal is actually named after this duck). They’re basically the personal pizza of the duck world, although I probably could have eaten two of these considering the amount of meat on them.

In order to cook these teal I followed the steps from Simple Recipes with pearl barley as the side rather than the suggested wild rice. As much as I like wild rice,  it isn’t the easiest grain to source on its own. Thinking on it, the teal probably should have had some sort of side vegetable… oh well.

Okay so this picture is pretty beige. It would have probably been better if I had taken the picture before adding the gravy. I guess the pride of making my own gravy from the teal drippings (the first time I’ve made a gravy from something other than granules) took over my need to get a decent picture.

Teal is definitely a bird that I would love to make again. The meat is brown on the outside giving way to a deep red on the inside (which is pretty standard for a lot of game). In terms of taste it is somewhere between a duck and an ostrich, in that you had the distinct slightly gamey taste of duck with the beef-steak like qualities of ostrich meat.

One thing I really appreciated about these little birds is that they are small enough to eat by hand. After a while of struggling with a knife and fork I just went caveman on the carcass and enjoyed my meal more for doing so.

What’s On TV – Zorro

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 207/501
Title: Zorro
Episodes Aired: 78
Year(s): 1957-59
Country: USA

Am I the only person who had a VHS or two from the Disney Sing-Along Songs when they were younger? I ask because I had an incredible hit of nostalgia as the theme music started to play and I was taken back to a simpler time when I would just watch these old videos on repeat.

So yes, weirdly enough, Zorro is actually a live-action series made by the Disney company. It’s a swashbuckling action series that starts out in 1820 in the state of California. We follow the exploits of Diego de la Vega who fights injustice as the mask-wearing, sword-wielding vigilante known as Zorro.

Since this this the 1950s, family-friendly and made by Disney there isn’t a lot of bit to this series. There is a lot of moustache-twirling and casual 1950s racism, but there’s never any real stakes to any thing involved. Still though this makes for a decent mindless watch.

Why? Well Guy Williams, who plays the titular Zorro, is an incredibly charismatic performer. You can enjoy watching him swing from ropes, play guitars and fence like a champion for 78 episodes. The show would have gone on for longer if not for a financial dispute between Disney and ABC over who owned the rights… which is ironic since ABC is now owned by Disney.

Another show down. We picked a show I have already seen out of the hat, which means I probably won’t do another TV write-up for a long while. Maybe this will encourage me to actually get my skates on with the album list? Who knows!

XL Popcorn – Love Me Tonight

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 668/1007
Title: Love Me Tonight
Directors: Rouben Mamoulian
Year: 1932
Country: USA

Love Me Tonight may be the earliest example of, what we would consider, a good and fully formed musical. True, I had to see The Broadway Melody of 1929 because it won the Academy Award for Best Picture… but I did say that it had to be good…

In many ways Love Me Tonight is a musical film that was way ahead of it’s time. The first thing of note is how many of the songs were original compositions. True, most are taken from other sources, but this was a step forward. The most interesting of these introduced  songs, as well as the one that shows just how modern this film was, is ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’.

On paper, ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ doesn’t feel like a major song. It follows a simple structure and has simple lyrics riffing on the title. However, on film, this song soars in one of the first great film musical sequences. We start in a tailor’s shop with the protagonist singing it into a folding mirror and we end-up miles away on the balcony of a château with a variation of it being sung by the love interest.

The journey that this song takes is vast and occurs across numerous sets and musical traditions. It’s a beautiful, and somewhat odd, sequence that shows off the infectious power of a catchy melody. I cannot think of another musical in this era that is able to perfectly encapsulate the wonder of music in such a clever and, then innovative, sequence.

As storylines go, Love Me Tonight goes for a typical riff on a cross-class love-story with a tailor falling in love with a princess whilst masquerading as a Baron. The joy in watching this is how this Pre-Code film tackled comedy. Sadly only the censored version is available anymore, but even so they make reference to some sexual topics with a great deal of clever writing and some great editing.

Whilst I wasn’t the keenest on Jeanette MacDonald as the leading lady, it was an absolute joy to see a young Myrna Loy completely stealing the show in her supporting role as Comtesse Valentine. There is something about future stars that leaps off the screen and Loy had it in spades. Her presence just demands attention.

So yes, I really enjoyed this rather frothy musical. There won’t be a lot of these left on the list, so I need to be careful to not see them all too soon.

Acclaimed Albums – For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 150/250Title: For Emma, Forever Ago
Artist: Bon Iver
Year: 2007
Position: #246

22, A Million was one of those revelatory albums for me. For year I had heard about how acclaimed Bon Iver was and I had never really thought of listening to him. Thanks to his 2016 album I have since become a huge fan of his – so I have been listening to all three of his albums a whole lot ever since. I love each one of these albums, although I do feel that he has gotten better and better with each album.

This leads me to the subject of today’s post: his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. I am under no illusion that this album will probably be knocked out of the list pretty soon and will likely be replaced with Bon Iver, Bon Iver (even if just because of ‘Perth’ and ‘Holocene’), but I’ve spent a lot of hours on this album so it made sense to give it a cursory tick off now.

One thing I like about these earlier albums, when compared to 22, A Million, is Justin Vernon’s singing style. My love of Sufjan Stevens demonstrates my soft spot for a beautiful falsetto, and that’s what is delivered on this album. Especially in ‘re: Stacks’ (my favourite track) and opener ‘Flume’.

For Emma, Forever Ago is a real hint at the art pop that Bon Iver would later go on to produce. Here it’s a beautifully crafted piece of indie folk with a tender soul where you can really feel his pain. Later, he gains complexity without losing his ability to play with nuance.

So yes, it’s been a pleasure to listen to this album for the sake of this list. For now I need to get back to listening to older and safer albums so I am finally able to finish out this Top 250.

Good Eatin’ – Balik Smoked Salmon

To celebrate my husband turning 33 we made a trip back to the Netherlands to visit the in-laws and my niece who is gets exponentially bigger and more excitable every time I see her.

Since we were flying out on his actual birthday, we decided to share some breakfast at one of those Caviar House & Prunier stands that you find in a bunch of airports. I mean, when they have a breakfast menu with a food list item on it… well it would be almost criminal to miss out on this one.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 702/751Food item: Balik Smoked Salmon

Eating this it’s hard not to feel fancy. I mean this is a place that I won’t be revisiting until I have £180 to burn on the smallest amount of beluga caviar, which feels like the tenth of never because that is a legitimately stupid amount to spend on any single piece of food unless it is super rare like luvar.

So what makes Balik salmon any different from regular smoked salmon? Well, it’s done with Norwegian salmon in a Swiss oven using allegedly-Russian techniques. Guess this makes it a truly international piece of food craft.

The smoked salmon itself has a very subtle smoked flavour, far subtler than any other smoked salmon I have had before. I’m guessing that this due to the special smoking technique? In any case, it actually means you taste more of the fish rather than a strong oak flavour.

Also of interest is how tender this fish is. Enough of the salmon’s natural oils (which will be of greater abundance in coldwater salmon like this) are preserved in the smoking process, which just results in that gorgeous melt in the mouth feeling that you get from good sashimi, like the arctic char that I had in New York.

 

At £17 for this small bit of salmon with scrambled eggs… the question must be asked as to whether it is worth the extra price? My gut says no, because it is still a lot of money, but when I think how much other airport restaurants charge for salmon and scrambled eggs it suddenly becomes more worth it for that little bit of extra quality.

So yes, I have had this super special salmon before crossing off lemon thyme. This is getting a bit silly.

XL Popcorn – The Great White Silence

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 667/1007
Title: The Great White Silence
Directors: Herbert Ponting
Year: 1924
Country: UK

I have previous written about my distaste for the older docudramas like Nanook of the North and Louisiana Story as well as my slight confusion with HaxanSo in strolls The Great White Silence, a relatively unknown documentary from 1924 and I am basically expecting the worst or something borderline exploitative.

Needless to say I was wrong. Much like Blackstar there is something eerie about watching The Great White Silence. Why? Well, it’s a documentary depicting the expedition of Captain Scott and his men to the South Pole. Therefore you are watching the last documented moments before they went off to meet their maker. Chilling stuff really.

This means the spectre of their deaths pretty much hangs over the entire film, which weirdly gives a different perspective on the massive icebergs and the beautiful shots of Antarctic plains that are depicted. It doesn’t, however, cast a shadow over the really sweet penguin sequence where they anthropomorphise these penguins as having an argument about whether prawns make good parents.

It’s worth noting as well that this film would be some of the first recorded footage of Antarctica and the creatures that inhabit it… which begs the question of why this film was such a financial flop. In fact, the original 1001 list did not include The Great White Silence as it was only brought back into the public eye some 7 years ago.

Things like this really make you wonder what other films from this early era are left to be unearthed only to have their artistic merits fully appreciated after the directors are long gone. Would be cool if more Theda Bara films showed up because hope springs eternal.

(✿◠‿◠) Anime!!! – Aria: The Origination

List Item:  Watch the 100 best anime TV series
Progress: 35/100Title: Aria: The Origination
Episodes Aired: 13
Year(s): 2008

Despite the name, which sounds like it should be all about origins, Aria: The Origination is the third and final season of the Aria franchise. As with most series, it pays to watch the preceding seasons in order to get the most out of it… even if the final season is by far the best.

As far as story goes it can be summed up as being a show about three apprentice gondoliers who live on a terraformed Mars and are training to become professionals (known in-world as Primas). It’s a really interesting idea for a concept, especially when this series decides to go into some of the history of the Martian pioneers who lived and died to bring water to the red planet.

It’s just that, of all the anime series I’ve seen so far this has got to be the slowest yet. Whilst I am usually fine with a slower movie or show, I do have my limits. Being a slice-of-life show there is always going to be the danger of trying to extend too little content into a half hour, which is why I ended up skipping the latter half of season two. It’s not that it became bad in any way, it’s just that life is too short and there’re other shows that I am itching to watch.

That being said, I am really glad that I did watch the earlier episodes as the emotional payoff in the final few episodes would have been entirely muted. The Aria series is one that is definitely worth giving a go to, but be aware of the type of show it is when you start and that Aria: The Origination makes up for the earlier episodes.

The visuals and the music in Aria is gorgeous. The animators really took the idea of a Venice on Mars and brought it to life, along with some interesting ideas of Italian culture (like people eating pizza crust-first which, if you ever watched Angela Anaconda, you know is a crime against nature). The three leads are a bit cookie-cutter, but you end up caring for them… even if the main character Akari is a tad too wet for my liking.

So yes, it’s flawed but it’s a series that’s worth a punt. As for the next show… who knows. The list is so volatile at the time of writing that I have no idea what a good bet will be to watch next.

XL Popcorn – Straw Dogs

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 666/1007
Title: Straw Dogs
Directors: Sam Peckinpah
Year: 1971
Country: USA/UK

It’s not been that long since I saw Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and I’m not too surprised to find myself watching another film by Sam Peckinpah. Like Alfredo Garcia, there is still a fair bit of controversy surrounding Straw Dogs. So let’s dig into that.

Firstly, if I was a resident of the Cornish village that Straw Dogs was filmed in I would be pissed off at how my community was being portrayed. In the same vein as the beginning of An American Werewolf In London we begin the film with the central character David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) finding himself in a remote village that does not want to welcome him. Quite the opposite really… as a number of the residents want to freak him out and rape his wife.

Now, this brings me to the first of the two controversies – the multiple rape scenes. When this film was first released cuts had to be made to be released in certain territories. Having watched the uncut version I really question the reason behind cutting the second rape as it makes it look like a borderline rape fantasy consensual rather than being the grievous act of sexual assault that it is.

The other controversy comes in the final half hour where the home of David and his wife Amy is being invaded. In short, this sequence is like an extended adult version of Home Alone complete with boiling oil traps and people having their feet shot off by a shotgun. Compared to the earlier rape and some of the scenes in Funny Games some of the violence appeared to verge on comic book (down to the death by the extra-large bear trap).

The thing is, the whole point of this film is about violence and the innate violence that lays beneath the surface – it’s just that it’s buried deeper for some than others. Considering the crap that David and Amy have to deal with for most of the movie (including the murder and desecration of their cat) I found myself cheering them on as they took out their invaders.

So there’s one more Peckinpah film left on the 1001 list and, as things stand, I think I may need to give The Wild Bunch another go before I hit up Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. There’s a particular set of beats that his films seem to follow and, now that I am getting to know his films a bit better, I bet a second viewing will reap big benefits.

Acclaimed Albums – Blackstar by David Bowie

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 149/250Title: Blackstar
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 2016
Position: #179

So, I already did a write-up for Blackstar as part of my best of 2016 list where it placed at #17. Now that I am over a year removed and have listened to this album again I’d say that I got it about right for me – although some albums (like Margo Price’s debut) will have shuffled around it.

This still remains a powerful album because of the proximity to his death, especially the opening track which feels like the soundtrack to some sort of religious cult. For me the album does peter a bit out towards the end with closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ giving a bit of lift towards the end.

As with a lot of albums that I listen to on for this list, Blackstar is not an album that was able to find it’s way into any sort of regular rotation (which mostly consists of K-Pop at the moment for some reason), but is played a few times a year. Every time I listen to it there appears to be something that I have missed or a new layer that gains a bit more clarity.

Maybe in a few years time I will be in a position to re-appraise this. Maybe this will happen after I have listened to more of the David Bowie back catalogue. Until then, a few times a year works for me.