Monthly Archives: February 2019

Graphic Content – Frontline Combat

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
Progress:
51/501Title: Frontline Combat
Creator: Harvey Kurtzman
Years: 1951-54
Country: USA

As I said last time, it was about time that I covered a war comic for this list. Since it was my husbands turn to pick, I ended up reading this series from the early 1950s whose cancellation was due to reduced readership following the end of America’s involvement in the Korean War.

In each issue the aim is to tell four ‘real life’ stories from the front lines of war. A lot of these were moreorless contemporary with the bulk being based in the, then current, Korean War and most of the main focuses are American. However, there are times where the comic goes historical with figures such as Julius Caesar and Geronimo getting their own stories.

When reading this you get a sense of a strong sense of patriotism (which sometimes threatens to cross the line into jingosim) on behalf of the writers. One story, involving Japanese-Americans very much came close to making me roll my eyes just a little bit.

It’s also not easy to read some of the stories that start to go into stereotypes of East Asians and Native Americans – although I have to keep reminding myself that this comic is 65 years old.

To be honest, for the first issues of this I did find it to be an interesting, if slightly, heavy read. However,  after the seventh issue, I began to tire a bit of the same narrative tricks. The historical stories helped to extend the shelf-life a bit, but I would not have been able to read more than the 15 episodes of the original run.

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Acclaimed Albums – Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and The Holding Company

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 168/250Title: Cheap Thrills
Artist: Big Brother and The Holding Company
Year: 1968
Position: #241

When you listen to Cheap Thrills you may, if you’re anything like me, have been tricked into believing this was a live album. It’s not just the audience noise that they put into the mix,  although that does put the thought into your head, but there is also the energy that is injected into many of the songs.

The centrepiece of the album is, undoubtedly, ‘Piece of My Heart‘. Janis Joplin’s amazing set of pipes gives so much emotion and attitude to this song that it forces you to pay attention to it. There’s also a fantastic rocky interpretation of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.

I don’t know if it’s Joplin’s raw power or because of her untimely demise at the age of 27, but it really does feel that Cheap Thrills is as good as it is because of her. Sure, it makes for an interesting time capsule of where psychedelic and blues rock was before the heavier stuff started to kick in a few years later – but what carries it up the rankings and keeps it noteworthy is the personality. Also, the excellent (if slightly racist) album artwork helps.

One more album after this and I will be able to (temporarily) say sayonara to the 1960s. Sure, a future update might kick this, and the other remaining album from the sixties, off the list. Then again, I want to extend this list at some point so it’s not as if listening to these albums will go to waste. Especially not when I end up actually enjoying them.

World Cooking – Chad

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Chad
Progress: 18/193

Last time I was left contemplating what area of Africa I was going to choose a recipe from. So instead for going for the north or for one of the Congos, I went for somewhere bang in the middle. I figured that this made for an interesting crossroads of Africa since it is right on the border of the Northern and Western regions – meaning that the food will take on the elements of the neighbouring regions whilst also bringing Central African things into the mix.

Preparing this week marks the first time since South Korea that I specially ordered something over the internet to make a recipe. With Africa this might happen more and more often as they are more likely to use different flours than you would expect in a mainstream supermarket. It was a bit touch and go as my millet flour didn’t arrive until a day or two before I was going to start cooking, but it worked out in the end.

Main: Daraba

This marks the fourth country in a row that I have made a main dish that doesn’t contain any meat (not counting the prawns in Palau). This also marks the second time that I have made a variation on the peanut stew for an African country (the other being from the Gambia). The thing is, when searching for Chadian recipes online, daraba is what seems to be the most popular.

Of all the many recipes I ended up making this one from Dining for Women as it was the best one that didn’t just say bung everything into a pot and boil. I added a bit more peanut butter and some Maggi seasoning to boost the flavour (and some cornflour when eaten as leftovers to add some thickness). Honestly, I didn’t feel the need to include meat as there was enough variety with the okra, aubergine, sweet potato, tomato and spinach.

I’ll try and not make peanut soup again for a while, but I think for smaller countries in West Africa I might have my hands tied. I guess I may just need to dig deeper for the likes of Togo and Benin.

Dessert: Ouaddai

And here we have the reason for my ordering a bag of millet flour (that I now need to find other uses for) – some biscuit-type snacks that really remind me of shortbread. Well, a deep-fried shortbread that contains oil instead of butter. Still I followed the recipe from 196 Flavors and I ended up with a Tupperware tub full of these flaky treats.

Having never worked with non-wheat flour it was interesting to see how different it was to handle. The main thing was the lack of gluten, which made it sandier and flakier to work with. I might have added a bit too much water in the end as I wasn’t too sure about how the finished dough should look – but it tasted food when they came out of the hot oil and that’s all that matters to me.

So, when I did Uruguay I gave a bit of the delicious cake to my next door neighbour – after all, she’s been great and why not give cake when cake is available. Well, a week later we got a knock on the door and it was our neighbours daughter with bag of special maize flour for when I did Venezuela. A few weeks later she came by again with a recipe scanned from a magazine for something I could make with this flour. I guess that’s a long way of saying that, next time, I will be cooking something from Venezuela – now to  find something sweet to go with it.

XL Popcorn – Taste of Cherry

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 700/1007Title: Ta’m e guilass (Taste of Cherry)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Year: 1997
Country: Iran

It’s taken me nearly a year and a half, but I have finally made my way into the next hundreds for the 1001 movies list. Since it is such an odd number (seriously, 1007 is not a nice number for these sorts of things) I know that 700 isn’t the most meaningful landmark to hit, but it’s nice to know that I really am just that bit closer to my end goal.

I picked Taste of Cherry as film 700 for one main reason: it has been two years since I last watched an Iranian film (I believe that was Gabbeh) and I have waited long enough. Also, this is a film that I have been wanting to see for ages – ever since I saw L’enfant by the Dardenne Brothers and thought it would be a good idea to watch all the winners at Cannes. Spoiler alert: I never followed through.

Despite all the long takes of sprawling scenery, Taste of Cherry is an intimate film centred around a middle-aged man who is looking for someone to bury him once he commits suicide. We watch him converse with a number of people that he picks up in his car (a soldier, a religious man and a taxidermist) who are all of different ethnicities to him (Kurd, Afghan and Azeri respectively). Through this we get a number of interesting looks into the dilemma of how best to answer this man’s macabre request.

The weird ending aside – which is a small making of scene where we see them filming soldiers running in the distance – this film left me wondering about whether he actually did go through with his planned suicide in the end. Since we’re never privy to why he wants to end his life, I guess we’ll never know. Due to how he seems to waver in his final discussions with the taxidermist, I think he may have decided not to – especially seeing how scared he looked laying in his own grave.

I still prefer Through the Olive Trees and Close-Up to Taste of Cherry, whilst I really did appreciate the questions raised and the mood that Kiarostami was able to cultivate through his use of silence and long takes – there were a number of sections that allowed to mind off of the film rather than keeping me engaged. Also, like with Yol the level of acting by some of the non-professional actors kept snapping me out of the disbelief.

XL Popcorn – Scorpio Rising

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 699/1007Title: Scorpio Rising
Director: Kenneth Anger
Year: 1965
Country: USA

When it comes to the concept of famous versus infamous, director Kenneth Anger falls firmly in the later camp. His film-making was experimental to the point where he won some pretty important battles when it comes to censorship and his book on the scandals of old Hollywood were so full of falsehoods that an entire podcast season has been dedicated to debunking them.

So where does this leave us with Scorpio Rising? This homoerotic short has managed to be an influence on many directors of the New Hollywood movement. It also pissed off the American Nazi Party because of how their flag was being used, so there’s that.

The thing most interesting about this short isn’t really the short itself, but the influence it has had since first being released over 50 years ago. I’m not just talking about the (incredibly brief) use of male nudity, where he successfully made the case that this wasn’t pornographic.

For me, the big thing is the use of music. It’s something you see in other films of his, like in Kustom Kar Kommandos. There is no dialogue, just the prominent use of songs like ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘I Will Follow Him’. It’s something that wasn’t really done before and is something I find it hard to imagine modern films not doing.

Other than it’s influence on later works Scorpio Rising is still an interesting watch. Weird, full of symbolism that is just a bit self-indulgent and featuring an actor that found himself tied up in the world of Charles Manson. Truly the 1960s were a weird time to be alive and working in Hollywood.

 

 

🎻♫♪ – Concerto for Two Trumpets by Antonio Vivaldi

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 44/501Title: Concerto for Two Trumpets
Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Nationality: Italian
Year:
1711

I’m getting to the point in this classical list where, if I haven’t listened to a piece by each major composer, then it’s time to do so. Whilst I still have to cross off pieces by Bach, Schubert and Schumann – at least with this I have been able to put a line through something by Vivaldi.

I went for Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets not just because of my need to cover a piece by the composer, but also that this would the first piece I have listened to that focuses on the brass section of the orchestra. Little did I know that this piece was under ten minutes long and, by the time I had things set up to take notes, it was pretty much over.

The point of the piece is really to showcase the trumpet as an instrument. At the time trumpets weren’t built the same way as they are now, which made them more difficult to play and, therefore, made this a bit of a feat to be able to perform. It shows how trumpets can be used for fanfares, for exuberance and for more muted performances – and does so in a brief amount of time.

Sure I could have gone for The Four Seasons for the first Vivaldi piece, but this felt like a good way to start him off. I know I’ll probably need to do a longer piece soon (like an opera or a ballet) but for the moment I’m enjoying having a list where entries can take as long as an episode of We Bare Bears.

Oscar Bait – Vice / Green Book

Title: Vice
Director: Adam McKay
Year: 2018
Country: USA

Right, there’s no point mincing words here: Vice is one of the worst films that I’ve seen in years. In YEARS. I mean, I had trouble watching Fences but at least it had material for the cast to work with and the tour de force performance from Viola Davis to get me through. Not with Vice though, where I got an hour in and I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t even halfway towards the finish line.

Honestly, I thought that Bohemian Rhapsody was a shoo in for being my least favourite film in this batch of nominees. But no, Vice manages to eclipse that and it is all down to the choices that Adam McKay made. Here’s the thing, Dick Cheney’s life should have made for an engaging movie in the vein of House of Cards, but instead he goes for something far more flippant in an attempt to mimic the great The Big Short

In the end, this film just ends up being a boring mess which is a complete waste of Christian Bale and Amy Adams’ talents. As much as I hope Amy Adams one day wins an Oscar, please for the love of God do not let it be for this role in Vice. She should have won for Arrival over Emma Stone in La La Land – but that’s something for another time. Vice is such a drag to watch – I’m just glad to never have to see it again.

Title: Green Book
Director: Peter Farrelly
Year: 2018
Country: USA

And this is it, the final Best Picture nominee from this year’s Academy Awards. It’s one where I have probably heard the most conflicting opinions with a co-worker (whose taste I trust) seeing it in the cinema twice to hearing a film reviewer say that Viggo Mortensen’s acting is so broad that it has made them re-evaluate him as a performer. Quite a contrast.

The benefit of hearing such differing thoughts is that you really can go into a film and just take the film as it comes… which for the first half an hour was the fear that this was going to be another Vice. During this first section I got the criticism of Mortensen’s acting and I began to question how this film could ever be considered a comedy. Then Mahershala Ali came on screen and suddenly I began to enjoy the film.

There is no doubt that, at times, there are some issues with the film. The score tries to hard to highlight emotional moments that it can become overly sentimental. Some scenes and lines feel like they are reaching too hard to be Oscar worthy that it can be off-putting… as well as making you feel that they have been heavily fictionalised. In the end though, despite these problems, this is a good film that really flies as long as Mortensen and Ali’s characters are together. As much as I loved Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman – the supporting actor Oscar deserves to, once again, rest in Ali’s hands.

So, where does this leave me with the final rankings. Honestly, this is not as strong a group as last year but that’s on the Academy for failing to nominate better films. These films were out there and eligible to be nominated, but that’s just how it goes. In the end, unless you are paid to do so, it’s difficult to think of people out there who can watch every single films in a given year that might be good enough for the award.

Anyway here are my ranking, for what it’s worth:

1) The Favourite
2) Roma
3) BlacKkKlansman
4) A Star Is Born
5) Green Book
6) Black Panther

7) Bohemian Rhapsody
8) Vice

Oscar Bait – Bohemian Rhapsody / BlacKkKlansman

Title: Bohemian Rhapsody
Director: Bryan Singer
Year: 2018
Country: USA

The Academy are a mysterious beast. Scratch that, awards season is a mysterious beast. Acclaimed films like First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk and Can You Ever Forgive Me? get scraps and then there’s Bohemian Rhapsody with it’s middling-to-negative reviews and a more-than-problematic director… that somehow gets a nomination.

I’ve mentioned before about my complicated feelings about Queen, which means that I am most definitely not their target demographic. However, it does have the benefit of my being able to watch this purely as a movie and not be won over by the frequent clips of the Queen discography. Stripped of that, this movie is very much a paint-by-numbers biopic that takes timeline liberties and sanitizes a subject for mass appeal.

In the end, this gets by on Rami Malik acting his socks off (although, at times, it feels like something more out of Saturday Night Live than an award-winning film). Divorced of this performance and a liking for the music of Queen, then Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad film plain and simple. However, so many people love Queen which would go a long way to explain the massive divide in critical and public opinion. Will it win? No, but Malik might pick up Best Actor if Singer’s recent child sex allegations don’t damage his chances.

Title: BlacKkKlansman
Director: Spike Lee
Year: 2018
Country: USA

It’s unusual for there to be multiple films in the running for Best Picture that are already playing on the movie channels or have already been released on DVD. This year’s nominees have been a treasure trove for this and have allowed me to watch three of the films from the comfort of my own sofa in the company of a stuffed walrus.

BlacKkKlansman is one of those films that I was so happy to see nominated for the Oscar. Not only did it give me a proper excuse to prioritise it over watching movies on the 1001 list, but it gave Spike Lee an overdue nomination for Best Director. Also, it’s one of the few nominees that I was actually interested to watch – especially because it’s based on a ridiculous, but true, story about an African-American cop who infiltrated the KKK.

Despite being set in 1972 (although the events of the film actually happened 7 years later), Lee ensures that we as viewers understand the timelessness of the messages of his film. He makes a lot of effort to hammer home the atmosphere of racism that was (and still is) prevalent in areas of America. He does this not just with the members of the KKK, but also members of the police. This is also tied into misogyny, antisemitism and homophobia – but racism is the main issue of the film.

Some of the messages are very on the nose, especially when you think of the pre-selection that will occur of people who would want to see this film, but these are the times we live in. The ending sequence where he plays real footage of neo-Nazi marches and how Trump apologizes for them is remarkably chilling; the final footage depicting the death of protester Heather Heyer being particularly harrowing.

It’s weird to think that a film like BlacKkKlansman, which depicts so much darkness, has so many comedic moments. Then again, it would be hard to watch if it wasn’t for those moments. Sometimes the switching between tones gives a bit of whiplash, but for the most part it’s done well. It’s also worth heaping praise on both John David Washington and Adam Driver for their roles – just a pity that the former couldn’t achieve a nomination at the Oscars.

So, will this win? Probably not. It may snag a screenplay award, but I would be surprised if it would achieve much else. Still, it’s a very interesting and worthy nomination – and I am so glad to have seen it.

Current Rankings:

1) The Favourite
2) Roma
3) BlacKkKlansman
4) A Star Is Born
5) Black Panther

6) Bohemian Rhapsody

Oscar Bait – Best Animated Feature

In order to be able to do this week of Oscar Best Picture nominees each year, I need to see a bunch of films that have Oscar buzz only to have them fizz away before the final hurdle – or they end up receiving other nominations.

But enough about those, this is the first year where I managed to see all nominations for Best Animated Feature before the ceremony – so this post is dedicated to them.

Title: Incredibles 2
Director: Brad Bird
Country: USA

I can’t believe that it’s been 14 years (just under half my life… gulp) since The Incredibles was released and left us wanting more. It took three installments in the Cars trilogy before we got there, but we got there in the end. This was the first of the Best Animated nominees that I saw this year and despite really enjoying it – The Incredibes 2 lays somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Says a lot really that the Academy managed to get this category to be chock with great films, but they couldn’t do the same with Best Picture. Incredibles 2, whilst not as good as the first one, is still a great watch that expands the universe even further than the original. The shortcomings are more due to lost production time rather than a dearth of ideas… so here’s hoping for Incredibles 3.

Title: Isle of Dogs
Director: Wes Anderson
Country: USA

I’m not going to mince words: Isle of Dogs is my favourite film of 2018. We’re talking about one of my favourite directors making a stop-motion feature that pays homage to Japan and features a cast of dogs. Unless he completely messed up, Isle of Dogs was always something that I would appreciate – even if just for Alexandre Desplat’s score.

Sometimes it’s hard to say why you love something other than it makes you incredibly happy. This is what Isle of Dogs is to me – a burst of idiosyncratic happiness with sneezing dogs, beautiful cinematography and an offbeat wit. Truly, I don’t think there has been a Wes Anderson film that I didn’t like and I cannot wait to hear more about his next film.

Title: Ralph Breaks the Internet
Director: Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Country: USA

Another sequel on this list of nominees, and another that doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original. Like with Incredibles 2, this is not to disparage Ralph Breaks the Internet because I enjoyed it a lot – but that just shows the dangers of making sequels.

Now where Incredibles 2 suffered from a reduced production cycle that stopped them from using all their ideas, Ralph Breaks the Internet suffers a bit from including too many ideas gumming up the works. However, one thing it does do really well is deliver a profoundly grown up message about how friendships can change over time.

Title: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
Country: USA

You know when there’s a film that really should not be as good as it ended up being? That’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for you. As much as I like comic book heroes, the films that they find themselves in are not always the best (animated or live action). But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, someone managed to strike gold with this animated gem that might be my favourite superhero film of all time.

The animation is beautiful, the story they tell feels so contemporary without being overtly politically correct and it makes you feel like you are watching a comic book come to life. It’s so cool to see films like this coming out that have been able to blend Western animation with some 3D anime style. Truly a treat to watch and a well deserved winner.

Title: Mirai
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Country: Japan

Mirai is the sixth anime film to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, but amazingly it is the first one not to come from Studio Ghibli. Crazy really when you consider how much of an impact Your Name made back in 2016. Still that’s just the way it goes with foreign language films at the Oscars.

Whilst I am putting this below Isle of Dogs in my rankings for this prize, Mirai contains my favourite film sequence of the year – a beautiful falling sequence where all the pieces of the family puzzle are put together with some very haunting music. I was in tears. This is such a magical film and, when compared to the other films in this list, tells such a small story with such normal low stakes. In the end it’s just about a five year old boy struggling to deal with the fact that he is now a big brother – but that’s what helps to make this incredible, it’s just a very magical telling of a struggle that happens every single day.

So what are my ranking? Here we go:
1) Isle of Dogs
2) Mirai
3) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
4) The Incredibles 2
5) Ralph Wrecks The Internet

Oscar Bait – A Star Is Born / Roma

Title: A Star Is Born
Director: Bradley Cooper
Year: 2018
Country: USA

One of the interesting things about keeping a watchful eye on awards season is seeing how films rise, fall, peak too soon or never quite gain momentum. Obviously, you have to take things like the Oscars with a substantial pinch of salt because if a film or any part of a film really is the best of the year, then there shouldn’t be this whole momentum thing to consider.

I mention this because A Star Is Born looks as if it could be the latest victim of losing momentum in the month before the Academy Awards ceremony. It picked up a bunch of early awards, but despite being nominated nearly everywhere it’s starting to lose out. Means that whilst there is a consensus that it is one of the best of the year for a number of fields – it’s not quite the best. Having seen it (finally), I would have to agree with that sentiment.

Coming into this version of A Star Is Born having already seen the original 1937 version and the 1954 Judy Garland version, it feels like I am at a bit of a disadvantage. After all, this is a remake and it very much follows the same story, except that it is transplanted to the modern day with it being set in the music industry rather than in film-making. So, as someone who sees the finale coming, it’s interesting to see how they tease things as an act of foreshadowing.

Now, considering that this is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut – A Star is Born is actually quite impressive and I hope this means he does some more work behind the camera in the future. Similarly, Lady Gaga gives an exceptional performance in her first leading role and I hope she goes down the Cher route and continues along this cinema path whilst still releasing music. She may not get another role as meaty as Ally Maine, but I’m sure there will be scripts out there to help her shine.

Here’s the question though – is this the best of the nominated films? The answer is no. This is one of the three films I was looking forward most to seeing (the others being The Favourite and Roma) and it started off with a real bang, only to whimper a bit at the end once the power dynamic shifts in her direction. It’s definitely earned it’s nomination this year, as well as a bunch of the others it’s got. For now though, my fingers are crossed for The Favourite.

Title: Roma
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Year: 2018
Country: Mexico

Before getting into the film itself, I just have to say that I hope that as time goes on we see more and more of these releases being available streaming or on demand in and around Oscar season. I’m not being lazy or stingy here, but you need to be really on it if you want to catch things in the cinema that may just be nominated a few months later. So thank you Netflix and I hope you keep on distributing Oscar nominees.

Now back to the film, which made me realise something: I may have been sleeping on Alfonso Cuarón as a candidate for one of my favourite directors working today. If you look at his body of work there is an insane amount of variation in genre and it would be difficult to not consider Roma and three of the four more recent films of his as modern classics. Hell, he helped make the Harry Potter films grow up.

Then we get to Roma, which in any other Oscar year would have been my automatic front runner (as of now, that distinction still belongs to The Favourite). Not only is it a sensitive yet compelling slice-of-life film that manages to teach you a lot about a world and history that you may not be aware of, but it’s got two great roles for women and challenges your preconceptions about how a film like this will proceed.

Roma may also be one of the most beautifully shot films that I have seen for a long time, which means that if Cuarón doesn’t walk away from the ceremony with his second Best Director nod, he should at least be given the prize for Best Cinematography (hell, why not both). I’m also so heartened to see a nomination for Yalitza Aparicio whose naturalistic performance as Cleo the native Mexican maid makes you feel everything.

Given the climate at the moment it would be truly delicious if the Academy ended up giving this year’s Best Picture award to Roma. Not only would it be the first foreign language film to win the gong, but it’s a Mexican one that features dialogue in an indigenous language. It would thoroughly deserve the nod as well, it’s just that the politics would make for an interesting night – especially as it stands to possibly clean up 10 awards!

With half of the films now watched, this is where my rankings are:

1) The Favourite
2) Roma
3) A Star Is Born
4) Black Panther