Monthly Archives: March 2019

Acclaimed Albums – Abraxas by Santana

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 170/250Title: Abraxas
Artist: Santana
Year: 1970
Position: #209

I really was making some decent progress on this list… and then went on a long podcast catch up binge. On the plus side, I’m nearly completely caught up with You Must Remember This and have made real headway with Doughboys and Radiolab. On the minus side, it’s taken me three weeks to get around to another album.

The first time I’d heard of Abraxas by Santana was during a scene in A Serious Man (one of my favourite films) where the lead character has an angry with the Columbia Record Club because of his son’s subscription. That was nearly 10 years ago and I have finally listened to this album for the first time and then a second time… with a chance that I’ll probably be playing again on the train tomorrow morning as I continue reading Dune.

While I do like Santana’s record-breaking song ‘Smooth’, I think I like the style of music on Abraxas a lot more. This really is unlike anything else on the album list in that it is almost completely instrumental as well as being a cool mix of Latin and psychedelic rock. As a whole it is an interesting experiment in fusing genres and trying out a lot of different styles, but at no point does it lack cohesion.

The guitar work of Carlos Santana is, as always, exceptional and ‘Black Magic Woman’ really is the standout of the bunch. It’s also nice to have an album that I can appreciate for being complex and yet it doesn’t warrant a whole heap of attention to access it. For a bunch of albums on this list it feels like they really need to be listened to in isolation to get what they were going for, but there is so much going on in Abraxas that I can enjoy the many variations as I read science fiction novels. Weird yardstick, yes, but there are multiple ways to get into an album and this is what worked for this particular one.

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Level One – Final Fantasy VII

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 78/100Title: Final Fantasy VII
Developer: Square
Original Platform: Sony Playstation
Year: 1997

As a self-identifying gamer, it has always been a bit crap that I hadn’t played Final Fantasy VII or ever had my own copy. I’ve waited a while to remedy this because of the ever-impending remake that is on the cards. However, whilst playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, I had a thought. I want to play Final Fantasy VII as close to the original as possible and this remake was altering so much of it that, for some, it could be considered a new game. So I bought a copy on PSN and have been playing it for the last two months.

Considering that I spent a long time on this game I think it’s fair to say that my opinion of this game has drastically altered since my brief try 5-6 years ago. I don’t think it helped that, back then, I didn’t get out of the first area – so I didn’t get to see the summons system, meet most of the playable character or get to see the large open(ish) world.

It’s not that this game didn’t have any issues for me. For one thing, as much as I loved the materia system – where you can level up and swap around magic/skill orbs – the way to swap them between characters was tedious. Especially when, for story reasons, everyone’s materia was all mixed up and you had to re-assign everything (damn it Yuffie!).

There were also some towns (like the beach one) and some minigames (like the snowboarding) that really distracted from what was otherwise an excellent and cohesive world. Sure there was some tonal whiplash, but for the most part it was handled with aplomb… apart from the snowboarding bit which really shouldn’t not have happened so close to the games bit emotional sequence (which would have been more shocking had I played it 12 years ago).

On the flip side, the variety in this game is startling – not quite up there with what they did in Final Fantasy VIbut not too far off what you got in later games like Final Fantasy X-2. Whilst I ended up settling on a party of Cloud, Red XIII and Barret because of their Limit Breaks – for most of the game I rotated through 4 characters and enjoyed experimenting with different tactics and combinations. I mean, I only dropped Cait Sith (a giant remote controlled plush toy) because his big ability can go wrong and insta-kill the party… which I found out during a boss battle.

The story lines this this game are also, on the whole, excellent. Whilst I was annoyed at Yuffie for messing with my materia – it was fun playing her side-quest storylines and getting a massive water dragon as a prize. Similarly, where I began the game really being annoyed with Cloud as being another moody pointy-haired protagonist, you really do start to care about him as a main character. Sure there are times where he is a bit generic in a JRPG way, but man has he been through the wringer.

I would also like to get into the, now kinda retro, environmental and genetic engineering messages within the game – but I can see the word count increasing at a stupidly quick pace and I have work in the morning. Needless to say, Shinra and Sephiroth are fantastic and timeless villains and how they work them into the mythology and message of the game was pretty damned cool.

So whilst I still think Final Fantasies VI and X are better on the whole, I am definitely turned around on VII. Would I have completed this if it wasn’t for the extra buttons that were added on the PSN release and had to really grind my way up? Honestly, I cannot tell but I am glad that I could enjoy the game for the story, combat and variety rather than getting annoyed about mining frogs for experience points.

World Cooking – Turkmenistan

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Turkmenistan
Progress: 22/193

So here we are with the first Central Asian country tackled for this world cookery challenge… and it was a pretty last minute pick at that. This isn’t anything against Turkmenistan, just that I realised I hadn’t planned a country and pretty much chose this at random when looking at the map on my summary page.

When thinking about what to make for Turkmenistan, I really had to be wary to not make something that I might want to make for the neighbouring nations. Like I have been finding with West Africa, there is a lot of overlap between the dishes found in Central Asia. Dishes like plov and laghman are common to the five central nations – but I’m thinking of making those for Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan.

After some research I was able to find a consensus on a dish that is very much Turkmen and, from the pictures alone, I knew that it would be a good one to make.

Main: Içlekli

Being British, it’s weird to think of a shepherd’s pie (or a cottage pie) that does not include a topping of mashed potato. It is because of my dislike of mashed potato that I do not know how to make a British shepherd’s pie. It’s weird, therefore, that I now know how to make içlekli, which is a shepherd’s pie from Turkmenistan.

I followed the recipe from Turkmen Kitchen when making this and opted to use beef rather than lamb because of my personal preference. As such, and probably because of the really fine beef, this pie sort of became a gigantic meatloaf in a pastry case – which was so so good. It was also fun to take some time to make a pattern with the holes.

It’s really key to make sure the steam escapes as this is a very wet pie filling (which caused the greaseproof paper to fuse to the bottom of some of the pie. If I were to make this again, I would probably not add any extra water and, instead, add a whole beef tomato. I say if, but this is something I can really see myself making again. Especially as this is something that tasted even better when reheated for dinner.

I’m going to be sticking with former Soviet states for a bit as I shift attention from Central Asia to Eastern Europe. Since I’ve never gotten around to making them since my holiday a few years ago, I figured now would be the time to cross off Lithuania and make my own zeppelins. Hopefully I can do them justice!

XL Popcorn – An Actor’s Revenge

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 708/1007Title: Yukinojō Henge (An Actor’s Revenge)
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Year: 1963
Country: Japan

An Actor’s Revenge is the final of the three films by Kon Ichikawa on the 1001 list that I had yet to see. Previously I was impressed by his take on the sport documentary in Tokyo Olympiad and now consider his World War II drama The Burmese Harp among my favourite films. With An Actor’s Revenge I am, yet again, seeing Ichikawa deliver something completely different – a revenge drama with a female impersonator as the protagonist.

A bit of background (that I wish I had) for this film. An Actor’s Revenge marks the 300th film that lead actor Kazuo Hasegawa had a role in; plus it is a remake of a film he made nearly 30 years earlier. This explains the key discrepancy that took me out of the moment somewhat, the fact that he was able to have two young women fall for him. Looking at him at the age of 27 and in the same make-up, I kinda get it – but not so much at 55.

Casual ageism aside (apologies for that), An Actor’s Revenge makes for an incredibly interesting watch. From the get go, where we watch onnagata (female impersonator in Kabuki theatre) Yukinojo engaging in a theatrical performance and bewitching the crowd in a beautifully done snow scene.

The rest of the film feels like it never leaves that theatre with Ichikawa using many theatrical (rather than cinematic) style tricks to compose set pieces and light his actors. This, combined with the use of whites and rare flashes of colour, make An Actor’s Revenge an incredibly stylish and visually interesting film to watch. What backs it up is rather unusual story of reluctant revenge.

You see, Yukinojo has sworn revenge against the three men that ruined his parents – which led to their suicides. In the years since losing his parents, he has become a renowned Kabuki actor in Osaka and finds himself in Edo based on a tip that this is where he will find the focus of his vengeance. However, he doesn’t want to just run them through with his sword Lady Snowblood style, but rather completely ruin them.

I say that Yukinojo is reluctant since, at many points, he is conflicted about certain actions that he has to take to reach his goal (mainly because it involves the manipulation of an innocent party to fully realise his vengeance). There are also a few times where he is clearly looking for an out, claiming that certain events mean that the gods must be against him and so should stop. I mention this because I really liked this more unusual take on a revenge protagonist – someone who, although smart and very driven, is still undeniably human.

From here on out I now have less than 300 films left before reaching my end goal of completing this list. It feels like I am really making some progress now (which was in part down to my husband’s work trip abroad) and this should grant me the impetus to try and fit in some more films whenever I can. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to cross this whole thing off completely in the next 3 years.

A Post About Being A Friend

When making the first (and subsequent) drafts of the ‘to do’ list there was something I hadn’t quite thought of: evidence. Sure, for a number of them I can take a photo of a place I’ve been or write a short thing about a piece of music that I have listened to – but what about some things that can’t quite be forced or quantified?

Today I’m crossing off something that I had kinda forgotten was on my list and, thanks to have an ultra thoughtful friend, I actually have something concrete I can cross it off with (and also said was okay with my using in this blog).

List item: Be there for a friend in a time of need
Status: Completed

So imagine coming home from holiday to find this postcard in an envelope. Pretty much all the feelings right? I won’t give back story on this, as I don’t want to really say too much, but I was so incredibly touched to receive this – and has actually made me resolved to send more thank you notes as it really is a lovely feeling to get one.

My apologies is this was a bit of a cringe read, but honestly it was a bit hard to write this without thinking of a certain song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend…

I need to make more of an effort with some of the other items on the main list – so hopefully I will be able to pepper more posts like this amongst the longer term projects.

XL Popcorn – Up In Smoke

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 707/1007Title: Up In Smoke
Director: Lou Adler
Year: 1978
Country: USA

I’ve never really been a fan of stoner comedies. It’s one of those genres where I can hold my hands up and say that they really just aren’t for me. However, they are a recognised and large enough genre – so I completely get why Up In Smoke is on the 1001 list. I mean, this film was the progenitor of this sub-genre of comedy films – and was a massive success.

Thing is, I didn’t actually find Up In Smoke funny. Or particularly well made. As a film it feels like a piece of long-form improv-comedy that you might see in a comedy club, rather than something that was properly scripted and acted. It just lacks any sort of cohesion as it drifts along making variations on the theme of the same drug-related jokes.

For a film that doesn’t even make it to 90 minutes, it was a pretty hard watch that felt a lot longer. I honestly went into this thinking that I might find it funny and, for the first 10-15 minutes, I had some hope. However, this evaporated pretty quickly and I was left waiting for the credits to arrive – so I could switch it off, write this up and watch some anime.

XL Popcorn – Klute

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 706/1007Title: Klute
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Year: 1971
Country: USA

It’s been a while since I last watched a movie because of an episode of You Must Remember ThisHowever, after listening to the season where the lives of Jean Seburg and Jane Fonda are compared and contrasted, I knew that I had to see Klute (I also really want to see They Shoot Horses Don’t They, but that’s not in the 1001).Especially since I already watched Breathless a few years ago.

Up until watching Klute my only exposure to Jane Fonda in a movie was Barbarella, which is pretty shameful considering she is one of the few performers that can boast two Oscar wins. Having seen her in Klute… I do wonder what the hell I have been waiting for.

Just going to start with a bit of a moan about the title. Whilst I understand that Klute is named after the director played by Donald Sutherland (who, don’t get me wrong, gives a strong performance), but the film belongs to Jane Fonda and the character of Bree. She is exceptional and magnetic and all the other superlatives that you can think of for an acting performance. It’s just such a pity that the rest of the film doesn’t quite hold up to her (and Sutherland’s) performance.

The problems that I had with Klute is similar with what I had with The Long Goodbye. The twists were those that you could see coming from a mile away and there just wasn’t enough substance in the storyline to warrent a two hour run time. There is no denying that Pakula was able to craft some fantastic moods during the film, or that there were sequences where you could feel palpable tension.

Honestly, I think that if Klute had been made to a 90-100 minute run time things the film wouldn’t have felt (at times) simultaneously empty and bloated when it comes to the narrative. As it stands, the film lacks coherence in favour touching upon a lot of  disparate themes and trying to be a bit edgy.

Shame, as Fonda really does hit it out of the park here. Bree isn’t an archetype, she’s a complex and well-realised character who happens to make her money as a high class call girl. That is revolutionary enough without trying to shoehorn all the 1970s paranoia in after it. Oh well, at least I got to see Fonda at the height of her powers.

XL Popcorn – Man Bites Dog

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 705/1007Title: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog)
Director: Rémy Belvaux
Year: 1992
Country: Belgium

With my husband in LA for business (how cool does that sound!) I have a few evenings to myself to fill up on films and anime that he put in the ‘no pile’. Now that I have watched Man Bites Dog, I can say that (at least for him) this was a film that he will be glad to not have seen due to the high body count and, at times incredibly graphic, acts of violence.

I think that we band about the term ‘black comedy’ rather liberally to mean anything that can provoke a laugh due to something a bit dark. Man Bites Dog takes the idea of making a black comedy and stretches it to the point where it snaps completely and the film ends up increasingly bleak and hard to stomach.

To reinforce this tone (and eventual climactic shirt) it helps that Man Bites Dog is shot in a mockumentary style. At the beginning they are able to make light on their film documentary on the life and work of Benoit, an incredibly prolific Belgian serial killer. He gives us tips on how to sink a body and guides us all through his methods – all the while the body count climbs at an alarming rate.

Even whilst displaying many abhorant prejudices and, well, being a mass murderer – Benoit is an engaging and psychotic lead. However, things take a turn when the camera crew begin to take part in the violence, which begins with them holding down a child as Benoit suffocates him and culminates in a gang rape.

It’s a tonal whiplash that really reminds us of just how culpable we are as an audience who were quite easily won over in the beginning and who likely laughed at the recurring ‘occupational hazard’ joke of the film crew’s sound guy being killed in different crossfires. Similarly, seeing how this is in the style of a documentary, it makes you wonder how many people lost their lives because Benoit wanted to show off for the camera crew which, again, implicates the viewer for the many deaths on screen.

The film fizzles a bit out at the end where the ending feels a little bit abrupt, but it still leaves a massive impact as the credits role. Although it lacks the tension of Funny Games I feel that a parallel can be drawn. Both films feature psychotic protagonists who kill for the joy of it (there’s no past trauma to speak of in either case, just a love of murder) and the both make the audience partly at fault for the deaths on screen.

Definitely not a film for the faint-hearted. Or my mum. Seriously mum – never watch this film.

 

XL Popcorn – Rebel Without A Cause

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 704/1007Title: Rebel Without A Cause
Director: Nicholas Ray
Year: 1955
Country: USA

Much like Jeff Buckley, the early death of James Dean propelled him to the heights of ‘what if’ stardom thanks to exceptional work in a small number of films. Discounting uncredited roles in his very early career, Dean only has three films on his resume – all classics. Of the three, he received Oscar nominations for two of them: Rebel Without A Cause is the omission from this incredible track record (as in the same year he received a posthumous nomination for his work in Giant).

Where I enjoyed, but was not blown away by, his role in Giant  – I found myself utterly captivated by James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. He leads an incredibly trio of performances of himself, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (who both received Oscar nominations for this film). There is no doubt that the film belongs on his young shoulders with a performance that is as psychologically considered as it is powerful.

I’ve put off watching Rebel Without A Cause for years as I assumed it would be one of those films that I would get annoyed by some whining teenage leads. However, no matter what the title tells you – there is definite cause behind all the behaviours of the three leads (apart from Sal’s character killing puppies… that’s just psychotic, even if he has been abandoned by both of his parents).

Parents, and parenting, is at the heart of all of this. The three lead characters all need different things from their parents which they’re not being given. Dean’s Jim is desperate for his father to be someone to aspire to, Wood’s Judy wants her father to show that he cares and Sal’s Plato just wants someone to show that he is loved.

Rebel Without A Cause has gone down in history for many a reason. Not only does it show the big ‘what if’ over James Dean’s career as well as breaking ground in telling a story aimed at teenage angst, but it also features some interesting homosexual undertones in Plato’s hero worship of Jim. Whilst I don’t think it’s overtly sexual, Plato clearly craves love and acceptance from a sincere male figure – it’s just that he imprinted on the ridiculously attractive Jim.

It’s a tragic melodrama done in the way that Nicholas Ray knows best. I thought he would be able to top Bigger Than Life for me and yet here we are. Man, I love Golden era Hollywood.

World Cooking – Mozambique

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Mozambique
Progress: 21/193

When starting this quest I hadn’t quite counted on learning as much as I have about different cooking methods and about the different reaches of various colonial powers across the globe. With the various cuisines of Africa, it is quite mind boggling as to which European country’s influence is still felt.

With Mozambique, I was surprised to learn how they were previously under the foot of Portugal until their independence in 1975. Previously, I had thought that Portugal’s influence was mostly in the area surrounding Angola – but no Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar have all had parts of their land within the Portuguese Empire. Considering Portuguese interests in India and Macau – it makes sense that they might have West African territories for sea-trading purposes, but the scope of some of these empires is just… beyond me.

This is a bit of a round-about way of me explaining that, for this country, I made something that very much influenced by Portugal. However, the name ‘piri piri’ actually comes from Mozambique and is in reference to the type of chilli that was originally used. So I feel pretty good about making this to cross off this country.

Main: Mozambique Piri Piri Chicken

So this marked my first attempt at making Piri Piri (with the recipe from African Bites), as well the first time that I ever spatchcocked a chicken. The writer of the recipe mentioned it as a possibility for the sake of presentation, I just liked the idea of buying some proper kitchen scissors to try out a new technique.

Honestly, I don’t know why I haven’t done this before, there is something rather satisfying about going through the cutting process in order to achieve a nice flattened chicken. My only worry was cooking it as, since I live in a flat, my options were to cook this in the oven or to find a way to fit it in my George Foreman grill… so of course I went for the latter. I ended up cooking the chicken for 25 minutes on the high setting and alternating between turning it and flipping it in order to make sure everything was safely cooked. The end product was a cooked through and incredibly juicy.

Living in the UK makes it impossible to not compare this to Nandos (or Oporto from when I was in Australia). Fact is, this tasted different because of the use of coconut milk (which I’m guessing is a Mozambique thing… or might just be something that was omitted for UK tastes) instead of vinegar.

Whilst I still need to practice my chicken grilling skills, there is no question about how great the sauce was for the chips and salad (especially when mixed with a smidge of mayonnaise). Once I get the spice level of this perfect (which, for me, would mean adding more chilli) I think this is something I would happily trot out when having company over. It would probably make for a great vegetable or fish marinade too.

Feels like it has been a while since I last made something Asian (which would have been the Bhutanese cheese curry) and so that will be my next destination. Looking at the map, it would appear that Central Asia and South-East Asia are the remaining areas that I have yet to touch properly – so I guess that’s where I’ll be looking to for inspiration.