Monthly Archives: November 2019

XL Popcorn – The Ear

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 754/1007Title: Ucho (The Ear)
Director: Karel Kachyňa
Year: 1970
Country: Czechoslovakia

When you look up Ucho in the 1001 book, you see a picture of a drunk woman wearing a newspaper hat and pointing to the side. It makes it seem like Ucho would be some sort of comedy (maybe not in the same vein as Daisiesbut still something mostly comedic), but that’s pretty far from the truth. Instead, Ucho is a film that combines the domestic battles of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the surveillance-based paranoia of The Lives Of Others.

It’s worth mentioning that this film about a couple cracking under the paranoia of their house potentially being bugged (to the point that they get physically violent with each other) was made behind the Iron Curtain in 1970 and was banned by the Czech government for 19 years. It wasn’t until the Cannes festival of 1990 that this film properly saw the light of day.

Maybe it’s because of this long censorship that Ucho really isn’t that well known, but it really should be on a bunch of to-watch lists. The way that this film ends up being a paranoia-laced pressure cooker with an insidious ending, well, it sticks with you.

What also sticks with you is how amazing the two leading performances are in, let’s just remember, a film that was pretty much destined to be banned. In real life the two actors really were marries, which explains the chemistry that gives real weight to the fights and makings up of this couple as they’re put through an emotional wringer. What’s even more spectacular about these performances is how convincing and seamless the changes in dynamics are, which leads to a number of allegiance changes by you as the viewer.

Adding to the sense of unease are the numerous flashbacks to a party for the ministers where Kachyňa carefully paces the reveals to keep the tension going whilst also ratcheting up some of the more surreal aspects of the movie. It makes for a watch that really exceeded my expectations and one I would really recommend.

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🎻♫♪ – Madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
66/501Title: Madrigals
Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Nationality: Italian
Year:
1587-1651

Over the course of his life, Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi wrote 9 whole books of madrigals (a madrigal essentially being the secular version of a motet). For the purpose of this list, the book stipulates a recording that showcases the books seven and eight of this extensive collection. The reason being that these are peak of his work and where he was able to break with tradition and begin to innovate this genre of classical vocal music.

From the beginnings of the first recorded madrigal, it’s clear that things have really started moving on in this early section of the classical list. I mean, sure, as this is in Italian I have no idea what’s being said – but from the way that the polyphonics are crafted it no longer feels religious.

Whilst this does feel just that bit closer to a more modern style, this is still a long way from something that I could listen to for pleasure… or can listen to without it being too much of a distraction. Honestly, I really do not think that all these complex polyphonic pieces are really for me. However, I can appreciate how much of a step forward this is – so I guess this list is widening my perspective in some way.

📽️ Disney Time – Pocahontas

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 33/58Title: Pocahontas
Year: 1995

It’s easy for us to look back on on Pocahontas and feel a certain way. We have moved on so much in terms of ‘wokeness’, so there’s things in Pocahontas that we will now more readily realize as being problematic. However, I want to view this film as it was back then – the first Disney animated film with a woman of colour in a leading role that actually showed the settlers for being entitled murderers.

That’s where I’m going to leave the subject matter in terms of racial sensitivity. There’s more that could have been done, yes, and this is an utter mangling of history for profit, still yes, but let’s just look at this in terms of the Disney classics that preceded it.

Let’s start with the obvious, Pocahontas is one of the weak links in the Disney Renaissance chain. When the company you keep is The Lion King and Beauty & The Beast it is going to be hard to measure up. The fact that they thought this would be a great opportunity to go for another shot at the Best Picture nomination (and so fashioned this more on Beauty & The Beast idea rather than the more comedic Aladdin) makes some sense, but it is also the film’s undoing.

In the end, the script and storyline is just not up to snuff. It suffers a lot from time dilation issues, which leads to the fridge logic problem of “how did both sides understand each other’s language” and “how did they make a settlement so quickly”. Also, this does a disservice to an otherwise strong and brave female protagonist who ends up making a lot of her big decisions because she fell in love with a boy from the enemy side. Her ending makes up for it somewhat though.

Looking on the positives, let’s talk about the music. Alan Menken, once again, delivers as we have come to expect from him. This time, due to the untimely death of Howard Ashman, Menken is working with Stephen Schwartz (who most people my age will know from writing Wicked). ‘Colors of the Wind’ is a brilliant song and the whole sequence with Judy Kuhn’s amazing vocals and the beautiful nature imagery is the highlight of the movie.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the light relief provided by Meeko the raccoon. So much of this film, like the whole ‘Savages’ sequence which is problematic (although, I really do believe was well-intended), has a heavy message to it. Thus the thieving antics of a very hungry raccoon, as well as his interactions with the pampered dog belonging to Radcliffe, really comes as a pleasant diversion.

The animation is still beautiful, but it shows the beginning the descent into a more angular style that is going to dominate for a very long time. Once it begins to bother me, which will probably be around Tarzan, I think I’ll have to go more into it. However, there’s little to fault in how they used the animation to bring life to the landscapes and some of the more spiritual elements of the film.

Next time in the Disney canon is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is possibly the weirdest choice of source material for a children’s film but also has one of the best opening sequences in animated cinema history. It’s one of the few films I can remember seeing in the cinema as a very young child (I was six) and is one that I have a bit of a soft spot for.

World Cooking – Greece

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Greece
Progress: 44/193

Well, the time has finally come for me to make some Greek food. It was probably the biggest thing that I fell for during my time in Athens and there has been a real agony of choice when it came to picking something to make. This is, after all, one of the big cuisine nations that I have been spreading out during my world cooking challenge and no matter what I picked I know that my Greek colleague at work say I missed something perfect.

When you think of Mediterranean cuisine, then you will either be thinking of Greek or Southern Italian food. At the foundation of so many Greek foods is olive oil thanks to the abundance of olive trees which, in myth, where the offering of Athena in order to gain patronage of the city of Athens. Many of the best olive oils in the world come from Greece and they know how to use it to make sweet dishes, savoury dishes or just find a way to enjoy it with some vinegar and bread.

Alongside the olive oil you get many different ingredients depending on where in Greece you are looking. Thanks to the exportation moussaka and gyros most of us will probably closely associate lamb with Greek food. We also tend to think of filo pasty (like with spanakopita), feta cheese, an assortment of dips (many of which shared with other nations that used to form the Ottoman empire) and liberal portions of oregano. All this adds up to a cuisine that is amazing to eat, but difficult to isolate major dishes from without going stereotypical.

Main: Kleftiko & Greek Salad

Since we had company staying this week, I felt the need to go a bit big and thought that kleftifko would make for a cool showstopper of a main meal. Also, I had an amazing pork kleftiko whilst in Athens so wants to try and make it myself, but with the more traditional lamb meat. Now, I know that traditionally this is cooked in a package made from parchment paper, but I found a really great recipe that meant I could slow cook it and have it as a treat when I got back for a long walk in the local meadows.

I could make a Grecian main dish without making my own hash of a Greek salad, now could I. My main issue with Greek salad is the typically large amounts of raw onion, so I decided to go without it. In the end, the kleftiko is the main dish here and this salad was just a nice extra which made use of some Minoan olive oil that my mum brought back from a recent holiday.

Given the eight hours of slow cooking and that I was cooking for company, I am happy to report that this kleftiko went down really well. Thanks to the slow cooker, you could smell the garlic and herbs of the cooking lamb at the bottom of the stairwell (keep in mind, I live on the third floor). The sprinkle of feta on top really added to this dish and I ate my share very quickly. Leftover lamb and potatoes were fried up the next day and put in a delicious wrap with some of the Greek salad that we didn’t finish.

Dessert: Portokalopita

For dessert I wanted to make something I had never tried before. My Greek colleague sent me a recipe for some biscuits that he brought into the office and, using that same site, I found this recipe for Portokalopita – or Orange Cake. In lieu of flour, this recipe uses crushed pieces of dried out filo and the whole thing is flavoured with a homemade orange-cinnamon syrup.

Needless to say, this may be one of the nicest desserts that I have ever made for this challenge and I already have some demand to make more of it in the near future. Thanks to the abundance of syrup, this is an incredibly moist cake without being at all cloying. It’s also one of those rare cakes that is sweet enough that a small amount (not pictured) is enough to satisfy your sweet tooth. I want to see if there are similar cakes out there using different flavours (lemon, rose, pistachio etc) because it feels like this could be a good base recipe to have some fun with.

Speaking of fun, man, doing the research and cooking of these Greek foods has been some of the most fun that I have had doing this list for a while. It’s a trip to Asian cuisine next time. The hub has picked Pakistan, so let’s see what I end up making.

Acclaimed Albums – The Man-Machine by Kraftwerk

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 191/250Title: Die Mensch Maschine/The Man Machine
Artist: Kraftwerk
Year: 1978
Position: #237

So today was a bit of a cool day at work. I am currently learning a new computer language and I managed to complete my first proper project a few weeks ahead of schedule.

I only mention this, because The Man Machine was the album playing when I was doing the bulk of the final work and the first track (‘The Robots’) was the song going through my head during the walk around the office that lead to my final epiphany. If the track ‘Movies’ by Weyes Blood has become the anthem of my getting a permanent position in a job I love, The Man Machine might well be the album that I now associate with one of my big coding breakthroughs. Weirdly apt seeing how Kraftwerk’s music always has that tinge of man and machine combined.

Now, it isn’t just just because of this epiphany that I say this (although it will help with some retrospective rose-tinted glasses), but this albums is really good. I really liked their other entry on the list (Trans-Europe Express) and this is the step-up that I both hoping for and got in spades.

For Trans-Europe Express I enjoyed the minimalism and got to listen to the beginnings of one of my favourite genres of music. It was also weird to hear because somehow it managed to sound very current – something which I have found again with The Man Machine.

Listening to The Man-Machine has only galvanised my respect for Kraftwerk all the more and has properly demonstrated to me just how they could be considered one of the most influential groups of all time. Some have said that they are second only to The Beatles… and I can’t say I disagree when you consider how wide their music has reached.

With The Man Machine they took what made Trans-Europe Express a landmark album and turned it into something you could actually dance to. Tracks like ‘Spacelab’ and ‘The Model’ feel like watershed moments where this was no longer just electronic music, but electropop. It’s a chilled, swaying sort of danceable electropop mind you. Still though, this is pretty major.

XL Popcorn – High School

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 753/1007Title: High School
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Year: 1968
Country: USA

There aren’t a lot of documentaries left on this list, so I’ll probably have to pace myself a bit in order to ensure that I don’t prematurely run out. Whilst I have come across a number of documentaries that I either didn’t get or was underwhelmed by, they’re always interesting to contemplate afterwards.

Anyway, so a few months ago I watched Chronicle of a Summer. This was an early experiment in a new style of documentary film-making that coined the term ‘cinema vérité’. With today’s film, High School, we see how a similar idea developed in America under the name ‘direct cinema’. This is by far not the first film to do that (for example, political documentary Primary pre-dates it by 8 years) but High School presents a rather interesting time capsule.

As I have noted in my 1001 songs playthrough, the time that High School was made was during a turning point in politics where students were beginning to rebel and protest. We see glimpses of it here in some of the interactions, whilst also noting just how old fashioned the school is in terms of the teaching and inflexibility. Something that really sticks in my mind is a scene where a student asks about clothing for the school formal dance and is told that there was a male student who won’t be going as he cannot afford the money for a tuxedo rental.

Coming from a teaching background I have had the awkward experience of enforcing arbitrary rules that I didn’t give two figs about because those were the rules of the school. One example was with regards to always taking off coats in the classroom no matter what. My room got freezing in winter and I would regularly put on my lab coat for extra warmth – but the students had no such choice (the one time I relaxed the rule was the time I was caught not enforcing the rule… which is always how it goes).

Anyway, something that really struck a chord with me (aside from how old-fashioned it was) was how bored the students and the teachers were. Also, in many ways, how education hasn’t changed too much when you see more modern documentaries set in schools. It brings a bit of Sisyphean futility to the proceedings, which makes the awkward laughs that the film induces all the more needed.

Being a piece of direct cinema, I do miss a narrator or an obvious sense of structure. However, as it is High School paints a picture that acts as a perfect (and almost unbiased) time capsule of the late 1960s.

I Built A 3D Puzzle!

List Item: Complete a 3D Jigsaw puzzle

Do you remember being a kid and looking through the catalogues in December to look for things to ask for Christmas? I sure do and I loved the Argos catalogue for this as it had such a huge toy section. This is where this slightly oddball entry on my bucket list comes in.

You see, I was always very intrigued by Puzz 3D puzzles (I think they were advertised on the television as well). However, they’re very expensive and complicated and I see why I never received one of these for Christmas. In the end, whatever I got for Christmas was probably a better shout than one of these anyway. Still though, this is something I had always wanted to complete – ergo the entry on my list.

About six months ago I walked by a local charity shop that had not one, but two Puzz 3Ds in store. Keeping in mind that some of these can be well over £80 on Amazon, these were a steal at £6 for two. I had to buy them and just wait for an empty afternoon to complete one in… which is what I did today.

This puzzle is the Bavarian Mansion puzzle and I figured it would be easier to complete than the Millennium Falcon (which is nearly double the amount of pieces). It took an afternoon to complete and now I don’t really want to take it down… so it’s pretty much taking up the dining table as I write this. It may not look as polished as on the box, but wow the sense of achievement when I got the roof attached.

You might notice on the corner of the table that there is an extra puzzle piece. Turns out, that there was an extra piece in the box… from the 1000+ Taj Mahal set. To make matters worse, it’s the top of the central dome. This means one of two things. Either the donor gave both puzzles and this piece ended up in the wrong box OR the volunteer who tests the puzzles made a mix up. Either way, I might go back to the shop at the weekend to hand it over…

Status: Completed

1001 Songs – 1976: Part One

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

(Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Öyster Cult

Starting the year off with one of the most recognisable riffs in rock history. Given the harder (and punk) rock that I’m going to be hearing in the coming years of the 1001 songs list, it is so gratifying to know that the spirit of late 1960s psychedelic rock is alive. Not just alive but, like a Pokémon, has managed to evolve with the harder rock to produce something so brilliant as this.

I know that the rest of the parent album is not like this and is, in fact, a lot harder – but sometimes it’s good to reach back to the past and get in touch with your roots. Man, I really liked this song.

More Than a Feeling – Boston

Time for some old-school dad rock that’s a favourite at many a karaoke bar when the Dutch courage has set in. It’s really one of those archetypal examples of classic 1970s hard rock. It’s an overly dramatic rock power-ballad with a great chorus to sing-a-long to with accompanying air guitar. The ordering of the book to have this after ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ makes for an interesting contrast in the paths rock has taken and the audiences they satisfy.

This is very much mass appeal, but it works for the song and it is easy to understand how it became so popular.

Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder

So many songs are written to honour those who inspired us once they have passed on, ‘Sir Duke’ by Stevie Wonder is probably one of the best examples out there. ‘Sir Duke’, written in memory of jazz musician Duke Ellington is a brilliant bop where Stevie Wonder pays tribute not just to Ellington but other people like Count Basie who inspired Stevie Wonder along his musical journey.

It’s songs like this where I really find it difficult to get an angle on whether it’s funk or soul. At this point, an artist like Stevie Wonder can just bring the together and make something brilliant like this. I really need to listen to Songs in the Key of Life.

The Killing of Georgie (Parts 1 & 2) – Rod Stewart

Okay, so this song hits hard. I’ve never heard of ‘The Killing of Georgie’, but it feels like something really important that the LGBT community of my generation should have heard of. I mean, a 6 minute long song about the life of a gay man who was kicked out by his homophobic father, moves to New York, finds love and it then stabbed to death by a street gang (which is also based on someone he knew)? This is brutal and I am so ashamed to be a gay man and not have heard of this song.

Writing and releasing a song like this in 1976 as a single feels like such a risk for Rod Stewart to make… and somehow it reached number two in the UK singles chart. I have to say, that I’ve gained a bunch of respect for Rod Stewart thanks to these lists. I may not think this was the best song, but at least I know it exists now.

Dancing Queen – Abba

Now for a perfect palate cleanser with a song that actually has been widely brought into the gay culture. I mean, what is there to say about ‘Dancing Queen’ that hasn’t been said millions of times before? I love ABBA to the point of visiting their museum in Stockholm and no matter how much I hear their music, ‘Dancing Queen’ included, I never get tired of it.

This is the beginnings of pop as we now know it, rather than ‘popular music’ like The Beatles. There are extreme disco influences here blended with Euro-pop to make an anthem for the love of dancing and having a good time. Sure it’s wholesome and very feel good, but this is a perfectly crafted pop song. End of.

Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones

I don’t know how many times I have referenced the Ramones debut album in other posts about proto-punk, punk or post-punk albums. For years this has been my favourite album of the punk genre and finally I have reached the iconic ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ as part of the songs list.

Listening to this again in isolation from the rest of the album, and having recently listened to Raw Power and Entertainment! I realize the reason I love this song so much – it’s feel good pop-punk in a time where pop-punk wasn’t yet a thing. Probably explains why I like this the most, given my pop leanings.

Love Hangover – Diana Ross

So, this feels like a structured traditional Diana Ross ballad in the beginning half only to shift into an elongated disco break full of her improvising. I was really hoping this song was set for disco lift off and foreshadow Donna Summer’s epic 1977 song ‘I Feel Love’. But no, instead it’s just a lot of the same and I cannot imagine what it would be like to listen to the 12 minute version.

Cokane in My Brain – Dillinger

No. Just no. I don’t know if a song is meant to inspire fits of giggles, but I’m not entirely sure how else to approach this. It feels like someone transcribed the ramblings of a patient in a mental hospital as he talked to himself and then put it to music and sang it with as flat an affect as possible. No wonder I never listened to the reggae music station in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Christ.

Police and Thieves – Junior Murvin

And here we have another reggae song in a row. The topic of turf wars in Jamaica is interesting, but the music was so distorted and the falsetto vocals so unsettling that it was difficult to discern what the song was about. At this point I don’t know what to say about reggae that I haven’t said before – the constant repetition of all the musical elements just makes it boring.

Still though – why oh why couldn’t this be the cover that The Clash did for their debut album instead of this.

(I’m) Stranded – The Saints

Wow, I hadn’t quite realised how far-reaching the punk movement was in the beginning. Here we are with the Australian band The Saints releasing their first punk single before the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. To be fair, it only pre-dates ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by just over a month but it’s interesting to note.

Unlike ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, this song does have some anger running through it. Interestingly though it’s an anger about being isolated rather than anger at the establishment, which will coming up a lot in future punk songs on this list. As the 1976 songs draw to a close, all the key pure punk players will have emerged with 1977 marking the beginning of post-punk. Makes a bit of a mockery of the whole genre thing, doesn’t it.

Progress: 434/1021

📽️ Disney Time – The Lion King

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 32/58Title: The Lion King
Year: 1994

It’s weirdly fitting that today I would be posting the latest entry in my Disney challenge on the same day as the list gains a new entry: Frozen 2. It would have probably been more fitting if I had posted this around the time the CGI-remake of The Lion King was released… but I’ve been trying to forget that’s even a thing.

Now, going into this list – I was so adamant that Beauty and The Beast was my favourite Disney movie hands down and The Lion King placed second, but there was an almost clear division between the two. Now that I have re-watched both in quick succession, I must say that whilst this ranking remains intact, it’s a lot closer than I realised.

To be fair though, this is probably the first time that I have seen The Lion King in years and years and this might be one of those rare films that gives two completely different views depending on whether you’re an adult or a child. For example, child me would have never gotten the Nazi connotations from the whole ‘Be Prepared’ section or the sex eyes that Nala gives during ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight?’.

Since I brought up the musical sequence, let’s talk about the music as a whole. Firstly, there are few films out there that have a better opening sequence than the whole ‘Circle of Life’ piece. Maybe the montage in Up, but for drastically different reasons. From then on, the score and the songs are up there with some of the best in the history of cinema. Hans Zimmer’s score gives such emotional weight to the movie as a whole, but gives real goosebump moments to scenes related to the father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba.

You also have to give huge credit to Elton John and Tim Rice for the sheer variety in the songs that have gone on to become classics. ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Circle of Life’ are both extreme high points (and, for me, should have won the Oscar over ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’), which both also help to showcase the results of all the research into different animal movements that the animators made.

It’s hard to believe, when watching this, that initially The Lion King was seen as the B-team movie compared to Pocahontas which received the A-team. I mean, given the two initial outlines it is probably easy to see why they figured the story of Pocahontas would end up doing better at the box office – especially when the last talking animal protagonists are from The Rescuers Down Under and Oliver & CompanyIn the end though they managed to spin cinematic history and as for Pocahontas… I guess that’s for next time.

So that’s it, the end of Disney’s Big Four and the decline towards the tail-end of the Disney Renaissance. There are still some great films on the horizon (like Zootopia and Lilo & Stitch), but it feels like the end of a incredible era of Disney film-making that will never be equalled. I guess I’m feeling a bit off about the whole thing because the next film in the list is Pocahontas, which will be… interesting.

Acclaimed Albums – Raw Power by The Stooges

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 190/250Title: Raw Power
Artist: The Stooges
Year: 1973
Position: #99

In a previous post for the 1001 songs list, I made a comment about the opening track of this album was a bit straightforward and left it at that. Now I’ve listened to Raw Power a few times and listened to the track in relation to the rest of the album – I stand by it a bit, whilst also realizing that I lost the point a bit.

Here we are in 1973 and we’re still very much in the proto-punk period, where in a few years we will be firmly in the throes of punk… which gives way a few years later to the beginnings of post-punk (as I saw from the last album I did for this list). I mention this historical context mainly because Raw Power just didn’t hit me as hard as their previous album (Fun House) did.

It’s interesting to see how the sound of the Stooges developed between their first three albums. The change between The Stooges and Fun House was one of energy and impact whereas the change between Fun House and Raw Power is one of sophistication. The tracks don’t hit as hard, but there’s no doubt that they are better constructed and better produced – which is a fundamental towards a proper punk album like Horses.

Still, after having my head turned by Fun House, I can’t help but have been slightly disappointed by this album. Don’t get me wrong, Raw Power is still good – but with track names like ‘Penetration’, ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell’ and the titular ‘Raw Power’ I cannot help but wonder how this would have sounded if it had been recorded post-punk and therefore had more of a kick behind it.