Monthly Archives: August 2020

XL Popcorn – Once Upon a Time in China

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 816/1007Title: Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China)
Director: Tsui Hark
Year: 1991
Country: Hong Kong

I think I am in the minority when I say that I preferred Peking Opera Blues over this film. Maybe it’s because it’s a more comedic film that tells a more localised story with some kick-ass female leads? Yes, I think that’s pretty much why I rate that higher than Once Upon a Time in China. Martial arts films really just turn out to be hit and miss for me and this is one of those where I truly admire the direction and the stunt work, but everything else leaves me a bit cold.

Probably doesn’t help that, last night, I watched From Beijing With Love and was a bit sad that Steven Chow didn’t get a film in the list. Once Upon a Time in China is the second of two films by Tsui Hark to be featured and, given how it led to a resurgence in these types of period kung-fu films in Hong Kong, I can see how this was included alongside Peking Opera Blues.

It’s just that, for me, this was a films that was trying to be too broad and epic in scope. Too many plates were in the air at the same time which, whilst it may be historically accurate, doesn’t pair well with a large number of drawn out fight sequences. This, however, is fundamentally a taste thing. I had similar issues with A Touch of Zen – a film regarded as an exemplar of the martial arts genre that ultimately left me wanting more and feeling a bit bored and frustrated.

I hope I am not the only one who also, at times, felt a bit left behind by the plot. The number of antagonists, including a probably more than fair take on Westerners being more than arseholes, made the different threads a bit hard to follow at times. Maybe, at some point in the future, I’ll find a copy of Drunken Master – which is about the same man (because Wong Fei Hung is one of those people who had a lot of films made about him) but apparently does it better… without being included on the 1001 list.

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XL Popcorn – Europa Europa

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 815/1007Title: Hitlerjunge Salomon (Europa Europa)
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Year: 1990
Country: Germany

I was meant to be in Malta right now, but all that went to hell with the whole coronavirus pandemic. So, I have two days of leave that I cannot reschedule that I am spending in the flat alone whilst my husband works from home upstairs. So, this is the first of 5-6 films to help me accelerate through the 1001 list. It is also the first time ages where seeing a film from the 1990s makes statistical sense – which is how we ended up here.

From the off, Europa Europa is based on a real life story composed of a number of unlikely and, ultimately lucky, events. It’s the story of a Jewish boy who, during World War Two, is able to assimilate into and find protection as part of first the Soviet regime and then by masquerading as a non-Jewish German. The sequence itself is unbelievable, which makes it all the more astonishing that for the most part this actually happened.

What I take some issue in, however, is how they have taken a story that is already pretty unbelievable and then added onto it. I get that this is to streamline things and make it more cinematic, but all too often it just felt like the central character was the charmed son of a Jewish woman and a four leaf clover. I know coincidences happen, but by the end of it I just found myself exclaiming out loud ‘of course that happened’ at things that I later found out were added to the film.

That isn’t to say that wasn’t a good film in it’s own right as, of the three films I saw today that will be coming up in future posts, this was the best of the bunch. If you took away some of the unbelievability and have the lip-synching on Julie Delpy done properly so it wasn’t distracting, this would have been so much better and I would be able to call it great rather than good.

The sheer force of will and survival instincts in the face of certain death is absolutely astonishing. Plus, there is enough dark comedy in here to stop it from being so suffocatingly dark. I just wish that the final scene where he re-unites with his brother was done as it actually happened. Films are always going to be, by their very nature, manipulative but that was just one bit too far.

XL Popcorn – The Heartbreak Kid

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 814/1007Title: The Heartbreak Kid
Director: Elaine May
Year: 1972
Country: USA

Comedies are in short supply in the remaining films on the 1001 list, so I have been keeping this particular film in reserve for a while. I saw the Ben Stiller remake a long time ago so didn’t hold up too much hope for this one, but given that the UK is now in the beginning of the three week lockdown because of coronavirus (who knows it might go on for longer) it felt like the right time to roll out a comedy.

Just to get the first thing out of the way – this is a whole heap better than the rename. That is probably an obvious point to make, but it is one worth making. I guess it made sense to remake this as, for the time, it felt a bit ahead of its time in terms of being a dark romantic comedy. A very New York Jewish dark romantic comedy at that, which answers the question of what if you get married too fast and find someone you are instantly besotted with on your honeymoon.

The film itself takes a while to get going, but then again it needs to. After all, not only did we need to set up reasons why you may want to get a divorce from your new bride, but also to set up the kind of guy who would divorce his wife on day five of the honeymoon in order to pursue a younger woman. This is the kind of film where no one is particularly likeable, but there are still very much people who do not deserve the lot they are given.

At times this is laugh out loud funny and, considering the time, it’s excellent to see a film like this being directed by a woman and be successful at the Oscars. Considering that Elaine May, herself a comedian, directed this without starring in it I am now keen to see her in action as she directs herself. So, I guess I need to track down A New Leaf at some point.

Graphic Content – Sailor Moon

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
Progress:
83/501Title: Sailor Moon
Creator(s):
Naoko Takeuchi
Year: 1991-1997
Country: Japan

As I was growing up, Sailor Moon was a key series in starting off my love for anime. Where, to me, Pokemon was just another Saturday morning cartoon, Sailor Moon was the first series where I knew it to be something ‘other’. Fox Kids called it Japanimation at the time and it wasn’t until a few years later, once I had also grown to love Cardcaptor Sakura, that I knew is was more properly known as anime.

Now here I am finally reading the manga and… I have to say that I prefer the the anime. The Japanese version of the anime, not the English dub that figured the solution to lesbians was to have them be cousins who were a bit close.

For the uninitiated, Sailor Moon tells the story of five guardians of justice who defend the earth against alien and extra-dimensional forces. The focus of the manga is more on the relationships than the battles, to the point where the titular character never really feels in danger. One issue with the manga over the original adaptation, however, is how the characters who are no the titular character don’t get anywhere near enough development.

I know that an anime that has to play for time as the source material is written can bring forth character development with filler episodes, but that’s what this manga really needed for me to be better able to enjoy it. So much of the focus was to bring in the initial large cast of characters together that the likes of Sailor Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Venus get themselves lost in the shuffle despite ostensibly being more interesting than the central figure.

I’m biased, I guess, as I grew up loving Sailor Mercury and the Outer Scouts over Sailor Moon. I did enjoy reliving this through the original lens as well, but I think that if I want my Sailor Moon fix, I’m going to go back to the anime.

🎻♫♪ – Transfigured Notes by Milton Babbitt

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
83/501Title: Transfigured Notes
Composer: Milton Babbitt
Nationality: American
Year:
1986

The random picks have once again delivered a more recent classical piece, one that took a few years to hear its first public performance as it was seen as being unplayable. Now that I’ve heard it, I am still not entirely sure how a conductor is able to keep track of all the different lines, let alone how the many different threads of this piece can be properly synced up.

So many centuries of classical music have been in the pursuit of harmony, then here we have a more modern piece that attempts to produce something that is very complex and utterly atonal. In listening to this piece for a string nonet, it was hard to let go and try to appreciate it for the unusual being that it was. The sudden switches in tempo, the overlaying; everything was making it so that I was unable to find order in the discord.

I know that this is kind of the point and I should be able to take the piece for what it is, but for someone that had the beginnings of a anxiety attack listening to Bitches Brew this was a it of a sensory overload.

World Cooking – Kuwait

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Kuwait
Progress: 77/193

If in doubt and I need to hit up a region for the sake of the world cooking list, I like to go for the smaller nation. It worked out well last time with Moldova, so the hope was that it would work again with Kuwait. Iran would have been fun to do as I have a bread recipe I’ve been meaning to try out, but that needs to wait until people have calmed down and stopped buying up all the flour.

Being a small nation in an area with a strong regional cuisine, the food in Kuwait bears the same hallmarks as its neighbours. So a number of dishes that I was looking to cook because of their popularity in Kuwait, like machboos, would have been fine if it would probably not be better served for another nation (in the case of machboos – Saudi Arabia).

Still though, there are enough things to make that it’s not as if I was robbed for choice here. It’s just that I wanted to make something that, at least according to the recipe or its accompanying blurb, had a Kuwaiti feel to it. This is what led me to cook today’s recipe, which is the first Middle Eastern recipe I have tackled for nearly six months.

Main: Fried Fish with Rice

I know what it looks like, another fried fish recipe. You would be right, but it is entirely different flavour thanks to spices like black lime and the accompanying tomato sauce (which the recipe assures me is Kuwaiti style).

One obvious difference between the recipe (available here at Food.com) is the type of fish. The recipe indicates that I use a whole silver pomfret per person, which I would have liked to do if I knew where I could get hold of some of these fish given the current government advice (it’s March right now). In the end, I went with basa as that was the best alternative available at the time.

I swear that with the poaching, marinading, the frying and the baking this recipe has the most different cooking methods I have used for fish in quick succession. It did lead to a well flavoured bit of fish, with a good texture – but wow that was a lot of kerfuffle. Went well with the rice though, which was cooked in the fish poaching liquid before having spiced fried onions mixed in.

Given all the panic buying going on around coronavirus (please let us be through the worst of this by the time this post goes up) I won’t be doing anything on the world cooking challenge for a while. It’s difficult enough to find food in the supermarket for regular eating let alone tracking down specific things for specific countries. I guess it’s a good thing I started on a reduced posting schedule when I did.

XL Popcorn – Lola Montès

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 813/1007Title: Lola Montès
Director: Max Ophüls
Year: 1955
Country: France

It’s been two and a half years since I was stood in the Gallery of Beauties in Munich thinking that I really should see this movie next as part of the 1001 list. That was about 150 movies ago and I’ve finally gotten around to seeing it. I don’t know if I hadn’t properly made the connection that this is by the same director of Madame de… and Letter From An Unknown Woman else I might have watched it earlier.

I think the best word to describe this whole production is opulent. At the time, this was the most expensive film made in Europe and it shows. Whilst I am sure that there are some location shoots for the more palatial set pieces, the circus arena alone must have cost a bomb. I’m sure there were ways they could have saved some money, but there’s something extra special in seeing a director go all out.

Much comment has been made about the level of acting from Martine Carol in the titular role. It’s a big and complex role to play and some have found her acting to be a bit too wooden when you would have expected something a bit more alive. For me, I actually quite liked the level of detachment that she gives the character. After all, Lola Montez is someone who needed to be somewhat hardened to the world in order to pursue the life she did.

Maybe it would have worked better with us seeing her becoming more and more removed as life went by instead of general detachment – but I didn’t enjoy the film any the less because of it. This isn’t at the same level as the other Max Ophüls films I’ve seen, but the other two I saw were so great that this was unlikely to match up anyway.

(✿◠‿◠) Anime!!! – K-On!

List Item:  Watch the 100 Anime to See Before You Die
Progress: 51/100Title: K-On!
Episodes Aired: 39
Year(s): 2009-2010

After a heavier and mech anime like Macross I think I needed to go in the complete opposite direction for my next one – which is how I ended up with K-On!. There are many anime out there which broadly fall into the category of cute girls doing stuff and K-On! is one of the really important series that helped shape a bunch that followed. Despite my earlier written love of Azumanga Daioh, this isn’t necessarily my favourite genre, but this list managed to steer me in the right direction yet again.

Over the course of two seasons (where the name changes by the addition of another exclamation point) we get to know the members of a high school light music club – essentially a club where they play popular music. To begin with it’s a core group of four, then not too far in we get an additional member from the lower years. Being the type series that it is, the music isn’t the top priority, instead it’s the lives of these five band members.

Not to say that the music isn’t an integral part of their lives, we watch them as they perform, practice and do all they can to avoid practicing. Given all that’s happening right now around coronavirus, a series with low stakes and such a positive feeling is exactly what I needed. Plus some of the songs are legitimately good to the point that I have actually been playing a small selection on Spotify.

Given the current coronavirus stuff happening, and my not getting any substantial solo anime time for a while, it’s likely that this will be my last anime series being crossed off for a while unless it’s something the husband would also like to see. So, I’ll end this post on my favourite song from the series – which I have been playing a lot recently:

🎻♫♪ – Symphony no. 2, “Mysterious Mountain” by Alan Hovhaness

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
82/501Title: Symphony no. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”
Composer: Alan Hovhaness
Nationality: American
Year:
1955

Little did I know when listening to this for the first time that it would be the last time I would be doing a classical piece when in the office. Here’s something for a weird time capsule, as I am writing this the week where coronavirus just got a lot more real in the UK. So I’m not sure how that is going to be effect my future postings for a while other than my now cancelled trip to Malta, but it is what it is.

So, Mysterious Mountain – a short 17-minute symphony by a composer I had never heard of that I really enjoyed, even if the beginning made me think a bit of ‘If I Had Words’ from Babe. Nothing wrong with Babe, I mean a talking pig is pretty mysterious, but it was a weird image to start off with.

The image of talking pigs and dancing farmers soon evaporated as the rest of the piece took over. Allegedly this piece was born from dreams that Hovhaness had that he was later trying to recreate in his waking life, somewhat imperfectly to the point where he didn’t like listening to it.

I think it’s a beautiful piece and it sounds like such a mixture that things came before. The name Mysterious Mountain makes you expect something a lot more mystical than what you get, but it’s one of those pieces that would have definitely made for an interesting Fantasia narrative had this piece been but a decade or two older. I don’t know if that sells it, but it’s one of those where you can really let a story take you during the allegro vivo.

World Cooking – Moldova

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Moldova
Progress: 76/193

Well, I saw a gap in the European section of my food map and Moldova was a perfect country to fill it in. Truth be told, I don’t know too much about this small nation in Eastern Europe. Going from the flag and the position, the assumption that I made was that this frontier is somehow a mixture of Romanian and former Soviet traditions. Having done some research, it’s gratifying to know that I wasn’t too far off.

The food of Moldova derives from the many different conquered that they gave had over time. This means that their most recent culinary influence comes from Russia, but you also have influences from the Ottomons, the Greek the Ukranians from way back when. This is a similar invasion grouping to its neighbour Romania, which means that a lot of the food you find in Moldolvan food lists can also be found in Romanian ones – so I went for a dish that is classed as the national dish as well as a street food style spin off.

There are a number of foods that I could have picked that I think I would like to make for other neighbouring countries. Specifically I really would like to make borscht and cabbage rolls. The former should be fine, but for the cabbage rolls I really need to get me to an Eastern European market so I can get hold on some pickled cabbage leaves.

Main: Mamaliga

Sometimes a national dish is full of bells and whistles that make it a devil to make. Then there is Moldova, whose national dish is their version of polenta or cornmeal porridge. It’s one of those staple foods that you see in so many countries, that it is interesting to see somewhere elevate it to the level of national dish. Also helps that I actually love eating polenta and like to get the opportunity to make it.

To make sure that I made it the proper way, and not some Italian way, I followed the directions from The Spruce Eats down to serving it with sour cream and cheese. As a main dish it’s an easy one to make and, on the surface, it’s remarkably simple but everything fits together remarkably well. Like, this is something I can easily roll out on a moment’s notice and still have a hearty meal. Would be nicer with some bacon… maybe.

Side: Mamaliga Balls

As the main dish was so simple, I was looking for something else I could make. Seeing that I am one of those people who has three different grinds of cornmeal (coarse, fine and arepa-grade) I had all that I needed to make these salami filled mamaliga balls. Well, once I bought the salami.

Crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside and with the fat of the sausage softened by the fryer, these balls (again, by The Spruce Eats) are the slightly more gourmet Eastern European version of corn dogs. Delicious and something that I can see me making should I ever host a Eurovision pot luck and need to make something for Romania or Moldova.

Since it took me so long to get to cooking food from the Philippines the time has come once again to make something Asian. Like with this week’s pick of Moldova, I have looked at the map and figured that the best place to look would be in the vicinity of Iran, Iraq or Kuwait. I guess that it will depend on how much time I have to spend on lunch as, for one of them, I have the idea to make bread.