Monthly Archives: March 2021

XL Popcorn – The Baker’s Wife

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 859/1009Title: La femme du boulanger (The Baker’s Wife)
Director: Marcel Pagnol
Year: 1938
Country: France

150 films to go! Thanks to the recent list expansion, it took me an additional two films to get to this mini-landmark. Now that I am here, it really does feel like I can knock out this challenge in two years bar any significant changes in a overdue revamp. I’ll still be sticking to the older and safer films where possible, so today I watched one of the very few 1930s films left: The Baker’s Wife.

After Boudu Saved From Drowning I was a bit reluctant to see this film. I mean, all they have in common is being a 1930s French comedy – but since the humour in that Renoir film was such a disconnect from my own, I didn’t think The Baker’s Wife would fare much better. Well, I was wrong. Whilst this this not going to make an impact on my favourite films list, and it’s actually more of a dramedy than anything, I did enjoy this film.

The story goes like this – a new baker and his wife move into town and he bakes the most wonderful bread. However, she soon runs away with a local shepherd and – unable to bake due to his depression… and the male villagers just being jerks to him about being a cuckold – the villagers work to find her and bring her back. After all, what is French life without bread?

The characterisation that goes into the members of this little Provencal village reminds me of Tati’s debut film Jour de Fete, down to the jerkwad local drunks. I guess that it goes to show that there are a bunch of accepted villager characteristics in France. However, it is without a doubt that Raimu is what elevates this film. As the baker who, initially, is so overtly optimistic about people that he can’t even fathom that his wife is being seduced – we cannot help but love him as he faces the truth and gives into the despair of being left.

Then there is the ending where, in his own hurt way, he forgives his repentent wife. He even baked a heart-shaped loaf of bread in case she came home hungry. It’s beautifully done and whilst it is a little bit too neat – it works in the context of this as a pastoral.

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Acclaimed Albums – Untrue by Burial

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 229/250Title: Untrue
Artist: Burial
Year: 2007
Position: #179

When Untrue came out, I was the right age and starting to get into enough diverse music in order to actually try this. Must have had it on my iPod for 13 years and yet today was the first time that I actually played it. Maybe it was meant to be that I waited this long before I finally listened to this, or maybe this could have been an album that helped shape my musical development.

Honestly, I think it was probably for the best that it took me this long. When I got it I saw it being referred to as an electronic album and I only really knew electropop, which this is not. I don’t exactly know much about this sort of electronic music. Aside from Ms Dynamite, this is the only dubstep or garage album I have ever heard. Anything else that I have listened to, like James Blake or the xx, are just developments from that sound.

What previously put me off a lot of this genre was that it could be a bit bombastic, whereas Untrue is a lot more insular. It’s the sort of dubstep made to be the soundtrack to a rainy midnight walk through an abandoned city – like something you’d get in Black Mirror but without the mindfuck.

Other than a spin of Sawayama around lunchtime, this was pretty much the only album that I ended up playing today during work hours. The beats are at times very trip-hop, but then the atmosphere has a chilled ambient feel to it. Even when you get the more upbeat tracks like ‘Archangel’ there is still an almost cozy detachment (does that make sense) that really works for me.

🎻♫♪ – I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
95/501Title: I Puritani
Composer: Vincenzo Bellini
Nationality: Italian
Year:
1835

Seems like the universe really does like to engage in some balancing. After having the last classical piece be a brief collection of brief pieces by Reynaldo Hahn, the music gods decided to send me a three hour opera. Not just any three hour opera, an opera set in England during the Civil War that features characters with well known English (and not at all Italian) names like Gualtiero and Elvira. I don’t really mind the name thing – I just find it a bit adorable and I know that the English are very much guilty of the opposite.

I Puritani (or The Puritans) is the final opera written by Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini, he died not long after it premiered… at the age of 33. Me, being 31, sees something like this and it terrified that at two years older than me, there is a classical composer who has a lovely tomb in the cathedral of his hometown (which I will have seen on my final day in Sicily).

Being his final opera, and that I haven’t heard any of his previous works, it is hard to judge this compared to his other works like Norma and others that I don’t actually know the names of. It’s hard to overplay how much of an initial success this was upon its Parisien premiere.

I guess there is something to the actual presentation to it other than the music, especially as I had no idea about the story without the occasional trip to Wikipedia. I don’t really know anything about opera, but compared to some of the others that I have listened to for this didn’t exactly make me want more.

 

World Cooking – Antigua & Barbuda

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Antigua & Barbuda
Progress: 88/193

The ampersand in a country name is such a Caribbean thing. I know that the reason for this is down to the colonial history that this area of the world was forced to live through, but it’s one of those things that you only really start to notice when you go through a country list. I know there are two exceptions (I think), but it’s just an interesting thing to see.

The food of Antigua & Barbuda has a number of similarities with other nations within the Leeward Island area of the Caribbean – and to a lesser extent the wider Caribbean. From the island there is sweet potato, corn (both as the vegetable and as cornmeal) and local seafood. You also see saltfish, like with the rest of the area, and some influences from nearby islands.

I know that there is actual national dish for Antigua & Barbuda, one called fungi that is made primarily of cornmeal and peppers, but this is one of those cases where there is recipe that I found that I had to make it because it sounded different. Also, it sounded pretty delicious.

Main: Ducana (and Saltfish)

Ducana is a dumpling from Antigua & Barbuda that is made by mixing grated sweet potato with coconut, raisins, nuts, banana, spices and a bunch of other ingredients. It’s one of those things that really sounds more like a dessert than an accompaniment to a main meal. Following this recipe from Dinner By Dennis, this is an interestingly different side dish. But as this is a side dish, it’s not like I can just eat a bowl of them.

So this is how I ended up with yet another dish with saltfish, albeit cooked in a somewhat different way (thanks to Melinda Strauss) which may be the best way that I have made made it. I was a bit worried that the ducana themselves would be a bit too sweet to go with the saltfish, but obviously this is a tried and true combination that – somehow – works.

I still think that the ducana themselves would make for a good dessert with the right sauce or frosting. Maybe if I found a less wasteful way to cook them other than by using a bunch of aluminium foil to wrap them individually. Traditionally you could also use some form of leaf to wrap them – but given everything with Covid, I didn’t want to venture up to Chinatown to just purchase some cooking leaves.

Thanks to an overcooking of African countries, it looks like I am back to Europe, Asia or even the Americas (again) for the next country. Given that, as of writing this, we are just starting Lockdown II in the UK – I am going to have to see if I am able to get ingredients or, like with the previous lockdown, I am going to need to press pause on this challenge once again. Hopefully I can grab something, even if it’s something a bit simple.

XL Popcorn – Picnic At Hanging Rock

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 858/1009Title: Picnic At Hanging Rock
Director: Peter Weir
Year: 1975
Country: Australia

Okay, so I purposely put a hold on watching Romper Stomper during my day off as I didn’t want to end up with two Australian films in a row. Also that was the Wednesday after the US Elections which, at the time, was rather stressful for pretty much all concerned – no matter which side of the vote you fell on. Watching a film about a violent racist gang just didn’t feel right… not sure I did much better with King of New York mind.

Anyway. I saw Picnic At Hanging Rockwhich was recommended to me ages ago on a film forum that I frequent. It’s the latest in a number of films (alongside My Brilliant Career, Mad Max, Wake in Fright and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) falls into the area of Australian New Wave cinema. New Wave because of it being a renaissance in the country’s cinema, not because it had anything related to the New Wave cinema of France. Far from it really – this is a cinema that enjoys exploring the vast natural spaces within Australia and juxtaposes it something primal within human nature.

For most of those I have seen so far, the juxtaposition is done via acts of violence. With Picnic At Hanging Rock there is a spirituality found through sexuality and the repression of that sexuality. The central mystery of the film is that of the disappearance of three girls and one of their teachers at the titular Hanging Rock formation. It’s presented as if this actually occurred in 1900s Australia – but it’s based on a novel… which offered no solution to what happened.

I think it’s good to know in advance that there is no given solution to this mystery – otherwise you might have a bit of a negative reaction like one that supposedly happened upon on early screenings to a distributor. Knowing it remains a mystery means that you can enjoy the weird fantasy generated around how a turn-of-the-century private girls’ school ends up completely falling to pieces after this unknown tragedy.

This is not the last I will be seeing of the Australian New Wave – nor director Peter Weir. I am not sure if The Last Wave is going to be able to top Picnic At Hanging Rock, but I’m keen to see it try.

XL Popcorn – King of New York

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 857/1009Title: King of New York
Director: Abel Ferrera
Year: 1990
Country: USA

After The Last Seduction, another neo-noir of the early 1990s, I had higher hopes for King of New York. Sure, that isn’t a lot to pin a hope on – but with a title like this and a premise along the lines of a mob boss getting released and wanting to engage in a gangland version of Robin Hood… well I figured that this film would be right up my alley.

Honestly, it wasn’t. This is one of those films where it really is style over substance – the electric blue lighting in the nightclub shoot-out comes to mind – but the moment you get back to something story-related it falls flat yet again. It’s a film built on two premises, that everyone sucks and that the stereotypes of different ethnicities in the city of New York are there for a reason.

At the core of it is a really interesting idea – Christopher Walken destroying his old gangland business rivals not just for the sake of his own power, but also to try and better the city. There is a pivotal scene at the end where he talks through his killings and why what he did was merely taking out the trash.

I just feel that if the rest of the film had been better scripted – and maybe the cops didn’t lean so heavy on being predominantly Irish and wanting to go after their own vendetta – then I could have enjoyed it a bit more. But in the end, you just look forward to the next scene of Christopher Walken just… Walkening around the place. Else, things get a bit dull and convoluted.

XL Popcorn – Song at Midnight

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 856/1009Title: Ye ban ge sheng (Song at Midnight)
Director: Weibang Ma-Xu
Year: 1937
Country: China

The first Chinese horror film. A Chinese film that brought in Western influence for their music, storytelling and filmmaking. A Chinese film that adapted the story of The Phantom of the Opera and, to get around censorship surrounding the supernatural, turned it into a political story that was then overshadowed by the Japanese invasion. These are all reasons that Song at Midnight is on the 1001 list and is regarded as in influential part of Chinese cinema.

However, this is pretty much where I get off the hype train. I have no issues with the inclusion on the list as Song at Midnight is an interesting film in the canon and is something to watch if you want to understand the wider history of cinema. If you want to watch a film for the sake of watching a film, especially with this being touted a horror film, then maybe look elsewhere.

Removing the fact that there is no restored version out there, which means that at times it’s a patchy and choppy watch, the addition of the political angle, removal of all the supernatural elements and a new jealousy love triangle (which had a bit of a Cyrano feel to it) did not work for me.

In fact, it made the whole thing about 40 minutes too long as this origin story of the phantom had to be shoe-horned in. Whilst it did make for some cool make-up to be used in order to show us the face of the ‘phantom’, it also added way too much bulk to the movie to be worthwhile. Also, the use of the classical piece ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ at the film’s climax was also extremely jarring to the overall feel which started out with Chinese opera music. Overall, this was just a misfire for me.

🎻♫♪ – Mélodies by Reynaldo Hahn

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
94/501Title: Mélodies
Composer: Reynaldo Hahn
Nationality: French
Year:
1887-1947

It’s nice to be nearly 100 into the classical list and to find something that I haven’t come across before. With these Mélodies by Reynaldo Hahn it almost feels like I’ve listened to something that bridges the gap between classical music and popular music – whilst also being the completely natural modern form of those vocal pieces (oh, how many motets I’ve listened to) that make up a lot of the earlier sections of the list.

These Mélodies that Hahn wrote over the course of his life, are musical accompaniments to poems. Pretty much the classical music equivalent to what Bob Dylan does – only that Hahn didn’t write his own poems. What I really enjoyed about this was that within half an hour you have a lot of smaller 1-3 minute pieces, which is a nice change of pace from some of the concertos and sonatas that I have listened to recently. Wish there were more pieces like this to come.

Acclaimed Albums – Doolittle by Pixies

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 228/250Title: Doolittle
Artist: Pixies
Year: 1989
Position: #51

Well, it wasn’t quite a year since my last listen to the Pixies but I did a lot better this time compared to a lot of other artists. Doolittle is the last album that I had left within the Top 100. Since, as of writing, the update is meant to be happening soon I am trying to play it safe with albums… although I am pretty much out of safe bets between this and the album that I plan to do next.

The main thing that I noticed between this and the previous Pixies album is the same as with Pavement – polish. The production on Doolittle is so sleek that we’ve gone from an alternative rock group to something more like the noise pop of Psychocandy and the eventual shoegaze movement.

This sleekness and polish has just enhanced the music on Doolittle compared to Surfer Rosa. They are still doing their movements from quiet to loud – which you hear a lot in later grunge music – and the lyrics are, if anything, weirder and more esoteric. However, this album is also infinitely more sing-a-longable, with me starting to join in on the chorus of ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ before reading up on it being about the destruction of the environment and having many references to numerology.

As two albums produced so close to each other, it is crazy to have a band churn out two classics so close together, especially with their first two offerings. There’s no sophomore slump here, in fact it’s a sophomore soar with two more well regarded albums before their break up in 1993. Amazing to burn so bright and influential and then go away so quickly.

World Cooking – Mongolia

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Mongolia
Progress: 87/193

I am getting close to the halfway point on this challenge and I have reached another country that has made me think about how I do the recipes. Like with Lebanon and Yemen, I found various savoury recipes where it would have been a shame to ignore them in favour of shoehorning in a dessert. Instead, I am making two dishes that are variations around the theme that also require different cooking skills.

The moment the word Mongolia enters my brain, I obviously default to Genghis Khan… then to an episode of Running Man that I saw on the plane to Korea where the hosts had to milk yaks. Both of these thoughts pretty much help when thinking of what would be Mongolian cuisine, as it pretty much what you would expect from a culture that derives from nomadic horseman. Lots of dishes built on meat and dairy where you use as much of the animal as possible.

For the dishes I ended up making, they contain a lot of the same basic elements (lamb, flour and a sparing use of spice) but are prepared in very different ways. After the easy food I made for Micronesia it felt right to challenge myself again.

Main: Buuz

Since I wanted to get the more difficult recipe out of the way first, I ended making Buuz first. These are steamed dumplings where the flavour mostly comes from minced lamb and a small amount of caraway and black pepper. I followed a recipe from Adamant Kitchen for these, almost burning myself when I had to hand-knead the dough due to the use of boiling water, and these turned out beautifully.

This is only the second time that I have made steamed dumplings from scratch and, to be honest, one of the reasons for doing this was to try and help me build some confidence before I try and make dim sum for China. Well, mission accomplished, I think that these buuz turned out beautifully and I now know that I can make good steamed dumplings from scratch should the need ever arise. Maybe I’ll make these again when it’s time for the lunar new year.

Main: Khuushuur

So the counterpoint to the buuz in this post are the fried Khuushuur dumplings, which I made using a recipe from Anna Meanders. I didn’t want to make both with lamb, so seeing that beef was also an option made the filling choice a no brainer: beef with marjoram and garlic.

Due to their size and that you have to fry them, there was a part of me that was legitimately scared that I would see raw meat once I cut into them. Shouldn’t have feared, perfectly cooked and so very juicy. Like the buuz, these did not need any additional sauces – the sparse seasoning and the juiciness of the beef worked wonders.

Making both buuz and khuushuur does mean there is an inevitable comparison as to which I liked more. I think for the size and the texture, I liked the buuz more. However, because of ease of the process I can see myself making khuushuur again as it was like half of the time. Maybe the more I make steamed dumplings the quicker I’ll be able to wrap? Is that a thing?

It’s been a long time since I last made something from the Caribbean, so in my next food post I will be focussing on this area.