Monthly Archives: April 2021

World Cooking – Ireland

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Ireland
Progress: 91/193

As I will not be covering the UK until I finish my culinary journey around the world, today’s Irish food will be the closest I get to home. Geographically anyway, I don’t think I ever really grew up with a lot of British food being cooked – usually a blend of other cuisines – although I am a bit partial to a good toad in the hole.

Sometimes when I do these food countries, I know exactly what I am going to end up making. This is not, in any way, me talking smack about Irish food – rather that there are some more obvious suspects that I just could not wait to make. I think it also speaks to the interesting ubiquitous nature of Irish cuisine in most of the pop culture I consume – and the extent to which Irish food has made its way to America.

If I was going to be ultra cheeky, I would have just gone with a full Irish breakfast because there are few things I like more than a good fried sausage. I also could have gone and made some potato bread, especially as I don’t think I have ever had potato bread outside of some potato farls. Sounds like it would be pretty delicious.

Bread: Soda Bread

I think that, outside of some flatbreads, this is the first proper loaf of bread that I have made for this particular challenge. I’m not usually someone that bakes in general, so I am taking my chances to learn more where I can. The idea of doing a soda bread was pretty obvious to me as it is one of the first things that comes to mind when someone mentions Irish food – also it’s something I don’t tend to get so it would be nice see how hard it is to make.

Turns out, thanks to this recipe on AllRecipes, this isn’t just very easy to make but also incredibly tasty. Due to this being a non-yeasted dough, this soda bread was something that I really didn’t have to spend a lot of one-on-one time with and still got a delicious result – even if it did need 10 minutes more in the oven than expected. Probably because of how big it is.

This is one of those recipes that I feel has inspired me somewhat and that is not just because I have no desire to drink the rest of the buttermilk that I have in my fridge. I’m thinking about adding some rosemary to make a nice herbal soda bread when I next have a day off.

Main: Irish Stew

I mean, there is nothing more stereotypical than making Irish stew when doing Ireland for an around the world cooking challenge. For me, however, this was a bit of a return to something that I haven’t made for 10 years – since the last time I made Irish stew I caught my little finger pretty bad and just gouged out a chunk of it with a potato peeler. Thankfully no such misadventures happened this morning.

It has been a while since I last used the slow cooker for this challenge (Greece more than a year ago) and this Irish stew – courtesy of Olive magazine – might be the best thing that I have made in my slow cooker for a long time. Granted there was me frying up lamb in the early morning so it wasn’t too late a lunch, but it was worth it for this gorgeous melt in the mouth stew that was perfectly paired with the soda bread. What a great week!

The food of Africa is rarely far from my thoughts when it comes to this challenge, even if it has been a long time since I last made something from there. I am edging closer and closer to the halfway point – which makes me think that it will only be another 2-3 years before I end up finishing my little voyage.

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XL Popcorn – Closely Watched Trains

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 865/1009Title: Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains)
Director: Jiří Menzel
Year: 1966
Country: Czechoslovakia

It’s mid-November as of writing this and, because of Covid, we just put the decorations up because screw it. This year’s been weird enough, might as well enjoy some extended time with the twinkly lights and my gingerbread train set. The train set bringing me nicely on to the film that we ended up watching as we basked in the glow of blue and white lights.

When a film starts the way that Closely Watched Trains does, which is pretty similar to Amélie in how we learn the main character’s family history, you don’t expect there to be such deep tragedy that you feel in your soul. Then again, this is a Czech film set in the Second World War where you have Nazi sympathisers forcing the train staff to allow the safe passage of an ammunition train.

The fact that the more graphic of the main tragedies involves the main character cutting his wrists after prematurely ejaculating in an attempt to lose his virginity… well it tells you a lot about where the main focus of the film is. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t manage to stay funny throughout, there is a brilliant B-plot involving an employment tribunal after two of the station staff use the official stamps for naughty purposes.

In the end, Closely Watched Trains is a film of incredible contrast that – even when you consider some of the slightly ridiculous sexual sub-plots, is a small and human story about what it was like to be in a small town when the Nazis come calling. There is collaboration, and there is resistance whilst there is also life and death. It’s one of those films that, whilst it didn’t make the biggest of impacts on me whilst watching, I know will benefit from a rewatch.

Graphic Content – Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
Progress:
87/501Title: Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga
Creator(s):
Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma
Year: 1990-91
Country: Japan

I am writing this in the hope that, in the week prior to this being published, I have been able to do something akin to what I normally do during the run up to the Oscars – even the only things I end up seeing are because they were created by Netflix or Amazon. Anyway, that’s over five months away and I just finished reading this rather interesting manga.

From the title, I was pretty much expecting the manga equivalent of Understanding Comics – completely missing the entry in the 1001 book that listed this as a comedy. In a way I wasn’t completely off the mark when i thought this would be instructional. After all, this goes through many different genres and sub-genres of manga, with the intent of the authors explaining the way to make a success out of them.

Of course, it’s all written heavily tongue-in-cheek with a lot of nudity gags – because that’s what they say sells. It’s pretty over the top with recurring jokes that get more and more ridiculous as they go on. The problem is that, rather quickly, they run out of major genres to cover and you end up with sections on obscure things like ‘mahjong manga’. By this point the whole thing has run its course, but it made for an entertaining read whilst it lasted.

Oscar Bait – Sound of Metal / The Father

Title: Sound of Metal
Director: Darius Marder
Year: 2019
Country: USA

This is definitely one of the weirder years for Oscar movies. To have a ceremony in 2021 where a Best Picture nominee had it’s premiere at a festival in late 2019 is a bit strange. It all comes down to the year of that all important release in the US I guess and has allowed for this different film about a drummer losing his hearing get a chance at the big awards.

As enamoured as I was with Chadwick Boseman’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I cannot help but look at Riz Ahmed and think that he would have had a better shot at the Best Actor trophy is Boseman was still alive. They are very different performances and like with all things film, it comes down to personal taste. For me, I think that Ahmed as this drummer dealing with healing loss is the better performance overall – especially as it doesn’t feel like something made for the stage.

If Sound of Metal is to win something, it has to be for Best Sound. I know there are some issues with the broad cuts this film makes about what it means to be deaf or hearing impaired, but the way that the sound team let you into the world isn’t just brilliant, it’s disconcerting as a hearing person. Going between the wider world and the world that Ahmed’s character hears is so well done that I found myself involuntarily crackling my own ears to make sure it wasn’t just my own ears playing tricks on me.

Despite the broad statements and the rather gut-wrenching rejection he gets towards the end, Sound of Metal feels like it could be the start of an important conversation about what it means to have hearing loss and how we as a society can be better equipped at proper integration. It is sure a step forward from Children of a Lesser God where Marlee Matlin’s character is seen as obstructive as she wants to communicate just through sign language rather than speak. Forward. Always forward. That’s the way to go.

Title: The Father
Director: Florian Zeller
Year: 2020
Country: UK

If you had told me that The Father would have ended up being one of my favourite films of the Oscar nominations I don’t think I would have believed you. Of the eight nominees, this was the film I was looking forward to seeing the least. Sure, it has one of the better aggregated review scores of the group – but it seemingly had all the trappings of Oscar bait that I dislike.

I was wrong. Sure, The Father is about an older man with dementia and how it effects him and his daughter. This is not the first film about memory loss to get nominations at the Oscars (see: Amour, Still Alice and Iris), but it feels like a rare breed to actually get you empathize with it rather than sympathize.

Dementia is meant to be a warren of confusion for those afflicted and The Father, thanks to Zeller’s script and direction. Everything down to the choice of clothing and props help build the story and the revelations until the final devastating ending. If I was in a worse place, this film and that ending would have had me in tears. Then again, when I was watching it I had this overwhelming urge to be strong for my mum who was watching it with me. Maybe had I been on my own I would have been in floods.

It really is hard to argue against Anthony Hopkins getting a second Oscar for this. He is beyond brilliant as his namesake in the film. Olivia Colman too, again, brings another great performance as his daughter who is going through all of this with him. I cannot see Hopkins getting the win because of the groundswell for Boseman, but this should hopefully pick up a screenplay nod so that Zellar can walk away with an award himself for this brilliant twist on an Oscar favourite.

Oscar Bait – Judas and the Black Messiah / Promising Young Woman

Title: Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King
Year: 2021
Country: USA

I cannot remember the last time that a film was released in the same calendar year as its nominations. Then again we haven’t had an April Oscars since 1988 – which is before my time – and this is the second latest ceremony; beaten only by the very first Oscars that were held in May. It also does raise the question of how a film can be nominated for awards when it hasn’t been on any sort of release, but at least this is a really good film unlike The Tourist.

Judas and the Black Messiah is yet another in a long line of the Oscar worthy films I have watched this year that are clearly better than Mank. How that is the most nominated film… well it beggars belief. Speaking of unbelievable, let’s talk about the story of how the FBI conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton with the help of a 17 year old boy who has essentially been blackmailed into being a plant. I know that having LaKeith Stanfield playing a 17 year old boy is more than a stretch, but I’m just going to point at Gary Oldman in Mank and move on.

I had never heard of Fred Hampton and his assassination before The Trial of the Chicago 7so this Oscar season has been educational to say the least. Both Stanfield and Kaluuya are electric in this and deserve their nominations… even if Stanfield is in the wrong category. I don’t think this has a chance of winning, but it’s definitely better than Mank.

Title: Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Year: 2020
Country: USA

Dear BAFTA,

How can you give Promising Young Woman multiple nominations without giving a nomination to Carey Mulligan for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Don’t you remember how much we sneered at the Oscars for not nominating Amy Adams for Arrival whilst giving it numerous other nods? Well, this is what you’ve done this year is exactly that. Carey Mulligan’s performance is integral to this film and I’m surprised that the major film awards of her own homeland are one of the few not to recognize her.

Let’s not detract from some of the other great nominations you gave out. Emerald Fennell is clearly a brilliant talent and her getting the recognition in multiple fields feels well deserved. The film looks great, is very well put together and the whole thing flows like the candy coated nightmare that it is. Also, good shout on the Best Casting nomination – the casting in this film is equisitely done, especially having actors known for playing ‘nice guys’ being cast to play the other kind of ‘nice guy’.

I know that this film is a bit Marmite. Some have taken this as a bit of an attack, others think the topic of sexual assault and mental illness have not been tackled in the best way. I cannot speak to most of the experiences, so that’s something best left to them to judge. From my little soapbox, I thought Promising Young Woman was brilliant and Carey Mulligan’s Cassie taking her deathwish revenge on the world for the death of her friend is fantastic.

If she wins the Oscar this weekend, you are going to look so stupid for not having nominated her.

Yours, some blog you’ll never read.

Oscar Bait – One Night In Miami / Nomadland

Title: One Night in Miami
Director: Regina King
Year: 2020
Country: USA

Going into this I had one thought going through my mind – something that multiple people online said about this, like Ma Rainey, obviously having started out as a play. When that burrows into your head you can’t help but go into a film with a bit of apprehension… I mean look at how much I disliked Fences and how stilted that felt. Well, if no one had told me that this was a play brought to the screen, the only way I might have worked it out is because most of the film takes place in one room – Regina King directed the hell out of this.

With the exception of Mank, this really has been a good year for the Oscar frontrunners. A film like One Night in Miami, whilst not my favourite of the bunch, sure ticks a lot of the good boxes for what could be an Oscar success. Good direction, well adapted script and some really excellent performances. Leslie Odom Jr, as Sam Cooke, almost steals the show as the ball of energy with exceptional talent that was this amazing soul singer. His rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ over the ending montage is something special, as is the (not entirely true, but not apocryphal) scene where he sings ‘Chain Gang’ to an audience in Boston.

I also found myself really enjoying Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown who, as a non US-native, I had never heard of but now have a massive respect. That scene in the beginning with Beau Bridges… well that just gave me chills and anyone who has seen this film knows why. A film like this still holds so much power given everything that went on and continues to go on. It also reminded me that I need to see X one day.

Title: Nomadland
Director: Chloe Zhao
Year: 2020
Country: USA

And the third Oscar goes to… well obviously. As of writing this I am yet to see Promising Young Woman, but I really cannot see Carey Mulligan giving a better performance than Frances McDormand does as Fern the nomad. It is a beautifully naturalistic film that is a character study of a woman who roams the US in her van and the people she meets along the way – all played by real life nomads.

Watching this has also shamed me somewhat that I am yet to see Zhao’s The Rider. Granted, I didn’t see it being shown in cinemas near me – but this was enough of an outsider contender back in 2018 that it is no accident that here she is with this film. Granted as of writing this the bloom is off and it is no longer the frontrunner, but my God what does a woman have to do to get the award if she ends up with nothing for Nomadland. The direction, the editing, the writing – all are spot on.

My fear with this film is that it won’t sell well with the preferential voting system – which is how we ended up with Green Book winning. There is also the spectre over the Best Director award having only gone to one American in the last 10 years (Damien Chazelle for La La Land) and they will oust Zhao’s chance for not only being a woman of colour, but also for being a non US-native. I just hope my fears are unfounded and we see some awards headed towards Nomadland.

Oscar Bait – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom / Da 5 Bloods

Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Director: George C. Wolfe
Year: 2020
Country: USA

I’m going to be honest – going into this film I didn’t have the highest hopes. I didn’t rate Chadwick Boseman’s acting in Black Panther (the only film of his I’ve seen) and I really did not like FencesIn the first twenty minutes, which was mostly made up of the posturing of the band members and proving their masc, I had real fears about this movie – then it began to sing.

By the end, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom managed to completely turn my opinions. Boseman was mesmerizing and deserves all the nominations he is getting. Sure, the film is pretty much shot like a carbon copy of a play in places – to the point where I am not entirely sure how much ‘adapting’ there has been to the screenplay – but in many places it really does work.

This was never going to be a film to win it on direction and screenplay, but as a production piece with great music, costuming and stunning performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis (then again, when has she turned out anything other than star quality) keep you going right until the end. As much as I love Davis, this film belongs to Boseman – whose monologues and mercurial words are nothing short than masterful.

Title: Da 5 Bloods
Director: Spike Lee
Year: 2020
Country: USA

It only made sense to put the two films together that have been pushing for posthumous nominations for Chadwick Boseman. Where I am totally on board with his powerhouse performance in Ma Rainey, I really do not see why he is in contention in Da 5 Bloods other than it being a posthumous nomination. True, his character hangs over the whole film as this is the story of four Vietnam veterans returning to find their lost friend’s remains and the gold they buried long ago, but unlike Amanda Seyfried in Mank or Mahershala Ali in Moonlight – it’s not like you are itching to see them back on screen.

That aside, big props have to be made to Delroy Lindo who is the best leading performance I have seen in a 2020 film so far. Sure, he is unlikable and does awful things like desert his son who has just been shot in the leg – but my word this is how you do a portrayal of a man still dealing with PTSD and who has gone for years without getting help and has ended up as a Trump supporter.

In some ways I see some degree of kinship between Da 5 Bloods and the classic film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in terms of the treasure hunt and the inherent futility of such a venture. Of course, with this being a Spike Lee film, there is a more current political message – specifically about black empowerment and ending on Black Lives Matters. I only hope that this message becomes tired and out of date as soon as possible.

Oscar Bait – The Trial of the Chicago 7 / Minari

Title: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Year: 2020
Country: USA

A film’s power to enrage can be staggering. I remember when I watched O.J.: Made in America it took a lot of my energy to not just yell at the television. After all, these are all awful things that happened and we are now looking back at just how rotten things were, are and continue to be. 

Throughout the courtroom scenes of The Trial of the Chicago 7 my blood was on a low simmer for most of the time, and then the lid would fly off whenever the judge spoke. It was pretty much ready to explode under its own force when we see how the single black defendant was bound and gagged by the racist judge, who kept refusing him his right to representation.

This film tells the true story of how a group of activists were brought to trial on a conspiracy charge after a riot broke out in Chicago during the Democratic Party Convention. From the get-go we are under no illusions that the whole thing is a massive cover up by the newly elected Nixon and his office to try and put a lid on the anti-Vietnam movement and to cover up the role the police had in this fracas.

Being written by Aaron Sorkin, you are guaranteed a brilliant script. His direction skills remain a bit to be desired, but the events are compelling enough. Plus, this shines most when it is a courtroom drama and those scenes are brilliant. Speaking of brilliant, Sacha Baron Cohen is fantastic (if, like Mank, a little too old) as Abbie Hoffman and forms a great double act with Jeremy Strong. Truly, having them in this film really helps to elevate The Trial of the Chicago 7 to something really good.

Title: Minari
Director:Lee Isaac Chung
Year: 2020
Country: USA

Minari has the potential to win a lot of awards. I previously talked about the great appearance by Amanda Seyfried in Mank and the potential Oscar translation… and now I want Youn Yuh-jung to get it. The soundtrack is a stunner, the direction is dreamy and the whole story is a beautiful story about the American dream through the eyes of Korean immigrants with an interesting focus on how it feeds on gender roles.

Thinking about it though, it feels unlikely to win too much because I am not sure how much of a stomach there is for the Oscars to bestow a Korean-language film with a bushel of awards for a second year in a row. Maybe I am underestimating the academy here and that they will think about the optics about having non-English films winning big – but I just don’t see them being so daring.

Now, granted, I have yet to see Nomadland. Looking at everything in the lead in to award season, that is the film to beat and maybe that will completely wow me and overtake Minari. I cannot see how it would right now, but I am more than ready to let Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao to prove me wrong. There may be a number of films I watch in between though – it really is one hell of an Oscar season.

Oscar Bait – Soul / Mank

Seeing new films that would end up being proper contenders for the 2020/21 awards season has been a bit of a forest fire. Thankfully a lot of the main contenders have been found on many of the online streaming services – even Rakuten had to be employed in the end. This extra long lead in has meant that a number of films had buzz in November and, by the time we reached the regular time for nominations, they’ve already died a death.

For this week’s worth of posts, therefore, I will be doing my blurbs about the films I have seen that gained any nomination – not necessarily in the Best Picture race. Honestly, this rule is only in place so I can talk about Soul, but who doesn’t like Soul.

Title: Soul
Director: Pete Docter
Year: 2020
Country: USA

For a while it looked like Soul would end up grabbing one of the rare Best Picture nods for an animated film. Somehow, it would do what Inside Out had been unable to – but that would be fine because it would just be great to have an animated film be recognised. So that obviously didn’t happen, but Soul is still there among the other nominations so let’s talk about that.

In a year where Pixar released two films, Soul more than outshines Onward and shows how Pixar are currently needing to operate as both an arm of Disney (so make films where there can be potential merchandising) and then as an artistic entity that rivals the heights of Studio Ghibli. It is an adult look at life and inspiration in a way that is still accessible to kids, but does not apologize for tackling some of the more important questions. 

The music is fantastic and, in the scenes where we watch the jazz band, it looks like their animation has been able to reach new heights of realism whilst still maintaining their style of drawing humans. The clothes, lighting and hand movements in particular are outstanding.

This really is the sort of life-affirming film that we needed in 2020 and it’s a bit sad that, by merit of being an animated film, it is going to be broadly ignored in most races. At least it’s still got a well deserved place in the Pixar pantheon though. Unlike Onward, which was just fine.

Title: Mank
Director: David Fincher
Year: 2020
Country: USA

So, Mank was the first of the major award chances that I ended up seeing. The idea of a film looking into the writer of a classic Hollywood film like Citizen Kane and giving an explanation as to why he felt the need to skewer William Randolph Hearst? I mean, sign me up. This ticks all sorts of boxes for me. And then it didn’t.

Mank is one of those films that is technically very well done. It has great art design, cinematography and direction. The idea to shoot it all in black & white is inspired because it really helps to make something sharp and timeless looking. You also have a career best performance by Amanda Seyfried who gives a supporting performance so radiant that you miss her when she is not around.

On the other hand, the film has some key issues for me. For one, it relies a lot on people having some prior knowledge of Citizen Kane and Hollywood of that period. Since I have a general interest in films of this era, I knew a lot of the figures – but I don’t know how many people will have, for example, heard of Irving Thalberg. 

You also have Gary Oldman who is way too old to play Mank – and it really shows. He’s brilliant as always, but having him play someone 20 years older and having Tuppence Middleton play his wife at 10 years older leaves an age discrepancy that wasn’t needed. I also had some issues with the sound mixing as, at times, I wanted to stick subtitles on. So yes, a bit of a disappointment.

Acclaimed Albums – Paul’s Boutique by Beastie Boys

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 230/250Title: Paul’s Boutique
Artist: Beastie Boys
Year: 1989
Position: #90

Over five years have gone by since I listened to Licensed to Ill and, finally, I am covering the second of the two Beastie Boys albums on this list. Since then, as of writing this, my prediction of The Streets dropping out of the Top 250 has yet to come to pass – meaning that I still have albums by both him and Eminem coming up before finishing off this particular challenge.

Unlike the previous album, there were no songs that I recognised on the first listen. I guess that this goes on to support how while Paul’s Boutique is the critical darling of their first two albums, it was still less commercially successful than the debut and as such there are fewer songs that average person like me will have heard.

Compared to the their first album, Paul’s Boutique is definitely more focused on beat crafting and filling it chock-a-block with samples. They also remain one of the few rap artists from this area that I can listen to without feeling a bit dirty afterwards because they don’t feel the need to make homophobic or overly misogynistic lyrics.

I know that this may still be a bit prudish on my side and that maybe I should just accept this in the music… on the other hand no. Hip-hop albums like this are proof positive that you can do this genre justice and not have to go into those territories over and over again. Probably means I should be okay with The Streets when I eventually get around to them, but not too sure about Eminem…