Category Archives: In Progress

Good Eatin’ – Very Bitter Bitter Melon

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Bitter Melon

Today marks my second attempt to cook with bitter melon. I had previously bought one of these gourds a few weeks ago but didn’t get to cooking it fast enough and it began to putrefy. I guess that I really should have learned by now that I need to cook list vegetables as soon as I get them.

Anyway, at least this didn’t cost a lot of money… like if I’d bought myself caviar and let that go off. One of the reasons that I have yet to buy beluga caviar. That and the crippling expense. Seriously, I’m more likely to make it to Vietnam and sample elephant ear fish before I cross off both of the caviars.

Anyway. The book warned of the bitterness of the vegetable (with a name like ‘bitter melon’ it feels like this should go without saying) and that a way to counter this is to pre-salt the chopped gourd and squeeze the water out. Like when you are making courgette pancakes… or anything with courgette really.

So, I did that and followed this recipe to try and make the best of the bitter melon. What can I say, it’s bitter. So bitter that it felt like my mouth was under attack – similar to eating a chilli, but bitter instead of hot. The balsamic-soy dressing was a nice idea and the first bite was fine – it’s that aftertaste which makes this unpalatable.

I think I can categorically say that I don’t understand how something that tastes like this was able to find its way into a culture’s cuisine. Bitterness is an acquired taste, I know that, but this really is beyond the pale. I might have to re-evaluate my relationship with sprouts

Progress: 686/751

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XL Popcorn – Rushmore

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 653/1007
Title: Rushmore
Director: Wes Anderson
Year: 1998
Country: USA

I don’t know it took me this long to realise this but, if I actually put my mind to doing it, I could finish doing this list in year by watching one film a day. Now there’s no way that I would actually do this (and with Dekalog that wouldn’t be a realistic goal), it’s just nice to know that after 14 years of doing this list I have reached such a landmark.

Seeing how I’m at this point I guess I might as well watch one of the films I’ve been setting aside: Rushmore. I am such a big fan of Wes Anderson both in terms of his visual style and the offbeat stories that he likes to tell. It’s good to know that his idiosyncratic trademarks are present as far back as Rushmore (I assume their there in his debut film Bottle Rocket – it’s just that this is the only one of his films I’ve yet to see).

Rushmore is an interesting watch for a number of reasons. First and foremost it’s just a really good film with a lot of the weird sense of humour that characterises a Wes Anderson. By the time you’ve gotten to the montage of extracurricular clubs run by protagonist Max Fischer (an excellent Jason Schwartzman in his debut role) you are under illusion of who made this film.

The setting of  Rushmore was inspired by the private preparatory school that Owen Wilson was expelled from. At the centre of the story is Max, a scholarship student who is good at running extracurricular clubs and staging plays… but he’s flunking his actual schoolwork. What unfolds is a weird coming of age story as he falls in love with a teacher (Olivia Williams) and befriends a far older man (Bill Murray).

It’s remarkable to think that Rushmore is the film that helped to create the second half of Bill Murray’s career as an independant film actor. In a way, it’s thanks to Rushmore that he ended getting his Oscar nomination for Lost In Translation. Also, I’m not entirely sure who else could have played this role other than Bill Murray.

So yes, great film with an excellent use of bees as a revenge tactic.

XL Popcorn – Alphaville

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 652/1007
Title: Alphaville
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Year: 1965
Country: France

I still have four Jean-Luc Godard films to watch. I still have to let that sink in as, yet again, I have watched yet another one of his films and not only did I not get it but it sent me to sleep. It’s not unusual for me to feel sleepy if I watch a film in the afternoon – I’m someone who probably should nap more – however I usually find a way to snap myself out of it. With Alphaville I found myself giving into it.

There’s no denying that the setting in Alphaville is interesting. A dystopian world ruled by a computer where people are executed if they show any sort of emotion? Sure, I’m there. It’s very much an Orwellian world with a few extra steps and some weird execution scenes in a swimming pool.

Thing is, there is so much that should have worked for this film. I love a good genre film and who wouldn’t want to watch a film about a spy sabotaging an evil computer who runs things based purely on logic. It just needs to be, oh I don’t know, better paced and less confusing. Maybe even have it so that the spy seems semi-competent – I have no idea how he ends up succeeding in the end as he has the subtlety of a gas explosion.

I don’t mind the fact that nothing really seems too futuristic or this featuring some of the slowest car chases that I have ever seen – but there is nothing there to support it. At least not for me.

With there being four more Godard films to watch I really don’t hold up much hope for my suddenly changing my mind about him. I feel that if I don’t find myself engaged or at least moved by a dystopian sci-fi flick like this then what can he really do to get me to become a fan?

What’s On TV – Bleak House

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 201/501
Title: Bleak House
Episodes Aired: 15
Year(s): 2005
Country: UK

As part of my watching through the 1001 TV Shows list with the hub I have been re-watching a number of shows that he has not seen. I’ve already covered the story of Bleak House when I read the book a few years ago – so these will be a few brief words about the adaptation.

Unlike my husband, I am a fan of the BBC bonnet drama. I make sure to re-watch Pride and Prejudice every few years around Easter and Bleak House tends to come on in the run up to Christmas. I’m not sure why I associate this show with Christmas other than the fact that I originally watched this in the gap between Boxing Day and New Year in 2005.

With this watching of Bleak House I might be getting close to double digits and yet it is still able to break my heart time and time again. The book, being so long, meant that there was a lot that could be streamlined in order to bring it to the television. This means that what is left in the eight hours of this miniseries is the best and most essential parts of an excellent book.

Aside from the source material there are two main things that help to elevate Bleak House above other Dickens adaptations. Firstly, there is the huge cast of unique characters who have all been excellently cast. Seeing this 12-13 years after the initial broadcast has given me a chance to look back on some names (like Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin) who have since been able to forge strong careers.

Alongside Anna Maxwell Martin’s amazing turn as Esther you also have a then-career best performance from Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, which helped to open up a whole new set of roles in her subsequent career. Then there’s Charles Dance as the devilish Tulkinghorn and Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce (aka my literary crush) who round out the best of the starring roles. There are also a number of smaller roles that leave huge impacts thanks to actors like Sheila Hancock, Lilo Baur, Johnny Vegas and Phil Davis.

The cast is one thing, but the way  that the creators eschewed traditional drama norms by having these as half hour episodes with regular cliffhangers really makes Bleak House work as binge-worthy television. In-keeping with their playing with our expectation of a Dickens adaptation – Bleak House uses modern editing and transitions to help this feel more alive than I have ever seen Dickens being portrayed.

Would Dickens approve of this adaptation? It’s impossible to know, but Bleak House is one of those adaptations that stands as one of the best ever produced, as well as one that helped make this tome of a book that much easier to teach.

XL Popcorn – Louisiana Story

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 651/1007
Title: Louisiana Story
Director: Robert J. Flaherty
Year: 1948
Country: USA

I think now, more than ever, we’re more aware of looking at the intentions behind the creation of a piece of art. With Louisiana Story it might be a bit much to call this propaganda, but that designation may not be too far from the truth.

There’s no question that Louisiana Story is a beautifully shot piece of fiction whose languid pacing matches the setting of the Louisiana bayous. However, it feels like an awfully cynical look at the Cajun people who are depicted as simple folks in both senses of the words. Even if I didn’t know this was paid for ‘big oil’ to promote their drilling ventures, it all just feels too idyllic… especially now we know some of the environmental issues this drilling has been the cause of.

Also, there’s no real story to this film. We have a Cajun family (who cannot act) who make money from signing off part of their land to a drilling company, a alligator who ends up being killed because he supposedly a pet raccoon and the setting up (and, due to an explosion, the dismantling of) a drilling platform. All this with many a beautifully framed image of the swampland and the animals that live in there.

There’s some banter between the young boy and the workers… but it does feel like they’re taking the piss a bit and he has no idea what’s going on. It’s things like that which speak to this film feeling a bit tone deaf and makes me question how, in 1952, the BFI voted this one of the best 10 films ever made.

I think my problem with this goes back to what I felt about Flaherty’s most famous work: Nanook of the NorthAs a documentarian Flaherty knows what looks good on the screen, but the moment a narrative gets involved everything descends into a (sometimes cruel) stereotype. I guess it just needs to be said to take any Flaherty film with a massive tablespoon of salt.

Good Eatin’ – Hot Calamansi and Honey

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Calamansi

It shows that it’s worth having an extra long browse if you happen to have the time. Whilst I have yet to pick up the pig’s feet at the Chinese supermarket near the office,  I did find a jar of honey calamansi concentrate. Since the book specifically mentions calamansi and being used for beverages, I figured that this would work as a use. On a side note… what are you meant to do with pig’s feet?

Being that this is mixed with honey, any reference I’ve tried making to the taste and the smell of the calamansi is taking into account the extra sweetness. Having had a few mugs of this I can understand just why you would need some sort of sweetener – also, since I’ve been ill this last week, drinking this as been like some sort of East Asian hot honey and lemon.

The smell of the calamansi is like a mix of the sweet-sourness from mandarin orange and the sour-bitterness of yuzu. The taste matches the smell which was a bit strong for me – even with the influence of honey. Where the instructions says three tablespoons of the concentration per mug, I only add two and include an extra half tablespoon of honey. It’s not that I have a particularly sweet tooth, just that I am very sensitive to bitter tastes.

Despite the bitterness and the fact that I am not a hot drinks person, I can see this being a great drink to have cold. Just need to get another jar to try out this theory as I’ve nearly run out of the stuff.

Progress: 685/751

XL Popcorn – The Ascent

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 650/1007
Title: Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent)
Director: Larisa Shepitko
Year: 1977
Country: USSR

With all of my not being able to see the fuss around Andrei Tarkovsky’s oeuvre I had completely forgotten about the other pieces of Russian cinema that I have watched and loved (e.g. Russian Ark and The Cranes are Flying). For whatever reason, I had been putting off watching The Ascent because I had gotten it into my head that it would be similar to Red Psalm, when it’s more like The Red and the White

Coming from the UK, where all films about World War II are stricken with patriotism and ‘that Bulldog spirit’,  it is always an eye-opener to watch a film made by a country that was actually occupied. For the most part, I think that there is something incredibly special about those made in Eastern Europe. I don’t know if it’s because of the more matter-of-fact nature of these films or the bleaker aesthetic, but so many of these films are able to succeed by creating stories that are incredibly human and, sometimes, almost mystical.

The Ascent is incredibly moving. It’s the story of two members of the Soviet resistance who leave their group to look for food, only to find themselves being on the run after being spotted by a group of German soldiers. What unfolds is an incredibly psychological look at these two Russians as they deal with pursuit, capture, torture and their scheduled execution.

This is one of those rare films where everything works. The two lead actors are excellent in their roles of the soldiers. They both have incredibly different roles to play with regards to how they follow their conscience, but there’s no question that they were perfectly cast. If you are more used to British or American films about the Second World War you may find this film has a bleaker look and a slower pace than what you are used to… however this is perfectly suited to the story that the director is trying to tell.

Speaking of the director – the fact that this is the final film of director Larisa Sheptiko before she died in a car accident at 41 is such a tragedy. Similarly, it is tragic that in all the recent talk about looking back on films by female directors there has been a complete lack of recognition on the work she did on The Ascent. With this being her fourth feature film, I do feel an agency to track down her previous work – even if it’s to make sure that these films have another pair of eyes on them.

There isn’t a lot in it, but this is still beaten out by The Cranes Are Flying as my favourite film from the old USSR. However, I have a feeling that the ending to The Ascent is one that will haunt me for a while to come. Not only because of the horrendous tension that Sheptiko was able to build around the execution seen, but also the ever worrying question of what I would do if I ever found myself in the same situation as these soldiers.

Acclaimed Albums – Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 147/250Title: Carrie & Lowell
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2015
Position: #220

At the end of 2015 I ranked Carrie & Lowell as my second favourite album of that year behind Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. That was a tough call as, honestly, there was less than a hair between my top 3 of that year. Even now, two and a half years later, it is incredibly difficult to rank them. However, there is absolutely no denying that Carrie & Lowell is an incredibly special album.

As someone who has been a loyal fan of Sufjan Stevens’ music for over a decade (and seen him live twice) a new album always produces a lot of excitement for me. With Carrie & Lowell it was even more so as it was a return to the folk roots that he abandoned for his previous album (The Age of Adz). Not only that, but this was going to be his most personal work to date. I couldn’t wait.

I was right to be excited. Carrie & Lowell is an album of outstanding beauty that has been created from Sufjan Stevens’ own pain and his love for both his mother and his step-father. There are still times where track from this album have the ability to make me feel tearful, and considering how many times I’ve played this album in the last 3 years that is no mean accomplishment.

As an album is an incredibly cohesive time capsule  for a short period in Steven’s life. His lyrical quirks and asides (such as the line from ‘Eugene’ about his stepfather calling him “Subaru”) with the beautiful arrangements that are at times sparse and at others lush just make this whole album sound like sonic therapy.

At the centre of all this are two tracks which, somehow, were even better when I saw him play this album live: ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘The Only Thing’. The former is about a conversation between Stevens and his mother as she lay dying in hospital. It’s a story about how, in the face of death, they were able to properly communicate their feelings of unconditional familial love.

Then there’s ‘The Only Thing’. A song that, if you are someone who has ever had the misfortune to come face to face with part of you that seeks self-destruction, speaks a strange truth. In essence, it is a song about all the ways you imagine topping yourself, wondering how much you care if you end up surviving and finding a reason to carry on.

There’s a similar song on St Vincent’s amazing album MASSEDUCTION called ‘Smoking Section’. For her the reason to keep going is love, for Sufjan it’s the beauty that can be found in nature and his own faith in God. I cannot imagine how hard it must be sing a song like that every night when on tour – must be like continually prodding at an open would.

Then again Carrie & Lowell, as an album, is an open wound. It’s made of some of the most beautifully and brutally honest songs that I have ever heard. Hopefully this has been the catharsis he needed.

XL Popcorn – Lola

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 649/1007
Title: Lola
Director: Jacques Demy
Year: 1961
Country: France

Feels like I’ve been on a bit of a role lately with films. I guess that’s what feeling sick gets you, time to catch up on your movies and napping. Lola ended up being the last of these films in what appears to be a tradition with me and the films of Jacques Demy. Guess that means I’ll be waiting until my next bout of sickness before watching his best known work: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

If I had to some up my experience of Lola in one word it would be: vague. The world of Lola seems to exist in a vague town build for thousands, but only houses about 20. At least that’s the only way you can explain away the way that every character seems to meet and interact as if by chance. This isn’t a criticism, but the whole thing made me think of this as being a classy French soap opera from the 1960s crossed with Groundhog Day (because the whole feeling of pre-destination).

This is not a criticism, but it just speaks for the fact that if you are looking for a film with a lot of substance… then Lola may not be it. If, however, you are looking for a light and well done piece of fluffy cinema (and you’re not too sick that subtitles are out of the question) then this might be the film for you.

It scratched my itch today because of the well written dialogue and the fact that I didn’t need to concentrate too much on what was happening. It was also cool to see Marc Michel (who I previously saw in Le Trou) in another movie, even if I was glad that he didn’t get the girl in the end.

 

XL Popcorn – Things To Come

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 648/1007
Title: Things To Come
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Year: 1936
Country: UK

When setting out to make 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick was told to watch Things To Come as a source of inspiration. Kubrick did not like the film at all. I haven’t found out why Kubrick felt this way, but I think I can hazard a guess.

The overall idea of Things To Come is that it posits an alternative history based on the then contemporary word and then extrapolates from there with the whole thing being fed through the filter of H.G. Wells. Having read The Time Machine I came in fully aware of just how philosophical this would end up becoming.

You see, Things to Come is not a completely coherent film when it comes to plot. It’s full of a lot of interesting ideas about where society could head given a certain set of circumstances, but it is very much of a view that technological progression should be the be all and end all for humanity. Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree that progress should not be a goal, this film posits that it should be prioritised over happiness… and that isn’t something I can get on board with.

One thing that I loved about this film, however, was the art design. Whilst the latter sections were not as interesting in terms of plot, it was a complete feast for the eyes. The futuristic sets and the scale models used for the moon-launcher gun were utterly fantastic. Similarly, the large scale sets for the UK in 1940 felt expansive and incredibly effective.

Speaking of the 1940s section, this first part of the movie was the best by a country mile. Setting aside the fact that Wells was only a year off with his prediction of World War Two, the depiction of the blitz was incredibly visceral. I honestly don’t know how many war films I have seen where the focus was on the panic of the civilians as their world is being bombed into oblivion – but Things To Come does this in a way that felt genuinely shocking for a film from 1936 (or that might just be my sitting here ill at home).

So yes. There was an awful lot of promise in the early minutes which then gave away to a lot of philosophising with plenty of on the nose examples. Still, it’s interesting to see a film where H.G. Wells had a hand in the production.