XL Popcorn – Johnny Guitar

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 598/1007
Title: Johnny Guitar
Director: Nicholas Ray
Year: 1954
Country: USA

If, like myself, you are a gamer you’ll have heard Johnny Guitar‘s main theme on one of the Fallout: New Vegas radio stations. My first exposure to this film was as a side-mention on The Celluloid Closet – a documentary about the representation of LGBT in Hollywood movies. Now that I have seen it… I am not too sure I get the LGBT vibe from this film, which probably means it’s more obvious in the book.

Anyway. I object to this film being called Johnny Guitar. He is not the main character in this film or, to be honest, one that matters too much. The central figure is Vienna, a bar and gambling den owner in the Old West who counts a known outlaw amongst her clientele. She is the film. I know that the central role of Vienna will, in part, be Joan Crawford ensuring her own screentime, but she was the person who secured the rights to the novel… so fair enough really.

Now, whilst Johnny Guitar is technically a western it did not always feel like one. It manages to tick the boxes by having a shoot-out, a number of explosions and a scene where criminals are hanged, but there’s more than this.

As engrossing as this film is it can feel like it has been shot in a version of a heightened reality. Maybe a lot of this is due to the particular nature of Joan Crawford herself. Her character is fascinating to watch, but she sure does feel out of place in the Johnny Guitar world. Everything is so purposeful and you can tell someone with a precise eye put some of the shots together; the shot with the piano immediately springs to mind.

Oh and how could I forget the character of Emma. Seriously, this woman has some huge hatred for Vienna and, for me, it’s never explained in a way that truly satisfied me. In essence, her blind hatred and indomitable need to destroy Vienna is meant to show up the McCarthy witch hunts of the time. She has it out for Vienna and knows just which political buttons to push and which people to intimidate in order to get her way.

It is an odd little film, but my how the time flew as I watched it.


Acclaimed Albums – Definitely Maybe by Oasis

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 134/250Title: Definitely Maybe
Artist: Oasis
Year: 1994
Position: #111

We go into any piece of media with preconceptions. I remember how huge Oasis were when I was very little; to the point where I remember my mum playing What’s The Story (Morning Glory) on our first CD player. We sang  ‘Wonderwall’ in school music lessons (where they insisted that we sang it as ‘wonderwahl’ instead of ‘wonderwaall’). They were massive in terms of their popularity and in terms of being pricks.

So I went into this thinking that I would like this and then feel a bit ‘ugh’ because of how I remember the Gallagher brothers acting. I was pretty much correct. It saddens me to say that I really prefer Definitely Maybe over ParklifeThen again, Gorillaz are amazing and I would listen to them over Oasis any day; so it’s swings and roundabouts.

However, I don’t I actually knew any songs from Definitely Maybe. I guess I am just too young to remember when this album came out, but I swear later songs in their catalogue still get more radio airplay than songs from this debut album.

I’m not sure why that would be either. For one thing, this is one of those albums that has actually made me feel happy as I listen to it. I’ve seen this album’s lyrics described as being ‘optimistic’ in some reviews – and I have a hard time disagreeing with that. I know that these contemporary reviewers will have welcomed a more positive type of rock music coming out after a few years of grunge music being in vogue. I mean, as much as I thought Nevermind was a good album, it wasn’t exactly cheerful.

As far as my limited knowledge of Oasis goes, I will pretty much stake a claim that this is likely to be the album of theirs that I like the most. It’s not as poppy as they would become (where at times they would feel like they are trying to become the next Beatles) and instead is far more on the glam and hard rock side of the musical fence.

Graphic Content – American Born Chinese

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
31/501Title: American Born Chinese
Creator: Gene Luen Yang
Year: 2006
Country: USA

After a graphic series as complex and compelling as Monster it was a weirdly massive shift to start on American Born Chinese. At least when I was reading Monster I didn’t have to look over my shoulder every time a racist character came onto the page.

As a graphic novel, American Born Chinese deals a lot with stereotypes. It deals with the idea of stereotyping across three separate story arcs that end up being neatly tied together in the end. Almost a bit too neatly to be honest, but hey it was an interesting ride.

The first of the threads is a retelling of the backstory of the Monkey King from Journey to the West. It’s a cute way to start the graphic novel and it features the best artwork of the three. It makes me think that I should read that old epic, but I’m sure that feeling will pass.

The remaining two tell the stories of stereotyping against Asian-Americans in high school. The first one is a straight telling of the main protagonist as he negotiates being one of only three Asian kids in his classes. The level of racism encountered in these threads is actually upsetting. As an ex-teacher who witnessed this between students, and as someone who went to a school where racist jokes were not punished they should have been, I was taken aback.

However, the racism is there to make a point. The whole piece is about stereotypes and how they can isolate and trap you or even force you to homogenize in order to feel some form of acceptance. The way that the concept of stereotyping is done differently depending on the thread, but the most blatant is the character of Chin-Kee (yes, I cringed too).

Both the extreme negatives and positive Asian stereotypes (e.g. Engrish vs high school attainment) feel extremely on the nose as you read through this graphic novel for the first time. However, once the three stories tie together you get a better idea that this was meant to be a deconstruction rather than pure shock tactics.

Personally I found the way that the three lines tied together in the end to feel a little bit forced, but it doesn’t prevent the enjoyment of American Born Chinese. Nor does it diminish the fact that this is a fairly unique third culture voice in a 1001 book full of superheroes, talking dogs and assorted manga.

Good Eatin’ – Mustard and Marula

Time for a bit of an odd pairing of food items. This is what happens when you have a whole bunch of things in the cupboard that you wouldn’t exactly use in a regular recipe.

It’s good to know that I am nearing 650 and I am still have to do a few of these food items every month. Makes me wonder whether I will have hit 750 this time next year. Unlikely, but I hope so.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Moutarde De Meaux

This is one of those things that I thought would have been far easier to find. I mean I went into a specialist mustard store and wasn’t able to find this; then lo and behold it was in the international section of my local Marks and Spencer. Thanks again M&S for giving me access to food items!

Now, there are many different types of mustard. I typically prefer the wholegrain over smooth mustards (ergo my repeat purchases of Bavarian sweet mustard). Meaux mustard ticks that box for me, as well as being a mustard that isn’t too strong. It has that warmth you would associate with mustard, but it’s tempered by being slightly vinegary.

I used this mustard on a sandwich with Quorn sausage on it because I am a philistine. Have to say that I am more than happy to have this be my sandwich mustard until the (hard to open) jar runs out.

Food item: Marula

I have mentioned on this blog sometime ago that I don’t drink. It’s not a religious choice or anything like that, I just don’t like the sharp taste of alcohol. However, it’s not exactly easy to get your hands on marula fruit in the UK. So, in accordance to the rules I set out when starting on the food list, I went for a use as detailed in the book – booze.

Marula fruit is known as being a fruit that animals can get drunk on. This is usually when the fruit has started to ferment after being on the ground for some time. Elephants are the animal most commonly associated with this drunkennes, ergo the elephant on the label of the Amarula bottle.

The drink itself is a fair bit like Baileys, but it has the fruity flavour of the marula. This isn’t a fruit flavour that would be associated with more well known fruit, but I would argue it has a generic sweet fruit flavour. It’s sugary and has a hint of sourness to it that cuts through the cream and the alcohol.

Whilst I have not found a gateway drink into the world of alcohol drinking this partial glass of Amarula is the first time for ages that booze didn’t make my stomach feel weird. Can’t get over that weird taste of alcohol though.

Progress: 640/751

Good Eatin’ – So, Oxtail Isn’t On The List

Every now and then I will buy something only to find that it is not on the food list – either I will have already eaten it or, like today, it was never on the list in the first place.

Today’s purchase (about a pound of oxtail) was never on the list. My best bet is that I had ox cheek or ox tongue in my mind. Still, when you have bought oxtail for the first time in your life you make whatever the equivalent of oxtail lemonade is.

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

So it’s been a good few months since I bought a box full of Caribbean food and was nearly viciously attacked by a piece of fruit. Well, I still had two things left to try – one now – and it proved useful when deciding what to use the oxtail for.

Look, I know that the traditional use of cassareep is to make pepper pot, but I have no idea where to begin on my feelings of cooking cow feet. Or where to buy cow feet (or pig’s tail for that matter). So the whole thing was a bit of a non-starter.

Instead I used the cassareep to help flavour a Jamaican Oxtail stew.

Now, I made a few adjustments to this recipe. For one thing I added a few teaspoons of cassareep in order to give the stew a bit of flavour. On it’s own the cassareep is sweet, sticky and with a touch of bitterness. It tasted a fair bit like the blackstrap molasses, but with a mild underlying heat.

I don’t think I added enough cassareep to the stew to make the impact that I wanted, but at least I know what it tastes like and have ideas for further use. Like, maybe a glaze for some pork ribs or salmon. Not a use as written on the bottle, but that’s the cool thing about amassing a heap of these ingredients – further experimentation.

Progress: 638/751

XL Popcorn – Philadelphia

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 597/1007
Title: Philadelphia
Director: Jonathan Demme
Year: 1993
Country: USA

As a gay man who loves films: how have I reached the age of 27 and not seen Philadelphia? I mean it’s not like it is a niche film or something that is overtly ‘gay interest’ (a phrase that automatically turns me off a film if I am completely honest). It’s one of those films that, whilst it may not be the most critically regarded, was an important landmark in how mainstream media depicted homosexuality.

However, it is important to remember that this is 1993. I mention this because despite there being many gay man depicted on screen at no point did I see two men kiss each other on the mouth. Also, any mention of male homosexual sex is done for the sake of a joke or with an undercurrent of disgust.

I do understand the point of showing all this prejudice. After all, this is a film about a man who was wrongfully terminated because he had AIDS. The ‘gay panic’ that this caused resulted, and still results, in discrimination. Again, it’s 1993 so things have gotten better now – better, but not perfect.

Anyway, about the movie. Isn’t Tom Hanks just great in this film? Well, he’s pretty much great in everything that he does, but taking on the role of a gay lawyer dying of AIDS must have been particularly risky. Still – you just cannot fault his acting here when presented with the limitations of a 1993 mainstream film dealing with gay issues.

Looking at this film objectively I know there are flaws. The whole thing is played to tug on the heartstrings (if you are a liberal), the video montage at the end goes way too long and I don’t think the evidence against the law firm is strong enough for the large majority decision reached by the jury.

On the whole though, this is a good watch. Slightly manipulative in places, but it still ticked a lot of the boxes for me.

XL Popcorn – Serpico

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 596/1007
Title: Serpico
Director: Sidney Lumet
Year: 1973
Country: USA

After watching Scarface I really needed to be reminded of the great actor that Al Pacino once was. So when I spied Serpico on Netflix I figured that I would see whether my earlier thoughts about the watershed in his style of acting was true. It is.

If you follow the brief synopsis of Serpico you would be forgiven for expecting this film to be just another cop drama about a good cop trying to root out corruption. However, that doesn’t take into account that this is a true story and is not a feel good battle for justice kind of film.

No, his battle to expose the sheer level of corruption within the NYPD is frustrating. Sure, he gets a win at the end, but it is a pyrrhic one. He’s shot in the face, which leaves him in chronic pain and without hearing in one ear. He’s forced to resign from the police as no one on the force really wants to work with him… in fact most want him dead.

Over the course of the film you see Serpico either sacrifice or just lose everything that means anything to him. The women he loves leave him, the career he always dreamed of is over and he ultimately leaves the country in order to recover from his injuries.

In the hands of a lesser director than 12 Angry Men‘s Sidney Lumet Serpico really could have gone overboard in making the lead character holier than thou. The fact is, Frank Serpico is a very good cop and has a well calibrated moral compass, but he has his flaws. I know he is based on a real person, but that doesn’t necessary have a bearing on how realistic a portrayal feels.

This brings me back to Al Pacino. He is fantastic in this film and it makes me want to see his remaining films on the 1001 list (Heat and Glengarry Glen Ross). As for Sidney Lumet, this is the final one of his four entries on the 1001 list. As much as I liked Serpico I would probably have to rank it below the other three (Network, 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon). Still a great film though!

Acclaimed Albums – Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 133/250Title: Surrealistic Pillow
Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Year: 1967
Position: #173

Sticking very much in 1967 after my last album. I was planning on knocking out one of the Oasis albums instead, but figured that since I was going on a long walk it would be better to listen to something with a little more life in it.

I always had a certain image of what Jefferson Airplane; mostly from what the spin-off groups became. When you think of songs like  ‘We Built This City On Rock and Roll’ and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ you would be excused of expecting Surrealistic Pillow to be a bit twee. Also, while I am at it – it’s actually impressive that this group were still finding relevance and getting hits and award nominations some 20 years later.

Surrealistic Pillow is not twee. It’s inconsistent, yes, but not twee. In places it is some of the best music that I have heard coming out of the 1960s – well in two actually. There is a reason that ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’ are the tracks that are best remembered – they are exceptional.

I think most people my age will know ‘Somebody to Love’ from the cover by Boogie Pimps with that weird video of parachuting babies. For me, the thing that immediately came to mind was one of my favourite movies: A Serious Man. Needless to say, this song and the vocals from Grace Slick are both exemplary.

I’ve talked about ‘White Rabbit’ before – but I think it’s worth mentioning this song’s appearance in Futurama where it is sung by Richard Nixon’s head. Still cannot believe this song got away with all the drug references just because it hid them under the thin veil of Alice in Wonderland. Bravo Grace Slick, bravo.

The rest of the album is fine, but you come for the two Grace Slick solo songs. I think the inconsistency problem lies in that the writing credits are very spread out among the group. It makes it feel like the album, and therefore the group, doesn’t have a clear and consistent voice.

Graphic Content – Monster

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
30/501Title: Monster
Creator: Naoki Urasawa
Year: 1994-2001
Country: Japan

And this is why I read manga. It has been a while since I have been so drawn into a work of fiction. I’m not sure what book or manga/comic I found to be as ‘unputdownable’ as Monster, might be The Sandman and that was over a year ago.

So, let’s start at the beginning. The central character is gifted brain surgeon Dr Kenzō Tenma who finds himself on the run when he is under suspicion of murdering a number of his hospital superiors. The culprit? Well, it just happens to be the young boy whose life he saved.

Oh and that’s just the beginning of how deep this rabbit hole goes. We are talking about a massive international conspiracy where children are psychologically experimented on and the end result is the one of titular monsters: the charismatic and creepy Johan Liebert.

The whole story takes place over the course of 18 volumes (162 chapters) and it is amazing how none of the pages feel like they have been wasted. The story is tight and is able to do it in a number of varied ways. My favourite diversion was when 1-2 chapters was spent telling a rather twisted children’s story (with the appropriate creepy art style).

Whilst the conspiracy theories and the mind control are the bread and butter of what makes this an exceptional manga series, it is the characters that truly make it. By the time you reach the end the cast is massive. A cast of characters that spans two countries and features people from every walk of life.

Other than the main three characters of Tenma and the Liebert twins (Johan and Anna), the best character have to be Grimmer (pictured) and Inspector Lunge. Both of them find themselves entangled in the incredibly complex web and for very different reasons.

I don’t think there is a single person in Monster who isn’t messed up in some way. Grimmer and the Liebert’s are both victims of psychological manipulation, Tenma loses everything that he had after being falsely accused, Lunge is an obsessive… the list goes on.

On another tact here – I loved how the manga treated Germany and Czechia. Sure there are moments where the Japanese manners creeps into the character interactions, but most of the time it feels remarkably authentic. Hell, you have someone whose favourite food is weisswurst – now that is writing I can get behind.

The reason I read this so soon was because of the anime series being so renowned. I figured it would be better to read it first, and now the animated series sure has a lot to live up to. I mean, I know it’ll be better than Hajime no Ippo, but I do wonder how well they’ll bring Tenma and Johan to life.

What’s On TV – City of Men

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 190/501
Title: Cidade dos Homens (City of Men)
Episodes Aired: 19
Episodes Watched: 19
Year(s): 2002-2005
Country: Brazil

Sometimes we just don’t know we’re born. I’ve thought this a lot when watching film and TV portrayals of Brazil and City of Men really crystallises a lot of the issues. Crippling poverty, paternal abandonment, gang violence, teen pregnancy… and yet they still find ways to have fun.

As the title probably gives away, City of Men is a pseudo-spin off of the 2002 film City of God. It even features some of the same cast, albeit in different roles. Both tell the stories of live in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, but the storytelling in City of Men is, at times, on the lighter side.

That is not to say that the same big issues aren’t covered in City of Men – in fact I would argue they do it even better in the TV show than in the movie. However, they are able to take an episode off every now and then to do something a bit more flippant. It’s a nice antidote to an episode dealing with a possible fostering away of a baby.

My favourite episode? Possibly the penultimate episode of the final season (called ‘As Aparências Enganam’) which is one of the lighter episodes centred around the two boys trying to retrieve the dog of a wealthy woman after it had been commandeered by the male dog belonging to the local mob boss. Weird ‘white person’ stereotype humour occurs alongside acts of drag and gay dogs.

The episode before this? Well that dealt with divorce, parental rights, struggling with money, drugs and a whole mess of other things. That’s what City of Men does –  extreme shifts in tone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

That’s the main issue with this show, inconsistency. As the two leads (who are excellent by the way, especially Douglas Silva as Acerola) grew up and the storylines matured with them, the quality of the show increased markedly.

The fourth season was, by far, the best and most consistent. It helps to have watched it from the beginning as you really watch these boys grow up over the four years. Possibly the best part of the show to be completely honest.

That, and getting an insight into just how some people live. 50 million + Brazilians live in this form of poverty. If that isn’t something to make you feel thankful then… I don’t really know what will.