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Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas Crafting, Cooking and, Well...That's It Actually

Merry Christmas, my beloved readers! I hope you're all having a lovely day as we all come together to celebrate the birth of a child into a socio-economic group so crappy that he was likely not to have lived into his early thirties.

This should have been the least of his worries.
I thought I'd take some time this festive day of good will and passive aggressive dinner chat to tell you about all of the wonderful things I made that you didn't. Oh yes, what jolly good fun! This would most likely have been much more useful to post before Christmas Day, seeing as all of these crafts could have been made by you, yes you, in the comfort of your very own home for the people you love hate are more or less ambivalent towards this holiday season, but the chutney (yes, chutney. Patience, young one) was actually a present for people who may or may not be reading this and I didn't want to spoil the surprise.

"Please, take this token of my unquenchable loathing towards your very mortal coil."
There's a lot to cover so let's keep it snappy shall we? First up...

Christmas Decorations/Fuzzy Felt Phone Ffffssock

Home-made Christmas decorations are fun. Everyone loves them and they always get pride of place on the tree. Then you turn ten and no-one cares any more, just like wetting the bed. I lovingly made these very original geek-themed decorations and now they're at the back of the tree or propping up the wonky stand or in the bin or somewhere.

The reindeer...
...are always watching.
Production values have increased ten-fold thanks to the lending of my kind brother's camera, haven't they, eh? Ingredients for these are exceptionally simple: just some felt, a glue gun, some scissors and plenty of patience for the portals and a couple of plain black baubles (almost impossible to find, it turns out) and some paint for the bob-ombs and chain chomp. Then just chop, glue and paint your way to adorable geeky bliss. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Now want to see what Fiona made in the same amount of time?

Gameboy games and silver cravat optional.
A flippin' NES phone sock, bitches! And it's all mine, cause she made it for me. 

Suck it.
Again a very simple concept, however it's apparently surprisingly difficult in practice. Putting the pieces together is just a lesson in lots of glue and a steady hand, but it turns out that hand stitching onto felt is an absolute nightmare, so keep that in mind if you're a budding felt mason on his way up in the felting world.

It's the biggest thing since jute.
On to part two...

Super Sticky Sweet Mango Chutney

Mango chutney is a unanimously adored condiment; fact. Indian people eat nothing but mango chutney. Seriously, ask Gandhi; he lived off it most of his life.

Turns out it's not a great nutritional supplement.
As such I decided to make some of my own miracle juice as Christmas presents for various family members and friends this year. You can find the recipe I used here, but if you have a sever hyperlink allergy don't fear, because I'll walk you though it anyway. First off, ingredients:

- 4 mangos, the biggest you can find (that's right, ladies)
- 4 cloves of garlic (cloves, not entire bulbs)
- 450g/1lb caster sugar
- 2 mahusive baking apples
- 1 tbsp English mustard/mustard powder
- 1 tbsp fresh grated ginger
- 600ml/1pt white wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp cayenne pepper

That amount of ingredients should make up just over three 250ml jars of chutney, so multiply as you see fit. The mangos will probably be your most expensive ingredients, setting me back almost two quid a mango, but the rest you'll likely have hanging around the house already.

Pro tip: save space and double your cot as a spice rack.
A quick note on mango picking: be very careful which mango you choose. I, in my child-like naiveté, picked up the last four mangos in Lidl and was done with it. When I got round to making these pulpy blobs into sticky goop, I found that two of them looked like this.

It looks like an aubergine after the very hungry caterpillar has eaten through it.
 This is apparently what happens to a mango when it's picked too early before it's had a chance to go ripe. The brown parts have a nasty bitter taste and all you can do is cut round them or throw the whole fruit away. I lost two good mangos to this abomination. We had to salvage their mangled carcasses for scraps. It was...it was horrible...

Now I know how the Uruguayan rugby team felt. 
You can usually tell if this has happened to your mango by looking for little black patches on the skin of the fruit, but most of the time you won't know until you cut into it, so choose carefully. A nice, squishy, predominantly red mango will be your best choice.

Left: good mango; Right: bad mango
So you've got your mangos, now peel them and chop them up into little chunks, putting all the adorable chunklets into a big bowl. Sprinkle with salt and leave the bowl overnight. Just cover the top and leave it on the side, not in the fridge; you want the fruit to mush up a little.

Dream squishy dreams.
The next morning you're ready to do some actual cooking-type stuff. Turn on your oven to about 120 degrees Celicius (thats 248 Fahrenheit for those of you still using crude flint tools and ignorance) and throw in your jars with their lids to sterilise. Note that you'll also need to take out anything that was already in the jars, so find someone who really likes jam. Measure out all of the other ingredients and put them in a big saucepan. Peel, core and chop your cooking apples. And here's where lesson number two comes in; this is what one of my apples looked like:

"It looks like he was indeed very hungry.  Book him, Lou."
First off, caterpillar. That's just like, so ew! But then, then, it turns out my apple is as bad as the mango. See those brown spots?
This is a common apple condition (along with ADHD) called bitter pit, where your poor apple wasn't nurtured as a child with enough calcium so he's grown up dark and bitter on the inside, and now he's buying bicycle locks off the internet and learning how to use a crossbow and collecting computer viruses and dear god, I think I'm scared of my own son...

"If only we'd got him that hockey mask for his Christmas instead of fucking mango chutney!"
Again, the best thing to do is cut around the offending areas and make the most of a bad situation. Luckily you can usually spot this one by looking for little holes, or the titular "pits", on the outside of the apple or by simply avoiding Bramley apples, which are the most commonly affected type of apple.

Throw your apples in with the rest of the mixture and heat the lot on a low heat until all of the caster sugar has dissolved. You might also want to open a window; the smell of vinegar gets a little overpowering. Once the sugar has dissolved heat the pan until it starts boiling and add your big bowl of mangos. Obviously don't add the bowl, just the mangos, but...yeah. You know what I mean.

Observe, no bowl.
All you need to do now is simmer the mixture for about half an hour, which in practice is actually closer to an hour, until everything starts to thicken up nicely. Now the recipe didn't think to tell me this but the mixture does thicken even more as it cools down, so don't start expecting a proper sticky chutney consistency yet; you'll want something on the same lines as a particularly thick gravy. Think after elevator full of blood but before free-floating full-torso vaporous apparition ectoplasm. Once it hits that thickness (don't be afraid to drain off some excess vinegar if it's taking too long), decant the lot into a big jug and from there into your hot sterile jars. As soon as the jar is full, screw the lid on tight and leave them on the side to cool.

Leave by fish tank for added aesthetic.
Once they're cool you'll know you've sealed the jars right if that little poppy bit on the lid has sucked back in again and the jar is able to turn on a jukebox just by punching it. And that's you done! The end result is a sweet, tangy chutney that goes great on papadums...


...and a variety of other animal species. All you've left to do is label...


...and you've got yourself a lovely 100% bespoke yummy gift for a loved one, friend, or moderately competent delivery guy.

Merry Christmas!

Love from Ben x

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Don't Look Now, Donald Sutherland Isn't Dressed!

Great, you looked. That's just fandabbydozy...
You know what must suck? Your child dying. Like, seriously, that must be the worst. Unless infanticide happened to be your goal when you stuffed your child into that python-laden crate and drenched it in hydrofluoric acid in which case you're the newest member of a very exclusive club.

They meet on Sundays; Mr. and Mrs. West are bringing finger food.
Our film for today deals with the very tender subject of the loss of a loved one, something that's very difficult to portray well in cinema. It's likely the only thing you've ever really heard about Don't Look Now is the controversial sex scene (yes, that link is NSFW) between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and something about people in red macs. If that is the case then I implore you not to Google this movie until you've watched it; spoilers are aplenty in these waters, they are.

"Arr, he dedicated his life to preserving the ending to The Sixth Sense, he did."
So, a quick wee plot summary is probably in order: Julie Christie and a moustache wearing a Donald Sutherland are John and Laura Baxter, they've moved to Venice some years after the tragic drowning of their young daughter at their home in England. The two of them are still coming to terms with the death while trying to get on with their lives when a pair of sisters (one of whom is blind and claims to have "second sight") inform Laura that their dead daughter is attempting to contact them from beyond the grave to warn them that John is in danger. So far so occult/gothic horror: you've got yourself a dead relative, a troubled romantic relationship, a seance, a dash of clairvoyance and all of it taking place in a hauntingly beautiful city filled with crumbling statues and dark corners.

Perfect for doing dark dee-gah, no! She's too creepy.
This all might sound a little too formulaic, but from the opening scene it's very obvious that this is a film in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing, in this case that person is Nicolas Roeg of the oddity that is The Man Who Fell to Earth. We're treated to the harrowing death of the couple's daughter, Christine, immediately introducing the driving force behind the rest of the events of the movie and dropping us right into the emotion. Really lathering us up in it proper good. The pacing is impeccable, with an extended sequence of John fighting his way only too slowly through the mud to his daughter and carrying her lifeless body away from the water's edge. It's really testament to the willpower of Roeg that he didn't choose to ham up Sutherland's acting or add dramatic music, instead letting the scene speak for itself.

"Hi, my name's Scene. I like long walks and swimmi-oh, shit, sorry."
Water continues to act as a recurring motif throughout the film which, incidentally, manages to hit that perfect sweet spot when it comes to artistic metaphors and imagery in cinema. They're neither blatant nor obscure, but just obvious enough and used within the film in such a way that their presence actually impacts on the overall tone, rather than just as a talking point for smug movie obsessives at film-talking parties or whatever it is they socialise at. Maybe some day they'll invite me... But yes, water. It's heavy role in (read: literal cause of) Christine's death means that it acts a representation of John and Laura's grief and the way in which it shapes their lives. Obviously, the use of Venice as a backdrop for the story lends itself quite well to this idea, with the characters literally surrounded by their own grief. At one point in the film, John finds himself separated from Laura by the winding labyrinth of alleys and bridges that make up the city, obviously representative of the way in which the pair's inability to move on has begun to create a divide in their relationship.

It's undeniably the splendidly believable relationship between John and Laura that makes this more than just a very typical slow-burning gothic horror. The two of them bicker, argue and miscommunicate with a sincerity not often found quite as intact in cinema, particularly in 70's horror, while simultaneously interacting with each other with the respect and vibrancy of two people who are genuinely close. This is probably due, in part, to the unscripted nature of some of their scenes together along with, yes, the sex scene. Ok, fine, we'll talk about the fucking sex scene already! At the time it was considered pretty controversial, running for about five minutes and featuring plenty of highly tabboo thrusting, licking and bumping of genitals, but I would probably consider it the best sex scene I've ever seen.

Don't look at me like that, Spock. You enjoyed it too.
Let's stop giving a damn about the "explicitness" of the scene for a minute (mumble, mumble, something about violence being considered more acceptable in films and I'm already bored of flogging these rotten, mutilated equine remains) and look at how the sex is portrayed. There's no Bond-esque moment of steamy fornication or the man leaping on the woman to satiate his base desire; the two of them are chilling on the bed reading a magazine, then sex just sort of happens, the scene interspersed with little clips of the pair getting dressed for dinner afterwards using a then unorthodox fragmented editing style. It's one of the most genuine moments of passion and affection I've witnessed since that bit in Team America, and probably the first time in a film that I've seen people do the old rumpy pumpy like normal folk.

Aaaand, yup, she just knee'd him in the balls.
I've hit a bit of a tangent there so to get back to the rest of the movie and, you know, criticism and stuff. The supporting cast aren't quite as convincing in their performances as the leading pair (the Italian guy playing the police inspector was alright, although we'll let him off with it seeing as he couldn't speak English). The bishop overseeing John's renovations is rather dull and, well, altogether too goddy, which is either perfect or shoddy characterisation depending on how you're feeling when you watch it. As for the blind seance and her sister, the pair work well together as a double team, providing the majority of the movie's welcomingly sparse exposition with a kind of friendly creepiness that makes you feel that there's more to the pair then you're ever properly shown.

She's not actually blind, she's just worn the same contacts for 30 years.
Venice is sublime (I'm coming out with all the wanky sales talk today, ain't I); it's beautiful and serene yet at the same time imposing and ominous, the uneasy balance between atmospheres illustrated nicely through a series of eerie murders that occur during the time of the Baxter's stay in the city. Once again, the images of sodden bodies being fished from the murky water of the canals create a parallel with Christine's drowning, connecting these murders with the Baxters in a way that isn't made apparent until the film's final moments. And that brings us nicely along to my final comment on the film: the overarching creep that pervades the whole thing.

"Seriously? Pervades?"
The movie is slow. The whole story can essentially be boiled down to man and woman meet a seance, everyone is a bit worried for a little while, ten minutes of crazy stuff and cue credits. It beat The Blair Witch Project to the make-us-watch-mundane-shit punch by 26 years (fun fact: the famous final shot of Shaky Cam: The Shakening is actually an homage to the ending of this movie), and that's probably my biggest niggle with the whole thing. But, and this is a big but (I cannot lie), the film is so expertly, if slowly, paced that it doesn't actually matter. You get so swept up in the lives of John and Laura that you don't care that you're spending ten minutes watching John fix a church statue or drawing naked.

"Paint like I'm painting you like one of your French girls..."
The film's genuinely engaging study of a couple's methods of dealing with loss is interspersed regularly enough with tiny drips of mystery, be it in the form of a strange child in a red mac running through the dark or a glimpse of a person where they definitely shouldn't be, that there's always enough to keep you interested but never too much that you aren't distracted from the chilling, uneasy atmosphere, beautiful setting or spotless acting. It takes patience and a little bit of thought at the end, not everything is explained as plainly as it would be nowadays, but it's absolutely worth it for a great film that's as much a touching romance as it is an unsettling mystery and is absolutely mesmerising to watch.

Bonus points for fitting six naked Donald Sutherlands in one shot.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

Staring at Donald Sutherland's Moustache - 
Full-bodied, flawlessly well-trimmed and slightly arousing, yet it somehow makes you feel just a little bit uneasy. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The World's End: Not Quite the End for Pegg and Frost

I always feel bad whenever I decide to review a movie that it turns out I like. Reviewing anything you enjoy feels like a cheat; you end up biased in your criticism and just spend the whole thing fawning over it's unadultered epicness instead of, you know, actually saying something worthwhile.

Attempting to explain everything good about David Bowie descends into guttural screaming and a voiding of all bodily fluids.
I'd already decided to review The World's End before I started watching it, and I whole-heartedly regret my choice; this film is awesome. With Edgar Wright back on the writing and directing helm of the last in the fabulously named "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy" after Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's disappointing solo effort Paul, The World's End is a funny, painfully self-aware, hyper-violent and utterly charming sci-fi flick that is exactly the same as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in all of the right ways. Plus, it's all entirely a build up to the post-apocalyptic wasteland in the Sisters of Mercy Song, This Corrosion.

Who'd have thought something so epic could come out of the Sisters of Mercy, eh?
Seeing as I've already let the cat out of the bag as to my overall opinion on this movie, I'm going to restrain myself for as long as possible and talk about the few criticisms I do have of possibly the weakest film out of an overall impeccable trilogy.

Then again, how could you possibly be expected to compete with this?
The overarching message of World's End is very simple to grasp. Too simple. As in Joey Essex trying to unlock a door with a teaspoon levels of simple. It's a technophobia parable in a similar vein to a Phillip K. Dick novel without the weird dreamy undertones or, you know, subtlety. Technology is connecting the world but at the same time destroying our small-town values and, in turn, our individuality. Duuuuuuude. The "let's not let technology rule our lives" moral actually gets spoon fed to you so much during the finale that they actually resort to laying out the entire movie's philosophy in the form of a very shiny powerpoint narrated by Bill Nighy.

"If you would like to refer to page 64 of the prescribed reading material..."
That said, simplicity has always been key in the Cornetto Trilogy (or Fuzzy Shaun World as I shall now call it), with a basic plot allowing for a big blank canvas to spray jokes and blood all over. Shaun is a Romero rip-off that glazes over the typical zombie stuff and focuses on the importance of friendship, ice cream and a pint. Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop movie that's all about friendship, ice cream and...hold on a second here. These three movies are all exactly the same!

You cheeky scamp.
The plot isn't the only thing distilled down to it's basic essence either; the ragtag bunch of misfit friends that make up the principal cast are all purposefully clichéd characters; there's Martin Freeman's workaholic, Nick Frost's tee-total bespectacled bore and Eddie Marsan's family man. However, they've saved the best for Pegg in the form of the film's anti-hero, Gary King. After two movies it's nice to see Pegg and Frost swap their respective roles and it's safe to say that they both shine just as well with Frost playing the straight man to the slightly unhinged, gleefully self-destructive King. He's the natural end-point of the character that's classically "living in the past"; terrible haircut, immature personality, Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and an unhealthy obsession with his lost youth.

I would make a joke about that essentially being the lead singer of any goth band, but Fiona would disembowel me.
In a movie about the advent of technology and embracing the future, Gary King is literally the past, and this is where Edgar Wright and his spectacular attention to detail take to the stage, with one scene ever so surreptitiously playing Kylie Minogue's Step Back in Time while everyone wanders around in school uniforms. It's the little things that make World's End so great; there's some great wee hints to the unfolding story slipped into the spot-on dialogue and there's as much hidden in the background of the various pubs and clubs as you're willing to look for. The one that I spotted first was the adverts on the walls of the slightly-too-identical pubs, each featuring the number corresponding to that place on Gary's ancient "Golden Mile" pub crawl map. Then there's the great use of colour (blue = nasty alien robots), obvious in the form of gallons of blue robot blood and subtle in costuming choices and set design. All in all, if you're anything like me you'll find the most fun in playing spot the difference in the background, knowing all the while that everything you find was put there by crazy, obsessive compulsive people with way too much free time.

*snigger* blue balls...
I guess I've kind of strayed from the whole criticism thing but ah well, I can't help it. The characters are well formed and interesting, the music is excellent (particularly the original score, which uses some very familiar bleeps and bloops to great effect), the jokes are fast paced but never forced, the story is hilariously self aware and firmly tongue in cheek and my god, it's just too perfect! As such, and also due to me having been infected with some sort of vile pox in the past few days, I have little else to say about this film apart from please, if you haven't already, watch it. And while you're at it, watch the other two movies in the trilogy as well, because they're all exceptional.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

Going on a Reunion Pub Crawl with Your Old School Mates - 
The plot of the film is literally the only possible outcome to this situation: utter annihilation. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Casting Calls and Creamed Cabbage

Remember those times when you went out and did things and experienced stuff and made memories and such? I think scholars call it having a life. Well, it turns out I have one of them too, and seeing as the scheduled review of The World's End has been pushed back to next week so as not to coincide with The Girl Who Loves Horror's own review of the same movie, this gives me the perfect opportunity to strap you down and force you to listen to my inane crap until you're nothing more than a ball of blubbering mush.

Mr. Kubrick never did give me those home movies back...
It was my brother, Daniel's, 21st birthday this weekend so we all went through to Glasgow for a bit of a celebration. He got a camera, I was jealous. My mum, being the epic bargain hunter/hoarder/crazy person that she is, managed to pay for the hotel and restaurant entirely with Tesco clubcard points.

Meanwhile, my HMV reward points collect nothing but dust and regret.
The restaurant was bootyful and yes, you are about the sit through me telling you about my meal. Deal with it's delicious tedium. Chicken satay to start, then duck with creamed cabbage, dauphinoise potatoes and cherry sauce, and finally chocolate tart for pud. All of the oms and approximately fourteen noms. If you're interested in where this place is in Glasgow, it's called La Bonne Auberge and you'll find it on West Nile Street.

Across the road from The Acceptable Courgette.
Sunday was a little less tasty and a little more exhausting. Those of you keeping your ear to the grape vine (beware of caterpillars) will have heard about the open casting call for the new Star Wars movie that was on in Glasgow this past weekend, and seeing as we were through there anyway, Fiona and I thought we might as well give it a bash. Sadly that meant getting up at 6am to beat the queue. 

"Fiona, meet 6am on a Sunday. 6am, meet the human cornish pasty."
The whole thing was, obviously, a waste of time in the end, but it's always nice to be able to tell people that I auditioned for Star Wars. Give it ten years and I can ham it up to "I was in a battle to the death with the last three auditionees for the new Star Wars movie but I decided at the last minute, with a Bat'leth pressed against my fallen foe's throat and a Krull glaive lodged between my 5th and 6th thoracic vertebrae, that I would be the better human; I would fight against the Hollywood machine. I would live, goddamnit!"

"And that was when daddy snapped Batman's spine atop Amon Súl while thrashing out a sick bass solo. The End."
Then came lots of very tired shopping and some chai at a lovely tea lounge called Cup, where one of the waiters congratulated me on my (read: Fiona's) Adventure Time hat. Oh, how good it is to find kindred spirits.

The hard bit it getting them in the bottle...
And that was my weekend. Normal services shall resume as of next week, so until then, why don't you tell me what you got up to this week? Oh yeah, that's why, I don't want to know. Stay away from the comments, you filthy little Hobbitses.

"Move along..."