Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Squawk Box: The ABC Murders/Wild, Wild Country/Sunderland 'Til I Die

I've been on a documentary kick lately and Squawk Box this month features two of them: the excellent Wild, Wild Country and probably one of the best sports documentaries I've seen in awhile, Sunderland 'Til I Die. (We've also got The ABC Murders, which has John Malkovich stepping into the role of Belgium's premier detective, Hercule Poirot.)

We'll start with Sunderland 'Til I Die. Amazon followed Manchester City around for a season in All Or Nothing and if you want to watch something shiny, gleaming and beautiful in action, it's worth checking out. (I caught a couple of episodes of it- at some point I'll get back around to watching the rest.) But if you want a taste of the real divide in England's soccer landscape, there's no better place to start than with Sunderland 'Til I Die.

Away from the gleaming stadiums and the wealth of the big clubs at the top of the Premier League, the eight episode documentary series opens with newly relegated Sunderland struggling in England's second division, The Championship. Their manager Simon Grayson is struggling to find a line up that works- they're under financial pressure to bring the right people in during transfer windows. Their owner, Ellis Short isn't willing to put more money into the club. They're bringing new goalkeepers. They have players that they're trying to get back from injury- and the results just aren't coming for them and by the new year, they're in yet another relegation fight, lurking at the bottom of the table.

So, they bring in a new manager Chris Coleman. They've got no money to spend, so they have to try and make do with more or less the players that they've got and they get some great results down the stretch that don't completely extinguish hope, but they just can't seem to put two wins together and get any momentum- and it's kind of a stunning twist on what you expect from the genre of the sports documentary, but there's no happy ending at the end of this: Sunderland are relegated again, this time down to League One.

The documentary goes into all aspects of the club: the anxiety of the staff members behind the scenes, as they worry about their jobs. The struggle and frustration of the players when the results won't come. The frustrations of the fans- and the incredible loyalty they show to their team, even at the end of another brutal season which seems them relegated again- but the club is also sold, it's debts are cleared and there's the glimmer of hope with a final victory over Wolverhampton and with new owners ready to make a difference and build for the future.

Next up, is Wild, Wild Country. It's been out on Netflix for nearly a year now, and I've seen the odd preview for it and I hadn't actually sat down and watched it until now and wow, this is the craziest true story I think I've seen. The story begins with the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who grew a following in India in the late 60s, preaching against socialism (he wasn't about selling all your worldly possessions), as well as the usual collection of attributes you'd associate with a guru- but he also preached a more open attitude to sex, which caused controversy in India where he became known as 'the Sex Guru.'

Eventually running afoul of the government, Rajneesh decided in the late 70s to move to the United States and found a city in the wilderness with the help of his associate Ma Anand Sheela- and that's where it gets crazy, because they found their city in the wilderness of eastern Oregon and immediately run into problems. Locals take them to court for violating land use rules: they purchased a ranch and they were building a city. In response, the Rajneeshees brought up property in the local town of Antelope and made it clear that if they couldn't build their city, they would happily take Antelope instead. The citizen of Antelope actually tried to disincorporate to stop them- but failed. And then it gets crazier, because the state got involved and tried to shut them down- so then, they tried to take over the county. Oh and their hotel got bombed. Oh and there's a split in the movement which leads to attempted murder. Oh and they literally shipped in thousands of homeless people from all over the country to try and win the county supervisors seat.

Did I mention that this lead to the largest mass poisoning in American history as well?

Finally, we have The ABC Murders. I'll be honest: I haven't seen any of David Suchet's turns as Hercule Poirot- which I've got to remedy at some point, but I know enough about Hercule Poirot to know that he's probably one of the most iconic detectives of 20th Century literature. I haven't caught Kenneth Branaugh's turn in Murder On The Orient Express- but John Malkovich in just about anything is a sure bet of a great time and sure enough, Malkovich delivers.

The movie opens with an older Poirot, increasingly uncomfortable in the somewhat xenophobic atmosphere of 1930s Britain. His colleague on the Police force, Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally) has retired and been replaced by a brash young Inspector Crome (an almost unrecognizable and excellent Rupert Grint) who doesn't trust Poirot and raises some question about what exactly his occupation used to be in Belgium. Poirot, on the other hand is getting letters from someone signed 'A.B.C.' taunting him and predicting murder. Crome dismisses the letter as a prank, but when Alice Asher is killed in Andover and Betty Barnard is killed in Bexhill, another letter informs Poirot that the next victim will begin with the letter 'C'.

Poirot gets the next letter, which tells him where the next murder will take place- but he's too late to stop the murder. Though this time, the family of the victim, Sir Carmichael Clarke officially hires him to solve the murder so, reluctantly, Crome has to let him help and learns to trust him a little bit along the way. They eventually find a suspect that fits the bill, but Poirot is not convinced and figures out who the real murderer is-- and his past is revealed.

My Verdicts:
Sunderland Til I Die: A must watch for soccer fans or fans of the sports documentary genre.

Wild, Wild County: Must watch full stop. Craziest documentary out there right now and one of the best Netflix documentaries of the past year.

The ABC Murders: John Malkovich steps into the role with near perfection and Rupert Grint is incredible in this as well. At three episodes, it's not that long of a watch either. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Netflix & Chill #59: Free Solo/The Dawn Wall

Free Solo
Watched On: Hulu
Released: 2018
Directed By: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%

The Dawn Wall
Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Directed By: Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Not really competing documentaries, but certain adjacent documentaries Free Solo (on Hulu) and The Dawn Wall (on Netflix) celebrate two monumental achievements in the world of climbing that took place over the course of the last three to five years. Climbing has always fascinated me. I've never seen the movie Cliffhanger, but that image of Stallone hanging off the cliff stuck in my brain as a kid and I seem to remember making up a game on the playground based off of it. I also enjoyed the hell out of Vertical Limit.. So documentaries about what climbing is actually like and actually involves are something I can get behind.

I was far more familiar with Free Solo than I was with The Dawn Wall. I remember reading the news coverage that followed Alex Honnold's achievement of climbing El Capitan without a rope and I was even more excited for a documentary so we could see it happen close up- and when I saw that the documentary had landed on Hulu, I more or less watched it immediately. The filmmakers do an excellent job of illustrating the scale of El Captain at various key moments throughout the film- just when you're thinking that it doesn't look that bad, then they zoom out and you realize just how big El Capitan actually is and just how small Honnold trying to climb it- and it takes you breath away.

The first part of the documentary is sort of you thinking, 'he's not actually going to do this, is he? This would be crazy?' and for sure, the success of the climb has to be largely due to the incredible about of preparation and practice that Honnold put in before making the attempt. He tested out every part of his chosen route before he tried it. He did some practice climbs in Zion National Park and in Morocco. I would say if there's an overarching theme between these documentaries it's probably that of obsession. Both Honnold and his counterpart in The Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell (who actually appears in Free Solo, helping Honnold to prepare for his climb) is that they're both more or less obsessed with climbing and until they either conquer The Dawn Wall or free solo El Capitan, they'll never be truly satisfied. Between the two, Honnold comes across as the more single minded of the two.

The actual climb is tense, silent and by the end my palms were starting to sweat-- even though you know that Honnold succeeds, just the idea of it- the idea of being wedged into a crack of granite that high off the ground where the slightest slip could be the difference between life and death. It only adds to the craziness and the immensity of the achievement.

In contrast, The Dawn Wall is more of technical problem that Tommy Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgenson have to solve. Essentially a sheer face of granite that had never been climbed before, the two climbers spend six years studying possible routes and mapping them out before making the actual attempt. Caldwell has something of an interesting back story: he became a relatively young climbing prodigy and was actually held hostage on a climbing trip in Kyrgyzstan for six days before seeing an opportunity to push their final and sole captor off of a cliff in order to escape.

You get the sensation that conquering The Dawn Wall is Caldwell's attempt to exorcise some ghosts of that- but at the same time, there's more of a puzzle aspect to it that's fascinating. They know that there are multiple possible routes up the wall, but they have to find them and join them together in one route. The ascent itself, when it begins involves Caldwell and Jorgenson taking it one pitch at a time and they take turns going, so that they each have to complete each section of the route for it to 'count.' Everything seems to proceed according to plan until Pitch 15, where Caldwell succeeds and try as he might, Jorgensen can't seem to crack it. Eventually, Caldwell decides to push on with Jorgensen taking on a support role as the media coverage of the attempt increases- but ultimately, Caldwell decides that if they're going to do this, he wants to get Jorgensen past that Pitch and caught up with him so they can make the top together.

When Jorgensen finally does crack the pitch, it's one of the most beautiful redemptive moments in the entire film. After he cracks that, the two of them fly up the rest and conquer The Dawn Wall together, solving a six year puzzle at last.

Overall: both are fascinating stories about something I knew very little about, but I feel like the promise and peril of doing the impossible is paid for by the ceaseless obsession these climbers show with getting the job done. But maybe that's the lesson here: to do impossible things, you've got to be obsessed and there aren't that many people who are willing to do that. My Grades: Free Solo, **** out of **** and The Dawn Wall, **** out of ****

Saturday, March 9, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #284

This Week In Vexillology is back and we're heading north for our tour of the counties of England-- this week we're going right up to the border with Scotland to take a look at the flags of Northumberland and Durham.

First up, Northumberland. How do you get there? Well...  there's a 'north' in the name for a reason- if you head all the way up to the north of England, past Leeds and Bradford all the way up to Newcastle and go directly northwest of that and you're more or less in the county proper. (I've got a book in my queue that deals with the history of the borderlands and the Border Reivers that ran in the area of Northumberland...  don't know if the Nixon Clan ran in that part of the border, but the whole place is sort of on a 'bucket list' to potentially visit when we next back to the UK.)

Here's their flag:
This is a flag of the historical county of Northumberland-- it's the banner of arms of the County Council. The arms of the county council were granted in 1951 but the flag wasn't registered with the Flag Institute until 1995. The exact origin of the arms was seems to be somewhat murky. They were originally attributed to the ancient kingdom of Bernicia. But weirdly, the wiki-page for the flag says that the arms were 'fictional' but inspired by Bede's description of a flag used on the tomb of St. Oswald in the 7th Century.

Overall, I like it. The colors are bright and the design is striking...  it also comes with a guideline: top corner, nearest the flagpole should be gold.

Next up, County Durham. How do you get there? Well it's actually pretty easy... south of Newcastle, north of Middlesbrough, you'll find the city of Durham- the county itself runs between Sunderland and Hartlepool on the coast and sort of juts inland to the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Here's their flag:
Registered with the Flag Institute in 2013 after an online competition to create a flag of the county. Chosen from six finalists, the winners were twins Katie and Holly Moffatt and their dad James Moffat- which is kind of a nice family story. The flag features the Cross of St. Cuthbert counterchanged in the the county colors of blue and gold. One of the early Celtic Saints, St. Cuthbert's tomb is located in Durham Cathedral- hence, his association with the county.

I always love counterchanged flag designs and County Durham has a particularly striking one- I love the combination of blue and gold and the contrast with neighboring Northumberland and their bright colors of red and gold is quite nice.

So there you have it- the next two flags in our tour of the counties of England. Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, March 8, 2019

Free Write Friday #8: The Illusion of Power

The revolution will not be televised, the revolution will be live. And therein lies your predicament, because you're the one that has to tell the mob that just stormed the capital that everything they fought for was a lie.

Power, the butler reflected, was an illusion and The President had been a master of it. He was waiting patiently in the President's office for the mob to arrive. This wasn't going to go well, he knew, but someone had to tell them the truth and the President had decided that the butler was the perfect man to do it. He was in his late 60s, his hair silver, his face wrinkled with age. His suit was immaculate, as it always was and he had been a faithful servant to the President and his regime for nearly three decades. So, with a wave of a hand, the old man had said, "You tell them. You tell them the truth."

And then, of course, the bastard got into his helicopter- the plain, unadorned, green one- the real one and not the shiny white one he used for photo ops and flew away.

The butler went over to the sideboard and, picking up a glass, poured himself a measure of brandy and took a sip. The President hadn't been a bad boss. He was always perfectly polite and pleasant- he went out of his way to treat the servants with utmost courtesy, it's just that he felt the need to keep up the illusion of power as part of the prestige of the office. And at first, that sort of made sense. The people responded to it. He would be in every parade, resplendent in his military uniform, smiling and waving, handing out candy to the children, shaking hands with anyone and everyone he met. He would go to the most obscure towns in the most backward province in the country and dazzle them all with a speech and a smile and would leave to rapturous crowds cheering his name.

He was a genius at this stuff. When there was an earthquake in the capital, he opened the palace grounds to house the homeless. When there was a famine in the south, he loaded up trucks full of food and water and spent weeks distributing aid to the people. He was beloved. But the economy couldn't get better- in fact, it got worse. The legislature became more and more corrupt. The President got older and fell out of touch with the people and what they wanted. His son was killed in the brief border war with their neighbors. His daughter ran off to the mountains and joined the rebels. His wife died. The streets had become emptier and emptier. The palace had become more and more deserted. The last few years had been sad to witness.

But now, the end was near. The butler strode over to the double windows that lead out to the balcony that overlooked the Avenue of The Motherland that ran the from the very outskirts of the capitol right up to the Presidential Palace itself. The mob was getting closer, but they were taking their sweet time about. Someone was directing them somewhat. They were chanting something indistinct and with a sigh the butler went back over to the President's desk and sat down in his opulent chair and kept sipping his brandy.

The crowd noise grew closer and closer and then he heard them hammering at the metal gates that lead to the palace. He heard them crack and a deafening cheer told him that they had breached the gates. Minutes later, he could hear them starting to smash and destroy things down below and there were the sound of footsteps on the stairs and then the doors to the President's office burst open with a thunderous crash and they were finally here.

They stared at him in puzzlement.

"Well, it's about time too," he said. "I've been waiting."

"Who are you old man?" The young man at the head of the mob looked angry and was carrying what looked to be a cudgel of some kind with nails hammered into it.

"I'm the butler."

"The butler?"

"Yes, the butler," he replied.

"Where's the President?"

"I'm afraid you missed him," the butler replied. "He flew away."

"You're lying!" Someone behind the young man with the cudgel shouted. "Yeah! Bring us the traitor!" Someone else added.

"I assure you I have no reason to lie," the butler said. "He wanted someone to remain behind and tell you all the truth."

"The truth is that he's been hoarding the wealth of the Motherland while his people starve!" The young man with the cudgel said. "We're going to ransack this place until we find it and then give it back to those that he stole it from!"

"That's where you're rather amusingly wrong," the butler said.

"Wrong?"

"There is no money," the butler said.

"Liar! Where did he hide it?" More and more of the mob came into the room, crowding to the sides of the President's desk and forming a half-circle around it.

The butler sighed. "It's an illusion." He pointed to the books that lined the bookshelves at one end of the room. "Those books? They're fake." He pointed to the windows that overlooked the grounds. "Those windows? Not at all bulletproof." He pointed to the floor. "Even the marble is fake."

The mob greeted this with silence.

"But, the cars, the parades," the young man with the cudgel said. "He drove around in a Rolls Royce while the rest of us were starving."

"My dear boy, that was a Lincoln town car that was over fifteen years old. A little paint, some new decals and it looked a great deal like a Rolls Royce, I'll grant you that."

"You're lying."

"Liar!"

"He's a running dog bootlicker of the regime!"

"Have you found anything?" The butler said. "Anything at all? If he's been hoarding the wealth of the nation, it has to be somewhere, right?"

Silence again. The young man with the cudgel looked around. "Does anyone have a gun?"

"I do!" Someone called.

"Shoot the window," he said.

There was the sharp report of a gun and the window behind the butler shattered. There was a stunned silence.

"The President believed in maintaining the illusion of power. He didn't want the prestige of the office to suffer. He had about as much money as you all do by the end," the butler said.

"But he fled! He left! He transferred the money overseas!"

The butler chuckled. "Wouldn't you leave?"

"Why didn't you?" The young man with the cudgel said with a curious look on his face.

The butler drained the last of the brandy. "Because he wanted someone to know the truth. Not that I convinced you."

There was another long moment of silence, before someone shouted, "Seize him! We'll get the truth out of him one way or the other!"

With a sigh, the butler stood and mob rushed forward, seized him and dragged him away.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

1,556 Miles Update #2


Okay, this is where I left off at the end of January and the beginning of February. I sort of fell off the pace in February a bit-- and March is going to be weird, since we're going down to Texas over Spring Break- so I sort of did a February + early March thing for this post and the next update (hopefully in early May) will be a Late March + April update. 

How are things going? Pretty well, I think. Intermittent fasting seems to work quite well for me-- I sort of miss breakfast sometimes and I ease up on the weekends a bit, just so I can enjoy breakfast with the family, etc. But overall the principle is appealing: I can't necessarily control what I eat (well, I can, I just choose not too) but I can control when I eat a hell of a lot easier. Going into March though, I want to start focusing on a couple of different things.

First, I want to get back on the Kettlebell and Tai Chi train. Theoretically, I jump on the Big Pink Bike Monday-Wednesday-Friday and that leaves Tuesday and Thursday to do something. If I can get to a point where I'm doing something that could be defined as 'exercise' five days a week by the end of the year, I'm going to call this a success. 

Second, I want to focus on what I'm eating. I need to get better at eating less crap and eating healthier things. (Or at the very least, just delicious well prepared food.)

So, let's get down to it. At the end of January, I put in 102.9 on the Big Pink Bike and I added another 79.2 miles which puts my grand total at 182.1 miles, which means my maps looks like this:

That's a nice amount of progress I think...  through the tangle of the Twin Cities and safely out onto the other side. Can I make it to Des Moines by May 1st? Stay tuned to find out, I guess! As to where my end point looks like on the pretty Google Earths, well it's this:
Two updates down, plenty more to go!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bookshot #117: Conversation In The Cathedral

At this point, I don't really know what else I can say about Mario Vargas Llosa. Every book of his I've ever read has been powerful, incredible and straight up amazing. It's been awhile since I've read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado or Isabel Allende- and I still need to sit down and read more of Jorge Luis Borges- but Vargas Llosa belongs with the best of them- if for no other reason than his novels make you learn things you didn't necessarily know before. (Especially about the history of Latin America.)

Another thought I've had: I wonder what his novels would be like in Spanish? I might actually have to sit down and attempt one of his books in his native language just to try and see if his writing style comes across in a different way.

So: Conversation In The Cathedral. Set in 1950s Peru, this book rather elegantly states the question that the characters ponder throughout the course of the book: "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" The two main characters are Santiago and Ambrosio, who have a chance meeting in Lima one day when Santiago is chasing a story and he finds his father's former Chauffeur, Ambrosio, working for the dog pound. Heading over to a local water hole known as The Cathedral, the two of them have a few drinks and catch up, each of them pondering what had gone wrong with their lives.

Santiago is the black sheep of a rich family, working at a tabloid newspaper and rejecting his families wealth. In University, he had flirted with the Communist Party- mainly because he was interested in a fellow classmate of his, Aida- but after a student strike/uprising is put down by the regime, his interest in radical politics wanes and is soon abandoned. His father is a Senator and regime ally, Don Fermin who longs for Santiago to stop his rebellion and come back to go to law school so he can take over the family business- but it's his father's potential involvement in the murder of a notorious prostitute and mistress of a powerful regime ally that really sparks the story to life, especially when it comes to Ambrosio.

Ambrosio, as it turns out knows more about the murder than he wants to admit and he tells Santiago his story and how his life more or less lead him first away from Lima, with a wife and a child and then back to Lima without them after his wife died and he more or less abandons his child/leaves her with their land lady out in the country.

If the disillusionment both men feel at the state of their country wasn't the point of the book, the ending would feel somewhat unsatisfying- but in as it's set in 1950s Peru, a period of political and societal stagnation and malaise (at least that's what I took away from this book- I'm not finding much out in the interwebs that would disagree with that assessment) the disillusionment is the point. The ending works. It's melancholy and not particularly happy, but it fits. Life can be nothing but a series of unfortunate tragedies many of which can mean next to nothing at all for a lot of people. It's far too easy to be disillusioned by everything.

Vargas Llosa's style is somewhat difficult to wrap your head around at first. It seems very jumbled at first- with dialogue shifting from one character to another one conversation to another, but the deeper you get into the book, clarity emerges and you begin to see the stories of Santiago and Ambrosio swing into focus. His style is sort of what makes me wonder about how these novels read in Spanish- it'd be interesting to see if there are nuances and aspects to his style that are different in his native language than in English- it sure seems like that would be the case, just because of translation, but how much is lost in translation would be interesting to find out too.

Overall: a melancholy and powerful glimpse into the history of Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa proves yet again why he's one of the best writers in the world. I'd probably slot Conversations In The Cathedral in between Feast of the Goat and The War of The End of The World-- the former was more accessible and the latter considerably more dense, though both were amazing books. His style takes some getting used too, but what's nice about this book is that the more you read, the clearer everything becomes- it's like lifting a curtain, slowly. My Grade: **** out of ****