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Underrated Thriller Which Owes More to Howard Hawks than Hitchcock, 22 October 2017

Thrillers made prior to circa 1970 often began with a "hook" of some kind, followed shortly thereafter by an unspeakable event. The story would only gradually unfold in which the viewer has no idea the who, the what, the how, the pieces of the puzzle only fitting into place at great effort. Think of the Maltese Falcon: a beautiful woman enters into the detective offices of Sam Spade and Miles Archer, claiming she's trying to find her sister who has been supposedly abducted. Shortly thereafter, Archer is murdered. In "A King of Murder", based on a story by the mystery-suspense writer Patricia Highsmith, famous for her Ripley novels, there's a similar form.

At the beginning of the film, we learn that the wife of a reclusive antiquarian bookseller, Marty Kimell (Eddie Marsan) has been murdered. We don't see the murder, but mainly hear about it through a newspaper clipping extracted from a newspaper by Walter Stackhouse, a prominent architect. The case is being investigated by Detective Lawrence Corby (Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men fame). Then we're brought to the other story-line thread. Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) seems to have everything someone in the upper middle-class could desire: a beautiful home, a beautiful wife, and a promising career as an architect and a short story writer. Except, his relationship with his wife, Clara (Jessica Biel), is on the rocks because of a dwindled sex life. At one of their lavish parties Stackhouse meets Elli, and he triangulates to fulfill his sexual needs. He also visits the bookshop owned by the husband of the murdered woman.

Clara's impotence worsens and so does her psychological instability. At the same time, the case of the murdered woman seems to be going nowhere. Eventually, Clara's mother is reported to be dying, and Clara leaves on a bus to go to her bedside. Stackhouse follows her but then returns home. Later, we learn Clara never arrived at her mother's. She was found dead under a bridge about half-way between her home and her mother's. Was it suicide or murder? Stackhouse is questioned by Corby who starts to believe there may be a link between Stackhouse, his dead wife, and the other murdered woman. When questioned about whether he knew about the other case, Stackhouse lies and says he's never heard of it, and claims he has never met the widower. Corby begins to question Stackhouse's claims. Will he be caught in his lies and therefore become a prime suspect in the death of his wife?

A thoroughly enjoyable and biting suspense-thriller which has its roots in many of the noir films directed by Howard Hawks and John Huston. A positive reviewer quote states that the film would have made Hitchcock proud, but this is much more of a throw-back to adaptions of novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. "A Kind of Murder" is very gritty, similar to the "b-films" of Old Hollywood, such as "The Maltese Falcon", "Laura", and "The Big Sleep". And the climactic ending is not what you would expect from most of these kinds of films today.

War Dogs (2016)
Arms Contracts Equal Bucks: Makes the Drug Trade Look Like a Lemonade Stand, 19 October 2017

Recently on the television show "American Greed", the story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz trading firearms and ammo to the US government was showcased as a morality tale of greed beating out common or good sense. Although both were against the US-Iraq War, Doveroli and Packouz decided market profit eclipses domestic moralizing. The US government was at war, and there were people in the world who were going to profit by dealing arms and ammo to those engaged in the fighting. The dirty little secret about war: there are many who profit largely whenever a superpower goes to war. The kind of money made in arms dealing as compared to something like illegal drugs, makes the latter look like a few lemonade stands.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) was a massage therapist and occasional seller of high-quality blankets to the elderly. He doesn't make great money at either endeavor. He chances to meet his former school buddy, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill in an award-caliber performance) at a funeral. Diveroli has been in illegal drug trading, but has found a more lucrative market: dealing in used weaponry and selling to the most fanatical gun enthusiasts on the planet: the United States Military. They find used weapons at wholesale and then resell online and to the US Government. His small company was called AEY Inc.

Because the US is at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, there is a shortage of munitions supplies. Diveroli discovers there's a US website detailing hundreds of requests for munitions. With governmental approval, anyone can sell the munitions to the US Military. At first everything is on the up-and-up. But they are mainly getting the crumbs while the larger manufacturers are getting the bigger pieces. The crumbs are worth millions but the thing is, the larger contracts are worth in the hundreds of millions. They even get a silent partner/backer Ralph Slutsky (Kevin Pollack).

At a conference on firearms in Las Vegas, Diveroli and Packouz learn they may be in over their heads as they can't compete with the large munitions companies. Until Packouz meets with the notorious arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). Girard tells the novices several pieces of information which in this business can turn into hefty profits. (While I don't always agree "knowledge is power" only "potential power", in this case, the first one with the map to the treasure could win) Firstly, there's a shortage of AK-47 ammunition, needed especially for the Afghan army in the Middle East. Secondly, Girard knows where he can procure a large quantity of 150 million rounds of ammunition. The last piece is that Girard can't do business with the US Federal government, probably because he broke trade regulations. (Girard is probably loosely based on Swiss arms dealer Heinrich "Henri" Thomet.) Girard proposes to the newbies that he will sell them the ammo he has access to. If AEY can broker the deal to sell 150 million rounds of ammo to the US government, the deal is potentially worth $2/round, in other words about $300 million. It will be the largest deal AEY has ever brokered. The question is: will the US government fork out hundreds of millions to two twenty-something arms traders who have been in business for less time than a typical baseball season?

A thoroughly compelling film. Aspects are a bit like some of Martin Scorsese's offerings with voice-over and occasional freeze frame. The voice-over by Miles Teller helps us understand all the pieces of the arms-dealing world. Some aspects were fictionalized but many of the details of some of the deals are accurate, especially the one worth $300 million. All acting is solid, particularly Tellers as Packouz and Bradley as Girard. However, a fantastic and believable performance by Jonah Hill as the guiding force behind AEY. Definitely one of Hill's best acting performances. A fairly underrated film.

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The Case of the Missing Replicant Offspring and Outstanding Visuals Compromised by Length, Pace and Distance, 16 October 2017

In the original "Blade Runner" film, blade runners were hired assassins paid to "retire" renegade replicants originally manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. Replicants were manufactured to work as slaves on colonization planets, and some replicants began to rebel and band together to fight their oppressors for freedom and longevity. It should be pointed out that blade runners were humans, and replicants were bio-engineered humanoids without biological births. In the new film, the Wallace Corporation has built upon what Tyrell began several decades earlier. Their new "breeds" of replicants are incapable of disobedience and some have been drafted to be blade runners themselves, mainly to find some of the older models which escaped blade runners.

Ryan Gosling plays "K", the beginning letter of a long-winded serial number. He's one of the new breed of replicants who is also among the new force of blade runners ordered to hunt down and retire renegade replicants, mainly older models which escaped retirement. During one of K's hunts, he finds a box containing skeletal remains which he brings back to the LAPD offices and labs. Upon further analysis of the remains, the deceased appears to have been not only pregnant but also a replicant. The implication is staggering: replicants may have the ability to reproduce. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) puts K on the case to find out more about the pregnancy and discover if the offspring is still alive with orders to retire it.

The main plot is generally a good one: a case of the missing replicant believed to have been born, not bio-engineered. Three groups are interested in the biological birth and the offspring, which may be a hybrid: half replicant, half human. On one end of the spectrum is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the corporation which has succeeded the Tyrell Corporation. Wallace is not against the biological breeding of replicants. When knowledge of the birth reaches Wallace, he embraces, for he plans to use the millions of new replicants as slaves. On the other side are a group of replicants who desire freedom, similar to the first film. And then there's Lt. Joshi, part of the LAPD, who simply fears renegade replicants and possible biological breeding will destroy the infrastructure of society. In other words, humans are humans, and replicants are replicants, and things should remain thus.

First the good news. The look and atmosphere of the sequel is very similar to the original. Even the music, written mostly by Hans Zimmer but based on some of the original themes and style of Vangelis, parallel the original. The story also explores the ideas of what makes us human. In the original, the rebel replicants seemed to have more humanity than the biological humans, which made for an interesting rhetorical juxtaposition between the nature of human reality. Similar ideas are explored here.

I think the biggest criticism is that it's almost too slow-moving and long for it's own good. The original was assessed as being too "slow-moving" but today it doesn't feel that way at all, and even the director's cut is still just under 2 hours. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, "Blade Runner 2049" could have used a lot more cutting. A couple of scenes, such as one where a large King-King-size animation interacts with Gosling could have been cut and the film would not have suffered one iota. However, some of the long drawn-out throw-away scenes made it difficult to focus on things which were more crucial to the plot. Other times we often see Gosling in multiple view shots where nothing is happening. Sadly, one character which will become important later is shown briefly in one scene. I would have liked more about that character and less screen time devoted to seeing the pores of Gosling's face!

Still, generally a good film, although I don't think it will become a classic like the original. Some parts were interesting, others became too long without much plot development, while other very important points were not developed very much. In both films, we hear about the off-world colonies but we never see them. And we never see the replicants actually engaging in rebellion, two aspects which would have made the original stories a bit richer.

"A Separate Peace" Meets "Europa Europa": Thoroughly Engaging Film About Prejudice, 15 October 2017

We all have secrets, most often the concealing of a minor infraction. However, what if the secret concerns someone's identity or ethnicity among his or her peers? If the secret was revealed, would his opportunities be jeopardized? This is the plight David Green (Brendan Fraser in a fine performance) must face in "School Ties". In the 1950's, a prestigious college prep school, St. Matthews (modeled probably on Exeter Academy in New England) has been losing football games year after year, and the alumni is at their wits' ends. The alumni concoct an interesting strategy: put together a football scholarship and use it to compel an outstanding athlete to enroll in their school and improve their team.

They find a crack-jack quarterback from Scranton, Pennsylvania, David Green, and compel him to attend their school for his senior year of high school. However, there's one catch: Green is Jewish, and St. Matthews is a private Anglican school where students are required to attend Christian services. Green decides to conceal his Jewish heritage and "play" along by attending services and hiding a Star of David necklace. He makes friends, and as the new quarterback, the football team becomes a success.

However, Green's appearance at the school causes disruption in the tried-and-true storytelling device of "a stranger comes to town". He has knocked Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon in an outstanding supporting performance) out of the quarterback spot, and the latter will now play running back and blocker. Green becomes the star player. In one interesting scene, Dillon makes the crucial difference in a score but Green receives most of the credit. However, things continue to get worse for Dillon. His "girlfriend" Sally Wheeler (Amy Locane) begins to fall for Green at a school dance.

Dillon has only one trump card to play against Green to undermine the latter's meteoric rise to the heights of school super-stardom, potentially the turning point of the story. A thoroughly compelling film from beginning to fade out. The cast is excellent with many young actors who will become name talent in their own right: Fraser, Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris O'Donnell. And the story asks the question: will ethnic prejudice or individual character win the day?

If The Church of Scientology is so Benevolent and Caring Why Do They Act So Guilty?, 13 October 2017

If there's anything I gleaned from this film, it's that the people in the Church of Scientology seem to be anything but compassionate and open. Vindictiveness appears to be their modus operandi. The film is an improvised documentary in which spontaneous encounters demonstrate the twisted world of the Church of the Scientology. Even those among the Church of Latter Day Saints, i.e. the Mormons, were more magnanimous about the musical "The Book of Mormon". PBS did an exposé on the Mormons in which many Mormons and ex-Mormons were interviewed. To their credit they didn't seem to be frightened some skeletons would be unearthed from their closets, although they did draw the line in terms of allowing outsiders access to their ceremonies inside their temples. (They did offer some footage showing the inside of one temple without people.) By contrast, the Church of Scientology doesn't merely decline; they literally put up roadblocks in public areas near some of their facilities! They have continually rejected to participate in any kind of documentary about them. They won't give interviews, they dislike outsiders questioning their practices, and they seem most loath to let anyone research their history. If former members claim any kind of shortcoming or social infraction, large or small, they are labeled as liars and transgressors.

In one of their most telling responses to allegations of impropriety at the hands of David Miscavige, the Church's absolute ruler, the Church claimed that any such allegations "were extremely false." I didn't know there were gradations of falsifications! I thought something was true or untrue. Saying that such allegations were "extremely false" seems to me a red flag that something must be true. Of course they offer no explanation as to why someone who left the Church might make such accusations, except to call them all liars. Interestingly, so many of ex-Scientologists make the same accusations. It must be a conspiracy to threaten the survival of the Church. Of course, such accusations if proved true will threaten the survival of the Church! Is there an irony here?

The writer, producer and narrator, Louis Theroux solicits the help of Mark "Marty" Rathbun, a former inner-circle "cabinet" member whose job had been to protect the doctrine, essentially both from within and without. During the documentary, Rathburn claims he not only witnessed but participated in punishments upon members who had transgressed against either the Church itself or its leader David Miscavige. One of their main punishments was to humiliate "guilty" members in front of others. A bigger punishment was to send transgressors to "The Hole", a kind of Scientology detention center. He says he also engaged in harassment of outsiders whom Miscavige believed might undermine the Church's mission. Rathburn then found himself on the receiving end of such discipline and promptly left the Church. Members who leave the Church and criticize it are labeled PTS (Potential Trouble Sources) and SP (Suppressive Persons). As far as I could tell, Rathburn has been labeled both.

Aside from Rathburn, the really telling scenes are the confrontations between Theroux with people who refuse to identify themselves but are clearly acting under orders from the Church. During one such conflict, the filmmakers come to the outskirts of a Scientology outpost called "The Hole" where Rathburn and other ex-Scientologists claim punishments have been enacted. They don't enter private property but are simply on a public street near a sign which says "Road Closed". They are immediately confronted by Scientology "guards" who order them to disperse as if they have governmental authority. Theroux counters that they are on a public road, and they have a permit to film. A woman who confronts the filmmakers won't even look at the permit, but simply keeps reiterating they have must leave or face criminal consequences. It should be pointed out that no non-governmental civilian has the authority to arrest someone outright except in the event of a felonious crime, a.k.a. a citizen's arrest. Trespassing is not a felony, probably only a misdemeanor in California. If they were truly egregiously trespassing, they should have called the police, not confront the trespassers and threaten them with arrest.

During every confrontation, the Scientologists and gatekeepers won't engage in a discussion but either claim they are being trespassed upon or simply remain silent. Another former member explains that their behavior is to impress David Miscavige, an audience essentially of one. The other aspect of the documentary is auditioning actors to play key roles of the prominent members, primarily David Miscavige and Tom Cruise, probably the most famous Scientologist on the planet. In the irony of ironies, every confrontation scene just proved to me over and over again that the Church of Scientology is clearly guilty of the things of which they are being accused. It's like the person harboring illegal weapons in their house who refuse to let their house be searched without a warrant. My first thought is, what are they hiding and being so adamant about their secrecy?

For the Believer and Non-Believer Alike, JofN May Be Best Screen Adaption of a NT Gospel, 11 October 2017

Are the canonical Gospel accounts in the New Testament accurate as to the events of Jesus of Nazareth? The short answer is we'll never know since even among the actual gospel narratives, the first complete copies exist from the 2nd century, about 200 years after the death of Jesus. Since the Gospels were written in different times and places and in different languages, we have at best a murky view of the life and death of one of the most influential spiritual teachers of Late Antiquity: Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels each portray an account of Jesus, but are certainly not definitive depictions of Jesus' life. That aside, "Jesus of Nazareth", the television miniseries, is one of the best screen adaptions of the story which is not exactly the easiest subject to produce. My understanding is it is based largely on the "Gospel According to Matthew" and the "Gospel According to Luke" with some embellishments.

At the forefront is Robert Powell as Jesus, an excellent choice. Similar to the problems with Superman, Jesus is difficult to cast, and using a familiar actor might cause audiences not to see Jesus. The producers opted for an experienced but lesser-known actor, Powell. (Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were considered for the part, which in retrospect seem rather ridiculous choices.) Powell portrays Jesus whose other-worldly eyes are often looking to the Heavens, which fits in well with how Christians (Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) often view him. At the same time, the director, Franco Zeffirelli, wanted also to give Jesus a lot of humanity. (The "Gospel According to John" portrays Jesus much more ethereally and his execution seems less horrific than other Gospels.) Honorable mention goes to Olivia Hussey as Mary, Michael York as John the Baptist, and Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate. Other familiar actors have smaller parts in various roles.

Aside from the acting, the production brings us into the ancient world as few films do. While some aspects of Antiquity are to be certainly applauded, such as works of literature and science, the Roman government could be brutal. Scholars are fairly certain that Jesus' rhetoric was a challenge not only to the ruling establishment of Judaism but also of the Roman Empire. One of the best aspects is the depiction of Jerusalem which was a "mecca" for Jews who would come to the city during the Passover holiday. Tensions between Jews and the Roman authorities were ongoing and the film does well to show this tension.

One of the most accurate depictions, and certainly the most horrific, is the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. Crucifixion was primarily meant as a kind of terrifying advertisement to deter other potential wrong doers. Roman citizens might be spared crucifixion which was reserved for unruly slaves and servants, and rabble-rousers and traitors. While Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is not traitor, he is clearly a rabble-rouser, criticizing the Jewish authorities and the Roman Empire. (Jesus' statement, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" is probably a later fabrication by Gentile gospel writers.) The condemned person was typically scourged as a way to render them dazed and helpless, which most certainly happened to Jesus. Then he is made to bear the upright upon which he will be fastened at the execution area, called Golgotha. The scene is certainly heart-wrenching, but not as gruesome as some later productions. In short, the crucifixion scene is relatively tasteful as far as such a scene can be depicted.

Overall, Jesus of Nazareth is a must-see for the believer and non-believer alike for those who are interested in a cinematic retelling of the gospel narrative. Again, this is not a life of Jesus in the definitive sense but the retelling of a later account of Jesus. Did Jesus die by crucifixion? Probably. Did he rise from the dead? In this narrative he does, but resurrection is a religious belief not an historical reality. Did Pilate "wash his hands" of Jesus? Probably not. Pilate was notorious for crucifying anyone he suspected of rabble rousing during Passover. The Gospel narratives, at best, like this film, are an interplay of mythology and history.

A Simultaneously Sorrowful and Fascinating Account of the Darkest Three and a Half Years of United States History, 13 September 2017

According to Shelby Foote, southern historian and poet, prior to the American Civil (1861-1865), people used the 3rd-person plural to refer to the nation, i.e., "The United States are a great nation." After the war, the 3rd-person singular came into use for the nation: "The United States is a great nation." Of the many things which The Civil War accomplished, at the price of 2% of the young population, it changed the country from an "are" to an "is".

Ken Burns and Florentine Films with the raw but resonant narration of David McCullough has created quite possibly the greatest documentary on an American subject, chronicling the circumstances surrounding the transition from a nation with fairly autonomous states to a nation whose ideals are founded upon non negotiable principles of freedom. While those principles were not always upheld for about 100 years after the war and even beyond, at least the ideas of these principles are a driving force. The Civil War, as Foote says, was a "crosswords of our being".

"The Civil War" by Ken Burns is certainly a chronological portrayal of that crossroads largely through the scripted narration spoken by McCullough and the many period photographs which brings us back into America of the Mid-19th Century. In addition, Florentine Films accomplishes two important goals beyond "the facts" which boosts the experience into the stratosphere of American television. Firstly, much of the story is told through quotes by primary sources. Florentine uses the voices of many prominent actors and professional voices, such as Sam Waterston (voice of Abraham Lincoln), Morgan Freeman (voice of Frederick Douglass), George Black (Robert E. Lee), Jason Robards (Ulysses Grant), Julie Harris (Mary Chestnut), and Garrison Keillor (Walt Whitman and others). The journals of two soldiers, Sam Watkins (Confederate) and Elijah Hunt Rhoades (Union), are quoted from extensively to tell the story of the war from the ground level, making for a far more fascinating account than most textbooks.

Secondly, "The Civil War" has a rhetorical perspective. Barbara Fields offers the grander picture of the meaning of the war from a political-historian's evaluation. While Shelby Foote probably has the most screen time, the commentary by Fields is truly the crux of the film's hypothesis. Fields argues that the Civil War was a conflict in which guns, armies and artillery entered into the discussion of American slavery. Despite opinionated revisionists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries who want to paint the Civil War as simply a conflict of state's rights, Fields explains that the war was a conflict to resolve the issue of slavery which had been at odds with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had eloquently written that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In a quote by Lincoln, he adds to the end of the statement "except Negros." Fields' assessment in my humble opinion is the best interpretation of the true core of the Civil War. Other problems of states' rights could have been resolved, but the institution of slavery was irreconcilable with the founding principles of democratic governance. The United States had either to allow slavery to be a universally accepted institution, thereby destroying the very nature of the country's ideals, or abolish it altogether. A civil war occurred to decide in which direction the country would turn.

The series begins with the Abolitionist Movement of the 1830's whose galvanization began to frighten the American South. Since slavery became widespread, in large part due to the cotton gin, the South believed they needed to depend upon slavery to maintain their economic livelihood mainly through cotton production. The slavery issue is not idealized, and the first episode demonstrates the brutal and violent reality of slavery as a legal institution in the South, somewhat similar to its portrayal in the television miniseries "Roots" in the 1970's. Revisionists often desire to "minimize" the impact of slavery which led to hatred and distrust between the north and south and was clearly the cause of Southern Secession. Yes, some slaves and masters did sometimes have good relationships, but that doesn't justify the heinousness of slavery as a legal institution. Fearing their livelihoods will be torn by the anti-slavery North, seven southern states declared separation from the Union in 1861. The United States government then determines to quash the southern rebellion.

Balanced with Fields' interpretations are the stories of Shelby Foote, a fantastic storyteller who describes the personalities of the many figures in very human terms, particularly those of the Southern Confederacy. While Foote lacks the grander assessments of an historian like Fields, he makes up for it with his stories, many of which are quite humorous. "Why are you fighting this war?" a Union soldier asks a Confederate. "Because you're down here." He also paints a balanced view of the people of the Confederacy who are not the pure evil villains they are often portrayed as in text books. Simultaneously, he also assesses the weaknesses of some of the most revered figures, such as General Lee's order for Pickett's Charge on the last day of the Battle of Gettyburgh which was beyond a fiasco.

"The Civil War" is a triumph of documentary filmmaking. Every chosen episode is fascinating, such as when General Benjamin Butler's portrait appeared on the bottoms of chamber pots as southern retaliation when he occupied New Orleans. Others include quotes by Frederick Douglass whose rhetoric against slavery was only equaled by Martin Luther King, Jr., for civil rights 100 years later. "I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them." The "rebel yell" is described but probably not completely knowable. As someone once said, war brings out both the worst and the best in people.

Behind-the-Scenes of a Church Family Who Doesn't Always Practice What It Preaches, 7 September 2017

If you regularly attend church, you can receive spiritual healing, confess sins, and be in communion with God or at least perceive that this is happening. The clergy of the church facilitate your spiritual and religious needs and also acts as instructors, telling you, the congregants, what is right and wrong, sometimes claiming their advice is from Heaven. The clergy of the church, almost regardless of the denomination, is there to support the church members and potential converts. However, what about those people who play the role of the clergy? Who offers pastors, bishops and the like the spiritual guidance they may need? And what if the people performing those duties are in some ways compromising what they're telling others? Are they practicing what they're preaching?

"Greenleaf", a relatively new television/cable series, focuses on a predominantly African-American Protestant Church called The Calvary Fellowship. The grand Pooh-Bah is Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), the most inspirational figure of the church during services particularly with his resonant but kindly voice. However, behind the scenes, the bishop has many personal problems and even hints of flaws in character. His wife and "first lady" of the church is Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield) who is the unofficial matriarch. Although her husband runs the church, she runs the Greenleaf family so-to-speak. Most of the family are involved with church duties, helping out at services, conducting teaching programs (i.e. Sunday School) and even planning events. Because their church and congregation are very large, the family lives very well. Servants are constantly in attendance at the Greenleaf household. In other words, if you're a member of the Greenleaf family, you'll live in the upper middle-class, but the price you pay is you're going to be integral to the operations of the church. Else, you may have to get out of Dodge as did their wayward daughter, Grace.

The series begins when the Bishop's estranged daughter Grace Greenleaf decides to return to the family after 20 years of self-imposed exile. We learn that she had been a preacher for the church but decided to end her clerical life and live among secular culture. We also learn that James Greenleaf had designs for her daughter possibly to succeed him as the main voice of the church during services. She has returned to the family and to the church but at the beginning of the story she has no intention of standing at the pulpit and making grand religious-biblical pronouncements as she had 20 years earlier. Even before she's stepped back into their house, Lady Mae tells Grace "not to cause trouble for their family". Zing. We know this reunion of Grace with the Greenleaf family is going to cause trouble. Of course if there wasn't trouble, there wouldn't be a show!

At first Grace just agrees to answer phones at the church offices as the first voice heard by either church members or potential converts. When a grandmother enters her office asking that her granddaughter be baptized (without it seems permission of the mother or father), Grace decides to take the role she vowed she wouldn't play. She dons a white robe and performs the ceremony. This story may be about how Grace begins to rediscover and play the role she left 20 years earlier.

As the series unfolds, we learn there are many hypocrisies surrounding the Greenleaf family. Grace is not the only estranged family member. Mavis McCready (Oprah Winfrey) is an alcoholic lush and Lady Mae's estranged sister. She resides a ways away from the family, and they seem to disown her. Other skeletons lurk in the closet, some of whose bones begin to rattle. We learn about a child molestation case involving one of the parishoners which has been conveniently swept under the proverbial church carpets. Also, a senator is investigating churches and other faith-based entities who enjoy the privilege of not-for-profit status. The senator asks for their financial records, and after he has taken his leave, Bishop Greenleaf makes it clear he has no intention of revealing any church records. I am guessing this will have further implications in the future of the series.

A wonderful beginning to a masterful series. I think the main point of the story is that trying to juggle the problems of everyday life while maintaining a facade of "purity" may be too much for any family to accomplish. Consider the Bakkers of "Praise the Lord" who seemed wholesome until it was revealed they were engaging in fraudulent business practices. In the present series, we believe in the Greenleaf characters and their plights and their need to project an unstained veneer. The acting is outstanding, particularly David as the Bishop, Whitfield as the "first lady" and Dandridge as Grace. Honorable mention to Winfrey, playing against type as an alcoholic, the kind of character who might end up on Dr. Phil! While some of the situations might be perceived as melodramatic, other issues are dealt with, such as homosexuality, interracial sex, and even infidelity. For a family which is supposed to be holier than the congregation they serve, they seem to be digging some fairly large holes!

This Mockumentary-Rockumentary May Be Guest's Best Effort Poking Fun at Heavy Metal Rock Music Culture, 5 September 2017

"This is Spinal Tap" was Christopher Guest's first foray into so-called "mockumentary", a comedic genre in which satire and farce are presented in the form of a documentary film focusing on a fictional subject. One of the first of the genre was "Take the Money and Run" written, directed and starring Woody Allen. Spinal Tap is a fictional heavy metal rock band originating from Britain, a cross between "The Who", "Alice Cooper", "Black Sabbath", and "Def Leppard". The font used for the name on film posters and other media paraphernalia are similar to those used by many heavy metal bands popular during the late 1970's and 1980's, often of a neo-medieval/Gothic style. Rob Reiner, who directs, plays a fictional documentary/commercial filmmaker who presents a behind-the-scenes exposé of a rock band whose loudness and punctuality are of legendary status.

"This is Spinal Tap" pokes fun at some of the "rockumentaries" which were in vogue in the 1980's, giving audiences and fans glimpses into the behind-the-scenes world of famous rock bands. This mockumentary-rockumentary lampoons such documentaries such as VH1's "Behind the Music" with a satirical harpoon large enough to catch the likes of Ozzie Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Joe Elliot and a host of other heavy metal musicians in one swoop. Marty Di Bergi, the fictional documentary filmmaker played by Rob Reiner gives a short introduction to the film dedicated to the band he first saw at a place called "The Electric Banana" in Greenwich Village during the 1960's, which, he explains doesn't exist any more. (If he didn't say that, you know some heavy metal groupies would be looking for it.) The film is a series of bits including interviews with groupies, fans, promoters, producers, and of course the band members. On-stage chicanery and behind-the-scenes mayhem become the cornerstone from which "This is Spinal Tap" emerges. Christopher Guest plays the lead guitarist Nigel "Tuffy" Tufnel, a Birmingham, England bloke with a heavy working-class cockney accent sporting a hairstyle like late Beatles and The Who. His character is a cross between Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and the late Randy Rhoades of Ozzy. David St. Hubbins played by Michael McKean, is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of the band. His character seems to be based on David Lee Roth when he was lead singer for Van Halen and Steve Clark, rhythm guitarist of Def Leppard. A short clip of the band's "early years" in black and white out-of-focus video with the band in bland suits and jackets with the trademark elevated drummer sets the stage for much of the silliness which follows. Only two bands which continued from the 1960's and into the 1980's which could have looked like that and play the kind of heavy metal in vogue in the 1980's would be The Who and maybe The Rolling Stones. The bands they lampoon largely came into existence during the 1970's.

Many of the bits are actually not as over-the-top as you might believe because of the chaos which haunts heavy metal musicians, both in terms of off-stage buffoonery and on-stage antics. In one memorable bit, the band is singing their newly-composed hit "Stonehenge" and a replica of one of the stones is lowered onstage--but it's not quite as dramatic as it should be! Another is when Guest shows Reiner his collection of guitars and amps. All amps in the industry go up to a maximum of 10 in terms of volume, but Spinal Tap's amps go up to 11! "That's '1' louder!" proclaims Guest.

If you know anything about the heavy metal and pop music scene and would like a no-holds-barred satire about that Alice-in-Wonderland world, this is definitely for you. By the mid-to-late 1970's heavy metal rock bands, spear-headed by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath garnered huge followings in Europe and North America. They became so-called "super-groups" and were the voices of late Boomers and early Generation X'ers who enjoyed wearing black and other non-conformist clothing, riding motorcycles and taking recreational drugs. They were in a sense the next evolution in rebellious youth making the hippies of a half-generation earlier seem tame by comparison. "This is Spinal Tap" pokes fun at this world but not in a disparaging way. However, if you believe these people should be placed on pedestals and worshipped like Gods, "This is Spinal Tap" might bring you up from your knees. In a real-life story, Ozzy Osbourne was once asked about his house burning down. He replied he wanted to know if beer was flammable! And yes it is! This could have been a scene in "This is Spinal Tap" but actually it wasn't!

Outbreak (1995)
Relatively Enjoyable Disaster Film with Good Performances But a Few Predictable Moments, 4 September 2017

Hollywood does have issues about making films like "Outbreak". While the opening scenes to establish the premise are generally good, sometimes endings become a bit too predictable where the heroes put the baddies in their place. A few moments in the last third of the film also become a bit unbelievable especially in terms of how information is tracked and interpreted by the US government. Still overall, I would still rank it as one of the better films of its type.

In the late 1960's, an outbreak of a terrible virus which turns innards into cream of wheat infects native villagers along with some American soldiers in Zaire, currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the middle of Africa. American officials who work for the Center for Disease Control assess the situation. One of the voices in the suits is Donald Sutherland, playing Major General Donald "Donnie" McClintock. To contain the village and prevent further spread, the US government deploys an extreme method to suppress the virus.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990's. Again in Zaire, another village has also been wiped out by a virus, strangely similar to the one 30 years earlier. Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), Lieutenant Colonel Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey) and Major Salt (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) investigate what General McClintock saw there decades ago. There are no survivors except some children. During the investigation, Salt practically loses his lunch. After they leave, a small monkey is shown being captured by a trapper on the outskirts of the village. It looks like either a rhesus Old World monkey or a white-headed capuchin, a New World monkey. Neither are indigenous to Africa, but we run with it. (Rhesus monkeys reside in Asia, and white-headed capuchins reside in Central and South America.)

Back in the good old US, we had learned in an earlier somewhat melodramatic scene that Daniels had been married to one of his colleagues at the Center for Disease Control, Roberta "Robby" Keough (Rene Russo), before the recent misadventure in the Congo. Daniels desires to further investigate the virus, which appears to be unknown. However, he is stopped by his supervisor Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) seemingly for illogical reasons. Turns out, Ford and McClintock made a pact to keep the knowledge about the virus and the government's "solution" a secret since the 1960's. Daniels looking into the matter might blow their cover.

On another front, the monkey ends up in a facility in San Jose, CA, via an international trading ship. A young man "Jimbo" (Patrick Dempsey) bribes some security guards to take the monkey to a pet shop. He delivers the goods, but the shop owner is disappointed: he needed a male, not a female. Jimbo decides to let the monkey go in the redwoods somewhere between San Jose and San Francisco. He then flies back to Boston, and on the flight he becomes ill and nearly infects a younger passenger. In less than two days, Jimbo, his girlfriend, the pet shop owner and members of the town of Cedar Creek, CA, are infected with the virus.

Robby learns of the epidemic and quickly flies from D.C. to Boston to examine the victims. It rings strangely of the virus Daniels had been researching. A growing epidemic is occurring in the small California town, apparently a carrier had infected people at the local movie theatre. Now the epidemic is growing, and the government quarantines the whole town. All the while, Ford and McClintock are trying to engage in damage control to prevent the others higher-ups in the US government, and ultimately the press and the public from finding out about what happened in Zaire in the 1960's.

The strongest elements of the film are the behind-the-politics about the decision-making concerning the response to the virus. This aspect carries much of the film and makes it more interesting than a straight action-disaster film, somewhat similar to Jaws in which the mayor continually fights the head of police concerning the appropriate response. The ending was a little bit weak in terms of how the good guys finally stop the baddies, meaning the people, not the virus. I think I would have liked to have seen more of a conclusion about the original events in the 1960's as a way to wrap up the story.

Generally, a good popcorn film. Kevin Spacey, as usual, delivers a fantastic performance as one of the researchers in the Center for Disease Control. Dustin Hoffman is good as the intelligent but somewhat hot-headed higher-up researcher as is Russo's performance as the more level-headed of the two. We get pieces of their backstory which sort of works. Freeman and Sutherland deliver strong supporting performances as the behind-the-scenes amoral officers bent on keeping the full truth under wraps. Maybe a one-watch, but considering how many marginal films are made every year, it's a decent one-watch.

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