MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Middle School, Operation Avalanche, Blair Witch, Red Skelton and more

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life
Among the many doors opened to adolescents by the movies of the late, great John Hughes was the one that led to an awareness of hypocrisy among their parents, teachers and the institutions they were brought up to trust. Separating the lies that protected kids from the ugly truths of life, from the ones invented to make adults feel better about themselves, could be a full-time job. The question: Why? The answer: Because I said so. As if having to deal with acne weren’t sufficient cause for anxiety, the teenagers in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink were required to make sense of the first stirrings of sexual maturity and a sudden deep-seated desire to break away from the pack. A driver’s license afforded such freedom, but what about kids two or three years short of that goal? What they didn’t understand was how tortuous puberty could be on their parents, who wanted desperately to connect with their children, and teachers expected to handle problems they brought to school with them every day. With a few notable exceptions, authority figures – dads and principals, especially – continue to be portrayed as clueless buffoons, at best, and, worse, dangerously inept. Thank goodness for grandparents.

Where I grew up, kids were only required to make the transition from grade school to high school. Since then, however, they’ve been required to repeat the hellish procedure twice. Whoever thought middle schools were a good idea, probably also saw purgatory as a place only slightly less pleasant than heaven. The title, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, pretty much sums up the feeling most kids have about the period when they’re forced to come into direct contact with boys and girls their age, but not necessarily from the same neighborhoods or social, ethnic and financial conditions. In Hughes’ movies, it’s possible for characters from disparate backgrounds to conclude – occasionally under duress – that opposites not only can attract, but reveal an entirely new world of possibilities. Then, when high school beckons, the cycle begins anew. If nothing else, it’s good practice for, college, the military, work and in-laws. In 1984, when Sixteen Candles was released, kids of middle-school age were drastically underrepresented in the media. Today, of course, they can’t be avoided, especially on cable television networks dedicated to the ’tween demographic. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, Steve Carr’s theatrical follow-up to the inexplicable box-office hit, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, is based on a series of YP novels co-authored by the freakishly prolific James Patterson (“Kiss the Girls”) and Chris Tebbets.

Although the screenplay takes several liberties with the story laid out in the book, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life focuses on displaced sixth-grader Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) – any resemblance to Yossarian, in “Catch-22”? – who works out his frustrations in a highly personal sketchbook. After principal Ken Dwight (Andy Daly) is alerted to it by the class bully, the comically villainous bureaucrat takes offense at the irreverent illustrations and references to his overly strict Code of Conduct and obsession with standardized tests. He not only destroys it, but exiles Rafe to the remedial class. Fellow bad apples Leo (Thomas Barbusca) and Jeanne (Isabela Moner) agree to exact revenge on Dwight through a series of outrageous pranks that younger viewers should enjoy immensely. The principal uses the pranks as an excuse to expel students whose test scores could hurt the school’s performance and spoil his chances for a promotion. He also makes the mistake of firing the only teacher (Adam Pally) who willingly stands up for the students. Meanwhile, at home, Rafe’s behavior prompts his mother (Lauren Graham) to seriously consider a suggestion made by her boorish fiancé (Rob Riggle) that he be sent to military school. Co-conspirators include Rafe’s precocious sister (Alexa Nisenson) and the school’s disgruntled janitor (Efren Ramirez). If Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life won’t make anyone forget Hughes’ contributions to the teen-movie genre, neither should its PG rating cause kids to dismiss it out of hand. Special Features include deleted scenes, a gag reel, a “Wedgie Wheel” and making-of shorts.

Operation Avalanche
Along with the many conspiracies surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, the ones involving the moon landing remain nearly as tantalizing today as when the rumors first caught fire four decades ago. It’s possible that fewer people now believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination than when the Warren Commission came to that conclusion less than a year after the terrible event. I’ve never doubted the lunar landing, but plenty of other people remain suspicious. In the last 12 months, alone, two new movies have been released, questioning the possibility that the CIA collaborated with Stanley Kubrick to stage a reasonable facsimile of the Apollo 11 landing and moonwalk. The working principle behind Antoine Bardou-Jacquet’s Moonwalkers and Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche – as it was in Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (2012) and William Karel’s Dark Side of the Moon (2002) – posits that Kubrick was either directly or inadvertently involved in the CIA conspiracy. (Peter Hyams’ 1977 Capricorn One was based on a faked landing on Mars.) The grain-of-truth in all such conspiracy theories can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was being produced in England at the same time as our astronauts were preparing for their historic mission. With JFK’s promise of landing an American on the moon by the end of the decade ringing in their ears, government authorities knew that a failure could cost us political and scientific cachet at the height of the cold war. If putting a space capsule into lunar orbit was a given, the ability to safely land and recover the astronauts was anything but guaranteed.

Theoretically, Kubrick’s use of cutting-edge front-projection technology on “2001” provided the basis for a backup plan. In Operation Avalanche, a team of nerdy undercover CIA agents is sent to NASA headquarters, posing as a documentary film crew. Two of the them had already infiltrated Shepperton Studios, fruitlessly investigating the possibility that Kubrick was using stolen NASA technology on “2001.” The agents then were called upon to find a suspected Soviet mole within the NASA program. Their cover allowed them plenty of access within NASA. It leads to the agents using what they learned at Shepperton to create a film that could replicated the actual landing. It was accomplished with repurposed equipment, the advice of mineralogists and archival newsreel footage. Thinking they were being interviewed for the documentary, NASA employees happily contributed their knowledge to the ruse. Now, if disaster struck, the faked landing could be seamlessly substituted for the video feed emanating from the capsule. JFK’s legacy could be preserved and heightened secrecy protocols would buy time for the next mission. Johnson (The Dirties) maintains a credibly period feel, while also injecting a large dollop of darkly ironic Cold War humor into the mix. Operation Avalanche, which couldn’t have cost much to make, benefits from not having to create anything Kubrick hadn’t already come up with a half-century earlier.

Blair Witch: Blu-ray
Has it really been 20 years since a trio of film students vanished into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest, while researching the legend of the Blair Witch for a documentary? For critics who’ve since been required to sift through 20 years’ worth of found-footage flicks, prompted by the stunning response to The Blair Witch Project, the filmmakers’ blessing became their curse.  decades have sometimes felt like an eternity. Though a handful of wannabes have come close, none has quite been able to replicate the movie’s success, which benefitted from an amazing backstory. While it’s true that the original was shot in eight days, on 16mm film, with a cast and crew dominated by first-timers, it would be a stretch to continue to maintain that it only cost between $20-25 million to make. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez acknowledge that Artisan Entertainment, which acquired the movie rights for $1.1 million, invested somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 into the completed product, while also spending an additional $25 million to market it. With a worldwide box-office take of almost $250 million – not counting video and other ancillary revenues — The Blair Witch Project set a new standard for returns on an investment. Myrick and Sanchez made the process look so easy that dozens of other filmmakers would spend the next two decades trying to replicate (or parody) their success. Technically speaking, the found-footage subgenre was launched in 1980, by Ruggero Deodato’s exploitation classic, Cannibal Holocaust. It was deemed to be too extreme for general consumption, however. The Paranormal Activity, REC, VHS and Cloverfield franchises have their admirers, but none raised the bar on the scares-per-dollars-spent ratio set by The Blair Witch Project. The ill-advised, if inevitable sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, recorded a still-not-bad $47.7-million gross worldwide, discouraging the rights-holders to attempt a third chapter until five years ago. That was when frequent collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (The Guest, You’re Next) began planning Blair Witch for Lionsgate. It owes far more to the original than the sequel and is scarier than 90 percent of all other found-footage films.

Made on a frugal $5-million budget, Blair Witch may have made some money in its theatrical release, but marketing costs almost certainly made it a close call. I suspect that most diehard fans of The Blair Witch Project resisted the lure of having their hearts broken again, by choosing, instead, to wait for the DVD/Blu-ray release. Many will be pleasantly surprised by it. Cleaner, glossier and somewhat less shaky, Blair Witch extends the story 20 years, with the discovery of another video tape, this one purporting to contain a fleeting glimpse of the vanished videographer, Heather. For her much younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), this is all the evidence he needs to round up a posse of otherwise unoccupied Burkittsville youths – B.C. for Maryland, to keep under the radar — to spend a night or two in the forest chasing bogeymen. This time around, though, the young men and women James recruits are armed with tiny ear-mounted cameras, so as not to miss a single sighting or clue. (Had they deployed motion-sensitive cameras around the perimeter of their campsite, instead, they might have been able to capture images of whoever was hanging stick figures from the limbs of nearby trees.)  There’s no reason to spoil any more surprises, except to point out that the film’s climax benefits from an elaborately reconstructed “haunted house,” designed by Thomas S. Hammock. The Blu-ray adds Wingard and Barrett’s commentary; the exhaustive making-of featurette, “Neverending Night: The Making of Blair Witch,” which, at 106 minutes, is longer than either version of the movie; and “House of Horrors: Exploring the Set,” a 16-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the “haunted house.”

Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia
I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess as to why so many newly made Chinese movies are direct re-makes or re-interpretations of films that were released less than 20 years ago or are in their third, fourth or fifth iterations. The story of legendary martial-arts teacher Ip Man, for example, has been told and re-told a dozen times since 2008. Before that, his role in contemporary Chinese history was limited to being Bruce Lee’s mentor, in two films and a TV series, including Oscar-nominee, The Grandmaster. It’s possible that every new advance in production and exhibition technology is sufficiently great to encourage filmmakers to remake their hits, which, in turn, can be exported to action-crazy audiences overseas. Stringent content guidelines give Chinese films – like those from Bollywood — a leg up in countries where government censors limit or forbid gratuitous displays of nudity, sex and violence. Since 2003, the year China expanded its market to foreign exhibitors, the growth of China’s movie business has been so rapid, it’s even captured the attention of ever-watchful Communist Party authorities, who now are demanding their share of the windfall. That year, for example, the country’s box-office revenue totaled just $121 million, less than some films make here in a week. By 2015, box office revenue had grown to more than $7 billion. So, maybe, the decision to re-imagine the 1998 spy-vs.-spy thriller, Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?, as Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia (a.k.a., “Who Am I 2015”) was based more on economic opportunity than any creative mandate.

The original might very well have been inspired by Robert Ludlam’s most enduring protagonist, Jason Bourne, in that Chan plays a commando on a mission so secret that the CIA orders him killed after it’s completed. After falling from a sabotaged helicopter, the mercenary suffers a blow that induces amnesia, leaving him unable to comprehend who he is and why he’s been chased. When his rescuers ask, “Who are you?,” he answers, “Who am I?,” which they translate as Whoami. In “Amnesia,” which isn’t about amnesia, at all, Ken Lo (Kill Zone 2) plays a bicycle courier who develops prosopagnosia (face blindness) after witnessing a murder and being pushed off a bridge by gangsters. He narrowly escapes death, but is left unable to recognize his pursuers, even if they were standing next to him. Neither does he know what’s in the parcel he was handed by the slain businessmen. He steals a car to escape the cops and thugs chasing him, stopping only once to pick up a comically sassy hitchhiker (Xingtong Lao), who almost simultaneously helps and hinders the courier. The charisma-challenged Lo and rising star Zhang Lanxin (Chinese Zodiac) handle most of the fighting, of which there’s far too little.

Projections of America
It’s surprising how little we Americans know about World War II, beyond Pearl Harbor, D-Day, a few key battles and horrors of the Holocaust. The information the government chose to share with our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — before, during and after the war — was scripted as if it were a Hollywood melodrama, with clearly drawn heroes, villains, leaders, followers, survivors and victims. (FDR might as well have declared, “You can’t handle the truth.”) Peter Miller’s illuminating documentary, Projections of America, describes an ambitious wartime project designed to serve much the same purpose as the far better known Why We Fight series of short films. Led by Frank Capra, Why We Fight was comprised of seven propaganda films commissioned by the United States government to justify to American soldiers their involvement in the conflicts overseas and to persuade the American public to oppose isolationism. They also would chronicle the Allies’ progress in defeating the Axis war machine. They’re still being shown in history classes and film studies. So little is known about the Projections of America series, commissioned by the United States Office of War Information, that its existence doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia page of its own. That’s the 2017 definition of obscurity. Led by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night), best known for his collaborations with Capra, the filmmakers and photographers in the OWI’s overseas branch produced 26 short documentaries to be shown in areas recently liberated by the Allies. Apparently, Nazi/Vichy-produced propaganda did a pretty good job convincing Europeans that the United States didn’t always practice what it preached and should viewed as just another invasion force, seeking land and riches. Anti-American propaganda accentuated union-busting efforts, legally sanctioned segregation, police thuggery and the disparity of economic opportunity, as portrayed in Hollywood movies of the 1930s. (Why are all of the characters wearing tuxes and gowns, while laid-off workers can’t feed their families?) The films in the Projections of America series would paint a far rosier picture of America than Joseph Goebbels’ propagandists.

The first featurette, “Swedes in America,” was hosted by Ingrid Bergman. After the fall of Mussolini, Italians were presented with a film from this series featuring conductor Arturo Toscanini, who fled fascist Italy for the U.S. It featured a performance of Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations,” updated to include the national anthems of the U.S. and Soviet Union. Irving Lerner and Joseph Krumgold’s “The Autobiography of a Jeep” adopts the point of view of one of the groundbreaking military vehicles, which had been designed specifically to handle rough terrain, shallow rivers and towing artillery. Other films blatantly exaggerated the American idyll, by showing happy negroes strumming guitars and dancing; visually charismatic cowboys and healthy cattle, grazing in lush meadows far from the god-forsaken reservations set aside for Native Americans; by overlooking internment camps for Japanese-Americans (that propaganda was reserved for folks on the home front); and showing factories operating at working at full-steam, only a few years after police and thugs hired by the owners joined hands to terrorize union organizers and weary strikers. Even so, Republican politicians argued that filmmakers’ vision of a pluralistic, democratic, multi-ethnic America was far too idealistic, if not downright socialistic, and demanded that more attention be paid to the radicals perpetrating such silly notions. The resultant scrutiny anticipated HUAC hearings to come, red-baiting and the blacklisting of some of the same people who produced propaganda in the name of democracy and the American way. The DVD adds a Q&A with Miller, cinematographer Antonio Rossi and editor Amy Linton. John Lithgow does his usual fine job narrating the doc.

CBS: The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: Ludo Lefebvre: Season 5
PBS: USO–For the Troops
PBS: American Masters: Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future
Color television has been an essential part of most people’s lives for the last 50 years, at least. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine why CBS, one of the early pioneers of the format, literally pulled the plug on its early “colorcasts” and, from 1960 to 1965, broadcast almost exclusively in black-and-white. Red Skelton, an advocate for color throughout the 1950s, was able to air some 100 episodes in color before CBS ended its investment in television manufacturing and went gray. The episodes included in the three-disc collection, “The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons,” have been culled from previously released 11- and 22-disc sets in the Time Life/WEA catalogue. Priced in the neighborhood of $20-25, the general release is far more affordable than the mega-collections, which include more bells and whistles in the mix. Otherwise, the new package offers 550 minutes of vintage entertainment – in living color, if you will — featuring such stars as John Wayne, Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller, Mickey Rooney, Tim Conway, Martha Raye, George Gobel and Vincent Price and Red’s trademark characters Clem Kaddidlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, George Appleby and seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliff. The abridged package also includes interviews with Bobby Rydell and Vicki Lawrence. Skelton’s schmaltzy persona probably wouldn’t pass muster today, but, back in the day, he was among the most beloved performers in any medium. Each show allowed for an opening monologue; a musical interlude, with A-list guests, the David Rose orchestra and a dance troupe; and a series of comic sketches, in which the guests interacted with Red’s characters. The casual approach to the scripted bits frequently allowed for the actors to interrupt themselves with laughter. “The Red Skelton Hour” would fall victim to CBS’ infamous youth movement, during which shows that appealed to Middle America were jettisoned for those with more advertiser-friendly demographics. Skelton briefly sought refuge at NBC, but, by then, his ship had already sailed.

Once again, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” demonstrates just how little we know about the world beneath our feet. “Graveyard of the Giant Beasts” takes us to an open-pit mine in Colombia, where revelations beyond the imagination of any Hollywood screenwriter have changed what we know about the period after the dinosaurs disappeared and recovery from the horrific meteor blast began. Somehow, cold-blooded crocodilians and snakes survived the disastrous changes in climate and flourished when things returned to normal. With fewer natural predators hunting for food in and around the swamps, the inhabitants could continue growing so long as nature allowed. Fossils found in the mining operation suggest that competition for prey and open water caused gigantic crocodiles and snakes to feed off each other. Among the discoveries shown in the documentary is a fossil of a 43-foot-Titanoboa snake whose death may have been caused by a crocodilian that proved to be too large to fully digest. The scientists also study the ability of such creatures to crush their prey with a single bite or sudden constrictive attack. Even 58 million years removed from the fossilized event, the re-creations are terrifying.

The fifth season of PBS’s tantalizing “The Mind of a Chef” serves as the perfect complement to Laura Gabbert’s similarly mouth-watering documentary, City of Gold. In the first two episodes, renowned chef Ludo Lefebvre shares his love of contemporary Los Angeles cuisine, sometimes in the company of critic Gold, looking as if they just left a pickup basketball game, down the street. Other episodes explore Lefebvre’s French roots and how they inspired his ability to become a star in today’s food-obsessed world. His visits to French bistros and the kitchens of his mentors clearly demonstrate what make the country’s cuisine different than all others, as well as the importance fresh, seasonal ingredients.

For nearly 50 years, the USO was synonymous with Bob Hope, who, as a comedian and showman, brought a taste of home to American military personnel  stationed in every far-flung corner of the world. The shows were extensions of Hope’s vaudevillian roots, featuring singers, dancers, variety acts, a full orchestra, celebrities and beautiful women representing Hollywood, Las Vegas, Broadway and Atlantic City. PBS’s “USO–For the Troops” reminds us that Hope’s annual television specials represented the tip of the USO iceberg. It takes viewers behind the scenes and inside the work the USO performs, year in and year out, to lift the spirits of American service personnel and strengthen the ties that connect them to their families, their homes and our nation. We learn that President Truman deactivated the USO after World War II, but ordered its return for the Korean War. It’s remained a permanent fixture ever since then. It also reveals how the organization dealt with segregation in World War II and the protests surrounding the Vietnam War, at home and in Southeast Asia.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future,” re-introduces the acclaimed Finnish-American architect to viewers who, no doubt, have seen and admired his work, without knowing his name. His visionary buildings include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, General Motors Technical Center, New York’s TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Yale University’s Ingalls Rink and Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Virginia’s Dulles Airport and modernist pedestal furniture, such as the Tulip chair. The producers accompany his son, as he showcases the architect’s body of “neofuturistic” work, which exploded the constraints of the past to create a robust and daring American aesthetic.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon