Review, Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak

By John Ruberry

“While we can’t predict where the next influenza pandemic is going to come from,” Dennis Carroll, the director of the emerging threats unit of US Agency for International Development, says in the third episode of the new six episode Netflix documentary series Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, “there are certain places that you want to pay particular attention to–and China is one of those, that’s the place where we’ve seen the emergence of virtually all of the deadly influenza viruses over the last half-century.”

Carroll says this while images of a Vietnamese wet market, where live chickens are sold and slaughtered, are shown.

“We know that viruses move from wildlife into livestock into people,” he says early in that same episode.

I’m writing this from home in Illinois, where I am living under Governor JB Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order because of the COVID-19 coronoavirus outbreak. While the origin of this disease is still being debated it is likely, according to experts, that it did first infect humans at a wet market.

I saw Pandemic last week on my Netflix welcome screen and at first I looked away and said to myself, “If I want to know about pandemics I can switch on the local news–or cable news.” And I was concerned that this was, to use the legendary chant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a “bring out your dead” series. And it starts that way, with Carroll, at a mass grave in western Pennsylvania, one that is marked by a single crucifix. The site contains the remains of victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Yes, not only can it happen here–but it has happened here.

And the “not-if-but-when” pandemic has arrived, only it’s coronavirus instead of influenza.

The focus of Pandemic is on the scientists, the aid workers, and the doctors on the front lines of disease prevention and cures. People like Jake Glanville and Sarah Ives, the scientists who are working with pigs in Guatemala to develop an all-strains flu virus, as well as Dr. Dinesh Vijay, who treats flu patients at a crowded hospital in Jaipur, India. But disease isn’t just an urban phenomenon. In Pandemic, we meet Holly Goracke, the sole doctor at tiny Jefferson County Hospital in rural Oklahoma, who works 72-hour shifts. And we also become acquainted with Dr.Syra Madad, the director of the special pathogens program of New York City Health and Hospitals.

Along the way we are introduced to anti-vaccination activists in Oregon, health care workers at an Arizona border detention center, and World Health Organization disease fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who not only face the risk of contracting the extremely deadly Ebola virus, but also getting murdered by gangs.

Surprisingly, religion is viewed favorably in this scientific docuseries. Madad, Goracke, and Vijay all rely on faith to strengthen them as they battle disease.

Not surprisingly there are a few knocks in Pandemic over lack of funding from the Trump administration. Including from Madad. But she’s not infallible. In January, in a CNBC interview shortly after the debut of Pandemic, Madad praised China’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, although she did parse her statement with, “It’s too early to tell.” I wager she’d like to take that praise back.

If you are suffering from anxiety over coronavirus, you may want to stay away from Pandemic. The same goes if you are an anti-vaxxer–you’ll just get POd. Also, I suggest if you decide to view Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak then take it in just one episode at a time. At times the series is emotionally exhausting.

Pandemic is rated TV-14, Netflix says, because of foul language and smoking. And there are some disturbing scenes.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: Season One of Ragnarok

By John Ruberry

“The whole world groaned beneath them. A storm, the likes of of which had never been seen, scorched the sky. Ragnarök was upon them, the twilight of the gods.” Nicholas Day, in the Netflix series Myths and Monsters.

Many religions have an end-time narrative, including the ancient Norse faith. If you are familiar with the movie Thor: Ragnorok, then you know that Ragnarök encompasses total destruction, only there are no space ships and no Incredible Hulk in those old tales.

A few weeks ago the Norwegian six-episode series Ragnarok began streaming on Netflix. On the surface it’s a teen angst drama. After many years away, teens Magne (David Stakston), Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli), and their mother, Turid (Henriette Steenstrup), return to the small industrial town, Edda, that is adjacent to a fjord. By the way, “Edda” is the term scholars have given to the medieval collections of Norse mythology, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.

As the family arrives in Edda, an old man riding a motorized scooter blocks their car as it stalls. Magne gets out and asks him, “Do you need help?” The old man oddly replies, “Do you know what a strange town this is?” Magne gets the scooter running and then the old man’s wife, who operates the local grocery, smiles at him and then tells Magne, “You’re a good kid” as she touches his forehead. Magne’s hazel eyes then flash with lightning. Magne’s hero journey has started.

Edda is indeed a strange town. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, the economic engine of the town Jutul Industries, owned by Jutuls, the fifth-richest family in Norway. Its factory sits right next to the fjord. If it is ever said what Jutul produces, other than toxins that end up in the drinking water, I missed it. Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) is the patriarch and he runs the factory, his wife, Ran (Synnøve Macody Lund), is the principal of the high school Laurits and Magne attend. Their children are Saxa (Theresa Frostad Eggesbø) and Fjor (Herman Tømmeraas). They are all beautiful. Seemingly perfect. Too perfect because the are really jötunn, giants in Norse mythology, the enemies of the gods. And Saxa and Fjor aren’t really children.

Magne learns after his encounter with the grocer that he can run very fast, he has superhuman strength, he can speak Old Norse, and tellingly, he can throw a sledgehammer–Thor’s weapon was a hammer–an enormous distance. And Magne no longer needs his eyeglasses.

Like the young Clark Kent in Man of Steel, Magne has trouble fitting in with other kids, His only friend is Isolde (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin), another social misfit who is the school’s biggest green advocate. And there is plenty for Isolde to investigate in Edda.

Laurits, who is a bit of a prankster, has better luck working his way up the high school social ladder, which is of course dominated by the student Jutuls, and Ragnarok contains quite a bit of the distress that you find in most television shows centered on teenagers. Meanwhile Magne’s powers, which he barely comprehends, draw the attention of the entire Jutul family.

And Magne and Fjor fall for the same girl, Gry (Emma Bones).

Ragnarok was filmed in Norwegian, it is dubbed in English for Netflix, although the trailer posted here is in Norwegian with English subtitles.

The coronovirus pandemic will sadly find many people with lots of free time on their hands. Watching Ragnarok is a worthy way to fill that void. Although I’m still working, for now, and I viewed the series last week.

Netflix has already approved a second season.

Ragnarok is rated TV-MA. It contains brief nudity, violence, foul language, teen alcohol consumption, and sexual situations.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review of the Netflix series Thieves of the Wood

By John Ruberry

Are you missing some Robin Hood in your life? If you are a Netflix subscriber and you can stomach graphic violence, including torture, as well as gratuitous nudity, then you may want to take a look at the ten-episode Belgian series Thieves of the Wood, which began streaming earlier this month.

And you must be patient. Thieves of the Wood moves slowly, and if you don’t know about Jan de Lichte or Flanders of the 18th century, as I didn’t until a few days ago, you might get lost.

After watching the first episode I was indeed lost. So I got on my iPad where I learned that Jan de Lichte was a real person, a highway man, who of course robbed from the rich. After all, stealing from the poor is never very profitable. At the beginning of that first episode, de Lichte (Matteo Simoni) is being dragged on a sandy trail by mounted Austrian troops, he’s accused of murder and desertion. Now is the time to bring some historical perspective. Most of contemporary Flanders, a Dutch speaking region, lies in Belgium. But in the 1740s this region was then part of Austria although it was occupied by France. Historians call this conflict the War of Austrian Succession.

De Lichte escapes. He returns to his hometown of Aalst, which is run by corrupt Flemish aristocrats, led by Mayor Coffijn (Dirk Roofthooft). Just as de Lichte arrives in Aalst, so does the new bailiff, that is the chief of police, Jean-Phillipe Baru (Tom Van Dyck). Both learn that punishment is harsh in Aalst. Baru is horrified when he learns that a man and a woman are about to be flogged for the crime of stealing two rabbits from Coffijn’s estate, then branded–while their children watch. Now paperless, they are exiled from the city to live in a nearby forest.

Those woods are not the Nottingham Forest of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. The refuge is overrun by abject poverty, disease, prostitution, and opium smoking. De Lichte, aided by his half-brother Tincke (Stef Aerts), organize the downtrodden to fight back against the oppression, although it’s not until the fourth episode–I did say that Thieves of the Wood requires patience–that their plans bear fruit.

The loot is shared. Everyone wins in the forest. While Coffijn seethes

The scriptwriters are clearly hostile to the Catholic church. There is no Friar Tuck in this forest, in the town presides an imperious priest, Picke. He reminded me of the cruel Lutheran bishop in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. 

As the series played out to me I fully expected a Donald Trump reference or two, especially since America comes up in the dialogue a couple of times. Then it hit me. Two of the town council members, including Mayor Coffijn, wear orange, or I should of course say red, periwigs. Perhaps that’s only a coincidence. Perhaps not. 

Some of the good: The costumes of Thieves of the Wood, including those wigs, are first-rate and the cinematography is superb. 

And now some of the bad: There are no subtitles, the Dutch dialogue instead is dubbed by British actors. The American entertainment industry suffers from the false premise that we won’t watch subtitled offerings. But last night I saw the Korean film Parasite, which is subtitled. Not only is Parasite an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture (and Best International Feature Film), but it is also performing very well in the domestic box office. Deservedly so, I’d like to add. 

Thieves of the Wood is rated TV-MA for reasons I listed above. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: The Two Popes

By John Ruberry

“I’m not familiar with this part of the garden,” Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) tells Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) as they enter an area overrun by brush and deadwood in The Two Popes. Benedict then asks the Argentinian, “Which way?”

That garden, at the Vatican’s Palace of Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome, could rightly be called Benedict’s garden, as he was the Pope. Yet Benedict asks the man who ends up as his successor, Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis in 2013, for direction. Oops, I mean directions.

Clearly the scriptwriters and the director of The Two Popes favor the liberal leadership under Francis–the garden scene neatly ties up that sentiment in a bow.

Later, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio decries inequality, repeated images of ugly walls are shown.

The Two Popes is largely fictionalized story centered on the theological divide between the 265th and the 266th pontiffs. After a limited theatrical release, including a showing at the Chicago International Film Festival, which was sold out, preventing Mrs. Marathon Pundit from seeing it, the film debuted Friday on Netflix. The Two Popes is worth seeing, whether you are a Catholic or not, or a believer or not. The Welshmen in the lead roles, Hopkins and Pryce, provide superb performances. Of course Hopkins’ career has been justifiably rewarded, including gaining four Academy Award nominations, and winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Amazingly, despite stellar work in such movies as Something Wicked This Way Comes, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Pryce has never been honored with an Academy Award nomination. He deserves it for his performance as Francis, but my guess is that the Academy will overlook Pryce again.

The interplay–and the arguing–is what keeps The Two Popes going.

As for the fiction, there is plenty of it here. There were no long meetings between Benedict and Bergoglio; the catalyst for their movie summit was an offer of resignation from the cardinal, which is harshly rejected as a challenge to Benedict’s authority. The future Pope Francis turned 75 in 2011, it is customary for archbishops to retire at that age. It can be assumed that the pair never discussed the Beatles or their Abbey Road album. And it’s quite likely that Benedict’s favorite television show is not Kommisar Rex, an Austrian detective program where a German shepherd solves crimes. This sidetrack is probably a sly reference to Cardinal Ratzinger’s long term as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican under John Paul II, where he picked up the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”

There are numerous flashback scenes involving Francis, including his early romance, his call to the priesthood, his muddled legacy from Argentina’s “Dirty War,” his rise, then fall, and his rise again within the Argentine Catholic Church. 

In the garden walk scene, Bergoglio condemns Benedict’s handling of the pedophile crisis within the priesthood, which included confession of the guilty–he calls it “magic words.” Benedict’s retort is harsh and telling, “Magic words, is that how you describe the sacrament?”

The Two Popes gives viewers plenty to think about. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Fall of Berlin Wall anniversary offers lessons for misguided millennials

Blogger next to Berlin Wall slab at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in 2018

By John Ruberry

Saturday was the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most profound events of the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin Wall. What began as a bureaucratic slip became a people power moment as oppressed East Germans stormed the wall checkpoints and with the help of West Berliners, literally began hacking away on what Winston Churchill called “the wall of shame.”

It was also a wall of failure. The smartest and most gifted people of communist East Germany were more likely to seek freedom and prosperity in the West. The brain drain threatened the stability of East Germany, so after receiving permission from his fellow dictator, the USSR’s Nikita Krushchev, Walter Ulbricht ordered construction of the wall in the summer of 1961.

Just a few days ago Dennis Prager explained on his show that there is a difference between a dictatorship and a totalitarian state. Augosto Pinochet’s Chile was a brutal nation in the 1970s, but if you didn’t like it, you could leave Chile. Not so in the USSR, until its final days, where my wife was born, or in the absurdly-named German Democratic Republic. East Germans who tried to escape to West Berlin would have to conquer not just the wall, but also beds of nails, attack dogs, and barbed wire, as well as avoid sharpshooters in watch towers. The number of people killed attempting to escape in the 28-year existence of the wall is disputed–about 200 is a common estimate.

Of growing up in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, Mrs. Marathon Pundit told me this morning when I was discussing this post, “We were slaves, really.”

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll released last week shows that over one-third of millennials approve of communism, which betrays the failure of our schools and universities that seem much more interested promoting the 56 genders and waving their fingers at guys like me over “white privilege.” Oh, the founders of the communist movement, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were white dudes. As were the earliest communists in power, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leon Trotsky. All five of them came from middle class or wealthy backgrounds. They had white privilege.

OK, millennials!

The lessons of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the evils of Nazism obviously should never be forgotten. But what is overlooked by schools and society are the murderous regimes of Stalin (20 million killed, maybe more), Mao Zedong (65 million killed, maybe more). and Cambodia’s Pol Pot (1.5 million killed and perhaps more, roughly 20 percent of that nation’s population).

Another 30th anniversary involving a repressive communist regime passed this summer–the Tianammen Square protests in China that ended in the slaughter of pro-democracy activists. For 24 straight weeks there have been pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong. The more things change…

Ulbricht and his successors’ East Germany didn’t have the high death count, but it excelled in mental torture. Its KGB was the Ministry of State Security, commonly known as the Stasi, whose goal was to “know everything about everyone.” Two movies are essential viewing for millennials–actually for everyone–to learn more about East Germany. Both of them are available on Netflix, Karl Marx City, a documentary, and The Lives of Others, an Academy Award winner for Best International Feature Film. Fittingly, The Lives of Others is set in the year 1984.

Apologists for communism regularly point out that the reason these Marxist regimes failed is that the wrong people were in charge and “real communism” has never been tried. It is they who are wrong. People in power, for the most part, have one thing in common. They want even more power.

There are exceptions of course. King George III asked an American what George Washington would do now that he had defeated the British Empire. When told that the general would return to his farm, the king replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Is that lesson being taught in many American schools? I doubt it.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Review: Season 5 of Peaky Blinders

By John Ruberry

Earlier this month Season 5 of Peaky Blinders arrived on Netflix. If you haven’t heard of the BBC show, it centers on a Gypsy organized crime gang from Birmingham, England.

The Peaky Blinders are named for the razor blades the actual hoodlums,-they were an 1890s gang–wore in their flat caps.

The television Peaky Blinders, who usually refer to themselves as the Shelby Company, Ltd., are led by Thomas “Tommy” Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a World War I veteran. The first season takes place in 1919, Season 5 begins in the auspicious year of 1929.

Tommy, at the end of Season 4, is elected to Parliament as a member of the Labour Party.

A new season of course brings a new primary villain, this time it’s Sir Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), a minor member of the British nobility who also sits in the House of Commons. If you are American, it’s likely that you’ve never heard of Mosley, but he’s one of the most notorious figures of 20th century Great Britain. He didn’t go as far as Benedict Arnold did during the American Revolution, but had the Nazis defeated Britain in World War II, it’s probable that Mosley would have been prime minister—with Edward VIII restored to the throne. A 2005 poll of British historians determined that Mosley was the Worst Briton of the 20th century. Jack the Ripper took the title for the 19th. Mosley not surprisingly was a virulent anti-Semite.

Sir Oswald pursues Tommy as an ally while Winston Churchill (Neil Maskew) does the same. Maskew is the third actor to portray Churchill in this series. What’s up with that?

The Black Tuesday Wall Street Crash puts pressure on the rest of the Blinders, particularly Michael Gray (Finn Cole), who in the first episode of the season awakens from a stupor in Detroit to learn that the Shelby Company money he invested in America has evaporated. He wants a bigger say in the family business, as does his American wife (Anya Taylor-Joy). The family matriarch, Polly Gray (Helen McCrory), Michael’s mother, continues to struggle to keep the family from tearing itself apart, and their battles now directly effect her lover, Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen). Tommy’s older brother, Arthur, continues to battle his “animal inside me.” While Tommy and Mosley, politically speaking, court each other, the Peaky Blinders face a new foe, the Billy Boys, a Scottish Protestant gang, who joyously sing their fight song, which is based on the melody of “Marching Through Georgia.” The Billy Boys hate Gypsies and Catholics–the Shelbys are both.

Peaky Blinders has always played loose with history. Lighten up, though, it’s fiction!

On the other hand…

As 1929 winds down, Mosely announces the formation of a new political party, the British Union of Fascists. But after leaving Labour, the real Mosley first formed another new party, called, well, the New Party. After that came his fascist party. I bring this up because in his introductory speech as leader of the BUF, Mosley, complaining about Indian competition forcing the closing of British textile mills, sounds a bit like Donald Trump, with a dash of UK Independence Party founder Nigel Farage thrown in. I’m not a fan of historical parallels with the present, particularly when it comes to individuals. And I get it, many people believe in “Orange Man Bad.” But sheesh, can TV scriptwriters give us a break from that for once?

I see Season 5, quality wise, as a step back for Peaky Blinders, but better than the Russian sinkhole two seasons back. But a Season 6 apparently is in the works, and maybe even a seventh. And perhaps we will see a couple of other men portray Churchill. The 1930s offers many plotlines as the world marches again to war. Still, even a below-par Peaky Blinders is worth your time.

Peaky Blinders is rated MA. It contains graphic violence, drug use, and overt sexual activity.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.