Bingeworthy? Ill-conceived “Space Force” is a mission that should have been aborted

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“Space Force” pops out of the Netflix logo as instantly awful, like a politically-pointed all-star “Saturday Night Live” sketch that never made it on the air — five hours worth.

It’s a riff on America’s new “Space Force” that bludgeons the point that “nothing conceived by these idiots (the Trump administration) will ever work out” idea to death, and then pounds the corpse for nine more episodes.

Jokes? A Chinese satellite disables the newly launched Space Force “Epsilon 6.” But can it be fixed?

“We’re gonna Apollo 13 the S–T out of this,” Force General Naird (co-creator Steve Carell) barks.

Dopey special requests from the Tweeter in Chief? Test assault rifles in space so that they can be “the official Space Force guns for mass shootings on the moon!”

“Or HUNTING,” a helpful aide adds.

Carell plays Naird as a more military, just-as-scientifically clueless Michael Scott, ignoring expert advice, heedlessly pressing on with the worst possible ideas. comforting himself when things go wrong by singing bad Beach Boys tunes (“Kokomo”) to himself.

The late Fred Willard blows lines and affects a tremor as the General’s ancient, addled father.

Instantly awful. You keep watching, waiting for this or that to click, for the wonderful John Malkovich (the science chief) to make it worth watching, for Naird’s wife’s (Lisa Kudrow) imprisonment to be explained, for this pointless thread or that one to resolve.

But Carell’s “Office” writer and co-creator Greg Daniels just flails away, grasping for ideas — Congressional hearings, Congressional visits by an idiot senator (a Susan Collins look-alike), “the Angry Congresswoman” (AOC clone), the intervention of an Elon Musk entrepreneur figure named Edison Jaymes (Kaitlin Olson) — groping for laughs.

Allow yourself to get your hopes up that the funny names and faces in the pilot — Diedrich Bader, Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton and Noah Emmerich are the other members of the Joint Chiefs (as is “According to Jim” veteran Larry Joe Campbell, who’s even less funny than Emmerich) — that the sight gags will get better than a digital monkey in space and the one-liners will improve at your own peril.

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I mean, a “Real Housewives” riff on “Skinny Fuel” (“Skinnygirl” Bethenny Frankel would have been funnier pitching it. Not much, but…). Random jokes about how much everything costs — “Four.” “Four million?” “Middle schools. It costs four MIDDLE schools” worth of taxpayer dollars. A Russian spy out in the open (POTUS approved) who insists you call him “Bobby.”

Ben Schwartz as a “Media Manager” who composes the not-witty tweets for Gen. Naird?

The romantic wanderings of the General’s unfunny daughter (Diana Silvers) dating assorted dolt underlings of her Dad?

Considering the talent hurled at this, we all have a right to expect better. The whole affair has the whiff of “Take Netflix’s money and RUN” about it. Daniels, in particular, should be embarrassed by the general lack of effort in the plotting, dialogue and jokes.

Mission abort, mission abort.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, language (profanity)

Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Diana Silvers, Tawny Newsome , Jimmy O. Yang, with Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton, Diedrich Bader and Noah Emmerich

Credits: Created by Steve Carell and Greg Daniels. A Netflix series.

Running time: Ten episodes @ :33 each

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Movie Review: Moss cuts and corrodes all she surveys as “Shirley”

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Oh, to fall under the murderous gaze of horror novelist and short story icon Shirley Jackson and survive.

That’s how Elisabeth Moss makes one feel about living with, being judged and bullied by the formidable, boozy and unstable creator of “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House” in “Shirley.”

Moss ratchets up the simmering intensity in this fictionalized “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” account of the later career of the celebrated queen of literary horror and suspense. “Shirley” is a clever biographical mystery, a movie of toxic excesses and contagious misery, where one bad marriage might doom another and where writer’s block is the most feared fate of all.

The script may be laced with literary tropes and dated writer and academic stereotypes, but Moss and co-stars Odessa Young (“Assassination Nation”), Michael Stuhlbarg (“The Shape of Water”) and Logan Lerman (“End of Sentence,” TV’s “Hunters”) make this moody, messy tale real, lived-in — fiction with the discordant ring of truth about it.

In actress-turned-director Josephine Decker’s film Jackson is trapped in a co-dependent marriage, wilting under writer’s block, practically housebound in Bennington, Vermont, where husband Stanley Hyman (Stuhlbarg) keeps her wine and liquor glasses full when he’s not teaching “Myth and Folklore” to the lily white coeds of Bennington College, circa 1958.

Stuhlbarg lets us see Stanley’s labored bonhomie, the contempt he hides behind a too-obvious veneer of charm. When new teaching assistant Fred (Lerman) and his wife Rose (Young) show up, Stanley’s trying even harder. He’s throwing a party, and this new couple is coming to stay with he and “Shirl” until they find a place of their own.

He’s too merry, too quick to trot out his jolly “How I met Shirley Jackson (in college)” story, dazzled by her writing even then. But another party-goer blows down the facade with a single indelicate question of the celebrated author in the family.

“So Shirley, what’re you writing now?”

“A little novella…I’m calling none of your goddamned business.”

Later, Stanley confides and begs Rose’s help with the house, as they’ve lost “another” housekeeper. He is needy and patronizing at the same time as he urges Rose to take on the tasks. “Shirley has these bouts,” is all he says by way of explanation.

Jackson is depressed, confined to her bed most days. “I’m going to get better. I promise. Starting TOMORROW.”

And the only appeal she can see in having these “strangers…SPIES” under their roof is the chance to bully, bait and psychically dominate poor Rose.

Rose has instant cause to regret her own husband’s halfhearted defense of her against this demeaning, sexist request.

She never hears Stanley lure Shirley to dinner with “I didn’t ask you to behave,” inviting her cruelty to their guests as he does.

“So Rose, you were telling us about your ‘shotgun wedding.'”

Rose doesn’t know that the unanswered ringing phone is one of Stanley’s student or fellow faculty paramours, gauche enough to call during dinner.

And she doesn’t know, at first, how touchy the brainy, brilliant bitch confined to her bed gets when asked about her work.

But as is the way of such stories, the new arrival soon is helping the blocked author research a new novel, one spun out of a real-life Bennington student’s disappearance on a mountain hike.

Young and Moss beautifully level-out and make real the uneven relationship that spins out of Shirley and Rose being thrown together. Lerman has little to play, the standard callow young academic. Stuhlbarg sparkles as Stanley, whose insecurity and resentments — Hyman was a literary critic and a rural academic, forever in his wife’s shadow — don’t wholly explain his own cruelty.

Director Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) folds in all the pieces of the plot almost haphazardly, and instead concentrates on character and mood — gloomy people mostly trapped in a gloomy house. The voice over narration about the story of the missing girl, “Paula,” changes voices — a clever conceit.

She gets a gloriously subtle turn out of Moss in the title role, tart and witty in a mild version of the plucked pronunciations of Bette Davis, depressed and resigned at the confinement of her fame.

“I read your story,” a fan enthuses.

“There have been several…”

“The LOTTERY!”

Moss is so right in this part that we don’t have to see Jackson’s eyes roll or hear the stinging comeback she no doubt has in mind for that. She lets us feel it.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman.

Credits: Directed by Josephine Decker, script by Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. A Neon release.

Running time: 1:47

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Bingeworthy? “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”

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A lawyer for some of the survivors of Jeffrey Epstein uses the perfect phrase to describe what this pedophilia and sex trafficking ring really was.

“It was a molestation pyramid scheme,” attorney Brad Edwards says, noting the way “recruiters” working for Epstein would bring under-age girls into his orbit, the way those girls were encouraged to lure siblings and friends in after them.

Take every wild sexual conspiracy theory spun out of the Internet, every “Pizzagate” pushed by the Lunatic Right, every whisper from “pedophiles are running wild in Hollywood and elsewhere” from crazydaysandnights.net, that’s the stuff of “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” the new Netflix docu-series put together by acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost,” “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”) and crime novelist James Patterson.

In four episodes that range from enraging to heartbreaking, we get to hear from victims, from appalled law enforcement complaining of compromised prosecutors, from business associates and ex-employees of the super-rich pedophile infamous for his “Orgy Island/Pedophile Island” in the Caribbean.

The criminal pattern of luring and entrapment is laid out, and repeated scores of times in dozens of stories, failures of journalism and “the system” to expose Epstein, the excesses of his ill-gotten wealth and the tentacles of his political connections, all here.

The installments, titled “Hunting Ground,””Follow the Money,” “The Island” and “Finding Their Voice,” sometimes repeat themselves. Each starts with Epstein’s bored, defiant voice being deposed by Edwards (mostly), dodging questions via assorted amendments, a man outed but not-yet-trapped and stopped.
The predator’s MO, assisted by his un-prosecuted accomplice, “recruiter” and “girlfriend” and sometime participant in sexual misconduct Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of disgraced media baron Robert Maxwell, was to identify cute-to-pretty girls with traits that gave away their insecurities, and exploit them to draw them into this world of extravagant wealth and perverts.
It’s hard to find heroes and heroines in this piece, as almost nobody comes off as wearing a white hat.
Local Florida prosecutor Barry Krischer avoided pressing cases brought to him by local police. South Florida’s Federal prosecutor, Alex Acosta, made a secret deal to get Epstein out of prison, which came back to haunt him during a brief tenure as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Labor. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter caved in to Epstein intimidation that may have included surveillance, threats and a severed cats head left in his garden, way back in the ’90s.
Celebrity lawyer, academic, Epstein defender and Fox News legal analyst Alan Dershowitz defiantly denies the accusations leveled at him by one survivor, Britain’s Prince Andrew failed to brush off his Epstein connections and Bill Clinton — while never accused by any victim — was identified as one of the visitors to Epstein’s private 75 acre island off St. Thomas — Little St. James — the “Pedophile Island” accusers talk about, a visit Clinton denies (not on camera).
Producer Patterson was Epstein’s Palm Beach neighbor, and is here to set up that part of the story, the “stunningly rich” and “insular” world Epstein lied and cheated his way into — the estate he owned with another of his infamous “massage rooms” where he sexually assaulted young women and girls.

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We’ve heard so much of this in the breathless news coverage of this scandal, this “trafficking” network, the rich and powerful benefactors and pals (Trump, Ohio clothing mogul Les Wexner who owned The Limited and associated chains) that there’s not much in “Filthy Rich” that still has the capacity to shock.

But hearing from survivor after survivor, girls as young as 14 molested by Epstein and those wealthy friend-clients he procured them for, is powerful and moving. Some girls came from affluence, many did not. The absence of parents speaking up for them in the series underscores the care with which Maxwell and other Epstein acolytes chose their prey.

All the survivors bear the scars of this experience, some more openly than others.

Their exploitation and abuse may not have ended up with their day in court, as Epstein’s suspicious “suicide” in the custody of William Barr’s corrupt and compromised Justice Department robbed them of that. But Berlinger & Co. give them a platform here in a series that, if nothing else, should re-open investigations of Maxwell and others, and renew efforts to further expose this cruelest of exploitations by the rich, the royal and the well-connected.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, frank sexual subject matter, discussed, not shown’

Cast: Maria Farmer, Haley Robson, Courtney Wild, Sarah Ransome, Michelle Licata, Shawn Rivera, Michael Reitter, Alan Dershowitz and James Patterson.

Credits: Directed by Joe Berlinger, produced by Berlinger and James Patterson.

Running time: Four episodes @53:00 each.

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Movie Preview: More B Movie action for Mel Gibson as a “FORCE OF NATURE “

There are a lot of ways to appreciate this run of bloody minded B movies Mel Gibson has been starring in since his meltdown.

He still gives great value, even as an aged tough guy, and being a director he ensures that whoever he is acting for doesn’t make a hash of the movie, just by being on the set.

And even if you’re not of the Christian conservative forgive-and-forget attitude about his antisemitism and homophobia and awful temper and alcohol issues, there’s something redemptive in seeing him sentenced to this corner of filmdom, taking it like a man.

Look for Mel, Kate Bosworth and Emile Hirsch in this on June 30.

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Movie Preview: “VIENA AND THE FANTOMES” puts Dakota Fanning on the road with ’80s punks such as Zoë Kravitz

Caleb Landry Jones and others co star in this taste of the roadie life during the punk era.

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Worth remembering — Sacha Baron Cohen’s finest non performance

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Movie Review: A father tries to save his son when a drug deal goes bust, “Hammer”

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Some thrillers work simply by hewing closely to the Thriller Rules.

Don’t waste our time. Pacing equals “urgency” and urgency is what makes the pulse pound. Raise the stakes and keep them high. Give us twists we never see coming.

Make the interludes revealing about character, but not TOO revealing. Don’t over-explain.

And lastly, and this one comes directly from Hitchcock, “Good villains make good thrillers.”

Canadian writer-director Christian Sparkes’ “Hammer” follows those to a T. He doesn’t waste time. The movie’s 81 minutes practically fly by.

He keeps it simple, and keeps the twists coming.

High stakes? How about a son (Mark O’Brien of “Ready or Not”) comes home, on the run from a drug deal double-cross that backfired. His whole family may pay for his criminal associations and his blundering.

And the villain? That would be veteran character actor Ben Cotton (“Stargate: Atlantis,””Hellcats”). As Adams, the money man fetching the cash young Chris (O’Brien) has just duffel-bagged across the border into Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, he has the build and the crazy eyes of a guy you do NOT want to cross.

Will Patton plays the retired teacher Chris runs home to when the scheme goes wrong. Only not exactly. Mom (Lara Jean Chorostecki ) and Dad kicked Chris out of the house for shenanigans just like this. They have his younger brother (Connor Price) to worry about, after all.

Dad Stephen has just reassured Mom Debbie that “Chris is fine,” when he stares — slack-jawed — as a guy looking just like his son hurtles into town, a bit bloodied, racing a dirt bike to his now-empty grandfather’s house.

Chris doesn’t want Dad involved because “You gave up on me.” But he’s got a body to stash, bags of money to fetch, a drug distributor (Cotton) to evade. So sure, OK. Come along. But no lectures about why he didn’t “just turn to you because I need help.” That wasn’t really an option.

Patton, one of the great character players (last seen in “Halloween” and the “Swamp Thing” TV series, gets across their “history” with just a look, a wince of recognition, a grimace of guilt. How DID his son go so wrong? Can he believe a word out of this punk’s mouth?

A LOT is left unsaid here, which makes us work and forces the actors to “be” their complicated history, not verbalize it. It’s textbook screenwriting and bang-on.

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Sparkes (“Cast No Shadow”) runs all manner of random/not-random scenes by us. The hunt for the “stashed” cash includes a senile dog and a snake swallowing its own tail. The seeking of a hitman (Curtis Caravaggio) — “He’s NOT a hitman.  He’s ‘protection.'” — has a “Trainspotting” homage as “protection’s” wife shoves a baby in Chris’ hands when he walks in the door.

“She looks GOOD on you.”

A visit to a pawn shop/jeweler goes awry, just as the opening scene’s double-cross collapses in on itself.

Everybody tries to keep things from everybody else, which makes Stephen’s ongoing in-person and on-the-phone fight with Deborah over her father, freshly-placed in a nursing home and hating it, even trickier.

“Hammer” — the title is one more thing for us to figure out — doesn’t break genre. It’s the umpteen-millionth “drug deal gone wrong/drug money/drug gangsters wanting that money” thriller. The surprises here come within the narrow confines of a well-worn plot path.

But more importantly, in this instance, it doesn’t break the Thriller Rules. They make this “ticking clock” thriller tick over like clockwork, jumpy opening to nerve-wracking finish.

3stars2

 

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence

Cast: Mark O’Brien, Will Patton, Ben Cotton,  Lara Jean Chorostecki, Connor Price Dayle McLeod.

Credits: Written and directed by Christian Sparkes. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:21

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Movie Preview: She carries a baby for her gay best friends — “The Surrogate”

A moral dilemma in a pregnancy is the heart of this pregnancy and possible parenthood drama, finding out a baby you’re carrying has Down Syndrome.

This one comes out in late June.

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Documentary Preview: Seeking answers to social ills by visiting Russell Brand, and others — “Chasing the Present”

This Mark Waters film comes out Sept. 20, and features Russell Brand, Marina Abramovic , Alex Grey, Graham Hancock, Gary Weber, Rupert Spira, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein and Matthew Watherston.

 

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Movie Review: Dafoe morphs into Abel Ferrara’s alter ego again as “Tommaso”

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You can search the Internet, high and low, for a profile of filmmaker Abel Ferrara that doesn’t use the word “maverick.” He’s made it his brand, probably using it about himself and in press releases like the late U.S. Senator who so coveted that label.

I’ve always thought “indulged” was more suitable. He came to fame in his native New York with thrillers like “The King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant” decades ago. But in the years since, Ferrara’s turned out increasingly iconoclastic indie films. With an exception, here and there, he’s been on something akin to a deeper and deeper gaze into his own navel, or some other bodily orifice.

And even though these movies make barely a peep outside of his tiny cult following, he continues to find financing and stars — OK, a star — willing to take these unprofitable, obscure journeys with him.

Willem Dafoe has become his muse, his alter ego, for half a dozen films now including the upcoming “Siberia” and most famously in his Ferrara-esque portrait of Italian novelist, poet, intellectual, political gadfly and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.

“Tommaso” has the collaborators teaming up for a story about an ageing, insecure filmmaker struggling to to polish a symbolic quasi-religious script (story-boarded) in Rome, obsessing over his little girl, fretting over his very young wife’s possible infidelity, as he cheats with students in his acting class and a shapely server at his favorite cafe, in between long “sharing” sessions with an English language AA group.

The young wife is played by Cristina Chiriac, the model-actress-wife of Ferrara, less than half his age. The toddler is Anna Ferrara, their daughter. Dafoe is like a slightly-younger, somewhat more handsome version of Ferrara, who now makes his family’s home in Rome.

The sum of which begs the question, “Wait, Ferrara’s in Alcoholics Anonymous?”

The semi-autobiographical Tomasso is being tutored in Italian and teaching Italian actors (almost all women) movement, “finding the gesture” via games that look like conga lines. It feels very 1970s, and Dafoe shines brightest in these scenes where one can leap to the conclusion “This is how a Willem Dafoe acting school might look.”

“For me, performing is always somewhere between control and imbalance,” he lectures, a student translating for the gathered Italians. Acting is “not to show, but to DO.”

Tommaso has his freedom and his routine, teaching, learning Italian, attending meetings, having dalliances, writing (in voice-over, in his head) a screenplay with Eskimos and a bear and taking his child to the park.

There is stress in the marriage, which he vents in his AA meetings, or afterword with sponsors and the like.

“She’s 29,” he grouses/brags. “You’d think she’d appreciate my experience.”

No, you clueless old cradle robber. She’d appreciate a little freedom herself, not being on child-care duty 24-7, not having to be at your beck and call, the chance to discover the city (she is Moldavian-Russian) and life for herself.

Neither the character nor the filmmaker seem to get this.

The usual surreal Ferrara touches decorate the tale — documentary footage of Indian and Moldovan musicians and Buddhist teachers, a graphic bear attack, a little Sophia Loren Italian film dance scene, and a “flashback” to a Dafoe interrogation scene that could have been in Ferrara’s “Pasolini.”

And the excesses are here — lots of female nudity, sex, screaming jags, violence, a moment where the angst-ridden artist literally yanks out his own heart.

Still, it’s not Ferrara’s most “out there” film, and Dafoe is always a riveting presence. He is mesmerizing in the AA scenes, amusing in the acting classes and convincingly “at home” in Rome.

No, the pondering of “What is truth?” and the nature of those things that “elicit pleasure in your mind” isn’t solved. Ferrara, at 69, still comes off more a poseur than the deep thinker he’s trying to attach to that “maverick” label.

It’s pretentious and indulgent. But as with most Ferrara films, “Tommaso” makes for an interesting trip into a seriously unconventional mind visualized by an always unconventional storyteller.

And if European money lenders are still indulging Woody Allen, why not Ferrara?

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac Ferrara, Anna Ferrara

Credits: Written and directed by Abel Ferrara.  A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:53

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