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As the Crowe flies, so does Showtime's The Loudest Voice

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Russell Crowe fills the role in The Loudest Voice. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Russell Crowe, Sienna Miller, Annabelle Wallis, Naomi Watts, Seth MacFarlane, Simon McBurney, Aleksa Palladino, Guy Boyd, Josh Stamberg, Patch Darragh, Barry Watson, Jaime Jackson, Josh Helman, Susan Pourfar, John Rue, David Cromer
Produced by: Tom McCarthy, Jason Blum, Alex Metcalf, Liza Chasin, Kari Skogland, Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman, Padraic McKinley, Russell Crowe

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Making up is hard to do -- or so it would seem in turning Russell Crowe into Roger Ailes.

Showtime’s seven-part The Loudest Voice, launching on Sunday, June 30th, manages to be seamlessly convincing, though. A combination of the actor’s weight gains and some remarkably convincing prosthetics have put Crowe in fine form for a role that few could have imagined him playing. The Oscar-winner from Gladiator brings the combative and controversial Fox News Channel founder alive, even if Ailes is first seen lying dead next to an empty prescription pill bottle. He lived to be 77, but died in disgrace less than a year after resigning from FNC in 2016 when allegations of workplace sexual harassment became public via a lawsuit by former FNC anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Carlson, played by Naomi Watts, is only fleetingly seen in the three episodes made available for review. And that’s not until hour three, when she approaches Ailes at a party and successfully coaxes him to set up an interview for her with then Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Later in the episode, Carlson ends their Q&A by cheerily telling McCain, “Sounds like a winning message to me.” This is hardly the comportment of an objective journalist, but fits right in with Ailes’ determination to derail Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. The primary source material is Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News -- and Divided a Country.

Crowe’s performance begins with a voice-over that accompanies his corpse. “I know what people are going to say about me,” he narrates. “I can pretty much pick the words for ya. Right wing. Paranoid. Fat. And I’m not going to argue with them. I am a conservative. I do like to eat. And I believe in the power of television. Giving people what they want, even if they don’t know they want it.”

By this time, Loudest Voice has rewound back to 1995, with Crowe as Ailes first seen filling his face in a diner during the Christmas season. It’s then on to a face-to-face meeting with NBC CEO Jack Welch (John Finn), who’s dropping Ailes as head of both CNBC and spinoff network America’s Talking (which soon would become MSNBC).

“Whatever they’re saying I did, it didn’t happen,” Ailes says vaguely before Welch refers to an ongoing HR investigation of whatever he’s accused of doing. Even so, he receives an affectionate sendoff from his staff, many of them in tears.

“We love you,” a woman tells him.

“Now you tell me?” Ailes ripostes.

Crowe is constantly on camera as Ailes, chortling, yelling, cursing and even trying a little tenderness with CNBC producer Beth Tilson (Sienna Miller), who will become his third and last wife. His emotions are fully conveyed, with no hint of restriction by those aforementioned prosthetics. This is Ailes unleashed, not encased, with Crowe acting up various storms in Sunday’s rousing opening hour. He’s already savoring the idea of screwing Welch with a competing cable news network that will corner an untapped market by disseminating “an American message wrapped up in a conservative viewpoint.” And he has a receptive ear in Rupert Murdoch (solid work by Simon McBurney), whose worldwide News Corporation will be bankrolling FNC.

Episode 1 also sows the seeds of Ailes’ predatory bent. He recruits blonde beauty Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), ostensibly as one of FNC’s talent bookers. Primarily though, she’s his mistress. And by the time of Episode 3, a repulsed and self-drugged Luhn is being ordered to “dance for me” in her bra and panties while Ailes shoots video.

“Who protects you,” Laurie?” he asks.

“You do,” she says in a fog before orally gratifying a grunting Ailes. It’s a thoroughly creepy sequence that also could be easily denounced as flatly gratuitous. But Luhn, who recently dropped a $750 million lawsuit against Showtime after a private settlement was reached, had earlier gone public with her story to Sherman. His subsequent account, published after the book was released, detailed what Luhn said was 20 years of sexual abuse by Ailes.

Other notable characters are omitted from Showtime’s limited series, at least in terms of actors playing them. Megyn Kelly, who became one of Ailes’ accusers, initially was envisioned as a peripheral character but later was cut. Bill O’Reilly, referenced as a suspected sexual predator in Episode 2, is shown only as himself in footage from his show, The O’Reilly Factor. “What, did he get handsy or something?” Ailes inquires before ordering president of business and legal affairs Diane Brandi (Susan Pourfar) to “just take care of it.”

FNC star Sean Hannity is portrayed, but innocuously so far, by actor Patch Darragh. And Seth MacFarlane, as head PR guy Brian Lewis, has little to do but smirk in the first two hours before getting a little more to chew on in Episode 3.

Episode 2 deals at some length with the shocking events of Sept. 11, 2001, with Ailes gradually convincing Murdoch that “we’ve got a big part to play. This is our time, Rupert. This is our time.”

It’s also time for Ailes to conspire with Vice President Dick Cheney (John Rue) in terms of orchestrating a plan to invade Iraq. “You’re a patriot, Roger,” the veep tells him before speaking at a big public gathering and mouthing some of the words Ailes has hand-crafted for him.

Episode 3 advances to 2008, with Obama on a roll despite Ailes’ and FNC’s best efforts to put McCain in office. Although he admires his military service and comportment as a prisoner of war, McCain’s “message is about as limp as Liberace’s handshake,” Ailes grouses. Furthermore, Obama’s veep, Joe Biden, currently being pummeled by several of his rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, won’t be happy to hear Ailes call him “dumb as an ashtray” during a meeting with Obama’s head strategist, David Axelrod (David Cromer).

By the end of this hour, Obama is president but Ailes has secured a prime consolation prize -- “full editorial control” of Fox News. During a visit to his hometown of Warren, Ohio, he’s treated as a hero and vowing in a speech that “together we can make American great again.”

This seems like more than a bit of a stretch in terms of coining Donald Trump’s 2016 clarion call and FNC’s full-blown partnership with his eventual presidency.

Unaware of his infidelity, Elizabeth “Beth” Ailes likewise is her husband’s true-believing partner, sharing his right-wing views and enjoying the creature comforts his status has provided them. Their little son, Zachary (now 19), is given the daily chore of daily raising and lowering the American flag outside his parents’ palatial suburban home. He probably should spare himself from watching any of Loudest Voice, particularly the aforementioned Episode 3.

Loudest Voice otherwise is riveting at the start and somewhat less so as time marches on. Crowe’s portrayal of Ailes of course is the major drawing card, and he is nothing if not fully immersed. The characters around him can’t help but pale in comparison, but it would help if some of the supporting roles were more vividly acted. McBurney comes closest as Murdoch while Miller is capable as the Mrs. who so far knows nothing of his mistress and other transgressions.

The current mainstays of Fox News Channel seem more likely to ignore the film than openly denounce it on the air. After all, who at his old network would want to reopen the gaping wound that Roger Ailes became? It’s easier to keep blasting away at the 20 Democrats currently running for President. Of that Ailes would approve.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

No new heights but a steady climb in Showtime's City on a Hill

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Kevin Bacon & Aldis Hodge team up in Boston-based City On A Hill. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jill Hennessy, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Catherine Wolf
Produced by: Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chuck MacLean, Jennifer Todd, Michael Cuesta

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A showy command performance by Kevin Bacon won’t be taking City on a Hill to new heights.

It’s enough, however, to give Showtime another Ray Donovan in terms of watchable, serviceable, jut-jawed crime hours.

Boston again is the familiar site of embedded police corruption, with Bacon leading the charge as hard-drinking, chain-smoking, carousing FBI agent Jackie Rohr.

“What used to make this city great was that it was run by bad men, who knew they were bad,” Rohr rasps (not roars) in the opening minutes.

But there’s a new agent for change in the form of crusading assistant DA Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), a proud African-American who clashes with Rohr before uneasily aligning with him. It’s all set in the early 1990s, with a gang of armored truck robbers at large. Of course it will go beyond that. All in due time.

The series’ executive producers include two familiar teams -- Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana and Ben Affleck/Matt Damon. They may not know many or any new tricks anymore, but can still deliver some solid, straight-ahead punches.

Showtime made the first three episodes available for review, with Rohr striding through them while Ward increasingly makes his presence felt.

On the other side of the law, Boston’s Ebb-Tide bar supplies weapons for Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), his drug addicted, screwup brother, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien) and accompanying henchmen who wear full-faced, hard plastic white fright masks while stealing stacks of fresh cash. They didn’t anticipate killing anyone, but whaddya gonna do when things go awry? So three bodies also are missing. This vexes Frankie’s wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton), who otherwise does the money laundering.

When not shaking down or protecting informants, the married Rohr is pleasuring himself with a woman who isn’t his wife. Jenny Rohr (Jill Hennessy) is left feeling unfilled while her live-in battle ax ma (Catherine Wolf) stirs the pot against Jackie. There’s also a rebellious daughter thrown in. Her name is Benedetta (Zoe Colletti).

Ward is much better situated at home, where his wife, Siobhan Quays (Lauren E. Banks) both encourages and cajoles him. There are no problems in the bedroom.

After an energetic start and a nice twist at the end of Episode 1, City on a Hill slows its pace a bit while taking a predictable turn in terms of Jenny’s desires to resume her teaching career in the face of Jackie’s indifference toward her. She’s gotten no comfort from the family’s old-line Catholic pastor, who asks Jenny to ask herself, “What’s your part in the failure of your marriage?”

Jackie, not a church-going type anymore, prefers to quote the wisdom of Roy Cohn, the gut-punching attorney pal/mentor of both Joe McCarthy and a young Donald Trump. Among Cohn’s mantras: “If you held onto the lie, the bullshit, against all evidence, there was nothing anybody could do.” Rohr has come to thoroughly believe this when it comes to coverups. Perhaps he also has a crystal ball in terms of future presidential administrations.

City on a Hill is likely to get a nice, multi-season run on Showtime, which in addition to Ray Donovan has three other ongoing veteran dramas in its arsenal -- Homeland, Shameless and Billions. It’s become a network that knows how to get these things done. And it looks as though it’s done it again.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The kids aren't alright in HBO's excessive Euphoria

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In a high school haze. Zendaya stars in Euphoria. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, Jacob Elordi, Alexa Demie, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Maude Apatow, Barbie Ferreira, Angus Cloud, Storm Reid, Nika King, Eric Dane, Javon “Wanna” Walton
Produced by: Sam Levinson, Drake, Future the Prince, Ravi Nandan, Kevin Turen, Hadas Mozes Lihtenstein, Ron Leshem, Daphna Levin, Tmira Yardeni, Mirit Toovi, Yoram Mokady, Gary Lennon, Jim Kleverweis

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
A passing reference leaves its mark in Episode 3 of HBO’s aggressively graphic Euphoria.

The kid sister of central character Rue Bennett (Zendaya, already on a first name basis) is alone in her room, immersed in her IPad. What’s she watching? My So-Called Life, Gia (Storm Reid) tells Rue.

Today’s high schoolers weren’t anywhere near being born when the then very daring ABC coming-of-age drama series premiered a quarter-century ago and lasted just one season. Euphoria, which launches Sunday, June 16th on HBO, makes the disaffected youth of Pittsburgh’s Liberty High seem like the original comic book versions of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica. But it certainly shows how far we’ve come -- or fallen.

Euphoria’s most jarring scene, among many, is of a corpulent, abuse-craving man masturbating his fully exposed penis into an erect state while watching a live feed of masked, half-dressed high schooler Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira), who insults him on demand for payment in return. So should any parent in their right mind allow their adolescents to watch Euphoria? I’m gonna vote “No” on that one. Not that the kids won’t find a way.

Those of a certain age (anyone over 30) rightly might shudder at the thought that Euphoria is an even close to accurate depiction of contemporary high schoolers. Whatever one’s political persuasion, the goings-on in the four episodes made available for review are not at all what we want for our kids.

Of course, some of the featured parents are majorly screwed up, too. Topping that list is Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), a prosperous, bullying businessman who secretly harbors a video collection of his rough sexual escapades with high school girls. But as we see in a flashback, his son, Nate (Jacob Elordi), discovers them as a pre-teen. Hello, sculpted spawn of Satan. Nate ends up being both a star football player for the East Highland Blackhawks and a terrorizing, twisted brute.

Some of the decidedly dark turns in Euphoria seem better suited to a mob drama. Nate is bad enough. But there’s also a thoroughly ruthless drug overlord who terrorizes both Rue and her nominally protective supplier, Fezco (Angus Cloud). Fezco otherwise dispenses his wares with help from a baby-faced little associate known as Ashtray (Javon “Wanna” Walton, who in real life is a pint-sized boxing prodigy). In Episode 4, Fezco and Ashtray dispense drugs from their “pretzel stand” at the annual town carnival.

Adapted from a same-named Israeli series, Euphoria is heavy on Zendaya’s narrative, which recounts both her story and those of other key high school characters. Principal among them is Jules Vaughn, a transitioned newcomer played by transgender woman Hunter Schafer. In addition to a cavalcade of executive producers (including Drake and Future the Prince among the 13 listed by HBO), Euphoria also has a credited “transgender consultant.”

Jules, among those who run afoul of Nate’s perverted father, later finds herself bonding with Rue. Their relationship blooms, grows and arguably offsets some of Euphoria’s gratuitousness. Particularly when we learn about Jules’ traumatic formative years in an Episode 4 that lamentably also veers into more of Nate’s over the top villainy.

Rue’s self-absorption and drug addiction make Euphoria a very tough sell in the early going. Her eventual and seemingly serious attempts to get sober may gradually elicit more sympathy -- or not. Meanwhile, Rue’s poor mother, Leslie (Nika King), tries to keep from going off the deep end herself.

Perhaps striving to make a “statement,” Euphoria’s number of exposed penises exceeds the series’ bared breasts in these first four of 10 episodes. And it’s not even close, with Rue even presiding over a fantasy treatise on “dick pics.” Some might see this as an overdue form of gender equality after HBO’s Game of Thrones had it the other way around until the #MeToo movement took hold and rendered the series’ comparatively chaste down the stretch.

Given its high school focus, HBO likely has its most controversial series ever in Euphoria. And to what end? The series’ visual style points and redemptive qualities -- yes, there are some -- tend to be overwhelmed by a wealth of excesses. The performances, particularly by Zendaya, Schaefer and Ferreira -- are not the problem. But getting “real” doesn’t have to mean diving head first into a cesspool of drugs, profanity, promiscuity and a borderline indifference to it all. That’s where Euphoria so far fails not only itself, but the many impressionable youth that likely will be the series’ core audience.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The aim is perfect in Deadwood: The Movie

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How its West was won: Deadwood finally gets an epitaph. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The abundant profanity remains in place. How could it not?

This time, though, add equal parts poignancy. Deadwood, the series that died too soon after three season on HBO, breathes its last with a letter-perfect eulogy. Deadwood: The Movie (Friday, May 31st, 7 p.m. central) reunites the principal characters and serves each of them exceedingly well. Who could ask for anything more?

The film is set in 1889, a decade after the series left off. In real time, it’s been close to 13 years since HBO aired the last original episode of Deadwood on August 27, 2006. Although it’s been a long time in coming, with several false starts, the movie couldn’t come soon enough for creator David Milch. In 2015 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He has no other projects in the works, so this could be his epitaph.

Deadwood’s closing episode as a series ended with vile, vengeful, land-grabbing George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) riding out of town while Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) sneered his contempt for him. Now Hearst is back, this time as a U.S. senator on the occasion of South Dakota becoming the 40th state. For purely voracious business purposes, he covets the land owned by longtime Deadwood resident Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), who remains adamant about not selling. But Hearst, as he’s shown before, will stop at nothing.

Bullock is still Deadwood’s straight-shooting, deliberate striding, flinty-eyed marshal. Married to Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn) out of duty as much as love (she had been the wife of his late cavalryman brother), Bullock retains feelings for Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), herself a widower whose daughter Sofia (Lily Keene) has grown into a young lady.

Meanwhile, brothel owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), fastest f-bomber in the West, is fading fast from a life of heavy drinking and very bad behavior. At the end of the series, he slit one of his prostitute’s throats and put her in a coffin as a stand-in (so to speak) for Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who had tried to kill Hearst but only wounded him. The ruse worked. But 10 years later, Hearst has come to believe he was duped.

Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) also has returned to town, riding a horse in her usual drunken state while hoping to rekindle a beyond platonic relationship with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Weigert’s performance has always been my favorite, and she continues to excel. Another key character, Bullock’s best friend, Solomon “Sol” Star (John Hawkes), has hankerings, too -- for Trixie.

Scenes from the series’ past -- it’s been a long time, after all -- are nicely intercut in very brief form to remind viewers of events that continue to resonate. Deadwood’s trademark blend of literacy and crudity continues to harmoniously co-exist. Bullock can be a man of few words, all of which count for something. “My job ain’t to follow the law,” he tells Swearengen in no uncertain terms. “My job is to interpret it, then enforce it -- accordingly.”

A few major characters are missing, but through no fault of Milch’s. Principally among them is the late Powers Boothe, who played cutthroat Cy Tolliver. Titus Welliver, who played Swearengen cohort Silas Adams, was otherwise occupied as the star of his Amazon Prime series Bosch.

Deadwood: The Movie ends with beautifully paired scenes featuring Bullock and Swearengen. Both are moving in their own distinctive ways, bringing one of HBO’s very best series to an end that does David Milch proud. Very proud indeed.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Amazon Prime's Good Omens looks good, but doesn't play well

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Michael Sheen and David Tennant winningly play a good/evil odd couple in the six-episode fantasy series Good Omens. Amazon photo


Premiering: All six episodes begin streaming Friday, May 31st on Amazon Prime
Starring: David Tennant, Michael Sheen, Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michael McKean, Adria Arjona, Jack Whitehall, Mireille Enos, Nina Sosanya and the voices of Frances McDormand and Benedict Cumberbatch
Produced by: Neil Gaiman, Caroline Skinner, Chris Sussman, Rob Wilkins, Rod Brown

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The End of the World is nigh -- yet again.

And as with TBS’ recent and fantastically wobbly Miracle Workers, Amazon Prime’s Good Omens is bolstered by marquee leads and a big, multi-media promotional push.

Miracle Workers, which ran for seven half-hour episodes, deployed Steve Buscemi as a dimwitted but vengeful God and Daniel Radcliffe in the role of a shlepper toiling in heaven’s Department of Unanswered Prayers. Clunk.

Good Omens, adapted from a 1990 fantasy novel with a much longer title, features David Tennant and Michael Sheen upfront, but with some equally familiar names in supporting roles. They include Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Nick Offerman and the voices of Frances McDormand and Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s also longer, with six episodes at about one hour apiece.

Amazon made all of them available for review. But rather than watch everything at hand, which is very much my usual practice, I lost patience after the first two hours and skipped ahead to the climactic Episode 6 to see if there’s a resolution to this meandering bunch of basic nonsense. Yes, there’s loopy closure. And others may be more willing to exert the considerable patience required to get there. Not me, though.

On the plus side, Good Omens has some great looking animation accompanying the opening credits. And the duo of Sheen and Tennant can be fun to watch amid all the murkiness, toggling through time and wealth of expositional narration by McDormand. Good Omens is certainly in no hurry. Its eye candy special effects help some, but not enough to keep the mind from wandering off in fairly short order.

Tennant, affixed with yellow eyeballs and a Bob’s Big Boy hair-do, plays a demon named Crowley. He’s been on Earth since the dawn of creation, initially as the snake that tempted Eve.

Sheen is the rather befuddled angel Aziraphale, who hangs out with Crowley and tries to bring out whatever good side he might have. They strive to save the world after an anti-Christ baby is birthed and an 11-year timetable is set before Armageddon kicks in. Hamm, as a sinister archangel Gabriel, is very bullish on a big, final battle, which would be triggered when the Hell Hound is unleashed to find its young master.

Diversions ensue. A lot of them. Starting with Episode 2, McKean drops in as the eccentric Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell while Richardson plays Madame Tracy, who tries to consort with him. Add a blossoming young love story between Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) and Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall). She’s the last descendant of prophesying witch Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence) and he’s a descendant of the witch finder who burned Agnes at the stake.

Good Omens also has recurrent trips to heaven and hell while McDormand keeps talking. Episode 2 includes a gratuitous but by now expected dig at the male species. According to her, most people think that witches roam around naked. But that’s only because the books about them are written by men. Witches on broomsticks remains a prevailing stereotype. But witches constantly in the altogether? This neanderthal has never once thought of them in that way. Have you?

Also included is a batch of Stranger Things-type kids striving to teach adults some lessons during the course of the all-over-the-place story at hand. And Mireille Enos (The Killing) drops in as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, half of whom are women.

The concluding Episode 6 does feature one helluva oversized Satan, with Cumberbatch at the voice controls. Good Omens continues to have its special effects moments. But there aren’t enough of them to overcome the basic tedium afflicting it. C’mon now, let’s move this thing along, shall we? Alas, there’s no real danger of that.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net