Being the Ricardos

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021

Copyright Amazon Studios 2021
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin takes three real-life potentially cataclysmic events in the life of America’s most famous celebrity couple and packs them into one high-intensity week for “Being the Ricardos,” with Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. As title cards take us through each day of the week of production for an episode of “I Love Lucy,” from the table read on Monday, through the rehearsals, to the taping at the end of the week.

We get to see what an intense, challenging, and serious business producing 22 minutes of comedy is. Lucy, who explains to a director she thinks is third-rate that she is not like Danny Thomas, whose “Make Room for Daddy” show he had been working on. “He tells jokes,” she says with palpable irritation, “I am a physical comedian.” All around her are people who seem to be getting in the way of her vision for the show, whether it is grumpy William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who plays Fred, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who feels neglected, or the television network and sponsors, who seem to think they can tell her what to do. But nothing oppresses her more than her own perfectionism. She just knows that there is some key to a dinner scene that will take it from cute to hilarious, and she just has to keep thinking about it until she can lock it in. “She’s working through beats all the time,” a character says. It is clear she will sacrifice almost anything including damaging her professional and personal relationships if that is what it takes to get every minute of the show exactly where it needs to be. We see in flashbacks her struggles as a starlet, with studios who did not know what to do with her so her roles were limited to “sticking my head in a frame, saying something biting, and going home.”

That is more than enough to occupy her full attention, but she is also facing three terrible threats, one to her show, one to her career, and one to her marriage.

It is the height of the “Red Scare,” and even the child actor on “Make Room for Danny” has had to sign a loyalty oath. Walter Winchell, the most powerful journalist in the country, has accused Lucille Ball of being a communist. In this era, even an whispered, unsubstantiated accusation of communism could mean being blacklisted, so that no jobs in movies, television, or radio would ever be offered again. “I Love Lucy” might be the most popular show on television, but it could be canceled overnight.

Another possible reason for canceling the show — Lucille Ball was pregnant. It is hard too understand for today’s audiences, but in those days not only did even real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have separate twin beds on the show (as did every other married couple on television). For the purposes of television, sex did not exist, and the idea that a pregnancy might make audiences consider how it came about was unthinkable for the television network and the cigarette company sponsor. They tell Lucy that she can just stand behind things and go on as usual, pretending that the pregnancy did not exist. But she rightly believed that the audiences would be thrilled to experience the real-life and television pregnancy. (They did decide that the show would never include the actual word “pregnant,” however, using the euphemistic but not fooling anyone term “expecting.” by the way, they were also not allowed to use the word “lucky,” because it was the name of a rival brand of cigarettes.)

And then there is the most painful of all. A gossip magazine has published photos of what they say is Desi fooling around with other women. That puts at risk not only Lucy’s career but her marriage to the father of the child she already has and the one she is expecting.

I would love a world where Aaron Sorkin wrote everyone’s dialogue. Every sentence is perfectly composed. But the British have an expression “too clever by half” which I think of when he is both writer and director with no intermediary. The script is dazzling. The brilliance of the lines tips over into a quippiness that distracts us from the real conflicts and emotions that are going on. And there’s always an uncanny valley risk when even the best actors play real-life people whose faces and gestures and voices we know almost as well as we know our own family. The issues presented are engaging in their own terms and as reflections of our time but because of the impenetrable glossiness of the script it never does what Lucille Ball was so good at — making us love her.

Note: It is interesting that three of the biggest end-of-year films were made by adults about their parents: “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and this film, produced by Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, frank sexual references, including adultery, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which problem was the most difficult? Which relationship was the most functional?

If you like this, try: “I Love Lucy” and the TCM podcast about Lucille Ball, “The Plot Thickens,” season three. This is the episode about the accusations of communism. Watch “The Big Street,” the tragic drama where she plays a showgirl loved by a busboy played by Henry Fonda. My favorite of her movie performances is in the Tracy-Hepburn film “Without Love,” where she plays a whip-smart Washington liaison.

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Javier Bardem: Another Worst Movie of All Time Review

Posted on September 17, 2017 at 9:57 pm

I did not like Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” one bit and called it pretentious and self-indulgent. I’m in the minority among critics, most of whom admired it, though many said they found it confusing. Rex Reed, however, hated it even more than I did, calling it possibly the worst movie of the century.

An exercise in torture and hysteria so over the top that I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh out loud…with the subtlety of a chainsaw…two hours of pretentious twaddle that tackles religion, paranoia, lust, rebellion, and a thirst for blood in a circus of grotesque debauchery.

That reminded me of another review of a film also starring Javier Bardem, “The Counselor,” dubbed by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir not just “the worst movie ever made” but “a self-referential commentary on its own terribleness.”

Mr. Bardem, yes, you got an Oscar for the ultra-violent “No Country for Old Men,” but perhaps it’s time to try something different.

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Critics

mother!

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 8:27 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense, brutal, and graphic violence including murders of adults and a newborn, cannibalism, fire, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

Over the next few weeks, maybe over the next few years, you will see some thoughtful analyses and interpretations of “mother!” (lowercase m at the beginning, exclamation point at the end), examining the Biblical references and exploring the metaphors.  I look forward to these discussions and hope I will be persuaded.  But I was unable to find anything more in the film than pretentious, self-indulgent images with, for a movie about in some sense creativity, very little to say.

It’s a warning sign of precarious pretension when a film’s characters are not named and listed in the credits only as archetypes: mother, man, woman, him, younger brother, oldest son, good Samaritan, fool, wanderer, idler.  It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s a high bar to clear.  What might work as a horror story about a young, pure-hearted bride in a gigantic, isolated house who is confronted with various dread-inspiring elements both natural and supernatural in this case fails because it keeps telling us it wants to be more.  There’s some flashy cinematic flourish but very low octane.

Jennifer Lawrence is game and endlessly watchable as always, which is a good thing because most of the time the camera is close on her increasingly panicked face. She plays the title character, who is created out of dust as the house comes together from a wreck of ashes.  “Baby?” she asks tentatively and searchingly as she gets out of bed to look for her husband/partner, played by Javier Bardem.  He is a poet, acclaimed but currently blocked.  She is his endlessly devoted helpmeet, always working to restore the house or present him with wholesome meals or just encourage him.  

Their peaceful life is disrupted when a doctor with a bad cough (Ed Harris) arrives, later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, mesmerizing and terrifying), a couple who have some very serious boundary issues, to the point of being predatory.  Basically, they are the world’s worst and most annoying houseguests.  mother wants them to leave and cannot understand why poet would not check with her first. He seems unable to recognize how destructive they are.  He seems flattered by having them there.

Then the bad stuff begins to happen.  And then the really bad stuff begins to happen and keeps happening.  Writer/director Darren Aronofksy, who has explored themes of creativity and the line between passion and obsession in films like “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fighter,” and “Black Swan” may be trying to reach for overarching Biblical concepts here (he also made “Noah”).  But with the arrestingly staged but horribly violent last act and it’s not-to-be-revealed ending, it communicates something more like a defensive argument in favor of the right of creators to abuse those around them.  Not true, whether it’s family members or people in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, with murders of adults and a newborn infant, guns, fire, explosions, abuse, cannibalism, grisly and disturbing images, nudity, childbirth, brief very crude language, sexual references and explicit situations.

Family discussion: What does the ending signify?  Who do the couple represent?  What does the house represent?

If you like this, try: “Noah” from the same writer/director, “North Fork”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy Horror movie review

The Gunman

Posted on March 19, 2015 at 5:43 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality
Copyright Studio/Canal 2015
Copyright Studio/Canal 2015

Stars too often produce the kind of movie they want to star in, instead of the kind of movie anyone wants to watch. Co-writer/producer/star Sean Penn is clearly trying to make The Gunman a thinking person’s thriller. You can hear the pitch: a serious look at the exploitation and corruption of emerging economies with lots of slammin’ action! And a chase scene/shootout set at a bullfight!

Unfortunately, it fails as both political drama and action movie. The romance isn’t much, either. Its primary interest is in the many opportunities to see how buff Penn has become. If he had applied as much attention to beefing up the script as he did to beefing up his arms and abs (and showing them off in a surfing scene and a shower scene), the movie would have been much more than this week’s AARP action thriller. Instead, he hired Liam Neeson’s “Taken” director to stage a lot of shootouts in various locations. Been there, seen that, it was better.

Penn plays Jimmy, part of a team providing security in 2006 for humanitarian relief workers in the Republic of Congo, where we are informed that corruption and unrest are rampant in “the world’s deadliest conflict since WWII.”

Jimmy is very much in love with a gorgeous doctor with a beatific smile and gloriously tousled curls named Annie (Jasmine Trinca). She is so beautiful and adores him so completely that we know the moment she says, “See you later,” something will intervene. In case we missed that portent, Jimmy says, “I got a feeling we’re going operational.” He and his team have what we will learn is a “parallel contract with the mining interests.” Machete-wielding marauders create terror everywhere. But corporations with huge revenues at stake are sometimes the beneficiaries of unrest, and sometimes the cause of it. Jimmy is soon “into the wind” following assassination of a political leader who was cancelling all existing agreements with corporations extracting valuable minerals.

Eight years later, Jimmy is back helping to dig wells when three killers come after him, and he realizes that the powerful people who hired him to murder to protect their interests may now have decided to hire someone else to protect their interests further by making sure he never tells anyone what he did for them.

There is some potential in the premise, but it is quickly jettisoned for mind-numbing run-with-a-gun shoot-em-up scenes as battalions of Kevlar-vested guys with automatic weapons come after him. Somehow, he always manages to not only run between the bullets but overpower and outsmart the bad guys, even though he is suffering from brain damage and headaches, except when he isn’t.

He visits his former colleagues so that they can either help him out or try to kill him. Meanwhile, Annie serves the retro girlfriend role: unquestioning adoration, taking her clothes off, hiding behind him, and being taken hostage. And Idris Elba is wasted in a small role that primarily consists of a speech about building a treehouse, but at least he gets to talk about something, which is more than you can say about the Africans in the film.  For a movie that is supposed to be politically significant, it’s awfully retro-colonialist.

In the closing credits we are helpfully informed that despite the climactic bullfighting scene, Barcelona no longer allows bullfighting within its jurisdiction. No such disclaimers are made about the various atrocities — political, corporate, or cinematic.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong violence with many characters injured and killed, assorted different weapons, torture, execution and assassination, references to rape, a sexual situation, drinking, smoking, pharmaceuticals, and constant strong language.

Family discussion: How did Jim, Cox, Felix, and Stanley respond differently to the choices they made? What efforts are underway to provide more transparency in the impact that multinational corporations have in emerging economies?

If you like this, try: “Blood Diamond” and “The Constant Gardener”

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Drama Movies -- format Thriller

The Counselor

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealers, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic and disturbing violence with characters injured and murdered, decapitations, guns, sexual violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2013

the-counselor-posterCormac McCarthy’s spare, bleak, and very literary prose has made for some compelling cinema, most effectively in No Country for Old Men and The Road and the adaption of his play for an HBO movie, The Sunset Limited.  In his first original screenplay, he shows his flair for dialog that is half gangster, half poetry, but he is still more writer than visual story-teller.  He needs to learn to trust the audience.  If you show something, you don’t have to tell it, and you certainly don’t have to tell it more than once.  Some good ideas and some gorgeous talk get lost in an awkward, over-the-top, you’ve got to be kidding me mess.  Other writers are better at adapting his ideas for film than he is.

Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a handsome lawyer with a lot of low-life clients and a gorgeous girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) who adores him.  What he does not have is a name.  We never hear him called anything but “counselor.”  He does have — a very bad combination — a plan to get a lot of money very quickly, some friends and clients involved with some very bad people, and a wildly unrealistic notion that he can veer off of that path of what’s legal just one time and then get right back on.  If you have any confusion about what happens next, check your ancient Greek dramas with the hashtag #hubris.  Or, just listen to the loving description of a method of killing people from Reiner (Javier Bardem) that involves a wire noose that tightens inexorably around the neck.  METAPHOR ALERT.  Don’t even get me started on the diamond seller the counselor visits to buy an engagement ring, the one who explains that in the world of diamonds, what we look at are the imperfections, sells him a cautionary stone, and tells the counselor, “We will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.”

Renier also has a girlfriend named Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who not only MORE METAPHORS COMING loves to watch her pet cheetahs chase and devour jackrabbits but has cheetah-themed tattoos and eye make-up, a gold tooth, and an amber ring the size of a cheese sandwich. She also brings new meaning to the term “auto-erotica” in a crazynutsy scene narrated by Bardem that is literally over-the-top.  Note: Diaz is very limber and has lovely long legs.  “I asked her whether she had ever done anything like that before and she said she had done everything before,” Renier says, a little dazed.  Also, the drug smuggling involves trucks carrying human waste and occasionally a dead human body.  On the side, it says, “We pump it all!”  Is it just me, or is that a METAPHOR, too?  Did I mention Renier lives in a glass house?

Ridley Scott’s direction, the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, and outstanding performances keep the movie watchable, even when it isn’t working, until the literary pretentiousness overcomes it with a series of speeches near the end that tip the scales from poetic, and ironic to purplish and self-parodying.  In small roles, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, and Natalie Dormer create vivid characters who evoke the work the counselor thought he could keep himself apart from and does not realize he has already been changed by.  “If you think that, Counselor, that you can live in this world and not be a part of it, you are wrong,” Renier tells him.

McCarthy knows this is a world where the problem that brings you down is one that in normal world would be quickly explained and quickly forgiven.  These people do not believe in explanations.  “They’re a pragmatic lot.  They don’t believe in coincidences. They’ve heard of them.  They’ve just never seen one.”  There are no second chances.  And then, as Renier explains, “it’s not that you’re going down.  It’s about what you’re taking down with you.”

I enjoyed the elliptical epigrams tossed around by the characters, especially Brad Pitt’s cowboy, a loner who has a bit more perspective than the others.  “How bad a problem?” the counselor asks the cowboy.  “I’d say pretty bad.  Then multiply it by ten,” he answers.   These are people who expect they are being listened to by law enforcement, so it makes sense that they would corkscrew their communications.  And it was fun to see the actors having fun with their roles, especially Diaz, with her asymmetric hair, cut to a point that looks like it could etch metal, swanning into a church to try out this confession idea she had heard about.  With all the flamboyance, though, the movie’s best moments are the quiet ones.  Everything ends up turning on a decision that was not really a mistake.  And the most terrifying moments are not the ones with spurting blood or automatic weapons.  They are a quiet phone call and a simple, “Hola!”

Parents should know that this film is an extremely violent crime drama with very disturbing and graphic images including decapitation. Many characters injured and brutally killed.  It includes guns, crashes, drug dealing, drinking, smoking, very explicit sexual references and situations, and very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Who suffered the most? Why do we never learn the counselor’s name?

If you like this, try: “No Country for Old Men” and “The Lincoln Lawyer” and the books of Cormac McCarthy and James M. Cain
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Crime Drama Movies -- format Thriller
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