Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Movie and TV Reviews: Being the Ricardos, The Duke, Encanto, Licorice Pizza, Marry Me, Worth, ...

Being the Ricardos: This is an Aaron Sorkin biopic about Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and the other cast and crew of the iconic show I Love Lucy. The film is about the week leading up to one episode of the show: the table reads, the production, the blocking, the run-throughs. It is also about three crises facing the Ricardos that week (historically, they were actually in different weeks, but they were shoehorned into one to add drama): The media is alleging that Desi is cheating on Lucy, the media has picked up that Lucy was once registered as a communist (to please her uncle), and Lucy and Desi want to incorporate Lucy's new pregnancy into the show, which may cause trouble with some conservative segments of the viewing public. It also highlights Lucy's keen insight into exactly how to run the show, from the media issues down to the actors movement in specific scenes.

Aaron Sorkin's name comes first in the previous paragraph because his heavy-handed touch nearly ruins this film. If you've never seen another Sorkin production (The West Wing, Sports Night, Molly Bloom, etc) you will find nothing wrong with this movie. If you have, it will be difficult to watch this movie and disappear into the characters, because every time one of them opens up her/his mouth you hear the characters from Sorkins' other movies speaking. In other words the characters are not new, fresh characters or biopic approximations of the original. Instead they are collections of witty dialog with certain personal characteristics.

It is a tight production, highly dramatic with snappy dialog and good acting ... i.e. a Sorkin production. But he gives the actors the same lines and characters that he gives in all of his movies, much in the way that Woody Allen did. I just didn't feel this was Lucy Ricardo. It is still fine to watch once.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus (TV series): This show is set between the two Blade Runner movies. A girl has amnesia and flashes of being a replicant. She goes to seek vengeance on people who abused her, and to seek answers as to who she is. She meets help, and kills enemies, along the way.

Blade Runner purists are like purists everywhere: they don't like anything that is not a perfect extension of what they already know, and they hate strong female characters. So they didn't like this. Some of them also abandoned the show after the first 1 or 2 episodes because there are no blade runners until the 4th or 5th episode.

Some of them also didn't like the show because the animation quality is not "great", which may be true if you are familiar with many other anime series, but not true if, like me, you are not. It seemed fine to me. And because the action was "like a video game", which is may be true if you are familiar with many video games ... ditto.

I thought there was too much violence in some of the episodes, the first in particular. And the story arc teases some characters as important who turn out to not be. Other than that, I thought it was fun, captivating, and captured the Blade Runner world well. Lots of atmosphere, callbacks to the movies, and the same general plot about replicants, police, a big corporation, and a seedy underworld. The story is not wholly original or deep; not all of the 13 episodes are essential viewing. But I enjoyed it, and I think if you are a fan of the movies - but not a purist - you will like it.

The Book of Boba Fett (TV series): The Mandalorian was the best thing in Star Wars since the original trilogy, and I had hopes for this. As we learned in that series, Boba Fett somehow escaped from the Sarlac pit and stayed on Tatooine to take over the Hutt operations on the planet. He has an assassin for help, Fennec Shand. In this series, he walks about Mos Isley trying to assert his authority but running into resistance of various kinds. The backstory of what happened to him to get to this point is also part of the first 4 episodes, out of 7.

The first 4 episodes are fine. Not great television if you are not already a Star Wars fan. The story meanders from past to present. The backstory is a traditional story of an encounter with the natives and being taken into their tribe (Sand people). The present is mostly introducing characters for some eventual conflict. Not as bad as some people made out, but somewhat mediocre, not essential viewing.

Episodes 5 and 6 had nothing to do with Boba Fett, at all (he gets like 10 seconds of screen time altogether in both episodes). Instead, we get the continuing story of the Mandalorian, and it is fantastic. Then, in episode 7, you get a merged story of both of them: The Mandalorian, Boba Fett and his crew, and the big conflict this was all leading up to. It was good.

I think you can skip the first 4 episodes and just watch the last 3. You won't miss much. if you are a Mandalorian fan, you must watch the last 3 episodes, at least. And here is looking forward to the next season of The Mandalorian.

Duke, The: The essentially true story of a pensioner (Jim Broadbent) in Newcastle Upon Tyne who, in 1961, steals an expensive painting from the British National Gallery in London with some idea of forcing the British government to make the TV tax free for veterans and the elderly. The government thinks they are dealing with a sophisticated art theft gang and are shamefaced when he turns himself in and returns the painting of his own volition.

Helen Mirren plays his very sour and ornery wife Dorothy. A host of other actors (the most famous of them being Matthew Goode) play family members, locals, and lawyer (Goode).

This is a light movie. Subplots include their daughter who died in a car crash (years ago) and a little about their sons who have their own relationships. Mirren's Dorothy is so mean-spirited and sour at the beginning of the movie that it nearly sunk it for me: too much negativity in a supposed comedy movie. But I made it through and I enjoyed it more in the second half. Okay to watch, not worth going out of your way for.

Encanto: A huge success of a Disney movie, about a multi-generational extended Colombian family that escaped some kind of conflict and ended up in a magical village with a magical house that protects them. The family owns the house, and the rest of village relies on them or something (not clear). Each member of the family has a magical gift that they gain when they come of age, ... except our protagonist, Mirabelle. Poor Mirabelle. And they don't talk about Bruno, an uncle whose magic was predicting calamitous events (mostly minor ones) and who seems to have disappeared.

One day Mirabelle sees cracks appearing in the house. And she tries to find out why and how to save it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the songs, many of which are super good. I am not a fan of his endless rap-style narrative songs (Hamilton, In the Heights), but the score was done by someone named Germaine Franco, which must have helped. I say many of the songs were good: they were all good, but some of them, particularly the first song, had voices that were too low or too fast and I literally did not understand a word they were singing until the second of third time that I watched the movie (or until I looked up the lyrics online).

Not all of the movie makes sense, especially the central conflict. I don't really understand who learned what or why, or what changed. But it was pretty, colorful, tuneful, with sweet, pathetic, or vibrant songs, and it was fun to watch.

Hawkeye (TV Series): Another Marvel TV series. I saw a few episodes of Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones, but I never watched the rest of these series. I saw the entirety of Wandavision, which I most enjoyed (more after the first 3 episodes), and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which was mediocre okay except for the last episode which was silly.

This series was probably the best of the bunch. This may be due to the charming Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop, who joins Hawkeye as a fellow archer protege, and the captivating Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova out to kill the man (Hawkeye) who killed her sister (Natasha Romanoff).

Kate runs into a criminal organization selling black market extraterrestrial tech from the NYC event (Avengers) and tries to get involved, as does Hawkeye. The plot is not that important, serving as a basis for scenes between: Hawkeye and Kate, with Hawkeye trying to keep Kate out of the way as he does serious work, while she wants to help; between Hawkeye and Yelena and between Yelena and Kate, who arrives as a wildcard to complicate matters; and between Kate and her mother and her mother's boyfriend, who may be involved with the criminals. And some Avengers cosplayers. And lots of quips and archery.

Wandavision is still the most original of these shows. This one is simply tight and well-structured. Worth watching is you enjoy the Marvel movies.

Licorice Pizza: This is a weird comedy hi-jinks movie. It is wild, original, infused with historical 1970s California detail, and full of frenetic energy. It is partly about Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour), a 15 year old boy who is a driven entrepreneur and child actor. He spends some of his time pursuing some kind of relationship with Alana (Alana Haim, from the music group), a 25 year old who floats between jobs, including photographer's assistant, political campaign assistant, and working for Gary. He spends part of his time creating businesses, such as mattress store and a pinball parlor. And it is partly about Alana and her family and choices. And it is partly about early 1970s Hollywood and a lot of crazy people.

Speaking of parts, part of me didn't like this movie while I was watching it. The narrative wanders all over the place, the characters are often unlikable, and the plot is hard to follow. Another part of me was thrilled at watching something so interesting and unusual. It is atmospheric, with memorable scenes and characters. I really need to see it again.

Mind you, the premise of a 15 year old boy maybe having a relationship with a 25 year old woman is somewhat disturbing, and the movie doesn't do enough to make us think that there is a problem here. But I think an original film like this is worth watching, and I applaud its gumption. The supporting characters are played by some astoundingly great actors, including Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.

Mitchells vs. The Machines, The: This highly recommended film was disappointing, boring, bland, and stupid. It is action, gags, and shallow, heavy-handed family drama, the kind that changes tone too abruptly and too frequently to be funny. The kind that transparently and unsubtly tried to shove poignant emotions at you without going through the work of making you care about the characters. The kind of drama that makes no sense considering the context of what is happening on screen. The plot is unoriginal - an AI goes wild and sends robots around to kill everyone, and the child protagonists are the only ones who figure out how to stop them. Heard that one before?

It is also a tech based movie about runaway AI, so of course the tech also makes no sense, which doesn't matter but is annoying, nevertheless. It is nice that the unambiguously gay daughter is part of the family and not at all part of the plot, which is pretty groundbreaking for a family animated film. How this got so much praise from the critics is beyond me.

Marry Me: Jennifer Lopez plays a global pop star, about to marry a fellow global pop-star in a big televised on-stage wedding. Then she discovers he has been cheating on her. So she jumps at the chance to marry some dude in the audience holding a "Marry Me" sign in a leap of faith/moment of desperation/act of revenge/something. The sign-holder just happens to be a single dad (Owen Wilson) and a math teacher. And it wasn't even his sign (he was briefly holding it for his lesbian friend (Sarah Silverman)). He goes along with it ... out of compassion for someone who is in trouble, or something?

This movie makes no sense, from beginning to end. So many questions are just unanswered. Why does she do this? Why does he do it? How is this legal? She doesn't know his name or if he is even single when they marry. Why would he do this without regard for his 10 year old daughter? Why does he leave the concert without his daughter? What's happening??

I hoped that, with suspension of disbelief at the initial premise, that I could flow with the rest of the movie and maybe that would make some sense. Unfortunately, this movie feels like it was written by the 10 year old daughter. It hits every romcom plot point without once making any character or narrative sense in how it gets there. No work is put into how they fall in love, or why one of them tries to break it off, or how they end up in each location. These things just happen.

It's a bad movie. Very bad. I enjoyed Jennifer and Owen on screen, because I think they have some charm. But that's about it. Sarah's ubiquitous over-presence was grating, sad to say.

Saint Frances: Bridget is a very sad 34 year old who gets an abortion. Then she gets a job as nanny to Frances, daughter of two very sad women, Maya and Annie. Everyone is always sad, except for Frances who is sometimes sad. Near the end, some people are occasionally less sad.

I had to stop watching this for a while so that I didn't kill myself. It is technically well put together, if kind of gross (too much period blood dealt with dryly and comedic) in some places. It is kind of a comedy, despite everyone being miserable. If you can survive the first three quarters, the last quarter yields some redemption. Although the characters are original, the story is really not. The couple may be lesbian, but the story remains the same. It was well acted and well cast. Worth watching if you can stomach it.

tick, tick, ... BOOM!: The first of the only two plays from Jonathan Larson, and the second that we can now watch as movies, the other one being Rent (tragically, Larson died a few days before Rent's theater run began). The movie version of Rent is a well known cinematography failure, even though the songs are good. This one also has good songs with a slightly less depressing story and, thankfully, adequate cinematography. Andrew Garfield stars as the frenetic optimist Jonathan Larson, who wrote this autobiographical story about trying to write his actual first play, which never went into production.

The movie includes performers who starred in Rent, as well as cameos from other Broadway performers. The story pays homage to Steve Sondheim, played by Bradley Whitford (and one actual voicemail recording from Sondheim himself).

If you like musicals, and particularly Larson's style of modern, gritty but hopeful NYC musical, this is a must watch. I enjoyed it.

Worth: The true story of a lawyer (played by Michael Keaton) who specialized in assessing the value of human life. He is hired to administrate the Sept 11 compensation fund. His job is to get 80% of the people to sign onto the fund. If they don't, then a) the airlines may go out of business, and b) individual expensive lawsuits may result in some or many of the victim's families getting little or nothing. And c) it is good, politically.

Of course, putting value on people's live makes the victims furious: why is a CEO worth more than a janitor in human terms? Is the money symbolic, compensatory, punitive, a coverup, or a relief? This was well made, but rather long for a story that could have been told in a half hour television episode. It doesn't hit that hard, but tackles the subject well enough. It's okay watching if it's on TV.

Turning Red: A Pixar movie about a Chinese-Canadian girl who is going through puberty. She discovers that her ancestor's totem of a red panda means that she actually turns into a big fat red panda whenever she gets emotional. She has friends, a tiger mother, plans to see a boy band, and assorted other relatives. She has to undergo a ceremony to get rid of this new panda curse, but until then she begins to control it and use it to get what she wants, economically and socially.

This movie is a big old bunch of metaphors, one of which is nearly explicitly spelled out in the film. The first time she "turns red" and tells her mother to stay out of the bathroom, her mother thinks she has had her first period and brings her medicine and pads. While it doesn't get more explicit than that, it is still quite a concept for a Pixar movie. But that's what this is all about, isn't it: she smells funny, she can't control her emotions, she has longings for boys, she isn't in control of her body, she hates how she looks, etc, etc. Metaphor, anyone?

Unfortunately, aside from the metaphors, the story and conflict are pretty banal. She hides what she is doing from, and lies to, her over-controlling mother, so naturally there is a blow up and then some mutual understanding. It's just that some of Toronto (circa 2002) gets wrecked in the process. It's nowhere near as interesting as Encanto, but fine for younger kids.