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Movie Reviews: New Releases for Dec. 10

Being the Ricardos, West Side Story, Don't Look Up and more

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Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos - AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Amazon Studios
  • Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos
Being the Ricardos **
The oeuvre of Aaron Sorkin will forever be a test of how much his skill with tart dialogue can balance his penchant for taking himself way too seriously. Like last year’s Trial of the Chicago 7, his latest is a historical drama based on real events—in this case, the revelation in the early 1950s that Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) was once a member of the Communist Party, threatening the hit I Love Lucy show built by her and husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). Flashbacks through the Ball/Arnaz relationship set the table for how working together became the best hope for their fragile marriage, and the tight time frame of a week on the set of I Love Lucy helps avoid the pitfalls of cradle-to-grave biopics. As entertaining as this experience is while characters are firing off zingers—and J.K. Simmons has particular fun as William Frawley—eventually it all comes down to whether there’s enough emotional resonance in hoping that Lucy can salvage the show where her sense of family has its only stability. And none of that really hits home, in part because it's structurally clumsy with a thoroughly pointless framing structure, though Kidman and Bardem are both perfectly solid at conveying the respective artistic and business smarts that made Lucy and Desi different. An amusing snippet of show-biz history gets unnecessarily puffed up on the question of whether the problems of two famous people amount to a hill of beans. Available Dec. 10 in theaters; Dec. 21 via Amazon Prime. (R)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don't Look Up - NETFLIX
  • Netflix
  • Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don't Look Up
Don’t Look Up **
If you’re going to do a contemporary spin on Dr. Strangelove—and make no mistake, the DNA of that darkly satiric classic is all over co-writer/director Adam McKay’s movie—you’d better have a far firmer hand on the tiller than McKay does here. The premise involves a pair of university-based astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) who discover a comet that is on a certain collision course with earth in 6 month—but getting anybody to take reasonable action proves difficult. While the pre-COVID origins of the story suggests that the response to climate change was the initial inspiration, the events of the pandemic certainly give it an extra boost as ignoring scientific evidence becomes a point of pride for one political side. And there are a couple of terrific performances, notably Mark Rylance as a tech billionaire and Jonah Hill as the chief-of-staff/idiot son of the president (Meryl Streep). But when you’ve got your sights set on a dozen different targets including social media, politicized science, money guiding policy, etc., you’d better be able to focus enough to let each point land, and McKay’s directing and editing choices are often incomprehensibly distracting. The few jokes that really land, including Ariana Grande’s bluntly profane protest song, get buried by storytelling that doesn’t earn its mix of absurdity and grim cautionary tale. Available Dec. 10 in theaters; Dec. 24 via Netflix. (R)

The Hand of God ***
Like many filmmakers before him, Paolo Sorrentino gets personal with a biographical story about the foundational events behind his art, and finds something consistently engaging even if the episodic coming-of-age structure feels a bit familiar. Sorrentino’s stand-in is Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), a teenager growing up in mid-1980s Naples where the challenges of his family life are set against the anticipation that soccer legend Diego Maradona might join the local Naples soccer team (the title is in part a reference to Maradona’s infamous 1986 World Cup goal). Odd little side trips abound, including Fabietto’s fascination with his lusty, emotionally unstable aunt (Luisa Ranieri) and his friendship with a cocky smuggler (Biagio Manna). And the anecdotes focused on his family life ring with the authenticity of real experience, like the notion that his older sister is never anywhere but in the bathroom, or the complicated relationship between his parents (Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo). As heartfelt as it feels, however, it also faces the challenge of a blank-slate protagonist—moseying along with his ubiquitous Walkman and headphones—mostly absorbing life experiences as we watch. There are bursts of life everywhere around Fabietto in The Hand of God, while he himself is mostly waiting to get a life. Available Dec. 10 at Broadway Centre Cinemas; Dec. 15 via Netflix. (R)

I Was a Simple Man **1/2
Not every movie was made for me; it helps to approach them with that simple humility, even if it doesn’t necessarily make me embrace them more. This one is set in Hawaii, where elderly Masao (Steve Iwamoto) faces terminal cancer, causing him to reflect on his life while he’s alternately cared for by his estranged daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo), and visited by the ghost of his late wife Grace (Constance Wu). Writer/director Christopher Makoto Yoki moves back and forth through time, touching on Hawaiian statehood in 1959 and the impact of impending World War II on the Asian diaspora in the islands, and along the way presents some lovely tableaux, and a sound design redolent with winds in the trees and surf crashing on the beaches. But the actual story remains too opaque for the relationships to connect: What was the impact of the Romeo & Juliet-esque dynamic of Japanese Masao running off with Chinese Grace on his failings as a father? What is Gavin actually thinking as he’s placed in the role of caretaker to a man he barely knows? There are a few resonant grace notes in the story, like the younger Masao attempting to connect with Kati the only way he knows how, over a pool table. But mostly, this feels like a story crafted in an emotional and/or cultural language I don’t speak, offered to me without subtitles. Available Dec. 10 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

National Champions *1/2
However noble an idea might be, it’s hard for that idea to sustain two hours of a movie if it consists of little more than righteous speeches. On the weekend leading up to the college football national title game, one team’s star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, LeMarcus James (Stephan James), pushes for a boycott by players, hoping to force the powers that be to compensate players like employees. And while LeMarcus tries to rally other players to his cause, those powers that be—Le Marcus’s coach (J.K. Simmons), a team booster (Tim Blake Nelson), a savvy attorney (Uzo Aduba)—try to maintain the status quo. Adam Mervis’ script attempts some feints and dodges as far as what information will be revealed about each character, and makes a big miscalculation with a subplot involving an affair between the coach’s wife (Kristen Chenoweth) and a university professor (Timothy Olyphant). Mostly, he’s got set pieces that allow everyone a chance to make a thesis statement, waving a hand at the notion that there are multiple sides to this issue when it’s always completely clear where his sympathies lie. It’s fine that this is a story completely unconcerned with on-field sports action, but in its place, there needed to be more than reading of editorials, however impassioned. Available Dec. 10 in theaters. (R)

West Side Story ***1/2
See feature review. Available Dec. 10 in theaters. (PG-13)