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Arts & Culture

New films offer diverse choices

Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) cope with personal and professional struggles during one tense week in the new film "Being the Ricardos."
Amazon Studios
A still from "Being the Ricardos." Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) cope with personal and professional struggles during one tense week in the new film.

Choose from Lucille Ball or sublime dramas

As studios gear up for the big holiday releases and Oscar hopefuls, new films are flooding cinemas, including Aaron Sorkin's "Being the Ricardos" and Japan's "Drive My Car," which screened earlier at San Diego Asian Film Festival. Plus, catching up with Jane Campion's "Power of the Dog."

'Being the Ricardos'

Without TV stations running "I Love Lucy" in constant syndication, it is possible that we now have a generation who has no clue who Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are. But back in the 1950s they were the stars and creators of one of America's top-rated sitcoms.


Aaron Sorkin's new film "Being the Ricardos" compresses multiple events into one grueling week for for America’s favorite power couple of the 1950s. The film is inspired by true events but they all just did not happen in one week. The format of the film is a kind of recreated documentary in which people (real people but now played by actors) who worked on the "I Love Lucy" show are being interviewed years after the events of 1952. So the converging dramas involve Ball being accused of being a communist, the show wanting to allow Lucy to be pregnant (which had never been done before), and Ball and Arnaz's marriage falling apart.

Sorkin is best known for TV's "The West Wing" and for recent films such as "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Here he serves up a mixed bag. The film boasts his signature sharp dialogue and snappy pace, and he serves up a truly fascinating behind the scenes look at the groundbreaking sitcom. He takes us into the writers room and lets us see the inner workings of the show and gives us a glimpse into America of the 1950s. This is an America where an accusation of being a communist could end a career and where networks felt audiences could not deal with seeing a woman pregnant on TV.

The film also offers insights into the creative forces behind the show. Arnaz gets a brief nod for his innovative three-camera shooting technique for the live sitcom but it is Ball who gets the main focus and we get to see her passionate commitment to getting the comedy absolutely right no matter what it takes.

I almost buy Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, the demanding professional who could spend days trying to perfect a single gag, but I don’t buy her as the brilliant queen of sitcom hijinks who made comedy seem effortless. If the film had just kept to the behind the scenes of the show then I would likely feel more enthusiastic about the film. But Sorkin insists on showing Kidman re-enacting a few famous moments from the show and that's where her performance falls flat and reminds me I am watching a movie with someone badly impersonating Lucy.

"Being the Ricardos" is worth seeing because it tells a good story. For audiences who have never seen an "I Love Lucy" show it may play differently than for someone like myself. I watched every episode of the sitcom repeatedly because my first job was to cut down the 16mm prints (which ran on a film chain back in the '80s) of "I Love Lucy" shows for syndicated runs on XETV Channel 6. I had also seen the shows on TV as a kid with my family so Ball's performances are etched in my memory and to see Kidman try to duplicate Ball's comic timing and clowning is just painful.

Nishijima Hidetoshi stars in the new film "Drive My Car."
Janus Films
A still from "Drive My Car." Nishijima Hidetoshi stars in this new film.

'Drive My Car'

I owe a huge thanks to San Diego Asian Film Festival artistic director Brian Hu for introducing me to Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Earlier this year he screened Hamaguchi's "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy" and "Drive My Car" and I fell in love with the filmmaker.

"Drive My Car" now opens at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and it merits watching on a big screen even though it is a film about small details. I know that people seem more inclined to watch big action films or CGI-filled epics on a big screen because the larger than life stories demand the expanse of a cinema screen. And while that is absolutely true, I would also argue that the very human-scaled drama of "Drive My Car" also is best appreciated on the big screen because Hamaguchi's subtle style of filmmaking requires your complete attention and people just don't pay the same attention to the home screen as they do to a film playing in a darkened theater. So please make an effort to see this in a theater to fully appreciate its delicate, nuanced structure.

The film focuses on Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and director struggling with a new production as well as memories of his actress wife. The film is slow and doesn't show its hand but your patience is richly rewarded with an exquisitely beautiful story about grief and loss and finding human connections.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a gruff rancher in Jane Campion's new film "The Power of the Dog."
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a gruff rancher in Jane Campion's new film "The Power of the Dog."

'The Power of the Dog'

Artistically, Hamaguchi's and Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" are kindred spirits. They both share a subtle grace of storytelling that is never direct and that always leaves asks the viewer to pay attention. So much of our current entertainment is about telling us what to think or feel that it is rare to find filmmakers that allow the audience to discover what their films are about. Neither "Drive My Car" nor "The Power of the Dog" announces what they are about and for some viewers they may never feel like the films are about anything. But both films allow us to carefully observe people and to gain insight into the complex way they function and interact.

"The Power of the Dog," which came out earlier and is streaming on Netflix, is a film that has the trappings of a western but it delivers little of what you might expect of the genre.

The film is an exploration of characters who say little and are struggling to find a place they feel comfortable. The two key players seem polar opposites. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a rough cowboy who boasts about never bathing and can't seem to be bothered with any pleasantries. In contrast Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is an effeminate looking young man who wears inappropriate white shoes around the ranch and makes beautiful paper flowers. Phil takes delight in teasing and tormenting Peter and encouraging others to do the same. But this is a film where nothing is quite what it seems and people are not always what they appear to be,

As with "Drive My Car," I don't want to say too much because part of what makes these films so delicious is the journey of discovery that they take you on. So seek out "Drive My Car" and "The Power of the Dog" for filmmaking that is simply divine.