Cinema Dispatch: 2021 Catch Up (Part 2)

January is still proving to be a rough month across the board, so we’re gonna continue our look back 2021 with a few more movies that I missed!  Will some of them be contenders for the end of the year lists I’ll be putting together very soon?  Let’s find out!!

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Being the Ricardos

Being the Ricardos is owned by Amazon Studios

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are about to have a rough week making their show I Love Lucy when a local news station accuses Lucille of having ties to the Communist Party.  Couple that with tabloids about Desi’s behavior, fights with the network over content, and a director that really gets under Lucille’s skin, and there may not be a show to put on by the time it goes to air!  Can Lucy and Desi smooth through all of these problems without alienating the people who help them make the show, and is there more at stake than their careers if things go badly?

Aaron Sorkin has always been fascinated with the inner workings of organizations that carry a lot of public weight; places where hiding the turmoil behind the scenes is just as important as anything else they are doing.  It seems almost natural that he’d turn that fascination even more inward with a movie about the field he’s most familiar with, television productions, and while there are some Sorkin-esque flaws in this movie, I think the material has steered him into making one of his best works.  Lucy and Desi, at least as they are portrayed in this movie, are fascinating characters with deeply compelling inner lives, and the movie makes no bones about singing their praises throughout.  Whenever they clash with the network over their creative vision for the show, it’s played with reverence as these victories did end up revolutionizing television and American culture, and Sorkin definitely uses this story to indulge in his favorite topics.  Strong men and women with sharp tongues and even sharper wits sticking it to the old guard to make way for the next generation is well-worn territory for him, but the fact that he’s drawing from real things that other people did tempers that enthusiasm and so it comes off as genuinely important rather than mere wish fulfillment.  Now that’s not to say he doesn’t exaggerate in places as the film does lack a certain sense of authenticity.  Clothing, technology, and even a lot of the attitudes do fit in with the time period, but it never quite feels like a period piece with Sorkin’s dialogue being what it is, and the overall look and feel of the show just feels too modern.  I don’t know if there are HD transfers of I Love Lucy, but I’m guessing they don’t look this crisp and they certainly weren’t shot in widescreen.  Still, even if it’s a bit showy in places where it probably wasn’t in the real-life story, Sorkin’s overly enthusiastic style fits with themes of the movie and his specific brand of dialogue creates a clear delineation between the deep and flawed people who make the show and the more modest caricatures they bring to life in front of cameras.  This is where the movie shines brightest, where these two people are darn near Herculean in their ability to solve problems, fight for what’s important, and smooth talk their way to getting what they want, but at the end of the day, when the cameras stop rolling and the lights turn out, they are still flawed people barreling towards an ending they are too scared to face.  Desi is madly in love with Lucille and Lucille is just as passionate about him, but Desi also can’t help but hurt her in ways that she cannot ignore.  This tension between the genuine love they feel and their uncontrollable selfishness (admittedly much more so with Desi than Lucille) is where the tragedy of this story ultimately lies and where the story is at its strongest.  This ends up being a double-edged sword however as the movie feels the need to be about more than just that and so it feels a bit scattershot and overstuffed with subplots and characters that don’t have the impact you would expect them to given the prominence of certain scenes.  The big red elephant in the room is the Communist allegations which are what kicks off the movie and you assume it’s what the whole thing is going to be about, but that ends up fading into the background as the network stuff and the relationship between Lucy and Desi end up pushing it to the background. It ends up being relevant only to the start and the end of the movie which is a bit of a shame as the fervor surrounding communism in the mid-twentieth century is certainly a frightening chapter in television history, but it at least ends on a very strong note and sets us up for a pretty big gut punch right at the end of the movie.  It’s certainly a flawed movie throughout, but it’s entertaining from the first frame to the final curtain call, and frankly, something that walks with confidence is more interesting to me than something safe; even if the former trips over itself a few times along the way.

4 out of 5

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Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho is owned by Focus Features

Directed by Edgar Wright

Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young fashion student arriving from the British countryside to pursue her dreams in London; a place that sixty or so years ago was the height of culture with sophisticated fashion, swinging music, and Sean Connery James Bond films still in theaters!  Today though it’s a bit less glamorous and Eloise finds it difficult to mesh with the girls in her dormitory, so she rents a modest room in the heart of Soho where she starts having dreams about a young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who lived there back in those golden days.  Everything seems to be fine at first with Eloise enjoying the vicarious thrill of living someone else’s life through her dreams, but things definitely take a turn for the worse as Sande’s life becomes more and more entwined with the dangerous underbelly just below the respectable façade of that era.  As Sandie’s life seems to be getting closer and closer to an end with each vision Eloise has, the darkness and horror she experiences start to bleed out into her waking life and so she must find a way to get justice for Sandie and give herself some peace of mind before the restless spirits from the past destroy her life in the present.

While most people really enjoyed Baby Driver, Edgar Wright lost me a bit with that one as the film just felt like too much of a departure from what I enjoyed about his work.  This one still feels like he’s on a far different path than when he was making movies like Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim, but I found myself connecting a lot more with its characters and themes.  What is initially pitched as a stylish but straightforward murder mystery with a time travel twist turns into a frighteningly complex emotional journey through stories of lost dreams, abuse, broken hearts, and lost lives; all of which meld rather seamlessly together in both Sandie’s story and Eloise’s.  The rose-tinted glasses of which we view any period of time (especially ones we ourselves weren’t there for) can be a shield to not just the genuine issues of that time but for the time we actually live in; preferring to go back to an idealized version of a time that never truly existed as we imagined it and is just as flawed and full of grief, pain, and horrors as the time we live in now.  It’s quite distressing to see Eloise have to learn this lesson in such a brutal and visceral way, and yet the movie never sinks so far into its deeply dark subject matter that it becomes difficult to enjoy.  The filmmaking is always energetic and clever with moments of tension and even humor sprinkled throughout; all of which is a good thing as the lows wouldn’t mean as much if there weren’t a few highs to contrast it against, and this movie finds a fantastic balance between all its elements.  The only significant problem with this movie is the supporting cast as everyone outside of the core three or four characters feel like cartoons.  Wright has a co-writer on this so perhaps she knows more about it than I do, but none of the college kids in here seem to act like real people and are just on hand to fill the clichéd roles of The Bullies and The Love Interest.  The latter in particular seems to have no internal life of his own and is simply there to tag along with whatever ridiculous nonsense that Eloise ends up getting into; something that I could have bought if there was more of an established relationship between them, but they had only met a few days prior!  There’s a general air of unreality to the modern-day world that feels like Wright may have been trying to edge a bit closer to his Cornetto Trilogy roots, but it doesn’t gel very well with the more dramatic tone of this story and so the middle act feels a bit odd and tedious because of it.  Still, they salvage it with an incredibly strong ending that ties everything together in a beautiful and deeply bittersweet way, and frankly, a great ending with a slightly unwieldy second act is much better than a movie that stays strong throughout but falls apart right at the end.  It’s another movie that is certainly flawed in ways that it probably shouldn’t have been given how well everything else is handled, but there’s so much to enjoy and so many brilliantly executed ideas that it’s worth the occasional misstep to see just how well the filmmakers can bring a story like this to life.

4 out of 5

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Lamb

Lamb is owned by A24

Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson

A couple in Iceland is simply going through the motions of life as they work day in and day out on their sheep farm.  When helping one of the sheep through a difficult birth, Maria (Noomi Rapace) forms a strong connection to the lamb and soon her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) does as well; taking the lamb inside the farmhouse and raising it as if it was a baby of their own.  Over time the reality of the situation seems to slip further and further away as they are truly happy to live this fantasy as far as it will go, but the longer it goes on the harder it is to maintain as the real world keeps trying to burst this bubble they have crafted for themselves.  Can this little lamb be the emotional support they need to find their love of life again, or will this delusion keep them from ever finding their way back to the real world and ultimately destroy what was left of their lives?

A24 and I have something of a strained relationship.  On the one hand, they’ve made some of the best movies I’ve seen in the last few years like Uncut Gems, The Lighthouse, and even The Farewell, but they can also be very predictable in choosing a very specific style of movie that just drives me up a wall.  This is far from the worst that they’ve put out which would include movies like Hereditary and It Comes At Night, but it’s still a predictably mid-tier A24 film.  Where something like Last Night in Soho dealt with complex issues through metaphor and non-literal visualizations while at the same time giving us a fun and engaging story with interesting characters, this film seems content to only do the first half and expects its poignancy to carry us through the rest.  I understood what these characters had gone through as the movie is not particularly subtle about the nature of its metaphors, but I need more than just the fact that they suffered a tragedy to care about them and to want to see them through a feature-length movie.  Instead, we have a lot of the boring clichés that I often associate with indie movies; a languid pace, minimal and mumbly dialogue, and shots of the characters just doing stuff without any deeper meaning behind it.  Watching Ingvar drive a tractor and give water to the lambs perhaps gives us a little time to absorb his performance and to the weight that is on the character’s shoulders, but scenes like this simply drag on too long and the film is more than happy to get points across in the most inefficient way possible.  It’s not until the second act that things start to get interesting as the fantasy becomes more elaborate and the characters become more and more invested in maintaining it. The visual of the titular lamb is certainly striking once it’s fully conceptualized, and a character gets introduced about halfway through the movie that brings some much-needed liveliness to the film, but it only goes so far with the dark and twisted aspects before going back to a much more mundane sense of creeping dread.  There’s a pivotal scene right at the halfway point that is definitely the watershed moment of the movie where a character takes a truly despicable turn, but the movie continues to drag things out mercilessly after that and it doesn’t feel like a true escalation of events.  Perhaps I could have gone with the vibe and tone of this movie if the ending wasn’t a total non-sequitur, and while I’ll admit that the visual involved is unsettling and was a genuine surprise to see, it simply does not connect to the themes of the movie.  It doesn’t genuinely relate to the thematic consequences of the characters’ actions and instead just feels like we’ve entered an entirely different movie for the sake of shocking the audience.  Now is it possible that some of this movie simply went well over my head?  I suppose that could be the case, but there are plenty of movies I’ve seen this year that I understood and affected me on an emotional level without feeling so aggressively sparse, and the lack of genuine escalation means that there simply aren’t enough highs and lows to punctuate its story.  Despite my non-stop complaining here, I don’t consider this to be a bad movie and despite its indulgence in clichés I don’t enjoy, there is definitely something compelling about the premise and the performances manage to shine through at just enough points for them to come off as endearing.  It really just comes down to the filmmaking, and I think if someone like Robert Eggers got ahold of this premise then we could have had a best-of-the-year contender.  Even the best premise can be suffocated by a stuffy production, and this is one that definitely should have let its hair down and maybe put on a pair of fun sunglasses before giving us an air guitar solo.  Okay, maybe that would be too close to a Panos Cosmatos vibe, but I certainly wouldn’t say no to seeing his take on this!

2.5 out of 5

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