By Lynn Venhaus

One of the best films of the year, “Being the Ricardos” defies expectations, and it’s exhilarating.

During one critical production week of their groundbreaking sitcom “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are threatened by shocking personal accusations, a political smear, and cultural taboos in Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes drama “Being the Ricardos.”

Because this biographical drama focuses on richly textured storytelling, an extraordinary ensemble goes beyond impersonations of the “I Love Lucy” cast to seamlessly weave potential personal and professional crises within one week’s time.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin has brilliantly constructed how household names Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz coped with damaging headlines while filming their groundbreaking television series that was seen by 60 million viewers each week.

The sitcom, which ran for six seasons from 1951 to 1957, was the first scripted television program shot on 35mm film in front of a studio audience and the first to feature an ensemble cast.

It was a big deal. One of the most influential shows in history, it was voted Best TV Show of All Time in a 2012 survey conducted by ABC News and People magazine. Fans remember certain episodes fondly – the unforgettable candy factory, Vitameatavegamin and grape stomping to name a few. (Don’t worry – fans get a taste).

Sorkin incorporates the Red Scare, courtesy of the hysteria caused by the House Committee on Un-American Activities by now disgraced Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as tabloid headlines screamed Lucy was a Communist – and powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell announced it on his weekly radio show.

Sorkin also depicts how cavalierly women were treated in Hollywood in a sharp script that can resonate with modern audiences.

After five Emmy Awards for “The West Wing” and multiple Oscar nominations – and one win for “The Social Network,” his style is familiar – “Sorkin speak” – and it remains riveting.

Above all, the film concentrates on the relationships. The actors nimbly deliver the material to make it sing – and zing.

Lucille Ball is portrayed as a talented creative force who struggled to be taken seriously in a male-dominated business in the early days of a young industry. She was tough, but she had to be, and fought for what she wanted.

The time is 1952, and the creative team gets everything right about the period – including attitudes and social mores.

And so do the actors — three Academy Award winners and one Tony Award winner deliver a master class on portraying four real people from the inside out.

Proving the naysayers wrong, Nicole Kidman may make believers out of her harshest critics with her multi-layered portrayal. She shows us different facets of Lucy’s life – the wife, mother, performer, and producer.

Kidman works fluidly with equally magnetic Javier Bardem as her mate and business partner, and he’s an indelible Desi Arnaz – he captures the savvy producer, protective husband, charismatic singer, vivacious musician, and a Cuban immigrant torn from his former life.

A pioneering power couple, both were driven, intelligent people who blazed trails and envisioned the big picture. They had a tempestuous hot-cold relationship that affected their careers and didn’t last in their personal lives. Sorkin honors them as visionaries while not sugar-coating their issues.

As the show’s sidekicks Fred and Ethel Mertz — the Ricardos’ landlords – William Frawley and Vivian Vance were further from their character’s reality than the public knew.

As hard-drinking, sarcastic veteran Bill Frawley, ace character actor J.K. Simmons is a terrific grumpy old guy with little tolerance for fools – yet a softer, wiser man when letting his guard down. He’s a certain supporting actor nominee, and awards nominations should be forthcoming for all.

A spirited Nina Arianda, 2011 Tony Award winner for “Venus in Fur” in her first Broadway role, knows exactly who Vivian was and honors the second-fiddle actress while announcing her arrival in a major way.

TV was just beginning to be a force for societal change, and “I Love Lucy” was the biggest show on television at that time, the gem in CBS’s crown.

Back then, the sitcom’s premise was different – As the wife of Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, Lucy tries to help him succeed in show business but usually gets in a pickle, driving her husband crazy. She usually enlisted best gal pal Ethel Mertz – her neighbor – in the shenanigans.

When the Ricardos welcomed little Ricky back in 1953, it was a major TV event. This film shows how the sausage was made, so to speak – the network brass dealing with Lucy’s real-life pregnancy in a typical tone-deaf way indicative of the times.

The supporting cast excels at revealing the period restrictions, and the dilemmas involved in running a successful TV show. Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play crucial staffers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr. as their young selves while John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox play them as older retirees looking back.

As director, Sorkin shows us the writers’ room and the soundstage, then opens the doors on their personal life – and their Hollywood back stories. It’s a revealing glimpse into the personalities as well as Lucy’s comedic genius and Desi’s practicality focused on moving the show forward.

This is only his third film directing, and most accomplished work to date (“Molly’s Game” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” preceded it.)

In a clever move, Sorkin displays Lucy’s thought process on making scenes work – and often better. Alan Baumgarten’s editing and Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography are exceptional in this regard, but every element – Jon Hutman’s production design, Susan Lyall’s costume design and Daniel Pemberton’s music score come together in a top-tier polished way. Most have worked with Sorkin before.

As is well-documented, the Arnaz’ marriage didn’t survive – and we see why here. In this case, Desi has more explaining to do than Lucy.

And Sorkin took creative liberties with the storyline – the events happened, but not in seven days. But it’s fascinating nonetheless and a well-crafted showbiz drama. Comedy is not pretty, Steve Martin titled his third comedy album in 1979, and this film certifies that to be true.

Above all, the film serves up a fresh appreciation for the talented pair. Engaging and entertaining, “Being the Ricardos” is a lush look at legends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the way they were at a crossroads time in America.

“Being the Ricardos” is a 2021 drama directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, its run time is 2 hours, 11 minutes and is Rated R for Language. In theaters on Dec. 10 and on Amazon Prime on Dec. 21. Lynn’s Grade: A.

 The Critics Choice Association has announced the additional honorees and presenters that will join, virtually, the third annual Celebration of Black Cinema on Tuesday, February 2, 2021.  The ceremony will be hosted by author and media personality Bevy Smith

Following its invitation-only digital premiere, the event will be shared with the public on KTLA and offered to all Nexstar Media Group television stations.  KTLA will air the 90-minute Celebration of Black Cinema special in Los Angeles on Saturday night, February 6th.   

Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) will receive the Performance of the Year Award for his magnetic and heartbreaking portrayal of Levee, an ambitious musician struggling to earn the recognition he deserves in a world, and a recording studio, built against him.  

A special donation in Chadwick Boseman’s name will be designated to provide scholarships to students participating in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Gold Program.  The Academy Gold Program is an industry talent development, diversity and inclusion initiative to provide individuals, with a focus on underrepresented communities, access and resources to achieve their career pathways in filmmaking.   

Zendaya & John David Washington (Malcolm & Marie) will receive the NextGen Award for their work on the highly anticipated Malcolm & Marie, which was filmed safely amid the pandemic and became one of the most sought-after projects of the season.  Washington and Zendaya portray a filmmaker and his girlfriend returning home from his movie premiere and awaiting the critical response. 

Shaka King (Judas and the Black Messiah) will receive the Director Award for his visionary telling of the story of American civil rights leader Chairman Fred Hampton, iconic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was ultimately killed in 1969. 

Tommie Smith (With Drawn Arms) will receive the Social Justice Award.  An iconic athlete and activist, in With Drawn Arms, Smith reflects on his iconic fist-thrust silent protest on the medal stand during the nation anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics, a moment that helped define the civil rights movement. 

The Celebration of Black Cinema honorees will be fêted by a prestigious group of presenters who will celebrate their work and their ongoing commitment to telling Black stories on film, including Nnamdi Asomugha, Lee Daniels, Michael Ealy, Dominique Fishback, Taraji P. Henson, Daniel Kaluuya, Jonathan Majors, Kemp Powers, Aaron Sorkin, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Williams, and George C. Wolfe

As previously announced, the event will recognize Delroy Lindo (Career Achievement Award), John Legend & Mike Jackson (the Producers Award), Tessa Thompson (the Actor Award), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (the Breakthrough Award), Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli GoreeAldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom, Jr. (the Ensemble Award),and Andra Day (Special Honoree Award). 

About the Critics Choice Association (CCA) 

The Critics Choice Association is the largest critics organization in the United States and Canada, representing more than 400 television, radio and online critics and entertainment reporters. It was established in 2019 with the formal merger of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, recognizing the blurring of the distinctions between film, television, and streaming content. For more information, visit: www.CriticsChoice.com

By Lynn Venhaus

A civics lesson for the ages, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s riveting account of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a potent examination of injustice during a politically charged time of civil disobedience. Through the lens of a riveting courtroom drama, the film is an acting showcase and one of the best films of the year.

And because the maestro is Sorkin, the film is also a discourse on cultural revolution and political theater, all while working in the confines of a true story. Because it is not a documentary, some of the timeline jumps around and incidents are embellished, but trial transcripts are used, along with archival footage, to create an authentic portrait.

In August 1968, several activist groups opposed to the Vietnam War converged at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – the Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by radical revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), led by older conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).  Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), leader of the Black Panthers, is also present but not connected with the others. They, along with eventually acquitted Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), are the Chicago 8. Seal’s case would later be declared a mistrial, thus leaving seven.

Demonstrators violently clashed with police in and around Grant Park, which was captured on live television and the reason for a courtroom circus the next year after Nixon was elected President. Using a new law, the eight are charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot. 

The infamous 1969 trial, orchestrated by Nixon’s Department of Justice, is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). The legal eagles are civil rights attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Ben Weinglass (Leonard Shenkman) for the defense and Justice Department prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie).

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cr. Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

The casting is impeccable. Sorkin’s breakthrough was the play “A Few Good Men” in 1989, later a movie. Known for “The West Wing,” he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “The Social Network.” With his fast-paced dialogue and customary insightful monologues, Sorkin’s original screenplay now vaults to leading awards contender. It is a marvel of nuance and first amendment passion, focusing on change – how people make it happen.

Sorkin immerses us in the atmosphere of the ’60s volatile times, as dissent grew throughout the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, followed by the killing of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy two months later. More anti-war activists took to the streets when the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated. But “the Establishment” attacked free speech and peaceful protests, fearing anarchy and widespread unrest.

His dialogue, nimbly spoken by this extraordinary ensemble, astutely advances character development and shows the duality of law – when it works in a courtroom, and when it doesn’t. With such a large cast, Sorkin has managed to bring out the distinct personalities of the iconoclast rebels.

Sorkin has shrewdly opted to concentrate only on the present with the major defendants, providing little backstory to their rise as movement leaders. While everyone snugly fits their roles, stand-outs are Eddie Redmayne as fervent Tom Hayden, convinced working inside the system is the right conduit for progress, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the mouthy disrupter Abbie Hoffman, who mastered media for his own purposes. Their different approaches lead to confrontations but ultimately, they are on the same page.

As the clearly biased tyrannical judge, Frank Langella is chilling as a man who thinks he does not discriminate but his cruelty to Seale suggests otherwise. Mark Rylance, Oscar winner for the 2015 “The Bridge of Spies” and three-time Tony Award winner, will likely score nominations for his remarkable portrayal of impassioned lawyer William Kunstler.

Abdul-Mateen II, who won an Emmy for HBO’s “Watchman,” is powerful in his silence as Seale and bears the brunt of the injustice during the trial. Seale, who co-founded the Black Panthers in 1966, was just in Chicago to give a speech and did not know the other guys.

Alex Sharp excels as the dedicated Rennie Davis, who is less flashy than the other counterculture activists but whose involvement is significant nonetheless. Sharp won a Tony Award for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in 2105.

Sorkin had only directed once before, 2017’s “Molly’s Game,” an uneven but interesting account of a true story. For this legal drama, he keeps the courtroom scenes taut and the street scenes intense and chaotic.

Sorkin gets terrific assistance from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot last year’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” and editor Alan Baumgarten, known for other Sorkin films and “American Hustle.” Composer Daniel Pemberton scores the action with the right tempo without using popular protest music from the times.

As an important acknowledgement of this case in America’s evolution, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” conveys precious civil liberties. And demonstrates what makes compelling stories – Americans speaking out, what inspires revolution and why civil discourse matters.

Sasha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a courtroom drama based on real events, directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. It starts Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie and Ben Schenkman. Rated: R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug us, The runtime is 2 hr. 10 min. Lynn’s Grade: A
Available in select theatres Oct. 9 and on Netflix Oct. 16.