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.

By Lynn Venhaus
As far as big-budget cosmic spectacles go, “Dune” is impressive at filling the screen with wonder.

Directed by visionary Denis Villeneuve, who frames everything with meticulous care, as he did with “Arrival,” his only Oscar nomination, and “Blade Runner 2049” – the film is a technical marvel, with visually stunning panoramas and innovative flying machines.

A mythic hero’s journey, “Dune” is the big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 bestseller about a feudal interstellar society in a galaxy far, far away, which is set in a distant future.

It’s the story of Paul Atreides, a gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding. As part of the noble house of Atreides, he must travel to Arrakis, the most dangerous planet in the universe for the future of his family and people.

The desert wasteland planet has an exclusive supply of “mélange,” aka “the spice,” a drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities. As it is the most precious resource in existence, malevolent forces are at work to prevent this, and only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

Yet are these characters engaging enough? How much do we care about what happens to these political dynasties? They prefer to whisper in cavernous spaces, and while mesmerizing Zendaya’s narration helps, the project’s mythology on such an epic scale tends to weigh it down with “importance.”

Our hero’s journey is a very long one and we spend 2 hours and 35 minutes leading up to a next chapter. This is only Part One. We are warned at the end, when one character says to Paul: “You’re just getting started.” The payoff isn’t quite there – so when is Part Two?

We have just invested time on an extended prologue. Oh dear. Will only fans of the book be able to appreciate this saga? And isn’t that the true test? As is always the case, those not familiar with the source material will be at a disadvantage trying to keep up with the warring factions.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson

Considered the best-selling science fiction novel of all-time, “Dune” is gigantic in scope, and the 1965 cult classic touches on themes involving politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, threading them all together in space.

The empire’s other planets want control of Arrakis for its spice, which is also necessary for space navigation because of its multidimensional awareness and foresight.

“Dune” is only the first in a series, followed by Herbert’s five sequels: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. After his death, others have kept the franchise going.

Its devoted fan base inspired filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to attempt a film adaptation in the 1970s but it was cancelled after three years in development. Along came David Lynch’s complex adaptation in 1984, which was a harshly received misguided mess, and there was a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in 2000.

While light years ahead of the 37-year-old film, “Dune” does seem to have the same problem about adapting something so unwieldy – that the character development suffers.

It’s difficult to figure out the planetary relationships and who’s who among the different groups, even with a strong cast that attempts to make everything as lucid as possible.

This one does attempt to over-correct in a tedious way, with a screenplay by director Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange,” “Prometheus”) and Eric Roth, Oscar winner for “Forrest Gump,” that still is lacking in explanations.

Paul is played with youthful elan by Timothee Chalamet, who seems to be working non-stop. His character, burdened by birthright, is actually the least interesting of the massive ensemble – but the camera loves him, and he looks good standing in many shots of wind and blowing sands, contemplating.

Chalamet has genuine interactions with his father, an authoritative but loving Duke Leto Atreides, well-played by the always captivating Oscar Isaac. With warm fatherly advice, Isaac tells him: “A great man doesn’t seek to lead; he’s called to it.”

It’s not his fault that Paul is a blank slate. He is being groomed to take over, and while at times reluctant and confused, he ultimately accepts his duties. His mother, all-serious Lady Jessica, is a tough taskmaster, and subtly played by Rebecca Ferguson, they have a protective relationship.

Far more compelling is Jason Momoa as the fierce warrior Duncan Idaho. He brings some oomph to the fighter’s bravado and his fists of fury are legitimate. Momoa and Chalamet warmly convey a loyal long standing friendship.

Not given much to do is Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, the duke’s right-hand man, and Dave Bautista as antagonist Beast Rabben Harkonnen – along with Momoa, they are the recognizable fighters.

A barely there Javier Bardem is Stilgar, a leader of a desert tribe. An unrecognizable Stellen Skarsgard appears, Jabba the Hut-like, as the disgusting despot Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Harkonnens are the evil not-to-be-trusted bad guys.

The first hour is full of awe. But why do movies about the future tend to mix medieval and “Star Wars” knock offs in production design and costumes, similar to the “Game of Thrones”? The color palette is deary shades of gray, beige and black.

While that gets wearisome, the cinematography of Greig Fraser is dazzling. An Emmy winner for “The Mandalorian” and Oscar nominee for “Lion,” he expresses the grandeur of the planets’ landscapes as well as the more intimate moments in various degrees of light.

He worked on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the upcoming “The Batman,” so tackling sandworms and spaceships is natural for him. His majestic work is one of the pleasures of seeing this in IMAX.

Hans Zimmer’s score is a stirring mix projecting danger and derring-do in dissonant chords, setting an urgent tone for action.

Dune (2021).TIMOTHEE CHALAMET.Credit: Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

Despite its storytelling flaws, “Dune” is such a monumental example of state-of-the-art filmmaking that its cinematic universe deserves to be seen on the big screen.

“Dune” is a 2021 science-fiction action adventure directed by Denis Villeneuve. It stars Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson
, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, and Javier Bardem. Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material, its run time is 2 hours, 35 minutes. It opened in theaters Oct. 22 and is streaming on HBO Max for 31 days. Lynn’s Grade: B.