Thursday, July 27, 2023


Oppenheimer is a historical epic that largely keeps the epic off screen.The war is raging, but we don’t see it. High level conversations are happening, and we only sometimes hear pieces of them. Bold-faced names walk through, but as just a string of colleagues, allies, and foils. Its enormity comes from our, and their, understanding of its title figure’s accomplishments, and how the ramifications continue to reverberate. This is all about character—how one man moves through his life and, one step after another, brings about the possibility to destroy the world in an instant. That’s heavy. The film is written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who is good at affecting a popcorn seriousness. His films—Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, a list of some of the more imposing blockbuster efforts in recent memory—move with portent, images that land with sturdy thuds and soundscapes that simmer and tremble and rumble. He makes enveloping moods of iced surface sensation, vice-twisting tension, and looming doom. For this new movie, he’s found a subject beyond space, beyond comic books, beyond sci-fi conceits that lets his skills expand into tough terrain that matches his moods. Like Dunkirk, his other film set during World War II, Oppenheimer is seriously serious. But unlike that movie’s relentless action focus on combat and survival, this is a brooding character piece through which the fate of mankind runs, and as such carries within it a heaviness that accumulates until the entire weight of the three hour runtime lands so hard in its finality that its effect is hard to shake. The movie, like the man at its center, looks upon his mighty works and despairs.

Nolan’s approach—a cold-to-the-touch sentimentalism, or sweeping high-concept pessimism shot through with messy stuff of human feeling—is here comparable to David Lean’s epics. Like Lawrence of Arabia, we can find in this new picture a vivid historical recreation writ large and small—major, world-shaping events that flow through the intimate experiences of specific people. Here, with Oppenheimer, we see a man whose scientific brilliance got him the job of overseeing the creation of the atomic bomb. Nolan sometimes fills the screen with cutaways to swirling electrons, arcing sparks, water drops and ripples. We get the sense the film, like its subject, can see to the whirling atomic heart of things, past the illusion of so many molecules tricking us into thinking we are on solid ground. Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer with a casual confidence in his intellect. He struts around deep into his theories, but struggles with putting them into practice. He’s willing to let others check the math and do the lab work. Though a womanizer—both his wife (Emily Blunt) and mistress (Florence Pugh) are drawn into his off-kilter charisma—and able to talk his way into contact with all the top scientific minds of his time from Heisenberg to Bohrs to Einstein, he can also be grindingly aloof, and unaware of interpersonal graces. He wants to sink into the deeper philosophical heart of science. That explains how haunted his gaze grows, as the implications of his ideas’ practical import grow all the more tangible as they escape his mind and enter the world.

In short scenes and snappy exchanges lensed with vivd filmic tones and chilly glow by Hoyte van Hoytema, and set against a Ludwig Göransson score in constant motion, we see a career on the rise. Oppenheimer’s academic work is on a collision course with a war, and a need to press his research into militaristic utility. There’s momentum hurtling things along, even as we see his personal entanglements—affairs, insults, Communist meetings—are vulnerabilities that may come back to haunt him professionally and emotionally. As his talents are requisitioned by the United States government, represented primarily by a no-nonsense general played by Matt Damon, a secret desert laboratory is assembled along with a team of the nation’s top scientific minds (a cornucopia of character actors at their best, recognizable faces that serve as quick-flash characterization and memory aid to hold onto in the lengthy swirl of activity). The movie picks up even more urgency from its propulsive process there. It’s behind-the-scenes of a bomb, with trial and error and jangling nerves from competing egos and ideas. The enormity of their project’s consequences is ever-present. There’s incredible tension on all sides. They feel they must succeed at all costs. And yet, what is that cost?

Adding to the sense of hindsight, and sorrowful retrospection, is the structure. We see the story flashing back from two post-war times: in color, Oppenheimer’s attempt to renew his security clearance, and, in black and white, a Senate hearing considering for a prospective cabinet position a bureaucrat (Robert Downey Jr) who clashed with Oppenheimer. Their responses to official questions guide us into the story of the bomb’s creation, a long, clear-eyed swirl of small roles and vivid impressions culminating in a fearsome test sequence. Nolan stages several heart-stopping moments, with bomb tests and other concussive effects masterfully manipulated sound and fury. But the fire and brimstone filter into other moments as well, as the film’s period piece pleasures of documents and interrogations and tense debates are filtered through the subjective perspectives—nightmarish sequences of fearful visions, quick flashes of paranoid suspicions or haunted memories mixed in with the forward momentum of historical reenactments’ inevitabilities and the scientific method’s rigid mix of theory and practice. It’s a movie about chain reactions, both the atomic forces unleashed by Oppenheimer’s work, and also the politics and people who collide and combine to form our world, or destroy it.

Dolled Up: BARBIE

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a live-action cartoon philosophizing specifically about Barbie’s place in our culture, and gender performativity more broadly. In gleaming pink dollhouse sets against a painted sky, it is artifice in search of a truth. (Squint and you could call it Wes Anderson’s LEGO Movie.) It works, blending bright, sparkling silliness with clever ideas and even some moving earnest heart. That it manages to pull it off well is a post-modern two-step, setting up a dialectic—Barbie is a force for girlish fun and breezy empowerment versus Barbie as pernicious faux-feminist message in a materialistic patriarchal image—that’s somehow simultaneously criticism and advertisement. I’d like to hear how Barbie’s corporate owners let that happen. It’s both an obvious celebration of Barbie-land, and an overt problematization, a rich text that won’t stop explaining itself. The movie has characters flat out speak its ideas and debate their meaning, but it’s so nonstop funny and visually appealing that it rarely feels forced. We’re in a fizzy existential crisis for a movie that’s poppy and peppy and almost profound.

Gerwig opens the movie with gleaming fakery. After a 2001-style origin montage, which winkingly asserts the arrival of Barbie solved every girls’ real-world problems, we meet Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) living her Dream Life in her own little world. It’s a land full of Barbies—President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and so on—who rule every profession, and their doting Kens who stand around and smile. (The well-cast world is populated with charmers putting on their best plastic grins.) Every day is a beach paradise, and every night is a dance party. But one night, during a bopping choreographed number to an original Dua Lipa song, she’s suddenly aware of her mortality. As her worry only escalates the next day, she’s informed by Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) that she should go to the Real World and find her owner to fix this. The resulting story makes the boundary between her world and ours porous, as her new understandings earned through fish-out-of-water interactions also get into the heads of her fellow Barbies and Kens. Ryan Gosling’s Ken is a particularly amusing vector of this confusion, as he gets hyped up on harmful real-world masculine stereotypes and turns from a purposeless accessory to an amped up parody of maleness. Other Barbie associates always seemed aware of their vestigial status, like real discontinued Ken friend Alan (Michael Cera), and the world-building is so loose and light that the very emptiness of these figures is the point.

While our world’s gender politics intrude on the oblivious Barbie’s consciousness, the movie introduces a real woman (America Ferrera) and her teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) who alternately reject and entertain the fantasy Barbie offers. Here’s that dialectic, as Gerwig’s broad screenplay pushes and pulls at the delights and the dangers of the Barbie society, and our own. The CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell) wants her back in the box, so to speak, but she’s starting to think she doesn’t like it there. The movie gives Robbie a deceptively complicated part to play—the perfect doll, then the plucky doubter, all while teasing out the slow crumbling of her facade. It’s strangely moving to see. We project so much, for good and ill, on this toy. To see Robbie bring a sense of interiority to the plastic ad-spread design is to see fifty years of feminism collapsing in on her. But there’s a bubblegum snap to the writing, co-scripted by Noah Baumbach, that never lets us forget the silliness of its construction. And there’s inventive filmmaking that continually reveals surprises in cartoony tableau and theatrical flourishes (even a climactic dream ballet), a sparkling, knowing campiness that melts into something genuine about purpose and connection and mothers and daughters and growing older. Gerwig, with Lady Bird and Little Women, made movies that glow with inner life, and here she finds that spark in plastic hearts. Or, to put it even more accurately, the spark is how those plastic people reflect and refract our own self-images. After all, who wants to be boxed in by other’s expectations?

Friday, July 21, 2023

Accept It:

I tend to love when a long-running franchise finds its melancholy, and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is no exception. The Tom Cruise action series has been reliably exciting, allowing his star persona to hone and sharpen along with his super-spy Ethan Hunt. They’ve fused as a man of singular focus and determination, willing to throw himself—literally his whole body—into pulling off incredible stunts. Hunt does it to save the world. Cruise does it to save the big screen blockbuster. Well done, both. The last few Missions Impossible, under the guidance of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, have been sharply cobbled together with an excellent sense of escalating stakes, clever crescendos of momentum, and suitably coherent spectacular action—always with a sense of peril from a convincing over-the-top realism. These are top tier entertainments. The great success of Dead Reckoning Part One is that it doesn’t lose those attributes, and, in fact, by stretching out over three hours of rising action (this is only the first of a promised two-parter, after all) allows it to grow more complicated, and more emotionally engaged. The story is another MacGuffin hunt—two halves of a key that’ll unlock a missing server that holds the brains of a rogue military-grade artificial intelligence—but by pacing itself, it allows for that sadness to creep in. McQuarrie and Cruise have made Hunt a man driven by a desire to avoid loss—not just global, but personal—and here’s a movie that doubles and triples and quadruples down on that prospect.

It considers the effects of being a man for whom the impossible is pulled off in wild stunts of teamwork and the effects such constant danger and close calls have on himself and his only friends—those who work with him. Cruise has always played characters who think they can outrun the gravity of a situation’s reality. (Look no further than Top Gun: Maverick, in which that urge is proven correct.) Impossible has always been a series playing with the potential to flail in the face of danger—remember him dangling over the alarmed floor in the first one. This latest Mission runs toward and with that gravity. Its melancholy is a fine new flavoring that finally taps a rich vein at which the previous pictures have merely glinted. But this is still, as one might expect from these pictures, a rip-roaring adventure with some of the best action thrills anywhere, photographed cleanly and clearly, edited with energy and style, and keeping every aspect in vivid focus without losing the thread. Each sequence—from a sandstorm firefight to airport sleuthing, a car chase through Rome, and combat on a runway train that builds to Buster Keaton levels of astonishing chain reactions—are cleverly stacked with multiple variables, complications, and suspense elements—pursuers, ticking bombs, causes and effects—that make for delightfully complicated thrills.

For however heavy the undertow, the movie stays light on its feet, playful, and propulsive. The action is staged for impact of objects in dizzying motion that balance on a mix of danger and delight. Picture a tiny car tumbling down a massive stone staircase, causing its handcuffed passenger and driver to switch places, all while a massive Hummer smashes down after them. And yet it’s that underlying sadness that lets such giddiness play against a somber backbeat that finds these characters in an almost existential crisis when confronting their latest foe. (No wonder there’s no conclusion.) When a charming new character (Hayley Atwell) is given the choice to join the team for this mission, it’s presented with a somber touch. She needs to know the consequences. This earned level of sadness gives the hugely entertaining movie a genuine whiff of finality. In these endless franchise plays crowding our multiplexes, a few are starting to find satisfying stakes can be found by intimating an actual end is looming. All the pleasures of the momentum machine herein feel all the more weighted toward danger, and make the complications all the more delightfully compounded.