OPPENHEIMER: 4 ½ STARS
“Oppenheimer,” the story of the father of the atomic bomb, isn’t exactly a biopic of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. In his twelfth film, director Christopher Nolan includes biographical details in telling the tale of the man who invented the first nuclear weapons, but the movie is more about consequences than creation.
“Just because we’re building it doesn’t mean we get to decide how it’s used,” he says of the atomic bomb.
Nolan divides the story into two sections. The brightly colored “Fission” portrays the prickly Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) life as a tortured genius who overcame anti-Semitism to rise through the ranks of the European and American scientific elite to be recruited by the gruff Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) as the director of the Manhattan Project. Charged with beating the Nazis and the Russians in a race to build a weapon of mass destruction, Oppenheimer became, in his own words, “the destroyer of worlds.”
His close ties to the Communist Party, through his ex-girlfriend, psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), is just one element of the left-leaning beliefs that eventually got his security clearance revoked. His political views, and second-thoughts about the destructive power he unleashed on the world, pitted him against his military bosses and founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Those events provide fodder for the film’s other section, the austere black-and-white “Fusion.”
An adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, the three-hour “Oppenheimer” is as downbeat as its weekend competition “Barbie” is upbeat.
Nolan takes his time with the telling of the tale, weaving together the scientific, psychological and political story threads to create rich tapestry that transcends the talky nature of the script. He teases great drama and tension out of a story that is essentially, a retelling of two tribunals, punctuated by the big bang that would change history.
Much of the film’s success is owed to Murphy, who, despite reciting reams of dialogue, goes internal to portray Oppenheimer’s towering intellect. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema frames Murphy’s stoic face in wide screen close-ups that showcase the actor’s ability to expose not only the character’s great intelligence, but also the realization that the power he spearheaded wouldn’t be fully understood until it was too late.
The Trinity Test sequence, the depiction of first detonation of a nuclear weapon, is a masterclass of less is more filmmaking. Nolan expertly builds tension with a countdown clock and Ludwig Göransson’s anxiety inducing soundtrack, but it is the look of scientific accomplishment tempered by an accompanying moral reckoning that spreads across Murphy’s face the moment the bomb goes off that cuts to the film’s core theme of innovation vs. consequences.
Murphy is supported by an A-list cast, including Matt Damon, who exudes movie star charisma and Downey Jr, who erases memories of Tony Stark with a blustery performance that, Marvel aside, is his most interesting since “Zodiac.”
The real star, however, is Nolan. “Oppenheimer” is the director firing on all cylinders, delivering a personal story of responsibility made epic. The brainiest blockbuster of the season is a period piece about a man with moral conundrums regarding power and the way it is wielded, that resonates just as loudly today as it did when the events took place.
BARBIE: 4 STARS
Those expecting “Barbie,” the new battle-of-the-sexes fantasy starring Margot Robbie as the titular doll, to be a two-hour advertisement for Mattel may be shocked to discover that it is actually an esoteric movie about what it means to be human. It’s Existential Crisis Barbie!
“Since the beginning of time,” intones narrator Helen Mirren, “since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls. But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls, until…” Barbie came along.
By design, the blonde plastic doll with arched feet and optimistic outlook, first introduced in 1959, could be and do anything.
“Thanks to Barbie, all problems of inequity and feminism have been solved.”
At least that’s what “stereotypical” Barbie (Robbie) believes.
She lives in the fluorescent Barbieland, a feminine nirvana where “every day is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.”
Barbies, like Robbie’s Barbie, and doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), Barbie with a Nobel Prize in physics (Emma Mackey), mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), Supreme Court Justice Barbie (Ana Cruz Kayne), president Barbie (Issa Rae), among many others, live in Dreamhouses, without a care in the world.
Along for the ride are Barbie’s platonic friends, the Kens (played by Kinglsey Ben-Adir, Scott Evans, Simu Liu, and Ncuti Gatwa). Barbie may have a great day every day, but lovesick Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), only has a great day when Barbie looks at him.
It’s mostly all sunshine and dance parties in the candy-colored Barbieland, but lately Barbie is troubled.
“Do you ever think about dying?” she wonders aloud.
Just as disturbing, after a fall, her arched feet, perfectly suited to the extra high heels she always wears, have gone flat.
“Some things have happened that might be related,” she says. “Cold shower. Falling off my roof. And my heels are on the ground.”
Turns out, there is a rift in the time and space continuum between the doll and the real world. Barbieland’s elder, Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), advises Barbie that the only way to resolve her creeping ennui is to visit to the real world and find the little girl who is playing with her. The two are inexplicably intertwined. If the girl is sad, it could be rubbing off on Barbie.
“I’ll be back in no time with perfect feet,” she says, “and it will be like nothing happened.”
Transported to Venice Beach, the real world isn’t exactly what Barbie, and Ken who eagerly tagged along, expected.
“No one rests until that Barbie is back in the box,” orders the Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell).
Unlike the doll that inspired the movie, “Barbie” has a big, beating heart. A study in what it means to be alive, to be a woman, feminism, patriarchy and toxic masculinity, it is a hilarious and humanist social satire that may win a world record for the use of the word “patriarchy” on film.
Director Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script along with Noah “The Squid and the Whale” Baumbach, takes a maximalist approach in creating Barbie’s thermonuclearly pink world. It’s a perky and playful take on her life, like a Barbie Dreamhome brought to magical life. It leans heavily into Mattel lore and is sure to stoke feelings of nostalgia for Barbie-heads.
“I’m the Barbie you think of when someone says ‘Barbie,’” she says.
But as Barbie leaves behind the superficial life she knew before, her head fills with something unfamiliar; a flood of feelings. Her exposure to subjugation and objectification in a world opposite of the feminist utopia of Barbieland—“Basically everything men do in your world,” she says, “women do in mine.”—has a profound effect on her self-identification. She may still dress like “Hot Skatin’ Barbie” but her outlook has changed, she now craves meaning in her life, to understand who she really is.
Robbie breathes life into Barbie’s journey in a fully committed performance that is often as hilarious as it heartfelt. In a more comedic role, Gosling steals the picture as Ken, a soppy, dim-witted guy whose exploration of misogyny takes up much of the film’s last half.
“Barbie” is not your typical summer blockbuster, or your regular toy-based movie. It is both those things, of course, but it somehow finds a way to push back and be its own plastic and political thing. It has both style and substance, and while its story may get overactive and muddled in its last reel, Gerwig’s point of view on gender roles and the way that women are treated in society pulls few punches.
THEATER CAMP: 3 STARS
Set at an underfunded theater camp in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains, “Theater Camp,” now playing in cinemas, is a mockumentary about a place “where every kid picked last in gym finally makes the team.”
Written by, and starring Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, two theater camp kids who made it to Broadway in real life, the film takes place at Camp AdirondACTS, a summer school for theatrical wannabes. When owner Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) suffers a seizure and falls into a coma during a production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” the future of the camp is thrown into question.
With Joan in the ICU, her dim-witted business vlogger son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes over. Faced with running the nearly bankrupt camp, he grapples with closing down his mother’s life project, or selling the land to their neighbor, the infinitely fancier Camp Lakeview.
There may be financial ruin on the horizon, but the show still must go on; there is a season to run and students to teach. With no idea how to do either, Troy turns to eccentric acting teachers Amos (Ben Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and production manager Glenn (Noah Galvin) to run things and put together a show-stopping musical to end the camp’s season.
“We’re theater people,” says Glenn. “We know how to turn cardboard into gold.”
“Theater Camp” will work best for audiences who have a love of the Three S’s: Sondheim, singing and stagecraft. It’s a celebration of those who bow at the altar of Patti LuPone and spontaneously burst into song.
An update on the Judy and Mickey “let’s put on a show” trope, the movie is a musical underdog story that nails the vibe of the camp, a place for misfits who don’t fit in anywhere else. When it concentrates on the campers and their teachers—Nathan Lee Graham has a memorable cameo as an instructor who says, “You need to know that only three percent of people make it. The rest end up in a mental facility or in a Go-Go box in Hell’s Kitchen.”—it finds a pleasing mix of humor and sweetness.
When it gets deeper into the production of the final show, “Joan, Still,” the movie’s one-joke premise starts to wear thin.
A combination of loving portrayal of the camaraderie of theatre and edgy, awkward humor, “Theater Camp” is a balance of satire and cloying sweetness that applauds theater kid culture, but feels a bit too inside for a wide audience.