‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘Barbie’ face off at the box office

It would be difficult to find two more contrasting movies opening on the same day as Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” and Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”

The former is a challenging historical biography about the man who led the effort to split the atom, while the latter is a satirical and at times amusing moral lesson on feminism told through the lens of the most prominent fashion doll in history.

The two films are both incredibly well crafted, scratch two entirely different itches, and feature outstanding and creative film-making, but still neither is wholly satisfying despite ultimately delivering the message their directors were attempting.

Both movies achieve highly effective and even engrossing moments, and are on the whole solid movies, but both films get bogged down within their conceits and are tarnished a bit by the weight of their own heft. Both directors seemed to be straining to relay the stories in their heads, and unfortunately that effort shows as both films get bogged down in the middle.


Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures)

“Oppenheimer” is more to my tastes than “Barbie.” Nolan is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking directors making films today. His style always has substance even if his efforts don’t always work for me as a viewer. His last film “Tenet” still has me a bit befuddled.

“Oppenheimer” isn’t exactly straight-forward storytelling, but the movie is absolutely coherent if you are paying attention. As you watch you’ll discern the color images are from the viewpoint of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), while the black and white images are from the vantage point of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). The film is based on the biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Nolan adapted that work in his screenplay.

The color scenes, which are the majority of the film, are the subjective views of Oppenheimer’s life and accomplishments, while the black-and-white scenes contrast the color with a more objective view of same but through the lens of Strauss, a senior member of the the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

The film is creative. Nolan brings Oppenheimer’s thoughts on quantum physics to life on the screen, paralleling it with the scientists’ sexual picadillos as the film attempts to work out whether Oppenheimer’s leading role in the efforts to create the atom bomb — which absolutely brought a quicker resolution to World War II — makes him a hero, a villain, or maybe both.

The film, though heavy with dialogue and exposition, moves quickly most of the time, but it might have been more effective as as 2 1/2 hour movie instead of three. Still it’s hard to take your eyes off Murphy in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance for Best Actor. Likewise Downey Jr. as Strauss commands the screen during his limited time on camera. He would seem to be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination himself.

The all-star cast is tremendous with Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s Communist consort, and Matt Damon as Lt. Gen. Leslie Grooves, the man who picked Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project. Both deliver incredibly effective performances as did Emily Blunt as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s long-suffering wife.

Technically the movie is a masterpiece on most levels, but as with several other Nolan movies, the audio is difficult to discern at points in the film. This is clearly a choice by Nolan, but at least to me, it’s a very annoying one. The score by Ludwig Goransson drives home the dramatic points of the movie. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is so crisp and his choice of color saturation somehow makes the film seem even more vivid. His stark black-and-white photography also grabs the viewer with its sharp contrasts.

It’s difficult for me to cast stones at such a well and meticulously made movie, but the narrative does bog down at points. A leaner cut might have made for an even more effective film.

(R) 3 hrs.
Grade: B


Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie(Warner Bros.)

In its own right, “Barbie” is in many ways as well-crafted as “Oppenheimer.” The film just asks for different things from its cast and audience. Where “Oppenheimer” immerses you in realism, “Barbie” is perfectly plastic.

Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as her accessory Ken are delightful, personifying the two iconic fashion dolls who go on separate journeys of discovery while seeking answers in the real world. Without the duo’s gun-ho spirit this film would have been unbearable to watch. Their charisma whisks the gorgeously shot movie along early, and the rest of the highly recognizable cast infuses tat portion of the movie with fun.

While the film has its cartoonish aspects, the movie isn’t for young kids. I’d heed the PG-13 rating. The film is social satire, concerning how women and men are run through the wringer today as reality blurs the lines of traditional gender roles in good and sad ways.

The first half hour of the film was the most interesting portion for me as Barbie’s world was being introduced and explained. It’s cute. However as the film delved more into its more substantial storyline, it lost me. No doubt, the subject of gender roles in society will interest many, but for me, once I realized where the film was going, my interest dove off the cliff.

Like Oppenheimer, the movie is filled with cameos by a gaggle of movie stars. It’s fun to pick them out, but the game of who’s who does become a bit stale.

There is about 84% too much Will Ferrell in the movie. He plays a Mattel executive, and his schtick is almost funny the first time he shows up, but becomes more and more overbearing with each appearance.

Again I freely admit this wasn’t a movie for my tastes, but I’m sure many who have a closer connection to the toys the film is based on might greatly enjoy aspects of the movie that grated on my enjoyment.

(PG-13, 1 hr. 54 min.)
Grade: C+

New in Local Theaters – July 21, 2023

Barbie (PG-13) 1 hr. 54 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)
Oppenheimer (R) 3 hrs. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)

Classic Corner – A Face in the Crowd

If you only know Andy Griffith from his eponymous TV show or from “Matlock,” his manic performance in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” might not only surprise but also shock you.

I’ve never seen a performance quite like it on film. It’s charismatically alarming, particularly considering the roles that would later make Griffith a beloved star on the small screen. It’s what you might imagine the devil would be like if he wore overalls and a toothy grin.

The film tells the story of how a shiftless drifter Larry “Lonesome Rhodes” can rise from a stay in a podunk drunk tank in Arkansas to national popularity and influence based on his charisma, wiles, and the gullibility of his adoring public.

Radio producer Marcia Jeffries, Academy Award winner Patricia Neal, is charmed by Rhodes’ homespun humor on a visit to the jail. She bails him out and puts him on the air to immediate success. Jeffries lines up an appearance for Rhodes on television show in Memphis, Tenn., and he wins over the audience with his down-home humor and charm.

However, behind the scenes, Rhodes is a mad manipulator of people, using them up and spitting them out. As Rhodes skyrockets to national fame and influence, his massive ego and arrogance swells to gargantuan proportions.

Griffith’s Rhodes is quite psychotic. It’s a performance that becomes sickening to watch, but still oddly compelling. Neal gives a fine performance, too. At first, she seems to be the one pulling the strings on Rhodes, but by the middle of the film, she is dancing to his tune, giving in to his verbal and hinted at physical abuse. Walter Matthau plays a supporting role as a writer, who is working on a book about Rhodes, and Lee Remick plays an alluring young woman who also falls under Rhodes’ charismatic sway.

The film might remind the viewer of a hayseed version of “Citizen Kane” in some aspects. The plots aren’t dissimilar, but Rhodes’ fall comes as quickly as his rise when his arrogance and carelessness sends him on a meteoric tumble.

Kazan, Griffith, and screenwriter Bud Schulberg crafted a fine, entertaining film about the gullibility of the public and the hubris of some public figures. The film is available to stream on Amazon Prime.