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It's been a source of amusement for months. A box office faceoff was coming between the fashion doll Barbie and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the atom bomb. Which to see? Pre-sales have been big, some shows have sold out already and the biggest theater chain in the US says many people have been buying both to make a double bill out of them. That's five hours and it raises another question: in what order should you see them? Can you possible follow the intense Oppenheimer with a light comedy? Or do you end with the haunting political story? You choose.
There are also two smaller films on this week's very short list.
Oppenheimer: 4½ stars
The Final Cut: 3
Miraculous: Lady Bug and Cat Noir: 2½
OPPENHEIMER: This is the movie event of the year, so far at least. It's history but speaks as much to today as back then and arrives as a piece of art by Christopher Nolan who both directed and wrote it. It's up there along with his Dunkirk and Tenet films and challenges you to (a) learn a bit about science (not the details but the importance of quantum theory) and (b) ponder the effect of what scientists do, good and bad. J. Robert Oppenheimer did after he led the creation of the atom bomb and it got him into trouble. He helped choose the first targets and then warned against ever using it again. And he opposed developing the follow-up, the hydrogen bomb. He saw the danger he had helped unleash, spoke out and brought a backlash on himself. That's what much of the film focuses on, the shabby treatment he was given, the two investigations he was subjected to (re-created in black and white), then his security clearance taken away.
The film, and Cillian Murphy in a magnetic performance, bring him to us as complex, contradictory character. At university he tried to poison a professor. His love life was split between his wife (Emily Blunt), seen as a left-winger, and a graduate student (Florence Pugh) a known Communist. He was suspected too. He never joined the party but gave money during the Spanish Civil War. He tried to start a labor union among scientists. This was the McCarthy era and his foes came after him. Chief among them, Robert Downey Jr. as the spiky head of the Atomic Energy Commision. (Watch for an Oscar nomination). And watch for all the big name actors here: Matt Damon, as the military backer, Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, and many in smaller parts, like Casey Affleck, Rami Malek. Olivia Thirlby, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein. My only complaint: it didn't need to be 3 hours long. Although, a TV series back in the 1980s, did take seven hours. The story is that engrossing and powerful politically. (In theaters) 4 ½ out of 5
BARBIE: And this is the fun movie of the summer so far. But since it's directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by her and her partner Noah Baumbach it's not just a colorful bit of froth about a toy doll who loves the color pink. It starts that way. “Hi Barbie.” The day is perfect, just like yesterday and tomorrow and everyday. But Barbie (Margot Robbie) takes a fall, finds her feet have become flat and the early signs of cellulite have appeared. What can she do? Her friends, all Barbie variations, don't know, but Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) says she must go out into the real world to find an answer. She bursts into a Mattel Company think session and that infuriates the CEO (Will Farrell) who demands she be captured and put back “in the box.”
There's the theme of this film, which is expounded most passionately later on by America Ferrera as a mother named Gloria, not after Gloria Steinem but definitely reflecting her thoughts. Women are under pressure to be perfect while men rule. The script actually uses the word patriarchy. Barbie's boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) has it easier. He doesn't have a job or even a purpose. He's just “Beach.” His friends are also variations on the character, with Simu Liu and Michael Cera playing two of them. Both genders put on elaborate dance numbers at times, or on the male side, fights. And Barbie at one point states how unreal they all are. She doesn't have a vagina, she says. And Ken doesn't have a penis. Baby dolls, Helen Mirren says in a voice over, were replaced by adult fashion dolls like Barbie and then diversified by race and occupation. But the real world for girls and women stayed the same. It's pretty advanced for little girls but will surely delight women who grew up playing with Barbie. (In theaters) 4 out of 5
FINAL CUT: This also a very fun movie but it's small, may be hard to find, and is best for movie buffs, and those among them who can put up with the sight of blood. There's a lot of it in here, simulated of course, and played for laughs most of the time. You might not always be sure of that in an opening sequence about a film cast and crew that's making a zombie movie and gets attacked by real zombies. Legends says that there were human experiments done in the same place years before, to revive the dead, and now they have revived as zombies.
We see the film: it looks a bit amateurish. Then we see the lead up to it, the work of making it. The filmmakers are French, they're duplicating a Japanese film that was made for TV. And the whole film is itself a re-make of a Japanese film. Talk about meta. It's the creation of Michel Hazanavicius who won an Academy Award in 2011 for The Artist. This one becomes a very funny spoof about people who make independent films. Much goes wrong. Romain Duris plays the director, loud and bossy but beset by so many setbacks that he has to step in as an actor too. Bérénice Bejo, who starred in The Artist, does the makeup and is also needed to act. A head zombie gets drunk; another arrives late for the film that supposed to be shot in one take, no edits; a lead actor constantly argues with the director about the script. People who've worked on films like this or just wondered about them will have a good time. (In theaters) 3 out of 5
MIRACULOUS: LADYBUG & CAT NOIR: THE MOVIE: I wasn't aware of this animated series before this but I see that it's been very popular on TV for about eight years now. It's from France and possibly better known in Europe than here but both children and their parents love it. A full-length movie was almost inevitable and this one delivers with crisp computer animation and a story about superheroes saving the world (or in this case, Paris). And teenage romance. Well, unrequited, trying but quaking and apart.
Marinette is a 14-year-old with the common teenage girl problems of self-image, friendship, a love-hate relationship with a boy and a mean-girl offensive from the rich blonde in her class. “I could be out of place” she sings in one of several songs sprinkled about. The boy, Adrian, is also rich, the son of a fashion designer and suffering under his overprotection. He compensates with bluster and big talk.
Both have alter egos, the superheroes of the movie's title, and they have to fight against a super villain named Hawk Moth. He wants to grab their magical powers and bring his dead wife back to life. But first he has to cause chaos. That's a pretty complicated story for a kid flick but it's been compiled through years on TV. Apparently changed quite a bit too. Here it sends our characters crashing through windows at Notre Dame Cathedral, puncturing a balloon man on the pyramid at the Louvre and even collapsing the Eiffel Tower. That's all leading eventually to this: “The power of love will always protect you.” Getting there isn't smooth, but it is speedy. The director, Jeremy Zag is a multitasker. He runs his own studio, wrote the story, the music and the songs and did a few other jobs. A bit of the work was done in Montreal and both Ottawa and Quebec have some money in the film. Ironically it will be on Netflix but this week plays in a few select theaters. 2 ½ out of 5