Barbie

When Barbie opens to a parody of 2001: A Space Odessey’s Dawn of Man scene (the one with the mad apes), a narrator with the voice of Helen Mirren tells us how big of a disrupter the Barbie toy-line was for little girls.

The girls, who were happily playing with big, round, bald toys that looked like one-year-old babies, take one look at a giant, glamorous Barbie towering over their heads (Margot Robbie, wonderful in the film) and, as if blitzed by mob-mentality anger, smash their toy-babies to smithereens.

It might have sounded like a triumphant hurrah about breaking free from constraints on the screenplay penned by co-writers Greta Gerwig (who also directs) and her partner Noah Baumbach, but when you really look at it, the only idea it instils is that of rebellion and anarchy…and the buck doesn’t stop there.

The main idea of the movie is that Barbie (Robbie) travels to Los Angeles to find out why she, and in consequence, her perfect, plastic world — the literal incarnation ‘life is plastic, it’s fantastic’ lyrics from Aqua’s song Barbie Girl — has changed for the worse.

Life is plastic, grim and far from fantastic and everything explodes eventually

If the gist of the idea of Barbie leaving a make-believe plastic world for a real-life but still plastic one, don’t trigger alarms in your head, then I guess one is meant to enjoy this phantasmagorical fairytale that paints messages of accepting the mediocrity of life and male dumbness in bubblegum pink (the colour is everywhere, not that one minds it — Barbie’s world, and it’s branding, is pink after all).

In the first 20 minutes, it is tough to dislike Barbieland and its denizens, the Barbies, played by a collection of actresses of different colour and body types. These Barbies live in huge fold-to-open houses, use cute accessories and wear pretty dresses. The Barbies are perfect in every way — they have succeeded as astronauts and presidents, as the message of the brand aspires — but then, the main Barbie (Robbie), who also calls herself ‘Stereotypical Barbie’, suddenly thinks about death, and her world screeches to a dead-halt.

She cannot float from her second-storey villa to her car anymore, her shower water turns cold, and — gasp — the soles of her feet, which are elevated by design to fit her high-heels, suddenly touch the ground.

The flat feet, followed by the development of cellulite, are a nightmare, so Robbie’s Barbie is told by her community to talk to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who deduces that she is channelling the emotions of someone in the real world.

The living dolls, by the way, know that Mattel (the company that owns the Barbie brand) is making Barbie toys that children play with in our world, and at times they develop a connection with the child who owns a Barbie toy. The technical details of how this transpires is shrugged off to artistic licence — as is all common sense, we soon learn.

Barbie travels to LA, finds a schoolgirl — a tween who demolishes her morale by calling her a fascist and a bad representation of females — and escapes Mattel’s CEO (Will Farrell, a riot), who wants to put her in a box.

Barbie the film is an expert concoction of shrewd intentions. In its superficiality, it presents a perfect make-believe matriarchal world that is bright, sunny, inclusive and, well, perfect. On the other hand, it puts down men — or Ken, and his various versions played by many male actors. The Kens are shiny, shirtless, one-dimensional idiots, and their head (Ryan Gosling, fitting right into the role — who woulda thought), is the hero who turns out to be the villain.

Speaking of whom: when Gosling’s Ken, who wants to have a better love connection with Barbie, hitches a ride with her to California and learns of a word called ‘patriarchy’, he inexplicably transforms into a materialist man-child.

Ken turns Barbieland to a place of dumb horror when he returns. Teaching the Kens his little understanding of patriarchy, they subjugate all Barbies into mindless bimbos, while they themselves become a mix of obnoxious, near-sighted, juvenile idiots. It’s a badly framed man vs woman story.

The cake (ie. the production design) is pretty, but its creamy, fluffy exterior hides a number of statements children and families might not immediately pick-up on. A societally right rationale tries to patch things up by the end and everything, of course, turns out to be okay — but is it?

In the last frames, Barbie, who finally matures — Spoiler Alert! — leaves Barbieland forever for the real world. After becoming a ‘real girl’ (like Pinocchio, but not really), her first order of business is to visit a gynaecologist. How is this a kiddie film? But then again, with the themes at hand, was it ever one really?

Barbie, rated PG, is playing in cinemas in Pakistan. The film reaffirms the fact that not everything that shines is gold

Oppenheimer

I haven’t read Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer — about the man known as the father of the atomic bomb — so I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the overly dramatic, thriller-esque tone Christopher Nolan uses in Oppenheimer.

What I can vouch for is this: the film has excellent, if stationary, cinematography; precise, to-the-frame editing; and brilliant performances from Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Josh Hartnett, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Florence Pugh (the film also stars Remi Malek, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Matthew Modine, Dane DeHaan, Jason Clarke, Matthias Schweighöfer and Gary Oldman, in a packed house of actors).

The sound design, for once in a Chris Nolan film, is bang on the money — the sound effects and their mixing raises the emotion of the moment, and the dialogues are decipherable to the ears.

Yet, despite the goods, the film once again plays to Nolan’s high sense of self as an auteur of cinema. Is it a masterclass of cinema, in the way cinema used to be? Yes, but at the same time, it also bears Nolan’s stamp of doing things a tad bizarrely.

Oppenheimer’s screenplay (written by Nolan), for example, could have been linear — a story of a brilliant but conflicted man who goes through bad relationships, suffers political pressures, and worries about making a bomb that will take lives, and ultimately destroy the world. Yet it isn’t.

Jumping back and forth in time with mad fervency, we see the present (or as close to the present the film offers) in black-and-white, while the past and the future is in colour. Two segments of the story, set during the US Senate hearings of 1954 and 1959, are intermingled with Oppenheimer’s journey from Cambridge to Los Alamos, where he tested the nuclear bomb that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Could the film be interesting without the thriller-esque shenanigans? Sure — the story is, for all intents and purposes, a talking heads narrative. People extrapolate their thoughts and arguments in dialogue while sitting, standing, and sometimes while grimly pondering and not saying anything (their expressions, and the intercuts, are never subtle).

Exposition in midst of action is a great filmmaking tool, but excessive reliance on it doesn’t make characters memorable. Then again, that’s Nolan for you — a director who overshadows his stories to the extent that his characters become flat.

Take any of his leads, whether it is Bruce Wayne, Dom Cobb, Joseph Cooper, Tommy or the Protagonist (you may know them from Batman Begins, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet). Nolan has a type, when it comes to leading characters: they are conflicted, stoic men in the middle of a grave dilemma. The prompt gives his actors the opening to deliver strong performances on barely-written roles, and Oppenheimer is no different.

One sees a lot of nominations this coming award season — some technical, some creative — for a good, if over-hyped film, whose viewing requires a proper guidebook, or a brief documentary on Oppenheimer’s life, to make full sense.

Oppenheimer is rated suitable for ages 18 and over, and features adult themes and sex scenes (though they may be cut, depending on the powers exerted by the region’s/countries’ individual censor boards)

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 30th, 2023

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