Oppenheimer is compelling, Barbie has an identify problem, Beanie Bubble is engaging

Nolan goes for broke in compelling Oppenheimer

It should come as no surprise that when faced with telling the complex story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that writer/director Christopher Nolan would take a radical approach. Using dueling flashbacks from the memories of Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as well as those of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), two rivals whose paths cross at key times in the development of the United States' nuclear policy, drives this exceptional biopic,

The opening act is dominated by Oppenheimer's memories, presented in quick flashes, as if we are privy to the random nature of his mind. To be sure, biopics by their nature dictate a compression of real-life events, and Nolan's presenting them to reflect Oppenheimer's thought processes is intriguing. However, it isn't conducive to character development or, at times, narrative cohesion. Neither Tatlock nor the scientist's wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), are fully developed, the former seen as simply troubled, the later a harpy, while the events in Oppenheimer's life through the 1920s and 1930s are covered in such a piecemeal, rapid fashion that it comes off as a Cliffs Notes version of these events.

Of course, this all may be done by design. Do the less-than-complete portraits of the two women reflect how important they were to Oppenheimer? Does the speed with which the early part of his career is covered suggest the irresistible nature of fate that was compelling him toward the moment that would define his life? Without question, the sequences involving the creation of the Manhattan Project and the bombs they would produce are fascinating and compelling. Driven by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Nolan presents each breakthrough the scientists make with as much excitement as dread, all of it building towards the climactic moment of the first test of the device. This sequence is filmmaking of the highest quality, the significance of this momentous event underscored not so much by the bomb's fury but the reaction of its creators.

Appearing in nearly each scene, Murphy carries the emotional burden of this story on his shoulders with his complex, subtle and ultimately moving performance. It's a remarkable turn as the actor captures the optimism of the young scientist and the regret of the older man, whose guilt compelled him to take the unpopular stance of calling for international arms control at the height of the Cold War. The actor is captivating throughout, as is Downey Jr., reminding us he's capable of much more than occupying a tin suit.

A stunning, complex achievement, Nolan's film is a timely reminder of the hubris we are all prone to and the peril that comes from short-sighted bureaucracies overseeing scientific endeavors. Oppenheimer is a cautionary tale writ large, one whose lessons the director knows full well we are doomed to ignore again and again. In theaters.

Barbie looks great, but never finds its footing

That Greta Gerwig's Barbie should suffer from a bit of an identity problem is fitting, I suppose. I don't envy the writer/director or her partner, Noah Baumbach, who co-authored the script, as the baggage the Mattel Toys figurehead comes with is larger than the myriad accessories the doll has had over the years. And while Gerwig and Baumbach's approach to the pop icon is sound, the film itself lurches along in fits and starts, never really gaining its footing. That being said, it contains just enough moments of brilliance to make it worthwhile.

The premise is simplicity itself – Barbie's (Margot Robbie) life in Barbieland has gone horribly awry. Amidst her idyllic existence, where everything and everyone is perfect – she has started to think about death and is dealing with a bout of depression. She's told her feelings are being projected upon her by the real-world person playing with her. So, with her many bags packed and convertible gassed up, she sets out to Los Angeles to find her troubled owner. Problem is, her boyfriend, Ken (Ryan Gosling), is along for the ride as a stowaway.

Along the way, the purpose of these iconic dolls is explored, their programed behavior butting up against today's reality. Barbie and Ken both come to the realization that neither has a true purpose. The existential angst for both characters kicks into high gear when they arrive in Los Angeles. Barbie is berated for setting impossible standards for young girls to attain, while Ken realizes he's been in the wrong world the whole time, once the concept of the patriarchy is explained to him. With these new perspectives, Barbieland is thrown into chaos when they return.

Yet, there are smart, funny moments throughout when all the pieces fall into place that show what the film could have been. A monologue from Gloria (America Ferrera), a beleaguered real-world mom, on the contradictory expectations of being a 21st century woman is a showstopper, while a musical number, "I'm Just Ken," is a witty, wise sequence of realization when the poor doll comes to understand how useless he is. And there's no question the last 10 minutes are perfect, drawing things to a close with a genuinely poignant moment in which Barbie comes to terms with her legacy, followed by a joke that's impossible to top.

In the end, Barbie ends up being a well-intentioned mixed bag, a film with an undeniable sense of fun and smarts that becomes burdened by the many Barbie-centric themes it wishes to address. In theaters.

Engaging Bubble charts rise and fall of Beanies

At the height of their popularity, sales of Beanie Babies reached $200 million per month. That resulted in 33 million of the toys being shipped in the same period and $1 billion in profits in 1998. Invented by Ty Warner, what set them apart from their stuffed rivals was they were, in fact, under-stuffed, making them more posable. Of course, they were incredibly cute and came with biographies as well as birthdays. Oh, and then there was the fact that only a limited number were made of certain models before they were retired, making them collectables worth thousands of dollars.

Much of this information can be gleaned from the Wikipedia page devoted to Beanies, but Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash's The Beanie Bubble recounts the rise and fall of the toy sensation from a combination of three unique and engaging perspectives. Based on the book by Zac Bissonette, the film recounts these events through the eyes of a trio of women in Warner's life, each of whom contributed to the success of the toy line, each knifed in the back by the executive along the way.

Robbie (Elizabeth Banks), an emotionally exhausted woman, comes to Warner's aid as he grieves for his father and uses his inheritance to start his toy company. Many key ideas contributing to its development come from this girl Friday and it's obvious part of his success can be attributed to her passion and drive.

Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan) is seen joining the company as a student intern in 1993 and soon displays her sense of innovation, introducing the idea of creating collector's items by making limited runs of particular models and having the foresight to realize the potential of the then just-burgeoning internet.

Sheila (Sarah Snool) enters Warner's life at approximately the same time, a single mom of two, bowled over by his sincerity and charm. Appropriating ideas from her two girls to generate millions is only one of the many inappropriate acts he commits regarding her.

The pace of the film is arresting, our interest held throughout as the three storylines develop in a similar fashion, converging in a narrative cataclysm that's cathartic to witness. Galifianakis never plays Warner as a villain, but rather as an insecure man constantly trying to prove himself, his fractured ego being his undoing. The three women are all as effective, their characters hitting rock bottom, only to discover a sense of resilience that helps them survive. And while the viewer knows how the story ends, learning just how it all came apart proves arresting from the start, Bubble, in the end, being an effective survivors' tale of three women who overcame one man's sense of hubris. Streaming on Apple TV+.

About The Author

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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