It used to be a regular occurrence… something that happened almost all the time. These days? Not so much.
Once, you would go to the movies and give yourself over to what it was that was shown on that silver screen in front of you. You were comfortably and consistently in the hands of the world’s finest filmmakers; men (they were almost exclusively of the male gender) whose professionalism and artistry remain unquestioned even after over a half century has passed. Movie giants Michael Curtiz, John Ford, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Arthur Freed, David O. Selznick, Preston Sturges, Darryl F. Zanuck, Howard Hawks, and George Cukor held sway over the motion picture industry.
It has been a long time since such giants ruled the world of cinema but now, happily, along comes Christopher Nolan and his presentation of Oppenheimer.
The Regal South Beach multiplex in Miami Beach is far from the cinema palaces of my youth. The projection and color quality of the digital on-screen images fall far short of what my one-time associates will see at screenings held at the Samuel Goldwyn Academy theatre in Beverly Hills; and yet… minutes into this movie… my inner voice of complaints stopped. The inferior projection system, and the incompetency of local theatre management, slipped away from the forefront of my mind as it was immediately clear I was in the hands of the kind of competence and artistry on which I was once able to rely. Something that is all too rare in today’s movie going experience.
The cast is extraordinary. Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. are shoo-ins as nominees for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, but you could pick any of the players on this film’s marquee and swoon. I will indulge a point of personal privilege by singling out my pal, Tom Conti, as Albert Einstein. My friend is a handsome, leading man type (alright, maybe today, the father of the leading man). How do you even imagine him in this role? And yet he is perfect. Then there is Matt Damon, a current cinema super star, in a well-down-the-list supporting role along with Rami Malek, the star of Bohemian Rhapsody and Mr. Robot, with just a few minutes of screen time.
This kind of imaginative and upscale casting speaks volumes about the filmmaker. That these performers… plus dozens of others who I have not singled out… would take the phone call and say, “yes… when do you want me and where do I show up?” It says something about the man who made this movie.
This used to be the way it was in the good old days. Gone With The Wind, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, The Women, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were all made in the same year.
Thirty-five years later Godfather II, Chinatown, and Blazing Saddles highlighted a stellar Academy season. Does anyone even remember the five nominated feature films from last year?
Is the movie Oppenheimer long? Yes. And yet, I do not recall a single squirm. Is it for everyone? Probably not. Does it help that I had long ago seen two seasons of AMC’s Manhattan, a very good television series on the same subject now available on Apple TV, and that I more recently viewed the very fine documentary, To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb (I saw it on MSNBC, and it is also available on Peacock, Hulu, and Sling)? Sure.
Do I go on too long? Let me reduce the review of Oppenheimer to one word: brilliant.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is complex. It is smart. It is important, and it is… well… in a word, brilliant. Cannot say that enough. Check back with me at Oscar time.
… And now, for something completely different, there is Barbie. Readers of these notes might guess that this is not the sort of cinema to which I would normally gravitate. Understandable.
Still, I was fascinated by the fact of audiences all over America going to their local theatres and seeing both this film and Oppenheimer in something approaching a phenomenon called Barbenheimer… sort of an homage to yesteryear and the days of the double feature brought about by incredible promotion and advertising campaigns for two movies with the same release date.
Do you really want to do these back-to-back? That is a lot of sitting… even for the most sedentary. Still, there is merit to the idea. After viewing Oppenheimer, I felt I wanted more… that I could use a “chaser”… and something light and amusing might be just the ticket.
I quelled the impulse and waited until the next day to try out the nation’s biggest box-office bonanza.
Back in the day, there was an unwritten rule that fluff films should be one hour and twenty-nine minutes in length. Sometimes a Capra, a Hawks, or a Sturgis would go to one hour and thirty-two (His Girl Friday), or one hour and thirty-four (Lady Eve)… or stretch it to one hour and thirty-five (It Happened One Night). Ms. Greta Gerwig outstays her welcome by making her Barbie one hour and fifty-four minutes long. A big mistake.
This film has some delightful things in it. A standout performance by Margot Robbie and very good support from Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, America Ferrera, and Rhea Perlman, but just like the over-the-top appearance of Will Ferrell as Mattel’s CEO, it is a bit too much of what otherwise might have been a very good thing.
The opening of the movie is great fun. A very cute homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the last line of dialogue at the very end is spot on. I, of course, enjoyed the movie’s feminist screed (what self-respecting Cagney & Lacey-ite would not?) but Greta… you made the skirt too long.
Cut twenty-five minutes from this movie (sorry, Ken) and you just might have a classic.
I risk going on too long myself. This week marked my first venture back into a movie theatre since COVID. Soon there will be at least one more note on the movie going “experience.”
Stay tuned. Bring your popcorn.
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