Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week we took part in what has unexpectedly become the cinematic event of the summer, taking in both Oppenheimer and Barbie in a rush of cinematic splendor. There have been few reasons to feel hopeful about the future of cinema lately, and even fewer regarding the fate of theaters specifically, so I was happy to indulge in this bucking of the downward trend. Even though it’s already clear that the lesson our asinine media overseers are taking is “more films based on toys” rather than anything genuinely relevant to Barbie’s excellence, these twin successes nonetheless demonstrate a hunger for genuinely interesting new films, and (god willing) a fatigue regarding endless franchises. Let’s munch through those two and more besides in the latest Week in Review!

Our first screening of the week was Livid, a French horror film about a young at-home nurse who, on a trial round of introductions to her prospective patients, learns that a bedridden former ballet instructor has a “secret treasure” hidden somewhere within her cavernous mansion. Returning at night with her boyfriend and his brother, the three attempt to make their fortune off this woman’s decline, only to discover that her “treasure” is actually her daughter’s pallid body, strung up on a stage like a wind-up ballerina. Enraged by the deception, the boyfriend strikes the body, and from there things go very, very badly for them.

Though it fits roughly into the new French extreme wave, Livid’s influences seem primarily Italian in origin: Argento-style lighting and set design, and a combination of dreamlike atmosphere and physical desecration that calls to mind Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. Individual scenes thrill, but there’s a fine line between “fairy tale logic” and “lacking connective tissue,” and Livid undeniably crosses it, with the film’s second half largely proceeding as a series of visually rich setpieces that don’t really make any kind of sense.

Initially grounded in the meaty, tangible fears of its protagonists’ working class origins, Livid seems to lose interest in their stories as it continues, instead prioritizing the fantastical bodies and melodramatic bond of its antagonist and her long-suffering daughter. The film clearly wants to draw a parallel between the daughter and our protagonist, but their worlds remain divided by genre and substance, leading towards an ending that trips over fantasy and stumbles into farce. There are some individually striking moments scattered throughout Livid, but I can’t consider it a success of a film.

We then checked out Universal Pictures’ original The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, the prodigal son of a Welsh lord. Returning home upon the death of his older brother, Talbot soon falls for Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), a young woman who runs a local antique shop. The two are joined by a friend of Gwen’s as they visit a Romani fortune teller, precipitating a wolf attack that leaves Gwen’s friend dead and Larry suffering from an injury that heals with miraculous speed, leaving lingering questions and a terrible curse in its wake.

Like the similarly excellent Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man succeeds because it is primarily a romance and a tragedy, with the horror elements ultimately reflecting both the difficulty of personal connection and the capriciousness of fate. Larry himself is an immensely interesting central figure, defined by the contradictions of his sensitive spirit and forceful pursuit of his desires; these poles are established immediately in his courtship of Gwen, with his ultimate transformation only serving as a reaffirmation of his existing emotional discord.

Alongside the engaging ambiguity of Larry’s struggles, The Wolf Man is further furnished with excellent set design that really brings his remote village to life, as well as a sense of urgency provided by its murder mystery structure. Larry is more prey than hunter (another parallel with Frankenstein and Creature), and you can viscerally feel the noose tightening as evidence stacks against him, his primal alter ego utterly unconcerned with protecting his daylight identity. Tightly constructed, visually generous, and open to all manner of thematic interpretation, The Wolf Man more than earns its status as a Universal classic.

My house then set forth to the theater for the first time in eras untold, lured by the siren song of the Barbenheimer double feature. First up was Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s biopic on the father of the atomic bomb. The film follows its titular scientist from graduate studies through the Manhattan Project and beyond, into AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jr.) eventual attacks on Oppenheimer, as well as Strauss’ own cabinet confirmation hearings. Along the way, a portrait is sculpted of a man of uncommon insight and narrow philosophy, a man whose desire for “a little wiggle room” in describing his ethics makes him a cipher even to himself.

Oppenheimer is sumptuously realized and lavishly cast, featuring many of the best actors of the past half-century, some of them only showing up for a minute or two (Gary Oldman makes a fine Truman in his single scene). It is also intimate and melancholy in the manner of Nolan’s best features, Oppenheimer’s drive to complete his project frequently coming across more as a flight from his guilt and loneliness than a rush towards a desired end. And the film well knows that this is a cowardly, insufficient motivation for creating a weapon of mass destruction; while he is ultimately pilloried by the government for his best instincts (his fledgling interest in communist philosophy and global cooperation), his closest friends understand him to be contemptible for very different reasons, and unable to bear the moral weight of his own decisions.

The mirror between the personal and the universal is made clear through the film’s use of that inescapable line, “now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” We first hear it uttered in the course of a doomed courtship, intended to impress the young communist Jean Tatlock. By the time it is reprised during that staggering atomic test, Tatlock’s world has been destroyed; cast aside by Oppenheimer in lieu of his own ambitions, she commits suicide at twenty-nine, leaving Oppenheimer with an emotional debt he outrageously attempts to share with his wife. So it goes for many of Oppenheimer’s relationships; he is often brilliant and rarely wrong in matters of science, but sees context and consequences as immaterial until the moment they are not, crying earnest yet contemptible tears in the wake of his entirely predictable atrocities.

Through its careful articulation of Oppenheimer’s obvious gifts and even clearer failings, the film offers both a vivid character study (aided immensely by Cillian Murphy’s increasingly defeated performance) and a general condemnation of human hubris, spending nearly as much running time attempting to close Pandora’s Box as opening it. It’s a sobering reminder of our terrible potential, bellowing with a full throat that neutrality in the face of moral atrocity is as contemptible as whole-hearted support. Gorgeous, anxious, and sobering at once, it is Nolan’s best film yet, and may be his first unqualified masterpiece.

After a brief recess to catch our breath, we then charged onward into Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s improbably ferocious adaptation of, well, Barbie. The film sets us down in Barbieland, a matriarchal paradise where various Barbies perform all the meaningful roles in society, while their Kens mostly hang at the beach and assist in their group dance numbers. In this perfect world, our heroine Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) suddenly finds herself beset with thoughts of mortality, as well as utterly un-Barbie-like flat feet, cold showers, and other unwelcome defects. Consulting with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon in the role she was born for), Barbie learns she must travel to the ominous real world, track down whoever’s experiences are beginning to merge with her own, and fix this whole kerfuffle at once.

From its first moments, Barbie’s mixture of sharp feminist critique and absurdist humor make for an eminently winning combination, joyously celebrating what is lovable about the Barbie universe while never forgetting its limiting assumptions, and using the unique philosophy of Barbieland to turn a withering eye on our own decidedly un-utopian reality. Barbieland itself is a visual marvel, recreating the exact specifications of Barbie’s Dreamhouse (and associated products) at life size, and thereby offering an extraordinarily pink, Seussian playground for its cheerful inhabitants. The whole setup is so playful and tongue-in-cheek that overtly structured jokes are rarely necessary; Barbie’s fall from grace provides plenty of inherent comedy without poking fun at Barbieland itself, while Ryan Gosling oversells his every gesture and line read to maximum effect as the perpetually star-struck Ken. Just look at his preposterously melodramatic swerve after Robbie calls him “very brave,” and imagine that earnest intensity applied to an entire leading role.

Barbie’s journey to the real world provides ample opportunities to face off with our own patriarchal reality, pulling no punches in its illustration of how limited Mattel’s vision of female empowerment truly is. But even in its most pointed moments, playful touches like CEO Will Ferrell’s cartoonish board of directors keep the overall tone light, while imaginative nonsense like Ken’s unique interpretation of patriarchy ensure its subtext-as-text approach offers plentiful comedic dividends. Gerwig has accomplished the remarkable task of making a film about female empowerment and commercialization as identity that nonetheless delights in Barbie and her colorful world, while also offering so many hilarious moments that its ferocious themes go down like a strawberry daiquiri. A preposterously successful and utterly charming film.

By Sandra Winters

Writer | Author | Wordsmith Passionate about crafting stories that captivate and inspire. Published author of [Book Title]. Dedicated to exploring the depths of human emotions and experiences through the power of words. Join me on this literary journey as we delve into the realms of imagination and uncover the beauty of storytelling.