Monday, July 24, 2023

Barbie is, much like its titular lead character, everything

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

I never played with Barbie dolls as a kid. I had a Dora the Explorer house set that kind of functioned like a Barbie Dream House, but that was the closest I got. When I was young, I was incredibly self-conscious about doing anything that would make me seem "femme" or "juvenile." Though aspects of the Barbie dolls, namely their glittery colors and the fact that they could inhabit any occupation, tantalized some part of my mind, I bottled those emotions up. I had to be normal. I had to conform. I was growing up in an age of Call of Duty, Zack Snyder movies, and aggressive YouTube bros who made violence against women a go-to punchline. If I wanted to be a "normal guy", I couldn't even look at the glittery or the pink. 

And yet, even with all these social pressures, in my last year of High School, I did something a little bold. I was walking behind my school's auditorium and I saw a gigantic pink box mimicking the packaging of a typical Barbie doll. I asked my friend to take a snapshot of me in the box. I did an extravagant femme pose and, for a moment, got to channel those emotions and desires I'd always put a cork in. I may not have memories of playing with Barbie dolls as a youngster, but the allure of the maximalist feminine sensibilities of Barbie was always there for me. They proved intriguing enough to inspire me to take a risk scoring a "silly" photograph of me being a Barbie girl in High School. Writer/director Greta Gerwig's live-action feature Barbie (which she penned with Noah Baumbach) taps into the innate appeal of Barbie, but also all the complicated intricacies that define so many people's relationship with this pop culture icon.

Anyone understandably worried that Gerwig making the transition to big-budget filmmaking would lose the charms of her earlier works like Lady Bird and Little Women need not worry. This lady is a master at her craft and she has no problem making something as profound as it is delightfully loopy.

Barbie (Margot Robbie), who refers to herself as Stereotypical Barbie, lives in Barbieland. It's a realm decked out in pink and plastic, where all the Barbies occupy fulfilling jobs and the Kens are there to be their best pals. Especially dedicated to connecting to Barbie is a Ken portrayed by Ryan Gosling, who works at the beach and is determined to win Barbie's love. One day, Barbie finds her world going a little loopy. Her feet are firmly on the ground, she has a cold shower, and thoughts of death keep rattling around her brain. She quickly learns that she has to travel to the real world to help solve her issues, a quest that Ken eagerly insists he join. Traveling to Los Angeles, both Barbie and Ken find themselves in a much more complicated world than either of them could've ever imagined.

From here, Barbie takes some fascinating roads that provide lots of social commentary on modern gender norms and the very concept of Barbie herself. As pointed out by my good pal Kat Hess, the innately campy nature of Barbie as a movie makes potentially didactic explorations of patriarchal issues extremely entertaining. After all, everything else in this feature is so over-the-top and colorful when it comes to the costumes and sets, a perfect reflection of the visual aesthetic of the Barbie dolls. Why shouldn't its examination of gender roles also be super pronounced? Campy cinema has never been about subtlety, especially when such films attempt to comment on societal woes that are already aggressive and intrusive in the real world. Barbie is just keeping the aesthetic of socially concious camp classics like But I'm a Cheerleader or Jennifer's Body alive and well with its overt way of grappling with gender-based issues.

Barbie is rooted in all kinds of great cinema from years past, from sets that echo the colorful realities of Powell & Pressburger movies to a collection of Mattel cubicles that evoke a location from a Jacques Tati's Playtime to an extravagant Ken musical number that would make Troy Bolton's "Bet On It" proud. However, Gerwig and company are not just leaning on classic movie references and nods to various classic Barbie dolls to carry the day (though goodness knows there's plenty of both!). It's also got tons of standalone joys that make it such an exceptionally fun and zippy experience. Most notably, Gerwig's gift for comedy as a filmmaker is able to flourish in such extravagant confines.

While revisiting Lady Bird a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover a hysterical gag where the film's titular character arrives at a party where some guy in a bucket hat is just standing in front of an open fridge. This guy never gets a name and nobody ever references his oddball behavior, but the lack of attention drawn to this inexplicable figure makes this figure all the more amusing. Gerwig brings back that kind of commitment to weird little background details and inexplicable elements for the world of Barbie. Ken expresses disdain for another Ken through frustrated dance moves while Barbie proudly talks about the genitals she doesn't have. Much like Showgirls combined commentary on patriarchal power structures while featuring Gina Gershon waxing poetic on her days of eating dog food, so too does Barbie masterfully combine absurdist gags with more meaningful interrogations of identity and what it means to be a woman. 

Boy howdy, do those moments of pathos ever work like gangbusters. Lady Bird and Little Women already reduced me to tears so it's no surprise Gerwig found a way to make me blubber with tears once again. Few modern filmmakers are as gifted as she is with capturing wistful nostalgia on-screen. Scenes of youthful romance in Lady Bird are realized with such a moving reflective quality, while the bright colors dominating the flashback sequences of Little Women make it clear why the past can be such a comforting place to retreat for Jo March. Here in Barbie, visions Barbie has of people in the "real world" just vividly communicate the ceaseless march of time. There's a soft quality to the images that makes them initially so warm and cozy before tugging on the heartstrings as inviting visual qualities are undercut by the inevitable complexities of growing up. The small choices Gerwig and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto employ to render the past on-screen make for deeply moving moments within Barbie and continue this director's gift for underscoring how personally important memories of the past can be.

The wildly disparate tonal elements are handled with grace by Gerwig and Baumbach's screenplay, while the ensemble cast assembled for Barbie also proves to have the chops to handle such wild material. Margot Robbie turns in her third great performance (following her unforgettable work in Asteroid City and Babylon) in the past seven months in inhabiting the role of Barbie. She's funny, she excels in emotional moments, and she exudes the kind of believability that Will Ferrell brought to Buddy the Elf two decades ago. Robbie isn't playing a heightened caricature of Barbie, she's immersed herself in becoming Barbie. Meanwhile, America Ferrera and Kate McKinnon are both delightful in supporting roles while Ryan Gosling steals the show with his himbo interpretation of Ken. Gosling's always had great comedic chops (just watch The Nice Guys!) and every inch of his Ken performance is a masterclass in why he should only be playing beefy goofballs, he's just so much fun.

In many ways, Barbie feels like it was made for me, and not just because of its tender exploration of what it means to be a woman. Its wackiest absurdist gags (like Ken rushing out to surf a wave on a body of water that doesn't actually exist) could've come from any of the vintage Simpsons episodes that helped mold my shape of humor. Meanwhile, an extended dance digression is clearly a homage to a similar sequence in Singin' in the Rain, a musical movie that broke open my brain to the possibilities of cinema as an artform when I first watched it as a young teenager. Even the bubbly soundtrack featuring songs that pair peppy orchestral accompaniments and vocal deliveries with unexpectedly darker lyrics (like Lizzo's "Pink") are successors to quietly grim show tunes I adored as a kid, like "The Nicest Kids in Town" or "Popular."

Even as it registered with many long-standing things I love about cinema and art, Barbie also resonated with me in ways I couldn't have expected. While I think about Singin' in the Rain and great wacky Simpsons gags all the time, I hadn't considered my adolescent relationship to classically "feminine" toys in years, if ever. Barbie reminded me of that and so much more heavy material I just don't have the space to think about on a day-to-day basis. Sitting in my seat, giggling at certain witty lines, a lump in my throat never quite vanished as Stereotypical Barbie navigated the harsh realities of what it means to be human. Barbie had me reaching into the Rolodex of my mind, not because of fan service, but the wistful emotions it inspired. 

I never played with Barbie dolls as a kid. But I was aware of them. I was fascinated by them. I even got that Dora the Explorer house playset as a way to simulate the idea of owning a Barbie dreamhouse. Greta Gerwig's Barbie reminded me of the qualities of Barbie that always proved so compelling while also making a film that takes this character and her world to such wildly unexpected places. It's a movie whose most tender and hysterical moments are impossible to jostle from my mind. It's also a project that's just as unabashedly funny, sad, weird, and glorious as the average everyday existence of a woman. Who knows if Barbie's magic will work on others as it did on me. All I know is that watching this movie was a magical experience that left me with a massive smile, plenty of tears in my eyes, and an even greater respect for the comedic gifts of Ryan Gosling. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) is surely alive with lots of thrills

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

It may be the seventh entry in the Mission: Impossible series, but Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the last month of summer blockbusters. Placed next to the rudimentary Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, the unbearable The Flash, and the stunningly inert Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the most basic elements of Dead Reckoning seem like revelations. Even its way of referencing other earlier installments in this saga is masterful compared to other 2023 blockbusters. Dial of Destiny just delivered an adolescent rehash of Short Round and The Flash paused its plot for CG cameos from older DC superheroes. By contrast, Dead Reckoning harkens back to the very first Mission: Impossible simply by mimicking how that feature cut to brief bursts of often silent flashbacks. If you understand the visual symmetry at play, you'll get a nifty reference. If not, the flashbacks still work on their own terms. That's how you do it.

What is Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) up to this time? Well, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) catches up with our hero contending with a new enemy rooted in the modern world. An A.I. system known as The Entity is growing more and more powerful. Rather than destroy this omnipresent entity, the world's governments, including the United States of America, merely want to control The Entity. Hunt must go rogue with allies Benji (Simon Pegg), Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), and Luther (Ving Rhames) to stop The Entity and its most devoted followers, like the malicious Gabriel (Esai Morales). A wild card in all this mayhem is pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell), who ends up being stuck at Hunt's side as she gets roped into all this world-threatening chaos.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for his third Mission: Impossible assignment on Dead Reckoning (Part One), partially because he did such a good job helming the last two installments in this series and also because Tom Cruise apparently can no longer take on an acting gig unless McQuarrie is involved in the production in some capacity. This particular entry isn't quite up to par with McQuarrie's earlier directorial efforts in the franchise, though luckily the shortcomings are more small foibles rather than fatal flaws. It would've been nice for supporting players like Ilsa to get more screentime while the script is a bit too concerned with expository dialogue for its own good. As the title indicates, Dead Reckoning (Part One) ends on a cliffhanger that avoids feeling as abrupt as the open-ended conclusion of Fast X, but it's still a bit of a weak way to send audiences out of the theater.

Otherwise, though, Dead Reckoning (Part One) is terrific popcorn entertainment that makes 163 minutes fly by like a breeze. One of the greatest assets of the recent Mission: Impossible movies have been their willingness to eschew increasing scope in favor of just coming up with nifty backdrops for set pieces. Rather than be guided by the idea that they have to blow up an even bigger location than the environments in the preceding movie, installments like Ghost Protocol and Fallout just find fun new places to test Ethan Hunt's resolve. There's an infectious creativity to McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen's screenplays that's very much alive here in this latest motion picture. Everywhere from the backrooms of an airport to a tight alleyway to a bunch of train cars can become the perfect locale for edge-of-your-seat thrills in Dead Reckoning (Part One).

Even better, the reliable staples of this franchise feel welcome and earned rather than cheap and predictable. Every time they do a big reveal that somebody's wearing a mask or that trick where they change out actors as the camera spins around a character putting on a mask, I get a little giddy. Meanwhile, Luther's bombastic early line about how he, Hunt, and their friends will "have to go rogue before the mission even begins!" also had me clapping with joy.  What a great way to wryly acknowledge how often Ethan Hunt is just abandoning the IMF to save the world. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) is super savvy in recognizing what hallmarks of these features it must deliver while concocting enough new excitement to ensure it's not all callbacks and references. Among the new elements here, Hayley Atwell makes for a fantastic addition to the franchise in her charming performance as Grace, Pom Klementieff is an utter delight as an adversary with a remarkable fashion sense, while Esai Morales is instantly one of the most compelling (not to mention attractive!) villains this franchise has ever seen. 

Meanwhile, an extended Rome, Italy car chase sequence is a total delight and feels totally fresh within the saga in how it deftly balances comedic struggles with tangible peril. Similarly, an opening prologue is an eerie and claustrophobic nail-biter of a sequence that gets Dead Reckoning (Part One) off to a start unlike any other in the series. You'll get exactly what you want out of this newest Mission: Impossible feature (lots of Tom Cruise running, look at him go!), but the creativity and excitement that's underlined nearly every entry in this saga ensures there's also some unforgettably distinctive elements at play here. In a summer of lackluster live-action blockbusters, allow Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) to remind you just how well-crafted and delightful these kinds of movies can be.