Hollywood is back! During its first weekend, Barbie smashed every box office record in America with a staggering $155m, followed by Oppenheimer the same weekend with $80.5m. The message is clear: the public want original films. LAUREEN ROSSOUW and LEON VAN ROOYEN review the two mega hits.

  • 04 August 2023
  • Lifestyle
  • 9 min to read
  • article 17 of 24
  • Laureen Rossouw and Leon van Rooyen

Ken steals ‘Barbie’ spotlight

Barbie has come full circle, but we haven't seen nearly kenough of Ken, writes LAUREEN ROSSOUW. Maybe time for Ken, the movie?

BARBIE is 64. I'm 67. I've known her all my life. For as long as I can remember, she has been the subject of endless debates about what girls should look like, what they want, and who and what they should be.

The idea of ​​Barbie originated from a German sex doll for men, Bild Lilli, which was adapted by Mattel in 1959 to sell to mothers (mostly without professions or credit cards) to prepare their daughters for adult and especially professional life. Until that stage, the purpose of dolls, babies and toddlers was to teach girls to take care of children when they got married one day.

I just have to add that my Barbie was not a career girl. She was a social butterfly — the first doll who could wear fashions that my mother liked and wanted to make for herself.

No effort was spared for her wardrobe. Scraps of feathers, fur, glitter and scrap bouclettes, satin and velvet were collected from everywhere to spiff up her sophisticated outfits.

We lived on a farm, while my Barbie gallivanted all over the world. She took me to places I would otherwise never have been.

American toy manufacturer Mattel displays Ken and Barbie dolls in 1961.
American toy manufacturer Mattel displays Ken and Barbie dolls in 1961.

Ken wasn't that popular. The only beloved Ken I knew about, was when a gay friend told me years later that his mother gave him a Ken for Christmas, while his lesbian sister received a Barbie. As soon as his mother left the room, they switched dolls. And the only reason the sister liked Ken so much was because she detested Barbie.

Halfway through we had to become feminists: Barbie was a sensation one day; a social outcast the next.

The criticism first concentrated on her unnatural physique as a role model for girls (high breasts, long legs, even higher hip bones and a body in which organs obviously could not fit) and later because she was white and blonde. And that turned us into a generation of Barbie deniers.

For the rest of her life, Barbie was condemned to a shoe box under my bed.

Barbie and Ken survived; the manufacturer Mattel made sure they kept up with the times, and still makes a profit of more than $1 billion annually from Barbie sales.

Ken now comes in seven skin tones, three body types, eight hair colours and nine hairstyles. (Apparently the most popular Ken is the one with a man bun.)

Linay Jacobs was one of the moviegoers in Barbie pink at the Labia in Cape Town.
Linay Jacobs was one of the moviegoers in Barbie pink at the Labia in Cape Town.

Barbie on the big screen

If you like hyper drama (and aren't on the spectrum), this Greta Gerwig movie is for you.

But I have to add: the plastic, pink bubblegum, hyperstylised sets and the never-ending psycho blabber were challenging, an assault on my senses, and reminded me of Japanese video games.

I could only experience and enjoy the movie in its entirety after I had left the theatre.

However, the film is cleverly put together. It's a romantic comedy seen through a playful and sharp satirical lens, which makes all the difference and greatly adds to the entertainment value.

Barbie (Margot Robbie) brilliantly moves between her stereotyped glamour identity and real life. The film acknowledges the criticism of Barbie's influence on young girls, while also celebrating the doll's legacy.

Gerwig explores topics such as bodybuilding, toxic masculinity, patriarchy and feminism in a sympathetic and digestible way.

Barbie has come full circle. Every girl can now achieve what she wants to and her motto, “You can be anything", has been achieved.

As the Virginia Slims cigarette ad of yesteryear used to go: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Ken is tops!

But it's the versatile Ryan Gosling as Ken who is the star.

First as Barbie's redundant boyfriend in the ugliest short shorts suits imaginable and unbuttoned shirts that show off his six-pack, to a self-examining and complex character that Gosling portrays masterfully and tongue-in-cheek.

He sings and takes to the floor with kenergy in crackerjack dance moves that resemble Bob Hope in Singing in the Rain, while he undergoes an identity crisis and comes to this conclusion: he cannot be happy as the boyfriend of a trophy like Barbie. He is more. He must be independent.

Kenough is kenough, but we haven't seen nearly kenough of him. Maybe time for Ken, the movie?

Gosling was a natural on the dance floor from a very young age. Watch him showing off his moves: 

A-listers, A-bombs, but B-minus

Oppenheimer may be a technical masterpiece, but it is only the sound in IMAX theatres that really blows audiences away, writes LEON VAN ROOYEN.

NUCLEAR energy has always been a complicated issue for me. On one side of the spectrum lies Koeberg and on the other the atomic bomb.

My only and closest encounter with this nightmarish but necessary source of energy was in Swakopmund, where I grew up.

My own Los Alamos

With my hormones colliding, I was going through a wild fission process myself during high school. But that's not the point — my mother worked for a uranium mine. For human resources, not mineral resources.

We lived in a mine house (which was quite fine, I had my own room) and she had to pay a total rent of N$10 (R10 at the time). And you'd call Housing when a bulb blew.

The mine was about 60 km outside town and our house was conveniently close to the bus stop, where everyone except the big dogs was picked up at six o'clock every day and dropped off again at five o'clock.

And as if gas was being released by the air conditioning, everyone just slept solidly for an hour. Apparently it was awfully pleasant. A whole bus full of people napping together. No phones, no music, just a quiet flashing light every now and then and soft snoring from a boilermaker.

There were safety drills at the mine. I always imagined mushroom clouds and people in hazmat suits. But they only had to seal doors and windows with duct tape, in case of ammonia leaks. My mother worried more about Beyond 2000, Y2K and millennium delirium anyway.

The mine didn't have a name board and the buses turned left, even though the mine was on the right-hand side of the road. Between that and all the sleeping on the way there, I don't think many people knew how to get there.

In a way, Swakopmund was my own little “safe" version of Los Alamos, the small town in New Mexico that was the home of the first atomic bomb.

From fuse to ashes

Christopher Nolan's new movie, Oppenheimer, is a biographical account of Robert J Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), his regrets as a scientist and how his magnum opus, the atomic bomb, changed the world.

We experience him as a student and socialist (fuse years). This is followed by his period as head of the Manhattan Project and Time's cover star (Prof Bang years). And finally we experience how he was persecuted in the post-war crusade against communism (ashes-and-dust years).

And from the get-go, while everyone in the cinema is still checking whether their phones are on airplane mode, Oppenheimer is already tormented. What torments a white, educated, hetero man only the father of the atomic bomb would know.

It doesn't happen every day that the United States gets so lax in its stance against socialism that it gives a Jewish scientist the chance to develop the first and only nuclear bomb, with the goal of crushing the Nazis.

While Nolan treats us to poignant cutaway shots of various atomic kaleidoscopes, Murphy's Oppenheimer grapples with his conscience. If Alfred Nobel could develop dynamite and then establish the Nobel Peace Prize, surely he could do this? Surely that would be better than if Adolf Hitler managed to develop an atom bomb? All is fair, right?

Apparently Sir Winston Churchill stole this quote from someone: “Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.” Oppenheimer was 41 when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Brooding in the IMAX

In a parallel universe, I sit in the V&A Waterfront's IMAX theatre and brood as Oppenheimer bounces between black and white (Kodak developed special black and white film specifically for scenes in the movie) and A-listers' colourless renditions of their characters.

Anyway, Nolan shot the whole thing on IMAX cameras. And if you get the chance to see a Nolan movie on IMAX, you take it. The sound knocks you back in your seat, but unfortunately only if you were on the edge of your seat already. Oh, and the seats are more comfortable than the sex scene between Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), Oppenheimer's mistress, and the daddy of big explosions.

But this is what I really struggle with. The protagonist and his gang designed two huge bombs that caused the death of approximately 226,000 Japanese. Another story about a bunch of dudes who made the world not so nice for the rest of humanity. Now a name like Christopher Nolan grabs a story like that and I see and believe the hype. The “Barbenheimer" memes, Cillian Murphy's sixth Nolan film and, come on, the atomic bomb and Nolan — the anticipation makes my popcorn hand tremble.

And usually, when you get into Nolan's multi-dimensional, high-concept cerebral movies, where he bends timelines and even just time completely, you are blown away by the narrative chaos, stimulated by the insane plot points and drooling about the silver-screen magic he creates.

But this time, Nolan only manages to unleash a technical masterpiece. The starry cast is a faraway galaxy struggling to shine. You should never be sorry that you had to pay for four hours of parking after a movie.

Back in Swakop, it is close to five o'clock. The blue buses with the sleeping passengers sneak into town again. My mother is home. The bulbs burn, the kettle boils and I struggle with homework. History remains a mess.

♦ VWB ♦

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