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Barbie and Oppenheimer: Celebrating two massive summer blockbusters with Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

In a column sponsored by Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, our film critic Mark Walsh looks forward to two huge releases and more.

Barbie / Oppenheimer

We’ve not all been around for the greatest moments in cinema history.

Only the privileged few would have witnessed the pram tumbling down the Odessa Steps, Gene Kelly dancing round a lamppost and Don Corleone leaving a horse’s head in bed for Jack Woltz at the time when they were first released.

What a time to be alive, then, when we can say we were there when Barbie and Oppenheimer released in cinemas on the same day. This may sound a little facetious, or smack of unnecessary hyperbole, but at a time when cinemas still haven’t fully recovered from the shock of the pandemic and many of this summer’s blockbusters have disappointed in both quality and box office terms, the pressure on two of the best directors in English language cinema to deliver two contrasting but well-crafted, original films couldn’t be greater.

Matt Damon, left, is Leslie Groves and Cillian Murphy is J Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Picture: Universal Pictures
Matt Damon, left, is Leslie Groves and Cillian Murphy is J Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Picture: Universal Pictures

On one hand we have Christopher Nolan, the last bastion of originality in Hollywood, who has married experimental story structures with impressive casts, large scale, practical set-pieces and stunts, all the while retaining a dedication to the cinema experience and honed in the likes of Inception, Dunkirk and his Batman trilogy.

Cillian Murphy has been a constant throughout those films and here takes the title role, of the scientist heading up the Manhattan Project and the original development of nuclear weapons. Here he flits between colour and black-and-white – creating black and white film for IMAX for the first time – with a supporting cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr and Florence Pugh, and a dedication to practicality involving recreating nuclear test explosions with practical effects rather than digitally.

You can also see the result of this in that increasingly rare format, actual film, as there will be a number of 35mm screenings from opening day.

On the other hand we have Greta Gerwig, who first came to prominence in mumblecore films such as Hannah Takes The Stairs before co-writing and starring in the likes of Frances Ha and Mistress America.

But it’s her first two films as a solo writer / director, the Saoirse Ronan-starring Lady Bird and the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, that have shown her immense talent for curating character, dialogue and performance.

A film based around the famous fashion doll may seem an unlikely direction to take next, but with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken and a similarly sizeable supporting cast headed up by America Ferrara and Will Ferrell, Gerwig is taking Barbie on a voyage of meta self-discovery as she and Ken are forced to leave Barbie Land for the real world and some seismic culture shocks.

Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie in Barbie. Picture: Warner Bros Pictures
Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie in Barbie. Picture: Warner Bros Pictures

But the real genius here is to offer up the two most original Hollywood products of the season on the same day, with Warner Bros sending the day-glo delights of Gerwig’s film to cinemas to battle against the first film from Nolan since he left that studio after changes to their policy around cinema releases.

Whether you see just one, or settle in for the most epic double bill of the year (possibly, if you’ll excuse the hyperbole again, the millennium), it should be a day to remember when these two eagerly anticipated films finally reach the big screen.

Barbie and Oppenheimer open on Friday, July 21.

Discover: Squaring The Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for some genuine counterprogramming, rather than just two very contrasting but still very epic films, then this new documentary from Anton Corbijn should suffice.

Corbijn began as a photographer before turning his hand to film, directing Ian Curtis biopic Control as well as The American and A Most Wanted Man.

He’s also responsible for some of the most iconic album covers of the last few decades, working with bands including U2, Bon Jovi, Depeche Mode and The Killers. Who better, then, to look at another group also responsible for some legendary music artworks, including some with a local connection?

Hipgnosis were an art design group headed up by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, who were at Cambridgeshire High School For Boys with Pink Floyd founders Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, and who created the cover artwork for their Dark Side Of The Moon and Animals albums among many others, as well as album art for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel and Wings.

Corbijn’s documentary charts the ups and downs of their career, including new interviews with members of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and other musicians from Paul McCartney to Noel Gallagher.

Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) opens on Friday, July 21.

Sight and Sound Top 10 - 2001: A Space Odyssey

The journey through the list of the best films ever made, as voted for last year by film critics in the decennial Sight And Sound magazine poll, reaches sixth place with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece this month.

The publication also polls directors every ten years, and this film finished top of their vote last year. It’s a film I struggled with until I first saw it on the big screen, but where I’ve now revisited it several times because the cinema really is the best place to absorb yourself in every facet of Kubrick’s creation.

Working with science-fiction writing legend Arthur C Clarke, Kubrick crafted the first true modern space epic for the cinema screen a year before man first put foot on the moon.

Their tale covers a period from pre-history to the immediate future, but despite us having advanced two decades past the year in the title, the film’s relationship to technology – especially the computer with a slightly sinister personality HAL – feels remarkably relevant to this day.

Couple with this Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography and the stunning use of classical music, from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra to Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube and a number of pieces by contemporary composer György Ligeti, it’s a film that demands to be seen on the largest canvas possible; don’t miss your chance, or HAL might come asking what you’re doing…

2001: A Space Odyssey is screening on Sunday, July 30.

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