Movie Review ~ Cruella

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Penniless and orphaned in London at twelve, four years later Estella runs wild through the city streets with her best friends and partners-in-(petty)-crime. When a chance encounter vaults Estella into the world of the rich and famous, however, she begins to question the existence she’s built for herself in London and wonders whether she might, indeed, be destined for more after all.

Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jamie Demetriou, John McCrea, Abraham Popoola

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As a lifelong fan of all things Disney, I must admit a certain coolness toward the canine adventures found in 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the animated film has remained a popular title for the studio, despite having one of the most blatantly vicious villains.  A live-action remake in 1996 was just the juicy bit of rawhide star Glenn Close could sink her teeth into playing that very villainess, Cruella de Vil. So though the character still wanted puppies to make a Dalmatian coat of her own, Close’s performance somehow made Cruella less frightening and instead amped the camp.  The less said about the ill-advised 2000 sequel, the better, and you really don’t want a deep dive into the disastrous 2009 musical with its eye on Broadway that premiered in my hometown but closed on the road before the real dogs in the show had a chance to grow up and age out.

Where to go from there?  The remake had been done, the musicalization was donzo, but with Cruella still getting a fairly good reception whenever she turned up in Disney theme park shows or in television on the Disney-owned ABC’s Once Upon a Time it was clear audiences were somewhat keen to see her show up at the party.  After the success of Maleficent and its sequel, how about running old de Vil through the origin story factory and see what pops out?  To me, this sounded like an idea for the birds, not the dogs.  While Maleficient’s journey toward cursing a princess to eternal slumber might lend itself to a bit of Disney magic, where was the fun in finding out how a skunk-haired meanie developed her admiration for fur and luxury canine couture?  Not even bringing on I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie or two Oscar winning Emmas felt like it would do the trick.

Well, like a style guru who must capitulate that a checkerboard print does indeed work for all seasons, I have to say that Cruella is an absolute delight and one of Walt Disney Studios most confidently unique offerings in recent memory.  To take a villain many lovers of Disney’s animated oeuvre outright despise is a bold move to begin with, but to give her the kind of genesis the writers have (granted, it took five of them) is a wonder in and of itself.  Add to that a cast of actors that sparkle at rest and shine in action and you’re off to the races with a film that operates at full tilt for much of it’s 134-minute run time. 

An older Cruella narrates her early years when she was called Estella and Cruella was merely the name for her dark side that came out when she felt threatened or got into mischief.  Though she tries her best, Estella can’t always keep her bad side from taking over and that’s why she and her mother have to leave another school in a small village outside London and head back to the city, but not before a late-night stop at an imposing manor hosting a costume ball.  Here is where Estella takes her first steps toward life on her own and how she winds up roaming the streets of London alone, eventually meeting young pickpocket street urchins Jasper and Horace who welcome her into their makeshift home.

Years later the gang is grown-up but still at it, though Estella (Emma Stone, The Favourite) longs for a life that stimulates her passion for fashion.  Though some fancy footwork Jasper (Joel Fry, In the Earth) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Songbird) get her in the front door for an elite department store that sells clothes by The Baroness (Emma Thompson, Late Night), London’s most chic designer.  True, it’s a janitorial job…but it’s something.  A series of right time/right place events occur, leading Estella and The Baroness to cross paths with Estella eventually joining her fashion house as their youngest designer with cutting edge ideas.  However, as she quickly learns, the demanding job comes with a price…and a very wicked boss.  Soon, an old friend Estella had locked away comes roaring back and this time Cruella isn’t going to play second fiddle to her better self. 

One need only look at the screenwriters for Cruella and a lot of what transpires in the film begins to make sense.  Writer Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for adapting The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and there are quite a number of parallels between Cruella and that blockbuster.  There’s more than a little of that Miranda Priestly bite from Prada in Thompson’s The Baroness, though Thompson is handed even more rapid-fire one-liners and small bits of physicality that drive home her sting.  Make certain of this, Miranda Priestly is no match for The Baroness.  Then you have Steve Zissis, a long-time friend and collaborator with the Duplass brothers who are known for their quirky approach to filmmaking and fleshing out characters.  That’s evident in the supporting characters of Cruella, with a number of the secondary players far more developed than they normally would be in these types of films.  That’s how Fry, Hauser, and even Mark Strong (Shazam!) as the stoic right-hand man for The Baroness are able to sneak in and steal some small moments here and there.  Finally, Kelly Marcell worked with Thompson in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks so she knows how to write caustic one-liners for the actress and also bravely adapted the screenplay for 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey.  This experience no doubt helps with a little of that duality found in the Estella/Cruella scenes, chiefly near the film’s finale when Stone gets quite the scene that would be an 11 o’clock number if it was set to music.

Speaking of Stone, while I’ve found the actress successful in fits and spurts over the years (I still don’t agree with that Best Actress Oscar win, though, sorry!) she’s a fabulous choice to bring this classic personality to live-action life.  In her early scenes, she’s appropriately green and goofball but the more she learns of the game she has to play to get ahead, the faster she comes into focus with self-confidence.  I was nervous when her adult Cruella side first appeared because the shift is admittedly jarring, and Stone’s interpretation of Cruella’s upper-crust purr is more broad comedy than the sophisticatedly arch tones the rest of the film has been playing with.  Anything would be jostling next to Thompson though, who plays the role so brittle you expect her to crack into shards to shred anyone in her wake at any moment.  In a more creative climate, this kind of role would win Thompson an award, but the character is probably too soulless to be rewarded.

Knowing it was well over two hours going in, I tried to find places where director Gillespie might have trimmed things up, but I’m at a loss to say what could go that wouldn’t do damage to other structural parts of the story.  While it has a fairly large climax halfway through, the energy of the movie never dips.  Besides, with a driving score by Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk), wonderful production design from Fiona Crombie (Macbeth), and stunning costumes courtesy of 2-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road), there’s little reason to ever be bored – there is always something to take in.  I’d have liked to see a little less digital work in the outdoor scenes but seeing that much of Cruella was filmed on a soundstage, this was obviously unavoidable.

Parents, take note that Cruella rated PG-13 and it’s for a reason.  I’d wager it’s one of the darkest films ever released under the Walt Disney Studios logo (i.e., not Touchstone, Hollywood Films, etc) but I’m glad nothing seemed to be truly, uh, neutered.  The darker parts are meant for a more mature child, likely the ones already watching Disney Channel works that have a similar feel, like The Descendants.  If you’re one of those people that get hung up on the “dog coat” of it all, try to remember this is Disney we’re talking about.  It’s important going in to try your best to separate this movie from the 1956 film and its remake, don’t put this one in the doghouse on principle alone.  If you do, you’re going to mess a heck of a fun ride. This is a highly enjoyable endeavor, well worth the cost of renting it for a family night on Disney+ with Premier Access.

Movie Review ~ Little Joe

The Facts:

Synopsis: A plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and finds her newest creation blossoming into something sinister.

Stars: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Phénix Brossard, Leanne Best, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Jessica Hausner

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though I was a pretty good gardener when I was growing up, try as I might I just cannot keep a plant alive in my apartment.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t have control over the heat and being on the top floor it tends to rise, making our place nice and toasty during the winter but a steam box during the summer.  Normally, this would be good for plant growing but the Midwest greens that I’ve been trying to keep alive these past years have just not taken to any kind of tending I’ve tried.  I swear they should put up a warning sign about me at my local flower shop, barring any future plant sales.

Watching a movie like Little Joe, it makes me glad my green thumb has turned a rosy shade of pink.  This paranoid sci-fi yarn is a neat little corker that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year and walked away with a major prize.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (that went to the excellent Parasite) but did manage to snag Best Actress for its star Emily Beecham.  I saw Little Joe without knowing the breadth of its Cannes reach and, in a way, I’m happy I did because I was able to judge the movie and the performance on my own without having that “awards prestige” applying undue influence.

Single mother Alice (Beecham, Hail, Caesar!) has a job as a high-tech botanist working to create a new species of plant designed to induce happiness in all that come in close contact.  Her company is pushing their scientific groups to meet a deadline so they can introduce their line of flora at a convention that’s rapidly approaching.  With a competitive edge developing between the plant breeders, Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) may have used some questionable methods in their sequencing but with the results so positive, what’s the harm?  Dubbing their flower Little Joe after Alice’s son (Kit Connor, Rocketman), the cherry-red flower is indeed alluring and has a strange affect on those that spend an extended amount of time with it.

When Alice breaks protocol and brings a Little Joe home to give to her son, she notices changes in the relationship they used to share.  What was once an open and friendly bond has now turned secretive and harsh, with Joe spending more time with friends he introduces to Little Joe and excluding Alice from his conversations.  At the same time, a co-worker of Alice’s (Kerry Fox, The Dressmaker) starts to put together that the plant is the cause of shifts in personalities, first in the devoted dog she brings into the laboratory and then in the people she works with daily.  Unable to see the connection on the outset, Alice brings her initial fears about Joe’s behavior to her therapist (a serene Lindsay Duncan, About Time) who suggests the paranoia may be linked to a past event Alice has tried to put behind her.  The longer Alice waits to take action, though, the less people she’ll have to trust because Little Joe has a secret…and perhaps even a plan to keep anyone quiet who threatens to expose its endgame.

I can say Little Joe reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it not be too much of a spoiler, because it’s not that kind of a movie.  This isn’t that same type of alien horror film but something manufactured by humans that just happens to bite back.  Director Jessica Hausner co-wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard and she’s definitely on to something with her tale of mass-produced happiness that turns deadly. You can easily draw lines between the flower and modern technology.  Could be a stretch but sub out Little Joe for a cell phone or any other kind of tech gadget and see if that doesn’t fall in line with the feeling of exclusion Alice falls into when her son and co-workers turn their backs on her.

If only Hausner had found a way to round out the movie with something a little more interesting.  I kept waiting for the film to take a left turn and get out of the sane lane but it seemed stubbornly stuck in its course forward and that’s disappointing.  Right up until the end, I was almost begging for something other than what was happening to happen just so I could give the movie a higher final score – there just had to be some other way to put a button on this story than what was presented here.  It’s a fault in storytelling that became a flat note to end what was otherwise a strong showing.

That’s especially sad because Beecham is so very good as the increasingly addled Alice.  When the film begins she’s cool as a cucumber, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and slightly out of date clothing.  (Though the movie is ostensibly set in modern times it looks to the ‘80s and late ‘70s for style inspirations)  Giving strong Nicole Kidman vibes, Beecham earns that Best Actress award from the Cannes jury by metering out her unraveling in small ways and never giving over to the huffy puffy hysteria the situation might bring other actresses to.  Instead, her reactions are muted shock and an almost instant realization of her part in the problem at hand, never being able to fully absolve herself of what she did to bring about the events of what transpire.  Which, come to think of it, may inform the ending that I so desperately didn’t like.  In supporting roles, Whishaw is nebbishly fine pining for Alice but it’s Fox who steals the show as an already tightly wound woman who has her coils curled further when she becomes the only voice of reason.

Worth seeing on the big screen if only to see the glorious cinematography from Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) of all those dramatic crimson petals set against the sterile confines of a lab setting, Little Joe blooms early but wilts under pressure of an ending that’s too pat.  I wonder if Hausner had anything else in mind to bring the movie to a close of if this is what she planned all along, it’s hard to imagine a concept so slow burning for 95 minutes would just throw in the towel so easily in the last ten minutes.  Still, I would recommend this based on those 95 minutes because they’re well done.  It’s a perfect selection for those that miss the paranoid thrillers so popular in the ‘70s and audiences that appreciate their sci-fi horror on the reserved side.