Friday, May 28, 2021

Don't Be 'Cruella'

Dalmatians? Never heard of such a thing.

When the trailer for Cruella came out last year, the majority response seemed to be, "Do we really need yet another villain origin story, much less one that looks like Joker but with dresses?" That reaction was partly right. No, we don't need a Cruella de Vil origin story, but the one they've given us is not a nihilistic Joker-in a dress fable. Instead, it's a fun, fashion fueled fantasy that is ultimately weighed down by its connection to the Disney franchise.

Like many an origin story, it begins in school days, with a young raven-and-platinum-haired Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) ostracized by her classmates and her teachers. She doesn't take any of it laying down, releasing the inner fighter she dubs "Cruella" whenever she feels threatened or rebellious.

When tragedy strikes, Estella ends up alone on the streets of London, but quickly finds two literal partners in crime in Jasper and Horace, two ragamuffin brothers, and they grow up to be thick as thieves. Frankly, I was glad to see the childhood stuff end pretty quickly, as the parts with the now grown Estella (Emma Thompson) and Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) running scams and picking pockets on the streets of early 1970's London are pretty fun to watch.

Estella's dream is to be a fashion designer, which firmly sets this up as a prequel to the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close as Cruella, and not the animated version released in 1961. Cruella's eventual obsession with dalmatian puppy pelts is given some explanation as well (although that explanation is so ridiculous I howled with laughter when it was revealed). 

Cruella's designing dreams put her in the path of the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), London's haute couture legend, who recognizes some talent in Estella, whom she initially dubs "Grubby Girl," and hires her for her fashion house.

What follows is closer to The Devil Wears Prada than 101 Dalmatians (in fact Prada and Cruella share a screenwriter), and that ultimtely got me wishing the whole film could have instead been a kind of hyper, Velvet Goldmine-type fantasized version of the Vivienne Westwood story (who is very clearly the inspiration behind Cruella's punk style), and not the story of a villain we're supposed to love but who we all know eventually grows up to be a PUPPY MURDERER.

The heart of the film, in which the Baroness and Cruella engage in fashion-based battles and one-upmanship, is a complete delight. Along with Jasper and Horance, Cruella's crew includes a one eyed chihuahua named Wink, and Artie (John McCrea), the flamboyantly glam rock owner of a vintage clothing shop. Emma Thompson clearly relishes her villainous role, while also underplaying it in unexpected ways. She's a boss from hell in every sense of the term, but manages to be utterly horrible without a bit of screaming. Also: her turban game is on point.

Emma Stone plays Cruella like a superhero who is discovering her dominion is the power of a show-stopping entrance. Her "rubbish gown" alone should garner costume designer Jenny Beaven an Oscar, though really the film is filled with more costume eye candy than can be caught in one viewing. All of the colorful visuals are backed by a killer soundtrack that, yes, includes some of the expected sounds of the era (the Stones; the Clash; Bowie), but I have to applaud the inclusion of Ike and Tina Turner's covers of Whole Lotta Love and Come Together. Truly inspired.

With a running time of 134 minutes Cruella is definitely too long, and is almost begging for an alternative cut that eliminates the majority of the franchise tie-ins, leaving behind a story of a punk rock princess who beats an evil queen, and lives happily ever after in her own fashion empire, with a couple of cute black and white dogs she has absolutely no desire to murder.

Cruella is playing in theaters now, and is also available on Disney+ as a premium rental.

Friday, May 14, 2021

'The Djinn' Is A Horror Tonic

I'll skip that bedtime story tonight, thanks

Horror movies have a lot in common with fairy tales. In some of the best of both you will find storytelling conventions centered on morality, and how horrible things can happen to even those who set out with the best of intentions. And of course, some of the most popular fairy tales in their original forms are also the most horrifying.

At its heart, The Djinn is a fairy tale about a boy who makes a wish, and suffers the consequences. Watching it brought to mind such 1970's and '80's horror classics as Trilogy of Terror, The Evil Dead, Phantasm, and Poltergeist. Its late 1980's setting (which seems primarily picked so as to avoid the modern advantages that cell phones and computers would lend to the story) certainly has a lot to do with that, as does its synthy score. 

But I could also see the influence classic horror had on the writing and directing team of David Charbonier and Justin Powell, who insert plot elements centered on incantations read from a mysterious book (horror movie lesson number one: don't ever do that), and being trapped in a house with malevolent creatures that can sometimes look very human (horror movie lesson number two: they never are, so don't be fooled). 

The Djinn wouldn't work as well as it does without Ezra Dewey as Dylan, the kid at the center of the story. Dylan is recovering from several losses, including the loss of his own speaking voice. When he finds a mysterious book in the closet of his new house, a book that includes a spell that will make a wish come true, he knows just what to wish for.

Dewey is a captivating young actor and he handles being in every moment of the movie with the skill of a veteran. In fact, he's so compelling, it becomes a little tough to watch him suffer through some of the trauma he's put through in the course of the story. If I have any complaint about the movie, it's that Dylan's night of horror goes on just a tad too long. When horror wallows in the pain of its moralistic lessons, it can branch off into the realm of torture porn. Thankfully, The Djinn ultimately does show some restraint, landing back in the realm of fairy tales, though probably not the kind you'd want to tell your kid at bedtime.

The Djinn is now showing in select theaters, and can also be rented on most VOD platforms

Friday, May 7, 2021

'Wrath of Man' Does Not Produce a Righteous Moviegoing Experience

"You promised if I did all the driving you'd talk to me! Otherwise I'm gonna fall asleep!"

It's a weird time to be reviewing movies, even weirder than it was a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, there really wasn't any doubt about going to movie theaters since the vast majority were closed. Streaming was it. But now, a year later, theaters are opening back up, and films are getting exclusive theatrical releases again. But despite being fully vaccinated, I remain cautious, and I think it would take something a bit more...epic than Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man to get me back into a theater full of popcorn munchers right now. (I watched a streaming version for this review.)

That said, I cannot deny that action movies are best viewed on a big screen, and perhaps viewing from the comfort of my couch can partially be to blame for my almost falling asleep at times, though I think it's the redundancy of the plot, and its ultimate shoot-out, which sure does drag on (the movie runs over two hours), that is really to blame for that. 

A remake of the 2004 French film Cash Truck, Wrath of Man stars Ritchie regular Jason Statham as the mysterious new driver, known only as "H," at an armored truck company. Just why he chose to join the company a few weeks after a deadly robbery, and who he may actually be, is the mystery that grounds the first 30 minutes or so of the film, before it begins to jump around in time and we learn what his real motives are.

I'm a Jason Statham fan, and have watched plenty of terrible movies merely because he was in them. He's his usual steely jawed and deadpan self here and...that's about it. The script doesn't give him many of his reliably witty retorts, and his fighting is relegated to expert marksmanship alone. There's not much in the way of punching or high kicks to his enemies' heads here. Which, trust me, I get! The man is in his fifties now. But without either of those things, he's just a waste in a film that doesn't offer much else to make up for it.

And at times, Wrath of Man is almost amateurish. There's some shockingly bad dialogue throughout, some of it delivered by equally shockingly bad American accents from such Brits as Eddie Marsan and Darrell D'Silva. (Statham, thankfully, sticks to his cockney growl, although more than once I was wishing for subtitles.) Also, Statham's character is given a son who, who because of unfortunate casting, appears to be entering college at the age of 30?

The terrible dialogue doesn't help the performances of some normally solid actors, like Holt McCallany, Jeremy Donovan and Josh Hartnett. Ironically, this theatrical release is exactly the kind of movie you'd usually find on some streaming service when looking for something, anything, new to watch. You'd start it because of the Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham name recognition...and then probably turn it off half way through because you're sure there's just got to be something better on.

Friday, January 15, 2021

'Promising Young Woman' Fulfills

Candy colored vengeance

Promising Young Woman is a gooey romantic comedy wrapped in a pastel colored, hard candy, revenge fantasy shell. It's also my favorite film of 2020.

I knew very little going into it, aside from what the trailer showed me (which, in retrospect, was probably too much; watch with warning), and I am thankful for that. The film is filled with surprises, and if I had truly known what to expect, I'm not sure it would have delighted me as much. (I promise no spoilers in this review.)

I also had no idea who the director was, so was a little shocked to learn it is Emerald Fennell, who I had just finished watching in Netflix's The Crown, where she plays Camilla Parker Bowles. (She's also head writer for the second season of Killing Eve.) Promising Young Woman is her feature film directorial debut, and it's one of the most assured debuts in years. 

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a young woman at the end of her twenties who works at a coffee shop, and still lives at home. Her best, and seemingly only, friend is the manager of that coffee shop (played by Laverne Cox). That's pretty much her life, aside from the nights she goes to bars or clubs alone, pretends to be blackout drunk, and goes home with men promising they only want to help.

Of course, they never actually do, and none are truly prepared to suddenly deal with the pissed off and completely sober woman they actually end up with.  

One of many things director Fennell gets perfect is the casting, starting with Mulligan, who is convincing in every persona she takes on, from every day, girlish barista, to drunken businesswoman, to stripper. The casting against type of the men in the film is simply genius; it's a veritable who's who of actors known for their nerdy nice guy roles, including Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, and, as the ultimate nice guy boyfriend, Bo Burnham (who's 2018 directorial debut, Eight Grade, was equally surprising).

Promising Young Woman is filled with appealing things. The pastel colored pastries in Cassie's coffee shop; her girlish manicure; the pop music soundtrack; a charmingly self-deprecating boyfriend who is also a doctor. It's also appealingly funny, but at its heart, its story is pretty grim. Fennell knows packaging the story in pretty things only makes the horror at its heart hit harder. I have no doubt once the closing credits run, some people are going to hate what they just saw.

Speaking of credits, I think my favorite moment in the film is during the opening credits, which plays out to the strains of a cover of It's Raining Men. As Cassie walks home in triumph after another successful evening, a walk that to any observer, may appear to be one of shame, she is catcalled by some construction workers across the street. She stops. She stares at them, not moving or saying a word. They continue to call out lewdly...she continues to stare in still silence. It’s disquieting because we are not yet sure how dangerous Cassie is, but that's also what makes it quite funny. And her stare is enough to turn her "admirers" into haters, as they start to scream insults at her instead, before turning and skulking away. 

Cassie's silent stare is like a mirror turned on her harassers, who see themselves, react in anger, but then slink away, hopefully in shame. In fact, everything Cassie does in the movie forces perpetrators and enablers to stop and see their actions clearly, perhaps for the first time. "Bad guys" are more than those who commit horrible acts. They're also those who see those acts, rationalize them, and do nothing. 

Promising Young Woman is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

Friday, October 23, 2020

'On The Rocks' Avoids Sinking

Promise not to whisper in my ear at the end of this, OK?

I've enjoyed every film Sofia Coppola has made, and straight up loved some of them. On the Rocks falls into the former column, but I think after a rewatch, it could very well fall into the latter.

Like 2010's Somewhere, On the Rocks centers on the relationship between a daughter and her loving though often absent father, although this time they are both adults. Rashida Jones is Laura, a writer married to Dean (Marlon Wayans), whose startup takes him away from her and their two daughters a lot. Laura begins to suspect those frequent late nights and trips away may be something other than work, and asks her father, Felix (Bill Murray) what he thinks. Big mistake. Felix, a constant flirt with a history of philandering, sees this situation through the prism of his own experience, and is sure Dean is cheating. He resolves to team up with Laura to prove it.

It's a simple set-up, and one that takes advantage of its New York setting, as the duo spend most of their time together either eating or drinking in fabulous locations like Bemelmens Bar. Jones proved herself a consummate straight woman in TV comedies like Parks and Recreation, and you need someone like that to play off of Murray, whose performance feels largely like a serious of improvisational moments. Without Jones, the film could have come dangerously close to becoming the Bill Murray Show, (not unlike his Christmas special, also directed by Coppola). Instead, through her Laura, we can see how easy it is to love a father like Felix, while also being utterly and completely fed up with him.

Sometimes the film can feel frustratingly frivolous, like when Felix is pulled over by the cops and breezes his way out of a traffic ticket. This same situation, had it happened to Laura's husband, who is black, would likely have a very different outcome, (that Laura is herself is mixed also goes largely unmentioned). 

However, I don't agree with criticism often lobbed at Coppola's films, that because they often deal with the lives of the wealthy and socially blessed that the films themselves are shallow and superficial. But I'll also acknowledge Coppola can demonstrate a level of tone-deafness that in the hands of a lesser director, and lesser actors, could sink a film. The lightness of On the Rocks is the very thing that lifts it.

 On the Rocks is now streaming on Apple TV+.