Tag Archives: Emma Thompson

Cruella

30 May

‘Cruella’: Villain’s high-fashion origin story proves character isn’t all black-and-white

By Tom MeekWednesday, May 26, 2021

The backstory on Cruella de Vil, the villainess so indelible (that hair!) in Disney’s 60-year-old “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” franchise, is a dark one in the new “Cruella,” a bit more over the line than that of the studio’s “Maleficent” (2014). You could even say that its moody atmosphere and use of raucous era pop makes it feel more like “Joker” (2019) than a family friendly product from the Walt-O-Sphere.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, whose previous – and more dramatic – efforts such as “I, Tonya” (2017) or “The Finest Hours” (2016) don’t really feel like a pathway to a Disney go, competently rekindles a series opportunity here. The original 1961 adaptation of the Dodie Smith tale was the 17th animated film by the then burgeoning Disney empire; later (in the 1990s) there was a live-action take with Glenn Close as the yin-and-yang tressed dog-snatcher. In this prequel, we get a young Cruella/Estella, whose mom is harried by a trio of vicious Dalmatians on the grounds of a grand British estate (something up high and oceanside, akin to Manderley in “Rebecca”) and falls off a cliff, leaving Estella to fend for herself. Down on her luck and short on opportunity, the orphaned Estella falls in with a gang of street kids, grafting and scrapping to get by. Then, poof, some 15 years later in the ’60s/’70s (That soundtrack! The Clash, Supertramp, The Doors and ELO) she’s a cleaning lady (now played by Emma Stone, “La La Land” and “Birdman”) scrubbing the loo at a high-end designer’s boutique studio with the deep-seated goal of making trendy dresses herself. “Cruella,” it turns out, is more about haute fashion than Dalmatians.

The real fun to “Cruella” kicks in when Emma Thompson shows up as a brassy incarnation known as The Baroness, the Anna Wintour of British high society and fashion – anyone arriving at one of her galas with a more eye-grabbing dress than her is promptly escorted off the premises, and none too gently. After an accidental glimmer of Estelle’s talents (a boozy night of ambition rage sets it up) The Baroness rescues Estella from toilet duty and gives her the opportunity to design and create. It’s a happy working union for a moment, until Estella begins to learn of The Baroness’ sordid past and its possible impact on her childhood. To get at the truth, Estella hatches her Cruella alter-ego, with electric black and white shocks embossed by a vampy, Michelle Pfeiffer-esque Catwoman sass-itude. By day, the dour Estella toils under The Baroness’ demands; at night Cruella hosts flash mob fashion shows that steal The Baroness’ thunder, scoring all the critical high-fashion praise in the papers the next day.

It’s here that the game of catty cat-and-mouse between the two (or is that three?) becomes a bit overplayed. The film for the most part is imbued with a kind of dark, Tim Burton fairytale sprightliness, but it gets lost in the back-and-forth and the film sags some where it feels like there should be lift. Stone and Thompson bite deep into their roles and both succeed – especially Thompson – but the kitschy snazziness of caricature is mostly what registers. The film, written by committee, is clearly looking to turn Cruella the villain into something more heroic (which didn’t happen in the “Joker”) and it accomplishes that, if underwhelmingly. One of my favorite touches besides that soundtrack (some may see it as an unnecessary detraction; I didn’t) was Cruella’s pop-up fashion show band riffing Iggy Pop’s “I Want to be Your Dog.”

Late Night

14 Jun

‘Late Night’: Writers’ room full of white guys just isn’t working, but now Mindy Kaling is

Image result for late night movie

For a wispy-light, sitcom-ish comedy with some dark edges, “Late Night” covers a lot while getting guffaws and even some well-earned, teary-eyed moments. Lurking in the wings are the specter of Trump and #MeToo; more upfront are issues of white privilege, diversity hiring, ageism and sex scandals as “Late Night” takes us into the drama unfurling behind the scenes of late night TV.

The film benefits from an agile script by locally reared Mindy Kaling (“The Office” and “The Mindy Project”), no stranger to issues of race or trying to hold a show together as a woman. The other galvanizing infinity stone here – and there are “Avengers” jokes, I promise – is the chemistry between Kaling as a chemical plant engineer turned comedy writer and Emma Thompson as the notorious queen of mean of late night TV. Her Katherine Newbury, the lone female face of late night, is both menacing and engrossing, something of an improbable hodgepodge of Johnny Carson, Anna Wintour and Leona Helmsley. Ever in glamorous pantsuits and sporting a frosty cropped do, Katherine’s held her spot for decades, but recent years of poor ratings from her shunning of millennials, social issues and social media has the brass (Amy Ryan, great in small strokes as a “Network”-esque TV exec) considering a replacement. It doesn’t help that the show’s phalanx of writers are all white men, working obsequiously within the confines of their star’s narrow construct.

One such writer with a second child on the way asks for a raise and is fired – Katherine, while married (John Lithgow gives a nuanced and compassionate performance as her husband) does not have children, having poured herself into her show, and demands the same devotion from her staff. Desperate, and against her better instincts (she leans toward “national treasures” such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, while Jimmy Fallon slays her in the ratings by washing a sheepdog with “Avengers” star Robert Downey Jr.), Katherine books a YouTube sensation – a sassy female comedian whose MO is to sniff her dog’s butt. “What could go wrong?” The next move is to bring in a woman of color. Enter Molly (Kaling), who wins a corporate essay contest. Turns out the parent company that owns the chemical plant also owns the network (shades of GE and NBC). Yup, it’s that kind of light “dreams come true” fantasy, totally forgivable considering the smartly portrayed friction that ensues.

The delivery of “Late Night” overall is fairly predictable, with audience-cued reactions. Thompson is riveting throughout, and sure to be in this year’s Oscars conversations; she holds it all together, especially when her Katherine moves beyond commanding and demanding for a few vulnerable moments. Kaling’s Molly rides along in her wake, and together the two conjure up something akin to what Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep did in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). Together they make “Late Night” a sweet, serviceable fairy tale with a crisp acrid bite.