Cruella

Cruella is the next in a long line of Disney films designed to exploit their previous properties and put a reboot Twist on them. So although there are Dalmatians in this film the movie is not really about the dogs. This is an attempt to reimagine Cruella de Vil as a sympathetic character gone wrong. In the long run not much is going to change on the main stories except our perceptions of these characters as they appear early on and then return in their original form.

I didn’t expect a great deal from this movie and I was pleasantly surprised and how much I enjoyed it. Much of the credit goes to the production design team who’s amazing designs for the mansion, the workshop the cars, and all of the technical things that get used in the film are a lot of fun. In addition special notes should be given to the craftspeople who designed the clothes that were worn by the various characters but especially those made for star Emma Stone. She wears these outfits and commands the screen simply by looking outlandish and confident while doing so.

The plot of this film imagines Cruella from her earliest age until just before the events that makeup  101 Dalmatians. Cruella appears to be the orphaned child of a former acquaintance of a fashion designer, The Baroness. Of course appearances always turn out to be slightly skewed in a movie like this and there will be plot turns that confound us, amuse us, and in the long run make a little bit more sense then they probably should. I like the use of characters that are referred to in the previous films and they also have been given revised backstories. Jasper and Horace, who are Cruella’s henchman in this version of the story, turn out to be orphans that are similarly abandoned and are using petty crime as a way to survive. The movie really get started when characters get together and start plotting for Cruella to get into the fashion industry that she is always dreamed of being apart of.

There is a long sequence where Cruella is poorly used as an entry-level member of the Baroness’ Empire. The idea that she ends up scrubbing floors and being ignored despite her good ideas is maybe a little trite but it’s played for good comic effect. Emma Thompson provides great opposition as the heartless and manipulative fashion maven that Cruella is up against. The best parts of the movie are the three or four dramatic moments when Cruella’s designs upstage the Baroness at key moments, typically a fashion show. These are usually presented as clever tricks or reversals of the Baroness own plans. They are also very well designed and have a great visual flair to them. That flair makes it feel as if the Fashion World could operate in these sorts of ways. The Cruella character becomes the Banksy of the Fashion World, a renegade artist with a sense a panache. Of course the more she is blocked by the Baroness the more fantastic her revenge scenarios become.

If you were thinking of taking your children to see this film, think again, because one of the major plot points involves the murder of a woman. That death is followed up by another plot to murder another woman. Then we are given a situation where there might be even more murder involved. And there is plenty of cruelty to go along with the plotting. There are Dalmatians in the film and in the early part of the movie they are villainous. Two other dogs are the charming heroes, if you can call criminals heroes. The fact that in the end the Dalmatians become a more important part of the plot, really has nothing to do with the original movies. This is not a kids movie with dogs, it’s a movie made for adults based on characters from a kids movie. It would not do you well to confuse the two because your kids could very well end up traumatized by some of the things that take place in the plot.

It’s a little schizophrenic that sometimes we see Cruella as a victim and other times see her as the perpetrator of something evil. Admittedly the character is evil but actress Emma Stone holds back on making Cruella completely irredeemable but only stopping short to keep a PG-13 rating. I found the movie very entertaining and funnier than I expected. Worth a watch for adults, but beware bad dogs. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

We have a new winner in the race to be the weakest Spider-Man movie ever. Leading the pack for seven years was the nearly universally reviled “Spider-Man 3”.  While it was certainly the least favorite of mine, I have never been a hater like so many others. It was a disappointment and at times a little silly. What it never was was boring. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is just that. Equally bloated with plot elements and villains, but managing to be entertaining for only about a third of it’s more than two hour running time. The second entry in the reboot of a series that probably did not need to restart so soon, this film will be the biggest disappointment of the year to geeks and movie executives everywhere. The comic book fans will pick it apart for it’s flaws and the money men will second guess how they took a sure thing and turned it into this.

There are long stretches in the movie where we get an ill defined domestic drama featuring Peter Parker, His girlfriend Gwen and his Aunt May. This is not what people turn out for. The back and forth love affair has a couple of sweet moments, but it all feels pointless and without any real motivation. If Peter is going to make the decision to stop seeing Gwen, why does he spend all his time following her around and mooning over her? Why does Gwen take him back when she knows how he is not able to make a commitment? Why would anyone care is the two of them have created no stake for the audience to begin with? Maybe if I had re-watched the last film right before seeing this one, it might have helped, but I don’t think so.

The opening chase and battle with a barely recognizable and incoherent Paul Giamatti as a Russian gangster who may figure in the plot later, was sadly divisive for me. The way it is shown, from camera positions and Peter’s perspective and then at street level if gracefully imagined. It just doesn’t look very good. The animated CGI images are blurry around the edges, the colors look weak and it seemed flat. It is possible that this resulted from the effort to make this a 3D spectacular, but I did not see it in 3D and it looked cheap. The spitting gibberish uttered by Giamatti in the opening is Shakespeare compared to the “Ve av vays of making u talk” accented dialogue that comes from the “scientist” who is supposed to contain the villain “Electro” later in the film.  It was literally embarrassing to listen to this cliche speak from the screen. This movie feels slapped together in a way that “Spider-Man 3” might have been, but at least there, the seams were only visible when Peter Parker goes dark. In this movie, every villain is half thought out, every Peter Parker domestic problem is written as if it were important but plays like it is not, and all of the action scenes are less than exciting.

I think Andrew Garfield is a great choice for the part. He and Emma Stone have a nice chemistry, but their story pales in comparison to the Mary Jane material that was explored in the first series of films. The reason it does not live up to it’s potential is that it was underwritten. The conflict they have should play out with more emotional investment and it is instead brittle and conventional. I am a softie when it comes to emotions. I love those Spielberg moments that deliberately try to pull a tear from your eye. A good commercial or a dog story on the news or even a piece of gossip about a kid in my wife’s class can make be sniffle. The resolution of this story left me unmoved. I’m told that fans of the Spider-Man comics think the Gwen Stacy story line is the apex of the emotional journey that Peter takes. I just sat there, stone faced and wondered why it wasn’t working.

There are some easy bad choices to point to. Jamie Fox gets to play nerd, but he doesn’t play an engineer as a geek, he plays it as an idiot. His Max Dillon practically drools when showing how awkward he is supposed to be. It is a caricature that makes a simple hero worshiping fan into a simpleton. “Electro” could use some motivation, but the psychological roots of his rage are conveniently skipped over.    Harry Osborn is a different matter. The roots of his problems are better explained, and they are set up well. It is the manner in which he steps so quickly into the role of the “Goblin” that feels rushed. Had they left the set up for a third film and waited for this character to appear, I think it could have worked much better. In this situation, it seems like they just wanted a movie of at least two hours so they grafted an additions element to flesh it out. The “Rhino” character and Giamatti’s role are throw away bits which added nothing to the proceedings. If you stick around for the credits, you will get another example of the slap dash nature of the movie. In an attempt to tie in the Marvel Universe, there is an insert that has no context, no connection, and no reason for being there. It raises some interesting questions about cross promotion, but it had nothing to do with what we just spent two and a quarter hours living through. The whole enterprise is a letdown.