FlixChatter Review: CRUELLA (2021)

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Though I grew up watching plenty of Disney films, somehow I barely remember the original animated movie of 101 Dalmatians. I also skipped the 1996 live-action version with Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, who’d be enemy number one for PETA given her predilection for Dalmatian fur coat. Well, 25 years later we’ve got an origin story of how Cruella became the villain she’s known for, with Emma Stone in the title role. It’s not exactly an original idea to portray baddies in a sympathetic light, most recently we’ve got Joker, Harley Quinn, Maleficent, etc. Some even said on social media that Cruella was channeling Joker in the trailer. Another villain that comes to mind, given its relation to four-legged creatures, is Cheetah in the recent Wonder Woman sequel, who starts off as an awkward underdog with big ambitions.

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The movie takes its not-so-sweet time establishing the backstory of our protagonist Estella all the way from her birth up until she’s 12-year-old (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) raised by her mom Catherine (Emily Beecham). She’s what you’d say a problematic kid, as Stone’s narration make sure we know Estella is unique and ‘sees the world differently than everyone else… which doesn’t sit well with some people.’ She gets bullied at the private school, which she won’t take lying down. As customary for villains with tragic past, the girl later gets expelled and also loses her mother during a glitzy party at a large mansion. I really think this exposition can be trimmed quite a bit as the movie doesn’t really begin until a decade later when Estella has grown up, fending for herself without a mother in 1970s London.

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Once Estella’s in London, she ends up working a janitorial job at her dream workplace, the Liberty Shop. It’s where she meets Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an iconic fashion designer  a la Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. The Baroness’ grand entrance is pretty fun and Thompson portrays her with aplomb. When the underdog finally gets noticed, thanks to a bout of drunkenness that brings out Estella’s inner fashion genius, one can’t help but rejoice for her.

Performance wise, I think both Emmas did a decent job in their respective roles. I enjoy the battle of wits between the boss from hell and her new apprentice, though the Baroness recognizes the special talents Estella has. Thompson can do cutthroat like nobody’s business, though Meryl Streep needn’t worry as I don’t think Hellman quite outshines Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. The dynamic plays out similar to how Miranda tortures the recent grad Andy who’s recently employed at the fashion magazine. Things gets even more intense when Estella realize just how cunning her boss can be, which in turn sets herself on a similar path. Even her two loyal buddies, petty amateur thieves Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) notice Estella’s getting meaner and well, more cruel. Cruella’s found a couple of other allies along her journey: vintage clothing store owner Artie (played with flamboyant perfection by John McCrea) and fashion journalist Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) whom she went to school with.

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Emma Stone is quite good in the lead role, and she pulls off the glam rock vibe confidently. I don’t think she brought up the duality of the character too well however, she seems to relish in the aggressive, more vicious Cruella versus the meeker, kinder Estella. Naturally the movie wants to play out the villain-ness nature of the character, but it makes her shallow and superficial. The always reliable character actor Mark Strong actually has a bit more to do than the typical Baroness’ loyal butler. He’s akin to Alfred to Bruce Wayne in that he knows every secret of his boss, which is revealed in pivotal moment towards the end.

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Stylistically, Cruella is a marvel. Gorgeous set pieces, stunning art decor and phenomenal costumes abound from start to finish. There are some cool scenes with great effects, such as the long tracking shot through the Liberty store and the fiery dress as Cruella wants to have her own grand entrance. Director Craig Gillespie and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis showcase Cruella’s fashion panache, as well as flair for the theatrics in some fun ways, especially the scene when her cohorts use a garbage truck to reveal her latest frock design featuring a 40-foot long train.

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The film’s strength is definitely in the fashion itself, thanks to costume designer Jenny Beavan. The  You could say the clothes are characters in their own right, which works as a storytelling device to depict Estella’s transformation to Cruella. I suppose for a movie about fashion designers one-upping each other, the fashion has to be memorable. The production design also does a fabulous job depicting the seventies style, though surely a large part of the budget goes into the song licensing… there so many iconic songs from Bee Gees, Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, David Bowie, etc., though I have to admit they aren’t always used well in the film.

To say the movie is style over substance is a gigantic understatement. At 2 hours 14 minute, despite some fun moments, it’s just overlong and bloated. Aside from the costume design, I don’t think Gillespie‘s storytelling is all that groundbreaking nor inventive. It’s nowhere near as daring as it’s fashion, perhaps the house of Mouse committee just wouldn’t allow a ‘family-friendly’ movie to go dark enough. What’s worse, it lacks the biting sense of humor that prevents it from being a rollicking good time. The finale blatantly teases for more Cruella in the future, but one unnecessary movie is already too many. I don’t think it’s worth investing another two hours of my life.

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Have you seen CRUELLA? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: I CARE A LOT (2021)

When I first heard of this dark comedy, I was immediately intrigued by its casting of Rosamund Pike. I’ve seen her playing real-life heroines in her last two films, A Private War and Radioactive, that it’s actually quite a treat to see her playing a shamelessly devious character. Marla Grayson is a piece of work – a vision of killer beauty with her razor bob haircut and sharp pantsuits, matched only by her piercing ambition to stay on top. The VO in the beginning tells us she didn’t come from money, in fact she grew up poor and she’s determined never to be again. Her get-rich-quick-scheme involves cunning her way to be a legal guardian of elderly wards whose assets she immediately seizes to build her ‘care’ empire.

The film begins with a man who went berserk trying to visit his mother at a care facility. You can easily guess who the guy’s mother’s court-appointed legal guardian is. Marla runs her empire like a tight ship with her business/romantic partner Fran (Eiza González). Everything from knowing the legal loopholes to deceive the judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), meticulously researching the victims, to making sure the care facility is ‘prepared’ to receive its new guest–nothing gets by these professional schemers.

British writer/director J Blakeson creates the epitome of an evil protagonist we love to hate in Marla, but then again there are really no good guys in this film… only the bad and the tragic. As much as I despise what Marla and Fran are doing, I was also curious just how their well-oiled con game works. Well, soon they come across their latest ‘cherry’ with a rather bland name, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy retired lady with a sizable nest egg plus a nice, big house to the bargain. Based on Fran’s research, she has no relative or next of kin which makes her a perfect target. Or so they thought. Someone who’s that too good to be true usually is. Little did they know their cherry has an equally dubious secret and ties to a Russian gangster Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage).

One of the main strengths of this film is the performances. Pike is superb as Marla Grayson. I dare say it’s a more indelible performance than Gone Girl that made her famous, as here she wasn’t over-shadowed by a famous leading man or director, able to own the role unapologetically. Clearly she relishes on portraying an icy evil queen, all poise and self-assured even when threatened. Her scenes with Dean (Chris Messina), a slick lawyer on Roman’s payroll, is quite a hoot as she simply refuse to back down. Marla is so evil you’d be inclined to side with the gangster!

The script really put all the talents to good use, even the supporting cast all brought their A-game. I’m not familiar with González, but she’s quite good here as Marla’s tomboy lover who in many ways is the voice of reason that often fall on deaf ears. Two-time Oscar winner Wiest also gets to flex her acting muscles in all her scenes with Pike, refusing to simply be a damsel in distress. Having the great Dinklage as a mobster seems like a pretty obvious choice, and he milks the role like nobody’s business. He provides a sense of menace while also being the comic relief so effortlessly. Last but not least, Macon Blair has a small role here but an important and unforgettable one.

One beef I have with this movie is some of the scenarios of the 2nd and 3rd act gets a bit too over-the-top and ludicrous for its own good. At some point my husband and I yelled ‘oh come on!!’ at the screen. It pushes way past incredulity point at times… I think grounding the film more would’ve made it more effective. The jab against profit-minded American health system is obvious here, somehow the system that’s supposed to help the weak and ailing senior citizens often capitalize on them. It made it SO easy for people like Marla to rob these poor unsuspecting souls while still staying very much within the boundary of the legal system. It’s downright sickening.

Blakeson’s script is filled with twists and turns and you’re never quite sure just who’d win in this all out war between these two nefarious pair. Naturally, many people feel that Marla ought to get her comeuppance and Blakeson toys with that very idea, only to pull the rug right from under us when we think it’s the end of the road for her. The ending made me go ‘whoa!!‘ It’s quite rare these days where a movie finale completely throw you for a loop, so I always cherish that when that happens!

So while it’s not a perfect movie, it’s one heck of a wild, thrilling ride and a stylish one. Costume designer Deborah Newhall designed the clothes to make a pronounced statement about each character and an enviable wardrobe for Pike’s character. Everything Marla wears screams ‘I’m a f*cking lioness,’ which is what she aspires to be. The dynamic score by Marc Canham is perfect for the tone of the movie and for Marla’s Type A personality, used with efficiency in her scenes at the gym, in her vigorous spinning class, etc.

Ultimately, I Care A Lot is a dynamic but also unnerving crime thriller that’s also a biting satire that celebrate sheer feminism. The emotional moments between Marla and Fran’s relationship is few and far between however, and not particularly believable. I think it’s mostly because Marla’s so driven to ‘never lose’ that it’s hard to imagine her caring about anything or anyone else. The scene involving her tooth is a prime example of how much she cares about her image. The title is appropriate here as the only thing she cares a lot is herself and winning. In an age of superhero movies, I suppose it’s refreshing to see a film about villains. I have to say this movie is not for everyone, but if you can stomach morally bankrupt characters and vile stench of a plot, it’s certainly entertaining.


Have you seen I CARE A LOT? Well, what did you think?