Opening in theaters this week:
Cruella--The title character is Cruella de Vil, the notorious villainess from Dodie Smith's 1956 novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, by way of the 1961 Disney animated movie and its various remakes, sequels and spin-offs. In the original animated classic she's a fur-clad bag-of-bones rich hag with a demonic touring car. She covets the puppies for their black-spotted white coats; they match Cruella's own, weirdly yin-and-yang half-black half-white mop.
Cruella is to One Hundred and One Dalmatians (and the 1996 live-action remake 101 Dalmatians, where she's grandly played by Glenn Close) what the horned sorceress Maleficent was to Disney's Sleeping Beauty: The only truly memorable character. So, as 2014's Maleficent showcased Angelina Jolie, this new origin story offers a deluxe vehicle to Emma Stone.
In this telling, the character starts out simply as Estella; "Cruella" is a teasing nickname for the dark streak in her personality. Cast out of her school, Estella washes up homeless in Regent's Park, then gradually rises through the world of London fashion of the '60s and '70s. She goes to work for the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an imperious designer, while at the same time developing her "Cruella" persona to get up to incognito mischief with her cronies Horace and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry, both appealing).
Give Disney its due: This lavish production is terrific to look at, and to listen to, as well; the soundtrack is a feast of gutsy, (mostly) '60s- and '70s-era pop hits. Both of the Emmas are in solid form--Stone with her half-sheepish little grins as she wreaks mayhem; Thompson with her unflappable slow burn--and both are costumed to dementedly chic grandeur. The script, credited to a mob that includes Dana Fox and Aline Brosh McKenna, has ideas and gags that recall everything from The Devil Wears Prada to The Winter's Tale to The Terminator, and is by no means lacking in wit or ingenious twists.
That said, Cruella, directed by the Australian Craig Gillespie of I, Tonya, is badly overlong, full of ideas that don't have sufficient payoff for the drag that they add to the narrative. Beyond that, it is, like Maleficent, like 2015's Pan, like 2014's Dracula Untold, even like 2007's Hannibal Rising and 2019's Joker, one of those sympathy-for-the-devil backstories of an iconic evildoer for whom audiences have developed an affection.
I'm not sure why it is that such revisionist sagas irk me, often at the same time that I'm enjoying them; why they bring out my inner Fox News commentator, judgmentally griping about creeping moral relativism in popular art. After all, villains in real life don't typically spring out of a vacuum. Past experiences do matter, and if a fictional ne'er-do-well inspires a fictional backstory, it's a testament to how vividly drawn the character is.
That said, qualifying and quantifying the menace of characters like Cruella or Maleficent reduces their status as symbolic villains, boiling them down to the sum of the specific trauma and betrayals of their youth. It's an impertinence to the scale of their villainy.
Cruella is a fairly enjoyable spectacle, but, like Maleficent, it shrinks its title character a bit. These filmmakers know some good music, but they should have listened more closely to the lyrics of a lesser pop song: In the wise words of Huey Lewis, sometimes bad is bad.
A Quiet Place Part II--This sequel starts as a prequel; writer-director John Krasinski takes us back before the events of the 2018 horror/sci-fi hit, to the day that Earth was invaded by shrieking aliens. Sightless, these ghastly quadrupeds are extremely sensitive to sound, and come charging in to maul any humans who make the slightest racket.
Krasinski appears only in this brief--but pretty enthralling--prologue, after which the movie picks up right where Part I left off. Intrepid Mom (Emily Blunt), her intrepid-er daughter (Millicent Simmonds) and cautious but brave son (Noah Jupe), as well as an infant requiring oxygen tanks, are forced to look around rural New York for a new quiet place. Eventually the daughter, who is deaf, strikes out on her own in search of a radio signal; somebody plays Bobby Darin singing "Beyond the Sea" every day at the same time.
The first film had a wide-awake intensity and deliberation, but Krasinski seems to have grown as a director with this follow-up. Here he gives us sustained, bravura sequences, like the centerpiece in which he intercuts between three currents of action, and the scenes bounce thematic echoes off of each other. This isn't the sort of movie that Hitchcock cared for, but I bet if Hitchcock watched it, he would admire Krasinski's work.
Like the first film, this one has dubious elements. You may look at the aliens and think: Really? These screeching, squalling horrors, looking like creatures from the Francis Bacon triptych, were advanced enough to master interstellar travel? And having arrived on a new planet, they seem to have nothing better to do but to obsessively wait for one of the natives to drop or bump into something. Admittedly, though, plenty of human behavior would probably seem equally incomprehensible to intelligent alien observers.
The family has also discovered the achilles heel of the aliens, and while it's satisfying to see them brought low, it also seems a little too easy. It's essentially the same weakness that the aliens had in the Twilight Zone episode "Hocus Pocus and Frisby."
But Krasinski's taut yet passionate direction carries us past such objections while we're watching the movie, as does the acting. Blunt has a heroic, warrior-goddess presence here, like the carving on the prow of a ship. The kids are superb, especially the soulful Simmonds; Cillian Murphy is effective as a frightened, bereaved neighbor who's given up on humankind, and Djimon Hounsou contributes a warm bit in the later acts.
And aside from all of these merits, any movie that holds up Bobby Darin singing "Beyond the Sea" as a promising sign of civilization shows good sense to me.