Reboot Rodeo: Cruella (2021) ** and Spiral (2021)***

Cruella (2021)

Should have X-Certificate written all over it to prevent millions of kids being duped by a cynical marketing ploy that has nothing at all to do with the beloved children’s book or the animated version of 101 Dalmatians (1961) or even the 1996 live-action revamp. Under the pretense of an origin story for villainess Cruella De Ville that is more The Devil Wears Prada than Batman Begins, Disney throws a heap of cartoon characters at a big-budget picture in the hope that it can generate a new series.

Even Emma Stone’s characterization of Cruella sinks under a series of grimaces and clamped lips as she struggles to switch from put-upon orphan deserving of our sympathy to some kind of vengeful criminal mastermind. The two-dimensional earlier cartoon has a good bit more depth than this. Cruella’s nemesis The Baroness (Emma Thompson) is little more than a caricature of an English toff. Cruella is saddled with the comic henchmen from the book – Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) – while the Baroness has a bunch of one-dimensional sycophants. and a trio of teeth-baring spotty dogs rewiring their inner rottweiler. For the most part there is more going on with the costumes than with the characters, but watching a face-off between dueling fashionistas , more image than substance, soon palls.

Once the comedy is reliant on searching dogshit for jewels, rats let loose at a party, and pulling hairs from people’s noses you can see a picture that has fast run out of ideas. And this is all a pity because there is a decent germ of an idea here since orphan Cruella turns out to be every bit as psychotic as her mysterious mother, presenting the character with the choice of which path to follow. The scenario would have worked a lot better if it had been a stand-alone picture and not one that had its genesis in 101 Dalmatians and just had the guts to go down the dark side that the story clearly requires.

And all of this basically to set up a sequel as this one ends with a composer tinkling out the “Cruella De Ville” theme tune from previous films and the dogs from the original novel, Pongo and Perdita, making an appearance as puppies. As it stands it’s a pantomime where you want to hiss the villain for spoiling a good story.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)

I was never a big fan of torture porn nor for that matter of Chis Rock, too loud and brash for my liking, but oddly enough they make a compelling combination in this unusual idea for a reboot. This is pretty much a police procedural, corruption the background beat, with torture – or at least the victims – providing the clues. I was astonished to realize Rock (Bad Company, 2002) is now in his mid-50s and that could certainly account for the loss of some of his manic energy but the rest I have to admit is down to the emergence of a genuine acting talent.

Like the Russell Crowe character in American Gangster (2000) or Al Pacino (1973) in Serpico he is what cops appear to hate – incorruptible – so he is loner detective Zeke Banks until newbie detective William Scheck (Max Minghella) is forced upon him. Whatever horrific crimes are now being committed appear to point to a past when Banks’s father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson) was king cop. and to his relationship with Zeke’s current boss (Marisol Nichols).

You could view this as a cynical attempt to revive a series well past its best, and these genre mash-ups rarely work, but in this case, mostly thanks to Rock, it has all the makings of an entirely new series.

As ever, the deaths are inventive and gory. But the gory bits are well sign-posted so you can skip past them and catch up on the detective elements. Max Minghella (Horns, 2013), who has been off the movie screen for over half a decade, makes a good comeback and for once a Samuel L. Jackson character has some depth. Marisol Nichols makes a strong impression also, given that she had mostly been a television player. Perhaps as interesting as the jump taken by rock is that director Darren Lynn Bousman, who has three previous Saw outings in his portfolio, has not just managed to refresh the idea but devoted as much attention to the various detectives as to the gore.

Current Cinema Catch-Up 1 – Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong

Before the pandemic and before I started writing this Blog I used to go to the cinema once a week on a Monday, normally catching a double-bill of my own choosing, and occasionally lucky enough to watch three movies in a day. Since cinemas re-opened in my neck of the woods in mid-May I’ve found it impossible not to return to my old habits. So here’s my first triple-bill.

Nomadland  (2020) ****

Easy Rider meets The Grapes of Wrath except in both these cases the travellers had a distinct destination in mind. Like the title implies, the characters in Nomadland are going nowhere, and often just round, though somewhat contentedly, in circles. Deservedly winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Director Chloe Zhao, this not so much invests in diversity but in a world we never knew existed, of people who live out their lives in the backs of vans and trailers. In a previous generation, they might be deemed trailer trash, but that’s not the case here. They may be humbled but they are not unprincipled.

Recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road after unemployment closes down her small town and temporary work at the local Amazon depot dries up  after Xmas. Considering herself “houseless” rather than “homeless” Fern finds herself involved in a peripatetic community of like-minded individuals, some drifting due to circumstance, others wanting to live out their last years as sight-seers. It’s not a drama and it hardly even qualifies as a docu-drama because virtually nothing happens but it is an eye-opener, not just for the visuals but for the way it explores the inherent loneliness in society. Once she has a taste for the road, Fern spurns every opportunity to settle down. The characters encountered are definitely originals and have the feel of genuine nomads – Swankie and Linda May certainly are –  the camera just happened to catch as it tracked by.

A true original with McDormand – her third acting Oscar after Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2107) plus another one as producer here – giving a tremendous performance as a passive individual surrendering, despite occasional indignity and hardship, to the joys of roaming.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) ****

Rather than face a jail sentence. car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) turns FBI informant and infiltrates a Black Panther group led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Spurred on by FBI controller Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s work has disastrous consequences.

As a devastating expose of the criminal activities undertaken by the world’s highest- profile criminal-catching operation, the FBI,  this is a first-class procedural type of picture, where, courtesy of the suspense created by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds, 2013), you find yourself rooting for O’Neal as he comes close to being discovered. But it is also grounded by an impeccable performance by Kaluuya (Queen and Slim, 2019) who portrays Hampton as a gentle soul, shy with women, but with a gift for public speaking that rouses a put-upon generation.

The Black Panthers are shown as instigators of genuine social reform, setting up medical programs etc, rather than just gun-toting rebels. Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but in truth he steals the show from the lead Stanfield.  

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) ***

If you can make out what is going on in among all the noise and implausibilities then there is a halfway decent summer blockbuster to be enjoyed. The sci-fi gobbledegook spouted by scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) leads Kong-whisperer Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Ilene (Rebecca Hall) into harm’s way, so far beneath the earth you are likely to poke up in Australia. Naturally, the two ancient behemoths go head-to-head while destroying everything in sight.