Review: ‘Silent Night ‘ (2021), starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis and Lily-Rose Depp

December 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lily-Rose Depp, Sopé Dìrísù, Rufus Jones, Davida McKenzie, Annabelle Wallis, Roman Griffin Davis, Keira Knightley, Hardy Griffin Davis, Matthew Goode, Gilby Griffin Davis, Lucy Punch and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in “Silent Night” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/AMC+)

“Silent Night” (2021)

Directed by Camille Griffin

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dark comedy film “Silent Night” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with two black people) representing the working-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: Before an impending apocalypse, a family gathers for one last Christmas dinner, where secrets are revealed, and there are emotionally painful debates over suicide.

Culture Audience: “Silent Night” will appeal primarily to people that are interested in watching very dark satires of how people deal with certain death.

Clockwise from bottom left: Lucy Punch, Hardy Griffin Davis, Roman Griffin Davis, Gilby Griffin Davis, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Annabelle Wallis, Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Sopé Dìrísù in “Silent Night” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/AMC+)

“Silent Night” takes heartwarming movie clichés about Christmas holiday gatherings, and burns those stereotypes to a crisp. It’s not a horror film but a very dark comedy about how an apocalypse brings out the best and worst in people. Some viewers who have no problem watching apocalypse movies might have a problem with how the impending doom in “Silent Night” involves children and is set during the Christmas holiday season. Therefore, this movie is not for people who are very religious, or sensitive people who are extremely offended by debates about committing suicide versus waiting to be killed by an apocalypse.

“Silent Night” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Camille Smith, who took a bold risk to make her first feature film focused on such an uncomfortable topic and making it a satire. It’s a dialogue-heavy film about an upper-middle-class British family gathered for one last Christmas dinner on the eve of an apocalypse. There are secrets and lies that are revealed during this dinner, but this is not a typical apocalyptic movie where all the characters want to stay alive.

What makes “Silent Night” so different from other apocalyptic movies is that people in the movie have the option to take an Exit pill, which will kill them almost immediately, in order to avoid suffering during the apocalypse. It’s this suicide angle that’s the most likely to make “Silent Night” offensive or controversial to some viewers. However, the movie does point out the uncomfortable truth that tragedies such as suicide don’t stop just because of an impending apocalypse.

The movie is a disquieting roller coaster ride about how people’s minds can be messed with when dealing with the destructive end of the world as they know it. Some people want to plan ahead and be as prepared as possible. Some people want to deny it all and act like everything’s fine until the last possible moment. Some people don’t want to stick around for the apolocaypse to happen and want to take control of how and when they will die. Other people want to hold out hope that maybe they and their loved ones can survive the apocalypse.

This varied range of emotions and attitudes are all on display with the family gathered for this meal. Although there are many characters in the story, they have distinct personalities, so it’s easy to tell them apart. These family members are:

  • Nell (played by Keira Knightley), a high-strung socialite who is determined to keep the annual holiday tradition of having a fabulous Christmas dinner at her home.
  • Simon (played by Matthew Goode), Nell’s patient and loving husband, who is more willing to discuss the impending apocalypse than Nell is.
  • Art (played by Roman Griffin Davis), Nell and Simon’s outspoken and foul-mouthed youngest child, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
  • Hardy (played by Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (played by Gilby Griffin Davis), the identical twin sons of Nell and Simon. The twins, who are about 14 or 15 years old, are almost as bratty as their younger brother Art.
  • Sandra (played by Annabelle Wallis), Nell’s materialistic and judgmental older sister.
  • Tony (played by Rufus Jones), Sandra’s laid-back and often-henpecked husband.
  • Kitty (played by Davida McKenzie), Sandra and Tony’s prim and proper daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
  • Bella (played by Lucy Punch), Nell and Sandra’s irresponsible queer older sister, who is a single mother, but her child is not with her at this dinner.
  • Alex (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Bella’s girlfriend, who works as a bodyguard and is more sensible than Bella.
  • James (as Sopé Dìrísù), Alex’s younger brother, who is an oncologist in his early 30s.
  • Sophie (played by Lily-Rose Deep), James’ American girlfriend, who’s about 10 years younger than James is.

At first, the gathering seems festive and full of cheer, as everyone avoids talking about the apocalypse in depth. However, not everyone wants to be at this party. An early scene in the movie shows that while Sophie and James were driving to Nell and Simon’s house, Sophie expresses her reluctance to go to the party this year. There’s definitely disagreeable tension between this couple. Eventually, the bickering and discord begin among other people at this gathering.

Sandra and Bella have a little argument because someone named Lizzie wasn’t invited to this dinner party. Sandra was supposed to invite Lizzie, whom Bella doesn’t like. But Sandra thought that Bella would invite Lizzie. The two sisters can’t agree on whose responsibility it was to give the invitation, so they reach a stalemate.

Meanwhile, brothers Art, Hardy and Thomas are little terrors when teasing Kitty, who is a serious and often-mopey child. Kitty is offended by the brothers’ cursing. She snootily says that coarse language is for “common” people. Kitty is also upset because she wants sticky toffee pudding, which Kitty has every year at this dinner, but Nell forget to buy the pudding this year, and Nell tries to hide this fact.

Later, when the family members open their gifts around the Christmas tree, Kitty is unhappy with her gift (a talking doll), and refuses to give a “thank you” hug to her mother Sandra. Why? As Kitty pouts to Sandra, “You’re wearing my education on your feet.” In other words, Sandra spent the money for Kitty’s future school tuition on high-priced shoes. After all, what good is that money going to be in the future if the world is going to end and there’s very little chance of survival?

Before dinner, the three sisters gather in the kitchen to exchange gossip and catty remarks. They wonder out loud if Sophie is anorexic because she’s very thin. Nell and Bella mention that before they became mothers, they used to do cocaine to keep their weight down. All three sisters think that Sophie is too young for James.

Meanwhile, the men gather in the greenhouse on the property, where James reveals a big secret that he doesn’t want Nell, Sandra, Bella, Alex and the children to know about. The secret involves a major decision that has to be made before the apocalypse happens. The problem is that certain people involved in the decision don’t agree on what should be done.

By the first 15 minutes of “Silent Night,” it becomes obvious that this family is not the warm and fuzzy type, with or without an apocalypse. Nell has her big annual Christmas dinner mainly so she can show off to other members of the family. But this year, it’s different. There’s enough food and drinks to go around, but the meal isn’t as lavish as it was in the past. For example, instead of having a fancy potato dish that would be normal for this dinner, Nell says that the entire group can only have one potato per person.

It’s the first sign of rationing that implies a food shortage has been going on for quite some time. Over this scaled-back dinner, Sophie gets confrontational with Kitty about the Queen of England’s recent televised Christmas speech. Sophie is offended because she thinks that the queen looked like she was giving the speech inside of a bunker. Sophie thinks that the British royal family secretly has access to apocalypse-proof safe houses. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter because the queen is “old” and “the Russians want us all dead.”

And then, people at this fateful dinner start talking about the apocalypse, which is described as an “environmental disaster.” It’s implied that scientists predicted the exact day that the apocalypse would arrive, much like hurricanes can be predicted with precision. On television, Art sees a commercial for the Exit pill. His curiosity about the pill leads him to ask questions that the adults find difficult to answer.

The movie makes a little bit of a sociopolitical commentary when it soon becomes clear that the Exit pill is only for people who can afford it. Simon tells Art that some people in society, such as homeless people and illegal immigrants, haven’t been given the Exit pill. Simon explains to Art that the Exit pill has been withheld from certain groups of people because the government doesn’t think they legally exist.

“Silent Night” doesn’t get bogged down in political preaching. Instead, the big ethical debate in the movie is whether or not parents have the right to decide if their underage children should take the Exit pill or not. Art has an opinion that is very different from his parents. Other people at this family gathering have conflicting opinions if they or other people should take the Exit pill.

Because “Silent Night” takes place entirely on the estate property of Nell and Simon, the movie is meant to be somewhat claustrophobic in its contained setting. (Trudie Styler, who is one of the movie’s producers, has a cameo as a family friend named Nicole, who says her last goodbyes via a video conference call.) The number of people in the cast is relatively small, but the movie is realistic in showing that most people in an impending disaster would want to stick close to home with family members.

“Silent Night” has its share of flaws (there’s some contrived soap opera melodrama), and the movie will disappoint viewers who are expecting more action or more likable characters. However, all of the cast members give capable performances, and writer/director Griffin maintains an effective level of suspense over what’s going to happen in this story. Ultimately, “Silent Night” succeeds in its intention to pose disturbing questions about how an apocalypse should be handled when power and privilege play more of a role than some people would like to admit.

RLJE Films released “Silent Night” in select U.S. cinemas, and AMC+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Queenpins,’ starring Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Paul Walter Hauser, Bebe Rexha and Vince Vaughn

September 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Kristen Bell in “Queenpins” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Queenpins”

Directed by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Southwest region of the United States and in Chihuahua, Mexico, the comedy film “Queenpins” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class

Culture Clash: A neglected housewife and her best friend team up for a coupon-stealing scam that could make them millions of dollars.

Culture Audience: “Queenpins” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Kristen Bell and anyone who likes cliché-filled comedies.

Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn in “Queenpins” (Photo courtesy STX)

“Queenpins” could have been a hilarious satire of coupon culture, but this boring and unimaginative comedy fizzles at the halfway mark and never recovers. Kristen Bell is usually the best thing about any of the bad movies she’s in, but in “Queenpins,” she just seems to be going through the motions. This movie has several talented stars but they’re stuck portraying two-dimensional characters and are forced to say a lot of cringeworthy dialogue that isn’t very funny.

Written and directed by husband-and-wife duo Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, “Queenpins” hits all the cliché beats of comedies about ordinary people who decide to rob the rich in order to fight back at an unfair system. The movie is inspired by true events. In “Queenpins,” the thieves are unhappily married homemaker Connie Kaminski (played by Bell) and unemployed YouTube personality Joanna “JoJo” Johnson (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who are best friends and next-door neighbors in Phoenix. Connie and JoJo are in debt and are tired of being broke.

Within six months, Connie and JoJo end up making $5 million in a scam of stealing coupons from a coupon redemption company called Advanced Solutions and then reselling the coupons. Because they’re committing fraud against major corporations, Connie and JoJo think of themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods—except they don’t really give any of their misbegotten fortune to poor people. They end up keeping the $5 million for themselves. And then, they panic because they think they should launder the money. And so, Connie and JoJo get mixed up in illegal gun deals and other shenanigans.

This scam was all Connie’s idea. She’s become a coupon addict, ever since she had a miscarriage of a baby girl. Connie is using her coupon addiction to cope with her grief. Connie’s aloof husband Rick Kaminski (played by Joel McHale) is a senior audit specialist for the Internal Revenue Service. The couple had been trying to start a family through in vitro fertilization treatments, which have left Connie and Rick more than $71,000 in debt.

Connie and Rick’s arguments with each other are mostly about money. Because of Connie’s coupon-using obsession, she has overstocked their home with products that they don’t need. After the miscarriage, Rick decided to take on more traveling responsibilities in his job, so he’s away from home for about three weeks out of any given month.

JoJo lives with her cranky mother Josephine Johnson (played by Greta Oglesby), also known as Mama Josie, who’s gotten tired of supporting her jobless daughter. JoJo has been trying and failing to become a beauty-product guru on YouTube. And she’s heavily in debt because she was the victim of identity theft, which ruined her credit. At first, JoJo is very reluctant to get involved in Connie’s plans to commit coupon fraud, but Connie convinces JoJo that they probably won’t get caught.

During their coupon-theft scheme, Connie and JoJo predictably come across a series of “wacky characters” and the inevitable people who try to bust these coupon scammers. The first authority figure who gets suspicious of this fraud is uptight but dimwitted Ken Miller (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a loss protection manager for the Southwest region of a supermarket chain called A&G. He’s eventually joined by gruff-mannered Simon Kilmurry (played by Vince Vaughn), a U.S. Postal Service inspector. Ken and Simon both have huge egos and inevitably clash over who should be in charge of the investigation.

“Queenpins” has a talented cast, but the problem is in the dull screenplay and hackneyed direction. Connie and JoJo have believable chemistry together as friends, but the supporting characters just come in and out of the story like disconnected pieces of a puzzle. Bebe Rexha plays a bustier-wearing, cynical ex-friend of Connie’s named Tempe Tina, who is a con artist/computer hacker extraordinaire who dresses in all-black clothing. Connie and JoJo go to Tina for advice on how to be successful criminals.

“Queenpins” attempts to make jokes about race relations that end up falling flat. JoJo’s mother constantly has to point out what she sees as differences between white people and black people. Mama Josie has a fear of JoJo losing her “blackness” by hanging out too much with white people like Connie and having the same interests that Connie has. Mama Josie’s mindset is racist, but it’s somehow supposed to be excused and thought of as humorous in this movie. This attitude becomes annoying after a while.

And when Connie and JoJo go to Chihuahua, Mexico, they recruit a married Mexican couple named Alejandro (played by Francisco J. Rodriguez) and Rosa (played by Ilia Isorelýs Paulinoa), who work at Advanced Solutions’ biggest factory. Alejandro and Rosa are enlisted to steal the boxes of coupons that end up making about $5 million for Connie and JoJo. When Connie and JoJo first meet Alejandro and Rosa, they follow the couple by car when they see Alejandro and Rosa outside of the factory.

Alejandro and Rosa mistakenly think that Connie and JoJo want to rob them, so the couple almost physically assaults the two pals, until Connie and JoJo explain that they want to hire Alejandro and Rosa for this theft. Rosa explains why she and her husband were so quick to attack: “You never follow people in Mexico,” thereby stereotyping Mexico as a dangerous place all the time.

The movie makes a very weak attempt at social commentary about labor exploitation and how American companies outsource jobs to other countries for cheaper labor. But those ideas are left by the wayside, as the movie follows a very over-used formula of amateur criminals (Connie and JoJo) who make things worse for themselves. As an example of how “Queenpins” brings up and then abandons labor exploitation issues, Connie and JoJo are shocked that Alejandro and Rosa each make a factory salary of only $2 an hour, but then Connie and JoJo continue with their selfish and greedy plans.

Viewers won’t have much sympathy for Connie and JoJo because they make so many dumb mistakes. As a way to sell their stolen coupons, Connie and JoJo create a website, which is not on the Dark Web, called Savvy Super Saver. JoJo also peddles the coupons on her YouTube channel, thereby making it very easy to identify her as one of the culprits.

“Queenpins” is told mainly from Connie’s perspective, because she is the one who does the movie’s voiceover narration. Connie has an unusual history as a three-time Olympic gold medalist in race walking, but that background is barely explored in the movie. Instead, Connie says a lot of uninteresting things in her bland dialogue.

Of her Olympic experiences, she comments: “You know what that’s worth in the real world? Nothing!” She has this personal motto on saving money in her coupon fixation: “Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” And when Connie decides to become a criminal, she explains her justification to JoJo this way: “You know who gets rewarded? People who don’t follow the rules. It’s time we start bending them a little!”

Among the other irritating aspects of “Queenpins” are the overly intrusive sitcom-ish musical score and soundtrack choices. When Connie struts into a business meeting with the fake persona of being a powerhouse entrepreneur, she wears a snug-fitting blue dress and blue blazer, while the movie’s soundtrack blares Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ 1967 hit “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” It’s just too “on the nose” and corny, just like the majority of this movie. There’s a gross (but not too explicit) defecation scene involving Ken, after he talks about his food habits and defecation routine, which seems like a lazy and cheap shot at someone who’s plus-sized.

Some of the other supporting characters in “Queenpins” include postal carrier Earl (played by Dayo Okeniyi), who has a crush on JoJo and becomes her obvious love interest; Greg Garcia (played by Eduardo Franco), a jaded cashier at the A&G store where Connie does her grocery shopping; a coupon buyer named Crystal (played by Annie Mumolo), who reports her suspicions about JoJo; and Agent Park (played by Jack McBrayer), one of the law enforcement agents involved in a sting to capture Connie and JoJo.

“Queenpins” has all the characteristics of a substandard TV comedy, which means it’s certainly not worth the price of a movie ticket. People who are very bored, have low standards, or are die-hard fans of any of the “Queenpins” headliners might get some enjoyment out of this film. At one point in the movie, Bell’s Connie character says, “You may be asking yourself, ‘Who won and who lost in all of this?’ I guess that’s really for you to decide.” If you don’t want to lose or waste any time on silly comedies that don’t do anything original, then you can decide to skip “Queenpins.”

STX will release “Queenpins” in select U.S. cinemas (exclusively in Cinemark theaters) on September 10, 2021. Paramount+ will premiere “Queenpins” on September 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Cruella,’ starring Emma Stone

May 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone in “Cruella” (Photo by Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Cruella”

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1952 to 1974 in England (primarily in London), the comedy/drama “Cruella” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this “101 Dalmatians” origin story, an aspiring fashion designer has conflicts with her cruel boss and vows to get revenge. 

Culture Audience: “Cruella” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, as well as anyone who doesn’t mind watching lengthy origin-story movies of classic Disney characters.

Emma Thompson in “Cruella” (Photo by Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

In this “battle of the villains” origin story, “Cruella” can be a little too overstuffed and filled with inconsistencies, but the dynamic duo of Emma Stone and Emma Thompson (as well as top-notch costume design) elevate this sometimes tedious movie. “Cruella” is a prequel to Disney’s 1996 live-action “101 Dalmations” movie, starring Glenn Close as villain Cruella de Vil. “Cruella” benefits from having a talented cast, including Stone as Cruella during her youth in England. At a total running time of 134 minutes, “Cruella” might test the patience of people with short attention spans, but the movie has enough dazzling moments and star charisma to hold people’s interests during the best parts of the film.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, “Cruella” at times seems a little too enamored with itself and could have benefited from a slyer sense of comedy. The jokes sometimes fall very flat, and the pacing drags during the middle section of the film. It’s a shame, really, because Stone and Thompson have immense comedic talent, but so much of it could have been put to better use if the “Cruella” screenplay (written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara) had been wittier and more creative. The supporting characters are underwritten by not having enough depth to their personalities. (Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s novel “The One Hundred and One Dalmations” is the basis of this movie franchise.)

“Cruella,” which occasionally features Stone’s voiceover narration as Cruella, begins by literally showing Cruella at birth (in 1952), and being raised by her mother Catherine (played by Emily Beecham), a mild-mannered and patient single parent. Cruella’s birth name is Estella, and the movie shows that she was born with her famous two-toned hair, which is black on one side and white on another. It’s later shown how she gave herself the nickname Cruella, to describe her evil and vindictive side.

Estella/Cruella says in a voiceover: “From an early age, I realized I saw the world differently from everyone else, including my mother. It wasn’t her I was challenging, it was the world. But, of course, my mother knew that. That’s what worried her.”

The first 15 minutes of “Cruella” show her childhood at 5 years old (played by Billie Gadsdon) and at 12 years old (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), with Estella and Catherine (who has work experience as a maid) living in an unnamed suburban part of England. As a 12-year-old, Estella enrolled in a new school and was bullied by boys. Because she physically fought back, she often landed in the school headmaster’s office.

Because she was usually blamed for fights that she didn’t start, Estella learned early on not to trust authority figures. One bright spot to her miserable experiences at school was that she made a friendly acquaintance with a fellow classmate named Anita Darling (played by Florisa Kamara), but they didn’t hang out with each other enough to form a close friendship. Estella is an only child, and her closest companion is a stray, mixed-breed brown puppy she found in an outdoor garbage bin. She names the dog Buddy.

Estella gets in so much trouble at school that she’s eventually expelled by the headmaster or withdrawn from the school by her mother. The movie has what’s supposed to be a funny scene of Catherine debating with the headmaster (played by Leo Bill) over who made the decision first for Estella to leave the school. It’s another version of “You can’t fire me because I quit” schtick that doesn’t work very well in this scene.

At any rate, Catherine decides that she and Estella need a fresh start in the big city of London. But first, Catherine says they have to visit someone who can help them finance their relocation. Catherine seems reluctant to ask this person for help, but one evening, she drives herself and Estella to a grand estate called Hellman Hall, which is located on the top of a cliff.

A lavish costume ball is taking place at Hellman Hall. Before she gets out of the car, Catherine takes off a necklace with a red circular stone. This necklace, which Catherine describes as a “family heirloom,” is a big part of the story that’s linked to family secrets that are exposed later in the movie. Catherine tells Estella to stay and hide in the car.

But, of course, rebellious and curious Estella doesn’t stay in the car. Estella takes the necklace with her while she and Buddy crash the costume ball, Estella gets caught by a valet named John (played by Mark Strong), and the expected mayhem ensues. Three aggressive Dalmations give chase to Estella.

Estella gets cornered and hides near the cliff, where she sees Catherine talking to a woman (whose back is facing Estella) and asking the mystery woman to borrow some money. Suddenly, the Dalmations charge and jump on Catherine, who falls off of the cliff to her death. A horrified Estella runs away with Buddy and accidentally drops the necklace in the chaos.

An orphaned Estella is wracked with guilt because she blames herself for her mother’s death. With her dog Buddy in tow, Estella is now homeless and living on the streets of London. And it’s where she meets two other street urchins who are the same age as she is: somewhat dimwitted Horace (played by Joseph MacDonald) and intuitive Jasper (played by Ziggy Gardner), who both eventually take Estella under their wing. They make money as beggars, thieves and con artists.

The movie then fast-forwards 10 years later. It’s 1974, and Estella (played by Stone) is now living with Horace (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (played by Joel Fry) in a large warehouse-styled loft. They are still being grifters for money, with some help from a white and brown terrier mix dog named Buddy and a Chihuahua named Wink. There’s a montage of this team of thieves working in tandem to do things like pickpocket wallets or steal jewelry from a jewelry store by posing as customers.

Estella (who wears a red wig to hide her distinctive black-and-white hair) designs a lot of the clothes that she, Horace and Jasper wear as disguises. Her ultimate goal is to become a famous and successful fashion designer. And her biggest idol is a designer named The Baroness (played by Thompson), who is considered to be one of the top haute couture designers in the fashion industry. The Baroness is also the boss from hell, who demeans and insults almost everyone she’s in contact with, and she takes credit for her employees’ work.

“Cruella” wastes some time setting up the convoluted circumstances that led to Estella working for The Baroness, whose first name is not mentioned in the movie. First, Jasper embellished Estella’s résumé/CV, and he found a way to get it into a stack on a hiring manager’s desk at a high-end clothing boutique called Liberty. Somehow, Estella was hired for an entry-level position at Liberty without even interviewing for the job. Jasper tells Estella this news one day. And she’s elated, because working at Liberty is a dream job for her. Naturally, Liberty carries fashion by The Baroness.

But the entry-level job at Liberty isn’t what Estella thought it would be. She’s the store housekeeper, which means that she mostly has cleaning duties. Meanwhile, her snooty boss Gerald (played by Jamie Demetriou) doesn’t care that Estella is an aspiring fashion designer and ignores her suggestions on how to style the store’s displays. Gerald just wants Estella to shut up and clean when she’s at work.

Horace thinks there could be some kind of thieving angle they can work in Estella’s Liberty job, but Estella and Jasper both insist that this job will be off-limits to their con games. Jasper seems to be in tune to Estella’s desire to break into the fashion industry honestly. Does that mean Estella, Jasper and Horace will straighten out their lives and leave their criminal ways behind? Of course not.

One day, Estella walks into a vintage clothing shop called Second Time Around and meets an androgynous sales clerk named Artie (played by John McCrea), who’s clearly influenced by David Bowie’s 1970s glam rock style. Predictably, Artie becomes Estella’s flamboyant sidekick, which seems expected when there’s a scripted movie that takes place in the fashion industry. Artie is very sassy, but unfortunately, viewers will find out almost nothing about Artie while watching “Cruella.” He seems like a fascinating character who deserves more of a storyline.

Estella grows increasingly frustrated by her dead-end job at Liberty. And so, one night, she gets drunk, goes to the store when it’s closed, and completely rearranges Liberty’s front-window display to make it look like an anarchist punk took over the space. She passes out and wakes up the next morning as the store is opening for the day.

And guess who happens to be visiting the store at that moment? The Baroness. Estella’s boss Gerald panics because there isn’t time to change the window display back to what it was. The Baroness wants to know who did the window display. Gerald points to Estella, but he says that she’s been fired.

However, viewers shouldn’t be surprised that The Baroness loves the display because it’s so edgy. She gives Estella her business card. And it isn’t long before Estella is working as a junior designer at The Baroness’ chic designer workshop.

Estella soon finds out that The Baroness is a tyrant boss. And this is where “Cruella” looks like Disney’s version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” except that Estella doesn’t battle with any co-worker peers and she doesn’t get involved in any romances. Through a series of circumstances, the rest of the movie is about Estella getting revenge on The Baroness, as they try to out-do each other as diva villains.

Most of Estella’s revenge plans are done under her alter ego Cruella. Viewers are supposed to believe that during much of the Cruella/Baroness feud, The Baroness doesn’t figure out that Cruella and Estella are the same person, just because Estella has red hair and wears glasses while on the job. It doesn’t make The Baroness look very smart, so it dilutes some of the comeuppance competition between The Baroness and Cruella/Estella.

And the tactics used by Cruella fall into catty stereotypes of women being cruel over who looks better, with Cruella doing some form of “The Baroness is an old has-been” type of humiliation. The Baroness has a formal Black and White Ball where the attendees are require to wear only black and/or white, but Cruella crashes the event by wearing a bright red dress. In another scene, Cruella upstages The Baroness at a high-profile gala, by literally wearing black makeup on her face that reads “The Future.”

And in another scene, with Jasper and Horace’s help, Cruella outshines The Baroness at another public event. The Baroness is prevented from getting out of her car when she arrives. Cruella stands on the car and unfurls a dress that has the words “The Past” pointing down at The Baroness.

Meanwhile, Anita Darling (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is now working as a society columnist for a Daily Mail-type tabloid newspaper called Tattletale. She has been reporting on Cruella’s shenanigans in her column. And because Anita is someone with common sense, she immediately figures out that her former school acquaintance Estella is really Cruella.

In her coverage of the Cruella/Baroness rivalry, Anita seems to side with Cruella. And so, one day, The Baroness confronts Anita about it and demands that Anita help The Baroness find out Cruella’s true identity. “Don’t cry,” The Baroness tells Anita. When a calm Anita says that she’s not crying. The Baroness gives a slight pause and says ominously, “You will.” It’s an example of how comedically gifted Thompson is in this villain role.

It should come as no surprise that The Baroness owns Hellman Hall and the Dalmatians that Estella/Cruella saw that fateful night when Catherine died. Therefore, there’s a long part of the movie where Estella wants to get back the lost necklace from The Baroness. Various schemes are put in place. And at one point, the Dalmatians get kidnapped.

Because “Cruella” is supposed to be a family-friendly movie, nothing too disturbing happens in the story. However, much like director Gillespie’s 2017 dark comedy film “I, Tonya,” the title character is often upstaged by a bigger scene-stealing villain. Thompson’s The Baroness actually becomes more riveting to watch than Cruella in many scenes.

It’s not that Cruella isn’t potent in her own right, but she’s often conflicted about how evil she wants to become while getting revenge. There’s no ambiguity for The Baroness, and Thompson seems to be reveling in being an unabashed villain in a lot of the showdown scenes. As Cruella, Stone is perfectly cast and plays the role with the right combination of toughness and vulnerability, but there’s no denying that Thompson is a formidable presence too. Cruella gets a despair-driven monologue which is one of the film’s emotional standouts.

Aside from Stone and Thompson working so well together in “Cruella,” the movie’s other atrributes are its costume design by Jenny Beavan and production design by Fiona Crombie. (Tom Davies handled the eyewear design.) The makeup and hairstyling are also outstanding. There are set designs in the movie that look right out of a fairy tale, which is clearly the intention.

However, the “Cruella” screenplay needed a lot of improvements. There’s a big reveal in the movie about Catherine’s death that has a major inconsistency/plot hole that would require a certain person to almost be in two places at once to commit a certain act. The timeline just doesn’t add up.

And the movie’s visual effects are hit-and-miss. Some of the scenes with the Dalmations obviously used CGI dogs, not real dogs. And there’s a scene with a big fire that looks too fake, because more characters should’ve gotten fire burns in that scene, but they were able to unrealsitically walk away unscathed.

And most of the supporting characters are underdelevoped. Estella has been living with Jasper and Horace for several years, but viewers don’t learn anything interesting about these two Estella/Cruella confidants by the time the movie ends. And, if we’re being honest, the casting of this trio is age-inappropriate. Estella, Jasper and Horace are supposed to be in their early 20s, but the actors in these roles look at least 10 years older than that, because they are. That doesn’t take away their ability to act in the roles, but they just don’t look entirely convincing as people who are supposed to be in their early 20s.

There’s just so much untapped potential for the movie’s supporting characters, who are really just incomplete sketches with limited personalities. All the supporting characters—including Anita, John and The Baroness’ attorney Roger (played by Kayvan Novak)—just react to whatever Estella/Cruella or The Baroness does. The Baroness has a lackey assistant named Jeffrey (played by Andrew Leung), who is constantly by her side, but Jeffrey doesn’t say an entire word during the movie.

The way that the soundtrack songs are used in “Cruella” borders on jukebox placement instead of feeling organic. It’s a good selection of songs, but sometimes they blare in places that seem way too intrusive and distracting. At times, it just seems like shameless shilling to buy the “Cruella” soundtrack.

And there’s a bombastic outdoor concert scene where Cruella makes a big entrance to The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” with Artie singing as an emcee, Jasper playing a guitar and Horace being a DJ. This is the part of the movie where viewers who love punk music might be rolling their eyes, because there are no DJs in real punk music. The movie would’ve worked better if Cruella and her mates had more 1970s London punk authenticity, not a watered-down Hollywood version of this subculture. The adult Estella/Cruella, Horace and Jasper have a polished actor sheen to them that isn’t entirely consistent with these characters who are supposedly to be scrappy con artists who grew up on the streets.

The scenes with the adult Cruella are supposed to take place in 1974. However, some of the soundtrack choices might annoy pop music aficionados who will notice that there a few songs in the movie that were released after 1974, such as Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing” (released in 1976) and Blondie’s “One Way or Another” (released in 1978). These are small details, and a movie director who really cares about musical accuracy wouldn’t make these mistakes. The “Cruella” soundtrack also has the obligatory new and original song that will undoubtedly be promoted for awards consideration: Florence + the Machines’ “Call Me Cruella,” which was co-written by Florence Welch and “Cruella” composer Nicholas Britell.

Despite some of the flaws with the screenplay, editing and song selections, “Cruella” can be enjoyable to watch if viewers brace themselves for the overly long run time. “Cruella” isn’t a superhero epic origin story, although at times it seems to want to use that template when it should have been a movie under 100 minutes. “Cruella” is a movie that’s supposed to be a fun and cheeky romp, but the jokes and slapstick comedy just aren’t very imaginative and edgy as a young Cruella is supposed to be. If not for the great comedic talents of Stone and Thompson, “Cruella” would be nothing but cast members playing elaborate dress-up in a bloated and mediocre Disney movie.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Cruella” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on May 28, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD is on September 21, 2021.

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