Cruella: Film Review

Cruella

Courtesy of Disney

The animated 101 Dalmatians was one of the few Disney films I had on VHS growing up so to say I’ve seen it many times would be an understatement. While I don’t think this live-action prequel Cruella is at all necessary, it was an entertaining watch that’s very nice to look at.

The movie, set in ’70s London, tells the story of Estella (Emma Stone) and how she came to be known as Cruella de Vil, the famous villain from 101 Dalmatians. After growing up as an orphan scamming strangers with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), Estella, who has always dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, finally gets the chance to make her dream come true when Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an industry icon and designer diva, discovers her punk-themed window display in Liberty department store and offers her job. However, it doesn’t take long for their relationship to sour and for them to become rivals.

I enjoyed watching Cruella, it felt like a breath of fresh air because it so different from all the other live-action Disney offerings – it’s darker and not aimed squarely at children – but it’s too long (two hours 14 minutes!), it lags around the middle and I don’t think the story stands up to too much scrutiny. A couple of character moments didn’t feel believable – Estella’s switch to Cruella wasn’t fully earned – and you’ll have to suspend your belief in the storyline in general, particularly towards the end. I think it’s best enjoyed if you accept that it’s lightweight and more style over substance.

And it sure is stylish! Cruella’s biggest strength is the costume, hair and make-up design. Those teams have Oscars in the bag! Their work is incredible and both Stone and Thompson have many costume changes and get to wear some absolutely stunning clothes, with my particular favourites being Cruella’s monochrome punk-inspired outfits. All hail Jenny Beavan!

Also on the visuals, the fantastic and fabulous setpieces of Cruella sabotaging the Baroness’ shows and events and upstaging her with out-there clothing were some of my favourite scenes, they were glorious to look at and heaps of fun to watch, and there are super cute dogs (Wink is so clever!) but I had some issues with the CGI. Considering this is big-budget Disney, I would have expected the CGI to be less obvious and you could really tell when a scene was done on a green screen too.

Stone is perfect, so well matched to the character, and she delivers a cheeky – if slightly hammy – devilish performance, with a solid British accent to boot. Yet, surprisingly, she is often outshone by Thompson, who is sensational as the Baroness, who gives Cruella a run for her money in the evil stakes. She gives off serious Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada vibes.

Elsewhere in the cast, Horace and Jasper are given an upgrade in terms of character development. They’re no longer just the one-dimensional bungling sidekicks, they’re Estella’s “family” and they’re not happy when she gets too big for her boots and treats them like dirt. Fry brought a lot of grounded humanity to a film that has very little of it, while Hauser is the main source of comedy and effectively delivered a few laughs.

Other cast members deserve a shout out too, such as John McCrea – who was amazing as the original lead of stage show Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – as a queer clothes shop owner who becomes Cruella’s ally. There’s also Mark Strong as John, a mysterious man who works for the Baroness, Kayvan Novak as her lawyer Roger and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling, a fashion journalist. Those last two names might ring a bell if you’re a fan of the animation. There are a few 101 Dalmatians references in here, but not too many.

Cruella doesn’t do enough to justify its existence and has quite a few problems, but it’s a feel-good riot led by two excellent performances.

In cinemas and on Disney+ from Friday 28th May

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Silk Road: Film Review

Silk Road

You probably remember reading about Silk Road, the illegal online marketplace for drugs, in the headlines several years ago, right? Well, now you can learn more about its inception and what the heck happened to its founder Ross Ulbricht thanks to this new movie. 

Nick Robinson stars as Ulbricht, a young and driven libertarian who decided to set up an “Amazon for drugs” on the dark web using Tor (a browser) and Bitcoin (the currency) in 2011. This website is a huge hit and becomes a multi-million dollar marketplace, so it soon catches the attention of the FBI and the DEA who are determined to find out the identity of the owner and shut the site down. Disgraced DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), who has recently been relocated to a desk job in cybercrimes after a botched case, sets out to prove his old school approach still works in a world of tech-savvy agents and tries to find Ulbricht first, by any means necessary. 

The film, written and directed by Tiller Russell, tells the broad strokes of the story but doesn’t really dig deep enough and get under the skin of Ulbricht. Despite the lack of specificity and detail, I still found the film fascinating – but the real-life story does a lot of the work as it’s so shocking in itself. I didn’t think Russell delivered a film that matched the outrageousness of the real-life events but it’s still a gripping and sometimes thrilling watch. 

Even though Ulbricht is the most well-known criminal in this movie, the main antagonist is actually Bowden, whose actions surprised me the most. His approach to catching Ulbricht is illegal, morally questionable, and definitely not what an agent should be doing. We’ve seen Clarke play similar characters before but he does such a good job at them and he was very watchable. 

Robinson handled the evolution of Ulbricht very well. He starts off as this idealistic, philosophical type who believes he’s created something absolutely genius and then becomes increasingly obsessed with it as it grows and grows in popularity, with him neglecting his girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp), and he becomes increasingly emotional, dishevelled, and anxious as his world crumbles down around him and the agents close in. 

Shipp doesn’t get to do much beyond being the fed-up neglected girlfriend, which is a shame, while Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson plays FBI agent Chris Talbert, who has no time for Bowden’s intel at meetings, and Paul Walter Hauser has a small but pivotal role as Silk Road user Curtis. 

Silk Road isn’t a terrible film by any means, it just doesn’t quite match up to the level of drama and thrill it could have achieved thanks to the real-life events. The cast did well and it’s still a gripping watch, but the story could have been developed a bit more. 

On digital platforms from Monday 22nd March 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Da 5 Bloods: Netflix Film Review

Da 5 Bloods

I loved Spike Lee‘s previous film BlacKkKlansman – it even made my 2018 end of year list (check it out if you haven’t) – so I had high hopes for Da 5 Bloods, but sadly it’s not one of his strongest works.

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