“F9” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.
It’s the battle of the Emmas in Disney’s latest live action character study based on a previous animated work. “Cruella” is the story of villainous fashion designer Cruella De Vil, first seen in 1961’s “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” then again in 1996’s live action remake “101 Dalmatians” in which Glenn Close played the role. This time we have Emma Stone donning the black and white hair, which as it turns out is Cruella’s natural hair color. Her adversary is Emma Thompson as the Baroness, London’s leading fashion designer who could make anyone’s impossibly demanding boss look like a sweetheart.
To show how much the ante is upped with “Cruella,” one just need look at the MPA rating. The past “Dalmatian” movies were rated G. “Cruella” skips past G and leaps over PG to land on the PG-13 rating. That’s how far the family friendliness gets pushed, though it is a very soft PG-13. I’d say that except for some intense sequences involving three ferocious-looking dalmatians and a seaside cliff, this would be a PG.
As someone with a fondness for treating villains like characters and not just simple embodiments of evil, I appreciate a story that explores the background history of a woman who will one day kidnap a litter of puppies with the intention of skinning them to make a coat. An alternate title could be “Sympathy for the De Vil.” While we know that the Cruella De Vil we see here will one day turn into that dastardly woman, she’s not there yet. In fact, she’s very much struggling with her personality and deciding if she’d rather be Cruella or the kinder, even tempered, emotionally balanced, red-headed Estella, who is liked a lot more by her companions in petty crime Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). She’s a psychologically conflicted character, which makes her unpredictable and compelling.
Less conflicted but just as psychologically intense is the Baroness. She has two major issues going on. First and most obvious is that she’s a complete narcissist. Everything is about her, bad things just happen to her, things have to be her way and just right or she flies into a tizzy—she’s a textbook case. More sinister is the second psychological issue, which is revealed more slowly but by the end manifests entirely: she’s a psychopath. The Baroness has no remorse about anyone she hurts or any lives she ruins with her actions. She is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her top rank in the design hierarchy, up to and including murder. When all is said and done, reflecting on the Baroness and her actions, she is a chilling, frightening, and deeply disturbed woman with whom I would not want to cross paths. Perhaps another reason for the PG-13 rating. Beneath all of the bubbly Disney fun is a dark undercurrent.
“Cruella” isn’t the story of good vs. evil so much as it is the story of kind of bad vs. completely wicked. It’s a coming of age story for Estella/Cruella as well as an origin story for Cruella De Vil. Emma Stone carries the movie well with a dynamic performance and to my ear, she nailed the accent. One monologue scene in particular had me on the verge of tears. Quite an accomplishment to evoke those feelings for a woman who will one day totally flip her lid and want to make a piece of outer wear from domesticated pets.
On a final note, given that this is a movie about fashionistas, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the costume design. In short, the dresses look amazing. There’s a scene where the Baroness has her designers show her the dresses they made. Each one is more stunning than the next as she goes down the line inspecting them. She dismisses most of them with barely a glance, which is ridiculous of her to do. The only dresses that outshine those are the ones created and worn by Cruella in her guerilla tactics to upstage the Baroness. That’s where costume designer Jenny Beavan let her imagination flow and really brought her A game. It’s easy to believe that those bold creations were thought up by Cruella herself. Rent it.
When I first heard there was a movie called “F9” coming out I was thrilled. Finally, I thought, a movie about one of my favorite function keys on my computer. As someone who has played many a video game on his computer, I was elated to hear that the key I use to quick load was finally getting some recognition and hoped that my other favorite key that I use for quick save—F5—would someday get the respect it deserves as well. Alas, these feelings of euphoria were dashed when I discovered “F9” was nothing more than the ninth movie in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. I guess that’s cool too.
Or would be, if it wasn’t trying so hard. As a watcher and tepid fan of the series, I understand that things like logic and physics are immediately discarded the moment the opening credits roll. Over the top ridiculousness is the bread and butter of the series. It’s expected. But the past movies, at least for me, never crossed the line into outright meat-headed stupidity. This one did. The recklessness and imperviousness of the characters had me sighing at the action with incredulity. The series, with its need for one-upsmanship over the previous installment, was barreling forth in this direction from the start. It finally hit that point where it’s too much for me and I couldn’t get into the stunts and spectacle like I could in the past.
That said, I like the back story we get on Dom (Vin Diesel) that unpacks where he comes from and why he is who he is when we see him in the first movie, which, speaking of incredulity, I can’t believe came out twenty years ago—but it did. John Cena is a welcome addition to the cast who, when not cucking to China, can play a convincing stone-faced villain.
The real treat, however, doesn’t come until mid-way through the end credits when Jason Statham, who freakin’ rules, makes a cameo. His appearance, as well as the reveal at the very end of his scene, set up an exciting tenth installment that I look forward to seeing in spite of my reservations about “F9.” My only hope is now that they’ve literally outfitted a car to go into space, they take it down a peg—or ten pegs—and do something more grounded, literally and figuratively, the next time out. To director and co-writer Justin Lin: I like the brazen action craziness. I look forward to it, in fact. All I ask is that you don’t insult my intelligence when you splash it on screen. I sincerely hope the tenth movie finds its footing again. Stream it.
“Lady of the Manor,” in which a tour guide in a historic estate befriends the manor’s resident ghost, starring Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Ryan Phillippe, Luis Guzmán, and Patrick Duffy.
Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover and author of the novel “Takedown,” which is available on Amazon, iTunes, and more. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.