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Posts Tagged ‘Joel Fry’

(Split being, of course, the largest city in Dalmatia, which is (duh) the ancestral home of the Dalmatian dog breed. I’m well aware that, normally, nothing is more guaranteed to kill a decent joke than carefully explaining it, but in this case it’s an extra-subtle one that’s probably going to get overlooked if I don’t.)

The pandemic continues to shake its tail, and as part of the fallout from it all I find myself – temporarily – living with family and thus enjoying less control over the domestic media functions than is usually my wont. So far I have managed to dodge the endless YouTube dog and Minecraft videos which makes up the bulk of my younger relatives’ intake, but when it comes to Family Movie Night – oh yes, this is a thing! – I don’t really get any say in what’s on.

Which is why I ended up watching Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a film which I experienced no actual desire to see during its theatrical release earlier this year. I know you may be thinking, ‘God, this guy is indolent, if he didn’t want to watch the movie he could have balanced his wobbling carcass on those stumpy legs of his and wobbled off away from a screen for just a few minutes’ – and I take your point. I believe my exact words to my hosts were something to the effect of ‘I’m going to see what this is like but I may slip out of the room if it’s not my kind of thing.’ I mean, I’ve enjoyed Craig Gillespie’s films in the past, and I’m not averse to Emma Stone, but it’s a live action Disney brand extension prequel to a story which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen or read any of the other versions of.

I suppose we could reflect productively upon the reasons for this current run of villain-centric prequels – I’m thinking of the Maleficent films and Joker in particular – it’s a reasonable way of dodging the problems involved in doing sequels to well-loved tales, or indeed doing yet another remake. Not that they don’t come with their own set of problems, though.

This one kicks off in the early 1950s, with the birth of – well, not actually Cruella de Vil, but a young woman who ends up with the monicker Estella Miller. (Here we reach one of those points where a strictly accurate synopsis necessarily involves spoilers, so forgive me if not all of what follows is actually literally true in the context of the plot.) Despite having an unlikely duotonal trichological complexion, Estella has a relatively normal childhood with her mother (Emily Beecham), although she is a bit of a rebel and obsessed with outrageous fashion choices.

Eventually Estella is kicked out of school and the two of them head off to London, pausing on the way to visit the stately home of famous fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella’s mum is basically there to hit her up for some cash – exactly what’s going on is kept deliberately obscure – but it results in Estella being chased by some ferocious Dalmatians (some subtle foreshadowing, this) and her mother falling to her death off a precipitous cliff.

Yeah, it goes dark quite quickly, doesn’t it? But not for long; this kind of occasional veer into really bleak territory followed by an equally rapid course correction back to the realm of family friendliness is something the film does quite often. Anyway, Estella runs off to London, hooks up with a pair of juvenile tearaways, and they all grown up to be Emma Stone, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (Fry and Hauser are playing Jasper and Horace, the henchmen from 101 Dalmatians).

Eventually Estella gets the chance to give up her life of crime and join the fashionista establishment, initially at a department store and then as part of a famous London label. But she gets a bit of a shock when she realises that her boss and mentor is the same woman who was responsible for her mother’s death (Emma Thompson is still Emma Thompson). Estella decides that vengeance is really her only option, but to carry it out she must adopt another personality, that of the outrageous and ruthless Cruella – but is this really a new persona, or simply a new name for part of her which has been lurking away all this time…?

Well, as you probably guessed, I made it all the way to the end of Cruella even though it’s well over two hours long and thus overstays what a reasonable welcome would be. This is not because it’s an unqualified triumph of a movie, but it does have points of quality and it’s certainly interesting.

So what can we say about it that is positive? Well, it certainly looks ravishing, mostly being set in a fantasticalised version of London in the 1970s, and the direction is inventive. It shouldn’t do Emma Stone’s career any harm, either: quite apart from being a very capable actress (here she seems to be doing a Helena Bonham Carter impersonation for most of the film), she also has the knack of looking good no matter what colour (or colours) of hair she is issued with. Emma Thompson is also good value, but then that’s like saying the sun comes up in the morning, while Mark Strong (a touch underused, I’d say) does his usual trick of lifting every scene he appears in.

The general tenor of thing is rather like a superhero origin movie if it were written by Roald Dahl – the main character gradually adopts all the key elements of the persona that will make them famous, with various set pieces and reversals along the way, but all with an element of grotesqueness and (as mentioned) occasional excursions into real darkness. It reminded me quite a lot of Joker, more than anything else.

Of course, my problem with Joker was that I couldn’t quite see the point of a film about a villain without a hero; you can’t really make the Joker sympathetic without destroying what the character’s about. And the same is surely true here: Cruella de Vil isn’t quite in the same league when it comes to homicidal animus, but she’s still the bad guy. Is our knowledge of her origins supposed to make her actions more understandable? Are we even supposed to start sympathising with her? If not, then what is the point of the film?

And beyond this, I don’t think the script quite manages to sell the transition from Estella to Cruella completely convincingly – Emma Stone does what she can, but it doesn’t feel like a natural change, being more a series of abrupt shifts in personality and behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that the film still wants to be a relatively light-hearted caper – not a great fit for a story which appears to depict a relatively good-hearted young woman succumbing to her dark side. You don’t get the sense of loss or tragedy that should come with that particular narrative arc.

It’s ultimately quite a superficial film, then, but then the story hardly lends itself to naturalism. The setting in the fashion world of London in the 1970s, with a rebellious young designer making a name for herself, had me thinking this was a movie in some ways riffing on the career of Vivienne Westwood – and while there’s a bit of a punk aesthetic at work, with (probably anachronistically) the Clash and Blondie eventually turning up on the soundtrack, there’s a real mish-mash of things happening here – music from the 60s is mixed in with glam rock, and so on. The real world is carefully kept at arm’s distance, here and in the characterisations.

I would still like to think that, somewhere, somehow, the Mouse House still wants to make films that have some kind of moral premise and storytelling merit to them, rather than just being immense cash-guzzling brand extensions. There are things about Cruella that do have merit to them, particularly the two lead performances and the visual sense of the thing, and it does pass the time quite engagingly. But as far as the rest of it goes – what’s it about? It’s about the early life of Cruella de Vil. But what’s it really about, on a deeper level? I’m really not sure.

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We have, in the past, occasionally discussed some of the more unusual and esoteric aspects of film production, not least what all the money actually gets spent on. One envisages a sort of pie chart, with various slices set aside for the actors, director, scriptwriters, costume department, and so on. Of course, occasionally a film comes along where one slice of pie is disproportionately large, compared to all the others – occasionally a small and unassuming film pays big bucks for a major star, for instance, or you get a big special effects-driven film where two-thirds of the budget goes on the CGI. Danny Boyle’s Yesterday must have a fairly unique sort of pie, as a good 40% of the budget went on negotiating music clearances. This sounds wildly extravagant until you learn what the film is about, at which point it becomes clear why they stumped up all the money – without the uncanny potency of cheap music (or not so cheap, in this case), this film wouldn’t be being made.

Himesh Patel plays Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who is slowly starting to realise that he just hasn’t got what it takes to become successful as an artist. Pretty much the only thing that keeps him gigging is the unconditional support and belief of his friend Ellie (Lily James), with whom he has a close but entirely platonic relationship (shush now, I know, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Then, cycling home one night after deciding to pack it all in, Jack falls off his bike during a brief global blackout. He awakes sans beard and a couple of teeth, but fairly soon discovers that something rather odd has happened: he seems to be the only person in the world with any memory of the Beatles or their music. He very rapidly realises that suddenly having unique and (apparently) exclusive access to a priceless stash of some of the most perfect pop songs ever written is a boon to a struggling musician like him, and is soon frantically trying to remember the lyrics to Let It Be and I Want to Hold Your Hand so he can pass them off as his own work.

Pretty soon the music industry comes calling, and he is summoned off to Los Angeles by his demonic new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), accompanied only by his idiot roadie Rocky (Joel Fry). It seems like his success is forcing him apart from Ellie and whatever deeper feelings they may secretly have for each other. But is it really ethical to keep ripping off the Beatles and taking all the credit? And shouldn’t he be taking a moment to consider The Important Things in Life?

Yesterday represents a coming together of two of the great powers of what passes for the British film industry: it is directed by Danny Boyle, whom even I will happily concede has made some really great films in the past, and written by Richard Curtis, who has been a huge figure in British cultural life for decades now. Given their involvement and the strength of the film’s premise (it is intriguing, to say the least), you could be forgiven for expecting this to be one of the more substantial films of the summer.

Folks, it ain’t. This is as lightweight and disposable as low-sugar candyfloss, to the point where the film’s refusal to engage with its own ideas becomes actively irritating. What it basically is, is another outing for that well-worn fable about a young man whose head is turned by the prospect of material success, but must make the choice between that and The Important Things in Life – in this case, true love and personal integrity. Bolted onto this are various scenes that feel like comedy sketches of rather variable quality.

It feels rather odd that they have spent $10 million on rights clearances for Beatles songs, when the Beatles themselves feel rather peripheral to the movie. There’s a sense, surely, in which the whole point of this kind of film is to make you realise just how massively significant and important the band were and remain; the hole left by their absence is a memorial to their contribution to society and culture. Except, not here: the Beatles vanish from history and yet the world spins on almost entirely unchanged. Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Coldplay are still there, unaffected; society has not been affected at all. The film almost seems to be suggesting that the Beatles have no substantive legacy whatsoever (I should still mention that one of Yesterday‘s best jokes is that the only other band who seem to have vanished in the Beatles-free universe is Oasis).

And what’s going on here, anyway? What has changed, and why? (It’s not just the Beatles that have disappeared.) How come the Beatles apparently never got together? Why is Jack (apparently) unique in remembering a world with all their songs in it? Would the Beatles’ songs still be successful if they were released today as ‘new’ music? There is potential here for a rather different and probably much more interesting film about the alt-hist of the new universe Jack seems to have tumbled into (he appears to have a weird form of reverse amnesia, remembering things that never actually happened), and there is one eerie sequence in particular with an uncredited Robert Carlyle which sort of touches on this without ever really properly exploring it. I was really left wanting more, for the film to explore its premise in a more systematic way, but it doesn’t come close to truly delivering on this. It’s just a facilitator for a hackneyed rom-com plot and some comedy sketches.

Still, it is at least played with gusto and sincerity by most of the cast, even if none of them looks set to get the kind of career boost from it that actors have enjoyed from previous Boyle or Curtis productions. Perhaps this is because neither man seems to have been willing or able to really set his stamp on it – it’s not as stylistically distinctive as the best Danny Boyle films, nor does it have the humour or heart of Curtis’ best scripts. That said, Kate McKinnon works her usual off-the-leash comic sorcery and the film lifts whenever she’s on screen – but I fear I must also report that the movie also features a James Corden cameo and a fairly extensive supporting role for Ed Sheeran (Sheeran seems to be one of those people who’s unconvincing as an actor even when he’s playing himself).

By far the best moments of Yesterday come when the film-makers relax and just let the songs speak for themselves without attempting to do anything too clever or iconoclastic with them. The whole point of the film should really be about what an awful place the world would be without great music and great art, and how we shouldn’t take these things for granted. It’s a point that it never properly manages to make, but the music itself is lovely enough to remind you of that fact. The music of the Beatles is timeless and beautiful; Yesterday never quite manages to do it justice, but it’s a pleasant enough film even if it’s inevitably a bit of a disappointment given its pedigree.

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