No Evil Thing Will

Cruella

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Disney possesses more of the greatest villains than any other studio or property in existence, more than Marvel, more than DC, more than even Universal and its set of classic monsters. By more we don’t mean quantity necessarily, but quality: Maleficent, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Snow White’s evil queen, Scar, Ursula, Jafar, Madam Medusa (seriously, if you haven’t seen the original 1977 The Rescuers, you need to do so at once), and of course, Cruella De Vil.

That’s a stash of villains to covet or to celebrate, so why does Disney hate them so?

Cruella is the mouse’s latest attempt to give a villain the Wicked treatment with an origin story that offers insight into the root cause of their villainy. As these things go, Cruella does have a few really bright spots.

Emma Stone has honestly never been bad in anything. She brings a charmingly conflicted Jekyll/Hyde to a character who is working against her own instincts to be a good person. Joel Fry and Paul Walker Hauser are endlessly endearing as her cohorts Jasper and Horace, respectively. But can we talk about Emma Thompson for a second?

The definition of glorious, Thompson delivers a delightfully droll Baroness Von Hellman – the fashion icon nemesis who brings out the wicked in Cruella. Scenes between the Emmas elevate the entire project, allowing Thompson to radiate devastating narcissism and Stone to mine her character’s emotional and intellectual landscape.

And who doesn’t like to see Mark Strong? He’s one of maybe a dozen performers in tiny, mainly pointless roles decorating the dozens and dozens of scenes that should have been purged from a film that runs two hours and fifteen minutes but feels twice that.

My God does this movie need trimming. You will have aged noticeably by the time it’s over. It meanders for the better part of an hour before actually hitting the catalyst for the story, then stages heist upon gala upon big reveal upon public comeuppance upon more big reveals before actually getting to the point.

Some of these are interesting and fun, but most of them serve no real purpose. Director Craig Gillespie, working from a script by committee (there are 5 credited screenwriters), belabors everything. This not only leaves his film almost structureless, but it also guarantees that nothing sticks with you, not even individual scenes that absolutely should be memorable. No scene or plot point is allowed any real emphasis or import.

It’s curious that Gillespie – who proved a master of tone with I, Tonya – can never find a consistent one here. It doesn’t help that a nearly endless parade of pop/rock hits are jammed into the soundtrack with questionable regard for cause or effect.

And still, there are fun-filled stretches that seem desperate to claw out from under all the dead weight. Cut a full 45 minutes from this film and you may have something. Instead, we get a pointless mess that can’t decide how it even feels about Cruella de Vil.

Ice Queen

I, Tonya

by George Wolf

“There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.”

That snappy piece of dialog is just one of the sharp edges I, Tonya uses to place a decades-old scandal right at the heart of an American cultural shift that feels mighty familiar.

Director Craig Gillespie, armed with a whip-smart script and a stellar ensemble, comes at the Tonya Harding 1994 Olympic soap opera from the perfect side: all of them.

The screenplay, a new career high for Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Love the Coopers), breaks the fourth wall early and often, priming us for an array of “totally contradictory” testimony from these trailer-park super geniuses constantly pointing fingers at each other.

As Harding, Margot Robbie is electric, relishing the chance at a meaty lead role and proving worthy of every second she’s onscreen. We come to this film with any number of preconceived notions about Harding, so Robbie has to break through them and find the sympathetic layers.

She does, playing Harding as an unapologetic fighter, clinging to a sport that doesn’t want her while battling a cruel mother (certain Oscar nominee Allison Janney), an abusive husband in Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), an idiotic “bodyguard” with 007 delusions (Paul Walter Hauser) and eventually, a rabid public.

Or, maybe she was an ungrateful daughter and a scheming wife, in on the plan to hobble rival Nancy Kerrigan and eager to play the victim at her first opportunity.

Gillespie makes it a fascinating and darkly funny ride, with an undercurrent of bittersweet naivete. As the 1994 Winter Olympics get underway, we see Tonya’s drama play out alongside the birth of reality television, the rise of tabloid journalism and the start of the O.J.Simpson tragedy.

We would never be the same.

I, Tonya embraces the surreal nature of this tale but never mocks or condescends, even in its most comical moments. There’s poignancy here, too, plus tragedy nearly Greek in nature and a damn fine mix of real skating and visual trickery.

Never mind that East German judge. I, Tonya deserves the podium.

 

 

 





Breaking the Waves

The Finest Hours

by George Wolf

Plenty of films have created genuine tension telling stories where the outcome is already known. The Finest Hours may not reach the lofty heights of say, Argo, but it crafts a true-life adventure tale with an earnest and sometimes thrilling respect for the bravery involved.

Most of that respect goes to Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), the young Coast Guardsman who directed the greatest small boat rescue in the group’s history. In 1952, Bernie and a small crew braved brutal elements off the coast of Cape Cod to search for a stranded oil tanker that had been broken in half by the storm.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) seems most engaged by the set pieces involving the floundering tanker. As a desperate crew relies on the crafty ideas of Mister Sybert (Casey Affleck) to stay afloat, Gillespie creates a nicely paced contrast between the shrinking confines of the ship and the vast timelessness of the rising waters.

Back on land, we see an idealized, one-dimensional version of the 1950s. Bernie’s courtship of his future wife Miriam (Holliday Grainger) is sweet but superficial, as is most of the setup at Coast Guard base. The screenwriting team of Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (The Fighter) draws parameters quickly, and for obvious purposes.

Bernie is a stickler for regulations, on a mission loaded with impossible obstacles. The more both points are labored, the less impactful it becomes when they fall away.

Pine has genuine movie star charisma, and he underplays Bernie nicely, but it is Gillespie who ultimately saves The Finest Hours. Not only does he make the sentimentality of the period details seem awkwardly appropriate, but lines such as “sometimes men die” and “not on my watch!” are more quickly forgiven amid spectacular storm sequences and the palpable tension of the actual rescue.

As effective as its finest moments may be, what The Finest Hours needs most is a deeper humanity to make it resonate after the credits. You end up saluting these heroes more than caring about them, keeping any lasting sea legs at bay.

Verdict-3-0-Stars