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Emma Thompson

From left, Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone and Joel Fry in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Villains are by far more interesting than heroes. The antagonist seems to have the opportunity for greater richness; there is an opportunity for variety and texture that is often absent in the world of the “good.” Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are almost interchangeable. But the difference between the Wicked Queen, Maleficent, and the Stepmother is an entirely different story. Disney’s rogues’ gallery includes the aforementioned three as well as infamous favorites Captain Hook, Jafar, Scar, and Ursula. 

Emma Stone as Cruella in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Disney

Perhaps most unusual in the lot is The 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, created by Dodie Smith for her 1956 novel. While her name is a pun/elision of “cruel” and “devil,” there is also the possibility it is a reference to the Rolls-Royce 25/30 Sedanca de Ville motorcar Smith purchased in 1939. In any case, the character’s goal is to make puppy pelts into fur coats. In a world of villains with questionable actions, something about this separates her from general wickedness. 

Following the successful animated film (1961), the story found its way into various television series, before being recreated in a live-action outing (1996) and a sequel (2000), with Glen Close headlining as Cruella, reimagined as a fashion house magnate specializing in fur haute couture.

Now comes Cruella, a prequel to the entire canon, offering the character’s backstory. Directed with great style by Craig Gillespie, it has a screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, from a story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis. McKenna, who penned a screenplay for the project in 2013, is best known for her adaption of The Devil Wears Prada. (Keep this fact in mind.)

The film opens in 1954, with the birth of Estella, crowned with her natural half-black/half-white hair. Raised by a single mother, the action jumps ten years to her entering school, where the rewards for being strong and standing up to bullies are demerits that result in her expulsion. The young Estella (a decidedly spot-on performance by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, without a whiff of precociousness) shows a knack for extreme fashion, so her mother decides for both their benefits to relocate to London. On their way, they make a stop at a remote manor where a gala is underway. Estella witnesses her mother pleading with the unseen hostess for money before her mother is driven over a cliff by the hostesses’ dalmatians. Estella thinks she caused it and carries this guilt throughout her life.

Estella escapes to London, where she takes up with two scrappy urchins, Horace and Jasper (Ziggy Gardner and Joseph MacDonald, both terrific and a match for Seifert-Cleveland). She joins them and learns the ropes of survival through petty crime. Fast forward ten years to the swinging London of 1974, and the trio have elevated their grifts, but, more importantly, have formed a family built on mutual respect, trust, and love. 

Estella is still obsessed with fashion, so Jasper arranges an entry-level job for her as a cleaner at the high-end Liberty department store. There she is discovered by Baroness von Hellman, the dangerously self-absorbed (and just plain dangerous) haute couture designer. Estella goes to work in von Hellman’s factory-like design house, a place of abuse and terror. What follows is the birth of Cruella, Estella’s alter-ego that her mother had encouraged her to suppress as a child. Cruella becomes a sort of superhero/supervillain/anti-hero/competitive designer. 

This split personality reflects in the screenplay that is part origin story (think The Joker meets Harley Quinn meets dominatrix), part personal awakening, part send-up of the fashion industry, part heist movie, and part Disney caper. You can see the problem. The film never lands on a tone or style for too long before it shifts or twists. The dialogue is full of quips and is delightfully arch, and the first half plays at an engagingly break-neck pace. 

But, the second half slows and repeats. Issues of nature versus nurture, the driving forces of guilt, and the need for revenge (Estella/Cruella refers to this as the sixth stage of grief) swirl around the film, either enriching the experience or confusing the flow, depending on your point of view. Moreover, much of it makes no sense to what has been established about Cruella in the later works. At two hours and fifteen minutes, there is too much material with no real commitment.

However, in the win column is a uniformly phenomenal cast, with not a weak link or false performance.

At that center is Emma Stone, who never fails to delight. As Estella/Cruella, she hits bottom and bounces back; she plots and plans and schemes. And while Cruella is a larger-than-life character, Stone never loses her center. Glen Close (who played Cruella in the Disney live-action movies) was brought on as an executive producer for character continuity. There is little that connects the style and quality of the two actors. Close, who finds her villainy in a brittle soprano, is nothing like Stone’s earthy, growling alto, whose performance is reminiscent of Tallulah Bankhead. (There is an homage to this with a clip from Hitchock’s Lifeboat.) Whether the put-upon Estella passing out drunk in a store window or the leather-clad, crop-wielding Cruella, she is a wicked triumph. (The film’s PG-13 rating could be summed up in that sentence.)

Matching Stone stitch for stitch (forgive the pun) is Emma Thompson as the vicious Baroness von Hellman. Similarities to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada are less than subtle. Miranda and the Baroness are cut from the same cloth (forgive the pun). But the similarities do nothing to detract from Thompson’s outrageous, hilarious monster. Every line drips with venom; every look is a poison dart. Whether she is slashing a dress with a straight razor, taking a nine-minute power nap, or ordering a murder, she is both contained and over-the-top, and pure comic danger.

Joel Fry is wonderfully understated as Jasper, the thief who cares for Estella. As a sister and perhaps more, his love for her embodies the power of what we do for the family we make. He pairs perfectly with Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace, a bumbling cross between James Corden and Bob Hoskins. The duo is the perfect double-act, caring and funny, physical and heartfelt.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste brings a wide-eyed wryness to Estella’s sole childhood friend, Anita Darling, now a gossip columnist. Mark Strong (looking like Stanley Tucci) is stoic as John, The Baroness’ trusted henchman. John McCrea finds depth in the flamboyant vintage clothing store owner, Artie. The supporting company is strong, with great timing, and all are playing in the same story.

Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beaven created a visual explosion that perfectly complements Fiona Crombie’s rich and varied production design. 

For those looking to connect the source material to the origin story — or are looking for a great outing for the kids — Cruella isn’t for you. But if you want to revel in sensational performances in a stunning setting, and often laugh-out-loud antics, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Fans of Mindy Kaling, best known for “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” have been flocking to theaters to see her debut as feature writer for “Late Night,” a by-the-numbers comedy that takes on the issue of diversity in the workplace and makes its statement with a connect-the-dots expectation. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, there are no surprises but it still makes for an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes.

Emma Thompson in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson plays legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury whose ratings have been slipping. She has surrounded herself with an all-male, all-white staff and is described as a “woman who hates women.” In response to this, she gives her long-suffering producer Brad (a wonderful Denis O’Hare) the task of hiring a woman. Through slightly unbelievable machinations, he brings on chemical plant worker Molly (Mindy Kaling) to the writing staff.  

Instead of a true examination of hiring practices, what ensues is humorous but contrived as Molly is first ostracized and then embraced by the team. There are occasional edgy moments – including Molly writing a topical and controversial monologue joke – but these risks are few. For the most part, it adheres to traditional comedy tropes, including an ill-fated and unnecessary romantic entanglement that feels incomplete. (There is a sense throughout the film that a good deal ended up on the cutting room floor as certain ideas and conflicts are introduced but not seen to conclusion.)

The first turning point is when Katherine discovers she is going to be replaced by a mainstream and extremely coarse comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, a subtle performance that avoids caricature). With this impetus, she goes to war with the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, saddled with a two-dimensional character). With Molly’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks guidance, Katherine begins to reinvent herself.

Minday Kaling in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson, one of the greatest and most versatile actors, creates a delightful monster of a boss. She never talks to her writers and doesn’t even bother to learn their names. When forced into a room with them, she gives them numbers. This is not done with cruelty but rather by someone who cannot be bothered with the people beneath her. Of course, in a comedy of this nature, she gradually learns to appreciate them.

Thompson’s depth is best shown when interacting with her ill husband Walter (a touching John Lithgow) and in an impromptu performance at a hole-in-the-wall benefit downtown. In the latter scene, the audience can see her pondering the mortality of her career.

Kaling is Thompson’s co-star and conscience. She is also “Late Night’s” writer and producer, which perhaps explains some of the weaknesses. As an actor, Kaling is a personality performer. There is no genuine complexity in her work but she is comfortable in her persona. She is watchable but, unlike with Thompson, as a presence, she is not transformative.  

The film is bolstered by a cast of strong actors in convincing performances, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Hauser and John Early. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Thompson and Kaling, there are no other fully developed female characters.

The second act crisis is clumsily manipulated but, once again, the actors are able to make it work. “Late Night” builds to an expected resolution but, given the nature of the film, it is the one that the audience hopes for and expects.

Rated R, “Late Night” is now playing at local theaters.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson star in the latest installment of ‘Men in Black.’ Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

By Heidi Sutton

‘Always remember, the universe has a way of leading you to where you’re supposed to be at the moment you’re supposed to be there.’ – Agent High T

It’s been seven years since Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones teamed up as Agent J and Agent K for the last time in “Men in Black 3.” This past Friday, Sony Pictures delivered the fourth and final installment of the series, “Men in Black: International,” to theaters nationwide.

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth

Directed by F. Gary Gray (“The Fate of the Furious”) and written by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, the sci-fi flick follows the London-based team of Men in Black, a secret police force that monitors and maintains order on the comings and goings of extraterrestrials.

While investigating the murder of the alien Vungus the Ugly (Kayvan Novak), top agent H/Henry (Chris Hemsworth) and probationary agent Molly Wright/Agent M (Tessa Thompson) travel around the globe (hence the title) to Paris, New York City, Naples, Marrakesh and the Sahara, to “protect the Earth from the scum of the universe.”

Along the way, they find (and constantly lose) the Tesseract, a magical, glowing, cube-like object that has the power to control the universe. On top of that, they suspect a mole in the MIB organization, further threatening the fate of planet Earth.

The neuralyzer is back to erase our memory, the comedic lines and sarcasm too. Every method of transportation has a warp-speed option, from a rocket-powered bike, bullet train and a Lexus, and the weapons of choice are bigger, fancier and more powerful than ever before.

Les Twins

Scarier, stranger and cuter aliens lurk in every corner, in particular the shape-shifting extraterrestrial assassins Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) who seek to possess the Tesseract, and Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a pocket-sized, scene-stealing green alien.

Hemsworth and Thompson (of “Thor: Ragnarok” fame) have great chemistry together but any notion of romance between the two is mute. The film also stars Liam Neeson as High T, the head of MIB UK branch; Rafe Spall as Agent C, Agent H’s nemesis; Emma Thompson as Agent O, the head of MIB; and Rebecca Ferguson as Riza Stavros, an alien intergalactic arms dealer who has three arms.

The movie has been receiving more negative reviews than not, even going as far as to say “it’s a case of the blahs” and “you’ll forget it in a flash,” but fans of the original trilogy should find it enjoyable, action-packed, with visually special effects. And, of course, Chris Hemsworth is very easy on the eyes, so that always a plus.

Running time is 2 hours. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material), “Men in Black International” is now playing in local theaters.