Plus, what does Amazon's purchase of MGM mean for you?
‘Cruella’ Review (Theaters and Disney+ Premier Access)
Who is Cruella for?
This is the question asked and answered, kind of, by critic Hanna Ines Flint, who noted she’s “seeing a lot of male critics asking who is Cruella for” before determining it’s aimed at “young adults and women and people who love fashion and fashion history too.”
Maybe. Perhaps. I’m just a male critic, so what do I know? But here’s who Cruella is not for. Cruella is not for anyone who likes economy or efficiency in their storytelling, given the bloated 134-minute runtime. How could the movie about the woman who wants the dog coat in 101 Dalmatians be 50 percent longer than 101 Dalmatians? Well, for starters, it takes roughly three quarters of an hour to get to the actual meat of the story, Stella/Cruella’s (Emma Stone) fashion-and-family jihad against her credit-hogging boss, The Baroness (Emma Thompson).
But who has time to keep the story moving when we have predictable needles from 1960s and 1970s to drop (the Clash and the Stones and Blondie, oh my!) set over montages of truly daring fashion choices made by London designers, I guess, that, really, don’t teach us a tenth of anything as interesting as we glean from any sixty seconds of The Devil Wears Prada.
Cruella is also not for anyone expecting a movie that has anything to do with the source material. I mean, Cruella De Vil is not a particularly complex character: She’s a lady who wants to steal dogs and turn them into a coat. That’s it, that’s the character. So to make her interesting, writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara have to, you know, jettison her entire reason for being. This is the sort of movie that ten minutes in literally sees a trio of Dalmatians murder Stella/Cruella’s mom and by the end of it has Stella/Cruella embracing the dogs as her own—they, like Cruella, were simply misunderstood. See? This isn’t a dog-murdering girlboss at all! Ackshually, she loves dogs, just like you, local social media inhabitant! No bad person can love puppers, now can they? Make sure to post an insta of your Cruella-inspired outfit at the theater!
Cruella might be for someone who enjoys a good performance or two; Emma Stone really is wonderful as Stella/Cruella. I keep writing “Stella/Cruella” because Stella is the girl’s name and Cruella is the nickname the girl’s mom gives the girl when she gets cutting and mean. But Stella can’t help being cutting and mean: She lives in the patriarchy and the patriarchy is constantly telling girls what to do! Stone isn’t playing Cruella De Vil here so much as a hybrid of the Joker and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman: the split personality and the stylistic sensibilities of Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle with the anarchic greasepaint of [Take Your Pick’s] Joker. Stone’s always had an unnaturally wide grin and wise, penetrating eyes; she puts both to great use here.
Sadly, the supporting cast isn’t up to snuff, for the most part. Sure, Mark Strong’s steely eyes and bald pate radiate command; yes, Joel Fry is adequate as Cruella’s put-upon right-hand man. But Thompson’s a shadow of Meryl Streep in Prada, while the normally delightful Paul Walter Hauser is saddled with an unfortunate cockney accent as Cruella’s left-hand man. Meanwhile, John McCrea plays dress shop owner Artie, Disney’s eighth “first gay character,” with all the subtlety of a stereotype from a BBC sitcom.
But it’s with Artie—and, yes, Cruella herself—and the endless rounds of debates about inclusion and diversity and who this movie is “for” that we come to realize who the movie is really and truly for: Disney shareholders. Cruella is a bloated mess, sure, but it has all the right ideas about who the future belongs to and how to generate publicity for a mediocre mishmash of a movie in order to ensure that seeing it becomes a cause rather than mere entertainment.
Cruella is for anyone who owns a piece of the Mouse House. The idea that anyone else might enjoy it is, at best, an afterthought.
Need to talk someone out of watching this affront to the gods of cinema? Trying to avoid dropping $30 on this on Disney+ or God only knows how much in a theater? Share this review with them! And tell them to go see A Quiet Place Part II instead! I reviewed it here; it’s much better than Cruella, that I can assure you.
MGM to Amazon
This week on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, I talked to CNN’s Frank Pallotta about Amazon’s $8.45 billion purchase of MGM. There are lots of interesting ins and outs and what-have-yous—given all the talk of how Amazon is “buying James Bond,” for instance, it’s important to remember that this comes with strings, as Frank and I discuss—but the real question is this: What can Amazon do with MGM’s intellectual property that MGM can’t do with MGM’s intellectual property?
“The acquisition thesis here is really very simple,” Jeff Bezos said in a statement to shareholders. “MGM has a vast, deep catalog of much beloved intellectual property. And with the talent at Amazon and the talent at MGM Studio, we can reimagine and develop that IP for the 21st century.”
But if this were so simple, why was MGM on the block in the first place?
This isn’t intended as snark, at least not entirely. But there’s something very weird about suggesting that, hey, it’s simple to leverage these known brands! Now we’ve got Robocop, and that’s been an easy property to leverage! (Just ignore the third movie and the cartoon and the live-action series and the reboot.) Now we’ve got Rocky, that’s a storied brand! (But only pay attention to the Creed movies and really mostly to the first one and let’s just set aside that Sly’s done with this character.) Now we’ve got Wizard of Oz! (Oh, shoot, MGM’s pre-1986 library is still owned by WarnerMedia.)
Don’t get me wrong: I think Amazon is better positioned than MGM to take advantage of MGM’s intellectual property for a couple of reasons. The first is the penetration of Prime Video, which 175 million Prime members have reportedly usedin the last year. This means the infrastructure is in place to get content in front of tons of eyeballs, quickly, without having to build a subscriber base as HBO Max or Disney+ or Hulu or Netflix had to.
Also, Amazon can afford to take some chances here, losing buckets of money on the things that don’t work while rebuilding the brands that do. MGM did not have that kind of cushion.
Which means they can take risks.
Which means they can finally—finally—bring my dream project to the little screen: Robocop vs. Legally Blonde.
Just imagine, Robocop being hauled in front of a disciplinary board because Elle Woods has decided that his one-bot war on crime is just too much for the world to tolerate. Shooting would-be rapists in the junk? Dispatching drug lords with extreme prejudice? Fighting massive robots on the streets of Detroit while civilians run for cover? Not on her watch! Hijinks ensue and important lessons are learned as the pink-clad public advocate tries to get the legendarily tough cyborg police officer to tone down his act.
What MGM-based crossover event are YOU looking forward to?
Assigned Viewing: Seven Samurai (HBO Max and Criterion Channel)
Apparently, this week is “Sonny gets annoyed by dumb and bad tweets” week at Screen Time, so, in response to this dumb and bad tweet, please allow me to assign Seven Samurai, a movie that is more than three hours long but does not feel like it’s more than three hours along because Akira Kurosawa keeps things moving with the skill and grace of a master filmmaker.
But don’t take my word for it! Take Pauline Kael’s, who pithily summarized the film thusly in her review of Yojimbo: “Seven Samurai (1954) is incomparable as a modern poem of force. It is the Western form carried to apotheosis—a vast celebration of the joys and torments of fighting, seen in new depth and scale, a brutal imaginative ballet on the nature of strength and weakness.”
Granted, it could’ve used a girlboss designer or two to really justify that runtime. But nobody’s perfect, I guess.