Cruella (12A) **
First Cow (12A) ****
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15) **
Frankie (12A) **
“It’s spelled ‘Devil’ but it’s pronounced ‘De Vil’” a character says towards the end of Cruella, the latest live-action riff on Disney’s 1961 animated hit 101 Dalmatians. That a film in 2021 feels the need to explain a gag that a 60-year-old cartoon trusted would be self-evident to children says plenty about how badly the makers of this faux-edgy spin-off have missed the mark. Re-imagining Cruella de Vil, the fur-addicted villain of Dodie Smith’s source novel, as a misunderstood maverick à la Maleficent, the new movie takes a few details from the previous big screen versions – Cruella’s childhood friendship with Perdita’s owner in the 1961 film; her fashion industry career in the Glenn Close-starring 1996 update – and reverse engineers a nonsensical origins story, one that teases a reason for Cruella’s dislike of Dalmatians, but stops well short of suggesting she has any genuine desire to skin puppies and turn them into coats.
Instead, as played by Emma Stone, she’s now a punky, skunk-haired Vivienne Westwood figure, tearing up the fashion rule book in 1970s London with her radical designs, all the while plotting the downfall of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fashion titan connected to her past and with whom she’s now also secretly working under the guise of her more demure alter-ego Estella. The dual identity theme suggests director Craig Gillespie (a Disney veteran who also made I, Tonya) is trying to give this more of a Joker-influenced comic-book-movie vibe, but all he’s really done is give it a split personality.
This is rammed home by the way he co-opts the broad strokes of punk for some easily marketable attitude then uses his Disney budget to fill the soundtrack with a barrage of expensive-to-licence needle-drops from such noted punk icons as Queen, Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones, ELO and Deep Purple (to be fair, the Clash is on the soundtrack too, albeit somewhat tellingly with that song that was used to sell Levis). Kicking the film off with a horribly acted, patience-testing flashback to Cruella’s school days doesn’t help, but even when Stone finally arrives on screen, the film is so intent on redeeming the character it neuters Stone’s performance, transforming what should have been the glorious emergence of her wicked side into a misjudged parable about how even wealthy, glamorous, bratty outsiders can create a place for themselves in the world.
The latest from Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt, First Cow is another formally rigorous, beautifully acted, subtly suspenseful portrait of lives lived on the margins. Set once again in her native Oregon, the story flashes back to the 1820s, where a pair of enterprising frontiersmen – the kindly Cookie (John Magaro) and the bolder King Lu (Orien Lee) – have hit upon a risky scheme to earn enough seed money to start a business by making and selling “oily cakes.” These delicious buttermilk scones send the local fur-trappers and roughnecks (among them Ewen Bremner) into paroxysms of childlike joy. But they also require Cookie and King Lu to covertly steal milk from the county’s sole dairy cow, whose arrival has created quite a stir, something Reichardt stages like an ironic, low-key homage to the opening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Both men know they’re pushing their luck and Reichardt uses the harsh realities of their existence to gradually ratchet up the tension, turning the film into an absorbing, myth-puncturing exploration of the ruthlessness underpinning the frontier spirit of the American West.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the third instalment of the paranormal horror movie franchise begun by Insidious director James Wan in 2013 and subsequently expanded into a hugely profitable shared cinematic universe incorporating the likes of the Annabelle movies and The Nun. Though Wan raised his filmmaking game by setting the second instalment of The Conjuring in Enfield and crafting a meticulously detailed slice of British kitchen sink realism that just happened to feature things going bump in the night, the insistence on presenting the films as true stories has also given them a self-serious air that can detract a little from the ghoulish fun.
That’s certainly the case here. Based on the 1981 trial of Arne Chayenne Johnson, who invoked demonic possession as a defence for killing another man, the film once again follows real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Fermiga) as they set out to provide evidence to back up his claim. Cue exorcisms, curses, guilt-ridden priests and animated cadavers as Ed and Lorraine risk their lives to forge yet more psychic connections with malevolent spirits. Without Wan’s craftsmanship though – this one was directed by Michael Chaves – the results are hokey in the extreme.
As a film and TV star trying to tie up loose ends while on holiday with her extended family, Isabelle Huppert can’t do much to save Frankie, a lifeless, shakily acted drama from the normally excellent Ira Sachs. Where Sach’s most recent films Love is Strange and Little Men explored in subtle and complex ways the awkward, sometimes destructive impact of monetary concerns on relationships and friendships, the grievances of this thinly sketched bourgeois clan offer too little for Huppert and the supporting cast (Marisa Tomei, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson) to sink their teeth into.
Cruella is released in cinemas and streams on Disney+ with premier access from 28 May; First Cow is on selected release in cinemas from 28 May and will stream on MUBI from 9 July; The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is in cinemas now; Frankie is on selected release in cinemas from 28 May.
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