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"Cruella" 4K Review

 Some background to explain where I'm coming from with this review: I don't think I've ever seen the original 1961 animated version of 101 Dalmatians; I've never seen the 1996 Glenn Close live-action remake and its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians; I have diligently avoided the tsunami of creatively-bankrupt and unnecessary live-action remake cash grabs Disney has been cranking out in the past years (other than the first Malificent, which was OK); and I've been smitten with Emma Stone for pretty much her entire career all the way back to her debut in Superbad. So I had no attachment to the source material, but when Disney dropped this first look at Stone's take in August 2019...


...I was so on board for this movie. It looked bonkers and I knew Stone could kill it. 

Well, the movie's here - surprisingly undelayed by Hot Fad Plague 2020-21 (it was always slated to open this weekend) - available to see in theaters or via the total ripoff Disney+ Premiere Access (where you pay $30 on top of your D+ subscription for access to a movie which will be on sale for $10 to OWN in a few months and streaming in 4K on D+ a few months after that) - and the critical reaction has been mixed, ranging from "Why would they make an origin movie about a villainous character whose whole thing is wanting to murder puppies?" to "Why did they make a movie about a notorious puppy murderer and not have her murder puppies?" There were also the usual partisan factions projecting their agendas on the movie and using it as a punching bag for this or that failing to serve their wants. (See: The idiots who complained about 1917 and Dunkirk only having white men in the cast.)

While people with investment in the franchise or those needing biases assuaged may have been let down, I found Cruella to be a nicely done dramedy fantasia (no pun) powered by a pair of ace performances by Stone and Emma Thompson and what should be Oscar-winning costumes by Jenny Beavan. 

It opens with young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a precocious girl with half-black half-white hair, being nicknamed Cruella by her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), a poor laundry woman who taught her to sew. Bullied by her classmates at the posh school she must've had a scholarship to, she constantly got into trouble when retaliating, eventually being expelled. Catherine decides small town living isn't suitable for Estella and decides to move them to London, but on the way she makes a stop at Hellman Hall to see someone.

A big gala party is going on and Estella sneaks in and has her young mind blown at all the beautiful fashions and opulence. She gets discovered and chased by a trio of Dalmatians outside. While hiding,  she sees her mother speaking to someone when the dogs race past and one dropkicks Catherine off the cliff to her death. (It's not a Disney movie unless a mother gets whacked in the first five minutes!) Estella makes her escape, but loses the necklace her mother had given her. 

Arriving in London, she meets up with a pair of Artful Dodgers, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner as a child, then Joel Fry as an adult) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald and Paul Walter Hauser), who take her on as one of theri gang of grifters, taking her  to the dilapidated townhouse they're squatting in. She dyes her distinctive hair and for the next decade they run scams and grifts with Estella developing her fashion design chops making disguises for them. 

Knowing she's capable of more, Jasper contrives a job for her at Liberty, an ultra posh department store which features the best designers wares. Unfortunately, she gets stuck doing janitorial work until one night she gets blackout drunk and wakes up in the store window after radically revamping the display. While in the process of being fired and tossed from the premises, her handiwork is appreciated by superstar fashion designer the Baroness (Thompson, playing like Meryl Streep's The Devil Wears Prada character, but meaner) who immediately hires her.

While working her way up in the Baronness's confidence with her slick designs, Estella spots Baroness wearing her mother's necklace then realizes that the latter was responsible for calling the dogs to kill her mother. She then starts devising elaborate plans to steal back the necklace and dethrone Baroness as the top fashion figure by shaking up mid-1970s London with her Vivienne Westwood-esque punk-glam-trash fashions as her alter ego Cruella. With the help of a childhood friend who works the fashion beat at a tabloid, she makes big waves, but her mania begins to test her friendship with her grifter family. 

Cruella succeeds by walking a tricky tonal tightrope - it's dark, but not too dark; it can be broadly slapstick, but not cartoonish - and it does so by committing to its ethos wholeheartedly without too much obvious trimming for current identity politics tastes. What's really remarkable is that not once does the script play the Feminism card where the leads whine about how tough it is to make it in a man's world or some Evil White Male is the actual villain. This is Grrrl Powah world where most of the men are merely adjuncts, not from some misandrist "Men BAD!" agenda, but it's not about them; it's about Cruella versus the Baroness. 

Underscoring things is a wildly anachronistic soundtrack packed with 33 songs(!) ranging from inspired to audacious (the Baroness's introduced with The Doors' "Five To One") to head-scratching (ELO's "Living Thing" backing a wild slapstick sequence?) to eye-rollingly obvious, yet perfect; specifically using the hoary Rolling Stones anthem "Sympathy For The Devil" as a closer. (Because De Vil, GET IT?) The film's music budget is already a meme. 

But what holds things together are the leads. Stone has proven adept at everything from comedy to period piece drama (three Oscar and five Golden Globe nominations with one win each for La La Land) and while her usual bright-eyed charm is subsumed here, she's still marvelously nuanced portraying Estella/Cruella's ambition, genius, grievance, and thirst for vengeance. Similarly, Thompson avoids making her Baroness a cartoon despite being a one-note creation. 

Another mention must be made of Beavan's costumes. According to a promo video I saw, she had to create 47 looks for Cruella and there have to be be at least half again as many for the Baroness, treading the line between near-parody and genuinely fashionable. 

The other reviews I've noticed seem hung up on the retconning of Cruella into a not-so-dog-murdery person or a general "Did we really need this?" kevetching over Disney's continuing creative bankruptcy, but as I noted above, despite - or perhaps because of - my almost complete lack of knowledge of the source material, I really enjoyed Cruella for what it was: A funky punky fashion frivolity with ace performances and killer duds. 

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Disney+ when it's part of the regular subscription.

"Wrath of Man" 4K Review

 Jason Staham's first two movies were directed by Guy Ritchie - 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000's Snatch - and those roles established his charismatic bullethead persona which rapidly set him towards a long career as go-to badass in the Transporter and Furry Fastness series. Their last collaboration was with 2005's Revolver, a movie so forgettably bad that all I remember thinking is that Ritchie needed to be prevented from making movies. Well, that obviously didn't happen, so it was inevitable that he and Statham would cross paths and they finally have with the dull and dour Wrath of Man

It's first act starts fairly promisingly, opening with a heist of an armored car from the perspective inside the car and radio chatter informing us that someone has shot the guards and a civilian. We then meet Statham's H - the nickname given his trainer, Bullet (Holt McCallany) - as he's hiring into the Fortico armored car company, the same outfit that got robbed in the opening. Barely passing his evaluation tests - 70% is passing and he scores 70%;  we know he's got to be sandbagging because he's Jason [freaking] Statham - he's put in the field riding with Bullet and Boy Sweat (Josh Hartnett). 

The reality of H is revealed when Bullet is taken hostage by robbers (more on this later) who order H and Boy Sweat to drive to an isolated area to exchange Bullet for the truck's money. During the transfer, H swiftly kills the six robbers (including a distractingly cast Post Malone which makes viewers stop and say, "Hey, isn't that Post Malone?"). When a later attempted heist results in the attacking gang fleeing when they realize H is in the truck, it raises questions amongst his co-workers as to who the heck this new guy is?

This is the first act and half-hour of Wrath of Man, the following 90 minutes which go into a time-jumping explanation as to who H is, why he's working at Fortico, and who is behind the opening heist which obviously has something to do with H. Due to a some unique details, you can't really discuss the plot beyond the opening with spoiling the twists. 

What can be discussed is how incredibly boring it all is. You'd think a revenge flick with super badass Statham would be crackling with energy, but Wrath of Man is a damp squib mistaking somnambulistic meandering for simmering tension.  The time-jumping storytelling makes things confusing, the mechanics of the gangs are vague, and the Big Action Finale is conducted so dully that it carries no weight. 

The  movie also constantly contradicts itself. At a crucial point, H is informed his service weapon has no bullets in it, but considering we've seen several scenes of him being handed his gun by the company armorer, how did this happen without his noticing. Another time we see him snag a co-worker's security badge from his pocket at a bar, but we never see him doing anything with it and much as been made of how the employees leave the badges in a rack next to the time clock. There's even a howler of a continuity error where a point is made about the color of a getaway car only to have the car be a different color. They couldn't get the right color car or fix the dialog in post?

Statham is wasted, exhibiting almost no action chops as he handing most of the dirty work off to minions. For a guy with a serious vendetta to settle, he's remarkably calm even as his associates question is methods. Even the cruelty shown is boring as Ritchie simply doesn't imbue anything with any urgency. Perhaps Ritchie was trying for a simmering rage vibe, but eventually that should boil over in some explosive cathartic fury, but Statham remains emotionally flat-lined throughout. 

The 4K HDR presentation is unimpressive other than perhaps giving more shadow detail in the dark chiaroscuro lighting. There is little HDR highlights to justify going above SDR HD quality.

Looking at Ritchie's filmography, you realize that he's really been coasting on Lock, Stock... and Snatch for 20 years and his decline into mediocrity and irrelevance coincides with his ill-fated marriage to likely succubus Madonna with whom he made the unintentional camp classic Swept Away and a son. While he's had commercial success with his Sherlock Holmes films and that live-action Aladdin remake(!!), I still think he should've been shut down after Revolver. His last attempt at getting back to his gangster roots, The Gentlemen, was also bland and forgettable and Wrath of Man further confirms he's simply not capable of mounting exciting crime dramas anymore. 

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Those Who Wish Me Dead" Review

 While it was a shocking decision by Warner Bros. to release their entire 2021 theatrical slate simultaneously for one month on HBO Max due to questions as to whether theaters would be open due to Hot Fad Plague 2020-21 and whether terrified people would want to leave their hermetically-sealed bunker to risk certain death at the movies (Narrator: "There has never been great risk. Sheeple are brainwashed idiots.") caused outrage amongst filmmakers who weren't consulted about their films being dumped to streaming - though Christopher Nolan should really sit this one out since he hasn't made a good movie in a decade and Tenet was his worst ever - the positive aspect has been that a whole lot of money has been saved by NOT going to the movies for disappointing movies. From Wonder Woman 1984 to The Little Things to Godzilla vs. Kong, there hasn't been a movie we've watched that at the end we've said, "That would've been worth paying money to see." 

So this week's disappointment was Those Who Wish Me Dead, the second directorial effort by formerly solid screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (writer of Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River which was his directorial debut) which also marks the return of Angelina Jolie to action movies for the first time in a decade. Unfortunately, it's all for naught no thanks to a ridiculously threadbare and coincidence-dependent screenplay. 

The plot, such as it is, opens with a pair of clearly shady guys, brothers Jack (Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger from Throne Games, still unable to pull off an American accent) and Patrick (Nicolas Hoult, Beast in X-Men: First Class, and nailing the accent), presenting themselves as gas company workers to a woman in Fort Lauderdale whose husband is in the shower. They then leave, one notes the other has blood on his shirt, and as they drive off the house explodes. 

We then go to Jacksonville where Owen (Jake Weber) is preparing his son Connor (Finn Little) for school. Conveniently he's watching the news on his laptop and see the explosion reported and we learn the husband was a district attorney. Owen is a forensic accountant, so he figures someone is coming for him to, so he decides to hit the road with his son. 

When the assassins show up, they are conveniently able to determine he saw the news, withdrew $10,000 from his bank account, and thanks to convenient photo on the wall showing Owen with uniformed sheriff's deputy Ethan (Jon Bernthal) at a Montana survival school, a good idea where he's headed. With this knowledge, they are able to take a private jet to Montana and set up an ambush on apparently the only route to this school. Owen is killed, but Connor is able to escape. This displeases their boss, Arthur (Tyler Perry in a one-scene appearance), who tells them to get the boy at all costs. So they toss some road flares into the forest, sparking a massive blaze.

 Intercut with all this is our introductions to Ethan and Hannah's (Jolie) lives. He has a six-month pregnant wife (Medina Senghore) who runs the survival school with him and Hannah is his ex-girlfriend, tormented by the demons of a tragedy the previous year in which shifting winds caused the loss of some of her team and three kids who'd somehow wandered into a roaring forest fire area to conveniently die and torment her. Now she mans a fire watch tower when not getting drunk and parachuting from the back of a speeding pickup truck. (Don't ask.)

 So the orphan boy finds the broken woman while assassins and a raging forest fire moves in. Sounds like a thrilling story, right? Well, it's not. While there are some tense moments, it all feels flat and convenient like how a lightning strike just so happens to fry the radio and satellite phone in the tower, cutting them off from the outside world. (Don't they have lightning and surge protections built into these things for this possibility?)

Jolie's Hannah is so thinly written and it's been so long since we've seen her play anything remotely like this kind of character, it's disorienting, like watching Michelle Rodriguez in a Jane Austen adaptation. Frankly, any actress could've played this role, it's that anonymously vague.  And will someone PLEASE feed her - she was already getting too thin in Wanted and Salt back in the Aughts, but she's so scrawny now that even the kid references it.) It's also weird to see an Angelina Jolie movie where the most badass woman is the pregnant lady as Senghore really gets some stellar beats while Jolie mostly gets beaten and repeatedly hit by lightning. 

I lay the blame on Sheridan and his two co-writers for their flat adaptation of the source novel of the same name. This is the second weak adaptation from him in the past two weeks, cold on the heels of his plot-holey script for Without Remorse. Considering his first three original scripts were solid and acclaimed - Hell or High Water was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar - what is his problem with adaptations where the story and characters are provided being so sub-par. 

Ignoring the bad title which has no bearing on anything in the plot that I can tell, almost everything relies on coincidence or dumb behavior. If the killers don't blow up the DA's house, it doesn't make the news and they don't lose the element of surprise. Movie over. If Owen doesn't see the news report, they find and kill him. Movie over. If he doesn't leave his laptop unsecured (the problem with Unhinged) with a preposterously convenient web history revealing he suspected they were coming they wouldn't know to find the one photo with a cop and the name of the place he'd be going. Movie over. If they didn't kill an innocent passerby then leave her car and body where the cops could find it instead of pushing it over a cliff; if the lightning hadn't burned out the tower's communications; if, if, if. 

It's hard to view as threat two guys whose elite assassin rep seems to rely on dumb luck. There's also a detail where Arthur's SUV has official government plates, but it never factors again, so why have them? And if you're wondering whether it's a good idea for a pregnant woman to be riding a horse, even allowing for the noise factor precluding a motorized conveyance, you're not alone.

Everyone involved with Those Who Wish Me Dead have done much better work in the past, so it's baffling this project amounts to a middling disappointment. The forest fire VFX are mostly fairly convincing, but it's not a disaster movie or a disaster of a movie; it's just lost in the woods.

Score: 5/10. 

"The Marksman" Review

 After Liam Neeson's weird career transformation into an action star for the AARP set with 2008's Taken and its lackluster sequels in his mid-50s, he cranked out variations on his grumpy old guy forced to do extreme violence shtick to varying degrees of quality and success. So it is easy to presume The Marksman, which came and went without notice in whatever theaters were open during Hot Fad Plague 2020-21 in early-2021 was more of the same. It's not really, but its rote plot and disappointing ending don't make it unique. 

Neeson plays Jim Hanson, a failing rancher whose land runs right along the Arizona-Mexico border. He's a recent widower whose wife's cancer treatment bills put him in arrears with the bank and they're about to auction his land. Illegal aliens are constantly trespassing and he reports them to the Border Patrol where his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) is an officer. 

One day he encounters a frightened mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), with her son Miguel (Joe Perez) just past the fence. She's on the run from cartel thugs led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) who have killed her brother after he warned her to flee with a bag of cash she had. Mauricio demands Jim return the pair to their side of the fence and when Jim refuses, a gunfight breaks out, killing Mauricio's brother and mortally wounding Rosa. She begs Jim to take Miguel to family in Chicago, slipping him an address.

 The Border Patrol comes and mops things up and Jim thinks it's the end of things, but learns that Miguel won't be going to a foster care center, but deported back to Mexico. Knowing that would be certain death, he sneaks the kid out of the station and hits the road toward Chicago, not knowing that Mauricio and his gang are in hot pursuit. 

While The Marksman is blessed with some gorgeous cinematography and a decent performance from Neeson, it never rises above its leisurely pace and formulaic story. The only real tension comes from guessing which stock trope each plot juncture will choose. There are also too many convenient coincidences which aid the cartel forces pursuit; always a corrupt cop to assist them; having a stash house with a hacker able to track Jim's credit card usage (which he keeps using despite having the bag of cash); leaving a trail of bodies in their wake that never factor in subsequent events. Raba lacks serious menace in his performance despite the dirty deeds he does; he's not scary enough. 

Director/co-writer Robert Lorenz has produced a bunch of Clint Eastwood's movies which explains the clip from on old Eastwood movie that's shown and the feeling that The Marksman is something Clint may've starred in 20 years ago. But by keeping the story safe and tame enough to not frighten the early dinner special audience for Clint movies, it prevents it from having any memorable qualities. 

While I was initially inclined to give the movie a middling 5/10 catch it on cable, it's ending was so egregiously dissatisfying I knocked two points off and demoted it to Skip It. Hollyweird has become insanely stuck on the idea that people go to the movies to be made sad. This was called out about the 2021 Oscar nominees and it has infected what's sold as mass market entertainment. Who wants to schlep to a theater, pay $10 per ticket, gawd knows how much for concessions, then spend two hours watching a movie to end up bummed out. 

I'm not saying every movie must end with happily ever after, would it kill Hollywood to understand that after getting burned repeatedly, the paying customers are simply not going to give them money. It's basic self-preservation and they don't want to do it. 

Score: 3/10. Skip it.  

"Without Remorse" 4K Review

 While I was a fan of Tom Clancy's earliest works - I've read The Hunt For Red October, Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and about half of Clear and Present Danger before dropping off because I simply stopped having time to read as adulting took free time away - I've had more contact with his works through various videogame series like The Division, Ghost Recon, and Rainbow Six than the books themselves. 

While I've seen all the movies based on his Jack Ryan novels, I'm totally unfamiliar with the John Kelly/Clark character upon which the new Amazon Original (they picked up the Paramount production after its theatrical release was nuked by Hot Fad Plague 2020-21) feature Without Remorse is built. Apparently, Clark is second only to Ryan in prominence in Clancy's oeuvre, but I know zero about him or the source novel. As such, while I've seen reviews mentioning the movie pretty much discards the plot of the book - a quick glance at Wikipedia confirms that as the novel is set during the Vietnam war - I can only judge the movie on its own terms, not as an adaptation.

 Opening in Allepo, Syria, we meet Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) and his squad as they are on a mission to rescue a CIA operative being held by ISIS. However, once they get their man, they realize that he was being held by Russian military, leading to a massive firefight and casualties as they escape. Kelly suspects the CIA spook in charge, Ritter (Jamie Bell), of running them into a trap. 

Things escalate a few months later when other members of the squad are assassinated in nearly simultaneously executed strikes around the country with a quartet of gunmen hitting his home and in the process killing his pregnant wife and unborn daughter. While he managed to kill most of the attackers, one was able to escape after surviving an exchange of gunfire that leaves Kelly badly wounded. 

When he recovers, he's told that while a Russian attack on US soil is provocative, his superiors don't intend to pursue the final shooter because it would cause an even greater escalation. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Kelly as he takes matters into his own hands to avenge his losses and get to the truth. This leads to some showstopping actions that put him firmly on the wrong side of the law, though he does gets put on a mission to Russia to recapture the final shooter knowing that upon his return, he'll be back in prison. 

I've always been a fan of revenge films where a righteously aggrieved man just murders his way through a bunch of people to get to the One Responsible. Movies like Man on Fire and the first John Wick (before the series became more about Wick versus the world of assassins) are a blast and, for the most part, so is Without Remorse though the final denouement is a little anti-climatic to what comes before.

It's more of a throwback to the old school Cold War thrillers that Clancy made his bones with where the Ruskies were the bad guys, though that's the case now solely because they're the only country that's politically correct to have bad guys from these days. The film's action sequences are gritty and high stakes even when you're wondering just how the enemies managed to have all the angles covered. 

 The performances of Jordan and the cast are solid, though the "Are they traitors or now?" aspects of Taylor Sheridan (writer of Sicario, Wind River, and Hell and High Water) and Will Staples' script somewhat constrain them. Jordan is a Big Movie Star for a reason. 

On the technical side, Amazon's HDR10 presentation is very good with some stellar moments of HDR with bullet flashes and highlights looking punchy. Dark levels were also good, which is important when you have black actors in black clothes in near darkness and still want to see things, but a few instances of blobby blocky areas in near-black scenes were noted. Amazon has been bad about overcompressing video and causing banding in the past (Green Room was frequently cited by home theater aficionados as a painful example), but for the most part things are OK here. (Viewed on an LG OLED's native Prime Video app on a plenty fast connection.)

While it may not be a faithful adaptation of its source, Without Remorse does a respectable job delivering a good spy caper revenge thriller with solid action and acting. A mid-credits scene teases a Rainbow Six sequel and if it's as good as this, I'm interested.

Score: 6.5/10. Catch it on Amazon Prime.

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