I did it!
For the first time since March 2020 – nearly 15 months – I went inside a movie theater, and actually watched a movie!
What had once been a weekly occurrence (sometimes even more frequent), was stopped cold turkey with the onset of the pandemic last year. And while walking into a theater used to seem like an intrinsic part of me, this past week it all felt decidedly foreign – a concept which took a few minutes to get used to all over again.
But soon, that theater started feeling like home. Except for the moment someone’s annoying and obnoxiously loud ringtone went off for an exceedingly long time.
In any event, movies are back, and some of the ones that were scheduled to be released last year are finally hitting the big screen. And thankfully, many of those are well worth the wait!
“Cruella” (Rated T)
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong
Where to watch: In theaters/ Disney+ Premier Access
Origin story prequels are proving to be great ways to reboot and revitalize an old movie franchise, and this is one relatively recent Hollywood trend we can all get behind.
Just how did our hero become such an amazing crime fighter or super sleuth? What caused that despicable villain to turn into such a lowlife scum bucket?
The controversial but entertaining “Joker” from 2019 can be considered one of the better examples, and maybe even a blueprint, especially after earning Joaquin Phoenix a Best Actor Oscar.
Disney is betting that you want to learn how one of their memorable villains became so unpleasant.
Cruella de Vil from “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” has been an antagonist people have loved to hate since that hit animated classic was released in 1961 – rescuing Disney’s animation division from the brink, after a long lack of hits and a major flop.
And so, after a number of animated sequels and a live-action remake, we now have a live-action prequel, focusing on the life of “Cruella”.
In the film, Estella (Emma Stone) is a young and clever grifter who’s determined to make a name for herself in the fashion world. She soon meets a pair of thieves who appreciate her appetite for mischief, and together they build a life for themselves on the streets of London. However, when Estella befriends fashion legend Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), she embraces her wicked side to become the raucous and revenge-bent Cruella.
While the previews and trailers look intriguing, the film is an even greater surprise: a stylish, fun and funny exercise, with nary a dull moment. And you don’t have to know anything about any previous movie in this franchise, nor the book on which the original movie is based.
The attention to detail is notable, from the wardrobe to the automobiles, to the amazing soundtrack. The cast is top notch, and even the featured dogs are scene stealers.
But the real joy here comes from the Emmas! Oscar winners Emma Stone and Emma Thompson deliver two knock-out performances.
Thompson makes Meryl Streep’s iconic Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” seem like a kindergarten teacher. She is wickedly delightful as the demented Baroness. You’ll never forget seeing her in this role.
And Stone just gets better with every single movie. She gets to display her fantastic range – wild swings from drama to comedy and slapstick – all in one incredible space.
Will there be more “Cruella”? That’s unclear. A case can certainly be made. It is that pleasantly enjoyable. But after this film, I’d also really like to go even further back and see how in God’s name “The Baroness” came to be.
“A Quiet Place Part II” (Rated T)
Cast: Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy
Where to watch: In theaters
“A Quiet Place Part II” has had a challenging ride.
It was scheduled to open in March 2020, and even had its red-carpet premiere. Commercials and trailers were released and playing. And then BAM! The global pandemic shut everything down.
The studio wisely pulled the film, and decided to postpone its theatrical release. Since then it’s been a roller-coaster ride of uncertainty, with the dates for when it would finally make it on the big screen changing seemingly every month.
Well, after that long delay, here it is in theaters, and not a streaming service, even though its studio Paramount has just launched Paramount+.
And it’s had the biggest box office opening since the pandemic.
“Part II” picks up immediately where the enormous 2018 hit left off. Following the deadly events at home, the Abbott family must now face the terrors of the outside world as they continue their fight for survival in silence. Forced to venture into the unknown, they quickly realize that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.
Just like the surprising original, actor John Kransinski is again the writer and director, and has again crafted an effective and creative film.
While the original was firmly in “horror” territory, “Part II” has veered more into the “thriller” category. So, while you might not jump and scream as much this time around, you will barely be in your seat, as this is now a fast-paced carnival ride. And the action is nonstop!
There’s a sequence in which three intense scenes are occurring concurrently, and Kransinski cuts between each at a frenetic pace. It’s almost too much to bear, and it’s exhilarating.
The original cast is back, and as amazing as ever. And new addition Cillian Murphy (“Red Eye”, “Inception”) – who only ever seems to play robotic evil lunatics – proves he can be a likable, compassionate antihero too.
The ending clearly reveals this is certainly not the ending. In fact, don’t be surprised if this turns into a long-running franchise. If Kransinski and crew can keep up this pacing and intensity, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. At least until we all start needing some real answers.
Until that happens, sign us up for more of this amazing roller-coaster ride!
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.