Emma Stone is an appealing anti-heroine in “Cruella.” (Courtesy Disney)

Emma Stone is an appealing anti-heroine in “Cruella.” (Courtesy Disney)

Fun plot, inspired mayhem in live-action Cruella

‘Port Authority’ celebrates self-expression, nontraditional families

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“Cruella,” directed by Craig Gillespie, depicts the early years of “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil, the fashion-house tyrant with the two-toned hair and the clothing lines featuring puppy fur. She’s not really that horrid in this film — it’s a family-friendly Disney production, after all. But as such, the movie is colorfully enjoyable, and a little darker than you’d expect.

Gillespie previously directed “I, Tonya,” a playful biopic that actually made us feel sorry for disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. With “Cruella,” this time with a fictional protagonist, he again makes a notorious woman sympathetic by attributing her disreputable behavior to her unfortunate origins. He also, be assured, has wicked fun when presenting her badness.

Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara and set in 1970s London, the live-action comedy is based on the “101 Dalmatians” movies and the Dodie Smith novel that preceded them. It also brings to mind “All About Eve” and the origins movie “Maleficent.”

We meet Cruella when she’s 12-year-old Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a troublemaking girl with fashion-designer aspirations. After a terrible incident takes her mother’s life, Estella meets street kids Jasper and Horace (played as adults by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), and commits petty crimes with them.

As a young woman, Estella, now played by Emma Stone, begins working at a prestigious clothing store, where she wreaks punk-era havoc on a window display. Her stunt impresses Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the despotic, narcissistic fashion-design queen. The baroness, who has three Dalmatians and a penchant for black-and-white color schemes, hires Estella, who initially regards the baroness as almost a mentor. Yet after Estella discovers contemptible truths about the baroness, which have affected her personally, she seeks revenge.

Estella invents the persona of hot new designer Cruella de Vil, with black and white hair and a reported practice of snatching puppies for fur coats. Assisted by Jasper, Horace, journalist Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and pal Artie (John McCrea), she aims to destroy the baroness.

The movie is too long, despite a good plot with inspired mayhem. But that’s not enough to justify the 134-minute running time.

Gillespie keeps Cruella, now a protagonist, viewer-sympathetic despite her increasing meanness. While that’s fine on one level, we’re not convinced she possesses the utter viciousness associated with the character. A climactic segment in which Cruella establishes herself as a full-blown nefarious force feels designed largely to hint at a sequel.

But Cruella is still a satisfying anti-heroine. The film includes some edge and darkness not generally found in Disney fare — Estella’s nihilistic window display, 1960s and 1970s rock and punk songs — while also maintaining a family-friendly tone (no sex; no swearing; cute dog bits).

The costumes, by Jenny Beavan, are, along with the performances, fabulous.

The two Emmas are having a blast. Stone, sporting a rascally glint in her eye as Cruella plots her moves, and Thompson, whose baroness, suggesting a meaner version of Meryl Streep’s “Devil Wears Prada” character, all hauteur and ruthlessness, are a kick to watch.

The final scenes feature Dalmatian puppies and characters that fans of the earlier “Dalmatians” movies will appreciate.

REVIEW

Cruella

★★★

Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Written by: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Fionn Whitehead, left, and Leyna Bloom star in ““Port Authority,” screening at the Roxie’s virtual cinema. (Courtesy Momentum Pictures)

Fionn Whitehead, left, and Leyna Bloom star in ““Port Authority,” screening at the Roxie’s virtual cinema. (Courtesy Momentum Pictures)

“Port Authority,” opening Friday in the Roxie’s virtual theater, is an uneven but moving indie drama about love and family, set in the world of New York City’s kiki ballroom scene.

At once romantic and realistic, this feature debut of writer-director Danielle Lessovitz centers on a young white Pennsylvanian named Paul (Fionn Whitehead), who arrives at Manhattan’s Port Authority station (which Lessovitz has described as a gathering place for the LGBTQ community).

His sister (Louisa Krause) doesn’t show up to meet him, and Paul, robbed and broke, lands at a shelter.

Soon, Paul is living two lives. In one, he works for new acquaintance Lee (McCaul Lombardi), who performs dirty work, like eviction assistance, for landlords.

More meaningfully, Paul becomes involved with Wye (Leyna Bloom), a kind and captivating dancer in the voguing-like kiki ballroom world, home to young LGBTQ people of color.

Paul is drawn not only to Wye but to her community, whose sense of family Paul, who grew up in foster care, longs for.

When he discovers that Wye is a trans woman, the naive Paul reacts with confusion and transphobic anger, accusing Wye of deceiving him.

He needs to acknowledge that it is he, not Wye, who has been deceptive, and that by locking up what one character calls his “realness,” he is destroying his chance for happiness.

While Lessovitz’ story sometimes seems more mapped out than organic, the film is an appealing love story resonant with feeling, and an affecting celebration of self-expression and nontraditional families.

Whitehead, who co-starred in “Dunkirk,” is effective as a young man struggling to embrace realities that scare him. Bloom, a model and dancer making her acting debut, brings a natural radiance to Wye. Lessovitz’s fondness for close-ups serves her nicely. The two actors sparkle together.

REVIEW

Port Authority

★★★

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Leyna Bloom, McCaul Lombardi, Louisa Krause

Written and directed by: Danielle Lessovitz

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

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