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In the Beginning 

A Quiet Place Part II, Cruella and the compulsion to fill in every blank.

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click to enlarge PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Paramount Pictures
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When did it become so impossible for movies to leave some things unsaid? We humans are always on a quest for answers, but sometimes the best storytelling path is to leave some mystery. Maybe it's not necessarily crucial to know what's in that suitcase in Pulp Fiction, only that it's really important to Marcellus Wallace. And maybe we don't have to know what turned someone into the crazed Joker, only that his sociopathic anarchism is a threat to normalcy. There are times when the answer in your head provides more emotional kick than a superfluous origin story.

This week's two big releases both fall victim to this compulsion to fill in blanks that were best left blank. A Quiet Place Part II—director John Krasinski's follow-up to the hit 2018 alien-invasion thriller—opens with a 10-minute prologue taking us back to "Day 1" of the arrival of the blind, sound-sensitive extraterrestrial predators. It's a back-story that the original felt no need to supply, as it plunged us directly into the plight of the Abbott family—father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe)—and the advantage in their ability to communicate through ASL because of Regan's deafness. The flashback here feels like filler, serving mostly to introduce family friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy), whom the Abbotts will later encounter, and to provide Krasinski a cameo since Lee sacrificed himself in the first film, and would otherwise have no opportunity in this movie to place his finger to his lips with grim intensity.

Things get back on track once the primary plot kicks in, picking up more or less immediately after the events of the original, with Evelyn's newborn baby added to the family. Searching for other survivors, the Abbotts connect with Emmett, but Regan soon sets out on her own, convinced that the weapon she discovered by amplifying her cochlear implant's frequency could save others. Simmonds' performance provides a welcome intensity, and dividing the family is a solid dramatic choice. There's just a weird pacing problem with Part II, as long stretches of nothing happening are abruptly juxtaposed with moments when EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING AT THE SAME TIME, LOUDLY AND DANGEROUSLY. But at least this is a film that ultimately is more concerned with what happens next than with what happened before.

click to enlarge WALT DISNEY PICTURES
  • Walt Disney Pictures
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That isn't remotely the case with Cruella, following the lead of tales like Maleficent and Joker that are convinced iconic villains need a complex history. Here, we learn that a young girl named Estella was orphaned, and fell in with street criminals Jasper and Horace. As a young woman, Estella (Emma Stone) attempts to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer, serving as an apprentice to the icy Baroness (Emma Thompson) before ultimately letting loose her dark side Cruella alter-ego as a rival to the Baroness.

What follows begins to feel like a frantic riff on The Devil Wears Prada, albeit one where every 20 minutes or so there's an attempted heist by Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Of course, we also get enough 101 Dalmatians references shoehorned in to become irritating every time they arrive, from the pointed inclusion of characters named Roger and Anita, to a scene where—I wish I were making this up—Estella develops a certain loathing because dalmatians killed her mother.

The real irony, though, is how quickly it becomes clear that giving Estella/Cruella motivations and feelings and stuff renders her far less interesting than this movie's villain. Stone is fine, particularly when posing ferociously in Jenny Beavan's outrageous costume designs, but Thompson steals every moment she's on screen. That's not just because she's, well, Emma Thompson, and fabulousness oozes from her pores; it's because a single-minded villain is almost always the more interesting and memorable role. By telling a story nobody was demanding should be told, Cruella actually ends up being at its best when proving that it was completely unnecessary—and making you worry that a few years down the road, someone will decide that we really need a Disney+ series about The Young Baroness Chronicles.

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