Movie Review: ‘Fighting with My Family’ Shows Us the Heart and Triumph Over Adversity in a Life Devoted to Wrestling

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Bodily Sacrifices of Wrestling, Crude Comments, and Drunken Misbehavior

Release Date: February 14, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide February 22, 2019

Most inspirational sports flicks follow the same rise-fall-rise structure, down to every little setback and triumph. But it makes sense that audiences have never fully tired of this genre, because while it may be repetitive, it is rarely unrealistic. Athletics is one field of human endeavor in which you can explicitly say whether or not you have emerged the winner. And just about every champion, or at least the ones worth watching, has at some point felt like an underdog. The professional wrestling biopic Fighting with My Family does nothing to mess with that formula. But while wrestling may be staged, there is still plenty uncertain along the way, and there is similarly enough uniquely compelling and surprising about Fighting with My Family to make its allegiance to formula plenty forgivable.

Florence Pugh stars as Saraya “Paige” Bevis, who at the age of 21 in 2014 became the youngest winner ever of WWE’s Divas Championship. (As far as I could tell from the movie and looking up footage of Paige’s actual fight, this is one WWE tournament in which the winner is not predetermined.) Paige comes from a wrestling-obsessed family in working-class England, and she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have dreamt their whole lives of rising to the ranks of WWE together, but alas, only Paige is given the opportunity.

You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to know that there will be a happy ending. You just have to watch the commercials and have enough common sense to know that if Paige didn’t become a champion, there probably wouldn’t be a movie about her. But considering that it ends on a note of such undisputed victory, there is a lot of bleakness along the way. Figuring herself a weirdo outcast, Paige struggles to get along with the more traditional hard bodies among her fellow recruits, and the isolation she experiences in sleekly empty, oppressively artificially lit hotel rooms is palpable. Even more intense are Zak’s demons. He put all his chips in the WWE basket, and as he feels that dream slipping away, he quickly transforms from a chipper young buck devotedly in love with his girlfriend and happy to be a new father into the most resentful person in the world. When Paige ultimately triumphs, it is as inspiring as it ought to be, but because of those descents into darkness, Fighting with My Family‘s most heartening moments are the times when the Bevis family make it clear that they have each other’s backs, and that is why this entry lifts itself atop the genre.

Fighting with My Family is Recommended If You Like: Professional wrestling and the stories behind it, Rocky, Warrior, Wacky working-class families

Grade: 4 out of 5 Title Belts

Advertisements

Movie Review: Rom-Com Deconstruction Goes Down as Easy as a Cupcake in the Frothy and Insightful ‘Isn’t It Romantic’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam DeVine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stereotypically PG-13 Rom-Com Behavior

Release Date: February 13, 2019

Do romantic comedies offer any applicable lessons for our own lives? Or are they all just toxic fantasies and at best valuable only for the escapism they offer? Isn’t It Romantic would like us to believe that even the most unrealistic rom-coms can provide inspiration for how to navigate our love lives. It’s a lesson that its main character Natalie (Rebel Wilson) would be wise to take to heart (and ultimately of course, she will). An architect living in an accurately smelly and sweaty New York City, she has been raised to be cynical about the genre, and fairly enough, she calls out its most destructive tropes: from the female co-workers who are mandatory rivals to the gay best friend who has no personal life of his own. But her cynicism blinds her to the existence of potential true love around her, partly because she does not believe that most guys would be interested in a “normal” girl like her. She is someone who would clearly benefit from saying “yes” more often, even if what she says yes to is living out an over-the-top stereotypical rom-com. Somehow, that experience leads to self-acceptance and fully listening to the people who truly appreciate her.

Nat is transported to this fantasy world when she hits her head while getting mugged in a subway station. She finds herself in a suspiciously fragrant version of NYC in which just about everyone is a little too open to the possibility of random meet-cutes. For her, that means a whirlwind romance with Blake (a never-better Liam Hemsworth), a client of hers who speaks almost exclusively in Buddhist aphorisms. And for Nat’s best friend and co-worker Josh (Adam DeVine), that means falling into the embrace of Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), the improbably employed “yoga ambassador.” It turns out that the rom-com storyline at play here is actually “best friends realize they were supposed to be together all along, almost before it’s too late,” and chances are pretty high that the corresponding happy ending will come to fruition. But the real raison d’etre of this whole affair is for Natalie to separate the chaff from the wheat of what rom-coms have to offer. Yes, they might be unrealistic and sometimes even toxic, but that is no reason to be miserable and reject love in our own lives. Isn’t It Romantic deconstructs to remind us why these silly, frothy stories are still worth telling.

Isn’t It Romantic is Recommended If You Like: Enchanted, They Came Together, Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine’s chemistry in Pitch Perfect

Grade: 4 out of 5 Mornings After

Movie Review: ‘Happy Death Day 2U’ Repeats Everything, But Nothing Was Ever the Same

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Steve Zissis

Director: Christopher Landon

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Comically Absurd Death Scenes

Release Date: February 13, 2019

Happy Death Day 2U is a tricky movie to review while avoiding spoilers, because a lot of the fun is derived from the glut of surprises that the plot has in store. That may sound unlikely for a sequel to a film about someone repeating the same day over and over again. But it is true that one of 2U‘s great strengths is its unpredictability. In that sense, it is most reminiscent of The Cabin in the Woods, which is similarly impossible to talk about without spoiling at least a tad. But also like Cabin, Happy Death Day 2U is so chock-a-block full of twists that it is impossible to spoil entirely. So even if you go in knowing the first twist, there are about twenty-five more waiting for you, which is quite an accomplishment for any sequel. I will try to be as non-specific as possible for the rest of this review, but if you want to be thoroughly unspoiled, stop here and just know that 2U succeeds wildly in its go-for-broke mentality. (But if anyone wants to get deeper into the details, please feel free to send a comment my way because I happy to talk about this movie as much as possible.)

The challenge of any time loop narrative is making each successive go-round interesting instead of frustrating in its sameness. That pitfall would seem exponentially more challenging for a sequel. As the person who has to live it, Tree Gelbman is suitably enraged, perhaps even deranged, about being stuck in the predicament she thought she had just escaped. It plays to Jessica Rothe’s comic strengths to be able to just scream at the forces of fate torturing her. But it turns out that this same loop is just different enough for Tree and the audience to be optimistic. The tone shifts from the original so significantly, in fact, that 2U is essentially in an entirely different genre than its predecessor (to say which genre would constitute a spoiler). In that way, it is like Aliens, which shifted from the one-by-one elimination horror of Alien into a war-style action flick. That change was understandable given the succession from Ridley Scott to James Cameron. But in this case, Christopher Landon stayed on as director (while also taking over scripting duties from Scott Lobdell). That diverse tonal skillset is heartening to see in any filmmaker, and it makes me believe that the Happy Death Day franchise could actually pull a third entry that is hinted at the end here.

Other highlights include beefing up the best parts of the first film. Tree gets wrung through an even more outrageous death montage, this time involving electrocution, skydiving in a bikini, and falling from a clock tower (in a possible nod to another time-based franchise). Meanwhile, Tree’s sorority sister Danielle is even more fleshed out as her own singular brand of clueless. Rachel Matthews has only a few credits to her name, but she deserves to be a star based on her Happy Death Day performances alone. With all this surplus of beef, 2U is perhaps a little busy. The slasher aspects might actually be unnecessary, though they do provide ample tension. Overall, this film has such a strong intellectual foundation for something so cheeky and demented that any slight misstep is easily forgiven once the next mind-tickling idea comes along.

Happy Death Day 2U is Recommended If You Like: Happy Death Day, Back to the Future Part II, Primer, Rick and Morty

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Loops

Movie Review: ‘Birds of Passage’ Presents the Early Days of the Colombian Drug Trade with Transfixing Imagery and Brutal Violence

Leave a comment

CREDIT: The Orchard

Starring: Carmiña Martínez, Natalia Reyes, José Acosta, Jhon Narváez, Jose Vicente Cotes, Juan Bautista, Greider Meza

Directors: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Be R for Gun Violence

Release Date: February 13, 2019

As a movie critic who does not focus on any one particular genre, I aim to be as omnivorous as possible, watching as many new releases as I can, covering as many subjects as are available. Certain times, I will encounter perspectives similar to my own, and I will be able to offer my more or less expert expert take in those cases. Other times I will come across films so far removed from my background that I can only offer my first-hand experience of what it is like to witness them. So it is in the case of the Colombian film Birds of Passage, a sprawling tale of a Native American Wayuu family’s chronicle through the drug trade.

As far as I can gather, Birds of Passage (which is divided into five chapters, or “cantos”) is in favor of staying close to home and fostering strong familial and community relations. Living a violent life in service of those values can only lead to destruction back home. And make no mistake, this is a violent film. Taking place in the sixties and seventies, it covers the early days of the Colombian drug trade, but it did not take long for gunfire to become a staple of the business. There are plenty of scenes of women getting pushed around and abused, but there is also a heavy implication that the female characters with significant parts are strong and wise leaders, and this society would be a lot better off if it did a better job listening to them. There are also some transfixingly dreamy scenes that convey the importance of being in tune with a collective inner spirit. The drug trade in this film starts off with American Peace Corps members looking to score some weed, but that foreign influence is a red herring. Everyone has their own soul and that of their community to look after.

Birds of Passage is Recommended If You Like: The Other Films of Ciro Guerra, Probably

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cantos

Movie Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Features Visionary Effects and a Convoluted Story

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Eiza González, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cyborg Limbs Flying All Over the Place

Release Date: February 14, 2019

Can slightly-larger-than-normal human eyes in a motion capture performance exist anywhere other than the Uncanny Valley? That is the conundrum at the heart of Alita: Battle Angel‘s box office prospects, but from where I’m sitting, they’re clearly the best part of the film. Yeah, those peepers might be creepy, but they are also a deep wellspring of an infectious personality. Rosa Salazar may have given her performance while dressed up in a bodysuit with a camera mounted on her head, but her enthusiasm to be part of groundbreaking cinema is consistently palpable.

Based on the manga series Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel was co-written and co-produced by James Cameron, but presumably because he’s busy with all those Avatar sequels, directing duties fell to Robert Rodriguez. This could have been a clash of auteurs, as both men are enamored with creating digitally rendered, visually rich fantasy worlds, but Rodriguez has never really worked on the same scale as Cameron. (To be fair, nobody works on quite the same scale as Cameron.) But the steampunk metropolis of Iron City in 2563 is a sight to behold, and its array of cyborg citizens are correspondingly fascinating. Rodriguez has mostly realized Cameron’s vision without putting his own unique stamp on the project, but even so, on a technical level, this is the best James Cameron movie that Cameron never directed.

Too bad the plot is incomprehensible. A bunch of sci-fi tropes about the dangers of creating and living alongside artificial life are thrown out there, but none of them amount to anything. There is some talk about how Alita resembles the deceased daughter of her scientist caretaker (Christoph Waltz), but that does not lead to any of the expected emotional confusion. Alita is also being hunted down by other cyborgs, but it is never clear what threat she actually poses to anyone. Also, she is centuries old and the last of her kind, which could mean that she is a sort of Rosetta stone to the past, and people treat her that way, but nobody ever clearly explains why that matters. With all the empty dialogue in Alita, it makes me wish that someone in 2019 would be bold enough to make $200 million sci-fi extravaganza as a silent film.

Alita: Battle Angel is Recommended If You Like: James Cameron’s Brand of 3D Visual Effects, Overly Busy Impenetrable Screenplays

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Big Eyes

Movie Review: ‘Everybody Knows’ is Another Devastating But Enriching Work From Asghar Farhadi

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Teresa Isasi/Focus Features

Starring: Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Spanish Profanity

Release Date: February 8, 2019 (Limited)

If you sit down to watch Everybody Knows, you will probably wonder, “What is it that everybody knows?” I know I certainly did. About a half hour or so in, I had a pretty good idea of what it could be, then that suspicion grew into a more fully formed guess, and ultimately my powers of deduction proved to be precisely on point. I do not say this to toot my own horn, but rather, to explain that Everybody Knows makes the answers to its central mystery crystal clear. Far from being frustrated by obviousness, I appreciated that it guided me to exactly where it wanted me to go.

Having previously seen The Salesman and now this latest feature, I know the films of Asghar Farhadi to be about the trauma of outside forces testing the strength of familial units. In this case, the kidnapping of a teenage girl is the impetus for revealing one family’s most sacred secrets. Laura (Penélope Cruz) is a Spanish woman living in Argentina who has returned to her hometown with her two kids in tow for a wedding. When her daughter Irene (Carla Crampa) disappears, she is forced to resolve what lingers from the past with her childhood friend and former lover Paco (Javier Bardem). Farhadi has a knack for understanding that the potential paths of highly stressful situations can swing on a pendulum from further disaster to healing reconciliation. The resolution of Everybody Knows is profoundly, cathartically satisfying – the work of a master craftsman operating like clockwork.

Everybody Knows is Recommended If You Like: Asghar Farhadi’s filmography, The Vanishing

Grade: 4 out of 5 Family Secrets

Movie Review: ‘What Men Want’ Mines Humor, But Not Much Else, From Its Gender-Flipped Premise

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Tracy Morgan, Josh Brener, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, Max Greenfield, Jason Jones, Kellan Lutz, Brian Bosworth, Chris Witaske, Erykah Badu

Director: Adam Shankman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Aggressive Sex, Alpha Dog Profanity, and Bachelorette Party Drug Imbibing

Release Date: February 8, 2019

The ability to read minds is a rich comic premise. That holds true even when it is done in the service of outdated ideas about gender differences, or in service of a more enlightened view of gender differences, which perhaps demonstrates that any grand statement on this topic is quite possibly a folly. While saying “men are like this, but women are like THIS” can easily be a problematic minefield, as long as you show the distance between what characters say and what they leave unsaid, the formula for laughs is there. What Men Want does not screw that formula up, at least not completely. But does it offer anything more than raucous unintentional confessionals?

I have not seen What Women Want, but from what I know about it, it cannot be so easily pinned as too reliant on stereotypes or a deconstruction of said stereotypes. The same is true of What Men Went. Taraji P. Henson plays Ali Davis, a sports agent who can match her male colleagues in alpha dog aggressiveness, but she is struggling to make partner at her agency, and it is clear that that is because of assumptions of what women can or should do in a professional setting. Frankly, she does not need to read minds to know that, as she is already a decent judge of character anyway. Ultimately, her newfound ability is little more than a parlor trick. What she really needs to be able to get over the humps in her personal and professional lives is to fully listen to what the people who truly care about her are saying, which is not the same thing as hearing their thoughts.

That is a valuable lesson, but also fairly pedestrian considering the unusual circumstances. What Men Want is not fundamentally obvious, but it does feel like a bit of a wasted opportunity, because its premise is not really essential to its conclusion. Luckily, these types of movies are often reliable for memorable side characters, and we have got some delightfully kooky ones here. In particular, Tracy Morgan more or less plays himself as the father of a top NBA prospect, spouting claims like how Abraham Lincoln was “part Eskimo” and Richard Nixon “shot and ate a panda.” And then there is Erykah Badu as a self-made psychic/weed dealer, gloriously mystical and loopy as ever.

What Men Want is Recommended If You Like: Taraji P. Henson Upgrading Average Material, Tracy Morgan Running His Mouth, Erykah Badu at her zaniest

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Head Konks

Older Entries