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Fighting With My Family

Posted June 15, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Fighting With My Family was a critical and commercial sleeper hit from earlier this year, stuck in a godawful February release date. I’m sincerely glad I caught it on DVD in time for consideration for my year-end lists.

This is the true-life story of Saraya-Jade Bevis, aka Paige (here immortalized by Florence Pugh), the youngest Divas Champion in the history of the WWE. A British girl from Norwich, she made her debut in the World Association of Wrestling promotion run by her parents (played here by Nick Frost and Lena Headey), former wrestlers themselves. Paige got her start in the ring opposite her brother (Zak, played by Jack Lowden) and she’s been wrestling ever since.

Long story short, Paige and Zak get called in to try out for the WWE. Paige gets signed and flies out to Florida to keep on training for the big leagues. Zak has to stay behind and figure out how to move on after his life’s dream has been crushed. Of course he’s still proud of his sister, and Zak just got a girl pregnant so he has a new baby to live for, but he doesn’t know how to do anything else except wrestle, and what is he even doing that for if the big leagues are forever closed off to him?

Meanwhile, Paige is a goth-looking young woman with a lifetime of professional wrestling experience, training and competing against bleach-blonde models and cheerleaders. She doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t have a thing in common with any of her fellow trainees, and it’s entirely possible that she’s not whatever the big leagues are looking for. And anyway, if she’d be happier going back home and wrestling with her family, why doesn’t she go back and do that?

Oh, right — because if she throws away her shot, she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. To say nothing of her family, who gave everything to get Saraya where she is and they’d give everything twice over to be where she is. Then again, Zak and their parents are still doing wonderful work running a business, raising a family, and training local kids who don’t have anything else. As Paige herself so eloquently puts it at one point, doing something good doesn’t matter any less just because millions of people aren’t cheering at it.

Getting back to Paige, this is in many ways the story of Saraya learning to carve out a place for herself and find her family. She thinks at first that she could never find a place in the WWE with all these plastic-looking women she doesn’t have a thing in common with. What she doesn’t even stop to consider (maybe because she’s too focused on not dying) is that these women have families too. They may not be actual wrestlers, but they’re still training and sacrificing so much to get this shot at fortune and fame just like Paige is. So maybe they have more in common than they realize and competition doesn’t necessarily mean being uncivil.

Oh, and of course Paige — still a teenage girl, remember — has to piece together her onstage persona as a metaphor for figuring out who she really is and what she really wants. (see also: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, etc.)

This is a tough movie for me to review for quite a few reasons, in part because… well, I don’t have much in the way of nitpicks. Seriously. Yes, the British accents are thick enough that I had to turn on the subtitles. Yes, the WWE is branded here as a fantasy factory, which is more than a bit problematic.

Even so, the movie doesn’t sugar-coat how insanely tough it is to get into the WWE. Millions of applicants train their whole lives for a shot, devoting themselves so completely to the possibility of getting in that they’ve got nothing left if they don’t make it; and even those who get in could still end up washing out after they’ve broken themselves in training or in the ring. And that’s not just lip-service — all of that is a huge part of the plot. Plus, the filmmakers take every opportunity to point out how important the fans are in all of this, with their power to make or break careers, and that was a nice touch.

And anyway, it should really speak volumes about the movie, that I had to dig so hard for such small potatoes.

Florence Pugh is a bona fide powerhouse leading lady, Nick Frost and Lena Headey are pitch-perfect, and Jack Lowden brings a tour de force performance. Vince Vaughn plays the coach — functionally the face and voice of the WWE, clearly a fictional amalgam of so many real-life players in Paige’s career — delivering a perfectly balanced performance atop more razor-thin lines than I could catalogue here. Even exec producer Dwayne Johnson stops by for a couple of scenes, providing a bit of uplifting comic relief without stealing the whole show.

The casting is perfect across the board, writer/director Stephen Merchant (also a bit comedic player here) is on fire, the comedy works, the family interplay is spellbinding, the wrestling scenes and training montages are dynamite… Everything about this movie fires on all cylinders. It’s astounding.

And yet I still have a hard time praising this movie, because it’s not the sort of film that lends itself to overhyping. This isn’t some massively epic mind-blowing blockbuster, nor is it some innovative genre-blending masterpiece to change the medium of cinema as we know it. And it was never built to succeed on that level. This movie was only ever meant to be an intimate family drama that humanizes a real-life subject, dramatizing her rise to fame while giving us characters and relationships we can emotionally invest in. That’s what it set out to do, and it succeeds perfectly.

Yet this film is far more than a mediocrity that simply goes through the motions, and it’s for another reason why I have such a hard time reviewing this. The movie primarily succeeds because of something I can’t adequately convey through writing and something you could never properly experience through a written review: HEART.

Every joke, every shouting match, every wrestling match, every shot, every cut, everything from start to finish, down to the last wrinkle on an actor’s face is bursting with passion. Down to the last extra, everyone in this cast and crew seriously believed in this rags-to-riches story about a social outcast from Norwich who fought to earn her place on the world stage. And even for those back home who didn’t make it, every one of them seen as a freak and a loser by mainstream society, the filmmakers treat them with no less dignity and respect.

Fighting With My Family is must-see material, but not because it’s a huge leap forward for the medium or the next big thing. (Though Florence Pugh has more than proven herself to be worthy of A-list status at this point.) It’s a deeply heartfelt movie powered by a staggering family dynamic, with plenty of great laughs and some killer montages. It’s nothing more or less than an exquisitely made film with a fantastic script and a phenomenal cast.

I absolutely loved this movie and I hope you’ll love it to. And at just over 100 minutes, it’s not even all that much time spent. Definitely check this one out at your earliest convenience.

The Dead Don’t Die

Posted June 15, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s been a while since we had a proper zombie flick. It seems like only yesterday, we were in the time between Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, when “The Walking Dead” was at peak popularity and there were no shortage of coattail-riders. But oversaturation sank in and the pendulum swung the other way as modern horror became The House That Blum Built, founded on horror films too cheap even for zombie makeup.

But Zombieland is finally getting a sequel in a few months, so maybe the genre is due for a comeback.

First, however, we have The Dead Don’t Die, a Romero riff written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, of all people. Oh, and Jarmusch also composed the score through his rock band, SQURL. Even more bizarre, he’s put together a cast of such eclectic talents as Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Steve Buscemi, RZA, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones… there’s probably a partridge in a pear tree somewhere in there as well.

Funny enough, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Jarmusch previously wrote/directed an undead movie with the vampire-centric Only Lovers Left Alive. Of course that movie didn’t even hold a third of the star power. More importantly, it was more of a brooding and introspective film without much emphasis on overt comedy or a cohesive plot. Looking at the trailer and the cast involved, I did not think this would be more of the same.

While the movies turned out to be wildly different in very crucial ways, there turned out to be a lot more connective tissue than I had expected.

To start with, there’s only the barest semblance of a plot. All the actors and characters are off doing their own thing, some intersect more often than others, some get more screen time than others, and there’s really no way of knowing who will end up getting the short end of the stick. The good news is, this lends the movie a factor of unpredictability, which means in turn that we don’t know who’s going to get killed off or when. It helps the horror very nicely.

That said, the comedy is far and away more unpredictable than the horror. Within the first ten minutes, it’s established that this movie is set in the sleepy backwoods town of “Centerville, USA”, there’s a farmer (Buscemi) wearing a bright red baseball cap that says “Keep America White Again”, and a character states point-blank that the song on the radio (“The Dead Don’t Die”, by Sturgill Simpson) sounds familiar because it’s the theme song that played over the opening credits not even three minutes ago.

So, yeah. We’re going full-on meta for this one.

It’s established early and often that the movie is self-aware, and that manifests in a bone-dry sense of humor that would’ve been right at home in a Mel Brooks picture. When one character makes a Star Wars reference directly to Adam Driver’s face, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. But what’s impressive above all else is in the running gags. Repeating jokes are extremely high-risk/high-reward, but the filmmakers keep on juggling so many of them that there’s no telling when or where the next one will come up, and they’re all delivered with pitch-perfect timing.

That said, it’s important to remember that this is hardly the first film to poke self-aware fun at George Romero’s filmography and all its ilk. Shaun of the Dead is of course a prominent example — quite possibly the definitive example, in fact. And Shaun is still the champion here.

Both movies portray ordinary people and zombies as indistinguishable from one another, thus playing into the anti-consumerist sociopolitical themes so iconic to the genre. The difference is that Shaun made satirical statements for visual humor about zombie horror tropes, while Dead makes satirical statements to talk about climate change and ignorant rednecks. Edgar Wright presented these themes to make a zombie movie, while Jarmusch is making a zombie movie to talk about these themes.

When Shaun showed us the zombie apocalypse, the implicit question was “How could you tell?” When The Dead Don’t Die shows us the zombie apocalypse, the very explicit statement is “We’ve got this coming.” Circling back around to Only Lovers Left Alive, the vampires in that movie thought of humans as zombies, often calling them as such — it’s a sentiment that Jarmusch keeps alive and well here.

Moreover, the humor in Shaun was much sharper. Because the filmmakers had a far clearer statement of intent (ie: Making a comical love letter to the works of George Romero) and the plot was limited to a small core group of characters, the movie could be more focused in its character development and comedy. You don’t get that with a zombie film that casts RZA as a delivery man for “Wu-PS” for all of one scene.

Another drawback of the film’s random plot is that it leads to several awkward cuts and storylines that go nowhere. There’s one particular scene in a hardware store, in which the camera cuts to close-ups of random objects for no other reason than because some part of the conversation clearly got cut. There’s at least two or three storylines that could’ve been cut entirely with virtually nothing lost, and one storyline that doesn’t even get an ending!

Then the climax comes and we get the piece de resistance — a moment that has nothing at all to do with zombies, and happens for absolutely no reason. It arrives out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, all with no explanation of any kind and affects the plot in no way whatsoever. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also practically daring us to try and make any sense of it.

Every single actor in this picture looks like they’re having a blast, but the cast as a whole is sadly uneven. The core trio of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny probably get the best of it; respectively playing Bill Murray, a deadpan pessimist, and a career law enforcement officer pushed past her breaking point. Tom Waits is perfectly situated as the crazy old forest hermit observing and narrating from afar. Jarmusch apparently let Tilda Swinton off her leash, which is every bit as bizarre and entertaining as you’d imagine.

Steve Buscemi plays a total asshole who’s easy enough to hate, but it’s nothing on the level of Mr. Pink. Carol Kane is always a pleasure, so it’s all the more shameful she’s got pretty much nothing to do here. At least she leaves a stronger impression than Selena Gomez, who apparently showed up just to be an impossibly hot 20-something girl with no personality to speak of. (Then again, I saw Spring Breakers — it’s for the best nobody asked her to act.)

Calvin (as in “Calvin and Hobbes”) once observed that “the problem with being avant garde is knowing who’s putting on who.” That pretty well sums up where I’m at with The Dead Don’t Die. It’s a movie made by whip-smart filmmakers, all gifted with a powerful sense of humor and devastating comedic timing, and if it wasn’t for that level of talent and intelligence, the movie would’ve disappeared up its own ass. It’s an uproarious razor-sharp comedy that’s beautifully made (in spite of some painfully obvious edits), but it’s hard to classify as “good” or “bad”, because the movie defiantly exists on its own bizarro terms.

I do recommend checking this out, but you probably won’t be missing much if you wait for a rental. In any event, I strongly recommend against seeing this movie alone. This movie needs to be seen in a crowded theatre, or at least with friends and family; the better to help each other catch references, share in the jokes, and ask one another “Are you seeing this shit?!”