Wrestling With My Family


Chilling in the squared circle.

(2019) Sports Biography (MGM/United ArtistsFlorence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Kimberly Matula, Stephen Merchant, Chloe Csengery, Aqueela Zoll, Paul Wight, Eli Jane, Julia Davis, Stephen Farrelly, Hannah Rae, Theia Trinidad, Helena Holmes, Josh Myers, Thomas Whilley, Tori Ross, John Cena, Ellie Gonsalves. Directed by Stephen Merchant

 

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I thought it looked like a glorified recruitment video for the WWE – and it is. What I didn’t expect was that the movie would be as funny as it was and have the heart that it did. Then, I noticed that it was directed by Stephen Merchant, one of the co-creators of the original British The Office.

Based on the true story of the WWE wrestler Paige (real name: Saraya-Jade Bevis), it shows her formative years as a young wrestler (Pugh) in the family’s low-rent British wrestling promotion based in their home town of Norwich, the Mustard capital of England (we critics are required to know such things). She and her brother Zak (Lowden) have dreams of making it in the big leagues – World Wrestling Entertainment – and are encouraged by their ex-con turned grappler dad (Frost) and recovering ex-junkie mum (Headey).

When a WWE Scout (Vaughn) offers the two of them a try-out, it seems like their dreams will come true, but that’s quickly dashed when they offer a spot to Saraya – but not Zak. She’s loathe to go by herself but is eventually convinced to and she heads out to Orlando to the WWE training center there. Unsure whether she is living out her dream or her family’s, she struggles under the pressure but this is a movie after all, so you just know it’s going to end well.

Even armed with that foreknowledge, it’s surprising how much heart the movie has and that’s a tribute to the cast. Even Dwayne Johnson, the executive producer for the movie who recruited Merchant (who co-starred with him in The Tooth Fairy) to write and direct the film after seeing a documentary on Paige/Saraya in his hotel room while working in the UK, gets a little bit inspirational playing the Rock as an extension of himself. And, yes, the movie does seem to insinuate that if you work hard enough and have the “it” factor, you can come out of nowhere and become a WWE champion based on talent alone – which isn’t how it really works in anything, let alone professional wrestling – you still find yourself getting hit in all the feels. Yeah, it ignores the scripted nature of sports entertainment but nonetheless it will leave you with the warm fuzzies when it’s all over.

REASONS TO SEE: Pugh does a terrific job. Shows unexpected humor and heart.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably won’t appeal to non-wrestling fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some crude language including sexual references, violence, and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Paige was forced to retire from the ring in 2018 due to a neck injury.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Peanut Butter Falcon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Root of the Problem

The Girl in the Spider’s Web


Lisabeth is not someone you want to cross.

(2018) Suspense (MGM/ColumbiaClaire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Beau Gadsdon, Carlotta van Falkenhayn, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Convery, Claes Bang, Synnøve Macody Lund, Cameron Britton, Vicky Krieps, Andreja Pejic, Mikael Persbrandt, Thomas Wingrich, Andreas Tietz, Paula Schramm. Directed by Fede Alvarez

One of the most intriguing literary characters to come along in the last fifteen years is Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel/hacker/righter of wrongs/badass from Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy and the David Lagerkrantz novels that succeeded it after Larson’s death. While the Swedish Millennium films ended up being massive art house hits, the two big budget attempts from MGM/Columbia both flopped. It wasn’t because of the lead actresses.

Lisbeth Salander (Foy) is living off the grid, using her uncanny computer skills to help out a security firm. In her spare time, she punishes the abusers of women, as she herself was a victim of sexual abuse from both her father and her guardian. It’s enough to make you hate men – and I’m a man!

She get involved with a remorseful computer programmer (Merchant) who wants her to steal his program from the American military, which will gain too much power from it. She is assisted by an NSA agent (Stanfield), crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnason) and fellow hacker Plague (Britton). Opposing her are the Spiders, a global criminal gang and one of their finest operatives (Hoeks) – who happens to be Lisbeth’s sister.

There is definitely some post-feminist anger deep in the DNA of this series and Alvarez manages to capture it without blunting its impact too much. The veteran horror director also proves he’s no slouch with action sequences, including a thrilling motorcycle chase. Alvarez has a very strong visual style – the white and grey of a Swedish winter is juxtaposed with the bright red attire of the Spider Queen.

Sadly, neither this film – a “soft reboot” of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – nor its predecessor measure up to the Swedish trilogy. Maybe Hollywood just doesn’t get the subtleties that make the Swedish versions superior; sometimes, a big budget is actually detrimental to a film. That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie – it’s certainly entertaining, and Foy does a magnificent job. It’s just not as high-quality by comparison.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-staged action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Neither American film holds a candle to the Swedish film series and Noomi Rapace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stieg Larson, who created the Millennium series of novels, originally planned for ten books in the series but passed away in 2004 after writing only three. His partner Eva Gabrielson has possession of his notes outlining the remaining books, but because they were never married the literary rights passed to his father and brother. With both sides unable to agree on what direction the series was to take, the family commissioned writer David Lagerkrantz to continue the series. This book is based on his first effort, the fourth official book in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Gelateria

New Releases for the Week of March 3, 2017


LoganLOGAN

(20th Century Fox/Marvel) Hugh Jackman, Sir Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle, Stephen Merchant. Directed by James Mangold

It is the near future and humans are winning the war against mutants. Logan, bone-weary and battle scarred, is hiding out on the Mexican border where he is caring for an ailing Charles Xavier. Everything changes however when a young mutant with a very personal connection to Wolverine finds them – a young girl who is also being pursued by some very bad men. The legendary mutant may have to do battle for one last time to save a young girl and perhaps, to save the mutants that are left.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity)

A United Kingdom

(Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport. In 1947 Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Botswana, is attending university in England when he meets a young and beautiful office worker named Ruth Williams. They fall deeply in love and Khama intends to take her as his bride but both the British and South African governments object. South Africa is just implementing their apartheid policy and don’t want a neighboring country to have a black King with a white bride and since Britain needs the resources from South Africa they choose to side with him. Since Botswana is a British colony, they order that Seretse be exiled and parted from his bride. The two must overcome incredible odds to return to the country they have both come to love and that Seretse yearns to rule.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Romance
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for violence and disturbing images

Before I Fall

(Open Road) Zoey Deutch, Liv Hewson, Jennifer Beals, Logan Miller. A pretty high school senior has it all; cute boys, great friends and is invited to all the right parties. All that changes though when she is forced to relive the worst day of her life over and over and over again. Think Groundhog’s Day for young adults – without the comedy.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Teen Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images and language – all involving teens)

The Shack

(Summit) Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga. A family vacation turns into tragedy for a young family. The father is particularly devastated, pushing away those who love him. His crisis of faith will lead him to an isolated cabin deep in the Oregon woods and face to face with a woman named Papa who may have the answers to those questions that are tearing him apart.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence, some suggestive content, rude humor and thematic elements)

Table 19

(Fox Searchlight) Anna Kendrick, Steven Merchant, Margo Martindale, Lisa Kudrow. Once upon a time the maid of honor at her longtime best friend’s wedding, Eloise is dumped via text by the jerkwad of a best man. Determined to be at the wedding of her friend, she is exiled to the table in the back with all the other people who were not expected to show up – but were expected to get a gift. Unexpectedly, these complete strangers bond over their mutual unsuitability and end up having the time of their lives.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity)

XX

(Magnet) Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Casey Adams, Christina Kirk. Here is a different look at the horror anthology as four respected directors – all of whom are women – take on four distinctly out of the box (pun intended) points of view on four bewitching tales of terror.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Anthology
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Friday and Saturday midnight showings only)

Rating: R (for horror violence, language and brief drug use)

Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner