Fighting with My Family (2019)

Even though I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and Stephen Merchant’s dual credit as writer-director vouched for its quality, I did not expect to get much out of Fighting with My Family. WWE-produced content tends to have a slick, careful, personality-free approach to revisionist history when telling its own story, which usually prompts me to expect the eerie gloss of a Dianetics infomercial DVD rather than heartfelt cinema. Maybe it was that hyperactive skepticism that allowed me to have an intense, unexpected emotional reaction to this picture despite its unembarrassed commercialism and weakness for revisionist bullshit. This is the hardest I’ve laughed and the most I’ve cried in a movie I didn’t expect either from since 2017’s Power Rangers reboot (which was essentially a feature-length commercial for Krispy Kreme donuts). Aesthetically & craft-wise, Fighting with My Family feels like a poorly aged relic from the early aughts, a once-true story sanitized for wide commercial appeal. Yet, as an achievement in screenwriting, it’s a shockingly dirty, oddly inspiring rise-to-power story that somehow does the pro wrestler Paige’s early career & peculiar familial dynamic full justice, against all odds. The clash of its rowdy dialogue & commercial production sheen feels like an approximation of an R-rated Disney Chanel Original Movie – the exact kind of target audience grey area pro wrestling occupies in the real world.

Paige, born Saraya-Jade Bevis & originally wrestling under the ring name Britani Knight, is portrayed in this simplistic rise to power biopic by acting chameleon Florence Pugh (entirely unrecognizable from her breakout role in Lady Macbeth). Raised by professional wrestler parents (Nick Frost & Lena Headey), she was trained in the ring by her older brother as a family-supporting commodity, just like in any other clan of carnies. When she’s unexpectedly signed by the WWE to wrestle on international TV, Paige has to contend with two separate crises: one with her family and one with the outdated shape of the wrestling community’s inclusion of women. Her family is proud of her professional accomplishments, but also sad to see her go (along with the money she makes for their local promotion) and resentful that her wrestling fanatic brother was not also signed. As a pale mall-goth with a life-long pro wrestling fetish, she’s also at odds with how major promotions treated their female performers until recent years: as eye candy or, in her parlance, T&A. Paige’s major contribution to WWE, what makes her biopic worthy to fans in the wrestling community, is how her unconventional fashion choices & legitimate ring skills helped bring an end to WWE’s Divas era, where women were mostly hired as models & dancers to stir up fans’ libidos. She helped usher in the current so-called Women’s Revolution, where legitimate female performers from the indie circuit are being given an opportunity to wrestle in earnest. What makes Fighting with My Family impressive as a piece of writing, though, is that it never villainizes Paige’s family or the more conventional eye-candy babes she seeks to prove herself against. Nor does it let her off the hook for her shortcomings in handling these conflicts as a naive teen suddenly burdened with massive responsibilities. The movie offers empathy to every character its story touches while not at all shying away from their faults, which is just as important to its success as sketching out how influential Paige was in wrestling’s recent, gendered sea change.

Of course, anyone who’s already familiar with Paige’s WWE career should find plenty to chew on here while picking apart the film’s rearranged timeline & selective memory. Specifically, Paige’s career-ending injuries & backstage controversies are (smartly) excised here to make for a cleaner, more inspiring version of the truth. Yet, the movie surprisingly doesn’t shy away from including WWE pariah AJ Lee from the story of how Paige influenced a massive change within the Women’s Division, which Lee also had a major involvement in before she became a persona non grata within the company (although they do weirdly mischaracterize Lee here as an ex-model Bella-type instead of a fellow wrestling-nerd goth). For wrestling fans, these storytelling decisions (along with the company’s continued support & inclusion of Paige after her body gave out at a disturbingly young age) are an encouraging sign of changing times, and it feels great to see the upswing of that change reflected here in the context of Paige’s early-career accomplishments. I’d like to think Fighting with My Family works just as well for audiences who don’t care at all about wrestling, though. Stephen Merchant’s dialogue (and bit part cameo) is sharply funny. Paige’s familial dynamic as the sole breakout star in a clan of fame-starved wrestling carnies is objectively fascinating (and well-performed by Pugh). The film also makes a genuine effort to convey pro wrestling’s artistic & emotional appeal – both on the scale of communal VFW hall events and on the global stage of the WWE. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have as emotional of a reaction to the film as I did – both because of my personal interest in women’s pro wrestling and because I’m generally an emotional wreck. However, I can at least testify to the movie achieving far more than you would typically expect from something so aesthetically unassuming, given its cheesy guitar-riff soundtrack & Disney Channel sheen. The strengths of Merchant’s writing instincts & Pugh’s fully-committed performance are likely to catch you off-guard in tandem, forming one superb tag team.

-Brandon Ledet

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

hobbit

three star

campstamp

In the most basic sense The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sequel that no one was clamoring for. Even the star of Snow White & The Huntsman, my beloved Kristen Stewart, declined to return for this second installment of a franchise practically no one loves. This film’s lack of critical hype or a vocal fandom was a little isolating for me, since I was actually a fairly solid fan of the much forgotten original film. As a low-key fantasy epic that called back to mid-80s productions like LegendLabyrinth, and Ladyhawke, I found Snow White & The Huntsman to be a mostly satisfying experience. What really stood out, though, was the film’s visual flourishes, which bathed a wicked queen played by Charlize Theron in a milky white porcelain & transformed the evil mirror of Snow White folklore into a menacing humanoid made of dripping gold. In this way The Huntsman: Winter’s War could be understood as being simply more of the same. Anyone who brushed off Snow White & The Huntsman as a dull trifle (most people, I’m assuming) isn’t going to be won over or blown away by what they find in Winter’s War. However, fans of the original’s familiar fantasy realm setting & surprising knack for striking visuals in its villainy are likely to be pleased by the franchise’s years-late return. I was, anyway.

A ludicrously belabored, heavy-handed prologue narrated by Liam Neeson asks the question “What does a mirror show you? What do you see?” The answer is clips from Snow White & The Huntsman, apparently. It’s probably not a good sign that this late in the game follow-up feels the need to remind its audience that it’s not an original property, but I found myself entertained by the film’s strained way of setting up its own Kristen Stewart-free narrative. The prologue is so long & unwieldy that it feels as if Neeson is reading a decades-spanning bedtime story, which is far from the worst effect for a fairy tale, all things considered. By the time the setup is over with, Winter’s War simultaneously functions as a prequel and a sequel, retroactively introducing new characters into its already-established mythology so that it has a place to go in Snow White’s absence. I’m not sure knowing the exact plot of this film’s silly middle ground between Lord of the Rings & Game of Thrones is all that necessary for you to understand what you’re getting into. Winter’s War more or less boils down to a CG action adventure about opposing kingdoms’ quest to obtain & command the evil mirror of the first film, which looks like some kind of all-powerful golden gong. It just so happens that the monarchs of those kingdoms are both badass women.

Besides its undeniable knack for visual effects, Winter’s War mostly finds entertainment value in the strength of its casting. Charlize Theron returns as the golden evil queen of the first film, but this time she’s joined by a (somehow previously unmentioned) sister, played by Emily Blunt (hot off the heels of her roles in Sicario & Edge of Tomorrow). Here, Blunt plays a CG-aided Ice Queen who staffs her tundra-set fortress of solitude with a ferocious army of children she raises to be loveless killers. She trains these tiny tyke murderers to believe that “Love is a lie. It is a trick,” establishing her sole governing rule to be “Do not love. It’s a sin. I will not forgive it.” And, wouldn’t you know it, two of her miniature killing machines grow up to fall in love. One of them is America’s hunky but dim foreigner boyfriend Chris Hemsworth, returning from the first film, and he’s romantically paired with Fellow Beautiful Person Jessica Chastain. The two leads essentially live out a feature-length version of the ridiculous fight-flirting scene from Daredevil, interspersed with their attempts to thwart two evil queens from gaining the ultimate power represented in the mirror by destroying a litany of faceless foot soldiers with their gorgeous weaponry of golden liquids & CG ice shards. Edgar Wright’s pet doofus Nick Frost returns as a CG dwarf to offer some comic relief, but the less I say about that the better.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts three badass women as its leads along with stunningly gorgeous costumes & visual effects, but is hopelessly saddled with goofy everything else. For every brilliant idea in its visual play (like a white porcelain version of the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans), there’s something equally silly waiting to drag down its artistic clout (like an early scene that depicts the most blatantly overwrought “You thought this was just a game?” chess match metaphor I’ve ever seen in my life). I might be the only person in the world who regrets not seeing this ridiculous display play out on the big screen, but I do believe with a little push in a more extreme direction, either towards more over-the-top camp in the performances or some R-rated gore in its fantasy violence, this film & its predecessor could have serious cult following potential. As is, you have to appreciate them for their low-key fantasy realm charm, the absurdity of their surprisingly game cast, and the perfume commercial menace of their imagery to buy what they’re selling. Personally, I’m a sucker for all three.

-Brandon Ledet