Fighting with My Family

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

Director: Stephen Merchant

Writer: Stephen Merchant


Cinema has seen some truly spectacular boxing movies over the years (Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, the list goes on), but not so much with pro wrestling (the only notable example that comes to mind for me is Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). I think this is reflective of a certain perception (some might call it snobbery) that views boxing as a more valid and prestigious sport whereas wrestling is dismissed as inauthentic and silly. While the latter certainly has its very passionate fanbase, I do think a lot of people look down on wrestling for what they see as fakery even though, as stressed in this new film, there is a marked difference between a sport being fixed and fake. Fighting with My Family follows GLOW, a criminally underrated Netflix show about female pro wrestling, in the recent tradition of media that have found more to the sport than what people typically dismiss. It tells the story of a young woman whose dream is to become a WWE champion and of the blood, toil, tears and sweat that got her there. It’s a comedy film and it’s really more about family than it is wrestling, but what stood out the most for me was the film’s utterly sincere and wholehearted regard for pro wrestling both in its demanding athleticism and its unabashed theatricality.

Based on a true story that became the basis of a similarly titled documentary in 2012, Fighting with My Family tells the story of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), a young girl from a wrestling family in Norwich who would go on to become Paige, a world-famous WWE champion. All her life, having been raised by her wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) and been taught to fight since as soon as she could walk, she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have only ever had one dream, to make it in the big leagues in the USA. Together as a family they run a local wrestling ring where they put on fights and train the local youth (including a blind boy) in the sport they all love so dearly. When the siblings are invited to London to audition for the WWE, it looks like the stars are aligning and the chance has come for them to realise their dreams together. Only that’s not quite how it works out. Hutch (Vince Vaughn), the talent scout and trainer they must impress, picks Paige (the stage name Saraya has picked after her favourite character on Charmed) to advance to the next stage, a wrestling boot camp in Florida, while her brother is sent home. All on her own in a foreign country, her quest for wrestling stardom pushes Paige to the very brink of her physical and emotional limits.

As far as Paige’s story goes, Fighting with My Family is a fairly typical sports film. From day one of her training she is presented to us as an outcast amongst her American peers. As well as being a working-class Brit, Paige favours a Gothic appearance complete with dyed black hair and facial piercings which clashes with the blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders she gets paired with and her anxieties lead her to lash out against them. Not only is she inconsolably lonely, she is also burdened by the guilt she feels for having been chosen for this once in a lifetime opportunity over the brother whom she felt deserved it more as well as a pathological fear of blowing her shot and letting her loved ones down. The pressure she feels couldn’t be more unbearable, except she also has a harsh and unsympathetic trainer pushing her all the harder because he apparently sees something in her that she is unable to see in herself. The film walks a fine line between having Paige as enough of an underdog that we naturally root for her to succeed and having her be flawed enough that she needs to grow up before she can win her climatic triumph. Part of what makes her an outcast, for example, is her derision for her fellow trainees whom she doesn’t see as real wrestlers, a bias that she overcomes by the end of the film when she eventually befriends the women and realises that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her.

The movie isn’t just about Paige overcoming the obstacles and winning, it’s also about her search for identity, which is the part of the story that I found to be the most lacking in development and substance. This is connected to the aspect of wrestling that many often find to be off-putting, the soap-opera-like performance of it all. The idea, as this film puts it, is to create a character with something personal and unique to say and to use the ring as a platform to tell their stories. Paige, for whom wrestling has always been a family affair, has to decide once and for all who she really is beyond that context and what it is she wants to say for herself. Pugh is certainly to be commended for the grit, humour and determinism she brings to the role, but for a film that places so much weight on the need for Paige to build a persona that is hers and hers alone, that aspect of her journey doesn’t get the focus it demands, leading to a payoff that feels more clichéd than earned. It’s my understanding that the real-life Paige was a truly groundbreaking figure in pro wrestling, a woman who lived and breathed wrestling in a world where female competitors seldom came from a wrestling background. I hoped the film would depict a more personality-driven story that delved more into how Saraya actually became Paige, but the films instead leans more on the physical challenge she faces, just like the countless sports movies that came before.

Still, as I said before, this isn’t really a movie about wrestling, it’s actually about family. The moments when Paige is with her parents and brother are when the film is at its most enjoyable and touching. The film dedicates a surprising amount of time and nuance towards the parallel struggle of Zak, who is made to reckon with the cruel revelation that he is simply not good enough to make his greatest dream a reality. Sports films are often so ready to celebrate the hero’s victories that many of them tend not to dwell too much on their failures and what it really means when you’re not a main character destined for glory. Zak is so crushed by the harshness of his rejection, the loss of his drive and ambition and the sense of unfairness clouding it all that he finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into a dark pit of resentment and thwarted dreams that threatens to consume him. Offering a lighter touch are Frost and Headey playing as the parents, essentially a pair of overgrown children who love what they do, are always up for a laugh, but who are ready to offer a helping hand and words of profane wisdom when it’s needed. The film also features an extended cameo by Dwayne Johnson, who is always a delight even when his appearance feels inescapably gimmicky. Like its main character, Fighting with My Family is flawed and a little rough around the edges, but it’s also funny, charming, and a pretty good time when all is said and done.

★★★★

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Rampage

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello

Director: Brad Peyton

Writers: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel


There is a fine line between a dumb movie done well and a dumb movie done badly. This isn’t quite the same as a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie, where the entertainment value is there in spite of the movie’s faults. This rather refers to those movies that know full well how inherently stupid their concepts are and that decide to embrace them wholeheartedly. This isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card though, just because a movie is dumb and knows it doesn’t mean it gets to be lazy, awful or insulting. It is instead a licence to get creative, have some fun, and turn a silly idea into something unique, watchable, and entertaining. That’s how we get movies like Face/Off and Snakes on a Plane; movies that nobody would consider ‘great’, but are just so damn fun to watch. They’re the cinematic equivalent of fast food. You know that it’s trash, but it still tastes good.

There is, however, a standard. Even though what I want from this movie more than anything else is to watch giant mutant monsters beat the shit out of each other (I’m only human after all), I still expect it hold my interest at least on a visceral level, to display some kind of personality in its characters and style, and to demonstrate some degree of competence and effort. There is a difference between a dumb movie that indulges its own ridiculousness and a movie that falls victim to it (e.g. Batman & Robin and Wild, Wild West). In the pantheon of dumb modern Hollywood monster movies, Rampage falls somewhere between Pacific Rim and the 1998 Godzilla. It doesn’t have the creativity and heart of the former but it does possess the charm and thrill that the latter lacked. It also never tries to be more than it is, meaning that it lacks the poetry of the 2014 Godzilla but it does escape the political incoherence of Kong: Skull Island. It is the comfortable middle ground that makes for a fun, campy movie which never bores or frustrates, but which also never surprises or astonishes.

Rampage features Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a Dwayne-Johnson-ish ex-soldier turned primatologist. He works at San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary where he finds that he prefers the company of animals to people. His best friend is George the albino gorilla, whom Davis rescued from poachers and has since raised and taught to communicate through sign language. After an experiment in a space laboratory goes awry and leads to the station’s destruction, samples of the pathogen being developed fall to Earth with the debris and infect three animals: a Florida crocodile, a grey wolf in the Rocky Mountains, and George. This causes all three to mutate and become more aggressive. As Davis tries to understand why George is growing larger and lashing out, he is approached by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris), a genetic engineer who worked on this project for Energyne until she was dismissed for objecting to their plans to develop the pathogen as a biological weapon. The diabolical CEO of Energyne Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her nitwit brother Brett (Jake Lacy), realising what has happened, decide to lure the three creatures to Chicago by emitting a signal from their headquarters so that they might capture one of them. Chaos ensues.

To say this is not the cleverest of plots would be charitable. The scheme hatched by the two nefarious corporate villains, one of whom we’re supposed to believe is actually quite competent and cunning, is beyond stupid. This is a ‘hold my beer and watch this’ kind of stupid we’re talking about. It’s an ‘invade Russia in the middle of winter’ kind of stupid. It’s a ‘their mothers are both called Martha’ kind of stupid. But the movie is perfectly aware of the idiocy of their scheme and more or less hopes that we’ll roll with it and accept the Wydens for the cartoon villains that they are. Anyway the three beasts are drawn by the signal and make for Chicago, leaving behind a trail of destruction as they go. All attempts to combat and contain the, including a guerrilla operation led by pro commando Burke (Joe Manganiello) fail. Instead it is up to Davis, Kate, and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to reach George and try to save him.

The most appealing thing about this movie is how perfectly content it is to be nothing more and nothing less than a monster-buddy movie starring The Rock and a giant ape. Johnson, one of the few honest-to-god movie stars working in Hollywood today, is his usual charming, badass self and he gets to share his screen time with a CGI gorilla played by Jason Liles with whom he forms a surprisingly likeable duo. There is a clear sense of affection and familiarity in their hand-signed back-and-forths as they reminisce on shared experiences and tell dirty jokes. In fact George, by virtue of having a fully formed personality, is much more human than many of the human characters. Davis certainly hasn’t got very much character beyond that which Johnson naturally brings to all his roles. Still, that’s all you need if all you want is to watch Dwayne Johnson and King Kong battle a giant CGI wolf and alligator. The action is exactly what you want it to be, pitting three larger-than-life monsters in an epic battle royale complete with toppling buildings and explosions and throwing a larger-than-life action star in for good measure.

Those who came for the fireworks though will find that they have to be patient in the scenes that come in between. Some scenes deal with the budding romance between Davis and Dr. Kate which, despite Harris’ best efforts, feels as hollow and obligatory as it is. There is one moment where Kate shares the details of her backstory, which is supposed to draw parallels between herself and Davis in his attempt to rescue a loved one, but the emotional depth they’re going for feels far too forced and flat in a film that relishes in its mostly empty spectacle. The Wydens meanwhile are both paper-thin villains and although the movie is perfectly aware of that, their sheer transparency and incompetence make them rather tiresome. Still I like that the movie is under no illusion over what walking, talking clichés they are to the point that the corny comic book dialogue they’re given almost feels natural in their straight-faced deliveries. “There’s a reason we did our research on a space station” says one, “and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity”. The one human character who nails that perfect balance of being goofy and enjoyable is Morgan’s Agent Russell. He brings so much eccentricity, swagger and charisma to what should have been a forgettable, generic character that you cannot help but be fascinated by the guy.

Rampage is the movie that it is and the movie that it promises to be. You can either take it or leave it. It is the perfect example of a dumb movie that knows exactly how dumb it is and that never apologises for it. However the inevitable downside of watching a movie that is exactly what you expect it to be, even if what you expect is exactly what you want, is that the movie will never surprise you or challenge you. Rampage unfolds and ends more or less how you think it will and, while getting there is fun enough, it doesn’t blow you away the way that a great action movie should. It’s fine if all you want is to switch your brain off for a couple of hours but this isn’t a movie that will capture your imagination and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Again, it’s like fast food. It’s cheap, it’s adequate, and it’s convenient. Rampage gives you your fill and as soon you’re done you move on.

★★★

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Jake Kasdan

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner


It’s been years since I’ve watched the original 1995 Jumanji with Robin Williams, but I remember it well enough. It was a fun movie with an original concept and in the years since I never felt like it warranted a sequel. What’s interesting about this new movie though is that it isn’t clear whether it is a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or whatever else Hollywood is making these days. You could watch this film and never know that there was another movie released two decades prior. I’m not even sure if the film was originally conceived as a Jumanji sequel; I would have no trouble imagining a scenario where one of the screenwriters envisioned a movie about teenagers getting sucked into a video game, upon which someone at the studio, realising they owned the rights to Jumanji, attached the name to the property so that they might profit from Hollywood’s obsession with recognised brands. Maybe that isn’t the case at all, but what impressed about this Jumanji sequel/remake/reboot was how well it stood on its own two feet.

The movie starts off in a high school where nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), introverted teen Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), and Queen Bee Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), all end up in detention together. In the middle of the mess they must sort out they find a dusty 90s video game console with a cartridge for a Jumanji game attached. They decide to have a quick go, pick their characters, and are then suddenly sucked into the game. They find themselves in a virtual jungle where they have taken the forms of their avatars. Spencer is now the tough and muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is the short and feeble Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is the athletic and beautiful Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and Bethany is the male, overweight, middle-aged Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Realising they have been transported into the video game and that the most likely way out is to complete all the levels, they set out to obtain a stolen jewel called the Jaguar’s Eye and return it to its rightful place before the evil Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) can get his hands on it.

The body-switching trope of having these Hollywood stars play these teenagers is one that could have gotten old rather quickly if not for the commitment each star gives their role and the movie’s understanding of their character’s anxieties and insecurities. As far as teenage characters go, these ones are not as fleshed out as those in The Breakfast Club (or Power Rangers to give a more recent example) but they suffice for what is after all meant to be a fun action/adventure blockbuster. Dwayne Johnson playing a scrawny, nerdy guy who cannot believe that he now has The Rock’s body works very well, as does casting a great physical comedy actor like Jack Black as a vain, smartphone-addicted teenage girl. Kevin Hart does what he does and gets some laughs and Karen Gillan has some fun as a socially awkward girl who doesn’t feel at all comfortable in a slim body with skimpy clothing, but I do wish the movie had done more to challenge the stereotypes that she is mostly perpetuating. Still, these actors all play their roles so earnestly that it never feels like just a gimmick. There were definitely a few moments there when I actually believed that Jack Black was a teenage girl.

The action/adventure aspect is, I would say, serviceable. It does what it’s meant to do well enough. The story follows a simple video-game structure where the characters have to get through certain levels to get to their objective and along the way they’re able to learn the mechanics of the game such as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective avatars and how many lives they each have. Along the way they overcome obstacles and battle faceless henchmen and a generic villain (whether this is a meta comment on video games or just a typical Hollywood trope, I cannot tell), and in between they have some individual character moments, both comic and (sort of) dramatic. The action scenes are shot well enough that you never lose sight of where everyone is or what is happening, but at the same time you never really feel like the characters are ever in that much danger. It’s a given that these characters will all make it home in the end, so any sense of drama or suspense has to stem from their individual arcs and I didn’t find enough there for me to really invest myself in their survival. Unlike Power Rangers which made a huge effort to give its characters complex personalities and tough, relatable problems, the arcs for these characters feel pretty thin and easily solved in comparison. It isn’t bad, merely serviceable.

The movie is at its best when it’s focusing on the stars and letting them have some fun. Standout moments include Black strutting around and flaunting his chubby physique as he instructs Gillan in the art of sexiness and seduction and also Johnson slipping into his expression of smouldering intensity anytime someone says “smouldering intensity”. This movie didn’t have to be great in order to cash in on the Jumanji name, but it’s clear that a lot of thought went into this film to make it more creative and surprising than it needed to be. That the movie never once resorted to cheap, empty intertextuality, by which I mean relying on the recognisable brand of the Robin Williams film as a substitute for thrills and drama, is to be applauded. This sequel/remake/reboot did its own thing and it worked out fine. The actors are all clearly giving their best and having a ball playing these characters and it is their charm and sincerity that kept me through to the end even when the concept and action started to wear thin.

★★★

Moana

Cast: (voiced by) Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

Writer: Jared Bush


Whenever Disney makes a fairy tale, they have a formula they like to follow. It’s one that’s been around since Snow White was first made and it’s one that they’ve consistently used because (a) it’s recognisable and (b) it works. The protagonist is usually a heroine (often a princess) who is unsure about her place in the world and is searching for something. She will have an animal sidekick who helps out along the way while providing some laughs. The adventure she embarks upon will involve music and magic and oftentimes she will find love along the way. At the end there will be an evil that must be overcome or defeated and then the characters will live happily ever after. The formula is always there, but Disney’s genius is in its ability to introduce a spin or some new elements to their stories that distract us from the formula. Moana is a good, enjoyable film with likeable characters, great music and superb animation, but it is also one of Disney’s more formulaic films.

Moana is the daughter of Chief Tua Waialiki of the Polynesian island of Motunui and is destined to become the tribe’s first female chief. As an infant she was bestowed with an ancient artefact by the ocean, a sign that she had been chosen to fulfil some great destiny. Moana thus grows up with a thirst for adventure and yearns to explore the ocean and see what is out there. Her people however believe that the island provides them with everything that they need and so they are forbidden to venture beyond the reef, even when the sudden scarcity of fish and failure of the crops threatens to famish them. Moana learns that this blight is the result of an ancient darkness released by the mythical hero Maui when he stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. It is up to her to take the heart that was given to her by the ocean and find Maui so that he might return it to where it belongs. To do this she must sail the depths the ocean, as her ancestors had long before her, and venture into the unknown.

The film, to its credit, does not exactly follow the Disney formula beat for beat. There is, for example, no love interest. Also Moana, strictly speaking, is not a princess (even though, as Maui points out, she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick). Most of the formulaic elements that are present, (the spirited heroine, the closed-minded father, the comedic sidekick, the obnoxious but loveable hero, the moment of doubt and failure that comes before the moment of triumph) the film does well. The issue is that I was thinking about this formula the entire time I was watching this film because there weren’t any substantial departures or twists to make me feel like Disney was really trying something new. Frozen did this by placing its main focus on the relationship between the two sisters. The Lion King did it by departing the familiar children’s fables and instead adapting a Shakespearian tale of madness, deceit and revenge. Moana has a new setting and some new characters, but the story is one Disney has told before. Even though I enjoyed the film a good deal, I was acutely aware that the film was going through the motions much of the time.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy. Moana, portrayed convincingly by newcomer and native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho, is a likeable protagonist and is certainly one of Disney’s most active princesses. Dwayne Johnson brings a wealth of charisma and swagger to the role of Maui. The animation, as always, is stunning, especially at the beginning when Moana first discovers the ocean and at the end after the great evil is defeated. The music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose Hamilton soundtrack has recently become an obsession of mine) is both memorable and distinctive from what Disney has done before. Much praise has been given to ‘How Far I’ll Go’, which some have predicted will become the next ‘Let It Go’, but my favourite track was ‘We Know the Way’, which plays when Moana learns about her ancestry. The story itself flows well for the most part, but there is one very strange scene involving a giant crab that kind of comes out of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly call it a bad scene or anything; it’s just… strange.

Those who watch this film looking for a fun, exciting, amusing, pleasant Disney film that the entire family can enjoy will get exactly that. Personally though, with the standard that Disney has set in the last few years, I’d have liked to see a film that took a few more risks and held a few more surprises like Zootropolis. I think that most people who watch this film will be able to predict how exactly it will play out, but whether or not that’s a bad thing will depend on the viewer. There is little in this film that I can fault, my only real grievance is that I don’t think there was enough introduced to the story that could allow it to stand on its own amongst the other movies that Disney has produced. Still, it is to be sure a wonderfully animated, well told, characteristically Disney film that will please kids, grown-ups and die-hard Disney fans.

★★★★

San Andreas

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue

Director: Brad Peyton

Writer: Carlton Cuse


This is the kind of film I usually find difficult to review because I’m never sure what to say about them. I walked into San Andreas expecting to see a mildly entertaining blockbuster with decent visuals but very little in the way of characters and story and that is exactly what I got. I have little more to say about it beyond that because this film did very little for me. In all honesty I’ve barely even thought about it since watching it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I disliked it. I think that San Andreas is fine for what it is and will please any viewer looking for a simple summer blockbuster to entertain them for a couple of hours. I did watch the film in IMAX (the first such occasion for me) and certainly found the visuals to be impressive. However I didn’t really feel that the film was any sort of an experience for me in the way that a more dynamic and technically realised film such as Gravity might have been. All the same I have a review to write and a word count to meet so I’ll attempt to discuss this film in greater depth and provide more of an idea of what one can expect from it.

The film follows Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter-rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department whose personal life is falling apart. His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is leaving him, his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is about to head off for college, and he is haunted by his own guilt for a traumatising event in his past. Meanwhile the seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) makes a groundbreaking discovery in earthquake prediction only to discover that the San Andreas Fault is about to experience an earthquake of catastrophic proportions. When the earthquake hits Ray sets out to save his wife and daughter from the destruction while they attempt to stay alive long enough for him to reach them.

This film hits all of the usual notes commonly associated with disaster films. It contains so many of the tropes and clichés we’ve all come to expect from them that within 15 minutes I was completely convinced that I was watching a Roland Emmerich film (seriously, I was frantically scanning the credits trying to find his name). Like many of its predecessors San Andreas is rife with massive feats of earthly destruction while one-note main characters are able to survive by the virtue of being main characters. The film contains many examples of characters running for their lives while the ground literally crumbles right behind them, convenient coincidences and instances of pure luck that allow the main characters to survive and nameless, faceless people indiscriminately falling victim to the devastation of the earthquake in order to provide the film with a body count. Thus what this film provides should be thrilling and entertaining enough to satisfy its audience. The real problem is that of engagement and investment. The characters simply aren’t very interesting or relatable and rooting for them seems redundant since we already know that they’re going to survive.

The visuals in this film are stunning and anyone who enjoys mass destruction in their films will not be disappointed. It is over the top, like so many other films in this genre are, but is not excessively so nor does it strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief beyond reason in the way that I felt 2012 did. San Andreas knows what kind of film it wants to be and, for the most part, fulfils its purpose. Every now and then it attempts (and fails) to throw in some character development but is otherwise a safe, generic action film. The one aspect that I felt really stood out was Paul Giamatti who gave a very decent performance and was really able to sell the film’s Hollywood ‘science’. Of all the characters in the film his is the only one that I actually remember displaying a personality. Dwayne Johnson also does a good job of doing what he does best, being Dwayne Johnson.

There really isn’t much else to say about San Andreas. Anyone who walks into this film expecting to see anything more than a standard action film will be disappointed. This film aspires only to entertain and thrill its audience for a couple of hours, nothing more and nothing less. In that department it does well enough. Anyone willing to suspend their disbelief and not think too much while watching this film should find it sufficient. Applying logic or rational thought to this film could lead one to ask how many innocent people died as a result of Dwayne Johnson’s character abandoning his duties to save his family, a question that has no place in this film. This film is thrilling, mindless and safe and that’s just the way it likes it. I’ve given the film quite a low rating because it didn’t do very much for me, but this film will definitely have an audience and they should like it just fine.

★★