‘Fighting with My Family’ Review

Director: Stephen Merchant

Writer: Stephen Merchant

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

Synopsis: A former wrestler and his family make a living performing at small venues around the country while his kids dream of joining World Wrestling Entertainment

*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

Based on the true story of WWE superstar Paige, real name Saraya-Jade Bevis, Stephen Merchant and producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took inspiration from Paige’s real life and the documentary series about Paige’s family to make Fighting with My Family. Being a wrestling nerd myself, I have been looking forward to this since it was announced, and hearing the good word of mouth, I was fully ready to really enjoy the film. That said, whether or not you know Paige’s story or not, you’ll walk out appreciating the journey.

The film follows Saraya (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) Knight who have been training as professional wrestlers since they were kids by their wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey). Their dream? Going to the WWE, and eventually they get a call to try-out for them, and head to WWE’s developmental program, NXT. However, when Saraya is chosen over Zak, Saraya goes to Orlando to begin her training and Zak has to stay behind to figure out what do now that his dream can no longer be achieved. Paige’s underdog story then begins through trials and tribulations.

Fighting with My Family has your basic underdog sports formula we’ve seen before, expect this time it’s done through pro wrestling. Paige wrestles – pun intended – with being different around the other potential contenders, dealing with the drama with her brother and eventually reaching the dream she wanted in the grandest way possible. This isn’t necessarily a negative toward the film, considering it is what you expect in this kind of story, but it is just a bit of a shame that Merchant went the formulaic route.

That goes double considering Paige’s story is much more than what we get onscreen. Again, being a wrestling nerd and knowing her story, it was a shame to see some things taken out or completely ignored. Of course, that’s not to say that everything in the movie is a lie. It is still Saraya’s story, but having her just be dropped into the crazy world of the WWE is far from what happened.

Regardless of all that, Fighting with My Family is still very good, and most of that comes from the cast. Merchant puts the weight of the movie squarely on Pugh’s shoulders and she carries it with ease. She’s able to bring everything the story requires from the drama, to the humor to even some for the ring work she was allowed to do. Jack Lowden as Zak is equally great, and the chemistry he and Pugh have is fantastic, and makes the two easily believable and easy to root for that we become almost immediately invested in both of their journeys.

Supporting role wise, I wish we had seen a little more of both Nick Frost and Lena Headey. They’re in it enough for the story the film is trying to tell, but still having those two in your movie, and not having them in it a little more is a bit of a bummer. Vince Vaughn’s Hutch Morgan – a combination of different people like Norman Smiley, Dr. Tom Prichard and Bill DeMott, at least according to Paige – balances the line between a hard-nosed, nonsense coach and giving Saraya enough to motivate her, but still being a hardass. Finally, for those worried that Dwayne Johnson would overtake the film, don’t worry, he’s only in about three or four scenes, and we’ve seen most of them in the trailers and TV ads.

All in all, Fighting with My Family is an underdog story we’ve seen before but in a different sport that most people have either fallen out of love with or still follow to this day. That said, Stephen Merchant’s direction and balance of drama and humor is spot on, plus the cast keep you invested from start to finish.

Fighting with My Family

3.5 out of 5

‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Review

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Director: Burr Steers

Writer: Burr Steers

Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Philips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Matt Smith, and Lena Headey

Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge – and army of undead zombies.

 

*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*

*Reviewer Note 2: There is a very short scene in the middle of the credits*

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has had a very troubled and long production. Natalie Portman was originally set to star until she dropped out because of scheduling conflicts – although she stayed on as a producer – and David O. Russell was going to direct until he dropped out due to scheduling conflicts as well. Lily Collins was then going to replace Portman but turned it down, and then the studio landed on Burr Steers to finally direct. What we finally ended up getting was a better than expected adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s take on Jane Austen’s classic story of “Pride and Prejudice.” Of course, one has to get over the concept that zombies are added into a classic novel, and if you can get over that, then you’ll enjoy the film a hell of a lot more.

Just like the original – the Jane Austen story – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set in 19th century England and places its focus on Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters: Jane (Heathcote), Lydia (Bamber), Mary (Brady), and Kitty (Waterhouse). Their mother, played by Sally Phillips, is determined to find them wealthy and eligible suitors so they can get married, since once their father dies, they get nothing. Of course, Elizabeth is very independent and headstrong with little to no interest in giving up her swords and martial arts training to be a married woman and to follow the norm of society. However, during all this, zombies – a term they actually use in the film – are overtaking England. This is where changes into the Austen’s story take place and where Grahame-Smith’s take kicks in.

From Left to Right: Ellie Bamber, Bella Heathcote, Lily James, Suki Waterhouse, and Millie Brady

The Bennet Sisters have been trained since they were girls and thanks to their father, played by Charles Dance, were sent to be trained in China, were the “wise” parents send their children to train as opposed to the rich parents who send their children to Japan. Certain families have gone the countryside to hide under their lands which includes the Bennet’s. When Mrs. Bennet finds out a new wealthy suitor in Mr. Bingley (Booth) has arrived from the warfront, they go to a ball where Bingley and Jane fall for each other. At that same party, Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy (Riley), now a general in the army against the undead. The love story between them starts off as standoffish and trying to up one another every chance they can get. However, when George Wickham, a lieutenant in the army and one that has a past with Darcy comes into town, Elizabeth starts to fall for him, and where the love story starts to take place. Of course, everything comes to head once the story picks up in the final act that leads to an explosive and its own spin on the love story ending.

Sam Riley and Douglas Booth

Again, if you can get past the concept of zombies being injected into the story and the fact that now all the characters know martial arts and fight with swords, then sitting through the movie will be a hell of a lot better. However, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a pretty enjoyable and fun movie anyway. Director Burr Steers and Co. do a great job of balancing the different tones of action, horror, and comedy and make them blend together fairly well. The tonal differences could have really hurt the film, but thankfully Steers control the tones and make them work for the film instead of against it.

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That’s not to say that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t without its faults and missteps. The film is good, but could have been better with some better pacing in the middle of the film and expanding some of the new concepts they bring in that includes a Horsemen of the Apocalypse angle that leads nowhere expect some nice visuals. Some visuals do work, while others fall flat especially an early one in the film, but for some it doesn’t help that some scenes are very poorly lit. The low lighting really makes one particularly scene hard to see anything, which doesn’t help since the scene feels like it’s important scene, but since we can’t see anything, the scene just fails.

Lena Headey

Jack Huston’s Wickham also falls a bit flat, although his story with Darcy is solid, it’s a bit rushed so the emotional impact and feeling fails to grab a huge amount of attention. Also felling underwhelming is Lena Headey’s character Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Heady also has a few scenes in the film, but none of them really stick out too much. It’s a shame really since her character is described as one of the deadliest and most skilled swordswomen in England, which is accompanied with a nice visual, but other than that, the character doesn’t really go anyway.

Riley, Matt Smith and James

As for the rest of the cast, they all do well with the material presented in front of them. Lily James nails Elizabeth Bennet is every way possible, making her easy to root for and a kickass character at that. Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy is one of the characters you grow to like as he comes off as a bit full of himself, but sees his actions as necessary to protect everyone from the zombie plague. Bella Heathcote’s Jane Bennet gets really the third billing of the movie since her arc with Douglas Booth’s Mr. Bingley is the main arc in the first act of the film, although they both disappear during the middle of the film in order to drawn Elizabeth and Darcy’s arc. The other three sisters are a bit interchangeable unless you remember who’s playing who. Matt Smith, who plays Parson Collins, is a big highlight in every scene he’s in and could easily steal the film for some people.

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All in all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a hell of a lot of fun and more enjoyable than some will give it credit for. While it fails on some levels, like pacing and some underdeveloped scenes, that stop it from being great, everyone involved make the crazy concept worth the watch. If zombie action with a little classic romance is your thing, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should fill that right up.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

4 out of 5

‘300: Rise of an Empire’ Review

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Dir: Noam Murro

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Jack O’Connell and Rodrigo Santoro

Synopsis: Greek general Themistokles leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes and Artemisia, vengeful commander of the Persian navy

 

*Reviewer Note:  This will be an almost spoiler free review. Reason being is that the movie serves as prequel, side-story and sequel to 300, so some stuff will come up. However, I won’t spoil anything from Rise of an Empire.*

 

As stated above in the Reviewer Note, 300: Rise of an Empire is a prequel, side-story, and sequel to the 2006 hit 300.  The movie starts with Queen Gorgo (Headey) giving a speech about fallen 300 Spartans and gives a brief history of the Battle of Marathon. We then go witness the Athenian army, led by hero Themistokles (Stapleton) attacking King Darius’ men. From there we get the origins of the “god king” Xerxes (Santoro), who is Darius’ son (not a spoiler since IT’S HISTORY).  But we also find out that the only reason for Xerxes plans of revenge of world dominance comes from a ruthless general Artemisia (Green).

As you’ve probably seen in the trailers and TV spots, the action mostly takes place at sea.  The Athenians, which are the heroes this time around, are skilled sailors and battle Artemisia’s much larger army across the ocean.  But during all the action we occasionally cut to moments from 300 to get a concept of the timeline or even scenes with Themistokles going to Sparta to meet Queen Gorgo or a pre-Hot Gates injured Dilios (David Wenham).

Themistokles is very different from King Leonidas. Themistokles is fighting for a united Greece and wants to spread the new Athenian concept of democracy as opposed to Sparta’s self-preservation.  Also, opposed to the Spartan soldiers, the Athenian navy is made up of farm-hands, tradesmen, and more.

Artemisia, on the other hand, is ruthless, quick-tempered, and at times blinded by vengeance. Which is a recurring theme in the movie with most of the characters driven by revenge of something.  Her plan “to erase Athens from history” is an extreme one however, as are her actions throughout the film – which makes her one, if not, the best character of the movie, but Artemesia is given some real context, and when you discover the reason for her wrath, she becomes somewhat sympathetic.

Director Noam Murro’s only previous credit is romantic comedy Smart People, so it’s a bit of an unusual choice for the director’s chair. Thankfully, Murro makes Rise of an Empire into an enjoyable and fun action movie.  He makes some stand-out sequences included a fiery sea battle, the last fight and even the love scene is filmed like a brawl. A literal battle of the sexes that’s more erotic than you would think (and probably should be).

Acting wise, Eva Green owns the role and like I said before is probably one of, if not the best, character in the movie. She has a femme fatale quality to her but is very manipulative toward Xerxes. Anytime she’s on screen she isn’t chewing the scenery but pushing the story forward or ready to kill someone. She’s truly an amazing character. If Green wasn’t on anyone’s radar she will be after this.

Sullivan Stapleton heroic Themistokles plays his role as a man that is driven to bring the nation together to fight the greater threat but is also a character filled with guilt over his involvement in the starting of the war, and his regret at sending so many young men to early graves. Being a fan of his from his Cinemax show Strike Back, it’s nice to see Stapleton on the big screen and he definitely has a leading man screen presence.

In smaller roles, Lena Heady who returns as the Spartan Queen Gorgo delivers some of the film’s best lines but isn’t really anything more than a cameo.  Jack O’Connell, plays Calisto, a young warrior who wants to make his father Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) proud of him. Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes really takes a back seat in this, only appearing in a few scenes mostly with Artemisia, but doesn’t really do much.

But, the real highlight in the movie is the action. The sea battles are pretty cool to watch although some will probably be thrown off by some of the wonky camera work (I’ll admit I did at times). The sword battles are also pretty cool this time around and some are fast hitting that you loose yourself in the action. They’re, dare I say, more hard hitting and extreme this time around than 300.

All in all, 300: Rise of an Empire is a great action movie and thankfully it doesn’t completely try to copy what made 300 what it was, although there are some things that are welcomed. The way the story is set up and told really works as it all comes together (obviously) at the end. For a sequel that some people wanted, I’d say some will be happy with the outcome.

 

300: Rise of an Empire

4 out of 5