Stephen Merchant’s Fighting With My Family

I’ve never been super into WWE wrestling, even as a kid the campy artifice didn’t fool me and I always found it silly, but trust a film like Stephen Merchent’s Fighting With My Family to illuminate warmly not only just how much the sport means to millions all over the world, but the level of commitment, athleticism and theatrical charisma is needed to be successful at it that I just never gave much thought to. It’s basically the story of real life underdog Saraya ‘Paige’ Knight, a girl from Norfolk, England, who got shot to stardom after a WWE talent scout came to her town and selected her for the big leagues. Here played by Florence Pugh, she comes from a family that lives, breathes and worships WWE like a religion, her parents (Nick Frost & Lena Headey, wonderful) raising her and her brother (Jack Lowden) with wrestling culture running through their veins. Her journey from small town England to snazzy training facilities stateside is one fraught with physical, personal and familial challenges as she struggles to forge her own identity under the ruthless tutelage of recruiter and trainer Vince Vaughn, who deals in tough love and tougher discipline principles. The film is fierce, funny and disarmingly emotionally mature, letting Pugh and all her cast mates find the riotous dark humour, cathartic interpersonal beats and genuine love for wrestling emanate from all angles. There is a cameo from Dwayne Johnson, naturally playing himself and getting to be as funny and as down to earth as he’s ever been in any film. Vaughn is next level good here, finding the tragic notes in his character, the mentorship and paternal caring for Saraya and absolutely nailing a monologue that gives us insight into his arc and the world they live in overall. This isn’t just a wrestling picture, it’s a careful and loving dissection of shifting family dynamics, a flat out hysterical comedy and a powerful story of one girl finding her voice and her path a thousand miles away from her home. Excellent film.

-Nate Hill

Ari Aster’s Midsommar

I didn’t expect to be saying this but Ari Aster’s Midsommar is, for the most part, a colossal waste of time and talent. It sucks to have to bash this given my level of anticipation for a follow up to Hereditary which is one of the most effectively terrifying films I’ve ever seen, but this thing not only pales in comparison but just kind of cavorts about in broad daylight for an excessively bloated runtime, provides *no* effective scares and then just… ends.

The most successful and engaging scenes show up in the first ten minutes of the film: after a harrowing tragedy that wipes out the family of Dani (Florence Pugh), the camera swoops through an open window to observe a snowy winter landscape while the minimalist opening credits appear, accented by an eerie score. It’s a haunting prologue that sets atmosphere and tone like nobody’s business… and then the resulting film falls flat on its inbred face. This thing was marketed more aggressively than the super bowl so by now you know the drill: Dani is accompanying her neglectful boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to a remote Swedish commune where one of their friends has ancestral roots. They aim to study these amiable pagan bumpkins for an anthropological thesis but it soon turns out they’re anything but amiable and in fact they’ve wandered into a freaky occult ritual as unwilling participants.

So, what works here? The beautifully off kilter score, for one. The cinematography, fascinating production design and undeniably striking artistry in costumes are all wonderful on their own terms. Pugh’s performance is deeply felt when the script allows for it to develop properly, but see that brings me to the fucking many things that don’t work. The film is two and a half hours long which it just absolutely doesn’t need to be, and for most of that time we’re forced to watch this ridiculous group of insane loonies and their absurd customs play out for so long that any semblance of story gets lost in maypole dancing, sustained singing and all manner of ritualistic bullshit. Here’s the thing with Hereditary versus this film: in the former, real life trauma was used to gild and intertwine with the esoteric external threat for an oppressive, unbearably down to earth yet somehow also otherworldly experience, both sides of the coin proving effective as all hell. With this film the grounded trauma is shown early on and then cheerfully abandoned for a flower adorned theme park ride of empty, hollow Wicker Man shenanigans that don’t address, conjure up or call back to our protagonist’s trauma in any way whatsoever, and that is key in this film’s resounding failure. Dani has been through the kind of event (I won’t spoil it) that is so horrific and traumatic that it either drives a person mad, to suicide or in some cases births the kind of resilience so that they may rise above it, gain strength and unlock a new facet of their being. This film allows her none of that, betraying a real, tangible story for something lost up in the clouds doing its own dumb dumb thing for goddamn forever until you just want to call in an air strike on the whole commune and firebomb this dreary set of non-events from existence. What. A. Mess.

In closing I’d like to recommend a far better pagan folk horror tale that has more torque under its hood than this turd: Gareth Evans’s Apostle, a frightening tale of another outsider finding madness in a small occult community, you’ll be glad you chose that over Midsommar’s ingratiating lack of focus or vision.

-Nate Hill