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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Merchant’

Apparently we are all becoming much more discriminating consumers of stuff, no longer so blindly loyal to particular brands, but making informed and intelligent choices. Well, that may be true for some people, but if I made intelligent, discriminating and selective choices I wouldn’t go to the cinema eighty times a year, and where would we all be then?

Certainly, there are some people whose new films I will turn up to almost without fail, regardless of the subject matter, mainly because I’ve consistently enjoyed their stuff in the past. Firmly ensconced on the list of those so favoured are genial Dwayne Johnson and (from a different kind of performance tradition) fabulous Florence Pugh. Get these two together and I will be there like a shot, even if the movie involved is a womens’-wrestling-themed comedy-drama biopic, not something I would necessarily want to go anywhere near.

Actually, don’t bother, for all of this has already occurred, in the form of Stephen ‘Goggle-eyed Freak’ Merchant’s Fighting with My Family. The pairing of Florence and Dwayne looks almost natural when set against the highly peculiar group financing this film, which includes MGM, the usually-credible British company Film 4, and a major wrestling-entertainment corporation. It all makes a certain form of sense when you consider the story.

Fabulous Florence plays Saraya Knight, part of a family of wrestlers – go with it – operating the ‘World Association of Wrestling’ in Norwich, England. Her father (Nick Frost) is an alcoholic former armed robber who credits his discovery of wrestling with giving him a positive outlet for his violent tendencies, but on the whole they are a positive and loving family (when they are not clobbering seven bells out of each other in the ring, anyway).

Opportunity knocks when Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are given the chance to try out for – let me check – something called ‘the WWE’, which is apparently a wrestling-entertainment company. There they meet gruff but wise coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and passing superstar Dwayne Johnson (Dwayne Johnson).  Saraya, wrestling under the name of Paige, makes the cut and is signed for the youth wing of the WWE – but Zak is left totally despondent when he is not selected. Saraya flies off to Florida to train with the rest of the wannabes, leaving her brother in despair. Can she make it to the top of the pile in the WWE? Can her relationship with her family take the accompanying strain?

As you can perhaps discern, there is rather more of Florence than of Dwayne in this movie – a sizeable percentage of Johnson’s on-screen contribution (he also produced it) is in the trailer – but the big man’s scenes are as charismatic and funny as you might expect. For most of the rest of the movie the comic heavy lifting is done by Nick Frost, who fully deploys his always-impressive ability to steal scenes: he even has a good try at upstaging genial Dwayne, which is no mean feat.

The trailer for this movie certainly focuses on some of the more comedic scenes, and with a director like Merchant – still really best known as a comedian, despite more dramatic appearances in more recent films – you might certainly expect this to be light, (perhaps literally) knockabout stuff, playing up the general absurdity of entertainment-wrestling.

However, this expectation would fail to take into account the involvement of the real-life WWE in the making of this film: entertainment-wrestling is their meal ticket, and it is not to be mocked or satirised in the slightest. Instead, what we end up with is essentially a fairly formulaic sports movie with added funny bits here and there. As such it requires proper acting to really work – and fortunately, it gets it, from Pugh, Vaughn and Lowden. These are really actors playing stock characters in a formulaic story, but they do so with skill, and the more dramatic scenes of the film do have a surprising degree of heft to them.

Dramatic is not necessarily synonymous with truthful or authentic, of course, and even as I was watching this movie I found myself growing rather suspicious of the story it was telling me, simply because it fits rather too well into the underdog-makes-good narrative arc. Even the most cursory research indicates that the film’s connection with reality doesn’t extend very much further than the fact that there is indeed a wrestler from Norwich who used to fight under the nom de canvas Paige. 

On the other hand, the film is fairly honest about the sheer amount of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in American entertainment-wrestling, and the ruthlessly competitive and unforgiving nature of the machine – it chews people up and spits them out, and there are always fresh volunteers to replace them.

Of course, the film doesn’t exactly state this in so many words, and its depiction of entertainment-wrestling in general and the WWE in particular is essentially benign. The main problem with Fighting with My Family as a sports movie comes from the fact it concerns something which is – I’m going to have to take shelter in the bunker again – not actually a real sport. Paige’s rise to success in the WWE is secured after her defeat of another fighter, which the film depicts as a tense struggle resulting in an against the odds victory. When, as even the film admits, there are few things in the world less in doubt than the result of a wrestling-entertainment bout. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the WWE makes a lot of money out of treating its fans as idiots, but at this point it felt like the movie was doing so to me, and I do not find that easy to forgive.

Still, the contrast between Norwich (sweaty church halls, dingy gyms, and New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and Florida (much better hair and teeth) is fun, and it is solidly if predictably structured and generally well played – although Florence Pugh barely needs to get into third gear to ace her character; you can tell she has many more just waiting to be deployed when she gets to headline a film with a bit more nuance to it.

Wrestling fans will probably find Fighting with My Family rather more captivating than I did (there were quite a few, mostly old ladies, in the screening with me, all cheering and expressing sympathy in the right places), but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a lot. Maybe there is a bit less Dwayne Johnson than I would have expected, but there are lots of other enjoyable elements, even if as a whole it doesn’t entirely ring true. But hey – that’s entertainment-wrestling.   

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A new terror has been brought to going to the multiplex. I turned up to watch a movie the other day, thinking I was in comfortably good time, only to find that the trailers were already in progress. Still, it wasn’t that big a deal, and so I and the other folk in attendance dutifully absorbed the publicity material for How to Train Your Dragon 3 (no thanks), Bumblebee (maybe, and I never thought I’d say that about a Transformers film), and Mary Poppins 2 (only if you put guns to the heads of my family). It should have occurred to me that something was amiss, but this only became apparent when the BBFC card came up, making it clear that we were all about to be exposed to Nativity Rocks!.

If you had released anthrax in the auditorium I doubt you would have seen so many people bolting for the door so rapidly. A somewhat panicked mob assembled at the concessions desk, as everyone explained (in voices perhaps an octave or so higher than normal) that they had paid to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web, not some gruellingly schmaltzy family-friendly Christmas film. Fortunately, the cinema manager only had to reboot the projector and hand out some free ticket vouchers and peace was restored: the spectre of cute singing children and a seasonal message of goodwill was banished, and we could settle down to enjoy a feast of torture, bloodletting, misogynistic violence and general Scandinavian misery.

Stieg Larssen’s Millennium books made pots of money about ten years ago, and that’s the sort of thing that Hollywood studios notice. They do seem to have formed the notion that there is an audience for films based on these books and their central characters: Sony did, after all, spend $90 million on an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo back in 2011, with A-list talent on both sides of the camera. Despite raking in two-and-a-half-times its budget, the arcane mysteries of Hollywood accounting mean that this film officially lost money, hence the rather lengthy delay before this follow-up (directed by Fede Alvarez).

Some thought seems to have gone into how to make this new film more financially viable than the previous one. The first one drew many unfavourable comparisons with the Swedish-language version with Noomi Rapace, and so the rest of the original Larssen trilogy has been skipped over in favour of the first adaptation of an authorised continuation to the series by someone else. David Fincher is still involved, but only as a producer, and Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (with their expensive A-list salaries) have also had to look for work elsewhere. The more extreme elements of the first film have been toned down and massaged away to guarantee a more box-office-friendly 15 certificate.

As the film opens, Lisbeth Salander (she who is possessed of near-mystical computer hacking skills and a mythical piece of skin art) has become a legendary figure in Swedish society, occasionally surfacing to exact brutal vengeance on men who mistreat women. This is all basically backstory, however, for the plot proper sees Salander (now played by Claire Foy, who seems to be specialising in roles as iconic Betties) hired by a conscience-stricken atomic computer boffin (Stephen Merchant, playing it wholly straight) who has written a doomsday McGuffin for the American government and now wishes he hasn’t. The boffin wants Salander to steal the McGuffin back, which she promptly does, but before she can hand it over armed bad guys bust into her hideout, try to kill her, and steal the one and only copy of the apocalyptic app in question.

Well, this is bad news for our girl (one wonders at what point she will start to be called the woman with the Dragon Tattoo, but I digress), as the police are after her for the initial theft, and the American NSA have sent an operative (LaKeith Stanfield) to get it back too. Luckily her old associate Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) is able to help out and puts her on the trail of a secret organisation of very nasty pieces of work known as the Spiders. In charge of this mob, and currently in possession of the doomsday McGuffin, is a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) with issues of her own where Salander is concerned…

‘I quite enjoyed it, but I could have done without all the anal rape,’ was the considered opinion of one of the support team after we went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in early 2012. I suspect he spoke for a significant chunk of audience, for the sheer unflinchingly bleak grimness of the movie may be one of the reasons that it under-performed at the box office. I was kind of braced for more of the same this time around, especially after the film opened with some implied child abuse and continued with the aftermath of some brutal domestic violence. Was Spider’s Web to be wall-to-wall misogynistic real-world horror?

It was not. I think the film is pulling a bit of a trick by establishing a tone not dissimilar to that of the Larssen books, and then going on to tell a story of a very different kind. The producers also appear to be playing a long game by attempting to establish Lisbeth Salander as the kind of genre character who a (potentially very long) series of films can be made about, the most obvious parallels being James Bond or perhaps Jason Bourne. Certainly the character as depicted in this film seems to be losing some of her depth and becoming slightly more cartoony, in addition to being almost absurdly omni-competent (She can hack anything! She can drive anything! It takes three burly men to subdue her in a fight!).

The Bourne franchise is probably the best parallel to what The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like to watch: you have the taciturn, quietly vulnerable protagonist, who’s at much at odds with the authorities as the bad guys, you have well-staged action sequences that still manage to keep one foot in reality, and you’ve got lots of stuff with things being urgently downloaded in a crisis. And as such the film is actually pretty entertaining to watch, even if you don’t have to dig too deeply into the premise of the story to find something absurd going on.

Foy, I suppose, is okay as Salander, which is really the star part in this film (Gudnason as Blomkvist is in a very subordinate role) – it’s mostly just looking stern or stoical, depending on the requirements of the scene, but Foy is up to that. I’m not sure about the ‘Allo Sven, I got a Volvo’ accent she employs to signify she is supposedly speaking Swedish, but the film kind of obfuscates what’s going on in this area. Stanfield is reasonably good in the admittedly limited role of the token American character, but I have to say that this is not really a performance-driven film: people I’ve seen give very good turns elsewhere recently don’t make much of an impression here.

In the end, this is at its heart a very competent and polished genre movie, with a few unusually nasty moments and perhaps pretensions to be more of a character-driven drama. I have to say my expectations were not especially high, but as a thriller it is quite effective – whether or not you’re familiar with the other books or films, I would guess. Whether this will guarantee further adventures building on Larssen I’m not sure, but this one at least is entertaining enough.

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