DC Finds Its Funny Bone

For the past few years, DC and Marvel have been competing like they once did in the early days of comic books. Instead of pulp-paper pages, though, it’s now on the silver screen. DC, in collaboration with Warner Brothers, has had success with their characters, especially the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Beginning in the 1970s, they also had the first hit superhero movies, first with Christopher Reeve’s Superman and then Michael Keaton’s Batman. In both cases, the quality took a sharp dive after the first sequel, and Keaton was smart enough to jump ship before the third movie. But in the ten years since Ironman premiered, Marvel has held the field. DC managed to put out 5 movies during that time, while Marvel quadrupled that number (not even counting the Spiderman or X-Men movies.) Marvel also cleaned up at the box office, with 7 films breaking the billion-dollar worldwide box office mark, compared to one for Warner Brothers/DC: last year’s Aquaman. The problem was the films helmed by Zack Snyder were deathly serious and featured cookie-cutter final battles that exchanged noise and over-the-top action for coherence and story. The fun quotient was essentially nil. Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and James Wan (Aquaman) gave their films a different feel, though the climactic battle scenes returned to Snyder’s style, just transferred to WWI Europe or submerged in the sea. None of the DC films came close to the comedic interplay featured in the Marvel Universe movies like Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, or the emotional resonance of Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War.

Until now. Shazam! manages to both tickle your funny bone while still pulling at your heartstrings.

Like the Bond films, the super-hero genre needs a strong villain to support the hero’s story. Director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden spend an extensive time at the movie’s beginning establishing Dr. Thaddeus Sivana as a worthy villain. He’s the scion of a wealthy family who couldn’t do anything right in his father’s eyes. As a young teen Sivana’s transported from the back seat of his family car to a mysterious cave where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) offers him great power if he’s deemed worthy. Sivana fails the test, instead choosing the power of the 7 Deadly Sins. The wizard throws him back into the car. Years later, the adult Sivana (the eminently reliable bad guy, Mark Strong) has been funding research into what appears to be a delusion shared by dozens of people – being transported to the wizard’s lair only to be found unworthy. It finally gives him the key to return to the lair where he finally takes the power of the deadly sins into himself.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been in the Pennsylvania Child Care system ever since he was separated from his mother as a very young child. Now a teenager, he’s never given up finding his birth mother, which has kept him from bonding with any of the many foster families he’s had. In Philadelphia, he’s assigned to the care of Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans) who’d both been in the system themselves and now run a group home. They introduce him to the rest of their ersatz family, who range from college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton) to pre-teen Darla (Faithe Herman), though Billy gets closest to Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a super-hero fanatic with a bad leg. When bullies at school attack Freddy, Billy comes to his aid. Chased by the bullies, he gets away on the subway, only to be transported to the wizard’s lair himself. There he’s found worthy, and by uttering the wizard’s name – Shazam – he’s transformed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) with muscles on his muscles, lightning that shoots out of his fingers, super speed and bullet-proof skin, but who’s still a kid inside.

Levi’s an excellent choice for the main role, since he demonstrated his ability to balance genres in the comedy/spy series “Chuck.” He bulked up with about 20+ pounds of muscle to embody Shazam, but he also gives the best boy-in-a-man’s-body performance since Tom Hanks in Big. Angel’s Billy manages to be a regular kid, though one damaged by his history, and Grazer’s Freddy fills both the sidekick role as well as being a conscious for Shazam when he becomes too indulgent of his power.

Sandberg and Gayden were unusual choices as director and screenwriter. After creating a number of short films, Sandberg did two horror features prior to Shazam!: Lights Out (based on one of his shorts) and the entry in the possessed doll series, Annabelle: Creation. Gayden only had one screenplay produced before this, the sci-fi light story Earth to Echo, and was an assistant to the screenwriter of one of my least-favorite movies, Spider-Man 3. But as has happened before in the superhero genre, unknowns have scored huge successes when given the chance. The Russo brothers (Anthony & Joe) had worked in television and directed a couple of forgettable comedy flicks before they were given the directing job for arguably the best Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They followed it up with Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and the upcoming Avengers: End Game, which will make them the only directors to have three billion-dollar movies to their credit.

You’ll laugh your face sore by the end of Shazam! It also manages a thrilling final battle that still has hilarious moments, including a twist on the bad guy explanation scene that’s just perfect.

As I related in my review of Captain Marvel, Shazam! shares an interconnected history with the Marvel character, and it’s a bit strange that both finally make it to the big screen within a month of each other. However, the two movies are completely different in tone. It’s unlikely Shazam! will beat Captain Marvel’s box office total, which has already zoomed past the billion mark worldwide. But Shazam! is a delight and worthy of its own success.

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Double, The Fear

When you have a Best Picture-nominated film the first time you direct, there’s usually only one way to go with your next project, and that’s down. As a cautionary tale, there’s Orson Welles. For his debut, he made one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane, but his follow-up became a story of studio interference. The Magnificent Ambersons originally clocked in at 132 minutes. Welles made a couple of small edits for test audiences, but the movie didn’t connect with the people. Because of a dispute on another film, Welles had lost control of the final cut of Ambersons to the studio, RKO. While Welles was in South America on another project, they ordered reshoots, changed the ending, and cut nearly an hour from the movie. Even in its truncated form, The Magnificent Ambersons is now regarded as a masterpiece, though it lost money when released. Sadly, Welles original vision will never be restored since the studio destroyed the cut footage to free up space in its vault.

For his first film as writer/director, Jordan Peele had a massive hit. Get Out made $255 million worldwide off a budget of $5 million. It also garnered a Best Picture nod, which is almost unheard of for a horror thriller. For his follow-up, Peele ratchets up the action and creates a nightmare scenario playing off the idea of the doppelganger – a double or look-alike of a person that can be ghostly and often is the harbinger of bad events.

Us begins in the 1980s at a boardwalk amusement park in Santa Cruz, California. Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents and into a funhouse hall of mirrors. Something happens there that leaves her mute and traumatized for years. Fast forward to the present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family – husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son Jason (Evan Alex) – are returning to Santa Cruz to visit their friends Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker). While Adelaide now appears well-adjusted, her tension heightens as they approach town and arrive at her childhood home – her first time back since her mother’s death.

When they meet the Tylers on the beach near the boardwalk, Adelaide tries to control her fear, but she loses it fast when Jason briefly goes missing. The family returns to the house, but that night Jason tells Adelaide and Gabe that there’s a family standing outside in their driveway. Gabe tries to scare them off, but instead the people run forward and break into the house – and reveal that they are physical copies of the Wilsons, though a nightmare version of them.

Peele sticks to the classic form of Greek tragedy, with the events taking place within 24 hours. He establishes the family as loving and relatable, and he frontloads the movie with a growing sense of foreboding. In both the 1980s scene and present day, we see a vagrant holding the sign reading “Jeremiah 11:11,” creating its own double. A sign quoting a Bible reference is inherently threatening, like the holder plans to beat you senseless with the sign. It’s worse when you learn the verse says, “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”

Nyong’o and Duke have wonderful chemistry together, partially from attending Yale Drama School at the same time, and they both had starring roles in last year’s megahit, Black Panther. As the children, Joseph and Alex convey a realistic balance of dedication to, and exasperation with, each other that parents know so well. It’s an impressive feat when you add on that all four play double roles.

As a person who particularly enjoys movie music, I have to note the accomplishment of director Peele and composer Michael Abels use of “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. At first you hear the classic rap song over the car radio with the family feeling the beat. Then its deconstructed into short sections played on shrieking violins that increase the tension every time you hear them.

At first Peele keeps the focus directly on the family, but then he slowly pulls back to a wider shot that takes if from an intimate horror story to a commentary on society. In the end the story gets fuzzy in its critique, in contrast to Get Out’s razor-sharp script. The best thing to do is forget the exposition and simply let the story flow. In the end, Peele has hidden a twist that makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve seen.

Peele’s newest gig is as executive producer, writer, and host for the reboot of the classic series “The Twilight Zone.” It has been tried a couple of times in the past, but was never able to approach the quality of the original, which served up social commentary hidden beneath a layer of sci-fi/horror. Episodes like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “Eye of the Beholder,” or “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” speak to the current paranoid, divided world as much as they did to the 1960s. Peele has already demonstrated with Get Out and now Us that he can match the form of “The Twilight Zone.” I only wish it was available on a commonly available service rather than CBS Access.

But that’s why God invented DVDs.

Glorious

People often bemoan the fact that films don’t give mature women their due, and I couldn’t agree more. I can’t count how many films feature leading men with 30 years on their leading women. If there’s a May-December relationship, it’s always the men with the snow on the mountain. Along with that, many movies push the narrative that without a man, a woman is missing out on life, where a man on his own is much more acceptable. So, it’s a delight to find a movie that takes those conventions and blows them away. That movie is Gloria Bell.

It’s not surprising the director and original screenwriter comes from outside of Hollywood. Sebastian Lelio hails from Santiago, Chile, and began making short films and documentaries in the 1990s, when he’d just turned twenty. He moved up to features in 2005, achieving international acclaim in 2017 for A Fantastic Woman, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He moved to English-language films last year with Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. In 2013 he’d made a movie called Gloria which racked up nominations and wins on the festival circuit. With the help of co-screenwriter Alice Johnson Boher, he’s done an English language version of the movie.

Gloria (Julianne Moore) is a free-spirited woman in her fifties in LA. During the day she works as an adjuster at an insurance company, giving personal care to the people she helps, while nights often find her in a retro-disco club, dancing to hits from her youth. She has a network of supportive friends and is an active part of the lives of her mother and her two children, Peter (Michael Cera) and Anne (Caren Pistorius), without smothering them. Gloria’s been divorced from her ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett) for 14 years and is on good terms with Dustin’s new(er) wife.

Then she meets Arnold (John Turturro) at her club. Arnold’s a former army officer who now owns a park in the hills outside LA where people can indulge in activities like paintball and zip lines. He explains he’s recently divorce when he asks her to go out to dinner, and she finds herself attracted to him. On the other hand, they’re often interrupted by calls from his adult daughters who are constantly in need of help, much different from her own children. Is there a chance they can build a relationship, and what would it cost her?

Moore is absolutely luminous as Gloria, a woman who embraces life and the people around her. She’s front and center throughout the entire film, and Lelio takes the time to give you a full picture of her life. She has her stumbles and her falls – you need that for the story – but the movie is thankfully free from most of the story tropes that are common in a romantic movie.

The supporting cast is first-rate, and also includes Jeanne Tripplehorn, Rita Wilson, and Sean Astin. Lelio fills the film with a great selection of the better dance music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It won’t be a surprise that he uses Laura Branigan’s hit “Gloria,” but the way it’s used is perfect, becoming a cathartic moment at the climax.

You may not find Gloria Bell at your local multiplex, but if you get the chance to see it, I heartily recommend that you do.

Not Exactly Captivating

Captive State is a curious blend of sci-fi and a resistance film a la World War II. It can work to cross genres, like Overlord last year or District 9, but it’s always a high-wire act that can easily crash to earth. For a resistance film, you usually have three main protagonists/antagonists. There’s the good guys, who can be noble like Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, or ruthless like Brad Pitt’s Lt. Raine in Inglourious Basterds. There’s a person caught in the middle, deciding what to do, like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick or Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna in Basterds. But you also need a great bad guy or guys, like the duo of Conrad Veidt’s Strasser and Claude Raine’s Renault, or Christoph Waltz’s Landa. You can’t light a match without striking it against something. That’s where Captive State falls short.

The movie starts during an extra-terrestrial invasion, though it’s told from the viewpoint of a Chicago police detective and his wife trying to escape the city. His badge doesn’t help him when he comes up against a police barricade. The officer manning it won’t let him through and opens fire when the detective drives past. It would have been better if they’d been stopped, as they find the tunnel that they’ve entered blocked by the aliens at the distant far end. The detective and his wife are killed by some sort of blast, and only then do we see the couple’s two sons have survived in the back seat.

Fast forward ten years and the world has been conquered. Almost the whole populace has been subjugated, though there are still pockets of resistance fighting against the invaders. That’s a concern for William Mulligan (John Goodman), a Chicago police detective now tasked with rooting out the resistance. While others think the freedom fighters have been scattered and are unable to mount a serious challenge, Mulligan pursues them, using sources like an anonymous prostitute who goes by Jane Doe (a sadly underused Vera Famiga). Mulligan focuses on Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders), the younger of the two kids from the car, now grown. He essentially works for the aliens, harvesting digital information from sim cards after the invaders have taken control of all digital networks. His brother, a legend of the Resistance, is presumed dead.

As with most resistance stories, there’s a convoluted plot hatched by the resistance to strike at the aliens. At the same time Gabriel learns his brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is still alive. It’s hard to follow the action since the cinematography and production design gives us a gray, damp-cold world of mud and rot. The narrow focus of the story leaves you feeling claustrophobia amid the darkness. Director Rupert Wyatt did the excellent sci-fi reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but with Captive State, which he co-wrote, he lets the story become muddled.

The fatal weakness of the movie, though, is with the aliens. They’re only rarely seen and are left under developed beyond their being “alien.” The audience doesn’t get any handle on what they’re like or their strengths and weaknesses, which may be part of the point for Wyatt though it leaves a large gap in the story. Even the alien spaceships simply look like big black rocks. Compare that to, say, Independence Day. You didn’t see the actual aliens except for a couple of scenes, yet the audience knew their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their motivation.

While Captive State has decent twist at the end, it feels contrived after the audience has slogged through the rest of the film. The credits come as a relief.

Truly Marvelous

The Marvel Universe boasts some incredible women – Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Gamora, Peggy Carter, and Okoye, among others – but they’ve never been the stand-alone title character in any film. Last year the studio took a calculated chance with Black Panther, though they’d already established Chadwick Boseman’s character in Captain America: Civil War. It turned out to be successful beyond anything expected, beating out Avengers: Infinity War for the top place in the domestic box office (though the Avengers prevailed worldwide), and garnering the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar nomination. This year, they’ve finally given women their place in the title with Captain Marvel.

With the notorious misogyny displayed by certain elements of the geek community, Captain Marvel was bound to face trouble. It started early with trolls posting negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes even before the movie was released in order to drive down its rating on the site. The administrators took the extraordinary action of banning user reviews until the movie’s release. Marvel also didn’t have the benefit of the character’s introduction in another movie, beyond the final shot of the costume symbol on Nick Fury’s pager during the final credit tag of Infinity War. Marvel made up for the lack of a previous appearance by releasing multiple trailers and behind-the-scenes shorts before the movie’s release.

It also doesn’t help that the Warner Brothers/DC movie version of Shazam comes out in a couple of weeks. Captain Marvel was the original name of the character that Billy Batson becomes when he says the word, “Shazam!” The comic version was an early competitor of Superman’s in the superhero genre, first appearing in 1940. It’s publisher, Fawcett Publications, was sued by DC Comics for copyright infringement since the character was so close to Superman. DC lost the original suit, but it turned out the Captain Marvel writers had plagiarized some Superman stories. Faced with losing that suit, Fawcett shut down its stable of superhero comics and switched to other fare, including “Dennis the Menace.”

In the 1960s, the copyright on the name Captain Marvel lapsed and Marvel Comics claimed it for their own version, the super-powered alien known as Mar-vel. DC later bought the rights to publish the original version of Captain Marvel but had to go with the name Shazam. In tone, though, the two films couldn’t be farther apart. The character has gone through several incarnations at Marvel Comics, including being Ms. Marvel in the late 1970s. For the movie, the touchstone is the 2013 version of the comic, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with artwork by Dexter Soy.

Captain Marvel is set in the 1990s, though it begins far from Earth. Vers (Brie Larson) is part of the Starforce warriors of the Kree empire, locked in a battle with the Skrull, a race of alien shapeshifters. The Kree are ruled by the Supreme Intelligence, an AI program that takes a different form for whoever communicates with it. For Vers, the Supreme Intelligence is an older, silver-haired woman (Annette Bening). The Kree have interbred with other species over their long history, leading to some Kree being blue (like Ronan the Accuser [Lee Pace] and Korath [Djimon Hounsou] who showed up first in Guardians of the Galaxy; here they’re earlier versions of the characters) while other Kree look like Caucasian humans, like Vers and her Starforce leader, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). While she’s dedicated to her place in the Kree world, Vers is haunted in her dreams of another, different life.

During an operation, Vers is captured by the Skrulls and subjected to an intense psychic interrogation, focusing on the woman who, to Vers, personifies the Supreme Intelligence. Vers manages to escape and destroys the Skrull spacecraft, only to find it was orbiting Earth. She modifies a telephone to contact Yon-Rogg, but as she hangs up Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives. This is a much younger Fury than we’ve seen before – he still has both eyes – and he’s also accompanied by a brand-new SHIELD agent named Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vers warns Fury that the Skrulls are now on Earth, and that they can impersonate any human, though they only have access to the subject’s recent memories. It’s a warning Fury needs almost immediately.

The writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) have created a densely-plotted screenplay as Vers discovers her previous life on earth as Carol Danvers, hot-shot Air Force test pilot. Much of her history is filled in when she finds her best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), who thought Danvers died six years earlier in a crash. The backstory is required as Danvers moves forward to claim her power and become Captain Marvel.

Larson is an excellent casting choice, and she worked hard with a trainer to handle the physical demands of the role. She also has wonderful chemistry with Jackson, having worked with him before on Kong: Skull Island. With Jackson, special effects wizards used CGI to de-age him 25 years. It’s been used before – it gave us the younger Tony Stark in the virtual reality program during Captain America: Civil War – but this is the first time its been used for an entire movie. Captain Marvel truly finds its heart, though, in the scenes with Maria and Monica. This is a philia love story of a depth you usually don’t see in films.

I’d watched the original trailer a dozen or two times, even though I’d never read any of the comics. It caught my imagination, so I was looking forward to its release. While it’s not the best movie Marvel’s made – I’d split that slot for Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – it is still very, very, very good and thoroughly enjoyable. It seems to have won over some of its early detractors, garnering Captain Marvel the 6th best box-office opening worldwide in history, during a spring that has seen a fair number of flops and disappointments. It shouldn’t have any problem remaining in theaters long enough that I can do a double-feature at the end of April, watching Marvel right before seeing Avengers: End Game. That will be marvelous.

How To End A Trilogy

When Dreamworks Animation released How To Train Your Dragon in 2010, it was both a surprising hit, and a surprise. Dreamworks was known for more lighter fare, like the Shrek films, Kung Fu Panda, and Madagascar with its ubiquitous penguins that presaged the Minions. Based on the series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell, Dragon had an emotional depth and intensity that rivaled Pixar and Disney, while still displaying a wonderfully wry wit. It grossed almost a half-billion dollars worldwide, and the sequel in 2014 did even better. Now the trilogy is brought to a bittersweet but satisfying conclusion with How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

The Dragon Riders of Berk, led by Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) and assisted by Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnutt (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnutt (Jason Rupple), have been raiding the ships of dragon hunters and releasing their captives. However, they’ve been so successful that Berk has reached a saturation point with its dragon population. Then the dragon slayer Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham at his smoothest villainy) is hired by the hunters who’ve lost their dragons to Berk. Grimmel has hunted the Night Fury dragons until he thought they were extinct, and he’s determined to get Hiccup’s dragon, Toothless. In this endeavor he has the perfect bait – a white female Night Fury.

Hiccup realizes Berk is no longer safe for the dragons or for his people. When he was a child, his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) told him of a hidden world far to the west, the home of the dragons. Hiccup determines to move both the village and all their dragons there, where they can be safe. But the simple solution is filled with complications, along with the threat from Grimmel.

While The Hidden World still has the humor of its predecessors, it’s also a coming-of-age movie where Hiccup must face the responsibilities of adulthood, including making self-sacrificing decisions that are in the best interest of others. Also, the budding romance between Hiccup and Astrid that’s been there since the start of the series comes to full blossom. The story has thematic similarities to Toy Story 3, though with that story the coming of age is cushioned a bit by viewing it from the toy’s perspective. While Andy has grown, the toys will bring joy to a new generation. With The Hidden World, the emotional resonance is deeper because there’s no guarantee of a second act.

Once again Dean DeBlois both wrote the script and directed the movie, as he’s done since the first film in 2010. (He also did Lilo and Stitch for Disney in 2002, and had worked on the story for Mulan before that.) The gorgeous animation is a feast for the eyes, especially when Hiccup and Astrid discover the Hidden World, and the battles between Grimmel and Hiccup are truly thrilling.

If you missed the previous movies, you might be a bit lost with the story at first. It’s not as bad as starting The Lord of the Rings at The Return of the King, but it would take a while to get into the flow of the film. Still, it would offer pleasures even to the uninitiated viewer. For those who’ve followed the story of Hiccup through the previous two movies, though, this is required viewing. It’s the perfect way to bring a series of films to a strong conclusion.

A Champ To Root For

You don’t usually get your own bio-pic when you’re only in your twenties. But when your story has enough drama that it could work as fiction, and you have a first-class writer/director working with an exceptional cast, it’s a reason to make an exception. That’s why Fighting With My Family is a strong contender from the start. The film is the story of WWE star wrestler Paige, who’s already made a major impact in a sport where the breakout stars are usually male, like Stone Cold Steve Austin or John Cena. In its way, Fighting is a real-life super hero origin story.

The movie starts with a scene common to every family – two young children, Saraya Knight and her brother Zak, fighting over the TV remote. Their father comes in and finds them wrestling, but rather than breaking it up or finding a solution, he coaches them on their moves. Dad Patrick (Nick Frost) and mom Julia (Lena Headey) run a minor wrestling league in a minor English city. They exist on the proceeds from matches as well as teaching wrestling to local youths, though they dream WWE-size dreams. It seems sad, until you learn how hard their life was before they discovered each other and found wrestling as a pathway to salvation.

In their teens, Saraya (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) have become the stars in the ring, but their parents have also passed onto them dreams of making it to the top of the wrestling world by joining the WWE in the United States. Zak, who is engaged and also facing fatherhood, sees it as a way to provide for his soon-to-be family. Saraya is less sure of her reasons other than it being her family’s dream, but she has determination and grit. They know the dark side of such dreams. Their older half-brother applied for the WWE but didn’t make the cut, sending him into a spiral of drinking and violence that put him in jail. The siblings’ persistence is rewarded when a talent rep for WWE, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), calls to say he’ll be at a WWE event in London and invites them to try out. Saraya and Zak head down to London where they’re starstruck to be close to the big stage. They audition with a dozen other hopefuls under Hutch’s clear-eyed gaze. At the end of the tryout, Hutch says if he calls out the hopeful’s name, they’ll be going on to Florida where they’ll be put through the WWE’s version of boot camp, a rigorous, physically demanding time guaranteed to weed out the weak. Hutch calls out Saraya’s name – then thanks the others for coming.

In the hands of lesser talent, this would end up a Lifetime Movie or worse. However, this was written and directed by Stephen Merchant, who wrote and directed the original English version of “The Office” and executive produced the American version. He’s had a successful partnership with Ricky Gervais, also doing other series with him the “Extras,” and he wrote, directed, and starred in his own HBO series, “Hello, Ladies.” (He also played, under heavy make-up and costume, the role of Caliban in Logan.) Merchant beautifully paces the story of Paige’s journey from England to Florida and finally to the center of the WWE ring. It’s also a testament his skill that, even knowing it’s a true story, the audience still fears she won’t make it.

The movie is extremely blessed in its fine cast, starting with Pugh. She’s making a name for herself, having starred in the AMC/BBC production of John Le Carre’s “The Little Drummer Girl” earlier this year, and as Chris Pine’s love interest in The Outlaw King. As Saraya/Paige, she embodies the role in a way that’s both subtle and in your face. At the same time, she looks like she belongs in the ring. Pugh is definitely an actress to watch in the coming years, including a role in the new version of Little Women out later in 2019, written and directed by Greta Gerwig and costarring Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, and Laura Dern.

It gives you a bit of whiplash to see Frost, Simon Pegg’s co-star in Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, matched with Headey (the deadly Queen Cersei on “Game of Thrones”) as a married couple, but they’re excellent in their roles. They’re ringers as well for the actual Patrick and Julia, attested to by home movies of the pair seen during the credits. Lowden is stellar, too, as Zak must deal with the loss of his dream. Among these first-rate performances, Vaughn stands out in one of the best roles of his career, a hard-shelled realist who must shatter dreams but who slowly reveals the one-time dreamer beneath the shell.

It helps that the movie was executive produced by the largest star to ever graduate from the WWE, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In addition, he appears as himself in the film. You can’t call them cameos, since they’re important (and very funny) scenes. Think of them more like extra shots of expresso that keep the movie going strong.

Apart from a brief time when I was in junior high, I was never a fan of wrestling. It seemed so phony even when I watched it. However, Fighting With My Family does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain to show the work that the wrestlers must put in, as well as the need, even in the choreographed artifice, to be an authentic person. Paige’s story goes far beyond what might be dismissed as a sports film to tell a story of empowerment, of a woman both figuratively and literally finding her voice. This movie is a winner.