Tag Archives: Florence Pugh

Unhappy Homemaker

Don’t Worry Darling

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There’s drama, scandal, ghosting, possible spitting – Don’t Worry Darling is known for it all. And none of it’s even in the movie!

So, if you separate Olivia Wilde’s sophomore effort behind the camera from its pre-launch baggage, what do you have? An absolutely gorgeous if somewhat superficial critique of how little progress women – especially married women ­­– have made in terms of agency and control.

Its main recommendation is Florence Pugh, which should surprise no one. Her performances are always fiercely intimate and human; Alice is no different. Lovely wife of Jack Chambers (Harry Styles), Alice cocktails with the ladies, hums while she cleans, prepares a mean roast, and enjoys a healthy sex life with her devoted Jack.

Jack, that’s a manly name. You know what else is? Frank. And manly Frank (Chris Pine) is the force behind the town of Victory. He’s the visionary, the gatekeeper, the Great and Powerful Oz – and Pine relishes every scene-chewing moment on the screen. He is particularly effective when sparring with and menacing Pugh. Their spark is so strong it only makes the rest of the cast appear dimmer.

But we know something is amiss in Victory because nothing screams “something is amiss” to viewers as quickly as a colorfully wholesome late 50s vibe. But man, does Wilde and her production designer Katie Bryon nail that vibe. It’s like Mad Men meets Better Homes and Gardens with cool cars and fabulous costumes to boot, all of it choreographed to flow like the synchronized dance numbers forever punctuating the narrative.

What Wilde shows us is slick, stylish and well-constructed. What she’s telling us is fine, too, it’s just that none of it is as profound as Wilde and screenwriters Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke seem to think it is.

They make salient points about testosterone-laden rabbit holes and the inequalities that many demand of a “great” America, but their hand is rarely subtle. And when it comes, even the Twilight Zone moment lands with more shaky logic than well-earned resonance.

But Don’t Worry Darling isn’t worthy of gossip column dismissal, either. There is talent spread throughout the community here, just nothing in the collective effort that’s truly memorable. And like those hot new developments built on remnants of old ones, the film ultimately feels like a shiny new makeover of familiar ideas.

Assassins Assemble

Black Widow

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Avenger Natasha Romanoff had to wait a while to get the green light on her own standalone origin story, and then even longer for the big screens to carry it. Now Black Widow is finally here, and Natasha’s not even the most interesting character in her own show.

And the film is better for it.

Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson surround Natasha with uniquely compelling personalities that become important parts of a whole, while surrounding star Scarlett Johansson with a supporting ensemble skilled enough to make this one of the MCU’s most character-driven successes.

Oh, there’s action, too, but we start with a prologue set in 1995 Ohio, when Natasha’s family is trying to flee the country at a moment’s notice. Father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weiss) were prepared for this day, so they scoop up young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) and put the escape plan into action.

An overlong, Watchmen-style montage mixing music and news headlines brings us up to 2006, when the family is long estranged. Natasha is on the run since the Avengers “divorce” (between Civil War and Infinity War), Yelena (Florence Pugh) is taking names in Norway, Alexei is in prison and Melina’s loyalties seem tied to some talented pigs. Meanwhile the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone – nice! His accent – not so much) has plans to build an army of mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins.

That means females only, but while the reveal lands as a clear metaphor for sex trafficking, Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, the underseen gem Lore) and Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong, Thor: Ragnarok) never belabor any well-taken points. Even better, they fill the entire adventure with enough organic, self-aware humor about posing, too tight supersuits and the need for pockets that very few of the 133 minutes seem laborious at all.

The core foursome is uniformly terrific, as you would expect from actors of this caliber. Performances blossom and surprise, their chemistry buoying the familial longing required of every superhero backstory while anchoring action in characters you can care about.

Pugh—sympathetic, comedic and badass—is the standout, but Johansson shines, especially in a climactic bout with Winstone that lands satisfying jabs about weak men.

Shortland never forgets the point of a superhero film, though. The breathless action in Black Widow impresses as much as it entertains, whether hand-to-hand or aerial.

And it is a Marvel film, so be sure to stick around post-credits for an intriguing stinger and a welcome addition to the universe.

Once More, with Feeling

Little Women

by Hope Madden

Just when you think They’re making Little Women again? Greta Gerwig steps in and gives this beloved story a fresh, frustrated perspective.

Gerwig’s presentation tosses sentimentality to the wayside, thankfully. The vibrant retelling brims with empathy, energy and laughter as well as those prickly emotions that dwell within a family.

In fact, settling into those very petty realities of sisterhood is a conscious choice Gerwig makes with her retelling. Those who’ve always controlled what we see may see nothing of value in so mundane a story as that of four somewhat coddled, routinely bickering sisters on the precipice of adulthood, but who says those men are right?

Gerwig understands and illustrates the political, economic and often lonesome choices to be made, couching those in the equally honest tensions of disappointing your sisters when you choose.

Gerwig’s writing, respectfully confident, brings conflicts more sharply to the surface in clear-eyed ways that reflect the characters’ bristling against unfair constraints and expectations.

Self-discovery and camaraderie still drive the piece, but Jo’s fiery independence has more meaning, Marmie’s self-sacrifice contains welcome bitterness, Aunt March’s disappointment feels more seeped in wisdom, and spoiled Amy is an outright revelation.

Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig’s avatar in the brilliant Lady Bird, is impeccable as ever. It’s her sometimes frenetic, sometimes quiet performance that delivers Louisa May Alcott’s own sense of lonesome independence.

Ronan’s flanked by superb supporting work including that of Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts and Meryl Streep (naturally). But it’s Florence Pugh, having a banner year with Fighting with my Family and Midsommar in her rear view, who entirely reimagines bratty Amy, turning her character into the sister we can best understand.

In all, this remarkable filmmaker and her enviable cast make this retelling maybe the most necessary version yet.

Sibling Smackdown

Fighting With My Family

by Hope Madden

Rarely, if ever, has WWE PR been as charming as Stephen Merchant’s biopic Fighting with My Family.

A traditional underdog tale, the film is also savvy enough to know how to wield its source material to broaden its audience beyond your traditional WWE fanatic.

Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) — or Britani or, later, Paige — takes part in her family’s business. Mornings, she hands out flyers to their wrestling events, mainly to passersby who look down their noses at the notion.

Afternoons she helps her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) coach local kids on the arts of grappling. Evenings, she gets in the ring with her brother, mum (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) to entertain amateur wrestling enthusiasts in Norwich, England.

Then the call comes inviting Saraya and Zak to audition for WWE at an upcoming London Smackdown event.

The set-up is there and, for any sports story, it is golden. Scrappy working class upbringing? Check! Sibling rivalry? Check! Opportunities for montage? Everywhere!

Better still is a madcap supporting cast you can’t help but love. Frost and Headey share a really lovely and incredibly goofy onscreen chemistry as the Mohawk-sporting ex-con patriarch and former homeless drug addict turned devoted mum. Merchant’s sharp direction and even sharper script avoids condescension or sentimentality.

The solid first act dovetails nicely into a less comedic journey for Saraya, the only sibling the WWE actually hires. Additional supporting players cannot live up to the charisma of Saraya’s family, but Dwayne Johnson plays himself and he has enough charisma for an entire cast.

Vince Vaughn, adding one more to a string of solid performances, plays the recruiter/drill sergeant/coach who helps Saraya find her individual strength for the journey to WWE Diva.

Pugh is the spark that makes the engines go, here. Though Saraya’s wigs are not always believable, her inner conflict and fighting spirit are.

While Fighting with My Family manages to sidestep or subvert a lot of genre clichés, it hardly breaks new ground. Instead, Merchant elevates the familiar with a more authentic feeling backstory and a winning cast.