Ground and Pound

Bruised

by Hope Madden

It isn’t exactly Michelle Rosenfarb’s writing you’ll remember after viewing the MMA drama Bruised. The story itself offers a rehash of sports cliches that make the film anything but memorable. Still, there is something about it that sticks.

Part of that is the way director Halle Berry embraces the bleakness beneath the underdog sports story. Berry stars as Jackie Justice, one-time octagon phenom who lost it all and found herself drunk and cleaning toilets post-stardom.

Here’s where Berry — both behind the camera and in front — digs into something we did not get with Rocky Balboa or Maggie Fitzgerald or any of the other earnest, down-on-their-luck prizefighters in cinema. There is no scrappy optimism, no unquenchable ambition, no romantic dream.

And Justice only gets back in the game for the money.

It’s a risky move, giving us a less-than-likable protagonist and still asking for us to root for her, but Berry’s up to the task as a performer. She convinces. Justice is weary, angry, vacant and just one step ahead of all the trauma that made her fighting mad in the first place.

Here, again, is where the writing lets Berry down. Random scenes of exposition are wedged in periodically where none is needed, while other information remains weirdly—though sometimes intriguingly—vague. But certain scenes are brilliant, charged with emotion and brutality, and sometimes tenderness.

Bruised also contains a slew of really strong performances, the most interesting of which is delivered by Sheila Atim as the sage mentor/manager. Adriane Lenox, Adan Canto and Shamier Anderson also shine in supporting turns, as does Danny Boyd Jr., who has the unenviable task of creating a character out of a shameless trope. He manages.

There are workout montages. There are emotional subplots. There is backsliding and heartbreak. It wouldn’t be an underdog sports film without them. But every so often, Berry gives us something raw and surprising. The performance makes you realize her range is wider than we may have expected. The film points out that her talent is greater than expected, too.   

Enter Sandman

Awake

by Hope Madden

There are so few things I enjoy more in this life than sleeping. Sleeping is the best. I love sleeping. This is one of the reasons director Mark Raso’s apocalyptic Awake got under my skin.

But it’s supposed to, after all. It’s not a comedy. It’s a spare, clever idea about some kind of celestial happening that throws off our hard wiring enough that we lose the ability to fall asleep. This power surge affects more than just our own circadian rhythms, though. It also shuts down all electric power, including car engines.

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) was tired already. She just finished the late shift as security at a local hospital when she picked her kids up for their day together—her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) goes more reluctantly than her young daughter Mathilda (Ariana Greenblatt). By the time Jill understands what’s happening, she realizes the kind of danger her daughter is in—from religious zealots as well as government officials—because Mathilda can sleep.

So, there you have it. There’s a fight against the clock (the film outlines in great detail exactly how this will disorient and then eventually kill you) for this mother to figure out how her daughter will 1) survive the apocalypse and 2) continue to survive once everyone else is dead.

Rodriguez drives the film with a believable mix of savvy, grit and growing brain dysfunction. Several of the population-gone-mad set pieces are eerie and smart, although others are underdeveloped and unsatisfying.

Raso, working from a script he co-wrote with brother Joseph as well as Gregory Poirier, picks at one or two modern-day concerns but truly breaks new ground only rarely. Moments from The Mist, War of the Worlds, and just about every outbreak movie make their way into Jill’s family adventure. Borrowed as much of this is, it still comes together in a way that feels fairly fresh.

Support work from Barry Pepper, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher and Shamier Anderson offers the adventure shape and character while Rodriguez gives it a pulse. And some really heavy eyelids.