Fighting with My Family may be a commercial for the WWE, but that doesn’t change the fact that this underdog saga nails every one of its uplifting rags-to-riches beats. Produced by the wrestling conglomerate (and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who cameos), Stephan Merchant’s film recounts the true-life path to glory of Paige (Florence Pugh), a goth-y Norwich, England girl who—growing up wrestling alongside her brother (Jack Lowden) in a local DIY association founded by her profane promoter dad (Nick Frost) and mom (Lena Headey)—gets a shot at stardom on the big stage. Though Paige’s success in a traditionally male-dominated arena lends the action a feminist bent, it’s individuality, perseverance, and loyalty to one’s roots that are truly championed by this lively, humorous tale. Moreover, it’s a testament to the power of outsized personality, which here comes courtesy of a uniformly great cast that also includes Vince Vaughn in a wiseass trainer role that allows him to be, for the first time in too long, funny.
The kindness of strangers is exploited for demented purposes in Greta, Neil Jordan’s playfully bonkers thriller about the trouble that befalls young Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) after she finds a pocketbook on a New York subway and returns it to its owner, lonely Greta (Isabelle Huppert). Thanks to that humane act, Frances—grieving the death of her beloved mom, as well as adjusting to her new Manhattan environs with the help of her wealthy roommate (Maika Monroe)—nets herself a surrogate mother figure. Their friendship, however, is soon revealed to be predicted on a lie that turns the proceedings cockeyed. Jordan laces the film with erotic undercurrents but otherwise refuses to unduly embellish his material, instead content to keep it on steady ground even as it grows loopier. It’s Huppert who truly elevates this story about twisted maternal obsessiveness, her Greta a cunning predator who uses sophistication and solitary sorrowfulness to mask more devious desires. Sad, elegant and extremely unhinged, she’s a stalker to remember.
Kaili Blues director Bi Gan concludes his sophomore feature with a 56-minute single-take sequence shot in 3D, his camera trailing alongside (and above, and behind) his protagonist, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), as he navigates a rural dreamscape that he’s travelled to while sitting in a movie theater. The past, memories, and the cinema are inextricably intertwined in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, whose story—about Luo’s return to his Kaili hometown, where he remembers an old comrade and looks for former love Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei)—commingles today and yesterday in poignant fashion. Motifs involving broken timepieces, dripping water, starry skies, flight, and fire all pepper Gan’s latest, which is bookended by telling images of rotating colored ceiling lights and a room spinning around blissful lovers. As beguiling as it is gorgeous, his oblique film charts Luo’s experience in a world at once real and imagined, along the way spying him in, and through, numerous mirrors and glass filters until he resembles a displaced ghost in search of home.
Dark, demonic power courses through Hagazussa, a legitimately evil folk story of inheritance, corruption and damnation. In the Austrian Alps circa the 15th
century, young Albrun (Celina Peter) tends to her mother (Claudia Martini), a supposed witch, in their remote log cabin. Years later, adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) cares for her infant daughter in that same abode, whose only visitor is Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), a neighbor who, like the local priest, seems concerned with saving ostracized Abrun’s soul. Light on dialogue but heavy on black-magic mystery, writer-director Lukas Feigelfeld’s fable casts its spell through slow-burn plotting and malevolent imagery, culminating with a kaleidoscopic underwater visual orgy of blood, roots, bone, tendrils, and mutating shapes. Like the mist that covers the mountainous region’s treetops, suggestions of profane forces are everywhere—in the sight of Albrun milking her goat, or a shrine for a skull—and they burrow under one’s skin, much like the unholy whispering and thunderous bass heard on a soundtrack that heralds madness, doom, the end.
Love is fractured and the past is torn asunder in Ash Is Purest White, another remarkable saga from Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke about individuals trying to plot a course through a rapidly developing nation. Employing expansive and boxy aspect ratios to denote different time periods and embellishing his action with pop songs (including the theme from John Woo’s The Killer), Jia dramatizes the romance between gangster Bin (Liao Fan) and girlfriend Qiao (Jia’s wife and favorite leading lady, Zhao Tao), which abruptly ends after the latter is imprisoned for using a firearm to save her beau during an attack. Upon release, Qiao strives to acclimate herself to a modernizing world that doesn’t care about the collateral damage left in progress’ wake. From young upstarts looking to take Bin’s position, to work along the Three Gorges (which will eventually submerge towns), change is afoot. Divided into three sections, it’s an epic vision of sacrifice and tenacity in a tumultuous age, led by Zhao’s commanding performance as a woman whose cunning resourcefulness is matched by her devotion.