February 3, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “State Of the Union” & “Fighting With My Family”


STATE OF THE UNION (Sundance Channel):  The lines between narrative visual media continue to blur, and State Of the Union is an A-list talent contribution to a genre that doesn’t exactly exist yet.  It’s a story told in ten 10-minute episodes, all of them written by the novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, and each one featuring two characters, Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and shot in two locations.  At Sundance, the entire 100-minute season was shown in what amounted to a binge, but it could be watched online on any device in any configuration.  (Sundance Channel, which bought the rights to the series before the Festival, hasn’t yet announced its rollout plans.)  For all those new technology considerations, State Of the Union could easily have been an old-fashioned stage play.  The conceit is that every week, Louise and Tom meet in a pub to grab a drink in the 10 minutes prior to their next marriage counseling appointment across the street, and we watch them in these more informal circumstances before they’re mediated by the counselor.  It’s simple enough, and in the hands of these four extremely talented people, it works very well.  Hornby is a master at the comic/sad intersections of relationships, Frears is a veteran who’s crossed many genres in his career (everything from The Grifters to High Fidelity to The Queen) with a particular specialty oingetting great work from actors, and both Pike and O’Dowd thrive in the format, with episodes long enough for their characters to breathe yet necessarily brisk.  Each actor also gets to cross over a bit from their usual style, with O’Dowd more serious than we typically see him, and Pike sparklingly funny.  Whether State of the Union is a “movie,” “television” or something else, the point is that it’s insightful, moving and sometimes hilarious.  The medium is only part of the message.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (Annapurna/MGM):  Eventually every celebrity seems to show up at Sundance, and this year The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson made his case for some indie cred–as though he needs it–as a lead producer and supporting cast member (playing himself) of Fighting With My Family, a project he explained was close to his heart.  It’s the unusual film to show at Sundance (as a “surprise screening”) with a big studio already behind it, and national release scheduled for February 22.  Fighting tells the true, if somewhat fictionalized, story of Saraya Bevis, played by Florence Pugh (all but unrecognizable from her role in The Little Drummer Girl), who grew up in a small English town to a family of professional wrestlers, and rose to become a WWE Divas champion under the name Paige.  The WWE is a producer/financier of the film, so Fighting isn’t the place to look for an examination of the wrestling industry, which is treated as a cross between boot camp and Oz.  There’s feel-good fun to be had, though, in the movie, which was written and directed by the somewhat unlikely Stephen Merchant, who also appears in a comic supporting role.  Merchant is far from a visual stylist, and Fighting is rudimentary as cinema, but the script has fun with Saraya’s bumptious parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey, the latter’s role as un-Cersei as a character could possibly be).  The drama centers on the family conflicts when Saraya is picked for the WWE training program but her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) is passed over, and Saraya’s own struggles finding her place in the hardcore WWE regime, under the stern tutelage of coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn, drinking in the best role he’s had in years).  This is a movie that cares only about making its audience laugh and feel lumps in its throat, and doesn’t let accuracy or even logic stand in its way.  On those very basic terms, in the way of its subject matter sport, it delivers the goods.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."