Monday, June 26, 2017

WRASTLIN' PICTURES

Wrestling's been good to me over the years. I've never stepped inside the squared circle as a formal competitor per se, but I will admit to watching and reenacting a whole bunch of WWF and WCW as a young Southern tot. Also, there's the Barton Fink connection. Any screenwriter worth their salt should have at least one Wallace Beery wrastlin' picture under their belt. In giddy anticipation of Netflix's new GLOW series, I sampled some of the non-Coen Bros wrestling flicks (male and female) I'd been meaning to get to over the course of the last few weeks. Here's how that particular bout panned out...


NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) - Jules Dassin

Richard Widmark plays a desperate, degenerate con man trying to finesse his way to the top of a profitable London wrestling promotion. Though this film focuses more on the scheming done outside the ring, there is one prolonged bout between Polish wrestling legend Stanislaus Zbyszko (where WWF champ Larry Zbyszko got his name) and Cauliflower Alley Club founder Mike Mazurki, a match which ends in eventual death. Noir master Jules Dassin (Rififi, Topkapi) leaves the intricately plotted heists at home this go-round but doubles down on the bleak, bleak, bleak. If you like your wrestling depressing and your protagonists on the weaselly side (Widmark, sweating with opportunism even more than the brutes in the ring), this one may be for you. 


PARADISE ALLEY (1978) - Sylvester Stallone

Despite being a huge Stallone/Rocky/Rambo fan as a kid, I somehow managed to get through life never seeing his first directorial effort and only wrestling movie...unless you count the Hulk Hogan scenes in Rocky III and, yes, all the arm wrestling in Over The Top. Had I heard bad things? Maybe. Whatever the reason, it was unsound. Because--surprise of surprises--Paradise Alley is actually pretty good! Is it original Rocky good? No, not by a long shot. But it's definitely a few notches above Rocky V, maybe even Rocky Balboa

Stallone plays the fast-talking hustler in a trio of Hell's Kitchen brothers. Armand Assante is the jaded war veteran older bro, and Lee Canalito is the soft-spoken Brando-ish younger brute who Stallone pimps out as a babyface champ ("Kid Salami"). There are a few great scenes with Stallone and an organ grinder monkey and a brief appearance by Tom Waits as the indecipherable local piano man Mumbles (unfortunately Waits and the small simian don't get much shared screen time). There's also a well-lensed and choreographed end match where Kid Salami takes on WWF legend Terry Funk in a rain-drenched wrestling ring (lots of slo-mo splashing). So why did Paradise fail to make the splash that the Rockys did? I guess, post-Italian Stallion, audiences had trouble buying Stallone as a fast-talking anything. In casting himself as the brains and not the braun, he alienated the fan base he'd built overnight. Not to worry. He snagged them right back the next year with his second directorial jab...Rocky II.


BLOOD & GUTS (1978) - Paul Lynch

If you've ever thought to yourself, "Where is the wrestling version of Fat City I so long for?" or, better still, "Where is the Canuxploitation wrestling version of Fat City I so long for, ay?" then this movie may be the answer to your poutine-soaked dreams. Veteran tough guy William Smith (he of Cronenberg's Fast Company and the dude who went mano y mano with Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can) plays an aging low-rent circuit wrestler whose already shitty world goes even more to shit with the arrival of a new buff blonde upstart. Smith takes him under his wing in the ring, but his thanks for showing this whipper snapper the ropes? The ingrate sleeps with his girlfriend and starts taking all his gigs! As you might guess, alcohol consumption and angina diagnoses also factor heavily into Smith's misery. This one's not quite as polished as Aronofsky's take on similar material 30 years later, but it's a fine '70s "loser movie" all the same.


THE ONE AND ONLY (1978) - Carl Reiner

For those who prefer their '70s wrestling flicks lighter and with more HervĂ© Villechaize, don't worry, the director of The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains has your back. Henry Winkler plays a profoundly narcissistic stage actor named Andy Schmidt who browbeats his hometown Ohio girlfriend Mary (Kim Darby) into moving to NYC to pursue his big Broadway dreams. When Mary gets preggers and  Andy can't get a respectable acting gig, he turns to pro wrestling with a little help from fellow struggling actor and part-time dwarf wrestler Milton (Villechaize). After trying on a bunch of wrestling personas, Andy finally strikes gold with a Gorgeous George styled Lothario character. Winkler and HervĂ© make a fine comic tag-team, but this is definitely a lesser Reiner effort. It's more rom-com than slam-com, and there isn't much body work for WWE die-hards to chew on.


BELOW THE BELT (1980) - Robert Fowler

As the first ladies wrestling movie on my watch card, I really wanted to like this one. Sadly, the unbearable music montages (there are many) and the lackluster direction in stitching them together killed my enthusiasm within the first fifteen minutes. Regina Braff plays an NYC waitress whose bad experiences with deadbeat men propel her into the ring...to fight other women. The Honeymoon Killers' Shirley Stoler is on hand as a veteran grappler to offer sage advice, some bonding and a bit of a boost to Braff's otherwise sleepy lead performance. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to contend with my own Mid-Movie Snooze.


...ALL THE MARBLES (1981) - Robert Aldrich

This women's wrestling comedy with the unwieldy, ellipsis-laden title used to play on HBO all the time when I was a young lad. I caught bits and pieces on the sly when I could, but the R rating made it a tough sneak since it only came on later in the evening when the family TV was off-limits to impressionable eyes. Finally peeped in full, I'm pleased to report that it's a top-shelf women's wrestling picture. Peter Falk is great (as always) as Harry, the crusty manager of the California Dolls with a talent for living lean on the road and a yen for listening to Pagliacci cassettes in between. His chemistry with his two lady wrestlers is paternal but mostly in that Cool Older Dad sorta way. California Dolls Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon hold their own against the Cassavetes/Columbo pro and make for a solid, believable tag-team on the canvas. This was veteran director Aldrich's last film, and though it's lighter fare than a lot of his earlier classics (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, etc.) he brings a master craftsman's hand to all the in-ring scenes. Definitely recommended for GLOW fans and wrestling aficionados in general.


MY BREAKFAST WITH BLASSIE (1983) - 
Linda Lautrec & Johnny Legend

Andy Kaufman's hour-long pro wrestling spin on My Dinner With Andre mostly involves him talking to wrestling legend Fred Blassie about personal hygiene habits, their shared reluctance to shake hands with fans, and Blassie's disturbing insistence on rubbing their pregnant waitress's belly for luck time and again. Kaufman doesn't wrestle any women in the Sambo's Diner where they meet for brunch in downtown L.A. But he does insult a table of ladies who ask for his autograph. He then cajoles the most attractive one for her phone number ("I'm a famous actor. I'm play Latka on Taxi. You should know me.") Though there's no actual wrestling involved, Kaufman and Blassie do nearly get vomited on by a weird restaurant patron (Bob Zmuda, in disguise). The barely suppressed joy on Kaufman's face watching this whole staged stunt unfold is worth the price of admission.


BODY SLAM (1986) - Hal Needham

Stuntman turned director Hal Needham brings his Cannonball Run approach to the world of professional wrestling. In a nutshell, pack your movie with as many stars  as possible and hope no one notices how dull it is. Roddy Piper, Captain Lou Albano, Ric Flair, The Samoans, Tanya Roberts (Sheena!), Billy Barty, Charles Nelson Reilly, to name a few.  The problem here is you don't have charming rake Burt Reynolds at the center of all the chaos. Who do you get instead? The A-Team's "Faceman" Dirk Benedict as a wheeler dealer rock promoter turned wrestling hack. His character falls somewhere between not sleazy enough to be interesting and not charming enough to be a leading man. The movie itself doubles as a feature-length promotion for the WWF and a less than memorable rock band named Kick. What?! You don't remember Kick?! Maybe this bitchin' track will refresh your memory.


NO HOLDS BARRED (1989) - Thomas J. Wright

If the wrestling scenes in Rocky III didn't slake your Hulkamaniac thirst, this agreeable goof of a movie arrived seven years later to wring every last nickel out of the walking/sweating/flexing '80s corporation known as Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea. Here Bollea plays "Rip Thomas," a thinly veiled version of his superstar Hulk Hogan WWF/WWE persona. Tiny Lister plays his in-ring nemesis Zeus, though the storyline is much more concerned with his feuds outside the squared circle with Vince McMahon stand-in Brell (Kurt Fuller). As a McMahon financed production, the wrestling scenes are solid, and most everything else that requires "legit acting" is unintentionally hilarious. There's a particularly amusing scene in which the Hulkster has to grieve at the bedside of his hospitalized brother, which reminded me of high school production of the Tom Cruise-Jason Robards scene in Magnolia. The Hulkster also gets a few meet-cute moments with love interest Joan Severance. One involves them platonically sharing a motel room bed and the Hulkster constructing a gentlemanly curtain to separate them. The whole time I couldn't help but wonder: How are they going to shoot around that obstruction for the sex tape?


LIPSTICK & DYNAMITE, PISS AND VINEGAR: 
THE FIRST LADIES OF WRESTLING (2004) - Ruth Leitman

Without a doubt the best women's wrestling doc I've seen. These feisty octogenarians are the real deal women who started it all, overcoming decades of sexism, domestic abuse, homophobia, racism (you name the cultural offense, they battled it) to stake their claim to the ring. GLOW might be fun, but this is the more sobering side of that same story. And, seriously, does any male wrestler come tougher than The Fabulous Moolah or Mae Young? Tell me, Stone Cold Steve Austin, when was the last time you gave birth to a human hand?


THE WRESTLER (2008) - Darren Aronofsky

It's almost been a decade. I was due for a re-watch. Still my favorite "real life" wrestling movie of all time. Mickey and Aronofsky bringing the pain (and the metal) like nobody else can.


GLOW: THE STORY OF THE GORGEOUS LADIES 
OF WRESTLING (2012) - Brett Whitcomb

As documentaries go, this one's a mini flyweight, but it's a nice primer for the Netflix series, if for nothing else than to gauge all the "dramatic license" storyline changes that were made. Emily "Mt. Fiji" Dole's story is the most touching, and it was interesting to learn that B-movie director and Pia Zadora spouse Matt Cimber was the dude who Marc Maron's character was based upon.


GLOW (2017) - Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch

Finally, the main event. How was Netflix's 10 episode take on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling? It's just as much fun as it should be, so much so that I binged all ten in the course of two days. Alison Brie plays nicely against type. Betty Gilpin is a true find (at least to me...I'd never heard of her previously). Brit chanteuse Kate Nash is the series' secret weapon. And, surprise, Marc Maron can actually act a little bit. I'm not sure how many seasons this thing can go before the premise develops ring rash, but, if it's anything like the first one, I'm good for at least one or two more bumps. Recommended for fans of wrestling, women's wrestling, and the fairer sex in general.

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