The Brawler (2019, directed by Ken Kushner)

The Brawler is a biopic of boxer Chuck Wepner (adequately played by Zach McGowan).  A resident of Bayonne, New Jersey and nicknamed “The Bleeder” because of how much he usually bled in the ring, Wepner was the first boxer to face Muhammad Ali (played by Jerrod Page, who looks and sounds like Ali but who has none of his fabled charisma) after Ali’s famous defeat of George Foreman.  No one gave Wepner much of a chance.  Ali barely bothered to train for the match and falsely accused Wepner of using racial slurs while talking to him.  To everyone’s shock, Wepner not only went 15 rounds with the champ but he even knocked Ali off of his feet.  Wepner ultimately lost the fight but he won the hearts of many of the people watching.  He also inspired Sylvester Stallone to write and star in a movie called Rocky.

Though he was famous being “the Real Rocky,” Wepner initially didn’t make a dime off of Rocky or any of the sequels that followed.  While Stallone became a superstar, Wepner got addicted to cocaine, fought exhibition matches against Andre the Giant and a bear, and finally ended up in prison.  After getting out of prison, Wepner returned to his old job of selling liquor and made money signing memorabilia.  After he nearly got arrested as a part of a fraudulent autograph scam, Wepner finally took Stallone to court and sued for the money that he felt Stallone owed him.  Stallone settled, making Chuck Wepner the only man to go the distance with both Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stallone.

If the plot of The Brawler sounds familiar, maybe you’ve seen one of the many documentaries that have been made about Chuck Wepner.  Or maybe you saw Chuck, a 2016 film about Chuck Wepner that starred Liev Schrieber.  The Brawler hits all of the same points as Chuck, so much so that it almost feels like an unofficial remake.  (Both films even features a voice-over narration from the actor playing Chuck.)  The main difference between the two films is that The Brawler spends a lot more time on Wepner’s time as a drug addict and it also portrays Stallone (played unconvincingly by Anthony Mangano) in a much more negative light.  Even though Wepner screws up every opportunity that he’s offered (including a chance to appear in Rocky II), it’s Stallone who is portrayed as being a villain because he didn’t always return Wepner’s calls and Stallone’s assistants were sometimes rude.  While Chuck spends all of time whining about how unfair his life is, Stallone comes across as being often clueless but hardly malicious in the way he treated Chuck.  It’s not easy to make a Hollywood superstar into a more sympathetic character than the poor underdog who is suing for the money that he’s owed for inspiring one of the most successful franchises of all time but The Brawler manages to pull it off.  In Chuck, Wepner is an inspiring underdog who never lets life keep him down.  In The Brawler, Wepner is a self-destructive child who lets down everyone who tries to help him.  When it comes to Chuck vs The Brawler, it’s Chuck by a clear knock-out.

The most interesting thing about The Brawler is that Burt Young has a cameo as a man watching the Wepner/Ali fight in a bar.  You have to wonder how Stallone felt about that.  Et tu, Paulie?

Retro Television Reviews: Fantasy Island 2.20 “Birthday Party/Ghostbreaker”

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Tuesdays, I will be reviewing the original Fantasy Island, which ran on ABC from 1977 to 1986.  The entire show is currently streaming on Tubi!

This week, Mr. Roarke reunites a family and arranges for a man to battle a “ghost.”

Episode 2.20 “Birthday Party/Ghostbreaker”

(Dir by Cliff Bole, originally aired on March 3rd, 1979)

This week, Tattoo has both a joy buzzer and a pink carnation that squirts water.  He explains to Mr. Roarke that he read somewhere the women love a man with a sense of humor.  “I want to be the king of humor on Fantasy Island,” he explains.

“Lucky us,” Mr. Roarke replies while dramatically rolling his eyes and reminding viewers of just how much he despises his scene-stealing assistant.

As for the two fantasies, this is another episode where the fantasies don’t really seem like they should be happening on the same island.  One is rather serious.  The other is a bit cartoonish.

The first guest to get off the plane is Elliott Fielding (Ken Berry), a librarian who believes in ghosts and who is pretty sure that he knows how to exorcise a ghost from a haunted location.  He’s so confident that he’s even written a book about it.  However, because Elliott has never actually seen a ghost, no one is willing to publish his book.  Elliott’s fantasy is to exorcise a real ghost and prove that his theories are true.  Mr. Roarke obliges by taking him to a mansion that Roarke explains was once occupied by a murderer known as the Gentleman Strangler.  Now, however, it’s a private all-girls boarding school!  (This is one of those episodes that leaves the viewer wondering just what exactly Fantasy Island is exactly.  When the show started, it was just a resort.  Now, it appears to have become a thriving nation, home to not only industry but also an exclusive boarding school.)

The school’s students have been reporting sightings of the ghost of the Gentleman Strangler.  Elliott sets out to exorcise the ghost and along the way, he falls in love with the school’s headmistress (Annette Funicello).  He also finds an enemy in the form of the school’s fencing instructor (Larry Storch).  Oddly there aren’t any other teachers at the school so I guess the students just spend all of their learning how to fence.

This was an odd fantasy because, on the one hand, you had this ghost potentially threatening to strangle a bunch of teenage girls and, on the other hand, you had the very broad comedy of Ken Berry and Larry Storch facing off.  Of course, it turns out that there really wasn’t a ghost haunting the school so, at first, it appears that Elliott’s fantasy didn’t come true.  However, after Elliott leaves, Roarke explains to Tattoo that Elliott actually did meet a ghost when he had a conversation with a helpful handyman.  That probably would have been a good thing to let Elliott know before he left but …. well, Mr. Roarke does what he wants.  If there’s any lesson to be learned from watching Fantasy Island, it’s that Mr. Roarke makes the rules and it is best to never question his arbitrary decisions.

Meanwhile, Carol Gates (Janet Leigh) comes to the island to be reunited with the twins (Skye Aubrey and Christopher Stone) that she gave up for her adoption.  I was expecting the twins to reject her or to be angry.  Instead, with her support, her son gets signed to a football team and her daughter decides not give her own children up for adoption.  Yay!  It was a bit of an easy fantasy, with little of the drama that I was expecting.  But Janet Leigh was a talented actress and she’s good here, bringing a lot of genuine emotion the story.

The fantasies were a bit mismatched but I like ghost stories (even when they’re a bit silly) and Janet Leigh is one of my favorite actresses so this trip to Fantasy Island was worth it.

Sony joins the race in the Gran Turismo trailer!

Ever since 2014’s Need for Speed, I’ve been waiting for Sony’s Gran Turismo to finally come up with a movie of it’s own. And now, thanks to Neill Blomkamp (Elysium, Chappie), it looks like we have one. Archie Madekwe (Midsommar) stars as Jann, a gamer who loves the racing game Gran Turismo. When a tournament arises, giving players the chance to drive real cars in an actual race, can Jann be the best racer around?

Gran Turismo also stars Djimon Honsou (Shazam!), David Harbour (Violent Night), Orlando Bloom (Kingdom of Heaven) and Geri Halliwell (Crank: High Voltage). Now, we just need a Forza Motorsport film to complete the set.

The film is due in theatres this August.

Film Review: Punishment Park (dir by Peter Watkins)

The 1971 “pseudo-documentary”, Punishment Park, imagines an alternative America that still feels very familiar.

With America paralyzed by continuing protests against racism, economic inequality, and the war in Viet Nam, President Richard Nixon declares a state of emergency and invokes the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950.  The law (which is a real law and still on the books, by the way) allows the federal government to detain anyone who is deemed a risk to national security.  Anti-government activists are rounded up and put on trial before “community tribunals,” which are made up of a combination of military officers, politicians, businessmen, and housewives.  Though the arrested are given a chance to defend themselves against the charges, there’s never any doubt that each trial will end with a conviction.  Those convicted are given two options.  They can either serve their entire sentence in federal prison.  Or they can spend three days in Punishment Park.

Most of them make the mistake of picking Punishment Park.

What is Punishment Park?  It’s 53 miles of California desert.  Detainees have got three days to cross the desert, without food or water.  If they make it to the American flag at the end of Punishment Park, they will be given their freedom.  However, along with having to deal with the extreme heat, the detainees are also going to be pursued by a group of police officers and National Guardsmen.  If the detainees are caught before reaching the flag, they’ll be sent to prison.  The detainees are given a head start but it soon becomes apparent that the head start doesn’t count much for much when you’re in the desert without water.  It also becomes apparent that Punishment Park is much more about revenge and reminding people of their place than it is about justice.  The rules of Punishment Park only apply to the detainees.

As he did with the majority of his films (including the Oscar-winning The War Game), director Peter Watkins presents the film as being a documentary.  Though they’re never seen onscreen, we hear the voices of the British and German film crews asking questions to both the detainees and the people pursuing them.  (We also occasionally hear them protesting the brutality of what they’re witnessing, though the cops and soldiers are quick to point out that they really don’t care what a bunch of Europeans thinks about their actions.)  The film cuts back and forth from one group being chased through Punishment Park and another group being put on trial and eventually convicted.  Watkins cast the film with amateur actors, with the detainees being played by actual anti-war activists while many of the people pursuing them were played by actual guardsmen and police officers.  Watkins has subsequently started that the attitudes and the hostilities of the people in the film were mirrored off-screen by those playing them as well.  Much like the Stanford Prison Experiment, every one was more than willing to play their roles.  It brings a much-needed authenticity to the film’s alternative history.  (Interestingly enough, it also leads to several of the detainees coming across as being a bit annoying, as people who are convinced of their own righteousness tend to be.  The important thing is that they’re authentically annoying.  Even 50 years after the film was shot, both camps are full of people who still seem familiar.)  Ironically, the film’s biggest weakness is that everyone seems to be so genuinely worried about whether or not they’ll survive the trek through the desert that it’s difficult to believe that they would actually stop moving so they could have a conversation with the documentary crew.

Still, whatever flaws the film may have, Punishment Park feels sickeningly plausible.  In our current era of rising authoritarianism, militarization, reckless accusations of treason, and cries to set aside the Constitution so that “enemies” can be stripped of their rights, Punishment Park continues to feel frighteningly relevant today.

The Problematic Covers of Fire Fighters

In 1929, a pulp magazine called Fire Fighters hit the stands.  Published by Hersey Magazines, it featured stories about the men who fought to put out fires.  It only ran for three issues and today, it is best-known for the publisher’s unfortune corporate logo.  Before it was appropriated by the Nazis, the swastika was a widely recognized religious and philosophical symbol.  When Hersey adopted it as their corporate logo and branded it as being “the symbol of good reading,” they had no idea what the future would hold.  Hersey would later change their corporate logo to a four-leaf clover.

There were only three issues of Fire Fighters.  All three of the covers were done by Walter Baumhofer.