Andre the Giant


Andre the Giant in action against Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Vince McMahon, Rob Reiner, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, Shane McMahon, Gene Okerlund, Dave Meltzer, Antoine Roussimoff, Noel Matteos, Dr. Terry Todd, Gino Brito, David Shoemaker, Dr. Harris Yett, Jackie McAuley, Hortense Roussimoff. Directed by Jason Hehir

 

In the 1980s professional wrestling took off from essentially a group of regional promotions into a massive worldwide phenomena thanks largely to the aegis of the WWE (known as the World Wrestling Federation at the time until the World Wildlife Fund objected to the use of their initials) and some of the wrestlers in it. I have to say that I was a wrestling fan back then and watched regularly Monday Night Raw and the other wrestling programs that the WWE and to a lesser extent the NWA ran to keep the ravenous fans sated.

Remembering the big stars of that era – Hulk Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, Demolition, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Iron Sheikh, Nikolai Volkoff, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ravishing Rick Ruud, Ric Flair, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Sting, Arn Anderson, Ted DiBiase, Jesse Ventura – I remember them all and more.

While Hogan was the biggest superstar of his time in terms of popularity, the most unforgettable wrestler of that era had to be Andre the Giant. Born Andre René Roussimoff in the small village of Molien in France, he began experiencing unusual growth spurts due to gigantism; by the time he was 12 he was larger than most adults.

Most of our portraits of Andre as a young man come from family photos and recollections of his siblings. The family, who worked (and still work) a farm in Molien were close-knit; in one poignant moment near the end of the film his brother shows off the chair that his mother built for her growing son. It is empty now but the care that went in to making her son comfortable in a world which largely wasn’t geared towards making people of a certain size comfortable is touching.

The footage of Andre’s early career is absolutely astounding. Most of us have only seen him in the latter stages of his career when the pain from his acromegaly (which developed from his gigantism) and of course the constant toll on the body that professional wrestling takes made any sort of movement excruciatingly painful.

There is a lot of interview footage here, but as far as Andre himself is concerned it is almost all given in his in-ring persona. He was a private man outside the ring and other than one 60 Minutes interview he rarely allowed people in. A lot of insight comes from his wrestling colleagues, although much of the subject regards his extraordinary appetites for food, women and booze. Andre loved to party after a wrestling match and was known to drink as many as 106 beers in a single night; drinking a case of wine wasn’t unusual for him either.

The more poignant material talks about Andre having difficulties getting into cars, hotel beds, and planes. He was simply unable to use an airplane bathroom and considering how much flying he had to do as part of his brutal wrestling travel schedule he often ended up having to hold it, sometimes for hours. He loved the adulation of the fans but there was no escaping it – when you’re his size you can’t escape anything.

Many people know Andre from his role as Fezzig in The Princess Bride and while two of his co-stars and the director talk about his time on the show (by which time his physical deterioration was making it nearly impossible for him to do his own stunts) the beloved movie only takes up about five minutes of screen time in Andre’s story.

Andre died in a Paris Hotel room on January 27, 1993 of a heart attack brought on by his gigantism. He was just 46 years old but had made an indelible mark on the world – and not just the world of wrestling. Always a gentle giant and recalled fondly by friends and family, he was the sort to go out of his way to make his fellow wrestlers look good. His epic battle with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III – one of the last matches he would wrestle as it turned out – is still thought by many to be the best professional wrestling match ever.

The movie will be a godsend for pro wrestling fans but even those who aren’t particularly fond of the squared circle will find something to enjoy in this well-made documentary that looks back at the life of a gentle giant. Great footage, engaging interviews and a marvelous subject are sometimes all it takes to make a good documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, the movie documents the difficulties in day-to-day living Andre had to experience. Some of the footage is phenomenal.
REASONS TO STAY: We get a lot of Andre’s on-screen persona but not a whole lot about who he was off-camera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action and violence as well as some bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original nom de wrestling for Andre Roussimoff was Jean Ferré, a kind of French Paul Bunyan which was later changed to Géant Ferré. American promoters were unwilling to market him under that name because it sounded too much like “Giant Fairy” so Andre the Giant was born.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
The Cloverfield Paradox

Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press


Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) runs out of fingers to count how many pro wrestling titles he’s won.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, A.J. Daulerio, Charles Harder, David Folkenflik, Peter Thiel, David Birenspan, John Cook, David Carr, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Leslie Savan, Will Alden, Ryan Mac, Matt Drange, Elizabeth Spiers, James Wright, Hike Hengel, John L. Smith, Jennifer Robison. Directed by Brian Knappenberger

 

Long considered one of the pillars of democracy, a free and independent press acted as a check on the powerful; their job to shine the light of truth on those who would keep things hidden in the darkness. In recent years, the press has come under attack particularly by our current President who has gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people.”

It is easy for someone like myself to take umbrage; after all, I spent almost 15 years in the newspaper business and continue as a writer and a commentator albeit as a movie reviewer. Still, the Free Press tends to be something of a sacred trust to me and people like me. It is sometimes easy to forget that the state of the media has changed radically. Gone are the days of local newspapers being crusaders; most newspapers are owned by corporate interests and are expected to turn a profit which has become increasingly difficult in this age of the Internet. Some of the charges brought against the Media aren’t without merit.

This documentary, which played Sundance last year and has been playing on Netflix since not long after that, examines the assault on the Press from three vantages. The first and most lengthy is coverage of the Gawker Hulk Hogan sex tape suit. Gawker was something of a tabloid website that specialized in lurid news stories that mainstream outlets wouldn’t touch. When a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan getting busy with his friend shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife, Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) requested that the tape be taken down. When Gawker refused, Hogan sued. Getting a judge who once represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in that heart-wrenching case, the judgment went against the website, to the tune of $140 million (which was later negotiated down to $31 million). The result was that Gawker declared bankruptcy and their media empire (which included other websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo) were sold to Latin media giant Univision and Gawker was quietly shut down.

The film portrays the website and its British founder Nick Denton as crusaders for the free press, but that’s a bit misleading. Media critic the late David Carr of the New York Times once referred to the site as “The Mean Girls of journalism.” The question that is brought up but not really addressed is that where privacy get superseded by the right of the press to report the news. David Houston, Bollea’s lawyer, successfully argued that Hulk Hogan having sex is not news and on that I would agree.

After the judgment is handed down, it is revealed that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and former founder of Pay Pal) Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, who was once outed by Gawker and wanted to not only see them taken down a peg but to be driven out of existence which he was successful in doing. This is troubling particularly when the next segment, the surprise 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by mysterious buyers.

The reporters at the newspaper of record for Sin City are told to do their jobs and not worry about who owns the paper but that is like waving bloody red meat in the face of a starving wolf. Soon the investigative journalists at the newspaper discover that the purchaser is GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian and one of the biggest financial supporters of Republican political candidates next to the Koch Brothers. He essentially wanted to buy the paper to control the news coming out about his casino and business dealings.

These are troubling trends that billionaires dissatisfied with the coverage about them can simply buy the news and then have their own agenda  become part of the media landscape. Knappenberger most certainly brings up some very important and troubling questions; unfortunately he gets a bit preachy towards the end which dilutes his point quite a bit. Still, in these times where the press is being demonized, it behooves us to understand the forces behind the campaign to discredit the media. While no newspaper reporter is ever truly unbiased, there is at least an expectation that the facts will be verifiable and correct. The fact that now we seem to prefer to get our news from echo chambers rather than from sources that at least place value on the truth is something that could end up destroying our country from within.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a worthwhile one. There’s plenty of detail in the information presented. There are some unexpected twists and turns. It’s a chilling look at how the First Amendment has been systematically eroded.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers get a little preachy towards the end. There’s a little too much quick-cutting for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it did get a brief theatrical run followed by it’s Netflix debut in June of last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tabloid
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Wrinkle in Time

Gnomeo and Juliet


Gnomeo & Juliet

Featherstone engages in a little light bondage with Gnomeo and Juliet.

(2011) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Dolly Parton, Stephen Merchant, Richard Wilson. Directed by Kelly Asbury

If the play’s the thing, then Romeo and Juliet may just be THE thing. Perhaps the most famous play ever written, it has been told and re-told in all sorts of cinematic methods, from musicals (West Side Story) to epics (Zeffirelli’s 1968 version) to mistakes (Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 MTV-hip version). However, I can’t think of any version that is quite as bizarro as this one.

Mr. Montague (Wilson) and Miss Capulet (Waters) live at 2B and Not 2B Verona Avenue. They have had a petty rivalry going on over the years stemming from their gardens. This resentment has carried over to their garden furniture, particularly the garden gnomes that populate their yards. On the Montague side, Lord Redbrick (Caine) rules the red gnomes; on the Capulet, Lady Bluebury (Smith) is the boss.

Gnomeo (McAvoy) is son of Lady Bluebury; Juliet (Blunt) daughter of Lord Redbrick. The endless rivalry that goes on, largely in the form of lawnmower races between Gnomeo and Tybalt (Statham) which Tybalt cheats in order to win, has been escalating. Juliet, tired of being cooped up on a pedestal watched over by Nanette (Jensen), a frog fountain at the behest of Juliet’s overprotective dad, wants to contribute and be productive; she spies a rare orchid in the hothouse of a neighboring yard whose house has fallen into disrepair. She means to nab it for the Reds in order to put the red yard ahead of the blue.

In the meantime, Gnomeo means to exact revenge for Tybalt’s destruction of the Blue lawnmower. He and his cousin Benny (Lucas) go on a stealth mission to the Red yard, meaning to lay down some graffiti but Benny gets a bit carried away and the two are discovered. They flee and Gnomeo is forced to take shelter in the abandoned yard.

It is of course at that moment that Juliet, dressed as a ninja (okay, wearing one of Mr. Montague’s old socks) enters the abandoned yard to nab the orchid. Gnomeo sees her go after it and in the way of guys everywhere, once he sees somebody wants something he wants it too. The two of them compete for the flower in a series of martial arts-like moves until they get a gander at each other’s faces. That’s it – instant love. However, they fall into a convenient pond, washing off Gnomeo’s camouflage and washing away Juliet’s sock and they realize that they are from opposing sides.

That doesn’t mean much to true love however and they arrange a meeting in the neutral yard the next day. There they meet Featherstone (Cummings), a plastic pink flamingo who has languished in the storage shed since the owners of the house divorced and went their separate ways years ago. He is pleased to see them, particularly when they discover his missing leg. He is all about love, particularly since his own love was taken away from him in the divorce.

The two are definitely in love and life could certainly be idyllic, particularly if they follow through with their plans to run away and start a new garden in the dilapidated old yard. However, Tybalt is getting out of control and the war between red and blue is escalating and frankly, red is winning. However, the blue side looks to even things out with something called the Terrafirminator. The more out of control things get, the more likely that a tragic ending is  inevitable.

This is one of those nice occasions where my expectations were exceeded. I didn’t think much of the trailer; the animation isn’t really ground-breaking and while the whole concept is different to say the least, it is sufficiently out there that sight unseen it left me with a kind of wait-and-see attitude. Quite frankly, Da Queen was far more jazzed to see this than I was. I’m very glad that she insisted we go see it.

This is more than pretty good. There are many sly Shakespearean references (“Out! Damn spot!” refers not to a bloodstain but to a wayward hound) as well as some amazing stunt casting, like metal god Ozzie Osbourne as a sweet porcelain deer, and Patrick Stewart as a grumpy William Shakespeare. Hulk Hogan narrates an online ad for the Terrafirminator and Dolly Parton adds a turn as the starter at the lawnmower race (with an appropriately blonde and large-breasted gnome as her onscreen alter ego).  

Director Kelly Asbury previously worked on such disparate projects as Shrek 2 and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron.  He shows a deft hand here and despite an army of writers, lends a Monty Python-esque air to the proceedings.

Elton John was the executive producer of the project and most of the incidental music is themes from his hit songs done with an orchestra. That does make for a nice trip down memory lane, not to mention he contributes two new original songs (one a duet with Lady Gaga) but I would have preferred a little more original music – maybe another song or two – to balance the retreads.  

There aren’t nearly the pop culture references so prevalent in most animated features in the post-Shrek era which is kind of refreshing. It has a decidedly English feel, like the Aardman films (like Chicken Run and Flushed Away). In short, this is something completely different from the animated ranks, so much so that Disney chose to release it through their Touchstone imprint rather than the parent company where they usually place their animated features. That may backfire on them – I suspect that the film might have benefitted from the Disney marketing and brand name, but still in all don’t let its lack stop you – this is a fine animated feature that will delight children and adults alike.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful Shakespeare in-jokes replace pop culture references. Nicely cast (and drawn) cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Music recycles Elton John themes ad infinitum – some more original music and songs would have been welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart have both played Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies; Stewart in the first three (and the Wolverine spin-off) and McAvoy in the upcoming X-Men: First Class.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the 3D aspect may work better in the theater, but this one looks just as good at home methinks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Other End of the Line

Bigger Stronger Faster*


Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

To get these kind of muscles, you really gotta hustle.

(2008) Documentary (Magnolia) Christopher Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Sheldon Bell, Rosemary Bell, Stan Lee, Lyle Alzado, Hulk Hogan, Joe Biden, Will Harris, Greg Valentino. Directed by Christopher Bell

America loves a winner, General George Patton tells us, and can’t abide a loser. This is a truth that is central in understanding the American character. We all know what the American dream is; but what is the American ideal?

Filmmaker Christopher Bell knows. As a boy growing up in Poughkeepsie, he and his brothers worshipped the same things that other boys growing up in the 1980s worshipped; Rambo, Hulk Hogan, the Terminator. He wanted to be just like them, as his brothers Mike and Mark also did. When it came out that their bodies weren’t developed naturally but had a little help from steroids, at first he was devastated. However, that understanding brought all three of the boys to the same conclusion; if that’s what it takes to get those kinds of bodies, then that’s what they had to do.

In fact it wasn’t the muscular bodies themselves that the Bell boys craved but what came with it; success and victory, victory in weightlifting competitions and professional wrestling matches. They wanted to be famous and admired. What they got instead was a lifetime of frustration. Professional wrestling is a tough business to achieve glory in and the Bell brothers made little headway. Brief careers in World Wrestling Entertainment did not yield the expected results.

The movie addresses calmly and rationally the entire steroid and performance enhancement issue. Steroids are illegal in this country without a prescription and the purpose of building muscle is not considered a valid reason for prescribing them medically. However, unlike other drugs with similar prohibitions, there are no narcotic elements to steroids. There’s no evidence that steroids are especially harmful (Lyle Alzado’s assertions that steroids caused his brain tumor to the contrary) and quite frankly, the whole concept of “Roid Rage” which allegedly fueled pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s homicidal rampage has no medical basis.

The real issue with steroids, Bell alleges, is far more insidious. It is the buying into the culture of competitive edge, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It drives athletes – where, the movie alleges, steroid us is commonplace from the professional level on down – to use whatever edge they can find to be successful.

Then-Senator Joe Biden called steroids “Un-American,” but as Greg Valentino, a steroid user asserts, “Steroids are as American as apple pie.” Self-proclaimed with the largest biceps in the world, Valentino is something of a freak. Although muscular, his biceps are so large that it is unattractive which Valentino cheerfully admits. For him, it’s not about attracting the ladies for Valentino; it’s about being the biggest. He certainly attracts male admirers who think the man is a legend. His interviews in the movie are some of the most entertaining; Valentino is a naturally charismatic guy.

The movie’s at its best when it concentrates on the effects of steroids on the families of the brothers. Their parents were unaware of the boys’ steroid use and the news of it was devastating to them. Mike’s wife is concerned with the use of the steroids; she wants another baby and steroids decrease fertility. Mike promises to stop using them when he lifts 700 pounds, an achievement he does eventually attain. However, whether or not he keeps that promise is very much up in the air.

Like documentarian Michael Moore, Bell tells his story very specifically, using a lot of facts – and a fair amount of humor – to illustrate his points. However, Moore’s pieces haven’t been personal since Roger and Me; this is Bell’s family story and it obviously is very important to him. That investment is what makes this documentary special. Whether or not the subject interests you, the glimpse into an American family – and seeing what the American ideal has done to it – is more than worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-made, rational and sober examination on the use of steroids and its impact on a single American family. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Near the end the filmmakers try to tackle a little too much of a range; the movie is better when it focuses on the Bell family.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie is about the consumption of what are now illegal drugs in the United States, so you do the math. There is also some sexual content and a bit of everyday foul language as well as some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was compiled from over 400 hours of filmed interviews and 600 hours of archival footage.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Shoot ’em Up