Review: The Pretender

Cinema: The Pretender (2017)

Attending the 2019 Manchester Film Festival (review here), it was a delight to watch the UK premiere of The Pretender. It was proceeded by 3 short films:

Little Miss Sumo:

In Japan women are not allowed to be professional Sumo wrestlers and are only allowed to wrestle in school and college up to the age of 21. After that they must retire. Of course all tournaments take place IN Japan which means that ALL women worldwide cannot participate after 21. This is because the sumo ring itself is a religious area, and possibly (this is a guess on my part) along with other sacrosanct areas women are banned because of ‘ancient’ menstruation fears.

The story follows likeable, hard working Hiyori Non who hopes to win a national contest and highlight her and many others, plight of gender ‘prevention’.

Succinctly and emotionally told and beautifully filmed by Matthew Kay, he is a name to watch out for in the future.

Handmade Film:

A very short look at how one woman’s love of the moving image has inspired her to create unique pieces of moving art using reels of film, which she then coats in her own handmade emulsions.

The results vary wildly in their texture and tone, and it gives an intriguing insight into how film can be used in creating moving pieces of art.

The Traffic Separating Device:

Only 15 minutes long and in Swedish, this shows just how stupid people are. A traffic separating device is installed in the middle of Stockholm to allow only buses into a certain area. Of course humans, being stupid and entitled, ignore all the warnings and drive over this contraption, writing off their car in the process.

Short and sweet and incredibly funny. Nice to see people are stupid wherever they’re from!

Then it was time to watch The Pretender:

Rocky: much loved by 99.9% of the world’s male population, is somewhat misinterpreted as an ‘action’ film by a lot of people, when in fact Rocky is possibly one the most romantic stories ever immortalised on celluloid.

It tells the tale of an ordinary man, perhaps not the sharpest tool in the box, who through determination and the love of a good woman, conquers the world of boxing. A shaggy dog story that later becomes an epic family saga, of success, loss, eternal love and self-belief, and of course having the American dream. A film that over the years has resonated with all sorts of people, from all over the world. The character of Rocky Balboa; sensitive, heroic, and good, is a father figure and inspiration. I don’t think there is a film character that can equal the emotions stirred up by this particular creation of Sylvester Stallone.

Dave is (as we all know, infinitum) obsessed with Sylvester Stallone, and though I accept he’s responsible for several good films, including most the Rocky’s, some of the Rambo’s and my personal (I’m serious by the way) favourite; Rhinestone (okay, and Copland), I have never had ‘deep’ feelings for him as a filmmaker. He’s been in some hugely enjoyable films, but he hasn’t got the gravitas of say, Clint Eastwood. However, there is Rocky, and that one film is a beacon to millions.

Director Jim Toscano began to follow and film the story of Mike Kunda: a man who was and remains, not simply a super-fan of Rocky, but a reflection of him. Not an imitation, but a complement.

Mike Kunda does look like the original 1976 Rocky/Stallone, not chiselled but athletically heavy, full faced, dark, sad black eyes, Italian looking. He even moves like him, bumbling, swooping walks, and then he talks and it’s hard to discern Mike’s real voice to a Rocky imitation. Where does Mike start and Rocky finish?

The documentary The Pretender aims to find out and follows Mike in spurts over a few years.

Beginning with him applying Rocky’s ‘beaten up’ make-up in the mirror, you immediately become invested in this man. This is no fan tribute, this is a person who was lost and is now found.

Over 53 minutes we see that Mike is a man who turned his childhood obsession into a successful business; this is the story of the inception of The Yo,Philly! Rocky Film Tour.

Various members of Mike’s family talk about his youth, and how his obsession with Rocky/Stallone grew over time, including him perming his hair to make it fuller and more like Sly, and wearing exact copies of whatever Stallone’s film characters were wearing at the time. His father, mother, brother, and his wife Sue support him…but it’s obvious Mike was lost, unsettled, and disillusioned.

By now I would normally be completely bored, as documentaries like this are a dime a dozen. However, this is palpably different, and it’s because of Mike Kunda’s sincerity. This isn’t a man whose sole aim in life is to be famous, this is a man who (like the character of Rocky Balboa) wants to celebrate life and give pleasure to people, to ‘go the distance’ and still be standing at the end of each day, and luckily for him he also has the love of a good woman in real life.

After winning a ‘Rocky lookalike’ competition and doing various charity based Philadelphia appearances as Rocky (all from the 1976 film), Mike finally commits to being a ‘Rocky lookalike’. He gives up his day job and makes an appearance at a restaurant who are doing a Rocky night. Far from home, nervous, he walks out into the restaurant to be faced with a lot of blank faces who just want to eat their spaghetti and pizza.

He does his best Rocky act, and the overwhelming sense you get from Mike of  ‘What the HELL am I doing here’? as he’s more or less ignored by the patrons of the restaurant, is quite upsetting, and although the filmmaker has orchestrated this to mirror nearly losing the fight, then… winning ….as Mike returns to the room full of diners and wins them over, is effective as a parallel, and gives this version of the film a natural end (this version? More later).

Full disclosure here, and back to Dave’s obsession with Sly.

On Dave’s 50thbirthday we did the Rocky Tour with Mike Kunda. I had no idea what to expect, and to be honest thought it would be a run of the mill sightseeing 2 hours. This isn’t a review of The Yo, Philly! Rocky Film Tour, it’s a review of The Pretender Film, but my personal experience of Mike is important, and may give you an insight into the man if you see the documentary.

On meeting Mike you get to do a Rocky tour with ‘Rocky’. He dresses up, he does the talk, he walks the walk, and his knowledge of Stallone, his films, and also the area and Philadelphia itself is encyclopaedic. Mike is a gentleman. He is respectful and nice, and he made my day out absolutely fantastic. Not being a huge Stallone fan, he ensured I was included (Dave was in Rocky heaven by now) and after talking for some time, ‘Rocky’ became Mike at my insistence. The Rocky Tour is amazing, The Mike tour, for me, was more so. Talking to this man about his life was literally like talking to, not the character of Rocky, but to Rocky himself, if he existed. I was thrilled and deeply touched.

Having said all that, and this is the crux of the matter, Mike Kunda is an enabler. The best kind of enabler, one that makes your Rocky dream come true. I defy anyone who is able to not attempt to run up a few of those steps at the Philly Art museum.
Mike takes you there and sets you free, and thinking of him at the top of those steps – just being there, looking out at the people on the steps with a huge smile on his face is delightful, the joy he gets from seeing people believe in themselves is wonderful.

Mike is Mike. He is NOT Rocky, or Stallone, why he isn’t even an imitation, but what he is, without a doubt, and what he enables you to perceive, is the essence of the ‘Rocky feeling’, that for one moment, as you leap up and down at the top of those stairs, you CAN do it and all your dreams will come true.
No mean feat.

I sincerely hope filmmaker Jim Toscano re-visits Mike and extends and tweaks The Pretender, as since the film was released, Mike has several things to add to his story, not least an interesting meeting with the man himself; Stallone.

A lovely film that I sincerely hope gets a release on Blu-ray / DVD /Netflix as we all need some positivity in our lives!

Addendum: since watching The Pretender, we have heard that it won ‘Staff Pick’ at The Manchester Film Festival. Congratulations to all involved and a well deserved win.

Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With) with thanks to the Manchester Film Festival for press access.