Friday, April 28, 2023



Somewhere along the path of film history, we crossed a line. What was once horrifying to us became familiar. The things we might have dreaded to see became the things we longed to see. Images that once made us cringe became images capable of sparking laughter. I'm not sure it is a bad thing that this evolution has taken place, but I can say that I have evolved with the rest of the film community, to the point where I can take delight in the gruesome mayhem that takes place in a film like "SISU". This is a movie that revels in the brutality it shows on screen. We root for the Nazis to get the treatment they so richly deserve in the films set up. The hero has to say nothing, and we are still on his side.

When I was ten years old, my big brother took me to see "Bullitt" with Steve McQueen. Everybody remembers the car chase, including me, but at the time, the scene that most impacted my young psyche was the murder of the witness using a shotgun, close up. The body slamming the wall and then slipping down with blood stains on the wall was my first exposure to real screen violence that was not the old western shoot'em up with guys clutching their stomachs and falling to the ground. This was real, and it was traumatic. Even though "The Wild Bunch" came out the next year, I did not see it until 1971, and the violence there was balletic, terrifying and in slow motion. A few years later, I saw an Italian Western called "Cutthroats Nine" and the violence there was also over the top and disturbing. Between 1975 and and the end of the century, we started accepting extreme violence as being humorous. Horror movies may have started that trend, I know that "Evil Dead II" made light of chainsawing people in a way that was vastly different than that scene in "Scarface" in the bathroom. As video games became more widely played and the visuals became more extreme, it seems that we started accepting dismemberment as equally funny as a Three Stooges poke in the eye. The over the top nature of the violence makes it more palpable. When a bad pun or a smart ass comment from the hero goes along with the visual, it is easy to laugh off. "Sisu" features violence that when similar images appeared in "Saving Private Ryan", they provoked gasps and weeping, here they provoke guffaws.  

I suppose what I am trying to do is justify my glee at the movie I saw last night. When body parts explode across the screen, and people are disemboweled, why am I laughing?  The answer must be that I have gotten use to some of it, and the film makers have found a tone in depicting it that says it is safe to do so. A landmine blowing someone to pieces should not be funny, but when it is Nazis, who are war criminals, and the soldiers who get exploded were being used as human mine sweepers, our expectations are different. Then, on top of that, add a stylized moment like a foot, spinning through the air and landing at the feet of the next soldier, suddenly things are not grim, they are amusing.  All of this is in way of saying, I was immensely amused by "Sisu". The hero, Aatami, has no dialogue except for the very last lines of the film. He is stoically determined to achieve his objective, which is sort of what the title of the film is based on. The IMDB summary puts it this way: "what sisu means: a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination in the face of overwhelming odds."  You have a sense of what is coming.

The stylized violence of the John Wick films, is similar to what you get here, but there are important differences. John Wick is mostly efficient and detached, his martial arts style of killing is almost like watching dancing. Aatami, is not as graceful but he is just as efficient. His killing is brutal but not poetic at all. When he is stabbing someone, it is forceful, repeated and draws a lot of blood which covers him as he continues to fight for what is right. The pickaxe that he carries is like an emblem of the kind of brutality we are going to see. This is not Keanu in a bullet proof suit using elegant handguns, this is a commando, weathered by the climate and years of war, pushing himself past human limits. Of course some moments are not particularly believable, but that will not diminish the satisfaction we get as he presses on. 

"Sisu" is set in Finland, and the actors are all from that region. Jorma Tommila plays the lead, and the only thing I saw him in before this was "Rare Exports". I know there was at least one other cast member from that film as well. Be assured, most of those characters not played by Tommila, will not be back for a sequel. The pieces of the soldiers that screwed with Aatami, are strewn all over the tundra of Lapland. The music score is just as bruising and powerful as the film's hero is. I was intimidated just hearing the notes. I saw this in a Dolby Theater, and the sound design was terrific. The director,   Jalmari Helander, was also responsible for "Rare Exports", a film that does have some of the same tone as this.

So following in the long line of "Evil Dead Bruce Campbell Versions", most of the films of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn, and Quentin Tarantino's list of bloody revenge films, "Sisui" delivers the violent, brutal humor, that we have been conditioning ourselves to accept. I'm certainly glad I did accept it, although I may still worry a bit about humanity in general. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975: The Passenger

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don't see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

The Passenger

This film is one of my blind spots from 1975. I badly wanted to see it, but it played in limited engagements on the other side of town and I never made it over there to see it. I remember as a 17 year old kid, looking at the Calendar Section of the L.A. Times, wanting to catch up with this highly praised arthouse film, featuring Jack Nicolson. This came out the same year as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", even though it had been filmed two years before the release. 

I always thought it was some kind of thriller, but it turns out to be very different in tone than I was expecting. There is almost no violence in the film, except for two brief moments. One of those moments, disturbingly, is not a fictional killing, but was a filmed execution of a bank robber in the African country of Chad. It is shown as part of a documentary that Nicholson's character is supposed to be working on. The other moment of violence involves a single karate style kick to the head of a minor character in the film. There are two pivotal deaths in the story but both occur off screen, and they are not designed to create suspense and tension, that isn't really what the film is about.

As I was watching the first half hour of the movie, I was worried about the pace of the film and the ambiguity of the events being shown. Eventually, most of the uncertainty about characters and their actions gets explained more clearly as the film moves on. The pace also starts to pick up when there is more dialogue. Nicholson plays a journalist, working on a story about conflict and civil war in Africa. In the 1970s, that seems to have been a constant problem, and it doesn't look like the world has changed that much in the intervening years. His character is David Locke, and he is struggling to connect with the fighters in the conflict, but does not seem to be getting anywhere. The metaphor of spinning your wheels is also visualized literally when his Land Rover gets stuck in the sand. Later, in some flashbacks, we see that his homelife is similarly stuck in the mud, and we get a sense that maybe he is looking for a new life. When a fellow resident at his hotel dies, Locke takes over his identity, a man named David Robertson. This changes his life, but maybe not for the better.

Audiences will have to fill in the blanks and suspend a great deal of disbelief, to accept that Nicholson is able to follow through on some of his new identity's plans.  As I was watching, it seemed strange that the man who was so feckless in Africa, was able to bluff his way through with some dangerous types early in the film. It also turns out that his wife, who thinks he is dead, is a lot more determined than he imagined she would ever be. Without credit cards, or cell phone GPS data, she is able to track down Robertson across Europe. Spain must be a small country because they practically trip over one another in the lobby of a hotel, completely by accident. 

Jack plays a disaffected man, seeking a new life, but he is still playing at someone else's life, and getting close to being burned by doing so. I suppose it is karma that brings him together with a similarly disaffected architecture student played by Maria Schneider. They don't quite fully commit to each other, but at times, their mutual presence gives each of them a few moments of pleasure in life that they are seemingly missing the rest of the time. Languid conversations in the car, hotel restaurant, or wherever they happen to be, make up the majority of the story in the second half of the film. There are a few chase scenes, but they are not shot like a thriller, so much as they just move us to the next obstacle. 

All of the film is a set up for a seven minute shot at the end of the movie, where events play out in front of us and behind where we can see. Almost everyone is in a long shot, and it looks to have been done as a single continuous take. One of the things that is very noticeable in the film making, is the absence of  a music score. All the events take place in a vert real world environment, that is not accentuated by movie techniques.    Michelangelo Antonioni is the director, the only other film of his that I know I have seen is "Blow Up" and I think that movie does the same sort of thing. 

One of the reasons that I had not caught up with the film was that for a number of years it was out of circulation. Nicholson himself acquired the home exhibition rights, and it was not until 2005, that the film became available, except for a very limited VHS release in the 80s.  Antonioni was unhappy with several of the cuts he was required to make to bring the film in at a reasonable runtime. The leisurely pace of that opening section might have been a place to trim, and then maybe he could have kept scenes he thought were worthy later in the picture.

I would have preferred to have this film as physical media, but one of the reasons that it is this week's entry on the Throwback Thursday project is that I wanted to include it in my Lambcast Show this coming weekend, and the out of print discs that I could buy, could not be here in time for that show. So this is the first film that I have purchased, rather than simply renting, on a streaming platform. I hope it does not disappear when whoever now controls the video rights, decides to alter the arrangement. I don't know how much I might have appreciated the film in 1975. Probably I would have admired it, but not completely understood it. That is not too dissimilar from my current reaction, but I do think I can make a little more sense of it now that I am older. 

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Evil Dead Rise


A couple of weeks ago, I went to a screening of Evil Dead 2. I of course had a blast, seeing this original gateway drug for me into this franchise. Ever since I immersed myself in this world back in the early 90s, I have been a fan of every iteration. I went back and saw the original film, I have practically memorized "Army of Darkness", and frankly, I loved the reboot from 2012, which is apparently not a popular opinion among the deadites around the world. Too bad, I stand by my opinion that "Evil Dead 2013" was a terrific horror film. So I was not too worried about this film, even though I was not overly impressed by the trailer.

My hopes were frankly buoyed by the fact that the screenings on Friday were largely sold out. This bodes well for the box office and future visits with the deadites.  I can safely say the film is not a disaster, and there is much horror to enjoy here, but I will caution that it does feel a bit lesser than the movies that came before it. There is no humor in the film, so it will not compare to "ED2" or "Army". "Evil Dead Rise" fits in the pocket with the original film and the reboot. Pretty much this is a straight horror film. The main conceit of the story is to take the film to an urban environment rather than keeping us in the woods. I don't think that is a spoiler, in spite of the fake out we are given at the start of this movie.

As it is a horror film, we must concede that there will be some well worn tropes trotted out to make the movie work. The first of these is the location. The apartment complex shown is supposed to be in Southern California, but it is not one that was built in the last 90 years. There is no sunny open air courtyard, the stairs are located inside of the building's walls rather than in the open. The garage is enclosed rather than being a carport style with ventilation to the out of doors. It feels like a building from NYC or Chicago, that has been planted in SoCal for no particular reason. It is 13 stories high, and oh yea, it is condemned to be taken down in a month. This dilapidated structure is also serviced by an elevator that most of us would not get into on a bet. You can expect a lot of mysterious horror in an elevator like that, and it shows up.

The second trope is that an innocent will launch the threat of the Dead, by ignoring every warning, becoming fascinated by the "Book of the Dead". Somehow, a recording will be played and the forbidden words will release the evil contained within. That's right, someone in a horror film behaves stupidly as a way to get the plot going. If you are a fan of these films, you will also be expecting chainsaws and shotguns. Do not despair, they will show up and they will be used. There is also a lot of blood, a lot. Most of it appears to be a practical effect rather than CGI, but there are shots in the film where in spite of Director Lee Cronin's word, CGI does take over. The make up effects are sound for the most part, but the eyes have to have been done with CGI and that may remind you of too many episodes of "Supernatural".

The cast is game, and I liked the testy relationship of the family members before all hell breaks loose. They are played by Australian actors doing good American accents for the most part. The opening sequence consists of call backs to the original Evil Dead, and then when we get to the climax, there are a whole bunch of references to "ED2: Dead by Dawn" (and a pretty obvious one to "the Shining".). There is a clever moment of name dropping when you see the pizza joint label on the boxes of pizza the kids bring home, but I'm not sure that it will make up for the absence of the Delta 88.  

"Evil Dead Rise" deserves to be seen in a theater, the sound mix is awesome, some of the set pieces just need the space, and it is a wham bang momentum builder that slowly revs up and then launches into fast mode. The idea that this would be a streamer was a terrible one, and with it's success with moviegoers as opposed to movie watchers, there is a good chance we will get to be frightened again down the road. 

I dressed for the theater today


Tuesday, April 18, 2023



The best thing that "Renfield" has going for it, is the demented, ham fisted performance by Nicolas Cage as Dracula. He is the antagonist in the story and is mostly a secondary lead to Nicholas Hoult as the titular character. Hoult is great too, but it is the make-up heavy visage of the Count that you will remember if you see this film. From the very beginning, when Cage and Hoult are digitally inserted into the original 1931 version of the film, I was hooked into the story, regardless of where it ultimately was going. 

This is decidedly a comedy rather than a horror film. There is not really a sense of dread so much as an expectation of violence. So it is also an action film, although one with an unconventional premise. Renfield has decided to break his codependency with the count, and try to make up for a lot of horrible things that he has done. Making amends is complicated when you are for the most part, a contributor to the longest murder spree in history. The conflicted servant seems like a decent guy, despite enabling a monster for almost a century. That we can relate to the character is the gift of Hoult, who manages to convey a puppy dog like sincerity, even when dragging dead bodies across the floor to his master. 

In trying to flesh out the story, the film makers have borrowed a subplot from the long forgotten, "Innocent Blood" from 1992. That story mixed vampires with mobsters and "Renfield" does the same thing to create more confrontations for Hoult's character and a threat for Dracula to expand on. It also justifies the addition of Awkwafina to the cast, as a smart mouthed cop who both backs up Renfield and pursues him as a suspect. There is also a romantic element to her presence, which is mostly discrete but makes the film more conventional than it needs to be.

Cage gets a mouthful of fangs to emote through, and that is fun to watch. Dracula in the story has been repeatedly stopped by good guys and it doesn't end with his death so much as a fall in fortunes that takes a while to recover from. This feels like it is borrowed from "Interview with the Vampire", as Lestat had to lay in a hole in the ground for a long time before being revived. The decrepit make up effects here are stellar and the incremental improvements are faithful to the story. So the technical elements of the film are top notch.

The action sequences are reminiscent of a thousand recent films in which the fights are staged with wire work, CGI and physics defying visual movements. There are also copious amounts of CGi blood and dismembered body parts. That is the stuff that is used for the extreme humor that a movie such as this is designed to take advantage of. The use of a persons limbs as projectiles that another person will be impaled on is both disturbing and amusing. I suspect that if you are inclined to see this film, those will be the kinds of moments that you are looking for, congratulations, you will find plenty of them.

"Renfield" is not going to set the movie world on fire, but it does entertain in the lane that it is driving in. There are a lot of gruesome laughs to be had and a fun performance from Nic Cage. So I can't think of a reason to skip it, even if in the long run it is not a substantial film. The idea for the concept is what makes this worthwhile, but it is not a very deep idea in the first place. Dwight Frye has nothing to worry about. 

The TSA Trays at the Airport in L.A.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Air (2023)


Well you know that you have something solid, when your immediate thought is, "This is the movie I will be comparing everything else to for the rest of the year". It's already April and we have a contender for the best film of 2023. It stars Matt Damon and was directed by Ben Affleck, yea, those guys. They did not write the movie but their presence certainly gives it the vibe of their collaboration from twenty-five years ago. This is a drama, set in 1984 and it focuses on the greatest basketball player of all time with him being a practically invisible character for the story. The plot focuses on a business deal and that hardly sounds like the subject that would make a movie compelling. Also, we know the outcome before the film even starts. So how does this end up working?

First of all, you have intrigue that most of us were unaware of. Getting Michael Jordon to commit to a shoe company that had negligible impact on basketball in the time was an arduous task. The competitors were better prepared and financially able to fulfill the athletes wishes, his agent was aggressively dismissive of Nike's attempt to set up a meeting, and Michaels parents were naturally suspicious of everyone as he is making the leap to the pros. Phil Knight to founder of Nike was a successful shoe innovator but his athletic apparel di not have any cache with the basketball community at the time. What Nike did have was Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball scout for talent in the endorsement industry, who had a deeper understanding of the game than his rivals, and a better instinct about Jordan than anybody outside of his family. 

Damon plays Sonny as a driven gambler with good instincts and a dogged personality.  He is also not an athlete or user of Nike products. He is a middle aged guy working in a rapidly changing environment, but he is never put off by the obstacles in front of him. Damon gives him the conflicting auras of passion and hopelessness.  Fortunately, he is also better able to articulate his vision than any one else. There are two great spots where he has to be persuasive, primarily on the spot. In a sequence where Sonny talks with his friend Basketball coach George Raveling, he learns that Martin Luther King Jr. extemporized the second half of the "I have a Dream Speech", and learned the lessons that you have to read the audience. When we get to the pitch that he makes to the Jordans, he does basically what King did, listen to his audience and speak to their inspirations and aspirations. 

Of course the characters in the film have to be interesting to hold our attention. Vaccaro is a gas, flippantly joking about Nike's dismal reputation in the basketball field, while simultaneously projecting the conviction of his visions. Jason Bateman plays Rob Strasser, the marketing executive at Nike who wants Vaccaro to succeed but doubts his gambler's instincts. His realization that Springsteen's  "Born in the U.S.A." is not quite the world affirming anthem he thought it was is very amusing. The two of them are great exchanging criticism, life lessons and gallows humor. Affleck plays The founder, Phil Knight, who has delusions of eastern insight, moderating his business sense.  Chris Tucker is another executive with a story to tell and a personality to match Sonny when it comes to speaking enthusiastically. Once again, Viola Davis shows off her thespian chops as the gracious but steel minded mother of Michael Jordon. The phone call she has with Sonny, trying to close the deal with a set of unprecedented demands, is another standout sequence in the film.

Those of us who remember those days will recognize the production design and soundtrack of the era. There is great fidelity to the times and the sense of the world. The story is a salute to the vibrancy of an entrepreneurial attitude and the power of capitalism, combined with the right vision and direction. Everting ultimately depended on Vaccaro being right about Jordon, and we know how that turned out. This movie almost does the same thing, we'll see how it all comes out eventually.    

Thursday, April 6, 2023

KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975: Mitchell

 Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don't see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 


It's going to happen a few times more this year, you will get a Throwback Thursday 1975 post on a film that I have never seen before. In addition to revisiting the films of my youth, this project will plug a few holes in the watchlist I have of 1975 films. I don't remember hearing about this film back when it came out, but over the last few years there have been occasional references to it that encouraged me to toss it on the pile. That is an appropriate euphemism because this movie has thew lowest rating on IMDB for any film I have ever written about myself, a 2.7 out of 10. There are a lot of people who don't like this movie very much. 

The low rating is probably a result of the film being the subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode back in 1993. The star of Mitchell, Joe Don Baker, took exception to the treatment given to the film by the writers and threatened to "kick their ass". I suspect that fans of this show followed up after another Baker film was mauled by the parody show, by visiting IMDB to kick Baker's ass. The movie is not very good, but it is certainly not deserving of this dismal score. Having never watched MST3K, I am going to stay out of this particular fight and just talk about the movie I watched. That may still be influenced by the TV show because the version of the movie that is available for streaming, seems to be the one edited for the show without the riff track. 

"Mitchell" is a very typical cop movie from the era. A loner detective is doggedly pursing criminals that he refuses to ignore. This cop has integrity but he is also a bit of a slob and definitely not cooperative with his higher ups. There are two crimes being investigated here, one is a self defense killing that Detective Mitchell believes was actually a murder, and then there is the drug case he has been assigned to that no one wants because it involves other agencies and politically connected mafioso types. John Saxon is the sly businessman who used a burglary as cover for shooting a guy for kicks. Martin Balsam is the mid-level crime syndicate guy who doesn't want to cooperate with the family on a drug heist, but also doesn't want Mitchell to nail him. 

If there is a mystery here, it is in how these two cases get connected to one another. I did not think that was clear at all. Eventually it seems that Balsam and Saxon have some business arrangement but it never becomes clear what that is. Their connection does lead to the one cool action sequence in the film, where dune buggy racers are being used to hunt down the cop and try to kill him. It is not a perfect scene but it is believable, unlike the later action scene where Mitchell uses a helicopter, dangling a large compressed gas tank, to attack a yacht and then repel down to the boat for the final confrontation. This must have been the scene that inspired the movie to be selected by the MST3K team, because it is preposterous, despite being a lot of fun.

Linda Evans plays a high priced hooker who shows up at Mitchell's door and takes him to bed, without telling him who is paying her. Their relationship never seems straight, but we are supposed to get the impression that she actually starts to go for him. Baker is not exactly matinee idol material, and his character sleeps on a fold up couch in a crummy apartment, so where the attraction comes from is never credible. She gets paid a lot of money and he will never have any. It is a little amusing that he does bust her over some minor drug possession charges and she keeps showing up anyway. 

Like a lot of 70s films, there are more car chases than needed. The cop also kills a lot of people and there is never a lot of follow up, so it does sometimes feel like we are watching a TV movie rather than a feature, but remember, it is a low budget, drive-n feature, so don't expect much and don't ask too many questions. The one element of the show that has some verisimilitude, is the physical threat from Balsam's character's henchmen. Joe Don Baker is a big dude, so how could someone be intimidating and a real threat to him? By casting Rams Defensive back Merlin Olsen, who was 6'5". Olsen had made three films before this and this was his last feature before he transitioned to television both as commentator and actor. He may not have been much of a thespian, but he looked like he could take Baker, and that's about all that was expected of him. 

Joe Don Baker is one of my favorite character actors of the 1970s. He was in "Junior Bonner", "Walking Tall", "Charlie Varrick", "The Outfit" and "Golden Needles, all right before this film. He continued to work but never had a streak like that again. "Mitchell" seems to be the period at the end of those hard scrabble character parts that I loved so much in that era. There is another 1975 film that he made, "Framed", that I have not seen, so maybe I will catch up with that one later this year as well. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn


This film was my gateway drug into the "Evil Dead" Franchise. I saw it originally on a VHS copy, but ultimately added the laserdisc to my collection of films.

Who would not want this blood red beauty in among all the other film flotsam that makes up your collection?  I have subsequently seen it on the big screen a couple of times, but it has been a long while and when Alamo Drafthouse decides to throw a watch party, you know I am not going to turn down an invitation. 

"Dead by Dawn", which is the subtitle, is such an odd sequel because it is basically a reboot of the story, not a continuation. With more money and a chance to add some humor, Sam Rami took his horror masterpiece and turned it into his horror/comedy masterpiece. There is still the requisite gore but it is matched by irony, slapstick and farce with this entry. Bruce Campbell is not only the hero, he is the chump. Tossed about like a rag doll, muttering to himself, and screaming at his own hand.   

The movie is loaded with clever shots of the interior and exterior of the isolated cabin in the woods. This is in fact the franchise that basically invented the cabin in the woods horror trope. Maybe "Night of the Living Dead" featured an isolated cabin first, but "The Evil Dead" made it the origin point of the horror rather than the last stand . Evil Dead 2, begins the long history of horror films where attractive young people end up in an isolated spot and have to battle evil. The supernatural kind of evil.

In addition to the wild camera style of the director, there is an audio ambiance about the film that is also fairly distinctive. The deadites in the woods make noises like sick car engines as they converge upon the structure. The walls of the cabin creak and groan, like another character in the story. Inanimate objects that suddenly seem to be alive also make themselves known through sound. Once the chainsaw starts and the shotgun comes out, there is an assault on your audio senses that really adds to the discomfort and horror we are watching. 

While there are jump cut scares, they are usually accompanied by a great makeup or lighting effect, so they are not just getting a scare out of our surprise.  When Ed gets possessed, his sudden transformation is startlingly revealed, but the jump is as much due to the face appliances as his sudden appearance in the frame. We know some views from the cabin looking out are going to be suddenly filled with evil Ash, but we still respond as our minds and our bodies command.

As a "watch party", the audience was given greater freedom than is usually available at an Alamo Screening. Shouting out lines in unison with the characters was encouraged, and we came equipped with foam hand chainsaws, a mini necronomicom and a gummy eyeball to pop in our mouths at the right moment. The theater was packed on a Monday night for this forty year old horror classic. We all thought it was

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Spinning Gold


One of the things I remember vividly from growing up in the 1970s were the record labels of my favorite artists. In the 60s, Capitol Records or Motown would have been the most important to me, but in the 70s, was was enthralled by two bands, each of which was on a rebel, independent label, and both of those labels were lead by bigger than life characters. 

Robert Stigwood led the RSO Label and parodied himself in the movie he backed with his biggest band, "The Bee Gees" in Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

Real fans got the joke because we paid attention to the labels. Casablanca Records was also a player, taking big risks, like releasing four Kiss Solo Albums at once, and sticking with artists that were taking a while to break. "Spinning Gold" is a biographical film of Casablanca's creator, Neil Bogart. His story is as outrageous as any of the biopics of artists that you may have seen in the last few years, but as an executive, he had different reponsibilites and different opportunities to screw it up or hit it out of the park. He did both on a regular basis, in the cocaine fueled music industry located in New York and Hollywood.

The film comes from a son, Timothy Scott Bogart, who wrote the screenplay and directed this movie about his father's career. There are still warts in the story that get told, but the movie has a quality to it that treats the subject with kid gloves anyway. Neil Bogart as played by Broadway star Jeremy Jordan, warns us that the story is all true, at least from the perspective of the person narrating it. This attempts to give license to some big claims about his contribution to the creatives and not just the business part of their successes. Of course there is also a basis for the ability to make those claims because Bogart was not just an executive, he was a musician, performer, producer as well. 

From the opening of the film, the stage based musical styling of the storytelling is apparent. This will probably work as a Broadway Jukebox Musical, more effectively than as a drama for the screen. There are well over a dozen musical sequences, some of which are complete presentations of the work done by artists like Donna Summer, The Isley Brothers, Bill Withers and Kiss. The actors portraying these artists seem to have been chosen for their musical ability rather than their resemblance to the singers and bands. This allows the film to have some credibility as an entertainment but it leaves the drama to the same tropes that you will find in a dozen other films of this ilk. 

Although littered with flashbacks and flash forward segments, the story is still narratively a rags to riches to ruin and then redemption arc. I did like every time the stakes were rising that we got a talley of the debt the label was accumulating. As a Kiss fan, I think the story shifts the rescue of the label a little more to Donna Summer's single than the breakthrough that the band finally achieved with it's live album. Still there are legitimate moments in the film story that come from reality. Kiss did have a financial standoff with Bogart at a critical juncture in the labels history. Bogart did back them, but the relationship was not always a positive one, although in the long run everybody made up, because success solves a lot of wounds.                
The film is also a nice historical look at the music trends of the era. 70's soul,  disco and hard rock are all evolving and this movie attempts to depict some important moments in those movements. Regardless of the accuracy of the story, and it is mostly on target. the craziness in the film never works the way it should. The drama feels manufactured and the staging is inconsistent. Sometimes we get a great musical moment but it is followed by a flat musical sequence or a dramatic moment that is overplayed by the script. 

Overall I can recommend this to fans of the music and the label, but regular movie goers are likely to yawn with a been there, done that attitude. You can enjoy the music, and the label history, but the clips of the real Neil Bogart in the credits talking to Merv Griffin or being interviewed by some other show business program, suggest he was a much more interesting character than was created in this film. There is a Kiss Biopic coming from Netflix down the road, It will be interesting to compare the version of Bogart that they come up with to the one in this film.