Review: ‘About My Father’ (2023), starring Sebastian Maniscalco, Robert De Niro, Leslie Bibb, Anders Holm, David Rasche and Kim Cattrall

May 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro in “About My Father” (Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate)

“About My Father” (2023)

Directed by Laura Terruso

Some language in Italian with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Illinois and in Virginia, the comedy film “About My Father” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Italian American hotel manager in Chicago travels with artist girlfriend and his hair stylist father to Virginia, to meet the girlfriend’s Anglo Saxon wealthy family, and various uncomfortable situations occur because of different ethnic identities and socioeconomic classes. 

Culture Audience: “About My Father” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and predictably subpar comedies about tension-filled family gatherings.

Kim Cattrall, Leslie Bibb and David Rasche in “About My Father” (Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate)

“About My Father” is just a mishmash of scenes that look like stale leftovers from a second-rate sitcom. Robert De Niro is doing another “grumpy old man” character that he keeps doing in awful comedies that fail to match the quality of “Meet the Parents.” De Niro has not made a really good comedy film since 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” in which he co-starred as a stern potential father-in-law to a neurotic male nurse (played by Ben Stiller), who meets this patriarch and other would-be in-laws for the first time during a family gathering.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that “About My Father” (directed by Laura Terruso) is a weak imitation of “Meet the Parents,” but with no real charm and with characters that mostly look very phony. “About My Father” has so many of same plot points and gags as “Meet the Parents,” the screenwriters of “About My Father” should be ashamed to call the screenplay “original.” Sebastian Maniscalco (who stars as the nervous bachelor in “About My Father”) and Austen Earl co-wrote the shallow and derivative “About My Father” screenplay. “About My Father” has such a lack of imagination, Maniscalco portrays a character who has the same name as he does.

Just like in “Meet the Parents,” the plot of “About My Father” is about an insecure American man in Chicago who meets the conservative, wealthier parents of his blonde, thin and pretty girlfriend at the parents’ family home. In “Meet the Parents,” the bachelor is Jewish and works as a nurse. In “About My Father,” the bachelor is of Italian heritage and works as an average-level hotel manager. Both movies use various ethnic and socioeconomic stereotypes as fuel for the comedy. The bachelor goes back and forth between being embarrassed and being proudly defensive about coming from a working-class family. He tries very hard to impress his more sophisticated potential in-laws.

The anxious bachelor hopes to get the parents’ approval because he wants to propose marriage to his girlfriend. Several wacky incidents then ensue involving the family playing competitive games with each other; pet animals that are liked or disliked by people at this gathering; and physical mishaps that cause tension and embarrassment. “Meet the Parents” and “About My Father” both have the girlfriend’s annoying siblings make the bachelor uncomfortable.

In “About My Father,” you can do a countdown to a lot of the predictable comedy clichés that have been in dozens of other movies. There’s even a “race against time” scene of someone trying catch up to someone else who’s about to leave on an airplane. The main plot difference between the two movies is that in “About My Father,” the bachelor brings his father along for this family visit. As expected in a formulaic comedy such as “About My Father,” this dad is an outspoken loose cannon who will clash with the pretentious and snobby family who’s hosting this gathering.

“About My Father” has somewhat irritating voiceover narration from the character of Sebastian throughout the movie. In the beginning of the film, Sebastian says that his family is originally from the Italian region of Sicily and has a very strong work ethic. His father Salvo (played by De Niro) immigrated from Sicily and comes from “a long line of Sicilian hairstylists.” Even though Salvo is well past retirement age, he still works in his own hair salon, where his customers (at least those shown in the movie) are middle-aged women who laugh at his unfunny jokes.

Sebastian (who has no siblings) is a first-generation Italian American. Sebastian’s mother is talked about but never shown in any flashbacks. Near the beginning of the movie, it’s mentioned that Sebastian’s mother has been dead for about a year. Sebastian and Salvo have had a very close father-son relationship since Sebastian was a child. And now that Salvo is a widower, Sebastian feels obligated to stay close to his lonely father. Salvo and Sebastian live together.

Salvo and Sebastian’s relationship is a weird mix of co-dependent and macho. On the one hand, Salvo acts like Sebastian is being a disloyal son for having a life outside of being Salvo’s closest friend. (And to be clear: Salvo really has no other friends.) On the other hand, Salvo believes that certain things make men look like “sissies” and “wimps,” such as crying, or father and sons hugging each other.

Sebastian and Salvo have a ritual of spraying cologne on themselves before they go to sleep. It’s supposed to be one of the funny “gags” in the movie, but it just falls flat. Sebastian says in a voiceover: “At bedtime, our room smelled like an Uber [car] in Las Vegas.” Get used to this type of dreadful joke in “About My Father,” because the movie is full of these unfunny comments.

Sebastian is in a loving relationship with his cheerful and perky girlfriend Eleanor “Ellie” Collins (played by Leslie Bibb), who comes from a wealthy family in Virginia. Ellie’s ancestors were among the English settlers who came over to the future United States on the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620. Ellie is an artist whose specialty is in painting abstract art. An early scene in “About My Father” shows Ellie and Sebastian at a gallery exhibit for Ellie’s art. Sebastian and Ellie joke that one of her paintings looks like it could be a vagina, except when the painting is turned horizontally. That’s what’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in this lackluster film.

In the voiceover narration, Sebastian describes Ellie as his “complete opposite” and his “dream woman.” Sebastian also mentions that Ellie introduced him to things such as sunlight coming into bedroom windows, daytime naps, avocado facials and smiling. There’s even a montage in the movie showing Sebastian grimacing, as he “trains” himself to smile more. Viewers will be grimacing for different reasons, as this movie strains to come up with funny lines of dialogue.

Ellie invites Sebastian to meet her family in Virginia, for a Fourth of July holiday weekend. (“About My Father” was actually filmed in Louisiana and Alabama.) Sebastian think this visit is a great idea, until Salvo starts whining about how the trip would mean that Salvo will be left home alone. Salvo also doesn’t think that Sebastian will fit in well with Ellie’s family. Sebastian tells Ellie he won’t go on the trip because he doesn’t want to leave Salvo at home alone, but then Ellie says that Salvo is invited too.

However, Sebastian doesn’t want Salvo to meet Ellie’s family, because Sebastian is sure that Salvo will be a complete embarrassment. Sebastian wants to propose to Ellie with the engagement ring that was owned by Salvo’s deceased mother. Salvo won’t give Sebastian this ring unless Salvo meets and approves of Ellie’s family.

After much hemming and hawing back and forth, Salvo ends up going on the trip with Sebastian and Ellie to the Collins family estate. They take a private plane to a private air strip, where they are greeted by Ellie’s spoiled, obnoxious and hard-partying older brother Williams Collins XIII (played by Anders Holm), whose nickname is Lucky. Sebastian, Salvo and Ellie then go in a helicopter piloted by Lucky to the vast summer home owned by the Collins family. Predictably, one of the helicopter passengers (Sebastian) gets airsick.

At the Collins family estate, Salvo and Sebastian meet Ellie’s parents and younger brother. Ellie’s father William Collins XII (played by David Rasche), whose nickname is Bill, is a luxury hotel mogul in charge of the family’s Collins Hotel Group empire. Bill is friendly in an elitist way. He loves to name drop and brag about high-priced items that he’s bought, while trying (and failing) to look humble.

Ellie’s mother Tigger Collins (played by Kim Cattrall) is a hard-driving and prickly U.S. senator who is used to getting her way. Ellie has warned Sebastian that Tigger will be much harder to please than Bill. Tigger is essentially the type of character that De Niro played in “Meet the Parents”: a domineering authority figure who intimidates the visitors.

Ellie’s younger brother Doug (played by Brett Dier) is the family’s spaced-out weirdo, who walks around dressed like a hippie cult member. Doug rambles about things that he thinks are “enlightening,” such as chakras, cleansing the energy in a room, and how a certain organic food affects his bowel movements. Doug’s family members treat him like a harmless eccentric.

Lucky works in the family’s hotel business. Doug doesn’t seem to work at all. Out of all three siblings, Ellie is clearly the favorite child of their parents, who treat Ellie like a pampered princess. When she’s around her parents, Ellie seems to revert back to acting like a teenager, which should be a “red flag” warning sign for someone who’s in a romance with her. However, immature Sebastian has got enough family issues of his own, and he gets very caught up in trying to impress Ellie’s parents.

The Collins family has peacocks that Ellie says are the family mascots. These peacocks walk around the property wherever they want, mostly outside. Salvo dislikes peacocks and says that they are bad luck. You know where this is going, of course. In “Meet the Parents,” the family pet that caused conflicts was a cat, which was adored by the patriarch but disliked by the visiting bachelor.

“About My Father” has mostly unremarkable acting by cast members trying very hard to be funny when saying cringeworthy lines and depicting even more cringeworthy scenarios. Cattrall fares the best in some of the slapstick comedy, while De Niro is just going through the motions in rehashing the same persona he does in nearly all of his comedies since “Meet the Parents.”

Maniscalco became famous as a stand-up comedian, but he can’t carry this comedy film with the leading-man qualities required for this role. His smirking Sebastian character is both hollow and dull, reduced to nothing but idiotic quips and hammy facial expressions. The direction and writing for “About My Father” look very outdated, like a 1990s movie that was made for a third-tier cable TV network.

“About My Father” might elicit a few chuckles from viewers. A scene that shows a brief flash of mildly amusing banter is when Sebastian and Salvo privately rant to each other about how pompous Tigger and Bill are about their wealth. But watching this disappointing movie dud is like being stuck in a room full of comedians using other people’s well-known and tired jokes, while the comedians try desperately to convince the audience that what they’re watching is fresh and original.

Lionsgate released “About My Father” in U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ‘Somewhere in Queens,’ starring Ray Romano, Laurie Metcalf, Jacob Ward, Sadie Stanley, Jennifer Esposito, Sebastian Maniscalco and Tony Lo Bianco

April 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “Somewhere in Queens” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Jon Manfrellotti, Franco Maicas, Adam Kaplan, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dierdre Friel and Jacob Ward. Pictured in front row, from left to right: June Gable, Tony Lo Bianco, Laurie Metcalf and Ray Romano (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Roadside Attractions)

“Somewhere in Queens”

Directed by Ray Romano

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Queens borough and in Philadelphia, the comedy/drama film “Somewhere in Queens” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African American, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married father deals with several issues in his large Italian American family, including trying to influence his teenage son on what the son will do after graduating from high school. 

Culture Audience: “Somewhere in Queens” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker/star Ray Romano and dramedies about families experiencing life transitions.

Sadie Stanley and Jacob Ward in “Somewhere in Queens” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Roadside Attractions)

“Somewhere in Queens” has a lot of expected characteristics of movies about large families who frequently bicker but ultimately have a lot of love and loyalty to each other. It’s a movie with realistic characters but very sitcom-like scenarios that are put into the context of a family drama. Laurie Metcalf is a standout in this entertaining movie directorial debut from Ray Romano. “Somewhere in Queens” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

Romano has a background in stand-up comedy and is widely known for his starring role in the comedy series “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which was on the air from 1996 to 2005. He is one of the stars, producers and writers of “Somewhere in Queens,” which benefits greatly from comedic pacing that is naturalistic and doesn’t look forced or over-rehearsed. Romano co-wrote the “Somewhere in Queens” screenplay with Mark Stegemann, who’s written mostly for TV series (including “Scrubs” and “Preacher”) and who also makes his feature-film debut with “Somewhere in Queens.”

“Somewhere in Queens,” as the title says, takes place in New York City’s Queens borough, which is the borough that is more likely to have family houses with backyards, compared to the high-rise buildings that populate New York City’s Manhattan borough. It’s in Queens where the Russo family lives. This large Italian American clan is working-class and tight-knight, but sometimes has friction that threatens to unravel some of these family bonds.

Here are the members of the family who are featured in the story:

  • Leo Russo (played by Romano) works with his two brothers, his two nephews and his father in the family’s Russo Construction business. Leo often feels insecure because he’s never felt like he’s lived up to his father’s expectations.
  • Angela Russo (played by Metcalf) is Leo’s sarcastic and outspoken wife. She and Leo were sweethearts in high school and are each other’s first love.
  • Matthew “Sticks” Russo (played by Jacob Ward) is the only child of Leo and Angela. Sticks, who got his nickname because he is tall (6’2″) and thin, is quiet and introverted but he has a passion for playing basketball. In this movie, Sticks is in his last year of high school.
  • Dominic “Pops” Russo (played by Tony Lo Bianco) is the family’s no-nonsense patriarch who expects all of the men in his immediate family to work with him in the family’s construction business.
  • Mama Russo (played by June Gable) is Dominic’s wife, who doesn’t talk much, but she is very observant, and when she does say something, it’s usually important.
  • Petey Russo (played by Jon Manfrellotti) is Leo’s laid-back older brother, who is a never-married bachelor with no children.
  • Frank Russo (played by Sebastian Maniscalco) is Leo’s competitive and arrogant younger brother, who has had a longtime sibling rivalry with Leo. Frank is Dominic’s favorite child and is the son who is most likely to take over the family business when Dominic retires.
  • Luigi Russo (played by Franco Maicas) and Marco Russo (played by Adam Kaplan) are Frank’s two wisecracking sons, who are in their early 20s. (Luigi’s and Marco’s mother is mentioned but not seen in the film.)
  • Rosa Russo (played by Dierdre Friel) is Leo’s youngest sibling. Rosa is often teased by Frank for being a never-married bachelorette with no children. She is self-conscious about her weight and being unlucky in love. Her traditional parents see Rosa’s unmarried marital status as a stigma for a woman of a certain age, and they worry that Rosa will never get married and have children.

Several scenes in “Somewhere in Queens” take place at a local banquet hall called Versailles Palace, which is the type of place that is rented out for wedding receptions and family celebrations. It’s where the movie’s opening scene takes place, showing the Russo family attending the wedding reception of a newlywed couple named Louise and Sebastian. The Russos aren’t close to this couple, but apparently were invited to the wedding anyway.

A videographer (played by Lucas Owen) is going around the room to film guests giving short congratulations speeches for the newlyweds. Leo says in his awkward speech, “The best advice I can give to you is don’t hurt each other, if you can avoid it. God bless you, and God bless to all the children you’re going to make for all of America.” The videographer says in an unimpressed tone, “That was different.” Leo then asks the videographer to delete Leo’s recording.

Viewers will see more of Leo’s insecurities and neuroses throughout the movie. At work, he’s treated like an inferior employee by his father. It doesn’t help that Leo has a habit of showing up late for work and isn’t as skilled in construction as Frank is. Leo regrets being stuck in a job with family members who don’t completely respect him. He doesn’t want to quit because he knows how much of a rift it would cause in the family.

At home, Leo and Angela (who is a homemaker) have been having some issues in their marriage. Their sex life is practically non-existent. They don’t really argue a lot, but they’ve become somewhat emotionally distant from each other. And it has something do with Leo and Angela disagreeing about how she’s been handling a medical issue. Leo thinks that Angela should go to support group counseling, but independent-minded Angela thinks that she doesn’t need it. Angela’s medical issue is revealed later in the movie.

Like many middle-aged married couples who’ve raised children together, there comes a time when these couples will have an “empty nest,” with the children no longer living in the home. Angela in particular is dreading not having Sticks in the family home anymore. She thinks she has a few more years after Sticks graduates from high school, because he is expected to work in the family business and eventually get his own place when he can afford to do so. In the meantime, Leo and Angela are supportive parents who go to Sticks’ basketball games to cheer him on as a member of his school team, the Glendale Cougars.

One day, the Glendale Cougars narrowly lose a game (59-61 was the final score) that would have taken the team to the state finals. After the game, a basketball talent scout named Ben Parson (played by P.J. Byrne) notices that Leo is Sticks’ father, from the way that Leo and other Glendale Cougars fans are behaving during the game. Ben approaches Leo after the game and asks Leo what Sticks’ college plans are.

Leo says that Sticks has no plans to go to college because Sticks will be working in the family’s construction business. Ben is surprised and says that someone with Sticks’ basketball talent could easily get a basketball scholarship—maybe not at a top-tier basketball school, but at a mid-tier basketball school. Ben says he knows a recruiter at Drexel University in Philadelphia and can recommend Sticks to Drexel. Leo says he’ll think about it.

Leo does more than think about it. When he brings up the idea to the family, he gets a lot of resistance from almost everyone else in the family. Dominic and Frank think it’s not worth paying for a college degree that Sticks won’t need in their line of work. Angela is worried about Sticks moving away from New York, even though Philadelphia is only a two-hour drive away. Leo convinces Angela and Sticks to at least visit the Drexel campus with him to see what Drexel has to offer.

Meanwhile, around the same time that these college plans start to take shape for Sticks, he has fallen in love with an extroverted, intelligent and vivacious classmate named Dani Brooks (played by Sadie Stanley), who comes from an upper-middle-class family in the Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills. Dani is Sticks’ first girlfriend, and she’s a lot more experienced in dating than he is. Sticks doesn’t introduce Dani to his parents until after his school’s last basketball game of the season.

Angela is immediately annoyed that Sticks kept this relationship a secret for as long as he did. She also doesn’t trust Dani because she thinks Dani is the “heartbreaker” type. Still, Angela puts up a front of being welcoming and invites Dani over to a family dinner, where Dani gets a full view of what the Russo clan is like. It’s at this dinner that the family finds out that Dani is assertive, adventurous, and not afraid to disagree with people about her own firm beliefs. Dani is very opinionated in telling the family why she thinks it’s a good idea for Sticks to go to college.

Dani says her own plans after high school are to take a cross-country road trip by herself. She mentions that her parents want her to go to a university, preferably an Ivy League university, but Dani doesn’t think that getting a university education is the right decision for her at this time in her life. And she says that her father told her that he will only financially support her if she goes along with her parents’ wishes to got to a university. Dani, who has a part-time waitress job at a local diner, says she took the job to save up for money to buy the car that she wants to take on her road trip.

“Somewhere in Queens” then becomes about how Leo gets obsessed with what Sticks wants to do with his life after graduating from high school. Leo doesn’t want Sticks to have the same life and the same regrets that Leo has. Leo wants Sticks to explore the options that Leo never did. Leo is also excited about the possibility of his son being a college graduate. It’s not said out loud, but it’s obvious that Sticks would be the first person in his family to get a college degree, if he chooses to make that decision.

There are a few unexpected turns in the story that involve Leo crossing a boundary and doing some meddling-parent things that are downright creepy. It leads to some sitcom-ish scenarios that don’t look very realistic. “Somewhere in Queens” also has a subplot about Leo being attracted to a Russo Construction customer named Pamela Carmelo (played by Jennifer Esposito), a lonely widow who seems attracted to Leo too. The outcome of this flirtation is fairly predictable.

Romano’s direction of “Somewhere in Queens” moves the story along at a leisurely but engaging pace. As an actor in the movie, he’s doing a version of the neurotic father he played in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” so there are no real surprises in his performance. Metcalf has the best role in the movie, and she rises to the occasion by going through a myriad of emotions that are authentically portrayed and make Angela a completely believable character.

Angela is an overprotective mother who’s trying to appear strong but is really desperately holding on to the one thing (parenthood) that she feels she’s been good at in her life. She’s also feeling a sense of mortality because of her medical issue. It’s a different type of mid-life crisis than what Leo is experiencing. And it’s affected Leo and Angela’s marriage a lot more than they care to admit.

“Somewhere in Queens” also has very good performances from Ward and Stanley, because Sticks and Dani’s relationship is the catalyst for many things that happen in the movie. This teen romance is also very realistic in all of its ups and downs, especially when it comes to the issue of what will happen to the relationship after they graduate from high school. The character of Sticks is interesting because he’s a star of his school’s basketball team, but he isn’t the typical movie stereotype of a popular jock. Sticks is almost painfully shy, but Dani helps him come out of his shell and express his true feelings.

Above all, “Somewhere in Queens” succeeds in showing how people in the same family can discover in different ways what their own comfort levels or discomfort levels are, when it comes to self-esteem and family relationships. A trite movie would have made it look like the teenagers are the only ones who have a lot to learn. “Somewhere in Queens” shows in charming and poignant ways how there’s no age expiration date on learning self-acceptance and learning to accept people for who they really are.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “Somewhere in Queens” in U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

Review: ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie,’ starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key and Fred Armisen

April 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Toad (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt), Donkey Kong (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Princess Peach (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures)

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”

Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, and in the fictional Mushroom Kingdom and the Dark Lands, the animated film “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (based on Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” games) features a cast of characters that are humans and talking creatures.

Culture Clash: Bumbling brother plumbers Mario and Luigi are unexpectedly transported to a magical world, where Luigi is captured by an evil turtle, and Mario teams up with various allies (including a feisty princess) to try to rescue Luigi. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Super Mario Bros.” franchise fans, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching animated films that have simple and amusing plots.

Luigi (voiced by Charlie Day) and Bowser (voiced by Jack Black) in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures)

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is entirely predictable but still entertaining, thanks to its playful comedy, appealing visuals and talented voice cast. Jack Black is a scene stealer as turtle villain Bowser. You don’t have to know anything about Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” games in order to enjoy this movie. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is the very definition of an undemanding crowd pleaser that can appeal to a variety of age groups.

Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (written by Matthew Fogel) is an origin story of what is obviously planned to be a series of movies. The beginning of the film shows a battle in a magical world where a king and his army defending the royal palace from an invader. Fans of the “Super Mario Bros.” games will know who these characters are already. The movie later shows these characters again in more detail.

Back on Earth, viewers see two brothers who are plumbers. Confident older brother Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his neurotic younger brother Luigi (voice by Charlie Day) have recently launched a plumbing business together in their hometown of New York City, where they are based in the Brooklyn borough. The brothers have proudly filmed a TV commercial for their new business. They have spent their life savings on this commercial.

Not everyone is impressed with this commercial. At a local diner, a wrecking crew employee named Spike (voiced by Sebastian Maniscalco) makes fun of the commercial. Luigi says defensively, “It’s not a commercial. It’s cinema.” Spike also thinks it was foolish for Mario and Luigi to quit their day jobs to start this new business.

The brothers have a large family that includes their father (voiced by Charles Martinet), their mother (voiced by Jessica DiCicco), the brothers’ Uncle Tony (voiced by Rino Romano) and the brothers’ Uncle Arthur (voiced by John DiMaggio), and not all of these relatives are supportive of the brothers’ new business venture. (Martinet does the voices of Mario and Luigi in the “Super Mario Bros.” video games.) During a family meal at a dining table, Mario and Luigi have to endure some taunting, especially from their uncles, who think that the brothers’ plumbing business will fail. The brothers’ mother is supportive though.

“The Super Mario Brothers Movie” shows the brothers going on their first plumbing job since their new business opened. It’s a house call to fix a leaking bathroom sink faucet. And the job is a disaster, involving a major mishap with an unfriendly dog named Francis. By the time the brothers leave the home, the sink hasn’t been fixed and the home has a lot of damage to it.

Not long after this plumbing fiasco, the brothers see on the local TV news that parts of Brooklyn have been flooded because a major water main has broken. Mario and Luigi rush to the scene to see if they can help. The brothers end up in a giant underground tunnel and unexpectedly get whisked through a portal that transports the brothers to a magical world.

However, the brothers land in different places in this magical world. Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, which s populated by inanimate giant mushrooms and small talking mushrooms, all with polka dots. The talking mushrooms are called Toads, Mushroom People or Mushrooms. Luigi lands in a desolate forest area called the Dark Lands, full of dead trees. Luigi is soon abducted by the movie’s chief villain: a spike-wearing giant turtle named Bowser (voiced by Black), who wants to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and marry Princess Peach (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy), the human ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” includes Mario finding his way around the Mushroom Kingdom with the help of a friendly mushroom named Toad (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who is Princess Peach’s loyal attendant. Some hijinks ensue when Mario is perceived as an untrustworthy intruder by certain people in the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario eventually meets the princess, who has her own story of how she ended up in the Mushroom Kingdom.

In addition to rescuing Luigi, the heroes of the story also have to fight off an invasion from Bowser and his army, which includes Kamek (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson), who is Bowser’s menacing and most dutiful henchman. Along the way, Princess Peach and Pario have to convince the powerful Kong army of primates from the Jungle Kingdom to help defeat Bowser. That’s how Mario meets the king Cranky Kong (voiced by Fred Armisen) and his immature son Donkey Kong (voiced by Seth Rogen), who is a powerful but goofy warrior.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has enough touches of dark comedy to keep it from being annoyingly overloaded with juvenile jokes. Making a cameo in the movie is the cyan Luma character named Lumalee (voiced by Juliet Jelenic), who has a star-shaped, flame-like physical appearance that makes her look like she’s a cute and upbeat character, but she spews a lot of pessimistic comments that unnerve those who are around her. Bowser has a secret desire to be a heavy metal rocker who can belt out power ballads, so there are a few hilarious scenes showing him privately singing corny love songs that he wrote for Princess Peach while playing the piano.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” leans heavily into nostalgia for the 1980s, because Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” games were launched in that decade. Most of the movie’s prominently placed pop songs are from the 1980s. They include Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” a-ha’s “Take on Me” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” Brian Tyler’s competent musical score for “The “Super Mario Bros. Movie” keeps things moving along at a zippy pace with some nods to 1980s-inspired synth music.

The movie’s visuals have all the characteristics of above-average animation using modern technology, but the designs and hues of the characters and locations are throwbacks to 1980s animation and the original Nintendo “Super Mario” games. All of it is proof that any movie version of the “Super Mario” video games is better as animation, rather than as a live-action movie. (The less said about 1993’s awful live-action “Super Mario Bros.” movie, the better.)

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has a well-cast ensemble, with everyone doing their parts to be engaging in their performances. As the chief villain Bowser, Black is the standout performer, because he gives this villain a larger-than-life personality that will make viewers anticipate what Bowser will say and do next. There’s also a part of the story where Bowser shows he’s not just a two-dimensional antagonist: He really is kind of lovelorn over Princess Peach.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” isn’t without flaws. The movie has a world where there are very few female characters. Princess Peach is the only female character in the movie with a prominent speaking role. There’s really no good excuse for why the filmmakers couldn’t create more than one female character to have significant roles in the adventure parts of the story. Some viewers might also dislike how brothers Mario and Luigi are not together for the vast majority of the movie.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has a very formulaic story that is watchable because the characters have their share of charm. The movie has a mid-credits scene featuring Bowser and an end-credits scene that hints at what a sequel’s plot might be. There are no real surprises at all to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which does not reinvent anything from the Nintendo games, and it’s not a groundbreaking animated film. For fans who have been anticipating this movie, think of it as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food for “Super Mario Bros.” enthusiasts and people who want to see lightweight, escapist animation.

Universal Pictures will release “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2023.

Review: ‘Spinning Gold,’ starring Jeremy Jordan, Michelle Monaghan, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jay Pharoah, Ledisi, Tayla Parx and Dan Fogler

March 31, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Jordan in “Spinning Gold” (Photo courtesy of Hero Partners and Howling Wolf Films)

“Spinning Gold”

Directed by Timothy Scott Bogart

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1951 to 1979, primarily in New York City and Los Angeles, the dramatic film “Spinning Gold” features a cast of white characters and African American characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy in this biopic of music mogul Neil Bogart.

Culture Clash: Bogart found hitmaking success with artists such as Donna Summer, Kiss, Gladys Knight & the Pips and the Isley Brothers, but his life was plagued by personal problems, such as marital infidelity, cocaine addiction, gambling and being millions of dollars in debt. 

Culture Audience: “Spinning Gold” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and the artists featured in the movie, but there are noticeable factual omissions in this movie that takes a very glossy and over-exaggerated look at the movie’s protagonist.

Tayla Parx in “Spinning Gold” (Photo courtesy of Hero Partners and Howling Wolf Films)

“Spinning Gold” would be perfectly fine as a jukebox musical on stage. But as a cinematic experience, this flashy movie erases too many important facts. “Spinning Gold” makes it look like agents and attorneys didn’t exist in the 1970s music industry. This biopic of music mogul Neil Bogart also has questionable depictions of him as a music creator and innovator. This rewriting of history does a disservice and is disrespectful to the real people whose work is sidelined or removed from this movie’s story.

If you believe this movie, then you’d have to believe that Bogart was the one who told Donna Summer to make orgasmic moans in the recording studio when she recorded her breakthrough 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby.” (These moans made the song controversial at the time and generated a lot of publicity for the song.) You’d also have to believe that Bogart made “Love to Love You Baby” a hit, simply by gluing the record to an influential radio DJ’s turntable and playing it on the radio, while enticing the DJ to be handcuffed in another room by two prostitutes. If you believe this movie, then you’d have also to believe that Bogart was the one who came up with the idea of the Kiss Army fan club, when it was actually Kiss fans Bill Starkey and Jay Evans who founded the Kiss Army, when they were teenagers in 1975.

Written and directed by Timothy Scott Bogart (one of Neil’s sons), “Spinning Gold” does tell viewers up front that this version of Neil’s story is told through a very rosy perspective of what Neil’s memories would be if he told the story himself. Neil Bogart died of cancer in 1982, when he was 39 years old. The movie is supposed to be narrated by the ghost of Neil Bogart looking back on his life. This narration is a little excessive and over-explains many things that are already shown in the movie.

As the Neil Bogart character (played by Jeremy Jordan) admits near the beginning of the film, the story presented in “Spinning Gold” isn’t very accurate: “It’s just that memories are complicated. We remember what we want to remember. We forget what we want to forget.” This trite explanation will just make viewers think that “Spinning Gold” lacks credibility. And indeed, most of the movie looks like a fairy tale, if the fairy tale had the expected clichés of sex, drugs and rock and roll in the music industry.

“Spinning Gold” certainly delivers when it comes to rousing and entertaining performances of beloved songs by artists who were signed to record companies (Buddha Records and Casablanca Records) that were led by Neil Bogart at the time. The movie features hits from Summer, Kiss, the Isley Brothers and Parliament, among others. To their credit, the “Spinning Gold” cast members who perform these songs use their real voices instead of taking the easier route of lip syncing the original recordings. Many of the acting performances are charismatic, especially by Jordan, who gives the Neil character enough roguish charm in Neil’s attempt to justify many of the sleazy and corrupt business tactics that Neil uses in the film.

However, some of the cast members are jarringly miscast and do not look convincing as the real people they are supposed to play, by looking too old for the role or by not looking anything like the real people. For example, Tayla Parx, who has the role of disco queen Summer, does not look anything like the real Summer. Casey Likes (who plays Kiss lead singer/bassist Gene Simmons) and Samuel Harris (who plays Kiss lead singer/rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley) also have no physical resemblance to the real people. In the case of Harris, he looks about 10 years older than the real age (mid-20s) that Stanley was in real life during the Kiss years that are depicted in the movie.

Many of the movie’s scenes are filmed and lighted like a stage musical, which might or might not appeal to viewers, depending on how much they like stage musicals. The cinematography, production design and costume design are among the best aspects of “Spinning Gold.” But the film editing is hit-and-miss. There’s an over-reliance on quick-cutting montages. The timeline of the story is also jumbled, as it’s told in non-chronological order, with the constant narration doing little to clear up any confusion.

The movie tells viewers from these disjointed flashbacks that Neil had a hustling entrepreneur personality from an early age. Throughout his life, Neil changed his name (his birth name was Neil Bogatz) and reinvented himself several times. Neil had a dysfunctional childhood, growing up in a working-class part of Brooklyn, New York. His father Al Bogatz (played by Jason Isaacs) worked as a mail deliverer for the U.S. Postal Service and was a gambling addict who frequently owed money to people.

A scene in the movie shows young Neil witnessing his father getting beaten up by some thugs over gambling debts. (Winslow Fegley portrays Neil as an 8-year-old child.) As a child, Neil started a laundry business using the washers and dryers in the apartment building where he lived. In a short period of time, underage Neil was making more money than his father, according to Neil. (It’s another story that sounds embellished.)

Neil’s mother Ruth Bogatz (played by Ellen David) is barely in the movie and isn’t shown speaking until much later in Neil’s life, after Neil becomes the wealthy owner of Casablanca Records, and he buys his parents a big house. The movie has repeated references to Neil having “daddy issues” of wanting to be a gambler like his father, but to become rich and successful at it, unlike his father. Although there are a few scenes of Neil gambling in casinos, his real gambles were with money in the music industry.

By the time Neil was in his late teens in 1961, Neil had changed his named to Neil Scott and became an aspiring singer and dancer. “Spinning Gold” depicts Neil meeting his first wife Beth Weiss (played by Michelle Monaghan) while he’s working in a ballroom at a hotel owned by her father. She’s seated at the same table as her sister Nancy (played by Peyton List), who would later become one of Neil’s record promoters. Neil asks Beth to dance, and she says that she doesn’t dance with the staff.

And then, the next thing you know, Beth and Neil are slow dancing by themselves on the dance floor, while everyone in the ballroom watches them. Neil clutches Beth from behind, and he asks her to tell him what she dreams about at night. Neil can sense that Beth wants to break out of her “pampered princess/good girl” image that she has and hook up with a “bad boy,” just to annoy her domineering father. And Neil is right.

Neil soon becomes a small-time pop star, when he’s able to win a local radio contest hosted by Murray the K (a famous New York radio DJ) where listeners could vote for Neil’s song “Cherry on Top” versus whatever was Elvis Presley’s latest single at the time. Neil shrewdly knew that only local people would be voting, so he figured out a way to get enough votes. (The movie never shows how.) He gets a lot of publicity for being an artist who received more listener votes than Presley. “Cherry on Top” becomes a minor hit. Neil eventually ended up as a one-hit wonder, but he got a taste of the music business, and he was hooked.

Neil and Beth were married in 1964, and they later had three children together: Jill, Tim and Bradley. (In the movie, their daughter’s name is spelled Jill. In real life, her name is spelled Jylle.) By 1964, Neil had changed his name to Wayne Stewart and Wayne Roberts when he had a short-lived stint as a porn actor (a scene in “Spinning Gold” shows Neil saying he made porn to pay for Beth’s engagement ring) and as a record promoter for MGM Records. Neil’s porn work isn’t recreated in “Spinning Gold” but Neil’s wheeling and dealing in the music industry are depicted in ways that are both overly sentimental and cynically selective.

His first big hit for MGM was Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ 1964 pop-rock song “Wooly Bully.” He is also shown bribing local record stores to carry this single as a way to increase sales. Eventually, Neil became the president of MGM Records. His MGM experiences breeze by in the film in many quick montages. Later in the movie, there is brief acknowledgement that Beth taught Neil most of what he learned about accounting and other business skills he would need in a managerial position.

Bribing people to promote or sell music (also called “payola”) was a tactic that “Spinning Gold” admits that Neil used throughout his career and is shown in multiple scenes in the film. There was a U.S. government crackdown on music industry payola in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but payola was openly done before then. Payola hasn’t gone away, but people aren’t as blatant about it as they were in Neil Bogart’s heyday.

The payola bribery would be through cash, drugs, prostitutes, high-priced gifts and other ways for people to be persuaded by whoever was giving out these bribes. “Spinning Gold” portrays influential New York radio DJ Frankie Crocker (played by Chris Redd) as being a frequent recipient of payola. In the movie, Neil justifies it by saying that no one he bribed ever played music that they didn’t want to play. It’s a statement that sounds as phony as a $3 bill.

“Spinning Gold” shows that Neil (now going by the name Neil Bogart) left MGM Records to have even greater success at Buddah Records. The movie’s opening scene takes place in 1967. It depicts Neil showing up at an African American church where the Edwin Hawkins Singers are performing “Oh Happy Day” as the church choir. Edwin Hawkins (played Obi Abili) is sitting at the side of the altar, while Neil tries to persuade Edwin to sign this choir to a record deal.

Neil is convinced that “Oh Happy Day” will be the first gospel song to be a major crossover pop hit. And in order to convince Edwin, Neil takes wads of cash out of his briefcase. And then, when Neil is sure he’s sealed the deal, he joins the choir on stage and sings in front of them, as if he’s the star of the show. It’s a crassly corny and unrealistic scene. Neil tells the “Spinning Gold” audience in one of his many voiceovers that is not how it happened in real life, but that’s the way he wants to remember it.

Neil’s other successes at Buddha that are depicted in “Spinning Gold” include signing Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Isley Brothers and Bill Withers. Gladys Knight (played by Ledisi) is shown in a somewhat amusing scene where Gladys and Neil are in the recording studio. She convinces him that the song “Midnight Plane to Houston” should be changed to “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which was a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1973. It’s one of the few times in the movie that someone other than Neil is shown coming up with an idea that would turn out to be a hit. Gladys Knight & the Pips signed with Buddha Records after leaving Motown Records.

“Spinning Gold” also depicts Neil as the one who came up with the riffs for the Isley Brothers’ 1969 hit “It’s Your Thing.” In real life, Ronald Isley, O’Kelly Isley Jr. and Rudolph Isley wrote “It’s Your Thing,” but the movie makes it looks like Neil was an uncredited writer for the song. Neil persuades Ronald Isley (played Jason Derulo), who is shown as the leader of the Isley Brothers, to have the Isley Brothers leave Motown Records for Buddha Records, because Neil promised the Isley Brothers could have their own record label, with Buddha as distributors.

The segment on Withers is also portrayed as Neil being able to “poach” another artist from Motown. According to the story presented in “Spinning Gold,” Bill Withers (played by Pink Sweats) was close to signing Motown, but Neil discovered the young singer and convinced him to sign instead to Sussex Records, a spinoff of Buddha Records. “Spinning Gold” features performances of the Withers hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.”

As a result of Motown “losing” Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Isley Brothers and Withers because of Neil’s business persuasions, the movie depicts Neil getting “punished” for it. There’s a segment showing Neil getting roughed up by goons who were sent by Motown founder Berry Gordy. This attack happens in front of some of Neil’s record company colleagues who are in Neil’s inner circle. Neil then implies to the thugs that he has connections with the Italian Mafia, so the attackers back off from this assault. It’s all handled in a very flippant way in the movie, as if to show that Neil could talk his way out of anything.

By this time, Neil’s team at Buddha included his best friend Cecil Holmes (played by Jay Pharoah), who worked in promotions and artists and repertoire (A&R); sister-in-law Nancy, who worked in promotions; Buck Reingold (played by Dan Fogler), who worked in publicity and would become Nancy’s husband; and Neil’s cousin Larry Harris (played by James Wolk), who started as a record promoter and later became an executive vice president at Casablanca Records. Cecil is the only one in this group who is shown questioning some of Neil’s wild spending, or standing up to Neil when Neil’s ego gets out of control.

All of these team members would continue to work with Neil when he left Buddha in 1973, to launch his own label: Casablanca Records. This new venture also meant that Neil, Beth and their children would relocate to Los Angeles, where Casablanca was headquartered. In real life, Bogart, Holmes, Reingold and Harris are listed as co-founders/partners of Casablanca. In “Spinning Gold,” Bogart is depicted as the sole founder and the only one who decided to eventually sell 49% of Casablanca to Polygram.

At the time Casablanca was launched, Kiss was the only act signed to Casablanca, which had a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records. Kiss was selling out concerts, but the band’s albums were flops early in the band’s career. An early scene in “Spinning Gold” shows a lavish launch party for Casablanca being a showcase for a Kiss performance. (The Kiss song “Shout It Out Loud” is performed in this scene, even though “Shout It Out Loud” wasn’t released until 1976, about three years after this party scene is supposed to take place.)

The party ends in disaster because all the smoke from the smoke machines on stage set off the room’s sprinklers, sending drenched partygoers out the door. And what does Neil do? He dances with his daughter Jill (played by Sloane Bogart) while water rains down from the sprinklers, because he promised her a dance at the party. Some people might consider this scene to be endearing, while others will find it annoying in its sappy phoniness.

“Spinning Gold” shows the friction that Neil and his Casablanca cronies had with the executives at Warner Bros., particularly Warner Bros. Records chief Mo Ostin (played by Nick Sandow), who was starting to see Casablanca as a very bad investment. Casablanca was heavily in debt to Warner Bros., for about $5 million to $6 million, with no hit artists on Casablanca. Warner Bros. eventually cut its losses and ended its deal with Casablanca in 1974. The movie depicts it as a situation where Neil basically told Mo a version of “You can’t fire me because I quit.”

As a completely independent label in 1974, Casablanca was still losing millions of dollars from overspending. It didn’t help that Neil had a drug problem and a gambling habit. The company’s first release as a fully independent label was an album compilation of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” highlights titled “Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show,” which was a major bomb for Casablanca.

Other acts on Casablanca weren’t making hits. George Clinton (played by Wiz Khalifa), lead singer of the funk group Parliament, convinces Neil that the band needs a high-priced spaceship that operates on stage during the band’s concerts. George brags in the movie that everyone else in the band got new cars from Casablanca, but he got a spaceship. Parliament songs “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” are performed in “Spinning Gold.”

There are several scenes of Neil negotiating directly with artists, with no mention of agents and attorneys, who are never shown in this movie. People with extensive knowledge of the music industry of the 1970s are the most likely to notice all the mistakes that “Spinning Gold” makes about how the music industry worked back then and, to a certain extent, still works now. These music aficionados are among the people in this movie’s target audience, so it matters tremendously whether or not “Spinning Gold” has credibility with a great deal of the audience.

The only artist managers (not the same as agents) who are depicted in the movie are Kiss co-managers Bill Aucoin (played by Michael Ian Black) and Joyce Biawitz (played by Lyndsy Fonseca), who is portrayed as someone who started off having a transactional extramarital affair with Neil soon after they met, but they eventually fell in love with each other. Neil says in the movie that he was in love with Beth and Joyce at the same time.

Joyce would become Neil’s second wife in 1976, but their wedding is never shown in the movie, and neither is the birth of their son Evan, nicknamed Kidd. Fonseca, who has believable chemistry with Jordan, gives one of the standout non-musical performances in “Spinning Gold” as quick-thinking and ambitious Joyce. Neil says in one of the movie’s many voiceovers that Joyce reminded him a lot of himself.

One of the movie’s best scenes is an argument about Kiss’ future with Casablanca Records. Kiss co-manager Bill and Kiss members Gene and Paul are on one side; Neil is on the other side; and Kiss co-manager Joyce is caught somewhere in between, but she’s leaning toward siding with Neil. It’s the only scene in the movie that realistically calls out Joyce’s conflict of interest of being an artist manager while also being romantically involved with the artist’s record company president, who is in disputes with the artist for underpaying the artist.

The story behind Kiss’ big hit ballad “Beth” is depicted as the band’s way of making fun of the love triangle between Beth, Neil and Joyce. Neil and Joyce are shown as being very offended by the song, which wasn’t released until 1976, a few years after it was written. The movie never bothers to show how Beth felt about a song that was supposedly named after her. “Spinning Gold” also shows that there were disagreements between band members, the band’s management and Casablanca executives over whether or not this bittersweet ballad was the right fit for Kiss’ image as a fun-loving, partying rock band. (Kiss’ 1975 signature anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” is performed in “Spinning Gold.”)

There were other complications with “Beth” that the movie doesn’t detail. “Beth” had lead vocals by Kiss drummer Peter Criss (played by Alex Gaskarth, who performs the song in the movie). There were ego issues with Simmons and Stanley, who were the main lead singers and songwriters of Kiss and were not involved with writing the song. In real life, even though Criss got a co-songwriting credit for “Beth,” there have been reports that he actually didn’t have anything to do with writing the song, whose co-songwriters are Stan Penridge and Bob Ezrin.

Casablanca still had massive financial problems in the record company’s first few years. Casablanca was millions of dollars in debt to Warner Bros. Records—a debt that Neil says he later paid off when Casablanca became profitable. Neil was also taking out personal loans for Casablanca and for his gambling. A Mafia-type thug named Big Joey (played by Vincent Pastore) shows up in the movie occasionally to loan money to Neil and make threats when Neil doesn’t pay back his debts on time. There’s a scene in the movie where Neil gets assaulted by some of Big Joey’s thugs, and Neil says in the narration that it’s sadly ironic how Neil became just like his father.

As depicted in “Spinning Gold,” Casablanca’s blockbuster success really happened because of disco queen Summer, who had a string of big hits with Casablanca from 1975 to 1979, including “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights” and “Last Dance,” which are performed in the movie. The success of Summer began when Casablanca re-released Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” as a 17-minute single. And you guessed it: Neil is credited with coming up with this idea, which he took credit for in real life. “Love to Love You Baby” was written by Giorgio Moroder, Summer and Pete Bellotte, but you get the feeling that if “Spinning Gold” could get away with it, the movie would want to give credit to Neil Bogart for co-writing the song too. Bellotte was the producer of “Love to Love You Baby,” but “Spinning Gold” erases him completely from the movie.

The scene depicting Summer re-recording “Love to Love You Baby” is quite ludicrous, even though the movie wants this scene to be sexy. The scene shows almost everyone in the studio, including music producer Giorgio Moroder (played by Sebastian Maniscalco, wearing a very bad wig and having a questionable Italian accent), storming out in disgust because Neil insists that the song will be released as a single that’s more than 15 minutes long. Everyone except Neil thinks the song will flop because radio stations won’t play a song of this length.

The only people left in the studio are Donna and Neil, who then takes over the role as producer. Neil coos in Donna’s ears and rubs up against her to “motivate” her to sound sexier as she sings and moans the song. It reaches a point where Donna is lying on her back on the studio floor and almost masturbating while she’s still recording the song. The scene gives the impression that if Donna started using her microphone as sex toy, then Neil would’ve been right there grinning along, as long as it meant that the song would be a big hit.

“Spinning Gold” makes it look like Neil generously spent a lot of money on his artists because he believed in them wholeheartedly. There’s no question that he had a strong belief in his artists. However, the movie irresponsibly avoids detailing the exploitation that is only hinted at in certain scenes. In one scene, Donna is shocked to find out that Neil changed her real name to the stage name Donna Summer (her birth name was LaDonna Gaines) without her knowledge and permission. This type of exploitation is quickly mentioned once and then never mentioned again.

Not surprisingly, “Spinning Gold” never mentions the real-life lawsuits that artists (including Summer) filed against Casablanca when Neil Bogart was in charge of the company. Summer would eventually leave Casablanca and signed a deal with Geffen Records in 1980. Her split from Casablanca is also not in the movie. In a “Spinning Gold” scene, Neil says in a voiceover that he and Casablanca Records completely fabricated and controlled her image and that Summer’s real personality was hidden from the public.

The problem with “Spinning Gold” is you can’t make those kinds of statements without backing it up with something substantial. It’s a well-known fact that in real life, Summer came from a religious background, and she was deeply conflicted about the sex-oriented disco music she was making. But in “Spinning Gold,” this inner conflict is just cavalierly mentioned in a throwaway line where Donna says that she’s worried about what her mother will think about “Love to Love You Baby.”

The movie also never fully explores the damage that Neil’s infidelity and divorce did to his first wife Beth and their children. There’s a scene where Beth and Neil separate (it’s clear that she’s the one who dumped him), long after she knows he’s having an affair with Joyce. He selfishly says to Beth: “You’re breaking my heart.” Beth replies that now he knows how it feels. The children’s feelings are nowhere to be seen in this movie.

Neil’s cocaine addiction is shown in several scenes, but the movie ultimately glosses over this addiction. It’s never shown if he ever sought professional help for this addiction, or if anyone close to him urged him to go to rehab. The closest that a loved one comes to pointing out that Neil’s addiction is a big problem is his father Al, in a scene where Al visits Neil at Neil’s home in California. Al is alarmed that Neil is openly snorting cocaine in front of him. Al scolds Neil a little bit by telling him that drugs will make Neil do stupid things, but then Neil sends Al on his way after giving Al some cash as a gift/handout.

Much of “Spinning Gold” depicts Neil’s showmanship ability to get media attention for publicity stunts that the movie credits him for creating. It’s questionable if he came up with all of those ideas himself in real life. And the one publicist depicted in the movie (Buck) is hardly shown doing any work at all. He’s just portrayed as a minion who parties a lot, occasionally gets into physical fights, and shows up at meetings to agree with what Neil says.

Noticeably absent from the movie: Cher, who was briefly signed to Casablanca Records, which released two Cher albums (“Take Me Home” and “Prisoner”) in 1979. Cher’s biggest hit song for Casablanca was the title track to “Take Me Home,” which hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was certified gold in the United States. Cher’s omission from “Spinning Gold” is probably because the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights her music and because the movie quickly mentions toward the end that Neil left Casablanca by 1980. That was the year that Polygram bought the remaining shares of Casablanca, and when disco’s popularity was on the decline.

The Village People (Casablanca Records’ admittedly manufactured pop group, with most of the original members not having any singing talent) are quickly mentioned and shown in non-speaking roles toward the end of “Spinning Gold.” The movie doesn’t mention Neil Bogart’s failed attempt to become a hit filmmaker: He was an executive producer of the 1978 disco comedy flop “Thank God It’s Friday,” starring Summer, Valerie Landsburg, Jeff Goldblum, Terri Nunn (future lead singer of Berlin) and Debra Winger.

Also not mentioned in “Spinning Gold”: After leaving Casablanca, Neil founded Boardwalk Records, whose biggest breakout act in the early 1980s was Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. “Spinning Gold” is already overstuffed with a jumbled narrative, so adding these details wouldn’t help the movie anyway.

“Spinning Gold” is at its best when it’s about nostalgia for 1960s and 1970s music. But this movie is supposed to be a biopic, not a music compilation. Although “Spinning Gold” has some talented cast members who do the best they can with the material that they’ve been given, other cast members look like they don’t belong in this movie. And no matter how many times a scripted drama will take liberties with facts in telling the story of a real person, audiences still expect a core of authenticity in telling the story. A more accurate title for “Spinning Gold” is “Spinning the Truth.”

Hero Partners and Howling Wolf Films released “Spinning Gold” in select U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

Discovery+ debuts ‘Well Done With Sebastian Maniscalco’

June 17, 2021

Sebastian Maniscalco in “Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco” (Photo courtesy of Discovery Networks)

The following is a press release from Discovery+:

Groundbreaking comedian Sebastian Maniscalco is not a chef and don’t dare call him a “foodie,” but he is obsessed with food – and in the new discovery+ series “Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco” he takes a deep dive into the gastronomic world from every angle. Filled with his signature social observations, commentary and appearances from his wife Lana and mom Rose, Sebastian is all in to explore the food-centric topics he has always been curious about. During his culinary education, he finds himself exploring the similarities between sushi and comedy with comedian Russell Peters, powering through a bout of sea sickness during a fishing adventure, throwing a meat-centric dinner party for guests including Bert Kreischer and Anjelah Johnson, and going on sandwich expeditions with funny pals Rich Eisen, Fortune Feimster, Gillian Jacobs and Oscar Nuñez. “Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco” premieres Thursday, August 12, 2021 on discovery+ with three episodes and the remaining episodes will roll out every Thursday for the following four weeks.

“This series came out of my passion for cooking and comedy. I thought… what better way to marry the two than a tv show centered around the culinary arts?” said Maniscalco. “Filming it was so exciting! I loved all the guests that we had, and I think we provide some really good information about food as well as some fantastic comedic moments.”

“This is one of the funniest shows we’ve ever done – Sebastian is an inimitable talent and his signature sense of humor sets the tone for every episode,” said Courtney White, President, Food Network and Cooking Channel. “He has a lot of thoughts, questions and opinions about food and joining him to hilariously analyze the culinary world is a must-see.”

“Sebastian’s obsession with food, combined with his comedic genius, makes for the perfect discovery+ series,” said Lisa Holme, Group SVP Content and Commercial Strategy. “The same qualities that make Sebastian’s comedy so special – his curiosity, intelligence and cutting observations – also make his exploration of food something that will truly whet the appetite of our streaming subscribers.”

After a year off the road, Sebastian Maniscalco is back with his new Nobody Does This Tour. Recognized by both Billboard and Pollstar with top touring awards, Nobody Does This follows a string of record-breaking, sold-out arena shows from his Stay Hungry and You Bother Me tours including the United Center in his hometown of Chicago, Boston’s TD Garden, The Forum in LA and New York’s Madison Square Garden. That success follows a number of blockbuster years for the comedian, author and actor the New York Times calls “the hottest comic in America.” In addition to releasing a best-selling memoir, “Stay Hungry,” and original comedy special also titled “Stay Hungry,” the comic hosted the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards and landed roles in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated The Irishman as well as Green Book, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For more information and tour updates visit sebastianlive.com.

Fans can visit discovery+ and Food Network’s social pages to get to know Sebastian in all-new exclusive interviews on set. Plus, relive the most-hilarious moments from the show and see how Sebastian is cooking up some of his favorite foods… well done. Join the conversation online using #WellDoneWithSebastian.

Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco is produced by What’s Wrong with People? Inc. and Triage Entertainment.

# # #

discovery+ is the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service. discovery+ features a landmark partnership with Verizon that gives their customers with select plans up to 12 months of discovery+ on Verizon. discovery+ has the largest-ever content offering of any new streaming service at launch, featuring a wide range of exclusive, original series across popular, passion verticals in which Discovery brands have a strong leadership position, including lifestyle and relationships; home and food; true crime; paranormal; adventure and natural history; as well as science, tech and the environment, and a slate of high-quality documentaries. For more, visit discoveryplus.com or find it on a variety of platforms and devices, including ones from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku and Samsung.

October 14, 2021 UPDATE:

WELL DONE WITH SEBASTIAN MANISCALCO SEASON ONE JOINS

FOOD NETWORK PRIMETIME LINEUP ON TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 16TH AT 10PM ET/PT

Season Two Begins Streaming Same Day on discovery+

NEW YORK – October 14, 2021 – Groundbreaking comedian Sebastian Maniscalco combines his passion for food and comedy in Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco, which has its Food Network debut on Tuesday, November 16th at 10pm ET/PT with back-to-back episodes. In the seven-episode first season, he takes a deep dive into the gastronomic world from every angle.  Filled with his signature social observations, commentary and appearances from his family and famous pals, Sebastian is all in to explore the food-centric topics he has always been curious about.  In his first outing, he spends a day on the Pacific to find out what it takes to be a fisherman and see if fish actually tastes better when you catch it yourself – but first he has to overcome a brutal bout of seasickness. In upcoming episodes, he finds himself exploring the similarities between sushi and comedy with comedian Russell Peters, throwing a meat-centric dinner party for guests including Bert Kreischer and Anjelah Johnson, and going on sandwich expeditions with funny pals Rich Eisen, Fortune Feimster, Gillian Jacobs and Oscar Nuñez.  Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco, which premiered in August on discovery+, also starts streaming its second season Tuesday, November 16th on discovery+.

“With Well Done I’m mixing my two passions for humor and the culinary arts in a way that translates to anyone who is passionate about food and serious about comedy,” shares Maniscalco. “What better place to share that than Food Network. Excited for those viewers to see what we’ve been up to on season one and can’t wait to share new episodes on discovery+ with season two!”

“Sebastian’s true obsession with food and the culinary arts combined with his one-of-a-kind sense of humor have made Well Done a must-watch,” said Courtney White, President, Food Network and Streaming Food Content, Discovery Inc.  “We are excited to bring the series to Food Network and launch season two on discovery+ to satisfy our audience who clearly wants more Sebastian.”

After a year off the road, Sebastian Maniscalco is back with his new Nobody Does This Tour. Recognized by both Billboard and Pollstar with top touring awards, Nobody Does This follows a string of record-breaking, sold-out arena shows from his Stay Hungry and You Bother Me tours including the United Center in his hometown of Chicago, Boston’s TD Garden, The Forum in LA and New York’s Madison Square Garden.  That success follows a number of blockbuster years for the comedian, author and actor the New York Times calls “the hottest comic in America.” In addition to releasing a best-selling memoir, Stay Hungry, and original comedy special also titled “Stay Hungry,” the comic hosted the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards and landed roles in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated The Irishman as well as Green Book, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For more information and tour updates visit sebastianlive.com.

Fans can visit Food Network’s social pages for interviews, hilarious moments from the show and see how Sebastian is cooking up some of his favorite foods… well done. Join the conversation online using #WellDoneWithSebastian.

Well Done with Sebastian Maniscalco is produced by What’s Wrong with People? Inc. and Triage Entertainment.

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FOOD NETWORK (www.foodnetwork.com) is a unique lifestyle network, website and magazine that connects viewers to the power and joy of food. The network strives to be viewers’ best friend in food and is committed to leading by teaching, inspiring, empowering and entertaining through its talent and expertise. Food Network is distributed to nearly 100 million U.S. households and draws over 46 million unique web users monthly. Since launching in 2009, Food Network Magazine’s rate base has grown 13 times and is the No. 2 best-selling monthly magazine on the newsstand, with 13.5 million readers. Food Network is owned by Discovery, Inc., a global leader in real life entertainment serving a passionate audience of superfans around the world and spanning 220 countries and territories; the portfolio also includes direct-to-consumer streaming services such as discovery+ and Food Network Kitchen, along with premium brands Discovery Channel, HGTV, TLC, Investigation Discovery, Travel Channel, MotorTrend, Animal Planet, Science Channel, and the multi-platform JV with Chip and Joanna Gaines, Magnolia Network as well as OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Kids in Latin America, and Eurosport.

discovery+ is the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service. discovery+ features a landmark partnership with Verizon that gives their customers with select plans up to 12 months of discovery+ on Verizon. discovery+ has the largest-ever content offering of any new streaming service at launch, featuring a wide range of exclusive, original series across popular, passion verticals in which Discovery brands have a strong leadership position, including lifestyle and relationships; home and food; true crime; paranormal; adventure and natural history; as well as science, tech and the environment, and a slate of high-quality documentaries. For more, visit discoveryplus.com or find it on a variety of platforms and devices, including ones from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku and Samsung.

Review: ‘This Is Stand-Up,’ starring Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Sebastian Maniscalco and D.L. Hughley

April 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

D.L. Hughley in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up”

Directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton

Culture Representation: This documentary is a compilation of interviews, performances and off-stage footage of a racially diverse group (white, African American, Latino and Asian) of well-known, mostly American stand-up comedians.

Culture Clash: The general consensus in the documentary is that being a professional stand-up comedian goes against what most people consider as having a “normal life.”

Culture Audience: “This Is Stand-Up” will appeal primarily to people who are stand-up comedy fans, even though the documentary ignores many problems (such as sexism, joke stealing and monetary rip-offs) in the business side of stand-up comedy.

Garry Shandling in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up” is kind of like the documentary equivalent of speed-dating. The movie packs in many famous stand-up comedians, who deliver a lot of personality soundbites, but ultimately there’s not a lot of depth or anything new that’s revealed for people who already know about the stand-up comedy world. Although a few of the comedians talk about their personal struggles, most just share anecdotes and advice, and the documentary doesn’t acknowledge the sexist and cutthroat side of the business.

Filmed over five years, “This Is Stand-Up” (directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton) has a “who’s who” of stand-up comedians (almost all American) who are interviewed in the documentary. They include Judd Apatow, David A. Arnold, Dave Attell, Maria Bamford, Bill Bellamy, Gina Brillon, Cocoa Brown, Cedric The Entertainer, Tommy Davidson, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Griffin, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, D. L. Hughley, Mia Jackson, Jim Jefferies, Jessica Kirson, Bert Kreischer, Bobby Lee, Carol Leifer, George Lopez, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jay Mohr, Jim Norton, Rick Overton, Paul Provenza, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Owen Smith, Kira Soltanovich, Beth Stelling, Taylor Tomlinson, Theo Von and Keenen Ivory Wayans. (Noticeably missing: Dave Chappelle.)

Toogood and Lloyd are Brits who previously directed the documentary “Dying Laughing,” which had a limited theatrical release in 2017. “Dying Laughing” was an interview-only film about stand-up comedians, and featured many of the same people as in “This Is Stand-Up,” such as Seinfeld, Hart, Silverman, Rock, Shandling, Schumer and Cedric The Entertainer. “Dying Laughing” also had more international representation, since it included comedians from Canada (such as Russell Peters), the United Kingdom (Billy Connolly) and Australia (Jim Jeffries).  In “This Is Stand-Up,” Jeffries is the only non-American comedian interviewed in the movie. British comedian Ricky Gervais is shown as a guest on Norton’s SiriusXM radio show, but he’s not interviewed specifically for this movie.

Although it’s important for the documentary to include on-stage footage of the comedians, the best parts of the movie are when the comedians are shown off-stage. Stand-up comedy routines on stage can easily be accessed on the Internet, so “This Is Stand-Up” shines when it has exclusive footage of what the comedians are like in their homes or backstage. Mohr, Tomlinson and Kresicher are among those interviewed in their homes, while some of the memorable tour footage includes Maniscalco and  the “Kings of Comedy” team of Hughley, Lopez, Cedric The Entertainer and Eddie Griffin.

“This Is Stand-Up” is also a good introduction to hear some origin stories from famous comedians if you’ve never heard before how they got interested in doing stand-up comedy. (Die-hard fans of these comedians probably know these stories already, but the documentary assumes not everyone will know about these comedians’ backgrounds.) Silverman says, “When I was 3 years old, my dad taught me to swear, and he thought that was hilarious. I got crazy with power over that. I got addicted to that feeling.”

Schumer says her first introduction to performing in front of an audience and getting laughs was when she was in school plays—but she was getting laughed at for the wrong reasons. It made her angry until a teacher pointed out to her that people laughing at her performance is a good thing because laughter makes people happy.

Foxx remembers being the type of kid who was always mouthing off in class. Instead of sending him to the principal’s office, one of his teachers set aside time in class for Foxx to tell stories. According to Foxx, it was such a hit that other teachers would visit the classroom to watch him perform.

Maniscalco says that he was the opposite of the class clown. He describes himself as a shy and quiet kid who preferred to observe people. And for Rock, his first inclination to perform on stage was inspired by his grandfather, who was a reverend for their family’s church. Rock says that he saw how his grandfather was the center of attention, and it was the kind of attention that Rock wanted too.

In fact, almost all of the comedians in the documentary say in one way or another that being the center of attention is their main motivation for doing stand-up comedy, despite it being a very emotionally demanding way to make a living. Lopez comments, “What I like about comedy is that it’s given me a great life. And now, I know I’m important.”

However, it’s not a revelation that comedians are very insecure in their real lives. Most have openly admitted to being insecure and/or emotionally damaged. And many have even used their insecurities as the basis of their on-stage personas. It’s also clear from watching this documentary that most of the comedians use comedy as a way to fill a deep emotional void to make themselves feel wanted in this world.

Von (who first came to national prominence in the 2000s as a star of the MTV reality show “Road Rules”) is one of the comedians in the documentary who is followed on tour, instead of just doing an in-studio interview. He talks about his financially deprived background and unhappy childhood, which are the foundation for much of the material in his stand-up act. But he also opens up by saying that part of his motivation for doing stand-up comedy is so his mother will approve, since he says he’s never seen her laugh.

The problem with how the filmmakers deal with these stories and anecdotes is that there’s no outside verification. The documentary does not interview anyone who knew these comedians “way back when” or even people who helped give these comedians their big breaks. Everything in the film exists in the vacuum of what the comedians want to say, without including hardly any other perspectives.

One of the exceptions is when the documentary goes to the home of Kreischer and shows some of his life with his wife and two young daughters, who are all interviewed on camera. He gets visibly uncomfortable when his daughters admit that they don’t like it when he’s away on tour. Family members of the other comedians are not interviewed in this documentary.

The nature of stand-up comedy is for comedians to often exaggerate about their lives in order to be funny. “This Is Stand-Up” takes everything that these comedians say at face value and doesn’t dig much deeper. For example, several of the comedians, such as Hart and Bellamy, talk about the importance for comedians to find their unique voices and identities, but the movie doesn’t give examples of how these comedians have evolved.

Hart says, “It takes a little time to develop who you are or who you want to be. I was definitely guilty of that in the beginning of my career. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t know I could be myself.” That’s all well and good, but if we’re being honest, that’s pretty generic and vague advice.

The comedians talk a lot about how honing the craft of stand-up comedy involves a lot of practice at open-mic nights for little to no money. And getting to the level of headlining a show can sometimes take years. Comedians such as Seinfeld don’t believe there should be any shortcuts to stand-up comedy fame—people have to pay their dues on stage in front of live audiences, not in front of a mirror or on a YouTube channel.

There’s also an entire segment of the documentary devoted to how to deal with heckling and bombing on stage. Shandling talks about once being so paralyzed with humiliation after bombing from a show that he stayed in a car and couldn’t move for about 15 minutes. Rock’s advice for comedians is to resist the inclination to talk faster when being heckled and instead to slow down and take back control.

However, there’s no mention in the documentary about all the sleazy things that comedians encounter on the way to the top—the rip-offs, the unscrupulous managers/agents, or even the difficulty in getting managers or agents in the first place. And because there’s a limited number of comedy clubs in any given big city, it’s a very insular network where the venue owners and concert promoters have a lot of control.

The documentary includes a diverse mix of comedians, yet doesn’t mention a big problem in stand-up comedy: sexism against women. And the movie has an unrealistic portrayal of stand-up comedians as this “we all support each other” community. (The movie uses “The Kings of Comedy” tour as an example.)

Although there can sometimes be camaraderie among comedians, the reality is that stand-up comedy is and can be very cutthroat. This documentary doesn’t even mention the widespread problem of comedians stealing each other’s jokes. And this documentary completely ignores the bitter rivalries that happen in stand-up comedy.

Seinfeld, one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians of all time, echoes what many of the comedians say in the film: Preparing a stand-up comedy show is a lot harder than people think it is. He says, “I adore the rigorous difficulty of creating and preparing a joke.”

He also says that there are four levels of comedy: (1) Making your friends laugh; (2) Making strangers laugh; (3) Making strangers laugh and getting paid for it; and (4) Making strangers laugh, getting paid for it, and then having them talk like you after seeing your show.

The documentary also covers the issues of social commentary in stand-up comedy and “how far is too far.” When asked if any topic is off-limits in stand-up comedy, there’s a montage of comedians who say “no.” Hughley says, “I’ll never apologize for telling a joke.”

Griffin adds, “It’s always comedy’s job to speak knowledge to power about what people are upset about, because comedy has always been about the people.” He compares stand-up comedians to being the modern equivalents of court jesters.

Silverman (who’s no stranger to controversy) comments on how smartphones and social media have impacted stand-up comedy: “It’s especially daunting now, because people are recording with their stupid phones and posting stuff. There’s more at stake to failing than just in the safe walls of a comedy club. That said, you have to not care.”

Although “This Is Stand-Up” fails to address the predatory side of the business (maybe that’s why managers, agents, promoters and venue owners weren’t interviewed), at least the documentary does include the reality that stand-up comedy takes a toll on comedians’ personal lives. Depression, divorce and substance abuse are common with stand-up comedians, as these problems are in many professions that require frequent traveling. But they’re especially toxic for comedians, who are more inclined to be insecure than most other people.

Brillon comments on what stand-up comedians experience in their personal lives: “Relationships suffer—not just romantic relationships, but family relationships, because stand-up becomes the longest relationship in your life—and the most abusive. And you still love it and go back to it.”

Mohr, who’s been very open about his struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, says that for him, stand-up comedy is his greatest love and biggest addiction. Even if he wanted to stop, he says, he’s compelled to keep going: “To be a stand-up comic, you have to be completely unreasonable, unwell and unhinged.”

Haddish explains why stand-up comedians are driven to do what they do: “When you’re on stage, it’s like being next to God … Comedy is the most fantastic medicine you can imagine, not just for the audience, but for the comedian.”

“This Is Stand-Up” might not be very revealing about a lot of showbiz realities, since documentaries and biographies about several famous comedians have already uncovered the dark sides to stand-up comedy. This documentary is, as Toogood describes it in a Comedy Central press release, “a love letter” to stand-up comedians—at least the ones who are famous enough to be in this film. If you want some in-depth insight into on all the sleaze and heartaches these comedians had to go through to get to where they are now, then you’ll have to look elsewhere for those real stories.

Comedy Central premiered “This Is Stand-Up” on April 12, 2020.

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