Archive | April, 2009

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Posted on 05 April 2009 by Rich Drees

surveillance1At first glance, it would be easy to draw parallels between director Jennifer Lynch’s film Surveillance and her father David Lynch’s magnum opus television series and film spinoff Twin Peaks. In both you have FBI agents, in this case Bill Pullman and Julia Ormand, arriving in a small town protected by quirky police officers to investigate the latest in a series of serial killings, a case which they may know more about than they initially let on. But as Lynch’s two agents interrogate the three survivors of the killer’s most recent attacks, it is slowly revealed that these are definitely not her father’s FBI agents.

Arriving at an unnamed, sleepy Santa Fe desert town’s police station, Agents Hallaway (Pullman) and Anderson (Ormand) almost immediately set the local constabulary, led by always reliable character actor Michael Ironside, on edge. They aren’t happy that their investigation is being taken over by outsiders, especially when one of their own happens to be one of the killers’ victims. Placed into three separate rooms, the three survivors of a roadside attack by the killers each give their version of what happened. But the various pieces of the puzzle they supply start to reveal a far more disturbing picture than first presumed.

Continue reading review…

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Posted on 04 April 2009 by Michael McGonigle

cowardsThis is a curious film ostensibly about bullying, but may well have deeper themes that go into youthful fear and how we sometimes cover our fears with bluster. I don’t want to get all amateur psychiatrist on you, but this film raises many more questions than it answers and I don’t say that as a criticism.

Gaby is a young boy with red hair who is teased with the seemingly innocuous nickname of “Carrot”. Believe me, nicknames like that are designed to insult and this one definitely does. Guille is the leader of a small gang that is doing most of the picking on Gaby and there is never any indication why this is so, or how long it has been going on. Is that important information, I’m not sure, but not knowing the reasons behind this do not distract from the film.

Being a contemporary film, the whole schoolyard bullying and teasing has moved into the world of cell phones and the Internet. This should not be surprising, but some of the standard problems still remain. The bullied kid feels totally alone and there aren’t any adults around who seem to know what is actually going on. This is not their fault per se, especially since the kids won’t say one word about it.

In an ironic twist, one time when Gaby in a stall in the bathroom (I can’t speak for schools in Spain, but no one in any urban high school in the USA goes into the boys bathroom to do anything but cause trouble), and while there, someone, unseen by us, sets a trash can on fire and then breaks the lock on the stall trapping Gaby who manages to escape.

In a rage, he runs right up to Guille and cold cocks him and then continues punching him until several teachers have to pull him off. I said this was ironic because it is from this quite visible act of anger that Gaby becomes tagged as the bully and Guille as the victim, characterizations that neither boy likes. But it does send their various parents off on the wrong tangents.

There are several scenes involving the two boys very busy parents, who are always planning to talk to their kids later about their problems but they never quite get around to it. On another level, we see the parents getting pushed around at their jobs and in their social lives and you do come to realize exactly how much crap we adults have to put up with on a daily basis from other people.

I was afraid at one point that this film might degenerate into a Columbine like bid for revenge or vindication or perhaps end with a round of big hugs and friendly understanding, but fortunately, director/writers Jose Curacao and Juan Cruz manage to provide a solution to Gaby’s problem that is original, without being particularly helpful.

Otherwise, the film rises or falls on the performances of the kids and they are all around excellent.  A very thought provoking drama that didn’t take the easy way out.

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New Releases: April 3

Posted on 03 April 2009 by William Gatevackes

fast_and_furious1. Fast & Furious (Universal, 3,461 Theaters, 107 Minutes, Rated PG-13): You got to admit, “New Model, Original Parts” is a pretty good tagline.

Of course, we wouldn’t have that tagline if the original cast of the first The Fast and The Furious didn’t have a stall out of their careers. Thank you Babylon A.D. and Into the Blue!

Now, all they have to do is find a way work it all out plotwise. I don’t really recall the reall plot of the first one, but I believe Paul Walker’s character played a cop who put Vin Diesel’s character in prison. Now, they are working together to bring down a heroin ring. You really don’t see many ex-cons buddying up with the cops that put them away.

adventureland_movie_poster2. Adventureland (Miramax, 1,862 Theaters, 107 Minutes, Rated R): A coming of age story set in the 1980s, based on the true-life experiences of the director/writer? Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar.

This film tells the story of a recent college grad who finds a dead-end job in an amusement park. There, he finds he learns a lot about life and a little about love.

This is Greg Mattola’s baby, and after Superbad, you’d think that he’d wouldn’t have to go the indie route to get this film made. But  that is what he did, having to shop it around Sundance to get a distributor.

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Posted on 03 April 2009 by Michael McGonigle

GodsForgottenTownPosterWhy should I be upset over a minor horror film that falls apart at the end? A fair question, but let me explain why God’s Forgotten Town was disappointing and ultimately an insult to my humanity.

After the credits, Syra (Marina Gatell) and Roberto (Armando del Rio) a writer and photographer for a Spanish magazine covering the paranormal, visit the high-rise apartment of a very distraught woman and her disturbed daughter (it is the daughters drawings we have seen in the title sequence). This woman is being driven insane by voices that only she seems to hear. Sensing there is no “paranormal” angle here, Syra helpfully offers her the name of a good psychologist and the woman gets angry and demands that Syra and Roberto leave. Apparently, Syra and Roberto are not big believers in the paranormal and they are both doing this because it is a paying job until something better comes along. Then, out in the hallway, Syra begins to hear a conglomeration of bizarre sounds and voices just like the woman described so she races back into the apartment just in time to see the woman sitting on the balcony railing with her screaming daughter; but before Syra can do anything, the woman jumps off the balcony with her daughter, both falling to a horrible death.

This got my attention!

This event really affects Syra and it is some time before she feels well enough to go out on another assignment. This time, Syra and Roberto, are paired with a video camera operator named Julia (Sonia Lazaro) and a soundman named Ruben (Miguel Angel Munoz). They are sent out to investigate a 60 year old mystery regarding the complete disappearance of the inhabitants of a small Spanish town called Manases after a Nazi airplane crashed nearby in 1945. But Syra has changed, she now thinks if she had only believed the woman when she was talking about voices and spirits, perhaps the woman would not have jumped. This means that Syra is now in a frame of mind to believe that every stray breeze or bump in the night is a real paranormal experience. Sure enough, when this Spanish road company of The Blair Witch Project arrives in Manases, all kinds of strange things happen and it’s just one cliché after another.

We have quick cuts to frightening images combined with loud bangs on the soundtrack to jolt us, their car, which has functioned perfectly up till now, suddenly dies and when the group tries to leave on foot, Syra twists her ankle and can’t go on any further. Julia and Ruben decide to walk back to the nearby town, but instead of walking along the safe highway, they decide (as only people in horror movies ever do), that walking through the dark mysterious forest is the best way to go. At one point, an exasperated Syra says to the still skeptical Roberto, “I don’t see why it’s so difficult for you to accept all this” referring to the paranormal events.

Well, let me answer for him.

How about this, before he gives up on every bit of scientific evidence, every piece of intelligently understood knowledge and well considered theories about the physical world which have been tested time and again over the millennia, he’s going to need a bit more evidence than some dopey woman’s “intuition” or the “gut feelings” of a camera operator who is always smoking a joint. In one sequence, the spirits gather up a variety of crockery and telekinetically smash it against the walls of a house. Everybody witnesses this and I suppose it means the spirits just want to communicate something.

Here’s my question, if the spirits have the ability to throw pottery all around the room, why don’t they have the ability to pick up a pencil and just write a nice note explaining what they want? Does becoming a spirit only effect your penmanship, but not your throwing arm?

GodsForgottenTown2Unsurprisingly, the whole mishegas of this film is related to the Nazi plane that crashed nearby in 1945 while en route to Berlin. Apparently, the plane had been carrying some kind of “scepter of power” (whatever that is), which would have enabled the Nazi’s to win WWII. But the plane crashed and the power scepter never reached Hitler, so the surviving Nazi officer tried to use the power scepter himself and apparently in order to do this, he had to have all the inhabitants of Manases killed, seemingly for no reason. I don’t want to defend the Nazis, but even they didn’t go in for wanton killing.  In fact, what made the Nazis so chilling was they were quite clear about their reasons for killing, no matter what we may think of them now.

In fact, this is the point in the film where I got insulted.  The Nazis were one of the cruelest, most dangerous threats to civilization ever to challenge us and they ran roughshod over most of Europe for well over a decade. Because of the Nazis, the world was plunged into one of the worst wars ever fought.  Millions upon millions of people were killed fighting their incredible war machine. The Nazis were also responsible for one of the most vicious and nearly successful attempts at genocide in the entirety of human history.

It took a worldwide effort to defeat them. From Stalingrad to D-Day and beyond, the Nazis lost because of brave, dedicated and above all ordinary men and women who did not want the world to run according to the visions of Hitler, were willing to lay down their lives for that cause. And now this dinky little piece of horror trash from Spain tries to sell us the idea that none of that other stuff mattered and that all the Nazis needed to win was some dumb scepter of power from South America?

This film is a turkey.  Please avoid it.

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Posted on 03 April 2009 by Michael McGonigle

BoyInterruptedPoster“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

This is one line from literature most everyone has heard but, because it is such a commonplace line, most people have not actually thought about the meaning behind the line. It’s about a guy considering suicide.

While the suicide contemplation scene from Hamlet may be dramatic gold for an actor, what do you do with someone who says numerous times, in real life, that they are going to kill themselves?   What do you do if that person is your five year old son?

That is the particular dilemma facing the Perry family in the fascinating documentary Boy Interrupted because they had a child who began suicidal ideation at age five and continued until he was 15 when he actually killed himself by jumping out of a window in his New York apartment building.

Now, I have not given away anything important here, we learn all this before the first reel change and the entire rest of the film is made up of massive amounts of home video, photographs, vacation film etc.  We literally follow Evan Perry from the day he was born (his birth was videotaped) to some video of him in a restaurant only a couple of days before his suicide. It’s an extraordinary record of a life.  Evan’s parents were filmmakers so they had the talent, the equipment and the inclination to record Evan’s life even when it must have been fairly unbearable to do so. Evan’s mother (also the film’s director), Dana Perry actually says she began filming her son’s morbid moments for no other reason than she didn’t think anyone would believe her if she told them that the seemingly cheerful young Evan was obsessed by death and suicide, because that is not what you expect to hear from kindergarteners.

Boy Interrupted also contains numerous post-suicide interviews with family, friends, various doctors and counselors who all knew Evan and while they are all very saddened by his untimely death, none of them seemed particularly surprised that it happened. When Evan’s psychiatrist describes him as “the scariest kid I have ever met”, that should make you sit up and take notice.  And that is what makes Boy Interrupted so gripping, intense and ultimately so heartbreaking – people did take notice. Boy Interrupted is not a story about a boy ignored.  From early on Evan’s parents sent him to doctors, got him analyzed, committed him to asylums if needed; at one point, while at a Connecticut school called Wellspring, Evan actually begins to mellow out and grow up a bit.

BoyInterrupted1Evan is diagnosed a Bipolar II (Depressive) with suicidal ideation, but starting with Prozac, moving on to Depakote (I take that myself) and finally onto lithium, Evan’s parents seem willing to do everything medically or therapeutically indicated to help their son.  I don’t even want to contemplate what their medical bills were like. But the psychiatric treatment of Evan was not a case of too little, too late, in fact, there is nobody in the film who ever says they wished that they had done anything differently.  They all did everything they could do, did it properly and it still didn’t stop Evan from killing himself.

It’s important to remember, doctors are not miracle workers.  Evan’s psychiatrist makes the analogy that Bipolar Depression is the psychiatric equivalent of various cancers; you can treat it for a while and some people will go into remission, some will not, but ultimately you have to stay on top of it at all times or it will kill you. Unfortunately, Evan Perry couldn’t see that and appeared to just get tired of dealing with his disease.  So, on one ordinary night in October 2005, he jumped out the window of his bedroom falling to his death into the trash filled alley below.  An ignominious end to such a handsome, intelligent and talented youth.

Despite the very sad theme, I didn’t find myself moved to tears all that much during the film.  This is because the director Dana Perry presents the story in a very matter of fact way.  I don’t envy her task of having had to sort through all the accumulated footage and then shape this recorded video into some kind of narrative. Having made films myself, I know you have to be brutal in the editing room and cut out everything that doesn’t contribute to the points you are tying to make.  That can be difficult for any director, but when the subject matter is your own son?  That is not a job I would wish on my worst enemy.

Tell a lie, I did cry at one point and that was when they interviewed some of Evan’s schoolmates who are all now young men in their late teens.  Dropping all teenage swagger and pretense, they speak more openly and honestly about their lost friend than most teenagers would ever do in private, let alone admit on camera.  Seeing the real hurt they feel when Evan said in his suicide note that he had “no friends” was heartbreaking.

Boy Interrupted is a heart felt and honest account of one family going through one of the hardest things any parent should ever have to go through and they have chosen to make their story public.  Despite the fact their son did kill himself in spite of all the support he had, I did not get a sense of futility from watching Boy Interrupted.

What I did get was that you should take every threat of suicide seriously, especially if it comes from a teen.

Finally, it was one of Evan’s final wishes to be totally forgotten, well Evan; this just proves you can’t always get what you want, either in life or death.  Too bad you’re not still around to appreciate that grand joke on us all.

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Review: DIOSES

Posted on 02 April 2009 by Rich Drees

dioses2In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald began “The Rich Boy,” one of his most notable short stories, with this line, ”Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Over the years this line has been misquoted numerous ways, but the meaning is always the same; the rich are different breed. Writer/Director Josue Mendez may have had that in mind when he set out to make Dioses, a pitch black comedy about the foibles of one particular rich family in Peru.

The film begins with us watching Andrea (Anahi de Cardenas), a pretty young woman dancing to techno music while various young men come up and either join her in oblivious movement or start snogging her on the dance floor. While this is happening we see Diego (Sergio Gjurinovic), a handsome young man with dark curly hair getting angrier by the second as he watches this licentiousness to the point where he angrily berates Andrea near the rest rooms.

Initially, I felt sorry for Diego and his humiliating rejection. Only later do we find out that Andrea is not his girlfriend, but is his sister although it soon becomes clear that Diego wouldn’t mind if Andrea were his lover. The scene where Diego masturbates over her passed out body is a dead give-a-way on this plot-point. Let me state clearly that incestuous relationships between brother and sister are not caused by economic prosperity. You need only visit some of the poorest hollers in West Virginia for proof of that.

Lest you think it is only the children of this family that are bent toward lassitude and suspect behavior, we don’t have to look any further than the “adults” in the household. Augustin (Edgar Saba), the patriarch is a tough old goat who has made a fortune with a metal foundry and is now no longer in need of his children’s birth mother. In fact, he has recently traded her in for a well deserved “trophy wife”, who coincidently, is not much older than his own daughter.

For her part, Elissa the “trophy wife” (Maricielo Effio) works very hard at her new job of pleasing Augustin. For example, she walks around the house without a top on exposing her pert young breasts. She also tries to keep up with all the other rich wives by studying botany, the Bible and Greek mythology because she has heard them all make comments about these subjects and she has to learn them chop-chop. Her greatest fear is displayed to us in a dream where her poor mother comes to her new abode bearing homemade tamales, but also with her grandmother who for goodness sakes is wearing a traditional costume of Peruvian mountain people. This nightmare causes Elissa to wake up screaming more than once.

But its true, even poor people don’t like to be reminded of where they came from, especially if they still have family living there. Why do you think they invented malt liquor?dioses1

If I have painted a bleak picture of the life led by the main characters in Dioses, I can assure you it is much worse than I have described. It is also enlightening, funny, colorful and bizarrely attractive. But, like Luis Bunuel in his later life, after years of railing angrily against the upper classes, he finally came to the conclusion it would be best to simply look at them and just laugh at their stupidity and their foibles.

I think Writer/Director Josue Mendez is doing that at the very end of Dioses. Why? Well, the only character who even tries to escape from his privilege is the young pervert Diego. Diego considers the wastrel life of his friends with their endless partying, drinking, drugging and just plain uselessness. He considers working under his father’s thumb at his factory where he is guaranteed a position no matter how inept he may be (good thing he’s not in politics), and none of this is appealing to him.

It seems that the only “real” people he knows are his maid and housekeeper. One night, when the world of the rich gets to be too much, he goes to the home of his housekeeper, riding there on an over-crowded bus. He sees the tightly packed slum houses where the workers live where there is nary a sea breeze and even the sun doesn’t shine in the dark congested alleyways. Diego stops and watches as the neighborhood kids play an invigorating game of soccer in a dusty field and then stands on a high ridge and looks out at the homes of the poor with a new found respect and we feel he’s learned a valuable lesson.

But then Diego goes to use the housekeeper’s bathroom. There he finds a cracked toilet bowl which he would have to squat over to poop in and a bucket of slop water next to it to wash it down the tubes and out into the street. That’s all it takes to redeem the rich in this film! They may be shallow, cruel, incestuous, alcoholic and immoral; but at least they have proper plumbing! In the very next shot we find Diego sprucing up in a proper bathroom. We then see him interact with guests at a wedding going through all the social niceties and banal conversation he needs to so as to remain amongst the privileged in Peru. All of this pretense just so he can have a clean, private place to pee.

This is joke ending worthy of Luis Bunuel. See Dioses, it’s a terrific film, beautifully shot with excellent performances and dark strain of humor that will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

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Posted on 02 April 2009 by Michael McGonigle

JuryDuty2Gregoire Duval (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is a mild-mannered pharmacist in a small town in the French countryside.  The time is 1962 and, as has been going on for sometime now, the Algerian question is still rocking France. Duval is fishing along a small canal next to a dozing friend, the local police chief when suddenly; Mr. Duval hears a loud argument coming from a nearby hay barn.  He watches as Khader Boualam (Lahcen Ruzougir), a young Algerian man stalks away in an angry huff.

Curious, Mr. Duval goes into the hay barn only to find a very pretty young blonde girl putting on her dress and jewelry, she is startled when she hears Mr. Duval behind her and explains that she has just had an argument with her boyfriend but is otherwise OK.

Mr. Duval tries to comfort her. She does not want to be comforted and very quickly, this scene degenerates into an attempted rape, but when the girl starts screaming loudly, in order to shut her up, Duval strangles her to death.  This murder was not really intentional, but it was not entirely accidental either.  Mr. Duval returns to his dozing police chief friend just in time to catch a large carp.

Later on, we learn that the dead girl has been found and that her Algerian boyfriend has been picked up on suspicion of murder.  But we know and Mr. Duval knows that this young Algerian is innocent. But truth, justice, innocence and guilt are not on the minds of the people in this town.  Everyone from the local judge to the prosecutor to Mr. Duval’s wife Genevieve (played with icy menace by Isabelle Habiague) can only think about how they can exploit this crime can help further their own careers or standing in the community.

I mean, it should be a complete open and shut case, everyone knows that Boualam is hot tempered and that he probably killed the girl in a moment of passion, which, while making the crime understandable, doesn’t mitigate his guilt.  The actual trial will just be a mere formality observed on the way toward a verdict of guilty for the Algerian. Then to make matters worse for Boualam, Mr. Duval is selected to be on the jury, which will have the task of listening to the evidence and coming up with a pre-ordained guilty verdict.

But here’s where Jury Duty begins to really surprise you.  Since other than his defense counsel, Mr. Duval seems to be the only person in the courtroom who actually wants to prove that Boualam did not commit this murder, despite a lot of circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

So in a surprise move, it is Mr. Duval who contradicts eyewitness testimony and points out obvious flaws in the prosecutions case.  It’s like having a Lieutenant Colombo as juror number seven.  But, the question remains, will proving that the Algerian is innocent lead to everyone discovering that it was actually the town’s pharmacist who committed this heinous murder?

Jury Duty plunges us into the world of Mr. Duval and his somewhat distracted family with remarkable brevity and just when I thought I knew where this film was going to go next, it didn’t and went in a completely unexpected direction.

Now, I have no way of knowing if the real procedures in French courtrooms are like they are shown in film, but it doesn’t really matter, the film makes dramatic sense and put me in the peculiar position of rooting for a psychopathic killer as he tried to prove the innocence of an Algerian sacrificial lamb and alternately hoping he also gets away with murder himself.

I suppose that’s what made me feel a little bit cheated at the end and its “Hays Code” finale.  Not to the point where I won’t recommend that you see Jury Duty, but I will say that the denouement is not very satisfying, but everything else that happens is funny, intense and thought provoking.

If you’re a fan of courtroom films or police procedurals or even murder mysteries, then Jury Duty will work for you.  It has a great story that kept me guessing, great performances from the entire cast and a nice professional look that I appreciated.  All in all, a pleasant time spent at the movies.

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THE LAST AIRBENDER Begins Shooting Today In Reading, PA

Posted on 02 April 2009 by Rich Drees

mnightshyamalanCameras begin rolling today, weather permitting, on M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action animae adaptation The Last Airbender on location in Reading, Pennsylvania. Roughly an hour north of the director’s hometown and favorite shooting location Philadelphia, Shyamalan will be making use of a local landmark called The Pagoda on top of Mount Penn as an exterior for his upcoming film.

The Pagoda will be used as an ancient temple in the film.

According to the Reading Eagle, locations scouts for the film were canvassing the area when their eyes were caught by the Pagoda. Once it was decided to use the location, a film company crew has spent the last several weeks making improvements to the road that accesses the site as well as burying electrical lines around the building.readingpapagoda

I have to admit that this story caught my eye as I had spent many any hour hanging out around the Pagoda back when I attended nearby Kutztown University. (I also freelanced for the Reading Eagle for a semester, too.) It’s a lovely building, celebrating its centennial this year. (Click on the image at right for a larger view.) I’ve been to a lot of film locations, but it should be interesting to see a place with some strong personal memories appearing on screen in such a different context.

The Last Airbender, the first in a planned trilogy, is scheduled to hit theaters July 2, 2010.

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Posted on 01 April 2009 by Rich Drees

The early days of rock and roll are often depicted as nothing more than innocent fun. Teens gathered in each other’s homes for listening parties or went out to sock hops to dance to their favorite songs. Sure, the music befuddled most of the older generation, but teens knew it was just harmless fun.

But under that veneer of innocence was the dark fact that rock and roll was a business and millions were made and lost by those in the business end of the trend. And when there are millions of dollars to be made, some will not be as scrupulous about how they earn it as others. This was born what became known as the Payola Scandal, where record labels paid disc jockeys to promote certain artists over their competitors. And that scandal even touched the most wholesome icon of the time – Dick Clark and his television series American Bandstand.

Wages Of Spin takes a look at the early days of Bandstand, from its premier on local Philadelphia television with host Bob Horn to Dick Clark assuming the mantle of the show and it’s rise to national prominence. The story is reconstructed from interviews with many of those who were on the scene in those days including former radio colleagues of Clark’s, Bandstand dancers and some of the rock and roll stars who appeared on the show.

The portrait painted is that of Clark as a Bryel-creamed octopus with tentacles stretching out from his gig as host of Bandstand to business interests in record labels, management companies and even a record pressing plant. Coming into radio more so with a business degree rather than a love for music, from the modern perspective, Clark’s empire resembles the vertical integration that is the norm now in the entertainment industry.

But questions arose as to exactly how Clark became invested in so much of the Philadelphia-based music industry. Part of the payola scandal centered on disc jockeys who didn’t take cash for playing a record label’s artists, but were instead given deals which would give the radio personalities a percentage of royalties from record sales through bogus song writing credits or publishing rights. Soon Clarke found himself, like many other famous disc jockeys, heading to Capitol Hill to defend his business practices. Clarke maintained he did nothing wrong, and the Congressional committee agreed with him. Others, like Alan Fried, the man who coined the phrase “rock and roll,” were not so lucky.

And while Clark was ultimately vindicated by the Congressional hearing of actually taking money in exchange to play and promote certain artists on Bandstand, there remains the ethical dilemma of his myriad business dealings. Wages Of Spin questions if a record label were to come to Clark to have his record pressing company manufacture half a million singles, might he feel an obligation to then promote the song on American Bandstand, particularly if he would like to have that record company use his plant’s facilities again?

And it gets even more tangled if we were to only consider the businesses to which Clark had a connection. It is alleged that Clark never placed a record he had a financial stake in on the “Rate A Record” segment of the show. The fear being that if it were to receive an unfavorable review from the teens on the show, it would hurt potential sales. As host of American Bandstand, Clark controlled what music was featured. By protecting his own financial interests in this way, he was creating an unfair playing field on which the other labels had to compete.

He may not have been violating the letter of any payola law, but Wages Of Spin makes a good argument that Clark was definitely violating its spirit.

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