Eating Raoul

Eating Raoul

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Since the Video Vortex rental outfit at Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh opened back up recently (and I started working at the theater), I’ve been sifting a bit through their collection. It has given me the chance to catch up on some films that wouldn’t be terribly budget-friendly to get on streaming or digital rentals, and who doesn’t love the nostalgic joy of flipping through countless VHS and DVD cases? One of the first things I knew I wanted to dig up was Eating Raoul, a cult classic dark comedy from Paul Bartel that got a Criterion release a while back.

Eating Raoul is, on paper, a movie I expected to like. I first heard about it when I watched and wrote about the fantastic Chopping Mall many years ago, which features the lead characters from this film in what could probably be called inflated cameos. It popped back onto my radar more recently for a couple of reasons. First, I have been watching through Star Trek: Voyager, and Eating Raoul was the major debut of main cast member Robert Beltran. Second, I recently watched Fresh, a controversial recent feature that treads on some similar conceptual ground.

Eating Raoul is a dark comedy – a genre I usually appreciate – about eccentric characters who snowball into executing an increasingly absurd string of murders to pay their rent. There is definitely a class-conflict, “eat the rich” theme to the screenplay, which is usually fun to see. At first glance, it sounds like it has some common DNA with one of my favorite old-school b-movies, A Bucket of Blood: Roger Corman’s skewering of art criticism and culture.

All of that said, to my surprise, I did not particularly enjoy Eating Raoul. The tone of the film is exaggerated and cartoonish, which could theoretically work if it were employed with a conscious purpose, but it doesn’t seem to have one.  I expected the movie to have something to say: there is certainly plenty that it could say if it wanted to cut any deeper than than the surface level. It invokes themes like classism and misogyny (its strongest moments are inarguably Woronov’s), but the movie doesn’t dedicate the time to making a particularly coherent statement about these themes through the characterizations or plot. Because none of the characters are grounded in reality, it makes social criticism difficult to weave into them: these people are looney tunes, so what could their actions and experiences say about our tangible world? While it isn’t impossible to use highly exaggerated characters for meaningful critique, it takes some finesse. 

Going through extant criticism of the film, I agree with some of Roger Ebert’s musings about it, particularly in respect to its tone and pacing:

“Eating Raoul” is one of the more deadpan black comedies I’ve seen: It tries to position itself somewhere between the bizarre and the banal, and most of the time, it succeeds…Problem is, it’s so laid-back it eventually gets monotonous.”

Honestly, there were more than a few moments where I felt like it leaned a little too hard into the banal to the detriment of the bizarre, which had the runtime flowing like cold molasses. I will say that I liked the performances from Woronov and Bartel, but nothing around them really worked for me. The love triangle that develops isn’t terribly compelling, and the action is all pretty predictable and repetitive. The whole work came off as simultaneously mean spirited and without a directionality for its barbs. It is a sea urchin of a movie, indiscriminately pricking anything that comes into range. 

More than anything, I think I was disappointed with the execution of an interesting story concept. Particularly today, when the value of human life is so trivialized, selfishness aggrandized, and economic stratification so pronounced, a film about preying on people to pay the rent seems like it could resonate.  I was hoping that this would be more of a prescient gem on a reassessment, but I don’t think time has actually done it any favors. 

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Ivy On Celluloid: Emergency

Emergency

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In today’s return to Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at a brand new flick: Emergency, set to release on Amazon Prime on May 27. 



The plot of Emergency is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Ready for a night of legendary partying, three college students must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation.

Emergency is adapted from an acclaimed short film of the same name that won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. In 2020, the feature-length screenplay was featured on the Black List – an annual list of unproduced screenplays deemed of exemplary quality by film industry insiders.  The team behind Emergency is led by director Carey Williams, who has done a fair amount of directing and editing for television and short films. The screenplay was penned by K.D. Dávila, who has written for the shows Salvation and Motherland: Fort Salem, and is notably a Princeton University graduate. The film was shot by Michael Dallatorre, who has worked on a handful of notable films like Brightburn and the recent Foo Fighters horror flick Studio 666

As I always check with Ivy On Celluloid features, I was curious what campus or campuses served as the filming location(s) for the film. The best I could come up with is that all of the filming was done around the Atlanta, GA area – a metro with a number of higher education institutions. Once the movie is available on Amazon, I’ll see if the location(s) are specifically mentioned in the credits. For now, I’ve tried to cross-reference some of the buildings in the trailers with campus photos from nearby institutions, but that honestly hasn’t narrowed it down much. While the shots in the trailer don’t look particularly urban, and the fictional institution’s setting appears to be suburban, that doesn’t necessarily rule out urban campuses like Georgia Tech: some creative shots can pretty easily disguise one setting for another.  That said, I am fairly confident that the architecture isn’t consistent with Georgia State University, and the color of the buildings doesn’t look right for Oglethorpe University. I’m not sure if the production would have traveled as far as Athens to use the University of Georgia, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Other possible locations include Emory University, Spelman College, or Morehouse College, as well as any of the other institutions in or near the area. 

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The university that serves as the primary setting for the film is a fictional predominantly white institution called Buchanan University. While no real college bears that name, there was a short-lived Buchanan College in Missouri from 1894-1905, after which it was converted into a high school. From the depiction in the film, I think it is fair to assume that Buchanan University is a significantly-sized and possibly public university given the vibrant Fraternity activities presented. Also prominently featured in the plot of the film is the very real Princeton University, a renowned Ivy League college located in New Jersey. 

A minor detail that shows up early in the film is the presence of a blue light emergency tower on the Buchanan University campus – a real-life campus staple that is often omitted in current-day college films. 



One of the earliest sequences in the movie takes place in a “Blasphemy and Taboos” class, in which the white professor gives a lecture about the power of the “n-word” while featuring the word on a projector screen and using it multiple times throughout the speech. At the end of the lecture, she singles out the two leads (Kunle and Sean) – who are also the only two Black students in the class – to share their thoughts. Ultimately, neither character objects in front of the entire class, though they discuss the incident between themselves both before being called on and immediately afterwards. Kunle notes that the content of the class was “on the syllabus” with a “trigger warning,” and brainstorms potential curricular justifications for the lecture, while Sean is categorically outraged by the incident.

There is a lot to dive into with the entire sequence. First, while I couldn’t find a course with the same title – “Blasphemy and Taboos” – there are certainly many real courses with similar content. The University of Utah has a Linguistics course titled Bad Words and Taboo Terms which is “an introduction to linguistic study through the lens of taboo language.” Notably, the course description itself has a de facto trigger warning for potential students, stating “students sensitive to obscene words are discouraged from enrolling, as are students with only a prurient, non-scholarly interest in taboo language.” The University of Washington has a similar course titled Swearing And Taboo Language. Western Michigan University has offered a Communications course titled Communicating about Taboo Topics, which relies on “discussion-based study…to address sensitive subjects that are typically off-limits to speak about…matters pertaining to race, death, sex, religion, and other subjects.”

Unfortunately, the legality and ethics of the use of the “n-word” by professors in a classroom setting is a persistent current issue – there are so many instances of this occurring that I couldn’t possibly cover all of them. Over just the past two years, a Georgetown University professor was the subject of student complaints for reading the word aloud as part of a lecture, and two University of Oklahoma professors, a Stanford University law professor, a former Duquesne University professor, a San Diego State University professor, a George Washington University teacher, a University of Ottawa professor, a University of Rochester English professor, and a Barnard College professor were all embroiled in similar scandals.

In short, the classroom sequence is not only a plausible scenario, but highly realistic. Notably, the incident as it plays out in the film doesn’t lead to a high-profile scandal like the examples provided above – there’s no way to know exactly how often situations like the one in the movie have gone by entirely under the public’s radar at colleges every year.

A Buchanan University campus tradition that plays prominently into the film’s story is the “Wall of Firsts” – a wall of photographs dedicated to students of color who were the “first” to do something – really, anything – at the university. While colleges certainly love to honor their “firsts” in retrospect (Autherine Lucy and the University of Alabama come to mind), I couldn’t find a specific campus tradition that was a perfect analogue to the Wall of Firsts in the film. That said, it seems like a practice that is certainly believable, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it inspired by an actual campus tradition.

Another campus tradition that features in the film’s story is the “Legendary Tour” – a marathon of a handful of exclusive fraternity-hosted parties over the course of a single night, with varying levels of debauchery and eccentric theming between them. Admittedly, I’m hardly a knowledgeable authority on college parties (though I did devise an excellent Bill Nye The Science Guy drinking game back in the day), so I can’t speak too much from personal experience here. However, I have at least heard of a couple of the types of parties in the film, so I don’t think any of the parties – though likely exaggerated – were entirely detached from reality in their concepts.

One of the key locations in the film is the campus biology laboratory that contains the bacteria cultures for Kunle’s thesis experiment, which is crucial for his graduation and admittance into Princeton (also my favorite simultaneous MacGuffin and Race Against the Clock device in recent cinema history). One of the key issues in the film is the fact that the refrigerator that contains the crucial cultures has a faulty door, and must be locked in order for it to remain shut. Because the cultures are highly sensitive to temperature, Kunle forgetting to lock the fridge in the first act partially drives the sense of urgency for the film (at least at first). Out of curiosity, I decided to look into laboratory refrigerators that this sort of campus biology lab would – or should – have. According to an article I found on “Choosing the Right Laboratory Refridgerator or Freezer,” it appears that a built-in locking mechanism is a standard feature for many recommended models for laboratory use.  However, in the film, it appeared that the cultures were stored in a standard minifridge, equipped with a separate after-market locking mechanism. You have to make cuts to the budget somewhere I suppose. 

Most of the action of Emergency takes place around the Buchanan University campus and local community rather than actually on it. While the higher education setting plays heavily into the story, the movie is about a lot more than college. It is a rare college comedy film that has the social consciousness and heart of a top-notch drama, and the buzzingly anxious tension of a thriller. It gets a strong recommendation from me on all fronts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this builds a reputation as a cult classic college film for today’s generation.

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Updates

Howdy readers!

I have emerged from my cloister of doctoral studies with a couple of exciting announcements!

First, last month I had a feature published on StarTrek.com: “Wesley Crusher, Nog, and the College Students of Tomorrow.” It is along the lines of my Ivy On Celluloid series about higher education on film. Check it out if you are interested! I’m personally pretty happy with how it turned out.

Second, I just started a side gig that I am pretty excited about. I’m happy to have joined the team at the the Alamo Drafthouse in Raleigh, NC, which features the absolutely fabulous bar/video rental venue Video Vortex. Long-time readers might recall my Bargain Bin(ge) features, where I reviewed physical media stores and rental outfits across the country, as well as Clerk Picks, where I had my local clerks at Columbus, OH’s Video Central (RIP) pick movies for me to review. Needless to say, I’m excited to be on the other side of the desk now as a concierge.

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For those not aware of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of movie theaters, they are a beloved pioneer in the cinema business for their dedication to a strict no-talking and no-phone policy, their frequent retro screenings, zany interactive movie parties, and food/drink offerings with in-theater service. Drafthouse Films, an associated distribution company, has been responsible for re-releasing a couple of movies I’ve covered over the years: Roar and Miami Connection.

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Additionally, I’m planning to do a little more writing here over the summer months between the semesters. In the meantime, if you are in Raleigh, swing by the Alamo for a movie, or pick up a VHS/DVD like the good ol’ times at Video Vortex.  Two films can be checked out at a time for no fee if you have them back within 7 days, which has already been pretty handy for me.  I’ve been working through the catalog, and there is quite a wealth of high-quality and hard-to-find movies in the collection. You can even rent a VCR if you don’t still have one you can dust off!

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Scream (2022)

Scream (2022)

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I’d like to think that I know when I’m being pandered to, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a bit flattering regardless. The target audience of the Scream franchise has always been horror hounds and general film dorks, with its reveling in story tropes, genre clichés, and the dramatic irony that comes with audience foreknowledge. The more time you’ve spent rewinding horror franchise VHSs, the more likely that Scream is going to be up your alley. Of course I loved the original Scream – there isn’t much more predictable than that. However, the sequels have been a different story. 

Scream relied on audience familiarity with a genre that dominated the preceding decade to its release, and weaponized the expectations that movie-goers had developed based on everything they had seen from the well-worn body of slasher films since the late 1970s. The sequels, however, relied on the same source materials: they never quite kept pace with the zeitgeist. The Scream franchise never moved on from the VHS era, and audiences clearly did. Films like Cabin in the Woods capitalized on audience meta-knowledge in new ways, and Scream became a relic of 1980s and 1990s culture, just like a dusty VCR in an attic.

The landscape of horror today, however, has shifted dramatically. We’re in a curiously (but pretty solidly) bifurcated era for the genre, defined simultaneously by arthouse “prestige” horror – think anything branded by Jordan Peele or A24 – and a mixed bag of “re-quels” – quasi-reboots of long-dormant franchises, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman, or the Spiral entry into the Saw franchise. There hasn’t been a more opportune time to dust off and retool the Scream franchise – there’s a whole new book of rules and audience expectations to tinker and toy with. 

I went into 2021’s Scream with admittedly low expectations. The only trailer I saw gave the impression of a mildly updated remix of the well-worn path: sure, the advances in technology have opened new doors (literally) for Ghostface, but all signs pointed to a re-heat of an old formula with some new gimmicks. Instead, the film itself is in every way a product of our current horror genre zeitgeist, and revels in teasing horror-knowledgeable audiences in exactly the way the original Scream did. Unlike Green’s Halloween, which fully tosses out its endless sprawl of sequel lore, today’s Scream somewhat hand-waves the sequels, but doesn’t omit them entirely as truth within the world. There is no ret-conning to be had here, which is impressive writing gymnastics for a screenplay looking to establish new ground.

Our new Scream introduces a new slate of vibrant characters, who are debatably more charming and relatable when compared to their 1996 predecessors (who I have found more grating on re-watches in recent years). Jack Quaid, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Dylan Minnette are particular standouts in the ensemble of newcomers, who more than fill the shoes of the previous accessory performers like Matthew Lillard, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Kennedy. They are joined by a handful of familiar (if much-aged) faces, including David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox. If you ask me, the new blood was far more compelling than the old, but the stalwarts fill in their roles well.

The new Scream is brutal and visceral in a way that it hasn’t felt like since the inception of the franchise, which plays beautifully in concert with a cast of lovable and relatable knife-fodder. As one character notes in the final act, “our story has stakes,” which makes it stand out in contrast with its fellow Scream sequels. I was genuinely shocked at how well this film succeeded in accomplishing its goals: there’s not an obvious weak link to point out. Even the language of its cinematography bobs and weaves around and through expectations, dangling the audience on a string with well-crafted mise-en-scene and camera movement. One sequence in particular was an absolute joy to watch with an audience, as it artfully elicited gasps and laughs at the creative *absence* of payoffs.

Scream (2022) is an unexpected early highlight for me from the burgeoning cinema landscape of 2022. It is possible that I’m just the perfect audience for this particular form of pandering, but I’m happy to accept that. This was one hell of a good ride, and in my opinion the best sequel Scream could ask for.

Best Movies of 2021

2021

Ok, this is admittedly a bit out of my comfort zone. In the many years that I’ve had this blog, I’ve focused almost exclusively on the worst of cinema: the most critically-reviled of each calendar year, the IMDb Bottom 100, box office flops, and so on. However, despite my dedication to the dregs, I do try to watch good movies from time to time. Since 2017, I’ve been in graduate school, which has cut into my movie-watching time significantly, and this blog has been on the back-burner. That said, I caught a bunch of films in 2021 that I wanted to highlight in a thoroughly subjective, not-at-all ranked list. For some of these, I’m not sure I would even describe them as great films, but they did get my thoughts going. I also haven’t seen a bunch of the major critical darlings of the year, like Red Rocket, The Power of the Dog, The Worst Person in the World, The Tragedy of MacBeth, or Licorice Pizza, so if something is missing here, I probably just haven’t seen it yet.

The French Dispatch

I generally like Wes Anderson’s work, so I wasn’t surprised that I liked his latest. However, I didn’t anticipate liking it as much as I did. This may or may not be my favorite anthology movie, but it certainly has my favorite framing device for one. The eponymous paper feels like a character itself by the end of the film – an amalgamation of the writers and stories that make it up. I also absolutely loved Jeffrey Wright’s performance in particular, and appreciate a somewhat less whimsical application of Wes Anderson’s style. I thought this was maybe his most balanced film, which generally avoided the twee sentiments that turn some away from him without being overly dour, despite the often-grim stories within it.

Last Night in Soho

I might be the most predictable white film dude on the internet in this way, but I am a complete sucker for Edgar Wright’s style. What impressed me about Last Night in Soho, though, is how much he tempered and adapted it to serve a tone and genre outside of his usual wheelhouse. Wright produced a YouTube video recently that discussed his use of the “Texas switch” in the dance sequence of the film, which is certainly a highlight of the work, and showcases where he used the same technique in his earlier films. It is a good watch, and I strongly recommend it. As always, his attention to detail is impressive throughout Soho, and creates an immersive, stylized time warp to the 1960s that is one of the most impressive in recent memory (The Nice Guys comes to mind in a similar way). I loved the performances across the board in this one as well, and found it to be an intriguingly mysterious ride. I have only seen the movie once, and am curious how elements land on a re-watch.

Pig

I don’t think there was a greater cinematic surprise of the year than Pig. Cage’s performance is astounding, and this grief-filled, emotional journey into the underbelly of fine dining is unique, grounded, and at-times viscerally painful in its effectiveness. I saw this at a preview screening, and went in blind expecting a John Wick clone. It is certainly not that – it is far, far better. For all of the Cage detractors out there, this should be a reminder that he is one of the finest thespians of our age.

The Green Knight

This was almost certainly the most polarizing film of the year. It is abstract, imaginative, deeply-stylistic, and perhaps one of the best examples of indulgent, unfettered auteur-ship in many years. For what it is worth, I dug it. I thought is was visually entrancing, thought-provoking, and a bold literary adaptation that didn’t avoid unique flourishes on an established canon. I do think it may have been served better by disentangling the editing process from Lowery’s hands, but I still thought the movie came out impressive. It inarguably benefits from an audience that is familiar with the source literature, though, and could have done a better job of acclimating folks who don’t have vivid memories of an English literature class.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Wait, this came out in 2021? This was my first foray back into a movie theater since March of 2020, and it was a great way to get back to it. The lead performances are fantastic, but I will say that it has faded a bit from my mind after another long, long year. I think it will be due for a re-watch, but I remember coming out of the theater knowing it would make any year-end list of highlights that I would make.

Nightmare Alley

Much like Last Night in Soho, this is the work of an established, beloved director taking on a genre outside of his usual sphere. Cooper puts in a fantastic performance, leading an incredible ensemble from top to bottom. Notably, I loved how Cooper basically mimes through the first 20-odd minutes of the movie, conveying a range of emotions and establishing his character’s essence without a single line of dialogue. This is the feel-bad, grimy, pessimistic movie that 2021 deserved. What an intriguing year to have giallo and noir send-ups among the upper echelon of cinematic offerings. What I will say, however, is that I’m definitely feeling fatigue with “bad white guy” protagonists. The future of noir needs to see some innovation in the content while retaining the stylistic flourishes of the form. I think this film would have been received far better a decade ago, but it is still undeniably fantastic.

Dune

The most anticipated film of the year mostly lived up to the hype. Coming out of the theater, I was blown away. It was an imaginative spectacle with a compelling cast, sharp visuals, and an astounding score. That said, it hasn’t stuck with me like I expected it to. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the story, but I will need to revisit this one, and ruminate a bit on what might have been missing to keep it from getting stuck in my head. I am someone who is definitely prone to being sucked into sprawling, politics-heavy sci-fi and fantasy settings, like Game of Thrones, The Expanse, Star Trek, and The Witcher, so it is all the weirder that Dune didn’t flip a switch for me in a similar way.

The Suicide Squad

Grimy, darkly comedic takes on superheroes are a bit old hat at this point. Deadpool, The Boys, and even James Gunn’s own Super have thoroughly saturated that area over the past decade and change, attempting detournements of the hyper-dominance of comic book adaptations in the zeitgeist. So why did The Suicide Squad work so well for me? I think the zany ensemble certainly helped, and Gunn definitely has a flair for bringing colorful outcasts to the screen. The movie is genuinely funny utilizing methods that many comedies don’t execute nearly as well, like editing gags and physical performances. The simultaneous vulnerability and somewhat-perverse likability of the characters creates an investment and fear for their safety that most superhero movies can’t frequently pull off well either. The Suicide Squad is also an adept satire of American imperialistic attitudes and anti-democratic actions abroad, which is pretty deep, subversive work for a popcorn superhero flick. I also think it lands better in contrast to the preceding Suicide Squad, which was a far less enjoyable, well-crafted work by a wide margin. Simultaneously, Gunn was wise not to completely distance this film from its antecedent, particularly taking a gamble by allowing Joel Kinnaman to redeem himself by taking a significant emotional load for the film. 

Free Guy

Speaking of deep subversion in a popcorn superhero flick, how about an anticapitalistic screed wrapped in endless intellectual property Easter eggs and overt fandom pandering? Free Guy is my pick for the most perplexing film of the year. It ends with characters celebrating the abolition of banks, but it is also deeply mired in corporate cross-marketing of just about every pop culture property they could cram into it. At the same time, it clearly has a deep disdain for the toxic video game and tech-bro culture that it sprouts from, in just the same way that there is a spirit of anti-capitalism beneath the layers of pop culture references. It is arguably appropriate for a movie about a hidden oasis within a world of inane nonsense. All of that might sound like I didn’t like the movie, which isn’t exactly true. In many ways, it is a mess (I particularly don’t love the romantic conclusion). That said, I thought more about this movie after seeing it than most of the films I sat through this year, which should count for something. I also generally dug the visuals and performances: in that sense, it is a fine popcorn flick. I do sense Ryan Reynolds fatigue setting in among film critics, which won’t do this film any favors, but I thought he was far less Deadpool-like than many give him credit for in this film. I think he spends much of the movie effectively channeling the naivete and charm of a puppy, unaware of the chaotic dumpster-fire of a world he exists in. While I think he has let his Deadpool character blend into his wider persona (particularly on social media), I think a bigger issue is that audiences are struggling to see his performances without looking through Deadpool-filtered goggles.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man: No Way Home is, outside of perhaps The Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War, the Marvel movie with the heaviest reliance on the audience’s prior knowledge of the franchise, and not even just its immediate preceding films in the series. No Way Home requires decades of familiarity with numerous adaptations, and hasn’t seemed to suffer for it at all. It seems that audiences, by and large, have kept up, and did their homework. We’re in a new era of blockbuster cinema that throws back to the infinitely serialized works of yesteryear, rather than the standalone stories of the past few decades. The Avengers and Justice League made this new path clear, but No Way Home asked far more of its audience – and from its story –  than any of those films. Weaving together different adaptations of the franchise – so many disparate threads without natural connective tissue – required artful work from the creators, and an audience prepared for the challenge. It was bold to even attempt, given the reaction to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 so many years ago: too many villains, too much story, too muddled. No Way Home somehow pulls it all off – it is a deeply emotional, well-performed, and engaging film that succeeds in so many challenges. There are tons of characters to balance, an immense amount of information to convey, and a complicated tone that blends humor and grief-filled tragedy. Somehow, everyone has room to breathe, and a stage saturated with performers puts just enough of the spotlight on each of them. I don’t think No Way Home is the best film of the year, but I do think it is the most iconic and representative of the state of film today. It is a blockbuster with a foundation in nostalgia, relying on legitimate performers and an intriguing vision that situates itself within the greater sprawling web of a meta-franchise. For better or worst, it is the movie of 2021.

Honorable Mentions

Nobody
Candyman
Gaia
Bo Burnham: Inside
Antlers

 

 

Worst Movies of 2021

Here we are again: we’ve reached the end of 2021, so it is time to take a look at which movies were the worst of the year according to the zeitgeist.

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This aggregated list of the worst-perceived movies of the calendar year has been an annual endeavor for me since 2016. 2020 was a bit of an oddball, with many outlets electing to skip their “worst of the year” rankings. However, I recently went back to create a 2020 aggregated list while waiting for 2021 “worst of” lists to drop.

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As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2021” lists (from sources like The Chicago Sun-Times and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2021 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.

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This year, I pulled from 22 published year-end lists of the worst movies of 2021. This year continued a recent trend of a narrowing distribution of films making “worst of” lists: only 100 films were listed across the aggregated 2021 lists, down from 113 in 2020 and 127 in 2019.

As with previous years, there was not a universal consensus for the worst film of the year. In fact, I believe that this year’s “winner” had the fewest votes of a winner I have seen, as it was only included in 10 of the 22 year-end lists I collected, meaning 12 critics completely omitted it from their listings. While there was a single clear winner this year, there was a tight cluster of films towards the top of the distribution. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Dear Evan Hansen (10/22)
  2. (Tie) Chaos Walking / The Woman in the Window (9/22)
  3. (Tie) Music / Space Jam: A New Legacy (8/22)
  4. Vanquish (7/22)
  5. (Tie) Cosmic Sin / Thunder Force (6/22)

Are there any films that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Personally, I was a bit surprised that House of Gucci didn’t slip into a higher position. Of this list, I only caught The Woman in the Window, which I thought was mediocre, but nowhere near the mess of something like Prisoners of the Ghostland. Are there any “worst of 2021” contending films that I need to cover for the blog? Let me know!

Worst Movies of 2020

Hello again, my dear neglected followers and spambots! I have briefly emerged from my reclusion for doctoral studies to deliver a year-late aggregated ranking of the worst perceived movies of 2020.

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Initially, I hadn’t planned to make this post. Despite making an aggregated list of the worst-perceived movies of each year since 2016, I wasn’t particularly motivated to cover 2020 at the end of last year. Honestly, part of that was because I assumed that many places were following The AV Club’s lead in skipping the Worst of 2020 lists. While it does appear that they weren’t the only ones to skip out – a few of my other usual sources didn’t have a post for 2020 either, like Rolling Stone – plenty still put out their annual list of demerited films.

Now that we are hitting the end of 2021, I decided to look back on the widely-maligned year of 2020, as I wait for the inevitable “worst of 2021” lists to be published.

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As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2020” lists (from sources like The Chicago Sun-Times and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2019 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.

dolittle

This year, I pulled from 19 published year-end lists of the worst movies of 2020. On the whole, there was a narrower distribution of movies for 2020 than for 2019: down to 113 movies from 127. However, the 2020 total was still higher than the total movies that received votes in 2016, 2017, or 2018.

As with previous years, there was not a universal consensus for the worst film of the year. The “winner” was only included in 13 of the 19 year-end lists, meaning 6 critics completely omitted it from their listings. Unlike previous years that have featured plenty of ties at the top of the list, there were three clear medalists for 2020. However, there was a glut of movies vying in the fourth and fifth positions. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Dolittle (13/19)
  2. Artemis Fowl (10/19)
  3. Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island (7/19)
  4. (Tie) The Grudge / Like A Boss / The Last Days of American Crime (6/19)
  5. (Tie) Songbird / Irresistible / The Wrong Missy / The Tax Collector / 365 Days / After We Collided (5/19)

Are there any films that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Are any of these films in need of reappraisal? Are there any that I need to cover for the blog? Let me know!

The Cage

Recently, I have found myself gravitating towards the work of Nicolas Cage. This shouldn’t be all that surprising given I have a movie blog, right? It isn’t even particularly new ground for me: I’ve covered the obligatory Nicolas Cage fare, like Face/Off, The Wicker Man, and Vampire’s Kiss, and a good number or less-remembered flicks like Army of One, Drive Angry, and Snake Eyes. Of course, I like Nicolas Cage movies. It makes sense that I would watch them from time to time.

However, this recent gravitation hasn’t been by choice. It feels elemental. Like a cosmic thrall that has drawn me back to Cage: something celestial and potentially foreboding. In the past few weeks, I have “coincidentally” stumbled into watching Moonstruck, Adaptation, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Pig, and Willy’s Wonderland. I can’t think of a wider range of films that better collectively encapsulates the essence of Cage. Pig features an inspiring, emotionally engrossing, quietly dramatic Cage performance that is easily one of the best of the past year. Willy’s Wonderland is an absolute train wreck of an action-horror movie where Cage perplexingly doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a wild, visionary science fiction film that feels like suffering a fever dream in the worst possible way, propelled by an appropriately unhinged Cage performance. Adaptation is debatably the gold standard of Nicolas Cage, who flawlessly and comedically portrays two fictional(ish) central characters who are writing the unparalleled screenplay for the film within the world of the movie. Moonstruck features early Cage, long before his descent into self-parody, but still exuding inexorable, deeply compelling weirdness, all while matching the tone of the off-beat romantic comedy.

Each of these films has gotten my gears turning about Nicolas Cage as one of the great, enigmatic fixtures in the world of screen acting over the past four decades (and who looks to continue being one for the foreseeable future). I’m still ruminating on what to do about the apparent sword of Damocles over my head that is the career of Nicolas Cage: is this my next great destiny? Is this sign a klaxon call to action, or a siren’s song to my demise?

Currently, I’m still wrapped up in graduate studies, which is leaving me very little time for this blog. Outside of the occasional Ivy On Celluloid, I haven’t had much time to write for fun (though I’m doing a ton of writing for not-fun). However, I am still finding some time to watch movies, and I think Cage might be drawing me back here. I suppose we’ll see. I can definitely feel gravity’s pull.

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Ivy On Celluloid: Star Trek (PT 1)

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV Series 1987–1994) - IMDbStar Trek: Deep Space Nine (TV Series 1993–1999) - IMDb

In today’s quick installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’d like to share a video essay I made for a class a few months back, covering the portrayals of higher education in the beloved Star Trek franchise. 

In particular, this video focuses on two Star Trek characters whose higher education journeys are chronicled over the course of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine: Wesley Crusher and Nog, respectively.

When I have the time, I’m planning to come back to this topic – there is a lot to explore in the Star Trek universe when it comes to higher education, and these two intriguingly disparate college student narratives are just the beginning. I also have an academic companion paper that I wrote as part of this project – I’ll figure out what I want to do with that soon enough. 

Ivy On Celluloid: Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s Happy Death Day: a time twister of a slasher movie.

The plot of Happy Death Day is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A college student must relive the day of her murder over and over again, in a loop that will end only when she discovers her killer’s identity.

The screenplay for Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell, who is primarily known for his extensive comic book writing for series like Uncanny X-Men and Generation X.  The director for the film was Christopher Landon, who has worked as both a writer and producer on a number of entries into the Paranormal Activity franchise. Some other notable crew members include editor Gregory Plotkin (Get Out, Game Night) and cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out, Fantasy Island, Breaking In).

The primary filming location for Happy Death Day is New Orleans, LA, on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans and in the surrounding area. As an aside, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this campus, as I attended my first two years of college next door at Tulane University.

To begin the higher education analysis of Happy Death Day, let’s see if the fictional “Bayfield University” is actually a loosely fictionalized version of a specific university. As mentioned previously, the movie was filmed on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans. If Bayfield was meant to be any specific school, it would make sense for it to be Loyola-NO. However, there are some key details of Bayfield that indicate that it is likely a distinct institution from Loyola-New Orleans, rather than a stand-in. First, Loyola-New Orleans is a private Jesuit university, one of 27 in the United States.  While it is not explicitly stated, Bayfield University appears to be a stand-in for a public, state university, given the prominence of athletics in campus life, and the apparent absence of religiosity on campus. Another detail that distinguishes Bayfield from Loyola-NO is the presence of a university hospital and medical center – while this location has a prominent role in the film, Loyola-NO does not have such a facility. Notably, Bayfield University does retain the color scheme of Loyola-New Orleans – red and gold. However, Bayfield University’s iconography is perhaps the most significant change from Loyola University – New Orleans.

The mascot for Bayfield University featured in the film is a giant baby, whose image is co-opted by the killer(s) throughout the story via a creepy baby mask. The “Bayfield Babies” would certainly be in the running for one of the worst university athletic team names in the world, though there are perhaps some weirder examples in real life.  As I covered in my post on Van Wilder, schools like University of California – Santa Cruz (Banana Slugs) and Evergreen State College (Geoducks) have exceedingly strange team names, but today I am going to focus specifically on horrifying mascots.

There are a few college mascots that merit acknowledgement when it comes to the uncanny and unnatural ability to conjure nightmares.  First, I think Wichita State University’s mascot, known as WuShock, deserves recognition. Officially described by the university as “a big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat,” both iterations of WuShock I have seen are equally unnerving.

Another terrifying university mascot of note is Purdue University’s hammer-wielding Purdue Pete, whose unfeeling, void-like eyes can burn their way into your soul. The University of Louisville’s Louie the Cardinal has a similar overt aggressive energy to WuShock, with the added intimidation factor of having grinding, omnivorous human teeth inside of his over-sized bird beak.  Perhaps the most unnerving of college mascots, however, is Western Kentucky University’s Big Red – an undefined blob-like creature with a gaping maw that has been described as the “amorphous, ambiguous, asexual and always lovable representative of the school’s athletics,” and is renowned for its unusual ability to “make expressions” and “show emotion.” Personally, I would prefer to keep mascots emotionless.

An interesting detail of Bayfield University in Happy Death Day is the absence of “blue light” emergency phones. These have been a visible campus safety fixture on college and university campuses for decades. They are meant to provide a direct line to campus police or security in the case of any emergency situation, such as the confrontation in the dark tunnel towards the beginning of the film.  Interestingly, there has been growing debate about their continued operation due to the costs they incur, coupled with the ubiquity of cell phones. Many campuses have begun using emergency mobile applications to phase out the blue light phones, whereas others, like the University of Colorado – Boulder and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, have already eliminated the blue light phones.

Early in the film, a brownout occurs throughout the Bayfield University campus, the effects of which are seen in a sorority house by the characters Tree and Danielle. Afterwards, Danielle exclaims, “Our tuition money at work!” This got me curious about the ownership of fraternity and sorority houses – Danielle’s statement seems to imply that the university owns the house, but I was under the impression that houses were usually owned by outside parties, like alumni or the national fraternity/sorority organizations. According to information I was able to dig up from Appalachian State University, the earliest fraternity chapter houses were owned by chapter alumni, and not by the host university. However, this isn’t always the case today. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, 24 of 32 fraternity and sorority houses are directly owned by the university. Likewise, fraternities and sororities at North Carolina State University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Maryland – College Park live in a mixture of university-owned and privately owned houses. In contrast, at the University of Washington all fraternity and sorority housing is privately owned.

During a number of the timelines in the film, a murder occurs within a sorority house. The first thing that is clearly evoked by these instances, particularly given the fact that there is an escaped killer nearby, is Ted Bundy’s spree at Florida State University’s Chi Omega house, which occurred after he escaped from custody. While the fictitious serial killer in Happy Death Day does not bear a resemblance to Ted Bundy, the implication that he targets college women and is prone to escape attempts draws a parallel between them.

Despite the presence of a serial killer, it is ultimately revealed that Tree is the repeated victim of a murder plot by her roommate. After doing some digging, I was able to find a handful of examples of college roommates committing murder. In 2007, a University of Arizona student stabbed her roommate 23 times because she had been exposed for stealing $500.  In 1995, a student at Harvard University murdered her roommate before subsequently killing herself, which became the subject of a book that criticized Harvard’s mental health services for students. A recent case of apparent college roommate murder occurred in 2019, when a Clark Atlanta University student was allegedly killed by her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend. Both of them have plead not guilty, and a trial is forthcoming.

A number of times throughout the movie, an unnamed student is shown passing out during what appears to be a  hazing ritual. The student appears to be a fraternity pledge who has been forced to stay up all night while standing and singing with other pledges. There are countless articles that have outlined dangerous hazing practices that have occurred on college campuses. Universities have long acknowledged the safety issues inherent to hazing, and have widely adopted strict anti-hazing institutional policies, which are intended to curb potentially dangerous hazing rituals. Further, there are anti-hazing laws in a number of states. However, in 2018, Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors published a document analysis of anti-hazing policies and legislation, which critiques some of their notable shortcomings and provides a fantastic overview how hazing persists in higher education.  Because of the public scrutiny and admonishment of hazing practices, it seems unlikely to me that hazing, even of this debatably innocuous sort, would be carried out on campus in broad daylight. It seems more likely to me that hazing would at least happen behind closed doors, in order to avoid formal repercussions for the organization.

A number of times throughout the film, a particular focus is placed on the dietary restrictions placed on members of the sorority Kappa Pi Lambda by their apparent leader, Danielle, in order for the members to maintain a consistent image. This kind of food policing by sorority leadership comes up occasionally in higher education films, usually coupled with gags about eating disorders among sorority members. There are a handful of research studies on implementing programs to prevent eating disorders among sorority members that focus on either individuals or the sorority social systems as a whole,  but there isn’t much that indicates concretely that sorority members are more likely to have eating disorders than college women on the whole. A phenomenological study on perceptions among sorority women found that “sorority women may have a greater fear of becoming fat, are more dissatisfied with their bodies. and are more weight preoccupied and concerned with dieting than are college women from previous studies,” which could put them at greater risk of developing eating disorders. While there is a research study that indicates that sorority members develop a greater “drive for thinness” as a result of their sorority membership over three years when compared to non-sorority peers, there was no indication that they have higher rates of bulimia or general body dissatisfaction compared to their unaffiliated peers.

All of that said, the Kappa standards in Happy Death Day do seem consistent with a leaked 2013 email from a University of Southern California sorority to members which Jezebel described as “unhinged”:

Start eating healthy today and you’ll feel so much better by the time polish week and recruitment starts. Stay away from fried and super sugary foods. Your face will seriously brighten up. Also, exercise. Start now and you’ll have way more energy and endurance for the long hours of recruitment.

One of my favorite things about Happy Death Day is how it portrays a casual day on a college campus. Most college movies gloss over the hustle and bustle of the college campus in the daylight in favor of the classroom setting or the debauchery of nighttime. Happy Death Day spends some quality time on a quad at the beginning of each repeated cycle, showing students collecting petition signatures, folks hanging out on the grass, a flurry of assorted noises, and the seemingly perpetual human motion of a buzzing university at full capacity. It is a strange element to be left out of so many college films, but Happy Death Day captures the spirit of a daytime college campus in these sequences better than any other film that I can think of.

There are quite a few other topics I could cover from Happy Death Day – university policies about sexual relations between faculty and students, suicide on campus, violence at fraternities, etc. – but I have either already covered them in other Ivy On Celluloid features, or plan to cover them with another film.

On the whole, Happy Death Day is an entertaining horror-comedy movie that is reminiscent of a number of classics: there are explicit nods to Groundhog Day, and thematic similarities to the Scream franchise and other subsequent self-aware slashers. I’m hesitant to say that this is a great movie, but I found it to be a pretty good late night horror film, and a surprisingly interesting depiction of higher education. Though it does lean on some lazy stereotypes, spends a bit too much time and effort making the lead unsympathetic, and takes too long to get the momentum rolling, there are definitely things to like about Happy Death Day.  I can recommend this confidently to horror fans out there, particularly if they are into the Scream and Cabin In The Woods brand of self-aware horror.

A big thanks to my old Columbus film critic buddies Hope Madden and George Wolf, who inspired me to take a look at Happy Death Day. I recently hopped on their amazing horror podcast Fright Club to discuss college horror movies, which included a little discussion of Happy Death Day. Check it out!