Evolution

Evolution

Today, I’m going to take a look back at the 2001 science-fiction comedy, Evolution.

The plot of Evolution is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A fire-fighting cadet, two college professors, and a geeky but sexy government scientist work against an alien organism that has been rapidly evolving since its arrival on Earth inside a meteor.

The screenplay for Evolution was written by Don Jakoby (Double Team, Vampires, Lifeforce, Death Wish 3, The Philadelphia Experiment), David Weissman (Old Dogs, The Family Man), and David Diamond (When In Rome), and was directed by Ivan Reitman – a comedy icon who is known for films like Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, Junior, Twins, Meatballs, and Stripes.

The cast of Evolution includes Julianne Moore (The Hours, Boogie Nights, Seventh Son, The Lost World: Jurassic Park), David Duchovny (The X-Files, Californication), Orlando Jones (American Gods, Black Dynamite, MADtv, From Dusk Till Dawn 3), Sean William Scott (Goon, Goon 2, Cop Out), Ted Levine (The Mangler, Silence of the Lambs, Wild Wild West, Jurassic World 2), Ethan Suplee (Mallrats, My Name Is Earl), Sarah Silverman (The Book of Henry, Wreck-It Ralph), and Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Nothing But Trouble, Ghostbusters).

The cinematographer for Evolution was Michael Chapman, whose lengthy career included shooting Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Suspect Zero, The Watcher, Space Jam, Primal Fear, Hardcore, The Lost Boys, The Last Detail, Scrooged, and The Fugitive.

The credited editors for the film were Wendy Greene Bricmont (Mean Girls, Kindergarten Cop, Junior, My Girl, Annie Hall) and Sheldon Kahn (Out of Africa, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ghostbusters, Legal Eagles, Draft Day)

The musical score for Evolution was composed by John Powell, who has also provided music for Pan, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hancock, Jumper, Be Cool, Shrek, Face/Off, Antz, and Rat Race, among other films.

The effects work for Evolution was provided in part by the team of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman, who, combined, have credits that include films and television shows like The Walking Dead, The Faculty, Vampires, Scream, In The Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Till Dawn, From Beyond, DeepStar Six, Dr. Giggles, Tusk, Night of the Creeps, Drag Me To Hell, The Mist, and hundreds of others.

The creature design for the film was done by Phil Tippett, who is known for his visionary work on Starship Troopers, RoboCop, the original Star Wars trilogy, and Howard the Duck. He also interestingly  directed the not-well-recieved Starship Troopers 2.

An animated series based on the film, titled Alienators: Evolution Continues, ran from September 2001 to June 2002 for a total of 26 episodes.

The screenplay for Evolution was originally written as a science-fiction thriller by Don Jakoby, but was rewritten by Diamond and Weissman to be a comedy. In an unusual turn of events, Jakoby was so fond of the changes that he worked on the film alongside Diamond and Weissman.

Evolution currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 43% from critics and 48% from audiences. Financially, it was able to cover its $80 million production budget with a lifetime, worldwide gross of $98.4 million, but it almost certainly wound up in the red due to marketing and non-production costs. It also severely under-performed domestically, with almost two-thirds of its take coming from foreign markets.

In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott stated that “the biggest frustration in Evolution is that it squanders an interesting premise.” It is hard to argue that the premise doesn’t have promise – it is a pretty standard framework for an aliens-come-to-earth science fiction adventure, with a rag-tag team of misfits put up against a monolithic, obtuse military force. On its surface, Evolution sounds more interesting and entertaining than it actually is – ultimately, what squanders the film’s potential is the comedic writing that dwells in the movie’s minutiae, which leaves plenty to be desired. Farts, butts, misogyny, homophobia are in ample supply throughout the film, making for a comedic smorgasbord that only the dimmest of “bros” could love. The foulness of the humor sours the impact of some impressive effects work, and hamstrings perfectly talented performers like Julianne Moore, who has so little to do that she apparently improvised her only memorable quality – comedic clumsiness.

Speaking of the creature designs, Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, lauded the works of Phil Tippett as “clever and bizarre…weird manifestations.” Ultimately, the litany of cosmic oddities are the most memorable element of the film – from the dragon-esque winged reptiles to the predatory space-crocodiles, there’s no lack of vision to them. However, they are never quite as distinct or memorable as, say, the graboids from Tremors. I think this is partially due to the wide variety of creatures in Evolution – the audience doesn’t get to spend much time with any particular iteration before the beings have spawned into entirely new creatures with fresh visages. While this let Tippett get to show off his design chops, it didn’t necessarily do the movie any favors.

That said, the CGI throughout the film has held up better than I had expected for a feature from 2001, and the practicals are undeniably fantastic. I’m kind of astounded at how effectively the team pulled off such a wide variety of designs so impressively – they could have easily skimped out, and shown fewer or less tangible creatures.

While the effects have aged surprisingly well, the rest of the movie has not. Evolution, thanks primarily to its writing and soundtrack, feels like a product of its era that can’t (and shouldn’t) transcend its temporal binds. While there are certainly highlights beyond the effects work, like Ted Levine’s portrayal of a slimy military general and David Duchovny’s trademark monotone charm, the negative here generally outweigh the positives. The comedy, which should have been a strength that the rest of the film could rely on, conjures only sighs, moans, and jeers.

As far as a recommendation goes, I’m sure that some people have nostalgic feelings for this film. For those folks, I don’t recommend revisiting it – it isn’t the movie you thought it was. For everyone else – with the exception of monster design aficionados – this is definitely a feature that you shouldn’t think twice about skipping.

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Dungeons And Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons

Today, I’m going to do my best to not look back on the 2000 film, Dungeons & Dragons.

Here’s the thing, folks – I have almost written this review of Dungeons & Dragons roughly five times since I started this blog.

I don’t know what it is about this movie – there isn’t anything special about it in the slightest – but I get so damn bored every time I try to write this review, that I just can’t stick it out. It isn’t the worst movie. It isn’t even without some minor merit – Jeremy Irons is a absolute delight in his limited screen time – but I’ll be damned if my body and mind have never allowed me to finish this post.

Now, I’ve re-watched this movie roughly five times in the past four years – once for each half-assed attempt to review it. So, instead of doing that again, I’m just going to see what I can remember about this film without doing any research.

First, there’s Jeremy Irons – the mustache-twirler extraordinaire, who is pretty much the only reason to watch this movie in the first place, and who clearly had an absolute blast with his cut-and-paste villain character. I think he has some kind of magic, dragon-controlling staff.

This is the fact of evil.

I also specifically recall a comic relief character – with a name something like “Snails” – played by a Wayans or Wayans-esque comedic character actor. This is one of those characters that is supposed to bring levity to a drama-heavy adventure, but isn’t even remotely funny, making everything worse through  his existence. However, I also remember his character getting killed (though impermanently), which is certainly welcome.

“Snails” is correct! Played by Marlon Wayans.

Now, I definitely remember some sort of princess, who was effectively deposed by Irons’s character. I think it might have been Kevin Spacey’s kid from American Beauty? I certainly don’t remember her name, let alone her character’s name.

Yes it was! And her name is Thora Birch.

The protagonist is a complete blank for me. White, male, 6 foot. Shaggy hair? Slightly humorous personality? Rogue-ish? I also think there was another central party member – I think it was a highly competent woman warrior, but I don’t think she was the aforementioned princess. I don’t remember her connection to the rest of the plot, though. I also remember Tom Baker popping in briefly in a supporting role, which was kind of delightful.

Yeah, there was another party member. Not the Princess. Still don’t remember what her deal was.

Plot-wise, I definitely recall some kind of maze challenge that the central party had to solve, fulfilling the loose “dungeon” quota for the movie. I also recall the final set-piece with a bunch of rough CGI dragons flying around a tower, where Irons controls them with his magic staff, and where he is eventually defeated by the hero squad (and eaten by a dragon? Maybe?). There was also definitely a secondary, blue-lipped bad guy working for Irons, who got to do most of the general bad guy stuff throughout the movie.

Irons’s magic dragon staff. He also definitely got eaten by a dragon.
Blue-lipped #2

Here’s the point, though – this movie is less interesting and memorable that 99% of D&D games that have occurred in the back room of your local comic shop. Games like Dungeons & Dragons are improvisational storytelling conduits, with an immense amount of entertainment potential. With the right improvisational comedic talent, it is a gold mine – just look at HarmonQuest or The Adventure Zone. Not only that, but there is plenty of potential for grand, dramatic fantasy adventures through the platform – though I don’t think that is the way to go to make a truly memorable D&D movie that captures the joy of the game. I could tell you more details about Gamma World campaigns I played 6 years ago than I could tell you about this movie I have seen an obscene amount of times.

What else is there to say about this movie? I think it has been rightfully cast out of our cultural memory – shunned by fans of the source, and passed over by everyone else. I definitely don’t recommend seeking it out – just Google images of Jeremy Irons in the movie, and you’ll get everything you need.

The Stepfather III

The Stepfather III

Today, I’m going to take a look at the third installment in the horror franchise, The Stepfather.

The plot of The Stepfather III is summarized on IMDb as follows:

That psycho stepfather has escaped from the insane asylum and had his face surgically altered. Now he’s married again, this time to a woman with a child in a wheelchair. He goes on a killing spree once again.

The Stepfather III was co-written, produced, and directed by Guy Magar, who is known for movies like Children of the Corn: Revelation, Retribution, and Lookin’ Italian, and for his television work on shows like Sliders, The A-Team, and La Femme Nikita.

The most notable change for The Stepfather III is the absence of Terry O’Quinn, as he turned down the opportunity to return to the character for a third time. He is replaced in the lead role by Robert Wightman of The Waltons. The rest of the cast is filled out by Priscilla Barnes (Jane The Virgin, Three’s Company, Traxx), Season Hubley (Hardcore, Escape From New York), David Tom (Stay Tuned, Pleasantville, Veronica Mars, The Young and The Restless), John Ingle (General Hospital, Heathers), Stephen Mendel (Night Heat), and Christa Miller (Scrubs, Cougar Town, The Drew Carey Show, Clone High).

The cinematographer for the film was a man named Alan Caso, a three-time Emmy Award nominee whose television credits include Six Feet Under, The Americans, Lie To Me, Big Love, and Dexter, alongside film credits like Reindeer Games, Muppets From Space, and Ed.

The credited editor for The Stepfather III was Patrick Gregston, who has served as an assistant editor on the films Leprechaun 3 and Moulin Rouge, and also was the sole editor on a handful of afterschool specials and the film Cannibal Hookers.

The music for The Stepfather III was composed by Pat Regan, who also provided music for the anthology film Tales from the Darkside, The Stepfather II, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.

The Stepfather III was the last in the original continuity of The Stepfather franchise, though a remake of the original was released in 2009.

The Stepfather III was released on HBO on June 4, 1992, and never received a theatrical release. The reception to the film was far from positive: it currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 25%, alongside an IMDb user rating of 4.6/10. The reception was so bad, in fact, that the film was never physically distributed in most of the world – save for, apparently, scarce German DVDs and VHSes.

The first and biggest issue with The Stepfather III is inarguably the lack of strong lead – frankly, I think this project should have been scrapped the minute O’Quinn turned the lead role down. He was the soul of the franchise, and his performances were absolutely a linchpin for the previous movies. While Wightman has his moments, and puts in an honest effort to put his spin on the character, his Foghorn Leghorn Kentuckian drawl doesn’t come close to filling the void left from O’Quinn’s explosive rage-fits and creepy uncle smiles.

However, the issues with this film go deeper than just the casting. Another key problem here is the writing – not only is the dialogue often clunky, but the eponymous Stepfather takes some actions that don’t make sense for the character. Namely, he tries to juggle two families at once – something that doesn’t fit with his meticulously careful plotting, nor his previously-established, bizarre, quasi-ethical standards about both sexual activity and the role of a family unit. From what is established of the character in the previous films, he has a genuine abhorrence of sex outside of marriage, but he is shown willfully engaging with the renter of his house. Likewise, while the character does move on from one family to the next in the earlier films, it was always portrayed as a sequential act – he wants a perfect family unit, but either his anger or external factors prevent it in his mind, so he starts over via murder and relocation. It doesn’t make sense for him to be juggling more than one family at the same time – it is inconsistent with everything established about the character to this point.

From the very beginning of the film, the drop off in quality from Stepfather II is palpable, especially if you watch the films consecutively. The camera work and acting are immediately noticeable, as well as a distractingly terrible blue color tint on the opening sequence. If the title card hadn’t appeared, I would have assumed this was a film from a completely different franchise. I’m sure most of this stems from what I assume was a much smaller budget from the previous installments, but the effect is jarring nonetheless.

However, there was a brief moment where I thought this film was going to be something truly special. The central conceit of the film is that the Stepfather, thanks to some plastic surgery, is now unrecognizable, and has relocated with full anonymity. When the plot kicks off, it is not explicitly confirmed which character is the Stepfather, and what ensues is a precious few minutes of mystery. Two men are shown, each obsessively fawning over the same woman, each with traditional (read: creepy) views on relationships, and each seemingly detached from reality. This, I thought, was going to set up a sort of whodunit of toxic masculinity, competitive chest-beating, and mysterious deaths, with one of the men eventually being outed as the Stepfather.

Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the real Stepfather kills his competitor – at most 10 minutes after his introduction. It is hard to describe how much of a wasted opportunity this was – there is even a major element of the plot that involves amateur sleuthing and whodunits! Such a plot would also provide a neat avenue for commentary on masculinity, creepy dating ethics, and the mentality of certain sorts of “family values” advocates. There’s more than one warped Stepfather out there in the world, after all. This is the kind of unique, new idea that should form the foundation of sequels – don’t just do the same story again from the original, but find a new way to twist the premise.

All of that said, though, Stepfather III is still mildly entertaining as a bad movie. There’s a nice helping of baffling, dated computer magic, a poorly-aged relationship between a priest and a young boy, a hammy lead, and liberal, sordid use of a wood-chipper. Bad movie fans might be caught by surprise with this one – though I still think Stepfather II is the more entertaining watch.

The Stepfather II

The Stepfather II

Today, I’m going to look at the 1989 horror sequel, The Stepfather II.

The plot of The Stepfather II is summarized on IMDb as follows:

After escaping the insane asylum in which he was incarcerated, the Stepfather impersonates a marriage counselor and manages to win over a patient and her young son.

The screenplay for The Stepfather II was written by John Auerbach, and it is to-date his only recorded film writing credit. Character credits were given to the writing team from the original The Stepfather, though they had no direct involvement in this sequel.

The Stepfather II was directed by Jeff Burr, who also directed the horror films Night of the Scarecrow, Pumpkinhead II, Puppet Master 4, Puppet Master 5, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3.

The cast for the film included Terry O’Quinn (Lost, Young Guns, The Rocketeer, The Stepfather, Blind Fury, SpaceCamp, Castle Rock, Silver Bullet), Meg Foster (They Live, Masters of the Universe, Blind Fury, Leviathan, Best of the Best II), Caroline Williams (Days of Thunder, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), and Jonathan Brandis (Ladybugs, Sidekicks).

The editor on The Stepfather II was Pasquale Buba, whose list of cutting credits includes classic films like Heat, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Creepshow.

The special makeup effects used in the film were provided by Michèle Burke, a two-time Academy Award winner whose credits include The Cell, Minority Report, Tropic Thunder, Terror Train, and Vanilla Sky.

The Stepfather II is, of course, a sequel to The Stepfather, which released two years prior in 1987. While The Stepfather II was not well-received, the franchise continued with The Stepfather III in 1992, and a reboot of the original film in 2009.

On its initial theatrical release, The Stepfather II was marketed with the subtitle “Make Room For Daddy,” which was apparently dropped for subsequent releases.

Reportedly, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, noted human refuse and then-heads of The Stepfather II production company Millimeter Films, ordered re-shoots to add in more gore and blood into the film, which director Jeff Burr refused to do. As a result, the Weinsteins brought in a new director to do the re-shoots, and edited the film to integrate them into the movie. In an interview with Icons of Fright, Burr recounted the Weinsteins’ reaction to his initial cut of the movie:

{The Weinsteins] were just livid, because they were expecting something with mucho blood! They were expecting a totally different movie. I remember they were out in the lobby [after the test screening] like these 2 big school yard bullies saying “What the fuck? Where’s the blood?”

The Stepfather II was initially made to be a direct-to-video feature, but the producers decided to give it a limited theatrical release in November of 1989, over which it managed to gross roughly $1.5 million. Critically, however, the film didn’t meet with much rejoicing – it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 0% from critics and 34% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 5.6/10.

In his review of the film for The Washington Post, Richard Harrington said the following:

His original performance [in The Stepfather] elicited Oscar-raves, but O’Quinn was working with a great script, a good director and a limited but well-designed budget. He has none of those advantages here…O’Quinn’s fits of rage…carry none of the fury or explosive tension this time around.

As Harrington mentions, one of the key differences between The Stepfather II and its predecessor is that the ominous atmosphere and tension from the original’s screenplay is almost entirely absent. While O’Quinn still puts in a raging, memorable performance, without the support of good writing and directing, the eponymous stepfather comes off as more theatrically comical than menacing – think more Corbin Bernsen in The Dentist than Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

That is really a shame, too, because I think there was some real potential here for a good sequel – some ideas that weren’t addressed in the original are touched upon, like the sexual values of the hyper-traditional Stepfather, and his inexplicable charm failing to woo everyone he meets. I also kind of like the detail that he is undone by his old-timey “Camptown Races” whistling habit (as an unexpected and bizarre nod to M) – something that was only a minor detail in the first film, but elevated to crucial importance here.

All in all, the biggest issue with The Stepfather II is that the screenplay needed more work – the tension between characters doesn’t get to sit for nearly long enough, so the wire never feels taut. The film also might have benefited from less humor, though I appreciated the entertainment value that added in the grand scheme of things.

Overall, though, I think this is kind of a fun, goofy, bad movie sequel. It might not have you rolling with laughter, but this is solid late-80s cheese if you have a craving for that.

Ivy On Celluloid: Senseless

Senseless

In today’s Ivy on Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at yet another higher education comedy: 1998’s Senseless.

The plot of Senseless is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A student gets his senses enhanced by an experimental drug. But abuse is not an option.

The screenplay for Senseless was credited to two writers, Greg Erb (The Princess and The Frog, RocketMan) and Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4, The Hangover 2, The Hangover 3). The film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, is best known for her string of high-profile comedy films in the early 1990s like Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals.

The cast of Senseless includes the likes of Marlon Wayans (White Chicks, Littleman, Scary Movie, The Ladykillers, Dungeons & Dragons), Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers, SLC Punk, Scooby-Doo), David Spade (Black Sheep, Joe Dirt), Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Child’s Play, Body Parts, Spontaneous Combustion), Tamara Taylor (Bones, Altered Carbon), Jeff Garlin (The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Rip Torn (Men In Black, Dodgeball).

Senseless was pretty far from a major hit – it failed to make back its production budget in its theatrical release, and the critics’ reviews were brutal (6% on Rotten Tomatoes), and audiences were, at best, mixed (6/10 on IMDb, 45% on Rotten Tomatoes). That reception was well justified, though – this is a crass cartoon of a comedy movie, with very little depth or relatability. Outside of farts, pee, physical comedy, homophobia, and sexist objectification, there isn’t a whole lot else to be found in Senseless. However, the film does provide an interesting lens through which to view issues surrounding higher education.

To begin with, three real campuses served as filming locations for the movie – the University of Southern California, UCLA, and the Stevens Institute of Technology, located in Hoboken, NJ. The setting for the film, however, is the fictitious institution of Stratford University, which is said to be located in New York City.

From what I can tell, Stratford University is supposed to be an elite academic institution, given some of the context throughout the movie (like the prestige of the junior analyst position). The two best real-life institutional fits for these details, based on the New York City location, are New York University and Columbia University, though it is hard to nail down which of the two institutions is the better analog. Interestingly, though, Stratford’s branding and colors are more akin to another institution with a similar name – Stanford University – due to the script “S” and red/white/black athletic uniform color palette. In fact, looking at Stanford’s Identity Toolkit side-by-side with the Stratford logo, it is pretty evident that they are almost exactly the same logo, with Stanford’s iconic tree removed.

At the center of the plot of Senseless is an elitist (and possibly racist) fraternity called Kappa Zeta, or “Kappa House.” In reality, there is a prominent sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, that uses the nickname “Kappas,” and a small sorority in California called Kappa Zeta Phi. However, there are no fraternities that I could find that go by the name Kappa Zeta. However, much of the fraternity’s activities in the film, like hazing via paddling, racist pledge decisions, and donors/alumni dictating chapter activity, all have basis in reality.

The two [black] students…apparently participated in the formal rush week festivities at the school and boasted impeccable academic and social credentials. Nevertheless, they didn’t receive any bids from the 16 white sororities on campus.

The problem, to hear sorority girls tell it, is that alumnae are either using their voting powers to veto racial integration or threatening to withhold donations and other assistance.

The Daily Caller

Part of the plot of Senseless involves the black main character, Darryl, becoming an accomplished hockey player for the university. Ice hockey is a notoriously non-diverse sport (in part due to the high costs involved), and at no level is that more evident than in collegiate competition. Jordan Greenway, a black hockey player for Boston University, recently made headlines for being named to the United States Olympic Men’s Hockey Team – the first black player to have ever received the honor. According to ThinkProgress, “less than one percent of male college hockey players are African-American, and only two percent of NHL players are black.” For comparison, a 1997 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education titled “The Only Blacks in College Hockey are the Pucks,” stated that:

More than 62 percent of all male players on basketball scholarships are black. More than 52 percent of all college football players are black. African Americans also make up nearly 30 percent of all college track athletes…But college ice hockey is another story. During the 1996-1997 college hockey season, there were only seven blacks among the 3,554 athletes playing college hockey in the United States. Specifically, blacks
made up less than two tenths of 1 percent of all college
hockey players.

The primary motivation throughout the film is for Darryl to win a tight competition for a prized employment position after graduation with a New York brokerage firm called Smythe-Bates. The stated requirements to qualify for the position include, specifically, a record of athletic achievement, high GPA, and ties of tradition through a fraternal organization. This set of requirements is what sends him on his quest for simultaneous hockey glory and admission to the Kappa Zeta fraternity, all while keeping his grades in order. This is reflective of a process that has gotten increasingly common over the years – bolstering a resume through taking on multiple extracurriculars, specifically for the purpose of making one more desirable/employable. You don’t have to search for online to find countless articles on the best kinds of activities to pursue to make your college application or resume look more impressive

Part of what makes Darryl’s challenge to win the position even harder is that, compared to his competition, he is under significantly greater economic strain. Early in the film, it is revealed that Darryl is behind on rent payments despite working 4 jobs, excessively donating both blood and semen for money, and signing up for experimental medical trials to pay for his schooling. It is also shown that he comes from a low-income single-parent household, and is likely a first-generation college student.

All of these challenges are very real. College today is immensely expensive, especially for students who can’t rely on financial support from family, which covers 22% of tuition for the average college student. A 2017 article from Texas State University’s The University Star noted predatory practices by plasma banks that took advantage of poor college students, at the expense of their health. The challenges faced by first-generation college students, when compared with their continuing-generation peers, are well documented – a study found that 20 percent of first-generation college students obtained a four-year degree 10 years after their sophomore year of high school, compared to 42 percent of continuing-generation students. In regards to medical trials, college students are no strangers to sacrificing themselves for cash:

The best-paying studies…they also undergo invasive procedures, like a bronchoscopy or a biopsy, or something else unpleasant, such as being deprived of sleep, wearing a rectal probe, or having allergens sprayed in their faces. Because such studies require a fair amount of time in a research unit, the subjects are usually people who need money and have a lot of time to spare: the unemployed, college students, contract workers, ex-cons…

The New Yorker, “Guinea-Pigging”

Speaking of “unpleasant” medical trials, this is where the plot of Senseless really kicks in. After Darryl volunteers for a paid medical trial of a drug aimed at providing “heightened human perception” and “super senses,”  he uses the effects of the drug to get ahead of his peers both academically and athletically. I brought this topic up in my post on How High some time ago, and cited a 2011 article by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Ross Aikins called “Academic Performance Enhancement,” about the use of stimulants by college students to improve their academic performance.

Now that the topic has come up again, I decided to give Dr. Aikins a call, to get a better idea of the realities behind the use of drugs as academic performance enhancers. I had a wonderful conversation with him, and thank him greatly for his insights here.

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To begin with, how real is the issue of using drugs to enhance academic performance? What are the drugs people are using to this end?

In college settings, there is functional, academic use of drugs. There is a history of surgeons and concert musicians who use beta blockers and anti-anxiety drugs to perform better. In war and combat, military forces use prescription stimulants and amphetamines. For college students right now, they tend to use Ritalin and Aderall…Generally, other drugs are used as purely recreational.

According to what I’ve read, stimulant use for academic purposes is far more common among white males from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. What can you tell me about that?

I have an upcoming article called ‘The White Version of Cheating,’ that looks at the academic use of drugs as an equity issue. They are a thing of privilege and access…you see men more than women in college using these drugs, and more often upper-class white families with access to these drugs. Ultimately, there is a risk factor with fraternities, as they have a culture of resourcefulness in circulating resources to perpetuate advantages, and also get easy access to drugs.

Are Ritalin and Adderall actually “smart drugs” – are people smarter when using them?

There is no evidence that these drugs actually help students academically. It can plausibly provide cognitive benefits on some kinds of tests…they mostly promote wakefulness and provide a feeling of improved performance, without proven gains to GPA.

Is using drugs for academic enhancement actually “cheating”? Is it specifically against the rules pf academic conduct at universities (outside of often being illegal activity)?

Very few colleges classify use of drugs to enhance academic performance as ‘cheating’…we sampled almost 200 university policies and handbooks, and only one included this as a matter for the academic code of conduct. Most schools don’t see it as an academic policy issue. On that one campus that did, it was a response to student demand to include it.

How widespread is this problem, exactly?

According to a number of sources, 8-9% of college students are illicitly using these kinds of stimulant drugs, but that doesn’t take into account technically licit use – when students have a prescription, but don’t use the drug as intended, or didn’t get the legitimate prescription in good faith.

In Senseless, the drug at the center of the plot is specifically engineered to “enhance senses.” Do you know of any drugs specifically made for academic enhancement?

There are not any drugs that I know that have been designed specifically to enhance academic performance…nothing like Limitless is actually out there…at least, I don’t think students are doing this in makeshift labs. There is some evidence that some people are using direct-current brain stimulation as cognitive enhancement, though. You can find information about this online, but it sounds to me to be very risky…people are essentially shocking and hacking their bodies. There are trials for Alzheimer’s medications that aim to improve focus and concentration without some of the negative side affects of current drugs, but those haven’t hit the market. Nothing like what you see in movies or books, though…mostly Ritalin and Adderall is what you see out there on campuses.

Is there anything else people should know about this practice?

This use of these drugs could be creating addicts…students often attribute their successes to the drugs, which is scary. If their career is challenging, will they use drugs as an adult as they did in school? There are concerns about long-term effects of these users later in life as well, due to a lack of longitudinal studies. What will happen to these people (both licit and illicit users), after flooding the brain with chemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine) as a result of using these drugs for so long? Some neuroscientists theorize that they ‘dim the bulb,’ and that early-onset dementia could be possible. We just don’t know yet.

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Based on what Dr. Aikins told me, I’m surprised that Senseless ended the way that it did. Ultimately, Darryl confesses that his successes were due to his use of an experimental drug, and he is disqualified from the competition for his prized position. According to Dr. Aikins, however, the odds are good that Darryl didn’t violate any of the school’s academic integrity policies, and because he obtained the drugs legally, I don’t think he violated any policies at all.

Lastly, I wanted to mention something that is played for a joke in the film – heroin addiction among college students. For most of the film, Darryl’s roommate things that he is addicted to heroin, because he catches him injecting drugs. In reality, as opioid use is rising across the United States, campuses are following suit. In 2014, there was a high-profile death of a University of Rochester student by heroin overdose, much like a death at the University of Delaware in 2018, and a 2013 death at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. 

On the whole, Senseless is another crass, sexist, mostly unfunny mess of a movie. However, this is also one of the more interesting films I’ve analyzed for its portrayal of higher education and higher education issues, for what little that might be worth. It is still not a movie I would generally recommend, other than to dedicated higher education nerds.

The Book of Henry

The Book of Henry

Today I’m going to flip through the pages of 2017’s The Book of Henry, directed by Colin Trevorrow.

The plot of The Book of Henry is summarized on IMDb as follows:

With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.

The Book of Henry was directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose other directorial credits include Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and the upcoming Jurassic World 3. The film’s screenplay was written by Gregg Hurwitz, whose only other prominent credit is writing for the  television series V.

The cast of the film includes Naomi Watts (King Kong, Mulholland Drive, Birdman, Tank Girl), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, IT, Midnight Special), Jacob Tremblay (Room, The Predator), Sarah Silverman (School of Rock, The Sarah Silverman Program), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad, Total Recall, Under the Dome), and Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy, Halt and Catch Fire, The Fall).

The cinematographer for the film was John Schwartzman, who has shot such movies as Pearl Harbor, Seabiscuit, Armageddon, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Rock.

The editing for The Book of Henry was done by Kevin Stitt, who has cut quite a few major features over the years, including Paycheck, Cloverfield, X-Men, Elektra, Lethal Weapon 4, and Jurassic World.

The music for The Book of Henry was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also provided scores for Inside Out, Coco, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Jupiter Ascending, among others.

Apparently, the screenplay for The Book of Henry was originally written as a black comedy in the late 1990s, but Colin Trevorrow had it altered significantly to make it less comedic and more dramatic to fit with his vision for the story.

The initial poor word of mouth surrounding the release of The Book of Henry has been considered as one of the primary reasons Colin Trevorrow was released as director of Star Wars IX, as many had already questioned his competency to handle the task prior to the flop of Henry.

Currently, The Book of Henry holds a 6.6/10 IMDb user rating, alongside, Rotten Tomatoes scores of 20% from critics and 63% from audiences, making for a fairly mixed reception. Financially, however, the film was an unambiguous failure, taking in a lifetime theatrical gross of $4.5 million on a production budget of $10 million.

In his review of the film for The San Diego Reader, Matthew Lickona refers to The Book of Henry as:

a…sort of Rube Goldberg machine: one that seeks to draw out simple human emotions through precisely engineered (but still ridiculous) mechanics…However hard the talented cast may try, those aren’t people up on the screen; they’re candles, balloons, and marbles.

This is one of the most adept criticisms of the film I have come across – the characters really don’t feel tangible, as if they are just cogs and mechanisms engineered to fill a specific role. Outside of a few brief moments where Naomi Watts gets room to genuinely play the role of a grieving mother, the performances all seem rigidly trapped in defined molds, as to perform their function and nothing more. I don’t think it is at all fair to level this criticism at the actors – they clearly are doing what they can – but the writing and directing that they are beholden to makes their work effectively impossible.

Another film critic, C. L. Reed, noted in his review of the film that “there is nothing wrong with The Book of Henry that a good script could not fix.” I would go a step further than that – the problem here wasn’t just the script, but Trevorrow’s adherence to it as the director. His vision took precedence over the original screenplay – which he twisted and contorted it to fit within the boundaries he desired. Once it suited him, it clearly became fixed in his mind – since he tinkered with the script to his personal specifications, the odds that he would take input from others on it is very slim, ever if their criticisms were valid. I would wager that issues with his version of the screenplay were brought to his attention from multiple sources, but that he couldn’t and wouldn’t address them.

In his review for Paste, Andy Crump referred to The Book of Henry as having an “exact imbalance of bonkers incongruity” and called it an “inexplicable hodgepodge.” I think this gets at one of the core issues of the film – its tone. This is the other consequence of Trevorrow’s manipulation of the screenplay, and subsequent direction of the film. He took a film of one genre, and forced it to become another. What results is a screenplay that is still rife with vestigial fragments of the dark comedy it once was, but with a hard dramatic veneer. It is coarse where it should be smooth, and jagged where it should be round – it is just obviously the wrong damn shape from what it was and should be. Unlike a hybrid, genre-bending movie like Hot Fuzz or The Cabin In The Woods, the multiple genres aren’t synthesized or merged in an effective manner – they are ad-hoc pieced together by twine, Elmer’s glue, and wishful thinking. It is a bad look stylistically, like having your sleek, modern dining room decorated with a rusty, dilapidated Volkswagen.

All of that said, there is definitely some weird potential in The Book of Henry, and I would have been interested to see the off-kilter dark comedy it was written to be. The cast really do their best, and Watts gets some good emotional moments here and there. It is a shame that the movie doesn’t stylistically lean in to the bizarre hyper-reality created by the characters as they are written. Instead, this is a flat, unremarkable vision and execution layered on top of something that is, at its core, fundamentally twisted and perverse.

I’m not sure if The Book of Henry is a recommendable movie or not – it sounds more interesting and intriguing on paper and in summary than it actually is. If you only watched Dan Olsen’s reviews of the film, you would both get the gist of the film, and not have to deal with the arduously dull and faux-cutesy process of having to actually watch the damn thing. However, this is one of the more bizarre flops of recent years, and is probably worth checking out for bad movie aficionados for that fact alone.

Ivy On Celluloid: Final Exam

Final Exam

Today, in my continuing series on films about higher education, I’m going to look at the 1981 horror movie Final Exam.

The plot of Final Exam is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A psycho killer shows up on college campus to slash up pretty co-eds and dumb jocks.

Final Exam was written and directed by Jimmy Huston, whose other credits include My Best Friend Is a Vampire and Running Scared. Huston’s career started with some minor work in the 70s, and concluded with a handful of television directing gigs in the mid-90s.

The musical score for the film was the first credited composition for Gary S. Scott, who would later make a name for himself providing music for television shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Behind The Music, 7th Heaven, Fame, Freddy’s Nightmares, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.

To fill out the extras and background characters, the production apparently recruited theater students from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and Appalachian State University.

Final Exam is the first horror movie I have analyzed for its portrayal of higher education – however, I found that it still brought up a handful of interesting issues relating to colleges and universities.

First off, three campuses served as filming locations for Final Exam – Limestone College in Gaffney, SC; Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC; and Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC.

Lanier College, the setting as portrayed in the film by the aforementioned campuses, is entirely fictitious. However, there is a Lanier Technical College located in Oakwood, GA, though it is a trade and technical school that doesn’t match the traditional description of Lanier College in Final Exam.

Speaking of the description of the setting school, what kind of school is Lanier College, exactly? There are a few details scattered throughout the film – first off, the school is clearly residential and rural, as it is clearly not located in a city, and has a number of student dormitories. It is also revealed early in the film that a rival institution to Lanier College – March College (also fictitious) – is a small population, rural school that recently dealt with a significant football recruiting scandal. I think that it logically follows that Lanier is similar in size and athletic competitiveness – otherwise, it is hard to imagine how a rivalry would exist. There is also a throwaway detail that Lanier requires science courses – namely chemistry – as a core requirement for all students.

Based on these general descriptions of March College and Lanier College, I think it is safe to say that neither institution is meant to stand-in for a specific, real college – they are both designed to be as generic and relatable as possible to any given audience. They are both merely vague amalgamations of American higher education institutions.

At the beginning of the film, a killer is shown murdering March College’s star quarterback and his girlfriend. This got me wondering – has a star college quarterback ever been the victim of a murder?

In early 2018, Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski was found dead as a result of suicide. Later in 2018, a Maryville College wide receiver was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend. Also in 2018, a former Penn State quarterback was killed in a stabbing in Philadelphia. In 2007, former University of Miami safety and NFL player Sean Taylor was killed in a break-in at his home. In 2009, former Alcorn State quarterback and retired NFL star Steve McNair was murdered. In each of these cases, however, the formula is different than what is described in the film – either the student had long since graduated, was a perpetrator rather than a victim, or wasn’t murdered.

In the trailer for Final Exam, the narrator states that Lanier College has “the finest security, the best teacher-student relations, no fraternity hazing, [and] strictly enforced curfews,” juxtaposed with images that counter each statement.

In regards to campus security, there is only one campus officer shown in the movie, who is quickly revealed to be a dire alcoholic and an incompetent. It is also shown that there is a jurisdictional debate between local police and and campus police, which has led to a negative view of the college by local police officers.

In a 2015 piece in The Atlantic, it was written that the role and size of campus police departments has expanded significantly in recent years – apparently, “over 4,000 police departments total operate at public and private postsecondary schools.” This is a far cry from the early 80s, single-guard security depicted in Final Exam, to say the least. In the words of the President of International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, campus police often “do a better job of interacting with the public” than local police departments, and allegedly have a more “harm-reduction” mentality than their non-campus colleagues. However, incidents like the UC-Davis pepper spray fiasco have also come about with the increase in campus police, as well as allegations that campus cops are insufficiently trained to deal with their ever-widening jurisdictions beyond their campuses:

the shifts within college and university police departments raise some odd jurisdictional issues: Even though they’re narrowly tasked with enforcing the law and student safety…According to DOJ statistics, eight of ten college police can patrol off-campus areas (81 percent) and make arrests (86 percent).

In the trailer narration, “teacher-student relations” is used as a euphemism for sexual activity between students and members of the faculty. In the story of the film, such a relationship plays a pretty minor role in the background of the story. This is an ethical issue in higher education I brought up back in my coverage of Necessary Roughness. As an example of a typical university policy on these kinds of relationships, here is an excerpt from a Cornell University document, which specifically outlines that romantic relationships are prohibited between faculty and students at that institution, and why:

The relationships between students and their faculty…should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest…a conflict of interest arises when an individual evaluates the work or performance of a person with whom he or she is pursuing or engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship. Romantic or sexual relationships between students and persons in positions of academic authority may compromise the relationship between students and the university.

Fraternity hazing also plays a minor role in the film, though it does ultimately leave a character prone to an attack from the mysterious killer. The hazing ritual that takes place is one in which the pledge is tied to a tree overnight. I was able to dig up a couple of approximately similar hazing rituals, including an incident at the University of Central Florida in 2004 where a pledge was found tied and Saran wrapped to a tree, and another case where a Troy University fraternity pledge was tied to a tree and pelted with eggs in 2015.

In regards to “enforced curfews,” as mentioned in the trailer, this is a policy that is not entirely uncommon. Kentucky Christian University, for example, has a campus-wide curfew of 1:00am. In 2017, a long-standing curfew policy at Liberty University was relaxed, allowing students 20 and over to stay out past the traditional midnight curfew, which met with a mixed reception:

“Our argument was to have college be a transition period from kind of being a kid into being an adult. This way when you graduate from here and go out on your own, it’s not going to be this huge culture shock where you can do whatever you want,”

– Jared Cave, Liberty University SGA Vice President

During one of the first scenes of the film, one of the characters complains about his required chemistry class, despite his non-science major:

“Why do I have to take chemistry anyway? I’m going into advertising.”

Some colleges certainly require science classes as part of their core curriculum, which all degree-seeking students must take. Columbia University, for example, uses the following logic for its three required science classes:

The objective of the science component of Columbia College’s Core Curriculum is identical to that of its humanities and social science counterparts, namely to help students “to understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it.” The science component is intended specifically to provide students with the opportunity to learn what kinds of questions are asked about nature, how hypotheses are tested against experimental or observational evidence, how results of tests are evaluated, and what knowledge has been accumulated about the workings of the natural world.

Columbia’s policy does allow for a degree of choice, however: students have to choose from Astronomy, Biology, Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Psychology, and Statistics to fill their three required science classes.

The very idea of a core curriculum ties in to a very old debate as to the purpose of higher education. Is college supposed to, as Columbia states, “help students to understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it,” or is it to provide specialized job training for a designated career? Passionate arguments for both sides have been made for centuries, and the battle continues through higher education policy and programming today.

In an early sequence in the film, a Professor glibly announces that he is introducing a modified honor system for an upcoming quiz – saying that any cheating is to be met with “sniper fire” from Nazis located in a nearby tower, who he claims trained with UT-Austin sniper Charles Whitman. While all of the students take this as an obvious joke, this kind of quip from a professor would almost certainly be received with hostility from students and fellow faculty alike.

An inappropriate joke by a King’s College London professor in 2018 led to disciplinary action from his professional association; in 2011, a Roosevelt University sociology professor’s immigration joke led to an investigation, and ultimately his dismissal from the university; in 2015, a Louisiana State University professor was fired for telling sexually-themed jokes to undergraduate students. While all of the aforementioned cases involved at least questionable professionalism, they all pale in comparison to the dark comments from the Lanier College professor in this movie, which could easily be interpreted as a direct, physical threat to his students.

The UT-Austin sniper killings, which were referenced in the aforementioned scene, took place 15 years prior to the release of this film. However, numerous other notable spree killings occurred on college campuses in the intervening years. For example,  in 1966, a copycat of the UT-Austin sniper killed 5 people and injured 2 others at the Rose-Mar College of Beauty in Mesa, AZ.  In 1970, 2 University of Pennsylvania professors were gunned down by a disgruntled graduate student. In 1969, two students at UCLA were killed by a third, who was never apprehended. In 1971, a spree shooter shot four people at Gonzaga University. In 1976, a university custodian killed 7 people and wounded 2 others at California State University – Fullerton. Even in 1981, the year of the film’s release, a flunking University of Michigan student killed two of his peers on campus. Even this is only an abridged list – there were numerous other incidences between 1966 and 1981, let alone in the ensuing years afterward the film’s release.

However, there is a key difference between the typical campus killer and the villain portrayed in Final Exam. Most campus shooters fit the definition of either spree killers or mass murderers, whereas the killer in this film is unquestionably a serial killer who targets college students.

Speaking of which, I was able to find one serial killer who specifically targeted college students – Danny Rolling, the “Gainesville Ripper,” who brutally killed five college students in the Gainesville, FL area over the course of four days in August of 1990.

When discussing the potential of campus violence, the characters in the film always assume it will be a random “psycho” who will show up on campus to bring the chaos (which ultimately proves to be the case). However, judging from the records I could dig up, the odds are far more likely that a member of the university community would commit such a public, on-campus act – whether a student, faculty member, or staff member.

In an early scene, a Lanier College fraternity launches a shocking, mock mass shooting on the Lanier College quad, terrifying the student body as an apparent prank. Ultimately, the intention behind the prank is to push back exam week, giving fraternity members more time to make a plan to cheat their way through the tests.

Outside of a bunch of conspiracy theories about crisis actors, I couldn’t find any documentation of a mock mass shooting on a college campus. Cheating, however, is an undeniably common practice. On top of the mock mass shooting, there are a number of other times where students at Lanier College are shown plotting to steal tests or actively tampering with grades. In 2015, there was a case at Texas Tech where a number of students tampered with their grades to graduate, but were caught by a professor and investigated. A Kessler International survey of 300 college students found that 86% admitted to cheating in some way in college coursework. A 2013 Boston Globe article claimed that the percentage of college students who are admitted cheaters is at 75%, and has been for some time.

At one point, one of the fraternity members in the film complains to a professor that “this isn’t the test I studied,” which seems to be a reference to the somewhat ethically dubious practice of test banking. Test banking is the practice of keeping copies and records of previous tests, which are frequently used by fraternities and other student organizations. While some schools and professors encourage this practice, many still find it to be ethically questionable.

At one point in the film, one of the characters tells the story of a student who rushed to join a sorority at Lanier College, but was ultimately rejected, and subsequently committed suicide. This kind of story is the sort that gets told over and over again, until people eventually just assume it is true. Personally, I haven’t been able to produce a single instance of a suicide that attributed a sorority rejection as the cause. Kind of like with the Dead Man On Campus roommate suicide straight-A scenario, this is something that is an unfounded hypothetical that has ballooned into the public consciousness over the years, despite there never apparently being a root truth behind it.

Final Exam, at the end of the day, is a weird, mostly-forgotten little film. It was a bit of an oddball choice to cover here on the blog, but I am glad I did. While it isn’t a movie I can particularly recommend, it brought up a fair number of interesting higher education issues and topics for me to dig into. Horror fans who enjoy an off-the-beaten-path slasher movie might get a kick out of this one, but otherwise I think it is worth a pass. If the Rotten Tomatoes scores of 14% / 18% say anything, it is that there are long odds that any given person is going to enjoy this flick.

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