Ivy On Celluloid: So Undercover

So Undercover

Today, in my continuing series about portrayals of higher education on film, I’m taking a look at the Miley Cyrus vehicle So Undercover.

The plot of So Undercover is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A tough, street-smart private eye is hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.

So Undercover was directed by Tom Vaughan, who has primarily worked on television shows like Big Love, The Royals, Victoria, and Press. The screenplay was provided by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty, The Switch, Here Comes The Boom) and producer Steven Pearl (New Amsterdam).

The cast of the film is headlined by pop star Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, Black Mirror) and Jeremy Piven (Entourage, Smokin’ Aces, PCU, Car 54 Where Are You?), with supporting roles filled in by Mike O’Malley (Glee, Justified, My Name is Earl), Eloise Mumford (Fifty Shades of Grey), and Megan Park (Diary of the Dead).

So Undercover went through some hiccups in regards to distribution – after a number of delays and rights exchanges, it never ultimately made it to theaters in the United States, though it did in a handful of international markets. For domestic audiences, the film was only available direct-to-video.

The reception to So Undercover was generally negative: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10 alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 6% from critics and 49% from audiences, though the direct-to-video release meant that not very many people ever even saw the film.

To begin the higher education analysis of So Undercover, it is worth digging into the host institution for the story. While the school is never named, it is clear from dialogue and external shots that the setting is New Orleans, LA, and the majority of on-campus shooting is done against the backdrop of Tulane University’s scenic campus in uptown New Orleans. The institution itself is never given much detail, but the specific setting and appearance make it clear enough that it is a vaguely fictionalized stand-in for Tulane.

A number of times throughout the movie, Miley Cyrus’s character is shown to have guns in her sorority house room, which shocks a number of her sisters. Laws regarding the possession of firearms on college campuses vary by state – in some, guns are outright banned, while others only permit their presence when secured in a locked car in a parking lot. Other states, like Utah, allow for open and concealed carry at public higher education institutions. In Louisiana, the law on the topic applies to both public and private higher education institutions, and reads as follows:

Carrying a firearm, or dangerous weapon as defined in R.S. 14:2, by a student or nonstudent on school property, at a school sponsored function, or in a firearm-free zone is unlawful and shall be defined as possession of any firearm or dangerous weapon, on one’s person, at any time while on a school campus, on school transportation, or at any school sponsored function in a specific designated area including but not limited to athletic competitions, dances, parties, or any extracurricular activities, or within one thousand feet of any school campus.

However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule. Notably, one of these states that “a student who possesses a firearm in his dormitory room” is exempt – while I am not a lawyer, I suspect this wording would include a personal sorority house room. Thus, according to Louisiana law, Hannah Montana is a-ok to be armed in her sorority house. That said, there have been a number of real news stories of Greek organizations having firearms issues in their houses. In 2006, the investigation of a shooting led to a search of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house at Oregon State University, which yielded over two dozen firearms throughout the house.

After a Corvallis man, Dennis Sanderson, was shot Oct. 14, in the alley behind the house, police searched Alpha Gamma Rho and found more than two dozen weapons including .22-caliber rifles and 12- and 20-gauge shotguns.

In February of 2018, a fraternity member at Washington University-St. Louis was suspended and removed from campus after an AR-15 was discovered in his possession at his fraternity house, in violation of school policy. Other firearm incidences have occurred involving fraternities at Yale University and Kettering University. Fraternity hazing incidences involving firearms have led to disciplinary actions at the University of Central Florida and Oklahoma State University. However, as you may notice, these are all specifically involving fraternities – I wasn’t able to dig up any particular instances of sororities or sorority members being disciplined for possession or use of firearms. This is perhaps not surprising – Pew Research Center data indicates that women are more likely to become gun owners later in life, and are less likely to keep their guns easily accessible and loaded in their homes.

The central plot of the So Undercover revolves around the FBI needing to embed on a college campus for a case. In truth, it is not unheard of for the FBI to be active on college campuses. Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities by Daniel Golden is a book that spotlights the actions of intelligence agencies on American college campuses, including research espionage by foreign powers, attempts to turn foreign students into American assets, and faculty acting as informants on all sides. The FBI was also instrumental in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, which uncovered widespread college admissions fraud at universities like the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown.

What I have not been able to dig up, however, are any examples of the FBI infiltrating a sorority. The closest thing I found was the story of Tracy Walder, who went from being a sorority member at the University of Southern California immediately into a career in CIA counterterrorism after graduation, and eventually a position at the FBI. Her story has been turned into a forthcoming book, The Sorority Girl Who Saved Your Life, which is set to become a television show at ABC.

At one point in the film, there is a passing reference to sorority members having eating disorders. A 2013 article cited that eating disorders affect 12-25% of college women, and that there is a positive correlation between sorority membership and eating disorders. In the study, the authors sought to confirm a causal link between the two. However, they concluded the following:

we confirm that sororities exert a negative effect on the weight-related behaviors of their members. However, females who are more resilient to these outcomes self-select into sororities, implying that females in sororities are less adversely affected by them than a female who was randomly selected to join a sorority would be.

Another study, however, found that their “results…suggest both that sororities attract at-risk women and that living in a sorority house is associated with increased likelihood of disordered eating.” The topic is very much in the public consciousness as a real issue facing college women and sorority members, and will almost certainly spur further research.

The sorority at the center of the story is named Kappa Kappa Zeta, a wholly fictitious organization. However, there is a Kappa Kappa Zeta website, which features stills and a gallery of characters from So Undercover in a facsimile of a real sorority website.  The real-life inspiration for the sorority, judging from the name, is likely Kappa Kappa Gamma, a prominent sorority located at roughly 170 campuses in the United States.

One of the characters in the film, who doesn’t quite fit the traditional mold of the sorority, claims that the organization leadership “had to let me in,” due to her being a “legacy.” As she explains, her mother was a member of the same fraternity, meaning that she was guaranteed membership. In reality, this isn’t always necessarily the case – different organizations treat legacy benefits differently. Alpha Gamma Delta only guarantees legacies “a courtesy invitation to the first invitational round,” and no assurances of acceptance. Delta Delta Delta leaves legacy treatment policies entirely to the local chapters,  giving them “full discretion over how they treat legacies, so long as a specific policy is clearly outlined in the collegiate chapter policies.” As an article on TotallyTailgates claims, legacies are no longer generally given the latitude they once received for membership, primarily due to a lack of available slots for membership and an increasing popularity of Greek organizations.

Miley Cyrus’s character in the film operates under the cover story of being a transfer student from another chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Hawaii. As far as we see, she is accepted into the sorority without any issue. However, as with the legacy point, this doesn’t seem to be how the process typically works now. I haven’t been able to dig up much information on the topic, but based on the responses to a reddit question in r/GreekLife, typically a vote is taken as to whether a transfer student is accepted into the chapter at their new school. However, as with most policies, this can vary by organization and chapter.

One member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority is shown at one point to be pregnant. I did a little bit of searching for studies on the perception of pregnancy among sororities, and wasn’t able to find anything. However, I did come across an interesting 2010 thesis on communication in sororities about condom use and sexual activity, that mentions the declining sexual health and rising pregnancy rates of teenage women.

The head of the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter in the film, Sasha, is said to have taken three years away from school before starting college. This means that the character is on the cusp of being classified as a “nontraditional student.” This term, which is problematic in many ways, is also not well-conceptualized. Typically it is loosely defined as an umbrella term for college students outside of the 18-22 age range, but it is often expanded to include students along a number of other classifications, including those who are enrolled on a part-time basis, those who work full time or are financially independent, and students who defer college admission immediately after finishing high school. In the most wide usage of the term, Sasha qualifies as a non-traditional student. This got me to wondering: do nontraditional sorority sisters experience sorority culture differently? Are they particularly more or less likely to be involved?

To my surprise, I couldn’t dig up much information about this topic. However, there is one study that indicated that surveyed non-traditional students in Southern California who transferred into four-year colleges from community colleges were comparatively more satisfied with fraternities and sororities than traditional students. However, that is based on just one question from a much larger study, and fraternity/sorority satisfaction rates weren’t high among either group.

At the beginning of the film, quite a good deal of time is spent assembling the sorority wardrobe for Miley Cyrus’s character, to her dismay. However, the attention to detail in this segment is important: research has indicated that dress customs are an important means by which sororities communicate membership and establish collective identity. Likewise, sorority dress customs have been cited as a means of instilling idealized, traditional gender roles among new members. Essentially, if Cyrus didn’t perfectly look the part, matching the chapter’s conception of femininity, her cover as an existing member from another school was likely to be blown.

Similarly, a significant amount of time is spend acquainting Cyrus’s character with the slang and language norms of the sorority, which she is shown to struggle with throughout the film. While I found far less than I expected about language norms in sororities, I did find a dissertation written about the importance of language as a resource for the formation and expression of ethnic identity among the members of an Asian American college sorority – which I think is still notable and relevant. A book, Slang & Sociability: In-group Language Among College Students discusses the specific use of slang to delineate sub-groups within colleges, including sororities and fraternities. This ties in to the emphasis on slang terms in Cyrus’s sorority preparation, with terms like “amaze-balls” to flesh out her cover with the sorority chapter.

Overall, So Undercover isn’t a good movie, but it was far more charming than what I anticipated. Miley Cyrus is clearly a gifted performer, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see more serious acting from her in the future (her upcoming role in Black Mirror seems to be indicative of this). Jeremy Piven channels his typical douche-bag energy effectively into this role as well. The humor, however, is often mean-spirited, and places targets on the various sorority members. A number of moments feel misogynistic or just generally punching-down at young women, but the wild tone shifts are dramatic and weird enough to leave those concerns quickly in the rear view.

As portrayal of higher education, I can’t speak to the veracity of the sorority portrayal beyond the research I could dig up. However, the concept of the story is interesting, and touches on a handful of real issues in the sphere of higher education, such as the entanglement of intelligence organizations with various collegiate institutions. As far as a recommendation goes, I think this movie has been rightly forgotten, and isn’t particularly worth seeking out.

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Ivy On Celluloid: Blue Chips

Blue Chips

In honor of tonight’s conclusion of the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid is going to take a look at director William Friedkin’s 1994 college basketball tale, Blue Chips.

William Friedkin is often cited as one of the key luminaries of the New Hollywood era of film, with classic works like The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer to his name. However, since the late 1970s, his works have garnered far less critical and popular attention, outside of sporadic praise for films like To Live and Die In LA, Killer Joe, and Bug. Among his less analyzed films is Blue Chips, which connects his film work to his passion for the sport of basketball, through a fictional portrayal of desperately rebuilding college basketball program.

The screenplay for Blue Chips was written by Ron Shelton, who has carved a career niche for writing up sports-based tales like The Great White Hype, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and White Men Can’t Jump.

Perhaps due to connections through Friedkin and Shelton, both noted sports fanatics, Blue Chips is littered with notable basketball figures, in both character and cameo capacities. The most notable of these are Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, who were then early-career basketball stars, in roles as the eponymous “blue chip” talent prospects.

While Hardaway and O’Neal adequately perform their roles, the heart of the film and focus of the story is Nick Nolte’s portrayal of an aging college basketball coach, facing fading glory and mounting pressures to re-capture success.

Despite best efforts, Blue Chips was ultimately a financial flop, as it only took in $23 million on a estimated budget of $35 million. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post referred to it as “a dreary lecture about ethics and moral corner-cutting.” However, one of its few critical advocates was Roger Ebert, who remarked that it was “a morality play, told in the realistic, sometimes cynical terms of modern high-pressure college sports” in his three star review.

In 2019, Memphis Commercial Appeal interviewed Penny Hardaway, who is now the University of Memphis basketball coach, about his experience with the making of Blue Chips.  Apparently, the reason for hiring basketball players into key roles was because of Friedkin’s staunch desire to feature actual basketball action in the movie, rather than using creative editing, stunts, and camera trickery. Thus, no actors could be found who could pull off the basketball demands of the roles.

“It was a good movie,” Hardaway said. “Not just because I was in it – it was a great basketball movie. I really liked that they just allowed us to play basketball. It wasn’t much acting. It was playing ball.”

Notably, the chemistry between Hardaway and Shaq that was built over the making of Blue Chips ultimately led to Shaq requesting that his team, the Orlando Magic, draft Hardaway in the 1993 NBA Draft.

Friedkin’s dedication to filming real basketball for the film extended to the climactic final game between Indiana University and Western University, which was filmed as a real basketball game with a live audience of extras. Outside of the conclusion, the game was completely unscripted, and just allowed the basketball players to play out the game while cameras filmed the action. Indiana University’s coach, Bobby Knight, known for his competitiveness, caused some issues for the filming behind the scenes, as he apparently wasn’t happy with allowing the fictional Western University team to win as scripted. Towards the end of the game, Indiana had a three point lead, and one of the filming crew caught audio of Knight saying the following:

“Let me tell you something, boys,” he said. “We’ve got 24 seconds to play and fate’s got us up by three. We sure as hell aren’t going to lose to a bunch of (derogatory term) from Hollywood now.”

To begin the higher education analysis of the film, I want to try to establish the higher education setting of the story. As is typically the case, the central institution is fictional – Western University. While there is an institution that goes by this name today in London, Ontario, it is technically the University of Western Ontario, and only took on the new moniker as of 2012. There was once a Western University located in Kansas, but it closed in 1943 due to the economic strains of the Great Depression.

While Western University as featured in Blue Chips is fictional, I believe that it is functionally a stand-in for UCLA. While the campus sequences in the film were shot at the nearby rival school University of Southern California, there are some clues that point to Western being a surrogate for UCLA. First, the location of the school is firmly established as Los Angeles, which narrows down the institution candidate pool significantly. Additionally, the Western University color scheme (blue and yellow) is clearly reminiscent of the UCLA Bruins. Perhaps most compellingly, the established history and legacy of repeated basketball success (vis-a-vis championships) at Western University lines up pretty well with the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s under John Wooden.

A number of other higher education institutions are also represented in the film, both fictional and real. One in particular blurs the line between the two – Texas Western. In the film, this team is referred to as the Texas Western Cowboys, and are coached by controversial college basketball figure Rick Pitino. In reality, today’s University of Texas – El Paso Miners were once referred to as the Texas Western College Miners until a formal name change in 1967. Interestingly, this was implemented just one year after the Texas Western Miners won the NCAA basketball championship, and cemented the name in college basketball history.

Another higher education institution that is shown in competition with Western University is never referred to by name – however, the uniforms identify the school by the abbreviated nickname, “Coast.” This is most likely a loose stand-in for Coastal Carolina University, which often uses the abbreviation “Coastal” on the front of their basketball jerseys. The team is notably shown coached by Nolan Richardson, who is known for his coaching success at multiple levels of the sport.

The one definitively real university athletic team featured in Blue Chips is the Indiana University Hoosiers, who are shown coached by Bobby Knight, whose tenure at the school stretched nearly 30 years.

As with the majority of higher education institutions in the film, the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself has a fictionalized stand-in: the NCSA. While the initialism is never defined, its prominence on championship banners and referee uniforms makes it clear that this is the fictionalized NCAA.

Western University’s athletics teams are known as the Dolphins, and are accompanied by a dolphin mascot. While this is certainly a curious choice, it is by far not the most bizarre. That said, I was curious if any other universities have embraced the “Dolphins” moniker – as it turns out, there are a handful. According to The Los Angeles Times, California State University – Channel Islands teams go by the name “Dolphins,” though there doesn’t appear to be much athletic activity at the school. Likewise, the College of Mount Saint Vincent has also embraced the Dolphins name, along with Jacksonville University, which also has a humanoid dolphin mascot named “Dunk’n.”

During the recruiting sequences in the film, a player’s parent asks whether student-athletes wind up taking easier classes than other students. While the coach insists this isn’t the case, a number of college athletics scandals have involved just that situation. Most famously, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill was caught offering effectively fake courses for athletes that  essentially guaranteed that they would remain academically eligible for play.

Early in the film, one of the student-athletes on the Western University basketball team confesses to struggling in “TV class” – one of his courses. While this might sound like a joke at first glance, a number of real college courses have centered on various television shows, the impact of television, or television criticism. Georgetown University has offered courses in philosophy centered around shows like The Wire and Star Trek, Whitman College has offered a course titled “Mad Men: Media, Gender, Historiography,” and I took an American studies course on The Twilight Zone when I was in college at the University of Alabama. Mental Floss put together a list of 25 other fascinating television-based courses at a variety of higher education institutions, which includes studies of South Park, The Colbert Report, and Twin Peaks.

In a blurring between fiction and reality, Blue Chips star Shaq confessed in 2016 to receiving monetary bribes to attend Louisiana State University and play for the school’s basketball team, not unlike the eponymous blue chip prospects featured in the film.

Nick Nolte’s character is shown to have a hot temper and contentious relationship with both officials and media, which at one point culminates in the punting of a basketball and a subsequent game ejection. At times, he is shown bordering on verbal abuse of his players during games and practices. Unfortunately, these sorts of behaviors from college basketball coaches are based in reality. Mike Rice, a former coach as Rutgers University, was fired after recording surfaced of his verbally and physically abusing his playersA number of NCAA basketball coaches, including Indiana University’s Bobby Knight, have developed reputations over the years for their quick tempers. Like Rice, Knight was ultimately fired after video of his physical abuse of players surfaced. cementing his reputation as “college basketball’s greatest villain.”

Much of Blue Chips is dedicated to portraying the recruiting process to bring new players into a college basketball program. In particular, there is a specific emphasis on recruiting practices that violate regulations. As mentioned previously, the real NCAA has a fictional stand-in in the form of NCSA – however, the regulations of the two organizations appear to be the same. The violation most prominently featured is the explicit ban on “extra benefits” offered to athletes beyond their scholarship, which are defined as:

“any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletic interests (including fans) to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by the NCAA legislation.”

The extra benefits rule is applied to items as minute as flowers and apparel discounts and as grand as automobiles and housing. A University of Minnesota wrestler lost his eligibility due to selling an original song because the NCAA ruled that he financially benefited from his reputation as an athlete. Numerous college athletes have been the subject of NCAA scrutiny for benefiting from the sale of autographs or memorabilia, such as the University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. A simple Google search will yield numerous lists of bizarre and seemingly nonsensical NCAA violations from institutions around the country.

In the film, a number of extra benefits are shown, including duffel bags of cash delivered by “friends of the program” (typically referred to as boosters, defined by the NCAA as  “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests”), mysteriously delivered tractors and Lexus automobiles to students and their families, family employment opportunities, and fully-financed housing, all of which have some basis in the reality of NCAA recruiting violations. The University of Mississippi’s recent recruiting scandal alone featured cash payments via duffel bag, car payments, and free lodging to athletes’ families.

What is most interesting about the portrayal of recruiting violations in Blue Chips is that each of the families has an expectation of payment from the outset, with full knowledge that this is in violation of rules. One prospect’s mother justifies her financial requests by stating that “a foul is not a foul unless a referee blows a whistle,” and another athlete’s father succinctly claims that “they ain’t my rules” after requesting a new tractor. The high-profile nature of NCAA recruiting violations have, in a way, apparently created a normative expectation of special privileges for star athletes and their families, which is arguably reinforced through popular culture portrayals like Blue Chips. Every time a school like Baylor University or the University of Louisville is caught in an athletic scandal that gets covered extensively in the media, the message is sent to aspiring prospects that opportunities for payment and compensation exist if they look for them.

At one point in the film, Western University’s coach mentions Proposition 48 when approaching a basketball prospect who scored poorly on their SAT. This is a real NCAA regulation that governs the minimum academic qualifications for college student-athletes, which takes into account both high school grades and standardized test scores. In this case, the student’s SAT was too low to qualify, which prompts his retaking of the test after receiving tutoring.

The electric conclusion of Blue Chips sees Western University’s basketball coach publicly confess at a press conference about a litany of recruiting violations, after which he resigns. The closest parallel to this event in real life was actually in response to the film, when Coastal Carolina University’s Russ Bergman was inspired by Blue Chips to confess to his coaching misdeeds to a local reporter. However, both he and his program were already the subject of an NCAA investigation at that time, and the walls were likely already closing in.

Prior to the events of Blue Chips, the Western University basketball program was at one point embroiled in a point shaving scandal. Point shaving is the the willful act of manipulating the score through intentional play for the purposes of promoting a specific outcome that has gambling implications. In the 1978-1979 season, a number of Boston College basketball players were bribed for the purposes of point shaving, in order to benefit a mob-orchestrated gambling scheme. A documentary about the scandal, Playing for the Mob, was released in 2014, and a comprehensive book about the incident, Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, was published in 2001. In 2015, former criminal and FBI informant Henry Hill, Jr., who was intimately involved in the scandal, co-authored a book that went into more detail about the planning and execution of the plot.

On the whole, Blue Chips is in an intriguing portrayal of a college basketball program. If anything, it is a bit oversimplified and glossy in its characterizations and portrayals of the dynamics between players, coaches, administrators, and boosters, but is done so for the purposes of the story. As a portrayal of college athletics, it certainly touches on a number of real issues, though some of them are framed oddly. For instance, the idea that student-athletes should be paid is scoffed at off-hand, and the portrayals of the players focuses on wanting money exclusively for luxuries rather than necessities, which simplifies the very real issue of student-athletes struggling to live on their scholarships alone. In order to portray boosters as villainous, the position that work merits compensation is explicitly frowned upon with melodramatic flair.

That said, I think the film merits critical reconsideration – while not a masterpiece, Friedkin’s attention to detail and focus on the fidelity of the basketball portrayal comes through in the game sequences. In the same way that Friedkin has conveyed the frenetic energy of car chases in his career, he catches lightning in a bottle in putting basketball to celluloid in Blue Chips. While the higher education portrayal is perhaps a bit spotty, the film as a whole is not bad, and is an interesting counter-narrative to many college sports films in its morally-conflicted central character portrayals and de-emphasis on competitive glory as the ultimate ends.

Changes to the Blog

Apparently, today is the 8th anniversary of the start of this blog.

This seems as good a time as any to address something: Misantropey has been an increasingly difficult endeavor for me as of late. Though, I’m not sure if that is a bad thing.

When I started putting diligent effort into this beast back in 2014, it admittedly wasn’t entirely fueled by passion. It was propelled as much by loneliness and isolation as any positive resonance I felt from the regular accomplishment of writing and posting.

During my time covering the IMDb Bottom 100, I had a job that was time-consuming, emotionally-taxing, and required a significant amount of travel. I can’t recall how many of those entries were written in dingy hotel rooms in remote towns in Georgia or Arkansas or North Carolina, so often adorned with shoddily duct-taped windows that did little to shield me from wafts of diesel vapors and the faint aromas of the distant tacos of strangers.

This blog was a surrogate for human interaction and companionship, and a pretty bad one. It consumed time, but provided no caloric content in return. It made days and nights pass quicker in the same way magicians make planes and buildings disappear – it didn’t. I just really wanted to believe it did.

I came up with a formula for posts that, once you know what it is, should be pretty transparent. I have always used the same skeletal outline, with very little variation:

Title

Brief Introduction

Trailer

Director

Writer

Cast

Cinematographer

Editor

Music

Other Crew

Trivia

Box Office

Reception

Criticism

Overall

Recommendation

I was able to crank out “reviews” like clockwork by hanging flesh loosely on those bones. I put “reviews” in quotations, because they have never really been that. For the most part, these posts were opportunities for me to research productions, and coalesce the information into a brief, digestible form. The “review,” insomuch as I provided them, was usually only a fraction of a given post (“Criticism” in the outline above). A few salient thoughts, at most.

This has not been a creative endeavor at its core. This has been, for most of its existence, a mechanism. Quasi-therapeutic avoidance and distraction from a life that was, for a significant time, very empty. I set my own deadlines and timetables to round out an illusion of meaningful productivity. There was a time where I was doing an original post, 750-1000 words, every day. I would block out my weekends around what movies I needed to cover for the week.

Things are different now, though. As my life has gotten better, the blog has gotten harder. Since starting graduate school and getting married, there have been so many other, wonderful things to take up my time, and I haven’t felt the need for this mechanism of depression prestidigitation by way of amateur film criticism. I’ve also taken up academic writing, and have a handful of journal publications coming in the next few months. I’ll even be starting PhD work in the fall, which is deeply exciting.

I’m been working on adapting this blog into something more fulfilling, and a little different. Ivy On Celluloid has given me some new life for this work – I’ve only done it when it felt right, and have tried to capture a sense of fun with it that has never really been part of the formula here. So, that is something I am certainly going to continue. However, it is also far more time consuming than the formulaic work I’ve relied on in the past.

I think that is where the future of this blog lies – an embracing of infrequency, and a reclaiming of this platform into something positive and internally fulfilling. To that end, I think I’m done with “bad movies.” I like doing my year-end analyses on the publicly perceived worst films of the year, but unless I see something that actually catches my attention, fascination, or curiosity, I’m not going to write about it. I’m not sure what that means for content just yet – but I think I’m shattering the old skeleton structure for good.

So, this blog is going to be different going forward. It will certainly be quieter, but it will also be better – I’m only going to write when there is something motivating behind it. I’m not going to let this be a burden or a coping mechanism – it is going to be an outlet for my thoughts about movies. That’s what it always should have been.

Ivy On Celluloid: The Waterboy

The Waterboy

Today, I’m continuing my series of posts analyzing films for their portrayals of higher education by taking a deep dive into Adam Sandler’s college football comedy, The Waterboy.

The plot of The Waterboy is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A waterboy for a college football team discovers he has a unique tackling ability and becomes a member of the team.

The Waterboy was directed by Frank Coraci (The Ridiculous 6, Click, The Wedding Singer), who is primarily known for his numerous collaborations with comedy writer/actor Adam Sandler, The Waterboy among them. The screenplay was co-written by Sandler along with another one of his frequent collaborators, Tim Herlihy (The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, Saturday Night Live).

Beyond Sandler, the cast of the film includes Henry Winkler (Arrested Development, Happy Days, Night Shift), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), Fairuza Balk (The Craft, The Island of Doctor Moreau), Jerry Reed (Smokey & The Bandit), Clint Howard (Evilspeak, The Ice Cream Man, Apollo 13), and Rob Schneider (The Hot Chick, The Animal).

For the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Waterboy, Adidas produced a variety of SCLSU merchandise, including t-shirts, jerseys, and helmets that were designed to be film-accurate.

Co-writer of The Waterboy Tim Herlihy described in an interview the inspiration for the fictional institution name ‘South Central Louisiana State University’:

I always remember Southwest Missouri State… I just thought that was so funny. Not even South Missouri State. Like, Southwest Missouri State. They didn’t even have one direction. They had to share the South direction with Southeast Missouri State. So we definitely wanted to do that.

Interestingly, Southwest Missouri State University eventually changed its name to Missouri State University, likely in part due to perceptions like Herlihy’s.

Critically, The Waterboy didn’t fare terribly well, with critics labeling it as “trash,” “witless,” and “dumb.” However, it proved to be financially successful, taking in a worldwide theatrical gross of over $185 million on a production budget of $23 million, carving a place for itself in the public zeitgeist. It is now hailed by many as a cult classic, and generational favorite sports comedy.

To begin the higher education analysis, I want to take a look at the various schools portrayed in the film. As with Necessary Roughness, there is a mixture of fictitious and real institutions. Real colleges featured include Clemson University, the University of Michigan, the University of Louisville, and the University of Iowa, who are all shown in either montages or mentioned in passing. Another institution that I believe is featured is Vanderbilt University. Though it is not mentioned by name, a football team is shown with an almost identical star-shaped helmet insignia and color palette, which I have compared side-by-side below.

Still from The Waterboy
Vanderbilt University uniforms and helmets from 1980s and 1990s

The fictitious universities in the film include the two central institutions to the story – University of Louisiana, and South Central Louisiana State University. University of Louisiana is depicted as a large university with a recent history of national football success. For this reason, I think that it is clearly intended to be a parallel to Louisiana State University, despite how close the fictional name is to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette or University of Louisiana – Monroe. South Central Louisiana State University, on the other hand, is pretty clearly portrayed as a less successful “little brother” to the University of Louisiana. From what I can gather, however, it is still definitely a generally-focused public institution, which rules out a few real universities in the state as parallels (Tulane, LA Tech). A detail that is implied by Bobby Boucher’s commuter status is that both University of Louisiana and South Central Louisiana State University are within easy driving distance of each other, which helps narrow down real-life candidates. Based on this, I think it is immensely clear that the SCLSU Mud Dogs are a stand-in for the Ragin’ Cajuns from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. Lafayette and Baton Rouge are merely an hour from each other, and separated by swampy terrain akin to how Bobby’s home is portrayed.

Aside from the University of Louisiana and SCLSU, a number of the other football teams from the film hail from fictitious institutions. One game is shown between SCLSU and the University of Central Kentucky. There isn’t actually a University of Central Kentucky – among the six Division I schools with football teams in the state, I believe the closest analogue is Western Kentucky University. Likewise, another game features the University of West Mississippi -an institution that doesn’t exist. As with Kentucky, there are six real Division I schools with football teams in Mississippi, of which I suspect University of Southern Mississippi is the real life parallel (mostly due to the direction-based naming).

The climactic championship game featured in the film is called the Bourbon Bowl, which follows the naming tradition of post-season games in Division I FBS college football. While there have been a number of oddly named bowl games due to various sponsorships, there has never been a Bourbon Bowl. Given the records of the teams invited – University of Louisiana is undefeated, and SCLSU is only shown to have one loss – it is fair to assume that the Bourbon Bowl is a bowl game with significant prestige, akin to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl. However, the game is also clearly local to both University of Louisiana and SCLSU, as Bobby and his family are shown commuting to the game in a short period of time. The only bowl game of that significance within close range of Lafayette and Baton Rouge is the Sugar Bowl, which famously is held in New Orleans. Because the setting of the stadium is clearly not urban, I think it is fair to conclude that the Bourbon Bowl isn’t an exact stand-in for any one bowl game, but is a general amalgamation of the concept of a high-profile bowl game.

That said, there is another question worth asking about the Bourbon Bowl: is it a national championship game? The history of a “national championship” in college football is a bit odd and contentious – prior to the past few decades, it was often a very subjective title, awarded occasionally to different teams by different organizations in the absence of a decisive championship game. 1998, the year that The Waterboy was released, marked the first Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, which arranged for the two highest-ranked teams to play in a decisive championship outing. The rankings, which were the subject of popular scrutiny and suspicion, utilized a handful of high-profile polls and computerized rankings to determine the contestants. A major downside to this system, however, is that there could easily be more than two teams with a strong case to participate in a national championship game – which ultimately gave rise to the playoff system that exists today.

We know that both the University of Louisiana and SCLSU had very strong records going into the Bourbon Bowl – U of L was undefeated, and SCLSU only had one loss. However, undefeated teams have been left out of national championships games – in 1998, for instance, an undefeated Tulane University football team was not selected for the game. Considering this fact in conjunction with the lack of national championship branding or discussion around the Bourbon Bowl indicates to me that University of Louisiana was passed over for the formal national championship game, which put them in position to claim a co-championship if they defeated SCLSU in the Bourbon Bowl. This exact scenario played out in the 2003 season, when an undefeated and widely-acclaimed University of Southern California squad was passed over for the championship game, and claimed co-champion status after subsequently winning their bowl game. However, a more apt comparison for the SCLSU – U of L Bourbon Bowl is the 1997 Rose Bowl match played between Arizona State University and Ohio State University. Going into the game, Arizona State was undefeated, and in position to claim a co-championship with a win over the one-loss Ohio State (as USC would do in 2004 with its Rose Bowl win over Michigan). However, Arizona State lost their game, just as University of Louisiana is shown losing to SCLSU, squandering their chance to claim a national championship. So, in effect, the Bourbon Bowl both was and was not a national championship game, depending on how you look at it.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher set a new NCAA record for sacks in a single game with 16. The actual record for sacks in a single game in NCAA Division I FBS is 6, which is co-held by Ameer Ismail of Western Michigan University and Elvis Dumervil of the University of Louisville. The idea of 16 sacks per game, considering the current NCAA record, may seem ludicrous. However, I decided to look into how many offensive plays occur per team in a typical DI college football game, which can be found here.

This graph was actually broken in 2016, when the University of California ran 118 offensive plays against the University of Oregon. However, the average offensive plays per team in a game has easily stayed between 60 and 80 over the past ten years. For the sake of calculation, let’s assume Bobby Boucher’s SCLSU opponents run 70 plays per game – this means roughly a quarter of their plays (22.85%) would need to conclude with Bobby Boucher sacks. However, that also assumes that Bobby earns all of his sacks on his own – sacks are also recorded in increments of .5 when multiple individuals contribute to the tackle. However, Bobby is never shown co-sacking a quarterback on screen, and it is frequently stated that he is the only capable athlete on the team, so it is safe to assume that Bobby is only accruing full sacks.

Another piece of dialogue states that Bobby’s sack rate actually increases after he sets the single game sack record at 16 – a team-mate mentions that he averages “20 sacks a game.” In order to reach that rate, we need to consider the length of a college football season. While this has changed over the years, most recently with the implementation of the playoff system in FBS, let’s say that a successful, bowl-appearance season has 13 games. Given his 16 sack performance in game one of the season, in order to reach the 20 sack/game average, Bobby would need to exceed 20 sacks at least once while maintaining a steady 20 sack/game rate throughout the season – a single 24 sack game would suffice to make the grade. Assuming this is how he reached his average sacks/game rate, this means that in at least one game of average offensive play quantity for the opposing team (70, for the sake of argument), Bobby would have sacked the quarterback on 34.3% of plays. While this seems incredibly unlikely, I don’t think it is anywhere near an impossibility – given a sufficiently incompetent offensive line and quarterback, there’s no reason to consider this feat technically impossible.

One of the most potent and vividly revolting illustrations in the film is the dichotomy between the amenities and conditions for the SCLSU and University of Louisiana football teams and athletics departments. SCLSU students are shown drinking out of a clearly unsafe water container, whereas U of L has a (assumedly) fully-funded water hydration station. Likewise, SCLSU football players frequently are shown sharing equipment – everything from helmets to sweaty cups.

While these disparities are definitely dramatized, there is certainly some truth to the portrayal. I recently spoke to an Associate Athletics Director at a small Division I football school, who told me about how different his current experience is to his previous role at an athletically-prestigious flagship institution – which included differences in pay, staffing, general amenities for students and staff, and, of course, the state-of-the-art facilities. The depiction in The Waterboy of the flagship institution having far more funds than a smaller, in-state competitor is, from what I have gathered, a fact of life in college athletics.

The SCLSU football coach, portrayed by Henry Winkler, is eventually revealed to have had a sort of burnout and breakdown after losing out on a coveted head coaching position to his rival on the University of Louisiana coaching staff. It is well-known that stress is part of the job of a college football coach – it isn’t even unheard of for coaches to suffer health issues associated with the job. So, the portrayal of a coach burning out certainly has some grounding in truth. Likewise, rivalries between coaches aren’t uncommon – many coaches serve on staffs together over the course of their careers, and later become opponents (like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, for instance). The idea of a rivalry formed between coaches from a common history on a given staff certainly seems to hold water as a plausible scenario.

The first time Bobby is shown tackling a quarterback in practice, the aftermath is framed comedically, with the quarterback having apparently lost his immediate memory and general awareness. In truth, these are clear, immediate symptoms of a concussion. In 1998, when the film was released,  research had not yet come out about the long-term dangers of concussions as a form of traumatic brain-injury, particularly for athletes in contact sports. Now, this is a major issue for both college football and most professional sports, and is speculated to be a potential existential threat to status quo of competitive athletics.

At one point towards the beginning of the film, it is revealed in an ESPN segment that SCLSU football is on a record-setting 41 game losing streak. The longest actual losing streak at the NCAA Division I FBS level is held by the Northwestern University Wildcats, which dropped 34 consecutive games from 1979 to 1982. However, that pales in comparison to the Division I FCS record held by Prairie View A&M, which dropped an unenviable 80 straight games over almost an entire decade of failure – 1989 to 1998.

Program from the midst of Northwestern University’s record-setting losing streak

Throughout the events of The Waterboy, a number of off-color, homophobic comments are made by characters. While this is certainly in part due to the nature of this genre of crass comedy and the context of the film’s release, the truth is that this is probably an accurate portrayal of a college football team at this point in time. There is a wealth of literature and research on homophobia within athletics, and particularly collegiate athletics.  College football, as a homogenously-male sport, is statistically even more likely to be more homophobic than women’s sports teams. So, it is certainly not a stretch for causally homophobic dialogue to fly around a college football locker room or practice field.

Though it is never specifically stated, it is highly suggested that Bobby Boucher is a first generation college student – meaning that he is the first member of his family to attend college. This is hinted through a number of sequences – for instance, he picks his classes solely based on the view of campus from the classrooms, as opposed to course difficulty or fit with his major. First generation college students often have difficultly navigating universities, due to a lack of institutional knowledge that is typically passed down from college graduates to their children.

Speaking of picking classes, it is an interesting detail that Bobby Boucher is not shown to be given guidance on what courses to sign up for. At many universities, there are academic advisors who operate as part of the Athletics Department specifically to help student-athletes with issues like class scheduling. However, these sorts of advisors have also landed in hot water on occasion – they were integral to the longstanding “paper classes” at University of North Carolina, where student-athletes were given entirely fake classes to remain academically eligible under NCAA guidelines.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher did not complete high school, or receive an equivalent degree. In order to be eligible for football, his coach provided a fake high school transcript. This kind of scandal is not unheard of – in 2013, a 22-year old faked a high school transcript in order to play high school basketball.  In 2014, a number of college basketball players were investigated over forged community college transcripts. The New York Times even reported on forged student-athlete high school transcripts back in 1973. However, I have not seen any records of a coach performing such a forgery themselves.

Connected to the forgery revelation is a level of malicious espionage – the staff of the University of Louisiana expose the misdeed of SCLSU’s coach to the NCAA, in an attempt to harm the on-field production of the school’s football team in the upcoming Bourbon Bowl. The use of NCAA reporting as a means of attacking a sporting rival was recently a subject in the SBnation documentary series Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi, which features a member of the Mississippi State University football team testifying to recruiting violations at the rival University of Mississippi.

At one point in the film, an event is portrayed that appears to be a conventional fraternity house party, rife with debauchery. However, the attendees of this party include a professor and a number of athletics coaches from the school.  To say that this is a bit odd and unbelievable would be an understatement. Coaches and university employees in general are expected to abide by certain codes of conduct or ethics, which would almost assuredly prohibit them from attending such events. However, college basketball coach Larry Eustachy once infamously resigned from his position at Iowa State University after it was revealed that he would frequent fraternity parties and generally fraternize with college students. In 2018, Eustachy once again resigned from a different college basketball coaching position due to another conduct investigation.

There are certainly plenty more higher education topics that can be discussed through The Waterboy – the physical assault of a professor by a student, the discipline exceptions offered to star student-athletes, and the parental pressures placed on many top-grade student-athletes to turn professional as early as possible are among them. However, I’m going to see if I can swing back to those topics in future reviews – I suspect I’ll be back to the realm of college football before too long.

Overall, The Waterboy is every bit the sophomoric, shallow comedy the world has come to expect from Adam Sandler. However, it is also an interesting, comedically-contorted portrayal of college football culture, which is integral to many institutions of higher education in the United States. There isn’t anything novel, witty, or innovative about the humor or story, and there is certainly much about the film that has become dated, but it is an interesting film to peruse for folks interested in college athletics and higher education as fields of study. Alternatively, those who find uproarious comedic value in a chorus of Henry Winklers tauntingly singing about the comparative benefits of Gatorade over water as a means of hydration will find something pleasing here.

Worst of 2018: Life Itself

Life Itself

Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the most divisive films of 2018: Life Itself.

The plot of Life Itself is summarized as follows:

As a young New York City couple goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes.

Life Itself was written, directed, and produced by Dan Fogelman, who is best known for the television show This Is Us, as well as writing films like Cars, Last Vegas, Bolt, Tangled, and Cars 2.

The cast of Life Itself includes Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Criminal Minds), Olivia Wilde (House), Annette Bening (American Beauty), Antonio Banderas (Desperado), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One, Ouija), and Laia Costa (Victoria).

The film was edited by Julie Monroe, who has cutting credits that include The Patriot, Midnight Special, Loving, Gigli, and World Trade Center, among others. The cinematography was provided by Brett Pawlak, who also shot the films Hellion, Max Steel, We Are Your Friends, The Meddler, and The Glass Castle.

The screenplay for Life Itself was named to the 2016 Black List, which is an annual honor given to a handful of unproduced screenplays deemed to be of high quality. The 2016 list also included The Post, I, Tonya, and Hotel Artemis, which have also been successfully produced.

Following the premiere of Life Itself as the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, a bidding war ensued over the film’s distribution. Ultimately, Amazon bought the distribution rights for a grand total of $10 million. In it’s lifetime theatrical run, however, it only brought in $7.5 million worldwide.

Critically, the reception to Life Itself was deeply divided, with most critics deriding the film and many including it in the conversation as one of the worst films of the year, while casual audiences warmly received the work. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critics score is a dismal 13%, compared to an audience score of 78%. Likewise, Metacritic has the film at a 21/100, while IMDb’s user rating is a far more receptive 6.4/10.

In A. O. Scott’s review for The New York Times, he summed up Life Itself as follows:

There is a lot of [bad writing] here, and also…a lot of good acting. It is poignant and sometimes weirdly thrilling to watch Mr. Isaac, Ms. Wilde and the other cast members…commit with such fervor and seriousness to such utter balderdash.

My initial reaction to this film was almost identical – it is always kind of shocking to see good performers working with sub-par material, and making the most of it. However, I didn’t dislike this film nearly as viscerally and passionately as most critics. It definitely drifts into the realm of sentimental nonsense with reckless abandon, but I kind of expect that from a sappy drama with illusions of cleverness. While the rambling sequences dedicated to the eponymous dissertation did make me want to tear my hair out, I was able to get through most of the film with shrugs and mild sighs. It certainly relishes in depicting the misfortunes of women and children to an uncomfortable degree (I appreciate Slate‘s re-titling of the film to Terrible Things Keep Happening to Nice, Attractive People, Especially the Women). However, I think the performances, at least in the first half of the film, keep the whole mess watchable. In the later chapters, the quality of the performances drops off a bit, which made the film feel way longer than it was to me.

Overall, this film is certainly not great. For the most part it is merely unremarkable, with a smattering of cringe-worthy dialogue segments about faux-philosophical epiphanies. That said, I’m not sure if it is quite the worst of what 2018 had to offer, though. If the performances were a bit weaker, I think this would certainly earn a spot in the year’s basement. As it is, however, I think this is just another overwrought drama with delusions of grandeur that is best to be ignored. There isn’t anything here that couldn’t be better experienced with other films.

Worst of 2018: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders

Today, I am continuing my Worst of 2018 coverage with the oddball puppet movie, The Happytime Murders.

The plot of The Happytime Murders is summarized on IMDb as follows:

When the puppet cast of a ’90s children’s TV show begin to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.

The Happytime Murders was co-written by Todd Berger, who is perhaps best known for his bizarre dark comedy, It’s A Disaster.

The director for The Happytime Murders was Brian Henson, who previously directed Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Notably, he is the son of Jim Henson, beloved creator of The Muppets.

The cast for the movie includes Melissa McCarthy (Ghostbusters, The Heat, Spy, Tammy), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, Power Rangers), Maya Rudolph (Inherent Vice, Away We Go, Bridesmaids), Leslie David Baker (The Office), Joel McHale (Community, Ted), and Michael McDonald (MADtv).

The cinematographer for the film was Mitchell Amundsen, who also shot CHIPS, A Bad Moms Christmas, Odd Thomas, Jonah Hex, Now You See Me, Transformers, and Wanted.

The score for The Happytime Murders was composed by Christopher Lennertz, who also provided music for films like Pitch Perfect 3, Sausage Party, Uncle Drew, Baywatch, and Horrible Bosses.

Sesame Workshop filed a lawsuit against the production over the tag line “No Sesame. All Street.” claiming that it tarnished their reputation. The production company behind Happytime, STX, claimed that the advertising was clearly distinct from Sesame Street, and the suit was eventually thrown out. Afterwards, some TV spots for the film started with “From the studio that was sued by Sesame Street…”

When this film was announced, many noted the stylistic similarities to notable previous films, such as Peter Jackson’s vulgar puppet movie Meet the Feebles and the hit crossover animation / live action film noir, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

The Happytime Murders was a financial flop, bringing in only $20.7 million on a $40 million budget. Critically, it didn’t fare any better, as it currently holds a 5.3/10 IMDb user rating, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 23% from critics and 41% from audiences. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone went so far as to say that the film might be the worst of the decade, and numerous critics listed it among their worst films of 2018.

The biggest problem with Happytime, without any doubt, is that it is just not funny. The film tries to lean on the raw absurdity of featuring puppets in a lude plot, but there isn’t much mileage to get out of that. The film is almost entirely gross-out humor, with little in the way of thought or care put into the writing. The result is a shallow, uncompelling story laced with what might pass for humor at 2am to a thoroughly inebriated person with a deeply-buried puppet fetish.

What is odd about all of this is that Happytime boasts a really good cast of comedic performers. This is basically raw proof that performers, regardless of talent, can’t save underlying bad writing.

When it comes down to it, this film just shouldn’t have gotten the green light to start with. The very foundation of the premise was begging for failure. What I don’t understand is why anyone thought this would work, to the tune of $40 million. As a niche project by Adult Swim, I could maybe see something like this if the budget could be kept to a minimum. However, I just can’t imagine this even breaking even with the money put into it, and I don’t know why anyone thought it would. The best I can figure is that this was someone’s passion project (Henson?), who was well-connected and wealthy enough to make it happen regardless of criticisms. Regardless, it should go without saying that this film is an atrocious bore, and I can’t even lightly recommend it to the depraved – they almost certainly have better things to do than this.

Worst of 2018: Venom

Venom

Today, I’m kicking off my Worst of 2018 coverage with the divisive quasi-Marvel movie, Venom.

The plot of Venom is summarized on IMDb as follows:

When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life.

The screenplay for Venom was written by Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey), and Scott Rosenberg (Kangaroo Jack, High Fidelity, Con Air, Disturbing Behavior)

Venom was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously directed the films Gangster Squad and Zombieland, as well as episodes of Santa Clarita Diet, Superstore, and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.

Venom is based on a popular Marvel comics character of the same name that first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 in 1988. The character was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie as a new, villainous form of the sentient black-and-white Spider-Man costume debuted in 1984. Since then, the character has gone through multiple incarnations, and oscillated between being a villain and anti-hero in various plot lines.

The cast of the film includes Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Locke), Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea, All The Money In The World), Scott Haze (Midnight Special), Reid Scott (Veep), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child, Bored To Death, Zootopia), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions, The Sisters Brothers), and Woody Harrelson (Kingpin, True Detective, Seven Psychopaths, Zombieland, Rampart).

The cinematographer for Venom was Matthew Libatique, who has shot such acclaimed movies as Black Swan, A Star Is Born, Iron Man, Phone Booth, and Requiem For A Dream.

Venom employed the work of two editors: Maryann Brandon (Alias, Super 8, Passengers, Star Trek, How To Train Your Dragon) and Alan Baumgarten (The Lawnmower Man, American Hustle, Trumbo, Zombieland, Lifepod)

The film’s music was composed by Ludwig Göransson, who previously provided scores for Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station, Death Wish, and Creed 2.

Venom had a lengthy, tumultuous production history. The film was originally envisioned as a spin-off from Sam Raimi’s widely-reviled Spider-Man 3. Shortly after the Spider-Man films were rebooted, however, the film was announced once again, though this time within the continuity of the rebooted series. Following the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony announced that Venom would be a part of their Spider-Man Cinematic Universe. Following that film’s lackluster reception, however, Sony and Marvel decided to collaborate on another reboot of the Spider-Man films, which placed Venom in limbo once again. Ultimately, Venom was produced as a “tangent” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though the exact relationship of the character to Spider-Man and other Marvel properties has yet to be properly clarified.

The actors Alan Tudyk and Jackie Earl Haley were at one point considered for Woody Harrelson’s role as Cletus Kasady / Carnage.

Director Ruben Fleischer has stated that he wanted Venom to look tonally different from other contemporary comic book movies. According to him, he “wanted to make a darker, grittier, kind of edgier comic book movie that also has a strong horror element…Those were the aspects: darker, edgier, grittier.”

Before Riz Ahmed was ultimately cast as Carlton Drake / Riot, actors such as Matt Smith and Pedro Pascal were considered for the part.

The trailers to Venom met with uniquely negative reactions from fans. First, the initial trailer was criticized for lacking the iconic Venom suit. Additionally, many fans went up in arms over characters’ pronunciations of the word “symbiote,” which many felt was indicative of a lack of familiarity with the source material and history of the character.

Despite the reticent fan reaction to the trailers, Venom was a box office hit, taking in $855.5 million on a production budget of $100 million. However, the critical reception to Venom was mixed. While it earned decent marks from audiences, including a 6.8/10 IMDb user rating and Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 84%, it was frequently named on year-end “Worst of 2018” lists by critics, and earned a dismal 28% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times even referred to the film as “a tone-deaf, uneven and maddeningly dumb clunker,” echoing the critics’ consensus regarding the film’s awkward humor and tonal issues.

Speaking of which, it is hard not to take note of the odd moments of humor and attempted banter that pepper the film. While this is certainly reminiscent of the comic origins of the character, it doesn’t translate very well in this film – perhaps more adept hands could have pulled it off, like more comedic-experienced actors and sharper dialogue writing to boost them.

Tom Hardy’s performance in this film is perplexing. His line deliveries and accent are odd, but also evidently very specific and crafted. He clearly had inspirations for his performance, but they don’t necessarily feel appropriate for this character. Brock, thanks to Hardy’s performance, comes off as a bit of a prat-falling doofus, as opposed to the brooding and motivated reporter he was clearly written as. I’m not sure if this was necessarily miscasting per se, but I think the director should reigned Hardy in and given some guidance in a different direction.

A key problem I found with this film were the visuals – while they are certainly in line with the director’s stated vision, I found them to be a little bit too dark. This isn’t necessarily an issue in all cases, but for this movie, where a number of characters are amorphous black-colored CGI monsters, having a dark palette and general design often makes it difficult to tell what is happening on screen. If you ask me, the Venom costume at least needed some kind of more visible contrast (like the prominent white from the original comic design, residual from the Spider-Man suit).

My biggest issue with this film is something that is difficult to pinpoint – I just found the whole package to be a bit bland and uninspired. On top of the already outlined issues, the villain was unremarkable, the effects and stunts felt unspectacular, and the story and character relationships were both a bit lacking. Pretty much every element of the film was at least a wee bit sub-par, and the sum follows suit.

Overall, this film could have easily been much worse. It isn’t particularly good or a stand-out by any means among its comic book movie peers, but I’d certainly take this over Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, or the Ang Lee Hulk adaptation. Despite some iffy dialogue, Hardy’s odd performance, and the muddy visuals, it is a watchable enough flick. I’m not sure if I would recommend it to any but the most staunch of Venom fans, but it would be a bearable HBO watch if you were captive in a hotel room.

Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.

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