Ivy On Celluloid: Best College Horror (Fright Club)

Hey all! I recently joined a couple of my old film critic buddies, Hope Madden and George Wolf, for an episode of their horror movie podcast, Fright Club. We discussed a handful of the best college-set horror movies from over the years, and I talked about some of my work on the Ivy On Celluloid series about depictions of higher education on film. The episode is up today, and I highly recommend checking it out!

Fright Club Podcast | Listen via Stitcher for Podcasts

Tammy and the T-Rex (Gore Cut)

Tammy and the T-Rex (Gore Cut)

About five years ago, I covered the 1994 theatrical cut of Tammy and the T-Rex here on the blog. In that iteration, the film is an absurd, goofy film about the mind of a teenage boy becoming trapped inside of a robotic dinosaur. At the time, I reported that the film had an alternate cut, that featured gratuitous gore and a much less family-friendly tone:

Apparently, there is alternate cut of Tammy and the T-Rex that was released in Italy, which features enough violence and gore that it would have received an R-rating from the MPAA. In total, this cut is less than 10 minutes longer, but has never been released in English.

Last year, the folks at Vinegar Syndrome got a hold of this Italian-released gore cut, and restored this strange movie into its much stranger, gorier form. After touring with the restoration for a time, it was recently released on blu-ray, which gave me the chance to check it out.

Despite the fact that little run-time is added to the movie, the restored sequences are cartoonishly over the top with their violence, and the overall experience is that much more fun for it. The satisfaction of watching people get flattened and eviscerated by a robot dinosaur is unparalleled. This iteration really puts John Carl Buechler’s delightful vintage b-movie effects work on display, which is never a bad thing. Tammy and the T-Rex was a solid recommendation before this gore restoration, now it is mandatory viewing for bad movie fans. Seriously, make this a priority.

Cats (2019)

Cats

You knew this was coming.

We need to talk about Cats.

Shortly after I published my aggregated measure of the Worst Movies of 2019, the review embargo on Cats lifted, and one of the biggest cinematic disasters of recent memory hit theaters. Tens of millions of dollars seemingly evaporated, there was a high-profile attempt by the studio to “patch” the effects within a week of the film’s release, film critics collectively lost their minds trying to one-up each other with surrealist, rambling reviews, and theater chains like Alamo Drafthouse hosted packed “rowdy” screenings of the film in the wake of a countless wave of memes about folks going to screenings while intoxicated with a variety of substances. It was a bad movie touchstone event. A quasi-phenomenon of trash cinema.

I saw Cats a couple of times over the course of this frenzy. The first time, I tried to focus on positive elements of the film, hoping to add something novel to the discourse, a la FilmJoy’s delightful Deep Dive series.  It was…somewhat difficult. I can’t justify why I went the second time, but I don’t regret it.

I could go through the same points that every reviewer has already thoroughly blunted – the off-putting human hands, the curious choice to have cats wear fur coats, the inconsistent size scales, the inexplicable eroticism, etc. However, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for writing about that.

In the past, I hosted a podcast here at Misan[trope]y called The Plotopsy Podcast, where I tried to dissect the issues that contributed to a film’s critical or financial failure. While I haven’t gone back to it in a while, this is a question that always interests me. In the case of Cats, I have some suspicions as to what went wrong.

Ashley Lee of the Los Angeles Times put some of the blame of the Cats failure on the inherent difficulties of adapting concept musicals to the big screen, which I think does carry some water. However, as she points out, concept musicals like Chicago and Cabaret have worked on the screen in the past. More on target is her observation that much of the spectacle and awe of the stage version of Cats is lost in the film adaptation amidst ill-conceived digital fur, exposed human hands, and litany of what Justin Chang referred to as “grotesque design choices.”

Let’s start with one of the few positives of the film – I genuinely think the choreography is quite good. This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but my lay opinion is that there was some great effort on the part of the performers and choreographers to put a good performance on. For instance, I think the Skimbleshanks sequence may be the only roundly “okay” part of the movie, thanks entirely to those two parties. However, throughout the movie, that effort is lost in the trappings of digital fur. On my second watch through the movie, I tried to pay more attention to the dancing, particularly in the background. The digital gilding of fur on the actors has an odd muting effect on their motions – they come off as intangible in their glossy fluidity. One of the charms of dance performances is the raw humanity of it – the contortions of muscles and tactile physicality is an integral part of the spectacle. With the stage version of Cats, this isn’t lost beneath practical effects. Under a digital shroud, the effect is all but completely evaporated.

Let’s discuss the effects a bit more – I think this, more so than anything else, has been the greatest point of criticism leveled at the film. The “uncanny valley” effect that comes from sub-par simulacrums of human expressions and movement is on full display, to haunting and disconcerting effect. However, it is hard to anticipate the quality of effects used to this extent. There’s simply no way anyone on set could have predicted exactly what the movie would ultimately look like – the process of adding digital effects after filming is almost like making a second movie on its own.

The best, if only, ways to estimate the quality of effects is their cost, the time allotted to create them, and the reputation of the houses hired to provide them. We know the money was spent for a quality product, but who actually provided them? The two groups that provided most of the work on Cats were Moving Picture Company and The Mill. MPC just won an Academy Award for visual effects on 1917,  and has contributed work to films like Life of Pi, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, The Jungle Book, and Blade Runner 2049, all of which garnered positive receptions for their effects. The Mill has plenty of credits as well, if a bit less lauded, including television shows like Doctor Who, Vikings, and True Detective, as well as an assortment of films. Basically, these are teams that know how to do effects work.

But were they given the time to get the job done? Visual effects is work that is difficult to rush – throwing money at it doesn’t necessarily mean it will go any faster or smoother. Reportedly, the Cats effects were rushed from the start for the ambitious release date, and ‘completed’ only within days of the premiere. What’s more, tinkering was demanded after the disastrous response to the film’s trailer online, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The effects were supposed to be ground-breaking, and a marketing gimmick to rival the awe-inspiring practical effects on stage. I suspect the producers were anticipating that, at least. Even if they weren’t Avatar quality, the producers almost certainly expected them to be good enough to use as a tactic to bring people into the theater, just like the stage play. Unfortunately, I don’t think they grasped the scope, or had realistic expectations. Maybe with more money and more time, this could have been the spectacle they were hoping for, but that is highly speculative. If I were to guess, there were plenty of tense conversation between the producers and the effects houses about the projected release date, and what could realistically be expected. And we got what we got.

With that, I want to shift to marketing. I believe that the disaster of Cats can’t be understood without a look at the way the marketing was planned, and integrated into the film’s production. Aside from using the effects as a marketing gimmick, I suspect that much of the casting was done with an explicit eye to marketing – roles were almost certainly cast with a handful of qualities in mind. They needed performers with followings and platforms, who could usher their flocks into the theater. A baked-in audience of loyal fans is essentially guaranteed ticket sales, right? I suspect folks like Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jason DeRulo, and Idris Elba were brought in with this explicit thinking in mind. Swift was even a double-dip, as she also contributed an original song to the movie, which I’m sure the producers expected to be an easy award nod. On the other end of the spectrum, in order to cast the broadest net into the general population, Cats brought stage credibility in the forms of lauded individuals like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Francesca Hayward. The theater and performance aficionados would surely be pleased. To add to it, Tom Hooper has had success adapting a stage hit to the big screen – folks were inexplicably fond of his take on Les Miserables, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Surely this will bring public confidence to the project.

It is important to note, particularly for folks who don’t remember, that Cats was a phenomenon on the stage, and primarily a marketing phenomenon at that. So, these pandering tactics for the film iteration shouldn’t be a surprise. Overall, critics were not fond of the material from the start, long before they salivated over new and inventive ways to eviscerate the film adaptation. However, it was a marketer’s dream and a persistent crowd-pleaser. It was inoffensive, nonviolent, gimmicky, devoid of intellectual depth or an ethical challenge to an audience, family-friendly to the bone, and bolstered by an iconic logo that infected the globe. The whole affair was allegedly cute by means of its loose association with real-life cats, a perennial delight for the masses. Cats is, on paper, a rare property with near-universal potential for attracting the widest possible audience. For producers who might be a bit out-of-touch with the zeitgeist, they probably saw a film adaptation of this material to be an inherent winner in concept. After all, cats are as big as ever on the internet. Kids love cats, old people love cats…every major demographic seems to love cats. And Cats was a huge hit on the stage! This is a sure win, they must have thought.

I suspect that the producers anticipated that their casting machinations would coalesce with residual loyalty to the stage play to attract both young folks and aging audiences alike. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they saw the success of Hamilton as indicating a re-invigorated enthusiasm for stage musicals, without even a basic understanding of why folks enjoyed Hamilton. Much like Cats, there was a lack of depth or insight behind their grand aspirations.

A lot has been said of the decision to release Cats opposite to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Of course, I think the release date should have been buried in January or later, but more for the benefit of the effects than to avoid Star Wars competition. To be honest, I don’t think they ever thought that Cats would be competing with Star Wars – the producers were almost certainly focused on the potential of the Christmas-time date and historical musical successes in the slot, as reported by SlashFilm back in 2018:

The holiday season is…big on musical movies – Les Miserables, another musical adaptation from Tom Hooper, opened on December 25, 2012. The adaptation of Chicago hit theaters December 27, 2002. And last year, The Greatest Showman danced onto the screen on December 20.

Even though there was a wide net cast for Cats to general audiences, I’m sure Universal saw it as counter-programming to Star Wars, likely to catch audiences who weren’t on board with the hyperspace franchise train – the sluggish response to Solo might have given Universal some confidence going up against the Disney titan as well, but I’m not sure how much that played into the decision. The way that Universal held tight to the release date despite the effects issues says to me that they were focused on the specific potential of holiday date revenues.

So, what went wrong with Cats? Blaming the effects alone doesn’t get to the source of the rot, and I believe it places too much blame on effects workers who were forced into a tough position. This is a film that was flawed from conception. It was, in my opinion, meticulously concocted as a marketing scheme rather than an artistic enterprise. That in-authenticity seeps from its pores, and the stench carries. There was also certainly a false foundation to its construction – it turns out that there isn’t the residual fondness for the Cats brand that was relied upon, nor were the marketing powers of celebrities enough to sucker in audiences.

Cats is what it is. In truth, it is a bereft and shallow product of a bereft and shallow enterprise. Cats is capitalism put through a prism of digital fur. If anything, its appropriation into the bad movie canon is the only way it could have found a form of salvation. We have taken a wretched thing, placed it in a hot air balloon, and let it fly into oblivion, where it always should have remained.

Come To Daddy

Come To Daddy

Yesterday, I had the chance to catch Come To Daddy, the feature directorial  debut of Ant Timpson, who is best known for producing modern cult favorites like Turbo Kid, Deathgasm, The Greasy Strangler, and The ABCs of Death. With a screenplay by The Greasy Strangler co-writer Toby Harvard, it is a fascinatingly tense and gore-laden affair.

The film opens with Elijah Wood’s meek character, Norval, arriving at a secluded beach house that he describes as “like a UFO from the 1950s,” which is the home of his estranged and enigmatic father. From the moment he arrives, he has a series of baffling, tense, and inexplicably combative conversations (and non-verbal interactions) with his host – an intermittently aggressive and eccentric drunkard played enthrallingly by Stephen McHattie.

These early scenes between McHattie and Wood reminded me of a notable early sequence in Kevin Smith’s 2014 body-horror film Tusk, which featured the late Michael Parks and Justin Long in a peculiar verbal sparring match juxtaposed with the warm surroundings of a cozy, fire-lit living room.  Instead of having the dancing shadows of a fire-lit room surround them, McHattie and Wood have their verbal duels with a scenic coastal vista in ever-present view from their modern, saucer-like abode. For fans of cerebral indie-horror, the first half of Come to Daddy is likely to please – there is palpable drama, a deep sense of unease, and some salient themes of family, mental illness, and alcoholism underscoring their interactions. However, viewers are assured that “you have no fucking idea what is happening here” – twists and turns are abound, paving the way for a stylistic and tonal shift into a violent, shocking, and depraved realm.

Unlike Tusk, which is burdened by both pacing and performance issues, both the screenplay and the acting performances in Come to Daddy are impeccable. Beyond Wood and McHattie, who are both fantastic, all of accessory cast members feel tangible and real – there is a conveyed sense that they all have entire lives and stories of their own off-screen. Even a character with a single, brief scene is unforgettable for his ruminating on the sinister nature of “raisin eyes.” When performances and the screenplay click together in just the right way, this is the result.

While I understand folks who feel much more affection for the first half of Come To Daddy, I still thoroughly enjoyed its abrupt yet fluid shift into a higher gear. The tension that was built in the first half never dissipates, but adapts to the more violent, faster pace of the developing action.

On the whole, I found this to be enjoyable horror/thriller flick with some expertly tense sequences. While I don’t think of it as among the highest tier of contemporary horror with the likes of features from Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, or Robert Eggers, I think it fits into a nice niche as an oddball movie with wry humor and tense dialogue.  While this isn’t a movie that is going to light up an awards show, it is going to scratch a unique itch for a lot of horror film aficionados who appreciate a different, artistic twist on their gore-fest without losing the charming ethos of a b-movie.

Worst Movies of 2019

Howdy loyal followers and wandering spambots! After a hiatus induced by PhD work, I’m back with my annual analysis of the worst films of the year.

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

2019 saw a wider distribution of films receiving tallies than previous years – a total of 127 from 16 published lists. In 2018, for comparison, only 103 films received tallies, which was more than either 2017 or 2016.

As with previous years, there was no universal consensus for the worst film of the year. The leader of the pack was only included in 14 of 16 year-end lists, meaning 2 lists omitted it entirely. However, the is the strongest win for any movie I have covered since I started doing this annual post. There were plenty of ties within the rankings, though one film did stand above (below?) the others, unlike last year’s first-place tie. Without further delay, here are the rankings.

  1. Serenity
  2. (Tie) The Kitchen / Dark Phoenix
  3. (Tie) The Fanatic / MIB: International / Gemini Man
  4. (Tie) Rambo: Last Blood / Hellboy
  5. (Tie) A Madea Family Funeral / The Goldfinch / Replicas / Shaft / UglyDolls

Are there any movies that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Were any of these movies better than the public judged them to be? Let me know!

Ivy On Celluloid: Van Wilder

Van Wilder

In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’ll be taking a look at National Lampoon’s second most famous college-set comedy: 2002’s Van WIlder.

The plot of Van Wilder is summarized on IMDb as follows:

The most popular kid on campus meets a beautiful journalist who makes him realize that maybe he’s afraid to graduate.

Van Wilder was the directorial feature debut for Walt Becker, who has gone on to direct other comedies like Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. The screenplay was written by the duo of David Wagner and Brent Goldberg, who also penned the screenplays for The Girl Next Door and Underclassman.

The cast of the film is headlined by the charismatic Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Green Lantern, Detective Pikachu), along with Tara Reid (Sharknado, The Big Lebowski, Alone in the Dark), Kal Penn (House), Tim Matheson (The West Wing, Animal House), Emily Rutherfurd (Pain & Gain), Paul Gleason (Die Hard, The Breakfast Club), and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad).

The inspiration for Van Wilder is rooted in the experiences of the comedian Bert Kreischer during his time at Florida State University, during which time he was named the “top partyer at the Number One Party School in the country” in a 1997 Rolling Stone feature. The article features a number of less-than-flattering testimonials and descriptions of Bert’s lurid behavior, and  concludes that his reputation on campus over six years has made him “a figure of vaguely totemic proportions.”

“I haven’t met Bert yet, but he’s well-known at the Tri Delt sorority. ‘If you ever meet a guy named Bert, run like hell.’ That’s what they said. ‘Run. Like. Hell.’”

Van Wilder was made on a production budget of $5 million, on which it took in a lifetime gross of just over $38 million, making it quite profitable. Ultimately, its success spawned two sequels: Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, and Van Wilder: Freshman Year.

However, as with many comedies, the reception to Van Wilder was split between critics and audiences. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 6.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 19% from critics and 73% from audiences

To begin the higher education analysis of Van Wilder, I’d like to start with the host institution for the story: Coolidge College. This institution, as is often the case with higher ed films, is entirely fictitious. However, two real institutions served as filming locations – the University of California – Los Angeles and California State University – Northridge. UCLA was the filming location for most of the campus sequences, whereas Cal State Northridge provided the gym for the basketball scene.

The mascot/nickname for Coolidge College is the Chickadees – a group of small bird species in North America that are known for their unique vocalizations. While chickadees are not particularly imposing, many colleges have confounding mascots and nicknames – there’s the University of California – Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, the Evergreen State College Geoducks, the Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers, and the St. Louis University Billikens, among many others.

One of the first scenes in Van Wilder shows a suicide attempt, as a student jumps from an academic building on their university campus. I covered the topic of college student suicide extensively in my coverage of Dead Man On Campus, but this sequence got me curious as to if students are known to jump off of campus buildings. In 2014, a University of Pennsylvania student died after leaping from a campus parking garage. In 2017, a student at the University of Tennessee died after jumping off of a six-story parking garage on campus. Again in 2017, an exchange student at Columbia University died after jumping from a dormitory building. In 2018, a University of Louisville student died after jumping off of a parking garage across from the campus. Unfortunately, it seems that jumping from campus buildings as a means of committing suicide is not unheard of.

A handful of times throughout the film, Van refers to his major as “Leisure Studies.” This is an actual major offered at many institutions, including California State University – Long Beach, University of Mount Olive, and Southern Connecticut State University. From what I can tell, these programs typically prepare students for careers in sports management, the management of recreation centers, recreation therapy, general event management, and tourism. This notably fits Van’s displayed skill set of planning and executing large-scale events, such as athletic-based fundraisers and intricate parties.

Tara Reid’s character in the film writes for Coolidge College’s student newspaper, and takes the position very seriously – it is stated that a reporter previously in her position went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, which she aspires to herself. She and her editor hope that an expose on Van Wilder will attract critical attention to the newspaper.

I decided to look into the world of college journalism, and there are a number of annual awards for exceptional individual stories, reporters, and papers. In particular, he Associated Collegiate Press has annual awards for exceptional cartoonists, reporters, individual stories, designers, and photographers who contributed their works to college newspapers, as well as Pacemaker Awards for overall outstanding work for college publications – magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, and online news outlets. Looking through the most recent ACP award winners for individual stories, most of them are on serious social topics – food insecurity, sexual assault on campus, student mental health, the opioid epidemic, institutional corruption, and misconduct among administrators and faculty. I’m not so sure that an expose on a local party animal would yield much critical attention, going by the stories that are most lauded.

A recurring gag throughout the film revolves around a specific reserved campus parking spot for a faculty member. In my time spent on a number of different college campuses, I’ve never once seen a parking spot reserved for a specific faculty member – typically, they have a similar permit to students and staff. For instance, here is information on faculty parking from a handful of universities, which all require paid permits for zoned parking – University of Tennessee – Knoxville, University of Houston, and University of Arkansas. From what I can tell, these paid permits are pretty much the ubiquitous policy for faculty members at universities.

During the sequence where Van Wilder’s father financially cuts him off, he claims that taking seven years to complete undergraduate coursework is unacceptable:

“Seven years and no degree, you should have graduated twice by now…if you don’t have your doctorate you haven’t done enough”

Clearly, Van’s father had high expectations – he anticipated Van graduating early, not hanging around on campus for the majority of a decade. However, his thinking is indicative of a pretty significant misconception about how long it takes many students to complete coursework at four-year institutions. Institutions like the National Center for Education Statistics and National Student Clearinghouse Research Center track four-year college graduation rates primarily at the six-year mark – and those numbers aren’t perfect, regardless of institution type. Assuming Coolidge College is a four-year, private non-profit college, it is likely that (according to 2016 data) 1 in 4 enrolled students at the college won’t complete their degree in six years – Van isn’t in as much of a minority as one might assume.

One of the key supporting characters in the film is Taj – an international student at Coolidge College who appears to have not adapted well to the American college experience, particularly in regards to his initial expectations of sexual activity, issues with his personal anxiety, and general loneliness. I decided to dig around for some information on international student experiences, to see if Taj’s depiction is consistent.

There are a number of qualitative studies that have been done with the goal of understanding adjustment issues for international college students at American universities, including one from the Ohio State University that concluded that interviewed international students experienced significant problems in their coping with US education, cultural differences, and language challenges. Other studies have focused on specific groups of international students, such as African or Chinese/Taiwanese international students, and found that social challenges were common. However, I wasn’t able to find anything written about international college students and sexuality – the most I was able to dig up was an informational packet on supporting LGBT international students, which includes the following:

For LGBT international students coming to the United States from cultures where exploration of one’s sexuality or gender identity is discouraged or unsafe, this opportunity to develop and explore in a supportive environment can be revolutionary.

From what we know of Taj, this is the basis of his decision to come to college in the United States. Though he is not shown to be LGBT, his primary motivator is certainly the “exploration of…sexuality.” What is particularly interesting about this, however, is that American colleges have a uniquely sexual reputation in his mind, to the point that it influenced his enrollment decision. As far as I know, there isn’t any data on sexual activity that can be compared between universities globally to prove his assumptions correct or incorrect, but there is some data about sexual activity and colleges in the United States.  While this doesn’t confirm or debunk Taj’s sexual assumptions about American colleges, it is interesting data that could be construed as support for the view of these institutions as sexual exploration centers. That said, I would wager that Taj’s view of the college experience is the result of media portrayals more than anything else – the proliferation of raunchy sexual comedies like Animal House or Van Wilder, for instance.

During the pep talk at the Coolidge College basketball game, one of the players asks Van if the victory party will feature students (“freaky honeys”) from  Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke College is a real, notable women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

At one point in the film, Taj catalyzes a dormitory fire through a mishap with romance-inducing candles. It is pretty much common knowledge that candles are not allowed in dormitories for this very reason, which has inspired numerous on alternatives. Despite this, candles are still a frequent cause of fires in dorms – in just the past year, fires at Boston University, Bowdoin College, and Colby College have been attributed to errant candles use. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 87% of reported dormitory fires have explicitly involved cooking equipment, but candles are also cited as a leading cause of accidental fires in dorms.

Campus Safety Banner

On top of planning parties and fundraisers, Van Wilder is also shown to be a general problem solver for his fellow students. At one point, a student comes to Van complaining of having acquired an STI – something that is not treated as out of the norm by Van. Young people between 15-24, which includes traditional college students, are known to have high-rates of sexually-transmitted diseases, which poses a challenge for colleges. In 2016, the University of Oregon launched an STI Screening Clinic as part of the University Health Center, in order to provide convenient and affordable testing for students. Free distribution of condoms is a common practice at many universities as well, including condom delivery services at schools like Boston University, Brown University. and Elizabethtown College. The proliferation of STIs on  college campuses has also inspired the condom company Trojan to compile a campus sexual health ranking system.  The 2016 report card featured the University of Georgia and Oregon State University at the top of the list, and schools like Brigham Young University and the University of Notre Dame at the bottom.

One of the most curious sequence of events in the film involves Van Wilder’s student records. In one scene, Tara Reid’s character is handed all of Van’s disciplinary records by a university official without so much as showing identification. However, when she later goes looking for Van’s official transcript, another administrator stonewalls her, saying that divulging that information would be illegal. Ultimately, Reid’s character steals Van’s record after setting off a fire alarm. These sequences touch on the details of FERPA – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – which is a federal law that was passed in 1974, and applies to any education institution that receives federal funds. FERPA specifically relates to student records and privacy, and makes it clear that student disciplinary records are protected information that require the student’s consent to release, except in very specific cases:

A postsecondary institution may disclose to an alleged victim of any crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense the final results of a disciplinary proceeding conducted by the institution against the alleged perpetrator of that crime, regardless of whether the institution concluded a violation was committed. An institution may disclose to anyone—not just the victim—the final results of a disciplinary proceeding, if it determines that the student is an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense, and with respect to the allegation made against him or her, the student has committed a violation of the institution’s rules or policies.

Based on these limited exceptions, it is fair to say that Tara Reid’s character should not have been given Van’s disciplinary records, and that the administrator committed a FERPA violation by doing so. However, FERPA violations are not as uncommon as you might assume: universities are in a constant struggle with administrators and professors in an attempt to keep everyone within FERPA guidelines with their communications. FERPA trainings are commonplace on college campuses, and other resources include tutorials, walkthroughs, and FAQs for staff and faculty members at universities. This is because, particularly thanks to modern technology, the scope of what is a FERPA violation is broader than you might first assume – even emailing a graded paper directly to a student is a FERPA violation, as email is not considered a secure medium for transmitting protected information. Even the fact that Reid’s character was able to steal Van’s physical records means that they were not sufficiently secured, which is another violation – typically education records are encrypted and stored electronically for this very reason (though digital vulnerabilities also exist).

Late in the film, Van Wilder is expelled from Coolidge College after a number of minors get drunk at a party he hosted. Ultimately, he decides to appeal the administration’s decision, which leads to a hearing with a disciplinary committee, shown to be made up of a combination of faculty, administrators, and students. From what I can gather, committees like this are pretty commonplace, and feature a similar makeup of faculty, staff, and students. Princeton University’s Committee on Discipline, the University of Chicago’s University-wide Student Disciplinary Committee, Bates College’s Student Conduct Board, and Morehead State University’s Student Disciplinary Committee all have similar guidelines, with some degree of variation.

As part of the ruling of the disciplinary committee, Van is required to complete his degree and graduate, “auditing” the final classes he needs to graduate. This phrasing is particularly peculiar – a class audit is specifically taking a course without receiving a grade or credit, which means it would not contribute towards the achievement of a degree. This mechanism – in which a student blows through a bunch of classes in a montage at the last minute, as a sort of gauntlet challenge – seems to pop up in other education-based movies pretty often, but as far as I can gather, it isn’t based on anything factual.

When Van Wilder first faces financial hardship following being cut off by his father, he initially earns his tuition money by pioneering a service called “topless tutors,” in which he convinced employees of a local strip joint to act as tutors with a risque incentive system. Ultimately, this service is put to an abrupt end, but it tangentially hits at a very real issue: college students turning to sex work to cover costs. While Van’s situation is not the way student sex work is usually envisioned, what Van did could fall technically under the terminology of sex work, as he is shown to be managing the logistics of the program.

In general, I think that Van Wilder is a shockingly heinous movie – it constantly trivializes serious issues like suicide and rape, expresses contemptuous misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, and seems to relish in it all as a collective badge of honor. As a portrayal of higher education, it does touch on a handful of interesting topics, but almost always by complete accident as it shambles through stereotype-laden dialogue and caricatures with crass disregard. For the most part, the movie is a dated, nearly-unwatchable atrocity of a film with little overall value. It does speak to Reynolds’s charisma that he has gone on to the career that he has now, and was able to squeeze an ounce of charm from this desolate, hateful stone of a movie. It goes without saying that this is yet another college movie that I don’t recommend revisiting – it might be the most odious of the bunch I’ve covered so far.

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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