Ivy On Celluloid: Doctor Detroit

Doctor Detroit

In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I look at college-set movies and check them for plausibility and accuracy, I’m going to dig into the 1983 Dan Aykroyd comedy, Doctor Detroit.

The plot of Doctor Detroit, according to IMDb, is as follows:

A timid college professor, conned into posing as a flamboyant pimp, finds himself enjoying his new occupation on the streets.

The director for Doctor Detroit was Michael Pressman, who also helmed The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, numerous episodes of shows like Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods, and Elementary, and even produced the creature feature Lake Placid, which I have covered previously here.

There were three credited writers for Doctor Detroit: Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash, The Heartbreak Kid), Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3D, The Jerk), and Robert Boris (Little Hercules in 3D, Oxford Blues).

The cast of Doctor Detroit is made up of Dan Aykroyd (Nothing But Trouble, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers), Howard Hesseman (WKRP In Cincinnati, About Schmidt), Donna Dixon (Spies Like Us, Nixon), T.K. Carter (The Thing, Domino), Lynn Whitfield (Head of State, Eve’s Bayou), Fran Drescher (The Nanny), Kate Murtagh (The Car), and George Furth (Blazing Saddles, Megaforce, The Cannonball Run).

The cinematographer for the film was King Baggot, who also shot such movies as The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, and The Hand.

The editor on Doctor Detroit was Christopher Greenbury, whose other credits include American Beauty, Kingpin, Wild Hogs, Loaded Weapon 1, Where The Buffalo Roam, and Bio-Dome, among others..

The music for the movie was provided by Lalo Schifrin, whose long history of film scores includes Cool Hand Luke, Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, Rush Hour 3, The Dead Pool, Class of 1984, The Amityville Horror, Dirty Harry, and Enter the Dragon.

Doctor Detroit served as a major career and personal mark for Dan Aykroyd: not only was it the first film he did after his comedy partner John Belushi’s death, but it was also his first top-billed role. On top of that, he also met his future wife on the production: Donna Dixon.

Doctor Detroit was made on an $8 million production budget, on which it took in just under $10.4 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This was a significant financial disappointment for a film that most of the cast and crew assumed would be a hit. The critical reception was equally unenthusiastic: currently, Doctor Detroit has an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 41% from audiences.

To put it mildly, Doctor Detroit is built on an outlandish foundation, and by design it relies on zany characters to propel its comedy. Unfortunately, from the eponymous Doctor Detroit on down, the characters aren’t strong enough or memorable enough to support the movie, and the writing doesn’t do anyone any favors. Jokes routinely fall flat, the acting is terribly forced, and would-be comedic moments are whiffed through a lack of timing or chemistry. As a movie, Doctor Detroit is a bit of a train wreck. However, what Doctor Detroit lacks in cinematic quality, it compensates for with a litany of characters and subplots in the sphere of higher education.

While Doctor Detroit is not strictly a movie about higher education, there are some interesting higher education issues and topics brought up throughout the story, given the lead character’s occupation as a professor, and the campus setting for much of the story.

To begin with, the very premise of Doctor Detroit brings up a key question: has there ever been an academic who lived a double-life as a pimp? Apparently, there has been, though it occurred many years after the release of Doctor Detroit: David C. Flory, a Physics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, was arrested in 2011 in Albuquerque, NM on 40 counts of promoting prostitution. Professor Flory had apparently been running a website called “Southwest Companions,” which was a social networking platform utilized by “1,400 sex workers and johns.” Ultimately, he was caught because he used his official university email address to start the website. According to the Albuquerque Police Department:

[Professor Flory] was not in this for the money. He flat-out told us his thing was he wanted to create a safe place for prostitutes and johns to get together. He called it a hobby.

While professors moonlighting as pimps is far from a common practice in the field, there is a growing convergence between academia and sex work.  Many higher education institutions have increasingly relied on adjunct faculty, who are typically part-time faculty who are paid minimally, and are rarely afforded any of the benefits or luxuries of their tenure-track peers. According to a feature in The Guardian in September of 2017, ill-paid adjunct professors are increasingly turning to practices like sex work to supplement their income, just to make ends meet.

Another key element of the plot of the movie surrounds a financial crisis for the fictitious Monroe College, which is on the verge of closing within weeks, unless a significant donation is made by a notable alum. While the idea that a college can secretly come within days of closure for lack of finances may seem ridiculous, a similar situation happened not too long ago. After a loan was denied from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, St. Gregory’s University abruptly announced on November 8, 2017 that it would close at the end of the calendar year, giving faculty, staff, and students roughly 50 days of notice.

Speaking of the college featured in the film, the Monroe College that serves as the backdrop of Doctor Detroit is fictitious. However, there is a real Monroe College in New York, though the fictional one in the film is located in Chicago. Northwestern University and the University of Southern California were both used as filming locations to create Monroe College for the movie, though neither school completely fits the details we are told about Monroe College.

While there doesn’t seem to be a specific stand-in, we know from the film that Monroe College is located in an urban part of the Chicago metropolitan area, that it is a private college, that it is almost certainly residential, that it offers four-year degrees (and specifically has an English department), that it is not outwardly religious in nature, and that it is likely liberal arts focused. Also, given its financial situation, I think it is fair to assume that it is a pretty small institution with a minimal endowment. Using the Wikipedia list of colleges and universities in Chicago, I narrowed the list down to a handful of likely candidates to be the “real” Monroe College: Roosevelt University, East-West University, Lake Forest College, and Columbia College Chicago. Of those, I’d wager that Roosevelt University is the closest approximation, given it also boasts a Presidential name, and otherwise matches the descriptions of Monroe College.

At one point in the story, Dan Aykroyd’s Professor Skridlow refers to himself as a “Full Assistant Professor.” As far as I can tell, that title is nothing short of academic word salad. Typically, an Assistant Professor is the beginning rank for a tenure-track professor. Once an Assistant Professor receives tenure, their title usually becomes Associate Professor. The title of “Full Professor” is usually given to senior, already-tenured faculty, who go through an additional round of approvals from peers from both within and outside the institution. The idea of a “Full Assistant Professor” is absurd: the best I can figure, based on the character’s age, is that he is an Associate Professor who recently achieved tenure, graduating from his previous rank of Assistant Professor. My guess is that the screenwriters didn’t do their research, and weren’t sure what terminology to use in that situation.

Speaking of Professor Skridlow’s title, there is something to be said about his position and the historic proliferation of nepotism in higher education. As is shown throughout the film, Skridlow has a tenure-track position at the university where his father is the President, and he is shown as being given opportunities for advancement and notoriety (interaction with large donors, speaking at school functions) that are never offered to his peers. Nepotism, as it is defined by the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, is “favoritism…based on kinship.” In most fields, nepotism is strictly frowned upon, but in higher education, the practice has a complicated history. It is not unusual for married faculty to be hired together at universities, for instance, or for spouses of administrators to be given faculty positions. That isn’t even getting into the popular role of nepotism on student admissions, which is a whole different can of worms. All of that said, many universities are quick to say that they strictly avoid the practice, such as The University of Chicago:

Nepotism is favoritism in the workplace based on kinship and ordinarily consists of making employment decisions based on a family relationship. Nepotism is inconsistent with the University’s longstanding policy of making employment decisions based solely on unit needs and individual qualifications, skills, ability and performance.

However, there is no denying that the practice of nepotism is alive and well at many higher education institutions, and there are many who go to lengths to defend it. In a piece for Inside Higher Ed titled “Is Academic Nepotism A Good Thing?”, Jane Robbins writes:

Universities go to great lengths to put a positive spin on…[nepotism]…They assert that it helps them in recruiting, increases loyalty, and adds stability to the university

In Doctor Detroit, Professor Skidlow’s “Full Assistant Professor” position at Monroe College is inarguably the result of nepotism, whether he was qualified for the position or not. The fact that his father is a top administrator at the school creates a clear conflict of interest. There are numerous occasions where Skidlow fails to complete tasks or responsibilities, for which he should face dire consequences. However, he never does, implicitly because of nepotistic favoritism within the institution.

Overall, I think that Doctor Detroit has been rightfully overshadowed by other comedic works, and is justifiably relegated to a footnote in Dan Aykroyd’s film career. There is a seedling of an idea here, but it doesn’t develop into much, outside of an obnoxious accent and one-dimensional persona. For the most part, this is a movie that should be skipped over. The only exceptions to that are higher education dorks like myself, who might find some interesting elements in the background, or die-hard fans of the career of Dan Aykroyd. For anyone else, I recommend that you continue not knowing (or remembering) that this movie exists.

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My Bloody Valentine (2009)

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Today, I’m going to look at the 2009 3D remake of the 1981 horror movie, My Bloody Valentine.

The plot of My Bloody Valentine is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Tom returns to his hometown on the tenth anniversary of the Valentine’s night massacre that claimed the lives of 22 people. Instead of a homecoming, Tom finds himself suspected of committing the murders, and it seems like his old flame is the only one that believes he’s innocent.

The cast of My Bloody Valentine includes Tom Atkins (Maniac Cop, The Fog, Halloween III), Jensen Ackles (Supernatural), Jaime King (Pearl Harbor, Sin City), Kerr Smith (Final Destination, Dawson’s Creek), Edi Gathegi (Gone Baby Gone, X-Men: First Class), Kevin Tighe (Rose Red, Newsies, K-9, Another 48 Hours), and Megan Boone (The Blacklist).

The screenplay for the film is credited to Todd Farmer (Drive Angry, Jason X) and Zane Smith, the latter of whom has no other listed credits on IMDb. Additional credits are given to the writers of the original 1981 screenplay: John Beaird and Stephen Miller.

My Bloody Valentine was directed and co-edited by Patrick Lussier, who also directed Dracula 2000, The Prophecy 3, White Noise 2, and Drive Angry, and cut such films as Scream, Vampire In Brooklyn, Mimic, Scream 2, Scream 3, New Nightmare, and Red Eye.

Lussier’s co-editor for the film was Cynthia Ludwig, who served as an assistant editor on Carnosaur 3, Rush Hour 2, Scary Movie 2, and numerous episodes of Mr. Robot, Warehouse 13, and Justified.

The cinematographer for My Bloody Valentine was Brian Pearson, whose other credits include Into the Storm, Final Destination 5, Step Up All In, American Mary, and Drive Angry.

The musical score for the film was composed by Michael Wandmacher, who also provided music for the films Drive Angry, Piranha 3D, Punisher: War Zone, and From Justin To Kelly.

My Bloody Valentine is distinctive in that it was one of the earliest films in the modern 3D gimmick boom, and was even the first R-rated movie to use the modern 3D “RealD” technology. Part of the movie’s eventual financial success can almost certainly be attributed to the novelty of the technology at the time.

Interesting, there is a notable change in this remake from the ending of the original My Bloody Valentine – the killer’s identity is swapped, possibly to deliver a surprise to audience members familiar with the original film.

My Bloody Valentine was made on a production budget of $15 million, on which it took in a lifetime international theatrical gross of $100.7 million, making it hugely profitable. However, it didn’t fare as well critically: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.5/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 57% from critics and 44% from audiences.

In my opinion, the biggest issues with My Bloody Valentine are the central performances. Outside of a couple of stalwart character actors, the burden of the movie falls on a weak central cast of television actors who don’t seem equipped to bear the weight. The nature of this story relies on central characters that the audience can identity and empathize with, but in this case, they are all paper thin and far from realistic in their language and demeanor.

It is to the point that I am curious if there was director influence in the matter: did Lussier want the actors to put in shitty performances, for the sake of homage to the golden age of slashers? In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen notes that “the filmmakers have created something too authentic in spirit to the original film, as it also fairly quickly becomes a plodding chore to watch.” Other reviewers have noted the film’s adherence to “old school slasher rules,” and its general appeal to horror genre fans in particular. I think it may be too easy to say that the movie is “bad on purpose,” but I think there was some consideration of the genre’s traditional expectations and norms incorporated into the casting, directing, and writing of the movie.

Next to the less-than-ideal central performances, the biggest issue with My Bloody Valentine are the 3D effects. Frankly, they have aged incredibly poorly less than a decade after the film’s release, to the point that they look amateurish and cartoon-like now. Unfortunately, this is the nature of computer-heavy digital effects in a marketplace that sees constant technological development and improvement: the effects age very quickly as the standards rise. That said, the effects were the primary selling point for the film to begin with, and the 3D gimmick is what brought people to the theaters and made the movie money. Essentially, the movie wouldn’t exist without them. So, it is probably a fair trade-off that the movie lacks longevity because of the effects, given the effects gave it life to begin with.

Overall, My Bloody Valentine has the right spirit of wanting to be a throwback horror film, but it is significantly hindered by the modern 3D gimmick, and it is harder to watch now because of it than it should be. Despite the glory of Tom Atkins being present, too many other movies have done this same sort of concept better. That said, this is still one of the better and more watchable horror reboots of the 2000s, and is a fun enough ride for genre fans.

 

Ivy On Celluloid: Necessary Roughness

Necessary Roughness

Today, I’m kicking off a new segment for the blog: “Ivy On Celluloid.” This new series will spotlight movies about higher education, and delve into their inspirations and inaccuracies. To get things started, I’m going to take a look at the 1991 college football comedy, Necessary Roughness.

The plot of Necessary Roughness is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Due to NCAA sanctions, the Texas State University Fightin’ Armadillos must form a football team from their actual student body, with no scholarships to help, to play their football schedule. With fewer players than most teams, the makeshift team must overcome obstacles that the best teams in the country couldn’t deal with. Using a thirty-four-year-old quarterback, a female placekicker, and a gang of misfits, Ed “Straight Arrow” Genero must take his team to play the number one Texas Colts.

The director for Necessary Roughness was Stan Dragoti, who was also behind the movies Mr. Mom, Love At First Bite, and The Man With One Red Shoe. Interestingly, he has not directed another movie since making Necessary Roughness in 1991.

The screenwriting duo for the film was also responsible for the Sidney J. Furie movie The Taking of Beverly Hills, which also released in 1991. However, they have very few other credits between them.

The cast of Necessary Roughness includes the likes of Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Star Trek: Enterprise), Sinbad (Jingle All The Way, Houseguest), Jason Bateman (Ozark, Arrested Development, Teen Wolf Too), Robert Loggia (Big, Scarface, Independence Day, The Believers, Gladiator), Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman, Taking Care of Business, Leviathan), Harley Jane Kozak (Arachnophobia, The House On Sorority Row, Santa Barbara), Kathy Ireland (The Player, Loaded Weapon 1, Alien From L.A., Mr. Destiny), Larry Miller (The Nutty Professor, Chairman of the Board, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Foodfight), Fred Dalton Thompson (The Hunt For Red October, No Way Out, Cape Fear), and Rob Schneider (Real Rob, The Animal, The Hot Chick, Judge Dredd, Demolition Man).

The cinematographer for Necessary Roughness was Peter Stein, whose other credits include Mr. Nanny, Pet Sematary, C.H.U.D., Ernest Saves Christmas, and Friday the 13th Part 2.

The cutting on Necessary Roughness is credited to two editors: Steve Mirkovich (Con Air, Big Trouble In Little China, 16 Blocks, Theodore Rex, Cool World, Prince of Darkness, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), and John Wright (Heaven is For Real, The Passion of the Christ, Rollerball, X-Men, Apocalypto, Speed, Last Action Hero, Broken Arrow).

The music for the film was composed by Bill Conti, who is best known for his work on the Rocky franchise, as well as The Right Stuff, The Karate Kid, For Your Eyes Only, Bad Boys, and Masters of the Universe, among others.

The poster design for Necessary Roughness was meant to imitate the iconic one for 1989’s Major League, which was a significant success for Paramount just a couple of years previously.

Necessary Roughness features a number of high-profile cameos, primarily in a sequence featuring a scrimmage with a state prison’s football team. Among those appearing are noted football figures Jerry Rice and Dick Butkus.

The Texas State University featured in Necessary Roughness is fictitious. However, it is an amalgam of a number of real higher education institutions from throughout the state. For instance, the story is based loosely on the NCAA “death penalty” given to Southern Methodist University following the 1986 football season, after years of repeated infractions by the program. The school’s colors and setting, however, are that of the University of North Texas. The insignia featured on the team’s helmets (reading sTu), closely resembles the one traditionally worn by the Texas A&M University Aggies (which reads aTm). Likewise, the intense rivalry game depicted in the film’s climax, which features two large Texas universities with a long history of bad blood, bears a strong resemblance to the Texas – Texas A&M football rivalry, which met annually from 1915 to 2011.

Among the opponents featured in Necessary Roughness are a couple of real schools: the University of Kansas Jayhawks, and the Southwest Texas State University Bobcats. Interestingly, in 2003, Southwest Texas State University had its name changed to Texas State University: the name of the fictitious institution at the center of Necessary Roughness. However, they have yet to jettison their Bobcat mascot in favor of a revolver-toting armadillo.

One of the issues brought up in the film is if women have a place playing in competitive college football. Early in the film, the team’s coaches recruit a member of the women’s soccer team to be their kicker. In the context of the film, this decision is initially treated as complete lunacy, and a number of her teammates and opponents alike are shown to be dumbfounded and shocked. While she proves to hold her own, and is crucial in the team’s ultimate success, the sexism portrayed is notable.

In reality, a number of women have since found success in college football, particularly as kickers. In 1997, Liz Heaston of the NAIA’s Willamette Bearcats was the first woman to play and score in a college football game. Since then, many others have followed suit: Katharine Hnida of the University of New Mexico, Ashley Martin of Jacksonville State University, and Tonya Butler of the University of West Alabama, just to name a few. In 2017, Becca Longo became the first woman to receive an NCAA football scholarship, which prompted significant media coverage, and brought the conversation about opportunities for women in college football back to the forefront.

Another interesting issue that is central to the plot of Necessary Roughness is whether there is a place for non-traditional students in  university sports, or in university culture as a whole. The protagonist, played by Scott Bakula, is a 34 year old student who is recruited to be the football team’s star quarterback. On top of dealing with the physical challenges of playing with an older body than his competitors, the character also has to confront the cultural challenges of being older than his peers, which is a very real issue facing nontraditional students in higher education today.

Nontraditional students are far less likely to complete their college degrees than their younger counterparts, not only because of the cultural challenges, but because of their responsibilities outside of school. Necessary Roughness interestingly evades the latter issue: we never see Bakula balancing his schoolwork and athletics with his responsibilities to his farm. In truth, a student in Bakula’s position would almost certainly have to drop something major from his schedule: likely football, or school in its entirety. It is worth noting, however, that many schools are making an effort to provide more support to nontraditional students, and the potential methods for doing so are a hot-button issue du jour in higher education circles.

In regards to nontraditional students in athletics, I wasn’t able to find any similar cases of nontraditional undergraduate students finding success in college football, like Bakula’s character in the film. However, there is the interesting case of Christie Cazzolla: a nontraditional student who attended the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, and successfully won numerous accolades in track & field.

All of that said, there is another nontraditional student on the Texas State Armadillos that does have precedent in reality: Sinbad’s early-graduating, PhD candidate offensive lineman. In 2016, Jarrod Barnes, a PhD student at Ohio State University, played as a Special Teams Safety for the Buckeyes, after previously graduating early from undergrad at the University of Louisville, and finishing his Masters at Ohio State University in 2015. While students are limited to four years of eligibility to play in the NCAA, between red-shirting (effectively adding a fifth year of eligibility by forfeiting playing during Freshman year) and graduating early, it isn’t impossible for a PhD student to play NCAA football, as is done by Sinbad in the film. However, in the words of the NCAA, there are “certain criteria” that must be met, or the student must “obtain an NCAA waiver” to do so.

Yet another interesting issue in Necessary Roughness is the ethical concerns surrounding an intimate relationship between a nontraditional student and a professor, as portrayed by Bakula and Kozak. While the pair face no serious repercussions in the movie beyond veiled threats, the reality of such a situation would have been far different. Here is an excerpt from a Cornell University document, which specifically outlines that romantic relationships are prohibited between faculty and students at that institution, and why:

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

Specifically in regards to relationships between nontraditional students and faculty, the document outlines the following:

No faculty member shall engage in romantic or sexual relationships with undergraduate students. Unusual situations, such as…a relationship between a member of the faculty and an undergraduate student of non-traditional age, must be disclosed and remedies sought to avoid real or apparent conflict of interest.

It is notable that, in the film, not only is the relationship not disclosed (a point of great conflict between the two participants), but the professor is in a clear position of authority over the student she is engaged with, as she is teaching one of his courses. This creates an inarguable conflict of interest, which would have made for dire consequences for both participants. The fact that the Dean discovers the relationship and doesn’t use it against the pair is a bit perplexing, however: apart from a brief threatening moment, he doesn’t have either the student or the professor punished, as he could easily have done, which makes little sense for his conniving and malicious character. In reality, the student’s grades for the class would have almost certainly been forfeited, and the professor would have likely been shamed, disciplined, and possibly dismissed for her surreptitious and unethical actions.

Watching Necessary Roughness today, it is impossible not to note the trivial treatment of injuries to the characters. Since the mid-2000s, the issue of traumatic brain injuries among athletes has become widely discussed, particularly Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In the wake of extensive research testifying to the impact of head injuries in contact sports with shortened lifespans, it is hard to find any kind of comedy in the physical humor surrounding injuries on the football field, particularly those with concussion symptoms. In this way, Necessary Roughness feels particularly dated: hard hits are played for laughs, and injuries are comically juxtaposed with cartoonish sound effects. By today’s standards, these portrayals are at the very least unfunny, if not completely unacceptable.

Necessary Roughness brought in $26.2 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This take was hardly earth-shattering, but I wasn’t able to dig up a production budget, so it could have easily been a significant success with that number. The critical reception, on the other hand, was mixed at best. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 31% critics and 46% from audiences, alongside a 6.1/10 IMDb user rating.

Noted film critic Roger Ebert was one of the film’s more vocal supporters, giving it 3/4 stars in his review, remarking that “as the Armadillos creep toward greatness, ‘Necessary Roughness’ generates a genuine charm,” despite the fact that that plot is “in almost every other movie ever made about an underdog sports team.” On the other hand, Jay Boyar of The Orlando Sentinel panned the movie, noting that “it’s presented with all the bone-crunching hilarity of a staged blooper reel. The whole movie, in fact, is one big blooper.”

I fall somewhere between Boyar and Ebert on this movie. On one hand, the characters are far too cartoonish, often pushing into the realm of caricature, and the humor is dated in its off-color sexism and tone-deaf racial portrayals. On the other hand, Ebert is right to note that there is a “genuine charm” to this film: unlike a lot of underdog sports movies, the team here is exceptionally sympathetic. Personally, I think this is because the members are fully cognizant of how terrible the team is, from the head coach down. There is also the fact that they have no expectations: everyone assumes they will lose out, so no one is particularly disappointed or shocked by their successive losses. That makes their eventual triumph all the more potent.

The biggest positive of Necessary Roughness is, without a doubt, the supporting cast. Without the performances of Robert Loggia and Hector Elizondo, there is a chance that this movie would have been completely unwatchable and devoid of genuine comedy. As it stands, the two character actors carry the highlighting comedic moments of the film, such as Loggia’s halftime speech. However, even they struggle with some of the unpolished and uneven dialogue that runs throughout the screenplay.

Speaking of which, Necessary Roughness debatably has all the makings of being a great sports comedy, but it is severely hampered by what feels like an unfinished and unedited screenplay. Comedic moments often fall flat, and numerous lines of dialogue sound clunky and forced, as if the screenplay was never read through or tuned up after the initial draft. Had there been a little more work put into the screenplay, Necessary Roughness could have been exponentially more entertaining.

Overall, Necessary Roughness is an uneven and mostly unremarkable sports movie, though it does have some brief moments of brilliance. The supporting cast make it worth sitting through on their own (Loggia is a blast), if you can swallow the bad physical and off-color humor peppered throughout that should have been left in the 1980s.

For folks who specifically like sports movies, this one is worth digging up, particularly because it has been somewhat lost to the ages. For anyone else, it is a bit of a toss-up. Personally, I found that it made for an interesting time capsule to look back on in regards to higher education and college athletics, but as a piece of entertainment, it was just ok.

For more interesting reading on Necessary Roughness, check out “The Oral History of Necessary Roughness” on Outkick The Coverage,  the 25th anniversary coverage of the film on UPROXX, and the overview written by the University of North Texas Special Collections Librarian.

Ivy on Celluloid

A good portion of my readers are probably unaware of what I do outside of obsess about “bad” and “failed” movies. Currently, I’m hard at work on a MEd in Higher Education Administration at Vanderbilt University. If you don’t know what exactly that means, you certainly aren’t alone. I suppose you could say that my degree is training me to be something like this:

Well, not really, but this brings up something important. Through studying higher education, I have quickly learned that the general public has no idea how it really works on the inside – we all have a dramatically distorted image of the institution in our heads. The strange reputation of higher education, its personnel, and its culture has been built through decades of popular culture and film, which have pulled content from bizarre inaccuracies, half-truths, and tall tales stretched to their limits. These cultural portrayals of higher education ultimately inform politics and education policy, so their underlying influences are important to discuss. Given I am both a bad movie blogger and an aspiring academic in the field of higher education, I’m going to do the obvious: dive into movies about higher education, and discuss their issues and inaccuracies.

So, in the near future, I’ll be talking about some films that involve higher education institutions. Expect to see me examine the proliferation of degree mills by way of Accepted, dissect the history of collegiate secret societies with The Skulls, dig into modern greek culture with the Van Wilder franchise, cover the unfortunate racist legacy of the Ivy League with Soul Man, and much, much more. I might even do an interview or two with higher education practitioners and researchers: we’ll see where the winds take me. Think of this new segment as something akin to History Buffs or Bad Astronomy. Keep your eyes peeled for the first installment soon!

 

Worst of 2017: Monster Trucks

Monster Trucks

Concluding my spotlight on some of the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at Monster Trucks, one of the financial flops that kicked off the year back in January.

The plot of Monster Trucks is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A young man working at a small town junkyard discovers and befriends a creature which feeds on oil being sought by a fracking company.

The screenplay for Monster Trucks was written by Derek Connolly, who also penned screenplays for movies like Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Kong: Skull Island.

Monster Trucks was directed by Chris Wedge, who has primarily worked on family-friendly animated features like Robots, Ice Age, and Epic.

The cast of the film is made up of Lucas Till (X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men: First Class, MacGyver), Jane Levy (I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911), Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan, Battlefield: Earth), Rob Lowe (The West Wing, Parks & Recreation), Danny Glover (Predator 2, Saw, Lethal Weapon), Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone, Bridge of Spies), and Frank Whaley (Luke Cage, Pulp Fiction, Swimming With Sharks, Broken Arrow).

The cinematographer on Monster Trucks was Don Burgess, whose credits include some significant critical and financial hits, such as Forrest Gump, Spider-Man, Cast Away, Source Code, Blind Fury, Contact, What Lies Beneath, The Book Of Eli, and Flight.

The credited editor for Monster Trucks was Conrad Buff IV, whose list of film credits includes the likes of Titanic, The Last Airbender,  The Abyss, Training Day, The Happening, Species, True Lies, Spaceballs, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The musical score for the film was composed by David Sardy, who also worked on the movies Zombieland, 21, End of Watch, Sabotage, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Reportedly, five outwardly-identical green Dodge trucks were built for the movie to play Creature’s automotive shell. One, with its engine in the pickup bed, could be driven from a position under the hood, so that the stunt driver wouldn’t need to be digitally removed from the cab.

Monster Trucks was originally produced by Nickelodeon Movies. However, as the budget spun out of control, they left the project during post-production. Ultimately, they re-joined the film prior to its release, and are given a production company credit.

According to some second-hand reports I’ve heard, the crew responsible for the driving stunts in Monster Trucks had no idea that there were going to be CGI monsters added to their work, or that the production was a kids movie: they apparently assumed that it was going to be an action movie with elaborate truck stunts.

Monster Trucks was struck with multiple release delays, due to the extensive work needed in post-production. Depending on the source, the movie is qualified as either a 2017 or 2016 film, though it officially hit theaters in January of 2017. However, it was originally set for release on May 29, 2015, making its total release delay over a year and a half.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Monster Trucks is how it wound up getting a green light in the first place. It seems beyond belief that such an odd concept would get approved with such a high potential price tag: it just doesn’t make business sense. Reportedly, it was a pet project of former Paramount head Adam Goodman, who was let go before the film came to completion (likely in part due to its disastrously expensive production). However, the real interesting tidbit about his involvement is that the story of Monster Trucks was reportedly based on a pitch from his four-year-old son, which has led to the film being additionally ridiculed.

The final production budget for Monster Trucks was put on the books at $125 million. In its lifetime theatrical release, it managed to take in a gross of roughly $65 million worldwide, making it a massive financial failure.

In accordance with its financial failure, Monster Trucks did not fare well with either critics or the audience at large. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.7/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% from critics and 53% from audiences. Scott Meslow of GQ described it as “a movie so bizarre, wrong-headed, and obviously destined for failure that it practically demands further exploration.” 

It is worth noting right off the bat that the biggest reason that Monster Trucks entered the public consciousness was on the basis of its bloated budget. Basically, this movie was guaranteed to fail from the minute it started getting press coverage, and was already being predicted as one of the worst movies of the year back in January. In his Rolling Stone review of the movie, Peter Travers even mentions that the primary production company, Paramount, had already chalked it up as a loss before it even hit theaters:

Paramount Pictures, which is releasing the film, took a $115 million write-down against anticipated losses before it even opened. It’s like having your parents write off your college tuition because they know you’ll never amount to shit.Talk about lack of faith.

However, just because a movie is a flop, or has an outlandish concept, doesn’t mean that the film’s overall quality is necessarily bad. In the case of Monster Trucks, the film’s advance reputation, due to both its bizarre conceptualization and swollen budget, may have poisoned the well in regards to its public reception.

The movie is by no means a classic, but it does have some notable redeeming qualities. The first and biggest one, to my surprise, was the monster itself: “Creech.” I expected the CGI to look jarring and immediately dated, but to my shock, it works a lot better than I expected it to, and he blends pretty well into his surroundings. Creech is also interestingly designed with a handful of juxtaposed natural elements to be simultaneously familiar, sympathetic, and alien. Part shark, part squid, part whale, and part adorable puppy, it is an interesting beast that was clearly the result of a lot of work, and it definitely could have come out of the design phase a lot worse.

As far as other positives go, the supporting cast is surprising deep and entertaining. Rob Lowe is a blast as he channels an approximation of George W. Bush as an oil tycoon, Danny Glover is always nice to see on screen (even in a very limited role), and Thomas Lennon provides some of the better comedic moments as an ethically-compromised scientist working for a soulless oil company.

All of those positives considered, there are still some big issues with Monster Trucks.  For the most part, most of the issues boil down to the screenplay. The writing, particularly when it comes to the dialogue and characters, is sub-par, and the comedy is uneven and poorly executed as a result. Most of the characters are thin to the point of caricature, even when they are played well by their actors, which doesn’t help a movie with an already contrived premise that was in dire need of depth to give it some grounding.

The lead of the movie, played by Lucas Till, is one of the few characters who changes over the course of the story, or has any kind of depth. However, even that isn’t completely a positive: his character comes off as an aloof jerk early in the story, during the period where the audience should be identifying with him and getting on his side. While he does warm as the story progresses (particularly to his love interest), his earlier disposition is never justified or apologized for, and makes him a hard character to pull for.

Overall, Monster Trucks isn’t as bad as its reputation indicates. It is a deeply flawed movie, but it has enough positives to keep it from ever being completely boring. All considered, it is probably on par with an average children’s movie. That said, this isn’t a movie that is easy to see in a vacuum from its context: the stories surrounding its budget, production, and conception are hard to avoid, and inevitably color the film.

When it comes to a recommendation, I don’t think this is a movie that needs to be sought out by bad movie fans, because it just isn’t all that bad. At the same time, it isn’t good enough to recommend to general audiences. The stories surrounding the movies are more interesting than the movie itself, so I do recommend reading up on it, but watching it is something I would consider totally optional.

Worst of 2017: The Circle

The Circle

Continuing my spotlight on the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

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

A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity.

The Circle was directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, whose other film credits include The Spectacular Now, The End of The Tour, and Smashed, as well as a handful of episodes on shows like Master of None, Shameless, and Parenthood.

The film is based on a 2013 book of the same name written by Dave Eggers, an acclaimed writer and publisher who is probably best known for founding McSweeney’s. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, marking one of a handful of times he has written for the screen (Away We Go, Where The Wild Things Are).

The impressive cast of The Circle includes the likes of Tom Hanks (Cast Away, The Green Mile, Philadelphia, The Burbs, Dragnet, Forrest Gump, Road To Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, The Ladykillers), Emma Watson (Noah, Beauty & The Beast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Glenne Headley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Don Jon, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dick Tracy, Breakfast of Champions), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, Barry, Fast Food Nation), Bill Paxton (Frailty, Aliens, Predator 2, Twister, Nightcrawler, Big Love, Club Dread, True Lies, Apollo 13, A Simple Plan, Next of Kin, Slipstream), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Who, Oculus), Patton Oswalt (MST3K, Odd Thomas, The King of Queens, Big Fan), and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Detroit, Attack The Block).

Two editors are credited for work on The Circle: Lisa Lassek (Serenity, The Cabin In The Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Community, Firefly, The Avengers) and Franklin Peterson (Safety Not Guaranteed, It’s A Disaster, Comet, Mr. Robot).

The cinematographer for the film was Matthew Libatique, whose notable shooting credits include Iron Man, Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Chi-Raq, Phone Booth, The Fountain, Pi, and Everything Is Illuminated.

The music for The Circle was composed by Danny Elfman, one of the most recognizable and acclaimed film composers working today. His credits include Milk, American Hustle, Mission: Impossible, Spy Kids, Spider-Man, Red Dragon, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, Mars Attacks!, Darkman, Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and Scrooged, among countless others.

The Circle marks the final film appearance of beloved character actor Bill Paxton, who died just before the film’s release. Sadly, one of his co-stars, Glenne Headley, also passed away in 2017, just after the movie hit theaters.

A handful of last minute reshoots were done in January of 2017 after test audiences cited some issues with the characters. However, the additional footage failed to remedy the grievances, and arguably worsened the issues, which contributed to the film’s poor reception.

Interestingly, the ending of the story for the film is changed from the one present in the original novel. In the book, Mae betrays Ty, and foils his plan to bring down the circle.

The Circle was made on a production budget of $18 million, on which it grossed roughly $34 million in its lifetime theatrical release. Interestingly, it wound up being released straight to Netflix in the UK, due in part to the devastating early reviews, as well as to the lower than expected grosses in its brief American theatrical release.

The Circle premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, just days prior to its theatrical release in the United States, and the negative word spread quickly. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 23% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

In his review for The Atlantic, David Sims describes The Circle as follows:

The Circle has absolutely no grasp on its own tone. It veers from insidious social commentary to wildly absurd comedy sometimes within the same conversation, warning of a world where we may use Facebook to vote, but also have microchips implanted in our children’s bones. As a satire, The Circle might have been worth a few giggles, but as a deadly serious drama, it’s laughable in an entirely different way.

As Sims points out, The Circle suffers from a very serious tone problem. While I don’t think it ever becomes an “absurd comedy,” it does vary quite wildly in intensity. There is also certainly a lack of clarity in regards to what the film is trying to say or advocate, which makes the vision and purpose of the whole movie muddy.  If it had been executed as a straight satire, there might have been something interesting to say about corporate identity and the modern surveillance state. However, everything in The Circle is taken to an absurd extreme beyond even remote plausibility, which makes the whole experience feel paper thin. Stretching the suspension of disbelief so far actually undercuts the biting criticisms that the work was trying to make, and the production looks ridiculous for it.

There are more than a few moments where The Circle devolves into the typical “kids these days” griping that every generation loves to levy at their successors (which is surreal in how out of place it is for a movie whose characters are supposed to be analogous to Google or Apple employees). There is also, unsurprisingly, a lack of understanding of technology, and the culture that surrounds it.

At least in my experience, the people who are most up to date with the latest technological advances are also at the forefront of defending net neutrality, and opposing mass surveillance measures. There is a difference between people selectively sharing aspects of their lives on social media and being “fully transparent,” a distinction The Circle doesn’t seem to grasp. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone really wants full transparency through social media: they want to be able to cultivate and cater their image, which is the whole appeal of the platform. There may be more public sharing involved than previous generations could imagine, but it isn’t unlimited sharing – it is deliberate and selective sharing, in order to build an outward persona.

It is a shame that The Circle devolves into an infantile exercise in slippery slope catastrophizing, because there is a seed of an interesting idea underneath all of this: there are things to be said about the modern surveillance culture, as well as how people incorporate brands into their personal identity. Unfortunately, the potentially salient points are all completely buried underneath a thick layer of Luddite ideology here.

Aside from the technological aspects of the film, there are plenty of other flaws worth addressing with The Circle. While the performances are for the most part pretty good (Boyega, Hanks, and Gillan all stand out), the characters are all one-dimensional, and are defined by a single trait or flaw: they don’t even remotely feel like or behave like tangible, realistic people. On top of that, the story of the film is almost completely without structure: instead of having a cogent arc to it, the story is just a sequence of events that happen, with very little connection between them. In an art movie, this technique might work: something like a snapshot of an intriguing life. However, for a movie that is allegedly a drama or a thriller, there needs to be some connection between events to build tension. For the most part, The Circle is just a series of unconnected fictitious TED talks, with brief intermissions. The result is a movie that feels about 20 times longer than it actually is – a dreadfully boring and mind-numbing experience.

The Circle, on the whole, feels like a movie with a rushed screenplay that needed a whole lot more work. For the most part, all of the movie’s critical errors boil down to writing issues: namely the characters, the structure, and the story. For the record, everything else is pretty good: the movie looks decent, has a fair share of good performances, and has an interesting enough premise. However, it is all built on a shoddy foundation, and the movie is a wreck because of it.

As far as a recommendation goes, there isn’t much to see here. Unless you are a tech geek and want to pull your hair out, this is a movie that should never even pop up on your radar. If you are looking for a bad tech movie with a poor understanding of the internet, Hackers and The Net are always there for you.

 

Worst of 2017: Black Butterfly

Black Butterfly

Today, I’m continuing my tour through a handful of the cinematic failures of 2017 with Black Butterfly, starring Antonio Banderas.

The plot of Black Butterfly is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Outside a mountain town grappling with a series of abductions and murders, Paul (Antonio Banderas), a reclusive writer, struggles to start what he hopes will be a career-saving screenplay. After a tense encounter at a diner with a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Paul offers Jack a place to stay-and soon the edgy, demanding Jack muscles his way into Paul’s work and the two men begin a jagged game of one-upmanship that will bring at least one tale to an end.

As mentioned in the above synopsis, the minimal cast of Black Butterfly is headlined by Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Four Rooms, The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids, The 13th Warrior) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Vikings, The Tudors, Mission Impossible III).

Black Butterfly is, notably, a remake of a 2008 French made-for-television movie called Papillon Noir. The screenplay for this American version was written by Marc Frydman, one of the film’s producers, and Justin Stanley, who had penned a handful of little-seen movies like Beneath Loch Ness, Dusting Cliff 7, and The Shadow Men.

Black Butterfly is the second film by director Brian Goodman, who has spent most of his career as a minor actor in television shows like Aquarius, Chance, Castle, Lost, and 24. His first film was 2008’s What Doesn’t Kill You, which received generally positive to mixed reviews.

The cinematographer for Black Butterfly was José David Montero, whose other credits include Apollo 18, What Happened to Monday?, The Hunter’s Prayer, and Open Grave.

The music for the film was composed by Federico Jusid, who provided scores for films like Neruda, The Hunter’s Prayer, Kidnap, Misconduct, and The Secret In Their Eyes, among others.

The production history for Black Butterfly traces back to 2012, when Nicolas Cage was reportedly set to star. However, as the production delayed, many changes occurred between the film’s conception and release.

Culturally, the image of a black butterfly is widely considered a bad omen. They are not only uncommon, but visually evocative of death and mourning due to their dark coloration. Depending on the mythology and culture, they can represent the souls of the dead, the end of a season, or a coming disaster.

The film features a cameo role by prolific exploitation director Abel Ferrara, who directed movies like King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, Body Snatchers, and The Driller Killer, among others.

Black Butterfly was released in May of 2017 to generally negative reviews. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% from critics and 45% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10. I suspect that the film released solely on video on demand services, given that no theatrical or financial information is readily available for it.

Black Butterfly boasts two very good performances from its leads: Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. For most of the movie, the onus of holding the story together is placed entirely on their shoulders, due to a generally lackluster screenplay. Both men manage to turn dialogue that could have easily sounded cringe-inducing into something mildly compelling and suspenseful – at least to a point. Both actors, who have proven themselves capable in the past, are better than this movie, and put in serious effort to elevate it. For all of Black Butterfly‘s faults, the cast is certainly not one of them.

Something that has been noted by many critics is that Black Butterfly feels familiar for audiences acquainted with the thriller genre: movies like Misery or Secret Window immediately come to mind from the synopsis alone. However, what is interesting about Black Butterfly is how it both subverts those genre expectations, as well as plays directly into tired cliches. Typically, a movie either cleverly goes down the first path, or trudges down the second: Black Butterfly straddles both paths, making for a simultaneously confusing, captivating, and frustrating experience. This is further emphasized by the screenplay’s tone, which is developed through a combination of predictable cliched lines, smug insights into the “writing process,” and non sequiturs masquerading as sapience. In the words of Vikrim Murthi of RogerEbert.com:

“Black Butterfly” communicates all of its empty-headed ideas idiotically, but still retains a knowing smugness regarding its intentions, like it’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while acting like no one’s ever seen such a trick.

By far the defining element of Black Butterfly, for better or for worse, is its cavalcade of twists. Bafflingly, even the marketing for the film relied on its twists, with the poster sporting the tagline of “A Killer Story With A Twist.” Not only does that marketing spoil the fact that there is a twist, but an audience that had seen the poster would spend the whole movie searching for the twist, which would effectively ruin the viewing experience. In any case, whether spoiled by marketing or not, the twists are a net negative when taken together: despite one debatably good one, it is more than cancelled out by a final bad twist at the conclusion, which undoes all of the previous developments of the film. The rapid twists abruptly shifting from cliche, to novel, to cliche again would give any viewer severe whiplash, and make the movie all the more tiresome.

On a technical level, there is some suspect camera work peppered throughout the film, which is likely a result of what I assume was a low budget. A number of shots and angles seem like they were filmed on cell phones awkwardly placed on tripods. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are moments where it is a bit jarring, and it is clear that camera limitations are preventing some necessary coverage. On a positive note, however, the locations are absolutely gorgeous, and provide a stunning backdrop for the story: it is hard for any given shot to not look scenic as a result.

Overall, Black Butterfly is an exemplar of how twists (and an unpolished screenplay) can hurt a film. To be honest, it is not one of the worst movies of 2017, and it was right on the cusp of making my list for the month. However, it is a more interesting failure to cover than something like The Emoji Movie, which was doomed from conception. Black Butterfly squanders real potential, sees a sharp decline in quality internally due to the degrading twists, and is a surreal juxtaposition of positive and negative elements.

As far as a recommendation goes, it is hard for me to say whether this is worth the time. The performances, as mentioned, are good and worth seeing. While the screenplay is tiresome, I think the twists would be interesting for film buffs to both praise and critique. Casual viewers would likely be less interested in this one, and should probably avoid it.

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