Recently, I have found myself gravitating towards the work of Nicolas Cage. This shouldn’t be all that surprising given I have a movie blog, right? It isn’t even particularly new ground for me: I’ve covered the obligatory Nicolas Cage fare, likeFace/Off, The Wicker Man, and Vampire’s Kiss, and a good number or less-remembered flicks like Army of One, Drive Angry, and Snake Eyes. Of course, I like Nicolas Cage movies. It makes sense that I would watch them from time to time.
However, this recent gravitation hasn’t been by choice. It feels elemental. Like a cosmic thrall that has drawn me back to Cage: something celestial and potentially foreboding. In the past few weeks, I have “coincidentally” stumbled into watching Moonstruck, Adaptation, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Pig, and Willy’s Wonderland. I can’t think of a wider range of films that better collectively encapsulates the essence of Cage. Pig features an inspiring, emotionally engrossing, quietly dramatic Cage performance that is easily one of the best of the past year. Willy’s Wonderland is an absolute train wreck of an action-horror movie where Cage perplexingly doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a wild, visionary science fiction film that feels like suffering a fever dream in the worst possible way, propelled by an appropriately unhinged Cage performance. Adaptation is debatably the gold standard of Nicolas Cage, who flawlessly and comedically portrays two fictional(ish) central characters who are writing the unparalleled screenplay for the film within the world of the movie. Moonstruck features early Cage, long before his descent into self-parody, but still exuding inexorable, deeply compelling weirdness, all while matching the tone of the off-beat romantic comedy.
Each of these films has gotten my gears turning about Nicolas Cage as one of the great, enigmatic fixtures in the world of screen acting over the past four decades (and who looks to continue being one for the foreseeable future). I’m still ruminating on what to do about the apparent sword of Damocles over my head that is the career of Nicolas Cage: is this my next great destiny? Is this sign a klaxon call to action, or a siren’s song to my demise?
Currently, I’m still wrapped up in graduate studies, which is leaving me very little time for this blog. Outside of the occasional Ivy On Celluloid, I haven’t had much time to write for fun (though I’m doing a ton of writing for not-fun). However, I am still finding some time to watch movies, and I think Cage might be drawing me back here. I suppose we’ll see. I can definitely feel gravity’s pull.
In today’s quick installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’d like to share a video essay I made for a class a few months back, covering the portrayals of higher education in the beloved Star Trek franchise.
In particular, this video focuses on two Star Trek characters whose higher education journeys are chronicled over the course of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine: Wesley Crusher and Nog, respectively.
When I have the time, I’m planning to come back to this topic – there is a lot to explore in the Star Trek universe when it comes to higher education, and these two intriguingly disparate college student narratives are just the beginning. I also have an academic companion paper that I wrote as part of this project – I’ll figure out what I want to do with that soon enough.
In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s Happy Death Day: a time twister of a slasher movie.
The plot of Happy Death Day is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A college student must relive the day of her murder over and over again, in a loop that will end only when she discovers her killer’s identity.
The screenplay for Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell, who is primarily known for his extensive comic book writing for series like Uncanny X-Men and Generation X. The director for the film was Christopher Landon, who has worked as both a writer and producer on a number of entries into the Paranormal Activity franchise. Some other notable crew members include editor Gregory Plotkin (Get Out, Game Night) and cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out, Fantasy Island, Breaking In).
The primary filming location for Happy Death Day is New Orleans, LA, on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans and in the surrounding area. As an aside, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this campus, as I attended my first two years of college next door at Tulane University.
To begin the higher education analysis of Happy Death Day, let’s see if the fictional “Bayfield University” is actually a loosely fictionalized version of a specific university. As mentioned previously, the movie was filmed on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans. If Bayfield was meant to be any specific school, it would make sense for it to be Loyola-NO. However, there are some key details of Bayfield that indicate that it is likely a distinct institution from Loyola-New Orleans, rather than a stand-in. First, Loyola-New Orleans is a private Jesuit university, one of 27 in the United States. While it is not explicitly stated, Bayfield University appears to be a stand-in for a public, state university, given the prominence of athletics in campus life, and the apparent absence of religiosity on campus. Another detail that distinguishes Bayfield from Loyola-NO is the presence of a university hospital and medical center – while this location has a prominent role in the film, Loyola-NO does not have such a facility. Notably, Bayfield University does retain the color scheme of Loyola-New Orleans – red and gold. However, Bayfield University’s iconography is perhaps the most significant change from Loyola University – New Orleans.
The mascot for Bayfield University featured in the film is a giant baby, whose image is co-opted by the killer(s) throughout the story via a creepy baby mask. The “Bayfield Babies” would certainly be in the running for one of the worst university athletic team names in the world, though there are perhaps some weirder examples in real life. As I covered in my post on Van Wilder, schools like University of California – Santa Cruz (Banana Slugs) and Evergreen State College (Geoducks) have exceedingly strange team names, but today I am going to focus specifically on horrifying mascots.
There are a few college mascots that merit acknowledgement when it comes to the uncanny and unnatural ability to conjure nightmares. First, I think Wichita State University’s mascot, known as WuShock, deserves recognition. Officially described by the university as “a big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat,” both iterations of WuShock I have seen are equally unnerving.
Another terrifying university mascot of note is Purdue University’s hammer-wielding Purdue Pete, whose unfeeling, void-like eyes can burn their way into your soul. The University of Louisville’s Louie the Cardinal has a similar overt aggressive energy to WuShock, with the added intimidation factor of having grinding, omnivorous human teeth inside of his over-sized bird beak. Perhaps the most unnerving of college mascots, however, is Western Kentucky University’s Big Red – an undefined blob-like creature with a gaping maw that has been described as the “amorphous, ambiguous, asexual and always lovable representative of the school’s athletics,” and is renowned for its unusual ability to “make expressions” and “show emotion.” Personally, I would prefer to keep mascots emotionless.
An interesting detail of Bayfield University in Happy Death Day is the absence of “blue light” emergency phones. These have been a visible campus safety fixture on college and university campuses for decades. They are meant to provide a direct line to campus police or security in the case of any emergency situation, such as the confrontation in the dark tunnel towards the beginning of the film. Interestingly, there has been growing debate about their continued operation due to the costs they incur, coupled with the ubiquity of cell phones. Many campuses have begun using emergency mobile applications to phase out the blue light phones, whereas others, like the University of Colorado – Boulder and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, have already eliminated the blue light phones.
During a number of the timelines in the film, a murder occurs within a sorority house. The first thing that is clearly evoked by these instances, particularly given the fact that there is an escaped killer nearby, is Ted Bundy’s spree at Florida State University’s Chi Omega house, which occurred after he escaped from custody. While the fictitious serial killer in Happy Death Day does not bear a resemblance to Ted Bundy, the implication that he targets college women and is prone to escape attempts draws a parallel between them.
A number of times throughout the movie, an unnamed student is shown passing out during what appears to be a hazing ritual. The student appears to be a fraternity pledge who has been forced to stay up all night while standing and singing with other pledges. There are countless articlesthat have outlined dangerous hazing practicesthat have occurred on college campuses. Universities have long acknowledged the safety issues inherent to hazing, and have widely adopted strict anti-hazing institutional policies, which are intended to curb potentially dangerous hazing rituals. Further, there are anti-hazing laws in a number of states. However, in 2018, Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors published a document analysis of anti-hazing policies and legislation, which critiques some of their notable shortcomings and provides a fantastic overview how hazing persists in higher education. Because of the public scrutiny and admonishment of hazing practices, it seems unlikely to me that hazing, even of this debatably innocuous sort, would be carried out on campus in broad daylight. It seems more likely to me that hazing would at least happen behind closed doors, in order to avoid formal repercussions for the organization.
A number of times throughout the film, a particular focus is placed on the dietary restrictions placed on members of the sorority Kappa Pi Lambda by their apparent leader, Danielle, in order for the members to maintain a consistent image. This kind of food policing by sorority leadership comes up occasionally in higher education films, usually coupled with gags about eating disorders among sorority members. There are a handful of research studies on implementing programs to prevent eating disorders among sorority members that focus on either individuals or the sorority social systems as a whole, but there isn’t much that indicates concretely that sorority members are more likely to have eating disorders than college women on the whole. A phenomenological study on perceptions among sorority women found that “sorority women may have a greater fear of becoming fat, are more dissatisfied with their bodies. and are more weight preoccupied and concerned with dieting than are college women from previous studies,” which could put them at greater risk of developing eating disorders. While there is a research study that indicates that sorority members develop a greater “drive for thinness” as a result of their sorority membership over three years when compared to non-sorority peers, there was no indication that they have higher rates of bulimia or general body dissatisfaction compared to their unaffiliated peers.
Start eating healthy today and you’ll feel so much better by the time polish week and recruitment starts. Stay away from fried and super sugary foods. Your face will seriously brighten up. Also, exercise. Start now and you’ll have way more energy and endurance for the long hours of recruitment.
One of my favorite things about Happy Death Day is how it portrays a casual day on a college campus. Most college movies gloss over the hustle and bustle of the college campus in the daylight in favor of the classroom setting or the debauchery of nighttime. Happy Death Day spends some quality time on a quad at the beginning of each repeated cycle, showing students collecting petition signatures, folks hanging out on the grass, a flurry of assorted noises, and the seemingly perpetual human motion of a buzzing university at full capacity. It is a strange element to be left out of so many college films, but Happy Death Day captures the spirit of a daytime college campus in these sequences better than any other film that I can think of.
There are quite a few other topics I could cover from Happy Death Day – university policies about sexual relations between faculty and students, suicide on campus, violence at fraternities, etc. – but I have either already covered them in other Ivy On Celluloid features, or plan to cover them with another film.
On the whole, Happy Death Day is an entertaining horror-comedy movie that is reminiscent of a number of classics: there are explicit nods to Groundhog Day, and thematic similarities to the Scream franchise and other subsequent self-aware slashers. I’m hesitant to say that this is a great movie, but I found it to be a pretty good late night horror film, and a surprisingly interesting depiction of higher education. Though it does lean on some lazy stereotypes, spends a bit too much time and effort making the lead unsympathetic, and takes too long to get the momentum rolling, there are definitely things to like about Happy Death Day. I can recommend this confidently to horror fans out there, particularly if they are into the Scream and Cabin In The Woods brand of self-aware horror.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Tie) The Kitchen / Dark Phoenix
(Tie) The Fanatic / MIB: International / Gemini Man
(Tie) Rambo: Last Blood / Hellboy
(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!
Apparently, today is the 8th anniversary of the start of this blog.
This seems as good a time as any to address something: Misantropey has been an increasingly difficult endeavor for me as of late. Though, I’m not sure if that is a bad thing.
When I started putting diligent effort into this beast back in 2014, it admittedly wasn’t entirely fueled by passion. It was propelled as much by loneliness and isolation as any positive resonance I felt from the regular accomplishment of writing and posting.
During my time covering the IMDb Bottom 100, I had a job that was time-consuming, emotionally-taxing, and required a significant amount of travel. I can’t recall how many of those entries were written in dingy hotel rooms in remote towns in Georgia or Arkansas or North Carolina, so often adorned with shoddily duct-taped windows that did little to shield me from wafts of diesel vapors and the faint aromas of the distant tacos of strangers.
This blog was a surrogate for human interaction and companionship, and a pretty bad one. It consumed time, but provided no caloric content in return. It made days and nights pass quicker in the same way magicians make planes and buildings disappear – it didn’t. I just really wanted to believe it did.
I came up with a formula for posts that, once you know what it is, should be pretty transparent. I have always used the same skeletal outline, with very little variation:
I was able to crank out “reviews” like clockwork by hanging flesh loosely on those bones. I put “reviews” in quotations, because they have never really been that. For the most part, these posts were opportunities for me to research productions, and coalesce the information into a brief, digestible form. The “review,” insomuch as I provided them, was usually only a fraction of a given post (“Criticism” in the outline above). A few salient thoughts, at most.
This has not been a creative endeavor at its core. This has been, for most of its existence, a mechanism. Quasi-therapeutic avoidance and distraction from a life that was, for a significant time, very empty. I set my own deadlines and timetables to round out an illusion of meaningful productivity. There was a time where I was doing an original post, 750-1000 words, every day. I would block out my weekends around what movies I needed to cover for the week.
Things are different now, though. As my life has gotten better, the blog has gotten harder. Since starting graduate school and getting married, there have been so many other, wonderful things to take up my time, and I haven’t felt the need for this mechanism of depression prestidigitation by way of amateur film criticism. I’ve also taken up academic writing, and have a handful of journal publications coming in the next few months. I’ll even be starting PhD work in the fall, which is deeply exciting.
I’m been working on adapting this blog into something more fulfilling, and a little different. Ivy On Celluloid has given me some new life for this work – I’ve only done it when it felt right, and have tried to capture a sense of fun with it that has never really been part of the formula here. So, that is something I am certainly going to continue. However, it is also far more time consuming than the formulaic work I’ve relied on in the past.
I think that is where the future of this blog lies – an embracing of infrequency, and a reclaiming of this platform into something positive and internally fulfilling. To that end, I think I’m done with “bad movies.” I like doing my year-end analyses on the publicly perceived worst films of the year, but unless I see something that actually catches my attention, fascination, or curiosity, I’m not going to write about it. I’m not sure what that means for content just yet – but I think I’m shattering the old skeleton structure for good.
So, this blog is going to be different going forward. It will certainly be quieter, but it will also be better – I’m only going to write when there is something motivating behind it. I’m not going to let this be a burden or a coping mechanism – it is going to be an outlet for my thoughts about movies. That’s what it always should have been.
Today, I’m continuing my series of posts analyzing films for their portrayals of higher education by taking a deep dive into Adam Sandler’s college football comedy, The Waterboy.
The plot of The Waterboy is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A waterboy for a college football team discovers he has a unique tackling ability and becomes a member of the team.
The Waterboy was directed by Frank Coraci (The Ridiculous 6, Click, The Wedding Singer), who is primarily known for his numerous collaborations with comedy writer/actor Adam Sandler, The Waterboy among them. The screenplay was co-written by Sandler along with another one of his frequent collaborators, Tim Herlihy (The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, Saturday Night Live).
Beyond Sandler, the cast of the film includes Henry Winkler (Arrested Development, Happy Days, Night Shift), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), Fairuza Balk (The Craft, The Island of Doctor Moreau), Jerry Reed (Smokey & The Bandit), Clint Howard (Evilspeak, The Ice Cream Man, Apollo 13), and Rob Schneider (The Hot Chick, The Animal).
Co-writer of The Waterboy Tim Herlihy described in an interview the inspiration for the fictional institution name ‘South Central Louisiana State University’:
I always remember Southwest Missouri State… I just thought that was so funny. Not even South Missouri State. Like, Southwest Missouri State. They didn’t even have one direction. They had to share the South direction with Southeast Missouri State. So we definitely wanted to do that.
Critically, The Waterboy didn’t fare terribly well, with critics labeling it as “trash,”“witless,” and “dumb.” However, it proved to be financially successful, taking in a worldwide theatrical gross of over $185 million on a production budget of $23 million, carving a place for itself in the public zeitgeist. It is now hailed by many as a cult classic, and generational favorite sports comedy.
To begin the higher education analysis, I want to take a look at the various schools portrayed in the film. As with Necessary Roughness, there is a mixture of fictitious and real institutions. Real colleges featured include Clemson University, the University of Michigan, the University of Louisville, and the University of Iowa, who are all shown in either montages or mentioned in passing. Another institution that I believe is featured is Vanderbilt University. Though it is not mentioned by name, a football team is shown with an almost identical star-shaped helmet insignia and color palette, which I have compared side-by-side below.
The fictitious universities in the film include the two central institutions to the story – University of Louisiana, and South Central Louisiana State University. University of Louisiana is depicted as a large university with a recent history of national football success. For this reason, I think that it is clearly intended to be a parallel to Louisiana State University, despite how close the fictional name is to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette or University of Louisiana – Monroe. South Central Louisiana State University, on the other hand, is pretty clearly portrayed as a less successful “little brother” to the University of Louisiana. From what I can gather, however, it is still definitely a generally-focused public institution, which rules out a few real universities in the state as parallels (Tulane, LA Tech). A detail that is implied by Bobby Boucher’s commuter status is that both University of Louisiana and South Central Louisiana State University are within easy driving distance of each other, which helps narrow down real-life candidates. Based on this, I think it is immensely clear that the SCLSU Mud Dogs are a stand-in for the Ragin’ Cajuns from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. Lafayette and Baton Rouge are merely an hour from each other, and separated by swampy terrain akin to how Bobby’s home is portrayed.
Aside from the University of Louisiana and SCLSU, a number of the other football teams from the film hail from fictitious institutions. One game is shown between SCLSU and the University of Central Kentucky. There isn’t actually a University of Central Kentucky – among the six Division I schools with football teams in the state, I believe the closest analogue is Western Kentucky University. Likewise, another game features the University of West Mississippi -an institution that doesn’t exist. As with Kentucky, there are six real Division I schools with football teams in Mississippi, of which I suspect University of Southern Mississippi is the real life parallel (mostly due to the direction-based naming).
The climactic championship game featured in the film is called the Bourbon Bowl, which follows the naming tradition of post-season games in Division I FBS college football. While there have been a number of oddly named bowl games due to various sponsorships, there has never been a Bourbon Bowl. Given the records of the teams invited – University of Louisiana is undefeated, and SCLSU is only shown to have one loss – it is fair to assume that the Bourbon Bowl is a bowl game with significant prestige, akin to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl. However, the game is also clearly local to both University of Louisiana and SCLSU, as Bobby and his family are shown commuting to the game in a short period of time. The only bowl game of that significance within close range of Lafayette and Baton Rouge is the Sugar Bowl, which famously is held in New Orleans. Because the setting of the stadium is clearly not urban, I think it is fair to conclude that the Bourbon Bowl isn’t an exact stand-in for any one bowl game, but is a general amalgamation of the concept of a high-profile bowl game.
That said, there is another question worth asking about the Bourbon Bowl: is it a national championship game? The history of a “national championship” in college football is a bit odd and contentious – prior to the past few decades, it was often a very subjective title, awarded occasionally to different teams by different organizations in the absence of a decisive championship game. 1998, the year that The Waterboy was released, marked the first Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, which arranged for the two highest-ranked teams to play in a decisive championship outing. The rankings, which were the subject of popular scrutiny and suspicion, utilized a handful of high-profile polls and computerized rankings to determine the contestants. A major downside to this system, however, is that there could easily be more than two teams with a strong case to participate in a national championship game – which ultimately gave rise to the playoff system that exists today.
We know that both the University of Louisiana and SCLSU had very strong records going into the Bourbon Bowl – U of L was undefeated, and SCLSU only had one loss. However, undefeated teams have been left out of national championships games – in 1998, for instance, an undefeated Tulane University football team was not selected for the game. Considering this fact in conjunction with the lack of national championship branding or discussion around the Bourbon Bowl indicates to me that University of Louisiana was passed over for the formal national championship game, which put them in position to claim a co-championship if they defeated SCLSU in the Bourbon Bowl. This exact scenario played out in the 2003 season, when an undefeated and widely-acclaimed University of Southern California squad was passed over for the championship game, and claimed co-champion status after subsequently winning their bowl game. However, a more apt comparison for the SCLSU – U of L Bourbon Bowl is the 1997 Rose Bowl match played between Arizona State University and Ohio State University. Going into the game, Arizona State was undefeated, and in position to claim a co-championship with a win over the one-loss Ohio State (as USC would do in 2004 with its Rose Bowl win over Michigan). However, Arizona State lost their game, just as University of Louisiana is shown losing to SCLSU, squandering their chance to claim a national championship. So, in effect, the Bourbon Bowl both was and was not a national championship game, depending on how you look at it.
At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher set a new NCAA record for sacks in a single game with 16. The actual record for sacks in a single game in NCAA Division I FBS is 6, which is co-held by Ameer Ismail of Western Michigan University and Elvis Dumervil of the University of Louisville. The idea of 16 sacks per game, considering the current NCAA record, may seem ludicrous. However, I decided to look into how many offensive plays occur per team in a typical DI college football game, which can be found here.
This graph was actually broken in 2016, when the University of California ran 118 offensive plays against the University of Oregon. However, the average offensive plays per team in a game has easily stayed between 60 and 80 over the past ten years. For the sake of calculation, let’s assume Bobby Boucher’s SCLSU opponents run 70 plays per game – this means roughly a quarter of their plays (22.85%) would need to conclude with Bobby Boucher sacks. However, that also assumes that Bobby earns all of his sacks on his own – sacks are also recorded in increments of .5 when multiple individuals contribute to the tackle. However, Bobby is never shown co-sacking a quarterback on screen, and it is frequently stated that he is the only capable athlete on the team, so it is safe to assume that Bobby is only accruing full sacks.
Another piece of dialogue states that Bobby’s sack rate actually increases after he sets the single game sack record at 16 – a team-mate mentions that he averages “20 sacks a game.” In order to reach that rate, we need to consider the length of a college football season. While this has changed over the years, most recently with the implementation of the playoff system in FBS, let’s say that a successful, bowl-appearance season has 13 games. Given his 16 sack performance in game one of the season, in order to reach the 20 sack/game average, Bobby would need to exceed 20 sacks at least once while maintaining a steady 20 sack/game rate throughout the season – a single 24 sack game would suffice to make the grade. Assuming this is how he reached his average sacks/game rate, this means that in at least one game of average offensive play quantity for the opposing team (70, for the sake of argument), Bobby would have sacked the quarterback on 34.3% of plays. While this seems incredibly unlikely, I don’t think it is anywhere near an impossibility – given a sufficiently incompetent offensive line and quarterback, there’s no reason to consider this feat technically impossible.
One of the most potent and vividly revolting illustrations in the film is the dichotomy between the amenities and conditions for the SCLSU and University of Louisiana football teams and athletics departments. SCLSU students are shown drinking out of a clearly unsafe water container, whereas U of L has a (assumedly) fully-funded water hydration station. Likewise, SCLSU football players frequently are shown sharing equipment – everything from helmets to sweaty cups.
While these disparities are definitely dramatized, there is certainly some truth to the portrayal. I recently spoke to an Associate Athletics Director at a small Division I football school, who told me about how different his current experience is to his previous role at an athletically-prestigious flagship institution – which included differences in pay, staffing, general amenities for students and staff, and, of course, the state-of-the-art facilities. The depiction in The Waterboy of the flagship institution having far more funds than a smaller, in-state competitor is, from what I have gathered, a fact of life in college athletics.
The SCLSU football coach, portrayed by Henry Winkler, is eventually revealed to have had a sort of burnout and breakdown after losing out on a coveted head coaching position to his rival on the University of Louisiana coaching staff. It is well-known that stress is part of the job of a college football coach – it isn’t even unheard of for coaches to suffer health issues associated with the job. So, the portrayal of a coach burning out certainly has some grounding in truth. Likewise, rivalries between coaches aren’t uncommon – many coaches serve on staffs together over the course of their careers, and later become opponents (like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, for instance). The idea of a rivalry formed between coaches from a common history on a given staff certainly seems to hold water as a plausible scenario.
The first time Bobby is shown tackling a quarterback in practice, the aftermath is framed comedically, with the quarterback having apparently lost his immediate memory and general awareness. In truth, these are clear, immediate symptoms of a concussion. In 1998, when the film was released, research had not yet come out about the long-term dangers of concussions as a form of traumatic brain-injury, particularly for athletes in contact sports. Now, this is a major issue for both college football and most professional sports, and is speculated to be a potential existential threat to status quo of competitive athletics.
Throughout the events of The Waterboy, a number of off-color, homophobic comments are made by characters. While this is certainly in part due to the nature of this genre of crass comedy and the context of the film’s release, the truth is that this is probably an accurate portrayal of a college football team at this point in time. There is a wealth of literature and research on homophobia within athletics, and particularly collegiate athletics. College football, as a homogenously-male sport, is statistically even more likely to be more homophobic than women’s sports teams. So, it is certainly not a stretch for causally homophobic dialogue to fly around a college football locker room or practice field.
Though it is never specifically stated, it is highly suggested that Bobby Boucher is a first generation college student – meaning that he is the first member of his family to attend college. This is hinted through a number of sequences – for instance, he picks his classes solely based on the view of campus from the classrooms, as opposed to course difficulty or fit with his major. First generation college students often have difficultly navigating universities, due to a lack of institutional knowledge that is typically passed down from college graduates to their children.
Connected to the forgery revelation is a level of malicious espionage – the staff of the University of Louisiana expose the misdeed of SCLSU’s coach to the NCAA, in an attempt to harm the on-field production of the school’s football team in the upcoming Bourbon Bowl. The use of NCAA reporting as a means of attacking a sporting rival was recently a subject in the SBnation documentary series Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi, which features a member of the Mississippi State University football team testifying to recruiting violations at the rival University of Mississippi.
There are certainly plenty more higher education topics that can be discussed through The Waterboy – the physical assault of a professor by a student, the discipline exceptions offered to star student-athletes, and the parental pressures placed on many top-grade student-athletes to turn professional as early as possible are among them. However, I’m going to see if I can swing back to those topics in future reviews – I suspect I’ll be back to the realm of college football before too long.
Overall, The Waterboy is every bit the sophomoric, shallow comedy the world has come to expect from Adam Sandler. However, it is also an interesting, comedically-contorted portrayal of college football culture, which is integral to many institutions of higher education in the United States. There isn’t anything novel, witty, or innovative about the humor or story, and there is certainly much about the film that has become dated, but it is an interesting film to peruse for folks interested in college athletics and higher education as fields of study. Alternatively, those who find uproarious comedic value in a chorus of Henry Winklers tauntingly singing about the comparative benefits of Gatorade over water as a means of hydration will find something pleasing here.
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