Tag Archives: film

Dead Birds

Dead Birds

Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2004 horror western Dead Birds.

The plot of Dead Birds is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A group of Confederate soldiers hole up in an abandoned plantation after robbing a bank and find themselves at the mercy of supernatural forces.

The screenwriter for Dead Birds was Simon Barrett, who also served as a producer on the film. He has gone on to write noted horror and thriller films like The Guest, You’re Next, Frankenfish, and Blair Witch.

The director for the film was Alex Turner, who has been behind a handful of other films, including 2009’s Red Sands and the upcoming film The Voyager.

The cast of Dead Birds includes Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall, Gangs of New York, Suicide Kings), Patrick Fugit (Saved, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Gone Girl, Almost Famous, White Oleander), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals, Pottersville, The Shape of Water, Revolutionary Road, Midnight Special, Kangaroo Jack), Mark Boone Junior (Memento, Batman Begins, 30 Days of Night, Sons of Anarchy, Vampires, The Quick & The Dead), Nicki Aycox (Perfect Stranger, Joy Ride 2, Jeepers Creepers 2), and Isaiah Washington (Exit Wounds, Hollywood Homicide, Grey’s Anatomy).

The cinematography for the film was provided by Steve Yedlin, who has been a go-to director of photography for Rian Johnson, shooting Looper, Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Brothers Bloom, as well as other movies like San Andreas and the remake of Carrie.

The editor for Dead Birds was Brian Anton, who cut television series like Cold Justice and Sid the Science Kid, as well as a handful of independent films.

Dead Birds was filmed in and around Mobile, AL, which is also the approximate setting for the film’s story. In the handful of scenes that take place in the town of Fairhope, AL early in the film, the Dead Birds production utilized the still-standing sets from Tim Burton’s Big Fish for the backdrop, which was filmed in the area the previous year.

In February of 2010, after years of word-of-mouth circulation about the film, Dead Birds got a special theatrical screening in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater, to the pleasure of many of the fans it gained along the way.

Currently, Dead Birds holds a 5.7/10 IMDb user rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% critics and 40% audiences, which are far from ideal numbers. That said, the movie certainly has some fans.

First off, Dead Birds has an interesting premise. A cursed farm that tortures those who wander across it is an interesting enough start, but making it a Civil War period piece gives it an intriguing flair. The Western aesthetics and character types are interesting to see in a horror setting, and the entertaining cast of character actors add a lot of color to the scenario.

Unfortunately, Dead Birds has some serious issues. First off, the effects are a bit uneven: some shots are pretty cool, while others are jarring and rough around the edges (particularly the demonic facial contortions). Likewise, the story isn’t conveyed very well: outside of a choppy flashback vision sequence, there isn’t much in the way of exposition to walk the audience through the gang’s spooky predicament. Characters are also dispatched a bit too easily, and without either fanfare or gore, which should be most of the fun for a Lovecraft-inspired horror flick.

Last but not least, Dead Birds suffers from an inexplicably terrible title. I have gone back and forth in my head trying to figure out why they settled on that name, and I haven’t the slightest clue. I’m not sure how they thought that title would convey the sort of movie they had made, or how it would appeal to an audience looking for a horror-western, but it definitely doesn’t work. Honestly, with a better title, I suspect this movie would be a bigger underground success.

Overall, Dead Birds is a flawed, yet interestingly-conceived film. Even though it doesn’t much deliver on the promise of its premise, it is hard not to give it some credit for the effort. In a lot of ways, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk does what Dead Birds wanted to do: throw a colorful cast of Western characters into a horror movie scenario, and see what happens.

As far as a recommendation goes, horror fans might enjoy this as a deep cut. There are also plenty of recognizable character actors in the cast that film buffs might get a kick out of, even though none of them get much time or opportunity to do much. For most people, I think this flick would be a bit too dull. For this most part, this is a skippable movie. However, if you haven’t seen it already, Bone Tomahawk is everything this movie could have been and more.

Body Parts

Body Parts

Today, I’m going to take a look at a bizarre body horror film from 1991: Body Parts.

The plot of Body Parts is summarized on IMDb as follows:

After losing his arm in a car accident, a criminal psychologist has it replaced with a limb that belonged to a serial killer.

The story for Body Parts is based on a French crime fiction novel from 1965 called Et mon tout est un homme, written by the duo of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. The pair published numerous works between the 1950s and 1990s, and have had a handful of film adaptations made from their stories. The most famous of these is certainly Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, based on D’entre les morts.

Body Parts was directed and co-written by  Eric Red, whose previous writing credits included Near Dark and The Hitcher. His co-writers for the film were Norman Snider (Casino Jack, Partners), producer Patricia Herskovic, and Joyce Taylor, who has no other recorded writing credits.

The central cast of Body Parts includes Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower Man, Planet Terror, Machete), Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Gifted), Kim Delaney (Army Wives, NYPD Blue, Mission to Mars), Zakes Mokae (Waterworld, Vampire in Brooklyn), and Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dune).

The editor for the film was Anthony Redman, whose other cutting credits include Street Fighter, Highlander II: The Quickening, King of New York, Red Heat, and Bad Lieutenant, among others.

The cinematographer for Body Parts was Theo Van de Sande, who has also shot a handful of high-profile films, such as Blade, Volcano, Bad Santa 2, and Grown Ups.

The score for the film was written by composer Loek Dikker, a classical and jazz pianist from the Netherlands. It is one of only a handful of films scores he’s done over his career, and one that ultimately won him a Saturn Award for best music.

The special effects and makeup effects crew for Body Parts included common elements with films such as The Shape of Water, Resurrection, Jason X, Mimic, Near Dark, Jacob’s Ladder, Total Recall, Judge Dredd, Daredevil, Congo, and Cube.

In 1967, there was an attempt to adapt the source material for Body Parts (the novel Et mon tout est un homme) to the screen by Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes) and James Bridges, but it never came to fruition.

Body Parts was nominated for four Fangoria Chainsaw Awards: Brad Dourif for Best Supporting Actor, Lindsay Duncan for Best Supporting Actress, Loek Dikker for Best Soundtrack, and Gordon J. Smith for Best Makeup FX. Of the nomnations, only Dourif took home the prize.

According to a Los Angeles Times article from 1991, television advertisements for the movie were pulled in Wisconsin due to the discovery of Jeffrey Dahmer’s collection of numerous dismembered bodies. A Paramount spokesman is recorded as saying:

We pulled our TV ads out of sensitivity to the tragedy in Milwaukee, even though the storyline is not related at all to what happened.

Body Parts was made on a budget of $10 million, on which it managed to only bring in a total of $9.2 million. On top of that lackluster financial performances, critics and audiences were hardly enthusiastic for it. Body Parts currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.5/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 34% from audiences.

In a piece from Reel Film Reviews, Body Parts was referred to as:

An unapologetically ludicrous horror effort that often skirts the very edges of camp without going entirely over.

Personally, I find that to be a pretty apt description of Body Parts. The movie is centered around a weird original concept that could easily cross over into being goofy, but the film keeps its bearings. and is a lot of fun as a result. Jeff Fahey and Brad Dourif are pretty much perfect in their roles, as they are both sort of eerie character actors capable of chewing scenery. Without their presence, Body Parts could easily have been a real mess.

Appropriately, Body Parts is filled with fun (mostly eponymous) practical effects. However, what really steals the show is a car chase sequence, in which the driver of one car is handcuffed to the passenger in another. To say the lease, the sequence is an absolute blast, and was probably as fun to film as it is to watch.

Overall, Body Parts is a fun, mostly-forgotten horror movie with one of the more outlandish, bizarre plots I’ve come across. If you happen to stumble upon it, I’d recommend just about anyone give it a shot. Additionally, I would be remiss not to recommend the We Hate Movies podcast episode on the film, which is what initially brought my attention to it.

 

The Darkness

The Darkness

Today, I’m going to take a look at The Darkness, an already forgotten 2016 horror movie starring Kevin Bacon.

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

A family unknowingly awakens an ancient supernatural entity on a Grand Canyon vacation, and must fight for survival when it follows them home.

The central cast of The Darkness includes Kevin Bacon (Tremors, Apollo 13, Cop Car, R.I.P.D., Super, Hollow Man), Paul Reiser (Stranger Things, Whiplash, Aliens), Radha Mitchell (Man On Fire, Silent Hill, Pitch Black, Phone Booth), David Mazouz (Gotham), Matt Walsh (Veep, Dog Bites Man), and Jennifer Morrison (House, Warrior, Once Upon A Time).

The Darkness was directed, co-written, and produced by Greg McLean, who also directed 2016’s The Belko Experiment, 2017’s Jungle, and the Wolf Creek film series. His co-writers for the film were Shayne Armstrong (Bait, Johnny Bravo Goes To Bollywood) and Shane Krause (Bait, Monster Beach).

The cinematographer for the film was Toby Oliver, whose credits since The Darkness have included the financially successful horror films Get Out and Happy Death Day.

The Darkness employed the work of two credited editors: Sean Lahiff, who was an assistant editor on The Babadook, as well as a visual effects editor on The Hunger Games and Green Lantern, and Timothy Alverson, who cut Sinister 2, Orphan, and The Astronaut’s Wife, and also did assistant editing duties on movies like Con Air, Theodore Rex, Prince of Darkness, and Equilibrium.

The musical score for The Darkness was composed by Johnny Klimek, whose credits have included the cult favorite television show Sense8, Cloud Atlas, Kill Me Three Times, Deadwood, Perfume: Story of a Murderer, Run Lola Run, and One Hour Photo.

The Darkness shares a name with a flamboyant English rock band, who experienced a brief run of success in the early 2000s. Regrettably, neither the band, nor its iconic single “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” appear in the film.

Financially, The Darkness turned a not-insignificant profit: on a production budget of $4 million, it took in a grand total of just shy of $11 million in its lifetime theatrical run.

However, The Darkness had a dismal critical reception, including a 3% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside a user score of 4.4/10 on IMDb and a 20% Rotten Tomatoes audience rating. On top of many critics pointing out its use of numerous overplayed genre conventions, as well as more than a few specifically notable similarities to Poltergeist, Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert.com wrote the following:

There are times when it feels as if the producers challenged themselves to see how little it needed and still meet the legal definition of a movie.

Personally, I agree passionately with Sobczynski’s point there: everything about The Darkness feels low effort, and the result is a dispassionate product that pushes the maximum limits of boredom. While a lack of action is certainly part of that problem, the bigger issue is that all of the actions that do occur feel scripted out: with even an basic familiarity with horror films, you could predict all of the actions well before they happen. The result is a zero stakes, dull experience.

Another notable aspect of The Darkness was a clear attempt to portray an already-troubled family life at the story’s center. While most horror movies like to present a peaceful home inflicted with an external, supernatural force, this protagonist family is a train wreck from the time they are presented to the audience. Through a combination of bafflingly-portrayed conditions like semi-magical autism, eating disorders, and alcoholism, there is a definite sense that the writers wanted this to feel like a real family with tangible problems. However, each of these normally humanizing issues wind up making all of the characters less likable and identifiable, due to how they react to their other family members’ issues. By the end of the movie, I was pulling for the dark sky gods: they seemed to take better care of the autistic child than his family.

Speaking of the band of animalistic, possibly-alien sky gods, I did appreciate that there was a nugget of an original concept here. As much as everyone is familiar with the idea of “disturbing native american burial grounds” in horror movies, the resultant haunts never usually present as particularly native, but rather as generically demonic. Unfortunately, as much as that concept is different in the details, the big picture is all too familiar. The mechanisms and story beats are all well-worn and clearly copied and pasted from the latest generic horror movie, which is a shame for a screenplay that appeared to have had interesting ambitions at one time.

On the whole, there isn’t much of anything to recommend about The Darkness: it is a forgettable movie experience, plain and simple. That said, there were some elements that got me scratching my head, mostly in regards to the portrayal of the family and their myriad crises. One reviewer even said that  it “is more interesting for its family drama than for its scares.” While I do think that is true in a relative sense, the word ‘interesting’ is a bit strong in this context. This is a movie to skip.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Today, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s The Great Wall, the ill-received Chinese fantasy epic starring Matt Damon.

The plot of The Great Wall is summarized on IMDb as follows:

European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.

The story of The Great Wall is credited to three individuals: Max Brooks, noted author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide; Edward Zwick (Defiance, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); and Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai).

The screenplay for the movie is credited to the duo of Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, who have worked on Narcos, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Prince of Persia, with additional work by Tony Gilroy, whose credits include State of Play, Michael Clayton, The Devil’s Advocate, The Bourne Identity, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The Great Wall‘s director is Yimou Zhang, an acclaimed Chinese filmmaker whose list of credits includes Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, and House of Flying Daggers.

The cast of The Great Wall includes Matt Damon (The Martian, Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity, The Departed, Dogma), Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos, Bloodsucking Bastards), Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Life Aquatic, To Live and Die In LA, Spider-Man, Speed 2), Tian Jing (Kong: Skull Island), and Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers).

The movie interesting employed the work of two cinematographers: Stuart Dryburgh (Blackhat, The Tempest, Aeon Flux, The Piano) and Xiaoding Zhao (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, Coming Home).

Likewise, The Great Wall has two credited editors: Mary Jo Markey (Life, Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Craig Wood (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Ring, The Lone Ranger).

The musical score for The Great Wall was composed by Ramin Djawadi, who is best known for his work on the HBO series Game of Thrones and WestWorld, but has also provided scores for movies like Iron Man, Pacific Rim, Blade: Trinity, and Mr. Brooks.

At the time of its production, The Great Wall was the most expensive Chinese movie in history, and many have predicted that it is a sign of things to come for the motion picture industry in the country.

The villainous creatures in the movie are referred to as the Tao Tie, which originates from a term taken from Chinese mythology. The Taotie was one of the four evil creatures of the world, along with Hundun, Taowu, and Qiongqi.

Interestingly, none of the filming for the movie was actually done on The Great Wall of China itself. Instead, the wall featured on screen is an entirely digital rendering.

Prior to Ramin Djawadi’s involvement with the film, the acclaimed film composer James Horner had agreed to do the score for The Great Wall. However, his death in 2015 came before he completed any work on the score, and Djawadi was brought on board.

There is an alternate casting rumor for the film that Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was the initial choice for Willem Dafoe’s role, and even got as far as negotiations before things fell apart.

The Great Wall co-stars Andy Lau and Matt Damon interestingly played different, acclaimed versions of the same character in Infernal Affairs and its American remake, The Departed.

Prior to its release, The Great Wall was accused of whitewashing due to the initial casting of Matt Damon as its lead, as many assumed it would follow a white savior pattern of a white person saving a non-white population. However, once it was released, many were put at ease by the real content of the story. In The Huffington Post, Jonathan Kim wrote the following:

William doesn’t teach the Chinese how to be better Chinese — it’s William who must redeem himself by risking his life to serve the greater good, which is a popular theme in both Chinese culture and entertainment. In other words, it’s William who has to learn to be more Chinese…So on the charge of The Great Wall insulting the Chinese and promoting white superiority, I say: Not Guilty.

In its lifetime theatrical run, The Great Wall took in $334.5 million on a production budget of $150 million. At first glance, that might sound pretty decent: however, it dramatically under-performed outside of China, and didn’t reach its initial projections. Once costs beyond the production budget were accounted for, the movie lost a significant amount of money, which was divided among the four studios involved.

The critical reception wasn’t any better: currently, the film has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 35% from critics and 43% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 6.0/10. The Great Wall wound up on a number of published Worst of 2017 lists, and was widely regarded as one of the most high-profile failures of the year. It didn’t even fare well on Chinese movie review websites, to the immense displeasure of the Chinese government, who had a stake in the success of the movie as a jumping-off point for the Chinese movie industry becoming a blockbuster-producing outfit.

In his review for Flickering Myth, Robert Kojder referred to the film as “essentially a grab bag of tried-and-true narrative tropes,” as well as  “dumb and absolutely predictable,” but also noted that “the visionary chops of its director are on full display,” and that the action sequences make for a “fun slice of blockbuster cinema.”

In his review, Kojder points out both the key positives and negatives I took from The Great Wall. The design, choreography, and costuming are a visual delight, and the action occasionally conjures memories of the splendid Hero. However, whenever the action is at a lull, there isn’t any charm or novelty to the story or characters, which undercuts the fun of the experience as a whole.

That said, by far the biggest issues with the film surround the antagonist creatures, the Tao Tie. First off, their design leaves a lot to be desired: most of them look like langoliers with wrinkled, raisin-like hog bodies. While they do have large teeth, they all seem like grunts for some sort of bigger, grander foe: one that ultimately never comes. Their leader, the Queen, looks more or less just like the rest of the army, and isn’t particularly more menacing or terrifying. I expected there to be some variety among the opposing army, more like the hodgepodge armies of imaginative nonsense from 300. Instead, the heroes just fight off endless waves of wrinkly hog-raisins, which wouldn’t be all that visually interesting even if the visual effects were decently executed.

Speaking of which, the visual effects are absolutely terrible, something that most stands out in the physical combat sequences with the Tao Tie. During the first battle sequence on the wall, Matt Damon fights off a number of the prunebeasts, and the effects are so terrible that I felt my jaw hit the floor. I’m not sure if the production just cheaped out when it came to contracting out the effects work, or if they just ran out of money before the visual effects were totally finished, but the end result is a hideous CGI army that looks like something from a late-90s computer game. Unfortunately, it is hard to appreciate the positives of the film – its vivid color palette, fluid choreography, and rich costuming – when a bunch of sprites from the original Doom are wandering around the frame.

Overall, I actually enjoyed The Great Wall far more than I expected I would. However, that made my disappointment at the negatives quite a bit more palpable. I can forgive the paint by numbers story and characters in this kind of action-spectacle film, but the visual effects being a complete train-wreck isn’t acceptable for a film that relies solely on visual intrigue to entertain.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think this is a decent enough movie to happen upon on cable, particularly if you are multi-tasking, but I don’t know if it is worth seeking out deliberately. However, if the Chinese film industry does wind up taking off and flourishing in the near future, this might wind up being an influential movie in the history of international film. Unfortunately, that might not be a particularly good thing.

Spawn

Spawn

Today, I’m going to explore the dark and ill-received 1997 superhero film, Spawn.

The plot of Spawn is summarized succinctly on IMDb as follows:

An elite mercenary is killed, but comes back from Hell as a reluctant soldier of the Devil.

The character of Spawn was originally created by comic icon and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, and first appeared in Spawn #1 in May of 1992. Spawn was (and is) the face of Image comics, an independent comic book company that is creator-owned, and prides itself on treating artists fairly: most distinctly by allowing them to retain creative copyrights. The original founders (including McFarlane) primarily defected from Marvel comics, where they felt that they didn’t get the credit or pay they deserved. The character of Spawn includes a handful of elements that trace back to McFarlane’s time working on (and creating) Marvel properties, most notably the Spider-Man antagonist/antihero, Venom.

This film adaptation of Spawn was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, an experienced visual effects artist who previously worked on The Abyss, Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Back To The Future Part II, and Jurassic Park. However, he did not (and still doesn’t) have much directing experience, outside of a handful of television movies and shorts that came years later.

The screenplay for the film was penned by Alan McElroy, who also wrote Halloween 4, Wrong Turn, The Marine, and Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie, and was also involved with Todd McFarlane in the creation of the subsequent Spawn animated series.

The cast of Spawn in primarily made up of Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed, The West Wing, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Wall Street, Gettysburg), John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., The Happening, John Wick, The Pest, Carlito’s Way), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), Theresa Randale (Space Jam, Bad Boys), Nicol Williamson (Excalibur, The Exorcist III), Melinda Clarke (The O.C., Nikita), and Miko Hughes (Pet Sematary, New Nightmare, Apollo 13).

The cinematographer for Spawn was Guillermo Navarro, who has also shot such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Jackie Brown, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Night At The Museum.

The film required the work of two primary editors: Michael Knue (House, Night of the Creeps, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, Rocky V, The Ring 2) and Todd Busch, an assistant and visual effects editor who has worked on movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Lake Placid, X-Men, Beowulf, and Terminator 3.

The music for Spawn was composed by Graeme Revell, whose credits include Sin City, Pitch Black, Daredevil, Red Planet, Tank Girl, Street Fighter, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hard Target, and the remakes of Assault on Precinct 13, Walking Tall, and The Fog.

Spawn was notably the first superhero movie with a black lead, as it predated the better-received Blade by a year. However, another property was even closer on its heels: Shaq’s infamous Steel, which released in theaters just two weeks after Spawn, and to even less acclaim.

It reportedly took an entire 8 months of work, from storyboard to completion, to nail down the Clown to Violator transformation sequence. Like much of the effects work in the film, it was a hybrid of practical work and CGI imagery, though it leaned quite heavily on the CGI.

In a show of dedication to his craft, John Leguizamo actually ate the “maggots” during the sequence where Clown eats a pizza from the trash. However, this is only half-true: the on-screen maggots were, in fact, mealworms.

Spawn reportedly went through a lengthy battle in order to get its PG-13 rating from the MPAA, which required countless changes to dialogue and violent sequences to appease the notoriously fickle and conservative ratings board. However, in retrospect, the decision to pursue a PG-13 is now widely criticized, and often blamed for the film’s poor reception by fans and casual audiences alike.

Spawn’s cape, one of the character’s most distinguishing features, is shown only sparingly throughout the film. However, when it does, it is an entire digital creation, with no mixed practical elements involved. This is in contrast to the previously mentioned Clown to Violator sequence, which hybridized practical effects with digital enhancements.

While Spawn hardly met with any critical praise, it did help launch a well-regarded animated series on HBO in the years after the film’s release, which ultimately won two Emmys over its run.

In the past couple of years, much talk has been made of bringing the character of Spawn back to the big screen. Todd McFarlane in particular has taken on the task of reviving his creation, and is currently attached as both a writer and director on the project.  In 2017, it was announced that he was working with Blumhouse Productions to produce a “low-budget” vision for the character on the big screen, but time will tell what exactly that will look like.

As mentioned previously, Spawn was anything but a critical success. The movie currently holds on IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 37% from audiences. Financially, it looks like the production took in an underwhelming profit, taking in $87 million in a lifetime international theatrical release on a $40 million production budget.

Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Spawn is the performance of John Leguizamo’s Clown. While the character and portrayal is unarguably obnoxious, there is something to be said for the fact that he is certainly memorable. As much as I didn’t find much entertainment value in the character, he lit up the screen more than anything else in the movie, and is more or less the only takeaway of the film I’ve held on to since my first viewing. On top of that, I have been led to understand that it is accurate to the source material. While that shouldn’t automatically be considered a positive, I think it goes a long way to explaining why the character is played the way he is. It is also worth noting that Leguizamo was clearly 100% dedicated to the part, and is nearly unrecognizable in the role. All in all, his performance is almost as impressive as it is inexplicable: why would someone put so much effort into a role so bad? In any case, he is the highlight of the movie by a longshot, and is enough to make it or break it, depending on the person watching.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, however, is Martin Sheen. While Leguizamo chews scenery throughout the film and consistently goes above and beyond the needs for the role, Sheen appears to sleepwalk his way to a paycheck with his performance. I’m sure this was a case of a distinguished actor on tough times dealing with material he felt was beneath him, but there is something markedly dispassionate about it all the same. That is particularly a shame, because I’d be willing to bet that there are a ton of character actors who would have eaten up the chance to be a crooked, evil politician in league with the legions of Hell. Alas, an underperforming Sheen is what the world received.

Beyond the performances, the element of the film that most stuck with me were the effects. Unfortunatly, it was for all the wrong reasons. To put it succinctly: the effects just look bad. While I can certainly appreciate the attempt to blend practical work with digital work (in the vein of Jurassic Park), something clearly went wrong here. Whether it is Spawn’s cape, his motorcycle, or the transformation sequence for Clown, every major sequence that required digital work looks and feels flubbed. Perhaps this is partly a product of how much time has passed, but I feel like there are plenty of contemporaneous films with similar effects that look far better. In any case, they make the movie hard to look back on positively.

One of the problems with characters like Spawn is that they require a lot of backstory. Unlike a character like Captain America or Spider-Man, who inhabit a world more-or-less like our own, Spawn has a complicated mythos woven into his backstory that is inherent to his character. Establishing that kind of mythos for an audience via a screenplay can be a daunting task: a bit too much exposition, and audiences will feel bored; not enough, and they will feel lost.  In the case of Spawn, there was an attempt to cram as much information as possible into the opening narration, I’m sure in the hopes that it could be gotten out of the way for the rest of the film. However, that narration winds up feeling rushed, bloated, and overwhelming, to the point that the information doesn’t get digested by the audience. Hopefully, in a future attempt at adapting the story, the screenplay will reveal information a bit more organically, and use Spawn as the audience’s surrogate for revelations to unravel.

Overall, I think Spawn is hardly the worst movie ever produced, but it certainly belongs in a lower tier of superhero films. A combination of strategic production mistakes, some mediocre effects work, an unpolished screenplay, and a wide array of off-putting performances damned it in the public consciousness. While the movie has some defenders, I think its bad reputation is mostly deserved. I do think it is worth watching as a case study of method acting gone haywire with Leguizamo’s clown, though. That said, it isn’t enough for me to recommend it to people who don’t already have it secured in a place of nostalgia.

Deadly Prey

Deadly Prey

Today, I’m going to look at a true classic among bad action movies: 1987’s Deadly Prey.

The plot of Deadly Prey, according to IMDb, is as follows:

A group of sadistic mercenaries kidnap people off the streets and set them loose on the grounds of their secret camp, so the “students” at the camp can learn how to track down and kill their prey.

Deadly Prey was written and directed by David A. Prior, who made a huge number of cheap b-movies from the early 1980s up until his death in 2015. His works include Deadliest Prey, Invasion Force, Raw Nerve, Night Trap, White Fury, and Killer Workout, among countless others.

The central cast of Deadly Prey is made up of the writer/director’s brother Ted Prior (Killer Workout, Surf Nazis Must Die), Troy Donahue (Dr. Alien, Cry-Baby, Godfather Part II), and Cameron Mitchell (Hollywood Cop, Space Mutiny, The Swarm).

The cinematographer for Deadly Prey was Stephen Ashley Blake, who also shot the Frank Stallone movie Order of the Eagle, Hack-O-Lantern, numerous episodes of America’s Most Wanted, and LL Cool J’s music video for “Mama Said Knock You Out”

Due to the underground cult popularity of the film, in November of 2013, a remake/sequel was released by much of the same cast and crew as the original, titled Deadliest Prey.

Much of the attention that Deadly Prey has earned over the years has come through word of mouth, as well as spotlights on internet b-movie review shows like RedLetterMedia’s Best of the Worst and Everything Is Terrible, which have all roundly praised the film for its cheesiness.

Currently, Deadly Prey holds an IMDb user rating of 5.8/10, alongside a 58% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, as with many good-bad movies, it is hard to tell how many votes were cast with sarcasm, so the scores should be taken with a grain of salt.

Deadly Prey is, through and through, the perfect example of a low-budget 1980s action movie. There are plenty of elements lifted from better-known action films like First Blood, lots of goofy action shots that make little-to-no logical sense, gratuitous, brutal violence at every turn, and a plethora of terrible one-liners delivered by sub-par actors (at lease one of them clad in only jorts).  This is a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly predictable exercise in 1980s action that gleefully follows just about every trope and pattern of the genre that you can imagine (despite the downer ending). There’s not much more to say than that: this movie is a complete blast for b-movie fans.

While awareness of Deadly Prey has been steadily growing over the years, I dare say that still not enough people know about it, or have had the pleasure of seeing it.  If you are one of the many who haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and add it onto your queue. This is a rare movie that I can easily recommend to casual viewers as well: I’m confident that most would find something to enjoy with this cheeseball.

 

Ivy On Celluloid: Dead Man On Campus

Dead Man On Campus

[CN: Suicide]

In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I examine movies about higher education, I’m going to take a look at the tone-deaf 1998 suicide-centered comedy, Dead Man On Campus.

The plot of Dead Man On Campus is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two college roommates go out and party, resulting in bad grades. They learn of the clause that says, “If your roommate dies, you get an A,” and decide to find someone who is on the verge, so to speak, to move in with them.

The screenplay for Dead Man On Campus is credited to Mike White (The Emoji Movie, School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Orange County) and Michael Traeger (The Amateurs).

Dead Man On Campus was directed by Alan Cohn, whose other credits include directing a handful of episodes of The Man Show, and composing the theme music for The Wayans Bros.

The cast of the movie includes Tom Everett Scott (Boiler Room, That Thing You Do), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By The Bell, NYPD Blue), Poppy Montgomery (Without A Trace, Unforgettable), Lochlyn Munro (Riverdale, White Chicks, Unforgiven), Alyson Hannigan (American Pie, How I Met Your Mother), and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man).

The cinematographer for the film was John Thomas, who has shot movies like Sex & The City and Sex & The City 2, as well as television series like Gossip Girl, The Big C, Conviction, Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, and Sex & The City.

The editor for Dead Man On Campus was Debra Chiate, who also cut Movie 43, The House Bunny, Never Been Kissed, Clueless, Look Who’s Talking, and Look Who’s Talking Too, among others.

The musical score for the film was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose other credits include The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Fanboys, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sorority Boys.

Interestingly, Dead Man On Campus follows a similar plot and premise to another movie from the same year: The Curve, starring Matthew Lillard. However, that movie is a thriller: a more fitting genre for the premise than comedy.

Dead Man On Campus was made on a production budget of $14 million, and was the third theatrical release by MTV films (Orange County, Napoleon Dynamite, Jackass: The Movie). However, it brought in just over $15 million in its lifetime theatrical run, barely covering the production budget, and almost certainly failing to turn a profit. The critical reception wasn’t any better: it currently holds a 6.1/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% critics and 55% audiences. The Los Angeles Times referred to the film as “disgusting in its ultimate endorsement of conning your way into academic survival,” and The AV Club noted that “it comes off as more ghoulish than anything else.”

Personally, I can’t help but side with the critics here: Dead Man On Campus is as mean-spirited as it is alarmingly unfunny.  The characters are outlandishly cruel in their disregard for human life, and the jokes are stoner-grade, lazy attempts at humor when they aren’t punching down at the mentally ill. All of that said, there are some elements of the film that interestingly relate to higher education.

First off, the school that serves as the setting for the film, Daleman College, is entirely fictitious. A couple of universities were used as filming locations to create the institution, however: University of the Pacific and the University of Southern California.

The impetus for the film’s plot is an old higher education urban legend: it claims that, if one’s roommate commits suicide, then the student is granted straight A’s for the semester to cope with the grief. I’m not sure exactly where this idea came from, but, per Snopes, “no college or university in the United States has a policy awarding a 4.0 average (or anything else) to a student whose roommate dies.” To add to that, if any policy did theoretically exist, it would almost certainly vary institution to institution.

While the urban legend may not be true, I was able to dig up a Purdue University study that corroborates the foundational assumption behind the policy: that grief impacts students’ academic performance.

College students who experience the death of a family member or friends also experience a corresponding drop in academic performance during the semester the loss takes place.

– Servaty-Seib, H. L. & Hamilton, L. A. (2006)

An example of a policy that does exist, however, is described as follows (from a Columbia University source):

While a person’s grades will not automatically be changed, most colleges and universities provide some type of emotional and academic support to roommates, including extensions on due dates, make-up exams, and time off without penalty.

On the same note, I also managed to dig up a blog post from The New York Times blog The Choice, which collected a series of comments from former students who dealt with the death of a parent while in college. While this is a different scenario than the one in this movie, these accounts are far more reflective of how your typical university deals with student grief. Here is abridged version of one of the comments:

I will never forget the kindness and consideration that Mount Holyoke College showed me. From getting me on the plane to keeping in touch with me while I was home sitting shivah, they could not have been more compassionate…Each of my faculty members hand-wrote a note of condolence to my mother and me, expressing sympathy and telling me to take as long as I needed in coming back and picking up the responsibilities of my studies…I was able to return promptly and finish the semester with high grades and renewed respect for my college. Forty years later, I still remember.

All of this taken into account, this is an urban legend that is strangely persistent. The Chronicle of Higher Education has referred to it as “one of the most persistent and morbid rumors on college campuses.” I’ve read accounts of it showing up as a matter-of-fact in television shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: NY. It is honestly alarming how pervasive this potentially harmful misconception is, to the point that it is just assumed to be true by many.

Getting off of the grim topic of suicide for a moment, I want to address one of the other major focal points of the film: the character Cooper’s most prized possession, a six foot tall bong. Now, I am not what you would describe as a marijuana enthusiast, so I wasn’t sure if this was simply a gag prop, or a practical smoking utensil. As it turns out, if you have about $60, the website smokea.com can hook you up with a six foot bong: the Headway Big Boy.  Per the description, “Headway Acrylics has been a leading manufacturer of high quality acrylic water pipes for nearly 20 years” which places its founding roughly around the time of filming for Dead Man On Campus. I suppose that means that the bong prop in the film is plausibly one of their creations?

During an early sequence in Dead Man On Campus, a professor is shown gleefully assigning one of his classes a textbook that he wrote himself. This is, in truth, a very common practice throughout many disciplines. Slate.com featured an article that said the following of professors who assign their own texts:

If your professor requires you to buy his or her own books as course textbooks at full sticker price, get out now…Heed this simple warning, and you are almost certain to avoid your institution’s most pompous, self-serving twits…assigning one’s own work is an eye-roll-inducing ego stroke.

In response to this popular perception of unethical behavior, in 2004, the American Association of University Professors released a statement which generally defended the practice. However, in that same statement, the AAUP cited a handful of standing school policies intended to curb the practice, which is an interesting read:

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, materials written by faculty members and intended for purchase by students may not be assigned unless their use is first approved by the appropriate departmental, collegiate, and university-level committees. Faculty members at the University of Minnesota cannot “personally profit from the assignment of materials” to students without authorization of the department chair. At Southern Utah University, a department chair and dean must approve the assignment of faculty-authored materials. Approval by a faculty committee is required at Cleveland State University. Faculty at North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas can assign their own works but are cautioned against retaining profits earned from sales to their students unless, as the North Dakota policy states, “the text has become independently accepted in the field.”

There is a thoughtful post on the ethics of professors selling their own textbooks on PsychologyToday.com which I found to be more than worth the read as well, which comes to a similar conclusion as the AAUP:

I’ve encountered lots of people—students, friends, colleagues, and publishing professionals—who think it’s automatically a conflict of interest for professors to assign their own books. But is it an unethical conflict of interest?…No. Not under most circumstances. Assigning one’s own textbook…is, on the face of it, ethical.

In Dead Man On Campus, the character Josh is shown taking a unique degree program: a six-year combined undergraduate degree and Doctorate of Medicine. I was able to dig up a list from November of 2017 of combined BA/BS/MD programs, of which the following schools reportedly offer a six-year program that high school seniors can apply directly to:

University of Texas Southwestern
Northeast Ohio Medical University
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Sidney Kimmel Medical College
Howard University
California Northstate University

Getting back to the light and cheery topic of higher education and suicide, Dead Man On Campus‘s lead character of Josh is shown as being held to impossibly high standards by his parents. To paraphrase his mother: “you always exceed my expectations. And I expect straight A’s!” In 2015, The New York Times ran an article titled “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection”, the introduction of which reads almost exactly like Josh’s first act in Dead Man On Campus:

Kathryn DeWitt conquered high school like a gold-medal decathlete. She ran track, represented her school at a statewide girls’ leadership program and took eight Advanced Placement tests, including one for which she independently prepared, forgoing the class.

Expectations were high. Every day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades were posted online. Her mother would be the first to comment should her grade go down…In her first two weeks on the University of Pennsylvania campus, she hustled…surrounded by people with seemingly greater drive and ability, she had her first taste of self-doubt…Classmates seemed to have it all together.

The article lays some of the blame for perfectionism on college students’ parents, quoting that “children deserve to be strengthened, not strangled, by the fierceness of a parent’s love.” In the context of Dead Man On Campus, it is an interesting note: by the end of the film, Josh is apparently on the verge of suicide due to his failing to meet the academic expectations of his parents, peers, and professors.

At one point early in the film, it is stated that suicides are a common occurrence on the local college campus, to the point that it is just assumed that at least a few students will kill themselves by the time the semester’s final exams roll around. Unfortunately, suicides are, in fact, tragically common at college campuses. The aforementioned New York Times article notes a preceding academic year that saw 4 suicides at Tulane University, 3 at Appalachian State University, and 6 at the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health has reported that 25.5% of college students had “purposely injured themselves,” and that 9.3% of college students had made a suicide attempt in the 2015-2016 school year.

In the story of Dead Man On Campus, Daleman College has launched a campus suicide hotline to help deal with the outbreak of suicides on the campus. While I didn’t find any examples of an identical program in use on a college campus, many colleges are making innovative strides in dealing with the tragedy of student suicides. Ohio State University offers training courses to faculty and students on how to spot warning signs, and how to intervene or approach at-risk students. Vanderbilt University offers a joint program  through its Psychological Counseling Center and Center For Student Wellbeing aimed at suicide prevention and mental health awareness on campus. Cornell University launched a video project, where school leaders spoke of their own struggles with mental health, which were shared with students during orientation.

Once again, there are plenty more higher education topics worth discussing in Dead Man On Campus: homophobia, Greek organization party culture, and the popularity of recreational use of prescription drugs by college students, to name a few. However, there are plenty of other higher education movies out there for me to cover those topics in: just stay tuned.

Overall, I consider it a tasteless travesty that Dead Man On Campus ever made it to the screen, and I believe it belongs (at best) in the realm of obscurity where it currently resides. It certainly isn’t worth seeking out: black comedy fans and college stoner comedy fans can both equally easily find better than this without having to dig so far down.

For this entry, given the topics covered, I wanted to conclude with some resources for anyone who feels that they need them.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

National Institute of Mental Health | Suicide Prevention

 

 

Ivy On Celluloid: How High

How High

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 take a look at the 2001 higher education stoner comedy, How High.

The plot of How High is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two guys by the name of Silas and Jamal decided to one day smoke something magical, which eventually helps them to ace their college entrance exam.

The film’s director was Jesse Dylan, who has also helmed the films Kicking and Screaming and American Wedding, as well as a number of music videos and concert films.

The screenwriter for How High was Dustin Lee Abraham, who later contributed significantly to the hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The cast of How High includes Method Man (Keanu, The Wackness, Garden State), Redman (Seed of Chucky, Dark), Obba Babatunde (Dear White People, The Temptations), Mike Epps (The Hangover, Nina), Fred Willard (Best In Show, Anchorman), Jeffrey Jones (The Devil’s Advocate, Beetlejuice, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman, Necessary Roughness), and Anna Maria Horsford (Minority Report, Friday).

The cinematographer for How High, Francis Kenny, has had a long career shooting comedy features like Coneheads, Scary Movie, She’s All That, Heathers, and Wayne’s World 2.

The editor for the film was Larry Bock, whose other credits include Critters, Fright Night, Bring It On, The Mighty Ducks, Final Justice, Joysticks, Alligator, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, among others.

For the external shots of the campus, the University of California, Los Angeles stands in for Harvard University, the setting for the story: a common practice for films about Harvard and fictionalized Harvard stand-ins.

A How High sequel has been in various stages of development for going on 10 years now, and rumor has it that it will begin filming in 2018, though that remains to be seen.

The character of Dean Carl Cain is mostly referred to simply as Dean Cain, which is also the name of a well-known actor, who famously played Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

How High was made on a production budget of $20 million, on which it took in roughly $31.1 million in its lifetime theatrical run. Critically, it received mixed scores, with audiences appreciating it far more than professional critics. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.3/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 27% from critics and 79% from audiences.

To be honest, stoner comedies aren’t really my thing, so I don’t have much of a barometer to judge this by. To me, most of the jokes seemed to land flat, or were just shallow and crass to start with, if not pushing the bounds of racism (in particular, the portrayals of foreign students were less than flattering), but that seems like it might be par-for-the-course in the genre. However, there are a handful of comedy highlights here to be sure, such as Hector Elizondo’s exasperated crew coach and the buttoned-up, straight man antics of “Dean Cain”.

That said, what How High might lack in comedy, it makes up for by bringing up a litany of topics and issues within higher education: there’s no shortage of interesting discussions to be had from this movie.

The very foundation of How High is built on the idea that smoking marijuana, grown in the right conditions, can help a person score higher on tests. While I haven’t seen anything about specifically marijuana giving students an academic edge, there is a fair amount of information and research on academic performance enhancing drugs, particularly stimulants and nootropics.

Although current nootropics offer only modest improvements in cognitive performance, it appears likely that more effective compounds will be developed in the future and that their off-label use will increase. One sphere in which the use of these drugs may be commonplace is by healthy students within academia.

– Chan, S. (2009). Smart drugs for cognitive enhancement: ethical and pragmatic considerations in the era of cosmetic neurology. Journal of Medical Ethics, 35(10).

As the story in How High progresses, the character Silas begins excelling in his Botany class, due to his extensive experience cultivating marijuana plants at home. In 2017, Northern Michigan University began offering a degree program in Medicinal Plant Chemistry, which is “the first program to offer a 4-year undergraduate degree focusing on marijuana,” which gives apparent credence to the academic legitimacy of Silas’s extracurricular practices.

Of further interest, there is a closely guarded laboratory at the University of Mississippi that has a massive stock of cannabis that “is grown, processed and sold by the federal government. The stockpile represents the only source of pot allowed for researchers who want to conduct Food and Drug Administration-approved tests on using marijuana for medical purposes.”

Early in the film, there is a sequence in which Jamal’s family pressures him into focusing on his college entrance exams. In this scene, it is revealed that Jamal is a would-be first generation student, and that both of his siblings completed non-degree certificate programs. In the same sequence, Jamal’s mother casually mentions that he is not just expected to go to college, but to not go to a community college.

Stigma towards community college degrees is a topic I personally find really fascinating: there is a lot of history and politics tied up in why society doesn’t value community college degrees, and a lot of it is tied up in classism, and a desire for upward social mobility that community colleges are not seen as offering. In an article titled “The Stigma About Going To Community College That No One Talks About” for The Huffington Post, Bizzy Emerson writes:

there is…stigma surrounding community college. Many believe it isn’t “real college,” or that it’s much easier than a typical four-year university. This is just simply false. While it offers a different lifestyle, the course load and academics can be just as rigorous as any other school. Community college is an excellent option for any student in any situation, and many will use it as a financial or academic primer before transferring to a four-year university after completing their sophomore year.

Following their perfect entrance exam scores, Jamal and Silas are courted by representatives from a number of different schools, which allows the film to poke at a couple of different types of higher education institutions. Among them is a school called the Reparations Technical Institute, which is represented by black nationalists with a heavy, intense pitch for the duo. RTI, if I were to wager a guess, is a stand-in for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which includes schools like Howard University and Morehouse College, which are known as hubs for activism and racial studies. I assume this portrayal is meant to be a knock at those schools for taking themselves too seriously, but I think it undercuts HBCUs as well by equating them with community and technical colleges.

During the same sequence, a priest is shown trying to recruit the duo to a religious university (presumably Catholic), which is immediately and repeatedly shot down once the issue of sexual morality and celibacy is brought up. While this is played for a joke, the strict sexual constraints of many religious higher education institutions in the United States has created a multitude of issues for students over the years. Whether it is the suppression and oppression of LGBT students or a failure to deal with reports of sexual assault on campus, the problems with the stringent sexual codes of many universities go beyond just being prude, and are a hot topic of discussion in progressive and higher education circles.

All of that said, I was able to dig up an interesting tidbit of information that Jamal and Silas might have appreciated: according to a paper titled “Hooking Up At College – Does Religion Make A Difference?”, researchers from Mississippi State University, the University of Miami, and the University of Texas – Austin concluded that:

Women who attend colleges and universities with a Catholic affiliation are more likely to have hooked up while at school than women who attend academic institutions with no religious affiliation, net of individual-level religious involvement.

There is an interesting sequence in How High which shows Silas and Jamal in an African American History class, taught by an aging white man. According to a 2009 feature in the Los Angeles Times, “blacks make up the majority of the faculty” in African American studies programs, but “white scholars increasingly are making their mark.” Among the handful of white African American studies professors working today are Martha Biondi at Northwestern University, Shawn Alexander at the University of Kansas, and Mark Naison at Fordham University.

In one of the more shocking and horrific sequences of the film, Silas and Jamal rob the grave of President John Quincy Adams, and mutilate his corpse in an attempt to smoke his remains to pass a test. The actual grave of John Quincy Adams is only a short drive from Harvard University, in Quincy, MA. So, as far as proximity is concerned, this is plausible. However, John Quincy Adams and his wife are both buried alongside John and Abigail Adams in a subterranean crypt underneath the United First Parish Church, which is a national historic landmark. So, the practical likelihood that a handful of desperate stoners could penetrate the church and successfully extract the Presidential corpse is pretty low.

One of the big reveals of the film is the discovery of a giant bong designed and used by Benjamin Franklin. There isn’t any evidence to indicate that Benjamin Franklin actually had or used a giant bong, or even that he was a marijuana enthusiast, but there are unconfirmed rumors that he utilized hemp as part of a paper mill. What is more interesting to me is that this artifact would wind up in the hands of Harvard University. Benjamin Franklin was granted honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale, but the man is nearly synonymous with another Ivy League institution, which he notably founded: the University of Pennsylvania. If such an artifact were to appear, regardless of what it was, I’d wager it would wind up in Philadelphia one way or another.

I would be remiss to not mention the history of racism and Harvard, and how that comes through in How High. The upper administration of Harvard University in the film are shown to be clueless as to the value of having a diverse student body, and ultimately only recruit and admit Jamal and Silas simply because they are desperate to meet a diversity quota. Harvard University has a long history of deliberate exclusion, particularly of women, Jewish people, and people of color, which is outlined efficiently in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel, which is a book I highly recommend. Essentially, these schools came up with an admissions system that allowed them to accept or reject whichever students they wanted based on “character,” an ill-defined concept that was (at the time) intended to give white Protestants an edge in admissions decisions over those who were regarded as the “wrong” type of student (Jewish, women, black, etc.).

On top of that, Harvard University once had slaves that worked the campus: something that the current administration is trying to atone for.  On the school’s website, there is a clear statement that “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783.” Given Harvard’s history of racism, it might not be so much of a surprise that Jamal and Silas have trouble culturally fitting in at the institution: if the institution were adequately diverse, they wouldn’t be fish out of water in the first place, and the very premise of the movie wouldn’t be comically sound.

At one point in How High, characters are shown stealing a historic campus statue in the middle of the night. Apparently, there is a long and rich tradition of campus statue thefts: on a cursory search, I was able to dig up articles about cases at Pepperdine University in 2010, Salisbury University in 2010, Mercer University in 2011, University of North Carolina – Wilmington in 2014, and East Carolina University in 2016.

Another sequence of note is one in which a prank on the stuck-up administrator Dean Cain goes awry, which ends with a bunch of birds violently exploding in his office. I wasn’t able to find any record of pranks coming even close to this level of violence and madness: for the most part, the college pranks I’ve read about have been limited to goofy mischief, like putting pumpkins on top of buildings or any of the nutty misdeeds of MIT’s “hackers.”

As far as other highlights of the film worth discussing go, there is a bizarre sequence in which Jamal and Silas are shown selling pornography in public on campus, which brought to mind the “Smut for Smut” campaign at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in which an atheist campus group handed out pornography in exchange for bibles. Both events, real and fictitious, are equal parts tasteless, needlessly provocative, and inexplicable.

There is whole lot more I could talk about in regards to higher education and How High, but I want to save a few topics for future movies in this series. I already touched on nepotism in a previous review, and I will be covering issues like hazing, financial aid, and the party pathway through future films, but be assured that there is plenty more to be found in this movie.

Overall, I thought that How High was a pretty forgettable comedy that should probably stay locked away in the decade that made it. However, there were a surprising number of interesting topics and issues related to higher education that came up over the course of the film, which gave it some entertainment value for me. As far as a recommendation goes, I think enjoyment of this film relies on two things: First, nostalgia. If you have fond memories of this movie, then you might enjoy seeing it again. Second, I think you have to be stoned out of your mind to find some parts of this movie funny.

 

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.

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.