Back to School Part II #36: Dead Man On Campus (dir by Alan Cohn)


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Oh my God, it’s Zack Morris smoking pot and getting laid!

That, in a sentence, is the main appeal of the 1998 comedy Dead Man On Campus.  This is the film that features Mark-Paul Gosselaar playing a character who does everything that most Saved By The Bell fans have always assumed that Zack Morris was doing whenever he wasn’t on-screen, fooling Belding, tormenting Screech, and gazing at Kelly.

(By the way, if you’re interested in the further college adventures of Zack Morris, check out Primetime Preppie, where Derek Morris and I are reviewing every single episode of Saved By The Bell: The College Years!)

In Dead Man On Campus, Gosselaar plays Cooper Frederickson.  Cooper is a college student.  He spends most of his time partying and consistently fails his classes but since he’s going to a college that apparently doesn’t believe in academic suspension, it doesn’t matter.  Cooper’s father continues to pay for him to go to school.  To be honest, Cooper is kind of a jerk but he’s also really hot.  He wears glasses and there’s just something about a bad boy with bad eyesight.

(Seriously…)

Anyway, Cooper has two roommates.  Kyle (Jason Segel) is … well, he’s Jason Segel, giving another one of the somewhat odd performances that typified his film career before he co-starred with The Muppets and played David Foster Wallace.  His other roommate is Josh (Tom Everett Scott).  Josh starts out as a responsible and hard-working student but then he falls under Cooper’s bad influence.  He also gets a girlfriend (Poppy Montgomery) and ends up having so much fun that he blows off all of his classes.

Suddenly, Josh realizes that he’s about to lose his scholarship.  At the same time, Cooper’s father comes to visit and announces that he will no longer be paying for his son’s lifestyle.  If Cooper flunks out of school, he’s going to end up cleaning toilets for his father’s janitorial service.

Oh no!  Zack Morris cleaning a toilet!?  How the mighty have fallen!  I guess they’re screwed, right!?

Nope!  It turns out that there’s a clause in the university charter.  If a student’s roommate commits suicide during the school year, that student gets perfect grades for the semester!  (I was told the same thing during my first semester at the University of North Texas.)  Unfortunately, Kyle has recently moved out of the dorm and neither Cooper nor Josh are willing to die for the other.

So, they decide to get a new roommate.  After breaking into the school’s student files, they identify the three students who are most likely to commit suicide.  One is an aspiring singer who Cooper and Josh come to suspect might be faking his depression as a way to hit on girls.  (Okay, that’s kind of clever because I know that I’ve gone out with people who I thought were dark and profound, just to discover that they were actually rather boring and bourgeois.)  Another is a nerdy computer guy who has paranoid delusions about Bill Gates.

And then there’s Cliff.  Cliff is actually the first potential roommate that they investigate but he also makes the biggest impression.  In fact, he makes such a big impression that he ends up overshadowing everyone else in the film.  Cliff is played by Lochlyn Munro, who has subsequently become one of the patron saints of the Lifetime network.  (Seriously, it seems like Munro shows up on Lifetime on a daily basis.)  Ripping through the film like a cyclone, Munro is definitely the highlight of Dead Man On Campus.  It turns out that Cliff isn’t so much suicidal as he’s just absolutely insane and Munro goes so wonderfully over the top in the film that he briefly brings some much-needed life to this comedy about death.

Anyway, Dead Man On Campus is a pretty forgettable movie and it’s never as clever as it thinks that it is.  But it does feature Mark-Paul Gosselaar taking hits off a bong and that’ll definitely make it worth seeing for some viewers.

Back to School Part II #35: One Eight Seven (dir by Kevin Reynolds)


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I’m writing this review from memory so you’re going to have to bear with me.  187 is one of those films that seems to show up on late night cable constantly, which is how I saw it.  I probably should rewatch it for this review but … no.  I don’t want to have to sit through it again.

See, here’s the thing with 187.  It’s a film where Samuel L. Jackson plays a high school science teacher and, just by definition, that should make it the greatest film ever and yet it isn’t.

Originally, Jackson’s working in New York but then he ends up failing one of his students (played by Method Man).  Method Man ends up giving Jackson a textbook on which he has written 187 on every single page.  Jackson immediately realizes that 187 is the name of the movie that he’s in.  “Always good to meet a fan,” he thinks but then suddenly, it dawns on him that 187 is also police code for homicide!  Jackson asks the school administration for help.  They ignore him (probably because everyone knows that Samuel L. Jackson is too much of a badass to be scared by some numbers in a textbook) and he ends up getting stabbed several times in the back.

Agck!

We jump forward 15 months.  Jackson has recovered from nearly being killed and he’s still determined to teach.  He wants to make a difference!  But he’s decided that New York kids are too homicidal so he transfers to a school in Los Angeles.  Surprise!  It turns out that students in Los Angeles are just as dangerous as the ones in New York.  During his first day as a substitute teacher, Jackson is writing his name on a chalk board.  Someone throws a crumpled ball of paper at him.  Jackson flinches as it hits his back.

FLASHBACK TIME!

Now, here’s the thing: the idea of Samuel L. Jackson teaching in an inner city high school and taking on a bunch of gang members sounds totally kickass.  And you spend this entire two-hour movie waiting for Samuel L. Jackson to have one of those wonderful Samuel L. Jackson moments when he fixes someone with that powerful glare and suddenly speaks in the voice of angry and vengeful God.  You keep waiting but, with the exception of a few moments, it never seems to happen.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t expecting Jackson to say, “I’m sick of these motherfucking gangstas in this motherfucking classroom!”  It would have been great if he had said that but, after a few minutes of watching the movie, I realized that he probably wouldn’t.  187 is obviously meant to be a serious movie about America’s educational crisis.  Watching it, you get the feeling that 187‘s director, Kevin “I know Kevin Costner” Reynolds, woke up every morning and said, “I am making the most important film ever today!”

But whatever good intentions that the filmmakers may have had, it’s no excuse for totally wasting Samuel L. Jackson.  When you’ve got a powerful actor like Samuel L. Jackson, why do you waste him in such a thinly written role?  When you finally do allow him to do something big and Samuel L. Jackson-like, why do you waste so much dramatic potential by having him do almost all of it off-screen?  Jackson finally does get a great Samuel L. Jackson moment towards the end of the film but that’s just because there’s a big plot twist that doesn’t make any sense.  The end of 187 reminds the viewer that an ironic ending has to be earned.  It just can’t be slapped onto the film.

I mean, I don’t want to toss out any spoilers because, for all I know, 187 is going to be on Cinemax tonight.  If you’re up at 3 in the morning, you might end up watching it and God knows, I don’t want to be accused of giving away the ending.   But let me ask you this — if you’ve finally captured someone who you’ve spent an entire two-hour film trying to kill, would you then suddenly decide to play a game of Russian roulette?

Anyway, 187 should be avoided because it totally wastes Samuel L. Jackson and that’s kind of unforgivable.

Back to School Part II #34: The Ice Storm (dir by Ang Lee)


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The 1997 film The Ice Storm is kind of a schizophrenic film, which makes sense since it’s set in 1973 and, just from what I’ve seen in the movies, it appears that the early 70s were kind of a schizophrenic time.

It’s a film that deals with two sets of people who all live in an upper class Connecticut community.  One part of the film deals with parents who are freaking out about suddenly being adults.  The other part of the film deals with the children, most of whom seem destined to make the same mistakes as their parents.  It’s a film that is occasionally bracingly realistic and relatable, one that reminds us that being directionless in the 70s isn’t necessarily that different from being directionless in 2016.  At other times, the film feels a bit too studied for its own good.  This is one of those films that features a Tobey Maguire voice-over and, as good an actor as Maguire has always been, he’s always at his worse when reciting a pseudo-profound voice over.  And then there are other times when the film feels a bit too cartoonish for its own good.  Elijah Wood’s a stoner.  Sigourney Weaver walks around with a bullwhip.  David Krumholtz shows up as a character named Francis Davenport.

Fortunately, the film is directed by Ang Lee and Ang Lee is probably one of the few filmmakers who can overcome tonal inconsistency.  Lee is so good with actors and is such a good storyteller that even his lesser films are usually worth watching.  The Ice Storm would just be another silly sin-in-the-suburbs film if it had been made by any director other than Ang Lee.

The main adult in the film is Ben Hood (Kevin Kline).  Ben is married to Elena (Joan Allen) but he’s having an affair with his neighbor, Janey (Sigourney Weaver).  Elena may be upset when she finds out about the affair but she’s still willing to accompany her husband to a key party.  A key party was a 70s ritual in which husbands would throw their car keys into a big punch bowl and then the wives would randomly pick a key and have sex with the owner.  Basically, anytime a TV show or a movie takes place in the suburbs during the 70s, there has to be at least one key party.

And The Ice Storm‘s key party is kind of fun to watch.  Kevin Kline and Joan Allen both give really good performances and Ben is such a loser that it’s fun to watch him freak out when Janey gets a key other than this own.  Elena, meanwhile, ends up going off with Janey’s husband (Jamey Sheridan, pretty much looking the same in this 1997 film as he did in Spotlight and Sully) and they share a really good scene together, one that reveals that none of the film’s adults are really as mature or liberated as they claim to be.

While the adults attempt to play, their children attempt to find some sort of meaning to their empty existence.  Ben and Elena’s daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), wears a Richard Nixon mask and enjoys sexually teasing her classmates, especially Janey’s youngest son, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd).  Ben and Elena’s oldest son, Paul (Tobey Maguire) is in New York, hoping to lose his virginity to Libbits (Katie Holmes) despite the fact that Libbets is far more interested in his boarding school roommate, Francis Davenport (David Krumholtz).  Paul also compares his family to the Fantastic Four so, assuming Paul survived both the 70s and 80s, he’s probably still living in Connecticut and telling everyone who disappointed he was with last year’s film.

And, of course, there’s Mickey (Elijah Wood).  Mickey is Janey’s oldest son and he’s permanently spaced out.  When the ice storm of the title occurs, Mickey is the one who decides to wander around outside and appreciate the beauty of nature’s remorseless wrath.

Needless to say, the ice storm is also a really obvious metaphor for the way all of these very unhappy (but very prosperous) characters tend to view and treat each other.  Despite all the attempts to pretend otherwise, everyone has a frozen soul.  Nobody’s capable of maintaining any sort of real emotional connection.  Of course, someone dies and everyone’s forced to take a look at the sad reality of their lives and the film ends with a sudden and spontaneous display of actual human emotion.  It’s one of those ideas that probably works better as a literary conceit than a cinematic one.

That said, The Ice Storm is flawed but very watchable.  I enjoyed it, even if it did occasionally seem to be trying way too hard.  It’s well-acted and, if nothing else, I enjoyed getting to see all of the amazingly tacky clothes and the interiors of all those big houses.  These people love their wide lapels and their shag carpeting.  The Ice Storm is not Ang Lee’s best but it’s still good enough.

Music Video of the Day: Short Skirt/Long Jacket by Cake (2001, dir. John McCrea)


Sometimes I wind up on a music video that there really isn’t much to say about. This is one of them.

It’s a very simple idea. Just round up a bunch of different people to see how the react to the song. Of course, that’s a little oversimplifying things. The title of the song itself is a contradiction. You’ll notice that several times they put two different opinions of the song side-by-side that are opposites of each other. The best example is at the end when the German tourist gives some pointers, but generally likes the song. Then it cuts to the lady who thinks Cake is going to be a one-hit wonder. You’ll notice that kind of juxtaposition throughout the video.

According to Wikipedia, it was felt that the music video wouldn’t hold up over multiple viewings. That’s why they went and shot one in New York, Mexico, and Toronto. I could only find the New York and Canadian ones, which I have included below.

Both the original and New York ones were directed by John McCrea, who is the lead singer of the band. He directed a few other ones for his band.

The Mexican one was directed by Alejandro Romero who apparently used a fake name called los Hermanos Ponderosa that is also used by director Gustavo Hernandez. Jo Ann Thrailkill produced that version of the music video. She has produced about 130 music videos. Wikipedia also adds that it was edited by Alejandro Davalos Cantu.

Enjoy!