IOW: Assessing the HONORS roll

A lovely cool Saturday to you, dearest readers! Today’s heady Image of the Week offers a few bonus hypotheses that stem from core issues laid down in the center spread of C-U Confidential issue 7 from last fall. So, to begin our complementary brain game, please review the following clip and try to name which Ivy League cornerstone is the setting. You may skip ahead to the 38-second mark, if you wish:

Familiar to students, faculty, and year-round residents in Champaign-Urbana, the main quad of the University of Illinois campus is here seen doubling for another in the collegiate drama WITH HONORS, starring Brendan Fraser (THE MUMMY) as a student attending prestigious Harvard University and Joe Pesci (GOODFELLAS) as an ailing vagrant with a poetic streak living in a boiler room. Producers enlisted UIUC as one of several surrogate sites at which to film scenes not already covered on location at Cambridge, Massachusetts, dressing up the Foellinger Auditorium grounds in May 1993 for a Harvard-set graduation scene. Yet, despite the brief thrill C-U citizens and UI administrators might have felt at the time, knowing (fictionalized) images of the school would eventually be flickering before a nationwide audience’s eyes, does this rate any more than a footnote 20 years later?

Also starring Patrick Dempsey, Moira Kelly, Josh Hamilton, and Gore Vidal, the Warner Bros. release directed by Alex Keshishian (MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE) opened theatrically one full year later on April 29, 1994, to decent earnings and tepid critical reaction. You can reference Rotten Tomatoes for a smattering of the latter but let’s pay attention to what the former might tell us. Box Office Mojo lists a domestic take just north of $20 million for WITH HONORS including a brief perch at the top of the chart with $3.7 million, earned at 1,220 locations during the second weekend of its run. Performing on par with unremarkable numbers logged by the entire filmic field leading up to the summer of that year, launched in mid-May by Mel Gibson and MAVERICK, the Fraser vehicle quickly lost traction. Of the immediate competition, only FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or THE CROW might spark discussion today.

Practically no fan-generated good will or late-blooming nostalgia has propped up WITH HONORS in the ensuing years, and consider how Warner has treated it as a catalog title despite Fraser’s eventual status as comedy-action star. Apart from a widescreen laserdisc and the more typical full-screen, bare-bones VHS and DVD issues of that era, the studio has only offered the film as a nearly identical DVD reissue and video-on-demand streaming. (The ancient home video trailer used as promotion for VOD, shared here, does not inspire any hopes of improved presentation.) Obviously, lacking notoriety has doomed WITH HONORS to a middle-of-the-road Hollywood movie graveyard. Is it warranted? Is it fair? We’d be really hard pressed to call for the time-consuming and costly restoration of this, an average entertainment aimed at general audiences, yet it often weighs on those very audiences to resurrect or bury a film.

With that said about WITH HONORS as forgotten content, what about WITH HONORS as failed harbinger of Hollywood business to come? Like we mused in CUZine, illustrated by the still image below of the lead actors walking the Quad – click it to reveal the full “for press use” photo glossy – a million confluences figure into when, where, and how a movie studio machine interacts with the world at large. We can only theorize why Tinseltown has never returned to Champaign-Urbana for film production on any significant level since the week of May 6, 1993, or only occasionally in the cites beyond such as with fellow Warner title THE INFORMANT!, primarily shot by director Steven Soderbergh and crew in the Decatur area. Is it warranted? Is it fair? Certainly, we dig our indigenous film culture, but we’d also love for Chicagoland to loosen its grip on visiting production in Illinois and let some honest commerce trickle downstate.

C-U Blogfidential believes in the philosophy “everything good starts small;” in this case, all levels of movie production are vital and scene building is necessary for the C-U to attract and fulfill the needs for bigger and better-funded shows. (That doesn’t mean our Hollywood drought is any less dispiriting.) Playing county-wide host to CONSUMED, this past summer’s dose of guest filmmaking brought here by producer team Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones with guidance from Brett Hays of Shatterglass Studios, will help to state our case. The low-budget drama utilized a fair amount of talent brought in, but many other personnel and resources – including all locations – were secured locally. We made a good impression on our new friends, apparently, and that will hopefully be part of the discussion once CONSUMED post-production wraps and the finished film winds its way into the media landscape starting next year.

~ Jason Pankoke

p.s. When, oh when, will the makers of a major narrative motion picture allow Champaign-Urbana to play itself? Not unlike the sleight of hand employed by WITH HONORS production designers and set decorators to present two blocks of Urbana real estate as an academic institution residing in the New England states, CONSUMED will imply every person, place, and thing appearing on screen exists in Iowa since that is where their story is set. We can say without irony that we prefer the concept of our environs standing in for an imagined setting than, say, what the producers behind the upcoming David Foster Wallace road trip film THE END OF THE TOUR elected to do – recreate real-life Bloomington-Normal settings in chilly Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they filmed due to the almighty tax break incentive. (Amusingly, they did also shoot in Bloomington, Minnesota, at the Mall of America according to IMDb; the film, starring Jason Segal as novelist Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky, recounts a book tour.) Or, for that matter, to become a city-accurate backdrop for a disconcerting true-to-life tale as did Decatur in THE INFORMANT!, the dramatization of how a Don Quixote-minded corporate suit blows the whistle on agricultural price-fixing enacted by his superiors at Archer Daniels Midland.

p.s.2 Technically, the C-U is currently playing itself on the big screen, for a few fleeting moments mostly involving the Virginia Theatre, in the Roger Ebert documentary LIFE ITSELF. Data on VOD earnings seems hard to come by, but Box Office Mojo reports an $800,000 gross in limited release through Magnolia Films since the Fourth of July weekend, with most of that amassed before August 1. Considering it is now pulling in a weak $3-5 thousand per week, we’re not bothering to place bets at the Secret MICRO-FILM Headquarters as to when it might break $1 million theatrically. It won’t.

p.s.3 Right before posting this, we attempted to verify one last thing on Box Office Mojo and discovered its home page URL redirected to IMDB. Both are owned by Amazon, and Variety reported on Friday that this seems to be no fluke even though an explanation has not been issued. We hope our links in this article will be restored shortly and apologize if not, even though this is obviously beyond our control.

p.s.4 We now have the Madonna pop ballad “I’ll Remember,” which played over the WITH HONORS closing credits, stuck in our heads. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and is probably better remembered, so to speak, than the movie.

p.s.5 Finally, we circle back to Brendan Fraser, whose star has arguably faded since the third MUMMY movie appeared in 2008. When originally researching this post in the spring, we discovered an eerie metaphor for that career slide in the form of HAIR BRAINED, an independent comedy feature released to home video on March 25 through Vertical Entertainment after a token weekend of theatrical play. Directed by Billy Kent and written by Adam Wierzbianski, responsible for THE OH IN OHIO a decade ago, HAIR BRAINED relays the misadventures of a 14-year-old genius played by Alex Wolff and a recovering gambling addict played by Fraser who become unlikely roommates at fictional Whittman College. The plot involves Wolff’s Eli character joining the school’s quiz team in the hopes of eventually competing against and beating the team from the Ivy League school that rejected his first application – Harvard. Eep. Read into that what you will; of the reviews we skimmed, including middling verdicts offered by The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and, only The New York Times title-checks WITH HONORS for the uneasy parallel. And, lest we forget, every movie has a champion out there, somewhere; we present this vote of confidence by The Dissolve as a counterpoint.

p.s.6 We like you, Brendan. Rebound for the win!

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