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Ivory Tower Blu-ray Review

Ivory Tower (2014) movie poster Ivory Tower

Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Andrew Rossi / Tagline: Is college worth the cost?

Notable Interview Subjects: Andrew Delbanco, Peter Thiel, Anya Kamenetz, David Boone, Moneeke Davis, Victoria Sobel, Clayton Christensen, Anthony Carnevale, Drew Faust, David Malan, Jamshed Bharucha, Beverly Tatum, Mitchell Stevens, Michael Roth, Elisabeth Armstrong, Brendan Arnold, Peter Buckley, Jeff Selingo, Michael Crow, Louis Menand, Stefanie Gray

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The tagline for Ivory Tower asks, "Is college worth the cost?" Though this documentary does not have a definitive answer to that,
it does prove it is a question well worth asking as it explores at length the state of higher education.

The latest film from documentarian Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times, Eat This New York), Ivory Tower does not set out to convince or persuade you regarding the value of a college education. It simply looks at the American system from a variety of perspectives, raising questions about what has come to be accepted as simply what you do after graduating from high school.

Rossi visits and photographs a number of storied institutions, including Harvard University, which it credits as the basis for higher education in America, a foundation it links to the religion of the Puritans who founded the nation. Harvard is noted as one of the few schools to extend full-need financial aid, something appreciated by one computer science student who is using it to escape his Ohio upbringing of homelessness and gangs.

In "Ivory Tower", students of Cooper Union stage a sit-in inside the office of president Jamshed Bharucha, after he spearheads a plan to introduce tuition to the long free New York college.

The film isn't too interested in sharing happy human interest stories like that one. It calls attention to causes for concern. A college education is shown to have undergone a steeper increase in cost than anything else in the US economy over the past thirty years. Rossi directs us to tuition increases as a response to decreasing government funding. Colleges increasingly spend big on facilities, which they have to in order to keep up with the competition. Costs are cut where they can be, as in adjunct professors replacing full-time faculty. But savings are not being passed on to the public, which is increasingly drowning in seas of student loan debt. One interview subject likens the education system to a subprime real estate broker selling you on a house you can't afford.

The documentary does a fine job overall. It supplies history, tracing education's rise back to Civil War times and noticing expansions from the World War II era G.I. Bill for veterans. It also explains how the financial burden has spiraled out of control, pointing blame at Ronald Reagan, whose administration questioned government's need to subsidize education.

The film considers some alternatives to costly traditional college education, like the free two-year Deep Springs College in remote California where the all-male student body performs ranch labor alongside their intimate curriculum. It gives notice to the MOOC (massive open online course) movement that strives to provide a high quality education for free (but for-profit) through online videos and communication. Time is spent on the Thriel Fellowship, "Un-College", and the Silicon Valley Hacker House, programs that encourage those who can't afford college to develop business skills and learning without it. All of these alternatives are addressed with hope and promise, though each is shown to have its drawbacks.

At Deep Springs College, students earn their education with ranch labor. This graphic illustrates that a Pell Grant ain't what it used to be.

One of the bigger focuses of the film's survey is Cooper Union, the lower Manhattan college whose legacy of a tuition-free education is suddenly in peril, with administration proposing to implement tuition to combat the school's massive and growing debt.
The school's president, Jamshed Bharucha, does not make a good impression at all as he tries to defend his $750,000 annual salary and free house. His students, who stage a two-month sit-in in his office, do not fare much better, with their demands and techniques -- like standing up with their backs turned Bharucha at their graduation ceremony -- reeking of naive entitlement.

Ivory Tower may not have one salient point or an obvious purpose, but it achieves some good simply by raising these issues and inviting us to join it in thinking about them. The film benefits from welcome breadth, varied and valuable interview subjects, and a strong but sparing supply of illuminating facts and figures. Such a film won't win awards or change people's lives, but those certainly ought not to be the only goals a documentary film sets for itself.

After premiering at January's Sundance Film Festival and getting a fairly quiet release in two to twelve theaters last summer from Samuel Goldwyn Films, Ivory Tower hits Blu-ray and DVD this week from Paramount Home Media Distribution.

Ivory Tower Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($19.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

One generally does not come away from a documentary talking about the picture and sound. Nonetheless, Ivory Tower looks sharp on Blu-ray. The mostly new and original 1.78:1 visuals include picturesque aerial views of numerous American college campuses and a modest use of standard talking head interviews. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack more than suffices as well, with all sound staying crisp and intelligible, as the film opts for cheap, unmemorable music that has no chance of upstaging the content.

Director Andrew Rossi and subject Victoria Sobel answer audience questions at a New York screening. Clayton Christensen offers a gloomy prediction for the future of higher education in this deleted scene.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray includes two HD bonus features.

First up is "Opening Weekend Q & As" (15:44), a highlight reel. At New York's Angelika Film Center, director Andrew Rossi and featured Cooper Union student Victoria Sobel
answer questions about higher education and a few about the film from those who have just watched it.

In addition to that, we get two deleted scenes (7:06). The first collects opposing thoughts from author Clayton Christensen and professor Andrew Delbanco on the future of education. The second lets Georgetown University director Anthony Carnevale talk about how the system puts minorities and the poor at a disadvantage.

The static, silent main menu adapts the cover/poster art. The disc supports bookmarks, but doesn't resume unfinished playback.

No inserts accompany the plain blue disc inside the eco-friendly blue keepcase, meaning that the increasingly standard Digital HD UltraViolet is not included with this purchase.

"Ivory Tower" makes a flimsy case for dropping out of college with these three highly unusual examples.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Ivory Tower is a fine documentary which takes stock of the state and escalating costs of higher education in America. It doesn't purport to solve the problems or do anything too memorable, but it succeeds by simply raising awareness in a compelling and comprehensive fashion. Paramount's Blu-ray is basic yet adequate and worth a rental for those intrigued by the subject.

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Reviewed September 28, 2014.



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