‘Operation Varsity Blues’ compellingly lifts lid on college admissions scandal


If you ever wanted to know more about the ins and outs of the college admissions scandal that shocked America a couple of years ago then director Chris Smith and Netflix has an informative and entertaining documentary for you.

“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” uses transcribed conversations between principal conspirators in the scandal from FBI wire taps to tell the audacious story of college admissions guru Rick Singer.

Singer, a former high school basketball coach, used his powers of persuasion to convince affluent parents to bribe their children’s way into exclusive universities by making high-dollar “donations” to fringe athletic programs like crew, soccer, and water polo in return for having their children admitted to the universities as walk-on and/or scholarship members of the various teams.

Matthew Modine portrays Singer in the film that intertwines interviews with lawyers, experts, academicians, and associates of Singer and other principal characters involved in the scam with reenactments of their schemes. Modine is effective but restrained as Singer, who is portrayed as a utilitarian yet smooth salesman offering services the parents sought not only for the betterment of their children’s lives but more importantly their own prestige.

The funny thing is if Singer had worked as hard at selling real estate or cars or insurance as he did selling his scam, he probably would have made even more money in an honest fashion. It’s ironic how hard he worked to sell a shortcut.

The film is compelling in how it details the services Singer offered his clients, whose children were academically unqualified to make it into the university of their choices through the front door, and who did not want to pay or could not afford to pay the tens of millions of dollars to get them in the back door through grossly generous donations to the schools.

By working the angle of collegiate scholarships, Singer offered his clients a side door into the hallowed halls of academia even though most of his clients’ children had little to no athletic prowess. Enough coaches were willing to take an undeserving kid to line their pockets with extra cash.

Singer’s scam was airtight as long as everyone kept their mouths shut, but when one of his clients was arrested on other charges, he spilled the beans to the FBI in hopes of having his sentence reduced. From there is was just a matter of time before Singer and his clients went down.

To reduce his own charges, Singer actually set up his former clients through wire-tapped phone conversations and in-person meetings. Singer is still free while many of his clients have already done months in jail. Other cases are still in the courts. It’s unknown how much punishment Singer will ultimately receive.

While this story was compelling enough to follow as hard news, the dramatization of the events from the FBI transcripts makes for compelling and cautionary storytelling that was also quite entertaining.

(R) 1 hr. 43 min.
Grade: B

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Classic Corner – Now, Voyager

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

If you are looking for a juicy, melodramatic love story to watch in the near future, set your DVR for 8 a.m. Monday to record “Now, Voyager” on Turner Classic Movies.

I don’t consider myself much of a Bette Davis fan, but it’s hard to deny the magnetism of her talent in this 1941 film based on the Olive Higgins Prouty novel of the same name.

It’s the story of drab spinster Charlotte Vale (Davis) who has led a frustratingly repressed, and maddening life, dominated by her wicked witch of a mother Mrs. Windle Vale (Gladys Cooper) who emotionally abused Charlotte onto the precipice of insanity.

About to loose it for good, Charlotte is introduced to psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) by her sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase). Jaquith suggests she move to his sanitarium for rest and treatment.

It’s amazing what a little time away from her mother does for Charlotte. She blossoms into a new person, a head-turning beauty. Instead of returning home, she opts to take an ocean cruise. There she meets Jerry Duvaux (Paul Henreid), who remains in a loveless marriage for the sake of his young daughter Christine despite the damage his marriage has done to his career and aspirations.

After being stranded on Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, the two spend five days together and fall in love. However, because of their situations, the two opt to never see each other again with each returning to their families.

Of course, fate brings them back together — in a sense — before the movie ends, but before that Charlotte’s tumultuous relationship with her mother comes to a head in an awful fashion. Charlotte flees back to the sanatorium where she meets Jerry’s daughter, whom she relates to immediately. Neither are loved by their mothers.

The love story doesn’t end happily as one might expect, but the film does deliver on its promise more than satisfactorily, punctuating a story filled with ups and downs.

The movie will either suck you in or give you plenty of scenarios to have fun with as life puts Charlotte and Jerry through the wringer thanks to a plot that no doubt inspired many a soap-opera.

Charlotte is a stand-out role for Davis, giving her the chance to play nearly every emotion you can think of. Cooper is genuinely scary as Charlotte’ mean and vindictive mother. Henreid is debonair as Jerry, shining in the scene when he puts two cigarettes in his mouth to light in succession for himself and Davis. Rains, like always, classes up any film he’s in.

To modern viewers the film might seem cliché, but in many cases, this film is where the now overused ideas were introduced.