The transition from Los Angeles to Texarkana has robbed me of my enviable position to see platform releases early in their run. Thus, when I went to Austin in early November for an academic conference, I spent much of my time at the local cinema. I needed to catch up on flicks like The Master, Room 237, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower before I bought a ticket to the wide release Disney outing Wreck-It Ralph. Two of those films, reviewed here, are among the best cinematic fare 2012 has to offer. The other two were massive disappointments. Below you will find brief capsule reviews to guide your holiday viewing.
I wasn’t holding my breath for Wreck-It Ralph because it was not coming out of the Pixar side of Disney’s media empire (with the exception of 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, it has been a long while since I cared for a Disney film). Admittedly, Wreck-It Ralph isn’t terribly unique with regard to deviating from either the Disney or Pixar formulas. Like Toy Story, it presents two men trapped in children’s role play who are perfect character foils: Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Fix-It Felix (John McBrayer), video game characters who, like Woody and Buzz, have lives outside the playroom. Since the rules of the game dictate that Ralph must Wreck-It and Felix must Fix-It, they are forced into a light variation of an antagonist/protagonist relationship. When Ralph gets tired of playing the bad guy, he goes AWOL from his game and tries to become the hero of others games, including a first-person shooter and racing game. This upsets the natural order of his home game, which is on the verge of being disconnected, and Felix sets off to find his foe.
There are several creative decisions that make Wreck-It Ralph rewarding, even if it comes across as the gamer equivalent of Toy Story. First, the writers (Phil Johnson and Jennifer Lee) and director (Rich Moore) do an excellent job of exploring the moral implications of nature vs. nurture in a children’s movie. Like Brad Bird’s amazing film The Iron Giant, Ralph has been designed to be a destroyer and must fight his own nature (and the perceptions of others around him) to help bring balance to the life of the young racer “glitch” Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). The film does its best not to oversimplify while still providing a message which juggles being true to one’s self and living within the rules of a society . . . or a video game. Second, the film successfully stylistically remediates video game graphics to both add visual flare to the proceedings and to add in humor and homage (look at how the 8-bit characters of “Fix-It Felix” are limited in their physical gestures compared with those of the high def shooter “Hero’s Journey”). Sure, the film hits all the character arc notes we expect and equating Vanellope’s glitching with epilepsy is problematic, but this is a formally astounding, hilarious, morality tale told in the arcade.
From the standpoint of a Stanley Kubrick obsessed media scholar who has , on occasion, produced visual essays (Comics to Film, Towards a New Genre of Video Game Play), Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, a documentary chronicling the hidden meanings of Kubrick’s The Shining, is one of the most disappointing films of the year. The documentary’s chief problem is it confuses superficial observations and anecdotes with film analysis, defrauding lovers of the film with the opposite of substance. The film, a grueling 90+ minutes, enlists Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Wiedner, and—tellingly, the doc’s only actual film scholar—Geoffrey Cocks to unravel the mysteries of The Shining. They share tidbits of information from virtual maps constructed based on Kubrick’s representation of the Overlook Hotel, a crock theory that the equation Redrum=Murder means that the film is meant to be watched backwards and, in Cocks’s opinion, the thesis that the film is really about the genocide of the Native Americans (because of a baking powder can) and the Jews (because of the typewriter Jack Torrence uses).
Cocks is really the only participant whose theory carries any merit but, as media studies scholar Girish Shambu observes, even if we buy into this analysis, it simply doesn’t provide anything of substance to take away from The Shining. More infuriating is the analysis of Jay Wiedner, a charlatan who begins to argue that the film is some sort of therapy for Kubrick to express his frustration over staging the Apollo 11 moonlanding. In Wiedner’s opinion, the fact that Danny wears an Apollo 11 shirt and goes into “Room No. 237,” which can mean be rearranged to say “Moon” and “Room” (or Moor or Mooo) is enough to sell that interpretation, which he refuses to elaborate upon because he doesn’t want to cannibalize a book he allegedly has coming out (not peer-reviewed or published with a reputable press, I bet). Essentially, what makes Room 237 such a disappointment is that it betrays an amazing film with trite observations from folks who just don’t know how to “do” film analysis. Why not ask James Naremore or Alexander Walker to talk about the film? Their Kubrick scholarship is top notch! Hell, you could even read my undergraduate paper on the film which, for as bad as it is, actually has a compelling thesis grounded in textual analysis. Instead, Room 237 is more content to equate film analysis with a hobby for stoned couch potatoes, a write-off that this Media Studies Professor finds deeply disheartening.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky’s coming of age novel is close to my heart. I had to read it as a required text for a freshman seminar I took in college. The wallflower existence of Charlie (Logan Lerman) mirrored my own in high school. Like Charlie, I spent the summer before my freshman year of high school in the hospital (for a misdiagnosed appendix instead of a nervous breakdown) and felt grossly inadequate to handle high school life when I arrived for my first day. I encountered the cliques and the overwhelming feeling that because of my interest in the arts—not a common attribute of most 15 year olds in the middle of Wisconsin—I was alone. Like Charlie, however, I found solace in the presence of upperclassmen (you know who you are) who, like Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), expanded my knowledge of film and music. I share this because I assume the effectiveness of The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a film rests on that connection. If the viewer was/is a wallflower, they’ll find the experience nostalgic and cathartic. If he or she wasn’t or isn’t, I’m not sure it will pack as much of a punch.
For those of you familiar with the book—a largely plotless enterprise, rendered in small vignettes about chasing girls, exploring literature, and dealing with past traumas—you’ll come away from the film feeling like you’ve just watched the best adaptation possible. Chbosky wrote and directed this film and while its visual style is relatively average, his strong work with his cast (in particular, the three leads, specifically Ezra Miller who, between this and We Need to Talk About Kevin, is a talent to keep an eye on), his ability to cinematically hit those emotional points of his book effectively (“I swear we were infinite.”), and his admiration of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Smiths do an amazing job of tugging the heartstrings while keeping the characters as vivid as they were in the novel. Watching the film was akin to going through a tunnel while standing on the flatbed of a truck—emotional and exhilarating. I wish it hadn’t taken me a month and a half to get to Austin to see it.