Is On the Road the first successful attempt to bring Jack Kerouac's beloved novel to the screen? Depends on who you ask. Fans of the Beat Generation will undoubtedly love this film directed by Walter Salles and adapted by Jose Rivera and those familiar with Kerouac's mythos might be able to play along. But if you've never heard of this group of writers and miscreants you might be eating their dust.
On the Road is occasionally beautiful and entirely too long. Its narrator Sal Paradise Kerouac's alter ego is played by Sam Riley with a sort of muted watchfulness; he's an outsider the writer narrating it all along for the ride but the script doesn't do justice to the tastes of Kerouac's writing (although we get a taste in some small voiceovers). Garrett Hedlund owns this movie from top to bottom as Dean Moriarty with his buoyant earthy sexuality and total irresponsibility. In reality Dean is the sort of user and mooch that would be a total drain of energy and resources but we see him as Sal does: alive free sensual somehow utterly honest in his protestations of love and honesty despite his constant betrayals.
Dean is absolutely the sex and love object of the movie his pansexual groove attracting and scaring Sal and in a way breaking his heart. Dean also breaks the hearts of Marylou his on-again off-again child bride played by Kristen Stewart; Camille the mother of his children played by Kirsten Dunst; and most movingly Carlo Marx the alter ego of Allen Ginsberg who is played by Tom Sturridge. Sturridge is excellent as the lovelorn poet who's alternately suicidal and joyous and his scenes with Hedlund are some of the most erotic and moving. The female characters get short shrift especially Marylou who lacks much of a personality; how much of what she does is egged on by Dean and how much is of her own volition? The ballyhoo over her nude scenes were overblown by half; although they're somewhat sexy they're overshadowed by all of the sexual tension between the leads.
Two of the most interesting characters in On the Road are Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane. Bull is the alter ego of William S. Burroughs and Jane is Joan Vollmer Burroughs's common-law wife and the mother of his children. (Vollmer a writer in her own right was accidentally killed by Burroughs.) Jane played by Amy Adams is bizarre and fascinating a wild-haired lady and drug addict and mother of Bull's children but not much more than that. One could watch an entire movie of Viggo Mortensen playing Bull a sharp-dressed heroin addict who nods off with his child in his arms and strips off his clothes to get in an orgone accumulator he built in his backyard. The movie barely makes a pit stop at their crumbling Louisiana farm and their importance in Sal's life and the Beat generation is never quite explained.
One might argue that the loopy timeline of the film mimics the unending road trip of Dean's life but it doesn't serve the final product. Incorporating more of Kerouac's writing as voice-overs or something similar would have given it more life the kind of vivacity Kerouac sought out in spades which is why he tolerated Dean's vagaries for so long. More than most movies it feels like On the Road could have gone in any direction expanding or reducing characters shortening the trips to concentrate on the characters more emphasizing the effects of their missing fathers or not and it's this wishy-washiness that undermines the movie. It feels much longer than it is. It's a loving tribute to its subjects and a movie that acts as a showcase for rising stars Hedlund and Riley but it fizzles when it should burn.
On the eve of his first novel's publication San Francisco writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is called back to the Middle East for a chance to make childhood wrongs right. An extended flashback set in late-'70s Kabul Afghanistan introduces young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) the bookish son of a forceful respected businessman (Homayoun Ershadi) who despairs over his son's tendency to let his loyal friend/servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) fight his battles for him. On the fateful day of the citywide kite-fighting tournament Amir's inability to stand up to bullies has heartbreaking consequences for both him and Hassan. Soon after Amir and his father flee the invading communists eventually ending up in California. Time passes but Amir's guilt doesn't fade--so when a long-lost family friend offers him the chance to redeem himself he returns to the city of his birth to face many difficult truths. One of the best things The Kite Runner has going for it is its cast of virtual unknowns; since none of them are familiar faces to American audiences it's much easier to become wholly absorbed in their story. Abdalla is earnest and solemn as grown-up Amir. Both haunted by and determined to forget about his terrible betrayal he's often hesitant and unsure of himself (except when he meets the woman who will become his wife and courts her in a series of charming scenes). More charismatic is Ershadi who imbues Amir's father with the perfect mix of honor ferocity and sentiment. And top honors go to the boys who play young Amir and Hassan. Making their screen debut (along with co-star Elham Ehsas who's coldly menacing as bully Assef) Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada are natural genuine performers who make their characters' complicated friendship both believable and heart-wrenching. With a resume that includes the tragic (Monster's Ball) the sentimental (Finding Neverland) and the surreal (Stranger Than Fiction) it's clear that Marc Forster isn't wedded to any particular style or genre. Which is fitting since The Kite Runner is so many things at once: a coming-of-age story a sweet romance a gripping war drama. Forster does a good job of balancing the story's many needs staying faithful to Khaled Hosseini's novel while also streamlining it to keep things moving. As in the book the movie's glimpses of a (relatively) liberal prosperous '70s Afghanistan are particularly compelling; audiences who only think of the country in the context of the ultra-conservative Taliban rule (and subsequent U.S. occupation) will be entranced. Later when Amir returns home to find fear despair and dusty emptiness it's impossible not to mourn right along with him.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a land of opportunity where money grows on trees? Doctored photos of all that America purportedly offers—chickens taller than ostriches onions the size of meteors—convince Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) that everything is bigger and better in the New World than it is in his native Italy. So the widower decides to take his two sons and aging mother across the Atlantic Ocean for a shot at a better life. Crialese chronicles the family’s journey in three stages: the trek from their poor Sicilian town to a port where thousands fight for room on ships sailing to America; the often-turbulent voyage from Italy to America; and the navigation of the bureaucratic obstacles that await them at Ellis Island. The route taken doesn’t require much of a map but Crialese ensures there are many bumps on the road that test Salvatore’s mettle time and time again. He must contend with a mother (Aurora Quattrocchi) upset at leaving Sicily a mute son whose inability/refusal to speak could prevent him from entering the United States and a beautiful and headstrong English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with possibly dubious romantic inclinations toward Salvatore. And then there are the skeptical American officials at Ellis Island to contend with … At the foot of The Golden Door stands Vincenzo Amato. It is through Amato that we ache for the comfort of the Old World and are drawn to the mysterious allure of the New World. As the devoted patriarch of the Mancuso family Amato strikes a careful balance between concern and curiosity as he and his loved ones move closer and closer to their destination—and their fate. He also maintains a calmness that cannot be shaken even as the roughest waves of the Atlantic Ocean threaten to capsize their ship. As Lucy the elegant woman in distress who captures Salvatore’s heart Charlotte Gainsbourg once again proves to be as beguiling and enigmatic object of affection as she was in The Science of Sleep. She’s rapidly becoming the poster girl for strange and inventive love stories. Aurora Quattrocchi mines much humor and wisdom from Salvatore’s mother’s grumpy cynical and stubborn demeanor which serves to make her an endearing but ultimately tragic representative of Old World thinking. Filippo Pucillo does his best Harpo Marx impression—adopting his physical appearance and channeling his quirky mannerisms—as the mute Pietro. And in one of his final roles the late Vincent Schiavelli is delightfully slimy as a businessman more than willing to assist Lucy for a steep price of course. There’s certainly a good deal of Federico Fellini in Emanuele Crialese. Possessing a fondness for the absurd and the metaphorical Crialese takes us on a voyage that is as visually arresting as it is intelligent and moving. You know you are in for an unpredictable but memorable Atlantic crossing when Crialese opens with the sight of snails making a home in Pietro’s hair. Amato clearly is game for anything as revealed by his willingness to be buried deep in dirt or dropped into a river of milk by Crialese. The most breathtaking moment though comes when Crialese parts a huge crowd of people like the Red Sea as he reveals who’s going to America and who’s staying in Italy. But Crialese doesn’t allow the film to be overrun with vignettes filled with symbolism. He devotes as much time to ensuring we are emotionally invested in the Mancuso family however particular they may seem and their desire to start over. To this end Crialese always gives the proceedings with a sense of optimism even when the Mancuso family arrives at Ellis Island and is subjected to dehumanizing physical and psychological testing to determine their entry to the United States. Golden Door is a wonderful tribute to the grit and determination of those—many of whom are our ancestors—who gave up everything they had to live the American dream.