Friday, June 29, 2012

2012 SFF Short Reviews: On the Road and Headshot

On the Road (Walter Salles, 2012)

I have not read Jack Kerouac’s classic 1951 novel, but word from several of my colleagues who also saw the film at the SFF was that Walter Salles has crafted as good an adaptation as can be expected from a novel many have claimed to be unfilmable. Does this translate into an engaging film? There are some great moments, certainly, and credit must be given to Salles’ recreation of the 50's atmosphere, his stunning use of the locations and handling of his young performers, but it far from an entertaining film. It was almost instantly forgettable, in fact.

I got onboard when Sam Riley’s character Sal Paradise, an aspiring writer short on inspiration, begins his spontaneous cross-country adventures with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a free-spirited maverick whose influence provides both pleasure and pain for Sal as he becomes both a friend and a burden. But two-thirds of the way through this longwinded and episodic tale – it is just shy of 150 minutes – I lost interest.

After traversing the country they arrive back in California and Dean once again takes up with Kirsten Dunst’s character, the mother of his child and a woman we know he doesn’t care for, and it becomes seriously dull. By the time Sal and Dean journey to Mexico (and if someone can explain why that episode was relevant or necessary I would be appreciative) it is hard to still care for anyone on screen.

There is only so much Hedonism overload we can take; the characters booze up, take drugs and have sex for almost the entire film. Nothing particularly interesting happens, but it is more an examination of the era and of masculinity; the rise of the Jazz scene (and the effective score punctuates this), insight into the mind of a talented writer striving to find something to say and the trials and tribulations of the New York intellectual, searching for life’s meaning on the open road, seeking freedom and independence and embracing it. It is about growing up.

Sam Riley's narration in his growling American accent grew quite tiring, while Kristen Stewart’s promiscuous performance, far removed from her Twilight work and quite bold, means little because her character was simply lifeless. Cameos from Viggo Mortensen (he immediately made the film more interesting) and Steve Buscemi are the most memorable, but the star of the show was definitely the charismatic Hedlund, a compelling screen presence. He manages to somewhat draw sympathy by portraying a selfish, irresponsible and hedonistic adrenalin junkie, but ultimately it is his free-wheeling, and his influence on Sal, that prompts Sal to find the inspiration – having experienced all that he had – to finish his novel, and a central character to most directly address. Just as Kerouac wrote On the Road based on his personal experiences, Sal is a stand-in for Kerouac here.

On The Road is tough going. I am really not sure how lovers of the novel have received it, but for those unacquainted with it, there is not a lot of reward to take away, despite some great scenes here and there. ★★1/2

On The Road has a scheduled release in Australia on September 27.

You can find my review of Headshot after the jump...

Headshot (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2011)

Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Headshot is a slick, sexy and polished Thai crime noir thriller focusing on Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam), an honest cop-turned-hitman after busting the wrong drug racket. His latest kill, requiring him to shave his head and impersonate a Buddhist monk, goes awry. He is shot in the head and after waking up from a coma three months later, discovers that his vision has been turned upside down. Tul, trying to adapt to his new view of the world while facing certain obligations from his employers (a secret organisation that targets crooked politicians), finds himself wanted by a new and unknown enemy (perhaps associates of the syndicate he took down as a cop, or someone seeking revenge for one of his targets) and begins to question his place in his twisted and violent society.

Pen-Ek's image consistently looks fantastic. It is a film noir - Tul opens the film at a typewriter and narrates throughout - so there is always a mystery driving the story. There are beautiful but suspicious female characters who may have ulterior motives, and treachery on a number of fronts, but Headshot remains engaging purely through the beautiful cinematography. One scene takes place at night in close to pitch-darkness, and I don't know how this was achieved, but Pen-Ek and his regular cinematographer, Chankit Chamnivikaipong, ensure that what is taking place is not only visible, but fraught with tension and suspense. There are also some very cool POV shots, and when Tul views the world upside down - and in his home his TV is upside down to provide a visual cue - there are some clever visual touches to convey his situation.

Above all, Headshot is a character study, and Tul is a fascinating character. Chaiyanam is perfectly adequate, required to undergo several physical transformations throughout. The story progresses and flashes back and forth in time to either side of this ill-fated mission. If he has hair, we know it is prior. Even so, the density of the non-linear narrative means it becomes somewhat convoluted and confusing, relying on coincidence and often lacking in logic. 

This is all largely forgivable because it is gripping. That is until the final act letdown, where the revelations are revealed and loose ends are tied in an unsatisfying manner. Headshot gets plenty of points for style, but Tul's altered philosophy on life - a metaphor for his now tumultuous existence - and the film's haphazard interest in Buddhism doesn't necessarily work as well as intended. This will still likely impress fans of atmospheric film noir/crime thrillers by ambitiously giving familiar genre tropes a bit of a shake up. ★★★1/2


  1. I saw Sam's review, as well, and she had a similar opinion. I do understand why you say 150 minutes of partying, sex and road trips might get boring, but your review seemed mostly positive, I was surprised of only 2* and a half. But I get it. Oh, and I am happy to see that Garrett Hedlund was the star, I quite like an actor and a guy :)

    1. Yeah I was very surprised by Hedlund. I thought he was really great. Overall, the film is just bland. There are no real highs and lows, it just plods along throwing in cameos here and there. Nothing interesting to say about it at all. Very forgettable, unfortunately. I tried to focus on the positives, but its definitely a 2 1/2 star film.

  2. Very disappointing to read the film is not great, but probably not surprising. As you stated in your review, the book probably is impossible to adapt to the screen overly well.

    The Mexico interlude is in the film because it's in the book (duh!) but it also becomes the catalyst for Kerouac's (Sal's) ultimate rejection of Cassady (Moriarty). If the film didn't highlight this, I suppose you would have to say the scene failed.

    One thing you didn't touch on but which is incredibly important in the book - "the road" itself: it's probably THE main character in many ways. From a film perspective, I would (will!) be looking to see how America itself is captured and portrayed. Do you have anything you can add to your review from this perspective?


    Darren :-)

    1. Yeah I have a feeling everything in the book is included in the film, but there are some episodes that just don't need to be. I do think the Mexico sequence failed, because at the point of the film - about two hours in - when we are hoping for something to change a little bit, we are offered up more of the same. It is the point that Sal does reject Moriarty, and goes off to write, so I guess it does have a point, but it was the point a few people in the crowd let out a groan. "Now they're going to Mexico...come on."

      'The Road' is a strong character in the film, and I did admire how Salles utilised the beautiful country the young travellers were journeying through. The first shot of the film is of Sal's boots walking along a road, though the boots aren't the focus, it is 'the road'. I felt like Hedlund's performance really transformed Moriarty into a great character, but 'the road' is the film's primary character so on that level it was a success.

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment. I look forward to hearing what you think of the film. Apologies for the delayed response.