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On the Road(2012)
Brazilian director Walter Salles helms this adaptation of the iconic novel by Jack Kerouac that defined the Beat Generation. Sam Riley stars as Kerouac's self-styled protagonist, down-and-out intellectual Sal Paradise, who takes to the backroads of America with his free-spirited friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) in a frantic odyssey fuelled by jazz, poetry and drugs in search of the 'it' at the heart of life. Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst and Amy Adams co-star.
For more about On the Road and the On the Road Blu-ray release, see On the Road Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on August 7, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund, Terrence Howard
Director: Walter Salles
» See full cast & crew
On the Road Blu-ray Review
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live."
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, August 7, 2013
Director Walter Salles is no stranger to road movies. His excellent 2004 Che Guevara travelogue, The Motorcycle Diaries, follows the young firebrand-to-be on a two-wheeled journey from Buenos Aires to Caracas, encountering the poverty and sickness of a continent primed for revolution. When the film was released, it earned comparisons to Jack Kerouac's On the Road—both are concerned with new ways of living, and both are suffused with the spirit of their times—so it seems appropriate that Salles' latest project is a film version of that prototypical American road novel. The prototypical American road novel, we might say.
A page-to-screen version of Kerouac's name-making tome has been in the works for ages—Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1979 and nearly got several different iterations into production over the years, one hypothetically starring Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt—but the book is obviously tricky to adapt, which might explain the delay. It's a shambling, freeform jazz odyssey that doesn't so much have a story as it has a series of episodic cross-country adventures, filled with strange characters, an awkward love pentangle, and the druggy highs and lows of of a rootless, experience- seeking existence. Any film adaptation would have to be fiercely alive and supremely confident. Salles' movie is both, but only in isolated stretches. There are times when the film is helter-skelter wild and pulsing with energy, while elsewhere, it's oddly restrained and unaffecting. It's a okay movie—make no mistake—but it's easy to imagine a freer, more honest On the Road.
Like any adaptation, some trimming was necessary to fit the novel, famously written as a single, 120-foot "scroll" of typing paper, into a two-hour film. The key episodes are here, though, spanning the years between 1947 and 1950. The hitchhiking and multiple cross-country trips. The jazz nightclubs and Benzedrine highs. The taboo sexuality—which is actually more explicit here than it is in the novel, where it took place mostly off the page—and the general, largely autobiographical squalor. Names were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect Kerouac from libel charges, but even when the novel was first published, there was never any doubt who was who.
Kerouac re-envisions himself as the inspiration-seeking observer Sal Paradise (Control's Sam Riley), an Italian-American writer who spins into the orbit of the insanely charismatic Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)—based on the future Merry Prankster Neal Cassady—a car thief, conman, and drifter whose candle most certainly burns at both ends. Dean lives spontaneously, impetuously, purely, and this makes him a magnetic presence to the circle of young intellectuals—eager to find new ways of existing outside the post-war societal norms—who would come to be called the "Beats." Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), a stand-in for Howl poet Allen Ginsberg, is attracted to Dean physically—and the bisexual Dean readily complies, though he can't fully commit—while Sal is pulled towards the vagabond's "holy" soul and shining mind.
And then there are the women in Dean's life; his first wife, the 16-year-old nympho Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart), and his second, Camille (Kirsten Dunst), who grows progressively fed-up with her husband's long disappearances and constant philandering. While Dean is out galavanting with Sal, Camille is stuck home in their San Francisco apartment, watching their young daughter and fretting over his return. If there's one thing the film version impresses—maybe even more so than the novel—its how awfully the male chauvinist Beats treated their significant others, who were not yet liberated by the second-wave feminism and sexual revolution to come in the following two decades.
A conventional "plot" is practically non-existent in On the Road, which follows the age-old road story map of an outward trip—filled with come- what-may events—mirroring the inner journey of its characters, who are molded by their experiences. The richness of the characters, then, is important if we're to feel compelled to join them on their travels, and in film, this translates into the need for great casting. For the most part, Salles has made excellent choices here. Garrett Hedlund may not have a cult leader charisma level, but he's charming even while being insufferable, a key Dean Moriarty trait. Sam Riley makes a fine Sal Paradise too, all watchful eyes and a sideways smirk, initially just along for the ride but increasingly autonomous as he realizes that Dean is, in cosmic terms, a massive star on the verge of collapse. There a number of surprising cameos from more recognizable faces as well, including Terrence Howard as a jazz saxophonist, Steve Buscemi as a pervy traveling salesman, and Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams as the morphine-addled Old Bull Lee—that is, William Burroughs—and his kooky wife. Even Twilight's Kristen Stewart manages to shake her usual deadpan glower for a few scenes, dancing with Dean to Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" and twice serving as the seductive female trois in an otherwise male menage.
The problem with Walter Salles' On the Road—and this is going to sound counterintuitive—is that it's so damnably well-made. The acting is solid. The music is perfect. It's been considerately adapted by playwright José Rivera and gorgeously shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier, both of whom worked on The Motorcycle Diaries. So, what's the issue? On the Road is safe, conventional, at odds with the Beats' exuberant philosophy of living. Salles supposedly screened Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless to the cast in order to show them what sort of vibe he was going for, but ironically, On the Road feels more in line with the stuffy French film industry's "tradition of quality," against which Godard and the other New Wave moviemakers of the '60s were rebelling. There are certainly a few moments where Salles captures the joyous, breakneck intensity of Kerouac's novel, but most of the time, the film seems strangely tempered at both ends, its highs muted, its existential lows not quite as crushing as they should be.
On the Road Blu-ray, Video Quality
On the Road finds Walter Salles once again working with The Motorcycle Diaries' cinematographer, Eric Gautier, who shot the film beautifully on 35mm. (This movie just wouldn't've have felt right shot digitally. I'd even argue that 16mm might've been an even better choice.) MPI's Blu-ray release seems mostly true to source—no obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement here—though the image does occasionally seem to have a slightly mushy look that might suggest compression and/or a low bit-rate. Granted, from a normal viewing distance you'd never notice this; you really have to pixel peep to make out any compression artifacts. (Look carefully at some of the driving scenes in heavy snow—they're there.) The film's grain structure is quite pronounced, which also contributes to some of the softness, but overall, clarity is still great, with fine skin and clothing textures visible at least in closeups, if not always in longer shots. Color—so important to the film's mood—is balanced nicely too, from the sun soaked desert-scapes to the cold blues of a drive through a blizzard. Contrast is consistent, the print is clean, and there are no major distractions to be found.
On the Road Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The disc includes two audio options, the default lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 stereo mix-down. Both are fine, but for our purposes we'll focus on the multi-channel mix, which is well-designed and has a great sense of clarity and presence. The rear speakers are utilized in just about every scene. The hum of insects and the busy hands of workers out in a cotton field; the rush of a turbulent river; the clamor in jazz clubs; the flat hum of car tires zipping down the road—it's all lively and engaging. The real draw here, audio-wise, though, is the music, both the score by Babel and Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla—gamers might know him from his lonely guitar motif for The Last of Us—and the near-constant presence of jazz flowing through the background of the film. (And sometimes in the foreground, like when Dean and Sal go see Slim Gaillard—played by Coati Mundi—perform his scat-jive hit "Yip Roc Heresy," which uses the names of Lebanese food dishes as nonsense words.) The ambience and music come together to form a rich soundscape, and dialogue cuts through it cleanly, balanced perfectly in the mix. You'll also find optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles on the disc, which appear in bright yellow lettering both inside and outside the 2.40:1 frame.
On the Road Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
On the Road Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
After The Motorcycle Diaries, producer Francis Ford Coppola saw Walter Salles as the perfect choice to direct Jack Kerouac's freewheeling On the Road. Salles was a good choice, but I can't say he was the best choice. His version of the Beat legend's autobiographical odyssey is enjoyable, but rarely exhilarating. It feels too restrained, too conventional in its cinematic approach, which puts it at odds with Kerouac's own energy and experimentation. Still, if you've read the novel, you'll definitely want to seek out the film to form your own comparison, and MPI's Blu-ray release is the best way to watch it, with a fairly strong video presentation and killer sound.
On the Road: Other Editions
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On the Road Blu-ray, News and Updates
• On the Road Blu-ray - April 11, 2013
MPI Home Video has revealed that it plans to bring to Blu-ray acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles' On the Road (2012), starring Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, and Terrence Howard. The preliminary release date ...
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