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Knight at the Movies: On the Road; Ginger & Rosa; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2013-03-20

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Almost from the moment Jack Kerouac's seminal novel On the Road was published in 1957, filmmakers have been trying to adapt it for the screen. The first effort came almost immediately—from Kerouac himself when he penned a letter to Brando suggesting he take on the part of his magnetic lead character Dean Moriarty. Brando did not respond to the letter (perhaps because he was then entering his "respectable" phase), and the book has gone unfilmed—until now.

After shepherding a plethora of screen adaptation attempts since buying the rights in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola has finally gotten the movie made. Hiring Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of The Motorcycle Diaries, would seem an odd choice to helm this classic of American literature; however, Coppola's instincts are sound as Salles really gets the look and feel of the Beat generation so infamously described in Kerouac's prose, on the screen. It's too bad that Salles doesn't quite get the electricity on the screen to match Kerouac's words.

However, it's not for a lack of trying. He has assembled the fetching Garret Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Country Strong), Sam Riley (Control) and Twilight's Kristen Stewart to play, respectively, Dean, Sal and Mary Lou—the iconoclastic, dissatisfied, yearning trio at the center of the novel. The three certainly look the way Kerouac described them and, for the most part, do the characters proud (Stewart, though not quite as disaffected as usual, being the indeterminate exception).

Salles also surrounds these young actors with a dreamy supporting cast—Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss and Terrence Howard—with many playing tiny parts. These actors, along with several new faces (especially Tom Sturridge playing the character based on queer poet laureate Allen Ginsberg) bring moments of individual vitality to the movie—which it desperately needs.

The problem has to do with the material itself. On the page, Kerouac's thinly veiled biographical characters and situations crackle with vitality. But on the screen this most famous story of disaffected, aging youth quickly bores without much of a story to go with all the bitching. On the Road—for all its gorgeous, prosaic beauty—doesn't really have a plot. Long before the film ends we get the all-too-familiar point that Dean's nothing more than a wild-eyed, sexy Peter Pan refusing to grow up and whose Merry Men inevitably mature past their need or desire for him. And two hours, or thereabouts, of watching our trio getting stoned; partying and hanging out at bebop clubs; driving hither and yon; making love in various combinations, with various partners (of both sexes in Dean's case); and flaunting convention each time they're stopped for speeding by a traffic cop isn't exactly coolsville, daddy-o.

Although the film is sensationally photographed (Salles' cinematographer Eric Gautier perfectly recreates the color blurred visuals of 1950s home movies), and artfully directed and scored, it's ultimately strictly dullsville, man. Earnest, laudable effort though it is, On the Road's biggest flaw is that it's 50 years too late to make any lasting impact—something that will never be said about the book, which retains its power to incite outsiders to follow their bliss and the hell with mainstream convention.

Sally Potter, known for her offbeat art films that play with narrative (Orlando, Yes, Rage) has now made Ginger & Rosa, a movie that defiantly (for Potter, that is) does not. But it's no surprise that Potter's movie, a coming-of-age tale in which the inseparable bond between two teenage girls is tested, adds a nice metaphoric underscore that helps elevate it from its familiar template. Superlative performances by its young leads—Elle Fanning and Alice Englert—and some lovely turns by its expert supporting cast help deepen the material as well.

It's 1962 and London isn't exactly swinging yet—as least not for the red-haired Ginger, who wants to be a writer and worries about the imminent threat of nuclear war amidst the usual teenage angst. It's up to her brunette bestie Rosa to teach her how to kiss, smoke and break loose from her bookish conventions. Like those Patty Duke identical cousins, Ginger and Rosa are "different as night and day," yet their teenage bond is tight, tight, tight. As they discuss everything from hairstyles to politics, both agree they will not end up trapped in a life of domestic drudgery—the fate that Ginger's gorgeous mum, Natalie (Christina Hendricks, who is making a nice little career for herself as the wronged housewife), seems to have settled for.

The 17-year-old girls instead strongly identify with Ginger's handsome, brooding, self-centered father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a radical pacifist with an eye for the ladies who barely tolerates Natalie and doesn't pay much attention to his daughter. Ginger's gay godfather (Timothy Spall), his partner (Oliver Platt) and their outspoken political feminist friend, Bella (Annette Bening), also wield a fair amount of influence on raising Ginger's political and feminist consciousness. Circumstances build toward a moment of familial crisis that tilts the film into the arena of melodrama (and has been telegraphed well in advance).

Although the climax of Ginger & Rosa is at odds with Fanning's illuminating, naturalistic performance—which is the best reason to see the movie (and she is matched by Englert and the adult actors surrounding them)—it actually seems an adept progression of Potter's artful script and might actually be a plus for moviegoers with a taste for coming-of-age stories and their inherent teenage histrionics.

Film notes:

—Cinema Q III, the annual Cultural Center LGBT film series, continues Wed., March 20 with Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, Chicago native Yvonne Wellbon's warm 1999 documentary portrait of the lesbian activist. The event kicks off with out filmmaker Robert Philipson's 2011 documentary short T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, which delves into the lesbianism of blues legends Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter and others.

The series—which The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, The Legacy Project, Queer Film Society and Reeling are co-sponsoring—takes place in the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. A discussion follows each of the movies. Windy City Times, Time Out Chicago and ChicagoPride are media co-sponsors for Cinema Q III. http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/cinema_q.html

—After one night of drunken revelry, the innocent-looking Paulo (who we discover, has a taste for S&M) and swarthy bartender Ilir, who has brought him home, begin a tentative affair that soon becomes all encompassing. Then circumstances step in to threaten the budding love match that deepens the typical boy-meets-boy plotline in Beyond the Walls, a Belgium film playing as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's month-long European Union fest. Reeling is co-presenting the queer-themed movie, which features two heartfelt leading performances, at the Siskel, 164 N. State St., on Saturday, March 23, at 9 p.m. and Monday, March 25 at 7:45 p.m. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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