It is 64 years since the trans-American trip that inspired On the Road. Time to ask, of that founding work of beat fiction, “Do we still need it? Should we still – with tributes and adaptations – feed it?” Three generations have passed since Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, alias writer Jack Kerouac and friend Neal Cassady, went on the fame-destined travels that form Kerouac’s book: wild times which wear today the serious, intimidating patina of an American literary classic. Worse, in Walter Salles’ film, they have the cod-iconic monumentality of a theme park, filled with sights and sounds we are schooled to recognise and abjured to pay homage to.
Salles gave us political-history tourism in The Motorcycle Diaries, a film for Marxists and scenery lovers about the young Ernesto Guevara’s tour of Latin America in the years before the Cuban revolution. Nothing happened in that movie except lots of landscapes and adoring close-ups of Gael García Bernal as the young “Che”. On the Road is rebel-literature tourism: no less bubble-brained but much, much more wearing. Mystifyingly miscast as Kerouac/Paradise, British actor Sam Riley (Control, Brighton Rock) looks like a young T.S. Eliot warping into a lost-looking Leonardo DiCaprio. He acts gamely, but he, the “Carlo” (Allen Ginsberg) of Tom Sturridge and the Moriarty of newcomer Garrett Hedlund exchange dialogue that could have been created by a labelling machine. “I was a young writer trying to take off” (Riley-Kerouac’s voice-over). “Sal and Carlo, the writer pals, I’ve heard all about you! ... ” (Hedlund-Cassady on first opening the door to his future fame-sharers.)
Kristen Stewart as shared girlfriend Marylou looks unhappiest of all. In the three-way sex scenes she keeps her bra on as if to say, “Hedonistic abandon is fine, but I have a Twilight contract to protect.” Kirsten Dunst as Dean’s ill-used wife briefly projects emotion and credibility. Elsewhere the trite scripting and direction are accessorised with dismaying invocations of Culture, lest we mistake Sal and Dean for mere wastrels with wanderlust. Nearly every room is strewn with great novels. Proust, Genet, Virginia Woolf: these youngsters are into high art and literature. For Salles that explains, excuses, sanctifies or canonises their (in the film) platitudinous conversations, uninteresting delinquencies and unaccountable compulsion to keep driving to and fro across America.
Pusher has gloss, panache and frenzy: three things missing from the average bog-standard British gangster film. Relocating Nicolas Winding Refn’s Danish original to London, Spanish director Luis Prieto invigorates the drugs-and-crime plot. The casting of Croatia’s Zlatko Buric helps too, the oleaginous actor-baddie of Refn’s film redeployed as this one’s Mr Big, oozing charm, sleaze and unctuous sarcasm.
Richard Coyle’s crook-hero, a dealer up to his ears in debt after helping people to be up to their noses in cocaine, plays straight man to both Buric and Bronson Webb as Coyle’s henchman, the hyperkinetic squealer star-makingly played in the Danish film by Mads Mikkelsen. Near the end the script runs out of ideas and escape routes, just like the main character. Before that it nicely accommodates the complementary virtues of claustrophobic suspense and mazy moral disorientation.
I wanted to send everyone in Ruby Sparks to a treatment centre for the terminally winsome. A de-schmaltz clinic. There is the germ of a good romantic-comedy idea in actress and story originator Zoe Kazan’s tale of an aspiring author (Paul Dano) conjuring a real woman (Kazan) from his fictive typescript and falling in love with her. But the germ mutates and becomes life-threatening. Several senior stars (Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas) appear, called in like parents or guardians to the emergency ward as sentimentality spreads. Two directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of the over-lauded Little Miss Sunshine, share the blame. I kept being reminded, by Dano’s gauche and willowy sweet-naturedness and Kazan’s gamine ethereality, of those long-ago Jules Feiffer cartoons, in which the dawn of the love-and-peace era and its preciousness were mercilessly lampooned – an example to this film – for the good of us all.
“Every time I’m in one of their movies, it’s successful,” boasts the man nicknamed Radioman. You’re not sure whether to believe this serial film extra and urban hobo, who gets his moniker from the ghetto-blaster slung round his neck. Mary Kerr’s likeable documentary follows him as he shuttles between New York film sets, a favourite of the famous. “This man’s a cultural institution,” proclaims Tom Hanks. Meryl Streep coos love. Martin Scorsese gave him a cameo in Shutter Island. (He has also been in Wall Street 2, The Departed and television’s 30 Rock.) Radioman should, and in time surely will, be played by Robin Williams, who appears in the film as if to manifest his striking resemblance. It’s a pleasantly cuckoo story, though we’re never sure how truly thrilled the famous are to see this man constantly moving in on their nest, which includes, we note, the amply provided catering truck.
If there were seven deadly virtues, worthiness would top the list. How can we be unkind – or constructively kind – to Private Peaceful, which slogs spiritlessly through a Michael Morpurgo fable about the evils of war? Suffering horses; sacrificial soldiers; salt-of-the-earth rustics. Didn’t we just have all this in War Horse? Where Spielberg overpainted his first world war fresco, director Pat O’Connor (Cal, Dancing at Lughnasa), on a smaller budget, seems barely able to afford a colouring kit. The lacklustre landscapes are all of a wash with the watercolour performances and pallidly portentous tableaux of war and peace.
Hotel Transylvania is a digitally animated horror comedy with songs. Kids should love it; grown-ups can put on a brave grin. The 3D spectacles place us right inside the grand guignol hotel hosting what seems a nonstop monster’s ball: vampires, zombies, werewolves, mummies. The film gives gothic multiculturalism a good, or at least a giddily digimated, name.