On the Road – Walter Salles (2012)



Almost since its publication in 1957, there have been efforts to make Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road into a film. Kerouac himself tried to entice Brando to play Dean Moriarity, and later, riding high on his many early successes, Francis Ford Coppola tried (and tried again and again) to get the film made, but nothing happened. Like The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road seemed fated to never see the silver screen. Truthfully, it’s just better that way sometimes.

Most likely, if you’ve finished high school, you’ve read On the Road. It’s a fortuitous novel, almost biography of the birth of a new generation, the Beats, with Kerouac and his notepad there at the beginning for the reckless, bloody, pot and Benzedrine induced birth. It’s a meandering cross country masterpiece of ambitious aimlessness spilled out over 320 pages (or 120 feet of scroll), a statement of intent as much as a piece of personal journalism. It’s a story of madness and addiction of every kind — from drugs, to love to people — a photograph built with words of the first misfit beaks poking through the delicate white shell of post-war conformity.

The film was never going to capture anything close to that. The fact that it took over 50 years to get any real traction on the project that was such a passion for people of a certain age should have spelled that out pretty plainly. Even a good film would suffer from the comparison to the novel, but Salles and writer Jose Rivera have not corralled the text — no one could, that’s sort of the point of the text. Aimlessness of any stripe plays perfectly in novel form, it’s where writers can really stretch their legs out and roam free in the garden of beautiful passages and striking metaphors. In film, where people are less patient, aimlessness is almost a cross to bear. Very few directors have pulled it off, and even though both executive producer Coppola (in Apocalypse Now) and director Salles (in The Motorcycle Diaries) have done it in the past, it’s a hard ask for a second strike at the magic of aimlessness, especially lugging so much history and behind the scenes gossip around as baggage.

Garret Hedlund somewhat surprisingly makes for an excellent Dean, Neal Cassady’s stand-in. The best Beat writing was always Neal’s mad rambling letters to Kerouac and Hedlund captures the manic spirit of those letters. You want to be his friend, even though his friendship comes in the form of a consuming cyclone. It was the only role that needed to be gotten right, and it was, but Tom Sturridge and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs)  also steal a little bit of the spotlight. It’s a shame that everyone is spending so much time focusing on Kristen Stewart, who really doesn’t have much to do in the film. The film doesn’t belong to Mary Lou, it belongs to Dean, and to a lesser extent Kerouac’s stand-in, Sal Paradise, played by Sam Reilly in a basically forgettable performance.

Try as I might I could not separate the film from its source material. It’s unfair, but those are the breaks when it comes to generational adaptations. Sometimes a picture is just not worth 1,000 words, especially not Kerouac’s words.

The Taste of Money – Im Sang-soo (2013)



After the unprecedented crossover success of Psy’s hit singleGangnam Style – about the horse-dancing absurdities of the rich in South Korea — Im Sang-soo’s follow-up to 2010′s The Housemaid would seem to be coming along at the right time. Set in the same luxuriously moneyed world as The Housemaid,The Taste of Money is a more serious, high-gloss-finish take on the absurdities of the very rich that starts on a different path than Gangnam Style but ultimately spins into the same kind out-of-control parody.

No matter the country, wherever you find money, you will also find sex and power. Almost to flaunt it, the film begins in the Baek family vault, where Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik) and his bodyguard Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) are filling suitcases with cash to get Yoon’s son, Chul (On Joo-wan), out of jail. It’s not bail, it’s a bribe, a time-honored Baek family tradition it would seem. Chul, in his mid-20s now, is a rising star in the company founded by his grandfather, which Yoon currently runs but is losing interest in.

Not shockingly, Yoon’s interest was always purely int the money and the power, not the family business he married into. And the sex, of course, but not with his aging wife, Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong). When Yoon goes too far, though, and seduces the Filipino housekeeper, Eva (Maui Taylor), promising her a life together with her children, Geum-ok discovers his secret and takes her revenge, seducing Young-jak.

The Taste of Money is a somewhat twisted sequel in that it really isn’t a sequel. Im calls it a spiritual sequel, but only the children, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin) and Chul , now grown, seem to carryover from The Housemaid, and aside from a few vague references that Nami makes relating to the fiery climax of The Housemaid, very little of the story carries over. They would be better described as parallel films, like a comic book alternate universe, where Nami and Chul are the parallel conduits to different stories.

While the Korean actors are all well cast, Darcy Paquet as the American business man that Chul is trying to woo for a big and highly immoral and probably illegal deal, is a serious weak link in the film. Paquet is an American journalist and translator who runs KoreanFilm.org. I’ve interviewed him for articles in the past and hold him in such high regard that it pains me to say that he is the weak link in the film. He’s far from the only weak link in the film – Maui Taylor is equally hard to bear in the film, and for the same reason: neither have an actor’s voice, and something as simple as that is often the downfall of actors.

It’s not the downfall of the film, it just pegs it back a few notches from what it could have been. It’s a bit of a tough film to digest though, on an empathy level especially. It’s hard to find anyone to root for, let alone empathize with. Nami and Eva work to an extent, but only to an extent. It’s a cold and calculating thriller though, and on that level it works with extreme efficiency and skill. Empathy would likely just ruin it.