Andrew Garfield, Mahershala Ali, Ruth Negga, and five others received their first-ever acting nominations for 2017. While these actors are new to the Academy Awards, you may recognize them from their earlier work.
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The road movie is among my favorite genres, and "Radio On" ranks with the best of them. Co-produced by Wim Wenders, the master of the existential road movie (whose production company is called "Road Movies," no less), it was made in 1979 by Christopher Petit, who had been a film critic for London's "Time Out" and received funding from Wenders and the British Film Institute to make this film. One very clearly sees an admiration here for Wenders' road trilogy, particularly "Kings of the Road," but "Radio On" extracts the essence of Wenders' style and the soul of the road movie and forms a sort of concentrate from it. This is a meditation *on* the road movie, but on lots of other things, too.
In a film with very long shots and many lonesome scenes with no dialogue, nothing feels superfluous. Lengthy, lingering shots from behind the driver's seat of a moving car with music from Kraftwerk's "Radio-Activity" could very well come across as empty, but in this movie, they don't. Each shot is given ample time to sink in, and they do. Petit has made a movie, rich in its sparseness, that depicts alienation and inward-seeking as effectively as any Wenders film, and like Wenders, there are echoes of Edward Hopper's paintings here in the evening streets lit by streetlights, and in the beautiful moment where we see two characters, British man and German woman, each standing behind separate hotel room windows, staring out pensively as we pass by from a motorway bridge.
The man in the window is Robert, the film's central character, and he is traveling from Camden to Bristol to seek information about the death of his brother. That his name is Robert will likely slip the viewer's mind, as what's important about "Radio On" and the road movies of Wim Wenders is that the central characters are not too sharply drawn, and only a vague set of circumstances are established to give their journey the semblance of purpose. This way, the characters are ciphers, blank slates, and we take this journey with them by inhabiting them, by projecting our own sensibilities onto them, and to that extent, films like "Kings of the Road," "Radio On," and Wenders' later and similar "Until the End of the World" are as purging as a road trip itself.
All of the characters in "Radio On" look like they are brooding, but they don't talk about why, they simply brood and they keep moving while doing so.
Angst and alienation are both factors, but so is the fact that the world is changing. From a small, wintry spot on the globe, change is just around the corner and the characters feel it in their bones, if not yet in their heads.
The energy of the music of David Bowie, Wreckless Eric, Devo and others penetrates the meditative pace and makes these imminent changes palpable in the film's ambiance, or more accurately, in its aura. The movie's calm is an eerie and temporary one, like when the shoreline recedes prior to a tidal wave.
As the title would suggest, the music is one of the principal elements here.
I will indelibly associate Bowie's "Heroes" and Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World" with this film. Here, they are like the sun of a new decade rising to melt the snow of the 1970s. Or like a curtain call for an age.
And there is genuine poetry in the dialogue.
The German tourist explains to Robert that her friend hates men. Robert observes, "There's no word for that in English. The only word is for a man who hates women," and we understand that there is sadness in this fact, even if we can't articulate why.
The movie is beautifully conceived and structured, and it is structured both loosely and mindfully. It moves slowly, but it's spontaneous. Sting appears briefly as a filling station attendant, in a wonderful scene where he talks about the death of Eddie Cochran, strums his guitar, and sings "Three Steps to Heaven" from the back of his camper. The film ends as we hear Kraftwerk's "Ohm Sweet Ohm" beaming out from a car radio on the edge of a cliff, and home sweet home is precisely nowhere. This movie is quiet, slow, low-key, but it gets under the skin and is ultimately quite stirring.
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