Howl Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Howl Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
For a film about a poet, one whose radical style defied most conventions, Howl is surprisingly conventional in its structure. In their examination of Allen Ginsberg, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (the directors behind documentaries such as The Celluloid Closet) have fashioned a pseudo-documentary, creating dramatized scenes of actual transcripts as if they were able to go back in time and film the proceedings. The film cuts between an interview with Ginsberg (played wonderfully by James Franco), the 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Ginsberg's influential beat poem, "Howl," and clips of Franco reading it, with computer animation providing surreal visuals. The picture is anchored by Franco's performance, which quickly makes the documentary-esque compartmentalization feel less contrived than it could have with a less skilled actor. The trial scenes come to life due to the talent of the actors involved; Jon Hamm and David Strathairn play the opposing councils, Bob Balaban the judge and we get to see Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise parker take the stand. The biggest problem with Howl is its animated sequences. In a glaringly different style from the time period, done almost entirely with computer animation, this visualization of "Howl" looks like a cross between Salvador Dali and The Polar Express. In a movie largely about individualism and free speech, it's borderline insulting that the filmmakers felt the need to ascribe a visual style to the poem, rather than let the words speak for themselves. Even with its flaws, Howl is consistently endearing, obviously a labour of love for everyone involved. Special features include the trailer and a making-of doc. (Mongrel Media)