Howl – Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman (2010)


The year of James Franco continues with Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s new biopic about Allen Ginsberg and his titular landmark beat poem. The poem defined part of a generation, not just Ginsberg (Franco), but all of the usual suspects: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady. This film is not exactly a defining moment of anything, past or present, but it offers a compelling peek at an important point in time.

Howl the film is told just as poetically as “Howl” the poem was recited, unspooling in four or five commingling strands. These threads skillfully braid together the tales of Ginsberg as a young man looking for his poetic voice with his pals Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg the poet finding his voice and Ginsberg the mighty, giving an interview post-“Howl” to an unnamed interviewer.

It’s all hung loosely around the dual framing devices of the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of Howl and other Poems, and the first recitation of the poem at Six Gallery in October 1955. Wild animation, under the direction of John Hays, connects the dots of the disparate hallucinatory images of Ginsberg’s words.

Despite being the most elaborately planned segment of the film, and the one that boasts most of its star power (Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels and David Strathairn), the trial segment is also the most inconsequential and cumbersome strand of the piece, making stilted, unemotional legal points (probably taken directly from court transcripts) that don’t even rise to the drama of the second half of a Law & Order episode.

But that’s all right. If you didn’t know the outcome of the court case – that is, whether “public decency” prevailed – then obviously there would never have been a film about it in the first place. The film is about the creation of the poem, and even the creation of Ginsberg himself. In a broader sense, it’s about the creation of the beat generation and those themes all work well.

Franco has come a long way from his Freaks and Geeks days as the eternally wasted Daniel, even if Ginsberg’s outer character isn’t a death-defying vertical leap upward in comparison. It’s not as amusing a portrayal of Ginsberg as David Cross’ in I’m Not There, but the younger Ginsberg wasn’t quite as generously eccentric as he was later in life. There is clearly nuance in Franco’s performance that you wouldn’t have thought possible until recently, though. It didn’t even appear possible as long ago as Pineapple Express, and certainly not while watching him squint his way through the Spider-Man movies. His career path is a genuinely perplexing one: Is he a modern day Montgomery Clift or merely a new Tony Curtis, fitting a few gems into an otherwise unremarkable filmography? Watching for the answer, however, is worth it.

Nowhere Boy – Sam Taylor-Wood (2010)


Is there a historical figure we know more about than John Lennon? True, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson kept meticulous notes and records of their lives, but they weren’t rock stars and frankly, founding a nation is hardly as interesting as having written “Imagine” or “Norwegian Wood.” And to use an example once offered by Lennon himself, we only “know” about a fraction of Jesus’ 
life, and nothing at all about his 
formative years.

It’s a daunting task to offer a new angle about Lennon’s life, to say the least. He exhaustively told us everything over the years, or at least what he wanted us to know. There have been earlier attempts to capture the early Beatles story, most notably Backbeat, which focused on Lennon’s relationship with Stu Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe is a character here, as are McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and Harrison (Sam Bell), but Nowhere Boy is firmly about the inner workings and burgeoning genius of the 
young John.

Based on a biography written by his half sister, Julia Baird, Nowhere Boy starts out with Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in his youth, pre-Beatles – even pre-Quarrymen. Like most teenagers, he has a chip on his shoulder the size of Blackpool (the bustling port town near Liverpool where, the film shows, Lennon discovered rock & roll). He smokes, gets in trouble at school and hates to wear his glasses despite his Aunt Mimi’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) chiding. It’s typical teenage stuff, certainly not the sign of any particular brilliance to come.

The source of Lennon’s rebellion becomes apparent when his cousin gives him the news he’s always wanted to know: his mother, Julia’s (Anne-Marie Duff), address. It sets him on a journey of self-discovery that he’ll be on until – but wait a second. We’ve heard “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” and saw Beatles Anthology. Lennon’s mommy issues are almost the foundation of modern popular culture. We know all of this already, don’t we?

We do. But to read about it or see it in a documentary is one thing. To see it live and breathe and take shape, brought to life in full color, is something different. And that’s what first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood has pulled off here, thanks mostly to Johnson’s embodiment of Lennon. It’s almost inconceivable that this is the same kid who played the gawky nerd-cum-superhero in Kick-Ass a few months ago.

Less is known about Julia Lennon, and manic-depressives are hard to play without garnering eye rolls, but Duff nails her spirit spot-on. In her more manic moments, there is a natural ease with which she and Johnson play off each other, reaching beyond the mother-son vibe – and teetering dangerously close to Oedipal territory – to the master-muse relationship that would be so important for John and Paul and George going forward.

Plot is important, sure, but in a biopic where the subject’s story is practically taught in kindergarten, the portrayals are everything, and that’s what works best here. It’s hard to suspend the fact that you know who lives and who dies, but it’s a great estimation of what the teenage John Lennon might have been like: a mixed-up kid who is kind of a dick, kind of sweet, very rebellious, very emotional and about to change the world.

Quick Hits on: Moneyball – Bennett Miller (2011)

-Admittedly, this film has some of the most awkward pacing I’ve ever seen, but I don’t feel that it detracts from the story in any way. It manages to stay lively and vital even when the pace drags its ass along the floor a little. The slow feel is felt most during the passages told through news and radio reports and call-in shows, which detract from the “insider” status the film grants. But it’s important stuff, sadly. A lot of times it’s fan ire that gets coaches and managers the boot, and also it’s a deep part of the story that all of the fan frustration fell to Billy Beane for his odd strategy and all of the praise to Art Howe for somehow managing his way around Beane’s weird statistic-driven nonsense.

-I don’t have a lot of patience for the baseball people who thought this was shoddily made just because some of it didn’t happen. It’s a movie. Look “movie” up in the dictionary. It should say, “noun, not real life”. But I love that two of the baseball guys who were portrayed in the film, then A’s coach Ron Washington and Indian’s GM Mark Shapiro, thought the film was good.

-And that’s the bottom line: the film is good. Damn good. Pitt plays the role of Beane nicely, and I really think Jonah Hill is going to get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of the fictional Peter Brand. He’ll deserve it if he gets it. Director Bennett Miller could have gone a little deeper I felt, especially with the Billy Beane back story. It did lack a little bit of a connection to the main story, especially since its blows its load so early when Beane calls Brand up in the middle of the night to find out where Brand would have drafted him. The flashbacks read a lot sharper in Aaron Sorkin’s draft of the screenplay. Sorkin’s screenplays are a must read for me. Whether it is beg, borrow or steal, they are always worth the trouble it takes to track them down.