Howl (2010)

‘Howl’, by gay Beat generation radical Allen Ginsberg, is more than just a poem. A giddy, piquant war cry, its sexy idioms and white-hot imagery awoke a new way of thinking in a repressed, fearful ‘50s. Small wonder that, by the time of Ginsberg’s death in 1997, ‘Howl’ had sold more than 800,000 copies, been translated into 25 different languages, and had transformed into an anthem of acceptance and free speech.

Broaching such a loaded subject in biopic form was always going to be tricky. Ginsberg himself led a fascinating life, one tainted by tragedy (his mother’s descent into madness), drama (his frequent spells in jail) and romance (his affair with car thief Neal Cassidy). It’s a lot for one movie to play with, and explains the ambitious approach of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman. Theirs is a film of four parts, Howl’s focus flitting between a quartet of distinct vignettes – interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco); the poet’s Beat life and first reading of ‘Howl’ in 1955; an accompanying expressionist animation; and a court hearing as a legal suit is filed against Ginsberg’s “offensive” text.

Busy is not the word, and Howl strains to suitably blend its contrasting components. The court scenes, though given a turbo-boost by actors like Jon Hamm (who looks like he’s just stepped off the Mad Men set), are the main problem, grinding proceedings to a halt. A shame, because Franco’s spirited reading of the poem is effortless, paired with a dazzling animation that features deep sea pianos, spinning, skeletal ghosts and hellish landscapes. Fingers crossed that the DVD release has a feature that plays the animation, Howl’s greatest achievement, on its own. At its best, Howl recalls the honourable experiments of an early Gus Van Sant (who serves as exec producer). At its worst, it’s directionless and meandering. 3/5

Via Out In The City

127 Hours (2010)

Could you hack off your own arm if the situation demanded it? That’s the predicament facing climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), whose one-man hiking excursion to the wilds of Utah ends abruptly when he becomes trapped in a canyon, his arm pinned under a collapsed boulder. There he stays for five whole days, clinging to life as he brainstorms an exit strategy from the nightmarish quandary – and finally comes to that inevitable, bloody conclusion.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it hit the headlines in 2003, when a man by the name of Aron Ralston really did get himself stuck in the sand-blasted canyons of Utah and – yes – sliced off his own arm to escape. Interesting story. But as a movie? Odder still, as a movie directed by Danny Boyle, the man who swept the Oscars clean last year with unexpected feel-good smash Slumdog Millionaire?

Where Slumdog was a frenetically-paced globe-trotter, 127 Hours at first seems to be the opposite. A single-location, mostly one-man show, it’s an intimate journey into the mind of a man on the edge as his increasingly frazzled brain escapes into fantasy. The links between the two, though, lie in the Boyle’s ever-energetic delivery, which is charged with his characteristic batty visuals, adrenaline-pumped edits and a head-thumping soundtrack.

When those Boyle tropes join hands with an achingly charismatic James Franco, 127 Hours becomes arresting cinema. Chartering a course through byzantine emotional beats, Franco transforms before our eyes into the star we all knew he could be: funny, moving, real. His performance – and the movie – comes to an inescapable head with that horrendous hack scene, a blizzard of gore and ear-bursting sonic screams. But while the ‘arm bit’ is what 127 Hours will ultimately be remembered for, it’s Franco who makes the movie. A-

Via Out In The City