If you're the type who thinks a beard and a long highway headed west can cleanse you of society's ills, you probably already consider Allen Ginsberg's Howl more profound than profane. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman may be preaching to a converted audience of angel-headed hipsters, but their docudrama Howl is still a stirring defense of every American's sacred right to a barbaric yawp. Revolving around the 1957 obscenity trial following the poem's publication, the movie doesn't serve as a referendum on Ginsberg's seminal work; it celebrates the San Francisco court's favorable ruling regarding its literary merits as much as the poem itself.
Primarily known as documentarians (The Times of Harvey Milk), filmmakers Epstein and Friedman stick to the facts in service of their personal admiration for the work. Courtroom dialogue was taken directly from the original transcripts, and content for interview-style scenes was compiled from archival footage. James Franco delivers a brilliant portrayal of the young Ginsberg, chain-smoking his way through the beginnings of a counterculture while offering insight into his work and working methods. His reading of the poem, the film's backbone, sounds convincing and spontaneous, as if the words had occurred to the actor in the moment. In the courtroom, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Jeff Daniels (jeez, after Dumb and Dumber he got all ... serious) all turn in worthy performances, albeit in roles which don't require much of them.
The interview portions, accompanied by glimpses of the poet with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat icons, are the film's highlight. While the filmmakers wisely use Ginsberg's words as their anchor, however, the fussy animation they add to illustrate them takes some getting used to. In a poignant moment, a court witness argues against attempts to interpret the poem: "You can't translate poetry into prose: That is why it's poetry." The directors might have been better off heeding those words with regards to visual translation.
At the same time, Howl provides a timely caution not to dismiss something as unnecessary or lacking in value that you do not immediately understand. Maybe it's ironic to criticize what are innovative illustrations in light of such a message. But the visual fireworks are redundant: They're all in Ginsberg's meteor shower of blazing imagery. There's no more special effect in Howl the movie than Franco's voice, evoking the footsteps that still echo off those negro streets at dawn.
Is the after-life really blurry? Are we sure of this? Is it too much to ask for eternal 20/20? Perhaps all you need to know about Clint Eastwood's goopy metaphysical meditation Hereafter is that on the way to my car I was pondering these kinds of arbitrary cinematic conventions more than the great beyond. Eastwood presides over a painfully predictable purgatorial drama in which good-enough acting can't save what is simply a bad script — something about several near-death stories linked by a man with seeming psychic powers (Matt Damon, customarily fine).
The screenwriter, Peter Morgan (The Queen), is plainly desperate not to slip into hokey ghost-film territory. While he avoids that, he doesn't provide anything compelling in its place. The stories trigger emotional responses that Hereafter neither earns nor rewards. A filmmaker can't just throw a kid in front of a truck and call the movie a success because audiences walk out feeling bummed.
Invictus, Damon and Eastwood's previous film together, offered fascinating characters and a plot that built to a rousing conclusion. Sadly, their latest culminates in one of the biggest this-movie-is-not-really-going-to-end-right-now moments of the year — an anticlimax that will send viewers angrily seeking the light outside the theater doors.