Howl | Devil

Cinema reviews for Nov. 11: Allen Ginsberg biopic & a B-movie thriller
Howl
Rating:

Written and directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola, Aaron Tveit, Bob Balaban, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Allen Ginsberg.



I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

Howl the movie is, or tries to be, many things: a faux-documentary narrated by Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco), a biographical re-creation of important scenes in Ginsberg´s life, a courtroom drama about the infamous obscenity trial brought against Ginsberg´s poem Howl, and an animated interpretation of Howl set to a Franco reading. At a brisk 75 minutes without credits, Howl doesn´t really do justice to any of these elements, nor does it come together as any kind of cohesive whole, but there´s a lot of wonderful stuff going on here.

Best are the animated sequences: not because of the animation, but because of Franco´s reading of the poem, which is the most thoughtful and evocative version of Howl that I´ve heard. Franco never disappears into the role of Ginsberg (and the narration frequently veers into Freaks and Geeks´ Daniel Desario territory), but the actor´s passion for the work is palpable. It´s cut up and organized in snippets throughout the movie, but would be more powerful if cut together and viewed in sequence.

And possibly set to something else. I say that because there are a lot of good ideas behind the rapidly evolving animation, but the 3D CGI effects frequently feel bland and ordinary and lack personality. During these sequences, I was most reminded of The Wall, with the Pink Floyd music replaced by a beautiful rendition of Howl; but that film´s imagery had an artistic value that is missing here. A Bruce Bickford could have done wonders with the material.

Also great are the courtroom sequences, which take up a surprisingly large portion of the screentime (Ginsberg himself is absent during these scenes). Jon Hamm (AMC´s Mad Men) is publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti´s defense attorney, David Strathairn is the prosecutor, and Bob Balaban is the level-headed judge; Jeff Daniels, Mary Louise-Parker, and Treat Williams play expert witnesses. The characters are barely sketched, but Hamm (Don Draper as a lawyer), Strathairn (in full Edward R. Murrow mode), and Balaban are impressive.

Most impressive, however, is the way the potentially salient obscenity trial is handled by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. I was shocked to see Strathairn´s prosecutor and Daniels´ prosecution witness given a fair shake, painted as men who don´t want to burn books or ban material of potential artistic merit, but as men who simply have a different interpretation of the law. The low-key realism of the courtroom scenes add to their power.

The rest of the film deals with Franco´s Ginsberg: he narrates his life story to a recorder, and individual, important moments of his life are recreated for us. These scenes are fine – and an understanding of Ginsberg himself aids greatly in an interpretation of Howl – but ultimately feel biopic ordinary, the safe route to go, employing a style that is usually used in longer films that can better accommodate bulky narrative devices.

Documentarians Epstein and Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) seem to be less focused here than they ought to be, bouncing around between different styles and stories without a consistent narrative to drive through each of them. And while Howl doesn´t quite live up to the potential of Ginsberg´s poetry, it´s a wonderful primer.

***


 

Devil
Rating:

Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Starring Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Cobden, Zoie Palmer, Vincent Laresca. Written by Brian Nelson, M. Night Shyamalan.

Devil, touted in promotional materials as coming “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan”, devolves into such cornball silliness during its last act that it cannot be easily recommended. Until then, however, it´s a surprisingly effective little B-movie thriller that plays out as an extended Twilight Zone episode, keeping the audience guessing at every turn even if we have little vested interest in the ultimate denouement.

It´s Agatha Christie´s And Then There Were None – the stereotypical Old Dark House story where the lights go out, somebody gets killed, and the survivors try to figure out who among them is the killer – set on an elevator. Yes, an elevator, which can be pretty terrifying (see: Dick Maas´ The Lift and its infamous decapitation scene) but may not be the best setting for a murder mystery, given the total confinement and proximity of the characters to each other; I mean, shouldn´t somebody notice something?

Following some pretty nifty upside-down aerial footage, a narrator tells us the story of the Devil´s Meeting: that the devil has come to Earth (or, downtown Philadelphia), taken human form, and will test evildoers by tormenting them. That´s a convenient excuse for all the supernatural stuff in the film – the lights going out at just the right time, the cluelessness of the characters in the elevator, the ineffectiveness of all attempts to get them out – but a poor explanation (a cheat, some might say) for an Agatha Christie mystery.

Thankfully, the supernatural angle isn´t overtly defined for much of the film; I dearly wanted the narration to prove metaphorical, and the first hour of the film didn´t let me down. That´s despite a Greek chorus in a security guard character, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), who instantly recognizes that the devil is afoot and warns his supervisor Lustig (Matt Craven) and Bowden (Chris Messina), the detective on the case, that death is imminent. To prove his point, he tosses a piece of toast in the air; when it lands jelly-side down, he knows that Satan must be responsible.

It´s laughable stuff, but works in the context of the film (or at least, my interpretation of it) as we side with the level-headed Bowden and brush off Ramirez as unstable. Now, if the film were to explicitly confirm Ramirez´s ramblings as fact, well, that would be truly laughable.

Inside the elevator are a mysterious mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), an old woman (Jenny O´Hara), a young businesswoman (Bojana Novakovic), a temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine) and a brash salesman (Geoffrey Arend). But we seem to spend most of the film outside the elevator, and each of these characters is sketched as thinly as possible; we don´t care who lives or who dies, though we do want to find out what, exactly, is going on. A reasonable explanation would have generated a lot of enthusiasm for the film.

Shyamalan has always been a gifted director whose weaknesses as a writer have become more pronounced with each passing film; here, he gets story credit while handing off the directorial reigns, which is precisely the opposite of how it should be. Still, director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) handles the film admirably; there´s an almost complete lack of atmosphere (which may be appropriate given the setting) but the film moves along at a fast enough pace to distract from all the contrivances and is short enough (approx. 75 minutes minus credits) to avoid overstaying its welcome.

In an age where all the $100 million blockbusters seem like big-budget B-movies, it´s refreshing to see an actual low-budget B-movie that takes an intriguing concept and runs with it. By the end of Devil you may realize you´ve been watching a bad movie, but it´s an undeniably entertaining one.

For a more satisfying rumination on the same subject, see Vincenzo Natali´s short film Elevated.

Also opening: The Girl Who Played with Fire (showtimes | IMDb), the second film in writer Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Screening in Swedish with Czech subtitles.

And: Piko (showtimes), a drug addiction drama from director Tomáš Řehořek. Screening in Czech.


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