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James Franco and an All-Star cast interpret the words of poet Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl’

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‘Howl’ is definitely one of the movies to watch at Philadelphia’s Q-Fest. "Howl" photo: http://squallyshowers.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/howl-james-franco.jpg

James Franco takes in the role of the controversial poet Allen Ginsberg in the new drama, an often revealing and insightful drama about a unique voice that was considered a literary genius by some and irrelevant by others.

The movie plays like a documentary but is actually a scripted film. The natural, raw flow of the movie is just one of the strengths here. The core consists of an interview with Allen Ginsberg himself (Franco), where he discusses the content of his controversial poem Howl. Several courtroom sequences are inserted into the film to break that one on one interview with Ginsberg, and there are sequences that feature a court case arguing over whether the poet’s works have any literary merit at all.

Other parts of the film have Ginsberg (through Franco’s voice) delivering entire sections of the poem set to vibrant animation that attempts to interpret the words in motion. These sections are quite beautiful, even if they do tend to be a bit overwhelming and pull the audience out of the focus now and then.

As Ginsberg is being interviewed, there are also a handful of flashbacks used to illustrate the writer’s past and the adventures and tragedies he went through before reaching a good place. There are several revealing (and heartbreaking) moments shown here, including one when Ginsberg himself had to sign off on his own mother’s lobotomy, and another where a male lover of his underwent invasive shock therapy because he wouldn’t hide under the cover of heterosexuality.

Franco has certainly come a long way from Spiderman. The actor dazzled in the 2008 drama Milk, playing the gay congressman’s tumultuous lover. Here, he certainly looks the part of Ginsberg to a fault. The glasses, the hair, expressions, and the vocals are all uncanny. His interpretation of the literary master’s words are filled with passion and purpose, not an easy feat considering the artist’s cryptic word bank. The portrayal is overly organic, to the point where one feels as if they are watching a real interview as opposed to a hammy a-list actor’s interpretation.

Directors/writers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein have effectively created a piece of art themselves, one that seamlessly transitions between animation and reality, documentary and theatrical biography. The smart script features several moments of brilliant dialogue, including one portion at the end of the film in which Ginsberg comments on how homosexuality shaped him as an artist and a person. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) appears as Ginsberg's defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (who would become the inspiration for the Perry Mason  television show), and Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds) and Jeff Daniels are both exceptional in their respective roles. The only possible weak link comes in the courtroom scenes which are handled a bit awkwardly in comparison to the rest of the movie.

"Howl" raises very interesting questions about homosexuality, freedom of speech, interpretation of words, and validity of what one deems worthy of art or literature. As stated in the film, Ginsberg’s explicit works were not just about sex and shock, they were also about being frank about life in general. That’s food for thought, and "Howl" gives Ginsberg lovers and haters plenty to chew on long after the credits roll.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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