Howl with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg and a batch of new films from Europe
Movie wise this is an unusual week. There are no big films opening. There are pearls among the smaller titles though, including a history lesson about a famous poem, dazzling music from Portugal, a fiction-reality hybrid, a brutal sports story and a laugh riot from Sweden.
HOWL: With the famous line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” Allen Ginsberg kicked off a howling rant in poetry against just about everything in 1950s America. Conformity, industrial society, war mongers, psychiatrists who try to treat homosexuals, the list goes on and on before concluding in a final section that “everything is holy”. The outspoken poem made his name, inspired many other ranters to “write as you are”, has been credited by some with sparking the Beat movement and survived a notorious obscenity prosecution. This docu-drama re-creates part of the excitement in three interlaced strands.
James Franco plays Ginsberg in two of them, the 1955 first public reading in a San Francisco coffee house and an interview years later in which he recalls his creative impulse in writing the poem. The third strand is the obscenity trial in which David Strathairn and John Hamm face off as prosecutor and defense lawyer and Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and others play expert witnesses. Those scenes are often funny as the critics suffer soft ridicule but the supporters can’t easily explain the poem’s art. In the interview sections, Franco manages to sound completely at ease and spontaneous, as if he’s thinking up his responses right there. He’s a bit more mannered but still effective in the debut reading. Animated sequences appear now and then to illustrate what he’s reciting, a fiery demon, for instance, as Moloch, or trees that look like penises shooting sperm into the sky to become stars. It’s a fragmented movie that works best as an historical essay, but a narrow one. I wish it had more context about the times, the poem’s impact and its literary value. (International Village Cinemas, formerly Tinseltown) 3 out of 5
FADOS: This is the latest musical exploration from Carlos Saura, the Spanish director who previously documented flamenco and the tango. He takes a casual amble through Portugal’s soulful, often melancholy fado, with some 25 performances grouped in 20 sections. There are homages to pioneers, regional styles, the newest variations (even a hip-hop example) and big-name current stars like Caetano Veloso and Mariza. She’s well-remembered around here for several appearances over the years including a dramatic sold-out concert at the Chan Centre a year and a half ago.
She doesn’t match the emotional high of that show in her three numbers in the film but does bring her cool and her elegance. There are plenty of other passionate performances though and they’re not all mournful. Carlos de Carmo wakes up singing (“I pick the morning like a flower”) and a “duel” in the House of Fado is a lively contest of one-upmanship. The film has no talk and almost no information about who or what we’re listening to. That’s a shortcoming. Also the director’s attempts to make the show visually interesting are excessive. Films projected on screens and interpretive dancers often distract from the singers. In one song, about a romantic rivalry, two dancers get into a vicious cat fight. There are many excellent performances and a few duds. Overall, this a good, if limited, introduction to Portugal’s soul music. (VanCity Theatre until Monday) 3 out of 5
It’s paired up with ….
OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST: It’s hard to tell what has been written and what has been found in this fiction-documentary hybrid. And that’s part of it’s charm. Ostensibly, the story is that director Miguel Gomes took a film crew to a Portuguese village to make a scary movie. Financing fell through but he was already distracted by the stories he heard from the local people he was auditioning. He filmed them instead and discovered there is drama everywhere. Sometimes there are different versions of the story. Sometimes, as in one that takes over the latter part of the film, about a possessive father and his daughter, it comes out only tangentially.
Also, this is practically a musical. That daughter plays in a band, alongside a visiting cousin. We see them and several other bands from what seems like a perpetual music festival performing in interludes that come along regularly. The sound is straight bouncy Euro-pop although the lyrics are similar to fado (there’s even a singing “duel”). The songs only appear to be serendipitous finds. Actually they were sought out because they fit the various dramas in the film and comment upon them. Parts of the major story were dreamt up before the filmmakers ever got to the village. Blurring the line between the real and the fictional is a growing trend in the movies. This film is a delightful example. (VanCity until Monday. Also at Pacific Cinematheque Dec 12) 3 1/2 out of 5
EUROPEAN FILM FESTIVAL (EUFF): The 13th annual edition has another week and several gems to go at the Pacific Cinematheque.
OF GODS AND MEN, about a group of monks in Algeria standing up to Muslim fundamentalists has become a runaway hit in France.
THE ROBBER is the intriguing story of an Austrian who ran marathons and robbed banks. No psychoanalysis, just a fascinating yarn based on fact.
WHITE PALMS is a bluntly realistic sports story set in Hungary and Calgary. Director Szabolcs Hajdu is drawing on his own youth for part of it in showing the brutal training young gymnasts got during the Communist years.
The boy whose abuse, shaming and injuries we watch in those scenes, becomes a coach himself as an adult. He shows up in Calgary and tries to get through to an arrogant and unco-operative athlete played by Olympic medalist Kyle Shewfelt. Later the two compete against each other at an international event. The two time periods are intercut and that adds another wrinkle. The boy in Hungary is co-opted to perform a dangerous stunt in a circus and when grown up joins Cirque du Soleil. (The director’s brother, Zoltan, who plays the coach, performs with that company). Surprisingly, it works. The clumsy moments are few and the melodrama is bearable. (3 out of 5)
YOU, THE LIVING proves that Swedes do have a sense of humor, a powerful, quirky and sardonic one. At least that’s the impression here as expressed by director Roy Andersson who makes very few films but a lot of commercials. Jumping off from a Goethe quote advising people to enjoy life, this film shows us people who don’t follow the dictum.
A succession of vignettes give us dozens of deadpan funny situations, some subtle, some not. A Muslim barber gets back at a racist customer. A teen girl dreams of marrying a rock star with hilarious results. A man dreams that a parlor trick gone wrong gets him convicted in court and sent to the electric chair. There are too many to mention, although there’s a supremely significant one: a psychiatrist laments that he’s worn out from dealing with people who demand to be made happy. Really, he says, they’re just mean people. Interesting stuff coming in a film by an advertising man. The film is clever and, since most of the stories are short, zippy as well as funny. (4 out of 5)
You can see the full schedule and film notes at www.eufilmfestival.com.
NOTE: The photos were supplied by the movie studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.