Howl with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg and a batch of new films from Europe

James Franco  (as Allen Ginsberg in 1955) gives a premiere reading of Howl.

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

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