James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl, which opened the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday evening and will see its international premiere when it screens in Competition next month at the Berlinale. Andrew O'Hehir in Salon: "It's a film about an archetypal American nonconformist, made by a beloved pair of indie-film veterans whose collective résumé includes two Oscar-winning documentaries, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt and The Times of Harvey Milk (which Gus Van Sant essentially remade in fictional form as Milk). It's an affectionate and artistically audacious movie, and I wish I could tell you it lived up to its source material. But I can't."
"Had things gone as planned, the film would have been released in 2007, and it would have been a documentary," writes B Ruby Rich in the Guardian. Instead, "Epstein and Friedman ended up overshooting their deadline by three years, losing themselves completely in what turned out to be a mad project, struggling to create something worthy of Ginsberg's incantatory work."
"To examine the impulses that caused the words to be written, the filmmakers expand their work fourfold," writes Variety's Todd McCarthy: "first, with excerpts from a far-ranging verite-style 'interview' with Ginsberg (with text drawn from assorted actual interviews the writer gave over the years); second, with elaborate animated sequences by former Ginsberg illustrator Eric Drooker that attempt, with varying success, to translate words into moving pictures; third, with a dramatic re-creation of the 1957 trial in which the prosecution attempted to outlaw the book by having it adjudged obscene and without redeeming artistic merit; and fourth, with renditions of key moments from the youthful Ginsberg's life, notably his interactions, carnal and otherwise, with such Beat Generation superstars as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg's longtime mate, Peter Orlovsky."
"Howl works when it relies on its two strongest attributes - Franco and the poem itself," finds Movieline's Seth Abramovitch. More from Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter), Shawn Levy (Oregonian), Drew McWeeney (Hitfix) and James Rocchi (IFC).
Jessica Flint interviews Franco for Vanity Fair. Filmmaker has video of director of photography Ed Lachman discussing his own career, and of course, Howl.
The Playlist reports that Epstein and Friedman's next project will be Lovelace: "The script by W Merritt Johnson is based on Eric Danville's biography The Complete Linda Lovelace and follows the story of Linda Boreman better known as iconic porn star Linda Lovelace from infamous 1972 film Deep Throat who subsequently transforms into feminist, anti-porn activist Linda Marchiano."
Updates: "Howl is only partially animated, but it's all cartoon," writes Karina Longworth at the Voice Film blog. "There is not a bad actor in this movie, but each cast member seems mired in wild impersonation. There are flashes of something more in Franco's performance - with a smile here or an eyelid flutter there, he expresses far more about Ginsberg's internal life than any recreation of recorded dialogue could manage - but the filmmakers have him tell us so much as Ginsberg that he doesn't have the air to show us Ginsberg. Where there should be character detail, there is only mimesis."
"Oddly enough, Howl began life in the Sundance labs a year ago as a documentary, and that would have been tremendously more engaging," finds Kevin Kelly at Cinematical.
Updates, 1/23: "The technique of juxtaposing the three story threads can become repetitive, and the animation sometimes fails to highlight the power of Ginsberg's stream-of-consciousness poetry, instead feeling superfluous and pretentious," finds Tim Grierson, writing for Screen. "Still, Howl's unusual rhythms can become hypnotic once the viewer adjusts to them, and Franco does a good job of hinting at Ginsberg's mercurial genius and sensitive spirit without lapsing into tortured-artist clichés."
"Although Howl technically didn't provide Sundance with its opening night film," writes Eric Kohn for indieWIRE, "it reeks of the stigma associated with the aforementioned slot: Poorly executed, socially relevant counterculture fetishization executed with a few familiar faces."
"Alternating among several distinct approaches... this handsome, tasteful film seems too inhibited," finds Dennis Lim at SUNfiltered. "It evokes all too well the Eisenhower-era placidity that Ginsberg's work ripped through with relish." Still, "Franco nails the poet's impish charm, his infectious openness, his nasal intonations."
Update, 1/26: "Franco puts up a valiant effort but he never disappears into character and Howl is never quite as affecting or poignant as it should be," finds Nathan Rabin at the AV Club.