Blu-Ray Review: James Franco Rocks in Intriguing if Flawed ‘Howl’

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CHICAGO – James Franco gave a riveting performance in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” that is likely to earn one of the best actors of his generation an Academy Award nomination in a few weeks, but it wasn’t his only stellar turn in 2010. He also thoroughly delivered as the legendary poet Allen Ginsberg in the hybrid “Howl,” a film that’s part poem, part courtroom drama, and part history lesson. It doesn’t always come together but it’s worth seeing just for Franco’s work and the strength of the source material alone. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

The name of the film refers to Ginsberg’s legendary 1955 poem, one that not only inspired an increasingly important cultural movement but nearly got its author thrown in jail. Over half a century after its release, “Howl” still has incredible power, something obviously recognized by writer/directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman as they eschew the typical biopic in favor of something that’s literally built around the poem. Some of it is merely spoken to a loving crowd by Franco as Ginsberg while other parts are animated.

Howl was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 4th, 2011.
Howl was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 4th, 2011.
Photo credit: Oscilloscope

Even more of the poem is read aloud by witnesses in a trial against the book’s publishers for indecency that features a number of recognizable actors including Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, and Treat Williams. The courtroom scenes simply don’t work. They almost feel pulled from another movie. The battle against censorship was clearly an important part of Ginsberg’s history but a movie focusing on power of his poetry spends way too much time on the witness stand.

Howl was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 4th, 2011.
Howl was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 4th, 2011.
Photo credit: Oscilloscope

Another reason the courtroom scenes stumble is because they not only take the focus away from the poem itself but from the best thing about the movie — Franco’s performance. One of the most remarkable actors of his generation continued to prove his range in 2010 and while I expect many will get over their squeamishness and eventually see “127 Hours,” “Howl” is going to have a tougher time finding an audience. See it for Franco.

As for the other elements of the film, I think there was probably a stronger way to emphasize the importance of Ginsberg’s poem. With so many styles, “Howl” gets a bit off-topic too much for its own good. The fact is that the poem is so strong that they should have focused more clearly on it; spent more time with Franco standing on-stage and reading it as brilliantly as he does. Maybe it’s the Theater/English major in me, but I liked the simple concept of a man on a stage moving people with the power of his words more than the animation or courtroom dramatizations.

Oscilloscope continues to impress with their Blu-ray and DVD releases, quickly rising in the ranks of arthouse fans with excellent-crafted and beautiful packages for their indie hits. “Howl” just looks great and the two-disc special edition is filled with fantastic special features. In the last year, this company has released stellar packages for “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “The Messenger,” “Kisses,” and more. They’re quickly becoming a favorite for anyone who loves films that don’t play at the multiplex.

Special Features:
o James Franco in conversation with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, an all-new feature length audio commentary
o Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl - featuring directors Epstein and Friedman and stars James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, poet Anne Waldman, and others
o Director’s research tapes - original interviews with Ginsberg’s friends and collaborators: Eric Drooker, Peter Orlovsky, Tuli Kupferberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Steven Taylor
o Allen Ginsberg reads Howl - never before seen footage from a performance in 1995 at The Knitting Factory in New York
o James Franco reads Howl audio feature
o Allen Ginsberg reads Sunflower Sutra and Pull My Daisy - never before seen footage from a 1995 performance at the Knitting Factory in New York
o Q&A with directors Epstein and Friedman moderated by John Cameron Mitchell at the Provincetown Film Festival

“Howl” stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeff Daniels. It was written and directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 4th, 2011 and is rated R. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Brandt's picture

Nothing flawed about this awesome performance...

James Franco completely honored Ginsberg’s memory with his dynamic performance. Combined with the animation, it made my #1 spot on my Top 10 Movies of 2010 blog at

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