Review: Howl Blu-ray

Howl DVD boxSTUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories | DIRECTOR: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman | CAST: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Treat William, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker
RELEASE DATE: 1/4/11 | PRICE: DVD $29.98, Blu-ray $34.99
BONUSES: commentary, featurettes, directors’ research tapes, James Franco conversation with filmmakers, readings of Howl by Allen Ginsberg and Franco; Blu-ray adds Q&A with directors and two additional Ginsberg readings, digital copy
SPECS: R | 84 min. | Drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS Surround Sound | English and French subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

The dialog in Howl is taken from court transcripts and primary source material, giving a genuine documentary feel to this biography movie about the infamous and landmark 1957 obscenity trial of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and shining a new light on a major shift in society. And it’s all because of that titular four-part poem by Allen Ginsberg.

The dedication to the source material, along with James Franco’s (Eat Pray Love) astonishing performance as the nebbishy, gay poet, are reason enough to give Howl an evening on the couch. It’s an easy history lesson to absorb, one that enlightens as much as it entertains, and the cast of familiar faces keeps things interesting.

Hopefully on DVD Howl will find the audience that missed the independent film when it flew into selected cities on limited screens last fall; it’s a tough sell, and even with a stupendous cast headed by the very hot Oscar-bait (for 127 Hours), the film only managed to squeeze $540,000 at the box office in its limited theatrical run.

Writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) intersperse re-enacted interview footage with scenes from the courtroom, the combination of which tells the story from beginning to end with the principals all mouthing the actual words they uttered at the time.

Jon Hamm, looking like he came straight from the set of Mad Men (always a good thing), is the defense attorney facing off against prosecutor David Strathairn (Temple Grandin), who tries mightily to maintain society’s innocence (if it ever was) and repress the threat of rebellious change. Along the way, Jeff Daniels (Paper Man), Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s Weeds), Alessandro Nivola ($5 a Day) and Treat Williams (Once Upon a Time in America) and others turn up in brief scenes on the witness stand, imparting ideas about truth, beauty, language and the value of art. These conversations are so idealistically florid that it’s hard to believe they actually took place.

The drama of the courtroom is heightened by the scenes of Ginsberg living the life of a free-spirited poet in the 1950s, with dalliances with others who helped usher in the new Beat society, including Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotundi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). Those scenes bring the poet to life and raise the stakes for the outcome of the trail. And when a transition is needed or a gear needs to be kicked up a notch, out of nowhere a piece of stylized animation appears, adding energy to what’s coming next.

The film looks great on Blu-ray. The well-designed, 1950s-style interior settings all have a wisely muted color palette that looks quite fine in high-definition. It’s clear, though, that many of the non-studio exterior sequences were in shot in New York and not San Francisco. Regardless, it’s good-looking stuff.

The bonuses do an excellent job of getting behind the scenes of the movie, highlighting the research material and verifying the authenticity of the film. Happily, there’s none of the self-congratulatory smugness that’s so frequently seen in featurettes.

The Blu-ray disc (it’s a two-disc set) includes Ginsberg reading two poems from a 1995 appearance at the Knitting Factory (his reading of Howl from the same night is on the DVD as well), and there is a Q&A with the directors from a film festival. It’s hardly the best use of Blu-ray’s technology, but fitting given the film’s topic.

 

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About Buzz

Buzz McClain reviews DVDs for Playboy magazine and is a former critic for Video Business magazine. But what he really wants to do is direct.