By Andy Lauer | Indiewire January 22, 2010 at 6:29AM
"Although 'Howl' technically didn’t provide Sundance with its opening night film—it was one of two competition films screened on opening night—it reeks of the stigma associated with the aforementioned slot: Poorly executed, socially relevant counterculture fetishization executed with a few familiar faces," writes Eric Kohn about Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Allen Ginsberg biopic, which kicked off the 2010 Sundance Film Festival last night in Park City, Utah.
The LA Times' Chris Lee: "Described by co-director Rob Epstein in his opening remarks as 'a movie about a poem,' the film stars James Franco as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and details the intellectual and emotional wrangling that went into writing one of the 20th century’s most famous (and infamous) poems. Over the course of the movie’s 99 minutes, the actor delivers lengthy recitations of Ginsberg’s epochal, book-length work amid surrealistic animated sequences intercut with a reenactment of the landmark 'Howl' obscenity trial (in which Jon Hamm and David Strathairn square off as the attorneys arguing the case)."
"Epstein and Friedman's loving and often lovely tribute to Ginsberg's poem made for nearly ideal opening-night programming here on the slushy slopes of the Wasatch Range," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "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."
IFC's James Rocchi: "'HOWL' is not, thankfully, a museum piece or another shabby, shining icon of baby boomer hero-making. It looks at its own time, but you can see echoes of the here and now -- how some will always rail against the unspeakable simply because they do not wish anyone to speak, how advertising seems to offer everything you might buy aside from the things you actually want, how sex freaks out America and how, when modern life drives people mad, we choose to change the people instead of modern life. Franco's Ginsberg is at his best in the interview sequences -- candid and chain-smoking, offering how ' ... there's no 'Beat Generation' -- just a bunch of guys trying to get published,' or saying that his poetry is the result of talking to his muse as candidly as he talks to his friends. His recitation of 'HOWL' is occasionally a little too too, but, then, so was Ginsberg's, and it somehow fits."
Variety's Todd McCarthy calls the film an "an admirable if fundamentally academic exploration of the origins, impact, meaning and legacy of Allen Ginsberg's signal work," while The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt observes that "'Howl' proved the perfect film to kick off Sundance 2010, a festival that means to rededicate itself to 'cinematic rebellion' and indie experimentation."
Watch four clips from "Howl" here.
Meanwhile, Sundance's U.S. Documentary Competition also kicked off last night with the premiere of Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's "Restrepo."
"For 'Restrepo,' journalists Sebastian Junger and filmmaker Tim Hetherington embedded with an Army unit in the treacherous Korengal Valley off and on for a year, drawing fire right along with them, and even documenting the moment when they discover one of their comrades has been killed," writes the A.V. Club's Noel Murray, who gives the film an A- rating. "I’ve never seen combat footage like Junger and Hetherington get in 'Restrepo'; it’s raw, relentless, and made all the more unsettling by the fact that the soldiers can’t see who’s shooting at them."
Writing for The Wrap, Eric Kohn calls "Restrepo" "an unprecedented work of art" that "left the room appropriately stunned. Michael Moore was spotted quietly exiting the theater alone at the end of the night. Anything that leaves the world's most rambunctious cinematic polemicist speechless deserves a second look. Hopefully, that's what 'Restrepo' will get once Sundance comes to a close."
IFC's Alison Willmore: "Pointing out that 'Restrepo' is a nonfiction companion to 'The Hurt Locker' is unavoidable -- there are direct echoes in the way the men interact, in the generally apolitical tone, in the microfocus and structuring around timeframe instead of narrative arc, in the observation made by one man that getting shot at is an incomparable high. But I was also reminded of Kimberly Peirce's muddier, emotionally anguished 'Stop-Loss,' in terms of the tenderness with which the soldiers are treated, and in the portrayal of their sense of brotherhood."
"There's nothing very new about this film," reports the New York Post's Kyle Smith. "Its commercial prospects are minimal."
Editorial Assistant Andy Lauer is is part of the indieWIRE team covering the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.