POSTED ON DECEMBER 8, 2010:
While Howl is beautifully crafted, The Warrior's Way is over the top
Poetry in Motion. Beat-era biography Howl explores art, culture and censorship and proves as nonlinear as its subject, poet Allen Ginsberg.
There is a theme in the right-wing mediaverse that pops up every now and again, the idea that this country would be in better shape if things went back to the way they were in 1950s -- a supposedly more wholesome and honorable time. They probably envision a white, nuclear, patriarchal family unit in gauzy Ozzie and Harriet terms, in an era of prosperity buoyed by the can-do spirit begat by victory in World War II (though they might well forget that that prosperity also blossomed due, in part, to a 90-percent tax rate on the very richest Americans).
Dad worked a well-paying job with healthcare and a pension you or I could only dream of, came home to his homemaking wife and 2.4 tow-headed rug rats to enjoy a home cooked, steak and potatoes meal with the family, bathed in the Bing Crosby glow of a wood-encased, convex screened, black and white television. There was no dysfunction then, or at least there would not be, if everyone just kept in line and certain ideas, artistic and political, were suppressed lest they corrupt the innocent and upset the sensibilities of the morally correct.
Many of the people who yearn for that time now, that Rockwellian fantasy that never really existed, probably have as little use for Allen Ginsberg as their Eisenhower-era counterparts had. For them, censorship of unpalatable ideologies and art was just another (sadly ongoing) perk of those more "enlightened" times.
So Howl reminds us that it wasn't long ago that a man could wind up being criminally charged for publishing a poem.
In part a chronicle of the 1957 obscenity trial, in part a juxtaposition of the inception of the seminal Beat-era poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) and the milestone moments of its author's, early life, Howl haphazardly blends its biographical stew into a giddily reverent paean to art, an ode to critical thought, and a condemnation of a land of the free where freedom only befits those that colored inside the lines.
Howl's very nonlinear plot sketches out Ginsberg's early life with a running interview as he recalls his family, a poet-father and his mentally ill mother; the realization of his homosexuality and his eventual befriending, at Columbia University, of those who would become the most influential Beat Generation writers: Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, among others.
That is interspersed with the obscenity trial of City Lights publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), who first published "Howl" in anthology of other poems, and also Ginsberg's reading of the offending work at its fateful debut performance at The Gallery Six, which was widely seen as the conception of the San Francisco Renaissance.
Howl wends its way between those events, as well as Ginsberg's relationships with lost love Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tviet), tying the inspirations of the poem to the catalytic circumstances of its creators deeply examined life.
Writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman use a variety of techniques, shooting the interview and the debut reading in lush black and white (the trial is in color) and also somewhat adapting the poem itself into stylized animation sequences that added to the films sense of visual ingenuity.
It's really the poem that is the star, as much as its author, and the way Epstein and Friedman craft a satisfying and celebratory whole with deft and varied styles imparts an unexpected cohesion in the midst of a narrative that's a meta-parallel to the form of its chaotic, namesake, poem -- which, itself, is loaded with references to events in Ginsberg's life and intertextual shouts to William Blake, Walt Whitman and even Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Howl falters in the courtroom scenes, at least in execution. They're not so much a narrative drag, but they don't fit in as well tonally and seem awkwardly dispersed. While the performances from John Hamm as the defense attorney and David Strathairn for the prosecution, with cameos by Jeff Daniels and Alessandro Nivola as literary experts are all reliably good (Daniels's smirking pomposity is rich), the scenes themselves feel too conventional in contrast with the rest of Howl's energetic framework.
What they do accomplish, however, is to impart gravity to the question of artistic merit -- what art really is, how it evolves as a living breathing, often uncomfortable, mirror of the society it reflects in spider-webbed facets of truth that remain fundamental and visible long after an artist's place in history has passed. Food for thought, though the courtroom setting makes those ideas seem, perhaps unavoidably, pedantic.
James Franco is superb, however, as Ginsberg. Adopting the poet's mannerisms only to a point and never sinking into flat out mimicry, Franco falls into the role with ease. While the interview format isn't particularly innovative either, as a device it does add a quasi-documentary feel, which abets the films various narrative and visual techniques while Franco solidifies the foundation of Howl's sometimes-wobbly construction.
While not as sublime as it aims to be, Howl is an intellectually ambitious film that is an often beautifully crafted, triumphant love letter to the indefatigable impulses of artistic creation. It's also a reminder that the arbiters of cultural mores are as equally, and annoyingly, inevitable.
The Wrong Way
It was the only film that opened this week, so there wasn't much of a choice and, normally, seeing something like The Warrior's Way wouldn't be something I'd automatically dread. We're all about the ninjas here.
But The Warrior's Way sat on a shelf for over two years before landing on screens last week and I don't think I would have even heard of it if I didn't spend too much time watching G4's Attack of the Show. I didn't even know the thing existed until two weeks ago. That's ninja stealth in advertising.
And it's easy to see why. You wouldn't want to put more money into your marketing budget than you did into the actual film.
The Warrior's Way is pretty straightforward. Yang (Jang Dong-gun) is the world's best swordsman, on the run from his clan after he refused to kill the last member of a rival warrior clan, an infant girl whom he takes under his wing.
It's quickly clear that Yang is practically invincible, mowing through hopeless enemies as a near invisible, deadly wind. He's The Happening. But the heat gets to be a bit much even for an unstoppable killing machine, as his master, Saddest Flute (Shaw Brothers vet Ti Lung) is bent on the death of Yang and his adopted child.
So Yang hops a ship to the American west and lands in a dusty little burg called Lode, where his late uncle once owned a laundry. Yang seals his sword -- because his clan can hear it if it's unsheathed -- and disavows his old life to raise the baby and get the citizenry's clothes Calgon clean.
The town itself is populated by circus folk apparently oblivious to the fact that their circus grounds are a desolate wasteland Mad Max wouldn't stop to piss on and that the only tourist traffic consists of a band of brigands led by The Colonel (Danny Huston!) who occasionally ride in and kill people for no apparent reason. The place is dead, and there isn't even anything to pillage since there's no food and no one seems to own anything except their costumes. When Yang shows up, it's clear the hapless circus folk hope that he'll even the odds.
When Yang meets Lynne (a woefully miscast Kate Bosworth, though that applies to a few people here), an errant knife thrower who survived the brutal murder of her family a decade earlier at the hands of The Colonel (and who is responsible for his horribly scarred visage), he begins to teach her how to focus her skills and eventually trains her in ... you guessed it: The Warrior's Way.
There's very little that's not wrong with The Warrior's Way. The cheap production design utilizes small sets and a ton of badly composited green-screen work for many of the backgrounds. There's nothing like a good matte line to ruin a too-perfect sunset shot or an overly digital, moonlit set that doesn't look remotely real to begin with. The numerous digital doubles for scenes that required more than ten people in a given shot were amazingly lame and the film mostly fails at melding these assets into an organic looking world. 300 courted this style purposefully, but with much more skill. Sure, it doesn't look much more real either, but the quality of its design and production allowed for more suspension of disbelief.
The Warrior's Way cribs in other ways from 300, as well as The Matrix and half a dozen anime and manga staples. Writer/director Sngmoo Lee employs every overused narrative and visual gag there is from speed-ramping to bullet-time and stylized arterial sprays of digital blood to the sweeping shots of training montages and the inevitable, but incredibly cheap looking final battle that pits the townsfolk against The Colonel's gang and hordes of ninjas. His script is weak, full of one-dimensional characters spouting rote dialogue that you can almost recite on the first viewing. The characters themselves have no real reason to stay in this asshole of a town and so the entire world The Warrior's Way sets up feels like a façade populated by Colorforms instead of people. You've seen all this done before, and better, and though I hate to keep comparing C-rate productions like this to stuff on the SyFy Channel, that's so what it is.
Or at least it would be but for the inexplicable presence of Geoffrey Rush as Ron, the carefree town drunk who turns out to be a crack sharpshooter when the climactic need calls for it. He spends a good chunk of the flick doing nothing but his mere presence -- along with Danny Huston admirably chewing scenery --classes up the place far more than it could possibly deserve.
Kate Bosworth is hilarious as Lynne. When she's not affecting a confounding and weird passive/aggressive demeanor toward Yang, her wild facial tics and over emoting during the action sequences were inspiring the unintentional laughs. She's seriously out of her element here, though I don't think I've ever really seen her in her element anywhere. At least she's given more to say than Dong-gun who probably spits out 20 lines of dialogue throughout the film in three-word bursts of brooding woodenness. He does well during the fight scenes, but that's relative since those are actually fairly sporadic in frequency and only competently staged.
There's probably a way this flick could have worked, and there is an element of bad-movie fun to be milked from this with alcohol and friends. I still can't figure out what the hell Geoffrey Rush is doing in this thing but knock back a shot every time he's awesome and you'll be feeling pretty good in no time. And you'll have a decent excuse for not remembering anything about The Warrior's Way the next morning, or even five minutes after it's over.
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