I did manage to catch a few films today, and at the Howl screening this afternoon, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman gave a terrific Q&A after the film, talking about how they turned the iconic Allen Ginsberg poem into such a groundbreaking film, their first narrative feature. Here are comments on three films showing today and tomorrow...
The First Grader
dir Sofia Coppola; with Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning 10/US ***
Coppola returns to the premise of Lost in Translation with another gentle exploration of celebrity, this time a hot star (Dorff) who lives in Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, flirts with an endless stream of women and spends his free time with his 11-year-old daughter (Fanning). While Dorff isn't hugely engaging, which leaves the film feeling rather cold, his scenes with Fanning are warm and enjoyable. And the overall style of the film still makes it watchable, with its long scenes, unhurried pace, offbeat score and gorgeous Harris Savides cinematography. And even if the closing scenes aren't hugely convincing, there's a strong commentary along thw way about the limbo of fame.
dir Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman; with James Franco, David Strathairn 10/US *****
Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Epstein and Friedman turn their skills to a narrative feature, sort of. This is essentially a movie based on a poem, which is vividly animated in a variety of styles by Eric Drooker. Stirred in with this is a doc-style dramatisation of Allen Ginsberg's life that runs in parallel with both the poem and recreates scenes from the Howl obscenity trial. What emerges is a remarkable look both at the man and his work, and also what makes his work so important more than 50 years later. In Franco's performance, Ginsberg comes to vivid life in a remarkably complex way that balances the beat poetry with wry humour and political controversy. This is fiercely original cinema worthy of one of the 20th century's most fiercely original artists.
The First Grader
dir Justin Chadwick; with Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo 10/Ken ***
Based on a true story, this drama from Kenya reflects on the legacy of colonialism and tribal warfare in a nation trying to get its feet on the ground. As the government introduces free education for all, 84-year-old Maruge (Litondo) shows up at primary school hoping to learn to read. When a caring teacher (Harris) takes him in, neither suspects that their actions will both ripple around the world and dredge up old wounds at home. The film has a dark undercurrent taken from historical events, but the central story is warm and sentimental, as Maruge bonds with his young fellow students and takes a stand for the importance of education. It's not a hugely complicated film, but it's a real crowd-pleaser.