The Critics: Submarine, Howl

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Submarine

DCA: 25-31 March

Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, originally released in 2010, combines refreshing dialogue, a brilliant cast and wonderful cinematography – not surprising, then, that it has been hailed as one of the best British debuts for years. Set in Wales, the film follows adolescent Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he attempts to save his parents’ marriage, lose his virginity before his sixteenth birthday and increase his already above average vocabulary by regular dictionary foraging.

He is aided in his escapades by his girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige), behind whose lilting Welsh accent and large brown eyes lies an excitable pyromaniac. Some of the film’s most beautiful scenes involve the teens, both buttoned into enormous duffle coats, running along the sea shore armed with sparklers, or alternatively blowing up bins against backdrops of spectacular sunsets.

There is more to the film than pretty landscapes, however. While it would be possible to accuse Submarine of dealing with some hackneyed themes – family problems and blossoming sexual desire are far from unusual among the majority of teens – the film is redeemed by its unusual camera techniques and strange, self-aware humour.

This humour is the sort that appeals across generations: despite frequent schoolboy obscenities, much of the laughter provoked by the film came from the older members of the audience. Oliver’s use of political or academic jargon as part of everyday speech, as well as his regular surveys of his parents’ sexual activity, certainly verges on comic genius, as does the marvellous performance of Noah Taylor as Oliver’s father. Sally Hawkins also gives a good show as the uptight mother of the house, and the interaction between the three characters is brilliantly engineered.

The film’s only flaw is that it tries to do too much. The theme of mortality surfaces both at the beginning and end of the film and gives the impression that Submarine is attempting to encompass all aspects of life and death, whether it needs to or not. That said, as far as funny, original and heart-warming films go, this one will warm you to your very cockles.

Suzannah Evans

Howl

DCA: 4-10 March

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” So begins Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s controversial poem whose explicit content led to Lawrence Ferlinghetti – the work’s original publisher – being put on trial for obscenity in 1957. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s ambitious film is part courtroom drama, part animation, part documentary, part poetry recital. The problem is that while half of this works very well, the other half largely struggles to get off the ground.

James Franco is excellent as Ginsberg and without him the film’s many fragments would simply fall apart. His delivery of Howl is pitch-perfect and the movie is at its best when he is allowed the freedom to hold the screen, reciting the poem on a San Francisco stage. Adapted from interviews, court transcripts and the text itself, there is not a word in the film which was not actually spoken, and it certainly provides a valuable insight into the poet’s creative process and temperament.

Although the directors’ innovative use of animation should be applauded, I ultimately found it to be a distraction. It almost seems that Epstein and Friedman lacked the confidence to put Franco on screen for the full 84mins and decided to throw in some cartoons at the last second. The problem with all literary adaptations – a problem which is particularly apparent in this case – is that they inevitably colour the viewer’s interpretation of the source text. The power of Howl is in its imagery, and considering Franco’s performance,the animation sequences just seemed entirely unnecessary. Similarly, the courtroom section – headed up by Jon Hamm and David Strathairn – feels somewhat flat and appears to have been included solely for its historical significance as opposed to any real dramatic value. Although both Hamm and Strathairn deliver strong performances, the viewer ultimately has no emotional investment in the outcome of the trial and the fate of Mr Ferlinghetti.

Beat Generation fanatics will likely enjoy Howl, if only for Franco’s portrayal of Ginsberg. If you are unfamiliar with the poem; buy a second-hand copy, don your beret, and read it in all its original glory. Then consider going to see the film.

Ross Dickie

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