Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 93 mins (15)
West Is West, Andy DeEmmony, 102 mins (15)

Why they thought this works as a big-screen docu-drama beats me

If anyone deserves to be the subject of a biopic, Allen Ginsberg is surely that person.

As a young man he fell in love with Jack Kerouac, went on the road with Neal Cassady, shared an apartment with a crowd of heroin addicts, was consigned to a psychiatric hospital, and worked as a Mad Men-style advertising executive. And this was all before his visionary poem, Howl, resulted in its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, being taken to court on obscenity charges in 1957 – as rousing a climax as any biopic could ask for.

It's disappointing, then, that the directors of Howl have opted to make a docu-drama instead. It cuts between three main strands. One part is a dramatisation of the trial, with several professors discussing why they think the poem is or isn't great literature. Another part is a long interview with Ginsberg, played by James Franco. And the third part is Franco's recital of the poem, to the accompaniment of a surreal cartoon.

Howl is well acted, respectful and certainly educational, but it doesn't quite add up to a film. The animation is so obviously a product of the digital age that it jars with the 1950s setting. The cut-price courtroom scenes waste such actors as Jeff Daniels, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker by having them parrot lines from the trial, but not giving them anything else to do.

If you want to know who Lawrence Ferlinghetti was, or what motivated the lawyers on either side of the case, you won't find the answer in Howl. And while Franco is lovably upbeat and boyish as Ginsberg, the interview segments just keep reminding us what we're missing, that is, fully staged recreations of the events he's telling us about. After all, if we're just going to watch Franco-as-Ginsberg being interviewed, we might as well watch an actual archive interview with the man himself.

For that matter, I was left puzzling over the validity of the docu-drama form in general – a misshapen hybrid that is neither as authoritative as a documentary nor as, well, dramatic as a drama. If it belongs anywhere, it's on a TV arts programme, and that's what Howl feels like. All it needs are some close-ups of Alan Yentob looking thoughtful.

After Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Tron: Legacy, the trend for belated sequels continues with West Is West, a follow-up to 1999's much-loved East Is East. It has a solid new premise. The previous film saw the Asian-British Khan family coming unstuck in Salford in 1971. In the sequel, set five years later, George (Om Puri) takes his youngest son Sajid (Aqib Khan) to meet his extended family in Pakistan, thereby showing the culture clash from a different angle.

The film also has some of the buoyancy and snappy dialogue of the original, and it's a relief to see Pakistan on screen without a single mention of Islamic extremism.

But something's lacking in West Is West, and that something is a plot. In screenwriting terms, the film has an Act One (George decides that his wayward son needs to learn about his heritage) and an Act Three (the family matriarch flies out to join them), but in the middle there's nothing more than a hazy, sun-dappled series of episodes in which George and Sajid attempt to adjust to a life of farm work, carnivals and al fresco toilets: a "time passing" montage that lasts about an hour.

Drive Angry is the kind of film Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had in mind when they made 2007's Grindhouse. A proudly silly, adolescent exploitation movie, it features car chases, shoot-outs, explosions, gore, nudity, swearing, and devil worship, often all in the same scene: at one point Nicolas Cage kills half a dozen villains while he's having sex, smoking a cigar and swigging from a bottle of bourbon. It's a pity that there aren't a few more scenes as deliriously excessive as that one. For every sequence that's a guilty pleasure, there's another that's as slow and boring as a traffic jam, and Cage himself is a part of the problem. William Fichtner gets the tone just right as a dapper, mystery man on the hero's trail, but Cage has none of his usual manic energy. "Drive Sleepy" would be nearer the mark.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees Matt Damon going on the run from a shadowy conspiracy yet again in The Adjustment Bureau

Film Choice

In the lawless badlands of finance, Charles Ferguson's documentary Inside Job tears the lid off the dirty dealings of the banking crisis. Meanwhile, Joel and Ethan Coen saddle up for their venture into Western territory, with Jeff Bridges as the veteran marshal in True Grit. Hailee Steinfeld, above, makes a cracking debut as incorruptible Mattie Ross.

Also Showing: 27/02/2011

No Strings Attached (107 mins, 15)

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play two friends-of-friends who agree to have a purely physical affair. It's a workable set-up for a romantic comedy – or it would be if it hadn't been done last month in Love and Other Drugs – but No Strings Attached forgets to explain why its pro-tagonists don't just have a conventional relationship. Kutcher obviously carries a torch for Portman, while Portman's supposed intimacy issues don't seem to stand in the way of her having lots of friends and a close family.

I Am Number Four (105 mins, 12A)

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Waste Land (94 mins, PG)

This Oscar-nominated documentary, directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, follows Vik Muniz, a New York-based Brazilian artist, to Jardim Gramacho, in Rio de Janeiro, the world's largest landfill, where he creates portraits of the "pickers" who scavenge there for any recyclable material.

The Rite (114 mins, 15)

An American trainee priest travels to Rome to learn the art of exorcism from Anthony Hopkins. He needn't have bothered, though, because it turns out to be almost exactly the same as it is in The Exorcist.

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