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Indie Snapshot: Kill Your Darlings and CBGB

The former Hogwarts pals go their own ways in two new (and not very good) movies.

Although all three Harry Potter leads have been working steadily since the franchise's final installment two years ago, 2013 proved to be the year that Harry, Ron and Hermione -- a.k.a. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson -- made a definitive break with their goody-goody Hogwarts past. Watson was the first to declare her independence with a scene-stealing, axe-wielding supporting turn in This is the End, followed by a starring role as a well-dressed home invader in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring. Now her onscreen boyfriend and friend-who-is-a-boy are venturing into more risqué territory as well, in a pair of just-released New York period pieces based on real events.

Let's start with The Boy Who Lived, who is the main (and, to be honest, only) reason to sit through Kill Your Darlings, a well-intentioned, painfully earnest and resoundingly dull film that plays like a comic book-like origin story of the Beat Generation. (Call it: Beatmen Begin.) All of the leading lights of that movement are present and accounted for in co-writer/director John Krokidas's debut feature, from Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster, delivering the strongest performance of the cast) to Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). In the tradition of such before-they-were-famous portraits as The Motorcycle Diaries, Darlings confines its focus solely to the group's pre-formative years, ending just before they emerge as real artists (i.e. when they actually start to get interesting).

Since Radcliffe is the biggest name in the ensemble, Ginsberg serves as the narrative focal point, arriving at Columbia University in 1944 and instantly falling under the spell of the charismatic Carr. Like a New York branch of the Dead Poet's Society, the two idealistic rebels voraciously consume and debate great works of literature, pull elaborate pranks aimed at upsetting the stuffy university and take in Manhattan's hopping nightlife alongside slightly-elder statesmen Burroughs and Kerouac. But reality keeps intruding on the consequences-free crusade they've embarked on, whether it's the increasingly irate Columbia administration, Carr's obsessive would-be lover David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), or Ginsberg's own emerging emotional -- and physical -- longing for his friend. (It's not entirely fair to Radcliffe or the film as a whole, but expect Kill Your Darlings to imprint itself in viewers' minds as "That Movie Where Harry Potter has Gay Sex.")

If Radcliffe at times seems out of his depth in this setting, it actually complements his character, who is intended to be the wide-eyed new guy in town. Whether the real Ginsberg was this naïve is an open question, but his evolution at least gives viewers something to hang onto during what otherwise feels like a stunningly inconsequential narrative. Kill Your Darlings suffers from the same problem that afflicts a lot of fictional prequels, which is that the filmmakers are covering expository ground that's only interesting in regards to how it affects the next stage of the characters' lives -- a stage that we don't reach here. Indeed, the only material that affects this particular period in a remotely dramatic way is the tortured relationship between Carr and Kammerer, a storyline that's confined to the margins since Ginsberg isn't directly involved. Despite solid performances and handsome production values, Kill Your Darlings ends up feeling like a 100-minute preamble to the real story of the Beat Generation.

On the other hand, at least Darlings has a discernable craft behind it, which is more than you can say for the embarrassingly bad CBGB, a rushed, chaotic and almost incoherent recap of the backstory behind the Lower East Side's iconic (and now defunct) punk music club. Unlike his Hogwarts chum, Grint isn't front and center in this mess, which is really for the best. Instead, he's just one of several shoulda-known-better actors (including Malin Akerman and Taylor Hawkins) who pop up briefly to strut their stuff as some of the real-life rockers who passed through CBGB's doors. Specifically, Grint plays Cheetah Chrome, guitarist for the punk outfit The Dead Boys, who CBGB owner Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) unwisely attempted to manage as a side career to running his club. (For the record, Akerman portrays Debbie Harry, while Hawkins is Iggy Pop and Joel David Moore takes on Joey Ramone.) That disastrous experience occupies the second half of CBGB, provided you're able to make it that far to see Ron Weasley showing off his new cropped haircut and appropriately punkish sneer.

I wouldn't blame you if you gave up, though, since getting to that point requires a Job-like sense of patience and tolerance for inept filmmaking. Director Randall Miller (who co-wrote the film with Jody Savin) tries to bring a heightened, self-aware approach to the film's reality through the use of illustrated comic-book cutaways and fantasy interludes, like the one that presents an infant Hilly fleeing his family's chicken farm for the bright lights of New York. These flourishes are too frenetic to leave much of an impression beyond annoyance and only call attention to -- rather than distract from -- the lack of any interesting content onscreen. Even Rickman, an actor whose presence almost instantly elevates any movie, can't clear the high hurdle of CBGB's general inanity and passes through the movie with an expression of slightly pained annoyance plastered over his face. And forget learning anything substantive about the punk movement or the club's role in it; names and faces fly by with little historical or dramatic context and a general sense of inauthenticity pervades every scene. Honestly, you'd learn more about punk by listening to any random Ramones record than watching one minutes of CBGB.

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