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Movies: Howl **

Howl initially shapes up like a full-on biopic, and as its subject is flamboyant beat poet Allen Ginsberg, that might have been interesting. Instead, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman opt to view Ginsberg's life through the very narrow prism of a 1955 reading of his most famous poem, Howl, and a subsequent obscenity trial.

James Franco plays the poet, and we meet him at what proves a crucial juncture in his life, when he has an artistic breakthrough and accepts that he is gay.

Shot in a mixture of black and white and colour, Howl flits between Ginsberg monologues, that famous first reading of Howl in a San Francisco art gallery, and a 1957 trial over the poem's alleged obscenity. Those courtroom scenes are the film's most interesting, and we get frustrating glimpses of fine actors such as Jon Hamm and David Strathairn. But Howl spends much of its time dramatising the poem in a series of crude animations that involve frequent recourse to airborne penises.

Howl is a bit of a mess, and a pretentious one, too, and the normally reliable Franco succumbs to the general air of crapulence with an unconvincing performance.

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