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Listening to an unedited version of any current rap song makes it difficult to imagine a time when a poem would spark an obscenity trial. If Allen Ginsberg's feverish counterculture anthem "Howl" published today, readers would hardly chafe at its depiction of drug use, exuberant copulating and "endless balls." Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film of the same name attempts to reenergize the poem, which has become a fixture in classrooms and in trustafarians' dorm rooms, by recreating the inception of the work and the subsequent trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Howl and Other Poems' U.S. publisher. The film is successful as a character portrait and reenactment, but it often fails to replicate the poem's electricity. Besides resembling Ginsberg down to the thick-rimmed glasses and facial hair, James Franco brings his signature Ivy League bravado-meets-bashful charm to the poet, who is first seen reading "Howl" to a captivated crowd at San Francisco's Six Gallery. The film then interchanges scenes of the reading with the courtroom proceedings (in which Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker and Jon Hamm — whose Mad Men role seems to have made him victim to serious-man-in-a-suit typecasting — and other stars make appearances) and Franco's Ginsberg chatting about the relationships and events that inspired the poem, including his friendship with fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac. Graphic artist Eric Drooker provides illustrations to accompany the poem's reading, and the cartoonish and often too-literal animations are one of the film's worst aspects. The film also loses steam while constantly switching gears, since it is essentially three films in one. While flat at times, the film offers a solid performance by Franco and a chance for audiences, many unfazed by popular radio and NSFW Internet culture, a chance to visit a time when a poem could be incendiary. Howl opens Friday at Chalmette Movies. — Lauren LaBorde


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