Howl - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Howl Reviews

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Super Reviewer
May 15, 2013
This is definitely on the side of experimental, when it comes to former documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Trail of Harvey Milk"). They have historically told the stories of gay icons and the reality of their lives in comparison to media interpretations, but there wasn't much that was learned from this film. Though it was not a documentary it for sure was not a bio-pic either. The film brings together three different themes and elements to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's life: a reading at the Six Gallery in 1955 where Ginsberg read his work "Howl" in three parts, an animated sequence that follows the events of the poem and expresses the real life emotions of the author (based on animation Ginsberg actually did), and an obscenity trial against the first publisher of Ginsberg's poem in 1957. There are also interspersed interview-like sections of the film where Ginsberg (Franco) speaks on his life and then there are filmed sections that show his troubles. Most prevalent is his affair with Jack Kerouac, his admiration for Neal Cassady, his friendship with Carl Solomon, and his life as a homosexual with his life partner Peter Orlovsky. These snippets of information are most often lost to the audience as the narrative becomes garbled between the actual interviews and the disconnected style of Ginsberg's poetry which flits in and out of the rest of the film. The animation, I will say, works well with Franco's reading of Ginsberg's work, which works well in contrast with the courtroom scenes. In those scenes two lawyers keep bringing literary critics, English professors and writers to the stand to analyze the merit of Ginsberg's work and the necessity of the curse and slang words that he uses time and again to emphasize his travels and the lives of those in the Beat generation. The film doesn't do much except show the merits and cultural significance of the actual poem and doesn't relay much about Ginsberg's actual life, which leaves you a bit wanting when there's so much controversy accumulated around this trial going on. If Ginsberg was more in the foreground of the narrative, this film would make more sense, since its subject matter is so surreal, and make the trial mean more by the very end. As an analysis of the poem for an English class, sure, this film makes its point convincingly, but did it have to argue that in this day and age?
Super Reviewer
½ April 14, 2013
Howl is a surprisingly academic and dry take on a passionate artist and work: Allen Ginsberg and Howl. James Franco is impressively committed, and gives a charismatic and touching performance. Though the material is intellectually interesting, the filmmakers have chosen to have characters only speak lines that are on the public record. Though probably historically accurate, this choice does nothing to engage our emotions.

The focus of the film is Howl's 1950's obscenity trial in San Francisco, when beat poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti is blocked from selling the book. The trial is reproduced word for word and acted with talent and enthusiasm by a star studded cast including Bob Balaban, Jon Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, etc. The problem is that Ginsberg isn't there in court and the outcome doesn't seem to affect him one way or the other.

Most of the rest of the dialogue is derived from various interviews and writings of Ginsberg, and that material is great. It touches on his relationship with Jack Kerouac, his homosexuality, how he came to poetry, his strained yet loving relationships with his parents and many other rich veins. But those scenes don't really deliver as much impact is they should, because they are presented clinically, with Franco's voice speaking Ginsberg's words, illustrated with documentary style scenes with actors (as Kerouac, or Neil Cassidy) with no dialogue.

The most touching and memorable scenes in the film are Ginsberg reading Howl in a cafe, with close ups of the young beatniks reacting. Franco really commits heart and soul to the words and by the end, he picks up a momentum and passion that choked me up. Though his reading is hardly Shakespearean, the film's closing credits show the real poet reading on film. Franco's thin, New Yorkese, low key delivery captured Ginsberg's style to perfection. Directors Friedman and Epstein are from the documentary world and they have not adjusted well to the somewhat different medium of dramatic scripted storytelling. The film is worth seeing if you feel like hearing Howl read aloud and want to soak up some fifties style. A really good feature film about Ginsberg that gets you in the gut has yet to be made.
Super Reviewer
½ February 14, 2013
Having never been able to understand and appreciate poetry, I found myself pulled into a poets heart and soul. It did take a little time to begin feeling my connection and by the end felt I had an inner poet and was inspired.
Super Reviewer
½ September 30, 2012
Succeeds on the strengths of 1) James Franco's absorbing and committed performance, and 2) The brilliance of the source material. However, the central problem is that while the poem is addressed very comprehensively and intelligently, the response is not quite emotional enough- or at least the focus is not developed enough towards an active emotional storyline. The impression is eventually of a very good documentary: working through the poem through 4 narrative frames: the courtroom, the original reading, interviews with Ginsberg, and the animation. The animation is mainly pretty good, supported immeasurably by James Franco's reading. The court room scenes are interesting but a little neat, black and white, to the point where no real defiant support is summoned from the viewer. The case is already won. However, the emotional punches are there. It is affecting and intelligent, and handsome, but- perhaps inevitably- most of this credit really does belong to Ginsberg.
Super Reviewer
June 11, 2012
Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is put on trial for obscenity.
Howl is basically a biographical gloss of the poem "Howl" with added stylistic elements inspired by Ginsberg's illustrations. The main problem with the film relates to a question of audience. It doesn't appeal to people who have no familiarity with the poem and its associated literary history; as examples, if you don't know who Neal Cassady is, the film won't tell you, and if you don't know the intellectual basis for Dadaism, then the Jeff Daniels character, who uses it as his primary attack against the poem, won't give you a brief outline. So the film isn't for people who slept through their American literature survey course, but because I do know that Cassady is the basis for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road and that Dadaism embraced gut reactions and moment-to-moment inspiration as the foundation for art, eschewing reason and logic, and because I actually taught "Howl" in an American literature survey course, one might assume that I am in Howl's audience. But I'm not. If this film is for such a select group of people, then it misses even this mark. Witnesses testify about "Howl's" "literary merit," but the conversation is so surface that it fails to explore the issue with any depth; all of the witnesses -- those on Ginsberg's side and those against him -- deploy arguments that could so easily be challenged that I was left wanting a greater exploration of the issue. Even Jake Ehrlich's final speech about freedom and artistic expression sounds like something from a fifth grade civics debate.
James Franco creates a good character in Ginsberg, but his reading of the poem, which is delivered in pieces almost in full, doesn't capture Ginsberg's frenetic energy. The animation does, nicely complementing the poem's images, but there's still too much missing from Howl to make it much better than a good copy of Cliff's Notes.
Super Reviewer
April 24, 2012
Jake Ehrlich: The battle of censorship will not be finally settled by your honor's decision, but you will either add to liberal-educated thinking, or by your decision you will add fuel to the fire of ignorance.

"The Obscenity Trial That Started a Revolution. The Poem That Rocked a Generation."

At the end of Howl while I saw the usual words flash onto the screen explaining what happened to the people after the events we saw in the film; I was struck by how little I truly learned about Ginsberg. Now if I was a huge Ginsberg fan or if I knew much about him at all, this wouldn't be a big deal; but I know practically nothing and yet I was still blown away by how little this film did to change that. Especially coming from documentary filmmakers. So from this first little statement about the film, it may appear as though I didn't enjoy it. While I definitely wasn't blown(haha) away by anything I saw; there was enough there to make the hour and twenty minute running time worth it. I'm a James Franco fan and despite there being very little to his performance here, it is still a good one. I also really liked Jon Hamm as the defense attorney and Jeff Daniels as a pretentious witness. But what really changed my view no this film was the reading of the poem "Howl" by James Franco brought to life by some wonderful animation. That really just stood out as the coolest element to the film hands down.

There were moments in the trial scenes where I was drawn into the legal battle, but at no point did I feel like the filmmakers really tried to make it seem that important. To me, it seemed like they like Ginsberg, they like "Howl", so they wanted to make a film about it. That would explain why the reading and animation storyline is done with such care, while the court case is given little time at all. I'm not saying any of it is done terribly, but a lot of it seems skimmed over. Overall it isn't as interesting as it should be, but with enough redeeming qualities to merit at least one watch. To be honest, I'd probably watch again in the future, purely for the animated poem. 
Super Reviewer
July 20, 2011
Franco's readings were great and they were shot very well; I also liked the alternative computer animations though I do need to see those again to completely evaluate them. Overall, was extremely pleased and I expected to be extremely disappointed because HOWL is sacred territory (I read it in high school, first exposure to Ginsberg).
Super Reviewer
June 9, 2010
James Franco does Allen Ginsberg...and this film is to Ginsberg what I'm Not There is to Bob Dylan, in style, portrayal, and execution. This one's not quite as ambitious though.

I'm already familiar with/a fan of Ginsberg, his poem "Howl" and the Beat Generation, so my take on this film is obviously pretty skewed. This film shouldn't be looked at as a definitive take on the man, the poem, or the obscenity trial it became the focus of. Instead, this is a non-linear experimental piece which weaves together the 1857 obscenity trial, the 1955 writing/performing of the poem, visual recreations of certain sections of the poem, as well as recreations of a documentary interview and some biographical stuff about Ginsberg's personal life and childhood.

This is not a film for all tastes, and it is really there for those who are already part of the proverbial choir, but the way things are done is interesting, even though the appeal will be limited. For the sake of others, I had hoped this film would be more accessible to a wider audience, and that there would have been a bit more context (both in general and historical) for a lot fo what is shown, but those are minor quibbles.

The way the poem is rendered visually is pretty cool, and I liked the recreations of the Gallery Six Reading and the Trial. Franco is pretty good as Ginsberg, finding a nicely understated way to present the man to the world. There are some good supporting parts filled by Hamm, Balaban, and, Straitharin, as well as some nice little bit parts from Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker.

As I said, this is an experimental film, so it's really indie and artsy, and non-linear, and will most benefit those already familiar. It is a noble effort though, and it entertained me. I also liked how it was one form of art (film) providing a commentary on analysis and criticism of another form of art (poetry).

I liked it, and you just might too, especially ifGinsberg, "Howl", or the Beats are appealing to you. For the purely curious, you may wanna read up on things first.
Super Reviewer
½ May 4, 2011
I really wanted to find something good in Howl, but it just wasn't a good movie in my opinion. James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg so over the top and cheesy that it's not believable at all and frustrating. It's almost bizarre that they kept centering around the poem so much and using it as basically the only thing important in the entire world. Now I didn't want to hate this at all and I admire the intentions, but it's just so easy to see this movie for the flawed storytelling and film making that it is. The blend of animation does not work at all and feels ridiculously forced. The only really interesting aspect is the courtroom aspect of it. In a perfect world, this would have centered on Jon Hamm's character and been about his struggle to defend the poem itself because he was about the best character in the whole thing.
Super Reviewer
½ February 24, 2011
Lives and mostly dies by its woeful literalizations, be they the animated retellings of Allan Ginsberg's poem, the dry courtroom scenes, or the documentary-style interviews, which feel desperately canned. The film is unrelentingly hideous, the initial offender being the garish, over-lit and occasionally arbitrarily stylized scenes in reality. Things only get worse as Howl starts oscillating with extreme discomfort between these scenes and its animation passages, which are about a half-step away from an embarrassment. Mired somewhere between excess and uncreativity, the momentum of the film comes crashing to a halt every time these scenes roll around; you actually find yourself wishing for a return to Jon Hamm's attorney non-character. Howl isn't a complete failure by any stretch - it explores some interesting thematic material, like the nature of censorship (especially how it pertains to political fear), and although its treatment of said material is admittedly obvious, it still brings forth its clashes in an intellectually engaging way. The acting is satisfactory, although I'll be damned if I can remember a single thing about James Franco's performance. He is given surprisingly little screen time, as Howl often prioritizes its shitty animation or its courtroom drama over the staged interviews, but nothing about his portrayal is particularly dissatisfying. This interpretation of Ginsberg did leave me feeling like he wasn't a complete stereotype, so I suppose that's a significant plus. Unfortunately, Howl's scattered virtues are totally adrift in a film too broken and discordant to even worry about pacing, and though it's short and punchy there isn't too much to see here worth watching. It's an original piece that grapples with an important, little-seen issue, but the execution is a mess.
Super Reviewer
April 2, 2011
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn."

As Allen Ginsberg talks about his life and art, his most famous poem is illustrated in animation while the obscenity trial of the work is dramatized.

Wonderfully evocative faux-documentary that showcases the poem. The animation sequences stick close to the literal denotation of the textual images. Some have found that approach unsympathetic, but I disagree. Part of what I love about the poem is its twisting of banality into surrealist mysticism (Plotinus in Oklahoma, Blake in the heavens over New Jersey and demon Moloch on Madison Avenue). The contrast between the intensely colored fantasy animation and the back-and-forth to black-and-white convey that contrast nicely. Others would like to see something else; let them make something else.

David Strathairn as the prosecutor is wonderful. The scene when he inadvertently (I assume) falls into Ginsberg-ian imagery ("When I open my mouth, fists come out") is worth the whole price of the DVD.
Super Reviewer
November 7, 2010
I had a powerful experience while watching "Howl", an experimental take on the obscenity trial following the publishing of Allen Ginsberg classic poem 'Howl'. James Franco plays Ginsberg in one of his best performances, showing the famed poet as fragile and confident and knowing yet still confused. The film uses courtroom drama, animation and black and white to express the time period, Ginsberg's words and the confusion that comes with trying to put expression into a box. The film is as much a document of the 1950's Beat Generation as it is about today's society. Anyone who has ever dared to put their feelings out for the world to see through artistic means or even just tried to better understand themselves will be taken in by "Howl."
Super Reviewer
½ February 11, 2011
without question i have never seen a film quite like it. a film about a poem, as the poem is read there is animation that accompanies the poem which is itself fairly poetic. in the live action scenes franco and hamm deliver particularly solid performances, and the decision to use dialogue from interview and court documents guaranteed an accuracy not seen often enough in biopic style films like this. overall a unique and interesting film.
Super Reviewer
January 13, 2011
HOWL is not the best film in the world, but James Franco's performance really holds this story together. From the amazing animation clips during the poem reading, to the gay realization scenes, all the way to the court scenes, this film really proves that good stories still exist. It is a bit dull at times, but it is extremely interesting and never lost my attention. Howl is a great film!
Bill D 2007
Super Reviewer
½ October 10, 2010
"Howl," starring James Franco as a young Allen Ginsberg, is more of a sketch than a fully developed work of art. It doesn't dig very deep, but it does capture nicely some of the essence of what made Ginsberg's poem "Howl" (1956) a masterpiece and such a lightning rod for controversy.

It also effectively and warmly explores some of the life challenges that propelled the young man from New Jersey to write such explosive and iconoclastic poetry. Chief among these, the film suggests, was the fact that Ginsberg had fallen head over heels in love with a man, his college roommate, Jack Kerouac, who himself would go on to become a literary star.

Much of the howling that the poem depicts, it would seem, was that of gay men trying to find ways to resist the oppression that strangled them like a noose morning, noon and night. "Howl" (the film) to a large degree presents Ginsberg as a courageous pioneer and grandfather of the modern gay rights movement.

In this way, the film is both moving and predictable. We've seen this kind of heroic treatment a million times before. Far more interesting would have been a consideration of the negative traits of Ginsberg alongside the courageous. Hagiography is so easy to do that I'm not sure a filmmaker of Rob Epstein's caliber should lower himself to traffic in it. (Epstein won an Oscar for 1984's "The Times of Harvey Milk," one of the greatest documentaries of all time.)

Ginsberg himself would surely have preferred a more balanced treatment. In a set of personal conversations I had with Ginsberg in 1987, he said: "I'm an asshole and a coward just like everybody else." And he wasn't exaggerating.
Super Reviewer
January 14, 2010
Synopsis says, "HOWL interweaves three stories." Strathairn, puritanically uncomfortable with obscene language, doesn't understand meaning or literary merit of Howl. Hamm defends publisher Ferlinghetti played by Rogers against those who say Howl is morally damaging. Franco as Ginsberg is interviewed about his life, art, inspiration, and the value of his poems. Fascinating recreations of interviews show us risk taking artistic process and prophet Ginsberg. Jazzy animation throughout juxtaposes man seeking to understand, confusing suppressive world, phalluses, flying spirits, and Moloch to help audience appreciate literary merit and human understanding expressed in Howl!
Super Reviewer
½ October 5, 2010
"Howl" is a modest and engaging movie with a surprisingly pitch perfect performance from James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. It is 1957 and he is giving a frank interview on the occasion of Lawrence Ferlinghetti(Andrew Rogers) being on trial for obscenity for publishing his poem "Howl." The trial scenes are the weakest part of the movie and are actually kind of distracting in a stunt casting sort of way(although Jon Hamm once again proves that he may have been born at least forty years too late). But even in a lumbering way, the trial makes a great case for individual freedom of expression in that each expert has a different reading of the poem as does every person who reads it, much as intended, which is also proof positive that once a work of art has been created, it takes on a life of its own. My own personal reading of the poem is that it is a shout to the heavens, of joy and anger simultaneously. And there is some dazzling animation to illustrate this point. At the time he was writing it, Ginsberg was struggling to find his place in a conformist world while becoming increasingly comfortable with his homosexuality, eventually meeting his true love Peter Orlovsky(Aaron Tyeit). Ginsberg had initially worried about it being read by his father(oops) and the scene of his reading it mirrors that by starting awkwardly and finishing strong.
Ryan M
Super Reviewer
½ February 10, 2011

James Franco can gleefully inhabit just about every character he portrays. I enjoyed watching him as his pot-head persona in "Pineapple Express", and his performance in 2010's "127 Hours" is earning Franco all kinds of praise. I know he is a talented actor; but I never knew he would act in a movie such as "Howl". Now, "Howl" is a film which not everyone has heard of, and if you've heard of it, then it's probably because you either like the poem of the same name or you stalk Franco's Wikipedia/Rotten Tomatoes page too often. Or maybe you're just like me, and you happened upon the title. You should be the first to know that I neither "stalk" Franco's pages, nor have I read the poem titled "Howl". However, this is the kind of film that doesn't force you to read in order to enjoy it, and I kind of had to admire that. It's not a great film, but when your movie can appeal to the audience that it wasn't even made for, then there's got to be some damn good craft involved. And in this case, there is. So yes, you could say that "Howl" is a good film; but then again, that's just how I see it. There are those who just don't like the film; half of those being people who love the poem to the point where they would never want to see a movie about it. But this is no ordinary poem; "Howl" is known for its obscenity. But is it really so obscene? This is the kind of story that challenges our perception as well as what we truly think of controversy. There will always be issues which I agree on, and then ones which I find unworthy of the negative criticism that they tend to garner. "Howl" was an expression of feeling for its writer, and therefore, it is not "pornography"; since pornography can be described as an excess of anything "explicit". And this film is, coincidentally, not pornography either. But it's not as if anyone thought it was in the first place. Like I said, "Howl" does not make for a perfect movie. But I enjoyed it, and I liked how it felt and looked. There were visually fascinating moments, and Franco's performance is entertaining enough to keep me hooked. I think it's a recommendation; but not for everyone. I'm nigh unsure of whether I should be telling you to see it or telling you to avoid it. I guess it all depends on how much you love the author of "Howl", Allen Ginsberg. Chances are that you will enjoy this film if you don't know much about the poem or the guy that penned it. But I don't doubt that there will be those within Ginsberg's fan base that enjoy it as well. Take it as you will, but as it is, I say see it.

Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem which he titled "Howl". In this poem, he wrote just about anything he wanted to regarding sexuality, society, and people; showing no remorse for his readers. It was the kind of poem written by a man that didn't care whether you wanted to read it or not; it wanted to exist. And that was good enough reason for the more curious side of society to ponder reading it. That is the beauty of controversial/graphic literature; and it's also the beauty of controversial/graphic filmmaking. While "Howl" is an easy ride through-and-through, it covers the kind of topics that could make some people uncomfortable. I only touch the subject of film "content" because like a good novel, content can indeed equal substance. I have seen great films which have been controversial for wanting to be graphic and different. These are films I respect and often times treasure; but not everyone will. This goes the same for "Howl"; a film which only a select few will actually find entertaining and/or genuinely good. The film is about Ginsberg's grand novel; a poem of great, profane spectacle. At the time of its release, people hated it. People still act like this towards controversial media, and while this is understandable, I would have never been on the side of the haters. Some people think it's unnecessary to release pornography to the public; but then again those who complain don't really know the meaning of the word. ESPECIALLY not when they refuse to publish a story such as "Howl", which from the looks of it, wasn't even THAT bad. It touches some subjects that may be "touchy" or "uncomfortable" to many, but the author wanted to get his feelings out. I suppose that I should cover the story more, and wrap up this section already. So the story itself focuses on a sort of "interview" with Franco's Allen Ginsberg, while the other half of the story focuses on the trial. The story gives us enough insight of the situation for us to actually give a damn about the story; although for many, it just won't be enough to draw them in. I enjoyed watching the film, and I found myself fascinated a good amount of the ride. It's not a great movie, but it doesn't need to be to impress me. And man, does this film impress me. At best, "Howl" is a loving portrayal of Allen Ginsberg and his body of work; particularly the short story of the same name which put his name on the map. And while the stylistic elements work well, what really drives this film is Franco, who gives a heck of a performance. I think I'll move on to covering that next.

I've liked James Franco for quite some time, and "Howl" reminds me of how seldom I actually watch films starring the up-and-coming actor. I believe that "Pineapple Express" got him popular, and "127 Hours" will make him memorable. But ever since his "Spider-Man" days, Franco has been a pretty cool guy; as an actor at least. "Howl" is admittedly not his best performance. But I say that only while comparing it to some of the actor's best works, since Franco handles the character of Allen Ginsberg with an almost unnatural sense of care and respect. He inhabits the character well; but alas, it's not completely likable. But I still like it, and Franco is enough to make this film satisfying. His co-stars are good as well, but when all is said and done, Franco runs the show here. And he runs it well.

Some films work well because they feel good to watch and to experience. "Howl" isn't a deep, awesome, or particularly memorable film; but I get the feeling that it doesn't want to be any of those things to begin with. The film works well because the stylistic elements and intense character study-factors work genuinely well together; thus creating a very entertaining if not mildly insightful film. This isn't so much a biopic, but more of an experimental film. I like experimental films; and this one is no better or no worse than most of its type. It's an entertaining and honorable homage to the great poet, and I think he would be at least mildly proud that someone was able to make a good film about him. But "Howl" will not please everyone. There's a lot here that people might not like; the style, the visual importance, or the fact that someone would want to make a film about Allen Ginsberg in general. I don't care if someone wants to honor an artist of any sort; as long as the homage is worthy of my personal attention. "Howl" is, in my opinion, quite worthy. Again, it's not perfect. But you know what; I don't care. It was entertaining, it was short, and it was to the point. I like that. And for all its visual craft, there's also some effort put into the plot and characters. But once again; we owe it all to James Franco, that crafty bastard.

"Howl" is an actor's showcase, a loving homage, and an interesting study of controversy and the mind of a poet; all at the same time. It's hard to stuff a film with so much stuff and make it great; but "Howl" does somewhat of a rare thing by at least being good. It will be enough to satisfy those who can understand that worse films are out there, and this one is actually well-made. It's out-side of the main-stream for sure; since Franco probably enjoys experimenting a bit. To give him as much credit as he deserves, this is nigh Franco's film alone. He makes the film work; and that's what I like about it. But "Howl" is also visually impressive and touches some interesting topics; both of which make it incredibly worthwhile. I suppose that some would have wanted a flawless depiction of such a literary artist as Ginsberg, but I can't complain? So what gives anyone the right to do so? The point is that; nothing can possibly make bickering about this film's imperfection right. And I think divided opinions makes it all the more better. It's a movie that you either like or you don't, and in this case, I quite enjoy it. It's not a film I will remember, but hey; at least it's creative and interesting. Frankly, that's good enough for me. It may not satisfy others, but I'm easy to please as long as there's craft involved in the film. And there IS craft involved in this film; it's just not the kind that all will take the time and care about. But at least the film never gets too self-absorbed. And that, my friends, is pretty damn impressive. But that's just me being me; the human being who enjoys a film such as this. The question that remains is: will you? I'm not sure who will enjoy this film. But I don't really care either. Proceed with (some) caution, but overall, recommended.
Super Reviewer
½ October 7, 2010
So that's it eh? While everyone swoons about Franco's performance in 127 Days, those "in the know" speak of Howl as being more of a defining performance. Well, Franco is good...with what little of a role that he has to play here. In the very brief hour and a half, Franco gets to be Ginsberg for two major scenes - a public reading of Howl and an interview associated with his public obscenity trial. Frankly it isn't enough. This is more of a film about Howl itself than Ginsberg and Franco's work is wasted. Deserved a longer treatment.
Super Reviewer
September 12, 2010
Franco always makes everything interesting.
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