Howl (Oscilloscope) – Co-writers/co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s recreation of Allen Ginsberg’s life and art, and the San Francisco obscenity trial concerning his book of poems, Howl, is a vivid if not completely successful glimpse at the American counterculture. If the clever animated sequences don’t fully convey the adventurousness of Ginsberg’s poetry, James Franco fully embodies the charismatic beat poet in a performance that ranks among the year’s finest. Oscilloscope’s superb package includes Howl on Blu-ray (where it looks terrific) and DVD, with contextualizing extras: interviews, Q&A, making-of featurette and readings by Franco and Ginsberg himself.
Lennonyc (A&E) – Michael Epstein’s recounting of John Lennon’s last tumultuous decade—when he and wife Yoko Ono lived in New York, where he was killed in 1980—might not contain revelations for real fans, but there’s enough of John’s lancingly truthful statements and brilliant musicmkaing to compensate. Since Ono herself was involved, there is some whitewashing, but the former Beatle’s tragic story remains compelling and heartbreaking. On Blu-ray, the movie looks and sounds better than on DVD or PBS (where it first aired after its NY Film festival premiere), and there are 20 minutes of deleted interview snippets.
DVDs of the Week
Enemy at the Door: Series 2 (Acorn Media) – This historically accurate, dramatically involving 1980 British mini-series continues the story of the inhabitants of the Channel Islands (British territory off the northern coast of France) which became the only English land that fell to the Nazis. This 13-episode, 11-hour chronicle tells many stories of invaders and victims, including those who continued to fight and those who worked with the Germans. Superbly acted by an unknown cast (even if faces look familiar), Series 2, absorbing on its own, is with Series 1 an epic that should not be missed.
The Last Exorcism (LionsGate) – This modestly effective chiller depends heavily on the original Exorcist for subject matter and The Blair Witch Project for its “look.” Like William Friedkin’s masterpiece, The Last Exorcism begins as a psychological study, then morphs into blood-and-thunder horror; like Blair Witch (and countless others since), it’s a faux-documentary, down to the very ending, which nakedly apes Blair Witch’s finale. Those who don’t know the other films might get more out of this shopworn material, but it’s too heavy-handed and inelegantly done for the rest of us. Extras include two commentaries, making-of featurette and interviews with participants in actual exorcisms.
Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talking About Him)? (Lorber) – The sad life of Harry Nilsson—called by no less than the Beatles as the best American singer-songwriter—is examined in this perceptive documentary by director John Scheinfeld. Nilsson (who died in 1994 at age 52) was a singular talent, but his obsessiveness led him down alleys like alcoholism and an inability to perform live. Interviews with family, friends, collaborators and admirers create a comprehensive portrait of a misunderstood man and artist, however tortured—that the movie concentrates on his genius and humanity is to its credit. Extras include 90 minutes of deleted scenes and interviews.
CD of the Week
Jeremy Denk Plays Ives (Think Denk Media) – Charles Ives’ exceptionally difficult music has adherents but remains at the fringes of the repertoire. But Jeremy Denk fearlessly dives into the depths of his rarely-heard and towering piano sonatas—and survives! Denk makes sense of what on the page or in the wrong hands seems nonsensical. The first sonata is a series of unrelated snapshots (or as Denk says in his liner notes, “crosscutting” between scenes as if Ives was a film director); the massive second, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860, encompasses mid-19th century literature with four movements titled “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts” and “Thoreau” (the last features flutist Tara Helen O’Connor). Ives will never be accessible to many ears, but for those who are willing, Denk’s dynamic pianism makes an essential tour guide.