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Blu-rays of the Week
Buster Keaton Collection, Volume 3—Seven Chances/Battling Butler
(Cohen Film Collection)
The latest Buster Keaton release comprises two of the comic genius’ lesser-known efforts. 1925’s Seven Chances, an inspired piece of classic Keaton lunacy, crams more awesome hilarity and stuntwork into 57 minutes than movies twice as long. As always, Keaton builds the humor to a thrilling crescendo, as he tries to outrace rolling boulders in an exhilarating finale.
1926’s Battling Butler shows him hoping to impress his girlfriend’s tough-guy brothers by entering the ring: needless to say, the climactic bout is a doozy. Both films have superlative new hi-def transfers; lone extra is a short featurette on Keaton’s amazing stunts.
La Donna Serpente
La Nonne sanglante
Naxos has resurrected more worthy operatic rarities, beginning with the substantial La Donna Serpente, the only opera by the unheralded Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947). His fantastical 1932 tale is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s equally absurd Love for Three Oranges, as Casella’s richly dazzling music is nearly the playful Prokofiev’s equal. The colorful 2016 Turin staging is highly rewarding.
Charles Gounod (1818-93), best known for Faust and Romeo et Juliette, composed La Nonne sanglante in 1854; a tragic tale of forbidden love, it’s bumpy musically and dramatically, although the 2018 Venice production makes a good case for its stageworthiness.
This comedy pitting Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as competing con artists—a female reboot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—is about what you’d expect, with Wilson’s smart-mouth shtick dueling Hathaway’s elegant straight-woman manner.
It percolates for 90 minutes in pretty routine fashion, never allowing its stars to stray from their obvious strengths, like Wilson’s sarcastic one-liners. The filmmakers should have had them switch roles, but at least they had the good sense to shoot in the south of France. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are three on-set featurettes.
The Inland Sea
Author Donald Richie was the go-to expert on Japanese cinema—particularly that of Ozu and Kurosawa—so this little-seen (and little-known) gem from director Lucille Carra, which transforms Richie’s own book of his Japanese cultural explorations into a relatively brief (56-minute) but poetic travelogue, is worth seeing.
At times it seems less like a Criterion Collection project—or, at most, an extra on a Criterion Japanese film release—but it looks beautiful in high-def, and the bonus features (new Carra interview, 1991 Richie interview, conversation between filmmaker Paul Schrader and cultural critic Ian Buruma on Richie) bring context to an obvious labor of love.
Richard Wagner’s heroic opera has been given a fresh makeover by director Yuval Sharon at Wagner’s own shrine, the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. The music—all 3-1/2 hours of it—of course, is gorgeous, especially as played by the Bayreuth Orchestra under conductor Christian Thielemann.
The standout vocalists are Piotr Beczala as the title hero, Anja Harteros as heroine Elsa, and Waltraud Meier as antagonist Ortrud. The hi-def video and audio are top-notch.
When a new resident at a Georgia retirement community—a boisterous New Yorker stricken with cancer—ruffles feathers by starting a cheerleading club, both those who applaud her scheme and those dead set against it are forever changed by her tenacity.
If Diane Keaton wasn’t in the lead, this high-concept, low-wattage comedy-drama would even be less memorable. Along for the ride are Jacqui Weaver, Pam Grier, Celia Weston and Rhea Perlman, proving that even women “of a certain age” can’t overcome lazily-written and crudely directed pep fests. The film looks fine on Blu.
Queen of Spades
These 2018 Salzburg Festival productions value directors over composers to both operas’ detriment. Strauss’ Salome, one of the most shocking operas ever, has been defanged by stage/set/costume/lighting designer Romeo Castellucci, who benightedly hides Salome during her famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” (maybe he is wearing one hat too many?). Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian is a magnetic Salome, and Franz Welser-Most conducts a thrilling reading of Strauss’ score by the Vienna Philharmonic.
Tchaikovsky’s intense Queen of Spades loses a lot except for the climactic card game, which has been staged incisively by director Hans Neuenfels. Otherwise, Tchaikovsky’s music and a fine cast help keep interest throughout.
DVDs of the Week
The Sun Is Also a Star
In this queasily artificial melodrama, the delightful star of Blackish, Yara Shahidi, gives her all in the service of an unrelievedly sappy YA romance. Although she and costar Charles Melton have good chemistry and she exudes more intelligence and charm than actresses twice her age, even Shahidi can’t overcome the annoyingness at the heart of this contrived relationship flick.
Some underseen New York locations are supremely photogenic backdrops, so there’s that. Lone extra is brief making-of featurette.
Trial by Fire
The true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas father convicted of murder after his three young daughters perished in a tragic 1991 fire, is straightforwardly recounted in Edward Zwick’s barely-released drama, which shows how far the semi-mighty have fallen (Zwick directed 1989 Oscar winner Glory after creating TV’s Thirtysomething).
This punishing exploration of capital punishment might lack nuance, but necessary perspective is added by the powerhouse performances of Jack O’Connell (Willingham), Laura Dern (Elizabeth Gilbert, who befriended Willingham and tried getting him a new trial) and—most stunningly—Emily Meade as Willingham’s wife.
CD of the Week
The Film Music of Gerard Schurmann
Here was a film composer with whom I was completely unfamiliar, even though I’ve seen a few of the films for which he wrote scores. But British composer Gerard Schurmann—born in 1924, he’s a spry 95 now, according to the liner notes—supplied an impressive array of colorful music to a surprisingly eclectic group of features, as this disc—devoted to excerpts from eight of his scores, from a 1956 police drama The Long Arm to a Dostoevsky adaptation that Hungarian director Karoly Makk made in 1997, The Gambler—demonstrates.
Schurmann’s music—as played by the BBC Philharmonic under the sympathetic baton of conductor Rumon Gamba—has sufficient variety and versatility to encompass the aural soundscapes of routine thrillers and horror flicks and even an historical melodrama about Mussolini’s mistress.
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