Warner released Cabaret on Blu-ray in Canada on February 5, 2013. Help support Toronto Screen Shots by buying it on Amazon.ca.

Cabaret (Director: Bob Fosse): I’m generally not a fan of musicals. I find the way they use songs as shorthand for character development mostly unconvincing. But I’m a huge fan of Bob Fosse’s work, and so I was ready to set my reservations aside when I finally got around to watching one of the few films in his brief directing career that I’d not yet seen. Warner Brothers released a remastered Cabaret on Blu-ray on February 5, 2013 and it looks and sounds fantastic. I’d been consciously waiting for the film to come out in high definition before seeing it and I’m glad I waited. The colours really pop and the soundtrack really benefits from the lossless HD presentation.

I grew up in the 1970s and the music from Cabaret saturated the popular culture of the first half of that decade, so even though I’d never seen the film (or the stage show on which it was based), I knew nearly all of the songs. Liza Minelli is perfectly cast as the brassy but insecure Sally Bowles, performer at Berlin’s Kit Kat nightclub. It’s 1931 and the Nazis are beginning their ominous rise to power. Berlin between the wars was an interesting laboratory of artistic and sexual experimentation, and the Kit Kat Club reflects this sense of adventure. But it’s also tinged with a sense of desperation, perhaps acknowledging the forces gathering just outside. Sally meets and falls for Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York), despite his admission that he’d rather sleep with men. After deciding they’ll just be friends, they end up as lovers, at least until a rich playboy breaks both of their hearts. Their poor friend Fritz (Fritz Wendel) pursues the beautiful and rich Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson), at first for her money. But just as he falls in love with her, she rejects his marriage proposal due to their religious incompatibility. She is Jewish, and things are starting to look grim for the Jews of Germany.

Strangely, most of the songs in Cabaret do not directly advance the plot. Most take place inside the confines of the club, and the sinister and androgynous figure of the Emcee (Joel Grey) is at the centre of most of them. The bacchanalian atmosphere he creates seems more and more desperate as events unfold in the outside world. Similarly, Sally’s attempts to keep the bigger world at bay begin to fail and by the end, she seems to cling to her nightclub act the way a drowning woman might cling to a life preserver.

Minelli is at the pinnacle of her diva powers, playing a character who is not exactly likeable. Sally is an exhausting person to be around, and is clearly driven by her insecurity and an infantile desire to be loved at any price. She’s not equipped to deal with the immense evil about to be unleashed in Germany, and the viewer is left wondering what will happen to her after the film ends. Fosse has used the specific strengths of filmic storytelling to strengthen the power of the images (intercutting a musical number with shots of Nazis beating a man up, for instance) and in one unforgettable sequence, zooms the camera out from the clean cut face of a boy singing “The Future Belongs to Me” to show his Hitler Youth uniform.

I’m still not a huge fan of musicals, but I’ll acknowledge that Fosse made a serious film that happens to be a musical. The Nazi stuff is mostly kept in the margins, but it does encroach as the film progresses, and it’s clear that the Kit Kat Club is a much different place at the end of the film than it was at the start. The period of ambiguity (moral, sexual, political) that was allowed to flourish in Weimar Germany was quickly coming to an end.

The film and stage show were inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, based on his own experiences, and the songs, by Kander and Ebb, memorably illustrate an atmosphere that was a long time returning, not just to Germany, but to the rest of the world. It’s fitting that the film was made in the 1970s, another era of sexual awakening and liberation. Director Fosse made the decision to identify the character of Brian as gay, which he is not in the play. It’s truer to Isherwood’s own character, but was still a bold move, considering how few positive representations there were in film of gay or bisexual characters at the time.

The Blu-ray disc is packaged as a digibook, and comes with an extensive array of supplements, many of which I’m eager to explore:

  • Commentary by Stephen Tropiano, author of Cabaret: Music on Film
  • A new featurette, “Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals”
  • Vintage featurettes, “Cabaret: A Legend in the Making” and “The Recreation of an Era”
  • Reminisces by Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, John Kander, Fred Ebb and others


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by James McNally on August 25, 2012

in Documentaries,DVD

eOne released Marley on DVD and Blu-ray in Canada on August 7, 2012. Help support Toronto Screen Shots by buying it on Amazon.ca.

Marley (Director: Kevin Macdonald): Toronto Screen Shots’ contributor Drew Kerr reviewed this towering documentary on the life of reggae superstar Bob Marley back in June and enthused:

[Macdonald’s] unpre­ced­ented access to such a wealth of pre­vi­ously untapped resources, and his judi­cious use of them…elevate this film to some­thing truly spe­cial. More than 60 people were inter­viewed for the pro­ject and as inform­ative as the con­tri­bu­tions are from Marley’s fellow musi­cians, it’s the inter­views with less obvious fig­ures, such as Peter Marley (his white second cousin), Constance Marley (his half sister), Dudley Sibley (a recording artist and studio jan­itor who lived with Marley for a couple of years), and Cindy Breakspeare (Miss World 1976 and one of Marley’s mis­tresses) that not­ably help to humanize someone whose per­sona has taken on legendary pro­por­tions. Add in that obvi­ously great musical cata­logue from which to draw and Marley emerges as a ver­it­able treasure trove for fans, as well as an important doc­u­ment of one of the 20th century’s most sig­ni­ficant musical figures.

Read his full review here.

The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack that Amazon is selling of the film contains numerous special features, including:

  • an extended interview with Bunny Wailer (18:52)
  • “Children’s Memories” in which some of Marley’s children share stories about their father (9:56)
  • “Listening to ‘I’m Loose'” is a scene of friends and family listening to a late recording session (3:41)
  • “Around the World” captures Marley’s influence on fans all over the globe (18:29)
  • concert footage from a 1975 performance at New York’s Manhattan Center, with the songs Natty Dread, Bend Down Low, and Them Belly Full (10:47)

This is a package that looks and, even more importantly, sounds great. If all you know of Marley is the greatest hits you’ve been hearing at Starbucks, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.


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Sound of Noise

by James McNally on June 25, 2012

in DVD

Sound of Noise
eOne released Sound of Noise on DVD in Canada on June 26, 2012. Help support Toronto Screen Shots by buying it on Amazon.ca.

Sound of Noise (Directors: Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson): With a name like his, you’d think that Amadeus Warnebring would love music. But you’d be so so wrong. The police detective is in fact completely tone-deaf, despite being the son and grandson of musical geniuses. Even his younger brother is a famous conductor now, while Amadeus does his best to avoid family functions where musical performances are practically compulsory. Things are going along just fine until the day he’s called to an accident scene where officers hear an ominous ticking. While they are prepared to call the bomb squad, Amadeus recognizes the presence of a metronome. While the bomb threat evaporates, he’s drawn into something just as dangerous, at least for someone who hates music as much as he does.

Across town, we meet a band (yes, literally a band) of musical “terrorists,” six drummers who plot to unleash their quite literally titled composition “Music for One City and Six Drummers” which is introduced in a clever animated segment. Its four movements make up the set pieces of the film, and we shift perspective back and forth. Our sympathies alternate between the detective who just wants some silence and the anarchic and beat-loving musicians. At this point you’re probably thinking that Sound of Noise doesn’t, er, sound like any film you may have seen before, and you’d be right. This droll comedy from Sweden is one of the most unique and playful films I’ve seen in a long time, which is why it’s a shame that it never received a theatrical release here in Canada. The whole film bursts with rhythm, particularly in the excellent set pieces (which take place at a hospital, a bank, an opera house, and in a hydro field full of high-voltage wires) and it needs to be experienced with a good sound system.

Sound of Noise

Sound of Noise has elements of a heist movie, and even a bit of romance, but at its heart it’s a piece of performance art. The reasons behind the musicians’ plot are mysterious and irrelevant. Just enjoy the audacity (and absurdity) of their performances. At the same time, it’s easy to see why a distributor would have a hard time marketing a film like this one. But if you like music, and deadpan Scandinavian humour, and just the idea of people using non-musical objects (including an anesthetized hospital patient) to make music, you’re going to love this.

P.S. If you’re a short film lover like I am, you’ll be interested to know that Sound of Noise was based on the short film Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (2001) by the same directing team and even the same cast. I’ve embedded it below the trailer.


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Blue Velvet
This post is part of the Blind Spots 2012 series. For background on the series, read the original post

Blue Velvet (Director: David Lynch): For my second Blind Spots post of the year, I chose David Lynch’s 1986 film noir freakout Blue Velvet, partially because I’d just read some good reviews of the Blu-ray, including “lost” footage left out of the final version of the film. For the record, I haven’t yet watched any of this footage, nor any of the other supplements, including the “making-of” documentary. I think it’s best if I record my first impressions while they’re fresh and unsullied by too much analysis. There will be plenty of time for that later, I assure you.

I haven’t seen very many Lynch films at all, but I’m familiar enough with his style that nothing in Blue Velvet really came as a surprise. I did notice how the art direction is intentionally evasive when it comes to locating the film in a particular time and place. The town of Lumberton is really an amalgam of various periods in American history from the 50s to the 80s, but the opening shots of a literal white-picket fence evokes the period of the 1950s most obviously. We begin with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returning home from college to help run the family hardware store after his father suffers what appears to be a stroke. He’s a clean-cut kid, but the presence of an earring in his left ear hints at some submerged non-conformity (and tips us off that we’re not actually in the 1950s). When he finds a severed human ear in a field near his home, he reports the find to the police. Detective Williams treats him a bit like a child and tells him to forget about the case, but Jeffrey has a morbid fascination with figuring out what happened.

So does Detective Williams’ pretty daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), who tips Jeffrey off to the police department’s ongoing surveillance of a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Soon Jeffrey is breaking into Dorothy’s apartment and seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing. As he continues to pursue the mystery, he tries to keep Sandy out of danger even as he’s drawn into ever-darker scenarios.

At one point, Sandy expresses her worry and says, “you must really love mysteries.” Jeffrey tells her he loves being “wrapped up” in a mystery. Then he says, “you’re a mystery, and I like you.” Compare this “aw shucks” Andy Hardy behaviour with his growing obsession with the unstable Dorothy. It’s like the two women represent two kinds of mystery. Sandy is an unknown, but at some point, he’ll discover the limits of her depths and touch bottom. With Dorothy, who just might be insane, the mystery is unsolvable. She’s an endless riddle and so a perfect object for obsession. Jeffrey can explore the mysteries of his own dark side when he’s with Dorothy or the strange and violent people around her.

Later in the film, our apparent villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) mutters to Jeffrey, “you’re like me.” Which makes the circularity of the ending (including the repetition of the shot of the white picket fence) interesting as an obsuring device. It’s like we’ve fallen into deep sleep, confronted our nightmares, then resurfaced only to forget everything we’ve seen.

I find it interesting that I’ve used “deep water” metaphors in each of the preceding two paragraphs in attempting to describe the film’s puzzlements.

Apart from those thoughts, I enjoyed the film’s extremely mannered style. When characters are being “good,” the acting is melodramatic, but when they’re bad, they’re often incoherent and loud, or the film heightens the viscerality by the use of repetition or odd sound design. The score even uses dramatic cues at key moments, making the whole thing seem like a Douglas Sirk-directed Sam Spade caper, if Sam Spade was played by one of the Hardy Boys.

While I enjoyed the film’s style, I feel that Blue Velvet won’t give up all or even most of its secrets on one, or even two viewings. So it’s a good thing that the Blu-ray transfer is so gorgeous to look at. And while I want to resist, I’ll probably take a look at the supplemental features and extra footage at some point.

And now that I’ve finally watched the film, I can go and enjoy my friend Nicholas Rombes’ fascinating project over at Filmmaker Magazine, in which he’s writing about the film, one frame at a time. He’ll likely have more to say about one image than I do about the whole film at this point, but I’m looking forward to digesting his insights now to see how they affect my appreciation.


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No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (Director: James Chressanthis): Only appearing on DVD now, this 2008 documentary explores the work of and friendship between two giants of cinematography. Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond first met as students at film school in Budapest in the 1950s. Soon, they were caught up in the events of 1956, when Hungarians briefly revolted against their Communist government. As Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the rebellion, the two men took to the streets with their cameras to document events. When things calmed down, they knew they had to escape from Hungary, and their recollections of heading for the Austrian border with their film are harrowing, even though we know they made it.

Upon their eventual arrival in America, they headed for Hollywood expecting to join the ASC (the cinematographers’ union) easily. When they were turned away and told cheekily to “come back when you can speak English,” they were undaunted. They quickly found work on all kinds of low-budget independent films, including those of Roger Corman. So when Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper decided to make Easy Rider (1969), they hired Laszlo based on his previous work (including Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film Targets), and on his cheap (non-union) wages. The film’s success lifted all its creators, including Kovacs, out of obscurity, and he soon found work on other films of the burgeoning New Hollywood movement of the early 70s. When Peter Fonda wanted him for his next film, The Hired Hand (1971), he was already working on Paul Mazursky’s film Alex in Wonderland (1970), so he recommended his friend Vilmos Zsigmond (“call him Ziggy,” he told Fonda.) It was only after Fonda hired him that Vilmos confessed he’d never shot a colour film outdoors before.

It didn’t matter. Both men quickly developed a signature style working with the expressive light of the American landscape, and many of the great 70s films were shot by one of the two. Here’s just a partial list:

Laszlo Kovacs

  • Five Easy Pieces (1970)
  • The Last Movie (1971)
  • The King of Marvin Gardins (1972)
  • Paper Moon (1973)
  • Shampoo (1975)
  • New York, New York (1977)

Vilmos Szigmond

  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
  • Deliverance (1972)
  • The Long Goodbye (1973)
  • Scarecrow (1973)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  • The Deer Hunter (1978)
  • Heaven’s Gate (1980)

And this was only work they did in one decade! Remarkably, only Close Encounters of the Third Kind was recognized with an Oscar, for Zsigmond. It’s fitting that the film spends a lot of time on his experience on this film, since it was a tremendous lighting challenge, and he was allegedly fired five separate times. He says the only reason he finished the film was that no other cinematographer wanted to step in, such was the difficulty of getting the lighting just right.

As films retreated from the innovations of the 1970s, both Zsigmond and Kovacs continued to get steady work, but as the paucity of clips from their later work indicates, never would they work in such innovative and creative ways again. Kovacs died in 2007, and the film ends shortly afterward.

Though I enjoyed this documentary’s generous selection of clips, I found the interviews with both the men themselves and their admirers a bit lacking. We get very little insight into their ideas about working with images and light, or how they worked with different directors. And as with many talking head films, it’s the interviews that aren’t included that leave us wanting more. Because Close Encounters of the Third Kind was such a significant achievement for Zsigmond, it’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t get an interview with Steven Spielberg. And though there is a very short interview with Haskell Wexler, surely there could have been more discussion of the mutual influence between the two Hungarians and other pioneering cinematographers of the time, like Wexler and Néstor Almendros.

Another maddening thread is the teasing discussion of the marriages and family life of the two friends. Kovacs actually returned to Hungary shortly after their escape to rescue their girlfriends, whom they married immediately afterward. But these women are never mentioned again. Brief interviews with their current American wives aren’t enlightening on this front. Then there is the matter of Kovacs’ “secret” daughter, with whom he reconciles, but we never really hear the details of where she came from. If anything, these sections could have been edited out if they weren’t going to contribute to our understanding of the two subjects.

As an appreciation of the work of two master cinematographers, the clips speak for themselves, but I wanted more from this documentary. As it stands, it does a good job of making the viewer want to seek out some of their lesser-known work, but it doesn’t shed much light on what made these two so special, or on the obvious and unshakeable bond between them.

Official site of the film


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