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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