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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cabaret: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Book Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s ground-breaking Oscar-winning musical drama starring Liza Minnelli (Arthur, The Sterile Cuckoo), Michael York (the Austin Powers films), Joel Grey (TV’s “Oz”), Helmut Griem, and Marisa Berenson (I am Love), celebrated its 40th anniversary with its debut on Blu-ray on February 5, 2013.  Remastered for the first time in over 20 years, Cabaret is presented in its original aspect ratio (16 x 9 format). Winner of eight Academy Awards, including Director (Fosse), Actress (Minnelli), and Supporting Actor (Grey), the film arrives in a premium Blu-ray Book format, which contains 40 pages of insightful photos and text.  A new documentary, “Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals” will be featured, along with vintage documentaries “Cabaret: A Legend in the Making,” “The Recreation of an Era,” a multi-part memory gallery and more.

Film (3 out of 5 stars) 

The film opens during the the hedonistic heyday of Berlin in 1931, as Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) does her singing and dancing at the Kit Kat Club.  It’s a seedy club that seems to cater to everyone as there’s a variety of shows in rotation all introduced by the mysterious M.C. (Joel Grey).  When a newly arrived tourist named Brian Roberts (Michel York) enters the club, he is captivated by the club’s unhinged atmosphere.  Being the reserved and wide-eyed academic that he is, the varying illicit shows shock and intrigue him.  It’s not long before he comes into contact with the shameless Sally who tries to seduce him right away and fails.  Brian has a history of not being that interested in women and they become good friends instead although later on they will become lovers.
Sally makes another new friend when she meets Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), an extremely wealthy aristocrat who seems to view Brian and Sally as playthings to entertain him.  That doesn’t stop him from inviting them to his estate and trying to win them over out of curiosity.  The three of them have an interesting three way relationship where Brian and especially Sally take advantage of Max’s wealth and position, while Max takes advantage of the two of them by sleeping with both of them and later discarding them as he would some broken toys.
Being abandoned by Max while he leaves for Argentina brings up some bitterness between the two and their fighting reveals that both of them were sleeping with Max.  Brian leaves and picks a fight with some Nazi recruiters who beat him senseless.  Sally has her own issues when she learns that she’s pregnant and has no idea if Brian or Max is the father. When Brian finds out, he’s ecstatic even though he knows he may not be the father.  He’s ready and willing to be the father to the child, but Sally’s ambivalence grows each day.   She has two choices – one is to go to Britain with Brian and be a stay at home mother there or to continue the carefree and fairly selfish life she’s been enjoying.
After the critical and commercial failure of Sweet Charity, director Bob Fosse was determined to take musicals in a new direction.  Instead of the overly nostalgic and idealized musicals of the past, Fosse wanted to make one that was darker and grittier, with none of the trappings from the past.  He did just that with Cabaret where no characters just burst out into song in the middle of the street.  Instead, Fosse stripped out every song from the play that didn’t take place on the stage in the Kit Kat Club.  That change alone charted a new course for musicals that’s still in effect today.
That new realistic (and in this case), fairly grim approach shocked audiences and brought him and the film ten Oscar nominations and eight wins including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor just to name a few.  While I appreciated the new direction Fosse took, there’s some stylistic choices he made (mostly the scenes in the club) that I wasn’t a fan of.  There’s no denying that this cast gave this movie their all, especially Liza Minnelli who handles her singing and dancing with aplomb.   Cabaret also has the distinction of being the movie that took just about all of the Academy Awards (with the exception of Best Picture and Screenplay) from its better known competitor The Godfather.

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (1.85:1) transfer benefits from an extensive restoration by Warners that makes this movie look better than it ever has in the past.  I’m sure this was a tricky film to restore thanks to its age and also because of how it was shot. There’s so many smoky scenes that take place in the Kit Kat Club that I’m sure it was difficult balancing the colors, the details, the contrast, and keeping the black levels suitably dark. Colors are nicely delineated and the detail is mostly good but there’s several soft looking shots. There’s also a lot of grain present but it seems to be needed for this movie to blend in with the rest of the elements. There’s mention of a huge scratch that had to be painstakingly removed from the movie which was done so well that you would be hard pressed to spot anything, even if you knew when just to look.  Warners has done a great job with this restoration and I doubt this movie will ever look much better than this.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

Cabaret’s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix has also been improved upon which will make a lot of fans happy.  The get dialogue is clear and centered, while the rear channels don’t really  get utilized until the musical scenes start.  This isn’t really much of a surround experience and even the songs (which sound better than the rest of the mix), sound dated and not as strong as I would have liked.  That’s understandable considering the age of the film and the elements used at the time but I do wish they had done even more to restore this mix.  Of course, I’m sure they erred on the side of caution to avoid overdoing the mix so much that it wouldn’t even sound appropriate with the rest of the movie.  All in all, this is a pretty good lossless mix that balances the scales between an authentic sounding mix and being restored for modern audiences.

Extras (4 out of 5 stars) 

There’s some good extras on this 40th Anniversary edition but a lot of them (which seems to have been cut out of the main documentary) last only a couple of minutes and there’s a ton of them with no option to select “play all.”  I hate it when studios make you select a ton of clips one a time and it’s even more annoying when the clips themselves are so short.
  • Commentary by Stephen Tropiano - There’s no doubt that Stephen Tropiano is a good choice to talk about Cabaret as he is the author of Cabaret: Music on Film and he has plenty to say about the film and its history.  Tropiano takes the time to offer some insight into the genesis of the film and its many iterations as well as share some background info about the making of the film and its participants.
  • Cabaret: The Musical that Changed Musicals - At almost thirty minutes long, this documentary (narrated by Neil Patrick Harris) does a nice job detailing just what made this musical so groundbreaking as well as how its director Bob Fosse was the right man to helm it.  We learn about Fosse’s career from his biographers Martin Gottfried, Sam Wasson, and Stephen Tropiano as well as the actors from the film including Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York.  Others offering their thoughts include one of the film’s songwriters, john Kander and Fosse regulars like editor Alan Heim, actors Bebe Neuwirth and Ben Vereen, and comments from fellow director Rob Marshall who was heavily influenced by Fosse.  One sad note about this documentary was seeing how much Michael York has deteriorated since the Austin Powers films.  It’s shocking how ill he looked and sounded during the recent interviews filmed for this set.  He’s barely recognizable now and I wish him a speedy recovery.
  • Cabaret: A Legend in the Making - This is a great historical featurette that in its eighteen minute span covers much of the history of the film with comments from many who were involved in the production and who had died before the more recent documentary was filmed.  I’m glad these interviews were capture back in 1997 while many of these people were still with us and could share their stories.  
  • The Recreation of an Era - A short behind the scenes look at the making of the film with an emphasis on Fosse working with the actors.  It’s interesting to see and I wish it had been longer.
  • Kit Kat Klub Memory Gallery - This is a collection of interview clips that are undeniably interesting, but are only clips that run a couple of minutes at most with no option to “play all” of them at once.   I really don’t understand the thinking behind that decision because who wants to be forced to select this many clips one at a time?  In any case, there’s a lot of good info here if you  are willing to select them one a time.
    • Liza Minnelli Remembers
      • Marisa’s Close-Up 
      • Sally’s Look 
      • Observing the Master 
    • Joel Grey Reminisces
      • Challenges
      • Collective Memory
      • Strange Inspiration
    • Michael York Remembers
      • A Called Bluff
      • Risk Taking
      • Rush(es) Hour
      • A Happy Accident 
    • Martin Baum Reminisces (former president of ABC Pictures)
      • Rock ‘n’ Roll Editing
      • Isherwood’s Surprise Reaction 
      • Smithsonian Honor
    • Cy Feuer Reminisces
      • Tomorrow Belongs to Me 
    • Emanuel L. Wolf Remembers (head of Allied Artists Pictures)
      • Taking on The Godfather
      • Timeless 
    • John Kander Remembers
      • Playing “What If?” 
      • Almost a Nervous Breakdown
      • Sneaking a Peek 
    • Jay Presson Allen Reminisces
      • Play vs. Book
      • Recruiting Hugh Wheeler
    • Fred Ebb Remembers
      • Screening Blues
      • Screening Hues 
  • DigiBook - Warners has included a very nice book along with the film that charts the history of Cabaret from it’s earliest stories to the play and the movie.  There’s also some nice glossy pictures and biographies of the main players as well.
  • Theatrical Trailer

Summary (4 out of 5 stars)  

Cabaret without a doubt changed movie musicals towards a more realistic and gritty path which opened the doors for the many other musicals that followed it.  The film is at its best during the scenes in the club, where the combination of Fosse’s choreography, Kander and Ebb’s music, and the actors come together so well that the rest of the film feels dead.  But during those musical moments, the film is fantastic and the actors pour their all into their roles which led to most of them winning an Academy Award.  I think that this is Minnelli’s finest effort and it’s nice to see that Warners has put so much effort into this Blu-ray release.  If you are a fan of the movie, then you should pick this 40th Anniversary edition up as I doubt it will ever look or sound better than this and the extras are great too.
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