All That Jazz

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At the end of Cabaret, Sally Bowles sings her cheery, upbeat tune about how "life is a Cabaret" and how high living and good times, music and dancing, sex and drugs and booze, are the only way to get through life. The lingering question at the end of Cabaret is: Is that really a way to get through life, or just a way to end it faster? Director-choreographer Bob Fosse is obviously of two minds on this question, which seems to dominate his brief-but-spectacular film-directing career. Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz and Star 80 all perceive Show Business as a kind of pathology, an unhealthy compulsion, a road to ruin. (In Cabaret, it is also hinted that the amoral, self-indulgent performers of Berlin are somehow responsible for the rise of Nazism, which seems like a stretch to me, but indicates how seriously Fosse takes his subject.)

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A new project has crossed my desk that compels me to watch a specific collection of movies: Cabaret, All That Jazz, The Cotton Club and Gone With the Wind. (And Schindler’s List, but I’ve watched that one recently.)

I remember Cabaret from my adolescence as being a daring, provocative, decadent, weird movie about the rise of Nazism in Weimar Berlin, as told through the eyes of a couple of young folks with complicated romantic lives. And it is still that, but what surprised me on this viewing is that it is, under all its decadence, a fairly conventional love story.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Well I have to admit, this was a pleasant surprise.  I mean, as pleasant as a movie about people getting their throats cut could be.

I sat down to watch this movie, knowing only that it was a musical, composed by Stephen Sondheim, an artist whom I rarely think about, some sort of black-comedic Victorian revenge drama, directed by Tim Burton and featuring a cast that promised a Pirates of the Caribbean/Harry Potter smackdown, with a guest appearance by Borat.

First I was surprised by Johnny Depp, who gives his most sincere, honest performance ever in a Burton movie. Whatever he’s doing in Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I’m sure is amusing to someone, but I’ve never quite understood it myself. But here he’s just smashing, committed and balanced and strong. Then I was surprised to learn that I like his singing, which in this movie reminds me of a record I have of David Bowie singing Brecht.

I also like Helena Bonham Carter in this movie, although I have a lingering question with regards to her choices as an actress. She made her name playing period roles in Merchant-Ivory movies (and their imitators), and then about ten years ago, around the time of The Wings of the Dove, suddenly seemed to make the decision that she wasn’t ever going to play another high-buttoned collar part again in her life. No, she decided, she was going to spend the next decade playing slatterns, psychos and witches. Which, more power to her, but there’s something about a beautiful, refined, obviously strong woman like her playing a character as bizarre, needy, manipulative and amoral as Mrs. Lovett. It’s my understanding that Angela Lansbury played the part on Broadway a million years ago, when she was merely “old” and not “as old as dirt.” Which seems to make a lot more sense to me — Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett shouldn’t be young, robust, good-looking people who could attract anyone in London, they should be broken, over-the-hill, ruined, bitter people who’ve been around the block more than a few times (Sweeney, in fact, arrives from having traveled around the world). We’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Lovett has loved Todd since before his wife and child were taken from him, which has to be at least fifteen years, but Mrs. Lovett in this movie doesn’t seem to be that much older than Todd’s daughter.

Alan Rickman, however, blew me away, as did Sacha Baron Cohen, who managed to get all kinds of levels of play into his few scenes.

I have no idea what, if anything, has been changed to get the play onto the screen, but they did a terrific job. The plotting keeps the story engrossing, suspenseful and surprising, the production design is extraordinary (as it generally is for a Burton movie) and the hairdos alone should make it a lock for the makeup Oscar. And not just because they are clever (although they are), but because of the way they are actually integrated into the scenery around them — they look as though they were not meant to merely reveal character, but to be shown as a symptom and product of their environment.

And then there’s Burton’s direction, which, well, it seems strange to say it, but I think this is the best work he’s done. I’ve enjoyed plenty of Tim Burton movies in the past, but there was always some weird distancing thing going on, some kind of glibness or archness or lack of depth that always made them seem a little hollow. This movie, like Depp’s performance, seems honest and deeply felt in a way that a “deeply felt” movie like, say, Big Fish did not. To put it another way, I always knew that Tim Burton was a great artist, but this was the first time I felt like he had actually gotten in touch with the human side of his art as well as the technical side.

Which I guess sounds weird, because it’s hard to think of a less human, less organic construct than an almost-sung-through musical about an insane barber and how he slaughters people to feed a grudge. And yet, as my wife said about half-way through the movie, “It’s really good that these people all got together to make this,” because it’s hard to imagine another group of people understanding the material as well as this bunch.

Todd and Lovett, of course, make two more wonderful addition to this year’s unrivaled crop of movieland’s murderous capitalists, in addition to There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh, Eastern Promises‘s Russian ganglord and Michael Clayton‘s homicidal corporate climber. The fact that all these roles have not only appeared in the same year but have been nominated for Oscars has got to say something about the state of our Union.

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