The Films (5/5, 5/5, 3.5/5)
I came to the work of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn well over a decade ago, when one of my short films was positively compared to the duo's original collaboration My Dinner with Andre. I had seen bits of the film before, but had never sat through the entirety of it. I immediately picked up a copy, and absorbed it in it's entirety, and never looked back. I soon found out the pair had a second collaboration, something they considered more polished, and that was also the final film by director Louis Malle (Elevator to the Gallows, Black Moon) who had also been the pair's director on My Dinner with Andre. It was called Vanya on 42nd Street, and it was quite excellent, though quite different from the earlier film. I hadn't thought of these for a while, and then Criterion announced a Blu-ray release of My Dinner with Andre, and a box set release of the 3 Film collaboration by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. I immediately wondered had I missed out on one, or had they collaborated on something new since I had last focused my attention on the pair’s work. The answer was, of course, the latter, and that film would be the Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Caged Heat) directed A Master Builder.
The first film in the sequence is 1981's My Dinner with Andre. The film's premise is beyond simple Wallace Shawn plays himself as an unsuccessful playwright who goes to dinner with his friend a very successful but estranged theater director Andre Gregory, also played by himself. Gregory has fallen off the map for close to a decade, and has gone to see the world, not the touristy version of the world, but the weird and wonderful version of it in a sort of attempt to find himself. His friends including Shawn have considered Gregory to have lost his mind, and Shawn considers this dinner to be a reaching out from Gregory to his old friend for help. That is not what it is at all, and the two spend the next hour and a half basically discussing Gregory's travels, life, and all else.
My Dinner with Andre is, and this may come as a shock to readers of this site is my favorite sort of movie. I love films that are powered strictly by the power of great dialogue, and thus films like My Dinner with Andre, The Mother and the Whore, and Linklater's Before Trilogy are the sort of film's I devour with gusto. The film is shot simply by director Malle on 16mm stock, and thus looks quite raw amd has a sort of organic beauty and calmness to it. The pair who have seemingly known each other forever let each other talk endlessly with the most sparse of responses, before letting one or the other continue, and between the simple direction by Malle, and the rhythm created by the script and the pair of talented leads the film has a certain hypnotic atmosphere that simply will not let go.
1994's Vanya on 42nd Street as mentioned earlier has the distinction of being the final film by director Louis Malle. Malle began his career directing documentary features for the likes of Jacques Cousteau, and began his feature career with the pre-French New Wave noir film Elevator to the Gallows co-starring Jeanne Moreau.
Vanya on 42nd Street is from what I understand based on a play by Chekov translated into English by David Mamet, and then further adapted for stage, and then screen by Shawn and Gregory. The film follows Uncle Vanya(Wallace Shawn), a poor fellow who works for Serybryakov(George Gaynes), the husband, of his late sister, and has done so for some time. Soon after the story begins Serybryakov announces the selling of his estate, and his relationship with Yelena (Julianne Moore) for whom Vanya has long had feelings, both create issues for Vanya as one will emotionally effect him, and one will put him out of work. Outside of this other people circling the lives of Vanya and the estate are also effected by emotional difficulties with love and life.
The interesting thing about this trilogy of film's is how dissimilar they are on a visual, and even thematic level. The one continuous theme is that they all feel like theater or are adaptations of a play. The first film My Dinner with Andre being the odd man out between the three as instead of a pure adaptation Gregory and Shawn recorded and polished their own conversations. The latter two, however, are adaptations of existing play material, and even in that realm they are different. Vanya on 42nd Street like My Dinner with Andre is more experimental in it's approach, rather than adapt the play to a purely cinematic construct, or shoot the stage as it's being performed. The film's premise is that Gregory has put together a dress rehearsal for the play, the actors are essentially playing themselves, but also playing their characters.
This makes things quite a bit interesting, because there are certain times during the Uncle Vanya performance where things become intense, and the viewer will certainly feel that the actors are 100% invested in there roles, there are other portions where the acting is a bit more loose, and one begins to wonder if elements of the actors personal life (or the cinematic depiction of that personal life) are effecting the performance. There are also moments throughout where the actors are simply off stage and play themselves. On a certain level, Vanya on 42nd Street is the most powerful of the 3 films in the set. It offers a wonderful adaptation of Chekov, but at the same time offers much more than a straight adaptation of the work would do.
The third film of the set sees Wallace Shawn adapt Ibsen's play a Master Builder into a modern context. It is the only film in the set to not be shot by director Louis Malle, as Malle died in 1995 of lymphoma, and this film was shot in 2013 after 10 years of Shawn and Gregory attempting to make it. This film feels much different than the former 2, and can be a bit off-putting in the process.
A Master Builder sees Shawn in the role of Halvard a very manipulative, powerful, and famous architect. As the film begins he is in the hospital, quite ill. His long time friend, and also architect Knut visits him, and pleads with him to allow Knut’s son Ragnar to move up within Halvard's firm. Halvard refuses being a control freak, and knowing what that would do for Ragnar's career. Knut leaves devastated. Into this comes a former lover of Halvard, who spends time with him discussing their relationship, life, and more.
The film was shot by Demme in the same digital cinema verite style that was present in the director's earlier Rachel Getting Married, thus the film is the third film in the trilogy to have a different format, and thus a different look. Of course, this style gives the film a certain spontaneity as if we are dropped in on a moment of the lives of the characters, and are allowed temporary interaction before exiting. It also dates it to the present as the style and look gives it a very 2000's digital look. The performances, are also much different than the other 2 film, while Vanya on 42nd Street may have had theatrical performances, the performances in A Master Builder felt almost too over the top, and thus took at least myself out of the film. Also, Shawn as great as an actor as he is may not have been the best choice for the role of Halvard for while he could be believable as a greedy manipulator other facets of the character don't seem natural to his performance. That being said it could have simply have been the over the top nature of his performance.
Audio/Video (4/5, 5/5, 4/5)
A Master Builder is presented in a 2:39:1 MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer. This transfer looks quite good with excellent fine detail, colors, and flesh tones, of course that is to be expected being the newest and most modern film in the set.
The audio is presented in a DTS-HD 5.1 track which is also suitable for the film with dialogue and score coming through nicely.
Vanya on 42nd Street is the mostly vastly improved title in this set. It is presented by Criterion in a 1:67:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The transfer has a nice warm tone to it, excellent fine detail and color reproduction, and deep blacks.
The audio is presented in a LPCM 2.0 track in English dialogue, and score come through fine, and no prlbmes are heard on the track.
The first film in the set My Dinner with Andre is presented in a 1:64:1 MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer. The film was shot on 16mm and thus is quite grainy, which is quite natural looking and beautiful. Detail here is excellent, as are the colors present. Overall this is quite pleasing to the eye.
The audio is presented in a LPCM 1.0 mono track in English. Which like the other 2 is excellent dialogue comes through nicely, I did not detect any issues with the track on my listen.
Extras (3.5/5, 3/5, 4/5)
Each film in the set contains documentaries and featurettes for each film. My Dinner with Andre has a 60 minute piece broken up into 2 segments featuring Gregory and Shawn discussing the film with Noah Baumbach. There is also a 50 minute BBC episode with Shawn and Malle from the 80's that has Malle discussing his career up until that point. Vanya features the film's trailer, and a short documentary on that film. A Master Builder has a number of making of featurettes on that film, and each film contains a leaflet with essay and trailer.
Another excellent and diverse box set from the Criterion collection. All the film's in the set are interesting and worth a watch, the former 2 are classics in their own right, while the third is certainly worth a watch for fans of the duo of Gregory and Shawn. The A/V on all 3 is spectacular, and the extras definitely add to each. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.