THE FILM CORNER presents:
One of 2015's TOP TEN Home Entertainment Releases
André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE
VANYA ON 42nd STREET
A MASTER BUILDER
REVIEWS BY GREG KLYMKIW OF ALL THREE FILMS
IN THIS MUST-OWN CRITERION COLLECTION BOX SET
IN THIS ONE HUMUNGOUS MEGA-POST
(WITH ORDERING INFO AND INDIVIDUAL REVIEW LINKS AT BOTTOM)
My Dinner With André (1981)
Dir. Louis Malle
Scr. Wallace Shawn, André Gregory
Starring: André Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I've always loved this movie. When I first saw it theatrically in 1981, I was a mere twenty-two years of age, but had already seen thousands of movies. I quickly realized, however, that I'd never seen anything like this one. On every level, the writing, acting and direction is of the highest calibre, but most of all the thing I've carried with me ever since, is the feeling that I was literally under a hypnotic spell. I was all there, all the time, my eyes glued to the screen and completely unable to concentrate upon anything else.
Here's the rub, though. My Dinner With Andre is literally what the title says it is. The playwright Wally (Wallace Shawn) informs us he has not seen his old friend and theatre colleague Andre (Andre Gregory) for years and accepts an invitation to dinner in a high-toned Manhattan restaurant.
They meet, greet, eat, talk, then say goodbye. On the surface, that's it.
Of course there's so much more.
Wally gets a complete, detailed rundown on everything Andre's been up to which feels like a thoroughly engaging verbal travelogue, though often, the chat dovetails into the kind of highly literate philosophizing that one might expect from these two brilliant men. Wally is primarily the listener, but when he interjects, his responses, more often than not, are the kind of concise intelligent responses someone like Andre needs, as, of course. does Wally.
As do we all.
Andre's storytelling is riveting - neither Wally nor the audience is any less than transfixed and there are plenty of laughs mixed with the stories and ruminations. Some of them are downright revelatory in terms of the world we (and they) live in and indeed provide numerous touchstones that we've either experienced ourselves, or in some cases, hope to eventuality discover on our own travels.
What's astonishing now, years after growing with the film for some thirty-plus years, especially on subsequent viewings, is to discover just how relevant the discussions are to the early eighties, but most importantly how they build and grow over the years.
What's revealed to us is prescient in ways few films ever are. Given the madness the world has lived in since 9/11 with war, financial collapse and corruption at the highest levels of both government and business, one of Andre's speeches is unbelievably chilling in a contemporary context when he offers:
"We're all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you Wally that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks and it's not just a question of individual survival Wally, but that somebody who's bored is asleep, and somebody who's asleep will not say no?""A world totalitarian government based on money", indeed. In 1982 this was already a concern, but in 2015 this basic fact/fear has never been more prevalent.
At one point, Andre explains how much he wants to leave New York. The city feels like a prison in that comfort is mere acquiescence to forces much greater than humanity. He explains this notion by accusing all New Yorkers, and by extension, anyone living in an urban environment as existing in "a state of schizophrenia. They're both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or to even see it as a prison.
Again, we're faced with a chilling notion that acts like some mirror Andre holds up to all our faces. Wally argues, perhaps even on our behalf:
"I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. . .I'm not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I'm trying to protect myself because, really, there's these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!"Wally expresses our point of view and we accept it gladly, but Andre further explains that "comfort can be dangerous" because it can "lull you into a dangerous tranquility".
And damn if he isn't right.
Andre has been to several corners of the earth to find a spiritual transcendence and he indeed discovers it in a series of theatre experiments in deep, dark forests which break all boundaries and carry the participants to a place that was like "a human Kaleidoscope". Even as he says this, we see this kaleidoscope - not literally, of course, but because director Louis (Atlantic City, Lacombe Lucien, Au revoir les enfants) Malle's precise and consistent mise-en-scene takes us there by keeping clear focus upon the faces of his subjects and creates a rhythm which allows us to be lulled into an acquiescence to the stories, philosophy and conversations.
Of course, the screenplay by Shawn and Gregory is rife with some of the best writing you'll ever experience in a film. Towards the picture's conclusion we're awash in a state of melancholy as we've been forced to think about our own lives and piteous place in a world and universe we have so little control over.
During the film's conclusion Wally continues to be our surrogate.
He expresses the greatest truth of all:
"I treated myself to a taxi. I rode home through the city streets. There wasn't a street, there wasn't a building, that wasn't connected to some memory in my mind. There, I was buying a suit with my father. There, I was having an ice cream soda after school. And when I finally came in, Debbie was home from work, and I told her everything about my dinner with Andre."It is in the crystalline remembrance of our lives and the ability to share those experiences which is finally the genuinely and deeply moving core of My Dinner With Andre, a film that is not only original and powerful, but one we must hold dear to.
And you know, the picture will live forever. No matter what happens in our lives and the world at large, the alternately terrible and beauteous truths is what rests finally at the root of humanity.
We have art to thank for this and surely we must thank Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory for giving us this dazzling lesson in how, ideally, we should all strive to hold dear our sense of place and worth.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** Five Stars
My Dinner With Andre is available on a great Criterion Blu-Ray, one its own or in a fabulous box which includes A Master Builder and Vanya on 42nd Street. The gorgeously produced Blu-Ray for this film comes with a lovely High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, an interview from 2009 with actor-writers André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, conducted by their friend, filmmaker Noah Baumbach (so good one wishes it was several hours long), “My Dinner with Louis,” a 1982 episode of the BBC program Arena in which Shawn interviews director Louis Malle (so amazing that one wonders why such incisive TV programming is not produced today), an essay by critic Amy Taubin and the prefaces written by Gregory and Shawn for the 1981 publication of the film’s screenplay.
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) ****
dir. Louis Malle
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, Larry Pine, Andre Gregory
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"When we come to die, we'll die submissively. Beyond the grave we will testify that we've suffered, that we've wept that we've known bitterness. And God will take pity on us and we will live a life of radiant joy and beauty and we'll look back on this life of our unhappiness with tenderness and we'll smile. And in that new life we shall rest, we shall rest to the songs of the angels in a firmament arrayed in jewels and we'll look down and we'll see evil, all the evil in the world and all our sufferings bathed in a perfect mercy and our lives grown sweet as a caress." - Sonya's final monologue in David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya.
If your idea of a good time is not watching two hours of wasted lives, think again. When those same wasted lives come to the collective realization - almost like a series of epiphanies - of just how much they've failed to fulfill their dreams and/or promise, you'll have been rewarded with a journey that will have enriched your very being.
Vanya on 42nd Street is raw in its emotion and approach. Watching Louis Malle's film of the David Mamet adaptation of the great play "Uncle Vanya" is one of the best ways to experience Anton Chekhov on film.
The final product represents the culmination of Andre Gregory's grand theatrical experiment of taking some of New York's greatest actors and rehearsing Vanya for two years with no intention of ever staging it. Gregory, (the Andre of Malle's My Dinner With Andre) had a dream - to create an ideal opportunity for great actors to intimately dive into the depths of Chekhov's multi-layered work - to get to know the text so deeply that the journey's end would, in fact, never end. The goal was to infuse these actors with Chekhov's genius and, at the same time, for very select audiences - usually in the living rooms of friends' apartments - to experience, from Gregory's vantage point, both the journey of the actors and that of Chekhov's characters.
Malle attended one of these legendary living room performances and immediately decided a film version that captured both Gregory's vision and the truly astounding interpretations of Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov's work was in order. With Malle's unique eye as a cinematic storyteller - blending both his documentary background with his deft and delicate touch for drama, Malle framed a performance of the play as a run-through with the actors - in their street clothes and in the environs of a crumbling old theatre on 42nd Street in New York.
At first, we're quite aware of this conceit, but as the magic of Chekhov overtakes us, it's impossible not to be drawn in by the brilliance of the original play, Mamet's adaptation (more of an edit, or polish - to strip out a few formal tropes of theatre from Chekhov's period), a gorgeously composed, though unobtrusive camera and last, but not least, a cast that includes actors who seem like they were born to evoke Chekhov's universal themes and language.
Vanya (Wallace Shawn, the writer of Malle's My Dinner With Andre and who played the "My" of the title) is the brother-in-law of Serebryakov (George Gaynes), a stuffy academic who acquired an old country estate by marrying his first wife (Vanya's late sister) and has now, left his widowhood behind to marry the unmistakably beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore). With his niece Sonya (Brooke Smith), Vanya manages the estate and the business affairs of his late sister's blusteringly pretentious husband. The family receives visits from Astrov (Larry Pine), a physician constantly called to tend to Serebryakov's ailments - most of which are of the psychosomatic variety.
Vanya and Yelena are greatly suited to each other in every respect - save for the fact that she finds him physically repulsive. Astrov, along with Vanya, is madly in love with Yelena. She's physically attracted to him, but they clearly do not share the intellect and humour she enjoys with Vanya. Then there's Sonya - who is madly in love with Astrov, who barely notices she's there - hanging on his every move, word and gesture. Serebryakov loves Yelena, but fears he is too old for her. Yelena, clearly has no love for Serebryakov, but she is intent to stay faithful to him.
These roiling passions - all unrequited - come to a head when Serebryakov decides he wishes to sell the estate and move to Finland. This would displace the whole family and housekeeping staff. Vanya is finally, after years of subservience and servitude, forced into action.
Wallace Shawn is a perfect Vanya - a funny, charming, yet occasionally sad-sack nebbish. His lovely performance elicits an equal number of laughs and tears. Julianne Moore is utterly radiant as the object of everyone's affection and Larry Pine as the physician who abandons everything for a love that will never be, is a perfect skewed-reverse-image of Shawn's Vanya. The revelation is the sad, funny and yes, beautiful Charlotte Moore as Sonya - her character creeps about in the background, yet when she exudes a force before unimagined, it instills the overwhelmingly expressive feeling that, "Of course! Her actions and words make total sense!" Moore deliver's Sonya's final speech from the play with such gentle, persuasive force that I can't imagine anyone watching it dry-eyed.
Vanya on 42nd Street is an extraordinary experience. Malle's career was one in which he delivered many great films. This one in particular made me and his numerous admirers wait with baited breath for his next work. Sadly it never came. It was his last film before he died of lymphoma one year after making the picture.
I can't think of a more perfect swan song.
"Vanya on 42nd Street" is currently available on a gorgeous new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. In addition to the stunning new transfer, it is accompanied by modest, but at the same time, extremely informative and revealing extra features including a new, restored digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Declan Quinn, with uncompressed 2.0 soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition, a new documentary featuring interviews with André Gregory, the play’s director; actors Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, and Brooke Smith; and producer Fred Berner, the trailer and a booklet featuring a new essay by critic Steven Vineberg and a 1994 on-set report by film critic Amy Taubin
A Master Builder (2014)
Scr. Wallace Shawn
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce,
Larry Pine, Andre Gregory, Emily Cass McDonnell, Jeff Biehl
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This marvellous Henrik Ibsen theatrical reverie has been beautifully adapted by screenwriter Wallace (My Dinner With Andre) Shawn and tuned into a compelling, funny and moving feature film by Jonathan Demme. It is at once the imagining of Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a young woman who was once inappropriately wooed as a child by the film's male protagonist, the famed architect and developer Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn).
The film is as much a trance-like meditation as it is a death dream, though played out quite naturalistically as a linear narrative until the dreams of both the living and the dead slowly, subtly take over and we're plunged into a heartbreaking lament for the lost dreams of youth and old age.
Shawn's screenplay wisely does not betray the theatrical roots of the piece by unnecessarily opening it up, but keeping the action centred and played-out within the majestic Holness estate. Halvard built the home to replace the one which burned down, destroying all of the family heirlooms and memories along with his own children. It is within this comfortable new house in which he's he's been living with his long-loyal-and-suffering wife Aline (Julie Hagerty), whilst working with an assistant, Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), the fiancé of his young architectural junior partner Ragnar Brovik (Jeff Biehl) who is, in turn, the gifted son of Halvard's aging former partner and best friend Knut (Andre Gregory, the "Andre" of the aforementioned film masterpiece and theatrical director of the stage version).
The brainy, beautiful, ethereal Hilde comes into both the strained professional and personal lives of the ailing Halvard, She's more than a match for the cranky, dweebish, toad-like, yet brilliant old architect and much of the drama plays out in a combination of fractious relations from fifteen years earlier in their lives. A strange intellectual discourse seems to overtake her reminiscences of the clearly uncomfortable wooing Halvard attempted upon Hilde when she was just 14-years-old. What she reminds him of, finally, is not the pedophiliac overtures, but rather, the moment when his senses took hold of him and he instead urged her to come into his life when she was an adult. Most notably, Halvard promised Hilde the dazzling notion of "castles in the sky". In a nutshell, she's held this promise close to her heart these many long years and she's come to collect.
Director Jonathan Demme attempts to maintain the stylistic approach brought by the late, great filmmaker Louis Malle (Au revoir les enfants, Atlantic City, Pretty Baby) to both My Dinner With Andre and its followup, Vanya on 42nd Street.
Demme plays out scenes in nice, generous takes, often in two-shots and only in claustrophobic closeups when absolutely necessary and his overall visual design allows for cuts and punch-ins so judicious that rather than jarring us, they appear as grand punctuation marks to infuse the work with an ideal sense of shock/surprise to be both showy (intentionally so) and to move the drama ever forward.
Eschewing the fastidious, though middle of the road craft he employed on work like the ludicrously overrated Silence of the Lambs and the execrable Philadelphia, Demme comes much closer in tone and spirit to his concert films with the Talking Heads and Neil Young, as well as his delicate touches on work like Melvin and Howard and Handle With Care, Demme is faced here with the seemingly unenviable task of carrying Malle's torch, but ultimately making the film his own.
The pace of the film is modulated with a delicacy that allows us to take in the gorgeous performances and dazzling interplay between the actors. The writing is so solid that it provides a superb roadmap for Demme's sensitive direction that at several points we're jarred, not by cuts, but by performances which, mostly via Shawn and Joyce, take place within gorgeously composed shots with little or no camera movement and yet exploding kinetically with some of the strangest bursts of cacophonous laughter between two characters as the film progresses.
Though the visual, tonal shifts into reverie are subtle, they're also plainly obvious if you are looking for them, allowing us to enjoy the relationships between the film's characters as they would and/or could have been, but without any false trick pony "surprises".
The film is finally as hypnotic as the two other works in the Wallace Shawn/Andre Gregory canon that even as we watch this touching tale of love, yearning and redemption, we do indeed forget that the dramatic arc is one of reverie and when it culminates as such, our emotions are genuinely tweaked because we're both astounded by the consummate artistry of the work as much as we are by the sheer, unalterable humanity of this great, great film.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** Five Stars
A Master Builder is available on a great Criterion Blu-Ray, one its own or in a fabulous box which includes My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. The gorgeously produced Blu-Ray for this film comes with a lovely high-definition digital master, supervised by director of photography Declan Quinn, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a ew interview with director Jonathan Demme, stage director–actor André Gregory, and writer-actor Wallace Shawn, conducted by film critic David Edelstein, a ew conversation between actors Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce, a new program featuring Gregory, Shawn, and their friend, author Fran Lebowitz in conversation. There is a trailer and an excellent essay by film critic Michael Sragow
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