3 FilmsAndré Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films
My Dinner with André (1981)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
A Master Builder (2014)
The Criterion Collection

Filmed theater is not something too many cinephiles tend to get excited about, but the creative partnership of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory has generated some of the most compelling intersections of the two disciplines. In a new box set, Criterion includes the previously released Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray along with a newly upgraded My Dinner with André and the newly released A Master Builder.

While Dinner isn’t actually an adaptation of a play, Shawn and Gregory’s script could easily be imagined as a stage-bound two-hander, and the whole thing is steeped in the era’s New York independent theater milieu. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, the pair reconnect over dinner, discussing their lives and the role theater plays before tumbling deeper and deeper into an existential discussion as Gregory waxes enthusiastically about a series of spiritual experiences.

André is a touchstone of talky cinema and a snapshot of artistic and intellectual ideas at a specific point in American history, but it’s a film that retained its vitality and originality throughout the decades, directed by the chameleonic Louis Malle with an unobtrusive grace.

Malle also captures lightning in a bottle in his final film, Vanya on 42nd Street, which stars Gregory as the director of a production of David Mamet’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The film represents the culmination of a privately workshopped production of the play, with Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena. As I mentioned in my original review of the 2012 Blu-ray release:

The film is more than simply great theater frozen in time. The open-ended intersection of actor and character and the way the reality of a rehearsal and the reality of the events of the play mingle without a clear boundary between the two makes Vanya on 42nd Street a compelling and intriguing take on what it means to create art.

There’s a somewhat similar quality to A Master Builder, which brings to film an adaptation of the Ibsen play that had arisen from actors workshopping the material. Director Jonathan Demme’s close-up-heavy shooting style doesn’t do much to open up the play, but the performances here are engrossing regardless, particularly Lisa Joyce as a mysterious young woman who re-enters the life of accomplished architect Halvard Solness (Shawn).

Shawn’s adaptation of the play pushes it into more ambiguous territory, turning the bulk of the narrative into a hazy dream-like reverie where no characters’ motivations are totally clear. Demme mirrors the play’s shift from stone-cold reality to ego-trip fantasy with an obvious but effective visual conceit. Despite the fact that much of the film feels like a creation of Solness’s patriarchal desires gone mad, Joyce’s vivacious performance is like an invented character who won’t play by the rules of her creator, and a similarly complex turn from Julie Hagerty as beleaguered wife Aline follow suit.

The three discs come packaged in their own separate keepcases, the Vanya release identical to the original disc, and the strong 1.66:1 transfer therein. André has been given an impressive upgrade, the 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer bringing all the textural beauty of its 16mm materials to a grainy but highly detailed home video presentation. A Master Builder alternates from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1, switching from the prosumer Sony XDCAM to a 2K Arri Alexa. Obviously, the footage shot on the Sony is riddled with artifacts, but the Alexa footage is given a clean, crisp presentation of HD digital video. Extras on Vanya and André are identical to previous editions, while the Master Builder disc contains two conversations with Shawn and Gregory — one moderated by critic David Edelstein, the other with Fran Lebowitz — and an interview with Hagerty and Joyce. All three discs are also available separately.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s My Dinner with André Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Vanya on 42nd Street Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: **

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s A Master Builder Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***

The Criterion Collection / 1981, 1994, 2014 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 111 min, 119 min, 127 min / $99.95

 

Hard to be a GodHard to be a God (2013)
Kino Lorber

The final film from Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, who died shortly before its completion, Hard to be a God is an intimidating and punishing work of art. This is a fact that cannot be overstated. Cerebrally, viscerally, you name it — in every way, this is a difficult film.

It also represents the culmination of decades of planning from German, whose work remains almost completely invisible in the United States, and the labor of love is immediately apparent from the first frames. “World-building” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in sci-fi and fantasy contexts, as the most successful works of fiction in both genres are able to create a tactile sense of place. Well, Hard to be a God might be the greatest example of world-building ever committed to film, as its overwhelming design and camerawork plunges the viewer into an enveloping environment composed entirely of mud, shit, spit, blood and decay.

Both oppressive and expansive in its design, the film adapts the sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Stalker), set on the planet of Arkanar, which is in the midst of its own particularly brutal medieval period. Several scientists from Earth have been sent to the planet to observe, but they’re powerless to make any changes to a society defined as much by proud ignorance as unrelenting violence and a complete disregard for hygiene.

German’s insatiably curious camera and his commitment to jaw-dropping production design have to be witnessed, despite the film’s often inscrutable plot and the merciless depiction of all sorts of horrific violence and stomach-churning body secretions. You might want to, but you can’t look away — and even if you did, it’d be hard to escape the similarly oppressive sound design, which is often dominated by hacking coughs that sound like death itself.

Kino’s Blu-ray release of Hard to be a God is very nice, its 1.66:1, 1080p transfer looking exceptionally clean and sharp throughout. Black levels are deep and full, with nuanced grayscale separation and clean whites in the very brief moments when a snow-covered ground hasn’t been defiled yet. Both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD soundtracks are included.

Although a forthcoming Arrow Video UK release looks to have the Kino beat handily in terms of extras, there’s some good material on this disc, including a 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and a lengthy introduction by co-screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita. The package also includes a booklet with a director’s statement from German, and essays from his son, Alexey German Jr. and critic Aliza Ma.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Hard to be a God Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Kino Lorber / 2013 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $34.95


Story of My DeathStory of My Death (2013)
Second Run DVD

Albert Serra brings his idiosyncratic sense of historical fiction to Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort), a conflation of the legends of Casanova and Dracula, envisioned as an epochal shift between the 18th and 19th centuries.

Serra’s work is both baroque and austere, lavishly composed digital shots that linger and linger in a familiar slow cinema mode. Despite its languid pace, the film begins with a reasonably recognizable narrative structure before gradually morphing into a series of highly abstracted scenes, the arrival of Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) ushering in a time of brooding, mystical violence.

With Dracula representing the Romanticism that would supplant Rationalism, the figure is less of a character than a force, perhaps not so much malevolent as merely indifferent. Vicenç Altaió’s Casanova is more broadly drawn, an aging letch who’s aware of his impending mortality but who isn’t compelled to discard his licentious tendencies. Whether in sex or in bodily function, he’s a man unashamed. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes has him straining to take a shit, laughing at himself and immediately returning to a wafery bonbon once the deed is done.)

Serra’s skill at coaxing striking imagery from lower-grade digital cameras is apparent throughout; both delicate, shadowed shots of man in nature and more traditional costume drama tableaus. The film’s transition from talky philosophizing to nearly wordless mood piece can be challenging, as is the dissolution of the already tenuous narrative markers. It’s a film that’s both energizing and enervating at times, but there’s plenty to admire for those willing to slog through.

Second Run’s presentation of the 2.35:1 film is a strong representation of the film’s digital photography, although be prepared to squint a bit during some of the extreme lowlight scenes. Both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound options are included.  Extras include Serra’s tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the 2013 short Cuba Libre, and a booklet with an entertaining conversation between Serra and Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Story of My Death DVD rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Second Run DVD / 2013 / Color / 2.35:1 / 144 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)


Jekyll and OsbourneThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
(1981)
Arrow Video

After releasing probably the most ambitious box set of the year in 2014, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, Arrow Video has quickly followed up with another film from the oft-misunderstood Polish filmmaker in editions available both in the UK and the newly minted U.S. line. Like many of Borowczyk’s films, this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel was branded in some markets as an exploitation piece, but it’s actually an unusual, beguiling portrait of the madness of desire.

Set in a Victorian house during the engagement party of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), the film begins quickly dispatching victims of rape and murder, with Borowczyk’s camera peering through cracked doorways and around corners like a quiet observer hoping not to be noticed. The “who” is immediately obvious, but the “why” is far more intriguing, and the film’s elliptical scenes start to put together a portrait of a man consumed.

Never before available on DVD or Blu-ray, Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne has long languished in home video hell before Arrow’s release, which frankly represents something of a miracle. Sourced from a conscientious 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative, the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer here is outstanding, with great depth of image and color reproduction. The look of the film is rather soft, but it’s apparent that this was the intended appearance. Uncompressed mono versions of the original French track and an English dub are included. As a French-West German co-production, there wasn’t one language unifying the actors, so there’s dubbing whichever way you go.

Even by lofty Arrow standards, the extras on this release are incredibly comprehensive. A sampling: a lengthy introduction by critic Michael Brooke, a commentary track featuring new and archival interviews with cast and crew, including Borowczyk and Kier, multiple interviews with cast and admirers, featurettes on the film’s music and the filmmaker’s silent cinema influences, and quite a bit more. The film is likely to attract divisive opinions, but there’s plenty here to make a case for this atmospheric horror.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Arrow Video / 1981 / Color / 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 2.35:1 / 90 min / $39.95


U TurnU Turn
(1997)
Twilight Time

Oliver Stone’s sunbaked neo-noir U Turn is a frenetic flurry of sound and image, all jump cuts and garish compositions and heavily processed photography from the great Robert Richardson. The charged aesthetic is probably better suited to the frivolous plot convolutions here than in one of Stone’s many heavy-handed political works, but as is often the case, Stone struggles to modulate his eccentric tendencies.

Sean Penn glowers through the film as a drifter on his way to Vegas to pay off a gambling debt who gets stranded in a middle-of-nowhere desert town. A number of stars are on hand to embarrass themselves, especially Billy Bob Thornton as the redneck mechanic who takes in Penn’s car, but a bit turn from Jon Voight as a blind Native American runs a close second.

After a flirtatious encounter with a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez, hopelessly flat without Steven Soderbergh behind the camera), Penn is confronted by jealous husband Nick Nolte, who flies into a rage before attempting to enlist him in a plot to kill the woman.

Stone’s sense of humor is mis-calibrated throughout, but a lesser Ennio Morricone score and Richardson’s shots of the wide-open spaces of Arizona are pretty good assets. U Turn isn’t a particularly well-made film, but it’s more fun than it seems like it will be at the outset.

Twilight Time packages a swell Sony 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer here, with deeply saturated colors and nicely textured images, given a highly unnatural look thanks to much of the film being shot on reversal stock. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is active and vibrant, with Morricone’s score and the hyper sound design served well.

Extras include two commentary tracks, one featuring Stone and another with production exec Mike Medavoy and Twilight Time head honcho Nick Redman. There’s also a brief intro from Stone along with the customary Twilight Time isolated score track. A trailer also makes the cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s U Turn Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Twilight Time / 1997 / Color / 1.85:1 / 124 min / $29.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

 

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