Tag Archives: Wallace Shawn


Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Alexsei German, Albert Serra, Louis Malle & more!

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
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
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.




Savant Blu-ray Review: “Dead Kids” (1981)

Michael S. Laughlin certainly earned his stripes for off-the-beaten-path filmmaking. As a producer his name is on the highly-regarded Bryan Forbes film The Whisperers, Michael Sarne’s Mod-gay disaster Joanna, Monte Hellman’s terrific road epic Two-Lane Blacktop, Floyd Mutrux’s eccentric account of heroin addicts Dusty and Sweets McGee and the failed neo-noir thriller Chandler. In the early ’80s Laughlin directed two fantastic genre exercises in New Zealand for the prolific Australian producer Antony I. Ginnane. Bringing his star connections with him, Laughlin hooked up with fledgling screenwriter (and later Oscar-winner) Bill Condon and gave his utmost to a freaky semi-throwback teen horror opus aiming to score big in the current wave of slasher flick success: Dead Kids (1981). Given the more palatable title Strange Behavior for America, Dead Kids established a solid reputation that was dulled only by twenty years of wretched pan-scanned video releases.



Dead Kids is a one-of–a-kind horror treat, a teen mayhem tale in which the small town ambience ambiance brings s fresh sense of innocence to what had for several years become an exceedingly ugly genre. A string of knife killings in tiny Galesburg, Illinois baffles both the coroner and Police Chief John Brady (frequent Woody Allen star Michael Murphy), as no two murders are alike. Encouraged by his friend Oliver Myerhoff (Marc McClure of the Reeve Superman movies), John’s teenage son Pete Brady (Dan Shor) volunteers for some paid psych experiments at Galeburg College, in the lab of the beautiful Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis of The Fearless Vampire Killers), helped by her odd assistant Nagel (Arthur Dignam). Gwen offers little or no explanation of what she’s up to, but all Pete must do to earn his first $100 is take a pill. His spirits are so high that he invites the lab receptionist Caroline (Dey Young of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) out for dinner. Bucking other locals convinced that he’s harboring a personal grudge, Chief Brady is convinced that the killings have something to do with secret experiments in the college lab. Sixteen years ago his wife worked there, and died under mysterious circumstances related to bizarre experiments being conducted by the notorious Dr. Le Sange (Arthur Dignam), who died himself not soon after. Or did he?

Believe it or not, Auckland New Zealand of 1980 comes across as a perfect idealized U.S. Midwest, with tidy frame houses, pristine green grass and streets teeming with vintage American cars. Pete Brady drives a beat-up Ford Thunderbird. The American actors seem right at home and the Kiwi talent fits in beautifully. We have to assume that the producers purposely made Dead Kids look as if it were an American product. They certainly score better than the Italians did twenty years before, when they Anglicized all the names on their horror film credits to make them look like English productions.


Dead Kids works because between its horror material, it delivers a compelling, sympathetic image of family life. We see no rotten parents driving their children into trouble. A prospective teen girl victim sneaks out of her window to attend a forbidden party, but she’s very much concerned with returning before dawn, so as to not upset her folks. Pete Brady is very close to his father, and understands his continuing suspicions and ill temper. John Brady has a steady love interest in Barbara Moorehead (Louise Fletcher), an understanding woman who wishes John could let go of the unpleasant past. John’s suspicions are heightened when he realizes that all the victims so far are related to the four or five men who opposed La Sange so many years ago. But nobody will listen to him. There are also no pig-headed cops. Brady doesn’t even wear a uniform. His office clerk is played by the highly familiar American Charles Lane. Normally one would think a local actor would be given such a role, and Lane seemed to exclusively play obnoxious clerks and unfriendly bureaucrats. Here he’s good pal, competent worker and a thoughtful helper. The production also flew in character actor Scott Brady, of Johnny Guitar, among dozens of memorable films. Scott Brady’s Chicago detective isn’t much use in a case that makes no criminal sense. He tells some dirty jokes and orders in a “bunch of scientific stuff” that probably won’t help very much.

All of these characters are afforded an unusual degree of respect — none is present to be the butt of humor or a disposable victim. Typical of this concern in Dead Kids is a housekeeper played by Beryl Te Wiata. It’s a throwaway role until she witness a grisly killing in progress. Even after being stabbed herself, she manages to describe her attacker over the phone. The movie treats her as an unfortunate heroine, not killer bait.

In a lesson horror movies often forget, our concern for the characters makes the scary content all the scarier. At the core of the picture is a time-warp concept from a ’50s mad-doctor picture like The Unearthly or I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the kind of medico-fantasy that David Cronenberg was already exploiting. The alluring Gwen Parkinson is using drugs and who-knows-what to effect a remote control of her teenaged subjects, who are apparently programmed to do appalling crimes, and then experience complete memory loss.

Laughlin and Condon stage their killings with more finesse than is usual for slashers made in the wake of dreck like Friday the 13th. Some of the stabbings are explicit and others less so, but each is shocking. One dismemberment in a bathtub makes us fear for more atrocities, and a close-up sight of a boy trussed up as a scarecrow, with his eyes carved out, is strong stuff. But the film doesn’t revel in the individual killings and they don’t become exercises in one-up-manship: it’s not like lovers are skewered or eyes are pierced because the production feels the need to top the latest Argento or Fulci gorefest.


The most disturbing scene plays off our most simple medical nightmares. Pete Brady is strapped into a chair by the attractive but utterly un-reassuring Gwen, who reaches across for the largest, most wicked-looking syringe seen this side of The Amazing Colossal Man. Without so much as a “hold still’, She then plunges the needle into the corner of Pete’s eye socket and pumps in several ounces of green fluid. If this isn’t performed in one shot, it feels like it — and is effective enough to make an entire audience yelp and squirm.

Elsewhere Laughlin and Condon indulge what must have been some personal desires. One of the killers wears a rubber Tor Johnson mask, reminding us of the Captain Kirk mask worn by the mad killer in Halloween. Even better is an in-from-left-field musical number during a rather kitschy costume party. Pete shows up and meets a desirable girl just as Lou Christie’s Lightning Strikes causes all the kids to hop-dance in unison, with a handsome camera pullback making it all look like completely self-conscious, high spirited choreography. Some viewers think the stylized scene is just plain dumb, as what are kids from 1981 doing rocking out to a 1966 oldie? Actually, the song’s lyrics about an unstoppable compulsion seem fully appropriate.

Perhaps Dead Kids’ final scenes were meant to show Michael Laughlin’s higher ambitions. With the threat vanquished we’re treated to several images of happiness unexpected in a horror film by anybody, from anywhere. After all, these were the years where horror films were outdoing each other to generate nihilistic conclusions. The peace won by Michael Murphy’s character is hard-earned and much deserved. The movie in particular is very kind to the great (and sexy!) actress Louise Fletcher, who since her oppressive nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had difficulty obtaining sympathetic parts.

Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon would move on to the more ambitious retro- Sci-fi tale Strange Invaders, with even more imported Yank actors (Paul Le Mat, Nancy Allen, Diana Scarwid, Michael Lerner, Louise Fletcher, Wallace Shawn, Fiona Lewis, Kenneth Tobey, June Lockhart, Charles Lane, Dan Shor, Dey Young) making New Zealand become America of the 1950′s. The film has its fans but I always found it obvious and unconvincing. That’s a shame, as a retro- ’50s Sci-fi picture would seem a perfect fit for this fan of film fantasy.

Severin Films’ Blu-ray + DVD of Dead Kids is a great improvement over two earlier DVD releases, Elite’s from 2003 and Synapse’s better disc from 2008. The very widescreen image (Laughlin and cameraman Louis Horvath use every inch of the wide screen) seems enlarged in all four directions. The first scene looks terrible — out of focus, drab — but from then on the film’s images are sharper and more colorful than any copy we’ve seen before. The sight of Fiona Lewis stalking around the lab complex in her white smock, high heels and just-so hairstyle is quite arresting. It’s actually too bad that we don’t learn more about what makes the evil Gwen Parkinson tick — she’s worthy of a sequel all her own.


As reported at the very discerning Mondo Digital website, the movie here encoded is actually two minutes longer than its reported running time and has two brief scenes not seen before. As the sharp-eyed Nathaniel Thompson says, Severin’s disc contains an unheralded expanded cut!

The film contains some local New Zealand rock of the period, but soundtrack duties are handled by the estimable Tangerine Dream. The tracks are effective, if not nearly as expressive as those on Michael Mann’s Thief (which just came out from Criterion). Tangerine Dream’s eerie music is auditable on an Isolated Score track.

One commentary with writer Condon and actors Dey Young and Dan Shor hails from the earlier DVD and is still entertaining — all three talents have gone on to busy and rewarding careers. Severin adds a new commentary with Michael Laughlin, unfortunately not the best of recordings. We get some insights but not a full picture on this interesting filmmaker.

A special treat is a nicely-paced interview with special makeup effects artist Craig Reardon, the hand-picked protégé of Dick Smith. With candor and honesty, Reardon goes over the ups and downs of what was one of his first solo makeup jobs. Plunked onto an airplane with a few prepared latex appliances and a fake gelatin arm provided by Tom Burman, Craig had to come up with a difficult effects gag straight off a twenty-hour plane ride, and pulled it off with pure ingenuity. Craig’s ‘disguise’ makeup for Arthur Dignam, using techniques learned from Dick Smith, is a whopping success in the completed picture. We also see some rare photos of Reardon’s later, more universally celebrated work. And he’s still active, capable of terrific, cutting edge makeup concepts.

Severin’s package concludes with trailers for both International (“Dead Kids”) and U.S. (“Strange Behavior”) markets. Dead Kids is one of the few modern horror films that appeals to this reviewer. i respect quite a few, but this one I actually warm up to.


Reviewed by Glenn Erickson