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With: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Brooke Smith, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce, Jeff Biehl
Written by: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, David Mamet
Directed by: Louis Malle, Jonathan Demme
MPAA Rating: PG/NR
Running Time: 357
Date: 06/16/2015

André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films (2015)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Play for Keeps

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Criterion Collection released this remarkable box set of three films, spanning several decades, each featuring the writers and actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory at their finest. Directed by Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre (1981) was a landmark movie of its time, and is still remarkable to witness. In many ways, the follow-up, Malle's final film, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) was even better. (See my separate reviews of both films for more details.) The third film, A Master Builder (2013), came nearly 20 years later, with Jonathan Demme taking over for the late Malle.

A Master Builder is adapted by Shawn from a play by Henrik Ibsen, and while it's accomplished, it feels like a step down. If this were the first film to come along in the trilogy, it wouldn't feel like much at all. Basically, it lacks a gimmick. The first film was the "two guys talking at dinner throughout the entire film" gimmick. The second, even more complex, took place in a run down theater where the actors could not use the stage, and, walking around the rest of the building, subtly segued from casual conversation to the words of Anton Chekhov. A Master Builder is just a straight-ahead, filmed version of the play. Nevertheless, Demme uses plenty of close-ups to increase the movie's emotional punch, and he gets some very strong performances.

The story begins with Master Builder Solness (Wallace Shawn), who has achieved great success. When a strange young woman, Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), turns up, he begins examining his various failures and missteps in life. Joyce is really what makes this work; she plays Hilde as a nearly breathless soul, hungry and vibrant. She unleashes a pixie laugh at certain times that fascinatingly underlines her character's desires. Julie Hagerty plays the master builder's wife, Aline, long suffering and heavy with pain and regret. Purchasing A Master Builder on its own is recommended to die-hard fans only, but the box set -- the trio -- is recommended to passionate cinephiles everywhere.

The set includes the previously-released 2012 Blu-ray of Vanya on 42nd Street, and a brand-new Blu-ray edition of the 2009 Criterion DVD release of My Dinner with Andre. The Blu-ray of A Master Builder comes with a high-definition digital master, supervised by director of photography Declan Quinn, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There is an interview with Demme, Gregory, and Shawn (conducted by film critic David Edelstein), another interview with Hagerty and Joyce, and a third interview with Gregory and Shawn, conducted by author Fran Lebowitz. We also get a trailer and a liner notes essay by the excellent film critic Michael Sragow.

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