Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Master Builder

I'm just going to put this up quick, because it closes in Boston tomorrow (Thursday 18 September 2014) and it's worth a look if you didn't realize it was playing. I didn't even know it was a thing until I saw a trailer about a week ago and thought "Wallace Shawn and John Demme? Hmmm..."

One interesting bit I came across while poking at IMDB as reference was Shawn saying he doesn't have a sense of humor but just does what directors tell him to how they tell him to, trusting that they know why him doing it would draw a laugh. I am not sure whether that is some next-level joke-telling on his part. It's possible, since I can't think of any times when he's really the best part of a movie that is otherwise not funny, but it doesn't seem likely . Adds a little something to a bit early in this one, though, when he's playing Solness as dead serious and snaps at another character for not getting a joke which certainly didn't seem much like a joke.

A Master Builder

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2014 in Landmark Kenmore Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

Like a lot of people, I tend to have this vague knowledge that Wallace Shawn is more than the guy with the funny voice and the odd face, that he's a playwright and an actor who has been a central part of some of the artiest of art-house films. A Master Builder offers up a glimpse of the more somber, serious-minded Shawn, and it's an eye-opening reminder of what he can do that even his less completely comedic roles don't always hint at. In fact, it's almost strange when something like his frequent screen persona emerges.

Shawn plays Halvard Solness, the architect of the title, who is a petty tyrant even as he receives visitors on his sickbed. First is Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory), father to Solness's apprentice Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) - himself engaged to the firm's secretary/bookkeeper Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell) - begging his former student to allow Ragnar to take the lead on an upcoming project, so that he can see something his son built before he dies. Then comes Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine), who is not just the family physician but probably the only friend Halvard's wife Aline (Julie Hagerty) has. And, finally, there is Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a 22-year-old traveler who claims Solness made certain promises to her ten years ago, an encounter he finds it distressingly difficult to remember.

A Master Builder comes from Henrik Ibsen's play, which translated for Andre Gregory's stage adaptation before writing the screenplay, and there's no mistaking its stage roots. It breaks down into several long conversations, sometimes with participants dropping in and out, but generally finding a resting position in the one-on-one. Between Shawn and Ibsen, the dialog never sounds entirely natural - it's the sort of [screen] play that exists in large part to put meaty chunks of words in actors' mouths - but does a fair job of making scenes between two people feel conversational as opposed to being just ways for them to extract information from each other for the audience's benefit. The play does occasionally err in the other direction, in that folks not enraptured with the performances may occasionally grumble about how these folks are taking far too much care not to mention important things until the moment of maximum dramatic impact.

Full review at EFC

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