Criterion Catch-Up, Part 3: A Master Builder (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

A Master Builder can be seen as the finale of a trilogy of films co-starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.  In fact, it's been packaged that way by Criterion, and it certainly retains an energy and tone from the previous films.  But it has much more in common with Vanye On 42nd Street than My Dinner With Andre, as it's another modern adaptation of a classic play, in this case by Henrik IbsenVanye was the result of three years of the actors performing Chekov's play, as adapted by Mamet, almost in private, before turning it into a sort of mockumentary film, directed by Louis Malle with a screenplay by Gregory, with an added layer of artifice where we met the actors in a theater space performing the play.  Here, it's a translation of the play by Shawn, which Gregory directed only for small, personally invited audiences for well over a decade, before it was finally turned into a screenplay by Shawn and filmed as a literal presentation of the play (i.e. the actors aren't playing actors, they're just playing their characters as in a traditional narrative).
Because Malle had passed, Johnathan Demme was brought on this film, which possibly gives it a bit of a twist in its tone, but it's certainly as much of a delight seeing Shawn and Gregory together as it ever was.  I get the impression that most audiences treated this as sort of a quick tag-on the previous two films.  Something filmed quickly on digital to round out a three-disc set.  But again, this film is actually the culmination of fourteen or fifteen years collaboration.  The Master Builder is one of the most unknowable plays, with critics still not really able to decide just what Ibsen is saying with the piece.  But watching Shawn's adaptation, I felt like I came away with a stronger understanding of the material.  And it's not just Gregory and Shawn's performances sparking on screen; like Vanye, it has a powerful supporting cast, including most notably Julie Haggerty, who just about steals the whole show.
A Master Builder was completed in 2013 and debuted on the Criterion label in 2015, as part of a three-disc set with Dinner and Vanye, but also sold separately.  Unlike those other two films, Master doesn't have the history of more generic, pre-Criterion releases (I'm almost tempted to re-buy the old My Dinner With Andre DVD just for a review on this site), as it's a new film.  And this was not a combo-pack release, but I have borrowed the DVD edition so we can have a proper comparison with my personal copy of the blu-ray.
2015 Criterion DVD on top; 2015 Criterion Blu-ray below.
As a contemporary, digital film, there's not as much for Criterion to potentially get wrong as with a catalog title being scanned from film elements.  The DVD is a very strong facsimile of the blu, especially as the ever-moving handheld camera keeps the fine points visually elusive anyway; but the difference is evident when nab it on a screenshot so you look closely at the details.  Only on the blu-ray can you read that it says "recipes" on the box in the upper-left corner of the second set of shots.  On the DVD, it's not even clear that there are letters there at all.  One thing you might be noticing, though, is that the aspect ratio is different in the first set of shots (2.38:1) and the second (1.78:1).  That's because the film was shot with two different cameras, and the shift in aspect ratio is a deliberate artistic choice by the director (and a rather effective one at that).

For the audio, things are kept simple but elegant with a healthy 5.1 mix (in DTS-HD on the blu) and optional English subtitles.
Simple but elegant is how I'd describe the extras-package, too.  It's not exactly packed like a 4-disc set of Prometheus, but it's got all that it needs and feels very satisfactory.  Essentially, there are three featurettes.  The first is the most essential, where Andre, Shawn and Demme talk with a moderator about the entire history of the project, experience filming and decisions behind it.  It really gives you the story of the film that every fan should know.  After that is a joint interview with Julie Haggerty and actress Lisa Joyce, and finally is a more general talk with Gregory and Shawn, hosted by Fran Lebowitz.  Plus, there's the theatrical trailer and a 12-page insert with notes by Michael Sragow, who helpfully points out the key differences between the film and traditional stagings of the original play and quotes revealing interviews from the film's creators.  Even if you regularly skip booklets, you should take the extra minutes to read this one.
Criterion did an excellent job here.  You could just as well get the trilogy boxed set, but as they'd already released the two previous films separately before they made the set, it was great that they also gave this a solo disc.  Now, I've seen multiple film versions of Uncle Vanye, including some excellent BBC productions, and still feel like Gregory/ Shawn's was the most powerful.  I haven't seen other film versions of The Master Builder (I know there's an American one with E.G. Marshall and a pair of intriguing BBC contenders on DVD) to be able to offer the same assurance, but I find it hard to believe there's much out there that could overshadow this.

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