on September 29, 2002
I remembered loving this "small" film when I saw it in the theater, so I knew I'd be happy with the DVD, whether it had any extras or not (it doesn't). Although Julianne Moore has made it big since making Uncle Vanya ("Boogie Nights," "Nine Months," "The End of the Affair"), and her lovely face dominates the DVD cover, "Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street" is truly ensemble acting at its best. Wallace Shawn as the title character does a powerful job of holding the viewer's interest, even though his Vanya is riddled with smugness, envy, self-pity, and lethargy. There are things about his performance that make you wonder if Louis Malle wasn't thinking of "Uncle Vanya" as a sequel to "My Dinner with Andre" (especially since Andre Gregory plays the director who has gathered his troupe of actors to rehearse Uncle Vanya in the falling down New Amsterdam Theater in New York City). In both movies, Shawn plays a man facing a mid-life crises, plagued with self-doubt and floundering around, looking for reasons to go on.
What struck me on my recent viewing of the film was how timeless Checkhov's story really is. Like Jane Austen, he has a great ability to find the universal in the pettiness of highly-controlled domestic life. In comparing Mamet's rendering with Paul Schmidt's excellent recent translation, it seems Mamet did a good job of crafting speakable lines. He modernized the play without wrenching it from its original time or setting. Since the performance we see is a final run-through, not a dress rehearsal, we receive no visual clues as to when the play within the movie actually begins. Malle's light hand in this regard only reinforces the dubiousness of the distinction between theater/art and reality (a much discussed subject in "My Dinner with Andre").
The decision to film "Uncle Vanya" in the decaying New Amsterdam Theater was an inspired one. When Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), the play's most forward-looking character, bemoans the cultural and spiritual devastation caused by deforestation and human indifference to the environment, one can't help but think of the plight of 42nd Street itself. The New Amsterdam's resurrection--thanks to Disney dollars--as the current home of "The Lion King" is not without it's ironies. As all of the characters in "Uncle Vanya" are painfully aware, our futures are always purchased at a very high price. And the losses we are likely to experience as we move towards those futures may be greater than any of us will be able to bear.
"Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street" is one of those great works of art, like Eugene O'Neill's "A Long Day's Journey into Night," that makes you stop and take stock of your life.
on September 14, 1999
I have never been a major fan of art films. I literally stumbled onto this film while channel-surfing. Although it was in the middle of the film, and I only saw a few minutes at a time until I resumed channel-surfing, I always landed back on this unusual film, which looked like a group of people going through a rehearsal. Eventually I was intrigued, and went to find out more info (like the name). After a while, I checked out the film, and saw it beginning to end.
I was amazed by what I saw. A group of performers (Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, George Gaynes, et al.) performing a classic Russian play in front of a small group of people, including the play's director, Andre Gregory. It looks like the group is really just rehearsing the play in their normal clothes, in an abandoned theater with minimal props. But NO! That's the actual performance they did! And by doing "Uncle Vanya" in this way, one can picture the events occuring any time, any place. I was astounded.
The biggest surprise to me was Wallace Shawn. Before I had seen him with recurring roles in "Murphy Brown" and "Star Trek: DS9," with my favorite performance as Vizzini in "The Princess Bride." Wallace Shawn as Vanya totally surprised me, and completely changed my perception of him as an actor.
I honestly believe that this film started me on a different path as to what films I watch now. I cannot recommend it enough.
on September 10, 2000
Director Louis Malle, a decade or so after My Dinner with Andre, teamed once again with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn to create Vanya on 42nd Street, and the second film is even more brilliant than the first. To help actors keep up their acting chops between jobs, Gregory staged recurring performances of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in a decrepit, abandoned Broadway theater (since renovated by Disney to accommodate The Lion King) and inviting selected guests to witness the proceedings. As filmed by Malle, this performance comes as close to smashing the barriers between film and theater as any films ever made (even Olivier's films of Henry V and Hamlet didn't succeed quite as well). Although the performances of Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and other New York actors are uniformly impressive, the standout is Brooke Smith, an actress of whom I know little (save for a guest shot on "Law and Order"). This movie shows us what a genius we lost when Louis Malle died, much too young.
on September 19, 1999
Director Andre Gregory has quietly been rehersing a group of superb actors in an abandoned theatre on 42nd street. None of the cast nor the director had any intention of performing the play; perhaps their activity would the equiavlent of calasthetnics for the rest of us. But Gregory did allow two or three close friends to occassionally come in and watch the rehearsal.
By means of this film, you can be one these friends, watching actors high in their craft perform one of Chekov's most challenging plays. The performance is compelling, the lighting and cinematography superb, and the entire concept brilliant.
I confess some predisposition to liking this film- I watched "My Dinner with Andre" fifteen times, and eagerly consumed Spaulding Grey's "Swimming to Cambodia", but on the other side, I saw a college performance of Uncle Vanya and considered it to be the worst play I had ever seen in my life.
Boy, was I wrong! This play is stunning. I highly urge your purchase of the video: here in Kauai, where there are so many other distractions, the two of us sat transfixed. You can even participate in the little refreshment break the actors have after Act II. A wonderful production, highly recommended!
on June 10, 2003
This film removes the old stigma surrounding Chekhov and allows audiences of all ages and backgrounds to access the brilliance, pain, laughter, and humanity of his work. It may even motivate some viewers to seek out more of his writings. The direction by Louis Maller, the translation by David Mamet and all of the performances are the most gripping, realistic, entrancing I've ever seen of "Uncle Vanya". It shows what can be achieved with no set, no costumes, just great actors, with a great script, doing what they do best.
SEE THIS FILM!
I have been waiting for years it seems to get my hands on this film, truly unaware of what I was in store for. My friends raved Julianne Moore's performance here, and Louis Malle is one of my favorite film directors ever, so the chance to see his famed final act (yes, this is his last film) was a dream come true and yet it was unavailable almost everywhere and I couldn't seem to get a copy.
Then, behold, the glorious Criterion Collection!
Much in the vein of Malle's '81 masterwork `My Dinner with Andre', `Vanya on 42nd Street' feels more like a home movie than a feature film. This film basically follows the rehearsal by actors in New York covering Chekhov's classic `Uncle Vanya'. They take the play, scene for scene, and act it out, taking small breaks here and there for refreshments; but those scenes are few and far in-between. Instead, the film basically gives us glimpse at an intimate recreation of actors living and breathing a `scene'.
Beautifully shot (the cinematography is outstandingly intimate), wonderfully acted (the entire ensemble is so on point, but I was particularly impressed with Wallace Shawn) and expertly spliced to create an intriguing and engrossingly unique cinematic experience.
I loved this!
If anything in life is certain it is that if you didn't like Louis Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" you won't like his "Vanya on 42nd Street. But even this cannot be entirely depended on, because if you have matured as a movie viewer since seeing "Andre", you might find yourself unexpectedly able to appreciate "Vanya".
Both films are superficially minimalist, relying on script and acting talent to entertain, although Malle's shot selection is also an important element of Vanya. The only real effect is a recorded voice-over sequence for Julianne Moore's character Yelana. As the voice-over plays Yelana's thoughts, the camera is tight on her face and Moore's facial expressions must subtly mirror her thoughts. This is a routine "film" device but in this stage-film context it provides Malle an opportunity to simultaneously utilize the best of both mediums. Acting for camera is different than acting for the stage, particularly in the degree of expression dimension. In this sequence Moore must act for the camera while pretending to be acting for a theater audience. I think this was the best sequence in the film, tight shots like this are an area where the film performance is more demanding than a live stage performance.
The opening scenes of "Vanya on 42nd Street" suggest "My Dinner with Andre", as each member of the scattered ensemble makes their way through the crowded streets of Manhattan for a rehearsal at the rundown New Amsterdam Theater. Once inside they exchange casual conversation and before we realize it the play has started. The lighting has been subtly altered and a large table on the stage has become a sitting room on a rural estate in Russia. But this is not a dress rehearsal and the cast performs in their street clothes.
The subject of Anton Chekhov's late 19th century play is what use should we make of our lives? The deeper subject is the moment of introspection when one confronts the fear that they have wasted theirs. Some complain that since the play is a translation from Russian and is over 100 years old, it reflects a culture too foreign to be of relevance today. While they are correct about regular reminders that the setting is not contemporary, you just as regularly find yourself surprised that Chekhov's subject and theme are so universal and timeless.
During Sonya's long monologue to close the film (perfectly handled by Brooke Smith who literally glows from the moment you see her in the first crowd scene) I was reminded of Virginia Woolf's likewise introspective "Mrs. Dalloway"-written 30 years later in England. Sonya closes the play by expressing her hopes that while we can do nothing but endure in this life, at least we may find a perfect mercy beyond the grave. Clarissa Dalloway looks through a bookshop window to find the passage "Fear no more the heat o' the sun/Nor the furious winter's rages".
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
on December 16, 2012
It was a clever way to introduce the play: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and other cast members walk along Broadway on their way to the run-down New Amsterdam Theatre to "rehearse" UNCLE VANYA and away it goes. Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle gave us MY DINNER WITH ANDRE and then made this wonderful production of this classic Chekhov play in a theatre that seemed beyond repair and is now the Disney's delightful Broadway home. The setting is perfect. The acting is impeccible. We are introduced to Julianne Moore in this production. Every older member of the cast is an iconic stage actor, and Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith shine too. For a theatre fan, a Chekhov fan, a Louis Malle fan, and a lover of this cast, I can't say enough positive things. I had a copy that broke recently and bought the Criterion Series version from Amazon to replace it. It's worth every penny.
on June 6, 2005
I cannot top Charles Houser's spotlight review. He nailed it. This film is bleak as a Russian winter -- the characters are mostly family members trapped together in a house, all venting their frustrations and disappointments. And yet the viewer is made to feel sympathy with the characters and is drawn into their conflicts.
I've seen this film several times, and I'm not tired of it yet. Every two years or so I will pull it out and view it again. The DVD does not greatly improve on the video quality of the VHS tape edition, but it is nice to see it in widescreen instead of pan-and-scan.
Like the Beatles' Anthology CDs, this movie draws people into a rehearsal -- no costumes, no sets, virtually no props -- as if we are eavesdropping on the creative process. But the actors speak, the drab surroundings of the decaying theater fade away, and the mind begins to paint a picture of a country house, with these weary souls sniping and pleading and commiserating with one another. Though this is a film, we see the power of theater -- great actors creating an entire world with only their voices, facial expressions, and body language. Vanya on 42nd Street doesn't seem incomplete. I think a full production with sets and costumes would be a distraction. That is the canny charm of it -- using that which is missing as an asset. We are forced to focus on the performances, because there is nothing else!
All the actors are superb. I wish we saw more of these people in film. Except for Juliane Moore, none of them are classically beautiful, but they are a heck of a lot more interesting than the pretty cardboard cutout people who seem to populate Hollywood and suck up all the money for their "star vehicles."
This statement belongs to a clever dialogue between the doctor and Vanya's niece in the middle of the night. Few directors along the history of the cinema have been able this brilliant and enviable opportunity to express with major solemnity, supreme conviction and admirable honesty, his last creative Op. like Louis Malle, a very prominent director who adapted the powerful, incisive and even neo existential play of Chejov around a crumbling and abandoned theater in Manhattan, where Malle accents and carves in relief not only his profound love for the actuality of this work; he makes a true tour de force around the lives and times of these personages where every one has something to hide, miss and love. Nobody is happy because there is not any innocent happiness. There `s a lot of issues to be considered, analyzed and scrutinized that you will have to watch several times to taste, delight and enjoy it due its single grandness. Filmed with outstanding realism, wondrous angle shots, suggestive illumination and supported by a formidable cast in which nothing is out of control. Marvelously made and one of my twenty top films of the Nineties.
In case you just have only heard about it, get close and convince by yourself. This is a masterpiece, under any possible angle.
A must-see for the students of acting and formidable evidence the theater may be conveyed to the cinematic stage, with pristine elegance.