A Master Builder comes off as a Woody Allen wet dream, but Heavenly Angle is the love child of Alice’s Restaurant and Waiting for Guffman.
By Paul Dervis
The Maine International Film Festival kicked off it’s 17th season this past weekend in Waterville and it is offering an impressive smorgasbord of screenings. From a Glenn Close retrospective and European films of the last 60 years, to Maine-produced shorts and a plethora of contemporary indie projects, if you can’t find something you want to see here, then you simply don’t want to go to the movies.
Sunday’s shows opened with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s interpretation of the Henrik Ibsen classic The Master Builder, slightly retitled A Master Builder. After viewing the nearly two hour and fifteen minute opus one had to wonder ‘what were they thinking?’ It is as if Shawn and Gregory were attempting to return to their triumph with My Dinner With Andre 35 years later, but without the humour or charm of that groundbreaking film.
A Master Builder is so static, the dialogue so stilted, that it is a chore just to sit and watch (several audience members at the festival screening walked out). The film has been lifted right off the New York stage, where it played to great acclaim, but seemingly little was changed to format it to the screen. The first half hour never leaves the bedroom of the Shawn character, the Master Builder, who appears to be on his deathbed. It then veers into a dream-like phase where he encounters a young woman he may or may not have been sexually inappropriate with when she was twelve. We see his character covet another young woman as well, the fiancé of his architectural underling, whom he is holding down in fear of being usurped. All this is happening in front of his long-suffering wife, underplayed nicely by Julie Hagerty. It is as if we are watching a Woody Allen wet dream.
The film was directed by Jonathan Demme, who also made the insufferable Rachel Getting Married. Shawn is credited with the screenplay. He has given us other dark pieces, such as the stage scripts Marie and Bruce and Aunt Dan and Lemon, but he infused them with biting wit. Humour would have gone a long way in making this outing palatable.
Next up was Ernest Thompson’s Heavenly Angle, a project developed with his New Hampshire based group Whitebridge Farms productions. Thompson took mostly amateur local talent, developed a script, and in eighteen days of shooting came up with a full-leangth feature film. Some of the acting is spotty, but the result is pure entertainment.
The storyline follows a has-been Hollywood director going to a small town in New Hampshire and fleecing them out of their savings with the promise of a movie they can all be in. He has no intention of ever making the movie, just stealing the cash.
But something happens. He becomes infected with the townspeople’s enthusiasm. The movie within the movie is God awful, with constant changes in plot line and locations, but somehow it all seems to come together. One could say the same for the ‘real’ film.
The pacing is wildly rapid and the jokes deadly accurate. Thompson fittingly plays the director, and does it with gusto. His sardonic sense of humour keeps us laughing, as if he is the only sane person in a funny farm. Somehow Thompson manages to play, at the same time, the preacher selling immortality to the masses and the con man looking for a way to bolt out of Dodge. But the townsfolk melt his heart. When he is offered a real job as a director in Los Angeles, he is torn. The outcome is anything but predictable.
The grassroots feel to this film is mirrored by 1970′s cinema verite that our lead is trying to create with the project. He is loath to give it up, even for the chance of a future in Hollywood. What makes it feel all the more topical is that it turns out that what he is actually being offered is a chance to make a three minute webcast.
The local yokels that help carry the film include a deaf sound man, a clueless Director of Photography who believes krypton is what killed Clark Gable, an overly aggressive AD, and the town’s drunken mayor, played by Thompson’s producing partner Morgan Murphy.
Heavenly Angle is filled with endearing imperfections, and that is what makes this film work: it is as if Alice’s Restaurant and Waiting for Guffman had a love child.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011′s The Righteous Tithe.