Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Portland Film Fest: Day 4

Insomnia. I am exhausted, but can not fall asleep. I finally falll asleep 4 hours before my alarm will go off. Alarms are always a problem for me. When I know one is going to go off in the morning I have trouble sleeping. The earlier it’s going to go off, the more trouble I have sleeping. Which is stupid.

4 Hours later: Wake up, get out of bed, run a comb across my head...

The good news is this class is at Stage 13, a couple of blocks from the hotel. I walk there, deciding to grab a coffee at Blue Star Donuts like yesterday... except today Blue Star has a freakin line snakes around its lobby and poking out the front door. No time for that! I back track to the liquor store across the street from my hotel where I buy a Doctor Pepper... then head to Stage 13.

Where I am the first one there. Cool. I drink enough of the Dr. Pepper to feel the caffeine melting the cobwebs in my head and flip through to my pages on Pacing & Structure. Once again noting that I have no pages for tomorrow’s class. Somehow, they ended up on my desk but not in the binder. Though I can wing any class, one of the things in the class description for tomorrow are 25 ways to land you work as a screenwriter, and I need to actually write those 25 things down so I’m not trying to remember them. Today I can’t remember anything (lack of sleep) and the notes get me through the class. Pacing and structure are those things screenwriters fight against, and I don’t know why. Most of what I know about pacing I learned initially from reading books on writing novels. Novelists have no trouble realizing pacing is part of their work. Screenwriters always want it to be some magical artistic experience that has nothing to do with that other side of their brains. Hey: use both sides of your brain for best results!

Anyway, I make it through the class, grab some lunch and write yesterday’s blog entries, and then head to the Mission Theater to see a movie made by a FB friend. This is always a bit dangerous, because the film might totally suck and then you are stuck saying something like “Well, the locations were great!” or “It was in focus!” or something else that gets you the hell out of there before you might accidentally blurt out that it was the worst film you have seen in your life.

Adding to this possibility: Made locally in Portland, made independently, and here’s the description from the program: “A failed sculptor is about to end it all until he finds a strange talking hole in the wall.”

Sculptor sets off “artistic alarms” even before we get to the talking hole in his wall part.

Oh boy.

And just to add to the building dread... As I am walking to the theater on a pleasant overcast day, the sky just opens up and pours BUCKETS of rain on everyone. People are racing for awnings and I see people run to outdoor table top *sun* umbrellas to try and stay dry. One guy sticks his head under the umbrella and lets the rest of him get drenched. Gotta protect the hair and mustache! This is Portland!

By the time I get to the Mission, I am soaked. The note cards in my pocket have had all of the great ideas I jotted down turn into grey ink stains. The good news is that I put a fresh bunch of cards in my pocket before flying to Portland, so not much is lost and I manage to figure out what some of those ink stains used to say. But that was later: at this point in time I’m soaked. I get to the theater and people are standing outside. Why?

Well, the previous movie is still playing and there is no lobby in this theater. I think it was originally a live music venue with a projector installed later. So we are all standing under the meager awning waiting for the audience from the last film to leave so that we can take their place inside where it is dry. When the doors finally open, an instant line grows at the women’s room for all of the hairdo emergencies.

When I take my seat in the cinema, I am not in a great mood. Now I have to watch some filmmaker’s artistic masturbation for 2 hours....


Was awesome.

The movie opens with our hero Hermann as a baby in his crip as his parents hang a mobile over him, and the voice over tells us this is when he knew he was going to be an artist and what his medium would be. Cut to Hermann as an adult approaching 30, living in his mother’s house, making mobile art... and his mother thinks it may be time for him to get a job and leave the nest. When Hermann complains that his art isn’t selling, his mother suggest he call his very successful Uncle for advice. His Uncle is some sort of sell out who has schlock art made in some third world country and makes millions. That isn’t the path Hermann wants to take.

But his mother is kicking him out, so he makes the call. His Uncle Felix tells him what he needs is an artist’s studio... and he happens to have one for rent for only $800 a month! This is the very studio Uncle Felix was living in before he made it big... and now he has purchased the building. Hermann checks his net financial worth and asks if he can rent it for 2 weeks....

The studio is in the building’s basement just past the garbage dumpsters. And the studio is a dump as well. Dirty walls, an old dorm fridge, a mattress on the floor. But for 2 weeks, it’s his. Hermann buys 14 of the cheapest frozen dinners available and *numbers them* from 1 to 14, giving us a great visual countdown to when his time is up. The film is filled with great touches like this!

Another great touch is a crooked painting on the wall. Every time Hermann tries to straighten it, it goes back to being crooked when he isn’t looking. This painting *belongs* crooked... and the dirty wall shows that it has always been crooked. The clean spot on the wall is crooked, too.

The most famous art gallery owner on the west coast, Devora Klein, is judging an art exhibition... and the winner gets a one man show in her gallery. Hermann creates a mobile titled “Blood, Sweat & Tears” which consists of bags those three items (he’s been selling his blood for money). As Hermann hangs his mobile, he notices his artistic rival as a blank canvas... did he forget to paint something? But the rival is a genius: he has a pen and anyone who bids on his painting gets to sign the canvas... so that the winning bid gets to gloat over the signature of all of the people he beat. Soon the canvas is filled with signatures... and no one has even noticed his mobile... until tragedy strikes and it gets stuck in a ceiling fan spraying *everyone* with blood, sweat, and tears. Devora signs the rival to a one man show and has Hermann arrested.

When Hermann gets home, he is a complete failure... and decides to kill himself.

Until he hears a voice coming from behind that crooked picture.

A woman’s voice... coming from a little hole in the wall.

At first the wall "passes him notes"... It offers him a deal: he will become a famous artist as long as he loves the hole in the wall. WTF? Obviously he has lost his mind. The wall provides him with a goopy alien egg like thing that he puts in his new mobile... and Devora *wants it*... and wants him... and she sells it for a fortune. Hermann has made a deal with the devil (well, a hole in the wall with a sexy voice) and continues down this path into madness and weirdness.

The film is *beautifully* shot and almost every scene match cuts to the next, giving it a great flow. The dialogue is funny and quirky and we totally step into Hermann’s life and go along with him on this journey into madness. The film reminded me of Polanski’s TENANT in how it takes absurd situations and makes them believable. As that hole in the wall demands more and more from Hermann (yes, it becomes sexual), we are brought along and wonder what we would do... would you kiss that dirty hole in the wall in order to continue creating popular art? Or go back to failure? This ended up being my favorite fiction film of the festival, and writer-director Michael Medaglia is someone to watch. He’s able to take this odd art house story and make it accessible to a mainstream audience. Beautifully made, incredibly well written. Dude knows how to make a movie. Oh, and the cast was great.

Stayed in the same cinema (probably raining outside) for the next film...


So, the only reason why I stayed to see this film was that I was afraid it was still raining and the closest other cinema was still a few blocks away in the rain. I had circled another movie, but that’s before it was raining.

I’m so glad I stayed.

This is the story of chess master Bobby Fisher playing against Russian champion Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War. A pair of government handlers played by Peter Sarsgaard (a priest who knew Fisher as a kid) and Michael Stuhlbarg (a CIA guy) think it would be great if prodigy Fisher (Tobey Maguire) *beat* the Russian World Champion Spassky (Liev Schreiber) and proved American intellectual superiority. Only problem: Fisher is insane and paranoid and impossible to control... so the two handlers have to play their own chess match with Fisher, trying to figure out how to be four moves ahead of his insanity.

Screenplay is by Steven Knight, who wrote DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and EASTERN PROMISES and wrote and directed LOCKE. One of my favorite screenwriters and he does a great job here. Direction is by Ed Zwick who, unfortunately, gives it a made for TV vibe at times instead of going all out when we’re experiencing Fisher’s insanity. I wish we had been brought into that insanity the way we were in DEEP DARK, but we remain detached. Zwick picks good projects but then does a workmanlike job directing them. Maybe he just believes he should stay out of the way of his actors... that worked in GLORY and COURAGE UNDER FIRE. But here it may have turned a potential great film into a really good one.

The reason why it’s really good: Tobey Maguire.

He’s a producer on this film, and I’ll bet he pushed to get this made so that he could play this role. It’s an Oscar calibre performance, and Maguire takes the character to the limits and way way past them. He’s so believable as being the mentally unstable genius that you forget the whole nice kid / SPIDER-MAN thing and fear this guy and fear for this guy. We have a whole generation of smart actors who can give great mainstream performances and then switch to something edgy as fuck like this and show that they aren’t just pretty boys. One type of film feeds the other. The edgy stuff brings intelligence to the mainstream work and the mainstream work brings an audience to films like this. I just wish the direction had been more like NIGHTCRAWLER and less mainstream... but what the heck. See it for Maguire.

The film probably played at Portland to get some publicity for its theatrical opening (Friday), but it was the kind of Hollywood film that can play at a film festival and fit right in with movies like DEEP DARK. Two films about disturbed geniuses.

After the movie there’s a block of short films running a couple of hours, but I decide to call it a night and walk back to the hotel and get some sleep before my morning class.


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