Skip to main content

I'm not into space soaps.

Maps to the Stars
(2014)

(SPOILERS) David Cronenberg’s typically twisted dissection of Hollywoods and would-bes gets under the skin like nothing he’s made in a decade. If the hermetic cocoon of Cosmopolis represented a return to the territory of less grounded narratives after a series of (for him) formally concrete pictures with Viggo Mortensen, Maps to the Stars seals that deal.  An exploration of superficiality and emptiness, and the darkness that lurks within, his film from Bruce Wagner’s screenplay is very much not a Tinseltown satire, although it nevertheless conveys the requisite barbs and props. Rather, Maps to the Stars is a claustrophobic horror, its jaundice deriving from the existential isolation of its disparate protagonists.


The focus is the supremely dysfunctional Weiss family, led by self-help jockey Stafford (John Cusack, at his most dead-behind-the-eyes and remote). Wife Christina (Olivia Williams) takes care of the management of their son and child star (for the Bad Babysitter movie franchise) Benjie (Evan Bird). He’s an obnoxious, spoilt 13-year old who has just done a stint in rehab. Wagner draws on many a recognisable trope here, including Drew Barrymore-esque childhood drug addiction and therapies that indulge the recipient’s yearning for self-glorification rather than real spiritual advancement. The family shares a soullessly airy house and are fundamentally detached from each other, partners in a business (although Christina carries around the burden and responsibility of self blame for the past).


Their first dark secret is daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska,; I don’t think she has it in her to give a poor performance). Schizophrenic, she was committed to a mental hospital and has just been released (“Free, white and eighteen”). Agatha gave her brother pills and burnt the house down (suffering burns in the process) after rehearsing a bizarre ritual in which she and her brother were married. Her family establishes Agatha as an object of fear. In her first scene we assume she’s a straight up fantasist, telling limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattison, much less effective here than in Cosmopolis) she met Carrie Fisher on Twitter and is helping her out with a book. Then we discover this is true. Agatha is barking, but she’s also the most sympathetic character in the film by some distance. Although, peeling back layers as he does, Cronenberg gradually reveals obnoxious Benjie also has unsuspected depths.


The adults, even Christina, are dangerously deluded. There’s Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading star who takes on Agatha as her PA. Havana is intent on starring in a remake of a film her mother made, the same mother who abused her as a child. Havana knows this because she has been working through her trauma with Stafford (“I’m going to press on a personal history point”). When she learns her main competition for the role will be dropping out due to the death of her son, she doesn’t even try to conceal her joy; ghoulish indeed. This lack of empathy is echoed later when Benjie, afflicted by visions of a dead girl he visited in hospital, attempts to strangle his young co-star; Christina cannot believe the fuss created (“He hurt one boy. One boy”).


There’s a sense that Agatha’s return to LA has in some way precipitated this unravelling. She saw visions prior to setting the house alight.  Benjie begins seeing visions also, and Havana is haunted by her dead mother. Even Stafford is in on seeing things that aren’t there by the end, freaked out by Christina apparently self-immolating by the swimming pool. There is a common thread of incest weaving through these relationships (the big reveal is that Stafford and Christina discovered they were brother and sister, which Agatha found out, although it seems like a bit of a stretch they could manage to maintain this deception living in the muck-raking Hollywood spotlight), and also unusual territory for Cronenberg: that of ghosts.


He rejects such possibilities, citing The Exorcist as a film he couldn’t have convincingly made because he has no grounding in its subject matter (“Belief in ghosts is religious belief, I don’t believe in afterlife”). As a result, he interprets the visions of Maps to the Stars as deriving from those haunted by memories. Whether Wagner sees it that way is another matter (he doesn’t, but for the most part deferred to his director’s outlook). Certainly there’s an unusual psychic theme that connects the characters in a tapestry of strange visions (why does Benjie see the actress’ dead son, with whom he has no connection)? The other obvious reading here is that the incest theme is a reflection of an incestuous movie town, but that feels a little too on the nose.


The inescapable past manifests not only as visions but leads to very physical fallouts. Havana, having got what she wants, rejects Agatha, but not before having sex with Jerome (whom Agatha has been seeing and who refers to her rather coldly as “research”). Havana’s hysterical character assassination of Agatha, who by this point has stopped taking her meds, leads to the darkly poetic justice of Agatha beating her employer to death with one of her acting awards. 


The most shocking scene, however, comes when Agatha visits Christina. Stafford, who has already warned his daughter to stay away, enters and begins punching her repeatedly in the stomach. This is the man who has made a mini-industry from giving others back their self-control but who is unable to martial his own. The lore of synchronicity he feeds Havana (“People don’t just enter our lives randomly”; “Things happened for a reason. I’m a big believer in that”) is one he is ill-prepared for in his own life, even though he protests otherwise (“You can’t have actually believed I would let you come back and fuck up my world again”). In the end, Cusack’s is the most disturbing character in a discordant symphony of disturbed characters.


Agatha is proactive enough to introduce finality and change. Wagner refers to her as the sanest character in the movie, which may not be saying much, but she succeeds in ending the destructive cycles others have allowed to perpetuate.


She believes the screenplay she has in mind as a “beautiful mythological story”, the only palatable way of telling of her parent’s incest. But everyone is distancing themselves from their pasts by monetising them; Havana with her mother’s film; Agatha with her script; Jerome planning to write about Agatha; Stafford making Havana relive her traumas. Even Benjie’s biggest success proves to have a connection to their past (“I was the original Bad Babysitter Agatha” she tells Jerome, referring to her attempt to kill her brother). There are also examples of strange, elusive rituals throughout. Where does Stafford’s help methodology come from? Did he devise it himself? Why is the girl Benjie sees covered in strange symbols? And then there’s Agatha’s marriage/death rite (and the final use of the poem Liberty in the film, which links the characters and becomes a kind of summoning tool), complete with her conviction that removing her parents’ wedding rings will break the spell.


There’s a strong whiff of death and decay in the air of Maps to the Stars, contrasting with airy LA environment (something also present in Sunset Boulevard). Alongside are common Cronenberg themes of metamorphosis, mutation and empty mortality. While the characters are vibrant, the familiar cool distancing of many of his more noteworthy pictures (such as Dead Ringers) is present and correct. Cronenberg has an unflinching eye for the macabre and disturbed, and the blackly comic (the scene where Benjie accidentally shoots a friend’s dog is a minor classic, as we just know there must be a bullet still in the chamber throughout).


I don’t know if Maps to the Stars will be come to be seen as one of Cronenberg's classics. It doesn’t feel quite as locked and precise as his very best work (the old movie with Havana’s mother looks nothing less than a recently shot digital movie) but it casts a compelling spell, a Greek tragedy reconfigured. You may not even be sure if you liked it, but you wont be able to take your eyes off it.



Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.