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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What we sell are hidden truths. Our territory is the mind. Our merchandise is fear.

The Avengers 5.1: The Fear Merchants
The colour era doesn't get off to such a great start with The Fear Merchants, an Avengers episode content to provide unstinting averageness. About the most notable opinion you’re likely to come away with is that Patrick Cargill rocks some magnificent shades.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

There’s still one man out here some place.

Sole Survivor (1970)
(SPOILERS) I’m one for whom Sole Survivor remained a half-remembered, muddled dream of ‘70s television viewing. I see (from this site) the BBC showed it both in 1979 and 1981 but, like many it seems, in my veiled memory it was a black and white picture, probably made in the 1950s and probably turning up on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2. Since no other picture readily fits that bill, and my movie apparition shares the salient plot points, I’ve had to conclude Sole Survivor is indeed the hitherto nameless picture; a TV movie first broadcast by the ABC network in 1970 (a more famous ABC Movie of the Week was Spielberg’s Duel). Survivor may turn out to be no more than a classic of the mind, but it’s nevertheless an effective little piece, one that could quite happily function on the stage and which features several strong performances and a signature last scene that accounts for its haunting reputation.

Directed by TV guy Paul Stanley and written by Guerdon Trueblood (The…

It’s all Bertie Wooster’s fault!

Jeeves and Wooster 3.4: Right Ho, Jeeves  (aka Bertie Takes Gussie's Place at Deverill Hall)
A classic set-up of crossed identities as Bertie pretends to be Gussie and Gussie pretends to be Bertie. The only failing is that the actor pretending to be Gussie isn’t a patch on the original actor pretending to be Gussie. Although, the actress pretending to be Madeline is significantly superior than her predecessor(s).

Do not run a job in a job.

Ocean’s 8 (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s nothing wrong with the gender-swapped property per se, any more than a reboot, remake or standard sequel exploiting an original’s commercial potential (read: milking it dry). As with those more common instances, however, unless it ekes out its own distinctive territory, gives itself a clear reason to be, it’s only ever going to be greeted with an air of cynicism (whatever the current fashion for proclaiming it valid simply because it's gender swapped may suggest to the contrary).  The Ocean's series was pretty cynical to start with, of course – Soderbergh wanted a sure-fire hit, the rest of the collected stars wanted the kudos of working with Soderbergh on a "classy" crowd pleaser, the whole concept of remaking the '60s movie was fairly lazy, and by the third one there was little reason to be other than smug self-satisfaction – so Ocean's 8 can’t be accused of letting any side down. It also gives itself distinctively – stereo…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…