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Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Maps To The Stars

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Produced by: Said Ben Said
Martin Katz
Michel Merkt

Screenplay by: Bruce Wagner

Story by: Bruce Wagner

Starring: Julianne Moore
Mia Wasikowska
John Cusack
Evan Bird
Rober Pattinson
Olivia Williams
Sarah Gadon

Music by: Howard Shore

Cinematography by: Peter Suschitzky

Editing by: Ronald Sanders

Studio(s): Prospero Pictures
SBS Productions 

Distributed by: Entertainment One
Focus World (United States)

Release date(s): May 19, 2014 (Cannes Film Festival, premiere)
May 21, 2014 (France)
September 26, 2014 (United Kingdom)
February 27, 2015 (United States)

Running time: 112 minutes

Country(s): Canada
United States

Language: English

Production budget: $13 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $3, 231, 619 (certain European territories only)

Allo, allo, allo! Basically, because work made an undisputed balls-up of my shifts, costing me twenty-four hours and a wad of dough, I now may have no work until Saturday, and as such it has freed me up a bit of time to potter around and get a few other things done. I'm firing in an application for a PGCE so that I can gain the necessary qualifications to be able to teach in the United Kingdom, amongst (hopefully) a myriad of other things to occupy my time. Of course, this includes the movies (my ever constant!), and as such I will be following this review with a belated round-up for August/September, and then shooting into October. Already I've seen Pride, Dracula Untold, The Equalizer and Ida, and I'm sure there's more to come, so, for all the latest and greatest on the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Maps To The Stars, the latest film by David Cronenberg. For those of you who don't know, I'm as much a Cronenberg fan as I professed to be a fan of Nick Cave in my previous review for 20,000 Days On Earth. In the first half of his career, he explored his thematic content through genre films, mostly in the 'body horror' genre, of which he is seen as an informal godfather, with the likes of Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, before transitioning in recent years into more stately thrillers and literary adaptations such as Naked Lunch, Crash, A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises. Originally wishing to be a writer (indeed, at the tender age of seventy-one, he's just published his first book, Consumed), his films have the same literary qualities as the likes of Philip K. Dick, using genre fiction as a starting point to create metaphors and allegorical tales to get across what he has to say about society and the world we live in. A couple of summers ago, Cronenberg came a cropper of the fanboy/hipster community (probably the same ones who block-vote their 'favourite' films into iMDB's Top 250) when comments, not untrue but certainly taken out of context, made by him questioning a journalist's assertion that superhero comic book movies "'have shown to rise to the highest level of cinematic art.'" When Cronenberg argued that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy was "still Batman running around in a stupid cape" and that Memento was still his best film because anyone who has to work within the studio system "has got twenty people sitting on his head at every moment," the Internet exploded with articles such as "David Cronenberg Slams Superhero Movies, Calls 'Dark Knight Rises' Boring" (he was referring, incidentally, to The Dark Knight, said Hollywood Reporter), with comments from users labelling him as "pretentious," "pompous" and an outright "wanker." All things aside, whatever way you look at it, he's still one of the most relevant of contemporary working filmmakers, and Maps To The Stars is a notable first, given that it is actually his first film to be shot in the United States. Plot synopsis: Maps To The Stars is a satirical drama based around Hollywood, following the stories of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a famous but fading actress gunning for a role in a remake of a movie made famous by her mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), an iconic Hollywood actress that died tragically young in a fire and occasionally makes appearances in daughter's weaker moments, who gets a new personal assistant in a girl by the name of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman seemingly obsessed with Hollywood and ropes limousine driver and struggling actor/screenwriter Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) into her plans, and the Weiss family, headed by high-profile TV psychologist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who is Segrand's personal physio/psychotherapist, his ambitious and controlling wife, Cristina (Olivia Williams), who manages the career of her son Benji (Evan Bird), a teen sensation trying to get his career back on track after a stint in rehab. Got it? Good (that may be the single longest sentence I have ever written!)!

Starting off with the good, Maps To The Stars brings with it perhaps the best overall ensemble cast in a film this year so far. All seven of the principals are on form, and I'll go through each of them one by one. Julianne Moore delivers a powerhouse performance as Havana Segrand. In a multi-faceted part in which she manages to both intimidating and vulnerable, oftentimes playing off of entirely opposites on the emotional spectrum at the same time, Moore plays it just right, never teetering over too far into melodrama or parodic caricature. The character manages to conjure different feelings towards her from the audience; at times, I found her to be very funny and charming, others wholly deplorable. It's a credit to Moore's talents that she can pull that off. Mia Wasikowska proves once again (after Park Chan-wook's Stoker) that she can do a good job hinting at underlying menace in her performances. Even though on the surface Agatha seems to have this air of innocence, Wasikowska suggests a deep dark intensity inside of her. John Cusack gets his best role in a long time in Stafford Weiss, the character on the written page playing to all his ticks and eccentricities as an actor, doing right by convincing us of that Weiss is convinced of his own deluded conviction (I love doing those quibblers!). Olivia Williams has a bit of a Mommie Dearest thing going in as Cristina Weiss, forever doting upon son Benji in a loving manner, but not forgetting that she's projecting her financial investment. Sarah Gadon, who in her third Cronenberg collaboration is proving herself a strong candidate as a rising star, gets an interesting small part as Clarice Taggart. She does a great job acting out as a creepy projection of her daughter Havana's insecurities and anxieties, her ghostly conscience. Alongside Moore, I'd highlight Evan Bird's performance as Benji Weiss the standouts of the picture. Bird's Weiss is arrogant little douchebag with his head up his ass, to put it lightly, however, Bird's smart enough to let us know that what this all stems from is deep trauma. Like Moore, this is a multi-faceted performance, as we see him in the midst of his existential crisis struggling to fit back into the LA party scene after his stint in rehab, grimacing behind an energy drink after turning down an offer to do drugs. As far as the film's attempt at satire, this caricature of child stars gone wrong (not dissimilar to what's happening with Justin Bieber of late) is where the razor-sharp humour works best. Even Robert Pattinson, who it must be said gets the short end of the stick character-wise out of the principals, manages to break out and suggest at the shattered dreams that Hollywood imposes upon people. Now, while I do have problems with the script (which I will get to), I do believe that part of the reason that the actors were able to get out these great performance was because of the characters created by Bruce Wagner. On the written page, they are wonderfully realised, fully three-dimensional and completely buck the possibility of there being such a thing as a trope or stock character in the film. It's refreshing to see such a large ensemble today for the most part not being deprived in any way character wise. Also, while at times the dialogue in the film seems rather stilted, when taken as a whole, having seen the overall film, you do come to understand the hidden nuances as these seemingly awkward and nonsensical moments. This is the kind of movie which I'm sure would benefit and reveal more from a second viewing, but I have to go with my first time reaction. Also, this being a David Cronenberg movie, many of his regular collaborators are involved in the production, something which does serve to benefit the overall picture. Peter Suschitzky lets the cameras roll with a lot of extended long takes throughout the film, which lets the actors do their thing and give the best performances that they can. He makes it a visually stylish and impressive looking piece with a specific look that also accentuates the artistic direction of the film and the production design. Also, while it is oftentimes used very minimally in terms of screen-time, Howard Shore's score, in harmony Suschitzky's photography provides the film with some it's best moments. Taken aside from all the wiffle waffle in the script, Shore's score, which takes a lot of it's beats and instruments from fast-paced tribal-styled rhythms, lots of percussive hand drums and string instruments like cellos, with a keyboard melody in the background. All diegetic sound is muted in these scenes, such as the scene with Wasikowska's Agatha dancing by herself, and they are just shut off from the rest of the picture, wonderfully transcendent in their own way. Finally, Maps To The Stars proves once again that David Cronenberg, one of the greatest directors in the history of the medium, is still in his seventies taking on challenging and provocative pictures. Although the results have not entirely been successful, on the basis of this and his last film Cosmopolis, it seems that Cronenberg is going even further down the narrative rabbit-hole, daring us to follow him in his quest to explore ourselves and the world we live in. Regardless of your opinions on the films or the man himself, one can't deny the pertinence of David Cronenberg's artistry, and this quality is present in Maps To The Stars.

However, while I found much to like in Maps To The Stars, it unfortunately is, for a number of reasons, not the great movie that it could and perhaps should have been. As I've mentioned, David Cronenberg is gutsy as hell, taking on such challenging projects, but part of the reason that this film has been so polarising is because, frankly, it's not an overly accessible film to watch. I know this sounds like an awfully patronising thing to say, but most audiences will not be eating up this particular blend of satire and drama. If you want to look at satires which have a tone which have a more easily engaging nature and do great jobs of sending up Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole, look no further than Singin' In The Rain, Nashville, This Is Spinal Tap or Team America: World Police, because not only are they savage indictments of the business, they're also very watchable features. Speaking of satire, Bruce Wagner's script, while featuring great characters, is stuck between two different central theses, that of the sendup of Hollywood and the bizarre familial relationships of Havana Segrand and her mother Clarice Taggart, and that of the Weiss'. A great film would be one where both are not only dealt with equally, but both of a similar quality, so one does not diminish the other. The satirical side of the story is lacking in true depth, basically saying things that have been said so many times before, that Hollywood is an incubus (I would say succubus, but the suggestion here is towards a male-dominated industry) screwing itself to death with it's inherent vice, it's fundamental instability pushing it towards a downward spiral of deterioration (though I think I put it better than the movie in one sentence!). Also, while the familial story is better written, it is also more distinctly Cronenbergian territory and I think as an artist he subconsciously leans more in this direction, and as such this dynamic is what I felt ended up being more interesting that anything the film had to say in the way of polemicising Hollywood. It's a wonderfully twisted little play at work, but it does serve to highlight what's wrong with the movie as well as right. Furthermore, with this extra material that does seem like padding, it's also about fifteen to twenty minutes too long. I think editor Ronald Sanders could have displayed a little more vigilance in fine-tuning the picture and cutting it down to a reasonable ninety to one-hundred minute running time.

Now, with all the space I've spent in this review on what I found wrong with Maps To The Stars, you'd think that I found it to be a five out of ten movie. Quite the contrary, I did find it to be a very good movie with a lot of favourable attributes. It features the best ensemble cast I have seen in a film this year thus far, with terrific performances all round but particularly from Julianne Moore, John Cusack and Evan Bird. While the script has issues, what Bruce Wagner has done right is writing characters and dialogue different little nuances to it. Cronenberg regulars Peter Suschitzky and Howard Shore's work comes across as operating in tandem, harmony, in their respective departments of cinematography and musical compositions. What you take away from Maps To The Stars is an artist in David Cronenberg, who despite having been making films since the mid-1960s refuses to compromise himself, continuing to be challenging and chasing the white rabbit. However, remember to take it with a pinch of salt, for when the film tries to straddle what it has to say about the family along with Hollywood satire, the latter side of the equation flounders. Also, the movie could have had a decent amount shaved off of it's running time by editor Ronald Sanders. Audacious and daring, no doubt, but not essential viewing.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Pleasantly tired (satisfied in the knowledge that much work is being done!)

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