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 David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars   Thu Oct 23, 2014 1:11 am

In almost half a decade of directing films, David Cronenberg's career has changed beyond all recognition. Between 1975 and 1988, he created works of body horror, films which had dark, gory sides but that were also unbelievably intelligent, and asked it's viewers to thing. The Brood was a meditation on anger and how it can be channelled, Videodrome was a dark indictment of how television can corrupt people, The Fly was a demented weepie which could be seen as a statement on AIDS. After Dead Ringers (1988), Cronenberg shifted gear, he wanted to branch out into more cerebral works, works of the mind. Naked Lunch (1991) was his take on the cult novel, while Crash (1996) showed a dark side to sex and fetishes. But, Cronenberg found new fans with A History of Violence (2005), a modern western which was a meditation of identity and secrets, and Eastern Promises (2007) was a shocking look at the Russian underworld in London. Before he tackled A Dangerous Method (2011) and Cosmopolis (2012), there was another script which landed on Cronenberg's desk. One by Bruce Wagner, novelist of Wild Palms and I'm Losing You, and screenwriter of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). Cronenberg saw something in this script, but he had trouble getting the financing together for it, even Wagner adapted the screenplay in a novel called Dead Stars (2012). But after Cosmopolis, Cronenberg found a new source of funding, as a result, he got Wagner's script, Maps to the Stars funded. It's Cronenberg at his most savage in years, but it's a brilliantly compelling character piece.

It begins when the mysterious Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Los Angeles, she meets limousine driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson), and asks Jerome to take her to take her to the former home of child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), who turns out to be Agatha's younger brother. Turns out an act of violence by Agatha years before nearly killed Benjie and landed Agatha in rehab, she's scarred from a resulting fire, and has spent years in rehab. Her parents, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and Caroline (Olivia Williams) hear that she's back in town, and they don't want her near the house, but Agatha manages to get close to Benjie. Meanwhile, Stafford, who is a TV psychologist, is doing treatment for aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is lobbying for a role in a remake of a film that her own mother was in, and she wants the role her mother played, even if Havana is too old for the part. Meanwhile, Benjie has been fighting demons of his own, he's been in rehab for drug addiction and Caroline has just been able to get him a comeback role in a sequel to a film that made him famous in the first place, but Benjie is being haunted by ghostly visions of a young girl called Cammy (Kiara Glasco), who Benjie visited in hospital then died shortly afterwards from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Meanwhile, Agatha gets a job as Havana's new personal assistant, after a recommendation from Carrie Fisher, but Havana' state of mind goes from bad to worse, and she's also plagued by ghostly visions, these ones are of her own mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died in a fire years before, and she seems to taunt Havana too.

Cronenberg has always had a twisted vision on the world, and his take on Hollywood is darkly satirical and breathtakingly black. For all the sunshine and sparkly glamour, Cronenberg succeeds in making Hollywood look like an absolutely disgusting place to live. It's reminiscent of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), where the town of Lumberton looks like absolute paradise, but once you peel away the facade, you can see the darkness and corruption underneath. Maps to the Stars is just like that, it looks beautiful, but it isn't. It's inhabited by damaged people all with their own personal demons. But it's perfect material for Cronenberg, who can find darkness and horror in just about anything. While it might look like a parody of Hollywood, and while most of it is very over the top. It's actually a very funny film, but it has moments of humour you'll feel guilty for laughing at. But, there is something artificial and other-worldly about Hollywood, it's a place that gets so much coverage on the news, but it's not a place you'd want to stay in for long. It's a dark place you're likely to get seduced by and swallowed up by. This is a cautionary tale of fame, fortune and family gone horribly awry. Cronenberg is holding up a fun house mirror to the darkside of Hollywood, and what fun he has with the story, even though the story is Wagner's, you can tell Cronenberg has had his way with the script, even characters with names like Havana Segrand, Azita Wachtel, Sterl Carruth and Starla Gent have a distinctive Cronenbergian flavour.

To bring this vision of Hollywood to life, Cronenberg has called up most of his usual collaborators, beginning with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who has worked with Cronenberg on every film since Dead Ringers (1980), and is also renowned for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Lisztomania (1975) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Suschitzky gives the film a bright and sunny outlook, even though it's unbelievably dark in tone. If anything, it's all bright with a lot of whites and bright settings. All the sets have been designed by Cronenberg's usual production designer Carol Spier, who manages to create lavish and expensive looking Hollywood homes, even though, in an act of deception, it was all mostly filmed in Toronto, Canada. (The main unit only filmed in Hollywood for a meagre 5 days, but you'd never think so from looking at the film. It's edited by Ronald Sanders, who has worked with Cronenberg on every film since Fast Company (1979), it's a very complex film which requires attention, but it's well put together, and there are moments of silence that are quite frightening too. But, a special mention goes to Howard Shore, who has always been there to score Cronenberg's film, and here, even on a break from The Hobbit films, Shore is able to create an eerie score which has a rich Arabic theme to them, which manages to sit well with the film, and it adds to the already dark mood of the film.

Cronenberg has always been able to get the best out of his actors, and with Maps to the Stars, this is no exception. Julianne Moore is absolutely stunning as the troubled and scheming Havana Segrand, whose glory days are long behind her and when she wants a part, she has to partake in sex orgies. Plus, in this world where she's surrounded by acquaintances and personal assistants, she's a very lonely person. It is one of Moore's best performances, an absolute ball of fury and pent up aggression ready to explode. John Cusack plays Stafford Weiss with an emotionally detached exterior, he feels estranged from his family, but he seems to get solace when treating celebrities, including Havana, that's when his true colours get out. Mia Wasikowska is a revelation as the deeply troubled Agatha, she has a cool exterior and a simmering anger even though she tries to put a brave face on the situation, it's a world away from what Wasikowska did in Alice in Wonderland (2010). Robert Pattinson only has a supporting part, but it's an extremely memorable one. He's hardly wasted, and he's memorable in all of the scenes he does, and he manages to be a glue that holds the film together and connects most of the main characters along the way. Olivia Williams shows a tortured side as the Weiss matriarch, which is sort of reminiscent of the cold edge her character in The Sixth Sense (1999) had. But, Evan Bird, best known from playing Tom Larsen in the U.S. version of The Killing, makes a great Benjie, a troubled teen who, like most of the characters in the film, is haunted by visions and suppressed memories of the past, kinda like what Havana is going through on the other end of town.



Cronenberg must be one of the few directors who has never made a truly bad film, and even alleged "failures" like M. Butterfly (1993) and A Dangerous Method (2011), are far more interesting films than most other films by great directors out there today. Here, he finds himself on top form, in a dark mood, despite the bright and sunny look the film has. This is a savage world, full of damaged people. It's also a ghost story, and there's moments that are so over the top and outrageous, it's a wonder the film doesn't descend into an over the top opera. But the film works, even though the tone goes from quite silly satire to quite mean and venomous horror. It's not a film for everyone, and indeed, the film has a dreamlike quality to it, which makes it look like a very fevered nightmare, as it has a very unrealistic feel to it. But that doesn't matter, in the hands of Cronenberg, it's all about the performances. In fact, there's some moments in the film that you'd rather you hadn't watched, and while there are some scenes of graphic sex and bloody violence, one in which Cronenberg's own Genie Award plays a crucial part, it works as a film. It's good to have Cronenberg back again, and even though he was once seduced and tempted by the money and fame of Hollywood, and even having their studios back his films like Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986) and A History of Violence (2005), he's always stayed true to his roots, who knows what horrors he'll unleash on the world next, but if it's anything like his unsettling vision of Hollywood, it should make for fascinating viewing.
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