Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Maps to the Stars

Image courtesy of Focus World.
David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars" has the same feeling of icy remove as his previous film, "Cosmopolis," which sort of makes sense, considering that both pictures follow cretinous persons in positions of power and wealth with little in the way of conscience. And much like "Cosmopolis," the filmmaker's latest is a movie I can admire, even if I don't connect to it in the way I did to the other films he made during the past decade.

In the case of "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," Cronenberg portrayed characters whose existences were surrounded by - and often involved perpetrating - violence. But the characters in those films - and also in "A Dangerous Method," his third great picture from the past 10 years - the protagonists, despite their flaws and often unsettling behavior, had a sense of honor or, at least, likability. In "Cosmopolis" and "Maps to the Stars," I had a difficult time feeling pity for the characters when horrible things happened to them - and this being a Cronenberg film, one can rest assured that something horrible will happen to someone.

I should point out that "Maps to the Stars" is actually a good movie. It's beautifully lensed and the cast portrays the mostly awful characters with a sense of commitment that one can't help but admire. Julianne Moore is especially good as a washed up actress, whose mother was a big star who apparently abused her daughter. Moore's Havana Segrand believes the chance to play a role her now-deceased mother (Sarah Gadon) once portrayed in a remake could be her chance to once again become relevant. Havana is, much like the rest of the characters, a pretty awful person, but her humanity occasionally shines through - and this is, I'd be willing to bet, due to Moore's incapacity to ever completely play unlikable.

Havana's story collides with the tale of a truly demented Hollywood family, whose patriarch (John Cusack) is a seemingly joyless self-help guru and massage therapist, while his wife (Olivia Williams) is solely dedicated to furthering the career of their nasty little twit of a son (Evan Bird), a child actor with a drug problem and a loathsome personality. Arriving on the scene seemingly out of nowhere is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), the family's estranged daughter who was sent to a loony bin after attempting to burn down the clan's home, leaving her with scars on her face and arms, which she mostly keeps covered with long black gloves.

Agatha enlists the help of a driver (Robert Pattinson, who played a man being chauffeured around in "Cosmopolis"), who also doubles as an actor and screenwriter. Of course he does, this being Los Angeles. Through a strange plot thread involving an online friendship with Carrie Fisher, who briefly plays herself here, Agatha manages to score an assistant gig with Havana, who at first connects with the mysterious girl, but eventually tires of her.

Meanwhile, Cusack's near sociopathic father finds out that Agatha is back in town and attempts to force her to leave Los Angeles. Also, Benjie (Bird) tries staging a comeback in a sequel to a film in which he previously starred, but his terrible habits and nasty behavior puts that job at risk. Needless to say, things don't get well for nearly all involved.

"Maps to the Stars" is an often fascinating look at a culture - Hollywood and celebrity life - devouring itself and the film is the most scabrous look at Tinseltown since "Mulholland Drive." The thing is, Lynch's film, not to mention Robert Altman's "The Player" and Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," pretty much said all that needed to be said on this subject. In other words, I'm not completely sure why Cronenberg wanted to make a film about these people. That being said, he's made a good one. It's not among my favorites from his impressive body of work - which includes a number of great films and a handful of very good ones - but it works.

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