Friday, 12 September 2014

MAPS TO THE STARS (TIFF 2014 - TIFF GALA) - Review By Greg Klymkiw

In Hollywood, the eyes of the Dead are always upon you. Only the Dead see the Truth and only in Death can Truth be found.

Mia Wasikowska

brandishes the
Genie Award
(the Canadian version of an OSCAR)
Maps to the Stars (2014)
Dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've
been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read
the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings,
murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles,
revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is
a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be
violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been
cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing."

- Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
The movie business is creepy.

Its heart and soul resides in the City of Angels and surrounding environs of Hollywood, the Dream Factory. The place hasn't really changed much since 1939 when Nathanael West wrote his seminal novel about the Hollywood underbelly "The Day of the Locust". There's more smog now, but the sun still shines bright and the desperation of its populace, especially those in the movie business, is just as sick, venal and pathetically palpable.

And the business? No changes here, either.

It's mind-numbingly cruel, shallow, exploitative, backstabbing, bereft of truth, lacking in taste and just plain evil. That it's a world full of hustlers, whores, scumbags, flakes and empty-vessel operators is not so much the cherry on the sundae, but rather the undigested peanuts and corn flecking an already-unhealthy-looking loaf of faecal matter. The poor are still poor, and desperate. Even the rich and powerful, are desperate.

This odious backdrop allows Canadian visionary David Cronenberg to take no prisoners and serve up one of his most agreeably sickening films in some time. Maps to the Stars is in deliciously poor taste, nastily funny, blessed with a consistently gnawing malevolence and makes for one hell of a Mr. Toad-like wild-ride through the Indy 500 of broken dreams in contemporary Hollywood, the same living Hell Mr. West wrote about 75 years ago. L.A. still burns.

Cronenberg is, of coursed, blessed with just the right amount of petrol to torch Hollywood. Bruce Wagner's screenplay is imbued with the rather perverse quality of plotting that's often quite compelling, but in its own way, seems intentionally perfunctory. Too often, I found I was pointed precisely where the movie was headed. I don't think, however, that's a flaw in the writing, so much as the point of the film (and screenplay).

First and foremost, the plot is and, in fact, must be secondary to the WORLD of the film and as such, feeds into it. Secondly and perhaps most importantly, the manner in which the plot-points play out are, in a perversely brilliant manner the very thing that contributes to the film's satire. Hollywood, especially now, is built upon is providing plot elements that no longer surprise. Such is the case here, but both Wagner and Cronenberg mask this very well. For half the film's running time you feel like the elements of plot are assembled to obscure the fact that there are only certain directions it can go and by the midpoint, I found it relatively easy to know exactly where the train was headed.

That the film is about the sick vapidity of making movies that are themselves even more vapid and familiar, is the brave sign of a writer fully in command of what makes satire so special. When you experience the real thing, as you do here, it's a wonder to behold.

And can there be anything more delightfully, nastily and appropriately vapid than the central characters in this film? Nope. This, of course, is a testament also to just how brilliant the film's cast is in rendering the emptiness beneath their shells, but doing so with no tongue-in-cheek and always making them real. These are people you'd never want to know (or be), but that's what makes them even more compelling.

Given the utter emptiness of the people in this world, I was delighted that Wagner's screenplay seemed to inspire Cronenberg, his cinematographer and production designer to always hammer home the hollow qualities of the world and characters. Everything takes on a kind of flat smog filtered look. The consistency of the lighting from interior to exterior, from day to night and back again (and then some), all managed to maintain a kind of ugliness that was strangely beautiful and ghastly. The homes most of these people live in are filled with wide, open spaces and yet, they seem empty and bereft of any personal touches on the parts of the characters. The environs appear to have all been art directed, or, if you will, interior designed.

This might be the most hollow film made in the past couple of decades and to that I say: "Huzzah!"

So, speaking of hollow, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a gorgeous, self-absorbed movie star who is desperate to land a role in a remake of her late mother'a big starring role. Essentially, she'll be playing her mother. From any reasonable perspective, she'd be perfect for it, but what in Hollywood is ever reasonable? There are mysterious nagging doubts amongst the suits at the studio, most of whom are seldom seen. They also never return phone calls from either Havana or her agent. Via Wagner's script, Cronenberg deftly manoeuvres through the utterly ludicrous ins and out of Havana pathetically attempting to land the role, which is, in many ways, the vessel of emptiness that carries us into the heart of hollow Hell.

Havana's biggest weapon, it seems, are regular sessions with Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a new-agey, ubiquitous paid-programming-TV-fixture who provides massage-therapy-self-help to Hollywood royalty and any stupidly rich person who can afford his outrageous fees. Weiss is married to Cristina (Olivia Williams), a doting stage Mom to their horrendously spoiled child star son Benjie (Evan Bird), who must constantly placate the studio suits that he's no longer hooked on drugs. He is, after all, the star of what must be a loathsome, but successful studio franchise entitled "The Bad Babysitter".

Moving down the Hollywood Food Chain, a bit closer to Nathanael West territory, our seemingly satirical journey places a fair bit of emphasis upon Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a beautiful burn victim with a close Twitter relationship with Carrie Fisher which lands her the coveted job of being a personal assistant to Havana. Agatha is involved in a flirty, but borderline serious relationship with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a handsome limo driver-actor-screenwriter who's at first repelled by Agatha's burn scars, but gradually comes to accept them. Sadly, whilst relationships in business are everything in Hollywood, relationships on a human level take a back seat. Jerome's limo, of course, has a very big back seat and he's more than willing to use it when aging stars require some backdoor servicing from his trusty sword.

This is probably not what the doctor ordered. Agatha, you see, is completely out of her gourd. Just released from years of incarceration in a Florida loony bin, pumped full of anti-schizo pills and fuelled with a burning (as it were) desire to make amends with those whom she wronged. Many years ago, she set the family home ablaze in a fit of pyromaniacal insanity, attempted to murder her little brother and in the process was horrifically burned herself.

A family reunion is not desired by her Mom, Dad and Brother, but in a town of six degrees of separation, it seems inevitable. Chances are also good, it's not going to be warm and fuzzy.

Have I mentioned the ghosts yet?

No? Ah, good. Well, yes. many of our characters receive regular visits from them and these creepy apparitions are prone to placing horrendously nasty ideas into the heads of those they haunt.

Have I mentioned the incest yet?

No? Ah, excellent. I'll leave it all for you to discover.

Have I mentioned the killings yet?

No? Lovely. You're in for a real treat.


Maps To The Stars is a Gala Presentation at TIFF 2014.