Monday, August 22, 2016

Maps to the Stars (2014)

One of David Cronenberg’s biggest strengths as a filmmaker has always been the ability to contort reality by introducing slightly futuristic concepts into what were otherwise fairly real world situations. In early films like Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), a man made parasite and surgical advances caused an outbreak of sexual mania and a unique form of vampyrism of sorts. With Videodrome (1983), technology really came to the forefront with the “watching is better than living” idea of television causing hallucinations, an idea Cronenberg would expand upon using video games and virtual reality in eXistenZ (1999). While not a “genre” film per-say, the fetishization of metal colliding with flesh in Crash (1996) also has a slight sci-fi bend to it. Psychology has always been of the biggest weapons in Cronenberg’s armory and with films like Dead Ringers (1988), Spider (2002) and A History of Violence (2005), it’s the psychology of the characters that distort the perceptions of what’s real and unreal with the protagonists of said films either living in their own self-created realities or slowing slipping into one. Maps to the Stars is a logical continuation of films like Spider, A History of Violence and Cosmopolis (2012), shining a darkly humorous and at times uncomfortable light into the minds and worlds of the Hollywood elite in what has to be one of Cronenberg’s most demented films and easily his best since Spider.

Fresh off a lengthy stay in a mental asylum, Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a badly burned schizophrenic arrives in Hollywood. Thanks to an online correspondence with Carrie Fisher, Agatha is able to land a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging starlet desperate to land a role in a biopic playing the part of her dead mother, a former actress who’s ghost constantly haunts Havana. Pop psychotherapist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the father of both Agatha and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13 year old child star and recovering addict, doesn’t take too kindly to the news of his estranged daughters arrival in town as it threatens to let known a dark secret, the consequences of which would spell disaster for all involved.

If Mulholland Drive (2001) was David Lynch’s love letter to Hollywood then Maps to the Stars could be considered Cronenberg’s break up letter. While its true that Cronenberg gleefully gives tinsel town and the big personalities it can create a proper skewering, saying that the film is solely about Hollywood would be selling the film short. By and large, Cronenberg seems more interested in exploring the self-involved, insular worlds these characters have created for themselves. Its not always a pretty picture, with there seemingly being no low any of the characters won’t sink too which is where the film gets its perverse sense of humor from with several moments that are sure to make many question whether to laugh or cringe. As funny as the film is, there is also an element of Greek tragedy to it all with the final moments of the film being equally touching as it is twisted. Cronenberg also has the film take the occasional foray into hallucinatory territory with multiple characters seeing visions of the departed and his use of schizophrenia here is interesting when contrasted to how the condition was portrayed, although never named, in a past film. The performances are all around brilliant with Moore being more than deserving of her best actress award at Cannes by relishing in Havana’s despicable nature, but stealing the show with ease is Evan Bird as the egotistical rotten little bastard child star who’s deadpan delivery of many of the films best, awkwardly hilarious lines is just pitch perfect.

Longtime Cronenberg fans will no doubt spot the films connection to The Brood (1979) by way of Stafford Weiss’ very psychical approach to psychotherapy which echoes the psychoplasmic practices of Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood. Cronenberg also has a wink to his previous film Cosmopolis by casting Robert Pattinson (which is sure to hilariously irritate the same people that scoffed at his casting in Cosmopolis) in a role as a limo driver as opposed to having him reside in the backseat of one for the majority of the film ala Cosmopolis. Much like Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars was a hard sell with Cronenberg trying unsuccessfully for several years to get it made. Cronenberg stated “…it's a very difficult film to get made as was Cosmopolis actually. Whether I can get this movie to happen, I tried it five years ago, I couldn't get it made, so I still might not be able to get it made." and Maps To The Stars is very extreme. It's not obviously a very big commercial movie, and even as an independent film it's difficult.” So perhaps it could be considered a miracle that it did get made as its yet another example of Cronenberg’s ability to still make films that are not only as off center and challenging as his classic work but wipe the floor with the dreck that passes for cinema these days.

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