David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’ is equally intriguing, repelling

maps-to-the-stars-poster1

David Cronenberg has long been one of my favorite directors, so having the chance to review his latest film for the Buffalo News was a thrill. I gave it 3 1/2 stars.

David Cronenberg does Hollywood as only he can in “Maps to the Stars,” a pitch-black, ultra-violent, darkly comic satire dripping with acid. It’s a Hollywood horror story designed to equally intrigue and repel.

“Maps” makes tinseltown satires like Robert Altman’s “The Player” (brilliant) and David Mamet’s “State and Main” (not so brilliant) seem like “Singin’ in the Rain” by comparison. Its closest cousin is probably David Lynch’s masterful “Mulholland Drive,” a frightening experience similarly obsessed with the crossover between celebrity dreams and showbiz nightmares.

Fans of Cronenberg entries like “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers” and “Crash” will find much to chew on here. “Maps to the Stars” is one of his most sickly compelling films, but certainly not easily digestible as the more thematically straightforward likes of “The Fly” or “Eastern Promises.”

“Sickly compelling” describes virtually every character, especially post-rehab teen idol Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), an entitled monster with a doting mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), and a well-known television psychologist father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack).

One of Weiss’ clients is aging movie star Havana Segrand (a simultaneously fragile and combustible Julianne Moore), still dealing with the abuses inflicted upon her by her late mother, also an actress. Havana is haunted – literally – by a younger version of her mother.

Into this strange milieu enters Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a mousey, scarred young woman with an unhealthy obsession with the rich and famous, and, specifically, Benjie. Agatha forms a connection with Jerome (a nicely understated Robert Pattinson), a limo driver and struggling actor.

It becomes clear that Agatha has a connection with the Weiss family, and also that she is utterly unhinged. But so is Benjie. And so is Stafford Weiss. And so are Cristina and Havana, and almost every character in the film minus Jerome.

Agatha is hired as Havana’s personal assistant, thanks to an intro from Carrie Fisher (humorously playing herself), and between picking up Havana’s pills and to her duties, begins to inject herself into Benjie’s sphere.

The deeper Agatha goes, the more things detonate, leading to a series of bloody, emotionally piercing events. In Cronenberg’s Hollywood, nothing ends well, and any victories arrive only as a result of someone else’s misfortune.

The character who most embodies the film’s star-eat-star aesthetic is feverishly narcissistic young Benjie, the most memorable movie brat to saunter on screen in some time. Actor Evan Bird makes this Justin Bieber-by-way-of-“American Psycho” character Patrick Bateman believably damaged, and even vulnerable.

Wasikowska excels at vulnerability, and she, too, has created a character that feels completely original. Cusack has his best role in years, and nails it in spite of the character’s rather clichéd occupation. (Think Dr. Phil meets Tony Robbins.)

But newly crowned Oscar winner Moore steals the picture. Her performance is appropriately over-the-top, and devilishly wise. This is an individual who celebrates the death of a rival’s child, delights in seduction, and teeters on the precipice of insanity.

If it all sounds a bit silly and sadistic, it is. And a few moments simply don’t connect. But the genius of Cronenberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed novelist) Bruce Wagner is that it almost is always car-crash watchable and even, at times, relatable. To Canada’s greatest filmmaker, Hollywood is lined with corpses and inundated with the ghosts of past sins (and sinners), and those of us on the outside can only gawk.

“Maps to the Stars” is another fascinating entry in Cronenberg’s ever-unpredictable career. In recent years, the Canadian auteur has helmed films about a young billionaire forever lodged in his limo (“Cosmopolis”) and the friendship-rivalry between Freud and Jung (“A Dangerous Method”), seen a handsome exhibition focused on his work at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, and written his first novel (“Consumed”).

His latest film is not a Cronenberg classic, but it is a very solid addition to his résumé. And in Benjie and Havana, we have characters as memorably icky on the inside as Seth Brundle of “The Fly” is on the outside.

Stream It: “Antiviral” is an Icky Treat From (Brandon) Cronenberg

antiviral

Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film “Antiviral” is now streaming on Netflix, and it is a nicely icky movie that is certainly worth a look. It debuted last year at TIFF, and took the award for debut Canadian feature. I’m looking forward to watching it again, and also seeing what Brandon has in store for us next. (This was one of my “TIFF Revisited” columns for the Spree website.)

Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film, “Antiviral,” would fit nicely on the shelf next to his father David’s early efforts, and that says a lot. The young filmmaker had created an icky treat, a horror film with real ideas and bold stylization.

It’s a story of a grim future world that is even more celebrity obsessed than our own, a place where customers pay to be injected with the illnesses of their celeb faves. It’s a clever concept, this fetishization of the body to the point of voluntary infection.

Syd, played by the gaunt, nicely creepy Caleb Landry-Jones (who gave a fine performance in another TIFF 2012 entry, Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium”), works at the Lucas Clinic, the site for these objections, and smuggles diseases out fit extra cash.

But after injecting himself with the much-desired virus of the gorgeous Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, star of David Cronenberg’s last two efforts), Syd begins to lose his health, and his mind.

It’s all played out in grimly thrilling fashion, and if the film feels a bit overlong, it is always fascinating and smart.

I love that Brandon Cronenberg is not afraid to make a film that calls to mind the work of his old man; a character even mentions having the “shivers” early in the film, surely a tongue-in-cheek reference to his father’s first feature.

If “Antiviral” is any indication, Brandon Cronenberg should be on the verge of a long, interesting career. Perhaps we’ll look back in thirty years and say, “‘Antiviral’ was his ‘Shivers.’”

Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Wednesday Round-Up: The Dissolve Kicks Off by Demonstrating Why “Innocence” is “Unmistakably Scorsese”

ageofinnocence_01

I’m not sure why it took Pitchfork so longer to enter the film criticism realm, but taking its time may have been wise. Last week, The Dissolve finally launched, and it features a murderer’s row of cinema heavyweights: Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Matt Singer. These are some of my favorites, and the site that has brought them together, Avengers-style, is—so far, at least—a treat.

For example, check out the “Departures” column, explained thusly: “Departures looks at films by talents who defied expectations and tried something different. Are these films true anomalies, or not quite the left turns they appear to be?”

That’s a great idea, and Tobias’s first pick, Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence,” is an ideal selection:

“It’s hard to compare the New York of ‘The Age of Innocence’ to the savage criminal underworlds of Scorseseland a century later, but only because the kills here don’t stain the hardwood. But Newland is rubbed out just as surely as the pileup of gangsters in ‘Goodfellas’—to a point, he’s responsible for pulling the trigger—and for the same reason: With the world outside threatening change, the mobs in both films have to close rank to survive.”

“Innocence” is, I think one of Scorsese’s least best films, and is deserving of such a close analysis. If this is where The Dissolve is going, I applaud it.

Or consider the column “Performance Review,” in which “each entry focuses on a specific category in a given year, in several different awards ceremonies, in an effort to determine the year’s most criminally overlooked performances. First stop: Bes Supporting Actor, 1991.

I love Mike D’Angelo’s appreciation of Samuel L. Jackson’s un-nominated—by Oscar—role as Gator in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”; he was honored by the New York Film Critics Circle:

“[I]n his final confrontation with his father, his act of defiance takes the form of a silent, murderous hate-shimmy that conveys far more contempt than words ever could. It’s chilling to behold. One year earlier, Jackson was still playing roles like ‘Taxi Dispatcher’ in films like ‘Betsy’s Wedding’; Gator changed that, and it’s no surprise it was the New York critics who acknowledged it.”

The Dissolve seems a worthy entry in the crowded field of online movie criticism, and it will be interesting to watch it develop.

And the rest:

  • “Eyes Wide Shut” opened on July 16, 1999. To commemorate, The Film Stage offers a doc on symbolism in Kubrick’s swan song.
  • “Only God Forgives finally opens this Friday, and I am having an internal debate: theater, or home? Chances are I’ll opt for VOD. I’m very much looking forward to it, although it’s difficult not to go in expecting a major letdown. Here is one of the more interesting reviews I’ve come across so far.
  • A Tweet about the ending of Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” led me to this nice analysis of that film’s mysterious and controversial ending.
  • Two must-see trailers: The latest American preview for Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” and the first look at Spike Lee’s “Oldboy.” I did not spot a squid.
  • The great Indiewire is 15. Take a look at its “first issue.” Author Irvine Welsh made an appearance: “According to a story in this week’s issue of _New Yorker Magazine_ (July 15, 1996) the novelist who wrote TRAINSPOTTING spent a night in jail following ‘a recent four-day binge’ which featured ‘everything—everything you can imagine.’”
  • David Cronenberg’s latest has begun filming. “Map to the Stars” John Cusack, Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, and Sarah Gadon.
  • The unrealized projects of Alan Resnais.
  • Guess what? Only 50 days until TIFF.

“The Age of Innocence” still is from a TIFF retrospective of the film

Wednesday Round-Up: Mary Harron Has Brought Us the Lives of Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page, and … Anna Nicole Smith?

o-ANNA-NICOLE-SMITH-1-570

Mary Harron has one of modern cinema’s more unique, and uniquely cool, backgrounds. Though born in Canada she grew up in England, was an early contributor for the iconic Punk magazine and wrote for publications like The Guardian, and then moved into directing with the 1996 masterpiece (in my eyes) “I Shot Andy Warhol.” That film, the story of would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas, is one of the finest films ever made about the Pop Art icon and the Factory scene.

She followed “Warhol” with an almost shocking departure: Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Filmmakers like Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg had attempted and failed to bring Patrick Bateman to the screen, but Harron succeeded by giving the film the satirical spin it needed. She also helped make Christian Bale a star.

“The Notorious Bettie Page” came next, and it was handsome but rather dull version of the pin-up icon’s life. Her last feature, the 2011 vampire film “The Moth Diaries,” cmae and went without a trace.

So there has been a bit of a downward trajectory from her first film on. Still, I’m not sure anyone saw her next project coming: Lifetime’s recently-aired biopic “The Anna Nicole Story.”

I have not watched it — although I did set the DVR to record a re-airing — but it is hard to feel much other than unease at the prospect of so talented a filmmaker taking on so garish a subject. But Film.com’s Matt Patches has made the film sound much more sensible, and even unmissable:

“At first glance, Harron’s Anne Nicole Smith biopic looks like the usual Lifetime schlocky melodrama full of drug abuse, soft core sex, and ridiculous twists (‘SHE WAS AMISH?!’). The iconography of Smith’s life lends itself to the Lifetime aesthetic — as evidenced in the trailer, quick cutting, camera sound effects, and a moody pop song easily turn Anne Nicole Smith’s life story into drama worthy of ‘Liz & Dick.’

“‘The Anna Nicole Story’ could have been another movie off the network’s conveyor belt. No one who tuned in would have batted an eye (and, perhaps, the movie would have more buzz) if it was a campy, exploitive interpretation of Nicole’s life. Yet with Harron, Lifetime finds a credible and sensitive filmmaker, able to elevate the material and mine its dramatic potential. They may not be HBO or AMC or Sundance or FX, but with ‘Anna Nicole,’ Lifetime realizes the potential of their brand. Deal in celebrity-driven tearjerkers, but make them good. With movie studios dropping the ball, there’s a window of opportunity for television and even unlikely brands like Lifetime are seizing it.”

Patches even sees the film as a cousin of Harron’s “Notorious Bettie Page,” as Harron again “examines the seductive qualities of fame on a woman at her lowest point.” I still find it odd to see Mary Harron at the helm of a Lifetime movie — especially THIS Lifetime movie. But Patches has succeeded in making me approach it with an open mind.

Meanwhile, here is Harron on why she made the film:

“Lifetime brought it to me and at first I was like, “Lifetime… hmm.” But I read the script and I’m always interested in doing women’s stories. What drew me to the Anna Nicole story was that the script was very sympathetic to her, because so much of the tabloid coverage of her was so sneering. I’m interested in beauty queens, and Anna Nicole is a kind of a Marilyn Monroe/Bettie Page for the 90s, and for the modern age of tabloids and reality TV. It is a tragic story and a lot of the outlines for those beauty queen stories are the same. They’re flying too close to the sun. I’m interested in these outsider people that society looks down on. I find them sympathetic and I find them interesting and I think that for all of Anna’s many faults as a mother and all the rest, she was a sweet person who was looking for happiness.”

The rest of this week’s round-up is Anna Nicole-free:

  • Sigh. The Stanley Kubrick exhibit recently ended its seven-month run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and this video makes me depressed about how great it looked. Tour, please?
  • Here is a super-comprehensive site devoted to Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”
  • Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” will not open for some time, but the director gave a few, ahem, tastes of what to expect this week: Here is the film’s “first chapter,” as well as the first released footage.
  • The AV Club asks an interesting question: “Does ‘Before Midnight’ dodge the hardest part of relationships?”
  • Channing Tatum takes a hit with the opening weekend failure of “White House Down.”
  • And finally, two more bits from The Guardian: First, a gleeful takedown of the Google-adoring flop “The Internship,” and a wonderfully moving piece about autism written by “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell.

Photo credit: Patrick Eccelsine