Combustible Celluloid
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With: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Carrie Fisher
Written by: Bruce Wagner
Directed by: David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating: R for strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material
Running Time: 111
Date: 02/27/2015

Maps to the Stars (2015)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Pound of Flesh

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The main problem with David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars isn't really in the film it all. It's just the fact that there are already so many movies about the seamy underbelly of Hollywood, and how self-centered everyone there is and how ridiculous the entire business is. If you've seen a few of these movies, you may not think you're seeing anything new or special here. But Cronenberg is one of the greatest directors alive, and the unique and fascinating way in which he sees things is reason enough to watch.

The story, from novelist Bruce Wagner's screenplay, centers around several Hollywood types. We'll start with actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is well-known but has rounded the corner of middle-age and has begun to be spurned. She dearly wants the lead part in a biopic about her own mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died in a fire when she was a young and beautiful Tinseltown starlet. Havana is a bundle of performance anxiety, always pitching herself to her intended audience. She is also, by the way, occasionally haunted, and taunted, by the ghost of her mother. She picks up a new personal assistant, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who has arrived in town wearing long black gloves to cover her burn scars.

Then we meet Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) a teen star who has just come out of rehab and is making a sequel to his successful film Bad Babysitter. He's a rude, foul-mouthed brat, who doesn't even mind telling reporters to go be intimate with themselves. As a publicity stunt, he visits a sick girl in the hospital — expressing annoyance when he discovers that she doesn't have AIDS, but rather Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — and promises to make a film for her. She dies, and he begins seeing her ghost. Benjie's father is Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a celebrity psychologist who conducts weird sessions (Havana is a patient) and is preoccupied with his upcoming book tour. His wife, Cristina (Olivia Williams), manages Benjie's career.

Agatha becomes involved with the limo driver, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson, the star of Cronenberg's last great, underrated movie, Cosmopolis), who drove her from the airport. He's a writer/actor who seems slightly put off by her and would rather work on his script than go out with her. (Screenwriter Wagner worked as a limo driver some decades ago and presumably gathered his material then.) And Carrie Fisher appears as herself. I think that's about as far as I'm allowed to go, but I will say that there are other unholy ways in which these characters find themselves connected.

Writers have often called Cronenberg's work "clinical," as if he were a doctor or a surgeon, cutting into the yucky areas of human physiology. Or maybe he's like a scientist, lifting stones and coolly examining the squirmy things underneath. In his early days, he made "body horror" films, in which crazy and disturbing things happened to the human body, usually in the form of growths or mutations. He subtly adapted this theme to more mature films, yet still aware of the limitations, weaknesses, and attributes of the human body in his storytelling. (Consider the naked fight and the tattoos in Eastern Promises or the haircut in Cosmopolis.)

Among the running themes here are fire and burning. Both the old movie star Clarice Taggart and Agatha were burned. Scars become decorations, such as the long black gloves, or the scar that Agatha leaves uncovered on her neck. When she visits Jerome on the set of a sci-fi movie, he's dressed up as an alien with similar scars on his neck; a stage hand walks by and mistakes Agatha as another of the aliens. Burns are a source of gruesome power, but Cronenberg looks directly at them and turns their power outward.

Another theme is the bit of dialogue that is repeated throughout, which comes from a poem by Frenchman Paul Eluard: "On my school notebooks, on my school desk and the trees, on the sand on the snow, I write your name. On the foreheads of my friends, on every hand held out, I write your name. On the stairs of death I write your name, Liberty." I probably don't have this exactly right, and the movie definitely takes its own liberties with the poem (no pun intended), using bits and pieces of it in different scenes. Not to mention that the French title of the poem translates more closely into "freedom."

What does it mean? I'm spitballing here, but certainly the idea of writing on flesh falls nicely into the Cronenberg camp; it's a kind of branding, like the burns, that changes the nature of the flesh. It also renames the flesh, and turns it into a new kind of ownership. Your flesh no longer belongs to you. It's mine. Liberty, and freedom, only comes on the "stairs of death."

The third major theme may be a plot spoiler, so do not read further if you don't wish to know.

There are two incidents of sibling incest in the movie, which is yet another perfectly Cronenbergian theme, a kind of twisted, mutated version of what's actually supposed to be happening with the human body. But it's here that I become a bit stymied, and I wish I could tie all these themes together, but — on only a first viewing — I can't seem to do it, other than to say, "that's showbiz." (I hope to take a second look soon.) On the whole, Cronenberg's film is true to his own vision, but I suspect that maybe the screenplay was always a tad too fragmented for a totally streamlined masterpiece. It's a big, roiling pot of ghosts, the tagging of flesh, the taking of flesh, and the burning of flesh. And then there's the preserving of flesh on celluloid, with Clarice Taggart forever young and porcelain, and her daughter Havana much older, still in great shape, but forever working to combat age and irrelevance.

Moore, by the way, it should be noted, gives a tremendous, ferocious performance, one of the best in her remarkable career, and one that puts her recent Oscar win in the tepid Still Alice to shame. (She correctly won the Best Actress prize for Maps to the Stars at last year's Cannes Film Festival.) The others are also at their best, especially Cusack, Pattinson, and Wasikowska. The movie looks terrific, with Cronenberg's cold, steely gaze on each frame, and the marvelous cinematography by the perpetually underrated Peter Suschitzky, who has worked with Cronenberg since 1988 (and also shot The Empire Strikes Back). Composer Howard Shore, even though he has made his fortune on Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, and Twilight films, returns to work with Cronenberg as he always has since the days of The Brood (1979), spinning an appropriately chilly, creepy score.

There was once a time when a challenging, highly intelligent, thematically consistent filmmaker like David Cronenberg was all the rage among film critics, and a good amount of thought and work was put in to unpack the films. Now it seems that if anything doesn't quite pass the "first glance" or the "easy label" test, then it's written off as a failure. If that's the case, then I don't see what the point is of even being a film critic, or a film lover. Cronenberg is only growing more complex, more mature, more exciting, as time goes on, and his films deserve more than they're getting. You may see some lukewarm reviews for Maps to the Stars, but pay no attention. In 2015, this is what a major work of cinema looks like.

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