Maps to the Stars


Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

(2015) Thriller (Focus) Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Klara Glasco, Dawn Greenhaigh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand, Justin Kelly, Niamh Wilson, Clara Pasieka, Emilia McCarthy, Allegra Fulton, Dominic Ricci, Jayne Heitmeier, Carrie Fisher, Amanda Brugel. Directed by David Cronenberg

Hollywood is a seductive cocktail. You can hear it whispering “Drink me” in a throaty voice, promising fame, wealth, glamour and the opportunity to be beloved by minions. What you don’t hear it whisper is that it rarely bestows those things on anyone and when it does, the cost is unbearably high.

On a bus to Hollywood there is a young woman named Agatha (Wasikowska). She is, we find out later, hideously burned, wearing gloves and a body stocking to hide them, as well as long bangs to hide those on her face. She is coming at the behest of Carrie Fisher (whom she met on Twitter), she says (and it turns out to be true) to help her co-author a novel or maybe a project for HBO. She also has a bit of an obsession for the actress Clarice Taggart (Gadon), a beautiful and troubled soul who died tragically young in a house fire.

As it turns out, Clarice was the mother of Havana Segrand (Moore) who has had a lengthy career as an actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the good fortune to die young and beautiful in a fire and as she is getting older she is getting more and more invisible to casting agents. She is desperate to get a role in the remake of her mother’s most famous movie, Strange Waters  – and not just any role but the role her mother played. Alas, it seems destined for a younger actress named Azita Wachtel (Heitmeier). Nevertheless, Havana needs a new assistant and her close friend Carrie Fisher is happy to recommend the newcomer Agatha for the job.

Havana sees pop culture psychotherapist and self-help guru Dr. Stanford Weiss (Cusack) to help her deal with her mommy issues, which are severe. Havana has claimed to have been abused physically and sexually by her mom, a charge her mom vehemently denies – or rather the ghost of her mom who haunts Havana.

Dr. Weiss has issues of his own. His young son Benjie (Bird) is a child star whose career took a tumble when he went to rehab. Now clean and sober, he’s making a sequel to his best-known role, Bad News Babysitter with another young actor who seems to be stealing all the scenes, which irritates Benjie no end. Of course, everything irritates Benjie no end and he is bringing cruelty and all-around dickishness to a new art form. His mother Christina (Williams) is wrapped around his little finger but she’s been through a lot; a fire caused by Benjie’s sister took the life of a younger brother and caused the sister to be locked away in a mental institution.

As events begin to shift and roil, with Agatha striking up a relationship with a limo driver (Pattinson) who yearns to be an actor/writer and tragic circumstances awarding the coveted role to Havana, the tenuous connections between all these characters become much clearer and darker as things begin to move towards a horrifying conclusion. But then again, this is Hollywood, baby.

Cronenberg has had a career that is iconoclastic. While his output has been uneven, his films are generally interesting even if they haven’t always succeeded in resonating with audiences. This particular movie is as dark as they come with a cast of characters that is unlikable from top to bottom; from the self-centered therapist to the narcissistic child actor to the troubled assistant to the egotistic actress, this is the nightmare Hollywood in which self-serving lies are a kind of currency and kindness a mark of weakness – unless done very visibly in order to garner favorable publicity.

Moore, who recently was awarded the Oscar for her work in Still Alice is definitely on a role; she could easily have been nominated for this performance as well and may well have had the studio elected to release this last year. It may well be too early in the year for Academy voters to remember her work come the fall when ballots are mailed out but she deserves to have her name written down on at least a few of them.

Most of the rest of the cast does solid work as well, although special note should be made of Bird who is not well-known yet but may well be after his performance here. He makes Draco Malfoy look like a sweetheart, and made the character’s nastiness so palpable that Da Queen wanted to kick him in the genitals several times. My lovely wife doesn’t like spoiled brats overly much, particularly of the Hollywood sort.

There are a good number of insider references and those who are fascinated by that kind of thing will be in hog heaven here. However, this isn’t a movie that is going to have mass appeal; things get more and more twisted and perverse as the movie goes on with a dog getting shot (usually a deal killer for me) and even worse as things spiral towards their conclusion.

Cronenberg has always worked outside the Hollywood system which is a little bit easier when you’re Canadian (this movie marks the first time he’s even shot in the United States in a career approaching 50 years and that only for essentially a week) and this isn’t likely to get him any new invitations to parties, not that he would accept any. I will say that as bleak a characterization of Hollywood life as this is (and there is some truth to it), the reality is not quite so extreme as reality often is. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are genuine and kind but that kind of thing is less interesting; we’d rather see the rich and famous be absolute bastards because it makes us feel better about ourselves, as in “they got rich and famous but they had to sell their souls to get it which I’m not willing to do, hence the reason I’m not rich and famous.”

This isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty who will be put off by the pervasive self-worship and the skewed outlook on life by those who live the Hollywood dream. There’s nothing wholesome about it. However, I will point out that the trailers imply that this is something of a horror movie; yes there are apparitions and horrible things happen but this isn’t a horror movie per se, so be aware of that going in.

This isn’t Cronenberg’s best film, nor is it his most typical but this is a very good piece of filmmaking indeed. I was really drawn in, wondering what was going to happen next and that’s all you can ask of any movie. It may not have been a pleasant experience (and those looking for one can always go see McFarland) but it was an edifying one and that gets points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances by Moore and Bird. Lots of Hollywood insider goodness. Some moments of genuine pathos and genuine hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark. Intrinsically shallow with characters you’re not going to like very much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some unsettling violence and bloody images, graphic nudity, sexuality, foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore and Wasikowska previously appeared together in The Kids Are All Right in which they played mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day of the Locust
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Leviathan

Advertisements

A Dangerous Method


Viggo Mortensen is not amused at Michael Fassbender's knock-knock jokes.

Viggo Mortensen is not amused at Michael Fassbender’s knock-knock jokes.

(2011) Historical Drama (Sony Classics) Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon, Andre M. Hennicke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Mignon Reme, Mareike Carriere, Franziska Arndt, Wladimir Matuchin, Andre Dietz, Anna Thalbach, Sarah Marecek, Bjorn Geske, Markus Haase, Nina Azizi. Directed by David Cronenberg

 

These days, psychoanalysis is part of the landscape. A fairly high percentage of people have utilized the services of a mental health care professional, and many undergo regular treatment. We have come to accept that talking out our problems is far healthier than repressing them.

In 1904, that wasn’t the case. A screaming, hysterical young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) is brought by carriage to the Burghölzli Hospital in Switzerland. She is seen to by Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender), a gentle, handsome doctor whose rich (and gorgeous) wife (Gadon) keeps him in a lifestyle to his liking while he explores a science in its infancy and one that, frankly, doesn’t pay well. He becomes intrigued by Sabina’s case and is eager to try out the new “talking therapy” being championed by Dr. Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) in Vienna.

The sessions seem to help and soon Jung, who had been corresponding with Freud about the case, becomes a believer in the Vienna intellectual’s work. That correspondence grows into mutual respect and eventually, a friendship. However, that friendship doesn’t endure. Jung has some misgivings about Freud’s reliance on the sexual for explanations of human behavior. When he sends Dr. Otto Gross (Cassel), a colleague, to Jung for psychoanalysis, the seeds of discord begin to be sown. Gross, a libertine of the highest order, becomes a confidant for Jung, who has begun to feel desire for Sabina, still his patient. Gross essentially gives Jung the go-ahead to initiate an affair with her.

Eventually, Jung’s intellect and compassion win out over his baser side and he breaks things off. Sabina goes to Vienna to study under Freud (and it seems, do a lot more under Freud) on the way to becoming one of the first women to practice psychoanalysis in the world.

Cronenberg has been fascinated with the terror of flesh in previous films; here he seeks to examine the terror of mind, disguising it as a Merchant-Ivory historical piece. Or perhaps, it’s the other way around. In any case, his fascination for the subject is clear.

The execution? Not so much. This is a dialogue-heavy movie – being based on a stage play, that’s unsurprising – and of course that it revolves largely around the birth of psychoanalysis also lends itself to a talky production. That doesn’t make it any less monotonous when the talking grows tedious. Now, I don’t have a problem with movies that are more conversational than action-oriented but the dialogue needs to at least be interesting. Often it comes off as intellectual posturing rather than delivering insight.

Fortunately, there are some pretty good performances. Mortensen, on his third collaboration with Cronenberg, gives Freud a bit of a less stodgy personality as he’s often assigned. Mortensen’s Freud is passionate, stubborn and maybe a little bit fixated on the sexual. Fassbender, in the midst of his breakout year, was brilliant as Jung; a bit timid and bookish but never reserved when it comes to his ideas. Cassel gets the memorable part of the libertine and runs with it, having a good time with a character who certainly thought he deserved it.

Much of the movie was filmed in the places where the events took place, lending an authenticity to the project. While the affair between Jung and Sabina is merely conjecture, most of the rest of the film is historically accurate with some of the dialogue coming directly from the letters and writings of the characters in the movie.

How you feel about the movie will largely depend on how you feel about psychoanalysis. There is some fascinating material here, particularly on how the workings of the science were arrived at and bitterly debated. That some of Jung’s ideas would later fuel the Nazi party (which is alluded to in a graphic and unforgettable sequence near the end of the film) is a tragedy that is laced with irony as many years after the events of the movie Sabina Spielrein would fall victim to the Nazis.

Perhaps if I saw this mid-afternoon when I was a little more alert I might have enjoyed this more, but it is a little dry. That doesn’t mean the ideas or discussions here aren’t worth listening to; there’s an intellectual stimulation here that’s rare in most movies and heaven knows I don’t want to discourage that. However, those who go to movies for big explosions, big breasts and big guns would be well-advised to steer clear of this one. Although what Freud would have made of those sorts of people would be amusing reading to say the least.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating material. Nice performances by Mortensen, Fassbender and Cassel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and monotonous in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexual content and a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cronenberg states on the director’s commentary that more CGI was used on this film than any other he has directed to this point.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A session with Cronenberg and an audience of American Film Institute students who’d just seen the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.5M on an $18.8M production budget; the movie didn’t quite recoup its production costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry & June

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Beware the Gonzo

Eastern Promises


Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

(2007) Thriller (Focus) Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Tatiana Maslany (voice), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Tereza Srbova, Raza Jaffrey, Aleksander Mikic, Mina E. Mina, Josef Altin, Shannon-Fleur Roux, Mia Soteriou, Alice Henley, Christina Catalina, Elisa Lasowski. Directed by David Cronenberg

Over the years we have been treated to many fine films about the Italian mob. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola have given us insight to that criminal element, giving us anti-heroes we could root for in a certain sense. We were shown how fiercely loyal these men were to family, and while they were also ruthless killers we nonetheless found ourselves able to identify with them.

But that was another era and another mob. These days it is said the most ruthless and vicious criminals in the world are Russian and while there are those who might argue the point, I think most would agree they are at least in the running.

When a young woman in labor comes into a London hospital, midwife Anna (Watts) thinks nothing of it at first; she’s not the first woman to come in with complications. But she dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby and a diary with a restaurant business card in it. There is no other identification on her and the woman spoke little English, being of an Eastern European background that is similar to Anna’s, a second generation immigrant to the UK.

The restaurant puts her in touch with its genial owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who promises to find relatives of the baby that she can turn it over to. However, all isn’t as it seems; turns out the restaurant is the front for Semyon’s criminal organization and the young girl’s diary, which is in Russian and is being translated by Anna’s Uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) incriminates Semyon and his reckless son Kirill (Cassel). Semyon orders Kirill and Semyon’s driver and cleaner of messes Nikolai (Mortensen) to claim the diary and silence by whatever means those that have come in contact with the baby.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. The late Roger Ebert had the right of it when he said that this isn’t a movie about how, but about why – and you won’t see the “why” coming (although some snarky critics claimed that they could – personally I don’t believe ’em). What you SHOULD know is that Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, may have given the performance of his career here. His research into the role is impeccable and he is so thoroughly believable as the tattooed mobster that you probably won’t recognize him at first.

Mortensen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, gives this very complex and layered character a lot of nuances, from the ironic cock of his head to the ghost of a smile that sometimes wafts over his face. When the time comes for violence however, Nikolai is more than equal to the task – a fight scene in a bath house (in which Mortensen is completely naked) is one of the most well-choreographed scenes of that nature ever filmed. By itself it’s worth the rental fee.

Watts, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to Mortensen’s performance. A very capable actress herself (as she showed in last year’s The Impossible) for whatever reason her character is vapid and somewhat colorless; perhaps it is simply by comparison to Mortensen’s character who is thoroughly intense and interesting, but her performance here is utterly forgettable. I have to chalk it up to the writing since as I said earlier Watts is an accomplished actress in her own right.

We also get some fine performances from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel. Both have primarily made their careers in Europe, although Mueller-Stahl has an Oscar nomination to his credit and has done his share of American movies. Cassel, mostly known to U.S. audiences for his part in the abortion of a sequel to The Crow is one of the biggest stars in France and he shows why here.

The movie goes through some sections in which the plot gets a bit muddy, particularly in the middle third. The ending is a bit strange as well, although given that this is a David Cronenberg film that shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. What I love about this movie is that it is so matter-of-fact about the Vory V Zakone (Russian for thief-in-law, roughly the equivalent of a made man) and their violence that sometimes crosses the line into sadism. These are men for whom these acts are a daily part of life and there is a certain amount of fatalism that is very Russian. While this isn’t up to the standards of The Godfather (which is a very high standard indeed) this certainly may be taken as the film that does for the Russian mob what Coppola’s classic did for the Mafia.

WHY RENT THIS: Reinforces the banality of evil. Magnificent Oscar-nominated performance by Mortensen and Cassel and Mueller-Stahl offer tremendous support.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Watts doesn’t quite hold up next to Mortensen. Jumbled in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence in the film, as is not unusual with Cronenberg’s films, is graphic and disturbing. There is also a good deal of foul language, sexuality and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shot entirely in England, this is the first film Cronenberg has made completely outside of North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the tattoos and the significance of the figures therein. Some of the material is covered in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $56.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie was just shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Epic

A History of Violence


A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen is so hot that Ed Harris has to wear shades just to look at him.

(2005) Thriller (New Line) Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid, Sumela Kay, Gerry Quigley, Deborah Drakeford, Heidi Hayes, Aidan Devine, Michelle McCree. Directed by David Cronenberg

Funny thing about the past; it has a tendency to catch up with you. Especially when you least expect it to – and where you least expect it to.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a quiet life in a small Indiana town. He owns a popular diner, is married to a beautiful native named Edie (Bello) and has two kids including a teenager named Jack (Holmes) who has taken his mild-mannered father’s lessons to heart and has as a result been picked on by bullies who are frustrated by Jack’s refusal to fight.

One night, all that is shattered when a couple of small-time hoods (McHattie, Bryk) come into his diner. They terrorize his patrons and despite Tom’s pleas for them to leave peaceably, it appears they are going to kill a waitress when Tom suddenly reacts with decisive action, killing both of the crooks.

Unfortunately, Tom’s actions get noticed by the media and he is painted as a hero. This is, in turn, noticed by a very bad man named Carl Fogarty (Harris) who seems to think that Tom is someone named Joey Cusack. Tom doesn’t appear to know Fogarty, but doubts are cast in the mind of his wife and the town sheriff (MacNeill). The question becomes who is Tom Stall and why is he so good at killing people?

By far, this is Cronenberg’s most mainstream movie. Known for cult films (Naked Lunch, Videodrome) and horror classics (The Brood, Scanners), he has a gift for taking a normal, safe environment and turning it upon itself until it is virtually unrecognizable. Here, he does that in a literal way; the man we think we know (and the man Edie Stall thought she married) turns out to be someone so different as to be almost a different species. This is not an easy adjustment to make and some may find it too much for them.

On the other hand, the adjustment is made easier by bravura performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris and Holmes. Also worth noting is Hurt’s role as a man pivotal to Tom’s past. It is interesting that Hurt appears in only one scene, but his performance is so dynamic that he wound up being nominated for an Oscar for that one scene.

Violence is often used as the last refuge for survival, and Cronenberg seems to say it is justified in that case. However, is there a Joey Cusack lurking in every Tom Stall? Given the right circumstances, I think – and I have a feeling that Cronenberg agrees – there is.

WHY RENT THIS: Cronenberg’s most mainstream film. Terrific performances by Mortensen, Harris, Bello and Holmes – and an Oscar-nominated one by Hurt.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending isn’t what you might like it to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some brutal violence, a good deal of sexuality (as well as some nudity), a bit of drug use and foul language to boot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last major Hollywood film to be released in the VHS format.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Scene 44, a dream sequence that was cut from the movie but was polished and added here as a special feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.7M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Runaways