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

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I, Frankenstein


Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

(2014) Horror Fantasy (Lionsgate) Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovsky, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Steve Mouzakis, Nicholas Bell, Deniz Akdeniz, Chris Pang, Kevin Grevioux, Bruce Spence, Virginie Le Brun, Penny Higgs, Goran Kleut, Yasca Sinigaglia, Nicole Downs, Angela Kennedy, Samantha Reed. Directed by Stuart Beattie

We are born and then we are created. We are all of us blank slates that are filled up by our experiences and our mentors, parents and friends. Of course if you don’t have the latter, you are left to interpret things on your own.

Victor Frankenstein (Young) had found the secret of creation, animating a sewn-together quilt of body parts and grafted skin. Part scientist and part madman, he had promised his creature (Eckhart) that he would one day animate a companion for him but later went back on his promise. In a fit of rage, the creature murdered Frankenstein’s wife (Le Brun) which completely unhinges his creator, who follows his creation up above the Arctic circle and promptly freezes to death. For reasons even he probably can’t understand, the creature carries the body back to the graveyard to bury his creator alongside his wife when the creature is attacked by demons. A pair of gargoyles witness the event in which the creature kills (and sends their spirits back to Hell) most of his attackers. Sounds plenty biblical to me.

They take him back (none too willingly) to a huge Notre Dame-like cathedral in some unnamed Eurocity where he is introduced to Leonore (Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles. She explains to the creature (whom she names Adam) that there is a war going on between the Demons of Hell and the Gargoyles who are the agents of Heaven (apparently the angels didn’t want to get their wings dirty) and that for whatever reason the demon Prince Naberius (Nighy) had chosen to involve Adam, he was nevertheless caught in the middle. However, Adam who is kind of pissed off at life in general (talk about someone who never asked to be born) chooses to turn his back, heading someplace where humans can’t find him. Or demons. Or gargoyles.

200 years pass and Adam, tired of being stalked by demons and still pissed off at life in general, decides to go on the offensive. Things haven’t changed much in gargoyle-land except that they are now willing to win by any means necessary and they don’t trust Adam much. Naberius, masquerading as a tech industrialist, has hired Dr. Terra (Strahovsky), a respected scientist, to help Naberius figure out a way to replicate Victor Frankenstein’s work. Of course, she doesn’t realize she’s working for a demon prince or she’d probably have asked for enough of a salary increase to afford a better apartment.

She’s able to re-animate rats but not humans yet; the reappearance of Adam and the existence of Victor Frankenstein’s journal in the possession of the gargoyles gives her a shot at actually reanimating human corpses. But what does Naberius want with reanimated corpses and how will that lead to the end of the world? And what will Adam, still pissed off at life in general, do about it – if anything?

Based on the Kevin Grevioux (who has a small role in the film) graphic novel, this has a lot of the same elements of the Underworld series; since some of the producer of that series are involved, it isn’t a stretch to figure out why the movie has much the same look as that hit movie franchise. Mainly set at night or at dusk, with palates of blue and grey predominant in the mix, the movie looks slick.

There is of course plenty of CGI gargoyles and demons to augment the slick look, with lots of digital flame and blue light to denote when a gargoyle or demon respectively bites the dust (the flames descend downward, the blue light ascends upward). The only thing missing is a black leather catsuit for Strahovsky.

Eckhart has been one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men over the last decade but this is a definite misfire. His only expression is anger with a side trip into annoyed. He’s like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino only with a murderous glare and lots of scars. He’s still charismatic but we get no sense of his inner journey – he eventually decides to help (not much of a spoiler gang) but we never get a clear sense of why; for someone who just wants to be left alone he really sticks his nose in things.

Nighy is one of my favorite actors and he’s essentially entertaining in everything he does. He can be light and charming, or dark and menacing as he is here. He makes for a fine demon prince, urbane and charming on the surface but with a whole load of delicious evil below it. Something tells me that a movie about his character would have been much more fun. Strahovsky, best known as the love interest in the TV show Chuck, looks pretty good on the big screen. I think she’ll make the transition just fine if that’s where she wants to go. Sadly, all three of these fine actors deserved better (as does Miranda Otto as the wishy-washy gargoyle queen).

In movies like Legion and Max Payne we get a very similar background story with a very similar look to both movies, and this one doesn’t really distinguish itself from those other two (and a whole mess o’ B-movies with similar themes). While some of the effects are nice and the leading actors do their job, the dialogue can be cringeworthy and you get the sense that director Beattie – who has some pretty good movies to his credit – lost a whole lot of battles to the producers and/or studio. In any case, this is bound to be heading to home video pretty quickly and while I won’t say it’s a complete waste of your time, you might be better off waiting for it to be a cheaper ticket than the ten dollars plus for the 3D version that are out there now.

REASONS TO GO: Bill Nighy is always entertaining. Aaron Eckhart is a solid leading man. Some nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot is very much paint-by-numbers. All concept and no substance.

FAMILY VALUES:  Throughout the movie there’s plenty of action and violence although not much gore.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster was given the name Adam in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Few of the movies have utilized it but this one does.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 5% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Constantine

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Labor Day

The World’s End


Simon Pegg realizes there's no escape from rabid Star Trek fans.

Simon Pegg realizes there’s no escape from rabid Star Trek fans.

(2013) Sci-Fi Comedy (Focus) Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Pierce Brosnan, Bill Nighy (voice), Michael Smiley, David Bradley, Thomas Law, Zachary Bailess, Jasper Levine, James Tarpey, Luke Bromley, Steve Oram, Luke Scott, Darren Boyd, Rafe Spall, Alice Lowe, Flora Slorach, Rose Reynolds, Samantha White. Directed by Edgar Wright

As we grow to middle age it isn’t uncommon to look back at our youth with a kind of longing. We miss that feeling that everything was ahead of us and that life can only get better. The regrets we do have are generally not for the things we did but for the things we didn’t do.

Gary King (Pegg) can relate. Just out of school, he was King Gary, the guy all the guys wanted to hang out with and be like, and the guy all the girls wanted to be with. He and his four best mates – Andy Knightley (Frost), Oliver “O-Man” Chamberlain (Freeman), Steven Prince (Considine) and Peter Page (Marsan) – were inseparable. They even attempted the legendary Golden Mile – 12 pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven in a single night. They failed but during the course of the evening Gary managed to make out with Oliver’s sister Sam (Pike) and have the best night of his life. It was 1990, the millennium was ten years off and music was awesome – Madchester was in full glory and so was Gary in a black leather trench coat.

The trouble is that we don’t stay young forever. 1990 passed into history and it’s almost 25 years later. The lads have moved on and become middle aged men but Gary hasn’t changed much. He’s an alcoholic who has turned from the guy boys want to be like and girls want to be with into the guy men want to be the opposite of and women want to be miles away from. He still is as inconsiderate and selfish as ever, and his ego is bigger than Tommy Lee’s libido.

The failure to complete the Golden Mile has gnawed at him over the year and finally he gets the notion to get the old gang back together, head over to Newton Haven and do the Golden Mile up properly – and finish the job this time. Of course the others are reluctant but Gary is persuasive and manipulative and uses his charm (and a few outright lies) to get them to go.

At first when they get down to it, things are a little awkward. The boys – now men – don’t have a lot to say to one another. But as the pints begin to flow, things loosen up and soon it’s like old times. They’re laughing, recalling past triumphs (and embarrassments) and generally remembering why they were mates in the first place.

But their old times were never like this. There’s something strange going on in Newton Haven and the lads have stumbled into something out of a John Wyndham nightmare. The bonds of their friendship will be tested as Gary’s obsession to finish the Golden Mile may just get them all killed.

Wright, Pegg and Frost have developed a cult following through their collaborations Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. This is the third in what they call the Cornetto Three Flavour trilogy – so named for a British ice cream treat that figures in each of the movies. Each of the films stands alone and concerns completely different characters and genres but the results have been hilarious and this one just might be the best of the lot.

Part of what makes the movie work is the easy camaraderie between the five main characters. You can easily believe that they’ve been mates for a good long while. They do take the piss out of one another quite a bit which is what good friends do (when they’re male) but the affection is genuine.

There are plenty of special effects and while they aren’t of the hundred million dollar budget variety, they are better than average and don’t take you out of the movie. In fact, compared to some of the movies this past summer with plenty more money to spend, the effects were even superior.

Of course, you’d expect funny from this group and they deliver. Gary’s dim-witted narcissism, Steve’s hangdog loyalty, Oliver’s somewhat defensive posture, Andy’s tee-totaling and Peter’s fears make for good comedy. The script is clever and the soundtrack impeccable.

If I have any criticisms it’s with the middle third which tends to drag a little bit. Once the third act kicks in, the action is rip roaring. In a summer blockbuster season which has to be classified as disappointing in terms of quality, The World’s End stands out head and shoulders above the rest as the best film of summer 2013.

REASONS TO GO: Hysterically funny. Effects aren’t bad either. Awesome soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a bit long in the middle section. Awkward in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of bad language, some sci-fi action, some sexuality and a couple of disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sign on The King’s Head features a portrait of director Edgar Wright, sitting in for a royal.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is the End

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Supernova