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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Vincere


Vincere

This is what obsession looks like.

(2009) Biographical Drama (IFC) Filipo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Corrado Invernizzi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michaela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesco Picozzo, Simona Nobili, Vanessa Scalera. Directed by Marco Bellochio

 

Benito Mussolini was a dictator and a despot with an ego far greater than the entire country he ruled. His private life was carefully orchestrated so that his image would be pleasing to the predominantly Roman Catholic citizens of Italy as well as to the Church of Rome, with whom he had a political alliance. Having a mistress and a son by that mistress would have been devastating to the way Il Duce was perceived.

But then again, he wasn’t always the jut-jawed figure that his Fascist party spin doctors made him out to be. Once upon a time Mussolini (Timi) was a firebrand, an atheist who advocated the violent overthrow of Italy’s hopelessly corrupt government.

He caught the attention of young Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), an idealistic young shopgirl who was initially attracted to Mussolini’s politics and eventually to the young firebrand himself. The two had a passionate and torrid relationship that had Ida giving him her life savings in order to fund a Fascist newspaper which led to financial disaster for her. It also led to her bearing him a son.

However what she didn’t know was that Mussolini was already married, and as his star rose politically, it became expedient for him to cut ties with her. Dalser could have gone quietly into the night and lived a comfortable life as so many women who had gotten involved with charismatic politicians had over the years, but Ida was determined that her son be the heir of Il Duce, so she forced his hand.

She was forcibly committed to an insane asylum where her story that she was married to the Italian leader (a ceremony was performed or so goes the rumor) and had a son by him was met with to say the least skepticism. She continued to try to fight for her son’s place in the Italian hierarchy right up until the very end.

This is a little known story, even in Italy where Dalser’s existence wasn’t even re-discovered (after the Fascist regime essentially buried her from history) until 2005. Veteran Italian director Bellochio (a contemporary of Antonioni, Fellini and Bertolucci, among other great Italian directors of the era) has crafted an interesting biopic that is largely conjecture, based on what little we know about Dalser and extrapolating how things might have happened.

He is fortunate in having Mezzogiorno, one of Italy’s great leading ladies in the pivotal role of Dalser. Mezzogiorno has been compared to Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard (whom she resembles) and she brings an inner strength that becomes readily apparent. During the first half of the movie, Dalser is almost obsessively in love with Mussolini, submerging all else of her personality and her life for his benefit. During the second, the obsession turns psychotic and you wonder if she really IS insane. Dalser, that is. It’s a bravura performance and one that has been acclaimed all over Europe, but sadly not here where the movie went little-seen.

The movie does take a bit of a tumble during the second half as Mussolini disappears from the film and is seen only in newsreel footage – the real Mussolini, not the actor playing him. While I think that the move to center the movie on Dalser was a logical one, I think it could have used more of the dynamic between the two, even if Mussolini isn’t interacting directly with her. Perhaps that’s what the director was trying to achieve – create an iconic Mussolini who ceases being a man and becomes a demigod which is, at the end of the day, what Il Duce was trying to achieve in life.

This is a mesmerizing movie that ultimately falls short of being great. Mezzogiorno gives a performance that might have been Oscar-worthy in a perfect world, and the assured hand of an experienced director makes the first part riveting material. If only that sure hand hadn’t failed him in the second half.

WHY RENT THIS: Mezzogiorno’s performance is riveting. Interesting use of historical footage

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The end of the movie becomes unfocused. Suffers from disappearance of Mussolini from the narrative.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity and sex scenes here, as well as a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was selected as the #2 best film of 2009 by the respect French journal Les Cahiers du Cinema.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.7M on a $13M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer


Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Some press conferences just don't go all that well.

(2010) Documentary (Magnolia) Eliot Spitzer, Joe Bruno, Roger Stone, Hank Greenberg, Ken Langone, Wrenn Schmidt, Elizabeth Monrad, Robert Graham, Zana Brezdek, Kristian Stiles, Jimmy Siegel, Fred Dicker, John Whitehead, Scott Horton, Darren Dopp, Mike Balboni. Directed by Alex Gibney

 

Eliot Spitzer may wind up being a cautionary tale for 21st century politicians. He was once one of the most dynamic leaders in the country, the Sheriff of Wall Street, a man who took on crooked CEOs and won. He had gone from New York’s Attorney General to New York’s Governor and some said he might have a shot at being the first Jewish President after Obama’s presidency came to an end.

Then it all came crashing down. A juicy sex scandal – apparently the Governor had been seeing some very high-priced call girls. There were receipts, accusations and an incriminating document that listed Spitzer as “Client 9.” The interesting thing is that clients one through eight received little investigation and almost no attention. It was only Client 9 who had the microscope turned on him.

It must be remembered that Spitzer made a lot of powerful enemies, including AIG chairman Hank Greenberg who blamed Spitzer for his company’s collapse, New York State Representative Joe Bruno, Republican public relations specialist (and character assassin) Roger Stone and former NYSE director Ken Langone, to name a few. That his spectacular downfall followed his rise to power so precipitously makes one wonder if it was engineered. Certainly there are some compelling arguments in that direction, although Spitzer himself tends to downplay that aspect.

In fact, Spitzer’s interview is the highlight of the movie. He comes off as remarkably self-knowing, understanding that it was his own hubris that brought him down, his own mistaken idea that he was untouchable. He seems to be completely accountable for his actions, or at least projects that image. It’s easy to see how the charismatic Spitzer became so popular in the Empire State.

That doesn’t mean his opponents are any less compelling interviews, particularly Bruno (who is an old-school politician and quite entertaining in his own way) and Langone who’s like a pit bull and seems to have a special dislike for Spitzer.

Other reviewers have compared this to a Greek tragedy and indeed it is; it is the story of Icarus (as Spitzer himself remarks) who created wings made out of feathers and wax; when he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, the feathers fell out and Icarus tumble screaming from the skies.

WHY RENT THIS: Spitzer is a fascinating character and the story is compelling. Very balanced in presenting differing viewpoints. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An awful lot of talking head footage, little of which measures up to Spitzer’s own interview.

FAMILY VALUES: The film covers some fairly sexy stuff and there is some brief nudity. There’s also a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spitzer has since gone on to attempt a broadcasting career with CNN but both of his shows (“Parker Spitzer” and “In the Arena” were cancelled).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $192,870 on an unreported production budget; it might have broken even but only just and it’s more likely it lost a bunch of money.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Contraband

In the Loop


In the Loop

Peter Capaldi uses some language that would surprise even Tony Soprano.

(IFC) Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Steve Coogan, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Paul Higgins, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy. Directed by Armando Iannucci

Words can be crucial things. We assign meaning to them, sometimes a meaning unintended by the person who uttered the words. Those meanings can often take on a life of their own.

Simon Foster (Hollander) is a mid-level British government flunky who has a talent for being absolutely thick in the head. During a radio interview, he casually mentions that an invasion by the U.S. (although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the film, we assume it to be Iraq) is “unforeseeable.” Sounds harmless, but it ignites a firestorm of political maneuvering on both sides of the Atlantic, both from those opposed to war, like State Department Assistant Secretary Karen Clark (Kennedy) and those supporting it like career politician Linton Barwick (the always terrific David Rasche).

In the meantime, foul-mouthed British spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi) has had to step in and take charge of the situation which is rapidly spiraling out of control. As Foster backpedals, giving ammunition to the hawks, generally dove-ish General George Miller (Gandolfini) who once had an affair with Clark, is caught in the middle and astutely refuses to take sides. And a report written by one of Clark’s aides (Chlumsky), dubbed “career Kryptonite” by a snarky fellow aide – further exacerbates the mess.

If it all sounds confusing, well, it kind of is, but that’s politics for you. This is actually an extension of a British television series called “The Thick of It” which hasn’t been seen much on this side of the pond, but I’m assured that over in the UK it’s gotten rave reviews. In fact, the filmmakers got unprecedented access to 10 Downing Street because the staffers there were so enamored of the show, which is a little like a “West Wing” movie filming in the actual West Wing.

The movie is extraordinarily well-written (and in fact got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), with the kind of humor that comes at you from all sides without pause. One zinger after another follows, which probably doesn’t work as well with American audiences who generally need to be told when to laugh and prefer their humor…paced. The humor here is bone-dry, which again is not what most Americans are used to.

Some of the best British comic actors are working on this, including Capaldi, who reprises the same role he played on the TV show. I’m not sure what the censorship laws are in the UK, but if his verbiage is anything like it is here, it must have melted its share of television speakers. There is a good deal of profanity here, folks, and those sensitive to that kind of language would be well-advised to steer clear of this movie. To its credit, it has some of the most imaginative swearing I’ve ever heard in a movie.

Gandolfini, after his long run as Tony Soprano, is well on his way to being one of the better character actors in the business. He plays a career military man who has risen through the ranks, developing an acute political sense in the process. While he doesn’t believe a war is a good idea, he’s savvy enough to go with the flow, even if he thinks the flow is headed the wrong way. General Miller is very different than the mobster Gandolfini is associated with, which might blow a few minds expecting the character to whack a few feckless Brits himself.

Towards the end, the movie loses its steam and the final resolution is a bit weak. Still, this is an entertaining – if vulgar – movie that is as clever or smart a comedy as you’re likely to see. The beauty of watching it at home is that you can rewind it again and again until you figure out what’s going on. It kind of worked for me, I’m not ashamed to admit.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily well written with a mind-blowing ensemble cast of some of the best comic actors in both Britain and the United States.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie loses steam in the final reel, leaving the viewer with a curiously unsatisfied feeling.

FAMILY VALUES: This has some of the foulest language you will ever see in a movie. It’s fine for your kids to watch – only if you stuff duct tape into their ears.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After 30 days of filming, the shooting script was 237 pages. The first cut was over four and a half hours long. It took four months to complete the final edit of the version that made it to the screen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Yonkers Joe