Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Maps To The Stars (2015)

Directed by: David Cronenberg
Runtime: 1hr. 51mins.
Google Play, Amazon Instant

Some people have called this a satire on Hollywood, but Cronenberg says it isn't. I'm inclined to agree. There is nothing funny about these sad, hateful, condescending, even monstrous people.

Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) has just arrived in Hollywood from Florida, but she's not there to make it as a star. She's not really even there for sight seeing, although she does mention wanting to see some sights. The first one she goes to is the site of her old house that had been burned down. It's nothing but dirt, under the Hollywood sign. It's an obvious symbolic image of where the rest of the story takes us. Mistakes of the past buried, but not forgotten in Hollywood.

Agatha gets hired by well known actress, Havana Segrand (Julianne More) to be her personal assistant, or "chore whore." Terminology meant to indicate the nature, thoughts, and even maturity level of the people of Hollywood. Moore plays her in many scenes as a whining cry baby when she doesn't get her way. She's not above sounding like a teenager. Despite this, she's an aging actress desperate to take the role her mother played in what became a classic film called "Stolen Waters." Havana is haunted by the ghost of her mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) who she sees as her young character in the film. She died young, and as a result the enduring image Havana has of her is her ageless performance in the film. Even the film haunts her, because she knows she can't stop herself from aging. Hollywood is known for young beautiful stars. This point is hammered home at parties other characters attend where young women make jokes about people in their late 20's. As if they're already over the hill.

Agatha had come to Hollywood to reconnect with her family. Their marred past involves incest, drug use, and Agatha's burning down of their previous house. The incident nearly killed her younger brother Benji (Evan Bird), and left her scarred from burns on most of her body. Her parents, particularly her father, Stafford (John Cusack), refuses to allow her back into their lives for what she did. She tries to explain that she wasn't herself, she had been seeing ghosts. With this fact brought to light, Benji begins to feel a connection to his sister because he's also started seeing the ghosts of dead children. In particular he sees a young girl who died of cancer shortly after he visited her in the hospital.

These ghosts don't play for scares. They're representations of past traumas still very much on their minds. Agatha however represents an undead ghost haunting the lives of her own family who'd rather she didn't exist anymore. Her parents react to seeing her in much the same way Benji and Havana react to seeing their specters. What keeps us guessing is Agatha's intentions, and whether or not these characters will receive redemption at some point.

Incest plays a major role, particularly in the Weiss family, but also in Havana's past. It's difficult to say whether Cronenberg considers this a common thing. Or if it's a Hollywood thing. But it's very much about the younger generation dealing, in some way, with the sins of their parents, and how their mistakes reflect themselves in their children's lives.

Benji draws an easy comparison to the likes of Justin Beiber. We can easily imagine that when he gets older he'd become a person much like Havana. Cronenberg displays the bad side of growing up in this Hollywood culture through them. Benji, and Havana, more so than anyone else in the movie, are extremely dislikable. They know they're rich enough, and have a big enough name that they can get away with it.

They are both people who's lives are devoted to acting out parts. They can pull the wool over anyone's eyes. There are a few scenes where we know, or learn later, that a certain character is acting for the sake of others, only to reveal their true feelings moments later. In one scene, Havana acts her way through a phone call in which she's told that a competing actor has quit the role she wants due to the death of a child. It's only after she hangs up that we see Havana's true reaction. She dances and sings out of joy because it allows her the chance to further her selfish career. What makes this film disturbing, for us as viewers of these horrible people, we feel justified in rooting against them. Yet morally, that makes us no better than they are.

It's hard to pinpoint Cronenberg's purpose behind these characters. That's why it's hard to connect to any of them. But I hesitate to say that the film is a failure, because film is a window into other people's lives and situations. Cronenberg presents the lives of these other people, refusing to sugarcoat them. He says it's not satire. Perhaps there's a tinge of reality to it.

It's very well acted. In fact, the performances outweigh the story presented by them. Julianne Moore in particular, gives a very strong performance. And Cronenberg slowly, methodically reveals details about the characters and their relationships to one another. But even after all the dirty laundry is aired there's little, if any, redeeming qualities to these characters, and there's certainly no empathizing with them. That keeps us from caring much about what happens to them.

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