Talking Movies

September 24, 2014

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg features his Cosmopolis star Robert Pattinson in another tale of the rich and shameless, this time skewering Hollywood.

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Wide-eyed teenager Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives off the bus in LA, and hires limo driver Jerome (Pattinson) to show her the former Weiss residence. Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help guru, has been supplanted in the fame game by his monstrous son Benjie (Evan Bird), star of Bad Babysitter, who is managed by his mother Cristina (Olivia Williams), who takes her teenager’s drug use in stride. Stafford is treating faded actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), whose comeback rests not only on auditioning for director Damian (Gord Rand), agreeing to threesomes with producer Sterl (Jonathan Watton), and taking her mother Clarice’s part in a remake of mom’s cult classic, but also on ignoring ghostly Clarice (Sarah Gadon) denigrating her acting abilities. When Havana’s friend Carrie Fisher (Carrie Fisher!) recommends her Twitter pal Agatha as a PA, things get really weird…

Amazingly this is the first movie Cronenberg has ever shot in America, and he’s brought his regular crew with him south of the 49th parallel: cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. Everything is set for success, except the script. You feel Cronenberg might have been attracted to Maps to the Stars because it combined very dark Hollywood comedy with three sets of deranged sibling or parent relationships, and he did deranged siblings very well in Dead Ringers. But neither element really works. The disorienting boardroom grilling of Benji by nervous execs gives a hint why with its lack of establishing shots. Cronenberg, despite an eye-wateringly explicit threesome, is too icy a director to pull off lurid black comedy, and when he tackles incest here that iciness produces neither drama nor creeping horror.

Maps to the Stars features a lot of good actors, but not a lot of good parts, and feels unfocused despite such compensatory flourishes as the repeated reciting of Paul Eluard’s poem ‘Liberty’. Bird wrings some laughs from his foul-mouthed child star, while Moore tries to with a too obvious ‘shockingly callous’ reaction. Cronenberg, incidentally, is noticeably merciless in showing age has withered Moore and Cusack. Ultimately Hollywood satirises Cronenberg. Pattison’s glorified cameo has been misleadingly played up in trailers, for obvious reasons. A major character’s fiery death is head-explodingly inept, featuring CGI fire worse than The Blacklist’s shoddy standard, almost Asylum Studios bad; simply because it’ll do…  And then there’s the bit with the dog. A person is brutally bludgeoned to death, but David (Scanners’ exploding head y’all) Cronenberg is too squeamish to show the Dulux dog get whacked.

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner intended this as a satire with deep dramatic elements; but it doesn’t really work as either, and poor Cronenberg ends up becoming as ridiculous as what he’s satirising in the process.

1.5/5

November 18, 2011

Breaking Dawn: Part I

Respected writer/director Bill Condon takes the helm of the good ship Twilight, and surprisingly runs it onto the rocks of tonal inconsistency and painful protraction.

This is a film of three parts, each deeply flawed. First Edward and Bella get married in an incredibly prolonged section. The sublime Billy Burke has a number of wonderful comedic moments as Bella’s father. He snipes with Bella’s mother Sarah Clarke, instantly notices the wall of graduation caps the Cullens suspiciously possess, and gives a deliriously pointed wedding speech. Edward and Bella then fly to a private island off Rio for their honeymoon in an incredibly prurient section. Bella wants to be turned after the honeymoon, a decision Jacob doesn’t take too well, given Edward’s super-strength. Edward is equally concerned about the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ conundrum, though bizarrely his focus for potential lethal injury is her arms and shoulders, and he knocks Bella up while knocking her about in bed and destroying the room. Edward’s dumbstruck horror at this unplanned pregnancy sees Robert Pattinson set a high benchmark for comedy reaction shots for others to follow.

Bella returns to the Cullen house to deliver her vampire child, in the final section of the film. Sam, leader of the wolf pack, declares this abomination a violation of the treaty and encircles the Cullen house. Jacob insists on protecting Bella against them, but her all-devouring baby might kill her first as Kristen Stewart wastes away impressively. There’re wonderful comedic moments for the Cullens, surrounded by werewolves and desperate for blood, as well as some presumably politico-allegorical strife between Alice who refers to the foetus while Rosalie refers to the baby. Fellow werewolf Leah tells Jacob “Happiness of any kind is better than being miserable over someone you can never have” but this is countermanded by the pregnant Bella’s bizarre statement to Jacob, “It feels complete with you here”, as Edward looks aghast at this Jules and Jim proposition. The heavily-flagged werewolf ‘imprinting’ sequence is actually effective, but its first shot is so unintentionally funny as to undercut it.

Any notion that splitting the finale was an artistic rather than a commercial decision is dispelled by this film not reaching the 2 hour mark yet, like The Art of Getting By, being farcically padded with pointless montages in the hope that mediocre pop songs will disguise that sod all really happens. Melissa Rosenberg, Dexter producer and screenwriter of the entire saga, enjoys herself with a flashback revealing that a rebellious Edward killed murderers, a monster that killed monsters, as he dubs himself. Just in case you didn’t get the reference Dexter’s brother (Christian Camargo) shows up at the wedding as Edward’s cousin, accompanied by a blink and you’ll miss her Maggie Grace. Film though is a director’s medium. Condon starts promisingly with a self-referential gag as Edward kills someone during Bride of Frankenstein, featured in Condon’s biopic of its director James Whale. But thereafter Condon’s lethargic tone-deaf direction seems to say “This is beneath me, but it pays well”.

David Slade’s approach to directing Eclipse, by contrast, seemed to be saying “This is a great opportunity, and I can make it plenty nasty”. Slade of course had a better plot to work with, because Eclipse had a plot, but Condon renders the honeymoon sequence excruciating to watch with its Austin Powers choreography and unarticulated sexual nervousness, while the tartness Slade brought to handling the love triangle is largely absent throughout. Condon only achieves the required supernatural nastiness, which Hardwicke and Slade used to ground the eyelid-fluttering lip-biting romance, in the closing horror scenes which seem to be as gory as the rating allows, with the final image being cheered at my screening. But that final image sums up the film: you can see it coming for about 90 seconds but Condon still builds up to it very, very slowly – laziness or high camp?

Condon moves into Whale pastiche with his campy ending, credits and post-credits sequence – offering hope that a Fassbendering British actor might save the final film.

2/5

July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

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