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

August 20, 2014

What If

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in a rom-com in which their characters shy away from being more than friends.

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Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party thrown by his old college roommate Allan (Adam Driver). They spark off each other, and Chantry turns out to be Allan’s cousin, and to have a boyfriend… Wallace promptly ‘loses’ her number, but when they run into each other again because their shared interests are farcically obvious he decides to endure copyright lawyer Ben (Rafe Spall) for the sake of Chantry; and an email correspondence begins with discussing Elvis’ fatal cuisine. Wallace lives with his sister Ellie (Jemima Rooper), after a scarring break-up with an uncredited Sarah Gadon; which led to him dropping out of med school. When Allan moves to Dublin for a conference on international copyright, working alongside the attractive Julianne (Oona Chaplin), Allan and his new girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) decide to make Wallace stop asking ‘What if?’

I enjoyed What If but quite often its ribald dialogue seemed to me to be trying too hard. Now that may sound odd after recent encomiums on Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, but their ribaldry cannot be detached from the warm-heartedness of their absurdist riffs; it’s intrinsic to their comedy. The salty dialogue of What If feels extrinsic to the comedy because of its superfluity, which is odd because director Michael Dowse worked with Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel on Goon, so perhaps it’s TJ Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play that’s to blame. Having said which it is that almost mythical creature – the romantic comedy that’s actually funny, a speech on Bruce Willis’ manliness is peerless. It’s also very interesting. The hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically gives a lot of substance to the comedy.

Daniel Radcliffe is sensational. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but this is one of 2014’s best performances, combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness. Driver and Davis, despite lifting a Seth Rogen/Michelle Williams routine from Take This Waltz, are highly amusing in their matchmaking antics. Davis’ wild child is oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, and strikingly different from her bookworm in We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. There’s also the joy of seeing Irish financing cause proceedings to up sticks from a major North American city (see if you can guess which one before the postcard scene) for a sequence in the tiny Irish metropolis. Tiny. A city, extending from Mick Wallace’s Italian Quarter, over the bridge, thru Temple Bar, and up to College Green; which somehow houses Ballsbridge residences. And so to Zoe Kazan…

Kazan does nothing to win me over after Ruby Sparks and Orson Welles & Me. Chantry’s willingness to string Wallace along isn’t loveable, but What If is a strong enough movie to carry her.

4/5

May 23, 2013

The Moth Diaries

American Psycho director Mary Harron returns with a Carmilla-indebted horror of female vampires at an upstate New York private school starring Irish actress Sarah Bolger.

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Our heroine Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is inseparable from her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Indeed, haunted as she still is by the memory of her father’s suicide, Lucy may have been the only thing that kept Rebecca from spiralling out of control a few years previously. However, their bond is tested with the arrival of ethereal new student Ernessa (Lily Cole). The growing friendship between Ernessa and Lucy is resented by Rebecca, especially as other girls in their close-knit circle seem to self-destruct in various ways after getting too close to Ernessa’s baneful influence. And then Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) starts to teach them about Gothic fiction and Rebecca realises that Ernessa is undoubtedly a vampire, slowly draining the life out of Lucy. But is Rebecca merely suffering from nightmarish hallucinations as she slides towards the fate of her father?

I’m reviewing this film from the odd perspective of having attended the screening at JDIFF which featured a Q&A with Harron, and Jeff Bridges’ insistence that ‘the intentions are always good’ in film-making is true with a vengeance here. Harron’s explanation of the ambiguity she wanted to imbue the film with make it fit perfectly beside American Psycho in her canon. But… The Moth Diaries doesn’t actually possess that intended ambiguity. This is partly because you can see the twist a mile off as Ernessa isolates Rebecca by breaking up her social circle. But mostly it’s because Lily Cole does not look remotely human. Dressed in flowing black clothes that accentuate her height and porcelain doll head she might as well sport an “Hello, I’m a vampire” nametag on her first appearance. And a muted horror without ambiguity is dubious.

The Moth Diaries was a nightmare to finance because of its female focus, and, unlike Orson Welles’ Othello, which is stunning despite many jarring effects caused by its interrupted shooting, it feels as if Harron simply fell over the finishing line with relief rather than with the confidence that buoyed The Notorious Bettie Page. There’s some very clunky dialogue, especially in Speedman’s scenes, and many of the characters are clichés, though Valerie Tian does stellar work with a tokenistic role. But Bolger is a very sympathetic lead and Cronenberg favourite Gadon is a good foil for her. There’re some beautiful touches by DP Declan Quinn in varying the drab colour scheme of the school with vivid torrents of blood, ghostly moonlight walks, and disruptive flashbacks and sex scenes that drip bright colours, while Harron’s final Apollonian image is also impressive.

Harron is an interesting writer/director but this film is a disappointment. It outstays its welcome despite its short running time, largely because it never emerges from cliché’s comforting cocoon.

2.5/5

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