In the film industry, when you make it, you generally go to Hollywood, and the famous hills have become synonymous with the silver screen stars. With fame and fortunes comes power which can bring out the very worst in those who absorb themselves in the glamorous entertainment business. Swinging a brutal bat at this world and those who inhabit it with a satirical study is daring director David Cronenberg. With a powerful cast including Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, ‘Maps to the Stars’ is a shocking piece of cinema that sinks its teeth into celeb culture and refuses to let go.
This jagged filmmaking takes the darkness of Bret Easton Ellis’ brat attack Less Than Zero into the 21st century in a way that Coppola’s Bling Ring couldn’t, every scene coated in a thick artificial gloss along with Bruce Wagner’s biting script that rips into the fragility of stardom. Failing actress Havana Segrand (Moore) represents the has-beens of Hollywood as she yearns for the opportunity to play her iconic dead mother on-screen, in a desperate attempt to use her family name to her benefit. A mess of a human being, her crazed lifestyle is disturbing but vital. She hires young Agatha Weiss (Wasikowska) as her personal assistant, a girl who has been quite literally scarred by her showbiz upbringing, with serious burns on her face, neck and arms. The other key player is Agatha’s brother Benjie (Evan Bird), a Bieber-esque rich kid whose moral compass is non-existent due to the material world he has been raised in. These horribly fascinating characters cross paths in an increasingly interesting narrative that joins dots into a warped image of celebrity.
There is very little innocence amongst the tortured souls portrayed, perhaps only Wasikowska’s character showing slight signs of having principles despite her unpredictably dangerous tendencies. She gives a note-perfect performance and every twisted layer of it is impactful. Equally as impressive is Julianne Moore as we’ve never seen her before. She is maniacal, lost in a bubble of Freudian trauma. Slightly underused is Robert Pattinson, who plays a wannabe screenwriter who chauffeurs the wealthy around in a stretch limousine. He is subdued but quietly effective, befriending Agatha and talking passionately about their aspirations. The supporting cast is made up of John Cusack and Olivia Williams who play Agatha and Benjie’s controlling parents, so absorbed in their glamorous careers that they’re more concerned with their tabloid reputations than their children or each other.
This is the first film of Canadian filmmaker’s that has been made in America, and down to the subject matter it couldn’t have really been filmed anywhere else. Cronenberg is a vicious vulture, preying on pop culture with oily streaks of jet-black humour. I imagine that after this deadly assault, it’ll be a while before he thinks about spreading his wings in Hollywood again, if ever. ‘Maps to the Stars’ can be a difficult watch, but it is engrossing and involving, shining the unflattering satirical spotlight directly above the unglamorous, turning the so-called American Dream into a self-obsessed nightmare.
Since his first feature Animal Kingdom was met with such critical acclaim five years ago, the Australian writer-director David Michôd’s follow up film has been hotly anticipated. He has kept mostly the same team around him and has again cast the experienced Guy Pearce in a central role, but will this equal another great picture? Titled ‘The Rover’, this western is set a decade into the aftermath of a global crisis in a post-apocalyptic outback. Pearce stars as Eric, a man of few words, filled with rage over the losses he has suffered. When his car is stolen by a gang of small-time crooks, he sets out to retrieve it and will stop at nothing until he gets back what is his. In his mission, he encounters an American simpleton called Rey (Robert Pattinson), who happens to be the younger brother of one of the criminals Eric is chasing. Together they pursue in this slow-burn thriller which is so full of style, it leaves little room for substance.
The atmosphere of the location is captured effectively in the opening moments, the Australian outback appearing even more lonely that you’d expect. The warm and dirty desolation of the environment is exhibited through a series of long landscape shots stitched into the story with slow dissolve transitions to the flawed, selfish characters that inhabit it. The promising start disappointingly isn’t capitalised on as the clever techniques implemented are simply repeated. With very little going on plot-wise, every moody sequence with Eric staring angrily into the sun seemed to last an eternity, feeling like a very good short film premise stretched out to an unnecessary length. The shades of violence are dealt with brilliantly in fairness, the Michôd’s flair in the gangster genre serving him well, but where this differs to his last piece is that the men here are so underdeveloped that I didn’t care whether their brains were to be sprayed all over the wall or not.
In a film with only a small amount of characters, speaking a small amount of dialogue has a big reliance on the acting to offer it some weight. Guy Pearce is used to the pressure of a leading role and possesses the skill to play fearsome parts, having excelled as the villain in prohibition western Lawless. Eric though is far less exaggerated and is an ordinary man who due to his personal grief and suffering has changed, and we quickly ascertain the heinous behaviour he is capable of. The performance is solid if a little underwhelming, limited by the minimalist nature of the concept and scripting. I did however enjoy how his arc ended as it finally answered the questions surrounding the motives of his actions. I was impressed by the turn from Robert Pattinson, shedding his cool guy image to play a different type – the naivety and nervousness of Rey forces us to sympathise with him, and also makes him an unpredictable force who acts first and pays for it later. I was pleased to see Scoot McNairy appear as I have, in the past, be an admirer of his work but he is sadly terribly underused.
I am by no means against minimalist filmmaking but I found ‘The Rover’ to be rather empty, and came away unsatisfied given the reputation of the cast and crew. Michôd has endeavoured to create what appears to be a very personal film which I believe, unlike his first, will struggle to appeal to the mainstream cinema audiences. It is successful visually with its menacing cinematography and in its high points, it is intense, powerful and incredibly suspenseful. Unfortunately, these moments are too sparsely spread and the pacing of the film results in several boring slogs of simply waiting for something to happen.