Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s haunted Hollywood

United States/Canada, 2014. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon. 115 minutes.

Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a ghost town in more ways than one. Both the main characters–aging, washed-out actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and cocky child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) interact with the dead: Benjie’s is a young fan; Havana’s is her mother (Sarah Gadon), a starlet who died young. Other ghosts are metaphorical: Benjie’s dim memories of a long-buried incident involving his estranged sister, the legacy Havana’s mother left her in the form of accusations of abuse–and a juicy Oscar-bait role of a lifetime. And Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), though very much alive, haunts them both, an agent of chaos ready to turn lives upside down. In keeping with the film’s theme of duality, burn scars mar her soul as well as her skin.

The idea of Hollywood being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, entirely fueled by cocaine and crystals–the new age kind, not the methamphetamine kind–and utterly obsessed with itself above all, isn’t exactly new, particularly in the context of Maps screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s body of work (which includes Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills). When Havana privately celebrates the death of a fellow actress’s young child (because it opens a role in her dream project), it shocks rather less than it should. We’re too used to the gallery of sociopaths we assume inhabits Tinseltown. The film’s structure is also a bit flabby, featuring too many diversions and not always gracefully juggling a large ensemble of dramatis personae, which includes John Cusack as a self-help guru and Robert Pattinson as an actor/writer moonlighting as a limo driver.

It’s up to director David Cronenberg (surprisingly, this is the Canadian’s first film shot in the States) to tame this wild beast, and for the most part he proves to be a good match for the material. It’s not for nothing that Cronenberg earned the title of provocateur, and longtime fans will recognize the frankness and sensation that most people associate with his name. Of all mainstream filmmakers, I can’t think of many others who would put Moore’s character into an explicit three-way with her character’s own mother. The visuals are up to Cronenberg’s standard, save for an unfortunate effects shot near the film’s end.

Cronenberg seems to have a knack for drawing bravura performances out of his casts and Maps is no exception. Moore shines the brightest, bringing a sad sympathy and relatability to a character whose actions often hew too close to Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest excess. Wasikowska’s Agatha embodies alluring and creepy in equal measure. Bird’s role is perhaps the toughest–Benjie’s not just a spoiled tyrant, he’s a spoiled tyrant navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence…and the unwitting victim of secrets and lies he had no part in. Bird tackles the role with a confidence which largely overcomes the occasional flaw in characterization.

While Maps to the Stars isn’t quite as essential as some of its director’s last decade-and-a-half or so of successes, it’s still a good film distinguished by strong acting and that certain something only Cronenberg can offer.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

The Double

A film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.

United Kingdom. Directed by Richard Ayoade, 2013. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. 93 minutes.

About half an hour into the film, a long-haired, elderly gent wearing a tuxedo leans into a microphone and starts to croon. “I was born in east Virginia,” he sings, “North Carolina I did roam.” But the singer’s accent makes it clear that, wherever he’s from, it isn’t anywhere near Virginia. (He is, in fact, the Finnish rock star Ilkka Johannes “Danny” Lipsanen, of Danny and the Islanders.) The sequence is The Double in microcosm: it’s a film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.

Loosely adapted by director/co-writer Richard Ayoade from a Dostoyevsky novella, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a sad sack who lives and works in pretty much the same world that Brazil took place in. He lives across the street from his pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), spying on her with a telescope. One evening, Hannah’s upstairs neighbor commits suicide. Soon afterward, a gentleman named James Simon takes a job with Simon’s employer and moves into the newly-vacated apartment. James, also played by Eisenberg, is Simon’s exact physical double, but is confident and charming while Simon is meek and forgettable. Can Simon stop James from rudely ejecting him from his own life?

It doesn’t take a Media Studies major to work out that much of this story works on a metaphorical level, and I think that’s part of my problem with it. The Double is clever, yes–one expects nothing less of Ayoade, who, although better known as an actor (The IT Crowd), is also a co-creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and is part of a clique whose members are responsible for The Mighty BooshSnuff Box, and Sightseers. But too often “clever” becomes “too clever for its own good.”

I desperately wanted to engage with the film because, of course, I see a lot of myself in Simon James. I expect much of the audience will share that, and I’m dead certain Ayoade knows it. Yet he keeps us at a constant remove from the story and the characters, through the characters’ sheer unlikeability (even Hannah turns out to be a twit), through the obvious falseness of the world-building, and…

Here I must admit a personal prejudice, something that I just can’t get past. Brazil–a film I have worked very hard not to compare The Double to, and mostly succeeded–largely works for me because I can see a sort of Everyman in Jonathan Pryce’s performance, despite Sam Lowry’s creepier tendencies and mommy issues. Pryce can disappear into the role. Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t disappear into roles; you’re never not aware you’re watching him. (Yes, even in The Social Network, which largely works not by turning Eisenberg into Mark Zuckerberg, but turning Zuckerberg into Eisenberg.)

This especially applies to his performance as James: by barely modulating Simon’s personality and mannerisms, he turns into someone everyone adores, while the audience doesn’t see that much of a difference. The audience is not going to buy Eisenberg (or at least this particular version of Eisenberg) as a charismatic womanizer. And once again, I feel myself drawn to qualify that criticism with “…but that’s probably by design.”

So I do have to conclude by saying that while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Double–it didn’t work for me as entertainment, and it didn’t work for me as a piece of art to engage with–I do admire Richard Ayoade for creating something that made me think and giving me one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write (this piece is almost three weeks overdue). In a world where the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” is starting to look less like fiction and more like a documentary, that’s a victory in and of itself.

The Double

Only Lovers Left Alive

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the YA set

United Kingdom/Germany. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013. Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska. 123 minutes. 8/10

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the Young Adult set, and Jim Jarmusch proves it with his latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a pale, willowy woman who haunts Tangier. Reserved and aloof, she observes her neighbors from a distance, her only real friend an elderly gentleman (John Hurt) who claims he’s Christopher Marlowe.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a moody musician living in self-imposed exile in one of Detroit’s less savory neighborhoods. He’s not impressed with the accomplishments of humanity, and lives a reclusive life, preferring his music to the companionship of others. His only regular visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a local youth who procures rare instruments–and other strange objects, such as a bullet with a wooden slug–for him.

Eve and Adam are vampires; they are also longtime lovers, although they have not shared each other’s company in nearly a century. Worried about Adam’s metal state, she travels to Detroit to try to snap him out of his depression.

That’s the basic gist of Only Lovers Left Alive; it’s not a story with much of a plot. Eve and Adam are ordinary people, as ordinary as vampires can get, and they live ordinary unlives. There might have been a time when they influenced, and drew inspiration from, the likes of Poe, or Tesla, or Joe Strummer, but that was long ago. Now they’re content to just spend time together.

And Jarmusch is more than happy to sit back and let them do their thing, throwing the occasional obstacle in their way to see what they’ll do, and what repercussions arise. It’s more like watching real life than a three-act story. The pace is languid, but the film never drags.

The overriding mood is one of dark romance, not of terror. This is not a conventional horror film or vampire story. Jarmusch certainly seems to have little time for the standard fittings of such things. Vampires tend not to drink directly from the source, preferring to work through dealers such as Kit Marlowe or a sardonic blood bank employee played by Jeffrey Wright. They do so not out of compassion for humans, but because they’re concerned about their supply’s purity. Bad blood is bad news for the drinker. When they feed, it’s from brandy snifters and hip flasks instead of the exposed throats of willing (or unwilling) victims. (Everybody knows that vampirism is a symbol for oral sex, but it’s also often an allegory for drug addiction, and Jarmusch visually portrays the effects of blood-drinking in terms of a drug high.)

Jarmusch twists other tropes ever so slightly. In his hands, the idea of immortality being a curse becomes an existential malaise, genuine angst instead of emo whining. The conflict between cautious, restrained vampires versus a more hedonistic breed (represented by Eve’s “sister” Ava, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska) is pragmatic, not moralistic. Ava feels no sense of superiority from being a vampire; rather, she’s a bratty child.

Jarmusch writes the characters well, and the actors all put in outstanding performances. The film belongs to Swinton, radiant and alluring, and Hiddleston, justifying his current status as the thinking woman’s heartthrob. The chemistry between the two is phenomenal. Wasikowska is adorably dangerous, Yelchin eagerly sycophantic and simultaneously likeable, and Hurt…well, John Hurt’s always great, isn’t he?

With his location and camera work, Jarmusch creates indelible environments. Detroit, decaying and tragic, is as romantic in its way as exotic Tangier. Adding to the mood is a dense psychedelic score provided by Dutch composer Josef van Wissem in collaboration with Jarmusch’s rock band SQÜRL. Between the visuals and the music, this is a film to lose oneself in.

Working masterfully with all these elements, Jim Jarmusch gets to the heart of the vampire’s appeal: the demon lovers whose pull we are unable to resist. Cast aside the likes of Kiss of the DamnedOnly Lovers Left Alive is vampire romance done right.

Only Lovers Left Alive poster

Thanks to Victoria.