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Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars ilm posterSynopsis

David Cronenberg’s film about Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who goes to Hollywood to be employed as a “chore whore” by Havana (Julianne Moore).  Agatha meets her film star 13 year old brother Benjie (Evan Bird).  John Cusack plays a therapist to the stars, he is their father.  Agatha has been scarred by a fire she started.  We see the lives of the pampered Hollywood set and it could all end tragically…

Review

Cronenberg specialized in horror films, the weird graphic depiction of psychological horror becoming real.  He is fascinated by physical perversion and degeneration (The Fly), and this movie presents us with monsters of depravity by pampering.  It’s interesting that though these worthless people think of themselves as decadently freewheeling, they have a very anal attitude to everyday property.  When Agatha soils on an expensive sofa, Havana can only protest like a lower middle class matron shoving the lower orders off her lawn.  Moore does another good actorly turn as a superbitch full of self disgust.  Benjie is the teenage star as malevolent midget (was Macaulay Culkin like this?), he is fuelled with self regard that has him slide down the gilded pole to unlamented destruction.  Cusack is the poisonous purveyor of vacuous psycho babble and new age quackery, the sort of role that shouldn’t go near a rich man’s swimming pool because you know something terrible is going to happen near it or in it.  The swimming pool has been a dystopian fixture in many moral tales, most notably in The Swimmer.  Cusack looks like a warped pervert in clown face white, it’s expected he’ll do something nasty and he does.  In The Brood (1979) Cronenberg invented sexless monsters as the creatures of a tormented woman, and Agatha and Benjie are similarly ripe for destruction.  One thinks of other movies exhibiting the reptilian horror of Hollywood folk: All About Eve, Postcard from the Edge, Mommie Dearest, Sunset Boulevarde.  The trajectory of success through delusion, disillusion, and failure is a shot of poison through the whole film.  Their affluence is a Neronic desolation and they must face moral reckoning.  Robert Pattinson is the chauffeur instead of being the passenger as he was in Cosmopolis.  In Maps he is merely the venal opportunist we expect from a writer who would do anything to get a break in Hollywood.

 

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Posted by on October 17, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Rover

The Rover film posterSynopsis

Australia, ten years after “The Collapse”.  Starring Guy Pearce as Eric whose car has been stolen and he chases the thieves.  He faces them down, they leave and he follows.  On the way he meets an old woman (Gillian Jones) who asks him to take her grandson.  One of the car thieves is Henry Scott McNairy whose brother Ray (Robert Pattinson ) travels with Eric.  He takes the wounded Ray to a doctor (Susan Prior) who keeps dogs locked up to prevent people taking them for food.  Eric comes on to a military camp and its “soldiers” take “outlaws” to Sydney.  Maybe the “soldiers” are bounty hunters.  Eric and Ray track down the car thieves…

Review

A mixture of a post-apocalypse film and a western in which Eric is semi-mute and kills whoever crosses him, while Ray is an idiotic inarticulate side kick with a dixie accent.  Neither are burdened with moral subtleties, heroic aspirations are well beyond their remit.  Eric is on a mission of vengeance (naturally),  he was a farmer who lost his family.  The film doesn’t even bother to make excuses for casual death by gunfire, so I wondered if Sam Shepherd might turn up to provide some corny rationale.

SPOiLER ALERT!  At the end of the film after killing the car thieves, Eric burns their bodies but lovingly buries his dog (was it in the boot of the car?).  The dog symbolizes loyalty which is the one value Eric adheres to in this amoral wasteland.  Anyone who is suspected of being predatory can expect to be shot,  we are in Mad Max country here, without the bikers and neolithic settlements.  This is directed by David Michôd who made the violent gangster film Animal Kingdom.  It also nods towards Wake in Fright as it joins other stories of a dystopian Australia.  This is simply what was once a society now lawlessly breaking down.  The Australian landscape in Rover is a desiccated dust bowl lacking the romanticism of Tracks.  Its dismal wasteland is punctuated with the emblems of primitive chic: a vulture flapping over the injured Eric, victims crucified on telegraph poles, rusting metal, derelict houses.  People are depraved by the nihilism of kill or be killed, we even get that reliable standby of art house films, the mean irascible dwarf.  Apart from the woman doctor who cages dogs for their protection (and who is kind and loyal), the rest of the cast live in a shitstorm of despair and rage.  The military are not here to enforce law and order but to capture drifters and take them to some possibly grisly fate in Sydney.  The empty savagery is punctuated with dialogue which is brutally to the point. Draws you in.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis posterSynopsis

Don DeLillo’s novella from 2003 Cosmopolis is directed by David Cronenberg.  Robert Pattinson plays a Wall Street trader called Eric Packer, he gets into a stretch limo to go across Manhattan to get a hair cut.  His bodyguard tells him about threats to his life and to that of the President.  Juliette Binoche has sex with him in his car, Samantha Morton gets in and talks, then a black friend tells him about an Islamic rapper whose funeral is passing by.  Packer meets his wife in a library and in a cafe where demonstrators fling rats at the customers (rats are spoken of as units of currency).  Packer speaks of buying a Rothko gallery, he shoots his bodyguard and ends up having a long dialogue with Paul Giamatti’s disgruntled employee who wants to kill Packer…

Criticism

A film critic has noted the similarities between Cosmopolis and The Swimmer (which I have reviewed).  In The Swimmer Burt Lancaster plays an American man of success whose journey through swimming pools leads to misery and despair, an effective parable on Vietnam.  Cosmopolis is different from The Swimmer insofar as Packer (unlike Lancaster) does not start out with any illusions.  Packer is a multi millionaire nihilist who looks as if he wants some sort of closure as he intends to travel to an old seedy hairdressers New York.  Lancaster in The Swimmer never expected to end up in squalor.  People Packer meet do not disillusion him, they and he exchange observations on the nature of money, sex, time, and death.  Packer seems unconcerned that his car is graffitied by protesters, he is not even fazed by being attacked.

Packer and his guests talk elliptically, allusively, and sometimes philosophically.  Now and again it can sound like pretentious waffle, full of cod wisdom about capitalism’s cannibalistic tendencies, about the nullity of wealth, about the meaning of desire for wealth and the futility of individual protest.  Although the film is suposed to be about the present (written just before the credit crunch) it does seem more futurist.  The limo glides around a New York that seems to have more in common with Blade Runner and even I Robot.  When they pass an Islamic funeral cortege in which a rapper’s hearse is accompanied by Dervishes, one thinks of the ethnic mixture of Blade Runner.  The decadence of the wealth/poverty juxtaposition reminds us of the cliche of dystopia:  of the unrealizability of perfection and the illusions of Utopia.  Packer gets out of his gilded limo to wander in a world of poverty and chaos.  When he talks to the Giamatti character, they speak in a broken down block of flats fit for Samuel Becket dialogue.  Giamatti turns the cliche of the disgruntled victim of corporate hubris into a theological tortured mystic.  Packer himself is a mixture of Citizen Kane (we wonder if his haircut is a kind of “Rosebud” quest, a sort of metonym of a lost paradise), The Man who Fell to Earth, and Howard Hughes (like Hughes, Packer is the beneficiary of obsessive medical check ups).  Comparisons with Gordon Gekko of Wall Street are misplaced, Packer has no time for the childish tripe of “greed is good”.  Packer is bemused by his own power, how he can buy not just a Rothko, but a whole gallery of his paintings.  Possession of a Rothko is of course a status symbol of wealth, the abstract expressionist dark chambers of this suicidal painter seem a perfect backdrop for the morbidity of unaccountable riches.

The car journey is that of the soul immersed in the degradations of capitalist commodification.  This suits David Cronenberg’s concerns, he has made for example Naked Lunch and The Fly where reality has been violently subverted to a deranged visionary project, in Cosmopolis capitalism does this.  The dialogue would repay a couple more visits to this film.  Pattinson acquits himself well as an anti-hero, bland and in love with death, in this superb moral fable about capitalism.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2012 in All-time favourites, Film Reviews

 

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Bel Ami

Bel Ami posterSynopsis

Set in the belle epoque of the Third Republic in the Paris of 1890.  Starring Robert Pattinson as Georges Duroy, an impoverished  ex-soldier who’s helped out by another soldier (Philip Glenister as Charles Forestier).  They go back to Algeria in the 1880s.   Forestier introduces Duroy to his wife, played by Uma Thurman as Madeleine, and she helps him achieve a reputation as a writer of essays.  Duroy then seduces Clotilde (Christine Ricci) and  Madame Rousset (Kristen Scott Thomas).  Duroy marries Madeleine after he and Madeleine accompany her husband dying of consumption.  Madeleine has a lover, Duroy and she divorce.  There are scandals about government ministers and the invasion of Morocco.  Duroy might marry the daughter of his enemy, Rousset, played by (Colm Meany).

Criticism

This is from a novel by Guy de Maupassant, I had to read him for French A level.  Maupassant wrote about peasants (often from Normandy) and how their lives of miserable poverty made them embittered, hardened, and mean minded survivors.  Duroy is no exception, he starts out as an impoverished gold digger and he’s quite ruthless about using sex as a means to power and money.  This is no morality tale about a wicked opportunist getting his comeuppance, he succeeds in his ambition for wealth and status.  His father lives in poverty and daily prays for paradise in this world, Duroy will not be such a martyr to delayed gratification, he has no illusions about what money and power do to people.

In the world of politics and culture Duroy is initially out of his depth and gets by through seducing the right woman.  The starchy suited masculine world of 1890s Paris is really run by clever women, Duroy is never in control of events, not even of his private life.  He is jealous and insecure and in his behaviour with fellow capitalists he is like a well varnished cockroach in an elegant jar with other cockroaches.  The fascination comes with seeing how he will fall from money and influence.  The film looks a little like costume drama TV episodes compressed into one film.  The acting can be pretty wooden, Thurman seems hilariously incapable of acting angry.  Kristin Scott Thomas is her usual dewy eyed, tightly buttoned vulnerability.  Pattinson himself seems all groomed surface with nothing much behind it.  The men are vile and the women are confined to the usual role of tempter, seduced respectability, hard headed manipulator, or bored wife.  Nice to look at but not too great to listen to.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Water for Elephants

Synopsis

Starring  Robert Pattinson as a Polish veterinary student Jankowski who cannot pursue his career because the death of his parents has left him penniless.  The film starts with his older self (Hal Holbroke) telling his own story.  Jankowski becomes a drifter and gets onto a circus train and avoids expulsion.  The Benzini circus boss August is a sadistic autocrat played by Christoph Waltz and his wife Marlena played by Reese Witherspoon.  The leading horse in her act must be put down and August doubts Jankowski’s motives for this.  In place of the horse they get an elephant, Rosie, who responds to Jankowski’s gentle Polish commands but excites August to sadistic treatment because the elephant slipped the leash and escaped to the local town.  This is 1931, the era of economic depression and prohibition of alcohol, and money is a great obsession.  Jankowski and Marlena are mutually attracted, August gets murderously jealous.  They escape, she is kidnapped and August is killed by Rosie.  Jankowski and Marlena work for the rival Ringling circus.

Criticism

In some ways a conventional enough mainstream film but quite entertaining.  It’s got a good eye for details: the depression era chaos and poverty, Marlena looks like Jean Harlowe, there are police raids on boozy parties.  You could see this film as an allegory about the continuing frontier spirit in the USA (the frontier had only closed a few decades before).  The travelling circus is a slave camp populated by painted raddled faces of wage slaves close to destitution.  There is a fierce territoriality about allotted roles in the division of labour as if to reflect the behaviour of the menagerie animals.  The painted cages might have been used for rodeo circuses in the recent past.

Circuses haven’t been prominent in film since the 50’s with De Mille’s Greatest Show on Earth and Burt Lancaster on the flying trapeze.  Then, circus films were sanitized, there were of course the usual concerns about money and sex but poverty, disease, and violence were ruled out.  Circuses were regarded as showbiz with a hard headed capacity for survival.  It’s almost shocking that there are real human problems in these outfits, anyway the bad guys had to go, and the good guys had to prosper.  De Mille gives his circus films a quasi-poetic introduction, comparing it to a big ‘beast’.  In Water for Elephants the raising of the tents is treated matter of factly, no sentimentality gets in the way.  There is no attempt to disguise the hard brutality of the circus for people or animals so there is nothing to get poetic about.  The circus is a canvas and wooden jungle on wheels.

The relationship between August, Marlena and Jankowski is a conventional story of jealousy and the evil  of power when it can destroy people.  Mercifully there are no obligatorily sad clowns or trapeze jocks, the stars of this film are a love triangle and an elephant.  The elephant dominates the screen as it sways, looking like some mottled mound of gentleness with a sphinxy expression on its face.  When the animals escape their cages it’s gratifying to know that they’re computer images, so we are spared the irony of having real animals performing as (uhm) performing animals in a circus.  The mayhem is exotic and shows us how sadism is always more dangerous than animals on the loose.

In the De Mille film there is an emphasis on Christian morality and the circus people are measured against that, in Water for Elephants there is a crude dog-eat-dog world in which these Barnum shysters battled against poverty.  Watchable but not convinced about the chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon.

 
 

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