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    Maps to the Stars offers escapism with bite

    Crazed obsession and fame and fortune clash head on in Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg's modern Hollywood Gothic film about the ravenous 21st- century need for fame and validation - and the yearning, loss and fragility that lurk in the shadows underneath.

    Maps to the Stars connects the savage beauty of writer Bruce Wagner's Los Angeles with the riveting filmmaking of director Cronenberg and a stellar ensemble cast to take a tour into the darkly comic heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.

    Cronenberg deceptively lures you into the intimate world of stardom and balances this explosive mindbender on a razor-sharp line between comedy, horror and invigorating honesty.

    "It's a story that is really of the moment and it also ferociously attacks the moment we are living in, culturally, pop culturally, technologically, and in every way, which I really admire," says Cronenberg.

    Maps to the Stars offers escapism with bite

    Cronenberg is equally known for not flinching from any subject and for making films that are as challenging and substantial as they are suspenseful and visually compelling. Early in his career, he made a series of vivid, fantastical thrillers including Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ and Spider. More recently, his filmmaking has become even more expansive with the high-style crime thrillers A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the psychological, sex- infused historical drama about Freud and Jung, A Dangerous Method, and his adaptation of Cosmopolis, which takes place almost entirely in a billionaire's limousine on one fateful trip through the city.

    A family drama

    For Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars was another chance to switch gears entirely - into what he calls "a family drama, just not the usual kind of family drama".

    Indeed, the Weiss family at the centre of the story includes a self-help guru father, a teen heartthrob son fresh from rehab, a manager mother intent on keeping her son's price in the stratosphere, and a mysteriously scarred, banished daughter dangerously obsessed with trying to re- enter the family circle. Living amidst the insatiably rich and famous, they are nevertheless driven and haunted by dark forces they can't seem to escape.

    "Of course, a family in Hollywood that has eaten of the Hollywood apple - that has eaten of the desire for celebrity and achievement in the public eye - is not going to be a normal family," Cronenberg notes. "Bruce's father was in the business and he grew up with all of that, so I think he really is able to evoke the distortion and the pressure on a family trying to play the game."

    At the heart of the story of the Weiss family is one of Stafford Weiss's biggest celebrity clients: the famous but all-too-quickly-fading Havana Segrand, with four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore delivering a powerful performance.

    Moore saw the story as being partly about Hollywood, but also transcending Hollywood to touch on human ambition and hubris in all walks of life. "It's a commentary on how we live our lives today, but one refracted through the lens of celebrity," she says. "It's really more about human nature, about what people want out of the short span of life we have and how blind we are to our mortality."

    Maps to the Stars offers escapism with bite

    An amalgam of people

    Moore says that her portrait of Havana is based on "an amalgam of people I've known and observed. She is someone who lives completely isolated in this make-believe world. She doesn't really have a family and she's still very angry with her mother because she feels she was abused. She's always lived in her mother's shadow, and in her mind, it's all a kind of mixed-up, Freudian mess".

    At first glance, the family Weiss would seem to have conquered modern life. They certainly have attained fame, material wealth and brand-name recognition, but they also are beset by doubts, bitterness and deep, dark secrets that threaten to uproot their whole lifestyle. Those come to the fore in the person of long-lost, locked-away Agatha, played with intense passion by Mia Wasikowska - the rising star who has come to the fore in a series of bold roles ranging from the disturbed gymnast of HBO's In Treatment to a daughter of artificial insemination in The Kids Are All Right to the title role of Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre.

    On the heels of a tragic accident that left her terribly scarred, she has been safely kept at bay in a psychiatric asylum - until now. Recently released, she returns to Los Angeles, where she lies low, taking a job with Havana Segrand while scoping out her family from a distance, waiting for the chance to make her move.

    Wasikowska was especially attracted to the pendulum dualities of her character. "I love Agatha because she's dark inside, but at the same time in a lot of ways she has this very positive outlook. There's something very sweet and sad about this girl who, in the midst of these celebrity- obsessed parents and this troubled past, really just wants to connect with them," she observes. "They've totally rejected her, but, in a way, she's desperately trying to mimic their lives. She's desperately trying to find her identity."

    Maps to the Stars offers escapism with bite

    New Age platitudes

    The last person who ever hoped to see Agatha again is the head of the family Weiss: Stafford, a TV psychologist whose "Hour of Personal Power" offers New Age platitudes and watered-down analysis for the masses, while he performs intimate, psychodynamic bodywork on his celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand. Leaping with full intensity into the role is Golden Globe -nominated John Cusack in an intriguing departure. Cusack himself grew from a child actor to a young heartthrob to an acclaimed actor on the public stage, so he has perhaps a unique insight into the dynamics of celebrity life that starts in childhood.

    "He's part Tony Robbins, part Reiki Master, part shrink," says Cusack. "But his son is the real star - he's a massive teen star of Beiberesque proportions." In creating Stafford's fraught relationship with his son - not to mention with the daughter he has tried to keep far from their lives.

    A large part of Stafford's ego is wrapped up in the lucrative success of his son, teen sensation, star of Bad Babysitter and tabloid bad boy, Benjie Weiss. Not only is 13-year-old Benjie trying to right the ship of his career after a stint at rehab, he is being chased by his own guilt-induced teen ghost. Canadian Evan Bird was instantly attracted to the challenges of the role. "I love complex stories with deep characters, or it's just not that fun to do," he explains. "What interested me about Benjie is that he doesn't really have love and yet he doesn't really have limitations, either. So he's searching for both of those things. He's making way too much money, he's being taken advantage of by his parents, and he's really screwed up."

    A very versatile actress

    No matter what Benjie does the one person who will always defend him as a hot Hollywood commodity is his manager mother, Cristina. To play her, Cronenberg long had in mind Olivia Williams, known for a wide range of roles from the now-classic ghost story, The Sixth Sense, to Wes Anderson's Rushmore and Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer. He knew he needed a very versatile actress who could not only embody a relentless stage-mum, but a woman with a particularly secretive relationship with her husband.

    On first read, Williams found the script both hilarious and terrifying. "It's dangerously funny as satire," she describes. "But it's also about some serious things - the subconscious, madness, paranoia, suppressing the truth - and I found that it was incredibly moving and heartfelt at the same time as being absurd." Williams was also drawn to Cristina's plummeting trajectory. "She is a very ambitious woman and we get to see her downfall from the very heights of her power," she says. "She operates in a world where someone could be the nastiest person on Earth and makes your life hell, but you might still want them in your movie because they'll make you make money."

    When Agatha Weiss returns to Los Angeles, she makes an instant connection with the first person she encounters: her limo driver, a would-be screenwriter who chauffeurs the far more successful, and who becomes increasingly entangled in her larger-than-life drama. Taking the role of Jerome is leading star Robert Pattinson, delivering a mesmerising performance.

    Pattinson wanted to work with Cronenberg again on the heels of taking the lead role in Cosmopolis (coincidentally, Pattinson played a billionaire who is a limo passenger throughout that film). Pattinson's experience working on Cosmopolis with Cronenberg was so profound that he agreed to the role of Jerome before reading the script. But when he finally sat down to read it, he recalls: "Within two pages I was thinking, wow, this is so unbelievably different and hilarious. I don't even know what people are going to make of this, but it feels dangerous. It's sort of satirical, but it's also a ghost story and it's also a kind of thriller. It defies genre."

    If you are looking for escapism with bite, Maps To The Stars will not disappoint on any level.

    Read more about Maps To The Stars and other films opening this week at www.writingstudio.co.za

    About Daniel Dercksen

    Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit www.writingstudio.co.za
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