NYFF52: Hollywood Kids Makin’ Movies Of Themselves

Filmwax Radio blogger Herbert Gambill’s 4th dispatch from the New York Film Festival press & industry screenings. The Festival runs from Friday, September 26th through Sunday, October 12th.

NYFFMaps to the Stars” has a long development history. Bruce Wagner wrote the screenplay twenty years ago, adapted it into a novel, and now David Cronenberg has updated this satire of Hollywood excess to reflect the TMZ/celebrity meltdown dramas of today. It’s a caustic critique of family life in an era of so many over-medicated children sexualized at increasingly younger ages and parents who indulge in desperate, sometimes cultish solutions to their own battered, often sexually-molested pasts. We’ve seen such satires before but this one is refreshing for two reasons: first, unlike pandering fantasies like the TV show “Entourage” a show that encourages you to love and identify with moronic celebs (or at least indulge them), the subjects of “Maps to the Stars” have their indulgences called out constantly in the film. They all seem to have at least some idea of how unsustainable their lifestyles and attitudes are. And they suffer dearly for their bad actions; secondly, the performances are all so entertaining that, no matter what you think of the subject matter, it is compulsively watchable.

Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha Weiss, a burn victim (from setting her own house on fire) recently released from a sanatorium, who returns to her family in Los Angeles. Her father (an unforgettable John Cusack) is now a famous psychotherapist and self-help guru. Her mother (Olivia Williams) manages the movie career of her 13-year-old son Benjie (a terrific performance by Evan Bird of the TV show “The Killing”), who is about to star in the latest of a hugely successful series of bad babysitter films. Shunned by her family because of her pyromania, and because of a family secret of which she’s privy, Agatha finds work —via a Twitter friendship with the real-life Carrie Fisher— as a “chore-whore” for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a once A-list actress now desperate to land the role playing her own dead mother, herself a once famous Hollywood actress. Havana is also a patient of Agatha’s father, who is trying to help her overcome years of abuse she claims to have suffered at the hand of her mother. Agatha also pursues a romance with a limousine driver and struggling actor played by Robert Pattinson who spent most of Cronenberg’s 2012 film “Cosmopolis” riding in the back of a limo.

MTTS_00870.NEFMoore won Best Actress at this year’s Cannes Festival for her performance here and she deserves it. She’s always been a resourceful, fearless performer but she turns the dial up to eleven as the insecure, treacherous, self-absorbed Havana. Evan Bird’s Bieberesque teen star is great as well, made less a caricature by his ability to go so believably from bratty to remorseful. Wasikowska is perfectly cast as the deluded daughter, adorned always in evening gloves to hide her burn marks, chanting lines from a Paul Éluard poem she means to use in a secret marriage ceremony with her brother. The score by longtime Cronenberg composer Howard Shore is also good.

“Maps to the Stars” will get hugely divisive reactions and at points it felt too rushed to me, like it was a condensed version of a whole season of an HBO show. And maybe the material would have been in better hands with a Paul Thomas Anderson, the same director name-checked in one funny scene. Anderson would have lent the story more poetry and the characters more melancholy but Cronenberg largely succeeds here in what many audiences will mistake for a funny satire, but which is really a dark, sad story about why the family unit doesn’t work any more and how celebrities magnify this dysfunction for our own morbid fascination.

With his new feature “Horse Money” Portuguese director Pedro Costa expands his acclaimed Fontainhas trilogy (“Ossos,” “In Vanda’s Room,” “Colossal Youth”) into a tetralogy. The four films explore the grim lives of immigrants from Cape Verde and other former Portugese colonies who lived in Fontainhas, a slum on the outskirts of Lisbon.

300_promo16_cmyk“Horse Money” is the second film in the series to focus on Ventura, an immigrant in his 70’s who was moved to Fontainhas after his home in Cape Verde was demolished by the police in the 2006 film “Colossal Youth.” Now Ventura suffers from a nervous condition that causes his hands to shake uncontrollably. Less a dramatic film than a documentary installation, it proceeds in highly-structured sequences in which Ventura answers questions from doctors, former friends and his dead wife. Dark scenes are lit from single points or a combination of singles points that create haunting compositions. The emptiness of sets (including a curiously almost empty hospital) and Ventura’s insistence that he is 19-year-old and it is 1975 (the year after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution) makes the actors seem like they are sleepwalking, that the entire film is a dreamscape.

The film moves so slowly, with so much repetition and stasis, you may feel like you deserve a merit badge for making it all the way through the 103-minute film. The rewards of your labor, however, are all to be found in the film itself: magical sequences in which Ventura and a friend argue about the words to a song they are singing; another song accompany a series of shots that seem like squalid dioramas that echo the period black and white photographs that open the film. Ventura wanders the streets in his underwear and has a chilling encounter with an army tank on patrol.

The film’s last sequence involves a strange conversation in an elevator between Ventura and a man made to look like a toy soldier. Costa continues his bold investigation of how to capture attributes of poverty, colonialism and uneven economic development that can’t be communicated with statistics or conventional film narratives.