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David Cronenberg’s “MAPS TO THE STARS” (TIFF Movie Review)

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I’ve said this before, but to fully appreciate and embrace the work of mad Canadian movie maverick David Cronenberg, you must view his films as an arc—a trajectory of obsession that begins with his earliest shorts like CRIMES OF THE FUTURE, to his first features like SHIVERS and RABID, continuing with less fantastical but no less visceral fare SPIDER, CRASH and COSMOPOLIS and climaxing (literally in some sequences) with his latest immersion into weird human behavior, the malevolent Cannes hit MAPS TO THE STARS.

MAPS – written by A NIGHTMARE ON ELMS STRET 3’s Bruce Wagner –is currently playing the Toronto International Film Festival and continues Cronenberg’s on-screen interest in exploring concepts of corruption. In SHIVERS, it was polite society shedding its skin under the influence of a sexually transmitted parasite. In VIDEODROME, it was the meltdown of the mind under the stresses of extreme media and in MAPS TO THE STARS, it is the artifice of Hollywood, the illusion of power and fame that causes his characters to mutate into narcissistic, toxic monsters.

To say it’s the best DC movie since THE FLY is silly, as again, each Cronenberg film is a piece of a larger puzzle. It is certainly his most accessible film since THE FLY however; funny, shocking, edited at a clip, with a clearly etched narrative and a grueling finale.

The film is nothing short of a cesspool polluted by some of the most reptilian people you’d never want to meet and yet, if you have even a peripheral involvement in the entertainment industry, most likely know others like them. Several stories detailing the deranged plight of these LA-based horror-shows splice into each other: we have the aging neurotic actress (Julianne Moore) hungering for a role in trashy flick where she would play her own deceased mother, also an actress (and essayed in flashback and spectral form by Sarah Gadon) and who may or may not have sexually abused her as a child; we have the petulant, cruel child star (CHAINED’s Evan Bird), a drug addict by age 9, who is now 14 and hoping for a second chance; his parents (Olivia Williams and John Cusack, channeling his FROZEN GROUND co-star Nicolas Cage here) whose deep dark family secret is slowly, insidiously coming to light; the unstable stranger who rolls into town (Mia Wasikowska), wearing black gloves and a bob cut to hide some pretty serious burns; and the  hapless would-be-actor/screenwriter (like the real LA, everyone in this world is “in the business”) who cluelessly chauffeurs everyone around (he’s played by Robert Pattinson as a witty nod to his limo-riding character in COSMOPOLIS).

All of these people are of course connected by the films leisurely unfolding story and all are slave to various forms of self-medication, be they sex (Moore is especially revealing in a few shockingly anti-erotic scenes), drugs or general self-delusion. No one is decent. Everyone is awful, deceitful and opportunistic. It’s great fun.

And we didn’t even mention the undead. Ghosts of the past and the dead appear to key characters as either literal specters, or manifestations of psychosis. All of this mayhem is beautifully shot (the only DC film shot in the US in fact, thought most of LA is doubled by Toronto) by regular Cronenberg collaborator Peter Suschitzky and scored by DC’s regular composer Howard Shore.

For the first hour and change, MAPS TO THE STARS is simply a lurid, sometimes obscenely hilarious wallow in human sludge, a satirical middle finger to a bottom-feeding star-system that Cronenberg has always managed to circumnavigate in his own career. But then something happens, and it begins to bleed out.  The characters who’ve we’ve been watching and loving to hate while still valiantly holding on to hope that at least one of them will evolve and show some sign of decency, suddenly aren’t funny anymore. They’re pathetic and sad.  As they down-spiral to their respective fates (including a climactic moment that is kind of a reversal on the fate of the Mantle brothers in DEAD RINGERS), the film becomes the purest of horror film, the sort of picture where once the lights come up, we thank whatever deity we adore that, despite our own ample flaws, we are not these people. There is definite joy in MAPS TO THE STARS and a big part of that joy is being able to walk away and leave these monsters on screen, in the dark, where they belong…

Vintage Cronenberg all the way.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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