David_Cronenberg1420507221As noted in my recent review of Maps to the Stars and in an article “Miami New Times” published a few days ago (read it here), the concept of the flesh is an important element in understanding the films of David Cronenberg. “I’m an atheist,” says the 70-year-old Canadian director speaking via phone from Toronto. “I don’t believe in an afterlife and so on, so for me that is what we are.”

Some film critics have deemed him redundant, even antiquated in his thematic interests. When, in fact, his focus on the flesh exists as a foundation that makes his films more than schlocky shock cinema. Since the early ’70s he has brought an eerie humanism to horror, perfecting it in the later part of the decade from Rabid (1977) to the Brood (1979). He reached a pinnacle in the ’80s from Scanners (1981) to Dead Ringers (1988). In more recent years, he has extended his interests in the body to more grounded, psychological, if not still visceral, disturbing fare. A History of Violence (2005) stands as one of the greatest examples.

Cronenberg arrived on the independent film scene during an era of filmmaking known for challenging the boundaries of taste. The word “exploitation” and “gore” were often bandied about. But Cronenberg had a deeper connection to the post-60s era of disillusionment. There was something sad and foreboding in his horror. It’s even empathetic. The reason the exploding head of Scanners disturbs so fundamentally is how Cronenberg sets up the character with humanity, despite his possession of an otherworldly talent to enter the minds of other people.

There have been supernatural elements in many of his movies, most recently including several appearances by phantasmal apparitions that come to haunt a couple of his characters in his latest film. Still, the director confesses he does not believe in anything mystical, supernatural or even spiritual. To a man who describes himself as an atheist, the flesh is sacrosanct. “I mean the more we accept that and recognize it, I think the better off we’d be,” says Cronenberg about his concept of the flesh, “but in any case, the body is what you go to. It’s the primal fact of our existence, so it’s always been a significant thing for me whether metaphorically or literally. When you think of it, what does a director direct? What do we photograph most in movies? Well, it’s the human body. We’re photographing flesh.”


Despite the harsh dissection of Hollywood and those who work in the industry/city in Maps to the Stars, he admits to a great empathy for those who enter the gauntlet of Hollywood, noting there is no one in that machine who gives more to it than the actor, for, he says, “Flesh is their instrument.” His new film features some incredible performances by Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, who respectively play an aging actress and her assistant. Havana Segrand hires Agatha Weiss, who bears scars of a childhood fire, upon the recommendation of Carrie Fisher (who plays herself in the film). Fisher tells Havana she became friends with Agatha via Twitter. But Agatha’s priority goes beyond penetrating the inner circles of Hollywood. She is on a quest to reunite with the Hollywood family that disowned her. She has a younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird), an actor who, at 13, has just been released from rehab. Their mother Christina (Olivia Williams) is eager to get the kid back to work. Meanwhile, their father Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a new age guru who hosts an “hour of power” on TV and makes house calls to celebrities like Havana, who is struggling for work and being haunted by visions of her legendary mother actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who perished in a fire at a young age.

Agatha had been “put away” to the far away reaches of Jupiter … Florida … in a mental institution to receive treatment for her pyromania. But now that she is 18, she is free, released on her own recognizance. She is also a person transformed by fire both inside and out. Though her family has achieved a level of success, no matter their dysfunction, it is Agatha who has transcended her experiences, and her ultimate confrontation with her family, so absorbed by the superficial world of Hollywood, will indeed make for fireworks. “She’s experienced things that they had been kind of denying and covering up,” says Cronenberg, “and she’s experienced all those things and has the marks on the body to prove it.”


Asked why he made the film, Cronenberg says he was more interested in the family drama instead of making a critique of Hollywood. “Well, it was primarily Bruce Wagner’s script, the characters, the dialogue. It wasn’t as though I’d been obsessed for years about Hollywood … In fact, I have great affection for Hollywood, the way most people do, and I would have never thought that I would make a movie about Hollywood. It wasn’t really in my portfolio until I read Bruce’s script.”

Cronenberg notes Wagner brings a lot of experience to the screenplay, having written it while he was a limo driver in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, similar to Robert Pattinson’s character in the film, who is somehow dragged into Agatha’s web. But the director has also had experience with Hollywood, though he prefers to work as an independent filmmaker. He notes there were projects that fell though for him in the big studio business and recalls varied successes in the industry, which he admits a sort of ambivalence toward. “I live in Toronto and most of my movies have been co-productions between Canada and Europe, so there’s not been much of Hollywood involved, but on the other hand, there have been many projects that had almost happened and also movies like M. Butterfly and The Fly. There were Hollywood studios that were distributing the films, like Warner Brothers or FOX and so on, so I’d had meetings with studio executives about casting, about distribution, about script, about all kinds of things, and I can certify that what Bruce portrays in the movie is accurate.”

He says what he knows of the surreal and absurd reality of the Hollywood industry was something he could channel in Maps. “Although it isn’t the totality of my life, it is certainly something that I had dipped my toe into and can confirm from my own experience, and I’m sure that it helped me make the movie resonate, to feel real because I knew the reality.”


But it all comes back to the people and characters in the film, which Cronenberg agrees stands as a protest against a system that dehumanizes people for the entertainment of others. “There is that element,” he admits. “It’s kind of a bubble city—Hollywood. It’s not a city, technically, but the concerns are so incestuous, which is another theme of the movie, but everybody thinks the same way; everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants to be an actor or writer or director. It would be a difficult town to live in if you weren’t obsessed with the business, you know? And though I am a filmmaker, I’m not obsessed with the business, and that’s why I still live in Toronto, my hometown. I could never live in Hollywood as a result.” He then offers a warning to those who aspire to enter the Hollywood business: “I think that obsessiveness can deform people. As I’ve often said, Hollywood’s like this incredibly dense planet with a huge gravitational pull. It pulls in people from all over the world, but then it’s very hard to break away from that, and the force of that pull can deform you and your relationships and the course of your life of which you aspire to. It’s all very insular.”

Bailey's Quest-451.cr2

Finally, the director does not want anyone to read too much into the delay of his film to reach the home country of Hollywood. Maps to the Stars premiered at the Cannes Film Festival early last year. Cronenberg says it was only logistics that delayed the film’s release in the U.S. “Focus World took on the distribution in the U.S.,” he notes, “and they felt, given the time we made the deal with them, and what was happening at the end of the year when so many movies get released because everybody’s thinking about Golden Globes and Oscars and stuff, they thought it would be a very crowded marketplace. I think that’s correct, and I think they thought they would have a much clearer road to potent distribution if they waited until this year.”

He does admit that the fact the film is already available on home video in other parts of the world besides the U.S. is a bit odd for one of his movies. “It’s very unusual because it’s been released in Canada,” he admits. “It’s been released everywhere in Europe already, very unusual for the U.S. to be so late, but it’s just the way it happened. It’s really Focus’ call, and I’m assuming they know what they’re doing.”

You can read much more about my conversation with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why the flesh is the pinnacle of our beings:

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Then there is also this small piece I wrote in the Miami Herald where he discusses Hollywood some more and Wagner’s script. He also talks about how Moore was one of the earlier actresses to commit to the role despite some financial hardships in getting the production off the ground. Jump through the logo below to read that:


Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

Maps to the Stars opens Friday, Feb. 27 in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. On opening night at O Cinema’s 9:15 screening, I will introduce the film and probably stick around for a second viewing and chat for a bit afterward. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this interview. All images in this article are courtesy of Focus World.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MTSVOD_401420754923Considering the story of Maps to the Stars, you may be forgiven for questioning David Cronenberg’s feelings toward Tinsel Town. It follows a family of recognizable modern-day Hollywood archetypes. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a bratty 13-year-old child actor fresh out of rehab. His “momager” (Olivia Williams) cares less about the boy’s mental state than his next big paycheck reprising the title role in Bad Babysitter 2. His father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a new age guru less involved with his family than his persona as a host of a self-help TV show, “The Hour of Power,” and making house calls to celebrities like Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) where he practices a form of Reiki mixed with platitudes from the school of Carl Jung.

Then there’s the ostracized Weiss daughter, 18-year-old Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Fresh off a bus from Jupiter (Florida), the abandoned older sister has a face deformed by burns from a childhood case of pyromania. She wishes to “make amends” after her release from a mental institution on the other side of the States. She rekindles old trauma by slinking back into the family after taking a job as a “chore whore” for Havana and warming up to a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) who has aspirations to write, direct or act, whatever he can do to get into the biz.


Then you have Carrie Fisher playing herself. Her appearance is more than a bit of stunt casting. In real life, Fisher has had no shame in talking about being a young actress born of Hollywood royalty (singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds) and its effects on her persona. She’s explained it with a similar tone of dark humor that Maps toys with. She achieved pop culture fame in Star Wars at only 19 years of age. Then, as an adult, she wrote about the dark side of Hollywood success in Postcards From the Edge and Wishful Drinking. There’s something meta-poetic about her being the one who recommends Agatha to Havana as an assistant, after “friending” the young women via Twitter, of all places.

Agatha enters the story as an interloper on fire, playing the acting game to an almost spiritual height that is as disturbing as it is riveting. While everyone struggles to maintain a front in order to find a way to matter, she slithers among the Hollywood inhabitants to get what she wants. And this is how Maps become something so much more than Hollywood satire. Agatha is viscerally in touch with herself. She becomes — if you can forgive the Jungian reference — a disturbing kind of anti-hero enlightened by fire and her scarred flesh. As in so many other films by Cronenberg, the flesh is essential to the drama. Agatha recites “Liberty” by the great French surrealist poet Paul Éluard a number of times in the film.

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name

Benjie also recites the poem, revealing a link between brother and sister that could very well threaten the frayed link between their parents. Indeed, it all builds to a disturbing climax that’s one for the Cronenbergian canon. You only wished he had more money for the special effects, but those are the sacrifices of an indie filmmaker. Cronenberg still delivers a distinctive flair with his cold framing and the otherworldly delivery of some of screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s dialogue that hums with a “dead inside” malaise from the Weiss family. Except for Agatha, who strides in with bold, creepy purpose that everyone else, so lost in themselves and aspirations, can hardly notice.

maps-to-the-stars hi-res

Special note should also be given to the always game Moore, who could have very well been nominated for best actress for this role had the film been released earlier, and — more importantly — if Hollywood could dare show as bold a sense of humor as Moore herself. Her character features echoes of Lindsey Lohan. She plays with a bubbly voice and offers a broad range of personal suffering, from passive-aggressiveness to a deep sadness that also makes Havana sympathetic, even when she’s sitting on a toilet struggling from a backup by Vicodin, reciting a list of chores to Agatha while trying to worm into her mysterious assistant’s personal life.

Though it’s easy to consider the film from Cronenberg’s perspective, it is Maps to the Stars screenwriter Wagner who brings a broad range of experience from Hollywood to his writing (he’s the man behind Dead Stars and Wild Palms). This was one of the first scripts he wrote as a limo driver in Hollywood on the early ’90s, not unlike the role Pattinson plays in the film. The scenes are loaded with an undercurrent of disdain for the city. Again, the characters are archetypes of the business; charm stands as superficial but underneath there’s almost a psychotic desire for success and recognition that has rotted their souls. It’s blackly funny at times but mostly cringingly disturbing.

It could have easily become a tiresome movie, but Cronenberg has such a light yet effective quality as a director, another layer, hidden beneath the superficial struggle of conflict rustles below, like the flesh gun trying to puncture through the TV screen of Videodrome. That tension arises from Agatha’s unwanted reappearance. It speaks volumes not only about celebrity-obsessed culture but the weight of maintaining false fronts for ulterior gains. Hollywood is the milieu, but greed and the sacrifice of identity and humanity for profit and popularity is the theme. Agatha is the flesh scorned by family and scarred by flames, and she’s here to bring a warped sense of balance to a warped world.

Hans Morgenstern

Maps to the Stars runs 111 minutes and is rated R (cursing, violence to the flesh and sexual situations). It opens Friday, Feb. 27, in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami (where I will introduce the film at 9:15 p.m.) and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this article courtesy of Focus World.

Also, read my interview with with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why “the flesh” is the pinnacle of our beings:

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You can read even more of my interview in this blog post:

Legendary director David Cronenberg on “the flesh” and the “deforming” properties of Hollywood in Maps to the Stars

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

After Lucia poster EnglishA bold and important film debuted in Miami during the Miami International Film Festival in March that only recently found a distributor. The Miami Beach Cinematheque will host an encore, one-night only screening of the Mexican film After Lucia as the film continues to build word-of-mouth buzz ahead of what will hopefully be a wider release in art houses across the U.S. It’s a timely film, as After Lucia, a raw story about bullying gone awry, dwells on the self-perpetuation of violence within a prescient social landscape involving high-tech gadgets.

Every once in a while, as the news cycle turns, the media jumps on what feels like the same story of pretty young teenage girls crucified in social media for simply being victims:  Audrie Pott, Phoebe Prince, the recent Steubenville High School gang rape of a classmate that put some young, hopeful football players in jail. In the case of Pott and Prince it ended in suicide. And these are the stories that make it into the national media on slow news days. It’s become the sort of selective case of coverage for an epidemic. Like cases of missing children, it always seems to be happening but rarely becomes the focused, general interest of national news coverage.

In the Pott and Steubenville cases, the girls were raped and photos of their naked, incapacitated bodies were shared by other students on social media who judged with cold, primal distance, which only seems to enforce the Hobbesian view that man is inherently evil. cake045178What better stage of human growth to reinforce that theory but during that almost lycanthropic transformation from childhood innocence to jaded adulthood we call the teen years. Enhancing the matter further is the filter of cyber-space that encourages disconnection further with a sense of disembodiment that denies true, human, empathetic relations.

Those real-life cases mentioned earlier happen to be the ones the media had been obsessing over when After Lucia premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival to a pair of sell-out screenings. What’s amazing is how unsensational After Lucia handles the topic but also goes beyond by looking at the filter of real life via technology like cell phones and social media, though they only appear as tiny props in the distance, focusing instead on human behavior as a result of interaction with these tools.

The film takes off cryptically, with a man picking up a car from a repair shop and then abandoning it in the middle of the street, the keys still inside. Director Michel Franco takes his time to reveal that this is the mournful Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) who lost his wife in a car accident, leaving him and his daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) to pick up their roots from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City. p_271415The title calls attention to the fact that the father and daughter at the center of the film are a family missing an important component: a mother. Already the odds seem stacked against them, as the despondent father can hardly keep it together while his daughter chooses to hold her school troubles to herself and not burden the father further.

Franco composes the film with small vignettes. It gives the movie a day-in-the-life quality more real than reality TV shows. And all these scenes demand attention for an insightful pay-off that comes toward the end, referencing the loss of Lucia that also ties in with the “share” culture of the Internet. Franco does not employ any extra-diegetic music, hardly cuts between characters in a scene (if at all) and most everything takes place in distant, medium shots.  Franco saves devices like close-ups for choice moments of emphasis like the instance Alejandra receives her first text message after she is emailed a video clip of her having sex with one of the boys at school that reads, “Hola, puta.” And it’s downhill from there in a drama that will test the limits of unflinching cruelty beset on Ale by the relentless young mob, filled with human, intriguingly complex characters.

Franco, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a stark perspective by allowing the story to unfold across brief, efficient scenes with a static camera often set in a corner watching. After-Lucia-3-e1365862455169The voyeuristic quality of these scenes implicates the audience, as the bullying and harassment only grows crueller and crueller. This is your world. Furthering that, what are you going to do about it? It’s about passivity that is reflected in various characters in the film. The despondent Roberto remains ignorant to the bullying of his daughter for much of the film. Ale hardly seems to stand up for herself. To a more unnerving degree, neither does anyone else. Others often join in with the remorseless gang of kids that closes in on this helpless young woman, following a sort of cold, reptilian call to eat the weakened. The cold, distant cinematic aesthetic only serves to enhance the horrific scenes that build toward a finale that may seem cathartic to some and hopeless to others.

Franco’s efficient filmmaking style forces the audience to use its own subjective judgments as to what exactly is wrong or right about what these characters are doing. As Shakespeare once wrote, “After-Lucia-Tessa-IaThere is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” A violent society is a violent society, whether it’s Mexico or the U.S. The lack of value for life stands out in After Lucia, especially in a shocking ending most will find difficult to fathom while still receiving a visceral thrill. That a film can play with such mixed emotions is testament to the director’s patient craftsmanship.

Franco plays with cinema in a deliberate fashion that recalls David Cronenberg’s work with A History of Violence and many of the films of Michael Haneke. He knows how to let a scene linger in order to allow the aftermath to settle under the skin of the audience. It ends on a stark, drawn out, minimalist note that places the responsibility on the audience to wake up and notice that violence begets violence. It’s a brilliant movie by a director who understands how to harness cinema’s subjective power to a level that invites self-reflection. The stark motionless, observational camera sitting in the corner of many scenes is meant to be us. How we react to the scenes is up to us.

Hans Morgenstern

After Lucia runs 103 min., is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (mature teens would do well to attend, though). It plays in South Florida for one night only: Thursday, Oct. 10, at 9:30 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of the theater’s “Cinephile’s Choice” series. It premiered in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which I was invited to a preview screening by the film’s French distributor, BAC Films. For updates on the film’s appearance in the U.S., follow its distributor, Pantelion Films, here.

Update: The movie went direct-to-video in the U.S. It’s streaming on Netflix now.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg, that one-of-a-kind director who delights in exploring the darkest twists and turns of cinematic language in order to illuminate our shadowiest corners, points his lens at a man so full of money he seems to have paid for it with his humanity. For those who think being so rich that you have trouble spending all your money is something to aspire to, consider Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). He’s a man so out of touch with his feelings, he needs death to find life. It’s a subject befitting Cronenberg’s seeming obsession with intellect, behavior and the material world, and the director certainly takes off running with it.

No matter what subject Cronenberg probes in his films, he has refined them over the years to exude a hyper-real, creepy atmosphere. This includes his most recent, seemingly straight-forward film, A Dangerous Method, an examination between Freud, Jung and their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 20-10]). That film seemed fixated on bringing the writings and theories of psychology by this trio to life via ponderous dialogue. Despite some primal physical encounters, the real battles between these intellectuals were fought in dialogue, and those words were often quite sharp.

Cosmopolis, a film that takes place in a prescient future of civil unrest where people like Packer cannot throw away their money fast enough, fits in snug with the Canadian director’s style, especially in his obsession with bringing to life the written word, similar to A Dangerous Method. Though it is a cinematic adaptation of Don Delillo’s 2003 book, this remains one of the most offbeat Cronenberg films since the surreal video game vortex that was eXistenZ, which shamed The Matrix that same year of both films’ release (While The Matrix was all literal exposition, eXistenZ actually created the feeling that “the matrix” was real, and we were living it). The dialogue of Delillo, too meandering and breathless to seem realistically possible, remains intact and only heightens the strange quality of the film.

The Cronenberg touch is there from the brief abstract, digitized opening title sequence, which features droplets of black, gray and brown paint a lá Jackson Pollack as they dribble onto an earthy, glowing orange canvas. Cronenberg has said opening titles offer an important gateway to a film, so it matters metaphorically. My only regret about the opening is that he does not allow it to continue longer, like the old days of film. A throbbing electronic pulse and the jangle of a swelling electric, reverbing guitar, recalling Edge’s playing for U2, provides the soundtrack that crescendos and then diminuendos in one sweep. As the end credits will reveal, Cronenberg regular Howard Shore is still his go-to for film scores, though this score, a collaboration with Canada’s synth-obsessed indie band Metric, feels different from any other in their history together. It still works well throughout the film as it pulses and rumbles to life on occasion in the film. The score often swells up out of silence, ticking and humming to highlight certain moments of heightened exchanges between characters before diminishing and fading away, almost phantasmagoric in its shifting quality, heightening a sense of foreboding that permeates the film.

In the film’s first scene, a camera positioned low to the ground tracks across a fleet of white stretch limousines. One after another, the hulking metal tubes loom, awaiting launch into what seems to be New York City. Some of these might very well be decoys, as the film will imply Eric is a powerful, infamous executive many want to see dead. For all the criticism and expectation weighing on Pattinson as the kid in the Twilight films, his portrayal of Eric fits snug in the Cronenberg world. His sleepy eyelids and stiff jaw suit the character well, and even if the British actor’s version of an American accent might seem odd to some, it only adds to the distant alien quality of the character. Clearly exuding his Master of the Universe status, Eric exchanges terse sentences with his head of security, Torval (Kevin Durand). “I want a haircut.” “The president’s in town.” “We don’t care. We need a haircut.”

From these first lines, anyone who is a fan of Cronenberg knows they are in for something existing beyond an experience in life or in the movies, for that matter. The interior of the limo is sound proof to the point that all you hear are the voices of the people inside. It’s so disquieting that it reveals just how much one takes ambient noise for granted. The saturation of color, even between light and shadow seems so unreal that Jay Baruchel appears almost unrecognizable as he contorts his face stressing over Eric’s nagging, if monotone, questions of the security of their computer network. It marks the first of many meetings inside the limo, as the film features a parade of characters that typify the excesses of capitalism from hip computer geeks to lusty cougars to hollow rap stars, among the most obvious. Every once in a while, Torval appears, offering his boss impromptu risk assessments that grow more and more sinister as the film progresses: “We have report of imminent activity in the area … nature as yet unknown.”

In the limo, Eric sits in what appears to be a throne with armrests that glow and flicker with data on money exchanges. The interior is all gorgeous lighting and symmetrical framing. Outside the vehicle’s windows, the cityscape glides past so smooth it appears like a cheap green screen effect. But it’s also by design, as this guy may just be rich enough to afford limos that have the best shock absorbers money can buy. The bubble the limo provides also emphasizes Eric’s distance from the rest of the real world. With Cosmopolis, Cronenberg presents a snapshot of a creature of money, and he explores the expanse of imagination to show just how extremely rich Packer is. The man makes money by the “septillionths” of a second, hording it and spending it with no regard. Eric is prepared to buy whatever he wants, as everything has a price for him. During a meeting in the limo with an art dealer and casual sex partner Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) he tries to negotiate the purchase of the Rothko Chapel. It is also one of the few times he looks frustrated, as she tells him it’s not even for sale. “It belongs to the world,” she says. “It’s mine if I buy it,” he responds.

Other instances in the film where Eric seems frustrated occur in the company of his colder half, his new bride, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), revealed as a rich heiress who fancies herself a poet. She holds out sex, as he asks for it with little reserve, much less romance. He cannot find the soul required for the effort, it seems. He has already had sex on his throne inside the limo with Didi, who thrashes about in reverse cowgirl like a giddy girl. It may seem depraved, but it serves to illuminate how out of touch this man is. When Elise sees him after the deed, she says, “you smell of sex.” He shrugs and blames his prostate check-up in the car by a doctor who finds his gland “asymmetrical.”

The heightened stylization of acting and staging never rings hollow, though some have argued the film has little “story.” Instead, it meshes brilliantly with the subject matter on an almost surreal level. This is a film about something more than crossing town for a haircut. This is a man on a quest to feel something again. Not that he is supposed to be sympathetic, but how many can know what life is like for a man as rich as this man? Eric becomes an enigma, enhancing his extreme, violent behavior during the film’s final scenes. Most everyone in the world of Cosmopolis indeed seems to want to see the man dead, as riots blow up in the street and a final confrontation with a whispering unhinged character (Paul Giamatti) looms to cap off the film.

Cosmopolis ends on what seems an open-ended note. But what happens after the film cuts to black matters little compared to a slight glimpse of humanity revealed by what leads to whatever that end may be. Like the best Cronenberg films, the moment is a mix of the banal and the extreme, highlighting the journey more than celebrating a pat conclusion. Cronenberg’s best films, Videodrome, A History of Violence and eXistenZ, present the audience with a mirror, and it can prove unpleasant for some, so knee-jerk responses by viewers might not all be flattering, but that speaks to the film’s potency.

Cosmopolis may be over-the-top and unreal, but its satirical sensibility is not far off the mark. One need not look further than a certain presidential candidate who drops $10,000 bets like they’re $5. Or pop culture mega millionaires with their own reality shows who have sacrificed their souls for portraying femme bots on television to sell high interest/short-term credit cards and “fashion” to their followers. Cosmopolis is a brilliant indictment on capitalism and the class divide it has spawned, something all too real in today’s zeitgeist.

Hans Morgenstern


Cosmopolis is Rated R and runs 108 minutes. It is distributed by Entertainment One who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens today, Aug. 24 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach 18 — Miami Beach, FL
AMC Sunset Place 24 — South Miami, FL
Gateway 4 — Fort Lauderdale, FL
Regal Delray Beach 18 — Delray Beach, FL
Regal Shadowood 16 — Boca Raton, FL

Edit: Cosmopolis returns to theaters in South Florida for an exclusive run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque beginning Friday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The last film I can remember having left me feeling as puzzled and intrigued as Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty was Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. I would go on to see Eyes Wide Shut at least 10 times and write an in-depth seminar paper in grad school using the psycho-analytic theory of Jacques Lacan to illuminate the film’s message and finally gain an appreciation for it. I still have not grown tired of that film, which too many have simply brushed aside as Kubrick’s weakest. I’d call it a masterpiece.

But that’s another article, and though I would not consider Sleeping Beauty as existing on the same level as Eyes Wide Shut, I can understand why critics are so similarly divided on it as they were with Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. When Warner Bros. released Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, just before Kubrick’s death, the director had long achieved the status of one of the handful of true master filmmakers whose influence and regard was guaranteed to last throughout the history of cinema. Sleeping Beauty, however, is Leigh’s first film, and though she proves her skill at handling mystery* in a story, which she also wrote, the film falls just short of the transcendentalism of Kubrick or another filmmaker well know for his mysterious quality, David Lynch. That said, Leigh still has much to offer in abstract, eerie atmosphere in this odd psycho-sexual tale of the darker corners of humanity, and, if she goes on to direct more films, I can see critics re-evaluating this movie more favorably in hindsight.

The film follows Lucy (Emily Browning) on a path into prostitution in order to makes ends meet. We first meet her in a laboratory as she volunteers to swallow a medical device on a long cable. She chokes it back centimeter by centimeter, fighting one gag reflex after another as a young man in a lab coat (Jamie Timony) assures her she is doing great.

It’s a twisted set up that brazenly foreshadows the clinical and sexual film that lies ahead. The film establishes that Lucy is studying at a university and cannot keep up with the rent while struggling at jobs in the copy room of an office and waiting tables at a cafe. She is probably taking part in a medical study for some extra cash too. Oh, and she also dabbles in sexual favors for money at a bar and abuses cocaine.

This is all quickly established in several, efficient, stagey scenes, with the camera mostly at a distance, fetishsizing props, like rows of stacked chairs on tables at the cafe during closing time and neat rows of tables in the lab, which has almost symmetrically equal equipment on each side of the screen. Lucy and the other characters stand mostly fully framed in the shots with distance between them, as they speak in curt sentences laden with shared history.

This odd pacing is always interesting, set among one dazzling staged backdrop after another. The surreal atmosphere grows more heightened when Lucy answers an ad for work as a “model.” Following a brief interview in a wood-paneled office with Clara (Rachael Blake) about Lucy’s sex and health, the woman that will be her madame orders her to strip. As a man (Eden Falk) examines her limbs, Clara assures her that in this job, “your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina is your temple.”

The distinctive, clinical but warm art direction, the film’s steady pacing, the slow and delicate zooms and pans of the camera and the mysterious dialogue between the characters are all elements Leigh seems to make her own and serve the ominous mood of the film well. A still image of the scene described above, indeed captures the meticulous quality of Leigh’s mise-en-scene:

From the actors in the foreground, their postures, faces, hairstyles, not to mention their dress, coupled with the dynamic contrasts of background, the image breathes forth an evocative quality typical of the movie. Throughout the film, as events grow more twisted, even the distant camera does not detract from the chilling action.

Leigh is a certain kind of storyteller, one who has immense faith in her audience, offering an almost abstract experience of story that invites viewers to bring their baggage to the proceedings. Before this movie, Leigh had already established herself as a novelist of high regard. Her debut novel, the Hunter (1999), did a heck of a job to put her on the literary map, bringing her praise and awards from across the world. The Australia-based writer only recently followed it up with the 2008 novella, Disquiet, a book I happened to have read over the course of a single weekend a couple of years ago. I can personally speak to an odd surreal quality and economic power to Leigh’s prose that is also on full display in this, her first movie.

If there are short comings in Sleeping Beauty, it comes when fleshed out characters fail to materialize, as those that populate the world of Sleeping Beauty seem to walk through it in a haze of mystery that overshadows any insight to their individual motivations. For some reason, Lucy chooses to burn her first hundred-dollar bill she earns. For someone set up as so desperate for money, the effort seems a costly over-symbolic move that contradicts her actions, including a moment when she pleads for more work from Clara. In conversation with Clara, one of the elderly men who sleeps with Lucy (Peter Carroll) gives a rambling monologue that does not seem to add much of anything to the film. The director seems more in tuned with the female characters than the men and would have done just as well to leave them alone as the tools they are in the machinations of the story.

These ambiguous scenes (and there can be more or less of them, depending on the viewer) can be a detriment for those searching for story, but I would posit something beyond story rises above these shortcomings. This is the stuff of female nightmares. Imagine taking a potion that puts you to sleep with no memory or even dreams, laying down naked in a bed, where you know men have paid to be in your presence to do anything they want so long as they do not leave a mark or penetrate you. That is the job Lucy has signed up for, and what happens in the various scenes with three different men varies, but all send shivers down the spine. In the interest of the power of imagination, I shall spare the details, for there is nothing like the shock of the unfolding proceedings as Lucy submits her nude body to the whims of these old, damaged men, one of the angriest of whom admits to Clara the only thing that can get him an erection nowadays anyway is if a woman used her fingers to penetrate him.

Browning deserves a special award for acting while limp. She never flinches while her character suffers extreme abuse by these men. No doubt as there are some who will be left disturbed, others might feel turned on. However, the innocuousness of the set design and the calm movements of the camera, be they slow zooms, pans or tilts— are all patient, gradual and pregnant with audience implication (or director’s) gaze. Any sexuality is couched in voyeurism. There are no thrusts when Lucy works, and, as Clara tells all the men who “sleep” with her girl, “no penetration.” This is not a film that celebrates or exploits the female body. It repels just as much as it titillates, recalling a similar statement film by another great surrealist director: David Cronenberg, the aptly titled A History of Violence.

Though the elusive quality of the film does seem to get in the way of an unshakably definitive statement, Leigh offers a strong reach that recalls Lynch without coming across as a blatant copier. The amount of Lynch imitators (not that she is one directly or consciously) often steer their train way off the tracks and brew up embarrassing stupidities of films (I guess many of which I have thankfully forgotten). The calm and control of Sleeping Beauty save it from becoming another one of those movies.

This elusive line where transcendence occurs in a film is difficult to define without close examination of a filmmaker’s technique. Kubrick, Lynch and Cronenberg are all master craftsmen with an almost superhuman insight into the human psyche, and rare is the film in their oeuvre that does not deliver. As for Sleeping Beauty, the moments of shock that arrive hit at a gut level, tapping deep into the unconscious, the source of nightmares. Though Leigh does not really hit the subtle note for true primal chills and a grand end statement, she comes close. But even without a powerful, final moment of transcendence (and the film tries for one), the techniques in story, pace, art direction, camera work and characterization shows Leigh has all the right moves. Sleeping Beauty maintains an ominous sense of abstract but riveting mystery reeking of sexuality that will keep the adventurous viewer hooked.

Hans Morgenstern

Sleeping Beauty is rated R, runs 101 min., and opens in South Florida Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review, and the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, on the same day and time.


*As far as the word “mystery” in cinema, do not expect a whodunit type of film. Sleeping Beauty concerns itself with the darkest, most primal drives of sex.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A film telling a story from the perspective of a schizophrenic personality makes for an interesting subject via the cinematic art form. It allows for wide-ranging amounts of mystery. But it can also be a harrowing experience, as one can never tell what lies around the corner from one scene to the next. Some film goers who prefer to know what is really happening might feel frustrated. You could even boil down the “action” from one frame to the next, as even the edits can be hard to trust in such a movie. I personally love to get lost in these kind of films, as they thrive on inherently unpredictable qualities.

There have been only a few such movies, but this year’s Take Shelter rises up among the best in recent times. Curtis (Michael Shannon) is growing more aware that either his sense of reality is falling apart or he has developed some sort of unique clairvoyance giving him visions of an impending epic storm. In a way, it recalls the original cut of 1999’s Donnie Darko. In that film, however, the imperfect mess in the story involving worm holes, a specter in a bunny suit that only the titular character (Jake Gyllenhaal) can see and hear coupled with an airplane crash that has yet to happen actually supported the notion that the protagonist may indeed be schizophrenic.*

Take Shelter is much more focused and character-driven. Despite some key awe-inducing scenes of special effects, the effects never overshadow the drama at the heart of the film. It also offers a brilliant “out” at the film’s conclusion that most will never see coming.

Curtis is the main bread-winner in a family of three living in a small Ohio town. He oversees a team of workers at what seems to be a rock quarry. The decision to not bother with the details of the job adds a nice layer of mystery. Beyond some conversation with his boss in an office, the viewer only sees Curtis at work with a co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham), using giant industrial equipment to drill into the ground, a dangerous job for a man in Curtis’ state. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), in the meantime, occupies herself by putting her stitching skills to work, scraping together a few bucks for a trip to the beach. The couple have a deaf 6-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who is about to have surgery for an implanted hearing aid, thanks to Curtis’ health insurance from work. It is clear this family needs Curtis.

You follow Curtis as he gradually becomes aware of his hallucinations, which include visions of swelling storm clouds that no one else sees in the waking world. Meanwhile, his subconscious begins to feel more real to him during dreams that leave him with phantom pain all day long. When his dog bites him in a dream, he feels compelled to move the animal out of the house and fence him in the yard. He later admits to Samantha that he could feel the bite on his arm long after the dream had occurred.

As Curtis seems to unravel, something indeed feels at stake throughout the movie. No wonder he wants to resist his visions, despite wetting the bed and the fact his mother had to go into assisted living due to her own mental illness, which overtook her at around the same age as Curtis.

As the days go by, Curtis grows more concerned, while the visions and dreams grow more violent. To say more would be to spoil the experience of seeing the movie. First-time director Jeff Nichols does a brilliant thing to make viewers feel as though they are seeing these things as Curtis. He never preempts a “dream” sequence with a set up of Curtis going to sleep. This, in turn, allows the viewer to sympathize with the visions in the waking world that no one else but Curtis seems to notice.

It does not hurt that the film features sensitive and sincere performances by all involved. Chastain won the Hollywood Breakthrough Award as “Actress of the Year” at the 2011 Hollywood Film Festival for her presence in several great films this year, which have also included the Tree of Life, the Help and the Debt (Here’s a nice image gallery from “Rolling Stone” highlighting her roles in 2011). As a result, Shannon does not have the same star power, but he has already established he can bring the crazy out of his characters. He breathed some insane, creepy warmth to the otherwise cold and dull Revolutionary Road for which he wound up earning a best supporting actor Oscar® nod in 2008.

In an inspired bit of programming, it is worth noting that capping the screening week of Take Shelter locally at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, that same theater will host a one-night only screening of Shannon’s star turn in 2006’s Bug. That film also happened to deal with the gray world of perceived mental illness. It was a labor of love film by director William Friedkin, who saw Shannon in the stage play that he would adapt for the screen with the same title. It confounded critics, audiences and the studio’s marketing department. Who were these down-in-the-dumps, messed up people portrayed by Shannon and Ashley Judd, who take a mutual mental roller coaster trip into the depths of private hell, fearing their bodies were nothing but producers of tiny bugs? Where are the monstrous creatures? Do they even exist? This is a movie by the director of the Exorcist, after all. Critics were divided and most audiences hated it.

What was even stranger about Bug is the question whether so-called “body bugs” actually exist or is indeed a mental illness. A local news station (full disclosure: I work there), did a series of investigative reports on the phenomena (read the scripts to the stories by 7News’ senior reporter Patrick Fraser in Part 1 and Part 2). All that baggage aside, this film indeed walks that disquieting line of mental breakdown as related to paranoid schizophrenia in that inspired, ambiguous way that might be upsetting to some viewers and thrilling for others.

At the heart is a tight story involving the dynamics of three stellar actors who also include a mean Harry Connick Jr. Then there is the choice of some expressive lighting by Friedkin, who does know a thing or two about thrillers, be they horror (1973’s the Exorcist) or action (1971’s The French Connection). As an odd side note on Friedkin, he is also the director once in talks with Peter Gabriel of adapting a film version of the 1974 Genesis album, the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, about a New York street punk on a mythical journey of self-actualization via encounters with sex and death. Friedkin knows a mad experience, and he puts it on full intimate display in Bug.

Call me biased to these kinds of cryptic movies that both exploit the medium of cinema, defined by editing and special effects, playing tricks on the mind of a viewer, and offering a puzzle of a story that, by definition of its genre, can never offer pat conclusions. It celebrates both the inherent quality of the art of a movie and story.

Some of these movies wait until the end for a great big reveal that rationalizes the puzzle presented before it. It’s the easiest abuse of the schizophrenic character at the heart of such films, and movie goers looking for a true mystery might feel cheated. It’s akin to ending a story with “and then he woke up.” Some great directors have fallen back on this trope, like Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island and even David Cronenberg with Spider.

Though Spider did have an amazing mysterious mood throughout, Cronenberg would more powerfully capture the mood of schizophrenia with eXistenZ, though the film was about role-players or “gamers,” to use a more modern term, involved in fantasy worlds akin to taking on a persona in real-time games like World of Warcraft. However, in eXistenZ players tapped directly into a fleshy “game pod” with a plug that connects to a “port” implanted in the player’s spinal column and participated in games that only dealt in plots surrounding the creation of role-playing games that tap directly into a player’s spinal column, and on and on, from one alternate layer of existence to another, until reality becomes blurred and imperceptible. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, having the elements of a similar film that came out the same year, the Matrix, which I did not like at all. eXistenZ never tried to rationalize what was real with boring exposition that some might feel more satisfied or at peace with, as it explained what was reality and what was not. In my opinion, eXistenZ blew the Matrix out of the water as far as creating a true feeling of living in an alternate reality by never short-changing the mystery at the heart of the film, creating that sublime sense of helpless schizophrenia that is existence.

This year, you can also add one other movie along with Take Shelter that captures this similar theme: Martha Marcy May Marlene. I caught that movie at a multiplex only a few weeks ago. The film, also by a first-time feature director showing great promise (Sean Durkin), has had to rise above a stellar performance by the triple identity character within the title: Martha, Marcy May and Marlene, played by Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the Olsen twins). While most everyone in the audience that day may have been drawn to the movie for the rising star at the center and the baggage her name carries, she compliments the film with a delicate performance that reveals her presence as but a cog in a twisted tale, told through a twisted knot of edits that continuously flashback to Martha’s life in a cult as Marcy May. She somehow escapes the cult, returning to the open arms of her sister (Sarah Paulson) and reclaiming her birth name Martha. However, she cannot seem to shake her past, which may or may not be catching up to her in real life. The film’s ambiguous ending did tremendous respect to this mixed up character. However, I was surrounded by a cantankerous crowd of people who thought the movie “terrible.” But I thought the director did the story a great, if risky, move, staying true to the feeling of helplessness of a person who cannot tell “reality”— whatever that is— from fantasy, imagination, hallucination, dreams, what have you.

To reveal the ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene would be to do the film an injustice. It comes as a surprise, as you certainly want resolution for the character, but it feels right, considering the confused character at the center of it. But even more tidy, if there can be a tidy schizoid movie, is Take Shelter. I refuse to be specific for fear of spoiling the film for viewers, and some might think this concluding statement reveals too much, so read this last bit only if you do not care if some of the magic of this movie is spoiled before experiencing it for yourself:  Some might say there is a big reveal at the end of the film, yet you cannot really trust where the filmmaker decides to place the final frame, as this is a story from the perspective of Curtis. It’s a nice (possibly) ambiguous ending.

Take Shelter is rated R, runs 120 min., and opens in South Florida Friday, Dec. 9, at 6:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It also opens that same day further north, in Broward County, at 9 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. The Miami Beach Cinematheque has also programmed Bug (Rated R, 102 min.) for a one-night only screening during the theater’s on-going Cinephile’s Choice series, on Thursday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m. MBC members get free admission to this special screening. All others will pay $10 ($9 for students and seniors).

Hans Morgenstern


*The director of Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly, would later extend the film in a “director’s cut” with less ambiguity, which even saw re-release in theaters, as a cult following had grown around the DVD because of the film’s mysterious elements.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

According to “Variety,” the other day, Colin Farrell and Marion Cotillard are now officially attached to headline the cast in David Cronenberg‘s version of Cosmopolis, a novel by Don DeLillo.

There isn’t much information on the film on the Internet right now (and I have noticed many stalwart Cronenberg fan pages seem kind of stalled with information). The film is most definitely in its early development stages (“Variety” says shooting will not commence until March of 2011). From what I read about the book, it takes place a decade ago. If the story is up-dated for the current times, it could prove a timely subject.

Farrell will play the role of a young billionaire who watches his fortune slip away from the back of his limousine over the course of a day in NYC. Cotillard will play his young bride. The film sounds like it could be quite a claustrophobic experience, as it most takes place inside the vehicle. It also sounds demanding on Farrell’s capable acting skills. If it works out, it could be a fine Cronenberg experience.

The Canadian director is one of those rare filmmakers still working in the major studio system that offers a very distinct and incomparable vision through cinema. His work is well-known for its harsh explicit violence, paired with a taste for surreal horror manifested from psychological disturbances within the unconscious. Cronenberg has played with monsters, technology and many an inhuman mind to explore the power of the mind over the flesh. His early films were mostly regarded as B-movie, 70s and 80s horror fare, but grew more sophisticated with Dead Ringers (1988) at the end of the 80s, exploring the mind as the monster.

Since eXistenZ (1999), his films have become even more grounded in the real world. I think his amazing skill at handling horror and reality has only grown stronger since. He stages things in his movies with such power and looks so deep into the effects of things like murder and violence that he truly highlights the power of the cinema screen as mirror.

His last film, Eastern Promises (2007), offered a harrowing trip into the underground world of Russian gangsters in America. Before that Cronenberg received wide praise for his adaptation of the graphic novel A History of Violence (2005). Viggo Mortensen played both lead roles with award-worthy aplomb. As a matter of fact, Mortensen is currently readying to begin shooting A Dangerous Method with Cronenberg at the helm. According to the IMDB, that begins shooting this month and will precede Cosmopolis.  It is in pre-pro and will not see release until 2011. As fitting to the director of some of the most psychologically rooted movies in film history, it is based on the novel A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. Kiera Knightly us to play Spielrein and Michael Fassbender is to play Carl Jung, while Mortensen will be Sigmund Freud.

So, just wanted to share the news the Cronenberg is hard at work on new films, and next year should provide a fruitful one for fans of his original cinema.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)