hail-caesar-posterIf Hail, Caesar! is anything more than a series of send-ups of the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s, then I didn’t see it. The Coen Brothers have the luxury of looking back from decades of cynicism that have since passed, so the studio system is immediately suspect as an easy target. However, there is affection to be found in the sincerity that was the basis of the industry of that era, a period when movies were “another potion of balm for aching mankind.” And the Coens channel it to make Hail, Caesar! a rather decent if toothless bauble in their filmography.

Our entry into this world is studio honcho Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer who greases the wheels of the cumbersome production house that is Capitol Pictures. Privately, he also happens to weep over his betrayal to his wife by lying about his cigarette habit. Mannix’s job is to clean up the images of the studio’s stable of actors, from digressions like kinky private photo shoots to arranging marriages. He also oversees meetings with religious leaders to assure the studio’s biggest production yet — Hail, Caesar!  A Tale of the Christ — offends no one’s beliefs. Just as the picture is about to wrap production, its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), known to disappear on benders of drink, goes missing. It turns out he was kidnapped by a group of communists who consider movies — gasp — “instruments of capital.”

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It’s a funny film, and a highlight includes the meeting with religious leaders that speaks to the Coens’ skills at buoyant humor at the expense of grave subject matter like faith in God. They also go deep into commie humor, referencing not only Marx but also Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), who turns out to be one of the kidnappers that Baird quickly warms up to (in a moment of enlightenment while in discussion with his kidnappers, he compares the problems of capitalism with being bamboozled into shaving a famous actor’s hairy back). An unlikely hero rises in the form of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a star in Westerns suddenly shuttled into a comedy of manners at Mannix’s whim (one of the film’s greatest jokes is highlighted in the film’s new trailer below). It is his free thinking, as dim as it might seem, that allows him to crack Baird’s disappearance.

The brothers’ affection for the films of John Ford, Busby Bekeley and even Vincente Minnelli comes out in extended scenes that pay tribute to the production numbers featured in many films of that bygone era. The meticulously choreographed numbers walk a balance of irony and plain shiny humor. There are over-the-top horse-riding stunts by Hobie and an extended dance sequence featuring a group of sailors led by Channing Tatum. A lengthy synchronized swimming dance number features Scarlett Johansson, who plays a terrific actress modeled after Esther Williams who can hold a perfect smile while doing frightening dives, until the camera turns off to reveal a plucky attitude.

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It is in these reveals that the Coens keep the movie engaging, and it never lets up by playing with the artifice with a wry humor. Hail, Caesar! may not reveal anything anyone with an awareness of the Hollywood system would not already know, but its pleasures are as sincere as its inspirations. The machinations of the industry treated actors like commodities and perpetuated a false idealism. Its concern for image and money gave no one seeking true art any real constructive release, and this flick ends up feeling a bit shallow for a movie that one would expect from the team who last gave us a true masterpiece (Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis offers elegiac portrait of struggling folky). Still, it has a consistently fun tone befitting of the material that also, thankfully, never veers into darker territories to push it off of any edge, but then that also doesn’t make it as edgy as some may have hoped for from the Coens.

Hans Morgenstern

Hail, Caesar! runs 100 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere this Friday, Feb. 5. SCREENING UPDATE: The film will be coming to O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Feb. 26 for at least a week-long run.Universal Pictures provided all images in this review and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

 

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.)