Thursday, March 5, 2015

Maps to the Stars and Focus

                          Egos, Lies, and Attempts To Sort It All Out
                                                      Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                         Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
A young woman arrives in Los Angeles, then gets immediately hired by a fading female star; meanwhile the disgustingly-spoiled rich kid of a stereotypically famous Hollywood media family is becoming more erratic.  These 2 youngsters eventually reveal an unexpected connection as increasingly inhumane events overtake this very darkly-satirical-plot.
What Happens: We start with Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving by bus from Jupiter (Florida, that is, although she seems spacy enough to be from the far-distant-planet) in L.A. where her requested limousine driver, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson)—who claims to really be an actor-writer—picks her up.  In a rapid collection of seemingly-unconnected-scenes filled with obtuse dialogue we then meet abusive TV child-star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) (at 13 he’s just out of rehab, is haughtily-awful to everyone around him, yet is tolerated by the sycophantic adults he verbally abuses while being constantly defended by his doting mother, Cristina Weiss [Olivia Williams]) as he makes a visit to Cammy (Kiara Glasco), his fan in a hospital (for publicity purposes, as he wanted to make a film of her life; he’s upset that she “merely” has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma rather than AIDS); famous-but-fading-star Havana Segrand (recent real-life-Oscar-winner Julianne Moore) who desperately wants to take the lead in a movie, Stolen Waters, which would be a remake of a starring role from years ago by her mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), a woman who died young in a fire but visits Havana as a sarcastically-taunting-ghost; and Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), Benjie’s father, a TV pseudo-psychologist who also treats patients, including Havana, in his home in a sort of combination physical and mental therapy as he seems to massage out their emotional pain while forcefully confronting them with their mental anguish.  Through a Twitter correspondence, Agatha knows Carrie Fisher (playing herself in a brief scene), who encourages Havana to hire the scarred young woman (she covers most of her body most of the time) as her personal assistant, which generally works out well until she uses her new-found-connections to visit Benjie at his studio where we learn that she’s his sister, also that she previously set the family house on fire so now she’s returned from a sanatorium to attempt to reconnect, which doesn’t happen although she does begin a romance with Jerome.  Once we know who all of these damaged people are, we spend the rest of the story’s reasonably-paced-running-time watching their mutual deterioration (including scenes of a failed 3-way with Havana, a guy, and another woman, along with Benjie accidently killing a dog [as Bob Dylan sang in “Desolation Row”: “Was that some kind of joke?”] that I won’t even take time to explore further, as there’s too much misery here to navigate it all).
 Havana doesn’t get cast as her mother, which sends her into a frightful sense of desperation (not helped by the ongoing visits of what could be a hallucination but, given the sense of The Day of the Locust [John Schlesinger, 1975]-type-human-horror-events that saturate Maps to the Stars, there’s no reason to believe that it’s not the actual ghost of Clarice come back to bring misery to her daughter), although that changes when the actress chosen for the part drops out in grief after her young son accidently drowns in his swimming pool; Benjie also starts seeing ghosts, first the girl from the hospital (which, again, could be a guilty mental manifestation following her death but …) then the dead boy from the pool (although why he’d be haunting Benjie isn’t clear, given that the trauma caused to the young kid’s mother had nothing to do with Benjie, although she’s one of the few adults on screen that he doesn’t constantly make life miserable for); Stafford finds out that Agatha visited his son on the TV show production lot so he angrily tells her to never see anyone in their family again (which turns out to be even more of a damaged group than we previously knew, in that Stafford and Cristina are not only spouses but also siblings separated at birth who met in college, not knowing who they were until their romance was consummated—honestly, though, I got that part from an Internet summary, not from watching the film; either it was presented too obscurely for me to pick up on or I was just too distracted by the ongoing ennui of the whole toxic-catastrophe-laden-situation to even notice this shocker when it was revealed), but when Agatha comes to their home to visit her mother Dad finds her there and almost kills her (Benjie also turns violent, on his younger TV costar, whom he misperceives as the ghostly hospital girl, choking the boy within an inch of his life, which essentially ends Benjie’s career); Agatha’s world finally collapses when she witnesses Havana needlessly seducing Jerome in that opening-scene-limo’s back seat, followed by Havana insulting Agatha to the point where the younger woman suddenly grabs one of Havana’s Oscar-like awards (macabrely-humorous now that Moore finally got one of the real ones), then beats her to death with it.  Soon after, Benjie and Agatha meet up, then at her request he goes home to get his father’s wedding ring (she got Mom’s during that previous confrontation) only to find it easy to remove from Dad’s comatose hand because earlier that night Stafford came in to find Cristina had set herself on fire so he pushed her dying, burning body into the water.   Benjie and Agatha then perform their own “wedding” ceremony before OD’ing on her pain pills, leaving us with yet more sad Weiss suicide while the famous Hollywood sign looms ominously in the background.

So What? The whole Southern California movieland-alternate-reality is so successfully-absurd by nature that it just naturally generates satires of itself such as The Player (Robert Altman, 1992), just as it’s attracted much more surreal interpretations like Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), although as the dream factory for our culture it also produces romantic (A Star Is Born [William A. Wellman, 1937; George Cukor, 1954]) and dramatic (Sunset Boulevard [Billy Wilder, 1950]) tragedies that reassure us mere mortals that even twinkling stars must face occasional crises (although their dreams aren’t always to be denied, as celebrated in the joyous Singin’ in the Rain [Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly,1952]).  But when you turn this kind of metacritique of the world that you’re currently watching on screen over to someone with the morbid sensibilities of David Cronenberg you know that you’re not in for much in the way of either laughs or dreamily-exotic-hyperreality (certainly not romance or happy endings either), although tragedy and/or the bizarre are likely results (the only previous Cronenberg film for review from Two Guys in the Dark is Freud and Jung battling it out in A Dangerous Method [2011]; review in our January 6, 2012 posting).  Accordingly, that’s just what we get in Maps to the Stars, a title that plays off of the long-standing-tradition of tourist wanderings through Beverly Hills and nearby environs (which I recall doing with my parents on our first visit from Texas to the West Coast in 1957—although all I can remember seeing is the entrance to extravagant Pickfair where silent-film-Hollywood-royalty Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks once lived until their storybook marriage ended in more-typical LA divorce, with Mr. Swashbuckler moving out to be replaced by new husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers [an actor-musician, not the NWA/WWWF (later WWF, now WWE) "Nature Boy" pro-wrestler-champion of the 1950s-‘60s, before that moniker was later claimed by Ric Flair]), but isn’t so much about outside gawkers trolling for celebrities (even Agatha had an existing connection established with Carrie Fisher before she ventured into the realm of her estranged-media-darling-family again) as it is about providing us, the viewing audience, with a behind-the-scenes look at the fragile egos, twisted personas, and ghostly weight of the past that burdens all of these severely-troubled-characters who leave us wondering that if this is what our national entertainment capital (I hear NYC objecting) is all about why we don’t just return the whole mess to Mexico so that there wouldn’t be such a need for drug-smuggling across the border in order for these folks to maintain some sense of acceptance of their fractured existences.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Both of the cinematic wonders under review this week can by attributed in their presence here to my marvelous wife, Nina, who wanted to see what sort of chemistry sparked between Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus (reviewed below) but was even more interested in the seemingly-satirical-premise of Maps to the Stars, based on a couple of reviews that we read.  Ironically, though, our dinner the night before left her with some sudden nausea so she stayed home to rest (successfully, I'm glad to report) while I carried on (at her insistence, please note) to meet the “usual suspects” that we often spend Friday nights together with at a local movie house (followed by bar and restaurant, to be complete).  By the time that Maps … was folded for the night we may well have been the more nauseous ones, as neither this story nor its characters went down very easily (although I’ve kept it at the 3-star-level because there’s a certain bravery and intrigue to the grotesqueness it offers, while also providing a solid demonstration of how real pros can act successfully in roles that are absurdly written into a repulsive plot).  Cronenberg never fails to make this mess interesting, the mysterious events at times do have a successful David Lynchian-spookiness to them, and—honestly, now—how often do you get to see a self-immolated-person pushed into a swimming pool?  You know, that kinda works as a useful metaphor for what screenwriter Bruce Wagner seems to be exploring here (see the group interview in the links below where Cronenberg says that Wagner finds the narcissistic absurdity of the Hollywood scene to be “incestuous,” so there’s his key metaphor for his narrative), but to help wash the taste of this consistently unpleasant experience away (at least until you have a chance to feast on something like the delicious Mediterranean dinner that my cinema-loving-group had that night; sorry, Nina) I’ll end this with my own Metaphor, a Musical one, a live performance of “Hollywood Nights” (from Bob Segar and the Silver Bullet Band’s 1978 Stranger in Town album), at, in “celebration” of how all of these Map-less characters failed to be stars, although they’re clearly “too far from home” where they’ve “lost all control” in “those high rolling hills Above all the lights With a passion that kills” … themselves.  There are a lot of cinema-industry-recognizable-names dropped in this film to give the right context, just as there’s a wicked sense of satire beneath all this death-embracing-desperation, but the end result just comes off as too sad and obscure to fully appreciate what was clearly intended.
                                Focus (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
A top-of-the-line thief/conman takes on a talented apprentice but keeps his romantic distance from her until he’s in the midst of a huge scheme that becomes complicated by her sudden appearance and his emerging passion; the whole purpose here is to keep you guessing as to what to believe about what's presented to you and where the plot twists will take you next.
What Happens: Our story begins in NYC with an extremely successful con-man, Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), amused at how poorly an amateur hustler, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), attempts to make a mark of him; with a story (never verified) that she’s had a hard life as a dyslexic-former-foster-kid, she appeals to his sympathies (and impresses him with her research abilities, including the disturbing information that Nicky’s father was so dedicated to the con life that he was forced to kill Nicky’s grandfather in order to maintain a busted scenario) so he teaches her some tricks, which she proves quite adept at, including the importance of focus (both from the standpoint of the player in terms of constantly scanning the environment for unanticipated changes and from the standpoint of getting the mark to focus on something else while you steal a wallet, watch, etc.) and the essential advice of “never drop the con” so that you always give yourself a chance to weasel out of any unanticipated consequences.  Once she’s ready, they’re off to New Orleans (for what appears to be the Super Bowl between a couple of fictional teams—I guess the NFL trademarks were too expensive to use or the NFL brass didn’t want themselves associated with the undercover gambling that goes on at such an event [they were probably “shocked, shocked” to even hear of such a thing in the script]) to join his 30-person team pickpocketing and otherwise amassing an enormous haul ($1.2 million) from unsuspecting victims; however, Nicky’s got a gambling problem so when he and Jess take up residence in a luxury box at the game she’s horrified to watch him get into increasingly-huge-bets with another compulsive bettor, Liyuan Tse (B.D. Wong), losing their entire stash before winning it back in a crazy double-or-nothing challenge where Liyuan gets to pick any player at field level, with Jess needing to guess which one he took.  They win the bet when Jess recognizes one of their theft-team suited up but has no idea how Liyuan was “programmed” to respond to his uniform number until Nicky explains the elaborate mechanisms by which his crew kept subtly exposing their mark to variations of 55 until it became a sense of “intuition,” costing him several million dollars.  However, despite Jess’ sense of chemistry with Nicky (it’s clear that a streetcar named "Desire" is back on the tracks again in the Big Easy), he abruptly leaves her, vowing to never get involved with one of his coworkers (fundamental advice from his father, even though their relationship is strained because Dad thinks Sonny’s too soft, therefore Nicky’s despised “Mellow” nickname from “Marshmallow”—despite the misspelling).

 3 years later we’re in Buenos Aires for a Formula One sports-car-race where Nicky’s once again involved in a high-stakes-con, this time working for wealthy-team-owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) with a plan for Nicky to come across as a disgruntled Garriga mechanic who’s willing to sell his boss’ exclusive EXR fuel-use-algorithm for a hefty sum to a rival Australian team owner, McEwan (Robert Taylor), but it’ll be a slightly-ill-performing-fake, giving Garriga even better odds of winning the upcoming big event.  However, Garriga’s older, gruff security head, Owens (Gerald McRaney), distrusts Nicky to the point of constantly keeping an eye on him, which provides some difficulties when Nicky discovers that Jess is now Garriga’s girlfriend which makes him crazy-jealous, even though she keeps turning down his forgive-and-forget-offers in order to run off with him after the con’s finished.  As it turns out, the con’s even more elaborate than we thought because Nicky sells the real algorithm program to all of the competitors for identical 3 million Euros payoffs (with each supposedly-individual-transaction concluded by “With friends like you, who needs luck?” from the unsuspecting dupes), but as he tries to escape with Jess and the enormous haul (how that much cash in a bag doesn’t set off complications at airport security isn’t a question we’re supposed to ponder) they’re run down by Owens, taken to Garriga.  Nicky tries to get Jess released as not knowing about his super-scam, but she tearfully reveals that she was never intimate with Garriga, instead was just playing him to get close enough to steal his expensive watch.  As tensions mount, Owens cracks and shoots Nicky, sending Garriga quickly out the door of the warehouse, at which point we ultimately find out that Owens is Nicky’s adoptive father, Bucky Spurgeon, that the whole thing was a familial-ruse to get all that cash but scare Garriga away, even though it involved trusting Owens to shoot precisely where only a lung rather than an artery would be damaged so that Nicky could be rushed to a hospital.  On the trip, though, Owens leaves with the cash as punishment for Nicky losing focus in his attempt to save Jess, but as the lovers stagger toward an ER she reveals that she got the watch so we know they’ll have a stake with which to start building a new luxurious life by the careful, clandestine robbing of future unsuspecting victims.

So What? Although we soon learn that we can never be sure who or what to trust in this movie (Jess soon gets so good at pickpocketing that she’s able to lift Nicky’s wallet, so we’re given early-on-subtle-hints that potentially nothing is secure here plot-wise, although I’ll admit that I was taken in by the precision-scam at the Super Bowl because I’d previously seen Nicky make expensively-bad-roulette-and-racetrack-choices, even as the events of the film led me to mistakenly think this shiny-surface-diversion was actually ready to head into more serious waters about what happens when a gambler’s incessant desires put him into really dangerous situations, as with Mark Wahlberg’s character in the much-more-intentionally-serious The Gambler (Rupert Wyatt, 2014; review in our January 9, 2015 posting), the results are generally satisfying.  Once I realized that I’d been conned along with Mr. Liyuan, I assumed from there on out that this was definitely intended to be more of a lighthearted-caper- game, as with the George Clooney-led-Ocean’s Eleven, etc. (Steven Soderbergh; 2001, 2004, 2007)-heist-romps, that is until Owens pulled the trigger on Nicky, in that his investment in the con was so well-maintained that I never thought twice he was anything but a loyal bodyguard, especially after an audience-intended-red-herring-scene where Owens comes upon Nicky in his hotel room with Jess ducking around behind them trying to hide, even as the dialogue is carefully crafted so that while it’s true that neither of the finally-accepting-lovers wants Owens to know about their liaison the 2 men manage to dance around that bit of hidden activity without revealing anything about their family ties nor their hidden agenda (or, if so, I can’t recall clues in retrospect but don’t intend to watch this all again just to find out).  Even after we learn Owens’ true identity, I assumed the blood spurting out of Nicky’s chest was the fake result of some sort of a stuntman-squib-device so to find out that he was really in a death-defying-situation did help turn this into more than the formula-picture that it sometimes seems determined to be.  Furthermore, the location filming in NYC, New Orleans, and Buenos Aires makes for a great visual treat, just as the lavish surroundings that Nicky and Jess inhabit as their plots thicken provide a final sense of vicarious-vacation to these locations, with the grim options of tragedy never taken too far for too long so that the pleasurable-mystery-and-romance-movie-elements stay in the foreground.

Bottom Line Final Comments: (By the way, don’t get confused that this one’s titled Focus while Maps to the Stars comes from the Focus Features studio; it’s simply a coincidence that has nothing to do with paring these movies for this posting—that choice all rests with notorious Nina.)  Focus is a lot of fun to watch (you may even pick up tips about picking up watches, but if you get caught don’t drop the con that you’ve been secretly seduced by a psychologically-manipulative-movie-director into unwittingly turning to a luxury-laden-life-of-crime), its calculated traumas are easily resolved, and most everything here is a visual pleasure including the attractive Smith, Robbie, and Santoro, but it evaporates after viewing as quickly as a light sprinkle in our parched Central California San Joaquin Valley (quickly losing its status as the U.S.A.’s premiere farming territory).  For a more intense and impactful plot about a crafty-con-game-gone-wrong, I’ll refer you to a recent Netflix viewing of mine, House of Games (David Mamet, 1987 [his directorial debut; he also wrote the screenplay from one of his own co-written-stories), which I’ll happily spare you the spoilers about so that you can more fully enjoy its surprises if you’re not already familiar with it.  As for Focus, I’ll finish off with a Musical Metaphor of “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (from the 1971 Cher album, later retitled to the name of this song) at starring Cher from her “Dress To Kill (D2K)” tour at the Honda Center, Anaheim, CA July 9, 2014, a 5:15 version of the normally-short-song introduced with a circus sideshow atmosphere very appropriate to the elaborate structures set up by directors Ficarra and Requa in Focus (However, despite the visual complexity of this clip it doesn’t have great sound quality and segues toward the end into another tune so if you want a more immersive version of the song try this one at from TV’s Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour sometime in the early 1970s [the show ran from 1971-1974], which eventually turned into its own scam as the divorced couple attempted to preserve their public popularity by reviving their act as The Sonny & Cher Show [1976-1977] even though they were no longer the adorable lovebirds so embraced by middle America—despite their pop music beginnings as genial hippie-like-outsiders, with clothes and hair that were ahead of the eventual culture-wide-trend.)
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Here’s some more information about Maps to the Stars: (trailer in English but—for your multi-lingual-education the dialogue’s also in French and featuring language appropriate to the R rating; if you’d prefer a more conventional, f-word-sanitized-trailer here’s one at (10:58 interview from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival with director David Cronenberg, actors Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, and Sarah Gadon)

Here’s some more information about Focus: (be sure and scroll from left to right as there’s quite a bit here) (4:15 interview with Will Smith) and (4:36 interview with Margot Robbie) in which the lead actors discuss their characters

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Julianne Moore's "look" in Map to the Stars made me flash on Sharon Tate's "Jennifer North" in Valley of the Dollls... if she had made it to middle age!

  2. Hi Thomas, Great comment! Thanks for the reply. Ken