The Vabina Monologues

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To understand the title (above), you have to see the film, MAPS TO THE STARS. Trouble is, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

David Cronenberg’s latest, written by Bruce Wagner, deals with a set of interlocking Hollywood lives, and contains thriller elements, but differs from THE PLAYER in the blackness of the humour (several shades darker) and I guess in the fact that the film isn’t really interested in movies at all. Altman, who likewise dropped names and threw in familiar faces to boost the verisimilitude, really did want to talk about why movies had gotten so bad. The Wagner/Cronenberg is more about American culture in general. I guess it’s another science fiction film in the manner of CRASH, in that it extrapolates modern mores a little bit on from where they are. For all the denials that it’s satire, that’s exactly what it is.

Julianne Moore is excellent — Kidmanesque in her characters cringey phoniness. John Cusack, very good, his jet-black hair and eyeliner as bold a choice, arguably, as Moore’s nudity and mania (Fiona did wonder if it was how he really styles himself). Mia Wasikowska, weird and affecting. Robert Pattinson, not really stretched at all. Olivia Williams — always, ALWAYS excellent. Evan Bird (the kid) seems like he could play the role but needs a few more takes much of the time. He’s not helped by Cronenberg’s customary deadpan stillness, which feels stilted when applied to the teenage characters. There’s not much sense of life’s messiness and noise here, everything’s so cool and composed, but rather flat and televisual rather than making something interesting out of the stasis.

(What Cronenberg is always really good at shooting is modern architecture — Toronto, basically. But there’s not much of that glossy, alienated beauty here, though the movie could use it.)

There’s some complicated backstory (two fires in the past?) and the Gothic aspects of the story involving incest and schizophrenia did not much convince — and what point was being made by their inclusion? Surely the point of celebrity culture is that it can make you crazy even if you’re not the offspring of married siblings? Some of the gross ideas shocked, but the “shocking revelations” certainly didn’t.

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And the attempts to evoke madness — curiously unchilling. Cronenberg is usually at his best when he has historical settings and bizarre imagery to punch up his laid-back shooting style, and his portrayals of insanity from the inside out have been most effective when he can show you crazy stuff and make you believe it’s real. There’s a moment in SPIDER that always really bothered me, maybe because I’d read a copy of the script before seeing it and imagined the scene a certain way. Young Spider’s mother, Miranda Richardson, has turned her back, and he hears her say that she’s killed his mother and taken her place. Now, this line is his hallucination. I felt very strongly that the line should have played over her back, from his POV. Cronenberg films it full-face. I guess he meant to give it more force, make it seem more real, but I would have felt it more from the boy’s angle.

Here, the various hallucinations — everybody seems to be having them — should have a Lynchian creep factor but just lie there. The theoretically clever idea of robbing them of sound effects, so that bathwater sloshes in silence, don’t carry any uncanny impact because of the dialogue and the Howard Shore music all over them. I can’t see Lynch making this movie, but in a way he would have been a better fit. He’d have pushes his own interests into it, which Cronenberg is disinclined to do. He’s become an adaptor in recent years, and it’s really questionable how much of his own personality he’s able to force into the material. In NAKED LUNCH, yes, and CRASH, but those works already had influenced his outlook greatly. We would like to see some full-on Cronenberg, but not a self-pastiche.

There’s a bit of CGI that’s so poor — unreleasably poor — that you think, “Oh dear, someone else has started hallucinating,” when in fact they probably haven’t. I’m still not sure though.

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Still, looking back at the Cronenbergs that disappointed me at the time, I find I feel quite fondly about them now, whether I’ve revisted them or not, so maybe I’ll grow to like this one more.

***

Hey, producers! I went looking for stills of this film and found mainly behind-the-scenes paparazzi shots and images of Julianne Moore. Obviously, her Oscar campaign is underway, however you are also theoretically selling a movie that’s on release and Pattinson and Miakowska have fans too. Has the movie still quietly died? LET US PREY, the film Fiona & I are credited with writing, is now gearing up for an actual US release but you can only find about four images from it online (one of them depicting a major character’s death). Stills seem to me to still have use…

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14 Responses to “The Vabina Monologues”

  1. Fiona here – David, you gave away a major plot point WITHOUT a spoiler alert. Get it sorted!

  2. “Spoiler” alerts are anti-intellectual, Fiona. Films are NOT their “plots.” Declaring any discussion of them off-limits is an attack on serious film criticism. “Rosebud” was his sled, and Judy and Madeline are — as in The Lady Eve — “the same dame.”

    (the last mentioned point figures in Walter Reuben’s superb The David Whiting Story , which I hope you get to see ASAP.)

  3. Attacks on serious film criticism are always welcome.

  4. I think the character who is a child of incestuous union declares this fact during act one, so it’s fair game for reviews. Of course, we may not realize she’s telling the truth at this point… but as it basically makes no difference to the narrative, or none that makes any real sense, I’m not going to worry about it.

  5. Someone dropping a spoiler in a post has never bothered me. Sometimes it’s an obvious reveal given the filmmaker and genre, other times it motivates me to see just how the film got there. I do understand others get very angry, as thought the pleasure to be had in a film are those shocking reveals.

  6. This one’s a borderline case, but Cronenberg is not M. Night Shyamalan.

  7. Fiona here – David E, I certainly didn’t mean to be anti-intellectual. I feel plot IS an important part of the film going experience. It’s not the only part, sure. And it depends on the film itself. I think I over-reacted because a) I hadn’t woken up properly when I saw the piece this morning, and b) I had a particularly nasty experience on the IMDB a few years ago involving a user review of The Skin I Live In. Some holier than thou little twat had seen it, worked themselves up into a moral lather, almost as if they’d watched it just to be offended by it, then, without proper warning, spilled the narrative twist. I was furious. Ever since then I’ve been wary about reviews that give away too much plot. My comment was a reflex action, given without much thought. I’ve let you all down…(slopes off into the shadows to hide shame)

  8. It’s a legitimate area of concern. And this one does tread close to the mark.

    “Serious film criticism” — I’m not sure I’ve ever been accused of that, and I’m not sure much of it clusters around the new releases, which typically are the one area where spoilers are considered important.

    Or, as Lucy said to Linus, “Rosebud was his sled.”

  9. I’ve been very curious about this one because Bruce Wagner’s I’M LOSING YOU (which I watched for the soundtrack music, of all things) really got its hooks into me, and also because of Olivia Williams. Although she couldn’t save HANNA for me, so I’m keeping me hopes partly checked.

  10. Fiona there are so many plot and character twists in The Skin I Live In that the revelation of one of them would scarcely “give it all away,” IMO.

    The Norman is really Mom may be “The Big Reveal” in Psycho, but after you’ve learned it the film’s power to profoundly disturb remains.

    I cannot seriously write about a film without “spoiling” it for someone who has no desire to read serious criticism in the firs place — much less see serious films.

  11. F here. Again. I certainly agree with you about Psycho.There are many, many pleasures to be derived from it apart from plot, but what we’re actually talking about is story telling (unless it’s an abstract film not concerned with narrative). Would you be happy if the reviewer of a book you were looking forward to reading, told you the entire plot? So. You’re right. Plot is not the whole story. And, you’re wrong, story can be very important. We’re hard wired to appreciate story telling. We’ve been doing it for millennia.

  12. I remember Amy Taubin’s pre-release review of Alien Cubed, sorry Alien3, in the intellectually spoiler-tastic Sight and Sound that began something like, “As Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley falls to her death ….”.

    I’m with you, Fiona.

  13. I could be wrong here… did Taubin complain about all the closeups and put it down to Fincher’s MTV training, missing out on the influence of The Passion of Joan of Arc? If so, deduct several intellectual credits.

    There ought to be places where you can discuss films freely including plot details… Sight & Sound should probably be one of them. But there should also be places which offer warnings or refrain. Different rules for different situations.

  14. F here. That sounds like an excellent idea! And relax…

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