At the New Zealand International Film Festival: from Iceland to Hollywood, from the warm-hearted to the satirically grotesque.
With a pleasant if unexpected change in subject, Aaron Katz, along with co-writer/director Martha Stephens (of whom I was not previously aware), have turned their lo-fi aesthetic to a comic septuagenarian road movie in Land Ho!. Associated with the mumblecore movement, Katz, as with the other filmmakers who fit that tenuous assignation (Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, the Duplass brothers, Alex Ross Perry etc.), usually makes films about people from within a decade of his own age group such as the teens of his 2006 feature debut Dance Party, USA and the college students/graduates from 2010’s Cold Weather. To see him apply the same naturalistic, dialogue-primary technique to a film about a couple of older gentlemen is quite refreshing. This change was evident in the senior-dominated mid-week full house in which my viewing occurred, and I wonder how differently we experienced the film?
We meet old friends Colin and Mitch about to jet off on an off-the-cuff holiday across Iceland, the sudden trip perceived as both a boon and cause for contention. Not having seen each other for some time—Colin is a retired bank manager from Australia, Mitch a surgeon from Kentucky, USA—you quickly get the sense that these two have had a fair amount of water pass under their relationship bridge and that the ties that bind have little to do with common interest. Colin is brash; the big-talking type full of ribald opinions (he sees himself as quite the ladies’ man) where Colin seems friendly in a more reserved fashion and far more aware of social niceties. The two men encounter various English speaking travellers along the way, these interactions serving as the stage for much awkwardness mostly due to Mitch’s seeming obsession with sex and trying it on with younger women. This extends to ‘helping’ Colin, such as when arranges a ‘big night out’ with his cousin and her friend who have been staying in Greenland and fly over to meet up. Despite these occasional happenstances the pair spends the majority of the film in each other’s company driving, walking, eating, (not) sleeping, and, most importantly, talking. There is a healthy dose of humour permeating the script with Mitch painted as somewhat the overbearing dinosaur, inducing laughs and cringes in equal measure. This veil of comedy covers some serious self-examination; the relationship played out between the two men alternately fun and fractious with an underlying warmth and earned sense of understanding. Land Ho! showcases the same classic kinds of relationship conundrums which are avoided, angled at, and talked through in most other ‘mumblecore’ films. Did I mention there’s a fair amount of pot smoked? Again, it is refreshing to see these issues picked at through the lens of a different demographic.
The two leads have good chemistry, with Paul Eenhoorn bringing more experience to the subtler role of Colin. You wouldn’t know that Mitch is only Earl Lynn Nelson’s third role; having worked on both Martha Stephens’s two prior features would at least give him some degree of comfort regarding working style. A blend of lo-fi naturalism and the picturesque, the filmmakers, including Katz’s go to cameraman Andrew Reed, make shrewd use of some stunning locales such as mountain hot-springs, an active geyser, and a remote road which fords its way through set of twisting waterways. Ironically one of the key shots which has stuck with me is an inside shot, the opening shot in fact. The film opens with a three-frames-in-one composition. On the outside is the actual widescreen frame. Within this, the frame is naturally blocked by walls and doorways etc. into an approximated centred 4:3 frame where we see Mitch doing the vacuuming. Inside this ‘frame’ there is a ‘wide aspect’ window looking out through which we can see Colin arriving. I wonder if this is indicative of differences in character perspective. I may be reaching and this may simply have been a clever shot but the film is awash with inventive camera set-ups, which are achieved without creating a sense of distance between the viewer and the subjects. Branching out earlier with incredibly slow-burn crime thriller elements in Cold Weather and now with subject and setting in Land Ho! seems to suit Katz. This warm-hearted road comedy as character study proves an easy, enjoyably thoughtful watch.
David Cronenberg’s unsettling, uneven Maps to the Stars likewise sees this veteran director mixing things up. The film strikes me as mesh of his earlier grotesque and more recent cold psychological sensibilities (in tone, The Fly meets A History of Violence, perhaps). A bitterly biting satire whose entire construction seems to be an extended, not-attempting-to-be-subtle metaphor—THIS IS AN INCESTUOUS SELF-SERVING INDUSTRY, anyone?—Cronenberg perfectly skewers a myriad of all too familiar stereotypes, from insecure aging stars in specialised therapy, to awful child celebs in rehab, to wannabe actor-writers employed in low level service jobs and lorded over by their peers-in-aspiration.
Over-emoting in the epicentre of this giant shitstorm is Julianne Moore in a stunning performance as post-supernova star Havana Segrand. Desperation seeps from her every pore as she anguishes over getting the lead role in a remake of the film which made her long-dead mother famous. It is telling that Havana lets her insecurities show to her subordinates but presents a barely credible nonchalant veneer to her peers. The former group are treated (by all the powerful characters) almost as non-people; certainly not worth covering your dirty laundry in front of as illustrated in a perversely delicious bathroom scene—implicit in ‘class structure’ is a natural feed into the tabloid industry but Cronenberg doesn’t touch on this directly. The latter group of vocational equals may be shaded from explicit malice but this is really only a few millimeters away from their beautiful if occasionally ruffled surfaces. Cronenberg and Moore do an excellent job of playing Segrand at the pitiable end of likeable only to have her transmute into the most awful of human beings and back again. Mia Wasikowska brings to bear all her ambiguous qualities in the role of not-so-hapless star seeker Agatha who arrives in L.A., hires a fancy car (driven by recent Cronenberg alumnus Robert Pattinson, an aspiring actor-writer of course!), and enquires after the titular Maps. Indeed the entire support cast sinks their teeth into their universally despicable roles. Evan Bird (AMC’s The Killing) stands out as enfant terrible Benjie Weiss, star of the (fictitious) Bad Babysitter franchise. I also enjoyed both John Cusack and Olivia Williams’s performances as Benjie’s indulgent and equally self-absorbed parents Dr Stafford (self-help guru) and Christina Weiss.
Maps to the Stars shares some thematic DNA with David Lynch’s more surreally self-obfuscating Hollywood dissection Mulholland Drive (2001), though Cronenberg and co. pick a generally brighter, harsher visual aesthetic. Where Cronenberg’s project falls down at times is in the writing, which sees the narrative stutter and stumble into self-reflexive knots. This, and the fact that virtually all the characters are dislikeable, may likely present problems for some viewers but if you can connect with the wry, sometimes acerbic humour on display, you’ll find there is plenty of thoughtful mirth to be mined therein.