Friday, August 2, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: THE CANYONS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Paul Schrader.  Written by Bret Easton Ellis.  Cast: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, Gus Van Sant, Jim Boeven, Victor of Aquitane, Lily Labeau, Thomas Trussell. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Despite the rollercoaster nature of his career, Paul Schrader has cemented his place in film history.  As a screenwriter, he penned such influential Martin Scorsese films as TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and directed his own scripts for memorable films like BLUE COLLAR (1978), HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), and LIGHT SLEEPER (1992).  While his name is inextricably linked with Scorsese's in the eyes of devout cinephiles (Schrader also wrote Scorsese's 1999 film BRINGING OUT THE DEAD), Schrader generally hasn't enjoyed the accolades and mainstream adoration that his old friend has.  He's had a hard time bouncing back from the EXORCIST prequel debacle of a decade ago that saw producers shelving his film and remaking it from scratch with Renny Harlin (Schrader's version was eventually given a limited release, and go figure, it's much better than Harlin's, but the damage was already done).  Schrader made two small indie films after that:  2007's THE WALKER and 2008's ADAM RESURRECTED, a bizarre, little-seen Holocaust drama headlined by what might be Jeff Goldblum's career-best performance.  30 years ago, Schrader was one of the leading voices in cinema.  Today, at 67, he's reduced to THE CANYONS, a $250,000 indie, funded mostly by Kickstarter contributions, and starring the infamously unemployable Lindsay Lohan.

People in career ruts are often capable of very quietly doing their best work when no one's paying any attention, but that can't be the case here with perpetual tabloid magnet Lohan.  Rather than go about their work, the tumultuous making of THE CANYONS, from behind-the-scenes disagreements between the filmmakers (Less Than Zero and American Psycho novelist Bret Easton Ellis wrote the script) to Lohan's unpredictable behavior, was very publicized and everyone seemed to be waiting anxiously to pile on what was all but guaranteed to be a disaster.  It is a disaster, but not for those reasons.  Lohan is the most competent actor in the film, even if by default.  She stars as Tara, who lives with her boyfriend Christian (insanely prolific porn star James Deen, veteran of anywhere between 1000 and 4000 adult films since 2004, whose most recent credits include ANAL STUDENTS 2, COME INSIDE ME, GANGBANGED 6, and ANAL BUFFET 8), a trust-fund douchebag and all-around sociopath who's working as a B-movie producer to show his father that he's doing something with his time and his generous allowance.  Christian's main concern is manipulating everyone around him, particularly Tara, for whom he frequently arranges anonymous male and female sex partners for threesomes or to just watch.  Tara was once an aspiring actress, but now just shops, drinks, and fucks, and she's been seeing her ex-boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk), who's in a relationship with Christian's assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks).  Christian is bankrolling a slasher movie Gina scripted for Ryan to star in, and he starts having suspicions that Tara is involved with someone else, even going so far as to have a hoodie-wearing flunky follow her.  Christian's jealousies still don't prevent him from regularly visiting yoga-instructor/part-time actress/fuck-buddy Cynthia (Tenille Houston), who knows Ryan from a past acting class.  Christian, who's OK with Tara being with other guys if he's there to watch or partake, eventually figures out that Ryan is the guy Tara's seeing and sets out to sabotage his career, first by convincing a gay co-producer (Jim Boeven) to seduce him and then by having a hacker drain his bank account.  Eventually, Christian's crazed jealousy and his lust for power drive him to extreme measures to keep Tara under his thumb.

THE CANYONS is a film filled with loathsome assholes.  Even the one ostensibly "good" character (Ryan) turns out to be a completely repellent creep.  Tara is an opportunistic leech.  She doesn't really love or even like Christian, but goes along with his degrading sexual mind games because it beats working for a living.  When Ryan asks her if she's happy with him, she coldly replies "Who said anything about happy?  He takes care of me."  These characters are vintage Bret Easton Ellis all the way:  vapid, empty, self-loathing, over-privileged, and drowning in ennui.  They fit right in with every other Hollywood Hills stereotype.  But Schrader just blows his opportunity to make whatever statement he was trying to make.  He hates these characters as much as they hate themselves, and the key to Schrader's hate lies in frequent photos of closed-down movie theaters.  They're haunting images that play under the credits and are seen throughout the film.  Is Schrader mourning the death of Hollywood?  Is he making some statement about trust-fund kids and social media attention-whores more concerned with celebrity than talent or art?  It's a valid argument, but Schrader goes about it the wrong way.  There's no shortage of examples of angry Hollywood filmmakers taking vitriolic aim at the movie business.  Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981), and Robert Altman's THE PLAYER (1992) are textbook cases.  But Schrader's misguided approach is as subtle as a jackhammer and it doesn't take you long to imagine him grumbling "In my day..." as if self-absorption, all manner of excess, and sucking/fucking your way to the top didn't happen in the 1970s.  Or before.

The biggest problem with THE CANYONS is that the potentially explosive combination of Schrader and Ellis ultimately has nothing substantive to say.  Does Schrader have a point or is he just mad that Scorsese hasn't called him lately?  In what purports to be a eulogy for the ways of cinema past, where old movie theaters are closed and left to rot, where toasts of the town now can't find a job, and where a schadenfreude-driven 24/7 "news" culture and relentless paparazzi live to watch the rich and famous implode, Schrader is railing against Tinseltown sycophants, bottom-feeders, and star-fuckers, but doesn't seem to realize that in doing so, in this fashion, that he becomes part of the problem.  Maybe he thinks he's fighting it from the inside, but in doing a movie bankrolled by a Kickstarter campaign, and hitching himself to a tabloid train wreck like Lohan and making sure everyone knows she's going to be naked and doing three-and-four-ways and starring opposite an active porn actor reeks of the same crass, cynical, exploitative opportunism that he's supposed to be pissed off about.

Director Paul Schrader

And he might've pulled it off if the end result wasn't so amateurish.  Lohan is the most professional actor in the film, and the many long conversations between the characters play like filmed rehearsals.  Lohan tries--and there's one great, fourth-wall-breaking shot during a sex scene where she looks right into the camera in a truly jarring moment (she was reportedly looking at Schrader, who stripped naked to direct the scene in order to make her more comfortable)--but the film only serves as a reminder of her well-documented offscreen problems.  On that note, it's perfect casting, especially since she's 27 and doesn't look a day under 40.  But it's just a missed opportunity with too much facile, ham-fisted messaging, and Schrader just cashes out when he turns the film into a rote "obsessive psycho" thriller and it becomes painfully apparent that he doesn't know how to wrap this up.  There's a few positives:  the shots of the vacant, dilapidated theaters have an eerie quality, but there's a ton of web sites devoted to that sort of thing, and there's an early shot of an upscale, outdoor shopping center where everyone is staring blankly at their smartphones while shopping for nothing in particular that has a stark Antonioni feeling of cold disconnect.  But it's all downhill from there, and even the much-ballyhooed sex scenes aren't that explicit (nor are they erotic, but they aren't supposed to be), so all the hype was really for naught, much like the entire endeavor. There's an almost mid-1970s Jess Franco quality to the crudeness of this project, and on that end, I'm sure THE CANYONS will quickly find passionate defenders.  It's cheap and it doesn't try to make itself look like a bigger movie than it is.  It looks like the kind of movie that's funded by a trust-fund kid and a Kickstarter campaign.  The difference is that, unlike Franco, Schrader doesn't seem happy with what he's doing, and the misery is contagious.

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