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The Canyons (2013)

large_qtKExvkEHDWf5hcN3BRLZ8tWrCYBefore Veronica Mars success on the high-profile crowd-sourced fundraising site Kickstarter, there was The Canyons. Written by novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less Than Zero) and directed by Oscar-nominee Paul Schrader (Affliction, Taxi Driver), it promised to be a more legit opportunity for fans to fund a real movie, something they could actually see on the big screen. The production successfully raised a budget of $150,000 with rewards like script coverage by Schrader, working out at the gym with Ellis and his physical trainer, and Robert DeNiro’s moneyclip from Taxi Driver. The little production that could got even more press when tabloid darling Lindsay Lohan was cast as the female lead. The New York Times released a lengthy blow-by-blow in January of the tumultuous film shoot, mostly centered around Lohan and her antics. It was a fascinating read. The Canyons is a better behind-the-scenes news article than a competent sexy thriller. The best actor in the film is a prominent male porn star. Make of that what you will.

In the City of Angels, Christian (James Deen) is spinning a web of deceit. He regularly invites other men over to have sex with his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan). His assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), has a boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), who wants to be an actor. She convinces Christian to offer him a small part. It just so happens that Ryan and Tara used to date back when they were struggling actors. They’ve also started a new affair. Christian suspects something is amiss and schemes to punish and destroy Ryan and his dreams of Hollywood fame. Meanwhile Ryan is trying to scheme himself to get Tara to finally leave the rich and luxurious clutches of Christian.

linday_lohan_james_deen_the_canyonsWoe to thee expecting a plot or characters worth watching. Despite the presence of artistic heavyweights like Ellis and Schrader, The Canyons is a movie that does a disservice to the word bland. This movie is powerfully bland. There’s just nothing to attach to other than the fascination of Lohan. The characters are posh, privileged, unlikable, and morally slipshod, which is the Ellis specialty. Except in the past he’s given them personalities to go along with their nihilistic narcissism. Christian is a pale likeness of Patrick Bateman and has no charisma or intriguing sense of darkness to him, something to keep you watching. Mostly he’s just a jerk. But he’s not even an interesting jerk. The plot is a merry-go-round of infidelity, as numerous characters have secret paramours, which makes their cumulative jealousy all the more absurd. What does Christian have to get so upset about? He invites men and women over to have sex with Tara. They even engage in a foursome. I suppose there is the limp argument that he’s not in control, but how tedious is that? Ultimately, you’re watching Bland Character A complain to Bland Character B about how unhappy Bland Character C makes them. This scenario repeats many times. I wish there was more gratuitous nudity to hold my attention. It’s a soap opera that you want to turn off. The entire screenplay feels like weak, reheated Ellis depravity without anything memorable.

Here’s an example of how lazy the screenwriting gets: after Christian is done having sex with Cynthia (Tenille Houston), a yoga teacher (that’s one way of doing it), they relax. In this scene, Cynthia asks questions that have no real purpose other than to advance exposition, and it’s sorely obvious. It’s all, “What did she mean by that?” and, “Why would you go to this place?” Every screenplay has exposition but the trick is to make it as invisible as possible. Pacific Rim did a particularly great job at masking its exposition so that it arrived in a way that didn’t feel like the plot was stalling. The fact that Ellis doesn’t even put forth any effort to disguise what is naked and clunky exposition just speaks to an overall sense of lethargy or indifference on his part with the script. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellis knocked this out over one long, monotonous weekend.

The other mortal misstep is that Schrader makes the movie so serious that you’ll find yourself laughing at spots. This is not great material to begin with, nor compelling characters, but it could have, emphasis on “could,” worked had the production embraced its silly sense of luridness. There’s a reason we’re more forgiving of late-night thrillers with copious amounts of vice. They accept their identity. I think Schrader may have read Ellis’ lackluster script and envisioned another Looking for Mr. Goodbar (I’m not confusing it with Schrader’s own American Gigolo). This is not a morality tale but Schrader seems to think otherwise. I don’t sense any cohesive commentary about young people and their sexual mores or the predominance of technology and its negative impact on human connection. Christian and Tara text at the dinner table. He films “movies” on his phone of their sexual trysts with strangers culled from Craigstlist. There’s a big difference just including these items and actually having something to say. Schrader opens and closes the film with montages of rundown movie theaters, many shuttered up and long out of business. What am I supposed to decipher from this exactly? Tara asks Gina, who works in the movies, when was the last time she went and saw a movie, a film that honestly made her feel something. Gina is stumped, but that’s all you get for that thematic reference. Is Schrader taking out his ire on the state of Hollywood filmmaking and the studio system? Regardless, you won’t feel anything form The Canyons either.

lohan-canyons1So what truly is the draw here? Why would someone want to watch this movie? The only factor I can surmise, beyond morbid curiosity, is the presence of Lohan. I doubt this movie would seem as compelling absent the troubled actress. Would people be clamoring to see this movie if it starred, say, Hilary Duff instead? She’s been out of the limelight seemingly as long as Lohan but she’s also had a stable personal life. I won’t pretend I’m above this. I watched The Canyons out of sheer curiosity, and that inquisitiveness hinged upon Lohan. She hasn’t starred in a theatrically released movie since 2007’s I Know Who Killed Me (my #2 worst film of that year), and she’s fresh off the infamous Lifetime movie of Elizabeth Taylor that many websites turned into a derisive drinking game. There’s an undeniable rubbernecking quality here not to mention the prurient promise of Lohan taking off her clothes. Lohan’s acting on the other hand is less deserving of attention. There are a few moments where it feels like character and actress have merged, and her crying jags about lost opportunities, dreams gone awry, feel inescapably real for her. I think she would have been better served with a less solemn tone and more sudsy and sundry thrills.

Deen has the best feel for Ellis’ pulpy material, and while he doesn’t really click as a menacing figure even as he’s murdering people (he’s too much a Jewish boy next door type), he does come across as a megalomaniacal creep. Perhaps my expectations were just too low for a porn actor, so my apologies for my prejudices. Given the right material, Deen may surprise (not by his full-frontal nude scene). I do think that Katie Morgan (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) has the ability to transcend porn. She’s just so effortlessly charming, something that most of the actors in The Canyons have trouble with. Funk (House at the End of the Street) cannot get a good grip on his character’s emotions and thus he just seems pissy all the time. I’ll spare the other actors mentioning but I feel the need to inform that Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant plays Christian’s trust fund-mandated therapist. Guess what doesn’t work well?

Those seeking an outrageous exploitation film filled with soapy sex and intrigue, as well as pretty people behaving very badly, will be surely disappointed with The Canyons. I guess it all depends on your expectation level for a film that bypassed the traditional financial system and crowd-sourced on the basis of Schrader and Ellis’ notoriety. I’m glad that both artists found a conduit for collaboration and found a way to make it happen on the (relative) cheap. I just don’t know why it had to be this crummy story. Thematically, Schrader and Ellis seem to be completely at odds, which results in a super serious movie about terrible, and terribly boring, characters doing little else but indulging in vices and whining (also a vice?). Without the presence of Lohan to add a curiosity factor, there is honestly no good reason to spend good money on this dithering project. The moderate success of The Canyons is somewhat comforting, but really, this wasn’t a movie that deserved people’s donations, and it certainly doesn’t deserve your time.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

The Rules of Attraction is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ hedonistic 80s novel about boozing coked-out, aloof teenagers and their rampant debauchery. Roger Avary was Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner for years, with an Oscar sitting at home for co-writing Pulp Fiction. As a director Avary lays the visual gloss on thick utilizing camera tricks like split-screens and having entire sequences run backwards. While Ellis’ source material is rather empty, echoing the collegiate friendships bonded over substances or social lubricants, Avary does his best to represent the dazed world of college. Not the Tara Reid-integrated college of Van Wilder mind you.

We open with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) getting coldly deflowered by some drunk “townie” while the film buff she had her eyes on videotapes it. She’s just broken up with the bisexual and apathetic Paul (Ian Somerhalder), and both are interested in the dealing sociopath Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a self-described emotional vampire. Lauren keeps a picture book of venereal diseases to ward her from her wayward sexual urges. Her roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) needs no such book. Our introduction of Lara has her dancing down a hall, liquor bottle in each fist, bedding an entire sports team. Some attractions connect, many don’t. But the fun is watching the characters interact in their own seedy, yet often hilarious ways.

The best thing that The Rules of Attraction has going for it is its about-face, against-type casting. The film is populated with the WB’s lineup of clear-skinned goody-two-shoes getting a chance to cut loose. Van Der Beek broods like a predatory hawk and bursts with spontaneous rage. Biel sexes it up as a cocaine-addicted harlot who asks if she’s “anorexic skinny” or “bulimic skinny.” Even Fred-Wonder-Years-Savage shows up briefly to shoot up between his toes! We’re along way from the creek, Dawson Leary.

The adults of this world are no better than the kids. Eric Stoltz has an extended cameo of a duplicitous professor offering a higher GPA if any coeds are willing to go down on their morals. Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway show us that pill-popping ditherheads may likely breed drug-addled teenagers.

Attraction may have the most disturbing suicide I’ve ever witnessed in film. After having her advances rejected a woman slips into the bathtub, razor in hand. The scene is as unsettling as it is because the camera hangs on the poor woman’s face every second and we gradually see the life spill out of her as the music becomes distorted, not letting us escape the discomfort.

Some of Avary’s surface artifice works perfectly, like Victor’s whirlwind account of an entire semester in Europe. Some of the visual fireworks are distractions to the three-person narrative but the film is always alive with energy, even when it’s depressing you. What The Rules of Attraction does get right is the irrational nature of attraction. Each character is trying to fill an inaccessible void with what they think is love but will often settle for sex, drugs, or both.

The Rules of Attraction is made up of unlikable, miserable characters that effectively do nothing but find new ways to be miserable. It constantly straddles the line of exploitation and excess but maintains its footing. The movie is entirely vapid but it is indeed an indulgently fun yet depraved ride. If you’re looking for degeneracy instead of life affirmation, then The Rules of Attraction is your ticket.

Nate’s Grade: B

American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho is based on the controversial 1991 best seller by Bret Ellis though it got old fast. One can easily grasp how the lead connects with brand names on page one, but repeat it for 300 more and you’re tempted to add the book to your collection of firewood. Ellis’ novel was sadistically perverse, but director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has somehow managed to pull out an entertaining social satire from the pages of blood and name brands.

Christian Bale, mainly known as the boy-next-door in period piece films, plays Patrick Bateman with ferocious malevolence and vigorous life. Teen scream Leo was once considered for the part but after seeing Bale’s startling performance it should prove why he’s on screen and Leo’s swimming in The Beach. Bateman is an up-and-up Wall Street yuppie who glosses over appearance more than anything else. The only outlet it appears for our sinister shark from the soulless decade is by random acts of gruesome violence.

If Bateman blows off steam by blowing off companion’s heads than it only becomes more frustrating when no one believes his random confessions. Haron takes the grisly material of Ellis’ novel and mines it for pure 80s pulp. It only gets better the further it gets as you have so many points to discuss: Is Bateman acting out to prove his existence in a world that doesn’t humor him or others? Is he acting out deep-seeded rage from the actions of the decade on its people? Is he desensitized and so jaded that death does not even fracture him anymore? The questions are boundless.

The hit list of stars in Psycho includes Chloe Sevigny as a nailed home addition, Willem Dafoe as an investigative detective, Jared Leto as an axed co-worker, and sweet Reese Witherspoon as the apple of Bateman’s twisted eye. Everyone has fun in their tongue-in-cheek nostalgia romp through the absurd.

American Psycho should not be confused with the successful teen sex farce American Pie. The only desserts in this film are just, and they’re usually left of the mayonnaise and behind the frozen head in the refrigerator. American Psycho is the thinking man’s slasher movie. A flick that slices, dices, and always entices. It only gets better after you’ve seen it. One of the best films of 2000 for now.

Nate’s Grade: A

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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