Sunday, August 4, 2013


Lindsay Lohan and James Deen in The Canyons

Paul Schrader's The Canyons feels like two movies bound together. One is a winding, complicated story about petulant twits on the fringes of Hollywood. (It's written by Bret Easton Ellis, who specializes in writing about vapid people behaving badly.) The other film, the better one, is Schrader's smartly directed lament for a vanishing America. 

In a career that has included some great films, Schrader's opening montage of boarded up movie theaters is one of his finest moments. He returns to it again and again, using the old theaters the way Japanese filmmakers once used "pillow shots" to link one scene and the next.  Schrader's linking shots are melancholy, reminding us that eras sometimes come to an end before the next one is in place. The characters here -- trust-fund brats, part-time yoga teachers, wannabe actors, sleazy on-line swingers -- exist in this world of dead cinemas, empty shopping malls, and overpriced bistros. They never seem like fully formed people, but more like the weeds that sprout up unexpectedly in an alley.
The movie starts with promise. Schrader sets the table beautifully, introducing Christian (James Deen), a smug producer of low budget movies; his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan in Cleopatra makeup that looks like it was applied by a lazy drag queen), Christian's loyal assistant (Amanda Brooks), and her slightly thick boyfriend Ryan ( Nolan Gerard Funk ), a struggling actor who once loved Tara.  They're seen having dinner at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, celebrating the launch of a new film project. Their dinner conversation, which is mostly made up of Christian talking about sex, tapers off until they're all staring into their smartphones. 

If their lives seem on the verge of being crushed by ennui, we soon learn that there's a lot going on: Christian enjoys setting up Tara with creeps he meets on-line, pimping her out so he can add to his collection of personalized porn. Meanwhile, Tara is still seeing Ryan on the side. Christian realizes what's going on, and enlists his flunkies and underlings to help him end the affair.

There's a strong anti-Hollywood feel in The Canyons. Christian only produces movies because he wants to prove to his father that he can do something on his own. He couldn't care less about his latest project, which he describes as "a bunch of teenagers being tortured by a ghost in a warehouse." It also seems the key reason he objects to Ryan sleeping with Tara is because Ryan is "just some dumb actor." Tara's no movie buff, either. At one point she asks Gina, "Do you even like movies? When was the last time you went to one and it really meant something you?" The movie business as depicted here involves a lot of people doing favors for each other, and working on projects they don't like. There's also a lot impromptu oral sex that goes into making films, and everyone in the business seems to be someone's ex-lover. It can also be, quite literally, a cut-throat way of life. As for  Ryan the actor, he doesn't seem very bright; he's just consumed with rescuing Tara from Christian.
Despite there being a lot of commentary on modern  topics like smartphones, Internet sex, and the death of the cinema, The Canyons is actually a typical Schrader movie, harping on themes he's loved since the 1970s.  He did, after all, pen a famous story about a taxi driver trying to rescue a teen hooker.   Since Schrader is one of those directors who likes to tell moral stories by shoving his camera directly into the dirty stuff, it's not surprising that The Canyons features a lot of dangling flesh, both male and female. Still, Schrader does some of his best work in years, imbuing Ellis' smarmy script with a kind of lava-lamp glamor. The Canyons isn't a great movie, but it is, at times, highly watchable.

As played by Deen,  Christian is a moody sociopath with a fetish for control.   It's hard to be totally engaged by Deen - a real life pron performer who looks like a meaner version of former SNL star Chris Kattan - but  he creates a pretty good noir villain for 2013. He's not exactly Raymond Burr tormenting Grace Kelly, but in an era where Ashton Kutcher is a movie star, Deen's not bad.
Lohan is the film's anchor as Tara. She's convincing as a desperate young woman terrified of being broke, even if it means spreading her legs for any jerk Christian brings home. As good as she is, she's less successful with the sexual aspects of the character.  The role may have been written for a Sharon Stone type, someone more blatantly sexual; Lohan, although she looks older than  her age,  still seems too girlish, as if she's a high school student dressed  as a slut for Halloween.  Yet, Lohan is  more compelling than anyone else in the cast, and when she yells at Christian that she wants some of her life to remain private, it's as if she's dredging up feelings from her own tabloid past.

Much has been written about Lohan's problems during filming, and how Schrader stuck with her because he felt she brought something special to the film. Schrader's gamble paid off, for in close up Lohan  possesses a kind of bruised beauty, her puffy lips and mussed hair saying more about her character than most of Ellis' dialog. Lohan is not only the image of wasted American youth, but she's become the symbol of a lost generation, a human version of  the abandoned theaters that open the film.
There's no telling if The Canyons will be a breakthrough  for Lohan. For a film billed as an "erotic thriller," it's not particularly erotic or thrilling.  Lohan, though, is very fine in it.  If anyone ever dares to remake  Barfly,  she gets my vote for Faye Dunaway's role.

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