Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: "The Canyons"

Director: Paul Schrader
Runtime: 100 minutes

From its opening montage of abandoned theaters, it's clear that Paul Schrader's The Canyons has something to say about the state of movies and modern forms of entertainment consumption. Yet only moments after this solemn opening, it becomes clear that Schrader and screenwriter/novelist Bret Easton Ellis are on wildly different paths. Part commentary, and part sleazy sex drama, The Canyons has basic sketches of ideas rooted in fertile ground. Unfortunately, this micro-budget film never takes its ideas past the sketching stage; the final product tries to say too much, and winds up saying absolutely nothing.

One of the film's big selling points is the return of troubled actress Lindsay Lohan to the silver screen. Here she's cast as Tara, the girlfriend of slasher director Christian (porn star James Deen). The pair enjoy sexual trysts with strangers who they meet - where else? - via apps on their phones and tablet computers. Yet even though Tara is fine with these free-wheeling sexcapades, it's clear that Christian is the dominant (perhaps too dominant) voice in the relationship. There's also some nonsense about Tara's former flame Ryan (Nolan Funk) and his girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks), who happens to be Christian's assistant. As expected, things take a dark turn once the couples collide, and Christian's mistress (Tenille Houston) turns the love quadrangle into a pentagon.

Yet for all of its connections among its characters, with their secrets and struggles, The Canyons rarely excites or provokes. Ellis, the mind behind novels like "American Psycho," is where most of the problems start. There's nary a hint of satire or a dramatic point. Even when characters address each other by looking straight into the camera, one degree away from breaking the fourth wall, there's a deadness to the imagery and acting. The conversations advance the plot at a snail's pace, and the empty eyes of the leads do little to improve matters.

However, it must be noted that Lohan actually appears to be putting in effort with this role. Last seen in the disastrous Lifetime movie Liz & Dick, in which she was barely present, the actress actually tries to make the most of the wretched material that's been thrown her way. There's only so much an actor can do with bottom-of-the-barrel writing, and Lohan is the only one who manages to create fleeting moments of conviction and authenticity. Lohan clearly wants this to be her Mickey Rourke/The Wrestler moment, with a performance capitalizing on her personal life. Too bad that no one else (save for Mr. Schrader, and even that's doubtful) wants to help her.

That said, she's certainly lightyears above Deen, who should probably just stick to literally screwing around on camera. As the increasingly sinister and dangerous Christian, Deen shows all of the hallmarks of an unseasoned performer. He somehow over and underacts, and a major climactic speech delivered over a phone is uncomfortably lifeless, yet still over-the-top. Only Funk outdoes Deen in the bad acting department, if only because his role doesn't even have room for shoddy attempts at sociopathic menace. 

The Canyons ends the same way it begins, with shots of dilapidated movie theaters. Yet once those images resurface, they're left feeling like little more than lazy pretension. Ellis' script mistakes mentions of smart phones and tablet computers for commentary about the ways our modern technology isolates us and removes us from the collective experience of the big screen. Fittingly, the film was made available on VOD the same day as its theatrical release in the US. But that's hardly a good sign, when the best bit of commentary is found in the film's release method, rather than anywhere in the finished work.

Grade: D

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