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Canyons, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Lohan Of The Hills People"
4 stars

When plans for "The Canyons" were first announced in the entertainment press, it almost seemed like the kind of project that the staffers at "Film Comment" might dream up one night as a joke after a few drinks. After all, the notion of a Kickstarter-funded film bringing together the talents of director Paul Schrader, the man behind such memorable works as "Hardcore," "Mishima" and "Affliction" as well as the screenplay to "Taxi Driver," screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis, the controversial author of "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho," James Deen, a rising (no pun intended) young star in the pornographic film industry making a bid for mainstream crossover success, and Lindsay Lohan, whose history I will assume you are familiar with, sounded so crazy on paper that it almost made "Spring Breakers" seem staid by comparison. This particular combination of elements seemed so potentially combustible that if one were to have taken bets on whether it would ever actually get made, the smart money would have been on it imploding long before it even got to the filming stage

Even after it was completed, the weird buzz surrounding "The Canyons" continued to grow. First was the announcement that, despite the high profile of the film and its participants, it was rejected by both the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals. That was soon followed by a long and astonishing detail about its making in the New York Times that told the story of a production that was always teetering on the edge of spiraling out of control and which gave special focus to Lohan and her personal problems, not to mention the rumor that, in order to make her more comfortable, Schrader himself stripped down during the filming of a sex scene as a way of making her feel more comfortable. Finally, after all of that, it turned out that the film would only be getting a small theatrical distribution and, as has increasingly become the case in recent years regarding commercially questionable films, it would be appearing at the same time as a video-on-demand presentation.

Now "The Canyons" has arrived and no matter what expectations you might have going into it, they will be pretty much completely defied before it finally ends. Neither the raunchfest that some may have hoped for nor the camp spectacular that others may have dread, this is a dark and grim meditation of greed, jealousy and ennui that offers viewers the sight of uncommonly pretty people doing unspeakably ugly things to each other for nor particular reason at all. This may not sound like the height of fun for many moviegoers but the end result is an oddly fascinating creation that offers viewers some skilled filmmaking and a performance by Lindsay Lohan that is among the most galvanizing that I have seen this year.

As the film opens, two couples are having dinner at the kind of place where one is too busy looking around to see who else is dining there to even notice what, if anything, they are actually eating. On one side of the table is Christian (Deen), a trust-fund baby who is now dabbling in the film world by putting some of his money into the production of a cheapo slasher movie, and his girlfriend Tara (Lohan), who got him involved with the film in the first place only to inexplicably abandon the project a couple of weeks earlier. On the other side is Gina (Amanda Brooks), who is Christian's ambitious assistant and who looks upon the film as her big chance to move up the food chain, and her boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk), an aspiring actor who has just landed one of the key roles in the film. Over the course of the increasingly uncomfortable meal, Christian brags at length about the open relationship that he and Tara enjoy and indeed, after dinner, the two of them entertain a stranger that they have met via Craigslist in an encounter that Christian openly captures on video.

What neither Christian nor Amanda know is that Tara and Ryan first met three years earlier when they both first arrived in L.A. in the hopes of finding stardom and dated for more than a year until she left him in order to pursue richer suitors who could provide her with a more comfortable lifestyle. After unexpectedly reconnecting when he turned up to audition for the movie, Ryan and Tara begin seeing each other on the sly and the still-besotted Ryan begs Tara to leave Christian and come back to him. Although Tara still has feelings for Ryan and wants to keep seeing him, even going so far as to leave the film project after pushing for his casting so that there is no possible suspicion that they are having an affair, she has absolutely no interest in leaving Christian and returning to the hardscrabble existence that they once shared. Inevitably, Christian learns of the affair and despite his previous bragging about his open relationship with Tara--he is currently carrying on with yoga instructor Cynthia (Tenille Houston)--his jealous nature overtakes him and his behavior soon shifts from ordinary levels of creepiness to the psychosexual to the just plain psycho with disturbing results for one and all.

On the surface, "The Canyons" may sound like another entry in the recent string of films, such as "Spring Breakers" and "The Bling Ring," that have centered on attractive-but-shallow young people who are perfectly willing to lie, cheat and steal in order to achieve the kind of glamourous lifestyle that they see every day in the gossip magazines and on reality television shows. The difference is that while those films made their characters reasonably engaging, at least in the early going, in order to attract viewer interest, the characters on display here are all resolutely unlikable and enormously self-absorbed--when Amanda, the closest thing the story has to an innocent party, learns about her boyfriend's relationship with Tara, she is less upset with that revelation than over the possibility that the film project that her future revolves around will go south as a result. For anyone who is familiar with the works of Bret Easton Ellis, the coldness of the characters and the detached manner in which they are observed will not come as much of a surprise. Though the storyline that he has devised is a little too thin at times, both dramatically and psychologically, it nevertheless manages to maintain a certain degree of interest throughout even if, in the end, it inspires little more in viewers than the desire for a long, hot shower once the film has concluded.

Other filmmakers have attempted to bring the words of Ellis to the screen over the years with decidedly mixed results. On the surface, he and Paul Schrader sound like another potential mismatch but the two apparently managed to find the same wavelength on which to work together because their collaboration is a successful one. An enormously talented filmmaker who has struggled in recent years to find a place in an increasingly frivolous industry for his comparatively serious-minded fare, he seems to have been rejuvenated by the unique circumstances surrounding this particular project and the result is the most focused and committed work that he has done in years. Sex, murder, guilt and personal/ cultural ennui are subjects that he has dealt with in many of his past films but he manages to make them feel fresh here. At the same time, he also turns the film into a rueful elegy to the Hollywood that he and his contemporaries revered while growing up and eventually revolutionized--a place where film has been replaced by video, once-sparkling movie palaces now lay in ruins, any two-bit psycho with a lot of family money can arbitrarily call himself a producer without actually doing much of anything and even the people who do make the movies demonstrate no particular interest in them as anything other than as a commodity that can be marketed profitably.

Although many may have scoffed at the announcement of the casting of James Deen and Lindsay Lohan in the lead roles, Schrader's instincts proved to be fairly sound in this regard as well. To be honest, I cannot say that I have ever seen Deen plying his trade, as it were, in his regular gig but based solely on his work here, he could plausibly carve out a niche for himself in the legitimate film industry as well. The character of Christian is a soulless monster who fully believes that his wealth and privilege, neither of which he has personally done anything to achieve, accords him the right to do whatever he wants to whomever he wants--the kind of who might watch "American Psycho" and come away from it thinking that Patrick Bateman was too cuddly and sympathetic--and Deen finds just the right note of methodical cool on which to play him so that the monstrousness comes out along without stepping over into pure cartoonishness.

By comparison, Lohan hardly seems to be acting at all--the line between her, or at least the version of her we have come to know through the tabloids, and her character hardly seems to exist at all. She is basically an exposed nerve throughout and it is pretty much impossible to take your eyes off of her when she is on the screen. Whether her work her turns out to be a turning point in her on-again, off-again career or not remains to be seen but it cannot be denied that she demonstrates enough raw charisma on the screen to make you understand why some people would still be willing to take a chance on her despite all of her previous missteps.

My guess is that for most viewers, "The Canyons" will prove to be an unsatisfying moviegoing experience--there is little in the way of conventional narrative drive, the characters are not especially likable and while there is plenty of sex and violence on display, hardly any of it is presented in a traditionally exciting manner. Instead, it presents us with some thoroughly unlikable characters and asks us to observe them with the same kind of cool detachment that is their emotional default mode. If that does not sound like your particular cup of tea, you will probably want to give this one a pass. However, if any of this sounds interesting to you or if you are a fan of the films of Paul Schrader, you might want to give this one a chance, though I can't honestly say that you will be 100% glad that you did in the end.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25298&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/02/13 11:05:06
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User Comments

6/11/14 mr.mike Schrader tries hard but has little to work with. Deen is a decent actor.2.5 2 stars
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  02-Aug-2013 (R)
  DVD: 26-Nov-2013


  DVD: 26-Nov-2013

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