RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 15: Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” (2013)


Canyons


The Players…

Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brookes, Tenille Houston and Gus Van Sant.


The Story…

Trust fund doosh Christian figures himself a burgeoning movie producer. That counts if you consider soft-core porn YouTube and FaceBook feeds makes you a movie mogul. But behind his scenes Christian’s fragile failing actress girlfriend, Tara, hides an affair. Her tryst might be an opportunity to get out from Christian’s sleaze, but a chance meeting thrusts them all into a violent, sexually charged tour through the darker side of basal human nature. It’s not as cool as it all sounds, believe you me.


The Rant…

I have a confession to make.

I’m willing to wager that a lot of other guys might have a similar confession. Years ago, at least by a decade, and before she was druggy, snatchy and scraping a rusting career down to the metal, I had a crush on Lindsay Lohan. Back before the crash-and-burn that became her career’s swamp, she was hot, funny and charismatic. She was the It-Girl at the turn of the century. She also had natural comedic talent in the best way imaginable, organic and malleable. We all know about Mean Girls and the remake of Freaky Friday; pairing her against Jaime Lee Curtis was a stitch. And like Curtis, Lohan cut her teeth as a Screen Teen, growing up in front of the lens and whose every action was scrutinized with baited breath. By the way, she was hot.

Now I know the need to stretch yourself as an actor, to try challenging roles, test rougher waters. Lohan was a teen actress and former Disney darling (she starred in three Disney remakes, before God). If there is any evidence in Miley Cyrus’ post Hannah Montana career, then Lohan is one of a neverending string of Screen Teens that want so desperately shed their kiddie label, they’d take perhaps a premature plunge into the world of post-PG13. A tricky turn to take, and it often results in failure. For example, despite his promising start, Edward Furlong comes immediately to mind regarding career flameout. Shia LeBeouf ain’t doing so well either. To my immediate memory the only former Screen Teen that bucked the trend was Jodie Foster, playing nymphet Iris in Taxi Driver at age 12. Two Oscar wins later and well you get it.

Waitaminnit, didn’t she star in the original Freaky Friday? Hmmm.

The trouble with taking said plunge is that often the audience doesn’t want to go along for a swim. Would a Mean Girls 2 clean up at the box office? Maybe. Maybe even a Freakier Friday. But as she grew up, Lohan wanted to try her hand at more “serious” movies. Like I said, you gotta stretch yourself. The problem is you also have to be convincing, and take leap of faith that the audience will follow you young actor you along a different route, as if age is notwithstanding. It worked for comical Jim Carrey (once in a while), and on the other hand, brooding Robert de Niro (again, once in a while). For some odd reason, which I can only attribute to bad press surrounding even worse off-screen behavior on Lindsay’s part, her grown up roles were not very successful and followed the damning rules of diminishing returns like clockwork. How do you go from being a part of an ensemble cast in a Robert Altman film (A Prairie Home Companion) to a wretched attempt at American giallo (I Know Who Killed Me)? My take? Too many unadulterated street drugs and impatience.

Lohan should’ve fired her agent years before the crackpipe burned low. You can’t shoehorn yourself as a former child star into flawed “serious” roles and expect to taken seriously without a cocked brow. Looks like no one told LiLo this, and her later films—like The Canyons—illustrate her grinding against her once effortlessly charming side with her needs to be taken seriously. You can’t be taken seriously as an actor if you just dump yourself out of your element for the sake of that. Well, that and taking on lousy scripts ain’t much of a sound investment either.

Anywho…


Hollywood is a plastic town. No one disputes that. It’s very being rests on creating fantasy worlds populated by liars portraying imaginary lives for an unseen admiring public. It’s all glitz and glamour, drugs and squalor, fake reality and conspicuous consumption. Money has a lot to with Hollywood’s being also.

Apart from all those underpinnings, Tinsel Town rides along on making movies. That’s where the cash is. It’s a town that rides on spectacle, the literal sense of the word: to be watched. Everyone’s an actor, everybody’s on a stage, everyone’s performing some song and dance. Makes for an endless melodrama with all the twists and turns of reality to take in. And get warped.

Take Christian (Deen) for example. He’s got the latest thing. Tapping into the endless promise of social media, he can crank out “movies” for the gullible public on his smartphone, readily available and always rife with the possibility of going viral. He can be the next Scorsese with enough likes. Besides, he’s gotta have a spine unto which his trust fund bucks have to hang. He also needs a gimmick, a solid one beyond pixels.

He and Tara (Lohan) haven’t been with each other long, but long enough to reach a tenuous agreement. He provides the luxury, she provides the money shots. All that’s missing is the white lines and a domain name. One night after drinks and dinner with Christian’s latest prospects Ryan (Funk) and Gina (not Wagnall’s), the usual nighttime T&A session goes a little left of center.

Turns out Tara has a bit of history with Ryan, a glimmer of a possibly better life that would have garnered security and perhaps the all elusive love rather than sucking miles of c*ck in the name of a really nifty address, both online and on the block. But Christian is the jealous, possessive type. He’ll share Tara’s bush with total strangers so long as it ends in profit, as long it won’t result in an actual healthy shine at a relationship, hand to God.

Their’s is all spectacle. This is the plastic town of Hollywood. Relationships don’t actually exist beyond the coupled hands at the premier, and even wasted Tara knows this. So what’s this proto-fluffer gonna do to get back towards the straight and narrow with a guy like Ryan? After all, Christian’s not exactly the most even-keeled yacht in the bay, especially since he’s easily tempted by any female other than Tara.

Sigh. Just another chapter in the novel that is Hollywierd. Next!…


Whoa nelly. I bet most of you smelled The Canyons light-years before you ever heard about it. The flick fell so hard under The Standard on all fronts you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to it. Patience, friends. Patience. Here’s a super low budget movie that still managed to be a loss leader at the box office, even after skimping out on craft services (I think. I mean, everyone in the movie seemed way too skinny to me). I heard that Schrader more or less made this movie on a bet regarding the budget.After seeing the thing I’m not sure if Schrader won or lost. The Canyons is looow budget all right, right down to the DV camera work (maybe a parallel with the making movies on phones?). The working budget was around $250,000 and the movie grossed only $59,000 and some change. That’s including DVD sales. Ouch.

I think this movie died based mostly on negative press; it kept people away. After watching it once (only once this time!), I’m not entirely sure what the flap was about with The Canyons. It does have a lame plot, sure, and the acting is wooden, but was it all on purpose? It’s hard to tell, but I’m willing to wager that The Canyons is a very self-aware movie. Everything is superficial, but was it deliberate? The movie semi-revolves around acting and making movies, after all, and what else is based so much on style first, substance second than making movies? The flash of a movie is what gets your attention in the first place. This movie is not engaging, but itseemingly doesn’t try to be. It’s all plastic, as well as somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

I credit this to the script. Bret Easton Ellis was…is known for being an 80s writer in every sense of the term: slick, winking and tapping into the cultural zeitgeist without shame. That and a lot of lines of blow being snorted. Since this movie indeed seems so plastic, what better way to illustrate the transparency of movie making than an expert chronicler of the superficial and fleeting? The Canyons is all about putting on faces, on denying accountability and how cheap and hollow relationships can be. It’s an 80s movie for the 10s. It’s got a feeling similar to Refn’s Drive (a review of that is kicking around here at RIORI somewhere), another film about gloss, movies and hostility. The Canyons is a rather ugly film and transparent film, and doesn’t try to hide it.

Despite all that ugliness, there were a few high points. There always as to be a few, right? Right? Whew. Thought I was losing it there for a minute. Fo’ instance, I really liked the opening montage of all the burnt out movie theaters. It really sets the stage, as all good montages do. Up front you’re getting a totally not subtle message as what the next 100 minutes are gonna be about: the stripped out side of movies and acting. It leaves a dry feeling in your mouth, and feels welcome there. We also have some pretty good cinematography going on. Very deliberate camera angles; again no subtlety. The Canyons intends to whack upon your sensibilities and offer no quarter. Again, here’s the ugliness up front and personal, used exceptionally well in the sex scenes (did I mention LiLo gets naked a lot in this movie? You’re welcome). So we got that working for us, which is nice.

However…

Let’s talk about the acting. This was the bugaboo that the intelligentsia really took issue with. Either James Deen is a really bad actor, or his performance is keenly calculating in line with Ellis’ writing. He’s just so smarmy he’s fun to hate, as well as hate his acting. He’s so full of himself and at the same time so weak. If the goal was indeed to make his character Christian so hateful to be a reflection of all too prevalent stereotypes in Tinsel Town, Schrader succeeded. If not? It’s still all deliciously fake.

Speaking of fake, Lohan here seems so out of place. Tara seems so bewildered as to her circumstances, so in denial of the fact that she’s just a tool and piece of ass, and not really caring. She comes across as totally out of breath and almost checked out emotionally. Even when she tries to muster up some muscle, it’s all so dire. Again, deliberate? Following along in the vein of the movie? Maybe.

Everyone is f*cking everyone else, figuratively and literally in this movie. It’s just so brutal, and you wish you could sympathize with someone on screen, but you can’t. It’s because they’re all cardboard caricatures of cardboard caricatures. Ciphers, empty and lacking any place for emotional investment. Once again…oh, well you get it by now. No nuances, no delicacy, just a rolling pin over your sense of civil behavior. All of it deliberate and without taste.

Everything in The Canyons is “on purpose.” Repeat this mantra: deliberately devoid of subtlety. I really don’t know about this one. Everything is so superficial, and maybe that’s the point. That seems to be the message trying to get across here. In other words, all’s fair in love, war and video apps.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A solid question mark. Really. The film is so on the nose fake that it’s sphinx-like in its intentions. I guess you gotta rent it to make up your own mind. I can’t really recommend it though.


Stray Observations…

  • I liked the “no kissing” thing. Elegantly sleazy.
  • “Nobody has a private life anymore…” “Okay. What do you talk to your shrink about?”
  • It’s curious how the characters in the film keep reminding us of “how beautiful” Tara is when in reality LiLo’s cosmetic surgery did her no favors.
  • “How was your day; you go to the gym?”
  • The use of Deen’s Bluetooth: very clever narration.
  • “Nod for me.”

Next Installment…

Aubrey Plaza has a short summer to check off all her “conquests” for her To-Do List.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 4: Gus Van Zant’s “Finding Forrester” (2000)


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The Players…

Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F Murray Abraham and Anna Paquin, with Busta Rhymes, Michael Pitt and Michael Nouri.


The Story…

Reclusive, award-winning novelist William Forrester wants to have nothing to do with the outside world, at least as far as the other side of his apartment’s window. It’s only when literally a thief in the night loses his bag of writings in his flat that William considers reaching out. Turns out the burglar is named Jamal, and he has considerable writing talent. William decides to mentor the youngster, who harbors a passion not usually associated with the thug kids in the neighborhood. Sure, Jamal likes basketball well enough, but William fast discovers the kid’s real muse: he’s obsessed with words.


The Rant…

Let me tell you the first truth about writing. It’s f*cking hard. Don’t let any dilettante tell you that it’s easy breezy lemon squeezy. Just let your emotions flooow, like a smooth river of caramel dotted with the sweet, sweet morsels of words and words and words. Ah, you can practically hear birds chirping.

A big firm no. Trying to drum up, coax and often cleave words onto a page takes one part crazy, one part driven and one very big part passion. To hole yourself up for hours—days—manipulating those words and create a cohesive narrative takes time, time, practice, effort, coffee, time, barbiturates and time. The life of a writer is not easy, and f*cking all writers say that. Those that like to go rafting down the Cadbury Creek say nay-nay and it’s all about what you feel and stuff. This is the romantic twaddle that gets foisted onto authors by the readers, wishing they could do what they won’t. Which all leads back to cleaving bullsh*t.

But when it’s cut well, like a surgeon with a hawkeye, then all that bourbony sweat and coffee breath and a lion tamer-like will to get the words onto the paper, then yeah, it feels that breezy…to the reader. The hardest part about performing an art is to make it look effortless. That’s why it’s called art. Craft is a better term actually regarding writing. Craft is the job. The story is the art, the throughput. And in writing, a flowing story is tirelessly hewn from that rugged block of the English language.

So how does such a chore of a craft make for a decent movie? Well, to start to answer that we first gotta read between the lines…


Jamal Wallace (Brown) is your average, likable kid. Middling high school student, down with basketball and bumming with his crew. It’s kind of a façade though. Jamal is privately bookish and always scribbling in his journals, hauling them around with him in his omnipresent backpack. He harbors a desire to be a writer, and all those journals serve to get out all those words that so plague his adolescent mind about life, love and leaving.

There are all sorts of pockets of humanity hidden away in the tenements in Jamal’s Bronx neighborhood. The local haunts for all the kids, the basketball court, the high school and the creepy apartment with the even creepier recluse who spies on everybody with binocs via a curiously clear window.

One night, Jamal’s crew puts him up to a dare: sneak into “The Window’s” flat and steal some goodie to prove he was there. Of course this does not go well. Jamal is chased out of the apartment leaving his backpack—and all his journals—behind. When he eventually does retrieve his pack (or rather  unceremoniously dropped on him) and his treasured journals, he finds “The Window” has given them the red pen treatment, scrawling literary criticism across the crinkled pages.

After timidly trying to apologize for his trespassing, Jamal discovers “The Window” is a rather unpleasant, very reclusive crank who goes by the name of William Forrester (Connery). The guy’s got some hefty opinions on writing in general and Jamal’s writings in specific. After taking in the criticism and with some coaxing, Jamal asks Forrester for some tips and tricks. And boy, does he have some.

Turns out that Forrester is a writer of some repute, who successfully wrote his Great American decades ago and has been pulling a Thomas Pynchon ever since. He never goes out, whiles the days away bird watching, spying on the neighborhood and writing missives that no one will ever read all the while curled up with his handy rocks glass of scotch. Unsurprisingly, he has no real friends to speak of outside of his personal library. Jamal’s conciliatory visit comes as more an incursion to the cloistered writer.

Maybe a little guidance should be in order. A little help from Forrester might give Jamal the boost he needs in his budding writing career. And a little boost from Jamal might give crotchety Forrester a little attitude adjustment. Maybe he’ll even get out of the house more. Here’s hoping…


Oooooo, the critics hated this movie.

It was lacerated for being too derivative of Van Zant’s previous Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting (maybe you’ve heard of it). True, Forrester was released barely three years after Will and their plotlines are very similar. Forrester has often touted at Van Zant’s other feel good mentor picture, which sounds kind of disparaging. It is, seeing how both films follow the same pattern; no awards for originality here. This mentor/protégé dynamic has been used before. It’s also sort of timeless and sometimes tiresome, too. So sure, the movie is derivative.

But it’s good derivative.

Unlike Will, Foresster has two things going for it: a lot less melodrama and no Ben Affleck. Also, it’s got Sean Connery! I love Sean Connery. He’s my favorite actor. You can always count on him to deliver the goods. Sure, a lot of his films have sucked big donkey d*ck, but he’s always good—solid, engaging and humorous. What else could you ask for from an actor? And he was James Bond, after all. Street cred. His performance as Forrester here was nothing short of a miracle. Here’s a guy asked to portray what has to be the utmost perfect stereotype of the wise reclusive writer, from being surrounded by books, wearing the robe all day and nursing a nice little drinking problem. And yet it works, because Connery makes the role his own. He plays irascible well as he does thoughtful. His character follows the basic tenet that all writers strive to follow: he shows, not tells. He delivers his lines with wit and sincerity that you could swear it was his own words, not a script. When you think about it, with his 50-plus acting career, Connery really has nothing left to prove. He can and has chosen roles that simply please him. If indeed he had anything left to prove, he could’ve hung up his hat with You Only Live Twice (my fave 007 movie. It’s got karate!). At this point in his vaunted career, Connery’s chosen roles are being Connery. He’s an icon, and he’s aware of it. Just hand him the script and he’ll take the movie from there.

My fawning explains why the Forrester stereotype worked here. You would be correct in claiming that Connery’s titular role is a cipher. To my immediate memory, I can’t recall any movie about writers that didn’t showcase the “the brilliant author” as anything else but quirky, private, antisocial, phobic and (perhaps) harboring an addiction (e.g.: Wonder Boys, Adaptation, Shakespeare In Love, American Splendor, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard and on and on). Connery apparently does, and does it quite well. So how now, Brown Cow? Why doesn’t his Forrester come off as a total caricature?

In a word, earnestness. Sean believes in the man that is Forrester, but not so seriously to make him a man made from stone. Connery injects just enough snark here—almost as a wink to the audience—to make him grounded, relatable. Sure, some could even regard Forrester as a hipster (and I f*cking hate hipsters), but Connery is too sharp to play that card so close to his chest. Remember what I said about him choosing his own roles? He knows what’s going on, his career being so long. In sum, Sean’s self-consciously hamming it up. He understands the stereotype. He understands himself and his acting style. He understands what audiences expect of him. He understands not to give a f*ck and just have some fun. Sean ain’t gonna win no awards here in Forrester, and he don’t give a sh*t anyway. We’re all here to have fun, Ms. Moneypenny (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Now here’s the part where I’m gonna employ my best impression of Roger Ebert crawling up his own ass. Ready?

At the other end of the table, Rob Brown’s performance is noteworthy in that this was his first movie, and had next to no training for the role, the polar opposite of our leading man and the perfect foil. Story goes that Brown tried out for the part just to earn some cash to pay a cell phone bill. It paid off, if you’ll pardon the pun. So by way of overages, we got ourselves a pretty decent young actor. Brown’s Jamal is totally relatable without ever being stereotypical or boring. Sure, Jamal could be any black teen hailing from a crappy neighborhood in the Bronx. Therein lies the key. Even if Brown had no formal training, he picked up pretty quick the paradoxical way of Jamal’s personality. On the outside, yeah, Jamal is average in every sense. Another black kid from the inner city who plays basketball like countless black kids from the inner city who play basketball. Big deal. It’s Jamal’s mannerisms that carefully give away where his real comfort zone lies, but because of his surroundings, it’s not really attainable. Since we understand at the outset that Jamal is a closet bookworm and quite smart, it’s easy to see why he kind of keeps his intellect in check—keeps it under wraps is more like it. His hiding comes across sort of like a social survival skill. Where Jamal lives, being wise is not wise. It’s not appreciated, let alone wanted. It’s only in fits and starts—where a situation moves him—that he expresses himself naturally. Jamal is keenly aware of this outsider status, and goes to certain lengths to hide it. Watching Brown’s expressive facials are paramount to understanding the character as opposed to dialogue and body language. You can’t teach this; it’s a natural gift, and it takes years for a seasoned actor to hone this skill. Some nobody that spent his bucket of minutes trumped dozens of child actors catching 10 percent.

The only times when Jamal’s hidden personality fuses with reality is around Forrester. Not at first, of course. Since this movie is a character study/buddy movie, we need to have that “getting to know you” tension established in order to find the eventual mutual camaraderie and (sometimes sappy, even here) friendship that the audience craves for movies like Forrester. To claim that Forrester brings Jamal out of his shell is a bit of a truism. Such a dynamic is expected here; it’s what the movie’s all about, not writing. Writing is the shared passion of our two leads, and like with most friendships first we establish a common ground, then we explore it further (farther, sorry). Once this is set down, the inevitable happens. Here in Forrester, thanks to our tenderfoot/veteran balance of actors, an otherwise derivative plot is elevated to a really fun character study. Slowly under Forrester’s acerbic tutelage Jamal comes out of the proverbial shell, both with his writing and understanding that it’s okay to be brilliant in fits and starts. After all, Forrester is “brilliant,” but also antisocial and harboring a not so subtle drinking habit. I guess Van Sant’s trying to drive the point home that all creative types have their vices, whether it being scotch, basketball or an inability to express oneself in a emotionally productive manner. In the cloister of “The Window’s” labyrinthine apartment of books, typewriters and multiple TVs, I also guess that Jamal understands it’s okay to explore that stifled part of his personality, and maybe it might be his key to his way out of…something.

*readers stir from their snoring and drooling*

Welcome back. Your fly’s open.

Back to the technical stuff. Regarding the character that is Brown’s Jamal: that’s this trouble with the label “relatable”; it’s a tag that often means cookie-cutter. C’mon, that whole “relatable” tag has been so bandied about so much regarding leading men that it has ceased to maintain relevance. I already went on and on and on about Brown’s excellent delivery, and what made it excellently relatable was Jamal’s insecurities and uncertainty. It was naked, but only if you had a keen eye. Forrester’s schtick was as subtle as neon. With his expressive eyes, honest curiosity and truly down-to-earth demeanor, Brown is a delight. In short, good job kid. You won me over, and this coming from an ardent Connery fan.

Okay, now any story about stories needs a foil, a dastardly villain. We need an Iago here, a Moriarty, a Milton-esque Satan. F Murray Abraham’s Dr Crawford fits the bill here. Abraham is an accomplished, Oscar-winning actor. His Professor Crawford villain here is ham-fisted, greasy and utterly laughable. He’s fun to dislike. Small wonder here that the guy probably relished the role. Crawford is all moustache-twirling and effete and offers a performance so eye-rolling it provide a great deal of unintentional humor. I think we’ve all probably had a teacher along the way like him. All of such credentials lend Abraham into the Velveeta wing of Hollywood’s best worst overactors. Like I implied, I think the guy knew what he was getting into as Forrester’s Salieri (had to mention it at least once. Now shaddap), so I’d also like to think the guy’s attitude to approaching the project was more or less, “What the hell?” So he got all campy and Snidely Whiplash and we were all there to lap it up like fresh cream. Cheesy? Sure. But no less fun.

There are a lot of other little perks to this movie. Devil in the details and all. Jamal’s hidden library. The “ghost” story. Delivering groceries. Jeopardy! Busta as the voice of reason. Crawford’s stupid tea ritual. Paquin’s perky boobs. And something else quite noteworthy? The soundtrack. Painted with the tunes of Miles Davis with the guitar stylings of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist (don’t have one? Get one), the music plays layers of jaunty groove and accents all over the urban landscape. It plays as an actor in its own right. And it only gets played when Brown is on screen, usually alone. Representative of our conflicted hero’s mind? You decide.

You got to have a really hard heart to dislike this movie. I for the life of me failed to see any overt issues with Forrester‘s storytelling. The words from the critics seemed like a lot of nitpicking to me. I will admit, Forrester does get treacly at times, but’s often redeemed by our two leads’ hard-won, mutual respect and snappy dialogue. I mean, it’s just a buddy flick, pure and simple, with no pretenses to win any awards. Lighten up. Connery and Brown have a really good chemistry, totally believable. The script is simple, streamlined and deft, and if missing lofty goals about the human condition in the abstract ruins a character study, I say with Forrester let it be ruined. The direction is economical with a minimum of pandering. Forrester might get a bit touchy-feely and maudlin at times, but it’s got Sean Connery. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll be honest, if you don’t like this film you’re a cynical dickhead. And I’m a cynical dickhead.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Call me biased but I’m a sucker for both buddy movies and films about writing. Moreover, it’s one of my guilty pleasure favorite films. Sorry for the hoodwink, but not really.


Stray Observations…

  • Forrester’s apartment looks a lot like my old place during my post-grad days. I didn’t want many visitors either.
  • “Not exactly a soup question.”
  • Punch the keys for God’s sake!” Not as easy with a PC. Or with a typewriter either, those first few pages.
  • There is the scene where Forrester slides a book back into its proper place on the shelf. When I showed my girlfriend the movie, she exclaimed, “That is so you!” We broke up.
  • What the hell is that fiddle at the party? I want one.
  • “You’re the man now, dawg!”

Next Installment…

We’re gonna be rollin’ in Cloverfield, as found footage films go super-sized.