Paul Schrader may not sympathize with his characters, but he certainly enjoys their discomfort. Were he to attempt a screwball comedy, it would no doubt result in an invocation of the mordant spiritual crisis of imitation Bresson laced with the nihilism (but not the energy) of a Robert Aldrich film. In “The Canyons”, he presents yet another of his coldly clinical dissections of personal power, sex and isolation, with the only distinctiveness in this opus being with the players and not what is being played. (If the sole point of interest is a case of novelty casting, the film is in serious jeopardy.) That his chosen collaborator in this effort is the peculiarly unsatisfying novelist Bret Easton Ellis suggests a lunatic aggressiveness on Schrader’s part. to challenge himself with a creative partner who is fated to magnify all of his own worst instincts.
At this late stage of the game, Schrader continues to produce films which advocate an excited film school critic mentality dulled by a peculiar arrogance suggesting that the movies are an art form ultimately beneath him. “The Cinema”, however, would be a classist point of differentiation, an intellectual line of distinction that to adequately interpret would require a voluntary slogging through the mire of another of his exhausting and interminable canonical treatises.
Talentless fledgling actor Ryan (Nolan Funk) is cast in a B-horror movie through the insistence of one of the film’s backers, Christian (James Deen), an insolent, aggressively entitled trust fund kid, who is acting at the behest of his production partner Gina (Amanda Brooks) who, not coincidentally, happens to be Ryan’s girlfriend. Tara (Lindsay Lohan), is Christian’s live-in girlfriend, Gina’s ex-business associate (who left the horror production abruptly and without explanation) and, unbeknownst to either Christian or Gina, Ryan’s ex-girlfriend and current secret lover. From this unpromising mélange emerges a tale of seduction, duplicity and murder in which both Schrader and Ellis pretend to have a great deal to say (their film does engage in a twisty course in which calculated amorality is the operating social principle), but their intentions are as murky as the variable digital cinematography of John DeFazio; the film relying too heavily on empty posturing (and meaningless, endless shots of characters moving from one place to another) without material contributions to the film’s elusive themes. The movie does begin with a series of dispiriting images of the abandoned, decrepit remains of multiplex cinemas that are surely intended as potent, barely disguised allegorical kicks in the shin, though just what their significance may be fails to be excavated from the sordid and vacant (both intellectually and emotionally) soap opera to follow. None of the characters in the film is recognizable as anything but pawns aimlessly moved about the settings to the abusing amusement of Schrader and Ellis, with Christian identifiable as a lazily shameless amalgam of both filmmakers’ earlier provocative creations: the gigolo Julian and Patrick Bateman.
Approached with an open eye which seeks the succor of anything approaching art or entertainment, watching a film by Paul Schrader has become an increasingly arduous experience. At the beginning of his directorial career, his earliest efforts (Blue Collar”, “Hardcore”) were realized with a blunt crudity that tended to masquerade the sheepishness of his fully committing to exploring his subject at anything but from a safe distance. However, in the intervening years it has become painfully clear that his bag of tricks reveals itself as a strained bridge, that has never artistically reconciled itself, between a personal repressiveness and the contrary psychosexual compulsion of interests. Considering his subjects and the prurience in which his films strain to wallow, his latent puritanism causes him to keep his characters at arm’s length. Curiously, the one who appears to be most shocked by the behavior in his films is Schrader himself. This director’s films have become chronically anachronistic; exhibiting a taste for the perversely sexual (the film is riddled with exhibiting the insatiably deviant appetite of control freak Christian) while hiding behind the luxury of a faux Production Code era aesthetic in which promiscuity is a sword of Damocles. Interestingly, in using sex as an invitation for a predestined moral comeuppance while simultaneously enveloping his characters in emotional remoteness, Schrader aligns himself with in awkward partnership with both the slasher film and pornographic film aesthetic. For all of his lofty academic film theorems, Schrader is still battling Original Sin. Now, that’s about as antiquarian a view as one can get.
The performances in “The Canyons” are a decidedly mixed bag, with both Amanda Brooks and Tenille Houston (as Cynthia, an ex-girlfriend of both Ryan and Christian) emerging with favorable results, considering both are relegated to unformed roles, present solely as plot devices. As Christian, pornographic performer James Deen is surprisingly convincing and intense in relating the dangerously simmering callowness of his character, though he is less effective in moments that require a more complex emotional bearing. Nolan Funk is disastrously miscast as Ryan; his sullen presence screaming sexual inertia while supposedly portraying a Lothario irresistible to all female (and one male) cast members. Finally, Lindsay Lohan pretends to play Tara with vigor, but seems incapable of genuinely connecting with the material, the conscious effort of her performance painfully apparent, erasing any trace of spontaneity; with every line reading becoming a Sisyphean task.
“The Ramen Girl” (2008)
Much that is wrong with the modern American cinema is not the limited to the widespread gravitation toward an increasingly youthful demographic and the immature cultural curiosity to which it is gleefully and voluntarily mired, nor the industry reliance on recycling past successes with remakes featuring newly minted though woefully insufficient faces who fail to grasp the significance of appreciable screen presence, but what is alarmingly present in many, especially commercial populist variety, of the newer Hollywood features is a reliance on the memory of cinema as opposed to drawing from experience in something called “life” (and this will include the once vaunted but now homogenized “independent” splinter of the American filmmaking community, whose rebellious creative ideology has been sadly subsumed by the cheap allure of the attainment of an undeserved status within a “counterculture” by way of, or worse, being screened at any one of the myriad of film festivals which have uselessly proliferated like fleas on a feral cat since the implementation and premature canonization of the Sundance Film Festival.
Abby (Brittany Murphy) is a young American who, almost immediately upon arriving in Tokyo, is abandoned by her callow boyfriend, sending her into a brief emotional funk highlighted by sudden flares of hallucinatory portents. During a particularly vulnerable evening, she visits a local ramen shop and pours out her heart to the proprietor/chef Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida) and his wife Reiko (Kimiko Yo), both concerned and puzzled by this sudden outburst since neither speaks English. Abby is appreciative of their kindness and the ramen soup, and in due course is seized by a new career calling, cajoling Maezumi into becoming her ramen sensei.
Though not a remake in any sense of the term, “The Ramen Girl” is certainly beholden to, most transparently, “Tampopo” (that film’s star Tsutomu Yamazaki makes a brief appearance as “the Grand Master”, further solidifying the associative nudging) and “Like Water For Chocolate” for, what will likely be taken as originality by the less cinematically literate of viewers, in its more idiosyncratic narrative constructs. However, others might more correctly identify the film for what it is: a tired retread of ideas better applied elsewhere, attached to a romantic comedy formula that has been exhausted to the point of embarrassment; neurotic whining taking the place of wit and cloying neediness substituting for the romantic parry. Consistent with the accelerated pacing of the contemporary cinema, where nuance and details are secondary to rapid eye movement, the expected exposition which instigates the narrative, explains the context and defines the lead character are summarily skipped over in favor of a leap to the next prefabricated story element, without a minute’s explanation. Emotional crises are raised and are then simply dispensed with, as if screenwriter Becca Topol became stymied with any story development outside the scope of her somewhat slavish points of imitation. However, what truly undermines the entire film is a stubborn insistence on denying Abby and Maezumi any opportunity to directly linguistically communicate, with the result that all of their dialogue is transformed into emotionally repetitive shrill screeds that stagnates the plot given the fatal lack of immediacy in the exchanges between the main two protagonists. This absence of intelligible communication inescapably points to a yet unnamed film as the primary source of inspiration for “The Ramen Girl”; another film depicting a microcosm of multinational aggression advanced almost entirely through body language and actions: John Boorman’s film of wartime survivalist savagery, “Hell in the Pacific”.
Brittany Murphy has that kind of doe eyed sad sack fragility that is initially endearing, but without sufficient directly reactive confrontation with which to create a dramatic balance, her performance is left to flounder in a vacuum. Both Toshiyuki Nishada and Kimiko Yo bring a refreshing brightness and energy to their roles, despite falling victim to the same absence of collaborative intersection. The rest of the cast occupy roles only briefly noted, unexplainably undeveloped and wasted.