2013 First-Time Viewings: August Week 1

The CanyonsThe Canyons

If there’s anything positive to be said about this collaboration between Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis, it’s that it proves you don’t need an over-inflated budget to stage a reasonably-competent production. Despite the limited resources, Schrader has no problem creating a vision of the sleazy lower rungs of modern day Hollywood, a world where everyone seems all too willing to screw each other over (in more ways than one). It’s a promising backdrop for an erotic thriller, the kind of material that someone like Paul Verhoeven could really sink his teeth into with relish. Unfortunately for this production, it has the misfortune of being neither erotic nor thrilling, and so it settles for just being lethargic. Most of the film is a drag, a series of uninteresting conversations and sexual liaisons between uninteresting people before a brief splash of violence and a strange anticlimax of an ending. If The Canyons functioned purely as an unsuccessful erotic thriller, it would have been easy to shrug it off and move on to something more interesting. But Schrader’s involvement had always been a subject of curiosity in the buildup to the film’s release, and even after the film is over, his involvement still remains the most perplexing element. This is the same man who collaborated with Scorcese on many of his greatest works, and who was the main auteur behind the masterful Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. What exactly is he doing helming this film?

The answer to that question is that the film has a separate, “meta” layer underneath its trashy outer shell. This is apparent right from the beginning, with an opening credits sequence made up of still pictures of long-abandoned movie theaters, and it continues onward with the conversations of the main players, who frequently profess a general disinterest in movies. Maybe I’m way off the mark here, but I got the feeling that Schrader and Ellis set out to make an intentionally-rubbish film to comment on the current rubbish nature of the film industry. The casting reinforces this; it can’t be completely a budget issue that necessitates a primary cast of a burned-out former talent (Lindsay Lohan), a porn star (James Deen), and an airheaded “pretty boy” (Noland Gerard Funk). These people are the perfect conduits for Schrader and Ellis’ negative perspective of Hollywood and movie culture. There’s a kind of sanctimoniousness to the entire production, and while I don’t doubt for one second that the kind of people running amok in The Canyons exist in reality, it all feels like an unnecessary beating of an already-long-dead horse. Your appreciation of the film will likely depend on whether you think its underlying statement is an interesting or worthwhile one. From my perspective, it makes The Canyons not only a tedious watch but an insufferable one as well.  3/10.


Leave it to the veteran filmmaker to step back into the ring and show everyone how quality suspense is done. A remake of a 2010 French thriller starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, this new version from director Brian De Palma stars Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as two advertising agency executives, one established and one up-and-coming. Their relationship starts out innocently enough, with the two collaborating together on a new advertising campaign. Things quickly sour though when McAdams takes the credit for Rapace’s successful idea, but Rapace isn’t exactly innocent herself, casually embarking on an affair with McAdams’ lover. So the stage is set for some heated corporate gamesmanship, but things quickly escalate into something far more sinister and deadly. Admittedly though, it takes a little while for the film to find its footing. There’s a flatness to the early scenes that makes you wonder if De Palma still has what it takes to stage this kind of material effectively.

And then, right around the halfway mark, everything suddenly clicks, beginning with a masterfully-executed split-screen sequence that combines two different types of choreography, one beautiful and the other bloody. It’s the kind of sequence only someone like De Palma can really pull off, and it works almost as a summation of his entire career, in particular his ability to take lurid material and elevate it into something approaching fine art. After that sequence, he really finds his groove, orchestrating suspense setpieces at a near-operatic level. It all makes you realize just how little style there is in most modern thrillers, and because the second half is so fantastic, De Palma can be forgiven for stumbling a little bit out of the gates. The film is De Palma’s best in a decade by a good wide margin, but it almost feels like the appetizer before the main course. It proves that he still has the right touch for this kind of material, and I’m very interested to see how he continues forward now that he’s ironed out all the kinks again.  8/10.

The Living SkeletonThe Living Skeleton

The third film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection When Horror Came To Shochiku. After the giant chicken mayhem of The X From Outer Space and the apocalyptic vampire zombies of Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, Hiroshi Matsuno’s 1968 film operates on a much smaller scale, but still manages to retain the weirdness associated with Shochiku horror. A surreal tale of ghostly revenge, the film opens with a brutal massacre on a freighter by a band of criminals, whose goal is to steal a large sum of gold bullion and ensure that there are no witnesses to their crimes. Shortly after, the twin sister of one of the victims starts to be haunted by her ghost, who possesses her to punish the criminals for their past misdeeds. Most of the film follows the possessed sister’s systematic revenge on each of the main perpetrators, while her boyfriend and father figure/priest do what they can to track her down.

The film is the only one of Shochiku’s horror efforts to be shot in black-and-white, a decision that lends it a different kind of feel from its color contemporaries, with both classicist and experimental touches blending together to occasionally-strange effect. Some of the content pushes way past what horror films only a decade earlier could ever hope to show onscreen, but the special effects come across as consistently old-fashioned, particularly the abundance of rubber bats and model skeletons. It’s a balance that the filmmakers never quite get completely right, but even with the sketchy special effects threatening to break the mood every so often, the film has a habit of righting itself on quick notice. The final third though is consistently strong, with a clever reveal shifting everything into decidedly more surreal and melancholy  territory. I would say the film is worth tracking down for its final stretch alone, which does away with convention and enters into the realm of the completely mad. It’s the goodwill built up in this final stretch that will give the film some additional playing time when October and Halloween roll around every year.  7/10.

Europa ReportEuropa Report

After subjecting myself to a series of consistently terrible films which employed the “found footage” technique, I was just about ready to completely give up on trying to mine any kind of quality from any similar future endeavors. But then a film like this comes long, one that, much like the 2010 Norwegian effort Trollhunter, suggests that interesting things can still be done with the tired approach, as long as you have a strong enough foundation. Actually, to call Europa Report simply a “found footage” film is somewhat misleading. Director Sebastián Cordero and screenwriter Phillip Gelatt set up the scenario of an ambitious space mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, where the high levels of ice and water suggest the possible presence of alien life. Somewhere along the way, however, the spacecraft loses communication with Earth, only reestablishing a link at the very end of their mission. The film is constructed from 1) “found footage” taken from the spacecraft’s cameras, and 2) documentary-style talking head interviews with two Earthbound project leaders played by Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler, who provide background details and theorize on some of the more fascinating scientific possibilities of the mission. It’s an approach that reminded me of the 2002 horror film My Little Eye, which also used a seemingly-limitless supply of hidden stationary cameras to create feelings of insecurity and unease. Like that film’s director Marc Evans, Cordero has good instincts when it comes to maximizing tension in spite of the limitations of the style.

Because this is a work of science fiction, it’s not too much of a surprise to learn that there is more to Europa than the astronauts initially perceive. Cordero wisely doesn’t place too much emphasis on that angle; instead, the suspense comes naturally through the intricacies and sudden challenges of the space mission, creating sequences of prolonged, intensely claustrophobic tension, from the deep space repairing of a communications link to the dangerous risks involved with walking on the irradiated Europa surface. Although this is a work of fiction, the parameters of the mission and the exploits of the astronauts feel completely plausible, giving the film a strong level of believability that similarly-themed works don’t reach (the astronauts are played by recognizable if not necessarily famous faces, District 9‘s Sharlto Copley and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo‘s Michael Nyqvist being the most recognizable).  Europa Report works not only as an interesting technical exercise, but as a strong piece of suspense storytelling and a nice injection of intelligence to the world of science fiction film. 8/10.



About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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