Schrader, Coppola, De Palma: When Film Brats Go Gray

canyons-onesheetIt’s either a case where it’s “How the mighty have fallen” or “The new rules apply.”

Consider that the latest films from Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma have pretty much premiered with very few or no theatrical bookings, showing up on-demand or on DVD instead.

What does this say about “The Movie Brats?” The generation of filmmakers that came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, and gave us some of Hollywood’s greatest efforts?  Are they out of steam, bulldozed by a younger generation seeking less ambitious films, or superhero outings and CGI-loaded razzmatazz? Or are they simply out of touch with the realities of contemporary moviegoing and moviegoers?

The questions certainly linger through the ballyhoo, as their latest respective projects become accessible to audiences—albeit not necessarily in theaters.

The film with the most buzz comes from Paul Schrader, 67, the man who had screenwriting credits on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Obsession, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Yakuza, and who wrote and directed Blue Collar, Light of Day, Cat People and Affliction.

His new film, The Canyons, now available in select theaters and On Demand, has been in the news for several reasons. A New York Times Magazine article  published several months ago offered an insider’s look at its production, focusing on the travails of problematical star Linsday Lohan and the casting of  porn star James Deen in the male  lead. The fact that that Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero, American Psycho) penned the screenplay and that the film was primarily financed through Kickstarter, the internet-based pledge website that others like Spike Lee and Zach Braff have used in pursuit of funds, also made its production saga interesting.  

The Canyons is a moody, stylish film that captures the lives of a group of young people living on the fringes of Hollywood. The film isn’t very deep, much like its characters, but this is likely its point.

The major characters in the film do have complicated lives, especially when it comes to their   sexual peccadilloes. Lohan, looking like Liz Taylor circa Cleopatra (Remember the laughed-at cable movie?) is Tara, an actress just about out of the Hollywood game, who is living with hedonistic low-budget producer Christian (Deen). At the same time, Tara is having an affair with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), an ex-lover and aspiring actor, who lives with Gina (Amanda Brooks), Christian’s co-producer. Eventually, the various secret agendas are revealed, unleashing the dark side of Christian.  

Cynicism is rampant in The Canyons, with credits that include photos of abandoned movie theaters. This can be read in various ways: The film was intended by Schrader and Ellis to be shown on demand and on DVD as opposed to theaters, so the sad visions of dilapidated moviehouses could mean “the end of movies” as we know them. Or it can have something to do with the fact that the characters in The Canyons are in the film business, but seem to lack passion for their chosen profession.

Here, involvement in the film industry is a way to maintain a certain lifestyle, pay bills, even to carry on kinky sexual fantasies (of which the film has no problem portraying).

But emptiness abounds—within the characters as well as the desolate theaters.  

Christian’s descent into violence seems to be a stretch, but not something totally unexpected from the author of American Psycho. Deen makes Christian creepy and believable even though his deeds are questionable, and Schrader elicits good work all around, even making vapidity (from a possibly rebounding Lohan, and Funk) haunting if not compelling.

twixt-dvdCompelling seems to be a good word for Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt—at least for its first 20 minutes. The newest project from the latest “experimental stage” of Godfather/Apocalypse Now helmer Coppola, 74, is a gothic horror tale that starts out strongly but quickly fizzles, veering off in odd directions.

In Twixt, now on DVD and Blu-ray, a beefy Val Kilmer is cast as Hall Baltimore, a third-rate mystery writer with a new book and a kvetching wife (Kilmer’s real-life ex, Joanne Whalley). Baltimore lands in a small-town hardware store where he’s slated to sign books for customers. Most interested in his latest is the local sheriff (Bruce Dern), who would like to collaborate with him on a new book about eerie exploits that went on in the town. The further Baltimore delves into the burg’s past, the weirder things get: He encounters a ghostly young girl (Elle Fanning) who was a drowning victim; spectres of an abusive teacher and his class; a gang of rebellious, vampire-like youths who have a commune nearby; and even an apparition of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who serves as a tour guide to the town’s unsettling past.

When you consider the two sequences shot in 3-D (but not presented in the format on DVD or Blu-ray), one color subject passing through black and white scenes (remember Rumble Fish?), and the original notion—abandoned soon after its incredibly limited theatrical release—that Coppola would travel with Twixt, and remix it on-site to audience suggestions, you recognize Coppola’s chutzpah as well as his eccentricities—and perhaps the fact he didn’t have faith in his film in the first place.

There’s a haunting and poignant quality to the early scenes involving Kilmer—whose character has lost a child—and Fanning in Twixt, which may have something to do with the fact Coppola lost his son Gio in a 1986 boating accident. But it certainly is all over the place, in terms of tone (serious gothic horror one minute, light parody the next), oddball elements (intermittent narration by Tom Waits, a broadly drawn supporting bit by Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello as an innkeeper), and production values (shot on and around Coppola’s Northern California winery, but often bearing a studio-bound look resembling the RKO thrillers of Val Lewton).

passion-onesheetOn the other hand, Passion, the latest from Brian De Palma, 73, wasn’t shot in the United States at all—it’s European all the way, from its origins (it’s a remake of Love Crime, a 2010 French effort), to its locations (primarily Berlin), to its producers (the opening credits list nine European production entities) and to its entire cast.

Passion, now available on demand with a concurrent limited theatrical release in theaters, showcases Rachel McAdams as Christine, a manipulative advertising executive, who steals an idea for a big cell phone commercial campaign from her assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). Mutual respect turns into mutual hatred and distrust, as the two play a game of one-upswomanship that involves a mutual lover (Paul Anderson), a young underling (Karoline Herfurth), police inspectors and, finally, murder.

De Palma’s signature moves are on display here, but there’s little oomph in his execution, and it’s obvious he’s working on a limited budget. As expected, audiences get teasing scenes of Sapphic love, a split-screen sequence, a dream episode, some nasty violence, a bombastic Bernard Herrmann-like score (courtesy of longtime collaborator Pino Donaggio), a possible doppelganger, extraneous zooms and other bits of familiar De Palma trickery.

What does it all add up to, rather than direct steals from his own better past efforts—and, in turn, his mentor, Alfred Hitchcock? A little bit of Sisters, a splash of Carrie, a nod to Body Double and a hint of Dressed to Kill.

In other words, not much more than a cold-as-ice parody of a good De Palma film that, ironically, is in desperate need of passion.

So one wonders where do these latest efforts leave the three talents in the movie business, circa 2013 and beyond? All of them have had trouble finding audiences with recent works, such as Schrader’s underrated The Walker and little seen Adam Resurrected, Coppola’s under-the-radar Tetro and Youth Without Youth, and De Palma’s polarizing Iraq war drama Redacted, released nine years ago.

Into their senior years, it will be interesting to see if these hot-shots of a different generation will either adapt to the new rules of the game (international financing, video-on-demand, etc.) or drop out of sight.

Is it a case of Apocalypse Now, or Apocalypse When?