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Brian De Palma’s ‘Passion’: A Film Review

It’s not the throat slittings, strangulations, fetish masks, drug-fueled nightmares or murderous lesbians that make Brian De Palma’s “Passion” so enjoyable. Those things are all quite wonderful, but what’s really special here is that they’re handled so effortlessly. There’s a lightness to “Passion” that I wasn’t expecting, a playful insouciance that informs the entire film, from the first quirky notes of Pino Donaggio’s retro score to the final grisly tableau. I was completely charmed by it.

It’s really two movies for the price of one. The first is a dirty little office comedy about beautiful people stabbing each other in the back to get ahead. The second is a dreamy psycho-thriller about beautiful people slashing each other in the throat to get revenge. Both are a lot of fun.

De Palma’s artfully composed split-screens, prowling steadicam and deep-focus diopter shots help goose an already nifty story into something memorable. Admittedly, the bigger fan you are of the director, the better the film will probably work for you. I love the guy, but your results may vary.

Unlike Bret Easton Ellis’s tone-deaf dialog in Paul Schrader’s otherwise curious “The Canyons,” De Palma’s script is intentionally funny. What a relief! There’s nothing smug or self-important at work here. It never takes itself too seriously, but doesn’t devolve into a joke, either. That’s a delicate line for an erotic thriller to walk, but “Passion” pulls it off quiet nicely.

Rachel McAdams, an actress I’ve never felt strongly about, is terrific as the ethically-challenged corporate honcho whose kinky sex games set the twisty plot spinning. After Rebecca Romijn’s semi-awkward performance in the well-crafted “Femme Fatale” and Scarlett Johansson’s somnambulant interpretation of a human being in “The Black Dahlia,” it’s a pleasure to see De Palma directing someone who appears fully engaged with the camera for a change. McAdams seems almost giddy at times, hungrily chewing as much scenery as she can get her manicured fingers on.

It took me a while to get on Noomi Rapace’s odd wavelength, but once I did her casting made perfect sense. There’s something alien about her, something icy, yet fragile. The darker the story gets, the more comfortable she seems in it. Pairing her with the vibrant McAdams was a great idea, as the two contrast beautifully on screen.

I might be overselling it, but that’s okay. I thoroughly enjoyed “Passion” and look forward to seeing it again (and probably again after that). It’s not a big film. It’s not a baroque horror tale like “Raising Cain,” or a Grand Guignol masterpiece like “Dressed to Kill.” The ending doesn’t make much sense, and I’m not sure if the mystery-plot plays fair with the audience. But it’s stylish, smart and funny, and just eerie enough to make you check your closet before going to sleep afterward.

William Boyd’s ‘Solo’: A Book Review

SoloWilliam Boyd’s novel “SOLO” is James Bond by way of Graham Greene, with a bit of the film “The Wild Geese” thrown in for good measure. This is Bond at his most ruminative; a solitary, moody Bond, haunted by dreams of his violent experiences in WWII. The novel opens on a melancholy note, depicting Bond celebrating his 45th birthday alone at the Dorchester Hotel. The mission he’s soon tasked with is a dirty one: fly to the middle of an African civil war, cozy up to a Brigadier whose military successes are prolonging the conflict and “find a way of making him a less efficient soldier.” Polite code for assassination.

This morally and politically complex spy thriller is much closer in spirit to Fleming’s gripping short story “The Living Daylights” than to the pulpy extravagance of “Dr. No.” As expected, Boyd’s writing is razor-sharp, and contrasts nicely with Fleming’s somewhat reserved prose style. That’s not to say he doesn’t follow the Fleming template for adventure, however. The two women in the book couldn’t be more different from each other, or more interesting. The fact that one of them appears to be a thinly disguised version of real-life British horror actress Ingrid Pitt makes this a particularly fun read for fans of Hammer Films.

Aside from the occasional use of the word “fuck,” which never appears in any of the Fleming books, “SOLO” is a pitch-perfect continuation of the classic series. I loved the subtle references to the original novels, as when Bond remembers that the only other time he’d spent in Africa was a brief trip several years before to shoot a helicopter out of the sky (which happened in the final chapter of “Diamonds are Forever), or when Bond is given a new alias and recalls that he used a similar one in the early 1950s when he took a train from New York to Florida (which occurred in “Live and Let Die”).

The lack of a truly epic villain is the only place where the novel stumbles. Kobus Breed, a hideously scarred mercenary given to stringing his victims up with meat hooks, is probably the closest Boyd comes to creating a Fleming-style antagonist. He’s a very good one, scary and realistic, but he’s not on the world-class level of a Red Grant or a Francisco Scaramanga.

Hopefully Boyd will be allowed to continue writing the next few entries in the 007 series, because I suspect he’ll take it in some fascinating directions. Bond could use someone with his skills guiding him into the future.

Paul Schrader’s ‘The Canyons’: A Film Review

The Canyons“The Canyons” isn’t exactly a good movie. In fact, at times it’s laughably bad. But it’s never uninteresting. There’s something tragic and wasted about it, like a baby born with all of its limbs broken. The sex scenes are lit to resemble an old bruise, while the digital sunlight renders the cast a translucent shade of autopsy-gray.

Maybe that’s why I found it so striking.

The story is a dull rehash of a “Melrose Place” episode: young people cheat on each other, then text about it until someone dies. It’s a joyless, airless, pantless film that would feel right at home on late-night cable. Bret Easton Ellis’s dialog is probably the weakest thing about it. Everyone sounds like an idiotic douchebag the second they open their mouths. The script is barely functional enough to keep the picture creeping towards an anticlimax.

What matters here is the funereal mood, the vibe of moral decay and inner blight that director Paul Schrader has specialized in for almost 40 years. Unfortunately, this time it’s difficult to tell how much he actually cares. Schrader used to turn icy dispassion into vibrant art. Here he seems rather bored by it. “The Canyons” is sorta like a brand new carpet. It’s visually bold, factory fresh and ultra-clean, but emits a toxic ‘off-gas’ smell if you get too close.

I don’t really know what to make of porn star James Deen’s mainstream feature debut. He seems cold and a little bit lost, like a sexy, high-tech mannequin who wandered away from an Abercrombie display window. My advice would be for him to lighten up, grow some pubes and choose roles that require a pulse, not just a schlong.

As for Lindsay Lohan, I felt somewhat bad for her whenever she was on screen. Puffy and sloe-eyed, with a raspy voice that sounds like the Devil in “The Exorcist,” she’s not well served by her director, the movie or the high-waist control panties she’s costumed in most of the time. This probably isn’t going to be the career comeback she’s looking for. And yet there are times when, seemingly out of nowhere, she comes scarily to life, inhabiting her troubled character to such a powerful degree that you can easily see what made her a star in the first place. These fleeting moments add an unexpected degree of poignancy to the moribund action.

So, considering all that’s wrong with it, why didn’t I hate “The Canyons”? Probably because, in spite of everything, it’s not obnoxious. It’s not loud or ugly. In fact, it’s almost thoughtful at times. This is a film at war with itself. Much of it seems weirdly artificial, yet every so often it feels painfully human. At the screening I attended, Schrader’s post-film Q&A helped win me over. He’s so playfully grumpy and knowingly naughty. After hearing him speak, I couldn’t wait to see it again.

I’ve watched this gloomy ode to texting & humping twice since then, and my appreciation for it has deepened enough for me to call it essential viewing.

Stuart Gordon’s ‘Taste’: A Theater Review

tasteBefore you sit down to enjoy Stuart Gordon’s new play “Taste,” be warned: a half-dozen people walked out halfway through the preview I attended, and a man in the audience suffered a full-on seizure a few minutes later.

Written by Benjamin Brand and directed by Gordon, this is a profoundly disturbing production, the kind that sticks with you long after the actors have taken their final bows. When I first heard that it was a play about cannibalism, I figured it would be another wink-wink black comedy filled with macabre jokes about dinner etiquette.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Inspired by an infamous true story, “Taste” is a serious examination of the twisted relationship that develops between two deeply disturbed individuals. While there are a handful of darkly humorous moments scattered throughout, the overwhelming theme of the play is loneliness and the desire for intimacy at all costs. And I mean ALL costs.

This is heavy stuff, perhaps too bleak and upsetting for general audiences. But for those willing to peek into the abyss, it’s a sight to behold.

Structured as a first (and last) date between two strangers who’ve met online, the play takes place in real time, over the course of a single evening, in a real kitchen, with actual food cooked and eaten on stage. The smell of sautéing meat and onions wafts through the theater, adding an extra layer of sensory stimulation to the performance. In fact, the set, lighting and subtly realistic sound design all help to create an intense naturalism that pays off big time once the physical horror begins. There’s nothing stylized or amusingly artificial about this play, nothing safe to hide behind. It succeeds at luring you in and then clobbering you.

The two actors deserve an enormous amount of credit. Donal Thoms-Cappello as Terry, the psychotic chef, takes what could easily have been a campy villainous role and dials it back just enough to show us a real person lurking beneath the mask. He’s alternately frightening and pathetic.

Chris L. McKenna as Vic, the main course, is quite simply amazing. There’s a deep well of sadness inside this character, a desperate longing to connect with another person, even if it means complete annihilation. McKenna brings all of that hopelessness and despair to the surface from the moment he steps on stage. He’s utterly heartbreaking. You’ve seen people like him in real life, damaged folks who just can’t seem to relate to the rest of the world. That tragic familiarity makes it doubly difficult to watch what happens to him over the course of the story.

Blood is spilled in this play. Some of the imagery is extremely shocking and sexual in nature. Seriously, this play does not pull its punches. The lights don’t fade down just as it’s about to get brutal. We see it all – including a graphic castration and penis eating sequence – and there’s nothing coy about it. But it’s the theme of the piece that’s most disturbing. It’s the emotional darkness that you’ll be discussing afterward. Grim doesn’t begin to describe it.

“Taste” is brilliant stuff and I’m glad I saw it, as hard as it was to sit through.