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Dario Argento’s ‘Dracula 3D’: A Film Review

Dario Argento’s “Dracula 3D” isn’t the complete fiasco that virtually every single person who’s seen it is claiming it to be.

Sure, long stretches of it are mind-numbingly boring. Sure, the actor who plays Count D is possibly the least charismatic bloodsucker in the history of cinema. And yeah, a good portion of it is shot so flatly that it’s impossible to detect any 3-D whatsoever.

But every so often there appears on screen something so magically weird, so batshit crazy, so jaw-droppingly “huh?” that I couldn’t help but forgive the film its myriad flaws.

For instance, there’s an eye-popping moment when Dracula transforms himself into a 9 FOOT TALL BRIGHT GREEN PRAYING MANTIS. Top that, Bram Stoker! Plus, it’s got enough old-school gore and gratuitous full-frontal nudity to keep you from falling asleep during the dull bits.

Oh, and Dracula also turns into one of those CGI owls from “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” at one point.

Best of all, there’s Rutger Hauer as a near-catatonic Professor Van Helsing, pounding giant wooden stakes through vampire chests without using a hammer. His hands are so painfully bloated that he simply whacks ’em with his palms! Seriously, I hope they had a team of doctors on set, because Hauer looked like he was one single malt scotch away from full cardiac arrest.

Factor in a few random axe murders, some guy getting his head split in half by a shovel blade, Renfield portrayed as a hulking mongoloid and a non-stop theremin score borrowed from a Simpson’s “Tree House of Horror” episode and you’ve got an unexpected winner, in my humble opinion.

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Review: OMEN IV and OMEN V

Everyone knows the classic film “The Omen.” Horror fans fondly remember its cinematic sequels, “Damien: Omen II” and “Omen III: The Final Conflict.” Some might even recall the less-than-stellar 1991 made-for-TV movie “Omen IV: The Awakening.” But very few have read the two official paperback novels that continued the adventures of the antichrist during the mid-80s. And that’s a shame, because they’re both worth reading.

“Omen IV: Armageddon 2000” is an enjoyable slice of occult hokum that picks up exactly where “The Final Conflict” left off. Better written than it needs to be, you can practically hear Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning score kick in every time another bizarre murder takes place within its pages. Speaking of murders, this book’s loaded with ’em! The impressive body count rivals the movie franchise in terms of elaborate gore, and the whole thing builds to a downbeat, apocalyptic climax involving Biblical prophecy, war in the Middle East and nuclear weapons. Best remembered for the sleazy method in which Damien’s son is born (wrong orifice, is all I’ll say), “Omen IV: Armageddon” won’t win any prizes for originality, depth or scares… but as a nostalgic example of large-scale Satanic horror, it goes down pretty smooth.

Unfortunately, “Omen V: The Abomination” isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor. Gordon McGill’s writing remains solid, but there’s not much energy left in Damien’s saga by this point in the series. It takes almost 100 pages (out of a scant 219) for an actual Omen-style death to occur, and even then it’s disappointingly humdrum. The body count is low, and far too little happens for most of the story. Damien’s grouchy offspring (unimaginative named ‘Damien II’) makes one last attempt at world domination, while the novel’s hero, a dull Hemingwayesque writer researching a book about the Thorn family, tries to figure out how to work a high-tech word processor. The (anti)climax reads like a watered-down version of the “Omen IV” ending, which was only so-so to begin with.

But the book isn’t a total loss. What’s most interesting about this final chapter is that it takes place after a portion of the planet has been destroyed by nuclear weapons. This places the story firmly in speculative sci-fi territory, and McGill gives us several intriguing glimpses of life in a post-apocalyptic world filled with weird weather patterns, mass starvation, political chaos and religious fundamentalism.

Ultimately, these are two fascinating additions to the official “Omen” canon, and I highly recommend them to all of Damien’s curious disciples.

Pat Conroy’s ‘The Death of Santini’: A Book Review

As a longtime fan of his purple-prosed fiction, it saddens me to admit that Pat Conroy’s “The Death of Santini” didn’t really work for me. When the book was first announced, I was a bit disappointed to learn that we were getting another memoir instead of a brand new novel. But the thought of Conroy peeling back the layers of his father’s violent personality still held some promise. At least that’s what I’d hoped for. After finishing it, I feel like Pat’s gone back to this autobiographical well once too often.

The opening chapters dealing with his father’s explosive anger and the cruel physical abuse he routinely meted out to his wife and children are the strongest by far. Conroy vividly paints the man as a hair-trigger tyrant who viciously terrorized his family at the drop of a hat. There’s a palpable horror to these early pages, a ‘you-are-there’ intensity that places the reader directly in the path of each oncoming punch. It’s shocking stuff, far worse than Conroy’s fictionalized account in his breakthrough novel “The Great Santini.” Eventually he segues into the making of the classic film starring Robert Duvall, and the strangeness of his life’s journey becomes sort of beautiful, in spite of the pain.

But then the book shifts gears dramatically and Conroy spends an inordinate amount of pages documenting the life of his maternal grandmother, ‘Stanny’, a woman who comes across more as a selfish alcoholic bore, prone to weirdly obnoxious sexual outbursts, rather than the ‘shining glory’ that Conroy repeatedly claims her to be. This is a woman who, during the Great Depression, literally orphaned her four helpless, poverty-stricken children to the care of her mentally deranged husband and took off for parts unknown. Conroy tries hard to forgive this unforgivable act of abandonment by explaining that years later, once she’d comfortably remarried, Stanny sent for her children to join her in Atlanta. But then he lets slip that she spent the rest of her life refusing to accept the legitimacy of three of those children, a wicked psychological injury from which they never fully recovered.

The fact that Conroy doesn’t dig deeper into what might have led his beloved grandmother to treat her babies so callously is one of the book’s most egregious failures. Conroy keeps introducing stunning personal details and then refuses to follow up on them with any depth. A similar thing happens at the end of the Stanny chapters, where Conroy casually admits that, although he supposedly adored her beyond words, he nevertheless abandoned his grandmother to a nursing home, despite her literally begging him not to. Once again, he doesn’t attempt to explain what led him to make such a painful decision. He simply chalks it up to a personal failure and moves on to another topic.

And that’s my biggest problem with the book. As a memoirist, Conroy seems either unwilling or unable to rigorously examine what lies beneath the psychological surface of his admittedly fucked up family. There’s a disappointing shallowness at work here, a fear of truly digging deep into what makes these people do the things they do. Conroy seems comfortable describing each violent blow that struck him and his siblings down, but those are still just surface details. When it comes to his dark inner life, the messy stuff that each of us carries around inside, he’s far too reticent. That hesitation makes for a dull memoir, in my opinion.

And then there’s the actual writing, which again left me underwhelmed. I’ve always enjoyed Conroy’s overly descriptive prose style, especially in his lovely novel “The Prince of Tides.” The guy never met a lily that didn’t need gilding, and that’s part of the fun of reading him. I suppose it’s in keeping with the Southern literary tradition he embraces. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve him well here. Far too often, he trips over a string of adjectives, mixes gaudy metaphors and oddly enough seems intent on calling virtually every woman in the book “pretty.” Over and over again he uses that meaningless word to describe his female friends, aunts, wives and editors. It’s almost comical at times, especially when he starts using it to describe their homes and furniture, too.

Finally, as a memoirist Conroy has a bad habit of making overly simplistic snap decisions about the people and places he encounters throughout his life. Time and again, he’ll introduce someone and claim that he fell instantly in love with them (or hated them) the very first second they met. It’s a lame psychological shortcut that robs his observations of nuance and depth, rendering everything in dull black and white.

By the end of this well-intentioned but meandering book, I’d grown tired of the troubled Conroy clan and their near-constant dysfunction. As fascinating as they may be, I think they probably work best when translated into fiction.

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 lady fingers and 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 thing does not pull punches. The lights don’t fade down just as it’s about to get brutal. 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.