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Observe the sad-sack sex addict in period costume: Rockwell in Choke.

Gag Me

By John Brodeur

Choke

Directed by Clark Gregg

You remember Fight Club; you can talk about it now. Full of big visual ideas, bigger performances, and dazzling imagery, the David Fincher-directed 1999 film was the pop-cultural zeitgeist for the turn of the millennium. Fight Club turned the cinema world on its ear for a time, and turned writer Chuck Palahniuk (whose 1996 novel was the film’s source material) into a cult hero.

Nearly 10 years later, the second of Palahniuk’s novels to be adapted for the big screen finally hits theaters. And while the writer has boasted that readings of his works have made scores of audience members faint, the film adaptation of Choke is more likely to put them to sleep.

Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a sex addict who works alongside his best friend, chronic masturbator Denny (Brad William Henke), as a historical reenactor in a mock-colonial American village. Mancini hooks up with (and sponsors) fellow addicts at support groups; his affliction, as it were, is depicted through his frequent visualization of women without their clothes on. His institutionalized mother, Ida (Angelica Huston), rarely recognizes her own son when he visits; he pays for her care by fake-choking in restaurants and letting strangers save his life, then later conning the strangers out of money. He wants desperately for his mother to reveal who his father is before she’s gone completely; in steps Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), a sympathetic doctor who offers a radical solution to restore Ida’s mental state. Thanks to a roughly translated diary entry, Victor is convinced he was cloned from Jesus Christ’s DNA, which leads to all kinds of fun.

If it all sounds sleazy and vulgar, it is. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is either funny or interesting. So, how does a film that climaxes with a sex-addicted con artist with a Messiah complex defecating in the interrogation room of a police precinct—a film that has more bare-breasted women than your average Girls Gone Wild video—avoid being either of those things? First, there’s the tone: Choke lacks consistency, with not nearly enough laughs to work as black comedy, and characters too poorly defined to convey any real drama. Victor’s efforts to find out his birth origins could be compelling if not for the spirit in which they’re gone about. The buddy scenes between Victor and Denny are lifeless, offering no real indication of why these two are friends beyond their common perversity.

Then there’s the film itself. Actor Clark Gregg, who wrote the screenplay and directed (and who appears as Lord High Charlie, providing some of the film’s only chuckles), is in over his head. It’s stock from top to bottom, bookended by monologues and overreliant on flashbacks to set up the mother-son relationship. Many of the best lines are stepped on or obscured (the sound budget must have been about 30 bucks). And Choke is just dull, really—the film is only 89 minutes, and the first two-thirds felt like twice that. By the time the big revelations roll around in the last stretch, it’s hard to care anymore.

Don’t fault the actors: Rockwell is dialed down to a bleary-eyed mope; he almost makes Victor a likeable, or at least pitiable, character. McDonald is good, but underused—she’s given all of one decent scene—and Huston, always on her game, has very little to work with. The supporting cast, including Joel Grey and a bevy of geriatric women, do their best to breathe in life wherever possible.

Could it be that Choke is unadaptable? Perhaps—it took half a dozen years for the script to come together. Even so, to see it given such a conventional treatment is a tremendous disappointment.

The Longest Story

Miracle at St. Anna

Directed by Spike Lee

In the spirit that Glory dispelled the idea that only whites fought in the Civil War, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna attempts to do the same for those African-Americans who served in World War II. Within moments of its opening—which involves a postal worker, seemingly pissed off that The Longest Day, with its cast of filmdom’s whitest stars, is on television yet again, shoots somebody in cold blood—the movie plunges back into 1944, where members of the all-black George company prepare to cross a river in Italy, toward the entrenched enemy. As infantry cautiously advance, with some jawing and others crying, the Germans bombard the air not with bullets but the silken tones of Axis Sally, who tenderly croons about safety, warm beds, mother’s biscuits and the fact that all the white leadership of George company are nowhere near this particular front. It’s chilling and effective, and possibly the most subtle thing that comes across in Lee’s treatment of the James McBride screenplay.

As the company gets blown to bits, which Lee generously shows us in case we needed to finally see black G.I. body parts in order to get the point, four soldiers find relative safety on the enemy shore and make the dangerous trek forward, into the Italian countryside. As this is, at heart, a standard war movie, we’ve got four disparate types: Stamps (Derek Luke), who believes that his military service will help all African-American progress; Bishop (Michael Ealy), a hardened streetwise type who takes every opportunity to make inferences to Stamps’ supposed Uncle Tom-isms; Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a giant simpleton; and Hector (Laz Alonso), who is good to have on hand not just because he’s the aforementioned postal shooter but also because his Puerto Rican roots give him some ability speaking something close to Italian. This comes in handy when the four meet the villagers, a motley mix of fascist sympathizers and Italian patriots. Throw in some partisan fighters, a German who reads poetry, prejudiced U.S. Army personnel, and more twists than should ever be put in one movie, and you’ve got a strangely uncompelling result.

That Miracle at St. Anna should be so unmoving is odd, considering that Lee seems passionate about exposing the truth about black Americans’ noble service to their country, despite the brutality of Jim Crow and segregation throughout the nation at that time. The few times in which Stamps and Bishop, or Bishop and Train, bicker are the only truly involving moments, as they depict the very real chasms that do exist among African-Americans to this day. This is the sort of argument that’s typical of war movies—and usually involves the stereotypical Italian, Irish guy and Jew—but it’s refreshing to see black characters have such discussions. Just when Lee seems about to reveal something about these characters, though, he changes direction and presents one of many subplots.

There is far too much about the Italian villagers and their superstitions, to the point that I wondered if I had sleepwalked into a forgotten bit of The Godfather. There are elements where Lee tries to channel Roberto Rossellini, notably a horrific massacre whose blunt edge is blurred by the director’s need to punctuate the cries of an orphaned infant with the godawful sight of her murdered mother’s engorged breast.

Other narratives are, by turns, pure Law & Order, as when Hector goes on trial and—check it out!—Kerry Washington steps in to defend him, or Citizen Kane, as in the opening noirish scenes in which gruff police detective John Turturro gives cub reporter Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) the chance to decode Hector’s “rosebud.”

Throughout, one gets the feeling that Lee can’t help himself. He’s always had that Italian itch, so, sure, let’s try to get to know the natives, but this ultimately sidetracks what should have been the key story, that of the four infantrymen. The ending feels completely manufactured, guaranteed to make audiences tear up and go “aww,” but otherwise doing nothing to contribute to our knowledge of and sympathy for the blacks who served.

—Laura Leon

An Electronic Mousetrap

Eagle Eye

Directed by D.J. Caruso

As in last year’s Live Free or Die Hard, an omnipotent surveillance force is wrecking controlled havoc with digital communications, automation, and electrical grids. Eagle Eye, however, has ambitions of being more of a political thriller than an action flick, and within its commercialized format (a little sentimentality, lots of car chases, a sprinkling of espionage, and this year’s requisite big-ticket stunt, a somersaulting 18-wheeler), it succeeds. The premise begins with Jerry (Shia LaBeouf), an itinerant copy-shop clerk who returns home for the funeral of his twin brother, Ethan, an Air Force officer who died in an accident. After making off with an unexplained deposit in his checking account, Jerry is contacted by a robotic-sounding woman who gives him orders to follow—or else he will face charges by the FBI. When he refuses, heavy machinery-gone-awry and other occurrences convince him to comply. Meanwhile, Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), a single mother whose young son is away at a school concert, is contacted by the same woman, who proves to her that her son has been kidnapped and will not be returned unless Rachel follows her inexplicable orders. Jerry and Rachel are teamed, and their very ordinariness adds to the intrigue, though they both suspect that Ethan’s military career may not have been what it seemed, especially after Jerry is threatened by the cell-phone entity into passing a biometric scanner set for Ethan.

Following their seemingly terrorist trail are an FBI agent played by Billy Bob Thornton and an Air Force investigator played by Rosario Dawson. The increasingly convoluted plot is neatly deployed—Jerry and Rachel are assisted by seemingly random strangers who make up a modern-day citizens’ defense brigade—and incorporates smoothly operating bits about the U.S. Constitution, homeland security, the latest in invasive technology, and the evolution of AI. That the potentially ludicrous plot chugs along with nary a constructional hitch can be credited to director D.J. Caruso, a director for The Shield. Caruso gets effective quick-sketch characterizations from the cast, including Shield star Michael Chiklis, who adds gravitas in his brief appearance as the defense secretary.

—Ann Morrow


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