Monday, September 29, 2008

Film Review - CHOKE: Rock(well)-Solid Comedic Gag-fest!

I’ve met many on-screen weirdoes in my time, but Victor Mancini is a true original. Get this: Victor, as portrayed by Sam Rockwell, is an unremitting sex addict, gawking lasciviously at any woman within 100 yards, who’s infamous at his mother’s psychiatric hospital for boffing every nurse and orderly on the payroll. Sure he realizes he has a problem, and does attend group therapy, but usually either jokes his way through them with his best friend, a chronic masturbator named Denny (Brad William Henke) or by rolling around the bathroom floor with the equally licentious Nico (Paz de la Huerta).
He’s also got serious mommy issues, doting on his dementia-addled mother Ida (Angelica Huston), a cruel former criminal, who has screwed poor Victor up so badly that the only way he can feel nurtured is to make himself choke on food at restaurants and have strangers save his life.
Oh, did I mention that he works as a “historical interpreter” (aka lowly jackass in a silly wig and costume) at a colonial theme park/tourist trap, where he relentlessly hits on his standoffish co-worker Ursula (Bijou Phillips), and takes cruel joy in infuriating his pompous boss (the film’s director, Clark Gregg).
Yep, he’s a character all right, and the film about his misadventures, titled simply Choke, is one of the most quirky and entertainingly original comedies to come down the twisted pike in eons.
Based on the novel by disturbed author Chuck Palahniuk (who also wrote Fight Club), Choke is the surprisingly affecting tale of a pathetic wretch who searches for meaning in his life. His emotional journey leads him to a number of avenues: learning the truth behind his crazily dysfunctional upbringing, beginning an awkward courtship with Paige (Kelly Macdonald), a new doctor at his mom’s hospital, and by finally making peace with his own depressions and admitting his (many) problems.
But plot isn’t imperative here. Choke is, at its filthy little heart, a hysterical character study that should, lord Xenu willing, finally launch the sleaze-tastic star that is Sam Rockwell. Rockwell, that ace character actor who’s been kicking around Hollywood for almost two decades working in films of varying quality (including Matchstick Men, Charlie’s Angels, Galaxy Quest and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind), has finally found his ideal role and he owns it every sinful second he’s on screen. With his tousled, lightly greying mop and peculiarly otter-like appearance, he works wonders in making the audience love a man who sexually harasses senior citizens and launches snarky verbal projectiles at everyone around him.
First time helmer Gregg (who also adapted the film), is best known as co-star of TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine, and was recently seen in theatres being bashed by a metal behemoth in Iron Man, doesn’t have much of a visual sense (he’s more from the bland point-and-shot school of directorial thought), but he shows a remarkable talent for staging comedy and drawing the best from his cast of off-beat talent.
He especially knows how to use Angelica Huston to full effect. Done up like a Goth Carmen Sandiego in flashbacks, the veteran actress goes crackers creating one of the most pathologically wounding parental figures since Gene Hackman worked his own emotionally-stunted magic in The Royal Tenenbaums. No one can say “It’s late! We have to make the state line”, with the chilly authority she can. As well, her work in the present, as a rapidly fading invalid is bravely unsentimental and lacking in vanity.
The other power-player here is Kelly Macdonald, the adorable Scottish actress best known for losing a coin toss in No Country For Old Men, who takes a very tricky pivotal role and really brings a surplus of warmth to it. The fact that she can make the audience believe that Sam Rockwell is endearing is incontestable evidence of her talents.
Gregg’s script is slickly written, and filled with raucously lewd comedic moments. One scene, which had a dozen battle-hardened film critics cackling, features Vincent hooking up with a business-minded rape fetishist without a single submissive bone in her body, who proceeds to verbally dominate her would-be “rapist” to the point of panic. As well, a bathroom encounter that ends with a misplaced anal bead is, on paper revolting, but as portrayed in the film, giggle-inducing. It takes talent to make the depravities seen here funny, but Gregg establishes such a breezy, amiable tone that they’ll offend only the most outrageously conservative of souls.
I ambled into Choke expecting a vulgar trip into Weirdsville, populated by the seamiest of dwellers. So imagine my pleasant surprise at discovering one of the most lovable films of the year, an off-beat triumph with a crackerjack lead performance and full dedication towards delivering a unique comedic vision. For a film over-flowing with acidic wit, bizarre fetishes and mislaid sex toys, Choke sure goes down smooth.
4 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Sept. 29, 2008

Film Review - LAKEVIEW TERRACE: Solid Foundation, Shaky Design.

Call me crazy, but nobody plays frustrated emasculation like Patrick Wilson. Over the past few years, he has been steadily gathering a stable of hopelessly ineffectual middle-class guys who are backed into a corner by dominant opposing forces. The suburban husband arrested development case in the astonishing Little Children, overshadowed by successful wife Jennifer Connelly and paralyzingly reluctant about stepping into the adult world. The smirky pedophile unwittingly trapped in would-be victim Ellen Page’s sinister mind-games in the squirm-inducing Hard Candy. And 2009 will see him, in perhaps the penultimate Wilson role, as the impotent crime-fighter Night Owl in the eagerly anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

So try to understand my enjoyment in watching the future star’s misery this time around, being metaphorically (and sometimes literally) slapped around the screen by that unconquerable figure of alpha-maleness, Samuel L. Jackson, in the semi-successful new thriller, Lakeview Terrace.
Set in an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood in forest-fire plagued L.A., Lakeview Terrace features Sam Jackson as Abel Turner, a hard-edged police officer who runs the streets, as well as his single-parent household, with a combustible mix of intimidation and fierce vigilance. An ever-present watchdog over his proud neighborhood, Turner is none-to-pleased when inter-racial married couple Chris and Lisa Mattson (Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door. Beneath a subtle veil of hostility, Turner begins making things uncomfortable for the new homeowners with everything from subtle annoyances (parking tickets, intrusive security lights and disparaging racial comments) to vicious verbal attacks and homicidal behavior.

…But then, we’ve all been around this block a few times before. Perhaps titles like Strangers On A Train, Unlawful Entry, Single White Female or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle pop into our heads, clueing us into the fact that we’ve once again entered the ol’ “Psycho Stalker” genre, in which decent people are endlessly tormented by an unstoppable force of menace.

At the very least, screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder have mixed things up a bit by honing on the subject of racial prejudice, and in Abel Turner they’ve created an interesting antagonist. Turner is furious over white America’s adoption and subsequent perversions of African-American culture, tired of seeing people like Chris Mattson sleepwalk their way into prosperity while he risks his life on a daily basis and, most of all, he’s resentful of his own place in society. Jackson is most fascinating when he lets his self-loathing seep to the surface like vitriolic ooze, especially in an alcohol-fueled bar-stool confessional, or engaged in a tense breakfast table stand-off with his two young children. His hurt is palpable, occasionally even truthful, and he poses some interesting moral questions.

Patrick Wilson is his perfect counterpart, a liberal yuppie, who often seems almost childlike in his inability to deal with the crises around him. His inability to deal with his wife’s desire to start a family or her over-bearing father (Ron Glass, masterfully imposing in his two short scenes) feed into his venomous conflict with Abel, who knows exactly how to tear down his confidence.

Director Neil LaBute, who previously made the ultimate filmic statement on monstrous male egos with In The Company of Men, understands that these two dueling lions are Lakeview’s core (Indeed, Kerry Washington’s Lisa is mostly relegated to whining and looking angry/hurt, minus a few edgy moments with Jackson), and for the most part he just lets them circle each other. It’s only in the latter third of the film, when the thriller aspects get amped up to ludicrous heights, that we’re reminded that LaBute also gave us The Wicker Man, my most oft-cited film of late. The film’s tumultuous fist-and-firearm show-down, as well as a ridiculous shot of a character in a Christ-like pose, deflate the film’s tension and honest intentions.

As far as suspense films go, Lakeview Terrace does its job and manages to sneak in a few surprise punches. It’s somewhat refreshing to attend a mainstream star vehicle that manages to inject some interesting moral conundrums and social criticism and not appear too simple-minded or patronizing.

Still, it would be nice, just once, to see a “Psycho Stalker” film that doesn’t end with battered sweaty people screaming at one another to “put the gun down”?

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Sept 29, 2008.