Character actor Clark Gregg ("The Adventures of Sebastian Cole")chose as his debut film as a director the arduous task of adapting a Chuck Palahniuk novel to the screen. King of the self-loathing miscreant (with Bret Easton Ellis a close second), Palahniuk's novels are tough sells, but if one understands what they're getting into with "Choke", then they will probably like it all the same. Sam Rockwell gives yet another tremendous performance as Victor, an emotionally dented man who skips his sex addiction sessions to have sex in the adjacent bathroom with another addict, spends his days visiting his mother in a psychiatric ward, and putting on displays of choking fits in crowded restaurants to earn 'friends' who think they saved his life and, hence, feel financially indebted to help him out. Not a pleasant sight, to say the least. Palahniuk's stream of conscience voice over is intact, and "Choke" wallows in the same nihilistic pretenses as his other filmed adaptation ("Fight Club") but there's a slight bit of redemption in the end for this character. It doesn't get completely warm and fuzzy, but through its misogynistic ugliness, "Choke" manages to elicit a small dose of human connection and excuses Victor for some of his contempt. This is about as happy as a Palahniuk ending can get.
Ed Harris' second film as a director will undoubtedly be contested within the ranks of the dozen or so other modern westerns to populate the scene since 1992 when Eastwood's "Unforgiven" made the genre viable again. "Appaloosa" is a simple, restrained western that probably won't win many votes, but it does register as the closest example to the true spirit of the genre than many others. Its two main characters- Harris and a quietly powerful Viggo Mortenson, whom the film is really about- are men with very little to say outside of their actions. There are no long, drawn out gunfights. The violence happens swiftly...almost like an afterthought to the posing and intellectual calculations that the groups of opposing lawmen and outlaws find themselves in. This swiftness feels rather authentic, though, and will probably bore most audiences salivating over the action of last year's "3:10 To Yuma". And Jeremy Irons, as the villainous cattle baron, is so good that it makes me wonder why the hell he hasn't been offered this before. I really admired this film for stopping, taking a breath and slowing the genre down a bit.While I still feel "Open Range" is one of the most under appreciated westerns of the last decade, there's always room for the introverted, passive style of Harris' interpretation.
The Rape of Europa
I often descend into hyperbole. I admit it. So if anyone takes offence to my common cries about this film being the best of its genre, or that movie rating as one of the most disturbing movies of its kind, I plead that you ignore those previous over statements and believe me when I call "The Rape of Europa" an important film... and one that everyone should see. On one level, this is a film about the plundering of art across Europe during World War 2 for vain and selfish reasons. On another level, this is a sobering account of cruelty and inhuman destruction that, by now, should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington or watched any documentary on Hitler and his cronies' expansion across Russia, France, Poland and Italy. And yet, "The Rape of Europa" still resounds as harrowing piece of footage that continues to shock and mortify with astounding photos and first person testimony recalling the swath of scorched earth that Germany's advancing army left behind. They destroyed early century architecture as they retreated from towns just to watch them burn... their invasion of certain countries happened to correlate with that country's trove of art masterpieces... they took control of a 13th century monastery, knowing the Allied forces wouldn't bomb it and then retreated hours before the Allies actually did bomb the landmark... Hitler and other German officers created 'want lists' of paintings and sculptures within certain museums and private collections. The film explicitly suggests that, to some extent, coveting these great works of art was an underlying motive to Hitler and his army. "The Rape of Europa" provides a clear-eyed examination of Hitler's burning desire to systematically wipe out the cultures and artistic heirlooms of whole societies. And then, the film takes a redemptive turn and shows us the groups of Allied men and women who spent the last year of the war (and lifetimes afterward) searching for most of the missing art and desperately trying to regain a small part of a culture that was ripped apart. Infinitely moving and educational, "The Rape of Europa" was directed by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen. This is a terrific film that takes a different slant on the atrocities of war. A real must see.
Alan Ball's "Towelhead" opted for the more controversial title (originally named "Nothing Is Private") and that pretty much sums up the over-reaching attitude of the film. It wants to be edgy and shocking (13 year old Middle Eastern girl meets racism and sexual deflowering in suburban Houston) but winds up as little more than rote. While young actress Summer Bashil as Jasira gives a leveled performance, the same can't be said for Aaron Eckhart. Yes, the guy who can seemingly do no harm after his star-making turn in "The Dark Knight" gives a false performance, starting with his horribly conceived Texas accent. And therein lies the real problem with Ball's film. There's no sense of time or place even though the film's plot hinges on the fact that Jasira and her Lebanese dad (Peter Macdissi) live in 1991 Houston and suffer through the pre-conceived racism as their country fights the first Gulf War- and its an ironic side note that Jasira's father hates Saddam as much, if not more, than most Americans. Parts are done really well, but most of the film suffers from its desire to be envelope-pushing.