Category Archives: Con Game

SIFF 2014: Mirage Men ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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Remember the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Roy counters the government official’s spin with “You can’t fool us by agreeing with us”? Life imitates art in John Lundberg’s brain-teasing documentary. Along with screenwriter Mark Pilkington, he’s assembled a treatise suggesting the government did, in fact, “fool” UFO conspiracy theorists over the years by “agreeing” with them. And if you ask the film’s central player, ex-spook Richard C. Doty, he’s more than happy to confess that his prime directive as the Air Force’s chief liaison with the Roswell believers was two-fold: keep tabs on the higher-profile UFO buffs, whilst feeding them enough tantalizing disinformation to keep the mythology thriving. Unless…that’s what he wants us to think (hmm). That’s the conundrum that kept me hooked. Fans of The X-Files will dig this one.

Bad hair decade: American Hustle **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2013)

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While I was waiting for the lights to go down at a packed sneak preview for David O. Russell’s American Hustle, a Gandalf-looking fellow wearing what can only be described as a Jed Clampett hat squeezed in next to me, gave me a nudge and asked, “So, what’ve ya heard about this one…is it kinda like American Gigolo?” (They always find me…I don’t know how, but they do).

Now praying for the lights to go down, I forced a polite smile and said “No, I don’t believe it’s about male hustlers. It’s about con artists, although it does take place in the 1970s.” He paused for a moment of contemplation. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “so it’s kinda like Boogie Nights?”

While stealing a quick visual check of the house for any other available seats, I replied “No, I don’t think it’s about the porn industry. I understand that it’s based on the Abscam scandal…if you remember it.” Huge mistake. “Ah! We must be about the same age! What year were ya born? Tell me, do ya have a good home life?”

Mercifully, I was saved by the lights.

My new BFF may have inadvertently stumbled onto something. It turns out that American Hustle actually is one of those “kinda like” movies. It’s kinda like GoodFellas, just not as stylish. It’s kinda like Jackie Brown, just not as clever. It’s kinda like Married to the Mob, just not as funny. And if you’re expecting All the President’s  Men, fuhgettaboutit. Consequently, it is neither a candy nor a breath mint.

It’s best described as New Yorkers screaming at each other for an interminable 2 hours and 18 minutes (with guest conniptions from the Jersey side). After the winking disclaimer “Some of this actually happened“, we are introduced to sleazy con man Irving (Christian Bale), who preys on marks with the help of his “British” girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams). When the two stingers get stung by an undercover FBI operation, the hotshot agent in charge (Bradley Cooper) offers them a deal if they help him catch bigger fish by conning a mobbed-up Camden, NJ mayor (Jeremy Renner) into serving as unsuspecting facilitator.

The “sting” here is on the audience, because Russell and his co-writer Eric Singer, while proving quite skilled at window-dressing this as some kind of rollicking, vaguely sociopolitical 70s period piece, use the retro vibe as sucker bait to string us along waiting for something interesting to happen; by the time we realize we’ve been had, the credits roll. There is far too little focus on story or character development and too much fixation on fashion, furniture and hair (Bale’s Rube Goldberg comb-over, Cooper’s perm and Renner’s pompadour deserve their own credits).

And while I’m nitpicking…about that music. While I love those super hits of the 70s as much as anyone else, if the story is set in 1978, why are 90% of the songs on the soundtrack from the early 70s?

It’s a drag to see such a good cast wasted. Bale, Adams, Cooper, Renner and Jennifer Lawrence (playing Bale’s estranged wife with aplomb) are skilled, but even the best actors need some direction every now and then (like when to dial it down to a dull roar, an instruction that apparently went either unspoken or unheeded). So don’t be conned.

Have a nice day!

You’re gonna have to serve somebody: The Master ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2012)

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Starring Montgomery Clift and Charles Laughton (?)

The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarities to actual persons, living or dead are purely coincidental

(Standard end of film disclaimer)

“Comparisons are not invariably odious, but they are often misleading,” Orson Welles once wrote, in reference to the debate over whether or not the many parallels in his film Citizen Kane to the real life story of William Randolph Hearst and the rise of his powerful publishing empire were purely coincidental. It is quite possible that current and future generations of critics and audiences will engage in similar debate regarding the parallels in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master to the  life of L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of his Church of Scientology. Neither the church nor Anderson have  confirmed or denied.

Despite the number of  “coincidences”, the answer to the most obvious question is, “no”. This is neither a hagiography nor a smack down of any specific doyen or belief system (thinly disguised or otherwise). Anyone who would pigeonhole the film with such a shallow reading likely has not seen it (or is perhaps unfamiliar with certain  themes running through all of Anderson’s films). What he has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?

As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (one of those aforementioned recurring themes in Anderson’s oeuvre; more on that in a moment). Anderson frames his narrative using the zeitgeist of America’s existential post-war malaise, in the person of ex-sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).

Socially withdrawn, prone to dipsomania, odd sexual compulsions and unpredictable fits of rage, Freddie’s transition back to civilian life has not been a smooth one. His character embodies many traits of the quintessential “disillusioned vet” protagonist that fueled post-war noirs like Act of Violence, Thieves’ Highway, The Blue Dahlia, Ride the Pink Horse and High Wall (in fact, The Master vibes overall with the verisimilitude of some great lost genre film of the late 40s or early 50s).

Freddie’s laundry list of personality disorders has not endeared him to the 5 o’clock world; he drifts from job to job. He hits rock bottom after his indirect responsibility for a tragic mishap has him literally fleeing for his life from a work site. Desperate to get out of Dodge and headed for a meltdown, Freddy skulks in the shadows of a San Francisco marina, where he crashes a shipboard wedding party, hoping to blend in with the revelers and then stow away.

The ship, a converted cattle trawler rechristened the Aletheia, is captained by the father of the bride, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a self-described writer/doctor/nuclear physicist/ philosopher and “hopelessly inquisitive man.” (if he were to take up guitar and form a rock band, he’d be Buckaroo Banzai). He is also a burgeoning cult leader; the boat is chock-a-block with devotees in thrall with Dodd and his philosophy, referred to as The Cause (the tenets have been laid out in Dodd’s eponymous book).

Initially, the paranoid Dodd admonishes his uninvited guest (suspecting him to be some manner of government spook assigned to infiltrate and/or sabotage his organization); but instead of giving him the heave-ho, “something” compels him to do a sudden 180 and invite the twitchy and troubled Freddie along for an imminent (Homeric?) ocean voyage with his family and followers to New York (some shades of The Stuntman).

And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in Magnolia, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood). It’s also the catalyst for two of the most fearless and extraordinary performances that I have seen  this year.

Not to denigrate Hoffman, who is mesmerizing as always; nor fine supporting performances from Amy Adams (as Dodd’s subtly controlling wife, who plays a sort of  Livia to his Augustus), Laura Dern, or Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons , but Phoenix in particular has really hit one out of the park, achieving an Oscar-worthy transformation. I don’t know if this was by accident or by design, but I swear he is channeling Montgomery Clift, not only replicating his acting tics and vocal inflection, but his physicality (right down to the hunched shoulders and sunken chest-it is downright eerie).

The film is beautifully shot in 65mm by DP Mihai Malainare, Jr. (try to catch it in a 70mm presentation if you can), and nicely scored by Jonny Greenwood. Those with short attention spans are warned: This film demands your full attention (and begs repeated viewings). It’s exhilarating, audacious, and while at times a bit baffling, it is never dull.

Out of pocket: Loosies *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 18, 2012)

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Oh, indie love story (sigh). How I adore your predictably unpredictable melange of quirky characterization and pithy observation. So low in budget, so rich in substance! Fly! Take spray can in talon, spread wide your wings of gossamer, and boldly soar heavenward to tag the marquee of Hollywood convention in shades of hipster irony…OK, too flowery? I just thought that since this is sort of, Valentine’s Day “week” (yes, I’m stretching), you would indulge me if I got in touch with my inner Byron. Anyway, there’s a new film out concerning Cupid’s more scattershot tendencies.

Loosies is a hit-and-miss affair about, well, a hit-and-miss affair between a slick New York City pickpocket named Bobby (Peter Facinelli) and a barmaid named Lucy (Jaimie Alexander) who Meet Cute one day, when they bump into each other on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk. However, when a pickpocket bumps into you, it’s usually not an “accident”. See, Bobby (who goes about his larcenous rounds disguised as a well-appointed stockbroker) does a little double dipping while he’s at “work”. He has developed a unique variation on speed dating. If he espies an attractive prospect among his victims, he nobly returns her “lost” wallet or purse. An “honest” guy…with GQ looks? Guaranteed icebreaker (yeah, he’s an asshole). Due to his “true” profession, he also prefers to keep his relationships casual (and relatively brief), lest his cover is blown.

However, I’m getting a little ahead of the narrative. When we first meet Bobby, his fling with Lucy is history. His current concern is with his fence, a sociopath  named Jax (Vincent Gallo). Jax is not happy with the fact that Bobby has jeopardized his enterprise by filching the badge of a NYC detective (Michael Madsen), who is now hot on Bobby’s trail. Bobby is also having a personality clash with Carl (Joe Pantoliano), who has recently started dating Bobby’s mother (Marianne Leone). As if his stress levels aren’t elevated enough, Lucy (who he hasn’t seen in three months)  tracks him down with some sobering news…she’s pregnant. With his karma closing in to nail him on several fronts, he has to decide which “life” he wants to pursue.

There are really two films here, awkwardly fighting for the lead, as it were. There’s the cutesy romcom aspect of Bobby and Lucy’s push me-pull you relationship, and then there’s the gritty urban crime thriller (culminating in a triple-cross gimmick that we’ve seen countless times before). With special care, these disparate narrative elements can gel nicely (as they do in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight) but director Michael Corrente (who in the past has delivered absorbing character studies like Federal Hill and Outside Providence) isn’t quite up to it. The problem may not lie with the director’s skills, but rather with Facinelli’s screenplay, which plays like Elmore Leonard for Dummies. Also, Facinelli the actor can’t carry the film; he has limited range (Pantoliano, Gallo and Madsen act circles around him). If you bump into this film, hang on to your wallet.

Bad teacher: Cracks **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 25, 2011)

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Whilst perusing the press kit synopsis of Jordan (daughter of Ridley) Scott’s directorial debut, Cracks, I confess I got my feathers ruffled over the fact that it trumpeted “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Lord of the Flies!” Ahem, I thought to myself, that’s my job to come up with clever “(blank) meets (blank)” references. How dare you usurp the mighty film critic, I continued raging, like the petulant man-child that I am. So I defiantly dredged up my own mashups: Picnic at Hanging Rock meets The Children’s Hour! Heavenly Creatures meets The Fallen Idol! You want esoteric? Try The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea meets Death in Venice…top that one, bee-YATCHes!!

I digress. As you may have gleaned, Scott’s film is the latest entry in a time-honored film genre: The Boarding School Drama. Set in the 1930s, with Irish locations standing in for an English coastal island, this particular institution is an elite girl’s school. As we’ve learned from watching such tales, there’s a caste system, with a ruling clique at the top of the pyramid. This one is led by a haughty young miss named Di (Juno Temple), who publicly admonishes her peeps for such high crimes as insufficiently buttering her toast for her at breakfast; after which she magnanimously assuages the humiliated underling with a tough love caveat: “We must set the standard for the others.”

However, there is a cosmology from upon high to which Di defers for “the standard” and guidance, which is handed down by the Unconventional Yet Inspirational Teacher of the piece. She is the enigmatically named Miss G (Eva Green). Di and her hand-picked inner circle share a mutual admiration society with the free-spirited Miss G, who captivates her charges with affected worldly poise and romanticized tales of wanderlust.

She has also chosen them for her exclusive “diving team”, appointing Di as the captain. In return, Miss G gets to bask in adulation and feed (in somewhat vampiric fashion) off of their youthful exuberance. “What is the most important thing in life?” she challenges them, firing them up for dive practice “Desire!” (more on that in a sec).

Everything goes swimmingly for Miss G. and her frolicking water nymphs until the arrival of a new girl throws a Spaniard in the works. Her name is Fiamma (Maria Valverde), and she hails from an aristocratic Spanish family. The headmistress puts the new girl under Miss G’s tutelage, instructing her to make Fiamma feel welcome, but with no special deference. Di wastes little time making Fiamma feel “welcome” by informing her in no uncertain terms that she is “allowed” but five personal decorative objects on her nightstand.

There is no tantrum, no tears (the kind of reaction that bullies really hate). In fact, Fiamma vibes a sophistication and maturity beyond the ken of the other girls; and when she recognizes one of Miss G’s “personal” anecdotes to be rote memorization from a published work, it is clear that the group dynamic is about to change. The divine Miss G, it would seem, has feet of clay-but don’t think that she will readily give up her stature.

The director co-adapted her screenplay with Ben Court and Caroline Ip from a novel by Shelia Kohler. I have not read the source book, but the author’s website reveals that one of her recurring themes is to dissect “…the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege.”

I can see that in the film; particularly through the character of Miss G.. Green is edgy and effective in the role, particularly in the way she keeps the psycho-sexual Sapphic undercurrents roiling below the surface, poised to explode at any moment (Blanche Dubois as a life coach). This is a promising debut for Scott; if her direction falters, it’s in the film’s pacing; this feels akin to a Masterpiece Theater presentation. Still, I would recommend it for the performances and absorbing story…so  you could say I’m willing to grade it on a curve.

Blu-ray reissue: The Stunt Man ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2011)

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The Stunt Man – Severin Films Blu-ray

How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed several times by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?”

That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is  filming an art-house flavored WW I drama, his (and our) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes diffuse. O’Toole chews major scenery, ably supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield.

Despite lukewarm critical reception upon original release, it’s now considered a classic. A 43-week run at the Guild 45th Theater in Seattle (booked by Rush himself, out of his frustration with the releasing studio’s lackluster support) is credited for building the initial word of mouth with audiences and eventually assuring the film’s cult status. Truly  a movie for people who love the movies.

The Blu-ray transfer does reveal it to be a candidate for a full-blown restoration at some point-but you can’t have everything. Luckily, Severin Films has seen fit to include the full-length documentary, The Sinister Making of the Stuntman, because it makes for a fascinating tale in and of itself.

‘F’ for fake: Catfish **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2010)

So-would you believe me if I told you that showman P.T. Barnum never actually uttered the words “There’s a sucker born every minute”? You know how I found that out? I Googled it. It says, right here in the Wikipedia, that P.T. Barnum’s “famous quote” never left his lips. And since I read it on the internet, it simply must be true…right? Oh, and have I mentioned that I am a wealthy, athletically built, 6’2” 34 year-old male, with a PhD in quantum physics, into music, literature and film? Are you buying this shit?

In the documentary (-ish) Catfish, a buzz-generating entry at this year’s Sundance, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost ask their audience to buy a lot of shit. In spite of a cast billed as playing themselves, and Universal’s press kit trumpeting that “filmmakers” Schulman and Joost “…had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives”- well, if this film is a “documentary”- then I am a wealthy, athletically built, 6’2” 34 year old male with a PhD.

But I could be wrong. Perhaps the events “documented” in this film did actually transpire as presented, and I’m just an embittered, mean old cynic who has seen too many movies. Let’s play along just for a moment. Let’s say that Schulman and Joost really were in the process of making a documentary-in-search-of-a-story, when it dawned on them that the “story” was right in front of them the whole time.

Schulman’s brother Nev, a professional photographer and genetic lottery winner with his own camera-friendly good looks, had struck up a social networking-based friendship with an artistically gifted 8 year old girl from Michigan, who initially intrigued him by snail-mailing strikingly mature oil paintings, based on his photos. When the girl’s 19 year old sister introduced herself into the mix, Nev struck up a web relationship with her as well; a relationship of a more involved and potentially amorous nature.

Nev, now the official “subject” of his brother’s film, reached a point where he wanted to take the next logical step-and not necessarily for the reasons you might think (I’m trying to keep this review as “spoiler-free” as possible). Suffice it to say our intrepid NYC-based trio of dazzling urbanites-turned-detectives are soon packing up their film gear and heading to Ted Nugent country for a surprise visit. Ah, but which of the parties involved in this cyber-intrigue is in for the bigger surprise? I could tell you…but then I’d have to kill you.

I will hand it to the filmmakers-they have constructed a virtually critic-proof product. If one decries the possible fudging involved, then the filmmakers could counter that the heart of the story is, after all, about the inherent deception of cyber romance (the  “How do you know that the 19 year old cheerleader you’ve been sexting isn’t in reality a middle-aged truck driver named Bubba?” meme).

Also, the Universal press kit I quoted from refers to the film as a “reality thriller”-which could be thrown back at critics as a caveat emptor (“We never billed this as a documentary.”). Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but in a post Blair Witch Project world I feel it my duty as a critic to bring this up. Oh well…wasn’t it Godard who said that “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”?

If you can get past the “Is it real or Memorex” conundrum-this is not necessarily a bad film; it’s intriguing enough to hold your interest through to the end. And if the point is to show how we have become a world of Walter Mittys and Eleanor Rigbys, spending the long dark nights of our souls pecking away on our keyboards, busily reinventing ourselves to assuage our lives of quiet desperation, then the film does convey a bittersweet poignancy in the denouement. And I have a confession to make. I’m not 6’2”.

DVD Reissue: Carny ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2009)

https://forgottenfilmcast.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/carny-1.png?w=474Carny – Warner Archives DVD

This character study/road movie/romantic triangle is an oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) yet one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his best pal  and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who is swept into their world of con games and hustle.

The story is elevated above its inherently sleazy nature by excellent performances. Whenever he inhabits the dunk tank clown persona, Busey reminds us that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

The reissue is part of the Warner Archive Series, which is a good news/bad news proposition for film buffs. Bad news first: These are bare-bones editions (they are burning them “on demand” based on number of orders placed on their website). Also, these are not necessarily restored prints (making the $19.99 list price a bit dubious). But the good news is that Warner claims to be utilizing this new product line as an excuse to eventually clean out everything  languishing in their vaults that was previously unavailable on DVD.

SIFF 2009: Poppy Shakespeare ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

Sometimes I get a little twitch when a movie breaks down the “fourth wall” and a protagonist starts talking to the audience in the opening scene. When it works, it can be quite engaging (Alfie); when it doesn’t (SLC Punk), it seems to double the running time of the film. In the case of Poppy Shakespeare, the device pays off in spades, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and acting chops of an up-and-coming young British thespian by the name of Anna Maxwell Martin.

Martin plays “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up ostensibly as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

In an introductory scene (reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), we learn that most of the patients in Poppy’s particular day ward appear to gather not so much for the therapy group sessions, but to swap tips on the latest loopholes in England’s socialized health care system. Poppy is a a rock star in the group, due to her savvy  in working the system (she’s “crazy”, alright…like a fox).

She is a polar opposite to Cuckoo’s Nest hero R.P. McMurphy. Rather than looking for ways to break out of the laughing house, she is always scamming ways to avoid being discharged from state-sponsored care (bye-bye gravy train). She seems perfectly happy to bide time at the hospital by day, and make a beeline to her lonely flat at nights and weekends to gobble meds and shut in with the telly. N’s comfortable routine hits a snag, however when her doctor “assigns” her to mentor a new day patient named Poppy (Naomie Harris).

Unlike the majority of patients in the ward, Poppy’s admittance for observation has been mandated by the state, based on answers she gave on a written personality profile she filled out as part of a job application (some Orwellian overtones there). She desperately implores N to use her knowledge of the system to help her prove to the doctors that she isn’t crazy. In a Catch-22 style twist, the financially tapped Poppy realizes that the only way she can afford the services of the attorney N has recommended to her is to become eligible for “mad money”. In other words, in order to prove that she isn’t crazy, she has to first get everyone to think that she is nuts.

This may sound like a comedy; while there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare (on my way out of the screening, I asked an usher if he had a bit of rope handy). That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed an excellent sleeper a few years back called The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system reminded me a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular). Harris is very affecting as Poppy, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good.

Shades of Ashby: Choke ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2008)

There was a time, not too far removed,  when the phrase “character study” did not necessarily equate “box office poison.” I’m talking about the 1970’s, when maverick directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson made quirky, compelling “character studies” that audiences actually went out of their way to see.

The protagonists were usually iconoclastic fringe dwellers or workaday antiheroes who, like the filmmakers themselves, questioned authority, flouted convention and were generally able to convey thoughts and feelings without CG enhancement. The films may not have always sported linear narrative or wrapped up with a “Hollywood ending”, but they nearly always left us a bit more enlightened about the human condition.

I’m not saying that the character study ever really went away; it just became increasingly marginalized as the era of the Hollywood blockbuster encroached. Indie films of recent vintage like Buffalo 66, Jesus’ Son and SherryBaby are direct stylistic descendants of episodic 70s fare like Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Altman’s California Split, and Ashby’s The Last Detail, and prove that the genre is alive and well.

The main difference between then and now, of course, is that when you venture out to the multiplex now to such fare, you  feel like donning dark glasses and a raincoat. When I went to a weekend matinee to catch Clark Gregg’s Choke, I counted exactly 4 other patrons in the postage stamp auditorium. It made me feel so…dirty.

Gregg adapted  the screenplay for this unique dramedy  from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, whose previous book-to-screen adaptation was 1999’s Fight Club.  Similar to Fight ClubChoke serves up a melange of human foibles (addiction, perversion, madness and deception, to rattle off a few) and tempers it with a dark comic sensibility. Think of it as a screwball romantic comedy for nihilists.

In his straight job, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is employed as a “historical re-enactor” in a theme park that replicates American colonial life. Victor’s personal life is more akin to a psycho-sexual Disneyland. In his off-hours, Victor regularly attends support group meetings for sex addicts, along with his pal/co-worker, the Portnoy-like Denny (Brad William Henke). Victor doesn’t appear to be making much headway toward recovery, as he customarily spends most of the session time furtively (and joylessly) humping fellow group member Nico (Paz de la Huerta) on the restroom tiles.

The rest of  Victor’s  spare time is spent running a con game. To help foot the private hospital bill for his ailing mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), he goes to restaurants and feigns choking fits. He carefully screens his “saviors” based on the likelihood of them having wallets that are as big as their bleeding hearts.

Ida suffers from dementia, subsequently she fails to recognize her son most of the time. In her rare moments of lucidity, Victor attempts to learn more about his unknown father, a subject Ida has always been reticent to discuss . Through episodic flashbacks of Victor’s childhood, we glean that the free-spirited Ida has raised her son in, shall we say “a creative fashion”. One thing that does become clear is that, insomuch as Victor’s abilities to run a skillful con game go, it looks like the apple has not fallen very far from the family tree.

The plot thickens when Ida’s doctor, a pretty, enigmatic young woman named Paige (Kelly MacDonald) counters Victor’s inevitable horndogging attempts with an invitation to assist her with some medical “research”. Paige’s proposed method for propagating the stem cells for her experiment requires Victor’s um, interactive participation, and is medically unorthodox, to say the least. So is it love, or purely science? I can say no more.

Rockwell gives a nuanced turn in the lead performance, and is well-supported by Henke and MacDonald. Anjelica Huston is excellent, as always. In a tangential sense, she is reprising the character she played in The Grifters. In fact, the dynamic of the mother-son relationship played out between Huston and Rockwell in Choke shares many similarities to the one she had with John Cusack’s character in the aforementioned film, particularly concerning unresolved “abandonment issues” on the part of the son.

This marks the directorial debut for Gregg,  previously known for his TV acting credits (The New Adventures of Old Christina). Gregg casts himself as a self-important “lord high” role-player in the faux-colonial village where Victor and Denny work; it’s a small but interesting part. Also look for Joel Grey (who we don’t see enough of these days) as a battle-scarred member of the sex addiction group.

This is not a popcorn movie. Challenging and thought-provoking, it does demand your full attention; and even though it offers a fair share of chuckles, it is not designed to be taken lightly. There’s a hell of a lot of ideas packed into 90 minutes here, ranging from Oedipal conflict to Christ metaphor. There’s even a sense of twisted cinematic homage to Tom Jones when we are treated to the occasional fast-cut montage of bodice-ripping flashbacks depicting Victor, replete in leggings, waistcoat and tri-corner hat, having it off “on the job” with a few of his more comely fellow re-enactors.

Prepare yourself for a lot of sexual frankness, not visually graphic, necessarily, but still the uncompromising, in-your-face kind that makes a lot of people squirm in their seats. Warning: one scene that some may find very disturbing takes place between Victor and a woman he has met through the personal ads. She “enjoys” acting out rape fantasies. In the context of the narrative,  it is actually an important and pivotal moment in the protagonist’s journey. This trip can be psychically brutal at times, but if you’re open-minded and willing to take the whole ride, it may blindside you with genuine warmth, humanity, and yes, even some redemption.