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Choke (2008)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 2/17/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/18/2009

Is it fair to compare books to movies? The two mediums are similar in the sense that they both tell stories, but they do it in completely different ways. So, if there is an author whose books are routinely made into movies, can we say that we are familiar with their work? For example, let's say that you've seen every Stephen King or John Grisham movie, but have never picked up one of their novels -- Can you truly say that you are a fan of those authors? After all, you're seeing their work filtered through someone else. Writer Chuck Palahniuk had already made a splash in the literary world, but when the film adaptation of his book Fight Club arrived in 1999, many wanted to know more about him. I was included in these ranks, but I never found the time to read one of his novels. Now, we have a second film based on his work, Choke. Will it increase my desire to learn more about this author?

Choke examines the life of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a very troubled young man. Victor is a sex-addict who attends self-help groups, but usually find himself having anonymous sex with one of the other group members. He works in an attraction which offers a re-creation of life in the 18th Century alongside his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), who is a chronic masturbator. Victor also makes money by scamming innocent bystanders in restaurants. He feigns choking and relies on a stranger to perform the Heimlech Maneuver on him. Victor has found that these individuals suddenly form a bond with him and will send him money, even months after the incident. Victor does all of this in order to keep his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), in the nursing center where she lives. Ida suffers from Alzheimer's-like symptoms, and rarely recognizes Victor when he comes to visit. Victor is immediately taken with Ida's new doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), and is surprised when he actually has emotional feelings for her -- not just sexual ones. As the story progresses, we learn more about Victor's past, and we see how he struggles with his inner and outer conflicts.

Chuck Palahniuk has garnered a reputation for shocking and sensationalistic ideas and characters, and in that sense, Choke doesn't disappoint. Let's just look at the characters. Victor is a sex-addict who has no hold over his addiction. He is always disheveled and appears apathetic in most situations. He cons people and he doesn't take his real job seriously. Denny can't keep his hands out of his pants and he clearly has no idea how to begin a healthy relationship. We learn that Ida has a history of substance abuse and she was the antithesis of the perfect mother. Paige is a cold clinician who sees the world in terms of physiology and not emotions. These characters make quite the group of broken souls and one would be hard-pressed to find a movie with so many eclectic people.

And it follows suit that these strange people find themselves in many unique situations. While Choke certainly has a narrative, it plays as a series of vignettes where the characters, mainly Victor, finds themselves doing very odd things. From Victor's constant sexual trysts to Ida's grand-theft bus to Denny's rock collecting, each scene features the characters doing something idiosyncratic.

All of this leads us to the basic problem with Choke -- the eccentricity of the characters keeps the audience at arm's length. Going back to my main idea, I have to compare Choke to Fight Club. In that film, the Edward Norton character was an everyman -- he was an office drone who hated his dull life. He then found himself drawn into a world of strange behavior. He was the lifeline to the audience and we followed him from a pretty sedate life (to which most of us could relate) to a world of insanity. Choke begins in the world of insanity and asks the viewer to be a voyeur on a journey through the lives of some very damaged people. But, even the viewers who aren't completely repulsed by the content (in fairness, the movie isn't very graphic) won't feel any connections to the characters. We end up watching the film instead of experiencing it.

Having said that, Choke isn't a total failure. Despite the fact that Victor is a repugnant person, Rockwell still manages to make him likable. In fact, there's a human touch to all of the characters, and while we still can't relate to them, this keeps the movie from being a total disaster. Again, the story is full of original ideas and there is one shocking twist -- it's not Fight Club good, but you still won't see it coming. While Choke is a let-down, it sill shows that Palahniuk is one of the most original writers working today and I hope that it doesn't stop Hollywood from accessing his work.

Choke goes down the wrong way on DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. Please keep in mind that I viewed a special screener disc for this review, which may not represent the product available in stores. The image is sharp, but there is notable grain throughout the film. There are no defects from the source material. The image is very flat and somewhat dark. The colors are OK, but video noise and artifacting abound. At times, the image looked like VHS or something which had been downloaded from YouTube. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, most notably in the hospital and restaurants. These scenes also provide some mild, but present surround sound effects. I didn't note much in the way of subwoofer action. The in-film music sounds very good.

The Choke DVD contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director/Writer/Actor Clark Gregg and Actor Sam Rockwell. This is a fun commentary, as the two clearly bonded while making the movie. They talk candidly about the subject matter, the locations, the other actors, and the challenges of making the film on a small budget. The DVD contains five DELETED SCENES which run about 11 minutes and can be viewed with optional commentary by Gregg and Rockwell. Three of these are more scenes of Victor as a child, and two depict an alternate ending, of sorts. We get a 2-minute GAG REEL. "A Conversation with Clark Gregg and Chuck Palahniuk" (11 minutes) is a very interesting piece, as the director and the author discuss their own views of the story and talk about how the book was translated to film. Both clearly believe in placing personal views in your work. "Hello, My Name is Victor. I Am a Sex Addict - The Making of Choke" (15 minutes) contains comments from the actors, Gregg, and Palahniuk, who discuss the film's production. The piece looks at the story, the actors and characters, and the story's themes. There is a fair amount of on-set footage here. "A Mother's Love" (6 minutes) looks at the relationship between Victor and Ida, as well as the performances by Rockwell and Huston. "From the Los Angeles Film Festival" (4 minutes) features a Q & A with Palahniuk and Gregg. "Fox Movie Channel Presents Casting Session" (10 minutes) contains comments from Producer Beau Flynn, Casting Director Mary Vernieu, Gregg, and Palahniuk, as they discuss the film's main actors.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long