Tag Archives: 2019

CHANNEL 366: “CATCH-22” (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras,

FEATURING: , Kyle Chandler, Daniel David Stewart, Grant Heslov, George Clooney

PLOT: In the Italian theater of World War II, terrified American bombardier Yossarian seeks any way he can find out of the Air Force, but his commander continues to find an excuse to raise the number of required missions every time he gets close to being discharged.

Still from Catch-22 (2019 TV miniseries)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you adapt Joseph Heller’s absurd novel literally, you might make the List, but you’ll never get George Clooney to sign on to the project. If you make it literal and not absurd, you can get it on Hulu for six commerical-funded episodes, but it will never make our List. It’s a Catch-366!

COMMENTS: A recommendation on an off-topic sports forum described Hulu’s 2019 version of “Catch-22” as “like M*A*S*H*, but darker.” That nails it for anyone not familiar with the original source material. The M*A*S*H* book/movie/TV series franchise, while witty, was an ersatz, popularized Catch-22, where the existential absurdity of war as a grand metaphor was pre-digetsed into a parade of wisecracks and hijinks, counterculture pacifist slogans, and simplified bureaucratic satire for the anti-Vietnam crowd. Funny, still, but no longer profoundly so.

It would be tempting to assume that every reader is intimately familiar with both Joseph Heller’s novel and (canonically weird!) 1970 movie adaptation, and spill a lot of digital ink in listing and critiquing each plot detour the new adaptation takes. But that would be of little interest to the casual reader. Nevertheless, even for those unfamiliar with the source material, discussion of the changes the writers made will give insight into their mindset and the tone they were going for—and give a sense of what may be missing that made the original so revolutionary. In the extra features (available to watch on Hulu alongside the episodes), the writers are forthcoming in explaining that they wanted to simplify the story to aid viewers’ comprehension. The most crucial change is that they take Heller’s disorienting, jumping-about-in-time narrative and rewrite it so it occurs chronologically, “so that the characters can have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end,” to bypass Heller’s “dense, kaleidoscopic chaos.” They also sanitize Heller’s relentless, repetitive, circular wordplay, scripting most exchanges as realistic, natural-sounding dialogue. In other words, they felt duty-bound to conventionalize everything.

These decisions makes the tale easier to follow, sure, but at what cost? Heller’s “chaos” was a deliberate thematic choice, reflecting his attitude to both his protagonist and the world, and toying with it inevitably changes the story. Sometimes it does so in minor ways: it seems to me that Major Major is a funnier character before his backstory is revealed (the movie didn’t even bother to go into  Major’s personal history, and the character worked just fine). A poignant reveal about the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent is destroyed by telling the tale front-to-back. On a more serious note. a rape that was only implied in the novel and movie becomes an unnecessarily graphic and unpleasant scene in episode 5, a giant misstep in tone; then, the outrageous aftermath of the atrocity (one of the great ironic moments of the novel and film) is played so realistically that it barely registers on the black comedy scale. (The victim is also different, which is the first indicator that Heller’s ending has been scrapped.) The rejiggering of the plot does allow for a greatly expanded (and funny) role for George Clooney as Scheisskopf, the boys’ original parade-obsessed flight instructor, who is now more bully than fool, and as vindictive as incompetent. The book’s finale is completely changed; to be fair, the ending they came up with makes for a great image that comes across better onscreen than it would have on the page. It’s also more in the spirit of Heller’s hilarious nihilism than much else in the film.

It would have been hard for this series to match the movie’s classic cast: , , Bob Newhart, , Martin Balsam, Charles Grodin. Clooney supplies the lone star power here, with veteran character actors filling out the officer brigade, while fresh faces do well as the hapless cannon fodder. As Yossarian, Christopher Abbott lacks the befuddled outrage of Alan Arkin, but he grows on you. Arkin’s Yossarian was a principled coward, a holy fool who made self-preservation his preeminent moral value. Abbott’s yellow streak is both darker and more pragmatic; the characterization is more believable, but less meaningful.

The series looks good, with a color palette that might be described as “Mediterranean sepia.” The soundtrack is nostalgic contemporary swing that often has an ironic tinge.

Paradoxically, a realist take on an unreal novel is, in its way, brave and unexpected. While those of us who are fans of Heller’s masterpiece may struggle to hold back our resentment, newcomers for whom this is their first exposure to the book (and/or movie) will dig it just fine, and will have better things to look forward to from Catch-22 in the future.

“Catch-22” can be viewed free by Hulu subscribers, or downloaded digitally from Amazon and other streaming outlets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like Heller’s protagonist John Yossarian when faced with the insanity of war, [the creators] respond to the crazy ambition of Heller’s novel by choosing not to engage… Adapting a classic treatment of the irrationality of the military mind, they work assiduously to ensure that everything makes sense.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALADDIN (2019)

One has to wonder about the mindset of studio executives. Disney handed the live-action Dumbo remake over to , who hasn’t made a good movie in twenty years. Then, they assign Aladdin to Guy Ritchie, who has never made a good movie. On top of that, there’s the utter pointlessness of “live action versions” of animated classics. This one is no exception. Unless the original fell short some one way or another, why remake it (except to improve on it)? It’s especially futile when the original was so damned good.  Aladdin (2019) is just a piece of crap, and the only actor who survives this embarrassment—and smells like roses, comparatively—is Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the handmaiden of Jasmine (Naomi Scott).  Why does Aladdin (Mena Massoud) prefer the personality-bankrupt Naomi over Nasim? Oh, because that’s in the script. And, Aladdin is a braindead jackass.

Still from Aladdin (2019)The original Aladdin (1992) came at the tail end of a brief Disney resurgence that began with Little Mermaid (1989) followed by Beauty and the Beast (1990). This revival came crashing down with the saccharine, run amok Lion King (1994), which of course has a live-action (sort-of) version in the works. Why does Disney keep doing this? Because fans don’t give a hoot. Aladdin has already made a zillion dollars and the undemanding Disneyphiles, who actually crave more of the same, are singing its praises all over social media.

The changes Ritchie makes are hardly worth mentioning, with two  exceptions. First, he manages to solicit a dull performance from Will Smith, which is not an easy task. Understandably, Smith does not attempt to copy the fiery performance of the late , but Ritchie slaps a harness on Smith—which echoes the film itself, because the director sucks every ounce of color and fun out of the original.

Clunky, clumsy, and gray, Aladdin was an endurance test, and likely the briefest Summber blockbuster write-up I’ve given. Instantly vapid and unmemorable, it does not deserve more of my time. It does not deserve yours ether. If you’re craving the story, go back to 1992.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (2019)

What the hell can I say?  When I saw that 366 Weird Movies’ readers had topped themselves in sadism with this year’s summer blockbuster picks (a video game, a Disney, AND a comic book movie) you can understand why I, quite frankly, forgot the lot of you. The only possible reprieve is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,  which is why I’m here belatedly for the video game entry and did not bail entirely (or get my revenge by making Greg go in my place).

You could have at least sent me to the Star Wars thingamajig so I could piss off both the lovers and haters (they’re still bellowing over The Last Jedi, which, let’s be honest, is the first Star Wars with any sense of surprise since 1980).  And you hit me first with a goddamned video game movie adaptation, which is about as low a bar as it gets.

First, let me tell you what annoys me about gamers. Now, mind you, I did play Pacman and Centipede once, in a Godfather’s Pizza, but I least I got to enjoy smoky treats while I got slaughtered (not that many of you would remember, but yeah, we used to smoke in public—restaurants, college, malls, airplanes—before all you annoying nonsmokers overbred and took over the entire world). But that was not when I decided that suicide would be preferable to the whole video game thing.  No, that realization came after I did a few years managing a video store (Do you remember these? that’s a Statler Brothers reference, by the way) when I had to deal with gamers. They would call the store and, to a man, they would rattle off game titles, most of which had some kind of X followed by a number. Those excitable boys would say the names at such a fast clip I always had to ask them to repeat that a tad slower. I remember one gamer coming in wearing a shirt which said something to the effect that Nintendo (or whatever) was better than girls. How would he even know?  And then their comedy is the cherry on the cake; you know, when they get defensive and claim they are  being productive and that video games are art and they are complex and… zzzzz.

Now you gaming twits have taken a swipe at me by sending me to Pikachu. Oh, how cute. Now it’s my turn.

Still from Pokemon Detective PikachuOK, first, is this yellow a guy a rabbit? He sort of looks like a rabbit, which might explain why this movie rips off Roger  Rabbit (and several other films). Except that director Rob Letterman is no Robert Zemeckis, Pikachu is no Roger, and Justice Smith is no (actually all the humans here are pretty lifeless, like that one Star Wars prequel where Yoda was the most animated person). Also, Roger Rabbit was actually a funny screwup. Pikachu does cutesy one-liners that are predictable and ingratiating.

I suppose we should get to the plot. Tim (Justice Smith) does not like Pokemons because his detective dad was supposedly killed by one (sound familiar?) Tim lives on the outskirts of Ryme City (visually, a cross between Blade Runner and Toon Town), where Pokemons and humans cohabitate, and now has to team with Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who was his dad’s partner. Insert Phillip Marlowe references. Repeat often for filler.

Of course, there’s a plethora of universe building. Am I the only one who does not give a hoot about all the extended universes of late (Marvel, DC, etc)? Someone in the popcorn line (you tightwads have never even sent me a damned AMC gift card for enduring these summers) referred to it as the “Pokeverse.” OK, I’m putting my foot down. I will not even include the next Pokefeature as a summer blockbuster poll option (and no doubt there will be many more to come as it has already made a zillion dollars. As the saying goes, you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence or taste of the American public.)

Anyway, the CGI excess is not a surprise. It becomes tediously hedonistic about the midway mark. What is surprising is that the plot gets complicated and sloppy. There’s the rub, so to speak. Pokemon wants to be taken seriously, but it wants to be entertaining, too, and tries this mostly through Pikachu’s sidekick, Psyduck (I’m not making this up), who has to be kept calm or he will implode (think of the tradition of bringing in a cantankerous duck when the protagonist toon gets too goody-goody dull.)

The Sherlock Holmes bit apes countless cop buddy movies, but suffers most from an outcome that is anything but a mystery. Some of the humor is a tad risqué—that’s clearly the reason for casting Deadpool‘s Reynolds—but even that can’t save Pokemon, once it ceases to be a movie in favor of product building.

For Pokefans only.

Next week: Aladdin.

I hate all of you.