Tag Archives: War

323. CATCH-22 (1970)

“You’re a very weird person, Yossarian.”–General Dreedle, Catch-22

“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mike Nichols

FEATURING: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, , , , Bob Newhart, , Paula Prentiss, , Richard Benjamin, , Charles Grodin, , Gina Rovere, Olimpia Carlisi

PLOT: The story is told out of sequence, but begins with Capt. Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier at a Mediterranean air base, being stabbed in the back by what appears to be a fellow soldier. This leads directly into the first of a recurring sequence of flashbacks where Yossarian tends to a young wounded airman in the belly of his bomber. Further flashbacks reveal a protagonist of questionable sanity in the company of equally insane flyboys, including a quartermaster who schemes with the Group commanders to create a black market syndicate that morphs into a fascist regime.

Catch-22 (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Joseph Heller published the absurdist comic novel “Catch-22” in 1961, based on his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II.
  • Orson Welles had attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the novel, a fact Mike Nichols was not aware of when he cast him as General Dreedle.
  • Catch-22 was Nichols’ followup to his smash hit The Graduate. He once again worked with screenwriter Buck Henry (who also played Colonel Korn here). The screenplay took two years to produce.
  • Filming (in Rome and Mexico) took more than six months to complete. Cinematographer David Watkins would only shoot the exterior scenes between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, so that the lighting would be exactly the same. This meant the cast and crew were sitting around for long periods of time with nothing to do, which led to resentment on the set.
  • Catch-22 is credited as the first American film to show a person sitting on a toilet, and the first modern Hollywood film to feature full-frontal nudity.
  • Second Unit director John Jordan plummeted to his death when he fell out of the camera plane while daring to film a flight scene without being strapped into a harness.
  • Although the film did not bomb at the box office, it was overshadowed by ‘s similar (but lighter and more realistic) M*A*S*H*.
  • George Clooney is producing a new adaptation of the novel as a six-part miniseries scheduled to air on Hulu.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gruesome death of Hungry Joe, who’s cut in half by an airplane propeller while standing on a platform in the beautiful blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine I.V.; offscreen portrait switching; friendly fire for hire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Catch-22 was a novel of paradoxical, circular logic and inverted moral geometries. The certifiably insane Yossarian is saner than his schizoid comrades and commanders—but only because he is the only one who realizes he is crazy. The movie doesn’t soar to the heights of the book, but it creates its own weird all-star universe of moral decay and dystopian reasoning. There aren’t twenty-one other catches. One catch serves as a catchall. Catch-22. It’s the best there is.


Original trailer for Catch-22

COMMENTS: Adapting Catch-22, a novel whose building blocks are Continue reading 323. CATCH-22 (1970)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DUNKIRK (2017)

After sadistically subjecting me to Pitch Perfect 2 last year (I’m still reeling from that), 366 readers had some compassion this year and voted me into watching Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk. As our administrative prophet and editor-in-chief pointed out, the last choice was rather odd, since we know that is an ambitious, high-caliber filmmaker and any film of his would hardly constitute a viewing ordeal. Largely positive critical consensus would seem to validate Greg‘s observation…. except, this selection, which one would assume to be a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, is fatally uneven: cinema as trauma, with a director at his most aggressively self-important, delivering a film that features, by turns, examples of his most adroit and slovenly aesthetics. Despite its flaws, which inevitably stem from Nolan’s consciously elevated approach, Dunkirk, while falling short of expectations, is an effective work. It’s not a war film, as publicity would indicate. Rather, it could have just as aptly been titled The Great Escape.

Still from Dunkirk (2017)This is hardly the first cinematic treatment of the WWII evacuation of British soldiers from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940, but with the craft and budget that went into this production, it easily surpasses previous, languid versions. On the IMAX screen, Dunkirk is a sensory overload. Undoubtedly, that’s the best way to see it, because all that upheaval, from the lensing of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) to Hans Zimmer’s aggrandizing score, provides necessary detail. With almost no dialogue, we are bombarded by an overbearing, apocalyptic sound design, which includes explosions of every contemporaneous weapon of mass destruction. It’s too much and—although it convinces us of the torturousness of this historical experience—it’s also not enough; curiously, it’s spiritually bankrupt.

The film centers around understandably frightened young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who, with fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), tries to make his way to a rescue ship. The intensity is almost unendurable; so much so that we are forced to sympathize with the protagonists. However, one of Nolan’s worst tendencies sabotages our chance for actual empathy: he begins overwriting, catapulting us into unnecessary vignettes, one of which involves an RAF pilot (). The result is to distance us from Tommy and Gibson. Undoubtedly, Nolan is a superior narrative writer, but he’s an impoverished dramatist. Say what we will about John Ford’s dated, overt sentimentality—he knew, particularly in this type of genre, to level the wham-bam machinery down to a minimum and keep the faces (, Robert Montgomery) upfront. Likewise, Ford could be counted on to utilize color almost orgasmically—even in emotionally harrowing sequences. Comparatively, Nolan’s monochromatic palette here further magnifies the film’s frigidity.

The action scenes, never Nolan’s forte, are hopelessly muddled, and in spending so much time on them, his structure becomes frayed. As in his Batman trilogy, sweat is needed. Nolan then, and Nolan now, is just too literal to perspire.

Dunkirk is inherently about the immediacy of survival, and too many intimate idiosyncrasies would detract from that goal, but aloofness can be carried to an undesired extreme. Ultimately, this is like an aesthetically impressive video game; ferocious, but emotionally blunted.

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)

Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Sheen, , Robert Duvall, , Fredric Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, , (Redux only), Aurore Clement (Redux only)

PLOT: Loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella “Hearts of Darkness,” the film centers on Willard (Sheen), who is sent up the rivers of Cambodia to terminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and destroy his cult-like compound.

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Apocalypse truly is the Vietnam war on acid. At times it’s surreal, hallucinatory and mind-blowing, but that’s not always the same as weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 greatest films ever made, it would definitely make it. Heck, Apocalypse would probably make a list if this of the 66 greatest films ever made—although the longer 2001 Redux version is definitely inferior to the original 1979 film.

COMMENTS: Francis Ford Coppola’s original 153-minute version of Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 after a chaotic production and almost two years in the editing room. All that time, money and effort paid off, because, despite a draggy third act, Apocalypse Now is one of the maddest, greatest war movies ever made. Willard’s trip down the river (or the rabbit hole) is punctuated by one mind-boggling set-piece after another, including a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village scored by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies that slowly devolves into a chaotic free-for-all, and an opening sequence where a drunken Willard trashes his hotel room while Jim Morrison’s eerie “The End” pours out in surround sound. It’s the Vietnam War filtered through madness, LSD, and loads of unforgettable music.

The Redux version of the immortal film adds 49 minutes of frankly unnecessary footage, resulting in a wildly overlong 202 minute film. The “new” sequences mostly consist of two never-before seen set-pieces. In the first, Willard encounters a French family living on a plantation. They’re in Cambodia, but it’s as if they were still back in France circa 1950. Willard even finds romance with one of the women, Roxanne (Clement). This sequence, while interesting in an academic sort of way, is less than compelling. In the second new subplot, Chef (Forrest) and the other men on Willard’s boat spend the night with several of the Playboy bunnies last seen during the memorably disastrous “Suzy Q” sequence. These added scenes do little but show us that Willard and his crew found female companionship on their trip up the river, and it’s easy to see why Coppola cut the footage in the first place. It’s just not that involving.

Luckily, the rest of Apocalypse is still there: every other brilliant sequence that has earned the film a reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Yes, once Brando turns up, the movie sort of slides downhill, but the last 30 minutes improve upon repeated viewings. Furthermore, the 2010 Blu-Ray restores the film to its original widescreen dimensions. All the previous DVD versions had cropped the picture to fit high-definition television screens (according to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s wishes), but no more. This Blu-Ray also includes the jaw-dropping 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which examines the film’s nearly disastrous 1976-7 production, which was beset by typhoons, a heart attack, and a budget that swelled to a then-staggering $31.5 million. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis), the doc is itself must-see viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film…An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, ‘Apocalypse’ abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement… Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended… Dennis Hopper is effectively ‘weird’ as Brando’s official photographer.”–Dale Pollock, Variety ( 139-min. ‘work in progress’ version shown at the 1979 Cannes festival)

CAPSULE: HOW I WON THE WAR (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Crawford, Lee Montague, , Karl Michael Vogler, ,

PLOT: An incompetent rookie British Lieutenant leads a reluctant squad on a mission to set up a cricket pitch behind German lines.

Still from How I Won the War (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a few funny/clever bits, but mostly misfire gags that are often more incoherent than absurd. A nice try, but bit of a dud from Richard Lester, who would bounce back soon with The Bed Sitting Room, a much more effective comedy in the same surreal style.

COMMENTS: The absurdity of war and absurd-minded director Richard Lester would seem to be a match made in heaven. Why How I Won the War didn’t work, then, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps war is too serious a topic for an artist of Lester’s flippant temperament. Since no one really supports war as an abstract concept, to make a military satire work it either needs to be extremely specific (i.e., have the balls to explicitly attack the Vietnam conflict) or to go truly dark (blow up the whole damn world, a la Strangelove).

More likely, War fails simply because the jokes just aren’t funny enough to carry the feature. Characters and situations are ill-defined, and the thick accents and humour largely based around British class system don’t make things any easier for the outsider. Despised by his working class troops, young Lt. Goodbody is sent to North Africa and sent on an insanely dangerous morale-building mission. Eventually he is captured by the enemy, where he finds a Nazi officer to be better company than his own squadron (his captor also gets the movie’s best lines: “we are not all supermen, you know”). The story jumps back and forth in time in a series of sketches and asides which are further broken up by tinted footage of actual World War II battles. Perhaps this methodology is intended to convey the confusion of a combat campaign, but it keeps us from getting invested in the characters or their mission. Without comment, the squad takes on mute soldiers painted green and pink (the suggestion is they’ve been reassigned into this movie from the archival footage). At one point a laugh track appears when Jack MacGowran puts on a clown nose and starts a comedy routine (his character also does a ventriloquist routine and dons blackface for battle). A disturbed soldier holes up naked in a truck and refuses to come out; he’s seen banging on the door in an institution, then the moment is forgotten as he’s back in the desert. It’s not so much that these bits don’t make sense in themselves as that they don’t appear to serve a larger purpose in a grand comic scheme. The point seems to be that war is, you know, crazy. Lester doesn’t follow up on the intriguing suggestions that the events of the movie are a funhouse mirror version of real-life historical battles, which might have given War a greater sense of purpose. Instead, like its real-life counterpart, War has no winner.

How I Won the War‘s marketing campaign was built almost entirely around John Lennon’s presence in the cast. To this day, posters and ads deceptively suggest this is a starring role for the pacifist Beatle. Actually, his part is extremely small, hardly more significant than the other half-dozen grunts in his squad. While Lennon was incredibly talented, those talents did not extend to acting. (, the group’s least talented musician, turned out to be the only halfway decent Beatle actor). The best thing about Lennon’s performance is that Lester made sure he wasn’t tested; his lines are throwaway one-liners buried among routines from the rest of the squad, and his character is cynical and detached so that his emotionless delivery becomes an asset.

Kino Lorber released War on Blu-ray in 2016 along with a number of other 1960s Lester features. Trailers (often with commentary from the “Trailers from Hell” gang) are the only extras on these discs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages occasionally to hit home with its blend of surreal lunacy and barbed satire.“–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

CAPSULE: TROMA’S WAR (1988)

DIRECTED BY: , 

FEATURING: Sean Bowen, Carolyn Beauchamp, Patrick Weathers, Rick Washburn

PLOT: After a plane crash on a Caribbean island, stranded citizens of Tromaville organize to defeat an army of terrorists.

Still from Troma's War (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Working with their largest budget ever, the Troma team loses focus on their signature brand of transgressive comedy with War. Between firing thousands of blank rounds and bursting hundreds of blood squibs, blowing up watchtowers and lighting up stuntmen in flame-retardant suits, War occasionally fools itself into thinking it’s a real action movie rather than an absurd spoof.

COMMENTS: Survivors of the Tromaville flight that crashes onto a not-so-deserted Caribbean island include a lisping flight attendant, a used-car salesman/Vietnam war vet, a busty feminist, an optimistic priest, a sleazy Wall Street financier, a British guy who appears to be a secret agent (he carries curare darts, at least), and the three girl/one guy punk band “The Bearded Clams,” among many others. Their antagonists are “the cream of the crap”: Cubans, the IRA, the PLO, a squad of HIV-positive rapists, a snorting pig-faced colonel, and military-industrial Siamese twins. With a cast like that, just wind them up and let the carnage begin, right?

It’s not quite that easy, it turns out. While War never lags, it never really heats up, either. Troma conceived of War as their opportunity to break into the (relative) mainstream after scoring low budget cult hits with iconic titles like The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986). The resulting project seems to want to be too many things to too many different audiences: it’s a spoof of Rambo and other anti-Communist 1980s action flicks, while at the same time it tries to put together legitimately thrilling, bullet-riddled action scenes. It takes a stab at serious anti-authority satire with the claims that the political left and right are two sides of the same greedy coin, and that the powers-that-be have an interest in cultivating public hysteria, whether it be over Communists, terrorists, or AIDS. But that serious message is undermined when it panders to its horny male teen demographic, with gratuitous female nudity and dirty diaper jokes. The film has ludicrous surreal touches, like the literal Fascist pig and the twins conjoined at the face. (There’s also a strange bit where a hysterical woman looks out from the wreckage and sees crash victims running about on fire, their flaming bodies lit up against the night sky; the problem is, her scenes are shot in the daytime. It’s not clear whether it’s supposed to be a flashback, a joke, or if it’s one of the worst continuity errors of all time, but it appears to be a low-budget first: night-for-day photography). Still, for most of its running time it’s the most “realistic” (relatively speaking) movie Kaufman and Herz ever shot. Other than the farcical firefights where our heroes mow down dozens of terrorists per Uzi burst while the bad guys return fire with Stormtrooper aim, the oddest thing in the film may be its deadpan camp dialogue.  “I have just about had it with you terrorists!” screams a mom-turned-commando as she stuffs a baby’s jumpsuit into a guerrilla’s mouth. War actually does what I’ve been saying Troma should do for years—play it straighter, not indulging in the “we’re deliberately making a bad movie, it’s funny!” jokiness—yet it doesn’t really work this time out. Making bad movies is harder than it sounds.

Troma’s 2015 Blu-ray release is nothing special visually or sonically (not a big surprise given the source material), but as usual the studio packs on the extra features. Several featurettes are ported over from the 2010 “Tromasterpiece” DVD, but there is a new introduction and about 30 minutes of new interviews. In the included commentary, Kaufmann comes across as extremely bitter about the cuts demanded by the MPAA before they would grant the film an “R” rating. He seems to legitimately believe that War was his masterpiece, torpedoed by censorship. Nonsense. Tromeo & Juliet was his masterpiece, and has the Certified Weird laurel to prove it. Even in its uncut state, War is not the glorious adventure it’s made out to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Military movies just don’t get any more deranged that Troma’s War. All mega-munitions claims aside, this is one completely crazy entertainment.“–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (Director’s Cut DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Come and See has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)