Catch-22 (1970)

catch221It’s the bane of my literary existence, but I must admit that I have never read Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. Please refrain from berating me right now, perhaps deservedly so, because at least I have acknowledged my ignorance. True, I can only take Mike Nichol’s adaptation at face value, but given this film, that still seems worthwhile. I’m not condoning my own failures, but this satirical anti-war film does have two feet to stand on.

It reads like a cast of millions: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Peter Bonerz, Felice Orlandi, Jack Riley, Marcel Dalio, and even Orson Welles. And in truth, no one character disappoints, because no one character has to carry the brunt of this narrative.

Certainly, Yossarian (Alan Arkin), the disillusioned WWII bombardier, is our protagonist, but he needs people to react to and bounce off of. It’s the likes of Colonel Cathcart (Balsam) and Lt. Colonel Korn (screenwriter Buck Henry) his neurotic superiors and the pragmatic wheeler-dealer Milo Minderbender (Jon Voight) who make him that way.

Their world of bombing missions, valor, medals, and “The Syndicate” are utterly absurd just as they are, but they don’t seem to recognize it. That’s where the satire stems from, the critique of war, and all the wit. It seems like no coincidence that Mike Nichols released this film during the Vietnam Era. Like its compatriot, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, it finds a wickedly dark sense of humor in war. Because what is there to do with death and violence, but laugh and try to find some way to grapple with it?

catch222The Chaplain (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t feel like a man of the cloth at all, but a nervously subservient trying to carry out his duties. An agitated laundry officer (Bob Newhart) gets arbitrarily promoted to Squadron Commander, and he ducks out whenever duty calls. Finally, the Chief Surgeon (Jack Gilford) has no power to get Yossarian sent home because as he explains, Yossarian “would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he’d have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t, he was sane and had to.” This is the mind-bending logic at the core of Catch-22, and it continues to manifest itself over and over again until it is simply too much. It’s a vicious cycle you can never beat.

In fact, each man involved must cope with their duties one way or another oftentimes through prostitution, jokes, or an obsessive almost numb commitment to duty. Yossarian tries all of the above rendezvousing with an Italian beauty and receiving a medal without any clothes on.

catch224But the tonal shift of Catch-22 is important to note because while it can remain absurdly funny for some time, there is a point of no return. Yossarian constantly relives the moments he watched his young comrade die, and Nately (Art Garfunkel) ends up being killed by his own side. It’s a haunting turn and by the second half, the film is almost hollow. But we are left with one giant aerial shot that quickly pulls away from a flailing Yossarian as he tries to feebly escape this insanity in a flimsy lifeboat headed for Sweden. It’s the final exclamation point in this farcical tale.

M*A*S*H  certainly deserves a reevaluation, but Catch-22 just might be the best, or at least one of the best, anti-war films of the 1970s. Mike Nichols delivers once more with a wickedly funny indictment of global conflict using a classic of American literature for inspiration.

4/5 Stars

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

fa822-glengarrymovieIt’s a film about a despicable world which promotes despicable people and despicable behavior. That’s the world of the real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. Here are men who use any mode necessary to close deals as they say. They finagle, lie, cheat and even steal because those are just tricks of the trade. Those who get the good leads are able to close more deals and make more bank. Those who get the leftovers struggle to swing something out of nothing. Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon) is one of those struggling after many years of success in the business or racket, whichever you prefer. He has a lovely personality, rather like a hissing snake trying to seduce you before going in for the kill. On the flip side, he can be a real jerk and he is unscrupulous as all get out.

But that’s enough on Shelley. The office is run by rigid John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) who just follows his orders and does not budge an inch. Then there is Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), the top closer who is especially cynical but also a great admirer of Shelley’s skill. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) is a man with a big mouth and fiery temper not ready to sit by while other men outperform him. Finally, there’s George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) a man who humors Moss and is also fed up with his situation.

The wheels start turning when the Big Whigs send in a man named Blake (Alec Baldwin) to motivate the salesmen. It’s the survival of the fittest after all and they know what it takes to sell real estate so he encourages them to go and do likewise. His main tactics include berating, insults, and threats against their careers (They either get a car, a set of knives or the boot). Verbal attacks are sometimes more pernicious than physical beatings and that’s the truth here. They never relent even after Blake leaves because that’s the type of choice words that this environment fosters. One minute a salesman uses a polished voice to coerce a client then turns right around to bad mouth a colleague.

Moss on his part tries to pull Aaronow into his plan to steal the good leads from Williamson’s office. A desperate Levene tries to get better leads from an unrelenting Williamson as the veteran man struggles to convince clients and deal with his ill daughter. Roma, on his part, is at top form playing his client (Jonathan Pryce) and getting him to stay with a deal until it gets messed up. In the process we see all the pettiness, desperateness and corruption unleashed. The burglary goes down and it does not necessarily involve who you would think. Maybe it does. That’s not the point, though. The point is these men will do anything given the position they are in, but it’s not that simple because each one has their complexities. For instance, Levene and Roma are on very good terms and Moss and Aaronow seem very buddy, buddy. But ultimately it seems they look out for number one and that takes its toll on any human being.

The film is a biting drama brought to us through a fiery and sometimes brutal script from David Mamet, based on his play. Furthermore, the story is aided by an all-star cast of big names. Each one plays an equally despicable character. I knew Pacino, Spacey, Harris, and Arkin were up to the task because I had seen them before in tough or villainous roles. However, to his credit Jack Lemmon shows his versatility here since I absolutely despised him for once. That’s no easy task and he proved it to be possible. This film may be a black comedy, but there really should not be much to laugh at.

3.5/5 Stars

Wait Until Dark (1967) – Updated

a752e-waituntildark1This is very much a contrived plot line but it certainly is an interesting set piece surrounding a defenseless blind woman targeted because of a heroin-filled doll which fell into her husband’s possession. It sounds like a pretty ludicrous set up but Audrey Hepburn is so believable and at times pitiful that she makes the film works thanks to her performance. Alan Arkin plays an over the top terror of a man bent on getting the doll back and he procures the help of two men to play parts in his elaborate charade. He is the near perfect opposition to torture the angelic Hepburn.

Through the entire story Susy’s blindness is being manipulated and she is constantly in a vulnerable state that is extremely uncomfortable for the audience. She is fed lies and entrusts men who she should not, but she cannot know any better. Thus, we soon forget how ridiculous this whole affair is and get caught up instead in our own fears and anxieties for Susy. From that point on we are hooked and there is no turning back until nighttime comes. Susy is cut off from the world with darkness approaching and that’s when the real nail-biting begins. But that’s for you to see for yourself. I would not deprive you of that pleasure.

The cast is rounded out by Richard Crenna, Emfram Zimbalist Jr. and Jack Weston who all are decent but their roles are relatively cookie cutter. The little girl Gloria is a spunky character but  the real attraction as I said before is Hepburn. The score by Henry Mancini gives the film a thrilling feel rather like a Columbo special. If there ever was a thriller this is certainly one of them! Just Wait Until Dark, you’ll see.

4/5 Stars

Argo (2012)

339c3-argo2012posterDirected and starring Ben Affleck, this historical thriller is based on the real events revolving around the Iranian Hostage Crisis that erupted in 1979. After a brief interlude, we are thrown right into the fray outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran where nationalists are protesting vehemently. They break in and it becomes frantic insides as files must be burned and help must be found.

 Soon they are overrun and 69 hostages are taken, however, six Americans were able to escape and then seek refuge with the Canadian ambassador. From that point on the CIA must figure out how to get them out as they monitor the tense situation from home. All ideas seem doomed to failure, and soon an ex-filtration specialist named Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in. He has one wild idea, but it is the only one with a chance. 

With the help of a Hollywood makeup artist and film producer, he begins to create a fake movie so he can get the six out as part of a movie crew scoping out exotic locations. With this daring plan in mind the sci-fi film Argo is born, and Mendez heads to Iran. He must race against the clock because the Revolutionaries are near to discovering that some Americans are missing. Furthermore, his plan leaves the refugees skeptical and scared. Mendez is able to get them all on board as part of the film crew, and he preps them with fake Canadian identities, passports, and rapid-fire interrogations. Everyone is tense as they get ready for the day of departure because so many things could go wrong. The CIA shuts down the operation, but Mendez is adamant to keep on as planned. 

Despite some setbacks, interrogation, and near catastrophes, they miraculously make it to their flight and after one last tense moment, they enter airspace, officially safe, mission complete, and able to drink alcoholic beverages again. The six return to the U.S. amidst much fanfare and Tony Mendez returned an unsung hero. 

I found this film entertaining, tense, and fascinating. This is a part of American and international history that is seemingly glossed over and it needs to be known. I felt the film created an atmosphere that reflected the 1970s very well whether it was news broadcasts, sponsor spots for the Love Boat, mentions of John Wayne, or allusions to such films as Network, Kramer vs. Kramer, Star Wars, and Planet of the Apes. 

I know films like Argo can never be completely accurate, but it is amazing how close so many of the actors looked to their real-life counterparts. Furthermore, I did not feel I was being fed one side of the story. As with any international situation, both Iran and the U.S. were at fault. Ultimately, there was a happy resolution on January 21, 1981, and Mendez finally gained recognition.
 
4.5/5 Stars

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, this is a harrowing suspense thriller. The film opens with a man being given a doll by a fearful woman. Little does he know what is inside and there is a thug trying to retrieve it. The man’s blind wife spends most of her time at home with the doll unknowingly in their care. The thug enlists two other incriminated men to help in the elaborate plan. The key is the blind woman and so they get to work by luring her husband away and then gaining her confidence. Through a course of events they hope to scare her into telling where the doll is. She begins to become suspicious but she still does not know where the doll is herself. However, soon it comes into her possession. Night is falling and she is cut off from all outside help. She waits anxiously in her darkened home and when the enraged thug returns Susy fights back the only way she knows how, in a struggle to survive.

Audrey Hepburn is usually a sympathetic figure but when you make her blind the audience worries even more for her safety. The climatic moments are thrilling and they certainly make the viewer uncomfortable. It is questionable if a real blind person would be so trusting or if an actual person would bring home a doll that was handed to them. Aside from that this is an entertaining film and Hepburn was great.

4/5 Stars