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

Elf (2003)

220px-Elf_movie“The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Elf is truly a Christmas miracle. It’s a relatively modern Christmas classic (a bit over 12 years old) that holds its own in a season usually dominated by old perennial favorites. Yet, again and again, it constantly excites, mesmerizes, and bedazzles in more ways than one.

Will Ferrell is the major treasure of Elf because, without his child-like wonderment and sincerity, this film could go downhill all too quickly. Buddy walks into female locker rooms, walks around New York in an Elf suit eating discarded gum, and calls his grown-up father “daddy” in a musical serenade, after all. But to his credit, Ferrell goes for it wholeheartedly completely engulfing himself in a magical realm that bewitches every other character who decides to join him. Everyone else walks in abject reality, but Buddy like Elwood P. Dowd (Harvey) or Dudley the angel (The Bishop’s Wife) exist outside of that and when they rub up against everyone else, they leave everyone, including the audience, changed.

From the outset, Elf comes right out of a storybook as Papa Elf (the venerable Bob Newhart) recounts how a human and his adopted son saved Christmas. Of course, it starts out as a sorry tale, because truth be told Buddy cannot figure out what his purpose in life is. What is he good at? What are his talents? For all the other elves it’s obvious: they make toys.

But when Buddy finally learns of his secret past he leaves his papa behind in a tearful goodbye, gains some sage advice from Santa (the equally venerable Ed Asner), and heads off on an iceberg to find his real father in the Big Apple.

There must be a catch, and there is a small one, Buddy’s father Walter Hobbes (James Caan) is on the naughty list. In fact, he’s a real Scrooge working slavishly day after day as a children’s book publisher. But you see Buddy doesn’t see people for their faults and that’s the secret of Ferrell’s success because his innocence and irrepressible will towards his fellow man is contagious. New York might be a culture shock and Hobbes as well as his young boy Michael are not too thrilled with Buddy’s arrival, but that’s because he’s so foreign – so nice. Ultimately, he becomes the best thing to happen in their life.

In truth, Buddy goes transforming New York systematically whether it’s the Hobbes’ home, Gimbel’s Department Store, or wherever his feet take him. And of course he finds love in his world-wearied coworker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and saves Christmas, but that’s nothing unexpected. It’s not the results, but how we get there that counts – all those quotable moments in between.

Too often I feel bludgeoned to death by all the new takes on the Christmas season annually jostling for my affection. But the beauty of Elf is that it pays its respects to the past, thereby solidifying its own timelessness in the present. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing, but it is something that I would gladly sit down and watch annually, because of its spirit and seasonal charm. We get nods to A Christmas Story and Ralphie, an homage to George Bailey on the Bedford Fall bridge, and even Miracle on 34th Street (Buddy working at the rival Gimbels).

The music never steals the show but it does accent some sequences nicely including the voices of Louis Prima, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Each character fits well in director Jon Favreau’s narrative. The manager (Faizon Love) is a crack-up. The hired Santa (Artie Lange) is a thug. Peter Dinklage is an angry elf. James Caan is grumpy and cynical. Zooey Deschanel is pretty and cynical. Ed Asner is an endearing grouch. Bob Newhart has his usual stuttering charm. And Ferrell wraps it all up nicely with a pretty bow. Although it does completely sidestep the origins of the Christmas holiday, Elf does what it set out to do very well. It exudes Christmas spirit unabashedly.

“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.” – Ed Asner as Santa

4/5 Stars