Catch-22 still sucks

The most eagerly awaited movie of 1970, and maybe ever, was Catch-22. Joseph Heller’s book was so beloved by so many that the idea it would be made into a movie with a big-budget and an all-star cast was thrilling.

Wunderkind Mike Nichols, fresh off the triumphs of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate”, was tapped to direct and Buck Henry, the writer of “The Graduate”, would do the screenplay. Everyone who was anyone in movies was in the cast – even the great Orson Welles had a memorable part.

We just couldn’t wait to see it on the big screen. And then the big day came, and there was near-universal disappointment with the result. What went wrong?

Well first, when expectations run as high as they did in this case, the only possible outcome is negative. Second, not everybody was completely disappointed. Vincent Canby, the film critic of the New York Times, said it was “quite simply, the best American film I’ve seen this year”.

One criticism that almost everyone agreed on, even Canby,  was that the movie would be incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read the book. Nichols clouds the issue with lots of flashbacks, hallucinations, and other ambiguities that confuse the audience further.

The book was a huge feast of characters and situations and no one could imagine how it could all be successfully boiled down to a two hour film, and of course, they were right. The right answer would have been to make a longer movie or just not do it.

Roger Ebert, then only three years on the job at the Chicago Sun-Times, placed all the blame on Nichols:

 The movie recites speeches and passages from the novel, but doesn’t explain them or make them part of its style.

No, Nichols avoids those hard things altogether, and tries to distract us with razzle-dazzle while he sneaks in a couple of easy messages instead. Pushovers. In the first half of the movie, he tells us officers are dumb and war doesn’t make sense. In the second half, he tells us war is evil and causes human suffering. We already knew all that; we knew it from every other war movie ever made.

And that’s the problem: Nichols has gone and made another war movie, the last thing he should have made from ‘Catch-22.’ Nichols has been at pains to put himself on the fashionable side and make a juicy humanist statement against war, not realizing that for Heller World War II was symbolic of a much larger disease: life.

I saw the excellent “Dunkirk” the other day and it got me thinking about some aspects of WWII, particularly the air war. I got a few books from the library and re-watched a couple of other flicks, including “Twelve O’Clock High” with Gregory Peck, and Catch-22, which I hadn’t seen in 47 years. I was thinking maybe it would age well, particularly as memory of the book faded and expectations were zero.

Nope. It still sucks.

Ebert, Canby, and apparently everyone else, are missing the real problem: Buck Henry’s screenplay. Henry’s idea seems to have been to lift  some of the memorable funny and absurd bits of dialog from the book and build his screenplay around these set pieces. Major Major explaining he’ll only see people when he’s not there, General Dreedle giving the order to “shoot this man”, Doc Daneeka explaining the Catch that keeps him from grounding Yossarian, Nately getting a lecture from an old Italian man about the advantages of losing the war, etc. etc.

Henry roughs in some connective tissue around these comic SNL-like sketches and, Voila! As Delroy Lindo said in “Get Shorty”, you just put in some commas and shit and you’re done.

Remember the glaring weakness that the beloved TV show M*A*S*H had? It was the cartoonish portrayal of Frank Burns (Larry Linville). He was way past being a buffoon – he just wasn’t believable on any level, and it detracted from the whole. Well, virtually every depiction in Catch-22 has way too much of Frank Burns – so many over-the-top and silly characters, and Henry himself sets the tone as Lt. Colonel Korn. Watch what he does playing this character to understand the problem with the whole.

Buck Henry may be a good writer, but he really screwed this thing up. His screenplay is why Catch-22 is not a good movie.

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A New Movie Quiz: Nazis

Here are some film images showing Nazis, Nazi mockers, Nazi sympathizers, and Nazi wannabes.

All of these portrayals have stuck with me for one reason or another, although most of the movies they’re in are just so-so or good but not great.  A handful of the twenty movies in the quiz do rise above the rest IMHO, specifically #6, #11, #13, and #19, but that’s the only clue you’re getting.  You’re all too smart and the whole thing’s too easy as it is.

You get one point each for knowing the name of the movie, the name of the actor, and the name of the character in the movie. In one or two cases the character name is not given in the movie credits, or the actor not really “known”, so there’s really no way you can get a perfect score of 60.

If you can get 45 points, you win a one-year membership to “GOML Prime”, which entitles you to unrestricted access to all our great GOML content for one year at absolutely no cost to you, plus free two-day shipping! That’s the best deal on the internet!

Watch the “Comments” section for the answers in a day or two.

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Best Sports Movies

I guess I mostly agree with a lot of the standard lists you’ll find looking around the net, but I also have major issues with some of the usual suspects. They’re generally too silly, too implausible, too worshipful, too something. But usually, it’s because the on-field stuff doesn’t cut it. Pride of the Yankees is in this category, as is A League of Their Own (I know, sorry). Also Bad News Bears, which, weirdly, makes many lists you’ll find out there.

To me a great a sports movie has to meet three criteria:

First and foremost, it must be a very good movie, irrespective of the subject matter. In other words, it has to be something that will draw in someone who thinks they hate sports or at least the particular sport the movie in question is about, and it has to keep them engaged throughout.

Second, at least one but preferably both of these things must be true: 1) the on-field stuff has to be completely authentic and believable to someone who is intimately familiar with the game and perhaps has played it at a high level, and 2) the off-field stuff has to be very accurate and make sense.

Third, the movie should be about something more than the sport itself, and being a good love story doesn’t count. It should leave you thinking about it the next day and for a long time after, and it won’t matter if the good guys don’t win the big game. Better if they come up short, actually.

There are very few movies that meet all three of these criteria, so if a flick gets two of the three, it makes my Top Ten, and if it gets one of the three, it gets an Honorable Mention.

So let me start with some Honorable Mentions, in no particular order.

1) Every single “30 for 30” ever made. I’ve seen them all and really like just about every one. Many of them could be in the all-time Top Ten, but I can’t put them there because they’re all documentaries so they really don’t have anything at risk for my Criteria #2. Also, it could be argued that they’re not really “movies” as they were made to be shown on TV, not in the theater, though this distinction is becoming more irrelevant every day.

Here’s a ranking done in 2013 that gives you a flavor, and here’s a more recent Top Ten. But you could pick any one randomly and not be disappointed. I just finished watching the 3-part four-hour long “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” and wasn’t bored for a second. Of course, that one was about something I did care about, so YMMV.

2)  The Hammer. Little seen Adam Carolla project (his politics apparently exclude him from Hollywood promotion), that is very funny, has a heart, and will teach you something about boxing. See if you can find it somewhere – you’ll thank me.

3) North Dallas Forty. Nick Nolte is pretty convincing as a pro wide-out, and Mac Davis is good, too. The locker room and off-field stuff seems about right. Bo Svenson has the best line in the movie: when asking for a raise, “When I call it a business, you call it a game, and when I call it a game, you call it a business.”  Tru dat.

4) Eight Men Out. The on-field stuff is not great, but it’s a decent movie about an interesting subject, and they get the gambling culture of the time right. Irritating “dixieland” sound track diminishes it, but worth a watch over all.

5) Mr. Baseball. Tom Selleck, who went to U.S.C. on a basketball scholarship, is clearly a good athlete who looks good swinging the bat, though he did strike out in his one at-bat in a Spring Training game for the Tigers.  The subject of ex-Big Leaguers trying to hang on in Japan is a good one, and the movie is as much about Japanese culture as Baseball. Haven’t seen it in a while, but I remember it as meeting at least one and maybe two of my criteria for inclusion, so it’s here. Watch it and then remind me if I’m a moron with a poor memory.

6) The Natural. I’m usually not a big fan of magical interventions in sport, but this is very watchable and Redford looks right.

7) The Longest Yard. Burt Reynolds played college football at Florida State and looks very good here, which qualifies this flick for an Honorable Mention.

8) Field of Dreams. Hmm, maybe I like magical intervention in sports more than I thought, as that’s exactly what this is about. The baseball stuff is OK. James Earl Jones is not my favorite, but Kevin Costner always looks good tossing a ball around. Mainly, it’s a very well-made movie that draws you in. Oh, and good, realistic scenes in Fenway.

9) Major League. Charlie Sheen was a star pitcher and shortstop in high school, and is completely believable in this flick as a big-league pitcher (also as an outfielder in Eight Men Out). Tom Berenger and Corbin Bernsen also look right. This one is a bit formulaic, but scores well on Rotten Tomatoes, so worth a look I think.

10) Fever Pitch. Fantastic aerial pictures of Fenway Park and Boston. Gets the crazy Red Sox fan mentality right. Shot during the 2004 run that broke the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino, with ending re-shot after it was already in the can, because there were actual miracles and a story-book ending better than the original screenplay.  At bottom, kind of a silly movie, but I like it anyway.

OK, those were the Honorable Mentions . Now here are Stewie’s Top Ten sports movies – again, NOT in order of rank. Just random.

1) Breaking away. I don’t know enough about bike racing to tell you if they have it right here, but I think they do. A very good movie about more than just the sport, in this case town/gown conflicts and family expectations. Lots of good supporting performances.

2) Raging Bull. Many people put this on their all time Best-Movie-Ever-Made list, some even putting it first all time, so it obviously must be included on any Best Sports Movie List. DeNiro-Pesci interactions are brilliant, and Scorsese’s direction of the boxing scenes is extraordinary.

3) The Hustler and The Color of Money. Both well worth the watch. Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman both shot a mean stick in real life, so no coaching or stunt doubles needed in The Hustler. George C. Scott adds a lot, but The Great One steals the flick. In the Color of Money, Tom Cruise does a nice job, and the photography is awesome. Seems to me some real pool hustlers also appear in this one, adding back in any authenticity that Cruise subtracts.

4) White Men Can’t Jump. Wesley Snipes is not really believable as a playground B-ball player, though he does get the trash-talk right. Come to think of it, he wasn’t that believable as a baseball player in Major League, either. Woody Harrelson, strangely, is far more believable and sympathetic, too. A couple of NBA stars, notably Marques Johnson, bring the playground culture to life. Good story, good performances, good movie

5) Bull Durham. Again, Kevin Costner looks good on a baseball field, The flick evokes life in the minors pretty well, I think.

6) Moneyball. Brad Pitt does a great job as a failed major league prospect and front office success. The subject is interesting, and the real-life clips are well-integrated in the story and add authenticity.

7) Bang the Drum Slowly. Robert DeNiro probably isn’t much of an athlete, but then neither was Bruce Pearson, the back-up catcher he plays here. Michael Moriarty is excellent, evoking Tom Seaver to me for some reason, and the off-field stuff is well done. Good story, good movie.

8) Hoosiers. I like Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, so I was probably going to like this movie no matter what. Somewhat predictable story, though based on real events, so I shouldn’t complain about that. Nice portrayal of small-town basketball culture.

9) Chariots of Fire. Won “Best Picture” and is about sports, so, uh, yeah.

10) The Fighter. Christian Bale is brilliant as is Melissa Leo. Her litter of daughters is perfection. Evokes down-in-the-mouth Lowell, Mass. just right. Mark Wahlberg is excellent and more than believable as Micky Ward. And, for a change, good Boston accents all around (easy for Wahlberg, a tour-de-force for Bale).

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OK sports fans, where did I screw up and what did I leave out?

Let’s go to the movies

Or not.

When was the last time you actually saw a movie in a theater? I’d need a very good excuse to get me to go to the nearest 13-Plex, and it’s been a long time since I had one. I finally broke down and went to see “The Martian” a couple of years ago, not because I was dying to see Matt Damon stranded on Mars, but because I wanted to finally see whether I thought 3D was a worthwhile innovation. It isn’t.

If I wanted to go back to the same place today, my choices would be: “Transformers: The Last Knight” (3D), “Cars 3” (3D), “Wonder Woman” (3D), “The Mummy” (3D), “Captain Underpants”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, etc. You get the idea.

These are not movies, so much as they are theme-park promos, product placement vehicles, and transparent attempts to separate teens and pre-teens from their allowances. They are either “sequels” to previous successful efforts, screen versions of comic books, or full-length cartoons.

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It all started in June of 1975, when “Jaws” was released. Prior to that, motion pictures were generally understood to be art which may or may not have commercial value. After “Jaws”, movies were understood to be commercial products which may or may not have some artistic merit.

In the years since “Jaws”, the “artistic” part has disappeared. You cannot get a picture made today without a strong business case, “bankable” stars, and an extensive plan for foreign distribution rights and subsequent DVD or Pay-TV revenue. All that matters is how much money can be made for the investors. The hell with “art”.

“Jaws” cost $12 million to make and recouped that and more in two weeks. In two months, it passed the record-holding $86 million made by “The Godfather”, and became the first ever to gross $100 million. It was the biggest money-maker ever seen. By 2013, it had grossed $470 million, of which $260 million was in North America. And now, the huge profits made by “Jaws” are just a basic expectation for studios and investors. By 2013, 127 films had surpassed its revenue totals.

You can’t get a “small” picture made any more and, if you go ahead and make one yourself, there’s no place to get it shown. Real estate prices in cities where there may still be a market for “film” are too high for independent theater operators.

The rise of “home theater” and ubiquitous content availability via the internet have further hastened the final demise of the movie theater.

But, as Joni Mitchell once said, “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”  There’s plenty to watch on my screen at home. Whatever I want whenever I want it, actually. It’s nice. Convenient. Comfortable.

With a little effort, I can even find real movies to watch.

 

 

Sidney Poitier: tempus fugit

Sidney Poitier turned 90 years old a couple of months ago, and is now the oldest living recipient of the Academy Award for “Best Actor”.

His family was from the Bahamas, where they were farmers, and his dad also was a cab driver in Nassau. They would regularly go to Miami to sell produce, and Sidney was born there two months prematurely, making him a U.S. citizen. You could call him an “anchor baby”, I suppose, except that the family returned to the Bahamas a couple of months after the birth, when Sidney was healthy enough to go.

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The family did send him back to Miami when he was 15 to live with his brother, as he had become something of a troublemaker, and he moved to New York at 18, first sleeping in a bus terminal toilet, and taking work as a dishwasher, where a waiter taught him to read the newspaper.

He joined the American Negro Theater, but was received poorly by audiences as he had no singing ability, something that they expected of all performers. He got his chance in movies in 1950, at age 23, in “No Way Out”, and then had increasingly important roles until he became the first actor of African descent to be nominated for a competitive Oscar in 1958, for his work on “The Defiant Ones”.

He won the Oscar for “Best Actor” in 1963, for “Lilies of the Field”, a movie I liked mostly because of his magnetic screen presence. I can still see him consuming that soft-boiled egg the nuns gave him for breakfast, expecting him to perform heavy physical labor all day on that fuel alone. One gulp, no chewing, and a challenging glare that wordlessly shouted, “That’s it? You must be joking.”

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Fifty years ago, in 1967, Poitier appeared in three big films with a race-relations theme, something he had obviously become the go-to guy for. He was in “To Sir With Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, and “In the Heat of the Night” in that year. If I asked you who played the lead in any of these three, you’d say Sidney Poitier, right? I certainly would.

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guess

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You saw it Gillespie. What are you going to do about it?

“Sir” and “Dinner” are predictable, and, in my opinion, forgettable, though in 1967 they passed as groundbreaking and important “social statements”. Kind of embarrassing and cringe-inducing, looking back from today’s perspective.

I just saw “In the Heat of the Night” again the other day, though, and it stands up quite well.  It evokes the time and place vividly and convincingly, has sharp dialog and a complex plot. It’s diminished mainly by the sequels and T.V. adaptations that attempted to capitalize on its success.

Rod Steiger put his indelible stamp on the whole “southern sheriff” character/caricature (who could forget that rapid-fire gum-chewing?). But it’s Sidney’s movie, all the way.

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Both “Heat” and “Dinner” were nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar in 1968 (movies released in 1967), and “Heat” won the award.

In addition to Best Picture nominations, both “Heat” and “Dinner” also had a Best Actor nomination, but in neither case was Sidney Poitier the guy nominated. Spencer Tracy was nominated for “Dinner”, and Steiger was nominated and won the award for “Heat”.

Weird.  And, it must be said, probably racist. By this point, Poitier was starting to get a little criticism for playing an “over-idealized” version of the Black Man, and one with de-emphasized or non-existent sexuality,  but that’s not much of a reason to exclude him from even being nominated when neither of these pictures is anything at all without him, and not his fault in the first place.

And to add insult to injury, he didn’t even get a nod for “Supporting Actor” that year. Cecil Kellaway was nominated for “Dinner” (seriously?), and Poitier got no recognition at all for “Heat”.

For the “Academy”, the lesson here is Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: your worldly honors are fleeting. No one really needs you to validate their work, and the silly pronouncements at your annual orgy of self-congratulation speak more negatively about yourselves than positively about those you flatter.

And for Sidney Poitier,  Tempus Fugit. It was a long time ago – hard to believe fifty years have passed in the blink of an eye.

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Wild Mountain Thyme

I saw an OK flick the other day, “Their Finest”. It’s about making a patriotic movie to rally British morale after the evacuation of their trapped army from Dunkirk in 1940. I liked it well enough – it was ostensibly about something I find interesting, but it morphed into more of a love story and a story of the growth and emergence of a talented woman film-writer. It had the advantage of a strong and sympathetic female at its center, which is something we’ve talked about here at GOML in the past.

Their Finest Hour and A Half Directed by Lone Sherfig

The movie’s principal weakness is that it doesn’t know when to quit. It goes on past the moment it should end, and actually breezes right through two or three points that would have been a perfectly appropriate ending, until it feels like it’s testing the patience of the audience a little bit.

But it does have several emotional moments that are really well done. One, for me, comes when the cast members of the movie within the movie are gathered having drinks after the project is just about done, and are led in the singing of the Scottish folk song, “Wild Mountain Thyme” (actually written by Francis McPeake, who was from Northern Ireland).

It’s a really beautiful song, and everybody who has any interest in traditional music has covered it at some point. Mark KnopfIer did a nice instrumental version, and I really like the authenticity and feeling of the Clancy Brothers’ version:

The Corries, a Scottish duet from the early sixties, did a very heartfelt and emotional version, which I also like very much.

In this version, when the chorus begins with, “And we’ll all go together…”, listeners join in, as they do also in the movie version and in many others as well. It’s a powerful and sad effect – it feels like an anthem to solidarity in some common cause or shared feeling. It almost makes you want to cry, but the thing is, you don’t even know what the hell you’re crying about!

And here’s my question for you today: What is this song actually about? Are we “all going together” to war? To a cult meeting where we’ll drink some thyme Kool-Aid and die? To courting? If it’s just a love song asking the lassie for her hand, “Will ye go, lassie, go?”, why so sad and serious?

Or are we just all going to pick some thyme and then come right back? Is it about summer being all too brief after waiting so long for it? It’s written like something promising is beginning, but it’s played like something tragic is ending.

Maybe it’s simply that element of morbidity in all things Scottish that often comes through – cold, wet, darkness, death, and melancholy – no matter the subject?

So tell us, dear readers, what does Wild Mountain Thyme say to you?

Remembering Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died four years ago this week, after waging a long and harrowing battle with cancer. He was 70. He made an excellent film documenting his struggle called Life Itself, in which his courage, determination, and good humor are on ample display, despite being disfigured by surgery, and having to make innumerable concessions to the disease. He continued to work at that which he loved, writing about movies, under very difficult circumstances, until the end.

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He wrote and talked about movies for over 45 years, mostly for the Chicago Sun Times, and was the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His early television series on P.B.S. with crosstown rival Gene Siskel, “Sneak Previews”, became the highest rated shown ever on that network, and the “thumbs up or down” verdict they offered became a standard which has endured through the decades. This week, Netflix introduced it to their site.

The thing I liked most about Ebert’s writing was that he had not a molecule of the “critic’s disease” that seems to require most people to say something gratuitously negative about some part of the work, so as to show how smart they are. Or, perhaps, include obscure references that only a film historian would know or care about and which contribute little to the task at hand.

He wrote beautifully and his love of movies came through clearly. He was unpretentious in his tastes, and wrote from the point of view of the consumer of film, i.e. someone who had paid their money in the hopes of being entertained and engaged, and who was favorably disposed to the product by default.

Beyond that, his writing was extremely perceptive, and sometimes even prophetic. He helped you understand things you may not have noticed or were unable to articulate, and he whetted your appetite for seeing or re-seeing the movie he was writing about.

When Mike Leigh made his first movie in 1972, “Bleak Moments”, Ebert saw it and wrote,

I’ve never heard of Mike Leigh or his actors before. I don’t know where they came from, or what pools of human experience they were able to draw from. And I suspect that the sheer intensity of “Bleak Moments” may prevent it from getting a wide audience. Indeed, this particular story could never have been told in such a way as to appeal to everybody.

It is the task of film festivals to find films like this and give them a showing, so that they can survive and prevail. The 1972 Chicago festival has been filled with movies worth seeing and remembering. But if it had given us only “Bleak Moments,” it would have sufficiently exercised its mission.

What’s interesting to me about this is that Leigh did not make another movie for 17 years (he created screenplays only after improvising scenes with his cast, so he never had one to sell), but Ebert’s comments were correct, and correctly generous to an unknown talent. He makes you want to go find this movie and watch it, and to read more about Mike Leigh’s movies, an exercise that will certainly reward your effort.

If you want a break from current events or are bored with your regular reading diet, I recommend visiting this site, and choosing a movie you like, or perhaps one you never heard of, and reading what Ebert had to say about it.  You’ll learn something and enjoy the time spent – what more could you ask from a critic?