Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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Ryan O’Neal is the absent-minded musicologist whose rocks are upset by scatty accident-prone college dropout Barbra Streisand in this Peter Bogdanovich homage to and adaptation of the great screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. A San Francisco hotel is the location where a kiss-chase on a mammoth scale proceeds, with thieves and assorted academics and hotel staff running in circles, all because of a very popular type of plaid suitcase. With Streisand crooning as Ryan tickles the keys and a to-die-for supporting cast – Madeline Kahn! Kenneth Mars! Austin Pendleton! – this is a sheerly hilarious, swoony delight from start to delectable finish. Amongst the many movie references is an homage to the car chase in Bullitt! Written by Buck Henry, Robert Benton and David Newman, and Bogdanovich himself. One of the funniest films ever made.

Home for the Holidays (1995)

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The holiday movie is a game of two halves: go for comedy and you’re swerving from true sentimental meaning;  go for drama and you’re avoiding the utterly futile fun of bringing (invariably dysfunctional) families together. So the comedy-drama is the middle road of choice and that’s what director Jodie Foster steers through here with a script by the fascinating and wayward WD Richter (adapted from a short story by Chris Radant). Newly fired Holly Hunter is the divorced mother of a teenage girl who flies to Baltimore for the Thanksgiving gathering back home with her folks Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning: her awful sister Cynthia Stevenson has already arrived complete with husband Steve Guttenberg and teenage children;  her gay brother Robert Downey Jr shows up with his new friend, Dylan McDermott, which is a mystery since he’s in a long-term relationship; and there is (of course) an eccentric aunt, Geraldine Chaplin. The situation descends into the anticipated back-biting, blame and viciousness while it becomes clear that Downey  has actually married his boyfriend and McDermott is there to be introduced to Hunter. The great cast (including my beloved Austin Pendleton!) works as an insurance policy against the predictability:  when Foster was given the script which she then produced through her own company as her sophomore outing she and Richter worked on the material to more closely reflect her own experiences. What is it Tolstoy said about families? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. A lot of turkey was eaten during this production and quite a bit of it winds up onscreen. Happy Thanksgiving!