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Catch-22

Like Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22 was deemed unfilmable by the literary types who really hate movies anyway, and by screenwriters who knew that its unruly length and special form of verbal, philosophical humor would form a special challenge. Nevertheless, Mike Nichols went ahead and did it. But bad production press predisposed reviewers to skepticism, and M*A*S*H came out of left field to further steal the film's thunder. But today, the 1970 Catch-22 looks like of the best films of its decade. Surprisingly faithful to the sprawling source novel by Joseph Heller, the film tells the story of Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a bombardier stationed on a Mediterranean island during World War II. He's seeking any excuse to get rotated home because in this crazy war the commanders keep upping the number of hazardous flights airmen need to fulfill their obligation. From this frame of reference, the movie, like the book, mocks the absurdity of war and the induced callousness that allows outrageous things blithely to happen. In the end, however, Catch-22 is really about the absurdities and moral compromises of American business, as seen by Heller, and the striving hustler Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) is the closest thing to a villain. Scenarist Buck Henry has preserved this aspect of the book while rethinking its narrative organization, weaving an elaborate set of flashbacks within flashbacks. The cast is superb. Arkin is the perfect Yossarian. Martin Sheen and a host of other actors, character actors, and even future directors, pop up. And the technical contributors to this film form a roster of the key stylists who defined cinema in the '70s — production designer Richard Sylbert, editor Sam O'Steen , and photographer David Watkin, whose work influenced The Godfather and Chinatown. Paramount has done an unusually fine job with this DVD release. Watkin's beautiful Panavision cinematography in Technicolor is given a careful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), which seems to have been supervised by Steven Soderbergh. Audio comes in an effective Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, along with Dolby 2.0 in English and French, and English subtitles. Extras include the very effective theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery of the film's vast cast. An audio commentary has Mike Nichols more or less interviewed by a fawning, enthusiastic Steven Soderbergh. It's one of the more interesting of recent audio commentaries, one that reveals all the special-effects secrets, but also reveals a lot about the filmmakers — that Soderbergh is a true student of the best of '70s filmmaking, and that Nichols doesn't really know that much about the technical aspects of movies (at one point he calls a forward tracking shot a "push in"). Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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