FDR: American Badass (2012) Proof it’s possible for a movie to simultaneously try too hard and not try hard enough. Here is a camp classic-wannabe that pushes its overly obvious mixture of snark and irony so heavily upon us, every joke – most of which fall within the saggy realm of “wouldn’t it be funny if Roosevelt was a foul-mouthed asshole?” – gets shoved over a cliff, landing with the dullest and heaviest of dull, heavy thuds. This is a style of comedy that demands to be played straight, yet director Garrett Brawith, screenwriter Ross Patterson, and their cast feel the urge to wink at us at every turn, underlining every moment with over-the-top sarcasm. (Oh, there’s also a recurring gag where Roosevelt lets loose with hip-hop slang, and a bit where his speech is accompanied by a record-scratching DJ, and an endless scene where FDR smokes weed with the ghost of Abe Lincoln, because ugh.) Worse, everyone involves assumes its mere premise and attitude will carry it through, leaving them to sleepwalk through the actual filmmaking process. The film’s cheapness (and wow, this is a cheap affair, its half-a-shoestring budget glaring in every shot, in a way its self-aware shoddiness likely doesn’t intend) wouldn’t chafe so much if the Adult Swim-inspired comic style didn’t irritate throughout, or, at the very least, generate a chuckle or two. No dice. American Badass is an unwatchable pile of self-satisfied smarm, a desperate internet video sketch spread out over an unbearable 93 minutes. I haven’t hated a movie this hard in a long, long time.
So Proudly We Hail! (1943) Don’t let the breeziness of the first half hour fool you: So Proudly We Hail! is a grim, shockingly honest account of war, based on the experiences of the “Angels of Bataan,” nurses who served during the fall of Bataan and Corregidor. After a warm first act where the nurses (including Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard) schmooze with soldiers and Marines (including George Reeves and Sonny Tufts), we’re thrown knee-deep into the hell of war, the women and men battered physically and mentally. (A subplot involving Veronica Lake as a woman overcome with hatred is a stunner.) Rather than the bombast of a standard war picture, Proudly gives us feats of quiet sacrifice, a courage that’s all the more impressive. The relationships – both of friendship and romance – then feel more real, more overwhelming to the viewer. This is a film interested in the human side of war, how it weighs down on those trapped within, and how those within fight to survive not only against an enemy, but all else that can weigh down on them.
Gung Ho! (1943) More exclamation points! Gung Ho! is a more traditional war film, using the events leading up to the Makin Island raid to mix camaraderie and valiant action in the expected ways, building to a rah-rah mid-war finale meant to remind audiences of the ongoing struggle. Most interesting to me is the movie’s frankness; while it mostly glamorizes war as a bold adventure and uses the idea of casualties solely for dramatic purposes instead of for moral or political commentary, it discusses death frequently, even allowing us to eavesdrop on casual chat sessions where the men discuss the best ways to kill in hand-to-hand combat. Gung Ho! has an almost carefree attitude toward bloodshed, which is, I suppose, what we expect from our military, and I’m fascinated by what it means to prepare a man to kill. (I’m also fascinated by another of the movie’s themes, presented early on, in which the men are taught to put aside their racial prejudices; contrasting this with the countless anti-Japanese sentiments throughout, we get an unintended reminder of the hypocrisies of war, where an enemy is devalued in an effort to preserve the value of life.) Plentiful stock footage is mostly set to narration by Chet Huntley, which adds a near-documentary immediacy to the action. Gung Ho! works better as a time capsule than as entertainment, but it still works.
Westworld (1973) Here’s a strange case where every time studios talk about the possibility of a remake, rather than flinch, I perk up. Westworld is a great film, to be sure, exciting and unique and darkly comic – but its limitations are obvious. It’s a smaller movie than it wants to be, and while Michael Crichton makes a terrific directorial debut, making the most out of little and creating unsettling visual juxtapositions between the vibrant fake worlds and cold, empty reality of the control bunker, there’s always the feeling that more could be developed. We never get a good sense of who Delos is or why the machines break down, nor do we get a sense of the characters beyond their stripped-down roles as part of the basic plot. The leanness of the movie helps its sense of tension, yes, but I always end up wanting a little more. Could a remake give me more? Perhaps. I’d like to see them try.
An Ungentlemanly Act (1992) This BBC TV production is a curiously dry – and at times dryly comic – account of the days leading up to the Falklands War. It is, despite the eventual gunfire, a quiet work, with attention given to the smallness of the entire affair; after all, it’s a war over an island with a sheep on its flag. The movie never plays the quaintness as quirkiness, however, and the overall impression is of how good people (on both sides) face the inevitability of a war nobody wants.
Nothing Sacred (1937) There’s not an ounce of subtlety in this classic chunk of screwball satire, but man, what unsubtlety! The jabs at America’s love for flash in the pan tabloid celebrity hit fast and hard, with Ben Hecht’s screenplay cutting deep at every turn. Great, timeless pitch-black comedy.
It’s a Pleasure (1945) I’m fascinated by the idea of taking someone famous for something else – in this case, ice skater Sonja Henie – and plopping her into a string of movies and just assuming it’ll work. I suppose television put the kibosh on such schemes, since audiences can now see sports celebrities in action on any average weekend, effectively diluting the novelty of seeing, say, Henie’s rink act in Technicolor on the big screen. Still, it’s a curious exercise, especially with producers and screenwriters struggling to find storylines that can fit such non-acting stars. In It’s a Pleasure, Henie plays an ice dancer who falls for beefy, obnoxious hockey player Michael O’Shea – it’s standard romcom filler highlighted by lengthy asides of Henie doing her thing. These are the only worthy moments, as a movie likes this needs a strong cast to support its non-pro leading lady, and this cast just ain’t up to the task.