Auer, Bateman, Halperin, Nelson, Newley

Bad Words (Jason Bateman, 2014). The feature directorial debut of Bateman has a nifty story hook and an admirable nasty streak. It’s especially nice to see Bateman fully tap the vein of dark consternation that pulses through his best, smartest comedic work. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Andrew Dodge also relies on a adult-child friendship that feels patently phony and is also fairly hackneyed for this sort of dark comedy. That there are a few slightly more clever notes played between Bateman and Rohan Chand (playing a more appropriately-aged rival in a national spelling bee that Bateman’s disgruntled adult has pushed his way into via a loophole) doesn’t forgive the familiarity of the basic structure of the relationship. Still, Bateman demonstrates strong enough filmmaking chops that it’s no surprise he was able to parlay this into more intriguing opportunities.

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (Anthony Newley, 1969). Ah, yes: the sort of glorious mess that only the late nineteen-sixties could deliver, as a bolstered commitment to directorial authorship converged with rapidly loosening content controls and the external influence of psychedelic free-for-alls to produce garish visions of baffling excess. In the case of Hieronymus Merkin, the poisoned candy mix has the added ingredient of a big star’s unchecked ego. Newley reportedly worked on the screenplay while suffering through the Doctor Doolittle film shoot, ultimately collaborating with Summer of ’42 writer Herman Raucher to arrive at an autobiographical story of an entertainer whose toxic lifestyle includes levels of sex addiction that skew toward the deviant (it is sad marker of both the era and the level of vile privilege held by celebrities that Newley essentially confesses to a sexual relationship with a child with only the slightest iota of guilt or regret). It’s also a musical, with numbers cowritten by Newley, many of which sound as though they could have emanated from the songwriting team of Clarke and Rogers. Included among the ostensible showstoppers is a lurid donkey fairy tale and a big, theatrical ballad about embracing narcissistic atheism. The film is awash in indulgent meta flourishes and inane, broad satire, led by the presence of Milton Berle as satanic stand-in Goodtime Eddie Filth. Newley cast his then-wife Joan Collins as the main character’s spouse, a callously deceived woman named Polyester Poontang. Collins credited her viewing of the film, at least in part, as the motivating factor in her choice to divorce Newley, which surely gives the film a fairly unique place in the annals of cinema.

The Crime of Dr. Crespi (John H. Auer, 1935). Adapted from an Edgar Allen Poe story — loosely, no doubt — follows the titular physician (Erich von Stroheim) whose resentment for a fellow medical practitioner (John Bohn) gets expressed in a devious manner, when he’s called upon to perform a surgical rescue following a car crash. The film is nicely creepy and tiptoes into highly gruesome concepts, especially for the time. Auer creates a nice sense of mood, even as the film was obviously assembled in a rush (there are reports a mere eight days was devoted to filming). The performance by von Stroheim has particular markings of a rushed, necessary indifference to polish. He’s sharp and inadvertently amusing. It can’t be called a great performance, but it’s surely entertaining.

White Zombie (Victor Hugo Halperin, 1932). A seminal enough film that it provides the foundation for the pervasive presence of the living undead in pop culture while also inspiring a pretty rotten rock outfit. While it’s indeed striking at times, and it features one of those performances of looming menace that made Bela Lugosi justly famous, the film is also disappointingly dull. Though the running time only just slips past the the hour mark, the story of zombies in Haiti is padded like a plush, mouldering pillow. 

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015). This documentary tracks a group in American history with a mandate that is especially relevant today, forcefully filling in the willfully ignored gaps in most historical considerations of the Civil Rights organization. Nelson does an admirable job of packing in insightful, telling information, especially in the expert assemblage of archival footage. At a time when broadcast television was surging, the Black Panthers made great television. The contrasting depictions Nelson unearths, coupled with more modern reminiscences from individuals with strikingly different views of the Panthers, makes for a fascinating mosaic of dissent and demands for fairness in the United States. Nelson is also frank about all the ways the organization and its members descended into self-destructiveness. If anything, the film is only hampered by the challenge of fitting in all the pertinent material. Nelson makes the implicit argument that the Black Panthers are complex enough to merit one of those documentaries of a Burnsian length, easily stretching out for hours and hours.

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