Okay, So Maybe Movies Aren’t Better than Ever

January 17th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Before I briefly chat about what I’ve been up to on the storytelling front, here are reviews of two movies I endured this weekend.

Live by Night – Where shall I start? This is a terrible movie. It looks great, and I wanted to like it – it’s full of old cars and lots of cool wardrobe and art direction, just the kind of production values I’d like to see lavished on a Nate Heller movie. Unfortunately, this is the kind of lavish dud that will make it hard to get a Nate Heller movie made, because the Hollywood boys and girls will remind me how poorly Live by Night did at the box-office.

I’m not a Ben Affleck basher. He’s done some very good things, like Argo and The Town, and…well, like Argo and The Town. He’s a pretty fair Batman, too. Here he is a multiple threat, and I do mean threat, as actor, director and writer. I have no idea whether the source novel by Dennis Lahane is any good – I don’t read him. Some pretty fair movies have been made from his stuff, like The Drop and Gone Baby Gone, though I disliked both Shutter Island and the hammy Mystic River. My hunch is that the novel here is likely better, which would not make it good.

Clearly the novel was longer, because this has so much expository voiceover, the telling outweighs the showing. No characters take hold, no scenes develop sufficiently, and the stupidity of the plotting is at times mind-boggling.

For example. Affleck is secretly having an affair with the top gangster in Boston’s moll; when the gangster goes out of town, however, Affleck openly cavorts with the moll in public, and then is surprised when the gangster finds out. For example. When the film lurches into a Florida setting, a dumb-ass KKK leader is bombing Affleck’s nightclubs and wantonly killing people in the process; Affleck asks the dumb-ass to meet with him at Affleck’s own casino construction site, and then the dumb-ass is shocked when Affleck’s men pour out and kill him and his own goons. There are half a dozen scenes with set-ups that moronic.

The best moments are throwaways, as after the dumb-ass-gets-killed sequence when Affleck argues with a crony about who accidentally shot him. Only then does Affleck himself (and the movie) come to life. Elsewhere he goes beyond underplaying into a sort of mobile coma. He wears lots of hats, and I don’t mean director/writer/star, I mean hats – tan fedoras, gray fedoras, white fedoras, yellow fedoras, purple fedoras. I see a drinking game coming!

Two women are at the center of the story – the Bonnie Parker-type moll whose betrayal sends Affleck scurrying to Florida to avoid the wrath of the Boston mob boss – and a Cuban girl whose brother is in the rackets with Affleck. Though the latter is portrayed by Uhura herself, Zoe Saldana, and the former by usually reliable Sienna Miller, neither character makes a dent in the proceedings…and they are the two motivators in sleepy Affleck’s life. Elle Fanning as a nice-girl-turned-drug-addict-turned-evangelist, does better, but her role is so fragmented that it too never quite adds up, though its importance is also key to what little story we perceive.

The moral seems to be: when you’re making a movie, don’t wear too many hats, literally and figuratively. Also, when you’re doing a period piece about the twenties, don’t sing a snippet of “Sugartime,” a song from the late fifties. But it’s almost worth seeing for a howler about Hitler that comes very late in the proceedings: “Some little guy in Germany,” he says in voiceover, “was gettin’ people all excited. But they weren’t gonna go to war over him. No percentage in it.”

The Edge of Seventeen – This is a tricky one. It’s very well-made and nicely acted. The dialogue is frequently witty. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 93% Fresh. But there’s nothing very fresh about the story, which is that a nerdy girl (Hailee Steinfeld) has a crush on a bad boy and doesn’t realize the nice smart guy who sits next to her in class is a better prospect. As if that wasn’t enough, the nerdy girl is portrayed by a lovely young actress, more likely to be prom queen than an outcast. On the other hand, she does behave like an asshole throughout, which doesn’t help us like her as a protagonist. Nor does the fact that she lives a privileged, cushy upper-middle-class life. Also, after she accidentally sends the bad boy an explicit text about wanting sex with him, she is surprised that, when they go out parking, he expects to have sex with her.

Additionally, she still doesn’t see the nice boy as a prospect even after he turns out to be very, very rich (he even has a bigger swimming pool than she does) (see how hard she has it?).

The secondary central conflict is rooted in her asshole-ishness: her nerdy outcast best-and-only friend (also portrayed by a lovely young woman) starts dating our heroine’s hunky brother, and this our heroine cannot abide! She is a flaming bitch to both throughout most of the film. Don’t you feel sorry for her? This is interspersed with occasional Breakfast Club self-exploratory soliloquies (as when her hunky brother reveals his life is also very hard, because he has to keep an eye on their emotionally troubled single mom, who by the way has a very, very good job, despite being an emotional wreck). Of course, she comes around to the worthy boy…after he invites her to a film festival where his incredibly professional animated “student” film unspools…and is about her!

How is this twaddle 93% Fresh? How is this a story that touches an average girl’s heart when the central character is a spoiled beautiful upper-middle-class brat?

The writer/director, Kelly Fremon Craig, does a professional job and some nice moments do happen, most with the Woody Harrelson teacher character. The producer is James L. Brooks, whose TV work (The Simpsons, Lou Grant) has often been stellar but whose movies (often acclaimed) have consistently missed me, and I include Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment.

So your mileage may vary.

* * *

This flurry of reviews lately – all positive last week, remember? – does not negate the fact that I genuinely dislike writing bad reviews. They are the easiest kind of thing to write, often filled with cheap shots (see above). For a long time I stopped writing them. I learned from my own indie movies just how hard the process is – that even making a bad movie is a tough, tough thing. I resigned from my movie column at Mystery Scene because of that. Then I wrote mostly good reviews at Asian Cult Cinema for several years.

Now, like a drunk falling off the wagon, I find myself writing bad reviews again. Why? It reflects a level of frustration that I feel as someone who loves movies, and who goes to a lot more of them than most people. Because I’m in Muscatine, Iowa, I often miss the art movies that are highly touted, but often when I see those, I am no more happy than when I see Hollywood’s standard fare. Art movies, indies, have become a kind of genre in themselves; that includes a lot of European stuff.

I am older now, and harder to please. I have quoted several times what the beautiful and wise Barb said when, as we watched a lousy Italian western at home, whether we would have stayed through the entire movie in the theater, back in “the day” (the ‘70s or ‘80s). As I shut off the Blu-ray player, she said, “Yes, but we had our whole lives ahead of us then.”

Truer words.

* * *

I am working on a Quarry graphic novel, which Titan will publish in four issues and then collect. Don’t know the artist yet, though I approved several based on samples.

It’s very, very hard. I have been away from this format for a while, and the story takes place partly in Vietnam in 1969 and then back in the America of 1972. Providing visual reference for the artist has been a dizzying, daunting task. A 22-page script runs to 60 pages with panel descriptions and links to reference photos.

I doubt I will do many more such projects. Prose is far less taxing.

* * *

The Rap Sheet takes a look at the Black Dahlia case, and has nice mentions of the Nate Heller novel, Angel in Black.

Here’s info on the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD of the Quarry TV series.

M.A.C.

Movies Are Better than Ever!

January 10th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Okay, as promised this will be my all-positive review posting, after blasting the critically acclaimed La La Land last week (and the not very acclaimed Why Him?).

Hidden Figures – This is a first-rate and very entertaining look at the hard-fought rise of three black women in the NASA program of the early ‘60s. Movies of this kind can be precious and they can work too hard; this one hits all the right notes courtesy of director and co-screenwriter, Theodore Melfi (with Allison Schroeder). The three women – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – are portrayed as three-dimensional people possessed of humor, drive and scant self-pity; they are “computers” (pre-IBM), which is to say math whizzes, who become essential to the program. They are discriminated against not only by their race but by their sex. Kevin Costner, as the head of the division, is the white guy who opens his eyes and sees the injustice around him, while the various other white folks who are prejudiced are seen as of their time and not evil. The space aspect is thrilling, and the period recreation is spot on (though the frequent use of the term “spot on” in the film might be anachronistic).

Sully – This one could have been a disaster, and in truth, while a success, it’s flawed. But the accomplishment of the real Captain Sully – and the measured portrayal of him by Tom Hanks – is worth the water landing. The brevity of the event itself is dealt with by flashbacks and dream sequences, quite deftly. The depiction of the speed and bravery of the first-responders is thrilling. What keeps SULLY good and not great is director Eastwood’s heavy-handed treatment of the passengers on their way to the fateful flight. For a thankfully short portion of Sully, we’re in disaster-movie land, with passengers being alternately too big as performed or too nice for a flight out of New York. LaGuardia is seen as a place where you can walk up to a counter in a newsstand/gift shop and no one is in line; where the attendant at the gate is friendly and helpful, even though you’re very late…and is charmed by your joking. The plane itself is a mythical place where a man flying alone is seated next to a woman with her baby and just delighted about it. This is a missed opportunity – had the passengers been as harried and irritable as real ones often are, it would mean much more when they come together in a time of crisis. Additionally, Sully’s wife (Laura Linney) is, oddly, portrayed as something of a harridan, and the investigative committee is played as villains – maybe they were, but it seems hoked-up. All this aside, the strong central performance from Hanks – with effective support from co-pilot Aaron Eckhardt – makes for a first-class ride.

Underworld: Blood Wars – The fifth Underworld film is a fun pulp adventure with charismatic Kate Beckinsale (as usual) in the lead. The elaborate back story of the prior films – requiring a prologue with a Beckinsale voiceover – threatens at first to sink the film, with its elaborate vampires versus werewolves premise spanning as it does many centuries. But the action is convincing and brutal and fast, and an epic sweep is accomplished, from the east-coast vampires’ gothic mansion to a visit to the mountain halls of the blonde vampires of the north. Especially good among many villains is Lara Pulver, the Irene Adler of the current BBC Sherlock. Is this ridiculous? Does Rotten Tomatoes give it 22% fresh, which is of course not fresh at all? Yes, but the film is well-made, and the line-up of fine UK actors could sell you just about anything. How can I like this when I so dislike La La Land? I guess I’m just an enigma wrapped up in a riddle.

Here are some older movies we’ve recently watched on Blu-Ray.

Gideon’s of Scotland Yard (also known as Gideon’s Day – 1958) – An oddball and underestimated entry in the John Ford canon, based on a J.J. Marric (John Creasey) novel in a long-running series, Gideon’s follows a Chief Inspector (Jack Hawkins) in a blazing color, late-fifties London on his long and eventful day with cases that range from sex crimes to murdered corrupt cops to posh boys pulling a big heist and much more. Whether you will like the occasional comic touches in this often very tough police procedural will depend on your tolerance of such Fordian shenanigans (even The Searchers has sometimes painful comic relief).

Another Ford, a masterpiece though also under-appreciated, is Drums Along the Mohawk, just one of many great films made in 1939 (the same year Ford also made Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln!). It’s a fine Colonial “western,” the quotes necessary because Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert set out for the frontier from Albany, New York – and the frontier turns out to be upstate New York. Their struggle to build a farm and a family against a backdrop of the War for Independence is episodic but compelling, and Ford’s patriotic, hard-fought conclusion pointedly includes an African-American and a Native American (even though the Iroquois are bad guys, like the “Tories”). Fonda – returning bloodied from battle – has his wounds tended by Colbert as he describes the brutal combat he endured so vividly no on-screen depiction could rival it. Colbert is wonderful evolving from pampered city girl to hard-scrabble farm wife.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) – Not directed by John Ford. Finally out on Blu-Ray, the second (and to date final) Bill and Ted movie hasn’t a patch on the first one, but it’s still got some very funny moments. The Grim Reaper (William Sadler) playing Twister is a highlight. The originally announced title, Bill and Ted Go to Hell, would have been more apt (not a put-down – they do go to Hell, where they discover the Devil is a dick).

Petrocelli. This is a TV series that ran from 1974 to 1976, and a top-notch one, a shrewd updating of Perry Mason. It’s been released as a boxed DVD set by VEI but I watched two boxes (first and second season) from Germany, which had an English track and was available earlier. I went through all 44 episodes, and the pilot, as well as the theatrical film, The Lawyer (not included), from 1970 from Ipcress File director Sidney J. Furie. I was able to rent The Lawyer on Roku from Amazon.

Star Barry Newman was briefly a hot property in early ‘70s action movies (Vanishing Point, Fear Is the Key, Salzburg Connection) but he was at his mesmerizing, quirky best in the somewhat trashy (in a good way) The Lawyer, which was based unofficially on the Sam Sheppard case (also the inspiration for The Fugitive). The TV series carried over only Newman, with Diana Muldaur replaced by Susan Howard and Ken Swofford by Albert Salmi. Newman’s Mason-like attorney is married to Della-like Howard, and they are very affectionate and clearly have an active sex life. His Paul Drake is Salmi (a fine character actor who met a tragic end), a cowboy-type reflecting the “San Remo, Arizona” setting (it’s mostly shot in Tucson).

From the theatrical film comes the gimmick of Petrocelli using the same evidence the prosecution damned the defendant with to fit a wholly different version of the crime, creating reasonable doubt. The time constraints of a 45-minute episode water that gimmick down, but it’s still effective. Running gags get old – Newman parking in reserved spaces and putting various signs on his vehicle to avoid feeding the meter – and a guy who wins all these cases shouldn’t be having money trouble all the time (he seems to pay Salmi in beer). The Lalo Shiffrin music often goes over the top, especially early on, making a big deal out of Petrocelli driving his Winnebago down a desert road.

Newman is intense but winning, and while he’s had a nice career, he deserved to stay hot a lot longer. The guests stars never end – some not stars yet, like Mark Hamil and Harrison Ford. Lots of Star Trek guests appear here and directors, too, plus Shatner himself, admittedly in a not terribly good performance.

The show is at its best when it plays the courtroom card, particularly when the prosecutors are name actors (like Harold Gould, who was Petrocelli’s opponent in The Lawyer and appears thrice here), or cops (like semi-regular David Huddleston as Lt. Ponce). Its at its worst when it artificially pumps action into this intellectual-by-nature show, or does sexist comedy with strippers who come around for representation, raising Mrs. Petrocelli’s eyebrows – like lovely Susan Howard has anything to worry about. And toward the end a format change for a handful of episodes removes the courtroom aspect entirely.

Still, this is a very good show and worthy of a watch – a dozen great episodes and plenty of good ones.

* * *

The loss of Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher finds me recalling my brief meetings with each.

Some time in the late ‘80s, I was in Chicago for a meeting at the Tribune with my Dick Tracy editors. I killed time downtown in the middle of snow and cold, stepping into a video store (remember them?), finding it fairly packed. I wondered why. I hadn’t been there long when Debbie Reynolds – undeterred by the weather – breezed in for an appearance, swathed in mink. Mink coat, mink boots, mink gloves, mink cap. She was dazzling. She walked slowly through the crowd, handlers fore and aft, and when she got to me I said, “What’s wrong?”

Surprised, she said, “What is?”

Our eyes met.

I said, “No mink ear muffs?”

She beamed flirtatiously and slapped me gently with a mink-gloved hand and moved on.

Carrie Fisher I had an even briefer encounter with. A few years ago, I was out in LA for a pitch meeting (not successful), after which we repaired to a restaurant in Beverly Hills. There was a lot of outdoor seating, in part of which Mel Brooks was holding court. Be still my heart. When we got to our seats, I noticed Carrie Fisher at a table with friends and/or business associates. But I think friends. She was in glasses and looked good if not glamourous. Like Elaine Benes, she was having a big salad. Throughout the meal, I kept thinking about her presence. Mark Hamill was a friendly acquaintance of mine – damn near a friend! Was that enough to start up a conversation? Probably not.

All that happened was, when I went back to use the men’s room, I moved past her table, caught her gaze and smiled and said hello. Like her mother, she gave me her eyes and a smile and said hello back to me, as if she knew me well.

A couple of very small things. But at the moment they seem rather large.

M.A.C.

First Movie Walk-out of the Year

January 3rd, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

It’s January 2nd as I write this, and Barb and I have already walked out of a movie. Make that two movies. Sort of. Kind of.

Now that I’m in the Writers Guild, I get to vote in several prestigious awards competitions, which means I receive DVD screeners. I’m gradually working my way through these, but I saved one – La La Land – to watch on New Year’s Eve with Barb. We had party mix and champagne ready (that’s about as festive as it gets in Muscatine, Iowa) and were really looking forward to this highly acclaimed, much-hyped film, which has a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is “a delightful extravaganza (that) revives the big-screen musical,” according to one critic, a rather typical reaction.

The problem is the movie blows. It’s a full-of-itself valentine to Hollywood (with occasional digs at the movie industry that, surprisingly, don’t ring very true) that is chock full of references to, and reminders of, classic films that this one is a bright-colored yet pale shadow thereof. My comments are based on the first hour, at which point Barb and I went to the kitchen for more festivities (cheese and crackers) and to refill our champagne glasses, and decided not to return to the film. We gave it a chance. We really did. And neither of us had said a word throughout, not wanting to spoil the other guy’s fun.

But when we took our break, it came out: the Emperor was stark staring naked.

First, a small detail: there’s no story. An aspiring actress and a frustrated jazz pianist – both narcissistic know-it-all’s – come together in a passionate, all-talking-all-singing bout of co-dependency. They are joined by no memorable characters. Their meet-cute, date-cute romance turns into occasional barely adequate dancing and singing – the songs are also barely adequate (with the exception of one romantic theme). The best songs are some New Wave hits that are being pimped out, seen as beneath the jazz pianist. An opening number of commuters stuck in traffic and getting out of their cars to sing (again, just adequately) and sort of dance (mediocre choreography) on and between their vehicles has a lot of energy and nerve, in service of not much.

The two leads (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) have some decent interludes of clever talk, though Ms. Stone has a terrible case of the I’m-so-cute’s. Still, these two have a nice chemistry that deserves a real, much-less-precious movie. The real problem is the self-indulgence of the director/writer, Damien Chazelle.

We’re in neither-fish-nor-foul territory here – not real enough, nor unreal enough, to work. I can accept singing and dancing breaking out – but not the expensive apartment the actress and her equally unsuccessful roommates live in. Or the stupid guy at the party who talks about his credits. Or the call-back for the actress where she is ignored. Or the inability of the jazz pianist to lower himself to making a living.

The filmmaker insists on reminding us of classics like Rebel Without a Cause, Singing in the Rain and Casablanca, as well as Astaire and Rogers pictures, only making us wish one of those is what we were watching.

Look, I like musicals. My list of favorite films includes How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (coming out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time!), Gypsy, Damn Yankees, Li’l Abner, Carousel and West Side Story. Those came from Broadway shows, but there’s also Hollywood originals like Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, and, yes, Singing in the Rain. Plus all those Astaire/Rogers flicks.

Maybe I’m wrong. But ignore this warning at your own peril.

Now, above I indicated Barb and I had walked out of two movies already this very new year. But the second walk-out came quite late – in fact, what was probably the last scene, although since we didn’t stick, I can’t be sure. It’s a comedy called WHY HIM? that pretends, in part, to be a Christmas film. I’m tempted to say it also pretends to be a comedy, but really it does have some laughs.

We went, largely, because we like Bryan Cranston, who here is revisiting his Malcolm in the Middle muse. He’s very good, as are Party Down’s Megan Mullally (as his wife) and Zoey Deutch (as his daughter). Cranston’s character owns a Midwestern printing company that is struggling in the new e-world, and is presented as a very straight, conservative, even dull businessman. He and his wife and teenage son go to visit their college-age daughter in California and wind up staying at the modern-art mansion of her boy friend, James Franco.

Now I like Franco. I’ve liked him since Freaks and Geeks. But he’s very one-note here, thanks mostly to a script in part by Jonah Hill. He’s supposed to be an idiot savant who as a teenager made a fortune in gaming. But here only the idiot side is on display. The big joke is how many “f”-bombs he drops. He also has a lot of tattoos. Also a mansion full of stupid paintings and statues, usually sexual in nature, a Japanese toilet that requires no t.p., and geek employees who lurk. Nothing about any of this coheres.

Watching Cranston find a million ways to react to the one grinning expression that Franco uses is an acting lesson in overcoming weak material while only occasionally going so far over the top that the desperation shows. Keegan-Michael Key is, as usual, very funny, this time as Franco’s ambiguously sexual, vaguely foreign assistant. If you see this, you may wish the movie was about him.

Here’s the kind of movie Why Him? is.

In the gaming multi-millionaire’s living room there is a dead moose behind glass preserved in its own urine. If you don’t know from the moment you see this gigantic urine-filled tank that it will, late in the film, break open and spill its gross contents, you should rush to a theater instantly and see Why Him? You will have many such surprises.

Speaking of surprises, major domo Key periodically sneak-attacks his employer Franco in elaborate martial arts displays that mimic those of Inspector Clouseau and his manservant, Kato. When Cranston points this out to them (“Classic Pink Panther!”), Key and Franco react with bewilderment – they’ve never heard of the Pink Panther!

Again, we’re in the area of a weak movie taking the insane risk of invoking much better movies. Similarly, it lifts two gags from Christmas Vacation regarding an oversize Christmas tree, as if the people watching this film would probably not have ever seen that one.

The ending, back at Cranston’s modest home, goes on forever and includes a cringe-worthy appearance by a couple of members of KISS. This includes a line by Cranston’s wife about giving him a hand-job on their first date after a KISS concert. That’s the kind of unfunny crudity that Why Him? offers in place of wit.

Hey, I’m no prude. I’ve dropped more fucking f-bombs than James fucking Franco, in my day. But this shit has to stop.

A final word – Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts, is terrific, and a must for Breaking Bad fans. He appears to have written it himself, and much of what he says about acting, and the actor’s life, applies equally well to writing, and the writer’s life. It’s as wonderful as Why Him? isn’t.

* * *

Here’s a lovely appreciation of (aw shucks) me.

And more of the same here, I’m blushing to say.

More praise for the Quarry TV show.

And still more here. Happy New Year!

M.A.C.

Happy Holidays

December 27th, 2016 by Max Allan Collins
XMas 2016

We had Nate, his missus Abby and their cute offspring Sam as guests over the long Christmas weekend. Zero work got done, but much eating heralded a January ahead as a wasteland of dieting.

I believe that the gifts I received from Barb – carefully pre-selected by me – would make excellent evidence at my commitment hearing. Batman, Mickey Mouse, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion would be among the witnesses.

The latter, a four-Blu-Ray boxed set, Nate and I blew through starting Christmas Eve (that’s when we do our gift exchange). Remarkable early ‘70s Japanese exploitation fare with feminism bait-and-switching its male audience with their own misogyny. I would swear the female protagonist was a model for Ms. Tree, only I never saw these films before.

The Herschell Gordon Lewis boxed set – festive in its green and red coloration – will enliven the food-deprived days ahead.

Christmas Day evening was given over to RiffTrax shorts. This, sadly, marks the first Christmas since my early childhood that did not include the films Scrooge (Alistair Sim) and Miracle on 34th Street. Barb and I may cheat and watch them this week. But movie-watching is haphazard with a sixteen-month-old Sam in play – lots of vintage Warner Bros cartoons and the new Peanuts movie owned the living room. Sam is almost walking and sort of talking – “Baby!” is his favorite word.

Mine, too.

* * *

Here’s a lovely write-up about my Grand Master award.

At the Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce lists Better Dead with Nate Heller as among his short list of favorites of 2016.

Read about Quarry being one of the best 11 TV shows of 2016 (number 7 to be exact).

Scroll down a ways to get some cool Mike Hammer/Spillane stuff as it relates to the Japanese tribute films.

Then scroll down to number 8 on a Batman list for some rare love for a Collins Batman story.

See you next year!

M.A.C.

aug 19, 2003 visitors since August 19, 2003.