Out of Touch?

September 30th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

It seems like periodically I have to write on the subject of how out of touch I sometimes feel with the current popular culture.

Let’s start with this week’s Saturday Night Live. I have stayed loyal to this show from the beginning, even through its weakest, most disastrous seasons. But that may be at an end. The opening episode of the new season was truly abysmal, yet I’m seeing very positive reviews online.

Let’s start with Aidy Bryant, a pleasant overweight woman who has been on for several SNL seasons for no other reason, it would seem, than to be pleasant and make overweight people feel good about themselves. She has apparently been designated a star at SNL, because she was given the central role in four sketches, during which she mangled lines on every one. The high point was a lengthy sketch were she rapped about having “a big fat ass” to guest host Chris Pratt, who was generally poorly used, particularly in a sketch that had him as a kid’s action figure come to full-size life. The joke here was that the living action figures of He-Man (Pratt) and Lion-O of Thundercats (played poorly by the talented Taran Killam) patted their genitals and ate cake or anyway smeared their faces with it. This travesty, which appeared in the post-monologue sweet spot, was among the worst SNL sketches I’ve ever seen.

Weekend Update has replaced Cecily Strong with Michael Che, who did an okay job, with Strong back to do a trademark dumb girl character abandoned last year when she became an effective co-host with the bland Colin Jost. A new player, Pete Davidson, 20, did a piece about how it would be okay to have fellatio for money. This was (I kid you not, as Jack Parr used to say) the best thing on the show. (Next best was a Marvel movie trailer parody, not a live piece.) A pair of weak sketches on the NFL scandals (including the “cold open”) failed to score any points. Another sketch was based on the hilarious premise that every animal taken to a pet hospital promptly died. Online, Slate (among others) raved about the episode.

Let’s not leave out the musical guest. A small, attractive young woman – Ariana Grande – wore cat ears for both her songs (neither of which were about cats) and sang in a breathy, almost-on-pitch articulation-free caterwauling (maybe that’s the connection) imitation of Lady Gaga, which is like a soft drink imitating Pepsi, in this case badly. In cat girl’s second number, a black guy with a bizarre haircut that looked like a vulture was perched on his skull came out and did some sing-songy stuff. Turns out his name is the Weeknd. That’s right, no damn third “e” for Weeknd!

Here’s my “Weeknd” Update: SNL, I give up. How can anybody older than twenty-three identify with this stuff, and why the hell do they like it?

Moving on to films, the critical favorite THE BOX TROLLS (yes, Barb and I went to it, further establishing my son’s theory that I will go to any 3-D movie) turned out to be the most hideously unpleasant “family movie” I’ve ever seen. Highlights include: a boy at a fancy party noticing he should be using a fork, prompting him to puke up his food on his plate and eat it with a fork; a villain who loves to eat cheese (the “money” of this quaint Brit village) even though he’s allergic, causing his lips and other parts of his face to swell up grotesquely (SPOILER ALERT: he eventually explodes, Mr. Creosote style); and a long-lost father who has been tied upside down in a dungeon for a decade, causing him to grow a lot of facial hair and giggle as he yells, “Jelly!” Everything in the film – technically well-made, involving many talented artisans – is ugly and frequently horrific.

I don’t mind kids getting scared in movies. In fact, I think it’s good for them. Give them a taste or two of the Island of Lost boys and a poisoned apple. But not a steady diet. BOX TROLLS is whimsical without wit, precious without point, nary a laugh in the over-long dire mess. And guess what? It’s rated 72% fresh on ROTTEN TOMATOES!

The Equalizer

On the other hand, the terrific Spillane-style THE EQUALIZER with Denzel Washington opened to some devastatingly bad reviews (Entertainment Weekly gave it a D-), though it did well at the box office and has since risen to 60% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. This gives me hope. By the way, I invoke Spillane because THE EQUALIZER and the TV series it’s based on were pure Mike Hammer. The film even begins with a scene that re-works the opening of MY GUN IS QUICK. Washington is terrific as the self-contained, haunted hero, and a final action sequence in a Menard’s-type big-box store is blackly funny and satisfying as hell.

But it seems like out here in the hinterlands that I have to work very hard to find even an okay movie to go to (I like to go once a week). These days TV is more my go-to place for quality storytelling. MASTERS OF SEX just wrapped up an amazing second season, for example. Last week Barb and I enjoyed season eight of MURDOCH MYSTERIES, as I mentioned, and I understand more LEWIS is coming. JUSTIFIED’s final season is on the way, and more ARCHER lies ahead. AMERICAN HORROR STORY, too.

So I am relating to certain things in current popular culture.

But cat ears? Is a thing?

* * *

Here’s a pretty good review of SUPREME JUSTICE. About as good as I can expect from somebody who spells my middle name “Allen.”

Here’s a good list of hardboiled/noir books and writers (linked here because I’m on it!).

Check out these delightful reviews of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and STRIP FOR MURDER (scroll down for A KILLING IN COMICS, previously linked here). What Rip Jagger does is intersperse photos of the real-life folks I used as the basis for characters – very cool.

My role in getting GET CARTER and other Ted Lewis books back into print is mentioned here, but the overall piece is terrific…like Ted Lewis.

Finally here’s a very good interview with my pal Ed Gorman, one of our best writers, from Gravetapping.


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10 Responses to “Out of Touch?”

  1. Joe Menta says:

    Ha, thanks for the funny SNL rant. But really, you’re clearly an SCTV person, so why punish yourself with regular SNL viewing? If I hear that something was actually funny on SNL, I just seek out the clip online (as I did with the cute “upcoming Marvel movies” bit on the show the other night).

    Your mention of cat ears reminded me of a recent experience at a bar. A girl was wearing cat ears and just to say something I pointed out, “cute cat ears.” She replied, “Thanks, and I also like to be called Selina– kind of an inside joke.” I smiled and said, “Oh, as in Selina Kyle– Catwoman.” She seemed very disappointed that her inside joke wasn’t as obscure or inside as she thought it was.

    I liked “The Equalizer” a lot, too, though I found the big close inside the home improvement store to be a little action-movie generic, especially after the graceful, tension-laced movie that preceded it. But, hey, nail guns and improvised death traps are always fun, so I’m quibbling here. I do wish Chloe Grace Moretz was used more, though: It seemed strange– the bad guys were trying to get at McCall by hurting the people around him, but they ignored the one person it was clearly established he cared most about. Maybe because she was lying in a well-lit and well-staffed hospital, I don’t know. Ha, and when she finally did show up again, it would have been nice if she displayed a little sadness over the death of her fellow-prostitute friend. It reminded me of the scene at the end of “License to Kill”, where Felix Leiter is happily congratulating Bond on a job well done, conveniently forgetting that his (Leiter’s) newlywed wife was brutally murdered at the outset, lol. But, again, quibbles– “The Equalizer” was a decent movie, and I wouldn’t mind a sequel.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    SNL and SCTV are both from the same DNA — Second City (and other improve groups, like the Groundlings) . I usually watch it time-delayed so I can skip sketches that go nowhere and terrible musical guests (they have a lot of those). But generally I’ve felt there are always enough talented people on the show to justify the effort of sorting through. Now I’m not so sure.

    THE EQUALIZER was generally well written, but there are some plot holes. My impression was the Chloe character had been hidden away by the hero, but maybe she was still just in the hospital. I’m fine with a big action finale (ONE LONELY NIGHT anyone?) and the horror-movie use of tools was very funny. There has been a lot of discussion (even a major offer from WB) on doing Mike Hammer as a big movie, but the problem was always trying to make it big enough in this post-BOURNE landscape. Hammer is more likely to emerge on TV, but THE EQUALIZER showed how that kind of story could be done on today’s big screen.

    The co-creator of THE EQUALIZER, Michael Sloan, was a very good friend of Michael Cornelison, my late collaborator on so many film and TV projects. I’ve never met Sloan but seeing his name made me smile. He and Mike did some scripts together.

  3. Joe Menta says:

    They want to give Hammer a decent big-screen treatment? They should adapt “The Big Bang”. Now there’s a big action finale I wouldn’t mind seeing: Mike Hammer, dosed with LSD by the bad guys, trying to see through all his hallucinations and effectively shoot back at all the hoods firing on him in the nightclub. Industrial Light & Magic can do all the hallucinatory effects. I still picture that scene in my head and smile. Gotta read that one again, or maybe I’ll do the audio if there’s one. I bet Keach reads it.

  4. Terry Beatty says:

    I gave up on SNL a couple decades ago. What’s taken you so long?

    Kirby and I both loved The Boxtrolls. Kids like gross stuff. Scary stuff too. And I thought the grotesque character design (by Kent Melton) was amazing. You want a bad kids movie, try to sit through the second Planes flick — geez, what a stinker!

  5. Terry Beatty says:

    Oh — and the cat ears is an artsy fan-girl thing. I had a number of students at MCAD who wore them regularly. None of them really my GOOD students — but yeah, it’s a thing.

  6. Max Allan Collins says:

    Ironically, one of the reasons I’ve stayed with SNL in my limited, time-shifting way has been to stay in touch with the pop culture. That way, even if I skip most of the musical acts after sampling the start of a number, I know something about what’s being listened to out in the real world. And before Jon Stewart, WEEKEND UPDATE was a way to see what political and social things were on the younger nation’s mind. It’s been a long, long time since I watched SNL during a broadcast, suffering through commercials, bad musical acts and misfiring sketches. But the thirty or thirty-five minutes of it I’ve watched per fast-forwarded episode has often been pretty good, sometimes great. I hear all the time from people who say what you did — “I gave up on it twenty years ago!” — which means you missed Fred Armisen, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Will Forte, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Tracy Morgan, Seth Meyers, Andy Samburg, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudekis and a bunch of excellent others who my aging mind won’t dredge up. I’m glad I saw McGruber “episodes” and Bill Hader as Vincent Price on his Halloween specials and Kristen Wiig in a thousand things.

    I believe you that BOXTROLLS is better than PLANES — I skipped CARS and everything it spawned despite liking Pixar a lot. I grant you that kids like gross stuff and enjoy being scared and I’m glad you and especially Kirby had a good time. It’s well-made and certainly the design work is excellent. To me, it’s still unpleasant and ugly, but that’s where I am probably out of touch — steampunk, of example, I’ve never got. My biggest BOXTROLLS objection is to a script that is lacking in laughs and inconsistent in the world it creates, starting with a kid (raised by non-English speaking trolls) who has somehow picked up perfect English though the kid never goes out into the human world before dark. Yeah, it’s a movie with trolls in it, but it still needs to have an interior logic. I would not be so bothered by the kid speaking English if so much of the movie didn’t hinge on his lack of knowledge about how to behave in the world of humans.

    I recall that back in the day when we went to movies together, nine out of ten times we agreed down to a decimal point. But that other one….

  7. Max Allan Collins says:

    Joe, the reason Hammer probably won’t be a film has to do with rights that are tied up — specifically, the Hammer films that were made in the ’50s have some lingering issues that make doing films based on books problematic, whereas for TV the rights are clear. I am fine with the latter, because the chance of my being involved in TV is much better than film.

    And thanks for the kind words about THE BIG BANG.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    Out Of Touch – or “The Story Of My Life.”

    These days, my principal reason for watching SNL is Cecily Strong, who reminds me of a girl I knew in high school (and I would guess to be the right age to be the daughter of a girl I knew in high school …).


    See, what I remember about the original series back in ’85 was that CBS sneaked it on with almost no ballyhoo; they had no idea how to promote “a short fat man with glasses”, which is how Edward Woodward always referred to himself in interviews.
    That THE EQUALIZER became a long-running success with a star who was all but unknown in the USA (25-plus years TV stardom in the UK didn’t count for much here back then) took everyone in the business by surprise – pleasantly in my case.
    So I hear about this “reboot” ( a word I have come to detest), and like it or not, my first reaction is that Denzel Washington is not ” a short fat man with glasses.”
    I really wish these movie guys would start rolling their own.
    If I do see THE nuEQUALIZER, I’m thinking I’ll just have to forget that there ever was a TV series by that name …
    … which, curiously enough, is what I had to do with THE nuFUGITIVE some years back – and thanks to Tommy Lee Jones, I was able to do that.
    Maybe this weekend, we’ll see …

    This confuser of mine is giving me more tsuris than I can stand, and so I’ll stand down for now.
    Keep on keepin’ on …

  9. Tom zappe says:

    The October 4 SNL was no great improvement.

    With regards to so much Aidy Bryant in the season premier, perhaps the SNL people are taking the Duke Ellington approach to personnel management. Duke never fired anyone, if he wanted to get rid of them he would merely feature them almost unto death. They would usually quit from exhaustion.

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