Movies Aren’t Better Than Ever

December 1st, 2009 by Max Allan Collins

The Big Bang

Slow week on the work front, although I did receive some bound galleys of THE BIG BANG, the second Mike Hammer novel I’ve completed from an unfinished Spillane manuscript. After the battles over the cover, the package looks very strong, and I admit a thrill seeing my name sharing the cover of a Mike Hammer book with Mickey.

Over this Thanksgiving holiday, I saw several movies. In one case, I saw the first 50 minutes or so of a movie, because I walked out. Barb, Nate and I took my 84 year-old mother to OLD DOGS, and we would have exited sooner if we’d known my mother was hating it as much as we did. I usually don’t bad-mouth films, because I’m a filmmaker. But this is disgraceful.

It’s a supposed comedy that is atrociously made — frenetic editing attempting to disguise nothing happening, a musical score that “Mickey Mouses” everything (fitting, in a way, since it’s a Disney film), a stupid, disjointed, even racist script that lurches from one contrived unfunny situation to the next, and a bunch of talented actors wasted in unfunny cameos (Justin Long, Rita Wilson, Amy Sedaris, Luis Guzman). The three leads make an interesting study — John Travolta (who I admit has never impressed me) is stunningly bad as an overage womanizer (to a moderately attractive waitress: “Well, hellllloooo!”) (Andy Brown did it better on AMOS ‘N’ ANDY sixty years ago); and Robin Williams as an advertising exec seems embarrassed, and plays under the subpar material. Any movie that has Robin Williams as its most understated performer is in a lot of trouble. Also, any movie that cannot find a way to give Seth Green something funny to do should have its master print cut into little pieces and distributed as guitar picks.

Every now and then I see a movie so wretched, so cynical and devoid of energy and care, that it makes me doubt that movies themselves are worthwhile. It’s just a momentary thing — I love film — but a really bad movie can make you question your own interest in the medium at all.

So, to cleanse the cinematic palate, we went home and put on the Blu-Ray of the classic 1947 MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, which ties with Alastair Sim’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL for my favorite Christmas film. Like OLD DOGS, it attempts to tell a story that works on both kids and adults, but 34th STREET manages that small miracle without patronizing either group. It’s a reminder of a Hollywood that still knew how to tell a story. Everything is in its place — it is close to perfect (one camera shadow is about it for flaws). Even the most minor character is memorable and fleshed out. Scenes of humor and drama alternate seamlessly, the premise flirts with fantasy without overstepping, the script sets up a dozen things that it pays off, and the tone remains comic but not broad, with memorable, heart-felt performances from Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, Maureen O’Hara and John Payne. Standout among many wonderful sidebar stories is the amusing conflict between judge Gene Lockhart and political fixer William Frawley, faced with the career killer for a judge who puts Santa Claus in the nuthouse. Director George Seaton and writer Valentine Davies made a classic, all right, but they did so in the kind of routinely professional fashion that characterizes so much studio product of the ‘30s and ‘40s. That today’s Hollywood, rife with talent, refuses to find good stories and tell them well, and instead panders after audiences — from explosion fests like TRANSFORMERS II to dumb pandering comedies like OLD DOGS — is shameful.

I can only say so much here without making the wrong/right people mad. After all, I make a certain part of my living from writing movie and TV tie-in novels. While I’ve done novels of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and AMERICAN GANGSTER, I’ve also novelized G.I. JOE and all of the MUMMY movies, and have enjoyed doing so. I can usually find a path in a film script to a book I wouldn’t mind writing. Some people say my novelizations are superior to the films themselves, which is generous (if sometimes accurate).

I simply wish the biggest movers and shakers in the film industry could find something better to do than dangle digital car keys over our collective crib.

Another case in point: so much of British dramatic television is superior to our stateside fare. Barb and I are watching a series called TRIAL AND RETRIBUTION on DVD, and are about half-way through the show’s run so far. The basic premise is LAW AND ORDER — follow a crime through arrests and trial — but the difference is in the execution. The series is gritty and adult, detailed and in depth, and stylishly shot (with signature use of split screen), with flawed detectives, scary but human perpetrators, and lawyers who too often are just playing a game. It’s a beautifully directed show, and so far every episode (each over three hours in length) I would consider better than all but a handful of American theatrical releases I’ve seen this year. And I see a lot, being a glutton for punishment.

Other current British shows with this high standard include ASHES TO ASHES (the LIFE ON MARS follow-up), HUSTLE (inspiration for LEVERAGE, one of the best American shows), SPOOKS (known as M1-5 over here) and LEWIS (sequel to the classic MORSE). Less ambitious but enormously entertaining is the blackly comic MIDSOMER MURDERS.

If you’re wondering about my own filmmaking efforts, I can report that ROAD TO PURGATORY seems to be moving forward — not a “go” yet but seemingly close. And if you’re looking for a stocking stuffer, might I suggest CAVEMAN: V.T. HAMLIN & ALLEY OOP (), ELIOT NESS: AN UNTOUCHABLE LIFE (), or THE LAST LULLABY. Indies all.

Eliot Ness


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17 Responses to “Movies Aren’t Better Than Ever”

  1. Brian_Drake says:

    Hi, Max. I’m with you on the state of movies today, but a comment from Quentin Tarrantino keeps me watching: For every ten films, there are nine bad ones, but the tenth one makes up for them. That’s an approximate quote but it’s close. I think the best work is in the independent area, as most of the movies I’ve enjoyed lately have been independents or shows that “flopped” when released the first time around.

    I also agree with your assessment of British programming, though I’ve only seen one or two episodes of the Midsomer Murders and none of the rest. However, while flipping stations one night I came across a PBS station playing an Italian police show called “Homicide Squad” and it was terrific. It led to six episodes about two hours long and each one kept me glued. But I missed the final episode! It’s on DVD but I’m not sure the videos are subtitled. It’s odd to see international entertainment efforts beat the U.S. offerings since we led the way for so long, but good shows are hard to come by nowadays so they come from across the pond I’ll take it.

    When does the Hammer book come out?

  2. Thanks for the great post, Brian.

    THE BIG BANG comes out in early May 2010.

    The audio novel, THE LITTLE DEATH, is supposed to be out today…but I haven’t seen it yet! No Hammer fan should miss this one.

  3. Edmond D. Smith says:


    I’m with you on the sorry state of current movie and TV fare. A friend and I went to see The Men Who Stare At Goats hoping it would be sort of O’ Brother, Where Art Thou-esque; quirky and interesting. Instead it was quirky alright but to no apparent end. We both walked out wondering why the hell it was made; an utterly pointless endeavor. And we went to it because it seemed to be the only film playing that might be remotely worthwhile.

    And American TV doesn’t seem to be in any better shape either, as you note. Endless hours of “reality” shows, where the self-involved get to preen and emote. Awful, awful.

    It sort of occurs to me that this rut might have something to do with the state of transition that all of media seems to be in right now: print media losing advertising dollars and sales, the music industry in flux, TV networks losing audience to cable stations and the internet, even the growth of the Kindle and Nook in the book industry. As the entertainment and information industries are trying to find their way, creativity is taking a back seat. The common denominator has so often been the enemy of interesting films, books, etc and never more so than now when the industries that turn them out are so justifiably scared. While change has always been a given, it has never happened as quickly as it is now. Technology is advancing so rapidly that no sooner have you purchased your brand new CDs and…oops, CDs are being replaced by music downloads, to be replaced by the next something else. It is hard to be creative when you can barely identify the medium for which you are creating.

    The whole thing rather reminds me of Ray Kurzweil and Vernon Vinge’s concept of the Singularity, the point at which change occurs so quickly that society really can’t adjust; no time to digest the to “new” before it itself is passe.

    Or maybe I’m overanalyzing and this is just a rut that will end soon. LOL

    Anyway, I’m a great admirer, Max and have lately been on a big MAC kick. I’m reading Pearl Harbor Murders now and waiting for True Crime to come in from Amazon. I was very happy to hear of the upcoming Nate Heller book and also look forward to The Big Bang. Thanks for the many hours of reading pleasure and I look forward to many more. Continued success.

  4. You make some wonderful points, but I have to admit that I’m one of those who liked MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. My wife liked it, too, but half-way through I said to her, “People will either love this or despise it.” I have read the non-fiction book it was based on, and the film was surprisingly factual, although it turned maybe twelve characters into around three.

    MEN WITH GOATS had a story to tell (alienating though it might be to some viewers) whereas so much of the big blockbuster fare is aimed at an indiscriminating, blow-stuff-up-real-good audience. I like a lot of movies that other people hate, and can have fairly low-brow tastes, since I have an ability to take a film on its own terms. The only terms I can’t accept is a cynical, pandering job.

    I should say that I do find any number of movies entertaining in a given year, and we just watched the Blu-Ray of STAR TREK, which was the rare movie that Barb and I went to twice. We were Trekkies from the earliest days (not “trekkers” — Roddenbery himself used the Trekkie term) and were suckers for the thing. What was interesting and even amazing to me is that the screenwriters (who did a great job) also wrote TRANSFORMERS II (which for me was an endurance test). My belief is that when a film is good it is at least in part due to the screenwriter (hey, it’s a director’s medium) and when it’s bad, it may not be the screenwriter’s fault at all.

  5. Edmond D. Smith says:

    I’m actually glad you liked Goats. I figured, like you did, that it was something people would either love or hate. I had hoped I’d love it but it fell so flat for me that I can’t fathom why it would work for other people (while recognizing that it would). I find the fact that it is faithful to its non-fiction source is interesting because it seemed so premeditatively outrageous to me that I felt it was manipulative. What worked about it for you? For me, scene after scene just fell flat, making the whole thing pointless. I understand that it highlights the sometimes crazy lengths the military is willing to go to to find effective means of warfare and to get the upper hand over the enemy. While some of those lengths may be ludicrous I was actually impressed with how open minded the military can be, how willing to look at EVERYTHING they can be.

    The fact that we disagree on this one picture doesn’t alter your and my initial point that most movies produced today are dogs. I think I am probably a bit unrealistically jaded here, being a fan of so many of the great movies of the 30’s and 40’s. I tend not to watch many of stinkers produced in those years so it may seem that those decades were more of a golden age than they actually were…but I sitll think the skill required in crafting a great story for the screen is not as much in evidence as it had been.

    And I agree with you about Star Trek, about which I was skeptical when I heard that it was being developed; it was great fun. Also there are certainly good independents being produced. Over the last couple of years I’ve really enjoyed Once and Bella and a number of other smaller, well crafted films. It just seems that was once the great Hollywood machine is very rusty these days and I think my initial analysis probably has some “legs” as far as being the reason.

  6. Brian_Drake says:

    Would either of you say that the rebooted Star Trek appealed to the blow-stuff-up-real-good crowd? I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t feel like Star Trek. It felt like Star Wars using Star Trek characters. Too much action. Too much blow-stuff-up-real-good. The Trek films have always had more action than any of the series (with the exception of maybe “Enterprise”), but there was always something deeper behind the phaser blasts. What happened to the themes like we saw in Star Trek 5? Or the switch of themes, sacrifice for the many in Star Trek 2, and sacrifice for the one in Star Trek 3? If anything like that was in Abrams’s Star Trek I missed it while trying to follow the twisting plot (as neat the the plot was). And I’m not just saying this because I’m still mad at J.J. Abrams for letting “Alias” go from a great show to utter sludge. :) I would never let that cloud my opinion.

  7. I do think STAR TREK had some plot problems — I don’t understand why the villain came back in time, when his planet had yet to be destroyed, and used his energy to visit revenge on those who in the future would cause his planet’s destruction — but I think the film was generally rousing and the characters were fun and faithful to the original TREK (both series and films). I have to admit that I have liked every single one of the TREK films — that I believe the generally despised first film was perhaps the best of all STAR TREK films, and I even like Shatner’s installment (Kirk wondering aloud what God needed with a starship is a wonderful moment) — so I may not be the best judge of whether a STAR TREK film is good or not, based upon conventional wisdom.

    But I have no problem with quickening the pace, and providing eye candy (and ear candy) for modernday audiences — I don’t consider that pandering, just being realistic as to the needs of the market. I’ve heard this STAR WARS comparison before, and I assume we must be talking about the first three films, because the more current three are fairly slow-paced and at times sluggish. There was no Roddenbury-esque theme to the new TREK movie, I would agree; but the focus on the Kirk/Spock relationship and the assembling of the new version of the classic crew was plenty to put a grin on my face.

  8. Edmond D. Smith says:

    My guess is that in taking Trek on Abrams tried to figure out how to make it appeal to the modern movie-going audience and so we wound up with (some pretty thrilling) whiz bang. He probably figured (and rightly, I think) that a more contemplative ST might be more artistically satisfying and more satisfying to the hardcore Trekkies but it might be his one and only Trek. He needed to impress the studio with a blockbuster in order to get a chance to do a bunch of them. And he actually did throw in enough of the stuff that makes Trek Trek so that most fanboys (like ME) were pretty cool with it even as it brought in millions of newbies. Not an easy task, I would imagine. And since its success has now opened the door to the possibility of those many sequels he has the room to indulge in some of the more thematically interesting things you mention, Brian. I hope that’s where he’s headed.

    Oh, and Max…you LIKED ST 1??? I thought all the other Trek films were good to one degree or another (yeah, even V had its charms) but the first one…? It struck me as their having lots of dough and nowhere to go; no story so, what the Hell, let’s toss all our moolah into special effects. Long, lingering shots of space oddities were pretty but not the stuff of engaging drama. I remember that after I saw it I figured I finally had seen the last Trek. I was surprised to see they took another stab at it, and happy that they had the wisdom to change course.

    Mr. Collins, you sir, are the Ulitmate Star Trek Geek.

  9. The first STAR TREK movie is a near masterpiece. It reassembles the cast in a fun, dignified way; it has the Spock character finally coming to terms with his human side (a theme echoed in the main story of the machine seeking meaning); has a lovely little tragic love story with Decker and Illia; and one of the great movie scores of all time. For the time, the effects were impressive, and seeing the film on a huge screen with a thundering sound system was thrilling — this was pre-home video boom, remember). And even now I wonder at the miracle of the enthusiasm of fans for this essentially failed TV show leading to its rebirth as a huge majestic movie. If it hadn’t been a hit — and it was, though this is essentially forgotten — there would have been no second film.

    It’s my favorite of the films. Always will be.

  10. Brian_Drake says:

    This has been a great chat.

    And I’m with Max in saying that “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is a solid film. I watched it recently when one of the cable stations played it as a double-feature with Star Trek 2 (what a weekend that was!) and could not look away. When I was a kid I didn’t like the movie for all the reasons everybody states, but now? It’s terrific. I think Star Trek 2 is my all-time favorite, though. I still get misty-eyed at the very end when Spock dies, and remember sitting in the theater with my father when Kahn put those things in Terrell and Chekhov’s ears. Dad noticed I was trying not to look and getting a little squeamish so he leaned over and told me it wasn’t real, just make-believe. But to this day I cannot watch that scene.

  11. Edmond D. Smith says:

    Well it has been some time since I saw STTMP but from what I can recall of the film and the buzz that followed its release is that it was large, had great special effects and was somewhat cold and sterile. I think the coldness arose from those very ponderous special effects. I remember extended (and I do mean e..x..t..e..n..d..e..d) screen time devoted to the cast looking in awe at all those millions of dollars worth of special effects. The chilliness was even underscored by the somewhat monochomatic art direction and costume design (the blue-ish pajamas of legend).

    I don’t disagree with you, Max, that there were some good story elements there, I just don’t feel they really gelled into an engaging whole. Also, the similarity to one the series’ episodes (the title of which currently escapes me) made it feel like something of a retread. And while you’re right, the film did make money the studio seemed to recognize that, due to audience letdown, going on in the same vein was not likely to reap comparable box office rewards. Which explains why ST II went off in a totally different direction.

    Your enthusiasm for it however has gotten me interested in watching it again to see what I might have missed that pleased you.

  12. The extended screen time was not so that the cast could look in awe at a bunch of special effects. It was so that the characters — and the fans who had worked so hard to bring STAR TREK back to life — could drink in the Enterprise reborn on a vast motion picture screen. That may have been a bad choice for the long haul — we’ve had many TREK movies since — but for the moment of the film’s release, it was appropriate…after all, who could say there would be any more ST films? This was an amazing thing, the very existence of this film.

    As for the similiarty to an episode, this always strikes me as a ridiculous complaint. The credit reads “based on STAR TREK.” The series was the source for the film. Expanding an episode into a feature-length drama makes sense. Again, the first film was the first film — it had no expectation of another being made, and was exploring the very notion of what a ST movie (as opposed to TV episode) could or should be.

    The art direction choice to go cool instead of hot also makes sense. The bright ’60s colors were in part a way of being visually arresting on a low TV budget, and reflected the ’60s visual vibe. The film’s lower-key approach said military, on the one hand, and dignified on the other. A movie made in 1979 is not going to look like a TV series from 1966. The return to the bright colors in the current film was a retro statement, but for all the talk of staying true to the canon (the excuse for not including Shatner), the Enterprise hardly resembles the TV one…and while the colors of the uniforms are right, the fabrics and cut are different. It’s a 2009 movie, and of course looks like one.

    By the way, Captain Kirk’s hometown, Riverside, Iowa, is only about twenty miles from Muscatine, where I live. I’ve never been there, though my band has played at the casino outside town. So I may not be as big a Star Trek geek as I sound.

  13. Edmond D. Smith says:

    No argument that getting a ST movie made in the first place (especially back in the ’70s when that kind of thing was very rare) was amazing. I remember how psyched I was when I heard they were going to make it.

    Gotta disagree with you on the similarity to the series episode. Nick Meyer had the right idea; take a TV episode and use it as a springboard to a whole new story. STTMP was much less ambitious in just being a different iteration of the same story.

    As to the uniforms making sense…maybe but for me it just contributed the sterile feel of the picture that bothered me, but not, just as legitimately, you.

    And if I lived 20 miles from Captain Kirk’s hometown you can bet I’d have been there in a NY minute. Yes, I think I have now surpassed you in ST geekishness.

  14. Nick Meyers had the benefit of the first movie going boldly where no film had gone before. He also had the benefit of standing sets and stock footage. I like Meyers a lot, by the way. His book on his Hollywood experiences (with an emphasis on STAR TREK) is very good. He’s another University of Iowa Writers Workshop guy, but he was there a year or two ahead of me, and we never met. Smart, talented storyteller.

  15. Edmond D. Smith says:

    Yeah, Meyers is someone whose work I’ve very much enjoyed through the years. He seems to bring a writer’s sensibility to all his film work.

    On another subject: as I mentioned earlier I’ve got True Crime on deck as my next read. I just finished reading Public Enemies about a month ago so I’m really looking forward to your take on all those really colorful bad guys.

    Oh, and a question: any idea why Neon Mirage seems so much harder to get than all the other Nate Heller books? There seem to be few copies out there and those that are are pretty pricey.

  16. There seems to be some ebb and flow on the early Hellers. I’m told some TRUE CRIME copies are available now in the twenty-some buck range on Abe, and the price usually is closer to sixty or seventy-five. I think all TRUE DETECTIVE and STOLEN AWAY hardcover firsts are pricey, and also very tough is DYING IN THE POSTWAR WORLD.

    I wasn’t aware NEON MIRAGE had drifted into that category. I have a few extra copies if you anyone is interested in a signed one. Write me at

    Both the original paperbacks and the decade-later trade paperbacks of the first four Quarry novels are going very high, I understand.

  17. […] had a flurry of comments last week, after I attacked the film OLD DOGS (nobody defended it). Somehow it became a discussion about how […]