So Long, Christmas! Hello Blue Christmas!

December 26th, 2023 by Max Allan Collins

I am writing this on Christmas Day 2023, still in the warm glow of a Christmas Eve with Barb, wherein party mix, little smokies in BBQ sauce, and champagne – combined with our annual gift-giving and a screening of A Christmas Story – added up to a wonderful evening.

The only drawback was not having our family (son Nate, daughter-in-law Abby and two grandkids, eight-year-old Sam and five-year-old Lucy) here to celebrate with us. They are in Texas with Abby’s family (we had an early “Christmas” with them a few days ago, before they headed out) and we missed them. But there’s something to be said for a couple sharing a cozy Christmas Eve.

Still, I hope next Christmas will be the usual family affair.

And I also hope next Christmas there will be a Blu-ray (or access via a streaming service) (or even a theatrical screening) of my latest film, Blue Christmas. This not-at- all lavishly budgeted feature has been completed by editor/producer Chad Bishop and myself, with our fellow producer Phil Dingeldein due to come down to Muscatine later this week for a look at the finished product and a final okay.

I returned, after a long absence, to indie filmmaking after last year’s Encore for Murder, the Gary Sandy-starring Mike Hammer Golden Age Radio style play that we shot and edited into something that might be called a movie. Whatever it is, it’s out on DVD from VCI Home Entertainment, and as a special feature on VCI’s Blu-ray of my expanded documentary, Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane. Both Encore and Spillane are also available on VUDU and Amazon Prime for streaming.

The Encore for Murder experience is what prompted me to get back into the indie game, and I’m glad I did because I’m proud of our little movie, Blue Christmas, and hope it will join the favorites on many of your Christmas Season video viewing lists next year at this time.

We are waiting for word from a video distributor (who had expressed a strong interest in the project) and I should know soon whether Blue Christmas will be available on Blu-ray and on streaming services before long or whether it will wait in the wings till next Christmas season. That will be up to the distributor. I do know we’re doing a handful of festivals early this coming year (tomorrow, as I write this!) (the year, not the festivals).

I have enjoyed collaborating with editor Chad and director of photography Phil on this project, as well as our talented cast, many of whom appeared in Encore. Our top-billed stars are Rob Merritt – a mainstay of Iowa independent film – and Alisabeth Von Presley, who appeared on both American Idol and American Songwriting Contest on network television. Also above the title is Chris Causey, who appeared as Norman Baker in Chad Bishop’s The Man in Purple. Very hardcore fans of mine may recall that real-life “cancer quack” Baker was the fictionalized subject of my early novel, No Cure for Death. That both Chad and I did projects about Baker indicates why we are kindred spirits.

Chad’s short, ambitious film can be seen here.

Chris Causey also appears as Mike Hammer’s cop pal, Pat Chambers, in Encore for Murder.

* * *

As is the case with a lot of physical media collectors, I usually buy a Blu-ray – or lately a 4K disc – of any movie I’ve enjoyed seeing in a theater. In last week’s update I discussed the 4K’s of the new Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible movies. Since then we’ve watched at home Oppenheimer and The Equalizer 3 on 4K, having seen and liked them at the Palms Theater here in Muscatine.

Of the four movies mentioned above, the least discussed – the least taken seriously – is The Equalizer 3. On our second viewing of all four, I would rate The Equalizer 3 highest. I realize that’s not a popular view. And perhaps this very Spillane-derived film is one I would be destined to like, even prejudiced to rate highly, since it’s essentially a Mike Hammer vengeance reworking. But I would argue its direction and acting (particularly Denzel Washington and Elle Fanning) are superior examples of the craft. And the script is assembled as if by a Swiss watchmaker.

On second viewing, Oppenheimer continues to impress but the experience is now less overwhelming and its flaws start to reveal themselves. Christopher Nolan’s insistence on shuffling the narrative deck – which flashback am I in now, or is this a flashforward? – reveals the pretentious flaw in this gifted craftsman’s approach. He must be celebrated for getting terrific performances from all concerned. But the narrative’s weaknesses – ironically concealed somewhat by that pretentious deck-shuffling – are jarring.

What weaknesses am I talking about?

The depiction of Oppenheimer’s married life should either have been left out or depicted more fully. The worst realized character is Oppenheimer’s wife, Emily Blunt. The film indicates its protagonist’s womanizing without to any degree explaining it. The wife’s inclusion seems almost grudging.

More problematic is the structure. The last third of the film abandons Oppenheimer as protagonist and focuses on the efforts to paint him a left-wing risk by Lewis Stauss, well-portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. The daunting length of the film is unnecessary – this whole final section could have been replaced by one of those cards that briefly discuss the ramifications that followed a preceding film. Making your protagonist a bystander for the last third of the movie is incredibly bad storytelling.

Is Oppenheimer a bad movie? No. It is worthwhile and intermittently brilliant. But badly flawed.

On the other hand – and I realize I am to some degree comparing apples and oranges – The Equalizer 3 tells its story in a straight-forward yet bold manner. It waits until the very end of the movie to reveal what motivated its hero to undertake his righteous mission. It makes the stakes that hero faces high indeed, endangering the very people he hopes to protect; but it resists giving us cheap-shot deaths of those people, just to throw more gasoline on the vengeance fire. This director – Antonine Fuqua – deserves the kind of attention someone, like, say, Christopher Nolan is getting.

I liked all four of these movies, by the way. I just think Oppenheimer is the most overrated of the four. And of course it has an obvious weight over the likes of Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible. But a traditional narrative well-crafted, like The Equalizer 3, that accomplishes what it sets out to do will always please me more than one whose self-importance and ambition overwhelm the final product.

Let me say, too, a filmmaker who has never had to deal with a huge budget and all the difficulties that come with it, should tread lightly. I recognize the accomplishment of all four directors and their screenwriters – the degree of difficulty is immense.

I always hesitate to criticize movies, and I never criticize novels. Doing so lacks grace coming from a fellow storyteller. So I avoid discussing novels here, and don’t take money for my film opinions, having turned down opportunities to write reviews professionally; some may recall that I once wrote the Mystery Scene movie review column but stepped down after experiencing actually working on a film. This blog is the only place I allow myself to express these personal cinematic opinions, which I share with the readers who are good enough to follow my fiction and drop by here.

The next time I write you good people it will be, astonishingly, 2024.

* * *

The great J. Kingston Pierce, at the indispensable Rap Sheet, has chosen both Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction by Jim Traylor and me, and Too Many Bullets as among his best books of 2023.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “So Long, Christmas! Hello Blue Christmas!”

  1. Jordan says:

    I respect the Nolan brothers for their intelligence but they do get too wrapped up in that sort of puzzle-box storytelling. The Prestige and HBO’s WestWorld are intriguing thought experiments but it’s hard to get a lock on the characters in a way that gets us to sympathize with them. I always liked how you prioritize getting into the characters’ heads and giving us something to relate to!

  2. Jeff says:

    I don’t think you’ve mentioned that the latest Ms. Tree collection is out. That seems weird because you usually give some info on all your books as they come out. Also, how many books will it take to finish the series?

  3. Bill P says:

    My family came through with an “Encore for Murder” DVD under the tree! Looking forward to viewing it with my wife. Of the movies you mentioned, I’ve only seen Dial of Destiny and enjoyed it. Not sure why it faced such a stiff critical headwind, but I felt it was a better end to the series than perhaps Crystal Skull would have been. Also see how it could be a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series starring the Helena Shaw character, Indy’s goddaughter, similar to how the Creed series spun off from Rocky, but became its own success. It was great to see Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies return for their curtain calls as well. I just went with my kids to the new “Wonka” movie and found it fun and lightly uplifting.

    I think it is admirable you choose not to critique other people’s work here. I’ve always found the work of the critic a bit strange. While I might find someone that has similar tastes than me, we are all still our own unique blend of experiences. Perhaps something hits a chord with one and not another. What I don’t like is some of the unnecessary mean-spiritedness that has been used by some critics in the past to lambaste something they don’t like. There is always the adage that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. If you give glowing reviews of the things you like, then the glaring omission of certain other works being reviewed should be enough of a tipoff that it might not hit as hard. I think even more so these days, critics driven by page views court controversy by going against the grain as an anti-influencer. There should be enough space in the tent for all.

  4. My favorite Christopher Nolan movie is Dunkirkk Jordan.

    Jeff, I’ve dealt with the new MS. TREE archival volume in later posts. I believe we have one more to go.

    I slip sometimes and critique people here (rarely) and in public (in interviews, where I just get talking and don’t edit myself enough). But I haven’t written a print review in a long time — the last time I succumbed was my column in ASIAN CULT CINEMA.