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Film Reviews

Spotlight on: Max Allan Collins

Films Reviewed:
Mommy written and directed by Max Allan Collins
Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market
written and directed by Max Allan Collins
Road to Perdition written by David Self, directed by Sam Mendes
from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

Max Allan Collins's Mommy
(available in Max Allan Collins' Black Box: Shades of Neo-Noir collection)

What if "the bad seed" grew up and had a daughter of her own? That's the question posed by this thriller written and directed by mystery novelist Max Allan Collins. Mommy stars Patty McCormack (Oscar-nominated as a young girl for her chilling role in the classic film The Bad Seed as a mother who will do anything for her daughter, Jessica Ann (Rachel Lemieux) ... including murder.

The acting is surprisingly good. Lemieux more than pulls her own weight with a subtlely layered performance (and narration) that truly carries the film. McCormack rightly plays it straight, even in the scenes of black humor, and it is obvious that her character truly loves her daughter, even if she shows it in unconventional ways. Also, keep an eye out for Sarah Jane Miller's scene-stealing performance as Miss Jones, the cocky, know-it-all janitor.

Parallels between Mommy and The Bad Seed are deliberate and fun for film fans, as are references to other horror films like The Shining and Halloween. Collins does well by his actors and crew with his reported one-million-dollar budget. He and director of photography / editor Philip W. Dingeldein know how to use colors, light, and darkness to set the mood and ratchet up the suspense, resulting in a fun little thriller with few pretentions.

To save money, Collins went the Dario Argento route by having his band Crusin' perform the rock songs on the soundtrack -- watch out for them during the dance scene with Collins on keyboards. Shot in and around Collins's hometown of Muscatine, Iowa, using locals as extras, the suspenseful script even offers a few twists and turns to keep it unpredictable.

Mommy also features a stellar cast, including Michael Cornelison (Lost in America), Jason Miller (The Exorcist), scream queen Brinke Stevens (Nightmare Sisters), Majel Barrett (just about every Star Trek manifestation), and even Mickey Spillane (creator of Mike Hammer) in a featured role.

The tenth anniversary DVD release (currently available only in the Max Allan Collins Black Box Collection: Shades of Neo-Noir) is digitally remastered and loaded with hours of extras, including a reading of the original short story that appeared in Fear Itself, edited by Jeff Gelb. Everything from the first DVD is here along with a brand new tenth-anniversary commentary with Collins and Dingeldein that discusses the parallels between Mommy and Road to Perdition, which was based on a graphic novel by Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.

Cover of Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market DVD Max Allan Collins' Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market
(also available in Max Allan Collins' Black Box: Shades of Neo-Noir collection)

Regular readers of this website will know that I've been on a huge Max Allan Collins kick lately, reading everything from his graphic novels to his historical mysteries to his CSI tie-in novels. But even I wouldn't have guessed that this would have carried me to buying a DVD of a movie directed by the man. But that's what Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market is, and that's not all.

Though distributed by the schlockmeisters at Troma (the studio behind the Toxic Avenger series of films), Real Time is anything but. Based on short fiction ("Inconvenience Store") starring Collins' Ms. Tree character, it is the story of a convenience store robbery gone awry. Former "scream queen" Brinke Stevens (Nightmare Sisters) stars as the pregnant woman with a secret who gets caught up in the fracas but manages to keep a cool head.

As a movie, it's quite good. The set is realistic (it was built from scratch!), the performances are solid (with only one actor going over the top), and director Collins often uses split-screen technologies to give us multiple views of the action. That the events were reported to have been filmed by surveillance cameras allows him to use grainy black and white and four-camera blocks to showcase the action from different perspectives simultaneously.

But it is as a DVD that Real Time really shines. You may or may not know that your DVD player has an option for multi-angle viewing because most DVDs do not take advantage of this. Even those that do only showcase it in a minor way (the only one I can even think of off the top of my head is the Beastie Boys DVD Video Anthology from the Criterion Collection). What this feature does is allow the viewer to switch views during playback, and Real Time takes true advantage of this feature, allowing an alternate view of every scene in the movie. At anytime during the movie, you can press the Angle button on your remote and get a different camera angle of the same scene you're watching. It allows you to be the director, in a limited sense; you could watch the movie over and over and never the same way twice.

But that's not all that awaits the savvy Real Time viewer. There are also several commentaries and interviews by the director and various cast and crew members as well as an audio version of the source story, an onscreen graphic novel of another story in the Ms. Tree canon (although you'll have to have a pretty big screen to be able to read the lettering), auditions, and deleted scenes. Also, unlike most DVDs, Collins has taken real care with the cast and crew bios, offering a look at the careers of most of the participants, not just the "stars." The creativity and imagination shown in the design and execution of Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market are sorely lacking in most DVD presentations of films by major studios. Buy a copy (it's relatively cheap for a disc this loaded) and support independent film innovators.

Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition

Sam Mendes' followup to the highly acclaimed, Academy Award–winning American Beauty, is the epitome of "style over substance." This makes sense, given that Road to Perdition is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, where the visuals are at least as important as the story, but it does not make for a very entertaining film.

Let me back up a bit. It was in fact a very entertaining film, it's just that when I think back on it, I don't remember anything but the visuals and a small bit of the intensity of Paul Newman's performance. Newman was himself nominated for an Oscar for this role, but I think that was because it is the best thing in the film, other than the cinematography--by the late Conrad L. Hall--which won.

Hall manages to make darkness pretty and, in turn, the light scenes are the most disturbing, as if he is throwing those in particular into sharp relief. How much Mendes was involved in these decisions (and how much came directly from Max Allan Collins' comic book) I do not know. All I know is that he fooled a lot of people into thinking that he had made a terrific film in Road to Perdition when all he did is make one that was better than anything playing in its vicinity.

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