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Max Allan Collins Black Box Collection: Shades of Neo-Noir

Troma // Unrated // January 24, 2006
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted February 21, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
While his name might not be well known among mainstream readers, Max Allan Collins is kind of a murder mystery cottage industry. He got his start writing for the long running Dick Tracy comic strip, eventually branching out into a series of books starring his own gumshoe, Chicago PI Nate Heller. He's written novelizations for major Hollywood films (Waterworld, Air Force One, and The Mummy, among others) and had success with several CSI tie-ins. Perhaps his most famous creation was the graphic novel Road to Perdition, which American Beauty director Sam Mendes turned into a successful film starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law.

He's even dabbled in moviemaking, and Troma - through its Roan Group deal - was lucky enough to secure the rights to his efforts. As part of the Max Allan Collins Black Box: Shades of Neo Noir, the Indie giant is offering three films - Mommy, Mommy's Day: Mommy 2 and Real Time: Siege at the Lucas Street Market - along with an anthology of shorts and a Collin's helmed documentary on ultimate hard boiled detective writer Mickey Spillane. While the films are a mixed lot, the look at crime fiction and one of its dominant authors is worth your time.

The Plot:
Since the product here is offered by disc, we will discuss the films in a similar manner, beginning with:

Mommy (1995) - When Jessica Ann is denied an important award at school, her Mommy won't stand for such injustice. She "speaks" to the teacher, who somehow winds up dead. Next to go is the school's janitor, who overheard the parent and teacher "talking". Before you know it, the bodies are piling up like cordwood - and Mommy seems to be the connection. Between an insurance investigator posing as a paramour and a dour police detective who thinks he's on the verge of trapping the murderous mater, this mother's murderous days may be over. But they don't know how determined she is, especially when her daughter is involved.

Mommy's Day: Mommy 2 (1997) - After escaping a date with the death penalty, Mommy is placed in an experimental program that uses anti-psychotic medications to suppress a killer's homicidal urges. Since it seems to work, Mommy is placed in a halfway house with strict instructions not to have any contact with her daughter. Distraught, Mommy tries to see Jessica Ann, but her sister Beth and the sibling's new husband won't allow it. It's not long before people who Mommy runs into wind up dead. But this time, the murdering mother may not be guilty. Indeed, someone might be framing her.

Elliot Ness: An Untouchable Life (2005) - An older, wiser Ness reflects on how he ended up as one of Prohibition's most notorious law enforcement officers.

A Matter of Principle (2003) - a hitman, retired from a life of killing, runs into one of his old mob cronies at a local convenience store. When he senses something is fishy, he follows the man, and learns of a plot to kidnap and hold for ransom the daughter of a famous businessman. Though he's given up the gun, Quarry might have to step in as a matter of personal ethics.

Three Women (2002) - one dead abusive boyfriend, three female relatives all confessing to the crime. It's up to a wily police detective to determine the connections, as well as who is telling the truth.

Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane - this documentary follows the career of one of America's greatest post-war writers. After a stint as a comic book scribe and four years in the service training WWII pilots, Spillane needed money to buy some land. He quickly converted a comic idea into a novel - I, the Jury - and got his minor advance. It sold so-so in hardcover, but it soared as a paperback. The tome introduced the world to the hardboiled detective Mike Hammer, and made Spillane a famous and wealthy man. Controversial at the time, the writer has gone on to become one of the genre's most beloved figures. Still, there are fascinating aspects of this man's persona, issues that seem in direct contradiction to his fictional characters. It all makes for an incredibly absorbing biography.

Real Time: Siege at the Lucas Street Market (2001) - a local convenience store becomes the scene of a hostage situation when a couple of cash-hungry dope heads break in, guns blazing. After a deadly accident, they end up surrounded by police. Taking several individuals captive, they bargain for their lives. All the while, one of the victims is planning. She seems to know a lot about police procedure, and even though she's pregnant, constantly stands up to the robbers. While it may take a miracle for everyone to come out of this alive, our know-it-all mom-to-be might just be the key to survival.

The DVD:
Troma really lucked into something here. Indeed, they probably couldn't have planned this situation any better. As part of The Roan Group, Max Allan Collins released his first film, the cult curiosity Mommy to mostly middling reviews. The year was 1999, and soon another DVD containing the films silly sequel, Mommy's Day: Mommy 2 arrived on shelves. Some hailed these homemade thrillers as a return to classic crime drama, while others snickered over the static narrative drive and occasional amateurish acting. Prior to 2002, these films were almost exclusively renowned as marking Patty "The Bad Seed" McCormick's return to glorified genre work. Mommy was even referred to as "an unauthorized sequel" to the aforementioned cinematic classic. In fact, the characters were totally different, and while the storyline follows Seed's somewhat, it's more like a serious slasher film than a psychological chiller. Aside from the presence of Jason "The Exorcist" Miller in Mommy, and Gary "WKRP in Cincinnati" Sandy in Mommy's Day, the cast was mostly has-beens (Paul Peterson) and ex-scream queens (Brinke Stevens).

All that changed though, when Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of American Beauty, announced that his follow-up film would be The Road to Perdition - an adaptation of a graphic novel created by - you guessed it, Max Allan Collins. Suddenly, the novelist was a name entity - and Troma had the rights to his directorial efforts. Adding a collection of short films, and a new DVD for the movie experiment Real Time: Siege at the Lucas Street Market, the company has capitalized on its connection to Collins and given him a chance to champion what he calls "neo-noir". Packaging all of his efforts into a nicely enhanced digital presentation, the rewards of the so-called Black Box are incredibly mixed. Sometimes, they are routine (Mommy) and retarded (Mommy 2). At other instances, they are interesting (Real Time), or downright intriguing (the Sin City like A Matter of Principle). Along with an excellent documentary on the life and career of mystery writer Mickey Spillane, this is an enlightening collection. It shows us a side of popular culture that is more or less forgotten (though shows like CSI thrive today) while presenting Collins' creative takes on certain styles and narrative types. Not everything here is successful, but there is more good than bad.

Let's briefly look at everything offered here, thereby allowing you to make up you own mind about the package's overall value. Let's start with:

Mommy (Score: **):
All praise Patty McCormick. As the sole reason to sit through this mundane, mediocre movie, the grown-up actress who once wowed audiences as the ultimate evil child hasn't lost a single beat of her badass persona. As the title character in this occasionally clever homage to a certain 'Seed', Ms. McCormick shines, making her painfully obvious turn as a murderous mother a master class on villainy. Never missing a note, she can send shivers down your spine with just a single look, and while her character arc is rather one-dimensional, she enlivens the role with wit, vitality and sass. Too bad Collins couldn't find compatriots to compare. Certainly there are elements here that work (parts of Seed's plot show up, making one snicker in recognition) but, for the most part, the cast hampers the film's effectiveness. Jason Miller is all jowls, while Brinke Stevens attempts to emote through her severe eyebrows. Local actors Rachel Lemieux and Michael Cornelison are professional but perfunctory, adding nothing exciting to the story. Collins cobbles together a few clichés, processes them through his love of classic film formula, and comes up with a slow, scare-free tribute to the terror of the past. With limited killings, very little blood, and an ending that's as anticlimactic as Seed's deus ex machina death, Mommy is little more than a minor effort.

Mommy's Day: Mommy 2 (Score *&1/2):
If you thought Mommy was deliberately paced, you haven't seen a slow narrative until you wonder over into this staid sequel's territory. While McCormick is still a pip, the rest of this film is a flop. Collins makes two major mistakes here, fatal for any filmmaker. First, he shows his hand, keeping the identity of the killer a secret until the film's finale. Since we knew Mommy was responsible the first time around, this tactic tells us to look elsewhere for our killer. Second, by turning his anti-heroine into a pseudo-sympathetic character, the movie loses all of its moxie. We want to root for McCormick to kick butt and draw blood, but as a nut case under medical "control", she's just sad. This means Mommy's Day has to rely on the rest of the cast to carry it along, and they are not up to it. Lemieux is back, and Cornelison returns as a completely new character. With Jason Miller off the case, Gary Sandy proves that 70s sitcom success is bad for the goiter as he bloats his way through a scattered performance as a cop hot on Mommy's case. The first death doesn't happen until almost an hour in, and when the rest do finally occur, they are so wrapped in mystery as to be ineffective. Way too restricted and subtle to a fault, this film fails in all the ways that Mommy almost succeeds. Not the best advertisement for Collins' film craft, if the truth be told.

Elliot Ness: An Untouchable Life (Score: **):
Cornelison is back again, this time playing Ness in a reflective, pensive mode. This one man mini-movie (about five minutes, tops) tells an intriguing story - how Ness became one of the Untouchables - but stops just as the account is getting good. While the set design, lighting and compositions are all interesting, there is just not enough here to warrant more than a parting glance.

A Matter of Principle (Score ***1/2)
One of the best entries in this entire box set, and it wasn't even directed by Collins. Instead, Jeffrey Goodman helmed this entertaining, engaging look at a hitman making a sort of moral stand. Quarry, as a character, is highly reminiscent of several Sin City icons - call him a combination of Mickey Rourke's Marv with just a splash of Bruce Willis's John Hartigan. The narrative is perfectly realized, the atmosphere taut, yet playful. In the lead, unknown actor William Makozak is astounding. He is perfect for the role and brings a kind of world-weary resolve to what is really a repugnant individual. The storyline - written by Collins - is filled with unseen twists (the finale) and creative character turns (gay mobsters???) and the whole enterprise feels open and complete. With the success of Robert Rodriguez's take on Frank Miller's work, it's surprising that something so similar like Quarry has not been optioned. He would make a stellar franchise figure all his own.

Three Women (Score: **):
Part of the problem here is the brief running time. Another issue is the lack of a clear resolution. While the idea that three women would all confess to the same crime can be interesting, Collins does virtually nothing with it. This is really nothing more than three actresses getting a chance to show their chops. They are all very good, considering the limited material they are working with. Collins constant Cornelison is here again, playing drippy DeNiro to his director's stumbling Scorsese. If it had been fleshed out, it could have been fun. As its stands, it's only an oddity.

Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane (Score: ****):
With someone as inherently interesting as Spillane, Collins could hardly go wrong, and he doesn't fail here. This delightful documentary gives us a chance to hear the aging author speak for himself, as well as listen to a myriad of contemporaries sing his potent praises. There is no doubt now of Spillane's place in the annals of writing, but during his heyday, he was everything from a cruel corrupting influence on the youth of America to a hack illiterate who was destroying the novel as art form. Watching him get the last laugh, proving that his tough as nails character Mike Hammer isn't too far from his own prickly persona, Spillane is a stitch. His rules on writing are hilarious, as are his takes on the film's made of his work. This pulp pioneer has an intriguing private side as well. Deeply religious (he's a Jehovah's Witness, of all things) and family oriented, Spillane is a contradiction in individualistic terms. It is something this documentary establishes with refreshing frankness and detail.

Real Time: Siege of the Lucas Street Market (Score: ***):
Though it fails to fully live up to its intriguing presentation premise (a convenience store robbery gone wrong as seen through surveillance footage and press coverage) Real Time is still a mildly entertaining 72 minutes. Featuring what is rapidly becoming a Collins' repertoire company (Cornelison, Lemieux and Brinke Stevens are all back) and utilizing its unique approach to capture a mood of authenticity, Real Time establishes itself quickly, fizzles in the middle, and tries to rebound at the end. It almost works. Part of the problem here is that the second act (once the siege is in full panic mode) feels INCREDIBLY scripted. Characters say lines that sound false, or worse yet, completely inappropriate for the setting. They send the entire narrative into a tailspin of speciousness from which it never fully recovers. Stevens is saddled with saving the film, and since she's not an A-list talent (though she is excellent here) it's too much of a burden to bear. Without compelling criminals to root against (our unknown actors are all screams and shouts) or heroes to hang on to (our captives are mostly self-interested non-entities), we are left with the cinematic gimmick. Granted, it is pretty good, but it's not enough to carry the entire project. While it looks authentic, Real Time just sounds staged. And nothing destroys an atmosphere of dread faster than falseness.

Overall, Collins can be credited for being true to his genre concerns. This is a man who truly adores the notion of crime drama and its various connotations and interpretations. Still, his fact film on Mickey Spillane is by far the most successful "movie" he's made. The rest of his oeuvre is as fractured as the light pouring in from a partially opened Venetian blind. While classic film noir is easy to recognize, calling this collection of offerings "Neo-Noir" seems a little presumptuous. Only Quarry's tale of inverse redemption contains anything remotely similar to those golden oldie cinematic standards, and since we don't know what the new ideal is comprised of, we are stuck trying to decipher it from the other offerings here. Obviously, there is a reliance on pulp dialogue and melodrama. Characters are carved out of archetypal elements and given the merest modern twist to appear current. There is no real control of composition, and artistic framing or lighting are not necessary. Indeed, what makes up 'neo-noir' remains a mystery after looking over the content of the Black Box. Max Allan Collins has made a real name for himself in a genre that most writers avoid, and most reader's feel is outdated and off-putting. Nothing here - not his work with McCormick's Mommy, his video camera vérité, or his suspense shorts - can alter that perception. Collins is obviously better as adapted, than adapter. This Black Box is interesting, but ultimately uneventful.

The Video:
As with all low budget film production, different eras and available technology determine the quality of transfers. Mommy and Mommy 2 are offered in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen images that, while professional, give away their Super VHS camcorder creation. The lack of detail is disturbing - sometimes we see things clearly, other times the visuals are marred by a foggy, fuzzy quality. The picture is near perfect in the Shades of Neo-Noir collection. All are, once again, non-anamorphic, but Three Women and Elliot Ness look excellent. There is some substantial grain during A Matter of Principle, but it does add a kind of grittiness to the presentation. The Mickey Spillane documentary is a crystal clear 1.33:1 full screen video transfer while Real Time: Siege of the Lucas Street Market fluctuates between a 4X3 presentation and an image doubling split screen that gives the false impression of some manner of letterboxing. Still, the picture is near perfect, with the only draw back being the lack of compositional elements like medium shots and close-ups. The strict shooting situation does mar the movie, but this is supposed to be computer-enhanced surveillance camera material, so some forgiveness is warranted.

The Audio:
Though the music can occasionally override everything happening in these films, the Dolby Digital Stereo for each one delivers decipherable dialogue and a minor ambience of dread. Naturally, Real Time is the best, with the talking head tenets of Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane a close second. Everything else runs the gamut, from great (A Matter of Principle) to good (the Mommy movies).

The Extras:
Frankly, you couldn't ask for more, and if you did Troma wouldn't have any space on these discs to include them. Each film is fully fleshed out with commentaries, behind the scenes featurettes, interviews, audio elements, galleries, trailers, deleted scenes, outtakes and plenty of other added content. Perhaps it's best to deal with each disc separately, and get a brief idea of what is offered here. Let's start with:

We begin with a 1996 commentary featuring Collins, McCormick, Lemieux Crew member Greg Ballard, Director of Photography Phil Dingledein and Producer Jim Hoffman, and as with all the commentaries here, this one is filled with detail and very anecdotal. The participants are more than eager to share their trials and tribulations with the home audience. The 2005 Commentary featuring Collins and Dingledein is more production-oriented, focusing on sets, locations, and working with the cast. A 1995 clip from Entertainment Tonight gives us a chance to see how the film was marketed, while an interview featurette from a local Iowa PBS station paints Collins as the hometown hero he is. A 'Behind the Scenes' Featurette on the making-of the movie is filled with backstage intrigue, while the blooper reel proves that everyone screws up, now and then. Add a photo gallery, a series of trailers and two audio-only features - one offering the original short story read by Max Allan Collins, another centering on the soundtrack for the film from the band Cruisin' - and you've got a fully loaded DVD.

Mommy's Day: Mommy 2
Similarly, this 1997 Commentary featuring Collins, McCormick, Lemieux Crew member Greg Ballard, and Director of Photography Phil Dingledein is fun, fascinating and full of on-set stories and production pitfalls. More information in this area can be found in the 2005 Commentary featuring Collins and Dingledein. The real find here is a 35 minute interview featurette entitled "A Conversation with Max Allan Collins and Patty McCormick". The famed child star reminisces about her early success, her lack of opportunities in the industry, and what drew her to "genre" work once again. Along with a photo gallery and another set of trailers, this disc is jam packed with product.

Shades of Neo Noir:
For this title, Collins and Dingledein provide a full length commentary, going into extensive detail about how their short films were realized. Director Jeffrey Goodman is featured extensively as part of a wonderfully in-depth featurette on "The Making of A Matter of Principle". Lasting almost 40 minutes, it's a very thorough overview of bringing Collins' Quarry to the screen. Along with an audio feature: Mickey Spillane as Mike Hammer in Tonight, My Love (an old radio show) we get a trailer for I, The Jury and a real rarity, a look at an old TV pilot entitled. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. It stars Brian Keith - who is very good - and was written and directed by Blake Edwards.

Real Time: Siege at the Lucas Street Market:
Perhaps the most overflowing package in the entire set, this DVD's bonuses begin with three (3!) commentaries. One is called an actor commentary and features Brinke Stevens, Larry Coven, Tom Keane, and Chris Christensen (the film's composer). It's loaded with onset stories and starry eyes. Collins delivers his usual detailed director's discussion while the alternative narrative track featuring crewmembers Collins, Dingledien, Ballard, Producer Jeff High, Joe Collins, and Matt Clemens is very hands on, providing a blow by blow description of the filmmaking. In addition, you can utilize your players remote to access a multi-angle function for the film. This allows you to shuttle between surveillance cameras and pick up different aspects of the story. There are also deleted scenes and alternate takes, audition excerpts, trailers, another interview featurette from a local Iowa PBS station, a Ms. Tree comic story and audio-only offerings including a reading of the short story "Inconvenience Store" and a isolated film soundtrack option. All in all, another overflowing disc of digital goodness.

Final Thoughts:
Though the movies here are, for the most part, fair to middling, the Max Allan Collins Black Box: Shades of Neo Noir gets a Recommended rating, due in no small part to the overwhelming amount of material here. Collins may be locked in a niche which many can't fathom, but the faithful will rejoice at his hardboiled ways and throwback designs. This is a writer who remembers the days when detective stories defined pulp fiction, when private dicks had broads for secretaries/girlfriends, guzzled liquor like it was well water and manhandled the shady, well off dames in distress who hired them. He loves the moral ambiguity, the corruption of good and the redemption of evil. He stresses story over character and, on occasion, persona over plot. From a strictly cinematic standpoint, his films are rather unsuccessful, offering none of the bite or bravado that similar works by Tarantino and Rodriguez seem to provide in payloads. Still, if you're looking for someone who honors instead of rips off the past, if you believe in a more subtle form of suspense, if true crime to you is not gore and gratuity but staccato beats between equally crooked characters, the Black Box will satisfy your nominal noir needs. Neo or not, this is a tribute to a truly American art form. Too bad it couldn't be better where it counts - in the cinematic entertainment value.

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