Saturday, January 28, 2012

Movie Watch 2012: The Dirty Dozen

It's not that I hadn't seen The Dirty Dozen (1967).  I watched it on VHS back in 7th grade or so, and I remember sort of liking it, but the fact that its paced a bit slower than action movies of the 1980's meant that it didn't engage me as much as, say, Commando.  Since then, I've seen bits and pieces of the movie on cable, and, of course, the premise of the movie has been copied and borrowed from so often, as well as the idea of a rag-tag-bunch-of-ne'er-do-wells-think-outside-the-box-and-that's-why-they're-successful has been copied in everything from Suicide Squad comics to the Police Academy series.

this is not dissimilar to how I deal with new employees

Watching the movie now is fascinating as I know a bit more of the talent in the movie.   Not just Bronson, Borgnine, Telly Savalas and Lee Marvin.  Robert Ryan, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown and others are in the film.  Its a real all-star fest.

As far as war pictures go, its a product of its time, reveling in the scrappy outsiders, but not quite celebrating them in the way we'd see in Kelly's Heroes by 1970, who were in the war for fun and profit.*

With such a large cast of soldiers, some played by stars, some not, all convicted criminals (not a spoiler, ya'll), it also fits in neatly with the sort of movie where anyone could go at any minute, which ups the ante when it comes to the tension of the flick.  Sure, some of these guys you aren't going to feel too badly if they go, but it all feels a bit like a suicide mission from the outset, so....

*I'm a Kelly's Heroes fan, by the way.  Terrific movie.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Signal Watch Reads: Superman #5

Superman #5
writer - George Pérez
penciller - Nicola Scott
inker - Trevor Scott
colorist - Brett Smith
letterer - Rob Leigh
cover - George Pérez & Brian Buccellato
associate editor - Wil Moss, editor - Matt Idleson

It seems like its been a good long while since I've talked Superman.  Not that anyone cares, but...  anyway.

Movie Watch 2012: The Trip

I'd been recommended the movie The Trip (2010) by a good pal who doesn't actually read this site, and so I should lie and say I selected the movie on my own.  We started watching the movie at his place two weeks ago, but I finally finished it last night on Netflix streaming.

Its a small, inexpensive movie from the UK featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and frankly, despite the fact that Mangum has very good taste in movies, I was skeptical.  The movie is about two actors named Steve and Rob (ahem) who go on a road trip through northern England.  The set-up is that Steve is writing an article about his trip for a UK publication, intending to bring his American girlfriend, but who departs for the States just before the trip (possibly ending their relationship).

Its a movie of First World Problems, and those of successful entertainers, but it still manages to keep the protagonists sympathetic both by making their problems sympathetic and basically relatable (and doesn't suggest Coogan, in particular, is exactly a victim).    Most curiously, the movie manages to balance out how the same things that make the two as popular as they are is both hilarious at times and flat out irritating at others, as is spending time in such close proximity for such a long time to someone you know so well.

The movie has large swaths of what I assume was improvised.  Its worth noting that the crew on this has worked together before, and clearly felt comfortable pushing one another both for better content and for some awkward moments.

Coogan's grappling with what is seeming like a near-miss of a huge career is contrasted against Brydon's apparent contentment, and what could have been a bit of oddly self-serving narrative actually works better than you'd think.  Coogan has had a less than hugely successful career in the US, including a smaller role in Tropical Thunder and in his starring turn in the not-great Hamlet 2.  One can't help but wonder exactly how much of this movie is just... is this just these two guys hanging out and letting someone film them in various scenarios?

Whether that's the focus of the movie or if we're to simply enjoy the banter, I'm not entirely sure.  Its not a life-changing film, but its very clever and occasionally outright funny.

I don't usually talk endings of movies, and I won't here other than to say that if you're going to make a movie about First World Problems, make sure it at least feels as if there's a point by the end.  This movie actually pulls that off pretty well, I think.

Noir Watch Extra: Tension

Between movies, we had a bit of downtime, and so Doug and I joined Jenifer at her swanky apartment where we watched a B-Noir, Tension (1949).

Before we get any further, I had never been less sympathetic to any noir character than I was to Richard Basehart as Warren Quimby, a man who has a dilemma at one point in the movie of picking between Audrey Totter and Cyd Charisse.  Go to hell, Basehart.

Tension probably has its roots in someone reading or seeing The Postman Always Rings Twice and the pot boiler melodramas of the era.  Postman had been adapted in 1946, and while there are limited similarities, you can see that the characters are sort of pushing around what the characters did when and why.  The movie also lifts from Superman comics and Charles Atlas ads, and so one must tip their hat to the writers and director for borrowing from the best.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Noir City Special! "Laura" and "Bedelia"

On my final night in San Francisco I joined Lauren (a trooper for making it out though still weak from several days of illness), Doug, Kristen, Morgan and (of course) Jenifer for a double feature of Laura (1944) and British noir film, Bedelia (1946).

It was an interesting contrast between the two movies, and I haven't seen all that much British noir.  Really, aside from Brighton Rock a year and a half ago, not much else pops immediately to mind.

Laura, of course, I'd seen before a few times (I own it on DVD), and I've covered it here before in brief.

On this viewing, I particularly appreciated Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker.  Webb plays the role pitch-perfect as the effete, urbane and witty sophisticate, perhaps at home at the Algonquin Round Table.  With a house full of fans of the film, it was a lot of fun.

It still feels like a rather small movie, and there's no hint of the war-time release, but its still an effective picture.  Further, its not a movie that leans too heavily on Laura's place as a woman making her helpless from a financial perspective, which seems right for the time.  She may have received a break from Waldo, but she earns her place in the advertising world, and, in fact, its the towering Vincent Price who weasels for money, unable to support himself.

Noir City Special! Noir Watch: "The Killers" and "Point Blank"

On Saturday night, the Noir City festival scheduled two films from the 1960's, both starring Angie Dickinson and Lee Marvin.  Angie Dickinson appeared as a special guest and we all got to enjoy Eddie Muller's interview conducted on stage.  I am happy to say that Ms. Dickinson lived up to the hype.

This year's Noir City programming strayed into (gasp) some color-era films, which immediately raises eyebrows and draws some suspicion regarding whether its true noir, at least partly because the societal forces that drove the era most thought of as noir were now passing into the rearview mirror.  By the 1960's, we'd had World War II and Korea, and were headed for Vietnam, but the US was firing on all cylinders economically.  But the underlying questions of the corruption caused by wealth (or opportunity for wealth), and the irrational things a guy will do for the wrong girl seemed as universal as ever.

The Killers (1964) is, ostensibly, based upon the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name, but is really based upon the 1946 film starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.  Only the barest hints of the original short story remain, and the template of two intimidating thugs shaking down unprepared chumps wasn't exactly fresh by 1964.

Still, the movie works in all the ways it should as a competent heist movie.  As mentioned, the film stars Marvin as one of the pair of contract killers and Dickinson as the love interest of John Cassevetes as the film's protagonist.  In the world of seeing things you thought you'd never see, the first shot of Ronald Reagan* as Jack Browning (Reagan's final film role) paired with a pre-Mr. Roper Norman Fell as his thuggish companion drew an audible reaction from the audience at The Castro.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Someone at DC Comics realized you can use the images of heroes to do more than sell t-shirts

Something that has long bothered me about superhero comics and their fans (and very often their creators) has been how disconnected the industry is from doing anything that isn't completely self-interested.  Its an oddity of superhero fandom that this genre, which began with the concept of someone using their talents altruistically so infrequently seems to capable of leveraging the ideals of their characters in either their own business or in public dealings.

Of course the media-saturated generation of which I suppose I am a part has decided the way to help is to become a costumed crime-fighter/ person who wears a costume and parades around (aka: The Reals) instead of just cutting a check to the Red Cross.

The only person I have personally met who has merged the two ideas is Austin's Jarrett Crippen, aka: The Defuser, who used his win on Stan Lee's Who Wants to be a Superhero? to promote his charity work with groups like Scare for a Cure.

Well, DC Entertainment apparently has signed on to work with a program called We Can Be Heroes that is an umbrella project to work with several groups fighting hunger in the Horn of Africa.  You can see the site, but be aware that music will play automatically (and, curiously, not the Bowie song).

Giving now will mean DC Entertainment will match your donation by 100%.  I tip my hat.

Yes, cynically you can say that DC is looking to promote their characters, but whatever the case, they are trying to do something other than just turn a dollar.  Its a step toward remembering that these are characters who represent goodwill and assistance for others, and that you don't just punch away every problem.  If putting Superman and Aquaman on a coffee mug is what it takes to promote awareness and drive funding for the organization, I'm all for it.

Noir City Guest Post! Jenifer talks "Gilda" and "The Money Trap"

Hey Signal Corps!  Jenifer has offered to provide commentary on films during the remainder of the Noir City Festival.  I'll be posting her musings as she sends them in.  Hope you enjoy.

Tonight, Noir City offered the best of Rita Hayworth, in Gilda (1946), and her not-so-best, The Money Trap (1965). Both pair her with Glenn Ford, and show the chemistry the two had on screen even after 20 years.

Gilda is well known and documented, but for those who don't know, Gilda was a vehicle for Rita Hayworth that established her as a love (sex) goddess. It's an example of how producers worked around the strict Production Code enforced on movies at the time. In Gilda, the sexual symbolism is everywhere, and the innuendo beautifully done.

The Money Trap is an odd little film starring Glenn Ford. He plays a cop married to the young, beautiful, and once-rich Elke Sommer. They aren't rich anymore, but they "live rich". Investigating what looks like a burglary where the home-owner shot the burglar, he is tipped off to a safe full of money. Encouraged by his equally money-driven partner, Ricardo Montalban, the two plan to break into the safe themselves. 

Rita Hayworth plays a long-time childhood friend and girlfriend of Ford's, married to the burglar who was killed. Though shockingly presented, it's clear that her character is meant to be run-down and aged, drinking too much, married to a crook, and waiting tables in a bar. She was 47, practically an elderly woman by movie and social standards of the time. It's a shame she wasn't that age now, when women in their forties are still seen as beautiful and even sexy.

Innuendo does not exist in this film. Everything is stated plainly, as that had become more acceptable in film. Rita has the best line. While she and Ford reminisce in a car, he tells her the time they were together on the roof of her building was his first. She says, "I know. You acted like you just discovered America." Later when they reconnect she calls him Columbus. 

It may be time for creators to push back a bit against the bosses at the Big 2

Before the new year, I had been pondering a bit upon the power the internet has placed in the hands of comics creators.

Since the 90's, creators have had the forum of the internet to reach and build small communities around themselves.  And, also since the 1990's, the creator has become arguably as important in the day-to-day world of superhero comics than the characters themselves, and outside of superheroes, creator is king.  Its a massive shift from the Silver Age during which most stories didn't receive an attribution of artist or writer.

I am not certain all creators have used the web terribly well.  Its pretty clear some creators just didn't and don't get how far their comments can spread, or understand that what they say is semi-permanent, once its out there.  And, of course, some have chosen to hole up and build an online cult of personality, and that's just weird, John Byrne.

The comics industry is a very, very small world, especially once you're working for the Big 2.  And, of course, once you're at the Big 2, there really aren't a lot of places to go where sales will be as high based solely upon who is publishing your book.

I'm thinking today, specifically, of an article posted at Comics Alliance (but something I'd heard from Jordan Gibson via Twitter), about how Static Shock, a book I was thrilled to see coming, arrived with such a lead thud and how writer John Rozum seemed to blame until he decided to go ahead and clear the air and tell the public what had occurred behind the scenes.

Rozum's post is a good read, if you've the time.

I hadn't liked the issue of Static Shock I read with the New 52 relaunch, and I can see now how a lot of what I found lacking occurred.

This is the second event of this sort this year that I can think of wherein a writer did not follow the script we usually see.  The script is usually either silence or a statement about bad luck, unfortunate circumstances, etc... but few will flat out say what has gone wrong.

I am returned (and discuss a bit about why this was fun)

No matter what they do to make flying better, its still stressful.  I am well aware they put bars in airports for a reason, but I never drink while flying, just in case they need me to take over in the cockpit.

I had an absolutely terrific time in San Francisco, helped along by Jenifer, Doug, Kristen, Lauren and non-Signal Corps member, Morgan.  I am not sure if I mentioned the SF Sketchfest, but Doug got us to RiffTrax Live, and it surpassed any expectations I had.  Our hosts were Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, but we also had guests such as Eugene Mirman, Bruce McCulloch, David Cross and Paul F. Tompkins.  Not bad.

I am still pondering many of the geographical, historical and cultural differences between San Francisco and Austin.  I have to tip my hat to the city, but I have always been most comfortable here in Waterloo, warts and all.  But we could certainly learn from San Fran.

I've been thinking a bit about the difference between something like the Noir City Film Noir Festival and the fact that Austin has SXSW, and the difference is that Austin's festivals, Fantastic Fest included, are really industry shows.  You can buy a pass for SXSW, but its a pass to get into things that people with the industry badges won't fill up.  Consequently, you tend to hear people telling you about this great documentary they saw about Peruvian peanut farmers or whatever, but there's not much in the way of just celebrating film.  Its all about selling films.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Noir City Special: We Crash Dashiell Hammett's Apartment

So, more than once I mentioned that Jenifer had lined up something highly unusual for my visit to San Francisco that was going to be a real topper for the trip out.

She told me ahead of time that she'd gotten this set up, but it didn't make any sense at the time.  After having spent a few days with Jenifer, I now get that she's just one of those people who has the near-magical ability to make things work.

Its also worth mentioning that Jenifer figured out from looking at pictures that she lives across the street from the recently renovated former apartment of pulp hero, Dashiell Hammett.

The story around the apartment itself is kind of amazing, and involves sleuthing on the part of his truest fans.  Its true Hammett lived in multiple buildings, but by looking at return addresses on envelopes from letters, descriptions of Sam Spade's apartment in The Maltese Falcon and a few other contextual clues, they've narrowed it down and figured out that this was the apartment Hammett resided at for a few years in San Francisco, and when he wrote The Maltese Falcon.

I'm still not entirely clear on how Jenifer made the contact, but this morning we met up with one of the organizers of Noir City, who had been one of those investigators and who had lived in the apartment himself and did a lot of renovations.  I won't go into specifics, but basically the apartment is now a very weird spot.  Nobody lives there, and its a residential building, so there are no tours.  Essentially its supported by a philanthropist who pays the rent and maintenance and the place sits empty most days except for an occasional tour like ours or a walking tour.

Jenifer models next to the plaque talking about Hammett outside the security door.
The building is down the street from my hotel, as well.  And one thing I've learned in my short stay is that behind a lot of these facades, there's something going on or some crazy history in a lot of these buildings you wouldn't guess walking by, be it a famous author's former residence, or a secret stash of vintage cars or swimming pools by big doors.

Just inside the doorway
It doesn't seem that anybody was really aware of the building's history until the last 20 years, and so the apartment had to be basically re-done to match the original decor.  The building went up in 1917, and so Hammett would have lived there about 10 years after it opened.  Since that time, landlords had removed doors, painted over glass, added a hundred layers of paint, etc...

Dedicated folks pieced together the apartment from fixtures in apartments from the building that were original, found items that matched the book, etc...

Its a fairly small place.  A bedroom/ living room with a murphy bed, a small bath (with the original clawfoot tub and toilet, so you can stand where Hammett stood as he showered, I suppose), a small kitchen, etc..   So this was not from a period in Hammett's life where the money was just rolling in.  Its a modest living space in a part of town with a lot of character now and then.

I did take more pictures, and when I upload them to Google, I'll post a link.

Oh, the Falcon on the desk?  I'm not sure what that's about.
No, this was not Hammett's chair, but its a nice chair, right?
Of a very special, very noir weekend, this was an unbelievable bit of history that put a near surreal spin on things.

Thanks to Jenifer for arranging the tour (and so much more during my stay), to Bill who was more host that tour guide, and Doug, who was... there, I guess.

More pics when I get home and get them off my phone.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

So, San Francisco is an interesting town.

I do love my little hamlet of Austin, Texas, and I'm not one to plan to move anywhere because I had a few nice days of vacation, but San Francisco is an interesting burg.

I've had the good fortune of having Jenifer (aka: @J__Swift) as my tour guide.  Today it was not pouring down rain, and so we went to breakfast and wandered into a cafe where we ran into Bruce McCulloch of Kids in the Hall fame (and because he's one of the Kids in the Hall, he's also one of the funniest people I can think of) and tried to very nonchalantly eat brunch outside the window he was eating inside of.  So, like, a foot away.  I guess he could hear us a little because when Jenifer came back to the table and asked "was the Bruce McCulloch?" he waved at us.

He doesn't live here.  He was just in town for SF Sketchfest, which is an awesome event and something else we don't have in Austin (like a Thai restaurant every block, as near as I can tell).

So he probably heard some of my super-lame anecdotes.  You're welcome, Bruce McCulloch.

Jenifer took me around a bit to see some sites, not the least of which was the Cartoon Museum.  A small space, but with a great variety of examples of work of iconic cartoonists, from Al Capp to Gene Colan to a current exhibit by Keith Knight.  Every few panels I'd find something I was amazed to see, be it a print of a Yellow Kid strip, or original Gene Colan Daredevil art, to...  well, it was worth it.

Jenifer and her pal Morgan took me to a nifty vintage shop where I found a Superman vinyl record of the old radio broadcasts (it was inexpensive, Jamie), and a reprint of a World's Finest comic in a format I'd never seen before.

This evening returning via public transportation I saw no less than two couples in wedding outfits.  Today, I saw my first real-life version of Reals (real life superheroes walking down the street).  And, I guess, Victorians wandering about this evening in their finery.  Yes, I totally stared one dude down with a "boy, what are you doing?" look which was totally inappropriate given my own costuming choices Friday night.  Lots of crazy hobos, too.  If Austin wants to believe itself weird, its really going to have to step it up.

The Film Noir Fest has been fascinating.  I thought Austin was a movie town, but, sorry, Austin.  What I've come to see as a crucial difference is the lack of hipster-ness, irony, etc... that I take as part and parcel of the film-going experience at The Alamo.  While the population of San Francisco and surrounding communities is considerably larger than Austin, what you would not see is a 1400 seat theater sell out for double-bills of noir two nights in a row.  And sustain a 10-night Noir Fest.

The crowd is all over the place in terms of age, which is interesting.  It does remind me of the better nights at Austin's Paramount Theater, where you really do see all kinds of people.  And because I'm selfish and want to see movies I'd care to see on the big screen, I keep thinking about how one could replicate such a feat.

There is a tragic lack of Rice-a-Roni, but I have secured a tin trolley car which goes "ding" about which I am quite excited.

I do want to thank Jenifer for taking her time and energy and devoting both toward my entertainment and amusement.  She's been a real champ, and its been a huge pleasure not to speak to her entirely in 140 character tweets.  Look her up if you come out this way.