Saturday, January 1, 2011

Signal Watch Events - January/ February 2011

Signal Watch Events is a standard service to alert Signal Corps members of movies, concerts, sporting events that we are considering attending.  You can also check the Signal Watch calendar (see the tab above) or click on this link.

If you plan to attend an event or would like to suggest an event, please contact us and let us know! 

Please note:  While we have the best of intentions, we don't actually make it to all events. We would like to put our best foot forward, so if you plan to join us, please email us so we can discuss.

Also, we're usually up for dinner or something coordinated with an event, so just ask.

  • January 13 at 7:00 - Out of the Past at The Paramount Theater
  • January 14 at 7:00ish or something - Girl Talk at the Austin Music Hall
  • January 16 at 2:00 - Out of the Past at The Paramount Theater
  • January 16 at 4:00 - Laura at The Paramount Theater
  • January 16 at 7:00 PM - Alamo Cinema Club:  Some Came Running hosted by Richard Linklater at Alamo Downtown (a 3 movie marathon seems like a bit much, so the outlook on this isn't great)
  • January 19 at 10:00 PM - Tough Guy Cinema presents:  Robocop at Alamo Downtown
  • January 22 at 7:00 PM - Abbot and Costello Meet Frankentsein at The Paramount Theater
  • January 22 at 9:00 PM - Frankenstein at The Paramount Theater
  • January 28 at 11:55 PM - The Room at Alamo Village
  • January 30 at 6:00 PM - Texas Rollerderby at the Palmer Events Center
  • February 13 at 7:00 PM (alternate times considered) - Zzang!! presents Big Trouble in Little China at Alamo Downtown (you are pissing me off to no end!)
  • February 20 at 7:00 PM - Alamo Cinema Club presents Bigger than Life at Alamo Downtown

More 2010 - a year that happened

2010 was NOT the year we made contact, as promised by a John Lithgow/ Helen Mirren movie I'd seen as a kid.
It was the year:

  • The Jersey Shore remained inexplicably and unironically popular
  • Jamie received a donut maker for Christmas
  • I very slowly started working out again, making me sad about the arrival of a donut maker in my house
  • the iPad arrived.  Many people bought them.  Then, everyone I talked to who had one told me it likely wasn't worth getting for every single application I mentioned using it for were I to purchase one.
  • We saw no 3rd installment of the popular Chipmunks franchise
  • I was on the road a whole lot
  • I spent the summer at the movies
  • Scout did not attempt a jail break even once
  • DC Comics celebrated its 75th Anniversary (we'll make more noise during Superman's 75th anniversary in 2013)
  • We may have finally seen the last of Jon & Kate (and their 8)
  • Al and Tipper Gore called it quits.  So no more Al-on-Tipper PDA.  Sorry, folks.
  • Kanye West's Twitterfeed justified an entire form of communication
  • UT Football found new and creative ways to astound and disappoint weeks after the final game was played
  • A show about Zombie Apocalypse was a stunning cable hit (and was actually very watchable, too)
  • Someone started working on another Planet of the Apes movie
  • I broke my weekly comic shop habit (which was like quitting smoking)
  • I managed to kill 5 minutes in a meeting at work making everyone learn about Mister Miracle.  And that is why you don't ever ask Ryan about the characters on his shirts in a mocking tone. 
Here's to 2011 and another chance to do it right this time.

Friday, December 31, 2010

So that was 2010

we didn't get to Jupiter, but we got Angry Birds
So that was the year.  Well, whatever.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts on 2010 below.

Signal Watch Watches: True Grit

I don't really know what to say about True Grit.  I assume many of you have seen the movie at this point.

I give it...  eight and a half thumbs up. 

I was very pleased with the stylized dialog (which I took as the mannered retelling of Mattie's tale, to some extent), which the actors all handled remarkably well. 

The past few years Jeff Bridges seems to have moved from all-purpose leading man to top-flight actor in the public esteem (he was always good, and I don't dispute this), and here he seems to really earn it as Rooster Cogburn.  And if you've been watching Matt Damon the past few years, I don't think its any surprise that he's really very good as LeBoef, the flashy Texas Ranger in search of the same man as our unlikely duo.  As Mattie Ross, young actor Hailee Steinfeld really does go toe to toe with both Damon and Bridges, and no doubt we'll see her again, hopefully not moving into the typical fare offered up to young women in Hollywood.  With a Coen Bros. pedigree, I assume she can continue to find A-List work, but we'll see (I weep for young Dakota Fanning blankly wandering through scenes in the Twilight series).

The story isn't anything that new or innovative (but may appear so to film viewers in 2010 who rarely touch Westerns).  What's striking is that the Coens so deftly move from a film like A Serious Man (which I really need to rewatch now that its on HBO), to a remake of a legendary piece of genre film and manage to put their stamp on it while staying within the confines of the Western.

Brolin's part is perhaps smaller than you would guess, he being Josh Brolin and all, but he leaves an impression, and I loved how the role was scripted.  Add in the best use of Barry Pepper I think I've seen, and the supporting cast gets a nod, too.

I could have gladly stayed with the characters and story for an additional half-hour, had the story sprawled a bit more.  And when was the last time you weren't doing mental calculus based upon where you knew you had to be in the plot, versus how long you were going to have to sit there?  I had a theater director once tell me that he knew a play was good if he didn't check his watch, and at no point, was that what I was doing.

Unlike at least one of our Corpsmen (Nathan C.), I am not a film score aficionado.  But I had no doubt I was hearing Carter Burwell's work about 1/4 way into the movie.  I like Burwell's work, and its always good to see him working again with the Coens.

Anyhow, I don't really want to go on and on, but I did want to salute the movie as one of the best things I saw in the theater this year and recommend you catch it in the theater.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Future Taste Test? "Adult Chocolate Milk" is 40 Proof and a Grand Idea

There's a Chocolate Milk party going on!

2011 is going to be the year I quit giving a damn, and we're going to start by picking ourselves up some "Adult Chocolate Milk".  According to the website:

Featuring real cream and rich chocolatey flavor, Adult Chocolate Milk tastes just like the original classic - with a very adult alcohol update. Break out the curly straw and cookies and prepare to be flooded by fond memories.

Indeed.  Only, the KareBear was pretty iffy about letting us have to much sugar.  Forget about letting us booze it up while watching SuperFriends or The Muppets.

Its full of calcium for strong bones and booze for making the sad go away

The great thing is I know I can rope a few folks into taste testing this stuff with me (Wagner.  Cough.).

The site makes no bones about this stuff being 40 Proof, so while I am sad they are taking away my Four Loko (I kid, I've never found the stuff), it seems they're giving us a consolation prize.  I have to salute the sheer bad-idea-ness of this entire enterprise.  But as your duly appointed representative, I feel its my duty to let you know if this is a good idea or bad idea.

Now:  to appropriate funds.

UPDATE:  Apparently the puritanical lords of the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission haven't approved Adult Chocolate Milk for consumption within the Great State of Texas.  People, I am putting out a call to my comrades in arms.  If you want for the Taste Test to happen, Adult Chocolate Milk will need to be smuggled across state lines.  You know you can do it!  Help a brother out!

In the meantime, I will make do with White Russians, Black Russians, Irishing-up my coffee, and making my own special Adult Ovaltine.

365 Days of the Guy Freaking Out On the Cover of Action Comics #1

Some ideas are just straight up hilarious.  And among those?

Bully The Little Stuffed Bull has, for two years now, managed to come up with a theme that he covers every single day.


For a year.

Last year it was 365 Days of Hank McCoy (you know him better as the "The Beast" from X-Men, Defenders and Avengers comics). But it seems Bully is pulling off a seemingly crazy stunt this time, and he's going to find 364 homages to the cover of Action Comics #1, specifically focusing on the fellow freaking out in the bottom corner of the famous first cover.

If you weren't following Bully and you like comics: for shame.

Get on board!

So, here's our original image:

For some reason, people really like the freaking guy.  Myself included.
 And here's a typical homage:

he he he he he
Now repeat.  Every day for a year.  That's a lot of homage.

The first homage of this sort I recall was from a Wacky The Squirrel comic back in the 1980's.  I thought that was wildly subversive, crazy stuff.  Ah, hell.  I still feel that way about Wacky.

Man!  A $1.75 back then?  I must have thought this was HILARIOUS.  Note, freaking bulldog.
This is the kind of stuff I wish I was creative and patient enough to pull off.  That's just good stuff.

But if you want to know what the other meme is around this cover... look at the tire bouncing around on the cover.  Now figure out the physics of how that tire ended up over there as, clearly, the tire had to come from the other side of the car. 

Its focusing on this stuff and not the GRE why I never got an advanced degree.

Holy Smokes! 2010 is practically over with!


How did 2010 come to an end?  It seems like just yesterday I was holding a flaming Roman Candle in one hand and an American Flag and a cocktail in the other and celebrating America.

Wait...  that was yesterday.  Nevermind.

Anyhow, 2010 was NOT a year of big changes.  Hooray!  Sometimes you need a year where virtually nothing happens, I think.  No moves, no career change, no white knuckling about this or that...  maybe in 2011.

Now, that doesn't mean the folks around me didn't see some changes.  You know who you are and what you did.

I don't plan on any end-of-year lists because, well...  I'm not feeling the need to catalog that which you've all already read or seen here.  Or on Facebook or whatever.  And I don't know what I'd Top Ten this year, anyway.  Comics?  Movies?  I don't think I dealt with either enough to put together a useful list.

I have no idea what 2011 will bring.  I've got some resolutions, so we'll see if I keep them.  The Steans Boys are headed for London in April, so you can expect some cross-continental reporting and cultural confusion.  The Admiral and KareBear are set to move operations to Austin by this time next year. 

But, hey, yeah.  I just looked at the date on my computer and realized we're pretty much wrapped up here.  Another trip around El Sol and another year as determined by some Caesar 2000 years ago is done and done.

We're not doing much for New Years.  No big parties and I suspect I will be watching Snooki drop in the ball on New Year's Eve by myself once Jamie's turned in.  That's why I picked up a bottle of Welch's Sparkling Cider.  Drinking by myself in the dark on my way into 2011 just seemed...  well, let's not start the year off on the wrong foot.

Thanks for a great and strange year of blogging here at Signal Watch.  I appreciate you bearing with me through my stops and starts.  Now... on to 2011.

Some Film Noir Recommendations/ Discussion

This is kind of fun.  CanadianSimon has asked that I put together a list of recommendations for noir cinematic viewing.

I don't pretend to be an authority on Noir, and, in fact, feel like I'm just getting on the learning curve about the mega-genre.  At best, I feel like I've taken some noir classes at the community center, whereas I feel like I'm in my second year of PhD work if you wanted to talk Superman (or Masters level in DC Comics).  I feel like I'm just dipping my toes in the water here, so I'm very reluctant to say much more than "yeah, I liked that movie".

But its fun to talk about.

One thing that's become clear to me is that Noir isn't just lighting, it isn't just guys in natty hats and ties, it isn't just tough, good looking dames...  It definitely can have all those things (and good looking dames never hurt), but it seems its as much about a mood that was going on in the culture that a lot of cinema of the crucial 1940-1960ish era was pushing under the rug.  Its interesting that the push starts just prior to WWII, and less surprising that its at full boil as GI's came back from overseas and had ideas about what people might really be like that didn't fit in with the domesticity of post WWII America.

I also think there's a difference between a gangster or crime movie than Noir.  It doesn't mean that they can't share qualities or share a whole lot of real estate on a movie Venn Diagram, but a movie like, say...  Goodfellas doesn't say Noir to me (that doesn't mean I don't love Goodfellas, by the way).  Nor would I categorize The Godfather as Noir - and I think few would.  I think its interesting that when you get to the Warner Archive sets you can buy at Amazon, the WB curators clearly think there's a difference, too.  The Cagney movies show up as Gangster pictures (White Heat = Gangster picture.  The Roaring Twenties = Gangster Picture), whereas the Noir pictures tend to be a smaller scale and more personal (and rarely follow someone over years, Mildred Pierce as an obvious exception and reminder that Joan Crawford was a stunningly good actress.  Jamie and I fell into Mildred Pierce a few weeks ago on cable, and I'd forgotten how much I liked it.).

Here's Volume 1 of the Film Noir Classic Collection.
Here's Volume 1 of the Gangster Films Collection.

Detective pictures aren't, by default, Noir.  Clearly a lot are.  The Big Sleep seems to me to be a great place to show where the two genres synch up to the point where there's no real difference.  But you get near Sherlock Holmes territory or even The Thin Man, and not so much. 

Double Indemnity is often held up as a sort of quintessential Noir.  I like Stanwyck as much as the next guy, but it isn't a detective picture or gangster picture.  Its an insurance agent who falls for the wrong (married) girl and it ends poorly for everybody.  Similarly, Eddie Muller came to the Alamo this summer and lectured on The Prowler, and I'd say that movie still rattles around a bit in my head as a sort of archetypical noir, about an amoral cop using his position to get what he wants, everyone else be damned, but its not a detective or gangster movie.

So its hard to pin it down. 

In a lot of ways, asking "what is "Noir?" hits the same depths as when you say "what is a Western?".  Anyone who spent more than ten minutes with the genre knows that "Western" has a certain indefinable quality, but the plots and themes are all over the map.  Shane is not The Cowboys is not McClintock! is not High Noon is not Paint Your Wagon is not High Plains Drifter.

I should also mention, I've read the original book of some Noir films and so I tend to get a bit confused by plot points if they deviate significantly (see:  The Big Clock), and some I've not ever seen the movie (They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - which, oh my gosh, great book, which is why I've avoided the movie).

Watching The Big Heat, it occurred to me that Noir presses a lot of the right buttons for me not just aesthetically, but as much as I like a good, character driven movie or TV show (see:  Mad Men) I also really like to see well constructed stories where the pieces are there for a reason and every part is used.  It may be that Noir comes up from short and often cheap books where a lot of story was packed into a limited amount of pages, or the writing flair of Chandler and Hammett to say everything you needed to know about a character in a cutting half-sentence, but a lot of these movies trade on the idea of narrative economy. 

Cross-pollination is also a lot of fun.  Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner saw a sci-fi cop story make the full-blown transition to something resembling sci-fi Noir (its not a mistake the producers decided to add what was supposed to be a Marlowe-esque voice-over to the proceedings for the original theatrical release).  Stuff like that is kind of cool, or more subtle variations like The Big Lebowski's subversion of the genre.

So what do I like?

The Asphalt Jungle - a group heist flick, directed by the great John Huston.  I rented this in college and it broke my fragile little mind.
The Killing - the kind of movie that I think a lot of people think they're making, but somehow just can't seem to pull off.  Early Kubrick, by the way. 
The Killers - I rented this because I loved (LOVED) the Hemingway short story of the same name that it uses as its set-up.  And then the rest of the movie was good, too.  Maybe there's a secret noir story behind Hills Like White Elephants that I just haven't seen envisioned yet.
Sunset Blvd - A shame that I just saw this for the first time this year because...  wow.
The Big Sleep - probably a great place to start for your classic detective Noir story.
The Prowler - Which isn't available, so go rent Double Indemnity, which is as good as they say it is.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Signal Watch Watches "The Sniper"

3 things before we begin:

1)  A few years ago DC Comics had a monthly comic series going called Gotham Central which was about police work in Gotham City.  It took the look of a cop movie or TV police procedural with Michael Lark's illustrative art and it asked "what do the guys wearing ties and drinking coffee who have to do the paperwork when fighting crime do in a city with arch criminals in clown make-up?"

There was a great run (written either by Ed Brubaker or Greg Rucka... I was never sure.  They both got credit.) that had the Major Crimes Unit on red alert in the middle of the holiday shopping season as The Joker decided it would be "funny" to start randomly sniping people in the middle of a snow storm during the holiday buying season.  If you can find that collection: it is fantastic and disturbing.

2)  A few of you are going to jump up and down and say "Did you see the Homicide episodes about the sniper?"  No, I missed them, but they were apparently good enough that I've heard about them from several sources.

3)  If you ever want to know what sort of effect the random violence of a real-life sniper might have on a place, I work at the University of Texas and can see the UT Tower every day when I walk out the door of my building.

Look out for snipers, indeed.

The Sniper was included in the box set of Noir films Jason got me for Christmas, and its an interesting selection.  If you want to check its bona fides, (a) Scorsese discusses the film quite gleefully and (b) Noir historian Eddie Muller provides a running commentary track to the whole movie.  At first blush, I wasn't entirely clear how the picture tied in with my own concepts of what constitutes Noir.  There's not really the erasing of a secure world for a protagonist, no femme fatales per se...

But in the end, I think I get it (and I'm writing this without the benefit of having yet listened to Muller's commentary, which I will do this week).  It does feature a protagonist/antagonist for whom the world is slipping away and is in over his head.  A woman is involved, but its an abstraction by the time we catch up with the sniper.  And, absolutely there's no way out for our sniper.  Still, its an odd fit, right down to how the movie is shot.

The only actors in the movie I recognized were Marie Windsor* and Frank Faylen who played Ernie the cab driver in It's a Wonderful Life.  Our titular sniper, Eddie Miller, is played by Arthur Franz.

"So what's a nice sniper like you doing in a kitchen like this?"
Like many movies of the era, which was turning to science and psychology in new ways, Miller's psychosis is investigated for the audience by way of calm and understanding Voices of Authority as heard through the mouthpiece of the film's young psychologist. However, this movie makes a clear point that the public doesn't really care about the root causes or possible prevention of future outbreaks of violence from a societal and financial standpoint, and is happy to blame the police for not immediately solving random crimes. And, of course, a medical community that doesn't even understand what sorts of signs it should be looking for.

Certainly, the movie is using the story as a pulpit, but its interesting to see the gears of this kind of scenes working through these challenges play out, especially in a movie released in '52, from the dismissive nature of the cops wanting to work through things with a blunt instrument to the power players of the city strong arming political appointees to get results as if the police are sitting on their thumbs.

The movie is absolutely trying to make a statement about understanding violence and the psychology of aggression tied to sexual issues. The producers rightly work to dissolve accusations of exploitation with a pre-title sequence text message about the number of crimes against women in the country, which, in 1952, you have to assume was grossly under-reported. But the pre-credit message is still an interesting way to frame the movie for the audience.

From the first scenes, the movie is on a boil, with Miller a spring so tightly wound its just a matter of time before he snaps. Perhaps its not as masterfully executed as Psycho, and while you may sympathize with both main characters, at no point do you come into the odd place of cheering for the killer in The Sniper (except in sympathizing that the sniper actually does want to be caught), but its interesting to note that this movie precedes Psycho by a full 8 years. The tension starts high and just keeps going.

The film is shot seemingly mostly on location in San Francisco, so our Bay Area readers may get a kick out of seeing their hometown in 1950ish, including neighborhoods right underneath Coit Tower (I checked addresses mentioned in the movie, and they all appear to be fictional, so I was pleased when I saw the tower poking up in one shot to give some reference). The steep terrain is used to great effect, and I had a passing thought that somebody cleverly used the terrain to push the narrative forward as a sort of real-life, naturalistic backdrop that provides the same effect you might have seen in something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that may be me reading a bit much into the movie. Parts are shot almost as if from a documentary, including a chilling scene where the sniper is seen by someone working on the side of a tower, and absolutely the final shots of the movie. For some reason San Francisco just flat out works in Noir and crime movies as a backdrop in its own way and as a character just as much as LA and New York.

ironically, they can both see their houses from up here
It doesn't push the city scape to the same degree as Kubrick's Killer's Kiss from 1955, but it would be interesting to know if Kubrick had watched The Sniper.

Anyhow, I look forward to listening to Muller's commentary track. Its a fascinating movie, and I'd guess it has an interesting production history.

*whom I think I fell in love with just a little bit while watching Narrow Margin.

Reason #347 for why I'm not buying that many new comics these days: Stop With the "Death of" Stories Already

The most refreshing thing about the recent Death of Batman storyline was, of course, the crazy good story Grant Morrison wove across months and months of Batman comics.  But the second most refreshing thing was that within a few dozen pages of Batman "dying" in Final Crisis, we saw Batmas was actually and okay and doing landscape paintings or some such in a cave at the dawn of humanity.

It wasn't even particularly shocking in 1992 when DC "killed" Superman for a few months, as part of the meta-narrative all along was that the story was more of an exploration of what would happen if Superman died (your mileage will vary on the success of that mission), but we all knew DC wasn't actually killing off Big Blue.

The only deaths that were taken as "permanent" in comics, until a few years ago, were Uncle Ben in Spider-Man, Bucky in Captain America and Jason Todd in Batman comics.  Of those, only 1/3rd remain stone-cold chilling beneath the earth.  And I guarantee its a matter of time before some "edgy" writer and editor cook up a plan to bring back Uncle Ben, revealing that he didn't really die, but went to Europe where he plotted his revenge against Spider-Man.*  Or, if they're really edgy, he'll be resurrected as an undead cyborg thing that terrorizes Peter Parker and becomes a hot, hot property for intellectually challenged comic fans.

But...  hey, comic sales are slumping.  That "The Punisher is now a Frankenstein monster!" bit didn't pull you out of the hole.  Why not kill off both Spider-Man and 1/4 of the Fantastic Four in the same news cycle?

Le sigh.

Spider-Man is getting dead, at least in the parallel Ultimate universe.  (I so gave up on the Ultimate titles about four years ago.)

And I guess Marvel is going to kill Sue Storm, because, you know, emotional impact, yadda yadda.  At least that's what Vegas odds-makers are guessing.

I know I'm DC centric, but one small part of that is that I think DC is often a little quicker to stop running a particular idea into the ground, whereas the Quesada-era Marvel seems to think that you must beat a concept into the ground until someone begs for mercy.**

Word is that Didio and Co. kind of decided the Death of Batman thing was kind of it for them, and Blackest Night certainly indicated that they don't want to go any further with deaths and resurrections. And I hope that's true for a good, long while.

And while its possible the death of Spidey in the Ultimate Line could, in fact, be permanent, scientific polls suggest that absolutely nobody cares.  And absolutely nobody believes that any of the FF is actually off the board.  (And I'd argue that Marvel handles this stuff a lot more clumsily than DC.  I liked the Captain America stuff okay, but....  that return of Cap story was some pretty awkward stuff from Brubaker.  It felt far more deus ex machina than Morrison's extended albeit similar plot for Bats).

But:  Its done.  Its played out.  I can't even pretend this could be good anymore.

*because this is exactly what Marvel did with the Green Goblin after he'd been dead a good, long while
**Your shame-centers have to have been surgically removed to approve as many Deadpool titles as I see on the shelves these days, and...  really?  There's that kind of demand for Thor?  I'm not buying it.