Insomniac Movie Review: The Signal

Most people take sleep for granted. You get tired, you go to sleep. No problem. I’ve never been able to do that. Maybe I was out the day they went over it in kindergarten. Maybe I did something to anger the Sandman (Bastard, I bought your comics!).

Bad chemistry? Bad stress? Bad karma? Who knows. Anyway this isn’t a sob story. The point is that I spend a fair amount of time awake at strange hours, too tired to think. So I watch movies.

Now, let me say up front that the things that make a movie great at 4am are very different from the things that make a movie great at 9pm. The later it gets, the more I’m willing to forgive plot holes, leaps in logic, or acting quality. I want novelty. I want a new approach on an old story, a clever dramatic structure, or something completely out of left field.

Last night’s The Signal was just that kind of movie. It got some decent reviews, so I gave it a shot.

The story goes something like this: A mysterious signal suddenly appears on every TV and radio, causing about half of the people who hear it to start calmly killing everyone around them. We follow a woman and her lover as, in separate stories, they each try to escape her husband and get to the train station so that they can Amtrak together to happiness. Unicorns and shiny, shiny rainbows for everyone!

This was a strange movie. Really strange.

Structure. Subject. Performances. Strange.

At 4am, it was awesome.

The story is told in three distinct acts. The beginning and end are the same sort of action/horror movie with desperate escapes and murder-fu. Scary, dark corners. Characters are beaten up, shot, and beaten up some more. Then everybody hallucinates for a while.

Right in the middle, though, it turns into a different movie for about half an hour. Same story, same people, picking up right where part one left off, only now it’s a “satire”. They play the situation for “laughs”. Except that sometimes characters seem randomly to realize what’s going on and get upset about having committed murder or being surrounded by corpses … but then it’s right back to the zany. Isn’t it funny how they don’t care that they’re killing each other? And then one character casually blinds another so we get to see her stumbling around, trying to find her husband whom she’s forgotten that she had murdered earlier. Ha ha!

Then it’s right back to the straight horror film for the final third. Must. Find. Girl. Hallucinate for a while. Amtrak. Ambiguous, unhappy ending.

So it’s horror, then satire of that horror, then back to horror again. Huh? The satire in the middle kind of undercuts the horror that comes after it.

And no, they never tell you what the signal was or why or who did it. There’s some nutty rambling by one character, but I don’t know if it was meant to be taken seriously. Another keeps yelling, “THE SIGNAL IS A LIE”, but he might have just thought he was watching Fox news.

If you’re awake at 4am, tired, have low expectations, and don’t mind dumb sci-fi/horror movies, then this one is different enough to keep your attention. Which makes it great.

Awake or before midnight, you probably won’t make it to the half way point.

Hm. I probably need some sort of rating system here. I give it four fluffy pillows, or.. uhh This is a two Ambien Screamer… no, maybe… This Movie Gets Good At: 3am. Yeah, I like that. My rating represents the time of day when the cleverness of the premise outweighs the awfulness of the production.

The Signal starts to look good at around 3am. Steve says check it out.

Got any recommendations? I can’t sleep. What should I be watching?

Saved by The Formula

So I keep hearing about this cool horror movie from Spain called, “[Rec]“.

Here’s the plot synopsis:

While covering the night shift at a small-town fire department, an ambitious young television reporter and her cameraman follow the crew on a call to rescue an elderly woman unable to escape the inferno that is consuming her home. Upon their arrival at the scene, the calm midnight air is pierced by the sound of horrific screams, and the television report takes an unexpectedly dark turn.


So, yeah, it’s got that Cannibal Holocaust / Blair Witch Project fake documentary thing going on, but clearly that doesn’t bother me so whatever. Besides, this one is apparently so good that a US remake was started before it was even released. Wow, ok.

I checked the tubes, but I couldn’t find anything about a US release date. Darn. Oh well. After seeing how they ruined the ending of The Descent for US the release, I wanted to see the original.

To the torrents, Robin!

Anyway, I found a few copies and downloaded one. It’s so new that there aren’t any subtitles yet, so I watched it in Spanish. Thanks to the Spanish I absorbed from Sesame Street in my own childhood and overhearing years of Dora the Explorer watched by my kids, I understood pretty much… well, nothing. “Basta” means “enough”, I think. That’s about it.

Still, horror movies follow a formula so I was able to follow along. Reporter Goes In, thinking that it’s a standard puff piece. Things Go Wrong. Then, it Gets Worse. “Shut off that camera”. “Keep filming!” (this is where he said “Basta!” :-)) You get the idea.

You already know whether you’ll like this movie or not. It’s “one of those”, although it is a well made one. The acting is better than you probably expect, and the creepy bits are extremely creepy. I liked it, and if you dig these kinds of movies you probably will, too.

Wait for the subtitles, though. There were some explanatory bits that I’d like to understand, and a couple of conversations that looked important. I guess this gives me a reason to see it again.

I’ll see this one on opening day

I am really looking forward to the new J. J. Abams movie, Cloverfield. It’s his “American Godzilla”, and the idea of doing it all using home video is incredibly cool.

Check out the trailer.

This is basically the same trailer that they released a few months back, and have re-released monthly ever since. What’s really interesting is to watch the special effects getting better with each one. It’s the same shots, but stuff that used to look completely fake now looks completely real. Just amazing.

I have to admit that the collapsing building and dust cloud hit a bit of a nerve, but I’m probably just being over sensitive.

I can’t wait. Gonna sneak in a six of slusho.

It’s got electrolytes

So we watched Idiocracy, the latest movie from Mike Judge. It had one of those Brazil-style production horror stories, complete with public studio fights, reshoots, and a stealth release. I figured that it would either be a misunderstood masterpiece or a flaming train wreck. Either way, given what Judge has done in the past, I expected it to be something to see.

So we saw it, and I can’t really say what all the fuss was about. It was funny, but not hilarious. It was mean, but not really all that mean. It was coarse and crude… but no worse than a lot of what’s on TV.

I’ve seen movies that were much, much worse so I don’t know why Fox buried the release.

Maybe it was a masterpiece that the studio succeeded in lobotomizing. Maybe it was a train wreck that they fixed up enough that we didn’t notice. The voice-over is a dead giveaway that they changed a lot. There wasn’t a commentary track, so I don’t have any details. I’d love to see something like The Devil’s Candy or The Battle of Brazil (both of which are fascinating, btw) to find out what happened.

So stick it in your Netflix queue for an evening when you want some light satire. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll have a good time.

If you do see it, leave a comment and let me know what you think. Did I miss something?

Great Moments In Corporate Decision Making

Serenity was one of the first movies that actively chased internet buzz. The studio courted fans of the TV show, and provided them with all sorts of promotional images and materials.

The fans ate it up, and created a huge amount of free advertising. They made clothing, posters, and did everything they could to support the film.

It wasn’t enough. The rabid and vocal fan base didn’t translate into big box offince numbers. Sure, you could point to the fact that the movie was just so-so, but that smacks of defeatism. No, what’s needed here is a strategy that makes absolutely clear who was responsible for the failure.

Clearly, there’s only one thing for the studio to do.

Sue the fans.


Samurai on the Roof

In case the rabbit wasn’t enough to turn your day around, here’s some video that will definitely do the trick.

It’s a Japanese theater company rehearsing Fiddler on the Roof.

Rosie O’Donnell said that Grease was jury duty for actors, so maybe the UN is making them do it. Or it could be part of that Jewish Conspiracy I’m always hearing about (and how come I never get invited to the meetings?).

May God bless the Internet for giving me wonderful things like this.

No jury would convict me after seeing this

I plan to show this movie to the jury at my trial. Yeah, sure, it looks like me but you can’t believe your eyes anymore. And, uhh, those witnesses had memories implanted in their heads by a super-secret government agency that… well, I don’t want to give away my whole defense strategy. You can watch it on Court TV like everybody else.

I think they jury will buy it.

I wanted to like it, I really did!

So I watched

a few nights ago.


It was ok, better even than most of the crap science fiction movies that are released. Way better than anything George Lucas has done in twenty years.

I don’t want to be too hard on it because it wasn’t bad, it just… wasn’t great either. The funny bits weren’t all that funny, the scary bits weren’t all that scary, and the action bits weren’t all that action-y.

I liked the show, and looked forward to spending more time with the characters. The problem is that the whole thing just felt rushed. There are so many characters, and each of them just got a minute or two to do their thing before then we moved on.

Worse still, there were some plot points that were just dumb.

The ending was ridiculous, and <spoiler>they killed my favorite character</spoiler>. On one of the Buffy commentary tracks, Joss Whedon talks about how he always wanted to kill a character who is in the title sequence. His intent was to raise the stakes for the audience, and make the show more engaging. Ok, great, so you raised the stakes on me. The problem is that I like that character, and the story is less appealing without him.

It’s worth renting just for the feature commentary, which is a model of the form. Whedon is an engaging speaker and gives you enough detail that you feel like you understand better what a director actually does. He discusses nuances in the story that I hadn’t picked up on when I watched the movie, and it really leaves me disappointed that the show didn’t continue. I think, actually, that this might be the core of my problem with the movie. He’s created broad story arcs for all of the characters, and each is interesting. The demands of a movie, however, mean that he has to set up a dramatic conflict and resolution for each of them and clean everything up in 90 minutes. That’s not really enough time, and it feels shallow.

If you liked the show, it’s good enough that you’ll probably enjoy it as well. Heck, if you liked the show then you’ve probably already seen the movie. Go watch
Veronica Mars or the new Battlestar Galactica

If you haven’t seen the show Serenity is based upon,
Firefly, watch that. It’s out on DVD and it’s better.