Patterns, and six more movies

The Neverending
Film Festival

I once dated a dame who said she liked movies, but when I suggested a screening of something she'd never heard of, she said, "Never heard of it," and that settled that. We didn't date for long.
"Never heard of it" is a lucky charm for finding good movies, long as you're careful.
Highly recommended today: Patterns (1956). Also recommended: Born in Flames (1983), Robot Jox (1989), Synecdoche, New York (2008), and The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951).

— — — 

Alabama’s Ghost (1973)

This starts with mega-hokey narration explaining an ancient prophecy, and a few minutes later several white men are playing stodgy jazz for an enthusiastic white audience. Cue the applause!

After that bland beginning, things starts simmering when Christopher Brooks, playing a comical jive-talking janitor and musician named Alabama, finds a magician’s long-lost letters and artifacts. He smokes a joint with a white grandmother, puts on some fancy duds, and begins performing magic at Earthquake McGoon’s. There are then several bizarre but expected plot twists involving vampires and a quest to rule the world. 

It's a well-made movie — decent acting, sets, costumes, etc — but the story bounces between demented, dumb, and dull, and always just barely held my attention. It doesn't help that the visuals were faded, scratched, and mushy, but I probably wouldn't recommend this even if it got a 24K restoration.

Verdict: NO

♦ ♦ ♦

Born in Flames (1983)

It's the tenth anniversary of the War of Liberation, when Old America fell peacefully to a socialist uprising, but it's hardly a utopia.

What I don't understand is, if the socialist revolution was ten years ago, why has nothing changed? Still looks like Old America to me — the same TV networks are broadcasting the same fluffy newscasts, unions and employers still treat workers (especially women) terribly, you still can't survive without a job, U-Haul still rents trucks, the FBI still tracks anyone who speaks out, cops are still murderous bastards, etc.

Things are looking up, though. Rebel ladies and lesbians are everywhere, making fiery statements on pirate radio stations and discussing earnest politics at meetings. Gangs of women on bicycles blow whistles and come together to stop rapists, and we interrupt regularly scheduled programming to bring you this message from the underground. 

These sequences show dazzling energy, probably thanks to director Lizzie Borden (not the lady with an axe, but her namesake, a well-regarded feminist filmmaker). From what I've read about the movie (after seeing it), Borden cast almost entirely non-actors, most of whom were actually activists, and she encouraged them to disagree about their espoused political tactics while the camera was running. Maybe because I love an honest political argument and America has so few, I was barely able to blink during those scenes.

I couldn't make much sense of the plot, but watching it as a collection of moments, Born in Flames is a remarkable thing. There's bleak, startling imagery, grand rhetoric, and jubilant music, including the movie's punky soprano theme song. (Click and listen and you'll have it in your head all day and tomorrow, too.)

Everything here is amateur, but the three principle performers — Adele Bertei, Honey, and Jean Satterfield — are all completely convincing. Honey especially makes me want to join the cause, and I wondered what became of her — the character and actress are both named Honey, but IMDB says she never worked in any other movie, and good luck Googling a woman named Honey with no last name. 

Not a criticism, just a quibble: Every source on the net calls this a science-fiction movie, but it's not. It's a film set in the future, but there's no science, nothing to distinguish any of the events from here and now except the characters' political activism. Tell a story set ten years from now, without changing anything? That's fiction, not science-fiction. So there.

Trivia: Before she became a big-time Hollywood director/producer, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Point Break) had a small role here, as a reporter covering the radical women. There's also a brief glimpse of Eric Bogosian.

After watching this, I watched it a second time, aided by the plot summary at Wikipedia, which made the movie more coherent. With or without such cheating, though, both viewings get a thumbs up from me. Rousing finish, too.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Patterns (1956) 

Written by Rod Serling a few years before he made his name with The Twilight Zone, this concerns high-level corporate politics, in a fictional executive suite where most of management seems to have morals. A long time ago, in other words, in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s the first day on the job for Mr Staples (Van Heflin), a new administrator at Ramsey & Company. He seems like a nice enough man, maybe too nice to be in management, and there's serious drama upstairs, especially involving the CEO, Mr Ramsey (Everett Sloane). At his first meeting, the topic is layoffs, and a vice president (Ed Begley) objects, which leads to some serious fireworks on the board.

Everett Sloane is marvelous as the company’s despicable president. I’ve never seen him better, and never seen him worse, because he always played characters like this — the efficient, no-nonsense master of everything. He played that character so often and so well, I've decided he was a son of a bitch in real life.

In the secretarial pool, the subservience of all the company's women is painful to watch, but it's true to the times. Van Heflin is built like a stick-man, so it’s hard to buy the movie's assertion that his character played football for Ohio State University. Most of the movie seems believable, though. It builds to something smashing, and you can smell Serling all over everything, which is always a plus.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Robot Jox (1989) 

The apocalypse was 50 ago, yadda yadda yadda, so war has finally been illegalized. Instead of soldiers and bombs, the few surviving nations settle their disputes by sending giant machines into one-on-one battles, with the machines piloted by each country’s finest pilots, called "robot jox."

There is nothing promising in that synopsis, but observe the credits: Story by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Fortress, Honey I Shrunk the Kids), script by Joe Haldeman (the novels The Forever War, Mindbridge, and Worlds Enough and Time). They weren't trying to make great science fiction, and they succeeded, but everyone on screen is having a terrific time, and you will, too. 

Gordon couldn't afford A-list actors, but Gary Graham, as the movie's main robot jock, seems so thoroughly Billy-Bob Thornton I was honestly surprised when the end credits told me he wasn't. Anne-Marie Johnson plays Maria Conchita Alonso from Predator 2 and The Running Man, and Michael Alldredge channels Slim Pickens so perfectly they should've sent a check to the Pickens estate.

The action and acting has every cliché you’d expect and a touch of wit you wouldn’t. Some of the effects are old-school stop-motion, and nicely done. There's enjoyable kickboxing, as the pilots train. The robot battles aren't quite convincing, but they're cool. Also, hooray for casting Hilary Mason (Don't Look Now) as a female scientist with wrinkles and experience, a cinematic breakthrough in itself.

I already liked this flick, and then came a simplistic but unexpected ending that gave me B-movie goosebumps. Yeah, Joe Haldeman wrote this.

Excellent action music, too, by someone named Frédéric Talgorn. Watch for Jeffrey Combs in a cameo. 

Verdict: YES. Exuberantly ridiculous.

♦ ♦ ♦

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

"It's not a play just about death. It's about everything — dating, earth, death, life, family, all that."

This was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also made Being John Malkovich, so you know it won't be normal. I love not-normal, of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if plenty of people hate this movie. You could plausibly argue that it's one of the most pretentious piles of crap ever filmed, or... it might be a grand summation of the futility, emptiness, and minimal accomplishments of being alive. Either opinion is valid, but I'm tending toward the latter.

First off, you have to respect a movie willing to title itself Synecdoche. Who's going to buy a ticket to something you can't even pronounce? To my surprise, synecdoche (səˈnekdəkē) is a genuine word in the English language, meaning something that's only part of something else, but represents all of it. If you grab a hamburger for lunch, for example, the hamburger represents all of lunch, even if you also grabbed fries and a shake.

Similarly, Synecdoche, New York is bigger than the confines of one town, or one sprawling play staged in an enormous warehouse. The odd title might be the most ordinary thing about the movie.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a locally-respected theatrical director named Caden Cotard. If opening night of Death of a Salesman doesn't provide him with enough jitters, he's also having issues with his health and his marriage, and his life is a collection of accumulating disasters. As everything goes wrong, the drama is amplified by dreams or fantasy sequences that all seem believable, relatable — yeah, that's exactly what an aging theater geek's inner life would be like.

Ever known any theater geeks? I have. They tend toward grand creativity and sensitivity but with all due affection and respect, they're often tiresome and pretentious people. Especially when they're older, like Hoffman here, but still believe Theater is Life!, the ultimate art, and if our next play is written and acted and lit exactly right, why, theater makes humanity beautiful. (That's horseshit, of course — all that is movies, not the theater.)

Well, this is very much a theater geek's film. It's a backstage pass to peek over and under and around the so-called fourth wall, as the world's hugest but also most intimate play is pondered and rehearsed but never performed. Who's on stage and who's directing and who's watching is all very subjective.

It's also your only chance to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman wipe his ass after taking a shit, and that, I submit, is the magic of cinema.

There's some serious Fat Man Syndrome here — the odd show-biz conceit where the leading man is a pudgy Pillsbury doughboy, but married to or pursued by women far thinner and more conventionally attractive. Hoffman's wife is Catherine Keener, and he's also involved with Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams. That's three gorgeous babes boinking a lumpy middle-aged man who looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is improbable to the brink of impossible, but in the world of Synecdoche it maybe makes more sense, because much or most of this is happening in Caden's mind.

Like I said and I'll say again, no guarantees on this one. You might crack your screen by tossing your remote at it — or you might quietly whisper Wow, like I did. 

Verdict: YES. Wow.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Umbrella (2016)

A man who's been through emotional trauma now carries an umbrella for protection. He opens it in times of trouble, holds it over his head, and it shields him from the world, same as an ordinary umbrella shields you from rainfall. Jared's umbrella, though, is as imaginary as its anti-crisis technology. 

That's a clever premise, but it's delicate. It would be easy to make it seem trite or gimmicky. This is a crowd-sourced film, so I was rooting for it, wanted to feel the allegory, but the movie itself kept getting in the way. 

In the establishing scene at the start, for example, Jared hears bad news while he's on a walk, triggering an internal crisis. For protection he opens his unseen umbrella, but then he stalls, frozen in a crosswalk after the light has changed.

What's needed is simply a view of this man, without an umbrella but standing in traffic as if he has one. Perhaps it's a stationary shot, or panning, or slowly zooming in or out, I don't care — but we must see the man standing under his absent umbrella. And we do, but the director shows it only for the briefest moment. If you scratch your ass for even a second, you'll miss it amid a quick-cut montage of reaction shots, sidewalk shots, and other irrelevant imagery.

Much or most of the camera work is hand-held and shaky, which is intended to convey 'realism' but instead shouts 'intended to convey realism'.

The music is mostly a tinkling piano and a choir of oohs and ahhs, not only for key emotional scenes, but all along the running time, which after a while invites mental illness for anyone listening.

There's a subplot about Jared's shrink, who has major issues of his own, but he and his wife speak only in clichés of psychoanalysis. After she kicks him out of the house, he asks her for a second chance while he's drinking whiskey at 10:00 in the morning, and she notices the whiskey, notices the time, but still gives him a second chance.

It's a response that feels false, and there's a lot of that here. In a movie ostensibly about coping with reality, there's minimal reality.

We see several mental patients, and they're all suffering from 'movie' mental illnesses. There's a man un-ironically wearing a tin-foil hat, and a movie-trope 'manic pixie dream girl' who's literally manic. The penultimate moment is a feel-good group therapy session that’s sweet — the music never lets you forget the sweetness — but what happens contradicts everything known about the treatment of mental illness. 

The umbrella analogy is excellent, but what they did with it is a disappointment. This is an inch-deep fairy tale of attainable sanity in our far-from-sane world. You could do worse. They could've done better.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951)

“A drama of real life,” says the subtitle. How real? IMDB says it's "an original story suggested and developed from the research of" one J Sterling Livingston, who was a professor at Harvard Business School. It's not as dry as you might expect from that pedigree, though.

There’s only one factory left in the town of Eaton Falls, making plastics, mostly knobs for TVs. To remain competitive, the facility needs to install new equipment that can turn out twice as many plastics — but then they’ll need only half the current workforce.

Brad (Lloyd Bridges) is the workers’ union rep, so he’s opposed to the looming layoffs, but he sees management’s bottom-line dilemma. So does the movie, of course. Moviemaking has always been a big business, so you know where the script’s sympathies are likely to lie, and I watched skeptically as the story unfolded.

When the company’s owner is killed in a wreck, his lawyer urges the appointment of some prick to take over as the company’s new president, but instead the owner's widow (Lillian Gish) wants Brad — the union rep. "Now’s your chance to be the kind of management that labor says it wants." The job offer is not a trick or a gimmick; she sincerely believes he’s the man for the job, so he takes it.

There’s one bad guy in management, and one bad guy in the union, which seems fake 'fair and balanced' to me. I don't know about the movie's era, but in our time certainly, pick an industry, pick a company, and management is out to strangle the workers, full stop.

And here's the movie's bottom-line issue, again: All the numbers say that the plant needs new equipment, and mass layoffs. The company's new CEO is a union guy, so what’s he gonna do?

Without giving anything away, the dilemma's resolution is about as realistic as, well, as having only one guy in all of management who’s unfair to labor.

That said, it’s an interesting story, set in a marvelous world where both sides are reasonable. I'm skeptical that world ever existed, but it’s a nice place to visit for an hour and a half, and I’m not allergic to a feel-good ending.

The economic issues are presented both fairly and cinematically, so it’s an involving story, and the movie doesn't take sides. It's more interested in the characters than the politics, which is as it should be. It's entertainment, not a documentary.

Midway through, there’s a small-town dance at the barn, and a couple of locals sing schmaltzy songs. This is why God created the fast-forward button.

Verdict: YES. Why not?

♦ ♦ ♦

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  





    1. Damn, I thought I'd be the first fake response, with Gene Kelly from "Singin' In The Rain."

    2. Gene Kelly was an animal, though.

      Pip pip!

    3. I can see no reason someone can't be a fan of Gene Kelly AND Fred Astaire, but, at least in my generation, it often doesn't work out that way. I thought Kelly was terrific in Inherit the Wind. For dancing, though, Fred Astaire in a bad movie beats Gene Kelly in a good one. See also, The Way You Look Tonight.


    4. A made-up competition, I think, like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, who were friends.

      I'll side with you and Fred Astaire, though. Can't say who's a better dancer because I can't walk to the fridge without tripping, but on-screen Fred always seemed to be having more fun than Gene.

    5. I'm in big trouble if one needs to be able to competently mimic the endeavor to have an opinion on the real participants.

      Wilt and Bill only competed when their teams played each other, but in their time, most roundball fans had an opinion on which he/she they would draft first. Chamberlain was more than tall of course, and a scoring machine. It just always seemed to me that Russell didn't get enough credit for his defense and passing. The great Boston/LA championship series of the 60s were a kick in the pants to watch. The vast majority of the players on both teams were making five figures, including playoff bonuses.

      Of course, Russell became a very popular figure as coach of the Sonics. The last Sonics game I attended, Russell was coaching. As nearly as I can tell, Russell and Chamberlain both lived their lives as gentlemen (and Russell still is), and I'd take either before I'd invite anyone playing today to join my team, although I'm a little out of touch with basketball. Is Jordan still playing?


    6. I wasn't a sports watcher when I was a kid so I never saw him play, but like you I've admired Mr Russell's playing.

      Not so sure about his coaching. Remember the Sonics' big turnaround season, 77-78? It surprises me that I can pull these numbers out of my head with no research, but I'm pretty sure I'm right cuz it's tattooed on my brain. I was a big basketball fan then...

      They started 5-17 under Russell, fired him, and the new coach, Lenny Wilkins, launched an immediate turnaround and took the team to the finals.

      But yeah, I've seen footage, and Russell was arguably the best, period.

      Google says Jordan is retired. I wouldn't know. Haven't watched a moment of the game in years.

  2. Great movie!!! I'm always glad when I take your advice -- Patterns is like an undiscovered episode of Twilight Zone but without any supernatural elements. Just a great movie!!!

    1. Can you imagine anyone in a board meeting these days arguing against layoffs? At first I wanted to argue against that scene but it's the 1950s and Serling knows the 50s better than me. Any exec saying that today would get fired on the spot.


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