Monday, January 21, 2013

The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

John Sayles is a director whose work exemplifies the nature of independent film. In his career, he only directed one film on which he didn't have final cut authority (Baby, It's You). Most of his film budgets have been on shoestrings, but the films generally look good and focus on some sort of political or cultural perspective that interests him. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, he racked up a string of great movies as good as any 5 or 6 consecutive films that any director has made. I can't speak highly enough of Matewan, Eight Men Out, or Lone Star, which garnered Sayles an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Another film during this period, Passion Fish, received two Oscar nominations -- an Original Screenplay nomination for Sayles and a Best Actress nomination for Mary McDonnell. I haven't seen Passion Fish or the other highly acclaimed Sayles movies in this rich period -- The Secret of Roan Inish and City of Hope. And if Sayles's output from the last 15 years or so hasn't hit the heights of his most fertile period, there are still a lot of good aspects to films like Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys, or Limbo.

The Brother from Another Planet was Sayles's last film before his acclaimed streak that started with Matewan. It isn't as polished as Sayles's films that came afterwards, but it takes some chances too. Unlike most of Sayles's work that I've seen, The Brother from Another Planet is a comedy. And like most of the best comedies, there is an underlying social message. In this instance, it seems to be an allegory for the plight of immigrants in America.

In the movie, an alien lands in New York City. Because he resembles an African-American man (albeit with three toes on each foot), he finds himself in Harlem. The alien is mute but he has the ability to heal and to fix mechanical items. He finds acceptance and assistance with the bartender and patrons of a neighborhood bar. However, two Men in Black arrive looking for the mute alien, but they are thwarted in their attempts to find him by the friends that the alien has made. Apparently these Men in Black are some type of alien bounty hunters.

Joe Morton plays the mute alien with sweetness and a mix of both confusion and intelligence. It's a wonderful performance and gives the film tremendous emotional heft. I particularly liked the scenes that were set in the neighborhood bar because of the camaraderie of the patrons. It reminded me of TVs Cheers, where everybody knows your name. The Men in Black were played mostly for laughs by Sayles himself and David Strathairn. The first times that I had ever seen Strathairn's work were in Matewan and Eight Men Out He was excellent in both, and clearly his association with Sayles goes back even further. Sayles's longtime significant other and producing partner, Maggie Renzi, turns in a nice supporting performance as a clerk in a welfare office.

Sayles's script for The Brother from Another Planet is uneven. The special effects are amateurish due to the low budget. Despite the films premise, there isn't much sci-fi to it. The films humor is understated rather than being broad-stroked and bold like Mork & Mindy. The gentleness of the film's tone is its great strength. In the final analysis, there are lots of things to admire about the movie despite its imperfections. Grade: B.

I watched this movie on Netflix Streaming on January 14, 2013.

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