Tag Archives: Cinecom Pictures

The Brother from Another Planet (1984, John Sayles)

Despite being about an alien who crash lands on Earth and finds himself stranded in New York City, The Brother from Another Planet takes its time getting to being a fish out of water story. Even when it does, it’s more like a fish being carefully transported in a cup of water to maybe some more water story. Writer-director-editor Sayles and star Joe Morton create this perfect point of entry–the alien (Morton) who crash lands and discovers New York–and then they entirely ignore that possiblity. Morton’s alien can’t speak. The viewer has his backstory, but no understanding.

So when Morton’s moving into a location, even though the viewer is meeting new characters simultaneous to Morton, it’s flipped because the humans are trying to figure him out just like the viewer. Sayles balances it perfectly. Morton’s calm, silent, which gives Sayles room to fill the soundtrack with conversation and sound and music. As the viewer finds their footing in how Sayles is telling this story, the style changes as the story develops. Brother has an incredibly peculiar structure.

Morton’s in New York, looks human besides his feet, and has magic fixing things (technical and biological) powers. He’s a Black man and he’s in Harlem. He goes to a bar, meets its regulars, and Sayles sets up almost half the movie. Brother’s present action is short–seems like around a week–and Sayles doesn’t pace it evenly. All the setup is also important because the characters all recur. Because in the middle of the first half, where Morton’s a fish out of water but not having that experience (he’s being treated as a human in need, not a marooned space alien), Sayles reveals Morton’s on the run.

He’s on the run from Sayles. And–wait for it–David Strathairn. They’re credited simply “Men in Black.” And they’re aliens too. Only they can talk and screech like angry cats when they get excited. And they run like morons. They’re hilarious. Because Brother’s a comedy. It’s occasionally serious, it’s occasionally scary, but it’s a comedy.

Except when it’s not. Because in the second half, it becomes this gentle romance and also this gritty crime procedural. Only, in the case of the latter, it’s out of nowhere because the viewer isn’t privy to Morton’s thoughts. It’s all guesses. Sayles doesn’t fetishize the mystery either. It’s just part of Morton’s character; despite being the lead, the film isn’t from his perspective. He’s always the lead, but only sometimes the protagonist.

Morton’s phenomenal. He’s got to let the audience in, but never the cast. He actually doesn’t get much to do at the beginning, once opening set piece is done. He gets more to do in the second half and it’s an abrupt, graceful transition. Sayles’s plotting of the film is exquisite. He’s got this big cast and everyone gets a lot to do. They don’t get it all at once, they’re never fighting for room, they just–eventually–all get a lot to do. It does mean sometimes a great supporting performance doesn’t get much more material, but it also means sometimes the great performance comes later in the role. It’s uneven, but graceful. Morton, Sayles, composers Martin Brody and Mason Daring, they all keep the moments consistent, even if there’s a big style change.

Sayles indulges without ever losing track of the story or Morton. His editing is great. The rhythm he creates, once Morton steps into the bar, has so much depth, it fits the supporting cast. And the supporting cast is big and excellent.

The bar guys are Daryl Edwards, Steve James, Leonard Jackson, and Bill Cobbs. They’re great. Tom Wright and Maggie Renzi are social workers. They’re great. Wright is playing the hero of a stranded space alien story, but doesn’t know it and Sayles isn’t interested in doing that story. Wright’s just the more traditional protagonist.

Caroline Aaron, Rosetta LeNoire; great. Jaime Tirelli… awesome. Fisher Stevens, awesome. Then there’s Dee Dee Bridgewater who sets off a completely different rhythm and type of storytelling. It’s like the first act of Bridgewater’s movie got dropped into the second act of Brother. But it works because Sayles has established the irregular pace.

Bridgewater’s great. Of course she’s great.

Good photography from Ernest R. Dickerson. Sayles’s composition is pragmatic and tied into Morton’s narrative distance and the script. Dickerson help makes it seem ambitious.

It’s great. The Brother from Another Planet is another one of those great movies where I just say “great” a lot because I think the repetition, despite employing the same adjective over and over, is also accurate. It’s great. Things are great about it. It’s a masterful delight.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by John Sayles; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; music by Martin Brody and Mason Daring; production designer, Nora Chavooshian; produced by Peggy Rajski and Maggie Renzi; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Joe Morton (The Brother), Dee Dee Bridgewater (Malverne Davis), Steve James (Odell), Bill Cobbs (Walter), Leonard Jackson (Smokey), Daryl Edwards (Fly), Tom Wright (Sam), Caroline Aaron (Randy Sue Carter), Herb Newsome (Little Earl), Jaime Tirelli (Hector), Maggie Renzi (Noreen), John Sayles (Man In Black), David Strathairn (Man In Black), and Rosetta LeNoire (Mama).


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Monkey Grip (1982, Ken Cameron)

Adaptations of non-epic novels tend to be the best source for non-original films. Of course, a film and a novel are different forms. The difference needs to be respected and the film form needs to be more considered. It’s a difficult process–it requires real thought and attention. The neon sign of carelessness in an filmic adaptation of a prose work would have to be the narration lifted directly from the source material. Monkey Grip is full of that narration. It’s used as a bridging device, often when the main character, played by Noni Hazlehurst, is biking. Because, as we all know, people don’t bike to get from point A to point B, they bike to think about life’s mysteries. Occasionally–two or three times–the film doesn’t use that bridging device and forces the viewer to discern changes in time, place, and character relationships. At those times, Monkey Grip works fine. Well even. In addition to being a lazy device, the narration isn’t particularly well-written. In fact, when it goes on for more than a couple sentences, it’s bad. Monkey Grip, the novel, very well may be a bad novel. Unless a bad novel is bad because it features ghosts or dinosaurs, it does not have much filmic potential. I’m just guessing, but the closing narration was so poorly written, it was enough to take a half star off my rating for the film. The writing is bad.

The film’s about a divorced woman with a daughter who works in the Melbourne music industry. I have memories of seeing a movie and seeing people excited their music and being perplexed because the music was so bad. This viewing must have been when I was kid, but I can’t remember what it would have been. Whatever the genre of music in Monkey Grip–it’s pop, but pop changes; I’m sure if its Australian New Wave. It’s bad. The woman can’t sing. The lyrics are stupid. It’s painful. But I let it go, because Hazlehurst is a sad looking woman and she’s playing a sad woman and it’s fine. I could tell Monkey Grip wasn’t going to be anything special–you can tell with dramas, except Japanese family dramas, those tend to fall apart at end–and I was willing to put up with the narration.

The real problem with the film is its unawareness of itself. The Monkey Grip of the title is Hazlehurst’s heroin addict, actor boyfriend’s hold on her. He’s played by Colin Friels, who’s fine. His character is empty because the film is so empty. He’s supposed to be good looking and charming. Well, Colin Friels is good looking and charming, so that’s supposed to be enough… Actually, for the first half of the film, it is. In the first, the narration goes on and on about his outbursts, but we don’t even see one until fifty-five minutes into the film. This subject starts, in the narration, five minutes into the film. Lot of summary storytelling here, since Monkey Grip takes place over a year (exactly no less, same beginning and ending setting too, real cute). So Hazlehurst has to take care of Friels and it’s a simile for having a child who grows up and moves away. It’s not a metaphor because Hazlehurst tells Friels it’s like having a child who grows up and moves away, which it’s the nudity-laden sex scenes all the more weird.

But, Hazlehurst doesn’t have a visible relationship with the daughter. The kid’s cute. Her job is to be cute, nothing else. Precocious maybe. The film doesn’t recognize this oversight on the character’s part (since it’s an attempt at a first person point of view) and it makes Hazlehurst’s character hard to take seriously. There’s a scene where she flips because there’s a heroin needle out and her roommate doesn’t know about the heroin use… but the kid does. The attempt at the “old soul” kid and the childish mother, which the film tries to establish from the third or fourth scene, fails throughout. It’s unfortunate, since the kid, played by Alice Garner, probably gives the film’s best performance. Garner is actually the novel writer’s daughter–and, if you look it up on Wikipedia, there’s an explanation about the entire cast of characters being on the dole. That situation was never explained in the film and all the actors, who are pretty bad, look way too old to be in college.

Since the direction’s so pat, it’s impossible to get interested in Monkey Grip. For most of the film, the narration is a poor choice, only getting bad toward the end (it even disappears for fifteen minutes or so, which is great). While fails to engage the viewer, it’s not awful… However, the less said about the scary movie music (it reminds of John Carpenter’s Halloween score) and the low motion shots, the better.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Cameron; screenplay by Cameron, based on the novel by Helen Garner; director of photography, David Gribble; edited by David Huggett; music by Bruce Smeaton; production designer, Clark Munro; produced by Patricia Lovell; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Noni Hazlehurst (Nora), Colin Friels (Javo), Alice Garner (Gracie), Harold Hopkins (Willie), Candy Raymond (Lillian), Michael Caton (Clive), Tim Burns (Martin), Christina Amphlett (Angela) and Don Miller-Robinson (Gerald).


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Matewan (1987, John Sayles)

What was that? Did anyone else see that? (Probably not, I’m watching the Canadian widescreen DVD).

Sayles actually ripped off the looking at the camera bit from The 400 Blows. He actually did it–while having the characters future self narrate the epilogue. I’ve been dreading watching Matewan for over a year, since April 2004 in fact. I thought the dread came from my having only seen Matewan in school, but I guess I was just being smart. Matewan is easily Sayles’ worst film. It’s also one of his only “bad” ones. Matewan isn’t that bad, of course (get to that in a second), it’s just propaganda. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but it’s also propaganda. Management abusing labor is a fact and it’s a crime and Matewan is accurate in its depiction of it. But. Sayles presents one agent of management as a human being. The rest are not. The rest are villains. So, if there’s a shoot out with the villains, it’s impossible to care about them, impossible to think their deaths are at all a tragedy. Their deaths are weightless. Even Lethal Weapon 2 made excuses about its level of violence. It’s a disappointment, but Matewan is also Sayles’ first “big” film and it obviously got away from him.

There are signs of the Sayles goodness, of course. There are lots of interesting characters, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s still too much of a story, instead of all the little stories that usually propel his films. There’s the Sayles cast, Chris Cooper and David Straithairn and Mary McDonnell are all excellent, Cooper the most. It’s hard to believe he didn’t become a vanilla leading man after Matewan.

I’m incredibly upset about this film… I was off movies because Stripes was so shitty, because an Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray picture was so painfully mediocre (and unfunny). What is a bad John Sayles movie going to do to me?

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Sayles; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sonya Polonsky; music by Mason Daring; production designer, Nora Chavooshian; produced by Maggie Renzi and Peggy Rajski; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Chris Cooper (Joe Kenehan), James Earl Jones (‘Few Clothes’ Johnson), Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor), Will Oldham (Danny Radnor), David Strathairn (Police Chief Sid Hatfield), Ken Jenkins (Sephus Purcell), Gordon Clapp (Griggs), Kevin Tighe (Hickey), John Sayles (Hardshell Preacher), Bob Gunton (C.E. Lively), Josh Mostel (Mayor Cabell Testerman), Nancy Mette (Bridey Mae), Jace Alexander (Hillard Elkins), Joe Grifasi (Fausto), Gary McCleery (Ludie), Jo Henderson (Mrs. Elkins), Maggie Renzi (Rosaria), Tom Wright (Tom), Michael B. Preston (Ellix), Tom Carlin (Turley) and Jenni Cline (Luann).


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