Tag Archives: David Strathairn

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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Temple Grandin (2010, Mick Jackson)

The best thing about Temple Grandin is Claire Danes’s performance. She even gets through the parts where she’s thirty playing fifteen. It’s a biopic, there a lot of flashbacks. Director Jackson tries to use a lot of visual transitions for them, but they really succeed because of the teleplay and the performances. To give some credit to Jackson though, it’s not like there’s a lot of de-aging attempts. Temple Grandin’s stylistically simple, but Jackson does seem to understand Danes is the whole show and do everything he can to facilitate her performance.

In a way, having Danes portray the character or is it person when talking about a biopic–anyway. Having her play in the flashbacks forces the viewer to think about the actor, think about her performance. Jackson’s so bland, you’re not even considering it as a creative choice. Instead, the film creates another narrative track. Where’s Danes performance going?

Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson’s teleplay has a lot of detail, but not a lot of exposition. The information dumps are sudden and big. There’s barely any time spent enjoying or appreciating. It’s functionally fluid, pragmatically plotted.

Then sometime in the second half, after all the flashbacks are done, Julia Ormond–playing Danes’s mother–comes back into the film. Even though Ormond and Danes don’t have any relaxed scenes together for the first third at least, gradually–after Ormond is off-screen for a bit–it becomes clear there’s a similar performance. Danes’s performance is off Ormond’s performance. And then when they’re together more often in the second half, there’s so much more of it to see. It’s really cool and, you know, phenomenal acting.

David Strathairn’s great as Danes’s mentor. Catherine O’Hara’s good as her aunt (and Ormond’s sister). They’re both functional parts, but Strathairn gets a lot more to do. By the second act, O’Hara’s only around to tell Ormond what Danes is doing or not doing. Like I said, it’s a functional film. Very functional.

There aren’t any other standouts in the supporting cast because there aren’t many distinct characters. There are likable caricatures and unlikable ones. No one has a role so much as a function–give Danes something good to play off. And they all do.

Temple Grandin is an superior television biopic. (It’s not TV, it’s HBO). But Danes, Ormond, and even Strathairn and O’Hara could’ve done a lot more if they’d had an ambitious director. Still, Jackson does understand how to showcase his actors. So the performances don’t suffer, they just deserve the same level of filmmaking. And, like any biopic, it helps the real Temple Grandin’s got a terrific life story.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mick Jackson; teleplay by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson, based on books by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scariano; director of photography, Ivan Strasburg; edited by Leo Trombetta; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Richard Hoover; produced by Scott Ferguson; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Claire Danes (Temple Grandin), Julia Ormond (Eustacia), David Strathairn (Dr. Carlock), and Catherine O’Hara (Aunt Ann).


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Lovesick (1983, Marshall Brickman)

Lovesick is an unassuming comedy. Director Brickman will occasionally bring in frantic, sitcom-like plotting to jazz things up momentarily, but otherwise the film’s exceedingly calm and measured. It only runs ninety-some minutes; it’s gradual, without much conflict at all–in fact, when there’s conflict introduced, Dudley Moore’s protagonist will actually relieve pressure on the situation. It’s strange.

Moore’s an analyst who becomes infatuated with a patient–Elizabeth McGovern–and finds his life in upheaval. Brickman carefully layers in how the upheaval causes Moore’s self-discovery. These are little asides, never the focus of a scene or conversation. It’s very confident stuff, especially since Brickman also goes the extreme route of having Alec Guinness (as Freud’s ghost) counseling Moore about his life.

Alec Guinness as Freud, John Huston as Moore’s mentor. The film’s got excellent performances all around–Selma Diamond runs rings around Alan King, who’s also good–but Guinness and Huston give Lovesick a lot of charm.

So does McGovern, who has to become a character in a few scenes after she’s revealed as the object of Moore’s affection.

Also good in smaller parts are Ron Silver, Larry Rivers, Wallace Shawn and Anne Kerry. At times, if it weren’t Gerry Fisher’s exquisite photography and some excellent composition from Brickman, Lovesick feels like a little thing Brickman got together and worked on with his friends in their spare time.

The film’s gentle, sweet, rewarding. It’s always genial and never without charm, but gets rather good in the second half.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Marshall Brickman; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Nina Feinberg; music by Philippe Sarde; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Charles Okun; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dudley Moore (Saul Benjamin), Elizabeth McGovern (Chloe Allen), John Huston (Larry Geller, M.D.), Alan King (Lionel Gross, M.D.), Gene Saks (Frantic Patient), Wallace Shawn (Otto Jaffe), Ron Silver (Ted Caruso), Renée Taylor (Mrs. Mondragon), Anne De Salvo (Case Interviewer), Selma Diamond (Harriet Singer, M.D.), David Strathairn (Marvin Zuckerman) and Alec Guinness (Sigmund Freud).


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Dolores Claiborne (1995, Taylor Hackford)

Dolores Claiborne isn’t just a mother and daughter picture… it’s not just a mother and daughter picture made by a bunch of men (directed by a man, produced by men, screenplay by a man based on a novel by a man), it’s Panavision visual experience mother and daughter picture. Director Hackford–ably assisted by Gabriel Beristain’s photography–creates a vivid, lush visual experience. It’s stunning; every time Hackford intensifies the color scheme, it heightens the film’s impact. He does a fantastic job.

Watching Claiborne–for the first time since I was a teenager, probably–I noticed how Kathy Bates’s titular protagonist has, through a trauma, become unstuck in time. It all makes sense, by the end of the film, as a traditional narrative arc for the character, but Hackford’s then got to account for the Technicolor flashbacks (versus the drab modern day). And he does.

Hackford includes a Vonnegut reference, a very quiet one, and it’s hard not to see it as intentional, given those time slips. Hackford’s whole composition scheme is based on those slips and how they jar both the viewer and the character.

There shouldn’t be enough story for a film here, certainly not one running over two hours. With Hackford, Tony Gilroy’s script and Bates’s spellbinding (not one of my regular adjectives) performance, there’s more than enough. Actually, it ends too soon.

Outstanding supporting performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn and Judy Parfitt further deepen the film.

Excellent Danny Elfman score.

Claiborne‘s superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Taylor Hackford; screenplay by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Stephen King; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Mark Warner; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by Hackford and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Selena St. George), Judy Parfitt (Vera Donovan), Christopher Plummer (Det. John Mackey), David Strathairn (Joe St. George), Eric Bogosian (Peter), John C. Reilly (Const. Frank Stamshaw), Ellen Muth (Young Selena), Bob Gunton (Mr. Pease) and Roy Cooper (Magistrate).


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