John Sayles Collection: The Brother from Another Planet Review

Baby It’s You is an excellent film which made a good few Best lists for that year.
A spacecraft lands in the Hudson river. An alien (Joe Morton), who resembles a black human but is unable to speak, emerges from it. He soon finds himself in Harlem but two bounty-hunting Men in Black (John Sayles and David Strathairn) are on his tail…

After Lianna, Sayles made Baby It’s You for Paramount. A Sixties-set wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story starring Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano, with early roles for Matthew Modine and Robert Downey Jr, Baby It’s You was released two months after Lianna in early 1983. This was not an altogether happy experience for Sayles: he was denied final cut – something he’s made sure to have since – and the film was an abject flop at the box office, not gaining a British release for a year and a half. On the other hand, inevitably slicker due to being able to draw on major-studio resources (35mm photography by Michael Ballhaus, Bruce Springsteen’s first-ever contributions to a film soundtrack), Baby It’s You is an excellent film which made a good few Best lists for that year. A DVD would be welcome.

As a result, Sayles went back to his roots. The Brother from Another Planet was shot independently in New York, like his first two features in 16mm with the intention of blowing up to 35mm for cinema distribution. (His DP, making his feature debut, was Ernest Dickerson, who was Spike Lee’s regular cinematographer and is now a director himself.) In place of the character based comedy-dramas he had previously made, Brother is an all-out comedy that harks back to the B-movies that Sayles had grown up watching, latter-day examples of which he had written for Roger Corman.)

Although The Brother from Another Planet has something of a cult following, I find it the weakest of the three films in this boxset. The storyline collapses into a series of scenes and setpieces, strung along a flimsy plot, which don’t really build. And the pacing is definitely off – like a real B-movie this needed to come in at a snappy eighty minutes or so. Unfortunately it’s half an hour longer than that, and does drag in more than a few places. But it certainly has its moments, one of which is Fisher Stevens’s early role (he’s also in Baby It’s You) as a card sharp the alien meets on the subway.

The Brother from Another Planet is notable in that its central character does not say a single word throughout, not even a voiceover. The film relies on Joe Morton’s mime abilities, which are considerable. You sense this is Sayles challenging himself: by far his strong suit as a writer is his ear for dialogue – so what happens when you take that away? As it happens, he doesn’t: most of the supporting cast make up for Morton’s silence. I’m not best qualified to judge, but the film has been commended by African-American groups for its accurate rendition of black speech.

The Brother from Another Planet is at present only available as part of Optimum’s three-disc John Sayles Collection boxset. As with the other films in the set, it is presented on a single-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. Likewise, the film begins with text credits relating to its preservation in the UCLA Film and Television Archive which along with distributor idents adds fifty seconds to the running time.

The film is presented in a ratio of 4:3 open-matte. As with Lianna, the intended ratio is 1.85:1. Given a widescreen TV, you can zoom the image to 16:9 – and I recommend that you do that – but it would surely be better to have provided an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio. As the running time (109:26 including the text credits and idents referred to above) matches that of the cinema release (108:31 according to the BBFC), you suspect a standards conversion, though there aren’t the usual signs such as ghosting apparent. If I’m right and this is a NTSC-to-PAL conversion, then the only PAL edition released in the UK was the original Virgin video release of 1987. Grainy and soft the transfer may be – given its 16mm origins, you can hardly expect otherwise – but it’s a little too dark for my liking.

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was on its cinema release. Especially near the beginning there are some sound effects which would have benefited from being made directional, but as this is the original soundtrack I can’t mark it down. Dialogue is generally audible though some may struggle with strong Harlem accents. Once again, Optimum have not provided any subtitles, which means that the hard-of-hearing, non-native English speakers and anyone who might struggle with said accents will all lose out. There really is no excuse for this nowadays.

No extras. Probably the most we could have hoped for, apart from a trailer (and there was one) would be a Sayles commentary.

Given.that all three films are available on Region 1 (with commentaries) and that the two later films have anamorphic OAR transfers, I find it hard to recommend this box set. Although you will no doubt find it cheaper than its RRP of £29.99, that is still too much for three barebones discs with non-anamorphic transfers. The films themselves are certainly worth having, but unless you find this set heavily reduced in a sale I’d recommend looking elsewhere.

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