David Strathairn

In the Gloaming (1997, Christopher Reeve)

In the Gloaming is a qualified success. If you’re trying to go for humanizing a guy dying of AIDS while his upper middle class White yuppie family is slow to realize he’s a dying person who they probably ought not to avoid because they’ll regret it… it does that job. Gloaming is an hour-long HBO movie, based on a New Yorker story, all set in and around Glenn Close and David Strathairn’s picture perfect home in Westchester County, New York. Straithairn presumably works in the city, but it’s never actually clear. Doesn’t really matter. Just they’ve got enough money to have a gorgeous house but no servants.

And son Robert Sean Leonard has come home to die.

The film’s a series of what you know the filmmakers would prefer you think of as vignettes, as Close bonds with Leonard while Strathairn gets pissy. Close has to overcome the fear she’s responsibility for Leonard being gay because she was nice to him as a kid. She wasn’t as nice to his sister, Bridget Fonda, who grew up to be too much of a yuppie even for Close, off married with child, but the son and husband don’t come around because AIDS is gross and so’s Leonard being gay. But it’s okay because Fonda’s going to cry when he’s dead? Maybe. Not resolved. The vignettes are more like clips of the character development without any follow-up. Like when Strathairn, finally coming to terms with Leonard’s impending death, thinks it’s a good time to go for some martial relations with Close. No follow-up on that one.

Plus Whoopi Goldberg’s just around as the nurse, who eventually makes Close feel better about herself.

The film’s… comprised. Screenwriter Will Scheffer does not have the chops to make the strained manners of the bourgeois somehow say more than if Strathairn actually sat down and had a conversation with Leonard. They talk a lot about how it’s going to happen, then never does. Because Strathairn’s a terrible guy, even though he grows tomatoes for Close to cook him even though he doesn’t like tomatoes much. But we’ve got to understand Strathairn’s position–he just wanted what must be a macho man in Westchester County 1997, a tennis playing gardener man. Instead he got son Leonard, who went off to Berkeley and became gay. Meanwhile, why doesn’t anyone love Fonda enough, she’s doing her part, working full-time and wearing pantsuits and being mean to her own son so he doesn’t turn out gay.

Yes, Gloaming is from 1997. Yes, it’s from HBO. Yes, it’s from a New Yorker story (but 1997 New Yorker so… I mean… right?). But it has a lot it’s not willing to address. Scared to address. Leaving Strathairn, Fonda, and Goldberg with somewhat pointless parts. Fonda’s scary good as the shittiest human being and Goldberg’s at least likable. Strathairn’s just tiresome. He’s a one note caricature, with some “details” thrown in to round him. Doesn’t work.

So after two paragraphs dunking on it, why is In the Gloaming a qualified success?

Because the stuff with Leonard and Close, as they bond and work through his imminent mortality—mind you, they don’t get real character development in the script because of that vignette structure–it’s great work from Close and Leonard. The script limits them, sure. But Reeve works the hell out of their scenes together. And it resolves their relationship just right. Then ruins it with the actual last scene, which is an eye-roll and a half.

But Leonard and Close. They’re real good. They do so much with… not so little, but so… comprised a material. They refuse to let it limit their performances, which is cool.

Reeve’s direction is fine. He likes crane shots and doesn’t get to do enough of them. Good photography from Frederick Elmes. David Ray’s editing is a little too hurried, which is strange because of the the oddly manipulative nature montages–it’s like HBO is slamming their affluent viewers over the head with, “It could be your sons too, White women ages 45-55 who like Glenn Close!”—but then Ray’s got no sense of cutting when it comes to the dialogue scenes.

It’s like Reeve tried to direct it as a stage adaptation but without the play backbone.

Very heavily Scottish-influenced Dave Grusin score, which is weird (and figures into the plot); it’s a good score, it’s just a lot.

But it’s definitely a missed opportunity overall. It’s aged like flat root beer.

So, technically, earnestly, but unenthusiastically:

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Reeve; teleplay by Will Scheffer, based on a story by Alice Elliott Dark; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by David Ray; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Andrew Jackness; costume designer, Jane Greenwood; produced by Nellie Nugiel; aired by HBO.

Starring Glenn Close (Janet), Robert Sean Leonard (Danny), David Strathairn (Martin), Bridget Fonda (Anne), and Whoopi Goldberg (Myrna).


Interrogation (2020) s01e10 – I.A. Sgt. Ian Lynch & Det. Brian Chen vs Trey Carano

The last episode. Finally the last episode. One could come up with the best order to watch the show, which isn’t the episode number order but also doesn’t work entirely randomly because some episodes jump ahead six years and whatnot—also there’s no point in making the order because you shouldn’t watch the show—but the finale’s really a follow-up to the ninth episode. It’s finally Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s episode; it’s 2003, Moss-Bachrach is dying from AIDS, he wants to set the record straight.

See, it turns out Kyle Gallner and Moss-Bachrach had a deal with Hells Angel drug dealer Blake Gibbons to rob Gallner’s parents house. Even though Moss-Bachrach wasn’t there, he’s got a pretty good idea of what happened, which he tells Vincent D’Onofrio and Tim Chiou, who’s back from a few episodes ago. Chiou’s there to keep D’Onofrio from playing detective too much. Given the show opens with text explaining how cold case detectives approach a case, maybe it also should’ve noted there aren’t any cold case detectives in “Interrogation.” None of the cops—save D’Onofrio—is trying to figure out who killed Joanna Going.

Because even if the cops think Peter Sarsgaard is dirty, they don’t care about solving the case. If the show had any stones, it’d be a condemnation of the Los Angeles police department. Instead, it shrugs.

Then there’s some more stuff with Andre Royo getting some evidence under the table and how it leads to Gallner eventually getting out of prison. Sadly Eric Roberts is only in it for a scene.

The big finish is obnoxious—hopefully “Interrogation” won’t be the last thing director Ernest R. Dickerson ever does because it’s not a good capstone for anyone—and leads to the not big but ostensibly emotionally momentous showdown between Sarsgaard and Gallner in the “present.”

Gallner does the rounds on true crime podcasts, then drives around L.A. reminiscing. Some really bad reminiscing; Dickerson does a terrible job with it.

But as a reminder to who the real bad guy and the real reason for all this tragedy, “Interrogation” ends demonizing Joanna Going as a bad mom again in the postscript. She didn’t want to hold the baby her husband fathered in an affair. What a bitch. Obviously she deserved to die.

It’s kind of amazing how poorly the show treats her. But only kind of, as “Interrogation”’s always doing one thing or another amazingly poorly.

Interrogation (2020) s01e05 – Det. Dave Russell vs Chris Keller 1983

Still the eighties, still the investigation. Though we do get to see David Strathairn and Peter Sarsgaard facing off after the murder. Sarsgaard is very whispery with Strathairn, who’s telling him to investigate Kyle Gallner’s friend, third-billed but rarely onscreen for very long Kodi Smit-McPhee.

This episode—eventually—has Sarsgaard interviewing Smit-McPhee in order to rule him out as a suspect. Unfortunately for Sarsgaard, Smit-McPhee seems really guilty. He lies about visiting Joanna Going—wow, she really gets the crap work in the flashbacks, time and again—and then there’s a goofy knife fight as Smit-McPhee self-aggrandizes in his interview with Sarsgaaard.

Is it an interrogation? Not really. But it seems like there’d be interview tapes or a transcript to dramatize. For a while it seems like Sarsgaard might actually be giving a better performance when his shady cop is actually doing his job—Frank Whaley’s back, playing the voice of reason and good cop here—but it doesn’t last long with Sarsgaard.

He’s bad again before he gets home and the show reveals why he doesn’t pursue valid second suspect Smit-McPhee. See, Smit-McPhee was in another state so good family man Sarsgaard had to abandon pregnant wife Ellen Humphreys to go interview him. In the other state—New Mexico, I think; doesn’t matter—there’s a female detective, which has some unspoken subtext, played by Roberta Colindrez. Colindrez lets Sarsgaard know pretty early on if he wants to play it dirty on this case, she’ll help him. He gets indignant about her suggestion he’s not going to do his job well.

So why does Sarsgaard let Smit-McPhee go after lying and go all in on Gallner—who spends the episode a juvenile in county jail, in the “Snitch Tank,” where Sarsgaard sends him to try to gin up a jail house witness—Sarsgaard goes all in on Gallner because Humphreys has a miscarriage and she’s really needy about it and so he’s not going to neglect her just to get the right killer.

Kind of a wow reveal, kind of an icky, passively misogynistic reveal—see, Sarsgaard would never have been a bad cop if it weren’t for his needy wife and her female problems—but, hey, on par for “Interrogation.”

Given the kid gloves the show usually takes with Sarsgaard’s dirty cop, it’s a bit of a surprise to see them go all in on the miscarriage explanation.

Interrogation (2020) s01e04 – L.A. County Psychologist Marjorie Thompson vs. Eric Fisher 1984

One of the few benefits of watching “Interrogation” in a non-linear fashion is initially missing out on certain trope episodes, like this one. This one is the trial, with a very poorly exposited look at Kyle Gallner’s trip through the criminal justice system as a minor.

Albeit as a thirty-four year-old playing a minor.

See, Gallner initially went into juvie, with psychiatrist—third “Wire” casting and totally wasted—Sonja Sohn showing up for the episode to try to decide whether or not Gallner should be tried as a minor or not.

Obvious spoiler—and not just if you jump around the episodes—is Gallner does end up tried and convicted as an adult and, although Peter Sarsgaard still has it out for Gallner… Sohn never gets to really give her take. She’s just supportive in the therapy sessions, but apparently thought Gallner was a stone cold killer the whole time.

Would have been interesting to get her take, as her name in the episode title almost suggests the sessions would be based on… actual psychiatric sessions but… sealed or something? Again, “Interrogation”’s abject lack of concern for historical accuracy—all in the name of “non-linear” “cold case” investigating (by the viewer)—becomes yet another reason not to take the show very seriously.

Other reasons not to take the show very seriously? Kyle Gallner’s wigs. He gets a special wig for trial this episode and it’s a really, really bad one. Though I suppose it goes well with his oversized eighties suit.

Pat Healy plays Gallner’s lawyer. Healy’s a little better than the norm on “Interrogation.” But he doesn’t get a showcase spot like Sohn, so the show’s not setting him up for failure.

There’s a little more with Sarsgaard’s dad, Michael Harney, being crappy to Sarsgaard; Frank Whaley’s around for a bit. Lots of the episode is David Strathairn’s, which isn’t great. There’s no great or anything good for more Strathairn in this show. This episode we find out Strathairn pushed Gallner into making the deal for a juvie conviction, which backfires. Of vague interest is how Strathairn already has wife number two—Melinda McGraw—so soon after the murder of the first wife.

Makes you wonder why no one ever looked into the dad as a suspect. Not even the show.

Also… Ray Santiago as the jailhouse snitch who helps put Gallner away? Another person who should have a talk with their agent about how not every job is necessarily a good one.

Interrogation (2020) s01e08 – P.I. Charlie Shannon vs Eric Fisher 1996

There’s no “Interrogation” this episode. Nothing based on a recording or a transcript, just one hundred percent dramatization. “Interrogation” is like a true crime show only with recognizable (if not better) actors and no interviews with the actual people. It’s an exemplar of how not to do a show like “Interrogation.”

This episode jumps all over—well, not all over, it jumps ahead. The show—in its parts—is extremely linear. Would it play better linear? Eh. It’s comprehensible in its fractured state, which it wouldn’t be if it were actually fractured but whatever. Fixing “Interrogation” seems like a waste of time. Kind of like how the show treats Peter Sarsgaard’s top-billed “only dirty this one time” cop. This episode continues his decline, his family leaving him, his retired cop dad (Michael Harney, who’s all right) being mean to him. No one wants to spend time with Sarsgaard; he’s a time suck.

So the episode starts in 1993 with Kyle Gallner’s parole getting denied. It’s denied for multiple reasons, but also contributing is Sarsgaard lying in a letter to the parole board. Gallner’s hopes and dreams are dashed except when David Strathairn dies, he leaves Gallner the money to hire a new P.I. Fast forward to 1996, he hires celebrity P.I. Andre Royo. It’s nice to see Royo, but he’s just phoning it in. It’s shocking how little Royo gets to do, especially considering his character’s name is in the title this episode.

Then it jumps ahead a final time to 2003 when Royo gets Vincent D’Onofrio involved. D’Onofrio’s an Internal Affairs cop; Royo and Gallner can prove Sarsgaard perjured himself.

I’d been waiting for a good Royo episode and instead he’s just a bland P.I. with lacking chemistry opposite Gallner; to be fair, Gallner’s a chemistry suck with everything, but still. Chad L. Coleman is back for a little bit too. Of the two “Wire” castings, I suppose Coleman’s is more of a waste. Who knows… if Gallner were better, it’d be a much different show.

Interrogation (2020) s01e07 – Det. Carol Young & Det. Brian Chen vs Melanie Pruitt 2005

The year is 2005, so twenty years after the first episode—1983—and, therefore, Kyle Gallner playing closer to his actual age. It doesn’t really help with his performance. With his shaved head and serious prisoner eyeglasses and seventies porn ‘stache, every once in a while—when he’s not talking—you imagine they must’ve wanted someone else for the part who might be good. It’s a big swing of a performance for Gallner and a cringe-y fail of one.

Maybe Eddie Furlong.

This episode is about Gallner getting out of prison because Peter Sarsgaard was either a dirty cop or an incompetent one. Sarsgaard’s in old age makeup—really good old age makeup—and moping around because it’s 2005 and he doesn’t get to be as racist anymore. He can still be racist, obviously, like how the original D.A. Erich Anderson is low key racist and sexist to Black reporter April Grace in the first scene—setting up the cops and prosecutors as scumbags, which is something considering we then have to spend the entire episode with Sprague Grayden (who’s quite bad) and Tim Chiou (who’s scenery for Grayden) trying to figure out how to railroad Gallner back into prison. Their boss, current D.A. Joanna Adler (also not, you know, good), really hates Gallner’s high profile defense attorney, Eric Roberts (who’s phenomenal and makes the episode worth watching) and wants to get him good.

Gallner’s side of the story has Andre Royo in the background; presumably he was introduced in a previous episode—oh, yeah, this episode entirely hinges on information previously introduced so the whole “watch in any order you want” is utter nonsense and lazy storytelling from the show’s creators. This episode of “Interrogation” reveals it to be a bullshit White riff on “When They See Us,” only not a fiftieth as good. Also Ernest R. Dickerson’s direction is… bad. Like, real bad. Especially when it’s Gallner acclimating to freedom.

His storyline involves hooking up with prison bunny Alice Wetterlund, who’s also not good but far from Grayden. The only worse writing in the episode (courtesy Barbara Curry) than Wetterlund and Gallner’s “romance” subplot is when Grayden and Chiou propose their theory of the crime to Adler and we get to see how dumb everyone involved in the show must be when it comes to doing drugs. It’s not just it appears no one involved has ever done drugs… they haven’t even seen Trainspotting. It’s seriously the worst drugged out youth scene I’ve seen… since eighties television probably.

As for the “real” interrogation scene? It takes a few minutes and, since it involves Grayden, it’s pretty bad. Though it’s a great look for the cops, as they threaten to slut-shame a preschool teacher for being sexually active as a teen.

“Interrogation” is a show about how awful cops are and how cool it is they’re awful.

It’s also a show where somehow Dickerson manages to make the Santa Monica boardwalk look like it’s in Toronto.

I guess there’s some funny moments when it tries to be trendy, as Wetterlund tells Gallner to podcast so he can “own [his] story” and “tell [his] truth.”

Also for some reason still doesn’t get any good screen time murder victim Joanna Going is dressed like a clown.

I’m wondering if they decided you could watch the show in any order because otherwise it might be even worse. Though it’s hard to imagine the bad being much worse.

But Eric Roberts. Damn. You watch it and you feel the loss of him not having a great acting career in your bones.

Interrogation (2020) s01e06 – Henry Fisher vs Eric Fisher 1992

The reason you can watch “Interrogation” in any order you want—according to the opening titles—is because cold case detectives don’t pick at old cases linearly. So, by watching “Interrogation,” you’re a cold case detective too!

Eye-roll emoji.

This episode doesn’t feature any recorded interrogations for the show to faithfully dramatize. It’s all historically questionable stuff, except maybe all the White people in 1992 L.A. being low-key racist about the Rodney King verdict. Unless they just say the quiet parts out loud as the riots start.

There are three plot lines. Cop Peter Sarsgaard is in uniform and cracking heads during the riots, checking in with estranged wife Ellen Humphreys (in a shockingly thankless role) while David Strathairn finds out he’s dying and new girlfriend or wife Melinda McGraw tells him he’s got to settle things with still incarcerated son Kyle Gallner.

Now, skipping from episode one to episode six—nine years in “real” time—I’m not sure if I missed any character development with anyone, but it doesn’t seem like it. Gallner’s really, really, really bad. And Strathairn’s on par. After hoping for decades David Strathairn would make it… well, he’s made it to this. Hacking it out in streaming shows. It’s a meteoric and rather depressing fail.

Chad L. Coleman shows up for a couple scenes as the prison lawyer who Gallner asks for help but doesn’t have time for Gallner because Gallner hangs out with White supremacist prison boss Jeff Kober. Kober doesn’t so much give a performance as posture as a vaguely prison Nazi prison Nazi. They don’t want to say prison Nazi because “Interrogation” is feckless.

Big surprise of this episode? Flashbacks to before the murder revealing Gallner was adopted and mom Joanna Going never wanted him. She was terribly abusive to him and Strathairn just stood by and did nothing. So, you know, it’s cool if Gallner killed her. After a stunningly misogynist characterization of Going (both from Strathairn and the flashback itself), Gallner erupts and challenges Strathairn’s recollection.

The way Gallner remembers it, Going didn’t like him because he’s Strathairn’s biological son from an affair and Strathairn forced Going to adopt him. So Going was a saint.

Though the saint stuff is literally a single scene and the demonizing was four shocking minutes.

Not sure what kind of impact “Interrogation” is going for, but so far, it’s just showcasing how Strathairn not winning an Oscar for Good Night, and Good Luck broke him and how Gallner’s… really not capable of succeeding in this part.

At least Sarsgaard isn’t in it too much. Small victory.

Interrogation (2020) s01e01 – Det. Dave Russell vs Eric Fisher 1983

Poor Kyle Gallner. Thirty-four years old and still playing a seventeen year-old, which—at one point—would’ve been some kind of record (or near one). But playing half his age is nothing compared to Gallner’s wig. It’s 1983 L.A. and Gallner’s got a full… what would it be called, metalhead? He just found his mom dead and had to take two steak knives out of her back to help her breathe before he called the cops—it’s pre-911, which I only know because I learned things about history from “Quantum Leap.”

Anyway, top-billed Peter Sarsgaard thinks Gallner killed her so he’s going to crack him in the box! Sarsgaard brings zero personality to the part—other than being a possibly dirty cop—and seems to be trying to channel Kiefer Sutherland.

The “Interrogation” is based on a real case, real interview transcripts, just with lots of related reenactments.

The first episode sets up the series as the CBS All Access answer to “Mindhunter,” only with a bit of “Serial” thrown in.

David Strathairn plays Gallner’s dad, who thinks he’s innocent but also maybe not, and Joanna Going is the mom. It’s a blink and you miss it part for Going, who’s literally an object.

While the show goes out of its way to set up the “realism” of the interrogations, nothing else’s realism is very clear. Is a scene with two people presumably “true” or might it be a dramatization. Making some of it “real” and some of it real-ish doesn’t do much for the show, which is—so far—only going to be engaging because of the crime investigation itself.

Like, Sarsgaard not sympathetic as the cop—unless you gravitate to fascists—and Gallner’s a thirty-four year-old in a bad wig playing a teenager… theoretically it could give Strathairn a good part but certainly not yet.

Frank Whaley’s in it for something like two scenes and he pretty much walks away with the cop scenes, if only because he makes you want to watch “Luke Cage: Season One” again.

Then comes the streaming gimmick—you can watch the subsequent episodes in any order you choose! Except the finale, I think.

There’s a certain cool factor to the early eighties L.A. getting visualized but… it’s a limited one.

Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


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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