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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Drama > Brother From Another Planet

The Return of the Secaucus Seven


Picture: C     Sound: C     Extras: C+     Film: B


The Brother from Another Planet


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C+     Film: B



John Sayles is the quintessential indie filmmaker.  He has stayed on the fringes of Hollywood, making movies his way, for over two decades.  MGM’s new DVD releases of Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Brother from Another Planet bear a stamp of the writer/director’s face and the words “A John Sayles Independent.”  It’s a nice touch, a cool little emblem that references Sayles’ near-iconic status as a pioneer of indie filmmaking.


Return of the Secaucus Seven just might be the birth of the modern American independent film movement.  Sayles earned the film’s $40,000 budget writing, as he puts it, “creature features for Roger Corman” (Piranha and The Howling) and shot it on 16MM with a 7-person crew and actors he knew from his theatre days.  The film has a rough, “let’s make a movie in the backyard” feel, but transcends its modest packaging because of Sayles’ masterful character writing.


The film takes place over a weekend, during the reunion of a group of about-to-be-thirty-year-olds who’ve been friends since college.  In their more youthful days, they fought to change the world – the title is a reference to their having once been jailed in Secaucus on the way to a political rally – but they’re now finding that their time to do so is over.  They are at a point in their lives when they are supposed to become different people.  It is almost as if the weekend that we see in the film is the last time that they will be this particular group.  Next year, the people who they once were, the people who became friends, will be, in a way, gone.  Thanks to Sayles’ insightful, funny, and natural dialogue, the film is a surprisingly potent conversational drama and a study in how the modest can be magical.


The Brother from Another Planet depicts an immigrant’s experience in America.  In his critique of the status quo, Sayles takes a simplistic, just-on-the-right-side-of-silly point of view: that of an alien from outer space.  Joe Morton plays the Brother, as people tend to call him, who – without the ability to speak English, or any language at all for that matter – naively explores Harlem, encountering and attempting to understand things like crime, drugs, and a system that sucks.


The Brother appears to be a normal black man, except for his three-toed feet, his ability to heal both man and machine (his one skill – every man has one, as a character says – that he will eventually use to make money), and his sensitivity to past emotions held in objects.  He has come to Earth to escape some sort of enslavement; two white men (Sayles and David Strathairn) dressed in black show up looking to recapture him.  The film becomes especially critical in its last quarter, in which the Brother is appalled to find that the ghetto is propagated by a corrupt upper class.


The film, bigger than Secaucus Seven but still quite small (with a budget of $400,000), is cult item, a mixture of social commentary and bizarre comedy, highlighted by a fine performance by Morton, great Harlem locations, and more superb characters from Sayles.


MGM’s new transfers of Secaucus Seven and The Brother are passable considering the ages and production values of the films, but far from definitive.  The blown-up 16MM photography of Secaucus Seven has always looked pretty shabby.  Though the new transfer (presented full frame, as the film was shot) suffers from excessive grain and dull color (both of which are unavoidable – to a point – with this film), the film is definitely cleaner than it has ever been.  It is, however, not good enough.  It is not likely that the film will ever look great, but with more work, it can look better than this.  I have fewer reservations about the new Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track, though it is likewise merely adequate.  It is predictably straightforward and unexciting, but for the most part clear and not nearly as tinny as I expected/dreaded.  This is probably as good as the film’s sound can get.


The Brother, with around 10 times the budget, started out looking substantially better than Secaucus Seven.  As such, its transfer is better, but again, not quite what it should be.  Grain is not as much of an issue, though when grainy shots do turn up, they are particularly distracting.  Most of the film looks clean, but very much on the soft side; sharpness is lacking.  Also, the color is a bit washed-out.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is not much better than that of Secaucus Seven, though it should be.  The track tends to be low and thin, with only the occasional piece of music sounding full.  Overall, this is a so-so presentation of a film that deserves a lot more.


Both films come with audio commentary by Sayles, an approximately 12-minute featurette in which Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi reflect on the making of each film, and – as a throw-in – the trailer for Sayles’ latest film, Casa de Los Babys.  The featurettes are pretty light, not to mention largely unnecessary considering the presence of the commentary tracks, which are the main events in terms of extras.  Sayles comes off as very intelligent, if somewhat dry.  He’s all business, spending most of both tracks giving nuts-and-bolts descriptions of his low-budget filmmaking techniques.  Far more informative than entertaining, these tracks are best suited to fans with a genuine interest in independent filmmaking.


Though these are the best presentations of Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Brother from Another Planet to date, I can’t help feeling that the films deserve better.  The commentaries make these discs purchase-worthy for fanatics, but that’s about all.



-   Chad Eberle


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