Basquiat's alien out and about in Harlem, a wry John Sayles equation. Electronic beeps signal the crash landing on Ellis Island, the visitor (Joe Morton) emerges in rags and spiky dreads, hopping on three toes before Lady Liberty. To assimilate is to listen, he ambles through the new environment and absorbs its sundry voices. Among the divagations are the Puerto Rican shopkeeper, the bored arcade junkie, the lost Midwesterners turned tavern philosophers, the motormouth trickster in the subway. Sanctuary is suspended between the seasoned barflies and the single mother from Alabama, the healing touch is best applied to electric appliances. ("Internal malfunctions" are prevalent, "a sense of history" on the other hand is in short supply.) At the museum, he gazes at slavery litographs and promptly understands—on his trail are interplanetary skulkers (Sayles and David Strathairn) who've learned about Earth from Dragnet episodes. "We have reason to believe this man is an illegal alien." "So is half the fucking city. So what?" Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth is the clear point of departure yet the rare matter-of-factness evokes a Pasolini fantasy (Il Fiore delle Mille e Una Notte, say), its astringency sets off the funky flights of Ernest Dickerson's cinematography: Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Two People in the World" underscores the smitten discovery of the nightclub chanteuse (Dee Dee Bridgewater) in the heart of a salacious Times Square, a tottering 360° pan announces a Rastafarian's tour of the nocturnal inferno. "Welcome to Babylon, brother." The joke is there's a whole galaxy inside your local neighborhood, anchored by Morton's soulful pantomime and laid out by Sayles with a camera not unlike his protagonist's removable eyeball, a recording orb that specializes in empathy for the voiceless. Underground solidarity and cosmic ashes comprise the conclusion, just another day in New York. With Tom Wright, Steve James, Daryl Edwards, Bill Cobbs, Renn Woods, Caroline Aaron, Jaime Tirelli, Fisher Stevens, and Maggie Renzi.
--- Fernando F. Croce