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MGM Studios DVD presents
Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)

J.T.: Hey, you know, we got almost all the original Secaucus 7 here.
Chip: What's that?
Frances: An in-joke. You had to be there.

- Adam LeFevre, Gordon Clapp, Maggie Cousineau

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: September 14, 2003

Stars: Bruce MacDonald, Maggie Renzi, Adam LeFevre, Maggie Cousineau, Gordon Clapp, Jean Passanante, Karen Trott, Mark Arnott, David Strathairn, John Sayles
Director: John Sayles

Manufacturer: Wamo
MPAA Rating: R for (language, nudity, sexual situations)
Run Time: 01h:44m:11s
Release Date: September 16, 2003
UPC: 027616886484
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
C+ BBC+ C+

DVD Review

John Sayles is widely recognized as the father of the independent film movement, producing almost all of his 14 movies without the financial backing or artistic meddling of a major studio. With stubborn determination, Sayles has shunned the Hollywood establishment for more than 20 years, working with friends and trusted associates while maintaining a stranglehold on a director's most precious commodity—creative control.

Sayles never intentionally sought to trail blaze a new film genre; it just happened, and Return of the Secaucus 7 got the ball rolling. Shot in 25 days on a $40,000 shoestring budget (what most mainstream films spend on bottled water today), the movie is a blueprint of classic indie elements—fledgling actors, bargain basement production values, low-grade film stock and a distinct natural look. Upon its initial release in 1980, the film impressed critics with its offbeat style and introspective script. But what may have been hip and innovative then seems dated and trite today. Although Sayles' ingenuity and resourcefulness can still be appreciated, Return of the Secaucus 7 is definitely a museum piece—a quaint artifact from the last generation to which it's now difficult to relate.

More a premise than an actual story, the film recounts a 10-year reunion between several high school buddies at the New Hampshire home of schoolteachers Katie (Maggie Renzi) and Mike (Bruce MacDonald), who, in true late-'70s fashion, live together without any intention of tying the knot. J.T. (Adam LeFevre), an aspiring but untalented country music singer; political activists Irene (Jean Passanante) and Chip (NYPD Blue's Gordon Clapp); gas station attendant Ron (David Strathairn in his first film); and the recently broken-up Maura (Karen Trott) and Jeff (Mark Arnott) are among the weekend visitors. Like The Big Chill, which Secaucus obviously inspired, the friends engage in numerous trivial pursuits—volleyball and basketball, skinny-dipping, games of charades and Clue—while chatting up social and personal issues like birth control, relationships, families, and unfulfilled dreams. In between, there's some recreational drug use and the requisite horizontal couplings.

What one takes away from this twenty-something conclave is up for grabs. No shocking revelations, no life-changing epiphanies, and no melodramatic events steer our feelings. Instead, we're left with more subtle ideas to ponder—rapidly encroaching middle age, stepping up to the responsibilities of life, and leaving reckless youth behind. The film wisely makes the weekend as typical as possible, allowing the audience to more easily identify with various characters. Yet at the same time, the lack of plot tries our patience, as we wait for a party that never really starts.

Sayles' screenplay possesses an easy, familiar flow filled with realistic dialogue that's often butchered by the actors, whose labored attempts to appear relaxed and down-to-earth backfire badly. The result is a collection of stagy, embarrassing performances more akin to amateur high school plays than feature films. (Strathairn is the one notable exception.) And while the rambling tone of the script allows the characters time to develop and evolve, many scenes could be easily trimmed without sacrificing content. The men's basketball game goes on far too long, as does the nude swimming scene, which offers mostly gratuitous glimpses of the male anatomy—a refreshing and very surprising change.

Sayles admits on the director's commentary that he never looked through the lens of a movie camera before this project, but his evident inexperience rarely hampers the film. The finished product, while raw and unrefined, remains a solid first effort. Still, Return of the Secaucus 7 left me cold. I'd much rather spend a weekend shooting the breeze with my own friends than two hours eavesdropping on this bunch.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Substantial restoration work has been done on Return of the Secaucus 7 and the results are quite good for a movie of this type—which means don't expect a flawless transfer, because the original source material was mediocre at best. The disc does preserve the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which works well for this intimate, relationship-oriented film. The washed out color palette seems more a symptom of the film stock than any natural fading, but looks in keeping with the independent style. Ditto for the medium grain that exists throughout, which lends Secaucus a very natural, home-movie kind of feel. Since the film was originally shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm upon its commercial release, imperfections remain evident, but strangely compliment the image. Amazingly, Return of the Secaucus 7 is now a period piece, and the gritty look of the film is probably more appropriate today than at the time of its premiere.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is basic and serviceable, transmitting dialogue cleanly with no excess noise. Sayles employs little background music, so sound is rather cold and harsh, but never distorted. Use of a boom mike often results in some weak spots in ensemble scenes, but even whispering and drowsy mumbling generally come across well.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Casa de los Babys
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director-writer-editor John Sayles
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:02m:05s

Extras Review: The major extra is a scene-specific commentary from writer-director-editor John Sayles, who relates the fascinating story of the film's production with nostalgic enthusiasm. Sayles' wealth of firsthand insights include the screenplay's evolution, how the film was financed, budget limitations, his method of working with actors, and the vast amount of on-the-job training the entire crew received. Most interesting are the various cost-cutting methods employed, and how the company made due with what the locations, time frame and budget allowed. Almost a master class for aspiring independent filmmakers, the commentary gets quite technical at times, but Sayles explains everything in comprehendible terms.

An 11-minute interview with Sayles and his professional and personal partner Maggie Renzi offers additional (and at times repetitive) perspective on the film's production and reception. A trailer for Sayles' newest release, Casa de los Babys, completes the supplemental offerings.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Return of the Secaucus 7 often feels more dated than films twice its age. Writer-director John Sayles wins points for his noteworthy debut, and for spawning a new and essential genre, but the film itself doesn't stand the test of time. Diehard fans will appreciate the restoration and commentary track, but the rest of us might better enjoy and relate to The Big Chill.

 


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