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John Sayles (#110 of 10)

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM Classic Film Festival

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival’s programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I’d registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year’s fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>

Roger Corman has had as much influence over modern Hollywood as Spielberg or Scorsese. And for good reason: Without him there likely wouldn’t even have been a Spielberg or Scorsese. This director/producer of hundreds of low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exploitation films is remembered (rather unfairly) as a B-movie hack, but Corman’s aesthetic sensibilities have come to dominate the franchises we now call “tent poles,” and his protégés number among the most influential people in cinema. He’s enjoyed every minute of it.

Take Two #13: Jaws (1975) & Piranha (1978)

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Take Two #13: <em>Jaws</em> (1975) & <em>Piranha</em> (1978)
Take Two #13: <em>Jaws</em> (1975) & <em>Piranha</em> (1978)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

This past summer should have belonged to Joe Dante. Matinee, his 1993 masterpiece and his most seemingly personal film, finally made its way to DVD in the spring. Piranha, his shoestring 1978 debut, was then released on DVD on August 3, mere weeks before Miramax released a $20 million nominal remake, Piranha 3D, that did surprisingly good business. And all the while, Dante was sitting on a finished 3D feature of his own, The Hole, which had been positively received at the Venice Film Festival.

But anyone who’s followed Dante’s career could have seen the inevitable disappointments coming. Universal released the Matinee DVD almost silently, with not even a commentary track among its spare special features; Piranha 3D gave no credit to the earlier film’s director, despite his clear creative imprint; and as of this writing, The Hole still languishes without an American distributor. The sole unblemished success of the bunch was the Piranha DVD, which came out as part of Shout! Factory’s lovingly packaged “Corman Classics” series.

AFI Fest 2010: Amigo

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AFI Fest 2010: <em>Amigo</em>
AFI Fest 2010: <em>Amigo</em>

John Sayles’s human mosaics have always sparked hope for the salvation of American independent film. Yet in the last decade, the director’s historical importance and ambition have rarely equated to lasting, or even good, films. Sayles seems to be moving away from his love for subtext-driven examinations of regional experience and championing blunt leftist slants, outbursts of moral posturing that deaden the usual layers within his character interactions. The middling political satire Silver City and the heavy-handed drama Casa de los Babys border on ideologically stringent, and they force the viewer into submission instead of allowing the spaces and characters to exist freely. Only the wonderfully sublime Honeydripper holds any particular resonance when compared to Sayles’s excellent work in the 1980s and 1990s.

AFI FEST 2010: A Certified First Impression

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AFI FEST 2010: A <em>Certified</em> First Impression
AFI FEST 2010: A <em>Certified</em> First Impression

The AFI FEST, running from November 4 - 11, has become the one opportunity for West Coast viewers to taste what the rest of the film world has been chewing on for the previous six months. The 2010 edition, especially noteworthy because David Lynch is the Guest Artistic Director, will screen many high profile buzz films (albeit only once each) from an impressive lineup of essential international filmmakers. While the Galas and Tribute section remains intrinsically mainstream, with the Oscar bait-y opening-night film Love and Other Drugs by AFI alum Edward Zwick, Darren Aronofsky’s much anticipated Black Swan, and a host of other late-season award’s contenders, the World Cinema and New Auteurs programs are flushed with enigmatic and challenging choices. Two stunning masterpieces, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, will be at the front of many schedule wish lists, but if you’re unable to nab tickets, both should be released sometime in 2011.

Toronto International Film Festival 2010: Miral, The Trip, Boxing Gym, & Amigo

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Toronto International Film Festival 2010: <em>Miral</em>, <em>The Trip</em>, <em>Boxing Gym</em>, & <em>Amigo</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2010: <em>Miral</em>, <em>The Trip</em>, <em>Boxing Gym</em>, & <em>Amigo</em>

Miral: In an early passage, the owner of a Jerusalem home for orphans is asked if she’s ever been married. “No. But I have 2,000 daughters.” The line is right out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and, accordingly, Julian Schnabel’s multi-generational sprawler seldom ventures beyond that level of old-studio, spell-it-out earnestness. Chronicling the Palestinian cause from 1947 to 1994 as a mosaic of female solidarity and sorrow, it follows a thread started by Hiam Abbass’s compassionate matriarch and picked up by Yasmine Al Massri’s damaged odalisque and Ruba Blal’s nurse-turned-bomb-planter. Regrettably, the main torch bearer is an increasingly politicized schoolgirl who, as played by Frieda Pinto, creates a vacuum at the center of the screen. Scarcely known for the searching intellectual rigor this story cries for, Schnabel here also stumbles as a mercurial imagesmith, applying his usual stylistic flourishes (canted camera angles, solarized hues, Tom Waits dirges) to the narrative like smeary paint on glass. Paving the road to hell (or is it the Academy Awards?) with good intentions, it’s a middlebrow stew of distracting star cameos, stilted speechifying, and, in a particularly unwise move that bluntly calls attention to its deficiencies as a political-humanistic tract, references to The Battle of Algiers.

Take Two #3: Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and The Big Chill (1983)

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Take Two #3: <em>Return of the Secaucus 7</em> (1980) and <em>The Big Chill</em> (1983)
Take Two #3: <em>Return of the Secaucus 7</em> (1980) and <em>The Big Chill</em> (1983)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus 7 may not have invented American independent film as we know it (many of its supposed innovations had been previously seen in films by John Cassevetes, Eagle Pennell, and Charles Burnett), but it certainly gave shape, for better and for worse, to a subgenre that’s proven particularly lucrative ever since. Talky, character-driven, emotionally cathartic rather than firmly plotted, Return of the Secaucus 7’s descendants seem to trickle out by the dozen from Sundance and the major studios’ art divisions every year. We tend to think of these movies, where groups of comfortable/quirky white people just sit around talking, as cookie-cutter “indie” fare nowadays, but in 1983, that exact scenario was written and filmed by no less than the writer of The Empire Strikes Back, with help from a half-dozen major movie stars, and grossed many millions of dollars on top of multiplatinum soundtrack sales.

Go with the Flow: Go Takamine’s Cinema

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Go with the Flow: Go Takamine’s Cinema
Go with the Flow: Go Takamine’s Cinema

Go Takamine, whose career is being celebrated this week in the Anthology Film Archives retrospective “Dream Show” (March 23-27), is the standard-bearer for Okinawa’s film industry, a phrase that was an oxymoron for much of the island’s 20th-century life. Militarily and culturally, Okinawa was squeezed between Japan, its occupier through World War II, and the United States, which assumed control for 27 years after the war, then finally turned the island back to the Japanese in 1972. Okinawan cinema was stifled, and even today it has trouble getting noticed. As the Anthology schedule points out, although Okinawa has been in Japanese hands for over three decades, and although New York City hosted extraordinary lineup of Japanese films last year, not a single Okinawan movie played here.

“Dream Show,” an internationally toured lineup, won’t singlehandedly rectify this situation, but it’s a dandy start. Takamine’s films aren’t just aesthetically rich and politically significant, they’re beautiful, odd, and, if you’re in the right frame of mind, entrancing. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not promising a roller-coaster ride. By Hollywood standards, the films are quite slow (if you don’t automatically hate slow movies, feel free to substitute the euphemism “meditative”). But they’re not mere travelogues or ethnographic curiosities, and they’re anything but academic. They have a relaxed hyperawareness, a conceptual fluidity that might be described (pun intended) as “Go with the flow.” The filmmaker says this half-baked quality is the film version of “churadai,” an Okinawan word for “loafing around.”