City of Hope
Directed by John Sayles
Starring Vincent Spano, Stephen Mendillo, Tony Lo Bianco, Chris Cooper and Jace Alexander
This gritty inner-city film by John Sayles follows various people living in a troubled New Jersey setting, most notably Nick Rinaldi (Vincent Spano), a disillusioned contractor who has been helped along his whole life by his wealthy father (Tony Lo Bianco). Other characters in this ensemble drama about urban conflict and corruption include Asteroid , an unstable homeless person, and Wynn (Joe Morton), an idealistic young politician.
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★★★½ review by Cameron Wayne Johnson on Letterboxd
I don't know how far John Sayles and Vincent Spano have come from "Baby It's You", but with this title, the New Jersey setting and the post-'60s timeline, this is when they can't afford a Bruce Springsteen song. I'm almost certain that they purchased the rights to the gent's entire catalogue just to be able to use with said title and the premise. Perhaps making up a New Jersey city instead of setting this in Manchester, Kentucky, is how Sayles could get the Boss to further cut back on this bulk buy. In the fictional city of Hudson, Nick Rinaldi quits his contracting gig and turns away from his rich, mafia-connected father's support to seek a better life for himself. I reckon that can be considered the main story in this ensemble epic because it's the only one that doesn't make this excessively addressed title not sound misleading. Other central narratives involve a mentally unstable hobo trying to get by; an investigation into a confrontation between two black teens and an alleged homosexual; and a politician with the most hopeless dream of all: bringing financial security to laborers in a metropolis. Nonetheless, this is still a surprisingly inspiring film, but it can be difficult for many reasons.
There is a certain unevenness in the grounding of many character types and their dialogues, whose alternation between genuinely nuanced, believably quintessential and almost comically, cheesily archetypal marks tonal unevenness in gambled storytelling. The bigger unevenness is, of course, in focus on characters and subplots which are overwhelmingly excessive, and almost maddeningly well-developed across 130 pseudo-epic minutes. A huge, often consecutive bulk of this film is back-to-back exposition, all the way down to tertiary or on-off roles whose filler exchanges supplement nothing outside of mythos. As hard as it gets to gauge the significance of the subplots, it's hard to invest, to see any character or arc as distinguished from the world-building. John Sayles ultimately pulls it all out with incredible nuance and imagination, so at the very least, the wildly muddled focus just brings a sense of forward plot progression to a breaking point. Overlong, repetitive and even downright aimless, the film is a highly worthwhile experience that you get into, but through way too much excess. The final product may not be able to build up enough momentum to break into outstanding, but it sure does push hard.
John Sayles' direction is most atypically stylish, with some flashy music cues and, more prominently, long-form scene structuring that is distinguished by sparse editing and sprawling tracking shots, many of which transition into another scene and storyline. It all leads into a vibrantly expansive scope that makes a dreamy landscape of the fictional New Jersey city, then tightens seamlessly to get intimate with characters in more claustrophobic or cynical situations. It should pretty much go without saying that the titanic Robert Richardson directs the greatest visual style in Sayles' catalogue, his overwhelming attention to lighting being full of sentiment and (if you will) hope, until intelligent plays with that escalate tension by intensifying natural light to a blinding extreme or deepening shadier imagery through contrast. Sayles ultimately sets an interesting tone around an interesting theme, on juxtaposing metropolitan hope and despair by creatively focusing on how diverse the lives and perceptions are in the working class. To a fault, this is full of extremely diverse plotlines that often either strictly feed into commentary on turbulent progress and tragic regression in metropolitan socio-economics, or mark compelling individual character studies. In any case, Sayles' preposterously full dialogue gets your attention with snappy structure and natural levity, and fastens your investment with meticulous character and story developments. It's all much too meticulous for weight to be limited, but one of Sayles' fullest mythos and character ensembles comes out to a riveting experience of an epic.
Some of the writing hits its contrived beats, surely just stemming from staggering ambitions that get so daunting with incessant exposition and excessive plot layering that momentum breaks down, as resonance is so richly refined by stunning world-building, snappy writing, weighty social commentary and engrossing characterization that John Sayles' "City of Hope" just about stands out as a colorfully witted and enthrallingly expansive ensemble drama.
3.75/5 - Strong
★★★½ review by Kurdt on Letterboxd
Mostly ironic title since John Sayles’ film revolves around a fictional city which is a bricolage of racism, homophobia and corruption destined to drown its many inhabitants. It has the feelings of an epic even though it’s not particularly long, and even know there’s perhaps too many characters to truly explore any of them deeply, it does capture the tapestry of inner city life and the people either trying to make it a better place or succumbing to its demons. There is some hope, but mostly everything falls back to the bad aspects listed above. Even ostensible positives often come from a place of deceit and political pressure. It’s a film I felt close to loving but it doesn’t quite get there, perhaps because Sayles has shown he’s a bit of an expert at writing interesting characters, but with the shifting perspective on display here he slightly rids himself of the chance to truly explore some of these people deeply. It helps add to the atmosphere of the city, but is maybe a slight detriment to the film itself. It’s still worth checking out though.
★★★★★ review by Waldo on Letterboxd
I hooked up a vcr. I'm watching old VHS tapes and this one I won't, I refuse to throw away. It's a big, sprawling story about a city exploding with racial tension, violence and a society slowly drowning in corruption. Sayles' script is flawless in my opinion. Very funny at times too. Great acting ensemble and one of the most tragic endings I've ever seen. I can't stop not watching this flick.
★★★★½ review by Rob Gonsalves on Letterboxd
A gritty near-epic with almost novelistic detail, politically smart without being politically correct, this is one of John Sayles’ best. Sayles juggles a boatload of plots, not always following through on them (a tentative romantic subplot goes nowhere), but this is still an outstanding piece of storytelling. The film tracks the events during a few days in a fictional New Jersey city sunk to its knees in self-serving corruption and racial tension. Each of the many characters is connected in some way. There’s Nick (Vincent Spano), a twentyish guy who resents his building-contractor father (Tony Lo Bianco) for greasing the wheels for him; Wynn (Joe Morton), a city councilman who has to deal with political pressure from everywhere after two black kids beat up a white jogger; Angela (Barbara Williams), a young divorced mother who entertains feelings for Nick; and Carl the fixer (Sayles himself), who performs shady favors for Nick’s father. Those would be the four major roles, enough for four good movies, and there are 32 other characters knocking around, each making an impact. The performances are on-target without exception, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the film has scope and ambition rarely seen in American movies now. A rich, meaty film, not to be missed.
★★★★½ review by Albert Muller on Letterboxd
"We need help in the building."
If by building you mean America, then yes. We do. And more than we did back in 1991, at that.
Brilliant kaleidoscope of American life in the city featuring stellar actors doing their thing with yet another phenomenal script by Sayles.
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