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Film review: City of Hope

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John Sayles, an independent filmmaker who writes, directs and plays small acting roles in his movies, loves the ensemble approach. His films, including "Eight Men Out," "Matewan" and "Return of the Secaucus Seven," are all observations of multiple characters, and are usually imbued with great feeling.

Clearly, the ironically titled "City of Hope" is his most ambitious film, a multi-textured look at big-city corruption and the helplessness felt by those who try to do something about it.

Actually, most of the characters in this film don't try to do much about it. They are content to make or accept payoffs, do what they're told and not make waves. In fact, there is only one major character here (along with a few minor ones) who simply cannot bring himself to do that.

The setting is a mythical New Jersey town where corruption has been going on for so long it's second-nature to those involved and the primary force in the local political machine.

If there is a lead character, it is Vincent Spano's, a young man who has seen his father (Tony Lo Bianco) compromise his construction business under the influence of his own brother (Joe Grifasi), a gofer for the town's crooked mayor (Louis Zorich). When the film opens, Spano is working for his father, but it isn't long before he quits — he just can't knuckle under.

Besides, Spano and Lo Bianco haven't gotten along for years — Spano blames his father for the death of his older brother, whom he idolized. As a result, Spano has become the black sheep of the family, into petty crime and drugs.

Meanwhile, Lo Bianco wants to cut loose from his brother and be his own man again, but he's in too deep. If that's not enough, he's later blackmailed into seeing two of his own tenement buildings torched.

The other nominal lead here is Joe Morton, as the councilman who strives mightily to avoid compromise, though he is urged by those he admires (particularly his mentor, played by Ray Aranha) to put aside his idealism.

Morton finds himself in the middle of an impossible situation aggravated by his race. He is urged by the black community to support two teens who mugged a white jogger — the boys claim the jogger molested them. But he knows an innocent man will be crucified if he goes along with his constituency in this matter.

Filmmaker Sayles, who plays a less-than-sympathetic character himself, has conceived a thick web with many plots and subplots. And though most of the film is downbeat, his "City of Hope" is not completely without hope. Ultimately Sayles reveals himself to be an optimist — though he'll never be mistaken for Frank Capra.

Sayles wrote, directed and edited the film, and though you might not think the "editing" credit is all that significant, in this case it is. Making a big film with this many speaking roles (about 50) can be an overwhelming task — and many filmmakers have failed (including Sayles on occasion) when they've tried to get the audience involved in the lives of too many characters.

But, as with the writing and direction, Sayles has meticulously edited his film so that it flows not just from character to character, but from idea to idea, from theme to theme in a seamless fashion.

By the time it's over there is much to ponder in terms of ideas, but there have also been many characters who are real, multi-dimensional people, complex beyond good guys and bad guys. The standouts are Morton, Spano, Lo Bianco and Aranha — but everyone is good.

It's a marvelous achievement and an excellent film from a filmmaker who just keeps getting better and better.

"City of Hope" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity and profanity.