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City of Hope (1991)

May 6, 2015

cityThis movie is made up of a collection of scenes, with a big cast of characters walking in and out. The movie is set in middle sized city run by corrupt officials. Some of the characters are trying to fight the corruption, but its hard to fight City Hall. Because of the things going on behind closed doors, some people get mixed up in things they don’t want to do.

There are four or five major story lines running through the movie, but the main one involves an old apartment building that stands in the way of a major re-development project that a lot of people stand to make money from.

In his four star review Roger Ebert said :

Sayles’ method of telling the story of this city, and the people trapped there, is audacious. He fills his canvas with many characters – I didn’t count, but I’m told there are 36 – and follows them through their days and nights, as they run into one another, make deals, tell lies, seek happiness, and find mostly compromise and disappointment.

There are idealists in this city, but we watch as their idealism is shattered, as they learn the ways of clout and bribery, arson and perjury.

He finished his review saying :

“City of Hope” is a powerful film, and an angry one. It is impossible not to find echoes of its despair on the front pages every day. It asks a hard question: Is it possible for a good person to prevail in a corrupt system, just simply because right is on his side? The answer, in the short run, is that power is stronger than right. The notion of a long run, of course, is all that keeps hope alive.

The movie is reminiscent of a Robert Altman movie, with it’s cast of characters, and somehow, like Altman, John Sayles makes it all come together and work.

A great and truthful movie. It’s really one of those little know gems that needs to be seen by a lot more people. Everyone in the city is hoping for something. The corrupt politicians want more graft, the reformer wants reforms, the poor people just want a decent life. Everyone in the City of Hope has dreams and aspirations, but no one seems to get what they really want.

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Go for Sisters (2013)

March 22, 2015

A different kind of movie for John Sayles. Most of his movies seem to be looking at an issue upon which he can take a stand, but in this movie the plot was kind of murky.

Fontayne and Bernice were friends in high school. They fall out of touch, but then Bernice becomes Fontayne’s parole officer. When Bernice loses track of her son, and suspects he may be involved with some illegal activities, she asks her old friend Fontayne for help.

The movie evolves in to a buddy movie, as the two women search for Vernell on the Mexican border.

As the two women interact, we see them both grow, as they become closer to each other. They pick up Edward James Olmos to help them in their search.

We never really learn much about Vernell. We don’t know if he is a good guy or a criminal. He is somehow involved with smuggling Chinese in to America across the Mexican border.

But the plot isn’t really the star here. The movie is about the two women, developing a relationship. It has to be one of the first buddy movies starring two black women, and it was very well done.

Lianna (1983)

April 23, 2012

John Sayles second movie,  is the story of woman, Lianna, who has two children and isn’t really happy in her marriage to a film professor. Her husband is arrogant and bitter and he doesn’t treat her too well. At a party she sees her husband cheating on her with a student.

Lianna begins to take a class in Child Psychology and when her husband is away at a Film Festival she has an affair with her professor, Ruth. Lianna tells her husband, and he wants her out. Before you know it Lianna and Ruth are spending more time together. Ruth tells Lianna that has a girl back home. They then they visit a gay women’s club together.

When Ruth goes back to her old girlfriend, Lianna is left alone. But then she starts meeting people and begins to form a new life for herself.

John Sayles has always taken on important political and social issues and here we have a very early look at a woman right to decide that she is gay. It may seem like an obvious right that a women might have, but in 1983 it was a very controversial topic to take on. Thirty years later we still have people who say that people don’t have the right to “choose” to be gay, can you imagine what the atmosphere must have been like back then.

I think the movie is a little dated, but it still shows seems light years ahead of its time. A pretty good, and very brave movie.

Amigo (2010)

January 22, 2012

John Sayles take a look at the Philippine-American War in 1900. The natives are fighting the invaders, but meanwhile life goes on. Then American soldiers invade a village looking for rebels (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view). The head of the village’s bother is the head of the rebels.
The army is led by Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper), who looks down on the “monkeys” and can’t tell them apart, but wants his troops to win the hearts and minds of the people. The occupied village people don’t want to cooperate with the invaders, but they are also afraid not to. The villagers are trapped – if they cooperate with the Americans they will be in trouble with the rebels, if they don’t cooperate they will be in trouble with the Americans. Very reminiscent of the Viet Nam war.
When a child gets killed in a night raid, the whole village mourns. Out in the hills the rebels mourn the loss of one of their group. The priest in the village doesn’t come off too good, as he tells a village women that all of the rebels are condemned to go to hell, even though her son is one of them.
The rebels decide the village leader is a collaborator and try, but fail, to assassinate him. The town leader, after being tortured, is forced to lead the troops out to where the rebels are.
The movie uses mostly Filipino actors and uses the Filipino language. John Sayles is exploring the American Imperial experiences in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq with this movie, and he isn’t portraying our involvement in a positive manner. But it also doesn’t show the rebels in such a great light. Sayles shows flashes to rooster fights from the war scenes to show the senselessness and cruelty of war.
A very good movie, showing a part of American history not often seen.

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John Sayles Interview on Film

INTERVIEW | John Sayles on “Amigo”: “It’s just a great story that hasn’t been told”
by Brian Brooks (August 19, 2011)
http://www.indiewire.com/article/interview_john_sayles_on_amigo_its_just_a_great_story_that_hasnt_been_told/

A scene from John Sayles’ “Amigo.” Image courtesy of Variance Films.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker John Sayles dusted off an obscure part of American (and Filipino) history in making his latest film “Amigo,” set in the Philippines amidst the backdrop of U.S. occupation following the defeat of the country’s long-time colonial overlord, Spain. The drama follows a group of U.S. troops who occupy the small jungle hamlet. Under pressure from a stalwart officer, played by Chris Cooper, to help the Americans hunt for Filipino guerrilla fighters, the town’s defacto leader, Rafael (Joel Torre) is placed in a particularly odd situation because his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) leads the local insurgency and considers anyone who cooperates with the Americans to be a traitor. Rafael faces off a no-win situation, making potentially deadly decisions.

In a recent conversation with indieWIRE, Sayles talks about how he became enthralled with this little known part of history through writing his recent book, “A Moment in the Sun,” its parallels with U.S. expeditions overseas today, filming in the Philippines and why Hollywood and network news aren’t necessarily obligated to tell an accurate story.

What intrigued you initially about this period of American and Philippine history initially? There have been many films about wars America has been involved in that we’re both won or lost like World War II, the Civil War, Vietnam, and even Somalia. But not much on the Philippines and people are not as knowledgeable about this.

I think some of what attracted me was how unknown it was and when I stumbled across the existence of this war, which I had never heard of and I had relatives in the Philippines, I said “Well, how come I don’t know about this?” We usually celebrate the wars that we win. Then, asking some Filipino-American friends, they said, “It was not taught in our school. We were just taught “Oh, the Americans bought us for $20 million from the Spanish,’” leaving out a war in which at least 500,000 Filipinos were killed, maybe a million counting civilians. So, how does that happen? Why does America not want to celebrate this war in its media and why don’t they when they take over the Philippines’ school system ever talk about it, just leave it out and not even make a lie about it?

That led me to do some research and it eventually led to this book I wrote, “Moment in the Sun.” In the American psychology, when we went from “We’re the champions of liberty. We’re going to go down to Cuba and free the poor little brown Cuban peasants from the these nasty Spanish imperialists, lessers and then within a couple months, somehow it was OK for us to go to the Philippines and kill Filipinos to take over their country. People were proudly saying, “I’m an imperialist and it’s about time we became players like the British and the French and the Russians and the Germans and the Japanese.” It was pretty naked. It was racist and it was about “We should be cashing in. There’s money to be made in the world and we should be in on it too.”

There was an anti-Imperialist league. Mark Twain was the most famous person in that, who’d been very much for the Cuban part of the war and just said, “What are we doing taking away somebody else’s country?” Water-boarding, which was called the water cure back then, first reared its ugly head during this war. There were Congressional committees investigating it. So it just seems like an interesting situation to put a bunch of soldiers who really didn’t know where they were in the middle of a war and to highlight our first war of occupation.

[In this film], the mayor of the town who wakes up the morning and has to make the decision about how much to cooperate to help the people around him without being a collaborator and a traitor. How much does he resist without getting killed? That happened in Nazi-occupied Germany, the Romans in Judea, the French in Algeria, when we were in Vietnam. Those decisions had to be made by somebody. I put it in the film, I kept running into this phrase “hearts and minds.” There’s Teddy Roosevelt saying it in 1901. I had only associated it with Vietnam, but I had traced it back to the Bible.

As I was watching the film, and as you’re alluding to now, there are a lot of parallels between what’s been going on recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are people ignorant of history?

I don’t know that people ignore history. I think they feel that their situation is unique. One of the things about “Amigo” is as you watch it and you start to judge the people in it and how they’re acting, I hope you get the sense that you know they haven’t read the end of the book, they haven’t seen the history. These guerrillas think they can still win. We know how it ended. We look at them and say, “My God, half of them don’t even have guns or machetes around. How are they going to beat the Americans?” The Americans don’t know how history is going to judge them.

Honestly, one of the most important parts of the movie to me is that the audience member, because they can read the subtitles, can be in everybody’s camp. They can hang out with the Americans, the villagers, the guerrillas, and realize, “Wait a minute. You don’t know what the hell is going on. You’ve only got the information you’ve got. If you knew what everyone else knew, you’d watch out or you wouldn’t do it this way.”

You decided to tell this narrative about American/Filipino history, for the most part, through the eyes of this one particular village. Why did you decide to do it that way?

Two reasons. One, we only had $1.5 million. You can’t do big battles and ships and artillery on a much bigger scale well for that little money and 5 or 6 weeks of shooting. I felt that I could keep this human and tell a micro-history here that has a lot of the important elements of the bigger story on a village level and I can do it well and we can make this village. I went to the set when we were building it and there was only one power tool there, a chainsaw. Those houses are tied together, they’re not really nailed together. That was something within our range of budget to be able to do.

The other reason is to concentrate it on a human level. You want to eventually say, “I’ve seen that guy before. I don’t know his name but he’s the corporal, he’s the drunken soldier.” There’s only a dozen guys there garrisoning this town and we meet maybe 5 of them. We meet about half the guys. They become familiar to us, whether or not we recognize their names. There are a lot of characters in the movie, but the minute you get down to platoon-size or a regiment-size it’s just another guy in an American uniform.

I really thought that “Black Hawk Down” was a well-made movie, but it didn’t do especially well. I know from talking to other people, they said, “I didn’t know that so-and-so was in it until I saw the credits,” because you couldn’t tell one American from another. They were in uniform, they had helmets on, it’s quick, they’re all soldiers. It was shot in a very down tone visually, so I couldn’t root for anybody.

Many people know little to nothing about this period, though I vaguely remember as a student, hearing the pro-American narrative that we came in, we kicked the Spanish out and we gave them their independence on their own 4th of July. Beyond that, I hadn’t considered it much. So, was there an overall desire to right a historical inaccuracy?

In some ways, we get our history more from popular media than we do from reading history books. Certainly I did. I never took a history course in my life, and I went to a four-year college. I remember very vividly in the late ‘60s reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” where every chapter is about a different confrontation between a different Indian nation and the white settlers and American government of the time. Every one of them said, “I’ve seen this movie,” where Charles Bronson played Captain Jack of the Ute Indians or whatever, but this actual history I’m reading is more interesting than the movie. In some ways, running into a story like this, it’s just a great story that hasn’t been told. There’s two other American movies I’ve been able to track down that have anything to do with this period. One of them is basically a remake of “Gunga Din,” with no Filipinos in it. The other was kind of an American propaganda movie made in the Philippines with John Agar. If John Agar is your lead American character, you’re in big trouble.

You made a statement about Hollywood’s fidelity to historical accuracy as notoriously weak, saying that producers assume correctly that Americans’ knowledge of that history is even weaker. Philosophically speaking, what do you think is Hollywood’s obligation to telling historical stories?

You know, it’s a business. I don’t think they have an obligation or feel an obligation. I don’t even think that the people who work in network and cable news feel that much of an obligation to talk about what’s really happening. If you watched the coverage of the last couple wars we’ve had, they’re like miniseries. Each network had a theme song and they would try a couple things and when the ratings went up, they’d keep doing that. If that happened to leave out a lot of what was going on, they’d leave it out because it was taking the place of something more popular. If the news media aren’t even going to worry about history and what’s actually happening in the moment, you can’t expect a corporate business like the film business to worry about it too much.

As far as shooting “Amigo” in the Philippines, was that a no-brainer, or did you consider going elsewhere?

Yeah, we could afford to do it. One of the reasons I was able to do it is having known Joel Torre, the lead in the movie, before and talking with him about the industry. They make a lot of movies, they have a real film industry, they have a lot of talent there on both sides of camera. We were able to have an all-Filipino crew, except for the sound people because they don’t shoot many sound movies. A wonderful, premier cinematographer Lee Meily, who was able to put together a great crew for us. They generally worked 24 hours and 24 hours off, more American-style hours, so people got to go home at night and go to sleep, which they were very happy about. And we did the post-production there as well, so we could afford to do it. It was a combination of them having a real film industry and real technicians and actors who are very talented and everything that you do in the Philippines is about a third as expensive as it would be here. We could do something for a million and a half that looks like a much more expensive movie. And I’ve made 17 movies and I know how to get a lot out of shooting.

Eight Men Out (1988)

February 23, 2011

A movie about the Black Sox of 1919. A beautifully filmed movie with a great cast including John Cusack, Charlie Sheehan, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney.
The movie is a great re-creation of the period. You get a real taste of what baseball was like at that time.
The White Sox’s owner Charlie Comiskey has the best team in the world but does everything he can to pay his players as little as he can. Gamblers come up with a scheme to fix the game so they can make some players. Some of the players are receptive, because they just aren’t making that much.
The Sox drop the first two games but then some of the players change their minds. The gamblers are also not really coming through with payments to the players. The Sox almost come back to win the Series but don’t quite make it.
Two years later the story comes out and the players are taken to court but are found innocent. But Judge Landis bans eight of the players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson for life.
A really good sports movie. Perhaps the best baseball movie ever made.

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980)

January 17, 2010
Former college friends gather for a weekend reunion in New Hampshire. Once hippies, most are getting on with their lives. Teachers, political writers, country singer, medical student. One returning couple has just broken up and only Frances comes and she hooks up with one of the other guys, J.T. and then Jeff shows up.
Volleyball, charades, basketball, Clue, skinny dipping. The basketball scene was really well done. Sayles could only show it in two second cuts because the actors were so bad at basketball.
JT, who is going to head out to LA to try to make it as a musician, sings at the local bar and he is not very good, he is not going to make it. The friends all talk and worry about each other.
Local auto mechanic Don, (the first role of David Strathairn) hooks up with medical student Frances.
Don and Maura have a loud argument in the bar, mostly centered on Don’s depression.
Four of them get arrested for killing the deer they stopped on the roadsideto look at. “Bambi-cide”. Eventually the conversation goes to the weekend trip to Washington to protest the war. They were arrested on the way to Washington in Secaucus for marijuana. They called themselves the Seacaucus Seven.
The movie is very realistic. It almost looks like some one’s home movies. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It was really believable and that was good. It wasn’t very dramatic or exciting, which was bad. But the dialogue was interesting and it was well made.

Baby It’s You (1983)

November 26, 2009

Jill Rosen (played by Rosanna Arquette) , an aspiring high school actress meets The Shiek (played by Vincent Spano), a kid from the other side of the tracks. The Shiek isn’t much of a student but Jill is attracted to the excitement.
Like all of John Sayle’s movies this is not your typical teen romance movie. The Shiek gets thrown out of school, commits a robbery and flees to Miami. Jill heads off to Sarah Lawrence College. Jill eventually heads down to Miami to visit the Shiek who is lip synching in a club. They get back together and then Jill heads back to college. When the Shiek is replaced at work he heads up to see Jill who hasn’t been writing to him. But Jill has out grown him. “We’re not in high school anymore” she tells him. They go a dance together where they dance to “Strangers in the Night”. Not a great ending, but a really good movie.
I think I enjoyed the soundtrack on this film as much as any movie I have ever seen. Bruce, Sinatra, Shirelles – just a lot of really good stuff. I have a hard time believing that this only got 6.3 on IMDB. I think the movie is really, really good. I don’t know why it is so under-rated. Roseanna Arquette was great.

Here is a link to the original trailer.