City of Hope (1991) Blu-ray Review: A Compelling Mosaic of Urban Life

John Sayles’s City of Hope (1991) is his seventh film as writer and director. He also is the editor and plays the role of Carl, which he reveals on the commentary track is the largest part he’s ever played in one of his films. City of Hope creates a compelling mosaic by presenting slices from a number of lives interconnected within a generic urban city.

Buy City of Hope Blu-ray

Nick (Vincent Spano) is the first character on screen. He quits the cushy union job his father, Joe (Tony Lo Bianco), a building developer, got him. His untethering is due in part to his unresolved grief over the death of his older brother who died in Vietnam, which he blames on his father.

As Nick walks away, the camera follows him but rather than cutaway to a new scene, it then follows Joe and Alderman Wynn (Joe Morton), who is trying to get work for his constituents, because some don’t think he doesn’t do enough for the Black community. Sayles uses this technique of long-running master shots with characters crisscrossing throughout the film to reveal their interconnectedness.

Being that he owes $2000 in gambling debts to Carl, Nick goes along with a couple of guys to rob an appliance store to pay off the debt. When the heist is foiled by a security guard, the cops get Nick’s name and search for him. One particular cop who wants to find him is Rizzo (Tony Denison) because Nick is starting to see his ex-wife Angela (Barbara Williams).

The film shows people at various levels of status exert what power they have. At the top, businessmen who want to get going on a lucrative new development, which includes tearing down one of Joe’s buildings, offer lots of money to the District Attorney’s upcoming Senate campaign if he will pressure the mayor to help them move through the municipal process. At the bottom, a young Black teenager attacks a random jogger passing by in response to the hassling received from the cops. In the middle is Joe, who must make a tough decision to protect Nick from his own bad choices.

Sayles has written a great script filled authentic characters and realistic plots. Some do what’s right, most do what’s right for them, yet all make believable choices for their characters. In fact, the script is so plentiful in these areas it almost feels like a television pilot. While some storylines resolve, there is plenty of drama left unexplored and suggests at what David Simon would deal with a decade later in The Wire.

The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The film was shot in Super 35. The color hues are strong. Blacks are inky but because of the source, shadow delineation can swallow up objects. Strong light blooms, both sunlight and lamp sources. Depth and texture detail can be seen as can film grain. The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Dialogue is clear throughout. Ambient effects and music, including a rock band playing in a club, are balanced well in the mix. The lone special feature is an informative commentary track by Sayles.

During the ’80s and ’90s, John Sayles epitomized the independent filmmaker and City of Hope is one of the many reasons why. He was a great storyteller who achieved much on a limited budget. The high-definition presentation is satisfying. After a long absence from home video, the film is well worth seeking out.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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