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by Peter Sobczynski

"Good And Good For You"
4 stars

Although I have an enormous amount of respect for John Sayles--the maverick filmmaker who helped kick-start the American independent film movement with a series of low-budget movies that he financed mostly himself from his earnings from penning the screenplays to such B-movie classics as "Piranha," "Battle Beyond the Stars" and "The Howling" and went on to make such wonderful works as "City of Hope," "Lone Star" and "Honeydripper"--I have to admit that there are times when his desire to get his point across overwhelms his common sense and the result is the cinematic equivalent of a granola bar that is so hell-bent on Being Good For You that it becomes virtually impossible to swallow, things like "Matewan," "Casa de los Babys" and the virtually unwatchable "Silver City."

Set in 1900, near the end of the Philippine-American war, his latest film, the ambitious historical drama "Amigo" tells the story of a small Filipino village that is literally caught in the crossfire when American troops arrive and occupy the town while searching for insurgents hiding in the jungles. The Americans announce that any villagers caught giving aid to the rebels will be considered traitors and executed and the rebels make the same proclamation regarding anyone who assists the Americans. This puts the townspeople in a precarious position--none more so than the town's mayor (Joel Torre), who is torn between protecting his constituents and his brother, who happens to be one of the leaders of the guerillas--and things get even more complicated as time goes by and some of the Americans begin to look upon the locals as people and not merely as pawns in the game of war.

For the first couple of reels, I began to have the sneaking suspicion that this was going to be one of those aforementioned granola films. Right from the start, it is clear that Sayles intends his film to not only serve as a history lesson dealing with a largely forgotten part of our nation's past but as a commentary about our current foreign occupations as well. The trouble is that even though the typical audience for a Sayles film is already pretty much on his side of the fence already--highly educated, liberal-leaning and the like--he approaches this project as though he is talking to a group of schoolchildren and underlines all of his points so bluntly (right down to intercutting scenes of a violent and essentially pointless military attack with visions of an equally brutal and pointless cockfight) that it comes close to being a little condescending at times. That stuff is questionable at best, as are the scenes involving the developing relationship between one of the soldiers and a local girl, but Sayles eventually reins things in and gives the story the tight, taut treatment that it deserves. He also gets a number of good performances from the largely unknown cast anchored by the solid and touching contributions from Torre--the only weak performance, surprisingly enough, comes from the usually reliable Chris Cooper (a veteran of many of Sayles' previous films), who gives a shrill and resoundingly one-note performance as the leader of the American troops.

"Amigo" is not a great film but it is a good one and while I suspect that many of you who had no previous intention on seeing it, either in theaters or at home on On Demand, will not find your minds changed by what I have written, I do hope that those of you in the mood for something smart and challenging will at least consider giving it a shot because even when the results are as occasionally messy and imperfect as this film is, John Sayles is still a national treasure and even his second-tier efforts are more worthy of consideration than the usual multiplex fodder.

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originally posted: 09/17/11 06:03:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  John Sayles

Written by
  John Sayles

  Garret Dillahunt
  Chris Cooper
  DJ Qualls
  Yul Vazquez
  Lucas Neff
  James Parks

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