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DVD Review:
City By The Sea
By Michael Patrick Sullivan


It’s been my concern of late that Robert DeNiro just isn’t Robert DeNiro anymore. Where is the Raging Bull of old? Where is the hard-bitten acting that made people genuinely afraid of him? There’s been a little too much smiley, comedic DeNiro. I want the DeNiro that sinks into the ugly places and fights and takes charge...and doesn’t crack a smile.

My wish has been answered by City By The Sea, but this isn’t exactly that old, nasty DeNiro. This is the evolution of that DeNiro. DeNiro 2.0. There is anger within restraint and there is vulnerability. This isn’t classic DeNiro. This is better.

City By The Sea is a contemporary crime drama based on actual events. Joey, the junkie son (Spider-Man’s James Franco) of a New York Cop, Vincent LaMarca (DeNiro) finds himself killing a drug-dealer, ostensibly in self-defense. Joey then makes himself scare as the drug dealer was an A-lister, as drug dealers go. Guess who caught the case.

Aside from the usual catching-a-killer and name-clearing one might expect from this sort of film, the bulk of Ken Hixon’s script explores several broken relationships, not the least of which is the father-son relationship of Vincent and Joey, filled with estrangement brought on by violence. There are also echoes of Vincent’s short relationship with his father who was executed for the murder of a child when Vincent was eight, as well as his surrogate father, a policeman who helped mold the man he is today.

More melodramatic than dramatic, when one begins to identify with a character’s plight (or becomes appalled by it), the mere thought that this is based in actual events is enough to put a shiver down ones spine.

This is not to say the entirety of the film is based in the examination of the emotional issues brought on by such a set of circumstances. James Forsythe (Fox’s John Doe) cuts a frightening figure as Spyder, the guns and leather heavy of the film. He is the key to films more adrenal sequences.

Forsythe is but one of the many actors who make City By The Sea so engrossing. Frances McDormand is the lady in Vincent’s life and is learning that she’s gotten into a little more than she bargained for and you can see in her eyes the constant decision-making process that keeps her with him.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Eliza Dushku is the father of Joey’s son who maintains loyalty to Joey while going to his father for help, all while raising a son, working a a hash-slinging job that doesn’t pay enough, and fighting off the urge to score.

Franco is very believable as a good boy gone way bad (and he knows it). It’s a shame there isn’t more of him, but this is Deniro’s flick. This is a very subdued, aging DeNiro. The rage is there, but beneath the surface. This visible containment makes this one of DeNiro’s best dramatic roles of recent years.

Michael Caton-Jones bounces back from his misfire, The Jackal. City has a very gritty, ground-level feel to it that outs you on the streets and in the homes of the characters. While the film moves slowly in some points, you ultimately get somewhere worth going to, and Caton-Jones at least uses the slower points to create a sense of place. He owed something to the reality of events and acquits himself nicely.

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City By The Sea is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ration was shot by Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Reality is evoked here not by using a grainy film stock, but by presenting a clear image that shows all the flaws in sight of the lens. Rather than trying to establish a slanted color pallet, a natural one emerges. There seems to be a sense of authenticity in the array of hues, though taking care never to jar the viewer with something out of mood. His careful use of lighting is astounding as there are many times that the ‘magic hour’ is evoked in the film. Too much to actually be the case in shooting.

The sound is in Dolby 5.1 (available with a French track), which serves, but is rarely called upon for anything above and beyond. The use of scoring is reserved and subdued, letting the movie highlight itself. Many uncomfortable moments for the characters are underscored by hearing only their voices and the creaking of the floorboards.

Supplementally speaking, there’s a comfortable amount. You won’t spend the better part of three days reviewing everything, but what you get has a purpose.

First off, there’s the commentary by Ken Hixon and producer Matthew Baer. These two are thoughtful and informative, and on the occasion when they believe that there is an important scene to be discussed, they shut up for its duration. They don’t mindlessly babble just to be constantly talking. They bring some nice background to the film, the original article on which the film is based and some filmmaking insights.

While Caton-Jones is absent from the commentary, there’s is a featurette is which he pontificates on film-making in general and City By The Sea in specific. Clearly one side of an interview, it’s actually an eight and half minute course in being a good director (Caton-Jones style).

Standard extra features such as trailer, highlights, interactive menus and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French are all present

The Movie: A. A strong story encapsulating one of DeNiro’s finest performances.

The Look: A-. Plain, but real. Clearly shot (and transferred).

The Sound: B. Only a 5.1 soundtrack, but that’s really all this film requires.

The Extras: B+. An informative commentary and a director’s featurette that doesn’t act like a promotional piece are very welcome, but the disc felt like it needed a little something else.

Overall: A-. City By The Sea is a compelling crime drama that doesn’t skimp on characterization.


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