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City by the Sea

Warner Bros. // R // February 18, 2003
List Price: $27.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 21, 2003 | E-mail the Author
City by the Sea stars Robert De Niro as Vincent LaMarca, a detective who suffered through a decidedly unpleasant childhood. His father Angelo, in a fit of desperation, had kidnapped the baby of a well-to-do family and held it for ransom, and the child's accidental death left him labeled a murderer. Vincent managed to steer clear of that sort of life as he grew up, and decades of dedication and hard work have led to him being a respected officer of the law. That's not to say he hasn't made mistakes along the way. Vincent walked out on his wife and son well over a decade ago, and now he's locked into a monotonous routine, bouncing like clockwork between his job and an tenuous relationship with his neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand). Despite the years that have passed, Vincent is still unable to escape the shadow of his father's infamy.

Joseph (James Franco), Vincent's son, has followed a very different path. Known on the street as Joey Nova, he's a strung-out junkie, tossing a seemingly endless barrage of meaningless promises of cleaning up to his mother whenever he's in need of cash. He's scared straight when a botched drug deal leaves a heavily tattooed thug named Picasso with a knife plunged in his chest. When Picasso's body washes up on shore, the murder investigation is assigned to none other than Vincent LaMarca and his partner Reg (George Dzundza). Joey quickly becomes a prime suspect, and Vincent does the best he can to support and guide the son who he's had precious little to do with in years. Vincent is increasingly torn between the career that's defined his life and his son when Joey suddenly becomes accused of something greater than the murder of an insignificant drug peddler.

City by the Sea diverges from "Mark of a Murderer", the account of actual incidents penned by Pulitzer Prize winner Mike McAlary that inspired the film. The movie puts far less emphasis is placed on the elder Angelo and Vincent as a young man. Vincent isn't painted in the article as man who struck his wife and callously abandoned his family, and Joey's situation is more cold-blooded and significantly less sympathetic than presented in City by the Sea. Vincent also wasn't the investigative officer in Picasso's murder. A letter-for-letter recreation of McAlary's article is not the movie the filmmakers set out to create. As stated in the commentary and as is quite apparent from watching the movie, the emphasis is squarely on the relationship between father and son, particularly as it relates to rebuilding a lost relationship. In some respects, their alterations succeed. However, a number of clich├ęs are riddled throughout the length of the film, and I wasn't particularly satisfied by the ending or the action in the final act that leads up to its conclusion. City by the Sea works better as a character piece than a cop movie, and it's some of the standard police drama elements that drag it down for me.

The cast takes what would've been an otherwise ordinary movie and shapes it into something compelling. The performances, headed by Robert De Niro, teeter on perfection. When I think of De Niro's output over the past few years, movies like Analyze That, Showtime, Meet the Parents, and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle immediately spring to mind. It's more than welcome to see him return to the sort of role that has brought him such acclaim over the years (I admittedly missed 15 Minutes), and though this is hardly the first time De Niro has portrayed an intense cop, he's such a phenomenal actor that it doesn't feel like a retread of previous films in which he's appeared. James Franco, who was cast before garnering innumerable accolades from his turn in James Dean, stands up remarkably well next to one of America's most talented actors. That's no small feat.

The two female leads don't get as much screentime, but they leave an indelible impact. Casting Frances McDormand in a role that, in any other movie, would've been tackled by some stereotypically gorgeous 23 year old, was an excellent choice. To some extent, she does serve the typical role of yanking exposition from a primary character, but that's relegated to a single scene where Vincent talks about his father and the dissolution of his marriage. Michelle is not a flat cariacture, and her reactions and responses throughout the movie strike me as very realistic. I've been a fan of Eliza Dushku, who portrays Joey's ex-girlfriend Gina, for several years now. I've been less than thrilled with some of her choices after leaving Buffy the Vampire Slayer, such as Soul Survivors and The New Guy. City by the Sea gives Dushku, who had previously worked with De Niro and director Michael Caton-Jones in 1993's This Boy's Life, a showcase for her talent. Hopefully it'll be more of these sorts of roles that appear in her filmography.

City by the Sea didn't fare well at the box office, recouping a little over a third of its $60 million budget. Perhaps it'll have the opportunity to attract more of an audience on home video. Though not a loaded special edition, its release on DVD features a respectable assortment of supplemental material, and the disc looks and sounds great.

Video: Warner Home Video tends to be almost insurmountable when it comes to its DVDs of recent theatrical releases, and the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of City by the Sea is another example of their stellar output. The image is sharp and detailed throughout, even in the most dimly lit portions. Black levels are rock solid, and the varied palette appears to be rendered accurately. The number of flecks scattered throughout are expectedly small for a movie just out of theaters, though there did seem to be an incrementally larger amount than normal. There is also some exceptionally light grain that caught my eye early on, though it's likely that it was present in theatrical presentations as well. The only real flaw comes in the form of intermittent shimmering in areas of fine detail, such as a distant shots of a skyscraper, car grills, bricks in various buildings, and blinds. This occurs infrequently enough that it doesn't present much of a nuisance. City by the Sea looks excellent, and any concerns about the presentation are extremely minor.

Though the DVD reviewed here faithfully preserves the movie's widescreen theatrical presentation, Warner Home Video is also releasing a separate full-frame disc. The discs are differentiated by colored banners at the top of the cover art.

Audio: The focus of City by the Sea's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is its dialogue, and every line is delivered cleanly and crisply, free of any underlying hiss or distortion. The score by John Murphy (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is a definite highlight, roaring from every speaker and accompanied by a rich, substantial low-end. The surrounds get a work-out as well, helping to build an immersive environment through the frequent presence of ambient sounds and the occasional pan. There are several stand-out moments along those lines, particularly Spider tearing off across the soundstage on his motorcycle after harrassing Gina and a thunderstorm during the fatal encounter with Picasso. Dialogue-heavy dramas are typically fairly bland sounding, limited to dialogue front-and-center, minimal subwoofer activity, and maybe some mild score reinforcement in the surround channels. City by the Sea offers a much more engaging aural experience than similarly themed movies.

City by the Sea also includes a six-channel French dub, as well as subtitles in English, French, and Spanish and closed captioning.

Supplements: The most notable extra is an audio commentary with screenwriter Ken Hixon and producer Matthew Baer. Much of the commentary is spent discussing the characters and the cast, particularly in the differences between reality and fiction as well as the evolution of the script from conception to celluloid. Though the film's director didn't participate in the audio commentary, he does contribute an excellent interview with the full-frame "Six Words About Filmmaking With Michael Caton-Jones". Those six words are Communicating, Casting, Directing, Shooting, Editing, and Learning, and the director explores each of those topics throughout the eight and a half minute discussion. As the title suggests, "Six Words About Filmmaking..." is fairly broad in scope. The comments extend to more than just City by the Sea specifically and is more detailed than its brief runtime would seem to indicate.

The film's two minute theatrical trailer is also provided, presented in stereo and anamorphic widescreen. Rounding out the supplements are selected filmographies for the cast and crew, including Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, screener writer Ken Hixon, and director Michael Caton-Jones. Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, George Dzundza are listed along with the movie's producers and Mike McAlary, though they don't have accompanying entries.

The disc's menus are enhanced for 16x9 sets. The main menu is animated, though the remainder, including the thumbnails under 'Scene Selections', are static. There are thankfully no transitions when navigating through the menus, and the DVD features an even thirty chapter stops.

Conclusion: I'm typically one to shy away from dramas, but I enjoyed City by the Sea. This is due largely to the phenomenal cast, who take somewhat ordinary material and manage to turn it into something much more compelling than it otherwise would've been. Its release on DVD is respectable, and the movie looks and sounds great. Fans of the cast will find a purchase to be a no-brainer, and I think most viewers who go into City by the Sea knowing what sort of movie it is will find it worth seeking out. Recommended.

Related Links: The article that inspired the movie, Mike McAlary's "Mark of a Murderer", seems like a natural inclusion, but it's not present on the DVD or Warner Bros.' website for the movie. "Esquire", which originally published the article, thankfully has it archived online.
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