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City Island

Starz / Anchor Bay // PG-13 // August 24, 2010
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 9, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

City Island, writer/director Raymond De Felitta's quirk-heavy dramedy, is all about secrets -- and the dysfunctional family that'd rather deal with the guilt in keeping them than catch an earful. Brando-obsessed corrections officer Vince (Andy Garcia) fibs to his affair-speculative wife Joyce (Juliana Margulies) by telling her that he's going to a weekly poker game when he's actually off to an acting class in Manhattan. Their daughter (Dominik GarcĂ­a-Lorido) pussyfoots around the fact that she's taken up stripping to regain her college scholarship, while their obnoxious son (Ezra Miller) hides his fetish for large women. They all smoke, secretly, and they're all going to be the structure of a bigger lie involving hunky inmate Tony (Steven Strait) that Vince brings home under his custody -- who happens to be Vince's son, though neither Tony nor his family are privy to that fact. That's a whole lot of futile dishonesty and misunderstanding, but I guess that's the point our director's trying to reach in his loud, tidy farce.

De Felitta sets his film against the coastal New York town of City Island, a quaint fishing segment of the Bronx borough that colloquially separates its citizens into outsider "mussel-suckers" and native "clam-diggers", like Vince and his family. It becomes obvious, in between their piercing bursts of thick-accented ranting, why his family avoids revealing any irregular ambitions or problems to one another. He and his wife argue so much that it's uncertain whether they're on the brink of divorce or maintaining status quo, though we're meant to pick up on a layer of affection between the two that dulls the sharpness of their banter. They bicker about their daughter's breasts ad-nauseam amid the first dinner with their new houseguest, a meal which Vince and Joyce argued the "fanciness" of beforehand, while they all tippy-toe around the walls their secrets hide behind.

Within shrill back-and-forths that grind on the nerves, obviously De Felitta's aim, a neat little web of duplicity weaves underneath City Island where the truth stays an opportune, on-the-cusp distance away from revelation. Chunks of the Rizzos' secrets escape barely enough to complicate the story's sprightly nature and let us in on the joke, resulting in easy connect-the-dots inanity that's handled in a manner close to scatty TV-sitcom tomfoolery. But there's cleverness at-play in the script's awareness of the layers of truth, such as Joyce's infatuation with Tony as she suspects her husband of cheating, even if they feel shorhorned into the goings-on. Note that none of this applies to the limp dead-end subplot involving Vince Jr.'s fetish for BBW women, which jabs in-and-out in a way that suggests De Felitta merely wanted all his characters to have a hidden quirk.

City Island thus focuses on its dodgy situational humor, yet it's neither successfully witty nor genuinely expressive in its undemanding flow -- just brashly upbeat as it fluctuates in verbal volume. It tries to ride that line between screwball humor and melodramatic potency similar to Alexander Payne's work (Election, Sideways) or Little Miss Sunshine, reaching for catharsis through the Rizzo family's glut of lies. Some components for meaningfulness are there, but the string of harebrained, almost-found-out convenience bogs down any possible genuineness that could've pivoted around the story. The spark of events created by a strategic flick of a matchbook in De Felitta's film reminds one of dominoes all stacked behind one another, falling ever-so-fluidly towards a perfect storm of situational fireworks that, quite frankly, becomes too far-fetched at the end to drive home the situation's lukewarm humor.

There's also a tender layer within City Island, one that revolves around aspiration, dwindling passion for life, and the reason that the Rizzos all keep their secrets, yet De Felitta's concentration on the screwball connecting-of-dots and fit coincidence also drags down these balks at seriousness. This affects the perception of Vince's budding relationship with fellow acting student Molly, a poetic-waxing waif admirably postured by Emily Mortimer, which develops into a not-quite-cheating kinship as they mill over a homework assignment about -- nudge, nudge -- secrets. De Felitta also overshadows the subtle angst in ex-con Tony, played with a scarred-but-deep brood by Steven Strait, as well as Juliana Margulies' firm rendering of Joyce's anxiety over the lack of "oomph" in her middling marriage, all because of a nagging sense of impracticality at the film's core.

It doesn't take much guesswork to figure out that there's going to be an eruption of truth at City Island's boiling point, bubbling into an operatic reveal of everyone's dirty laundry. Yet, even then, it seems as if there's something too plotting about the way these secrets intuitively hold off from exploding, neatly reaching that previously-mentioned catharsis point in a fashion that takes itself about as seriously as this barmy bouillabaisse can handle -- which isn't all that much. But at least it's all entertaining, somewhat, and it means well with its aims to break down the barriers of deceit that separate the Rizzo clan. Amid all that, the structured chaos of De Felitta's semi-dark situational dram-com offers little more than loud, amusing domestic squabbling with scant substance at its core.

The DVD:

Video and Audio:

30 Rock cinematographer Vanja Cernjul shot City Island for Raymond De Felitta, so it's understandable that this 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced image reflects a hybrid between a sitcom and a motion-picture aesthetic. Anchor Bay's DVD handles the vibrant palette rather well, though the tone leans towards a reddish hue more often than desired and the contrast grows dark enough to swallow detail in several sequences. Aside from that, facial close-ups and the New York scenery shots retain a firm level of detail, while a respectable level of natural film grain can be spotted in the cinematography.

City Island's sound design isn't terribly demanding on a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, mostly bloating the musical scoring to the rear channels for added ambiance. The crashing of trash cans and a car wreck test the middle-range bass levels, while musical cues flicker to the audio's expanses. Mostly, it's a matter of keeping the dialogue buoyant and clear, which can be a challenge when Andy Garcia and Juliana Margulies begin Vince and Joyce's shouting matches. But Anchor Bay's disc handles their piercing yells respectably, never distorting at their highest points nor sinking too low in clarity during Garcia and Mortimer's quieter moments. English and Spanish subtitles are offered with the sole English 5.1 track.

Special Features:

Commentary with Director Raymond De Felitta and Andy Garcia:
The pair separate into their expected quadrants of participation, with Garcia concentrating on anecdotes while De Felitta reveals more Film 101 content. They discuss the usage of the "Habanera" aira from Carmen, how they plan on writing a song using some of Molly's dialogue from the film, as well as why De Felitta believe Scorsese passed on a cameo in the picture. They also discuss Garcia's impression of a Brando impersonator, as well as how difficult it is for a skilled actor to "act badly" -- similarly to Christopher Walken's bad dancing in Search and Destroy. Garcia and De Felitta keep the material coming in a smooth tone throughout the commentary's entirety, which can be off-and-on amusing and insightful.

Also available are a Diiner with the Rizzos (16:09, 16x9) retrospective where the cast members and De Felitta gather at a plaid-covered dinner table to reflect on both City Island as a location and as the setting for their film, several Deleted Scenes (15:36, 16x9) and a bland, ill-fitting Trailer (2:30, 16x9).

Final Thoughts:

Raymond De Felitta constructs an ornate yet breezy situational comedy with City Island, where secrets are kept under lock-and-key amid a loud, doubting family. As the appealing characters are sketched out against the New York backdrop through a solid ensemble cast, the easy way that the story reveals just enough of their secrets, while holding onto a convenient amount to keep things interesting until opportune moments, constructs a watered-down balance between subtle comedy and schmaltzy drama that's not really all that effective on either ground. It's performed well in bursts, and carries that certain indie charisma about its manner, but it doesn't mesh the screwiness and familial calamity effectively. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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