Franchise Pictures/Roadshow Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 104 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
Bright lights, big city, not exactly by the sea.
If you were a latecomer to the work of Robert De Niro, you could be forgiven for thinking that the man was a comic actor who hadn’t quite hit his stride yet. After dabbling in the more light-hearted side of things with Midnight Run and the misfired We’re No Angels - both of which offered the then-novel sight of the otherwise menacing De Niro playing for laughs - he went back to the visceral, serious roles which had made him a household name. But obviously something about comedy tickled De Niro’s fancy; in recent years he’s made a leap back into that genre, with Wag the Dog, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Analyze This, Analyze That, Meet the Parents and the not-very-well-received Showtime. Aside from Wag the Dog, all of these films to some extent played on De Niro’s reputation for playing dangerous, dark, menacing or violent characters to generate their humour. But, cried long-time fans, what about the De Niro of old? Surely one of the greatest actors of the modern age hasn’t decided to make goofy comedy his stock and trade?
Thankfully, he hasn’t, and City By the Sea is proof positive of the fact. While hardly the kind of nerve-pummelling drama that De Niro does so well, this inspired-by-truth story of a turbulent father-son relationship is pure relief after the inane comedy that’s dominated the man’s career in recent years.
Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) is a well-respected homicide detective in New York, where he lives alone in a dingy apartment building, having the occasional fling with downstairs neighbour Michelle (Frances McDormand). His career and life come unstuck, though, when the prime suspect in a drug-dealer murder he’s investigating turns out to be Joey (James Franco), his estranged son, who has been living in the decaying ruins of the once-vibrant holiday destination of Long Beach, helplessly addicted to drugs and bitter about his life. Having gotten into an altercation with a drug dealer that results in a murder, Joey is being pursued not only by the police, but also by mullet-haired biker Spyder, who thinks vengeance is in order. As Vincent tries to figure out a way to protect his son and to communicate with him, Vincent is reminded of a dark shadow over his own past - his father, who was executed for the murder of a child when Vincent was only eight years old. Suddenly Vincent has to confront his own demons, both for his own sake and as a way of understanding why Joey has ended up like he is.
It all sounds terribly soap-opera in summary, but City By the Sea has a lot going for it. For starters, it’s immensely well written, the insightful script by Ken Hixon (Inventing the Abbotts) taking the bare bones of a story from a magazine article and fleshing it out with believable human drama that actually means something on more than the surface level. There’s enough character and warmth here to forgive the odd lapse into cliché from time to time; sure, we could have done without yet another “you killed my partner” speech, but fortunately such scenes are the exception rather than the rule. The main story here is that of Vincent and his family, something that you should understand going in; the story may be framed inside a cops/drugs/murder story, but regular cop show viewers will find much of the back-story here overly familiar.
Gina (Eliza Dushku) listens to Joey make his excuses.
Acting is excellent across the board, with De Niro turning in a sensitive, restrained and absolutely compelling performance as Vincent. James Franco is scarily convincing as Joey, while both Frances McDormand and Eliza “I’m More Than Just A Slayer, Y’Know” Dushku is perfectly cast (and very good) as Joey’s girlfriend Gina, who is recovering from her own drug addiction and trying to look after a young son at the same time. Director Michael Caton-Jones (who’s done some turkeys in his time, but also gave us the brilliant Scandal and the ambitious Rob Roy) is unfussy in his visual approach, rarely making full use of the wide frame and resisting funky camera moves and visual trickery. What he focuses on are the performances and the story itself, and it’s a wise decision; as human drama, this is seamless and convincing.
If you’re looking for action and suspense, you might want to hire something else. But if solid drama and well-drawn characters are for you, then City By the Sea, a real showcase for De Niro’s still-startling acting talent, should prove very satisfying viewing.
Nothing worse than waking up to find a Spyder on your bed.
City By the Sea was filmed in Super 35, and is presented in its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio with the usual 16:9 enhancement. This is an exceptional transfer, one which does full justice to Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s moody photography. Much of the film is set at night or in dark places, and the sheer detail in these scenes speaks volumes for how well managed this transfer is. With natural, often muted colours and a lovely film-like look throughout, there’s little to complain about aside from some occasional visible film grain and the odd teensy speck of dust that only truly over-zealous DVD reviewers will notice.
The film is encoded at a nice high bitrate on a dual layer disc, the layer switch placed reasonably well (though still disruptive) but extremely quickly navigated by our review player.
Another fine effort from Roadshow, who’ve made getting it right into an art form.
The sole audio track supplied is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that, while very good, falls short of greatness. The main issue is the dialogue - generally clear and well-balanced, it has been recorded and/or mastered with a very limited frequency range and as a result there’s little in the way of high-frequency presence to help with intelligibility. It’s not an overly big problem, but it’s unusual to hear a modern soundtrack with such an understated dialogue track; maybe it was the extensive use of location audio.
In surround sound terms, it’s a pretty good mix - John Murphy’s adventurously diverse music score was recorded in full surround, and that really helps with the atmosphere of some scenes - particularly those where surround channel use is not entirely convincing. The subwoofer, meanwhile, goes virtually unused for the duration of the film. It’s hardly a show-off soundtrack, but it serves the film well enough.
Vincent (De Niro) realises things just got much, much worse...
Very little is provided in the way of extra features on this disc, but what we do get is the same as what was offered to US customers on their (Warner-released) version of the disc. The main offering is an eight and a half minute featurette called Six Words About Filmmaking - and no, they didn’t mean it literally! Caton-Jones talks briefly about six topics here in connection with his film: communicating, casting, directing, shooting, editing and learning. Produced for the US DVD by Warner, this NTSC-converted full-frame featurette is almost a tease for all the other bonus material we could have had but, well, don’t. All you get apart from this is a 16:9 transfer of the theatrical trailer and some cast and crew biographies.
It’s a relief to see De Niro back on form - when he is, it’s always a joy to watch regardless of the film - and fortunately City By the Sea has a lot more to recommend it as well. Presented on a good-quality (but extras-deprived) disc, it's well worth grabbing if you’ve forgotten what American cinema with substance looks like.