Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review: City by the Sea (2002)

Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Franco, Frances McDormand, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe

I love a good drama, and thankfully, this is one of them. It's a 'based on a true story' type thing starring Robert DeNiro and James Franco, both of whom really go all out and give captivating performances in a story of a weathered cop who has to go after his own son in a murder case. Really this movie just looked cool; I had never really heard anything about it, but it looked cool. And surprise, it is.

The mood here is one of oppressive, suffocating urbania. A gritty, smog-streaked backdrop and some whitewashed sands and faded-looking oceans make up the setting of City by the Sea. I really like settings like this, so it's no surprise that the movie had me from the very beginning with its abandoned, torn up old buildings and grey skies.

Now, this is a very cinematic thing. It's based on a true story, but it's blown up to a level where you'd probably have to be a coma patient not to sit up and take notice. It's strange because this isn't an action movie or something that you'd have to suspend your brain animation to enjoy; it's a dark and serious drama, but it's played big and loud and in your face, like it's a new Bruce Willis action flick. Where there would normally be explosions and high speed chases, here there are long strings of dramatic tension, exposition and all around bad things that happen to our hero. It never seems to stop. His partner dies, he's saddled with a grandkid he didn't even know existed, his girlfriend breaks up with him...

But it managed to entertain me enough. The plot is fast and gripping, the acting is good and the story is very well written. Eliza Dushku gives a good performance as Gina, the down-on-her-luck teenage mother who Joey impregnated and made a mother, and De Niro as Vincent LaMarca is just spellbindingly awesome. Great performance, and different for him, too. James Franco as a druggie and a young father is very believable and his conversations with his father are some of the better parts of the movie. And William Forsythe appears as another ruthless bad guy killing machine. Joy. My only real problem with it is that it does lay on the drama a bit thick at times and comes off as heavy handed. And that might drive off a few people, but I don't think it really hinders the experience too much. It's hard not to get wrapped up in this one, honestly.

One of the best things about this is the lesson - it's a moral question that is buried just to the point where you can pick it out without too much work. The theme is one of growing up and parental guidance. De Niro's character, in the midst of his conflict with his son, constantly says to everyone around him that people make their own choices and that they follow whatever path they themselves create. Nobody else is responsible. But is that really true, or do the parents have more of an influence than he wants to admit? Is a person defined by his upbringing or does everything he do come solely from his or her own ability to make decisions? The film doesn't really provide the answers for us, and neither will I, but the fact that it poses these questions makes it interesting and worth watching and thinking about. Check out City by the Sea for a very spirited and intelligent cop drama that you won't want to miss if you are a fan of the genre.