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The career of Robert De Niro has been a mixed one. On the one hand he’s been a part of some of the greatest films ever made including The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter. Unfortunately, the other hand holds such disappointing travesties as The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle and Showtime. Most recently of course he returned to the role of Paul Vitti in the quite awful Analyze That. Were we ever going to see De Niro at his finest once more? I was beginning to doubt it. However, when I heard that he was teaming up with Frances McDormand for a crime thriller I got myself rather excited. Was this finally the return to form that De Niro fans had been hoping for? Let's find out.

City by the Sea
De Niro plays Manhattan homicide detective Vincent LaMarca, a committed cop haunted by his own past. Not only is LaMarca divorced from his bitter ex wife Maggie, but he hasn’t even seen his son Joey in nearly fourteen years. Adding to all of this pain is the heavy burden of seeing his father taken away by the police at an early age. He was later charged with murder and executed for his crimes. Now Vincent chooses to live life in solitude, keeping even his girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand) at arms length. Most of his working day is spent embroiled in investigations and the latest of these revolves around the discovery of a body, washed up on a Manhattan Beach. Initially it seems that the investigation will be like any other that he has been part of; but things are about to change when his son Joey (James Franco) emerges as the prime suspect in the investigation. As a cop, Vincent must bring a criminal to justice; and as a father, he must find a way to save his son. Now he will put his life on the line in order to do right by both his family and his profession…

I really wanted to like City by the Sea but unfortunately it was a long way from living up to my expectations. For starters the back of the box sells the film as a ‘gripping, suspense-filled thriller’, which is far from the truth. The film moves along at a ridiculously slow pace at times and offers the viewer only slight rewards for enduring it. I don’t typically dislike films that travel at this pace, The Score for example is very similar in structure and yet still manages to entertain. Whereas that film successfully built up a degree of tension resulting in a great climactic ending, City by the Sea nearly always fails to create any tension at all and finishes on somewhat of a whimper. So how did it fail? The main problem that I had with the movie was the often lacklustre editing. Many scenes seemed completely pointless and served little other purpose than to pad the films already overlong runtime. One scene for example depicts De Niro’s character walking home, letting himself into his home and sitting down. The scene then fades out and moves on to another completely unrelated scene. What was the point? Plenty of things happen in life but we don’t need to see every single one of them, especially if they serve little to no purpose. Disappointing.

City by the Sea
The performances are without a doubt the saving grace of the film but even De Niro can’t save this one from being anything other than mediocre. Nevertheless he puts in another solid performance here and makes the most of the material given to him. Despite a few traditional cop clichés he certainly crafts a much deeper and grittier character than his detective role in 15 Minutes. The closing ten or twenty minutes of City by the Sea are where De Niro shines in particular. Among other things he shares a genuinely touching and heartfelt conversation with his confused son. It isn’t often that we see De Niro crying onscreen but here he pulls it off so well that it’s literally heartbreaking. The supporting players are also strong. The Oscar winning Frances McDormand puts in a perfectly acceptable performance as LaMarca’s somewhat stereotypical girlfriend, though that is certainly no fault of the actress. The younger contribution arrives in the form of the talented James Franco. This was an incredibly demanding role for such a young actor but thankfully he copes admirably with the task and nearly always manages to provide what’s needed. Unfortunately though, he does on occasion take his acting a little too far, so much so that on several occasions I was half expecting him to shout ‘I’ll get you Spider-Man!!’. Still, it’s the performances that hold this film together and as such City by the Sea is certainly worth a watch – though I’d advise a rental over a purchase.

City by the Sea
Warner Home Video has put together a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a pretty decent one it is too. I did notice some slight shimmering on some early establishing shots of the city but other than that the print remained pristine throughout. I didn’t see any noticeable picture artefacts throughout the duration of the movie either and edge enhancement was also practically nonexistent. Colour tones are also conveyed accurately with realistic skin tones and clarity. Overall, another pretty solid transfer from Warner, though you’d expect that for such a recent movie. Good stuff.

City by the Sea receives a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and provides a good, if pretty under whelming audio experience. As you have probably already gathered, the film is a dialogue heavy affair and as such there’s not a great deal going on to give the sound a good workout. When it does kick in though the Dolby track copes admirably. One of the opening scenes for example takes place in the heavy rain and each of the speakers works superbly to create a truly involving soundstage. It sounded so realistic at times that the dog actually hid behind the sofa at the sound of a crack of thunder! Still, that is only one moment in a two hour film and the rest of the track makes very little use of the rear or surrounding speakers.

City by the Sea
The film didn’t do particularly well theatrically and as such the DVD receives a pretty slim selection of bonus material. For starters we have an audio commentary with writer Ken Hixon and Producer Matthew Baer. This is a pretty slow and repetitive commentary on the whole with the commentators frequently repeating themselves. The commentary also dries up on a number of occasions with long pauses between dialogue. Overall, not a great deal is learnt here, unfortunately the two spend most of the time commenting on how well a particular scene works which isn't particularly interesting. I do wonder why the director didn’t commit to the commentary instead, it would have been interesting to hear why he took some of the decisions that he did. Luckily some feedback from the director is included in the form of a short featurette entitled Six Words About Filmmaking with Michael Caton-Jones. The title is pretty self-explanatory really; here we have the director commenting on six aspects of the filmmaking process. The six aspects are Communicating, Casting, Directing, Shooting, Editing and Learning and each of them features commentary from the director interspersed with behind the scenes footage. The entire feature runs to just over eight minutes in total and is without a doubt the most interesting feature included on the disc. It would have been nice to have a little more behind the scenes footage though. Next up we have a feature called cast and crew. At first I thought this would be a basic biographies feature but as it turns out it’s little more than film credits. No details on the actors or crew can be accessed so I haven’t got a clue what purpose this bit serves. You can find just as much info out from looking on the back of the box! Lastly we have the films theatrical trailer. The trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs to a little under two minutes in total. If only the film was as exciting as the trailer!

City by the Sea
City by the Sea is another disappointing crime flick which just happens to be populated by a wealth of great talent. Robert De Niro proves that he still has what it takes but is let down by a film littered with questionable editing and an all too predictable plot. Warner Home Video has put together a disc that fares a little better than the film with a respectable transfer and an audio track that does all that the movie asks of it. The extras department is a little more disappointing with very few worthwhile supplemental features included. Overall then, a film worth seeing for the performances but little else.