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Born and bred at Long Beach - City by the Sea - homicide detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) has divorced and left for New York, where he has made a name for himself in law enforcement. But when he’s faced with a murder in which his own estranged, drug addict son, Joey (James Franco) is a prime suspect, he is confronted with tough choices. When he reveals his troubles to his girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand) she’s not sure how to take it all. His closest friend is his partner, Reg (George Dzundza), and when Reggie is shot, Joey is again the prime suspect.

Review by Louise Keller:
It starts off as a routine police crime drama, but City by the Sea quickly crosses the line into something far more personal, an engrossing and powerful conflict of a man torn between his work and the life he has chosen to forget. Yes, Robert De Niro has played cops before, but this character is somewhat different, because he strips naked emotionally. It’s a brilliant performance by De Niro, and the revelation is gradual, as we slowly get to know more about him and the past he is keen to forget. Vincent is a man whose self-esteem comes with the job: it is the respect he has earned in the course of duty that has allowed him to build up his own self-respect. He lives simply. He comes home each night, drinks a beer at his simple wooden table, goes to bed or visits his girlfriend who is waiting for him one floor below. 

Frances McDormand is a credible choice and her scenes with De Niro work their magic through their shared maturity and often unstated understanding. There’s no disputing it’s a convenient arrangement, and when he meets Michelle once during the day, she comments ‘I’m not used to seeing you in daylight’. But there’s much that’s kept in the shadows: Vincent hasn’t felt able to reveal anything personal about himself during the year that they have been in a relationship. Then Vincent’s whole emotional being unravels, like a yo-yo that has suddenly been taken off the leash, impacting on his work, his relationship and his self control. The title may refer to Long Beach, whose painful memories are instrumental in keeping Vincent away, but it could also refer to the emotional turbulence surrounding the façade of the man. 

City by the Sea is a story about responsibility, and what responsibility you can and can’t take for other people’s actions. There’s no glossing over the pain Vincent faces as he is confronted with the evolving situation concerning his son, and as the film reaches is explosive climax, the emotional pay off is profound. James Franco, who made a name for himself winning a Golden Globe Award as James Dean, effectively portrays the troubled young man, dreaming of a fresh start. Joey’s character may not have a wide range, but Franco is credible as the down-and-out junkie. I also enjoyed Eliza Dushku’s Gina, who is at cracking point. But this is De Niro’s film, and he makes the most of every moment. City by the Sea is an emotional powerhouse that takes us on a satisfying journey, making us realise that while you can’t change the past, you can certainly make a dent in the future.

Although there aren’t many features, the ‘About filmmaking’ is surprisingly satisfying. ‘Six words about filmmaking with Michael Caton-Jones’ is what it’s called, and the director articulately describes his thoughts on communication, casting, directing, shooting, editing and learning, in the context of the film and its making.

It’s a really interesting approach that in some ways is more interesting than a commentary, because the thoughts are articulated on set topics and then examples are given. Caton-Jones begins by describing how he tries to find things that are universal, and to which anyone can relate. Things like a boy who doesn’t get on with his father. These concepts are then used in one specific time and space. ‘Once you learn the rules, you can throw them away,’ he says and sometimes the most important thing for a director to do is to know when to be quiet and let the actors do what they do. He compares the process of editing to that of a sculptor: “Start with a big block of stuff and start to chisel away, polish up and eventually it’s a Michaelangelo, if you’re lucky.”

Published July 17, 2003

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CAST: Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, George Dzundza

DIRECTOR: Michael Caton-Jones

SCRIPT: Ken Hixon (Based on an article called Mark of a Murderer by Michael McAlary)

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9; subtitles for the hearing impaired; Dolby 5.1 sound

SPECIAL FEATURES: About filmmaking; theatrical trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: July 16, 2003

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