City Island (Blu-ray)
Ethnic families are recurring figures in American comedy. Without their eccentricities, many standup comics wouldn’t know where to start, and a lot of movie scripts wouldn’t get written. Some of those scripts are little more than standup transposed to drama (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Others try to capture the flavor of a community, a recent example being Nothing Like the Holidays.
But every so often, magic happens, when the right script, director and cast combine to elevate an ethnic story into something akin to a fairy tale. The preeminent illustration is 1987's Moonstruck, which transformed the turmoil of an Italian Brooklyn plumber’s family into a fable about passion, love and redemption. (The film was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, and won three, including best original screenplay.)
Raymond De Felitta’s City Island is no Moonstruck, but it breathes some of the same rarefied air. It too is a story about an Italian-American family whose members are stuck in various ways and, through a series of unlikely (and, depending on your taste, either funny or just plain outrageous) events, find their way back to each other.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 104 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: DD 5.1; PCM 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB + 1 DVD (digital copy)
Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 19, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 24, 2010
I agree with Robert Harris’ view that City Island is the kind of film where the viewer shouldn’t know too much going in. So let’s stick to the basics.
City Island is a tiny island, about one and a half square miles, between the Bronx and Long Island. Originally a fishing village, it’s now part of New York City, though there are plenty of native New Yorkers who have neither been there nor heard of it. Inhabitants of City Island can see the Manhattan skyline on a clear day, but they generally ignore it. If you live on City Island, you’re keenly aware of who was born there and who wasn’t. True natives are known as “clam diggers”. Those who emigrated are known as “mussel suckers”.
Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a clam digger. He lives in the house his grandfather built on City Island with his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), his daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), and his son, Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller, Becca’s boyfriend in Californication). Vince supports his family by working as a prison guard (or “correctional officer”, in his preferred lingo) at a facility in Westchester County.
No one actually says so in the film, but the name of the locale perfectly reflects the state of the Rizzo family. As in a city, they’re constantly bumping up against each other, but they’re also as separate as islands. Each of them is trapped in a private world of secrets and lies. When they do sit down together at the dinner table, they don’t communicate; they just yell at each other. (My wife, whose family never spoke above a whisper at dinner, found these scenes excessive, but I had a lot of Italian friends growing up, and to me they were models of realism.)
The principal dilemma is that of Vince, the family’s anchor, and Andy Garcia (who also produced) offers a subtle and understated portrayal of a man who’s reached middle age and lost his bearings. For reasons even he can’t explain, Vince has decided to take an acting class in Manhattan, but he’s ashamed to tell anyone, especially his wife. Instead he says he’s playing poker. (Joyce doesn’t believe him.) For a class exercise, Vince is paired with Molly (Emily Mortimer), a flighty sort with whom he’s able to make a connection, because she’s as unmoored as Vince is. There’s nothing romantic in their encounters, because Vince is devoted to his family. What he needs, and what Molly ends up giving him, is far more subtle and complex.
Vince’s situation becomes even more tangled when, one day at work, he’s shocked to recognize a young inmate named Tony (Steven Strait) as someone with a connection to Vince’s life before he was married. When it turns out that Tony has no family to sponsor him for a work release program, Vince offers to do so, much to the shrieking horror of Joyce and the amusement of Vince, Jr. (Vivian, home from college for spring break, says nothing.) The introduction of this outsider into the Rizzo household will ultimately be the catalyst for all sorts of unexpected events.
I have deliberately omitted any mention of the situations of the other members of the Rizzo household, because those are best left for the viewer to discover. Some of them are conventional, and some are outlandish. As loud and temperamental as the Rizzos may be, there is a spirit of generosity that underlies both the family and the film. The best way to enjoy City Island is to view it in the same spirit.
The great Alan Arkin plays Michael Malakov, Vince’s acting teacher. He has three scenes, and he’s memorably tart in all of them. (Arkin did the film both as a favor to Garcia and because the script made him laugh.) Probably the single funniest sequence in the film occurs in the second half, when Vince reluctantly goes on his first audition. If you’re unsure about the film until then, you won’t be by the time auditions are over.
Anchor Bay delivers another fine transfer with good detail, solid black levels and rich but not overly saturated colors. Almost every scene was shot in a real location, and grain is more evident in night scenes, where light levels were lower, but it’s never a distraction (and the fact that the grain remains is a reassurance that fine detail hasn’t been scrubbed away by DNR). Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, whose credits include 30 Rock, Nurse Jackie and the HBO series Bored to Death, knows how to use the squarish 1.78:1 frame to take full advantage of the scenic locations, and the Blu-ray presents them in all their allure. City Island looks nothing like anyone’s image of the Bronx or any other part of New York City. Conveying that look is essential to the film, and the Blu-ray does so effectively.
The PCM 5.1 track is modest in its aspirations. It conveys a general sense of the various environments (and I don’t want to be more specific for fear of giving away plot elements), presents the dialogue clearly and gives a nice sense of presence to the wistful score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (an Oscar winner for Finding Neverland).
Commentary with Writer/Producer/Director Raymond De Felitta and Producer/Actor Andy Garcia. De Felitta and Garcia chat amiably and informatively throughout the film. Their collaboration began when Garcia was sent the script for City Island, immediately fell in love with it and called De Felitta – who didn’t believe at first that it was really Andy Garcia on the phone. Between them, they’re able to recall substantial detail about the locations, casting, the shooting experience and the interaction among the actors. They also point out private moments, such as a scene in which Garcia walked in a manner reminiscent of his late father. After a screening in his Florida hometown, old friends of the family came to him with tears of gratitude for the tribute.
Dinner with the Rizzos (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (16:09). A reunion lunch among De Felitta, Garcia, Margulies, García-Lorido and Strait, at which they reminisce about making the film.
Deleted Scenes (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (15:36). There are nine scenes, and several are referenced during the commentary. One of them, of Vince changing for his audition, is great on its own, but as explained in the commentary, it lessened the impact of the audition sequence when it was cut into the film. The single most interesting scene is the entire monologue that Vince delivers to his acting class; portions are heard in the finished film at the beginning (in voiceover) and near the end.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays a trailer for Solitary Man, which can be skipped with the top menu button and is also separately available from the features menu, along with trailers for After.Life, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Sunshine Cleaning.
Digital Copy. The digital copy includes an authorization code valid until Dec. 31, 2011.
City Island remained in theaters for much longer than is customary for a limited release, and it managed to gross more than its production cost, which is rare for such films. That’s a tribute both to its cast and to the quality of its writing and direction. One of these days, some executive will be seized by a moment of courage (or madness) and give Raymond De Felitta the time and budget to create the next Moonstruck. Or maybe he’ll just do it on his own.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (PCM decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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