Rewind Review: City Island

Sometimes it seems like fate when you hear about a film. Again this plays a bit into pre-life but this connection is a little more direct as I agree with the sentiments to follow. I had never heard of the film City Island until Jake T. Austin, the actor best known for Wizards of Waverly Place and the upcoming The Perfect Game, tweeted that he had just seen it at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and said it’s the kind of film he wants to be involved in. Which is high praise from any actor and equivalent to a director saying “I wish I made that movie.”
This film concerns itself with the secrets a nuclear family keeps from each other that are unearthed as its patriarch, Andy Garcia, brings home an ex-con who is his son from a pre-marital tryst.This is the best most accurate way to encapsulate the film other cutesy pitch-like attempts give you some but not all of the tale like a partial modern day Greek tragedy with a comedic slant or Secrets & Lies with a sense of humor – both while somewhat true don’t say it all and even the secrets angle borders on hyperbole because what the film is really about is disconnect within a family unit and all members living separately, as if on islands, such that any communication is a task and keeping secrets is easier than saying what’s really going on in their lives.
This truly is a cast that is flawless and has absolutely no weak link whatsoever even in the smallest part. First, you have Andy Garcia who narrates the tale and carries us through it we see how he likes to define his existence simply such that anything beyond being a corrections officer threatens his sense of normalcy. There is Julianna Margulies who plays his wife and finally gets a chance to shine on the silver screen in a meaty role after so many successful years on TV.  Emily Mortimer, who even though most of the time she serves to give Vince (Garcia) confidence, has her own baggage and is like those we may meet shortly in life that left something behind for reasons we don’t quite know. Steven Strait as the prodigal son is also an outsider who sees things in this family dynamic so much more clearly than any of them do for he never lived in it. Ezra Miller as Vince, Jr. is the family clown but only because he seeks to break the cycle and not get caught up in the secrets himself and just be himself. There is Alan Arkin’s character whose acting class plays so beautifully into the plot of the film and he even has his own moments of struggle and frustration. There’s also Dominik García-Lorido as their fiery daughter who frequently butts heads with her mom and believe it or not I could go on.
Here is another example of where a film’s setting plays a role as the locale not only serves as a backdrop but it also influences the protagonist’s outlook on life as he defines all people by the local vernacular of Clamdiggers, those born and raised on City Island, and Musselsuckers, those who moved there. It’s more rare for a film to utilize its location to its advantage as a book would as typically you’re trying to disguise one location for another but being the title of the film as well as the location City Island was definitely a strength.

City Island (2009, Anchor Bay)
What does ultimately make this film as successful as it is that it’s a comedy. The drama is there, of course, as it is the foundation upon which all other genres are created but if all these situations are played out and revealed in a straightforward manner it ultimately would lose its effectiveness. It’s because you laugh that it feels more real because some familial situations are so crazy all you can do is laugh.
As demonstrated above where the cast deserves very high praise but note that most of what is mentioned is character related and not performance related. It truly is a character driven piece in which all the people we meet are drawn out and made to seem real. Some scenes are momentarily broken, for example, as Vince is away to build Vince Jr.’s secret/character. It’s the kind of film where one can likely walk away from it identifying with any number of characters. For example, what I found interesting was that to me Vince, Jr. seemed the most well-adjusted or at least the least crippled by his secret. He didn’t panic when Tony (Strait) indicated that he knew his secret and when Vince, Jr. found that the webcam he was watching was across the street he didn’t hesitate to go there. Also, at the end he didn’t hesitate to go outside and see what was happening at his house and interject in the conversation though he was dining with two girls.
This film is truly well-written and directed and is a strong debut that is most deserving of the Audience Award it won at Tribeca last year. Aspiring writers and/or directors should read Raymond De Felitta’s blog on the making of the film on Facebook and Twitter. If you have a chance you should seek this film out. It’s the kind of independent cinema you seek to see more often: truthful and insightful and not different just for the sake of being different- absolutely spot on.

Review- Rio

Rio (20th Century Fox)

For any viewer, regardless of your experience, academic acumen or whatever other qualifications you may have, there will invariably be occasions where a film plays into a sensitive area for you where it’ll either excel with flying colors or fail miserably, perhaps to a greater degree than it would otherwise, due to your personal experience. In the case of Rio it was targeted on my radar early on for two reasons: first, and the lesser of the two reasons, for my love of birds and conversely my loathing of smuggling but it hit home more because it’s set in Brazil, a nation of which I am a dual citizen.

Having been one who grew up cinematically with only Carmen Miranda and the anti-Lambada propaganda film The Forbidden Dance as major reference of American interpretations of Brazil onscreen my apprehension is understandable. Not that there’s anything wrong with Carmen Miranda but any icon can be turned into a stereotype in the wrong hands.

Suffice it to say that most of my concerns are addressed by the fact that one of the film’s writers and its director is a Brazilian, Carlos Saldanha. Yet, you also do not get a Disney-fied Saludos Amigos or Three Cabelleros rendition of Latin America, you have in the narrative of this film a setting which actually plays a role, which is rare but also one that is presented without frills and bereft of commentary. You see the glitz and glamor of Rio, the natural beauty, the beach life, the skyline at night, carnaval but also the favelas and in a minor way, crime. It’s a subtle but accurate portrait that doesn’t impose itself above the story. It shows the good and the bad. So with that personal concern overcome I can begin to address the rest of the film.

When dealing with animation set overseas there are invariably headaches of logic. There’s always the minor bugaboo of when do you float a word in said foreign language that English speakers will readily recognize? How many Brazilians and/or actors of Hispanic descent do you include in the cast? Now, there’s only one Brazilian in the principal cast, however, considering that many Brazilian actors have recently been cast as either Hispanic or “Vaguely Foreign” characters (such as Rodrigo Santoro himself in Love Actually) it all comes out in the wash.

In fact, quite a lot the voice talent does quite well either toeing that line or just being convincing that it makes you forget. Jesse Eiesenberg conveys the stressed, caged bird in the wild well and also has the unexpected task of struggling/learning to embrace his newfound culture. Anne Hathaway, perhaps more than any other name actor in the cast, vanishes behind the veneer of her character. Thankfully she is given license to sing and the few seconds of Portuguese she’s asked to speak sounds good.

The rest of the voice cast does rather well as a whole also. One of the most distinctive and hardest voices to overcome is George Lopez’s but his shtick with his wife is funny enough such that you eventually forget. While Tracy Morgan always sounds like himself it works in tandem with his character so well that it doesn’t matter. Will i. am provides the most consistent comic relief and perhaps the most overlooked voice work belongs to Jake T. Austin, perhaps best known for his work on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, he convincingly comes across as not only a Brazilian kid but also one who’s younger than he is.

The story of this film resolves itself quite neatly. It gets just the right amount of complication what with the smuggling plots getting aided with a scene-stealing performance by a Cockatoo (Jemaine Clement, who thankfully is also allowed to sing). Events head for the collision course you hope they’ll have and while there are dueling love plots and a heist everything thing has its proper priority within the infrastructure of the narrative. There’s more going on here than meets the eye with many of the villains not willing to do their own dirty work, such that you can see how it may be described as a mess but it truly does all work towards one end.

And that end is truly one of the more graceful and visual I’ve seen in some time. You realize the film is all but over and there are at least three questions/open ends you’re wondering about that are addressed in a few shots and wordlessly, without any lengthy denouement. It’s a thing of beauty of behold.

Moreover, it’s a musical that’s actually musical, meaning there are a few musical numbers where characters breakout and sing but not once does it seem random and forced. The score is tremendous and very present and when it’s not there it’s replaced by source music, which is usually a new take on a Brazilian standard. It’s another example of the synergy of location. The score is indigenous without feeling forced or trite. Even incorporating Samba beats the score and source music still underscores the action tonally.

I typically leave the 3D commentary for near the end when I do see something in 3D. I did see it as such and my general feeling is that right now animation, specifically animation by the biggest studios (Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky) is usually your best bet for getting the most bang for your buck 3D-wise.

The animated feature film has become more of a box office and aesthetic presence than it ever was. It has truly grown in leaps and bounds over the history of cinema as something that was virtually a one-studio specialty to a medium that has become, at long last, a bona fide Oscar category. Having said that the category has been virtually monopolized. It’ll be very hard to justify that this year with Rio entering the fray I think.

As I may have said before, I now treat sitting through the end credits like a standing ovation. Considering the fact that I was so apprehensive about seeing it in the first place, I truly did not expect to watch this film all the way to its literal conclusion. Rio is a tremendously effervescent film that actually manages to capture some of the spirit of the city in a very honest way.