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City Island (2009)
Real Family Values
As Tolstoi pointed out long ago, there's not much new in domestic discord except the details. Some might complain that this is just Little Miss Sunshine City's Island Cleaners, but so what? At least it isn't desperate like some of the other movies out this spring. Anyone for Kabuki production of Seppuku at a Funeral?
City Island is impossible to review without a "spoiler alert" because the Rizzo family--like so many families I know--don't know very much about each other, making the revelation near the beginning of the movie essential to a discussion of anything else. They eat together. They live in a house built by the grandfather, but even before Vince (Andy Garcia) married Joyce (Julianna Margulies), they were strangers and not much changed as they raised two children, Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) and Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller). Case in point, Joyce doesn't know that Vince has another son that he abandoned. The abandoned son becomes a living, breathing family secret when Vince, who works as a correctional officer, finds his son is one of his prisoners at work.
Every Rizzo has a secret. Vince Jr. wants to feed "big beautiful women." Vivian works as a stripper to try to raise money to get back into the college where she lost her scholarship. And when Vince brings his son Tony (Steven Strait) home from prison without telling the rest of the family how they're related to him, causing trouble in all directions.
Family secrets traverse the terrain between the essence of our hearts and the machinations of our brains. It's impressive how City Island tells its story without gratuitous action. There are punches thrown. A weapon gets pulled out, and there will be several scenes involving sex, but screenwriter & director Ray De Felitta seems to include these standard plot devices to mock them and step past them as quickly as possible to get to the characters' inner conflicts.
Tony's dream is to be an actor like Marlon Brando; however, the inspiration he needs comes not from movies but from finally acknowledging family. There's a satisfying pace to Tony's process of becoming good at what he's always done: act. The art to acting, Tony discovers, is to be honest to yourself by first acknowledging others.
Like Hamlet discussing the relationship of living to acting with the players, Tony has a partner in his acting class, Molly (Emily Mortimer). What Molly points out to Vince is that using another's experience to understand your own goes beyond acting to being empathetic. Secrets can't stand up to empathy.
Although I've tagged this review with a spoiler alert, I can't talk about my favorite scene. It is the most hilarious scene I've seen so far this year. I'm keeping it a secret in the hope that you see City Island and enjoy it as much as I did. All I'll say is that the scene involves more eyeline-match cuts than I believed were possible within one scene.
Endings aren't as difficult as penultimate scenes. And I can see where Tony's acceptance of his identity might not be so easy for others to accept. But at least De Felitta doesn't slight this plot point the way Pirate Radio did. Let there be no secret about it: there's more humanity in this limited release than in all the current major releases combined.
Ask the Dust (2006)
rare regional romance
Based on other comments I expected a film noir, but there seems to be some general confusion between era and genre. Just because something is set in the 30s LA with lots of voice-over doesn't make it noir.
There's no noir-ish betrayal here unless one counts racism once again disrupting the American Dream. Too often movies depict the discord in Black & White relations, when in SoCal there's a long history of Euro-Americans measuring the blood of Mestizos and using it to divide & conquer them. Camilla strikes me as a more interesting character than the flat depiction of the Latina housekeeper in Crash who seems to have no life other than waiting for Sandra Bullock's character to become enlightened.
The main problem with Ask the Dust is that most people will not allow themselves to recognize California's racism. Granted, Ask the Dust does little to address corruption of Latin America. The racism associated with the current border crisis is historical. Ask the Dust isn't so much an epic romance as it is a personal romance that hits close to home for inter-racial families (epic romances tend to let characters off the hook by sweeping them away in historical movements; here we have only Arturo & Camilla).
To be sure, the poetry of the wave-riding scene could have been mis-directed toward some statement about historical movements, but Towne keeps the story centered on the characters. Are there other great moments? Well, I'll never look at Joan Blondell the same way. The excerpt of her dialog about the benefits of being "white" was devastating. Great lines throughout. Donald Sutherland's "Keep going or otherwise you'll die in Los Angeles like the rest of us" arced strongly from Arturo's writing to his evolution as an empathetic human being. Perhaps the film is too much about the writing life, but Camilla's line "Save your imagination for your work. Don't waste it on me when you don't have to" was simultaneously erotic and humane, something the overwhelming majority of contemporary films have trouble with. It's at that erotic moment she helps him face the duality of his racism and write more honestly than he had before.
Why do men dislike this movie so much more than women do? Maybe we're a Man Show nation that was sorry the story wasn't more about the Sammy White character (how about that for an ironic name?). All I can say is thank you Mr. Farrell for recently giving us two challenging movies about what it really means to be an American (Ask the Dust & New World).