Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.
Packed with too much goodness and determined to push its platform of paranormal events A Rumor of Angels is an overwrought drama about friendship grief and the spiritual rebirth of a boy and his eccentric recluse neighbor. Twelve-year-old James Neubauer his father Nathan and his stepmother Mary are spending their summer vacation in the small seaside town where the boy's mother died years earlier in a car accident near a local bridge. Because James has been traumatized by her death he has problems connecting with his often absent father and new mother. When James wanders onto the property of eccentric elderly neighbor Maddy Bennett who lives in a decrepit shingled house overlooking the ocean she scares the boy by firing a rifle in his direction. After a showdown with the Neubauers Maddy succeeds in hiring James to rebuild and paint her fence. An unlikely friendship ensues when James becomes a kind of surrogate son to Maddy who lost her own son in the Vietnam War and the stern but caring Maddy becomes mother surrogate the boy so desperately needs. Maddy also beset by grief teaches James about the power of remembrance and imagination and the possibility of angels and communicating with those long gone. James also learns about the importance of family love friendship and spiritual awakening.
Vanessa Redgrave is terrific as usual as the eccentric recluse Maddy giving yet another powerful performance that dazzles delights and soars beyond the limitations of the character as written. Trevor Morgan is fine if not memorable as James. Catherine McCormack as the stepmother Ron Livingston as a slacker uncle and veteran actor George Coe as Maddy's oldest friend also turn in serviceable performances. Only Ray Liotta so memorable in edgier meatier roles like those in Something Wild and Goodfellas or the more recent Hannibal and Blow is out of his element as a frustrated often absent dad. In fact most of the actors are chewed up by the gorgeous evocative Nova Scotia locales that brilliantly stand in for the Maine village.
Director Peter O'Fallon's biggest obstacle in A Rumor of Angels appears to be his own screenplay which he co-wrote and adapted from the very old inspirational novel Thy Son Liveth. Most filmgoers won't get beyond the film's pile-up of hokum about communication with the dead. Also the horror and mystery elements that A Rumor of Angels plants early on dissipate into a cinematic sermon about familiar family values and faith. The messages may be poignant but the drama sending them isn't. O'Fallon relies instead on lovely cinematography scenes suggestive of paranormal reality (those lights those angels) and a soundtrack rich in classical music--all at the expense of delivering a credible story with flesh and blood characters who actually sound like they just might be real New Englanders. His direction is style over substance scenery over psychological truths.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.