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Six Miles at Sea: A Pictorial History of Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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. "City By the Sea"

A common story these days is the young man taking the wrong path, doing drugs, hocking everything he owns for that next fix. Even if this young man's father is a detective who virtually abandoned him when he and his mother divorced hardly makes it unique. But, when we hear all sides of the argument and get into the details, this story, based on true characters and events, emerges from the scrapheap of the forgettable and rises to a steady, slow moving slice-of-life portrayal of people striving to do the best they can, these days, and trying to take responsibility for their actions.

The metaphor for this corner of the drug culture and abandonment is the setting, New York's Long Beach (a.k.a. "The City by the Sea") a once-thriving seaside area whose disrepair and decay is friendly territory to the dispossessed, the destitute and the criminal. Joey Nova (James Franco) is no criminal, just a guy strung out looking for a fix and trying to sell his guitar to get the cash. But, his habit has brought him into the world of some bad people, in particular, Spyder (scary William Forsythe), a drug dealer who likes to collect his debts and keep his debtors in line. Hey, he's not running a free clinic.

His estranged father, veteran NYC detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro), runs down a strange murder while in his private life he's trying to make contact with the son he was forbidden to see as a child, and carrying on a romance with Michelle (Frances McDormand), the lady in apartment 3C, and has a mind filled with the haunting memory of his father, a cop, who was executed for the murder of a child. This is a cop with some problems, like trying to prove he's not his father.

When Joey finally scores $10 he's taken by a pal to a rendezvous with a dealer. It's night, it's rainy, it don't go so well. There's an argument during which the dealer pulls a knife on Joey. Joey fights back; gets the knife; whacks the dealer. Self defense. But who's going to believe that. So, Joey and pal, they send the body down the river and hide.

Which compounds dad Vincent's problems when he learns that his son might have had something to do with the murdered body. He prefers to get all the evidence before agreeing with other cops that his son is guilty. But he would, wouldn't he? In any case, he's now confronting all his demons, fearing that his father's bad seed has been transported to the son he doesn't know. He's got to bring his son in alive if he has any hope of learning the truth of what happened.

In a relationship that appears solid and close, he and Michelle exhibit a convincing level of familiarity. But, we learn that Michelle is experiencing some doubts. After some mutually satisfying love-making, she asks, "what now"? We know what she means. Vincent probably does, as well. But, he doesn't let on and answers the question as though it refers to the next 10 minutes, the next day. Later, when she confronts him over the future of their relationship, she unloads both barrels by accusing him of keeping her out of his life. She doesn't really know him... and she loves him, we gather, and wants more. Little does she realize how little she wants to know, because when he finally tells her about his father, his son, now two murders that everyone thinks were done by his son, she has some very serious second thoughts about the relationship. Was she ready for this? Would anyone be?

But all the surprises are not out there. In a step by step series of events, Vincent learns of Gina (Eliza Dushku), Joey's girlfriend who, of course, doesn't know where Joey is. Later he learns about Joey and Gina's son, his grandson. Complications upon complexities. Enough for any loner, haunted cop. Enough for any girlfriend of the cop who, pretty soon, is found babysitting for Vincent while he goes out to try and rescue his son.

If you're getting the idea that this is a slow and steadily developed drama, moved by the force of inner demons and individual agendas, you'd be getting the right idea. And, while we can't tell you how it ends, we can say that it avoids a fairly pat and predictable outcome that is usual in similar stories. I got the impression that, either the real lives on which it's based had something to do with that, or De Niro did.

De Niro is De Niro. He isn't stretching for some other personna but playing to the area of comfort that he knows so well and that most of us love. There's a limitation and a disappointment in that, but balancing it is his earnestness and other strengths and he does his part to maintain a certain integrity within the drama. He is an actor who is in danger of overexposure but also one who continues to capture our attention.

But, an intenser interest comes from the presence of James Franco, whose story it largely is. He's convincing in a role that is not exaggerated for effect, producing considerable sympathy for a guy who made terrible choices and is facing numerous dilemmas because of it. He shows a core of decency even while tossing around the fates of himself and others. We last saw him as Harry Osborn, sidekick to the Green Goblin in Spiderman . This far more complex and involving role should portend well for his career potentials.

The Frances McDormand character, Michelle, is a study is contradictions. When we first meet her she convinces us of a bond with her cop that is so complete as to make you warm all over. When the going gets rough, and she's finally aware of what's going on with her man, she does a reversal and wants out. As written, she starts out as a person we want to hug but becomes someone we'd like to see walk a plank. What a bitch! we think. Ultimately, the script salvages her, but we think not completely. Well, don't blame this superb actress; blame the script. What we see here is how the writing (Mike McAlary) affects what we think of the player.

A discovery is Eliza Dushku, dynamically real as girlfriend and young mom Gina who plays frantic resolve with conviction and not inconsiderable attractiveness. This, too, is an actor with a rising star.

Cinematography, by Karl Walter Lindenlaub (the upcoming "The Banger Sisters", "Red Corner", "Independence Day", "Rob Roy") is as much an exploration of street atmosphere and decay as the script itself. High marks for the fully dimensioned range of light and dark.

Director Michael Caton-Jones is clearly a character dramatist as his background for the BBC-TV might portend. He last gave us "The Jackal" (1997), "Rob Roy" (1995) and "This Boy's Life" (1993). Steady and internal and controlling the likes of De Niro. Not everyone's cup of tea, but an entry worthy of serious film goers.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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