De Niro Lifts a Standard Tale Of Fathers, Sons and Homicide

Michael Caton-Jones’ City by the Sea , from a screenplay by Ken Hixon, based on the article “Mark of a Murderer” by Michael McAlary, reminds us how realistically nuanced a Robert De Niro performance can be when he is not more lucratively engaged in the shameless self-caricature of Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That , promised (or threatened) for later this year. In City by the Sea , Mr. De Niro plays a weary, disillusioned and emotionally spent New York City homicide detective, Vincent LaMarca, who has been painfully estranged from his son, Joey (James Franco), ever since he divorced his wife (Patty LuPone) and abandoned the crumbling boardwalks of Long Beach, Long Island, for the anonymity of Manhattan and a distinguished career with the NYPD. Vincent is very much the loner, and he’s reluctant to form a closer attachment with his girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand-or Frances McDoormat, as she too often becomes in her thankless relationships with aging leading men. Not that, as Vincent’s discarded wife, the equally charismatic Ms. LuPone is exactly chopped liver.

Vincent’s closest friend is his partner, Reg (George Dzundza), and when Reg is shot to death while conducting a search in an abandoned arcade on the Long Beach boardwalk, all the evidence points to Vincent’s drug-addicted son, Joey, as the killer. Vincent is thus doubly motivated to find the real culprit, even if it means going over the heads of his superiors. The ritualized nature of this scenario inevitably reduces the fear and suspense that would otherwise be generated by the gloomy, misty settings and twilight-of-the-hero cinematography.

It’s worth seeing City by the Sea for the varied subtleties of Mr. De Niro’s acting. In the end, the only relationship that matters is that between the father and the son, mutually afflicted with guilt and resentment. Curiously, the screen is currently awash in Oedipal fantasies of one kind or another. In the still predominantly male movie establishment, is there a never-ending need to atone for the presumed harm suffered by children of divorce, particularly boys who find themselves without fathers? Fortunately, Mr. De Niro and Mr. Franco play out their final communion in action rather than in bloated rhetoric. This has always been the strength of film noir and the other action genres when it comes to exploring the depths of familial feelings. Indeed, one of the added dividends of the top-grade television detective shows is the elliptical glimpse they give us into the lives of grizzled males suffering the endless hangovers of failed marriages and alienated children. For his part, I can’t recall Mr. De Niro ever playing a character enjoying a happy marriage. His persona has always been that of the sometimes jocular but often menacing loner with too private a sense of humor to partake of the essential banalities of marriage. From Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) on, Mr. De Niro has never hesitated to sob uncontrollably on the screen, but almost always from an excess of self-pity and emotional frustration, and almost never from conventional grief for the loss of a loved one. On those more traditionally sorrowful occasions, he can be admirably stoic.

A Distressingly Fake Star

Andrew Niccol’s Simone , from his own screenplay, marks a distressing downturn from both the brutishly futurist Gattaca (1997), which Mr. Niccol wrote and directed, and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), for which he wrote the tendentious anti-media screenplay. Quite simply, Simone has problems of both conception and execution. To begin with, the idea that any female movie star-real or virtual-could become universally loved and admired after appearing in two supposedly arty tear-jerkers flies in the face of movie-marketing trends around the world; the male action hero alone captures the masses of all nations, ages and ethnic groups.

The early sequences of the film, moreover, bear a striking resemblance to the early parts of Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending . In both films, an artsy director gets a last chance to make a successful film through the intercession of an ex-wife strategically placed in the studio front office. In Simone , Al Pacino as Viktor Taransky, the struggling producer, does not go psychosomatically blind on the first morning of shooting, like his directorial counterpart in the Woody Allen vehicle, but he is undone nonetheless by his impossibly and maliciously demanding female star, Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder).

As Viktor is leaving the set in terminal disarray one day, he is approached by a menacing-looking one-eyed stranger who identifies himself as Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas) and says he has an amazing invention that can solve all of Viktor’s problems. Viktor’s first impulse is to back away and call security. He promises insincerely to call Hank at the first opportunity, just to get away from him. Viktor has almost forgotten this odd encounter when a messenger brings him a metal box that Hank, who has died in the interim, bequeaths to Viktor in his will.

Viktor opens the box and proceeds to fashion a virtually real image of a beautiful woman (model Rachel Roberts), which he then proceeds to cast as the lead in his restarted production. Because Simone is supposedly so shy and agoraphobic that she can’t appear in scenes with the other actors, Viktor will insert her digitally after the backgrounds have been established and the other actors have spoken their lines. O.K., why not? Does it matter that Ms. Roberts never turns me on as Simone? I don’t suppose so.

A more serious problem, however, is the absence of other compelling characters besides Mr. Pacino’s Viktor. Catherine Keener as Elaine, his ex-wife and studio benefactor, and Evan Rachel Wood as his adoring and admiring daughter are too goody-goody for words. Pruitt Taylor Vince as the stock scandal-sheet villain, Max Sayer, is not only burdened with a one-dimensional part; his character is also reduced to sniffing Simone’s underwear, which Viktor has perfumed for the occasion. Rather than build on the story’s slight potential for horror and subtle irony, Mr. Niccol settles instead for banal rhetoric about the public’s inability to discern the truth amid all the fraudulence imposed on it by the celebrity-worshipping media. In this dramatically impoverished world, Mr. Pacino deserves some credit for generating a few laughs out of his predicament.

Royal Passions

Vicente Aranda’s Mad Love is the kind of 15th-century costume melodrama that might have inspired such silent-picture luminaries as D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance, Ernst Lubitsch and Erich von Stroheim to fashion their most ambitious efforts. Mad Love is first and foremost a beautiful film to look at as it follows the fortunes of Princess Joan of Castille (Pilar López de Ayala) as she is given in marriage, sight unseen, to Philip the Handsome (Daniele Liotti), archduke of Austria, to enhance the power of Queen Isabella within the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V. The year is 1496, four years after Isabella sent Christopher Columbus off to the Americas. As Mr. Aranda and his cinematographer, Paco Femenia, follow the royal couple from the Flemish court back to the Spanish court after Isabella’s death, we are treated to a series of painterly tableaux worthy of a master’s palette. But the obsessive story that is told is thoroughly modern in its almost comically ironic treatment of Joan’s frenzied hunger to be the exclusive recipient of her philandering husband’s caresses.

Joan is no spinsterish Elizabeth I, more interested in statecraft than the dictates of the flesh. When a delegation of Spanish nobles pleads with her to act against her husband’s plan to seize the throne by having her confined in an asylum, all Joan can concentrate on is the handwriting on the notes from her various ladies in waiting, from which she hopes to discern the identity of her husband’s current mistress. Yet the gifted and lovely Ms. López de Ayala makes Joan both an imperious queen and a passionate creature of desire.

Godard Keeps Going

Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love ( Éloge de l’Amour ) is, at last count, the 84th title in Mr. Godard’s filmography since his 20-minute short, Opération Béton , made in 1954 while he was working on a dam in Switzerland. At nearly 72, Mr. Godard is, like Clint Eastwood, two years younger than me, so I can hardly ask for whom the bell tolls. Having grown up and grown old as a film critic almost in lock-step with Mr. Godard’s ruminations on both the printed page and the screen, I find it almost incestuous to try to review him. By now, one either loves Godard unconditionally or at least finds him intermittently interesting. In my own very humble opinion, In Praise of Love lacks even the most fragmented charms I have found in almost all of his previous works. One reviewer has cited some reflex anti-Americanism in his directorial asides, but Mr. Godard’s love/hate relationship with America is now more than four decades old. What I find more troubling is his crankiness and irascibility on the subject of the sheer muchness of the contemporary world, particularly the stubborn cinema’s refusal to roll over and play dead to satisfy the prophecy of Mr. Godard’s end title in Breathless (1960): ” Fin du Cinema .” Yet if Mr. Godard never makes another film, he will still stand as one of the chapter headings of film history.

Revival Notes

The Film Society of Lincoln Center (875-5610) is in the midst of a provocative revival series entitled “Whispers in a Distant Corridor: The Cinema of Jacques Tourneur,” running from Aug. 30 to Sept. 12, 2002. By now you’ve probably missed Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), one of the greatest American film noirs. You may still have time to catch Tourneur’s two most famous collaborations with Val Lewton, Cat People (1942) with Simone Simon, and I Walked with a Zombie with Frances Dee (1943). Tourneur was a Hollywood studio director all the way, but his stylistic distinctiveness made him an authentic auteur .

Big Mouth Productions, a sassy maker of nonfiction films of social consciousness, will launch a mini-festival of five of its most acclaimed works on Sept. 18 at the Pioneer Theater (155 East Third Street at Avenue A), providing New York moviegoers with a rare opportunity to see such challenging works as Kirsten Johnson’s Innocent Until Proven Guilty (1999), Laurie Collyer’s Nuyorican Dream (2000), Julia Pimsleur’s Brother Born Again (2001), Phil Bertelsem’s Outside Looking In: Trans-racial Adoption in America (2001) and Kate Chevigny’s Journey to the West: Chinese Medicine Today (2001).

“Wings of Desire: Italian Divas & Modern Woman, 1900-1920,” a film series of 10 programs, opens Sept. 6, 2002, at the enterprising Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue (505-5181).

Another directorial Jacques, one Jacques Becker (1906-1960), a vital link between the prewar French cinema and the nouvelle vague, will have nine of his films revived at BAMcinematek, the repertory-film program at B.A.M. Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Avenue). These include Dernier Atout (1942), Antoine et Antoinette (1947), Le Trou (1960), Edouard et Caroline (1951), Falbalas (1944), Casque d’Or (1952), Rue de l’Estrapade (1953), Montparnasse 19 (1958) and Goupi Mains Rouges (1943).