City Island is a beach-side neighborhood in the Bronx that’s so idyllic looking it’s hard to believe non-millionaires can afford to live there. Andy Garcia stars as hereditary homeowner Vince Rizzo, a prison guard — excuse me, “corrections officer” — who is also secretly an aspiring actor. When an inmate (Steven Strait) turns out to be his heretofore unknown son, he takes the handsome ex-con home without a word of explanation to anyone. This is a dangerous move, as his family is already seething with Italian-American emotion. Wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) is lonely and convinced that Vince’s alleged poker games — cover for the acting classes he takes from a curmudgeonly Alan Arkin — are cover for an affair. The Rizzos’ beautiful college student daughter (Garcia’s real life daughter, Dominik García-Lorido) is secretly stripping for cash. Meanwhile, their gawky teen son (Ezra Miller, the funniest person in the movie) is nursing a fetish involving the giving of culinary pleasure to obese women. The final turns of the screw are Vince’s friendship with a very pretty fellow acting student (Emily Mortimer) and an audition for, naturally, the latest Martin Scorsese crime epic. Yes, “City Island” is terribly contrived, but the film is full of funny dialogue, good acting, and genuine feeling that nicely papers over the problems. Writer-director — and sometime classic film blogger — Raymond De Felitta is no visual stylist and may be too eager too please, but he knows how to entertain.
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So, we have just two major releases this week and while one is hard-edged remake of a franchise-spawning eighties horror hit and the other is a purported family film, to me all signs this weekend in terms of major new releases (and one tiny release) scream: “Be afraid, be very afraid.” For the most part, the critics aren’t disagreeing.
For starters, we have “A Nightmare on Elm Street” which brings us Jackie Earle Haley in the role made famous by Robert Englund — the child-murderer of everyone’s dreams with the specially augmented fingers, Freddy Kruger. Now, as someone who is such a wuss that he was unable to get past the first twenty minutes or so of the original on VHS — that Wes Craven guy really knows how to scare people — I’m not really one to judge. However, the critics are thoroughly unimpressed with the new version directed by another music video alum, Samuel Bayer, granting it a dismal 11% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing.
Still, even if the original version is regarded as something of a classic today by critics, this movie has “critic proof” written all over it. Indeed, jolly Carl DiOrio, assures us that it’s “tracking” very well and will top the box office with “as much as” $30 million for Warner Brothers. He also gets a bit less jolly in his video this week and actually complains about the use of the word “reboot” to describe films like “Nightmare.” Well, considering that you’re starting over an existing franchise as if the original had never happened, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to call it. It’s not only a remake.
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Most people will take one look at the premise of Daniel Barber’s “Harry Brown” and immediately liken it to a British version of “Gran Torino.” The two films certainly share a lot of similarities – both are about older men battling a gang of young punks, and both star one of the greatest actors of their generation – but where “Harry Brown” differs is in the violent behavior of its title character and his victims. The end result is a little more like “Death Wish,” and although it may be difficult to imagine someone as mild-mannered as Michael Caine in a vigilante role, it’s exactly what makes “Harry Brown” so damn entertaining.
You wouldn’t think he was even capable of such violence when you first meet Harry Brown (Caine), an army veteran whose days consist of meticulous visits his sick wife in the hospital and playing chess with his only friend, Leonard (David Bradley), at their favorite pub. But when his wife passes away and Leonard is killed by some local street thugs who had been harassing him for months, Harry finds himself all alone in a town dominated by crime. After the police detectives (Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles) assigned to Leonard’s murder case fail to catch the kids involved, Harry takes it upon himself to track down those responsible and teach them a lesson in how to treat your elders.
It’s been a while since Michael Caine played the part of the action star, and while he’s not doing anything too physically demanding as Harry Brown, it’s a nice throwback to his earlier films. He’s like Jack Carter with an AARP card, and though he may seem harmless at first, once Brown picks up a gun, he immediately becomes the most dangerous man on the block. Only an actor like Caine could provide the gravitas needed to sell such a potentially outlandish role, but once you accept him as someone capable of committing such acts of violence, it allows for some of the more darkly comical moments to exist without coming off as parody. Unfortunately, Caine is the only bright spot in the cast. Emily Mortimer doesn’t have very much to do as the detective suspicious of Brown, while Liam Cunningham is underused as the owner of the pub.
That’s hardly the fault of the actors, however, as the film is primarily designed as a vehicle for its lead star. Some might even consider first-time director David Barber lucky for landing such a great actor to play the title role, but Barber brings his own strengths to the project as well. The decision to open the film with gritty handheld footage of an innocent woman being gunned down in the park is both unsettling and necessary to setting the stage for the story that follows, while Brown’s back-alley meeting with a couple of drug-addicted gun dealers makes for one of the most suspenseful cinematic moments in recent memory. This is the kind of movie that not only gets your heart beating, but spurs applause from the audience with each vengeful kill. It’s definitely not one of Caine’s better films, but “Harry Brown” is a real crowd-pleaser nonetheless.