Set against a gritty New York backdrop, City by the Sea may not be the most involving drama, but it still features enough solid acting and an hard-edged emotional core that gives it more life than most releases in the past few weeks.Robert DeNiro stars as Vincent LaMarca, a New York detective haunted by the fact his father was executed as an alleged child-killer (LaMarca acknowledges his dad kidnapped the child, but believes the child died of negligence).LaMarcas shattered family ties with his father extend to his ex-wife and estranged son, Joey (James Franco), whom LaMarca left 14 years earlier. Now Joey is a homeless drug addict looking for money to get his next score and LaMarcas ex is a desperate mother, bitter that LaMarca wasnt there for his son when he needed him.LaMarcas routine consists of work and a no-strings attached relationship with his upstairs neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand). That routine becomes unraveled when Joey is involved in a botched drug deal that ends in a murder. That event leads to both the cops and the drug dealers associates trying to find Joey and LaMarca fighting his demons with his own past as he struggles to decide how, or even if, he is going to help his troubled son.The film, which was inspired by a true story, was adapted and adequately written by screenwriter Ken Hixon. City by the Sea could easily have evolved into a cliched ripoff of such TV shows as Law and Order or NYPD Blue, but instead it offers a fresh take on family bonds broken by lies, mistrust and lack of communication.Director Michael Caton-Jones gives the film a distinctly hopeless look that fits it well. The backdrop of Long Beach, N.Y., with its ravaged buildings and massive spaces of vast emptiness, serve as the perfect metaphor for the lost hopelessness that many of the characters have in the film. Caton-Jones isnt the flashiest of directors but, as he has proved in the past with such films as Rob Roy and Memphis Belle, he almost always stays true to his films material.The film clicks thanks in large part to the performances. DeNiro gives a sympathetic performance as the father torn between what he wants to believe and what is the truth. Its a nice change of pace from DeNiros tough-guy roles made famous in such films as GoodFellas, and Casino.McDormand, who could read the phone book for two hours and still demand the audiences attention, brings nice depth to what could have easily been a throw-away love interest role.But its Franco who shines the most. There is a despair and a desperateness in his eyes that resonate long after the films final credits. Franco is able to make Joey sympathetic, when quite honestly there is really no reason to sympathize with the character at all.It all adds up to a moving film that may not be unforgettable, but it is memorable nonetheless. Sportswriter by day, moviegoer by night, Micheal Compton can be reached at 783-3247 or mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

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