'City Island' is honest, well-acted

"City Island" tells a quirky, appealing story of an Italian family living on City Island, a fishing village that is loosely part of the Bronx.

With an exceptional ensemble of actors, the film explores the volatile dysfunctions of Vince (Andy Garcia), a blue-collar corrections officer; his wife, Joyce (Juliana Marguiles); and their two adolescent children, Vinne (Ezra Miller) and Vivian (Dominink Garcia-Lorido).

The Rizzos are an intense and emotional family, replete with unacknowledged tensions and secrets (lots of secrets), all of which resonate because life in families often involves the risk of marginal if not profound alienations wherein individuals are familiar strangers to those with whom they live most intimately. It's a contradiction, surprising really, yet possesses a strand of truth that is nicely explored in "City Island."

Vince, for example, is a mass of nondisclosure that he can't bring himself to share with Joyce. He yearns to act and so sneaks off weekly to an ostensible poker game, aka acting lesson. Or he sits on the roof of his house reading acting books, smoking (he's quit), and hides tapes of old movies in his small boathouse. And Vince has one secret beyond acting that will upend the family, setting in motion an elaborate charade that is tinged with comedy but never consumed by it.

Joyce, feeling neglected and betrayed, is convinced Vince isn't playing poker but seeing another woman. Vivan and Vinnie both follow their parents' generational pattern, disguising who they are, smoking (they don't smoke), afraid that full disclosure will result in"… what? It's never clear, and yet so understandable.

"City Island" is remarkable, wonderfully acted, without pretensions, a brief, honest journey into the foibles of the human condition with the promise of redemption ever present.

The Karate Kid

Films such as "The Karate Kid" are, unabashedly, morality plays wherein the field of play is the context of choice given that sports are so ideally suited to this predictable yet compelling narrative: adversity is confronted and overcome, the athlete prevails, then smash-cut to cheers, raised arms, and get ready for a warm glow.

The wildly popular '80s martial arts classic of the same name, starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio, was set in Los Angeles. The more recent incarnation takes place, interestingly enough, in Beijing, and the sport is not karate but kung fu. Actually it's wushu, a more aggressive form of kung fu, involving punching and hard body contact.

The template is familiar and the changes regarding geography and culture, when it comes to the core story, superficial. A young kid, Dre (Jaden Smith), from the streets of Detroit, arrives in China with his single mom, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), who has a job with a car company. Dre is the new kid on the unfamiliar block and soon becomes the target of some local school bullies who are schooled by a cruel sensei in the art of kung fu.

Dre's life quickly becomes intolerable until he is rescued, literally, by the unassuming Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the apartment building maintenance man, a man with a history, generally laconic, and yet deeply schooled in the martial arts, which he quickly makes obvious when Dre is attacked.

Of course, there is a tween love interest, Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), a gifted violinist, who befriends Dre.

And so Dre's training begins, including the familiar wax on, wax off, only involving a jacket. Jacket on, hang up, jacket off. Rinse and repeat.

Dre is undisciplined and angry, wants to go home and feels like a stranger in a strange land. He is, nevertheless, quietly and firmly instructed in the lessons of kung fu and in the lessons of life, all leading to the familiar climactic match where he meets his nemesis, Cheng, on the mat.

The ending is foregone, the building tide of good feelings and anticipation are finalized with Dre performing a slo-mo kicking somersault that is the money moment in the film.

As for Jaden Smith as Dre, well, he's the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, the film's producers. His debut role was with his father in "The Pursuit of Happyness."

It must be nice to have a mom and dad who can gift wrap a movie and let you carry it on your pre-teen shoulders. Of course, Jackie Chan's crew helped with Jaden's intense training and execution.

Tweens will love the story, for them fresh and interesting as well as a nice introduction to China. To the filmmakers' credit, the neighborhoods of Beijing are not scrubbed, but nicely frayed and crowded, giving a solid sense of the bustling and crowded city. It feels like the real deal. And so, once again, does the movie.

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