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Mortality play: Eastwood and Huston in Blood Work.

In Praise of an Older Man
By Shawn Stone

Blood Work
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood has always been smart about his image. After the bloody, apocalyptic gunfight that climaxed the otherwise elegiac Unforgiven, Eastwood acknowledged his aging in a series of roles that allowed him to disengage from shoot-first characters like Dirty Harry or Unforgivens hired killer. Instead, he played a series of graying, thoughtful cops and crooks more given to strategy than gunplay. (In Absolute Power, he even let someone else finish off the villain.) With Blood Work, he takes the next logical step: Eastwood confronts his mortality.

Terry McCaleb (Eastwood) is a respected FBI profiler locked in a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer. It’s an old story: The killer writes, in blood, a series of inexplicable numbers at every crime scene, as a personal message to McCaleb. After a particularly grisly murder and a long, tiring chase on foot, McCaleb has a massive heart attack.

The story skips ahead two years. McCaleb has had a heart transplant. He looks pale and tired, with an ugly scar down the middle of his chest. He’s popping 36 pills a day, per doctor’s orders, and spends most days quietly hanging out on his boat. The only people he sees are his doctor (Anjelica Huston), and his affable beach-bum neighbor, Buddy (Jeff Daniels).

Then he has an unexpected visitor. Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus) wants him to find out who murdered her sister. McCaleb defers until Rivers angrily lets him know that his new heart came from the dead sibling.

This could be silly, but it’s not. The film is adapted from a novel by Michael Connelly, and each revelation in McCaleb’s hunt for the killer is logical. It emerges that there are even deeper connections between the retired detective and the murder victims—there are, of course, multiple victims—connections that are elegant in construction, and disturbing in impact.

Again, Eastwood is playing a man who has to do more thinking than shooting, but even this emotional and intellectual effort is a strain for McCaleb. He seems like a man who could drop dead from staring too long at a computer screen. At the same time, McCaleb is emotionally reinvigorated by the return to police work. This tension between the character’s conflicting needs gives the film a level of depth Eastwood the actor revels in.

Eastwood the director is in top form, too. The action is deliberate but never slow, and the occasional outbursts of violence are more shocking because of the lead character’s fragility. The rest of the cast are given space to make real impressions in the story, especially Tina Lifford as one of McCaleb’s former colleagues. The interplay between Eastwood and Lifford, suggesting deep friendship, professional regard, and a hint of a former romance, is one of the film’s many pleasures.

When the climactic sequence arrives, the audience is led to wonder if McCaleb will survive it. That’s new ground for Clint Eastwood, who again proves he’s still one of the smartest movie stars around.

Thrill Factors

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
Directed by Robert Rodriguez

If I could have anybody as my children’s nanny, I think I’d pick Robert Rodriguez, the writer, director, editor, director of digital photography and coproducer (with wife Elizabeth Avellan) of last year’s sleeper hit Spy Kids, and this summer’s worthy sequel, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams. Seriously—this guy exudes incredible energy, and a creativity that’s supremely suited to the tastes and predilections of the young ’uns. Consider the first five minutes of SK2, featuring a potpourri of carnival rides at Troublemaker Amusement Park (Troublemaker being the name of Rodriguez’s film company). You’ve got the Vomiter, sort of like the Scrambler melded into Space Mountain, being run by carnies on acid. And you’ve got the Juggler, which envelopes its riders in every type of motion and tops it off by tossing their little cars into the air, back and forth . . . OK, on second thought, maybe Rodriguez isn’t the right choice as our family Mary Poppins.

But he’s certainly the top choice for rollicking, Saturday matinee-type thrills. Spy Kids 2 picks up where its predecessor left off: This time, tykes Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) Vega are spies employed by the OSS Jr., an offshoot of the OSS operation for which parents Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) toil. While the younger set is being upstaged in a daring rescue by fellow kiddie spies Gary (Matt O’Leary) and Gerti (Emily Osment) Giggles, Mom’s and Dad’s upward mobility is stymied by a sinister plot put in place by Donnogan Giggles (Mike Judge). The Giggles’ attempts to discredit the Vegas, and in the process take over the world, unite the family, including grandparents Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor, in a supercharged, fast-paced frolic to a Bermuda Triangle-type island.

Once again, fantastic gizmos abound, but as with the first Spy Kids, these gizmos seem inspired more by what any creative child might think cool than by a product merchandiser’s ideal of what works best in a Happy Meal. The humor is quick, with some truly neat visual flourishes (the Devo-type movements of Secret Servicemen assigned to protect the First Daughter at a dance) and a smattering of schoolyard shtick that embellishes the sweet nature of the story. Not for Rodriguez, thank God, the smarmy wiseass mentality of so many Hollywood kiddie flicks. There are welcome cameos by Alan Cumming as Floop and Tony Shalhoub as Minion (villians from the first film, now working for the good guys), and too-brief appearances by Danny Trejo as Uncle Machete and Cheech Marin as Uncle Felix. With its visual pizzazz, narrative spark and innate sense of what works for younger audiences, Spy Kids 2 is this season’s best family ticket.

—Laura Leon

Tattoo Serious

XXX
Directed by Rob Cohen

Vin Diesel proved he could act in Boiler Room, showed a smartly scary side in Pitch Black, and became a multiculti sex symbol in The Fast and the Furious, a ludicrously entertaining hot-rod flick directed by Rob Cohen. For XXX, an actioner about an extreme-sports athlete recruited by the National Security Agency, Diesel gets the star treatment and Cohen gets a big budget. So why is this James Bond update for the death-wish set such a drag? Maybe, like his character Xander Cage, Diesel is being pushed beyond his limits. Not every actor can be a leading man, no matter how cool they look in a sheepskin trench. At some point, cinematographer Dean Semler (The Road Warrior) should’ve noticed that Diesel can’t hold a close-up. Also, his ironic-comic timing could use some work: An outlaw daredevil video star like Xander needs to bring more to his new gig in international espionage than just the threat of punching people out.

But what XXX is really about is looking cool; the movie’s title comes from the tattoo on Xander’s neck. His stunts look cool, but their CGI oomph is not very exciting. While escaping from a Colombian druglord- psycho (ho hum), Xander rides a motorcycle so hard it flys up into the sky like ET’s bike. This is probably not one of the stunts that Diesel performed himself. X, as his media groupies call him, is coerced into gathering “intel” for the NSA by Agent Gibbons (a totally wasted Samuel L. Jackson), who threatens to lock him up for grand theft auto unless he cooperates. That’s what comes from webcamming a Corvette heist.

“Triple X,” as Xander is code named, is sent to Prague, where his celebrity street cred opens doors that no regulation-trained agent ever could. He infiltrates a really cool nightclub owned by a highly diversified criminal entrepreneur, Yorgi (Marton Csokas, better known as Celebron in Lord of the Rings). Yorgi is a punk-era anarchist, and they bond over a Vandals song. X gets a mutual-attraction, mutual-hostility thing going with Yorgi’s surly Russian girlfriend Yelena (Asia Argento), and some of their sparring throws sparks. But everytime XXX gets an interesting subculture thing going—which was three-quarters of the fun of The Fast and the Furious—it immediately falls back on spy-movie cliches from two generations ago. Underneath it all, Yorgi is just another criminal mastermind with a legion of minions developing a weapon of mass destruction. And X may be the hottest thing on bungee cords, but he still has to save the world, a job that’s become as routine as the night shift at Transworld.

What is new in XXX is how open and feeling the hero is; maybe for the desensitized youth of today, emotional responsiveness has replaced supercoolness as the hip personality trait. But really, does anyone want to see Diesel wiping away a tear?

—Ann Morrow

Catcher in the Wry

Tadpole
Directed by Gary Winick

An exceptionally smart and entertaining coming-of-age film, Tadpole explores the sexual frustrations and delusions of precocious boy-genius Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford). The action follows Oscar, or Tadpole, as his family calls him, through an emotionally tumultuous holiday weekend.

This Voltaire-quoting Upper East Side 15-year-old fancies himself too mature for girls his age. Instead, he’s nursing a serious crush—which he experiences as a grand passion—for his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). It seems Oscar’s father, Stanley (John Ritter), a professor of history at Columbia University, is not paying enough attention to her. The teen, who sees Eve as the ideal woman—mature, sensitive, and intelligent—is enraged at his father’s perceived indifference, and determined to give her the love and attention he thinks she’s missing. Coming home on the train from his tony prep school, Oscar is determined to proclaim his love sometime during the Thanksgiving celebration.

Nothing succeeds as planned. Too chicken to express himself to his stepmother, Oscar goes out drinking. (It’s never questioned that a mature teenager, wearing the right clothes and exhibiting the proper manner, could get served in a New York City bar.) As fate would have it, he bumps into (literally) Eve’s best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth). She innocently takes him home to sober him up, but, as innocence is out of place in a sex comedy, Diane beds him instead. The results are predictable, and very funny. Oscar is horrified and torn by feelings of betrayal to Eve, and Diane is amused.

The rest of the picture makes great sport of Oscar’s dilemma. The comic mood is tempered by just enough sympathy and understanding to keep the film from sliding into farce. When Oscar finally faces the ramifications of his feelings for Eve, the film treats it with great tenderness and respect.

Aaron Stafford is perfect as young Grubman, balancing real emotions with the comic sense to play up the self-dramatizing aspects of Tadpole’s too-serious personality. In a marvelous scene that follows Tadpole’s seduction, he meets Diane and a group of her friends in a café. At first embarrassed and slightly horrified by their attentiveness—which confirms that Diane has spilled the beans about their tryst—he basks in the attention. He spouts French philosophy, and they think he’s both adorable and hot.

The rest of the cast is equally good, especially Neuwirth. Her Diane is deliciously tart-tongued and savvy, giving the film most of its kick.

Tadpole might have qualified as one of the best films of the year, but there is one huge problem with it: It looks absolutely horrible. The digital video image is so awful, it’s like watching the picture through gritty syrup.

—S.S.


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