play: Eastwood and Huston in Blood Work.
Praise of an Older Man
By Shawn Stone
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 Unforgiven’s
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
in the Wry
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
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.
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.