Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. Michael Connelly (novel), Brian Helgeland; feat. Eastwood, Wanda De Jesus, Jeff Daniels (R)
Since In the Line of Fire, a recurring subplot in Clint Eastwood movies has threatened to upstage the main action: Can Clint make it through the film without collapsing of heart failure? Blood Work answers that question in the first sequence, in which Eastwood has a heart attack on duty, forcing him to retire from the FBI and get a ticker transplant.
An outrageous turn of events winds up bringing him back to detective work, of course: It turns out that the woman whose heart he received was the victim of an unsolved murder, and that woman's sister tracks Eastwood down, insisting he pay for his heart by finding the killer.
So begins a mystery that spirals out endlessly, with every new twist a bit more contrived than the last. Though the viewer may smirk from time to time, it's an entertaining yarn that reveals itself at the right pace, tossing in enough red herrings to keep us interested.
The problem here isn't an implausible crime tale, but the ingredients that flesh it out. The supporting characters, for instance: Some are simply off-key, as with Anjelica Huston, who is miscast as Eastwood's doctor. Others are cursed by terrible dialogue, as when the murder victim's sister tells Eastwood, "You have Gloria's heart — she'll guide you." Stand-up comic Paul Rodriguez, whose portrayal of a cop threatened by Eastwood's smarts is irritating throughout, fail both as drama and as comic relief.
If Eastwood the director has paid little attention to his actors, he didn't compensate with inventive camera work. At least twice in the film he uses a move so hackneyed — the detective repeats something a witness has said, and the camera rushes back to signify the lightbulb going off over his head — that his cinematographer should have talked him out of it. Cameraman Tom Stern is shooting his first feature here, though, having paid his gaffer dues on many previous Eastwood films, and isn't going to be the one to tell the boss it's a bad idea.
Even when he's not at his best, even when he's playing a man who might keel over mid-interrogation, Eastwood retains enough iconic power to keep a movie afloat. The only question is whether these genre films are worthy of his golden years; surely Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart weren't the only personal, un-commercial films Eastwood wanted to make before he retired. Unlike the detective he plays here, not everyone gets a second chance to come back and take care of unfinished business. — John DeFore
The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)
"An arctic epic"
Dir. Zacharias Kunuk; writ. Paul Apak Angilirq; feat. Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Madeline Ivalu, Paul Qulitalik (R)
With his first feature, director/co-producer Zacharias Kunuk pulls off the unlikely feat of turning a centuries-old Arctic myth into a nearly three-hour-long epic and making it work on a human scale. Written, directed, and starring Inuits, and shot on digital video in the remote village of Igloolik, The Fast Runner thrusts the viewer into an Inuit camp some time long before the arrival of Christian missionaries.
Twenty years after an evil shaman disrupts the harmony of the small community, brothers Amaqjuaq, the Strong One (Pakkak Innushuk), and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq), are locked in perennial macho rivalry with the thuggish Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), son of the group's leader. Atanarjuat is sweet on Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who is promised to Oki. Atanarjuat gets the girl, but he also takes Oki's sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) as his second wife, and that spells trouble.
The film's languid pace and lingering attention to detail help receptive viewers leave a contemporary mind-set in favor of an older, colder one, and Kunuk and cinematographer Norman Cohn make the most of the big-sky tundra and endless icy horizons of northernmost Canada to emphasize how isolated the Igloolikers are, how dependent they are on each other for survival — and how alone they become if their fellows turn against them. — Lee Gardner
Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat
"Funny ... looking"
Dir. David Raynr; writ. & feat. Martin Lawrence (R)
One thing about Martin Lawrence is that he might not be one of the best comic minds going, but he certainly looks like a comic; with his big ears, big eyes, and malleable face, he's got the equipment. Some of the best bits in this new concert film come when he's mugging, when he's doing a drunk who grows dangerously confidential while his face is melting, or a baby whose gluttonous bliss at the tit is driving daddy up the wall. He knows how to sell a bit, which is a good thing because in all other respects the material is pretty thin.
Like Richard Pryor before him, Lawrence is getting some comic mileage out of the chaos of his life, particularly the incident where he was busted for running around in traffic waving a gun and yelling incoherently. To his credit, he cops to being just plain stoned at the time, though I'm not buying the "bad weed" defense unless it was laced with PCP and he did at least a few lines before he toked. So it seems like a partial confession, which is better than none, and he's brutally honest about his subsequent and degrading hospitalization, shitting himself like a baby, at first involuntarily and then with purpose when he learns that it's a good way to summon the foxy nurse.
He's a good storyteller, but Lawrence's routines would better if he managed to squeeze in a few more jokes. Seriously. — Richard C. Walls
Dir. and writ. John Sayles; feat. Angela Bassett, Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp, Mary Steenburgen (PG-13)
Somewhere in the middle of Sunshine State, a high school drama teacher played by Jane Alexander stands alone, performing a soliloquy in front of troublemaking students who have been condemned to Theater as a corrective extracurricular activity. The actress speaks throughout the film in the grandiloquent Southern drawl that sometimes afflicts drama folk, and — whether thanks to Alexander or the character she plays — it's a trial to endure her performance.
If it weren't for the wealth of non-stagey acting talent in this film, audience members might well identify with Alexander's juvenile delinquents — like viewers forced to watch something because it's good for them. Sayles, who almost always has a social message behind his stories, has constructed a sprawling scenario about race and class issues on a small Florida island. Here, a development company called the Plantation Corporation aims to gobble up an African-American enclave that's seen better days, while continuing to buy property from whites who don't want to sell.
As with his Lone Star and City of Hope, Sayles' dense plot defies brief synopsis; suffice to say that two female protagonists, one black (played Angela Bassett) and one white (by Edie Falco), are confronting the island's issues in different but parallel ways. Roughly two dozen other characters, from real estate moguls to alligator wranglers, pop in and out to provide local color.
Most filmmakers, when they hire this many actors, aim for a narrative payoff, at which point disparate threads tie up in a way that justifies their introduction. (Sayles has done this to striking effect in earlier pictures.) Here, however, intriguing bits of story are introduced only to be forgotten. Gordon Clapp, for instance, plays a suicidal man married to a perpetually chipper civic booster. An early scene shows him suffering through a zoning meeting mere hours after he tried to end his life, and one might expect this stifled despair to have some narrative impact down the road. Yet at the tale's end, Clapp is still alive, and neither he nor the viewer knows why he's there.
Most of the interactions in Sunshine State are equally intriguing when taken on their own. Sayles has a knack for creating interpersonal situations that dramatize political conflict, and he gets superb performances out of most of his actors. The weight of the world sits on his dialogue here, though, crushing all the life out of it — and giving the film the feel of a halfway-adapted play, one that isn't quite comfortable leaving the hermetic atmosphere of the Theater in favor of the Cinema's hot Florida sun. — John DeFore