Eastwood Shows He Still Has Heart

Stoic and wooden as a totem, Clint Eastwood is back. In a time of need, he’s the man. Another serial killer is on the prowl, and the star, producer and director plays a retired F.B.I. profiler with a heart transplant who takes on the dirty job despite the obvious danger to his health, searching for clues that leave him clutching at his leaky aorta in every scene. Hey, in the absence of Maltese falcons, if you’re going for the Bogart roles, you gotta search for something .

The movie is called Blood Work for more reasons than one. The killer leaves coded numbers at each murder scene written in blood. Between chases in dark alleys lit by helicopters, the protagonist, Detective Terry McCaleb (Mr. Eastwood), is always dropping by the hospital lab for endless blood tests, sadistically administered by his cynical, prune-faced cardiologist (Anjelica Huston). There also seems to be a mysterious link between the victims that leads to a blood bank. The closer McCaleb gets to the psychotic “Code Killer,” the closer he comes to another massive coronary. As the sinister ads warn, “The key to catching a killer is only a heartbeat away.”

Why him? Because he came face-to-face with this wacko when he suffered the near-fatal attack that forced him into retirement, the case was never solved, and his heart donor turns out to be one of the murder victims. He owes her one. (Also, it gives Mr. Eastwood a chance to play his own age.) Weathered and tired and no longer at the top of his game, McCaleb works with instincts, a Smith & Wesson and a bad ticker. But the dead woman’s sexy Latina sister (Wanda De Jesus) and orphaned, camera-ready son (Mason Lucero) creep into his veins faster than a transfusion, so he battles both the LAPD and the F.B.I. to arrive at every crime scene first. Never mind the fact that he has no license; this is an assault on society, big time. Why do the victims all have the same blood type as McCaleb? Why are they all linked to the same blood bank? Like the dicks in trenchcoats in Mickey Spillane novels, McCaleb is playing a hunch: This is a cat-and-mouse game, see, in which the hunted kept killing until he found the right organ donor to keep the hunter alive! Now he’s killing again. While the clues multiply and the corpses mount, the trail leads back to McCaleb’s own retirement boat in the sleepy San Pedro Harbor, where he plans to spend the rest of his life marlin-fishing. Instead of marlin, he gets red herrings. Who is the diabolical Code Killer? It would spoil the fun to tell you. Unfortunately, screenwriter Brian Helgeland forgets one basic rule: Don’t underestimate your audience. We’ve seen enough of these formulaic thrillers to know that all we have to do is keep our eyes on the person we like the most and suspect the least.

Still, director Eastwood manages to build a lot of suspense with a minimum of violence. He knows tempo, pacing and the value of camerawork that senses evil lurking in strangely lit shadows. He also knows actors, so it’s odd that he directs everyone well except himself. I wish he’d resisted all of the repetitive scenes where he pants, winces, rubs his chest and shows us his surgical scar to let us know he’s at risk. We get the message. The rest of the cast moves in and out of his viewfinder with amiable ease, especially comedian Paul Rodriguez as a confrontational city cop, Tina Lifford as a federal agent who aids McCaleb in his off-the-books investigation, and floppy, amusing Jeff Daniels as a neighbor and carefree boat bum in the marina who acts as his chauffeur and unofficial partner. No big revelations here, but Blood Work is slick and tight, and Mr. Eastwood-clinched of fist and locked of jaw-is a welcome relief from a summer of freaks, fools and flying saucers.

Possession Sizzles

Lush and literate, Neil LaBute’s Possession is two love stories for the price of one, unfolding simultaneously in different centuries. It is risky, intelligent, romantic and rapturous from start to finish. In the hollow summer of 2002, I’d call it something of a miracle.

Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an ambitious American with a fellowship at the British Museum who accidentally discovers a long-lost love letter he believes was sent by Queen Victoria’s poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, to the controversial feminist Christabel LaMotte. Being a brazen and unscrupulous Yank, he filches it and takes it to Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant academic who is both appalled and skeptical. She’s been researching the life of this legendary Victorian nonconformist for years. Randolph was a starchy, stable, conservative family man whose letters to his wife will soon be the focus of a centennial museum celebration of his life and work. Christabel was a bohemian author and liberated lesbian who was years ahead of her time. There is no evidence that the two poets ever met, much less slept together. If true, this discovery could be a sensation in the academic world. The deeper they delve into the journals, diaries and correspondence of Randolph’s wife Ellen and Christabel’s lover Blanche, the closer they get to opening a new door in their own lives. Tracing the footsteps of two icons from another century-even sleeping in the same country inn where the clandestine lovers met and made love-the two moderns, who have vowed never to become emotionally involved, begin to lower their defenses and relive history.

As they reluctantly find each other, the film shifts in time to the Victorian love story with elegance, charm and period costumes that take the breath away. Ms. Paltrow, cool and patrician, and Mr. Eckhart, scruffy and vulnerable, make an extremely sexy pair of contemporary lovers, while Jennifer Ehle, looking like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman , and Jeremy Northam, in his Oscar Wilde waistcoats, do more with their facial expressions than their actions. Sometimes the two worlds merge only a few feet apart, and the parallels between 1859 and today prove that in affairs of the heart, both periods are remarkably similar: The two stories begin with curiosity and move into stages of passion and tragedy. The equation between the two sets of characters and the two societies finds a perfect balance, as the present often becomes an unexpected mirror to the past. The stunningly complex fusion of Austen complicity and Pinter obsession can be both warm and wrenching.

Mr. LaBute may seem, on the surface, a surprising choice to bring A.S. Byatt’s prize-winning source material to the screen, since his films have always been more about sexual power than romantic love. But the direction is meticulous, the study in contrasts is fascinating, and the film makes a convincing argument that sexual politics between men and women haven’t changed much, regardless of the time frame in which they occur. The two sets of lovers are perfectly cast, the performances are piercingly true, and Mr. LaBute’s tender, nonjudgmental approach pays handsome dividends. The message, finally, is “Love is worth the risk.” After the battles, the victories and losses in this remarkable film cannot fail to leave you shaken. Possession opens on Aug. 16. Put it at the top of your must-see list. Trust me on this; you’ll be glad you did.

Unintelligible Signs

Facing financial ruin in an unstable economy is an understandable reason for angst. But it could be worse: You could have Martians in your cornfield.

In a loopy, boring spiritual tease with sci-fi undertones called Signs , the pets on a farm in Bucks County turn vicious, footsteps scamper across the roof in the middle of the night, children think the tapwater is contaminated, swings start swinging by themselves, and strange voices are transmitted through a baby monitor. Is the unknown force cutting strange patterns in the cornfield some kind of sinister warning from extraterrestrials trying to invade the planet Earth? Or is the whole thing just a big hoax designed to frighten the populace-like the movie itself? Farmer Mel Gibson treats the spooky stuff with furrowed brows, chiseled solemnity, and the kind of annoyance other farmers reserve for the pig that just ate the prize cabbage they were saving for the county fair. I don’t blame him. It’s hard to find the right word to describe Signs , or any of the other films by the overrated Philadelphia-based writer and director M. Night Shyamalan, but “asinine” does come to mind right away.

Before you can say “How many other movies does this remind you of?”, eerie spaceships have supposedly grouped in the skies over more than 400 cities throughout the world, always within a few miles of those crop circles, while Mr. Gibson, his two precocious kids (yipes-another Culkin!) and his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix) all retreat to the canning cellar, where one of the goddam green aliens breaks in and wrecks all the pickle jars. If you don’t know that the heroic patriarch-an ex-minister who stopped believing in God when his wife died in a car wreck-will miraculously regain his lost faith and save the day, you haven’t seen many movies lately. Mr. Shyamalan’s films are always about the metaphysical impact of the unknown on innocent people, who must deal with what they don’t understand either through faith or fear. This time, you get God through fear. Unencumbered by a landscape overpopulated with tangential neighbors and pesky subplots, the director-who is a kind of Deepak Chopra with a crucifix-is free to focus on the four people in the farmhouse and the threatening corn, not all of which is in the cornfield. Though technically superb and beautifully photographed by the brilliant cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Signs is nothing more than a two-hour sermon on spirituality that falls with a thud on the deaf ears of pragmatism. It’s not God who saves Mr. Gibson, it’s a glass of water that melts the aliens like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz . Newsweek calls Mr. Shyamalan “the next Spielberg.” Are they kidding? Good or bad, Steven Spielberg’s movies are positive, redemptive and entertaining. Mr. Shyamalan’s movies are predictable pabulum for the dispirited masses that all feel alike. I laughed all the way through The Sixth Sense , and thought Unbreakable should have been titled Unspeakable . Signs is the same old same old: dull and recycled, with no surprises. You’ll know the ending before it starts, and every point is buried under an avalanche of clichés. Mel Gibson in mail-order gingham and tight jeans may be a prettier distraction than Bruce Willis, but even with a pitchfork and a Bible, he’s just blankly going through the motions. His preacher farmer out of a Grant Wood canvas–a symbol of brawny, guileless heartland naïveté-is an empty L.L. Bean shirt.