Explorers 

John Sayles' community; Clint Eastwood's aging process; and Vin Diesel's extremities.

A sprawling, ambling look at a community balanced between historical burden and the promise of "progress," Sunshine State finds writer-director John Sayles back in the mode of his greatest film, 1996's Lone Star. Like Lone Star, this leisurely, whip-smart, two-and-half hour epic about another quintessential American place has enough story in it to fill half-a-dozen typical Hollywood films.

Sunshine State is set on Plantation Island, Florida, a seaside combination of two adjacent communities, the mostly white Delrona Beach, littered with decaying but locally owned motels, restaurants, and bars, and Lincoln Beach, a predominantly black community that was a thriving middle-class enclave in the Jim Crow days but that has fallen on hard times in the post Civil Rights era.

Early in the film, a chance meeting occurs between the film's two most prominent characters, dopplegangers from each side of the island, who go their separate ways without meeting again, as the film spirals out through each of their paths.

One character is Marly (The Sopranos' Edie Falco), who once played a mermaid in a "popular roadside attraction" but now manages the Sea-Vue Motel and Restaurant, a business founded by her retired, partially blind, Archie Bunkeresque father Furman (Ralph Waite) and her community-theater director mother Delia (Jane Alexander). Marly has been keeping an eye on "vultures" from a corporation trying to buy up property on the island to develop a "beach resort community" of gated neighborhoods and strip malls called Plantation Estates, with the Sea-Vue as their primary acquisitions target. Meanwhile, Marly is also ending a relationship with a local golf pro who is leaving to try his hand at the PGA tour and strikes up a romance with Jack (Timothy Hutton), a mild-mannered landscape architect sent by the corporation to look at the property.

Rights to the property are being secured through an under-the-table deal with a crooked county commissioner with a gambling problem and a suicidal streak, and the commissioner is married to Chamber of Commerce booster Francine (Mary Steenburgen), who is organizing Delrona Beach's Annual Buccaneer Days, a "historical celebration" for a community with a historical legacy that consists primarily of "mass murder, rape, and slavery" ("Just Disneyfy it a little and they'll come," another civic booster assures her).

Meanwhile, over in Lincoln Beach, the film's other linchpin character, Desiree (Angela Basset) has returned home from Boston with her affable anesthesiologist husband Reggie (James McDaniel) to visit her estranged mother Eunice (Mary Alice). After getting pregnant at 15, Desiree (who was once Marly's mother's prize student) was shipped out of town to stay with relatives by her mother and late father, who were concerned about what the scandal might do to their precarious middle-class standing. Upon her return, Desiree finds that her mother has adopted a young nephew who is in legal trouble. The nephew develops a bond with Reggie, who befriends elderly community leader Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), who is organizing a protest of the same encroaching development with which Marly is dealing. And both Reggie and Dr. Lloyd are impressed when former Florida State football star Flash Phillips (Tom Wright) returns to the community, though he brings with him secret or forgotten entanglements that relate both to the Plantation Estates development and Desiree's past.

Got all that?

As with Lone Star, Sayles takes on more social and political issues in one film than many directors do in a career. Watching Sunshine State, one thinks of not only how rare it is these days to see a serious consideration of real-life community issues up on the screen, but of how rarely the cinema lets us see people of different races or segments of a community dealing with these issues in the same film (even if not, as is also common in real life, in the same screen space).

The richness and responsibility of Sayles' consideration of so many vital contemporary issues -- the complexity of race in a post-civil-rights era, the balance of ecology and development, the struggle over power in local politics, the way attitudes and priorities change with each generation, etc. -- is so rare that it might seem tempting to embrace his good intentions at the expense of acknowledging his obvious limitations as a filmmaker. At least that's a popular take on Sayles' work. But the truth is that, at his best (and Sunshine State is close), Sayles' follow-through dwarfs his deficiencies. Sayles frequent interest in focusing on communities rather than individuals is a manifestation of his lefty politics, but Sunshine State brings this community to life, its fine ensemble cast overcoming Sayles' modest visual style and only occasionally pedantic dialogue.

With the South Texas of Lone Star, the historical discourses were apparent, but in prefab Florida they're more hidden. But Sayles gives the same energizing and deeply satisfying portrait of a community of long-simmering tensions, in this case of a space where natives mix with new arrivals, snowbirds, retirees, and carpetbaggers, and where so much of the future seems up for grabs.

Sunshine State lacks the intensity of focus that made Lone Star so powerful: That film built to an inevitable conclusion, where Sunshine State exhausts itself in a less resolved way. And some subplots, particularly that of the county commissioner and his wife, don't have the follow-through and payoff that you'd hope. But the way Sayles explores his matrix of community faultlines while giving way to even more intriguing personal issues is very absorbing. By the end, you're likely to leave the theater with these characters and this community's issues buzzing around in your head as if they made up your own neighborhood. And in an era where the movies are supposed to provide "escape," how great it is to see a film that makes you feel more alive and more connected to the world around you. -- Chris Herrington

I hope I'm in Clint Eastwood's shape when I'm 72. Still craggily handsome, still athletic, Eastwood always manages to kick ass, solve crime, and get the girl -- usually half his age. He did it all in grand style in In the Line Of Fire and does it again here in Blood Work.

Also, at 72, I hope to have as keen an insight into my abilities, mortality, and the nature of the aging process. If you have noticed the last several movies Clint has appeared in/directed, you will observe a rather unconventional and refreshing glimpse into the career of a Hollywood icon, who is totally self-aware and unafraid of the aging process. He embraces the idea of the hero riding into the sunset -- of life -- and his best recent efforts have been character studies of men nearing their twilight years, dusting off their guns for one last great hurrah. He won the Best Director Oscar for the elegant Unforgiven, which serves as an excellent example of a legend completing his legendary duties before embarking on a career of his own choosing -- making movies that he wants to make and consequently breaking the Eastwood mold. Being an "Eastwood movie" once meant being a spaghetti Western. Then came Dirty Harry. Now, he's making movies about men getting older but not doing so without a fight.

Blood Work, unfortunately, isn't as good as some of his other recent efforts that meditate similarly on masculinity and aging, like Absolute Power or A Perfect World. No, this one is more like Space Cowboys, which seemed sloppy and paint-by-numbers compared with the attention to detail of Unforgiven or Midnight In the Garden Of Good and Evil.

Eastwood plays Terry McCaleb, a retired F.B.I. detective recovering from a recent heart transplant. Two years ago, McCaleb suffered a heart attack while in pursuit of a serial killer and has only now been given a heart that matches his rare blood type. Enter Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), a mysterious stranger who wants to bring McCaleb out of retirement for One Last Case to find her sister's murderer. To any other detective, the case is an open-and-shut liquor-store robbery that never got solved. To McCaleb, the victim is the reason he is alive: It was her heart that he received. However, McCaleb still has to take it easy. He's only two months out of his transplant, and he's not 100 percent yet. There is an unusual scene between him and his cardiologist (Anjelica Huston -- what's she doing here?) in which she quits being his doctor because he won't take better care of himself, blaming Graciella for wearing him down. Later, during the scene when Graciella gingerly seduces McCaleb, my friend Lisa whispered to me, "Is she trying to kill him?" This inspired a more interesting plot twist than the movie takes: that Graciella is the murderer, and she is trying to kill McCaleb slowly by overexerting him. First, by solving the crime. Then, by having sex with him. Next, tennis? Jogging? Jazzercise? This never happens in the film, unfortunately, and we are dragged instead into a rather conventional episode of one of the Law & Order spinoffs. Jeff Daniels is along for the ride as a goofy neighbor, and funnyman Paul Rodriguez plays a pointless angry cop who has some unnamed hostility toward McCaleb and, for no good reason, obstructs the investigation.

Eastwood, at his best, excels at making great use of location -- from his first effort in 1971, Play Misty For Me (a much better movie and VERY scary), to Midnight In the Garden Of Good and Evil. This movie, shot throughout California, lacks basic cinematography. There are scenes in which characters stand in front of what you know is pretty scenery or interestingly flavored locale, but the camera won't pan out so you can see it. And from a purely technical standpoint, the interior shots look cheap -- recycled from some '70s TV crime drama. Very little about Blood Work looks like it should be a film instead of a television movie, and while it is an interesting twist on the Eastwood persona to display him at this particular level of physical vulnerability, there is not enough related intrigue to justify the lame plot and shoddy production values. -- Bo List

XXX opens with a scene reminiscent of certain famous spy films: a handsome, tuxedoed sophisticate dodging ethnic goons and penetrating the ominous fortress of a calculating European megavillain. Much to his chagrin, he has stumbled not into an elegant dinner party but into a pulse-pounding nightclub mosh pit. Fatally overdressed, this anonymous gentleman spy is quickly shot down by his pursuers (and subsequently passed over the hands of the punks, club-style), and the world is again thrown into whatever peril the villain had going before the clumsy arrival of the defeated undercover operative. The message to XXX's audience: Bond is dead. Yes, James Bond. This is not your father's action thriller.

From the onset, you should know that if this movie looks like it will appeal to you, it probably will. XXX, the Anti-Bond, makes good on all the promises implied by its advertisements. Director Rob Cohen places no demands, intellectual or emotional, on his audience and, in gearing its marketing toward practitioners and aficionados of extreme sports, avoids accidentally reeling in viewers expecting something more refined.

There is a plot -- a thin shoestring upon which to hang a series of explosions. Xander Cage (even his name is perfect for a To-The-Extreme action stud, played by the similarly labeled Vin Diesel) is an underground hero in the extreme-sports world, nabbed by the government after he broadcasts an impressive, mildly political car theft/wreck. N.S.A. agent Augustos Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, adding a little class) likes Cage's baaaaaad attitude and expendable personality and puts him through a series of dangerous To-The-Extreme ordeals to see if he's got what it takes. These tests place him, ultimately, in the middle of a Colombian drug raid, where Cage spends most of his time suspended in the air between implausible lengthy motorcycle jumps. Eventually, Cage successfully runs Gibbons' gauntlet, displaying all the required attributes necessary for a reckless, stunt-filled suicide mission: daring, courage, cool. You see, our archvillain Yorgi (Marton Csokas) is insulated by a thick layer of fast cars and women and nearly always by a crowd of attractive/mindless ravers and thumping dance music. Thus it will take a man of Cage's casual antiestablishmentarian savvy to charm this evil party-master busily dividing his time between joylessly overseeing his retro-'90s dance club and his world-domination club Anarchy 99!

Anarchy 99 seems to be a plot to anarchize the planet so Yorgi can monopolize the nightclub scene and sex trade, but I'm not sure, because XXX is too hip and happening for motivated villainy. Besides, isn't it enough to destroy the free world so that everyone will sleep all day and party all night to outdated music in gloomy, angry Euro-trash hotspots? Anyway, there is the obligatory femme fatale aboard this operation, Yelena (Asia Argento), whose dedication to Yorgi's cause provides more than meets the eye and whose icy charms Cage is determined to thaw.

As I mentioned, if this looks like your kind of movie, it probably is. Diesel won't be winning any awards for this role (MTV Movie Awards notwithstanding) but makes a fine, athletic antihero. Plus, as a fellow shaven-headed gentleman, I fully support his newfound status as 21st-century sex symbol. If, however, XXX doesn't look good to you, you will probably hate it. The music is loud, the explosions are big, and the attitude -- as we are constantly reminded -- is bad. And you know those action-hero one-liners that get said after things blow up or get shot down? There are some here that would shame Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After eluding a self-caused avalanche on a snowboard (granted, this is a very cool avalanche and subsequent escape), Cage emerges from the snow muttering, "Nothing like fresh powder." Hardcore! My least favorite line in the movie occurs when Cage has taken over the rather impressionable Prague SWAT team and, in chastising their by-the-book methods, bellows, "Stop thinking Prague police and start thinking Playstation." Try that one a few times at home. My favorite line occurs near the beginning, after a training scenario that Cage defeats, seeing through the facade: "No offense, but their performances were terrible!"

Amen, Brother Cage. -- BL

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