2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Sunday, August 11, 2002
Blood Work has the distinction of being the shortest Clint Eastwood directed film in a long, long time, clocking in at under two hours; and not is it relatively short, it is also one of the few recent Eastwood films to give more than a perfunctory thought to the main genre plot that gives the film it’s backbone. I think the two are related, and I think, that consequentially, Blood Work is among the more minor of Eastwood’s mature works, which still places it head and shoulders above the work of most American directors. I call Blood Work minor because the film downplays the three most consistent strengths of Eastwood’s 1990s films, though all three are present in the film: his redefinition of his star persona, the exposure of the iconic masculine presence to the ravages of age and mortality; the focus on characterization; and an assembly of acting talent in an ensemble that is given generous amounts of screen time and characterization. The usual result is a series of expansive vignettes hung together on the framework of the generic plot. Blood Work is definitely more streamlined, even if does preserve some of Eastwood’s characteristic storytelling traits.

Eastwood continues the redefinition of his screen persona in Blood Work; his character, retired FBI profiler Terry McCaleb, has a heart attack two years previous to the events of the main body of the film. McCaleb in these early scenes strides with a brisk, confident pace, a classic Eastwood action hero, dressed in a suit, and clearly the media-darling, McCaleb is tracking down a serial killer nicknamed “the Code Killer,” because of the string of numbers he has left behind at the scenes of his murder. At the scene of a particularly heinous triple murder, McCaleb, an intuitive and detail-orientated investigator, spies the killer milling about in the crowd outside the murder scene. Both of them take off on foot, the chase leading through some winding back alleyways. McCaleb can run all right, but not as fast at the younger killer, and he certainly isn’t as sprightly, instead of climbing a wooden fence, he crashes through it, and then manages to stumble over a wall. Throughout the scene, McCaleb’s huffing and puffing begins to rise on the soundtrack, and when the killer scales a chain link fence, with McCaleb in close pursuit, McCaleb crumples to the ground, having a heart attack, but not before he shoots and wounds the fleeing killer, who had double-backed to seemingly help his beleaguered foe. Illuminated in the darkness by a helicopter searchlight, McCaleb falls into unconsciousness, the film fades to white, and the next scene is a doctor’s office two years later. McCaleb has just recently received a heart transplant, and is in his doctor’s office for a checkup. Angelica Huston plays his no nonsense doctor, who continually cautions him against strenuous activity. For the rest of the movie, McCaleb often takes pills, quite regularly (he has 34 to take), which in and of itself, is quite unusual for an American film hero, as well as take his temperature. Many of his friends tell him that he looks like shit, or that he looks terrible, and that he should rest or take naps. Personally, I liked how Eastwood generally played McCaleb in the post-transplant scenes, he still walks in a deliberate way, but he is somehow “slower,” and he often rubs his chest where his scar remains.

However, since his doctor seems to freak out at the prospect of McCaleb even partaking in an investigation, I was kind of wondering about the more strenuous events that happen later in the film: Eastwood getting roughed up by a Russian immigrant suspect; having sex with Graciela, the sister of the murder victim; kicking down doors; getting into a shootout with the killer outside of a convenience store; the entire finale. While individually, I liked those scenes, I think the film would have benefited if more attention had been paid to how these scenes were affecting his medical attention. Late into the film, in order to get access to a medical database, McCaleb consents to a medical exam, but nothing really comes across it, and consequentially, there was little risk, and suspense of McCaleb actually dying at the end (though there was the thought at the back of my mind that he would keel over during the finale; now that would be interesting, having Eastwood’s character die in a movie, I mean it was kind of done in The Bridges of Madison County, but off camera, and many years after the main events of the movie). But then again, having the recipient of a heart transplant die while pursuing the murderer of the donor could somehow be seen as cheapening the whole concept of giving new life to a person, but I could have done with some danger.

That particular part of Blood Work was very interesting, as the film was essentially about survivor guilt, a person died to give another life, it’s enough to get people to ask themselves “Why Me?” without the complications of murder. McCaleb expresses his reservations early on in the film to Huston’s doc, especially after he passes the hospital room of a young boy awaiting a transplant of his own. It’s this sense of guilt that compels McCaleb to begin his investigation, and it’s the guilt and sense of duty that keeps him going, even in the face of increasing risk to himself. It’s a particular horrifying, dilemma, two people were murdered so that he would get his transplant, and it’s this dilemma that keeps him going even after a suspect has been implicated in the killing. Of course, like most Eastwood characters, McCaleb is taciturn, so he plays the guilt right below the surface, periodically erupting. In one instance, a dream sequence, shot largely in black and white negative, McCaleb envisions himself in the convenience store where his heart donor was killed. McCaleb crawls on the floor as the ski-masked killer repeatedly shoots him in the chest. Though most of the time, Eastwood plays his character’s guilt pretty close to the chest (a pun, so to speak).

Eastwood reprises the themes of professionalism, especially older professionals, usually pushed somehow to the margins, in such films as Space Cowboys, True Crime, and Absolute Power. In this instance, McCaleb was forced to retire from the FBI due to his medical condition, and when he returns to action, he quickly makes progress on the case, which has laid dormant for several months, with the help of an LA County sheriff, and former protégé, and to the consternation of two idiotic LAPD detectives, one played by the comic Paul Rodriguez, the other by Dylan Baker (and those guys are mainly around to provide comic relief, as well as to show how ineffectual the LAPD is in this case). Much of the film relies on his investigation, which hinges on a few details as well as the profile he is assembling of the killer. The investigation relies less on wholesale coincidences than in True Crime, but nonetheless, many of them occur courtesy of a killer who, like in Tightrope, has become intertwined with McCaleb’s life. Though the main point of this thematic occurs when McCaleb is being driven to interview the wife of one of the murder victims by his neighbor Buddy. McCaleb expresses his feelings of connection, of purpose, something that he lacked when he was retired. Those kinds of feelings are probably pretty common to many retirees.

Though clearly the star of the film, Eastwood continues to be generous to his ensemble casts. Now Blood Work doesn’t feature the cast of Space Cowboys or Absolute Power, but it’s still pretty good. Angelica Huston brings a certain subtext to her smallish role, her protestations to McCaleb seem tinged with personal feelings. Wanda De Jesus plays Graciela, a strong, responsible, and sexy character, and it’s not easy to see why Graciela and McCaleb are attracted to each other (nor are her actions at the climax of the film hard to comprehend); Tina Lifford plays his former protégé, who tinges her admiration for McCaleb with the right amounts of skepticism; Paul Rodriguez plays his part as an asshole pretty well, hostile and jealous towards to McCaleb, and prone to making tasteless, unfunny comments at the most inopportune times (Dylan Baker plays his equally incompetent partner, but his role barely has any dialogue or characterization). There is plenty of humor in the film, not only has Eastwood perfected the art of gruff one-liners (“This Mexican is going to kick your ass!”), but mainly from his interaction with Rodriguez and Baker (the donut scene is pretty good), as well as with Jeff Daniels, who plays Eastwood slacker neighbor, who lives on a neighboring houseboat in the Long Beach marina, where he spends his days lounging, playing the harmonica, fishing, and drinking. Eastwood hires his neighbor as a chauffeur and part-time baby-sitter, and eventually Daniels styles himself as Eastwood’s partner. BIG HONKING SPOILERS, while i connected the various clues before the movie did, I was surprised when it turned out that Daniels was the Code Killer, though I think I preferred his slacker to the giggling, gun-toting psychopath. END SPOILERS

Of course, Eastwood directs with an assured hand, surrounded by his Malpaso collaborators (though he has a new DP on this picture). Again, even though the film is longer than most Eastwood films, Eastwood still provides time and space for his actors to, well, act, without being overwhelmed by SFX, quick cuts that splinter the scene into spatial incoherence, etc., etc. I felt that the climax was particularly good, benefitting from Eastwood’s propensity to have his films timed dark. All in all, Blood Work, while a minor Eastwood film, is still a solid, entertaining, craftsmen-like film.