Tag: billy crudup

Jesus’ Son


Jesus’ Son (1999)
★★ / ★★★★

FH (Billy Crudup), shorthand for “fuckhead” because of his tendency to bring the worst out of a situation, is hitchhiking to Mexico in hopes of finding his girlfriend, Michelle (Samantha Morton), who ran off with a man named John Smith. A family is kind enough to stop and agrees to take him where he needs to go, but the ride is short-lived when they get into a car crash. FH recalls the events in the past three years that lead up to the accident.

“Jesus’ Son,” based on the book by Denis Johnson, is a film that means so well, full of optimism and small but important life lessons, so it pains me a little bit to admit that it did not quite work for me. Although Crudup’s strong performance is a thread that unites the funny, eccentric, tragic characters, there is a lack of cohesion in the story. In retrospect, what I remember is the individual misadventures that FH gets into throughout the months and years, not his evolution from an irresolute man to someone who has developed self-awareness.

It is difficult to imagine anyone else playing FH. Crudup makes his character into a real person by using his good looks to lure us and his talent to defy our expectations. Just when we feel like we have a good grip on the character, the performer reveals another layer that is either contradictory of what we came to know about FH just a couple of scenes prior or a deeper detail like a sadness underneath FH’s comforting smiles or charming ticks. It is easy to label FH as a loser given his addiction to drugs, very laid-back attitude, and lack of prospects. Crudup gives the character a chance. Yes, the protagonist can be considered a slacker, but that is not what all there is to him.

The supporting actors are interesting, too. Morton could have played her character as a typical white trash, especially in the way Michelle is introduced, but she does a good job showing her character being drawn toward the heroine that gives her temporary ecstasy versus FH who may not be perfect but he is there and he is real. Also, Dennis Hopper makes an appearance in the latter half, a man on a wheelchair with a bullet hole on each side of his cheek. To reveal more about FH’s interaction with Hopper’s character is to take away something from the film. But what they share is tender, amusing, and honest. I wished it had been longer.

However, some performances are so alive, they threaten to derail the mood of the picture. The first is Denis Leary playing Wayne, a man who has a plan for making a quick buck. He demands our attention. The second (and more distracting) is Jack Black, FH’s eventual co-worker as orderlies in a hospital. The scene with the hunting knife is hilarious due to the situation itself, but Black’s tendency to exaggerate pushes the kind of amusement that feels right for this material into a comedy show. Still, at least Black’s character is far from boring.

Since the story is non-linear, it is most critical that the transitions among time jumps and location changes feel smooth. Otherwise, it will feel like the story is choppy–as it does here. Mix such techniques with dream sequences, it almost feels like trouble. Because of this, it gives the impression that the mood fluctuates so much that the inner turmoils that FH goes through almost become an afterthought.

Directed by Alison Maclean, “Jesus’ Son” has very good performances but its disparate techniques in storytelling do not consistently reach a synergy that is necessary for the work to be truly memorable. But at least the final scene is nicely handled when it could have been treated as a throwaway, how the protagonist is finally able to be in control after always lumbering toward the direction of pleasure for so long.

Alien: Covenant


Alien: Covenant (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Considering that Ridley Scott helmed “Alien,” one of the most memorable and craftily made sci-fi horror pictures in the last fifty years, one has a certain level of expectation coming into “Alien: Covenant,” a disappointing prequel to the masterful 1979 classic and a sequel to “Prometheus,” a widely misunderstood but intriguing attempt to extend the series’ mythology.

In an effort to deliver scares designed to impress the modern masses, Scott’s signature techniques, like employing long takes even—or especially when—it’s unnecessary and playing with extended silence to build a sense of mystery and/or dread, are missing here. As a result, one gets the impression that the work could have been made by any other filmmaker who understands what makes horror movies marginally effective but not yet have a specific voice of his own.

For instance, when several crew members of the colony ship Covenant, led by Oram (Billy Crudup), decide to explore a planet after receiving a radio transmission, the picture does not bother to genuinely establish a sense of place. There is a line uttered by one of the characters, pointing out that they haven’t encountered or heard any animal after already having walked several kilometers, but aside from this creepy detail, everything else about the setting looks generic, CGI forests for miles, could have been any forest on Earth. On top of this, the images look dark, bleak, desperate to come across as atmospheric. I felt no interest in exploring this place. I craved for the aliens to appear finally and pick off the characters in the most gruesome ways imaginable.

There are more than ten crew members and only one of them is borderline worth rooting for. Surprisingly, and not in a good way, it is not Daniels (Katherine Waterston), clearly the heroine of the film, one who must undergo an evolution from a background personality to one who is supposed to lead her team in the foreground as the possibility of them becoming alien hosts escalates. Instead, it is Tennessee, the chief pilot of the Covenant—a person who stays on the ship for the majority of film. He is played by Danny McBride, a performance so natural and convincing that I caught myself feeling glad that I found a new side to his talent.

Daniels’ arc is forced and unconvincing. Later in the picture, as she goes head-to-head against an alien, I found the script to be bland and predictable in its attempt to make the heroine tough and resourceful. The supposed one-liners fall flat; they do not work because the character’s evolution is simply not there. While Waterston is capable of summoning the necessary emotions when required, the screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper fails to establish a protagonist who is able to think on her feet or one who commands a fascinating way of thinking, of being. It merely relies on the established template of the final tough girl.

“Alien: Covenant” showcases different forms of the alien and some of the kills are truly horrifying. Disappointingly, however, the material fails to create a balance between imagination and brutality, violence and contemplation—clearly one of its goals because the subject of meeting or surpassing one’s creator becomes a recurring theme. Here’s to hoping that Scott, if he were to craft another installment in the series, would aspire to make a film that would impress him as an artist first… and then the audience. He needs to follow his instincts rather than what he believes the viewers want from his work.

The Stanford Prison Experiment


The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, dramatizes the infamous 1971 simulation led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychologist employed by Stanford University. The goal of the study is to document the effects prisons can have in human behavior. The subjects are male college students, randomly determined by a coin toss to either be a prisoner or a guard, and the experiment is planned to last between seven to fourteen days. The study lasted only five days.

Note that I did not—and will not—use the word “experiment.” This is because I do not consider Zimbardo’s study to be one given that it is flawed from a scientific perspective. For instance, as one character keenly points out in the film, there seems to be a lack of a control group, a requisite element in most experiments because it determines whether the dependent variable, an effect (or effects) that can be observed, truly arise due to the introduction of an independent variable—a factor (or factors) that can be added, removed, or manipulated by the persons conducting the study.

The film is wonderfully acted by everyone involved. The collective performance is strong and so it is relatively easy to invest into each group’s realities—those participating in the study, those conducting the study, and those outside of it—even though the entire situation is far from pleasant. Particular standouts are Michael Angarano, embodying a guard who tries to personify John Wayne’s toughness, and Ezra Miller, embodying a prisoner consistently pushed to the edge of breakdown. There is confidence in their performances that it is near impossible to look away when they are on screen together.

There is great control from behind the camera. The director utilizes close-ups as a way to invade someone’s personal space. Pay close attention to scenes when a guard verbally assaults a prisoner to the point where we begin to suspect that physical violence can erupt at any second. As the intensity of the confrontation increases, the distance between the camera and its subjects decreases. We are literally in the moment as a guard strips away a prisoner’s remaining humanity and what is put inside that prisoner is fear, a heavy sense of powerlessness, and shame.

But the picture is not without areas that need improvement. For example, although it is obvious why the Crudup and Olivia Thirlby scenes are necessary to the material, both playing a couple with varying degrees of empathy and ethics, their exchanges do not mean more than what they are supposed to symbolize or represent as scholars. I wanted to know more about their personal lives. At the end of the film, a subtitle notes that the two married a year after the so-called experiment and are still together today. But I ask why we should care since the material does not provide enough details outside of their professional lives. More specifically, how can Thirlby’s character, who is a psychologist herself, still choose to be with Zimbardo after seeing what he is capable of?

Nevertheless, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” written by Tim Talbott, is absorbing and at times thought-provoking. Viewers who have taken psychology courses, like myself, will be very familiar with the study but there are enough details here that are specific and surprising. On the other hand, audiences not familiar with the “experiment” are likely to gape in awe, wondering if such a study was really allowed to happen.

Rudderless


Rudderless (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

After a school shooting and their college-aged son, Josh (Miles Heizer), ending up dead, Sam (Billy Crudup) and Emily (Felicity Huffman) get a divorce because they are largely unable to move on from the loss and trauma. Josh was quite a singer-songwriter and, two years later, Sam decides to pass his deceased son’s songs as his own. Impressed by Sam’s performance at a bar, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a musician, approaches the man and suggests that they collaborate to make the songs even better, thus reaching out to even more people. If they are lucky enough, maybe they might make it big.

I wished “Rudderless,” written by Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison and William H. Macy, were a better dramatic film because the songs are so amazing at times, I could not help but think about certain Oasis songs about half a dozen times. Notice that if one were to take the songs away, what results is a deeply unfocused picture with only skeletal-level characterization—if that. It is a disappointment from a storytelling perspective.

Details of the dissolution of Sam and Emily’s marriage is absent which is a problem because there are two would-be moving scenes between the former partners. I felt close to nothing during their interactions because a history between them is not established. I tried to imagine how they must have been like together prior to their son’s death but it is a challenge not only because the screenplay fails to establish the tracks but also because Crudup and Huffman, who are good actors, share little chemistry. It is difficult to believe their characters were married in the first place.

The relationship between Sam and Quentin, who is not coincidentally around Josh’s age, leaves us cold for the most part. Although it is admirable that the material does not go for the expected father-son dynamics, it does not traverse an avenue worth exploring. They are neither friends because of the age difference nor are they sort of a family because Sam is still in deep mourning. So what are they? One gets the impression that by the end they remain strangers. There is no discernible, tangible arc in what they come to share.

When the talking stops, musical instruments are picked up, and singing starts, the movie comes alive. While many of them have an inherent sadness, there is still variation to each of them so not one comes across as repetitive. There are instances when I lost track that I was watching actors performing on stage. Observing them is like being in a real bar and just enjoying the experience of spending time with friends and there happens to be great music being played live.

It must be kept in mind that “Rudderless,” directed by William H. Macy, is a dramatic picture first. The music comes second. Perhaps with a little bit more time drafting the screenplay in order to come up with complex, elegant, and convincing character development, it could have met or even surpassed its potential to entertain and move the audience as a movie, not simply as a soundtrack.

Princess Mononoke


Princess Mononoke (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.

Mission: Impossible III


Mission: Impossible III (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), while throwing a party with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a girl he intended on marrying, received a cryptic phone call, a signal that he was to meet with a superior to discuss a possible mission. Musgrave (Billy Crudup) informed Hunt that one of his former students (Keri Russell) in the agency had been kidnapped. Normally, a captured agent would be disavowed but the agency believed that she knew crucial information about Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer they had been tracking for some time, so her extraction was necessary. Hunt accepted the mission and was assigned a team (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q) to rescue the kidnapped agent. Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Mission: Impossible III” had a wonderful mix of drama and action. Despite the cool gadgetry and intense physical stunts, it felt believable because what was at stake felt real. The theme of Hunt’s struggle to keep his personal and professional lives separate was at the forefront. It seemed like no matter what he did, there was no stopping the two spheres from colliding. That’s why the heart-pounding first scene worked. We got to observe Ethan helpless at the sight of Davian, a figure of his professional life, putting a gun to his future wife’s head, a symbol of his personal life. Even though we had no idea what the Rabbit’s Foot, an item that Davian was desperate to have, was exactly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the spectrum of emotions Hunt experienced, which moved from confusion to anger then regret, as Davian counted from one to ten, the point when he was to put a bullet into the innocent woman’s head just because he could and he enjoyed watching people suffer. The action sequences, jumping from one continent to another, were as breathtaking and astute as ever. The warehouse scene in Germany provided the template. It was messy, bullets, glass and fire thrown everywhere, but never incomprehensible unlike most poorly edited action movies. Each team member was given something important to do. While Hunt explored the building, someone was underground, another was in the air, while the other was in charge of scanning the perimeter via body temperature. Each time the camera moved from one team member to another, it was consistently interesting. Their teamwork established a healthy synergy of tension that, when threatened, delivered nail-biting suspense. But that isn’t to say that the film was devoid of humor. The scenes with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), a bumbling tech expert, prevented the project from being suffocatingly serious. Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), Hunt and Musgrave’s superior, had an intimidating aura but his lines had a certain snappy irony that went beyond the archetype of a tough-as-nails boss. “Mission: Impossible III,” written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams, looked and felt like it was made by people who love to make movies. It’s amazing how much clichés tinged with a microcosm of originality can feel something new.

Eat Pray Love


Eat Pray Love (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Liz (Julia Roberts) decided that she wanted a divorce from her husband (Billy Crudup), with the support of her friend (Viola Davis), she bought tickets to Italy, India and Bali in hopes of finding true happiness. In her journey, she met many interesting people who, like her, were going through their own quest to find self-love and forgiveness. Italy appealed to the stomach, India to the mind, and Bali to the heart. Most audiences’ critiques I read about this film was that they felt like the story was painfully self-centered. I expected to Liz to be a spoiled, uncultured American who had no genuine reason to complain about her life. That wasn’t the case at all. I thought she had a brain and I liked the fact that she wanted something more than spending the weekends buying material possessions on credit. Instead of wallowing in her problems and not doing anything about them, she decided that she wanted to take control of her life and to be open to new kinds of perspectives from individuals who grew up in various customs. Of course, not everyone has the means to travel across the globe to sort out their problems, but I believe that a lot of married people are unhappy with the way things are. Most of them just won’t admit to it. Or worse, some of them have accepted that unhappiness is the norm and there isn’t a thing they can do to get out of a bad marriage. Adults, perhaps more female than male, will most likely find themselves able to relate to Liz’ identity crisis from body image to society’s expectations about what makes a convenient versus a happy marriage. We saw the story through Liz’ eyes so why shouldn’t the film have the right to be self-centered? I found the performances to be subtle and involving. Roberts was radiant as she played a character who felt like she had to fill a hole inside her in order to feel like she was truly alive. She had such ease weaving her character in and out of various places and dealing with polarizing personalities. I did not expect her to have much chemistry with James Franco but they were able to pull off their doomed relationship quite swimmingly. Even when Roberts was just in a scene by herself, I couldn’t help but smile. For instance, when she ate those saliva-inducing Italian food in slow motion, I could feel her having fun in her role. I wish she was in starring roles more often, especially these days, because there aren’t a lot of actors who can balance control and reckless abandon so beautifully and elegantly. Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, “Eat Pray Love,” directed by Ryan Murphy, is ultimately about the big questions more than the answers. Liz may have gotten answers fit to her lifestyle. By providing them a possibility, perhaps adults stuck in unrewarding marriages would be inspired not necessarily to leave the country and live the life they’ve always imagined but to find something better than what is.