Tag: samantha morton

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.

The Messenger


The Messenger (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a newly recognized war hero, was assigned to the Casualty Notification division with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a man who adhered without fail to the rules of telling the next of kin that their loved one had died or went missing in the war. Directed by Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” had proven that movies about the Iraq war can still be relevant and moving without having to be condescending or syrupy. I’m used to watching Foster and Harrelson playing characters who are volatile and larger-than-life so it was nice to see them playing characters who are masters when it came to internalization. Even though they didn’t always vocalize the things that bothered them about the war or the way they saw the civilian world after serving overseas, I felt their pain and anger. In small ways, they managed to tell their stories without sacrificing complexity. With each visitation of the next of kin, I loved that the family members had different responses so Will and Tony had to constantly adapt, sometimes finding themselves out of their depths. Prior to the film, I thought that the scenes that would impact me most emotionally were the ones when the family members (Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta) would break down externally via screaming, yelling or being violent to themselves and others. Surprisingly, the ones that really got to me were the characters (Samantha Morton) who were obviously sad about the news yet they were almost gracious that Will and Tony found courage from within themselves to deliver the difficult news. The anticipation of family member members’ reactions were without a doubt even more compelling than films about the Iraq war plaqued with gratuitous explosions and typical dialogues. Lastly, the heart of “The Messenger” was the bond between Tony and Will. They seemed to not get along at first but it was always apparent that they respected each other. But after being around each other, the two slowly opened up which led up to the key scene when Will explained why he didn’t consider himself a hero. That scene would most likely have failed with a less intelligent script but I liked the way Moverman used silence and let his audiences absorb every word, pause, and sigh that Will expressed while telling his very personal story. There was also another brilliant scene applied with the same technique when Morton’s character talked about opening her closet one day and her husband’s shirt fell on the floor. “The Messenger” was engaging every step of the way because it went beyond being a traditional war movie. I didn’t feel emotionally cheated because it respected us, its characters, and our troops. It knew that it didn’t need to be political; it just needed to be honest.

Synecdoche, New York


Synecdoche, New York (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

This is the kind of movie that is frustrating to watch because its ambition got in the way of true emotional resonance. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who one day decides to make an epic life-size play about his whole life. He makes that decision because he wants to know how his life turns out the way it is, to understand why his relationship with the people he loves most simply did not work. There are four women in his life that have impacted him greatly: Samantha Morton, a box-office worker, Hope Davis, a shrink, Michelle Williams, a stage actress, and Catherine Keener, Caden’s wife. The first thirty minutes of this picture is very engaging: I felt how alienated Caden was because he doesn’t feel appreciated by his family and the people he works with. That frustration (and maybe even a bit of rage) begins to manifest physically and he starts to think more negatively about himself to the point where he ends up believing that he’s dying. The point where I started to get confused was when the movie decided to jump forward in time multiple times. I began to lose track of who Caden can still connect with, his motivations, and where he’s ultimately going to end up. On top of that initial confusion, Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director, kept adding elements of existentialism and sequences that might have or might not have happened. The movie got way into itself to the point where I couldn’t relate at all. I’ve read a plethora of critics’ reviews that this is a great film because of its ambition. To me, ambition can only get a movie so far. With ambition, a film must also be able to take its audiences to whether it decides to go no matter how ludicrous the destination. With this film, I felt left out of the loop and constantly wondered what was going on. Even though it’s not as accessible and relatable as I would’ve liked (especially for a movie that’s about life and death), I’m still giving this movie a mediocre rating because I did like some of the elements and issues it tried to tackle.