Aloha *** (out of 5)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, Danielle Rose Russel, Jaeden Lieberher, and Bill Murray
Written and directed by: Cameron Crowe
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
A common thread running through the films of Cameron Crowe is the flawed hero. Whether it’s Lloyd Dobler awkwardly pursuing his future plans, Jerry Maguire fumbling through his professional and love life, or Drew Baylor contemplating life and death, we know what to expect from a Crowe lead. We can only speculate as to whether this reflects his own personality and challenges, or is simply derivative of where his mind goes to find a story. Unsurprisingly, Aloha has much of the same DNA as his other films, flawed hero and all. It’s because of that DNA that we recognize where Crowe wants to go with this latest entry. I accept and applaud Aloha in spite of continued problems with character development and focus from the director, and love the handful of scenes in which the film works. It is a film whose characters resemble the ‘realness’ we love about other Crowe movies, but places them in odd, unclear situations at times, without allowing them to breathe. Amidst problems involving the studio and leaked emails, the supposed trouble surrounding Aloha leads me to believe that Crowe had something, but may have lost most of it in the shuffle.
Bradley Cooper and his baby blues star as Brian Gilcrest, a “contractor” for the military. I have no idea what that means, and the film only shows him as a “contractor” for a brief time. What we do know is that people make fun of him for flubbing a past assignment in Afghanistan, and that he sustained a lasting injury as a result. He’s managed to get a second chance “contracting” under the watchful gaze of Carson Welch (Murray), one of the world’s wealthiest men. Welch has a penchant for aerospace engineering, too. Think Richard Branson without the music, or Elon Musk with less philanthropy, then insert everything we expect from a Bill Murray performance.
This new “contracting” gig is in Hawaii, of all places. For 99% of us that means absolute joy, but for Brian, this is a painful homecoming of sorts. His escort en route to the local Air Force Base is John “Woody” Woodside (Krasinski), a hot-shot pilot that just happens to be married to his former love Tracy (the always radiant Rachel McAdams). Awkward! She doesn’t know he’s coming, so when he arrives, the jolt of emotion is enough to throw her out of whack. We’re sure this is bound to cause issues because 1) Rachel McAdams was cast for a reason, and 2) she’s so flustered upon first seeing him that she ends up extending a dinner invite.
We also see that the Air Force has assigned an escort to Brian in the form of pilot Allison Ng (Stone). Allison is an energetic, no-nonsense woman whose presence seems to encourage the positive side of Brian’s otherwise cynical personality to emerge. Being a ‘quarter Hawaiian’, she’s also in tune with the history of the islands, and what natives consider to be spiritual. That’s a big help for Brian’s first “mission” in his new job. He is to get “Bumpy” Kanahele (playing himself), a native considered the heir to the throne of the lost Hawaiian crown, to ‘bless’ the site of a new base for a joint Air Force/civilian project. This project will launch satellites above Hawaiian airspace, a delicate subject considering how sacred these skies are to native islanders. These scenes with Bumpy’s clan are much of the film’s heart, and reveal both Brian and Allison’s true natures and ideals, not just as officers filling a post.
What follows for the remainder of the film’s story cannot be easily summed, for it is a wee bit rushed and at times hard to follow. Brian must deal with his conflicting feelings for Tracy and Allison, try to mend his reputation, stay true to the promises he made to “Bumpy”, perform in his new job (whatever it is that he actually does), and come to terms with the conflict inherent in each. Aloha loses points here in this second act by rushing to the conclusion, in spite of strong singular moments. It does seem odd, though, coming from a director known for letting moments ‘breathe’, that his latest film seems hurried. So odd, in fact, that I wonder if it was really a choice he was had to make.
It does appear as if the theatrical version of Aloha is an abridged version of the film, made to satisfy the corporate souls that financed the film instead Crowe’s devoted, established audience. Much has been made about former Sony president Amy Pascal’s disdain for the film, as witnessed in the leaked emails back in 2014, but after seeing the film, I’m unsure which party is at fault. After all, the romance between Allison and Brian simply feels rushed, not forced. The plot appears incomprehensible at times, but how much of that is a studio trimming? If it sounds like I’m making excuses for Crowe, well, I am. Other than the manically unfocused Elizabethtown, I’ve known nothing but positive experiences with his films. His characters are almost always interesting, and they are in Aloha too- it just doesn’t appear they were allowed to ‘breathe’. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the studio meddled with the final product.
The film has also come under some heavy fire for casting Stone, a Caucasian, in a role for someone described as part Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. In most cases, I fully understand complaints of whitewashing, and sympathize with how damaging that can be to a population. Aloha seems different, however. The film doesn’t ignore the traditions of the native people, and in fact, seems to wholly embrace them as the most honorable of all involved. I already mentioned Bumpy Kanahele’s role, one I feel is important in pointing out what I feel is not exploitative on Crowe’s part. He has since apologized for the casting decision, but does he need to? The problem with crying ‘whitewashing’ in this case is that the accusers assume they know what an individual of Chinese, Hawaiian, and white heritage should look like, and then they place that assumption on the role. I’m happy to hear the other side of the argument, but knowing a bit about Cameron Crowe, and knowing that he based the character on a real-life person he knew seems to speak against the uproar in this case.
The final word on Aloha is, well, incomplete. If any film in the past five years deserves a director’s cut, I’d vote for this one. The performances are quite strong, the emotion is real and deserved, and as usual, the music of a Crowe film stands out. It simply doesn’t play like a full idea realized on-screen. Cameron Crowe still delivers a modicum of sensible adult interaction, romance, and humor that is accessible for everyone from teenagers to seniors. I don’t mean that to say Aloha is ‘gentle and pleasant’, but like most of his films, it connects with the audience. His characters have emotions that run deep, and they often wear them on their sleeves. We root for his flawed heroes, and for the well-rounded characters that usually litter the screen around them. I liked this film for its’ warmth, its’ honesty, and for some unexpected character moments that are just out-of-bounds enough to keep the film from being predictable. That being said, let’s hope for an “Untitled” version of this, to fully grasp what Crowe wanted to say. It’ll complete you.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” *** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad & David Koepp, Tom Clancy (characters)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS**
It used to be that ‘origin’ stories were reserved for those in spandex. Now, any fictional character can get the reboot treatment, whether it’s Alex Cross, James Bond, or the late Tom Clancy’s recurring hero Jack Ryan. With classically trained British legend Kenneth Branagh at the helm and cutting his villain chops, and charismatic everyman Chris Pine taking the role, we should expect, at bare minimum, an efficient machine of a film. That’s exactly what “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is: formulaic, safe, but still fun and well-made, resulting in a middling-to-good action/espionage film reboot.
Four solid to very good films featuring the character were made before this, not to mention the multiple Tom Clancy novels written from 1984 to the present featuring the Jack Ryan character. It has always been a film franchise in a state of flux, however, with the lead never committing long-term, Paramount never quite satisfied with the middling-to-positive box office returns, and an inconsistent story line. With this reboot, they have a chance to start from scratch, and there is a plethora of rich source material to pluck ideas from (I enjoy the meticulously detailed Tom Clancy novels). Of course, it stands to reason that they would choose to film from an entirely original screenplay instead of adapting one of the novels. In a way, it makes sense, considering the novels describe Ryan’s history over various stories, with nothing concrete in the way of an origin.
It also stands to reason that an espionage film set after 2001 would have to take into account the heightened tension level in the intelligence community. Ergo, the creative decision is made to have the 9/11 attack be the onus for Jack Ryan joining the military, where he excels in seeing patterns develop, and being a leader. While rehabbing after his chopper goes down in the Afghan mountains (definitely a nod to the novels), he meets spirited medical resident Cathy Muller (Knightley), who seems to give him the “right motivation” to heal. Also scoping out Ryan is Thomas Harper (Costner), who gives him the extra push to finish his doctorate and go to work for the CIA as an analyst. Harper is the classic mentor character, something Costner is becoming more familiar with as he ages.
Of course, being an ‘analyst’ is rather vague, and we know that Jack is basically going to become a field agent- not just because we’re familiar with the character, but the plot needs him to be more than that. A lot more. We’re quickly shifted in the film to ten years after his rehab, and Jack’s living with Cathy (now a practicing physician), well-entrenched in Wall Street working for a firm, and in the thick of things as a CIA analyst. I guess we’ll have to assume that Jack and Cathy had a magical courtship, as the film doesn’t bother. Jack has done what he does best- discover a pattern, and a disturbing one at that- there are multiple hidden accounts with large dollar amounts belonging to a Russian corporation headed by Viktor Cherevin (Branagh). We know this is dirty money, because Branagh is a name actor, and thus his intentions must be evil.
Boy, are they. Almost to the point of overkill, the Jack Ryan novels are excellent at ‘raising the stakes’ of danger for the reader. There’s always a regime somewhere about to be overthrown, or a sinister terrorist plot, or a “sleeper cell” in a far-away country that needs to be taken out. Not much different here, but I won’t get into specifics for the purpose of keeping something under wraps. The idea is that the CIA, or the U.S. government, is always putting out a fire, whether it has started or not. Jack Ryan is the guy who sees the spark in these stories, or leads the charge to put it out. In keeping with the spirit of the novels, the film does do a good job of giving us a character that we’re familiar with. Those new to the story will at least be able to gather that Ryan is an ultra-bright, resourceful, kind, and valuable boy scout of a character. He’s the reluctant spy.
In essence, that’s what this film does well- it sets us up for future Jack Ryan outings by giving us an incredibly likable character played by an incredibly likable actor. It’s debatable whether or not we should buy into Chris Pine as a borderline tactical genius, even if he’s also Captain Kirk (which I don’t necessarily buy, either). I do buy him as a charismatic good man, though, which sells more movie tickets. Branagh does all he can to breathe some evil nuance into the Cherevin character, whose motivations are typical (he even sneaks in a “Mother Russia” for good measure). The one who seems out-of-place here is Keira Knightley; she’s a fine actress that I’ve enjoyed in many different roles, but something about her version of Cathy Muller (Ryan?) isn’t right. She’s just so lithe. Perhaps comparing her to Anne Archer’s take on the character isn’t the best idea, but I sensed someone like Rachel McAdams belonged in the role instead.
I sense there will always be a crowd for films like this- the international espionage thriller. I for one am a sucker for them (and an unabashed fan of the Ryan character), and even done half-heartedly (I’m looking at you, “The Bourne Legacy”) I’ll be inclined to enjoy them. When the stakes are higher, it lends a gravity to a film, and all of the Jack Ryan stories have that specific weight to them. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is not special by any means, and compared to the best in the franchise, “The Hunt For Red October”, it pales in comparison. You’ll have to suspend some disbelief to enjoy this film (how would the world NOT notice if Russia bought up all the U.S. currency and then dumped it right after a terrorist attack?). However, as an origin story/reboot/franchise starter, it’s effective enough in its’ mechanical nature to make me recommend it, based on the relative sharpness of the script, the decent action sequences, and in what it does best- exist as an international espionage film. People are constantly looking over their shoulders in this film, which is right at home in the genre, and a solid set up for the future.