Bill Murray

Film Review- ‘Aloha’ (***)

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ALOHA
Brian (Bradley Cooper) and Allison (Emma Stone) survey a Hawaiian Christmas lawn.

 

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.

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Film Review- ‘St. Vincent’ (***1/2)

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Nothing like a little gambling to really open  a boy's eyes.
Nothing like a little gambling to really open a boy’s eyes.

“St. Vincent”  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, and Jaeden Lieberher

Written and directed by: Theodore Melfi

I occasionally get all bent out of shape when a movie is too easy, or if it feels like the filmmakers are reaching into our eye sockets and milking our tear ducts.  St. Vincent dares to walk that line between schmaltz and smooth, but manages to play it cool in the right moments.  It’s a film that even repeats a story we’ve seen before- a grumpy older man takes a kid under his wing and teaches him all of the life lessons.  However, excellent performances by each of the leads elevate what is normally a milquetoast story, resulting in a fine “dramedy” that confirms Bill Murray is still, well, Bill Murray.

Murray stars as Vincent McKenna, and we’re introduced to him in a most peculiar way- as a lazy, drunken buffoon with a filthy house, a cat, and a nasty disposition.  Well he’s nasty, but not entirely “dangerous”, per se, and thus not a complete miscreant.  It comes as no surprise, however, that he threatens all sorts of lawsuits when new neighbors move in and damage his car and tree in the process.  This brings about a meeting with said neighbors Maggie (McCarthy) and her polite, well-behaved son Oliver (Lieberher, in an outstanding performance).  Maggie has moved to start a new job, in which she will work a ton of hours and not necessarily be available.  That works, since the plot requires an excuse for Oliver and Vincent to begin hanging out.  That they do- Vincent reluctantly agrees to let the boy in one night that he’s locked out, and their odd dalliance begins.  Oliver, so straightforward, respectful, and easygoing, is the perfect foil for Vincent’s tomfoolery.  Vincent takes him everywhere from the horse racing track to his local watering hole, teaching him how to break someone’s nose and familiarizing himself with a wealth of new terminology.

This isn’t simply a film about a miscreant and his protegé, however.  Director Theodore Melfi has crafted a film, and Murray a performance, that progressively leads the audience from a place of dark humor to feel-good conclusion.  Like a cinematic onion, St. Vincent peels away the harder outer layers of the titular character to reveal a softer, resilient core.  The film intends to sell us on his faults for a greater reveal of his strengths.  Mind you, where we arrive at the end is in typical fashion, but it’s the matter in which we arrive that I do not mind.  Vincent has been hardened by a series of unfortunate events, but he keeps going, seemingly brightened by the arrival of his kid neighbor.  Oliver, noticing the potential for greatness in his new-found friend and in himself, changes right along with him.

The film is most impressive in a scene where our two leads visit a nursing home.  Our initial exposure to Vincent’s general disposition reminds us that we’re not sure if he’s there to con some poor resident, hustle supplies, or something else nefarious.  Imagine our surprise when he’s actually there for a positive reason.  Without revealing everything, Vincent dresses as a doctor, as it is the only way a particular patient will allow him access.  This is a revelatory scene, for we start to understand why Vincent does what he does, and why the film as led us to this point.  Subsequently, we begin to understand why Vincent attempts to raise money in the various ways that he does, from gambling to prescription drug theft.  We’re left wondering why anyone would need to resort to crime just to accomplish the simple goal of taking care of someone.

It is possible that Melfi may have had something to say about the state of our health care system, and the extreme sacrifices one must make in the name of Big Medicine, for Vincent’s life is far from what it could or should be (especially as a veteran).  The pains one has to endure simply to care for loved ones and themselves is well, not in tune with our abilities as a species.  Also, by placing a Jewish boy (Oliver) in a Catholic school, and casting funnyman Chris O’Dowd as a priest/teacher, Melfi dabbles in the possibility of a clash of religions, and seems to poke a little fun, but the feeling doesn’t linger.  It’s a wise choice to dabble, for the film would have felt different otherwise.

Instead of laying on the thick, sentimental cheese as it could have, St. Vincent allows the titular character’s actual accomplishments to shine through, and thus the film’s conclusion works.  The film quotes scripture by saying “a person shall not need attention for good deeds”, and Vincent abides by that, for he’s certainly not happy, certainly doesn’t want attention, even though enough has been taken from him.  This is all handled with just the right amount of subtlety and humor- the choice to take down a notch plays up Murray’s strengths and keeps the film from being over-maudlin.  It won’t win any awards, but fans of Murray, Melissa McCarthy, smarter-than-their-age young actors, or fast-talking Russian strippers (Watts) will be satisfied.

*note- make sure to stay through the end credits for a clear homage to Murray’s earlier film Caddyshack.  Those of you that are fans of that film will appreciate this coda.

Film Review- ‘The Monuments Men’ (**)

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Hey captain, can we go watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" now?
George, thanks for getting us all together for this party, I mean movie.

“The Monuments Men”  **  (out of 5)

Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett

Written by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov (screenplay), Robert M. Edsel & Bret Witter (book)

Directed by: George Clooney

One of the more memorable scenes in film is the last moment from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, where the camera slowly pans up to reveal an entire warehouse of artifacts.  Granted, this was a place of ‘secret things’, not necessarily artwork.  However, that film did cover the fact that the World War II-era Nazis hoarded thousands of cultural artifacts from across the Eastern Hemisphere.  They wanted it all for themselves- for if you rob a people of its’ culture, you rob them of their spirit, as the theory was.  These are big ideas, ripe for extrapolation on-screen, either as a dead-serious drama, or as quasi-adventure film, a la Indiana Jones.  “The Monuments Men”, however, never settles for one idea, and thus doesn’t have an identity.  The result is a muddled, aimless enterprise of a film that combines a fantastic cast, then doesn’t do much with them.

I’ll declare myself a big fan of George Clooney, but his directorial efforts have brought about decidedly mixed results despite stellar casts before.  “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a very good film with a specific focus.  “The Ides of March” seemed to exist simply to tell us what we already knew- politics are corrupt.  The Chuck Barris biopic “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was also an unspectacular, yet star-studded shoulder-shrugger of a film.  In other words, it’s hard to really get a grasp on how creatively talented Clooney is behind the camera.  The only common thread I gather is that his films start with an inspired idea, and he simply presents it to us on-screen.  Some just keep our attention longer than others.

“The Monuments Men” cannot keep its’ own attention for long, not even to enrich the main characters (real people, for which real facts exist to extrapolate on).  The film wastes no time in gathering this apparently motley crew, in a sequence so rushed it reeks of a montage. We do know this to be true, however; there were, in fact, a group of middle-aged men that joined the Army in World War II in hopes of recovering stolen art.  They were, as the film shows us, an unlikely group.  They were indeed brave by definition for heading into war zones.  They did, in fact, recover thousands upon thousands of pieces of art across Europe.

What else were they, however?  Other than brief, obligatory mention of families back home, the film doesn’t provide much nuance or inspiration to any of these characters.  That’s a crying shame when you consider the massive talents in the cast.  Clooney?  The affable ‘really cool guy’. Damon?  Eminently likable.  Murray?  Capable of showcasing a broad range of abilities.  Goodman?  Everyone’s favorite ‘dad’ figure.  Dujardin?  Limited exposure to American audiences, but already an Oscar winner.  The film asks us to care deeply about these men and what happens to them, but it clearly overestimates our zest for the actors themselves.  So little time is spent with them as a group and exploring what made them tick, and it just doesn’t work.  On top of that, what exactly did this magnificent conglomeration of actors bring to their roles?  For all the fanfare about their grouping, it doesn’t seem to have brought the best work out of any of them.

An exception to that would be (big surprise) Cate Blanchett as a French woman forced to catalog the art Nazis were stealing from her own community.  Not only is she important to the mission (and the film’s resolution), but her character’s longing to feel anything other than hatred for Nazi action lends this film a steely emotional grab it so desperately needed.  I envisioned there could have been a different film centered around this Claire Simone- a woman forced to betray her beliefs, then forced to watch, then forced to catalogue all of her culture’s artistic heritage, then forced to smile about it.

As straightforward as it is, the story of “The Monuments Men” may have worked better in documentary form.  That would’ve afforded whatever filmmaker took on the project a chance to show the individuals involved with the ‘Monuments Men’ mission- without associating our notions of these actors with them.  There are multiple ideas with which to work in this film, but no strong, emotional connection is created with any of them.  We’re not sure whether Clooney wants us to laugh at the myriad of personalities thrown together for a decidedly non-traditional mission, or be moved by the wretchedness of war and Nazi malfeasance.  Even the most poignant moment in the film, taking place in an Allied camp at Christmas time, seems out-of-place and awkward in its’ silence.  I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or crying.  It’s precisely the type of confused reaction you might expect when you watch a film that has no idea what it wants to be.