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.
American Sniper ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller
Written by: Jason Hall (screenplay); based on the book American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Difelice
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
**POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT**
“In this world, there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs”. That quote, used in the first five minutes of American Sniper by Wayne Kyle, the father of Chris Kyle, is the type of worldview that speaks only to certain people. I knew nothing of this soldier, and I cannot identify with that ‘alpha male’ type of code, so I began on the wrong path with this film. Well on my way to labeling it “Right Wing: The Movie”, I paused about ten minutes in, realizing that I was about to despise it for the absolute wrong purpose.
The moral of the story? Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an irrational, biased view of this film. A multitude of irrational opinions have already come out on American Sniper, and they are based on the same kind of irrational thought. The film is simply about a man, and how his unique skills led him to be uniquely affected by a unique conflict. There are no grandiose political statements in this film, no force feeding of patriotism, and no obvious judgments on who is right or wrong. Simply, director Clint Eastwood has crafted an interpretation of what made the ‘most lethal sniper in U.S. history’ tick, and what four tours of duty did to that decorated soldier. Eastwood strips away most of the political pretense, and does his best to focus on what made Chris Kyle who he was. This is one hell of a film– not a work of propaganda. It manages to satisfy as both an action film and as an emotional roller coaster.
Chris Kyle was clearly affected by the terrorist activity here in the US. He dropped what he was doing (riding the rodeo circuit), and signed up to be a Navy SEAL. It obviously takes an extreme amount of dedication to become a SEAL, or at least that’s what I’ve heard (I’m certainly not up to the task). So we know what type of human being is capable of that extreme training- driven, maybe slightly arrogant, extremely patriotic, and possessing a modicum of natural ability. The film shows us that from an early age, Kyle was gifted using a weapon, and that’s where he specialized- as a sniper. We can see even from the film’s trailer the extreme amount of concentration it takes to lay still, sometimes for hours, in the pursuit of a sniper’s mission. Even then, the choices one is required to make are mind-boggling. How does one aim at a child, even the child of your enemy, even if it means saving your comrades? (Even if that kill didn’t actually take place) Wouldn’t that make anyone with a conscience struggle? Those decisions, which every soldier must make, inevitably create the possibility for a disconnect with reality- or at the very least a disconnect with normalcy.
Eastwood showcases Kyle’s personality by framing the story through his four tours of duty. Each time he deployed, his situations appeared slightly more dangerous than the previous, and his disconnect appeared to grow along with them. The more he succeeded at his job, the more notoriety he received amongst his fellow combatants and enemies alike. The movie seems to indicate that Kyle relished the notoriety, proud to flash his ‘Punisher’ style symbol on his gear and vehicle, marking his territory and giving away his position. One might say he was pride embodied, toeing the line between brave and brazen. At the same time, the film showed him as humble in the face of his peers, careful to accept too much praise. That careful balance Eastwood carries with the film gives the audience the chance to create their own interpretation of the man. From my perspective, the dread of seeing ‘Tour 1, Tour 2, Tour 3, and Tour 4’ may be a parallel, on a much smaller scale, to how his wife felt, or what Kyle himself felt. Bradley Cooper gives an incredible, transformative performance here as Kyle. Not only does he undergo the necessary physical transformation, but he somehow one-ups his prior performances on an emotional level here, making us believe in Chris Kyle as a leader of men.
I struggle with the idea of attempting to get inside the head of a soldier, having never had to make the types of serious decisions that they are required to make. I struggle as I wonder if he was a selfish man for leaving his family over and over. Did he give in to his competitive urges in his desire to eliminate a rival sniper (a character inspired by various Al Qaeda operatives)? Was his sense of duty and idea of patriotism so strong that he felt he was the only one to complete the mission, and he felt obligated simply to complete his job? Did he enjoy what his job was, or did he just see it as a job? These are the questions that the film asks us to ponder about the man, which brings me to the conclusion that he was very much a complicated man. I’m torn, for it appears that the right answer involves a little bit of everything.
The pinnacle of the film finds Kyle with a tactical team on a roof as an impending sandstorm lurks in the distance. At that moment, I found myself slowly gripping the arm rests, not sure how to place the anxiety I felt, not knowing how Kyle died, and being certain that something awful awaited him. That’s the type of tension this film cultivated. I was exhausted at the end, and I don’t feel as though I need to experience it again. The majority of the packed theater I was in stood during the finale, enthusiastically clapping, as one might do a hero returning home. Seeing the reaction to this film has been like witnessing a cultural phenomenon, especially in how we as a society process and interpret information and entertainment. It speaks to the divide most of us have about how to process war in general, and how to mend our veterans upon their return.
There isn’t a point of view criticizing this film that really works. The negative thoughts are all coming from the wrong angle. It is possible that other veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom experienced a different war than what Chris Kyle did? Certainly. It is also possible that various parts of this story have been exaggerated, or in some cases, fabricated? Most definitely. Does the film achieve an emotional and tension-inducing level that most films cannot replicate? Absolutely. For those filmmaking achievements alone, American Sniper is one of the year’s best films, and may just end up winning best picture. As for Kyle, the man? I’d say we’re free to debate what his life was about; the mark of this great film is that it hasn’t decided for us what that is.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, with Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Josh Brolin
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comic created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Directed by: James Gunn
Prior to the release of this film, I sensed a small, but vocal group of fans growing discontent with Marvel’s ‘stubbornness’. After all, fan hero Edgar Wright had walked from the “Ant-Man” project due to creative differences, seemingly because Marvel wouldn’t budge. Remember, this is a group that hit so hard on their gamble, yet seemingly couldn’t wait to plan everything out in ‘phases’, then not allow for different versions of their ‘plan’. Sure, they’ve been unbelievably successful, but I’ve been pining for them to have some fun. Even the latest Captain America film, despite how well-done it is, still operates at a spy thriller-level of seriousness. In walks Guardians of the Galaxy, a robust, strange, kind of gross, yet extremely funny space opera that’s a complete breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe. Aside from a few problems that are really nothing more than my own brain being finicky about songs, this film does ‘comic book movie’ better than any of its’ counterparts, and will likely be remembered for generations to come.
More than one specific part of the film, the tone is spot on. Upon the hiring of James Gunn as director, I was understandably worried- even with the bits and pieces that worked with his films Slither and Super, they certainly weren’t complete. I did, however, detect a specific sensibility from Gunn that would work for a proposed film about a bunch of rag-tag galactic misfits. From an opening scene where Peter Quill (Pratt) prances around an alien treasure room to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” to a chase on the galaxy’s capitol planet, cast and crew alike seem to know that the world they’ve created is far too ludicrous to be taken too seriously. As a result, Guardians sets a different set of rules, and comes off as quite self-aware, which is the right approach. Think of it as an ‘indie blockbuster’.
Star-Lord/Quill is the focus of the story, but unknowingly he brings four other beings to him in search of the stolen alien orb. On the galaxy’s capitol plant of Xandar, home of the “Nova Corps” (think Green Lantern Lite), Quill tries to sell this alien treasure. Soon, he’s pursued by the green-hued Gamora (Saldana), the enormous, deadly Drax (Bautista), and the dynamic but scientifically improbable duo of Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel). After tearing through the city in a three-way bounty chase, all five are arrested and shipped off to “Knowhere”, a floating galactic space skull, which just happens to serve as a prison. This motley crew goes from fighting each other, to gathering in a police lineup, to plotting an escape, to collaborating against a common enemy, all within 45 minutes. What feels like a rushed partnership in lesser films actually makes sense here- these five all have specific skills that mesh well, and they’re all outcasts.
Little does Quill know that his artifact-snatching actions have attracted the attention of Thanos (Brolin), the ‘Mad Titan’. He has both his son Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and his daughter Nebula (Gillan) scheming to acquire the power contained within this orb, and now that the five galactic misfits have it, they’re a target. Much has been made of the Thanos character since he first appeared on-screen in The Avengers– but if I’m honest, his menacing tease isn’t fully realized here. Brolin, while vocally capable of pulling off the role, delivers flat, antiseptic lines that don’t reflect the promise of his hype. I’m sure he’ll eventually show off, but Thanos underwhelmed here. The same goes for Ronan, who doesn’t appear to have much of a motivation for his aggression, nor is there much nuance to his character, other than his hatred for his boss/father Thanos. If there is a weak spot to this film, it would be the underwhelming presence of the villains. In fact, their lack of menace is what keeps this film from overtaking Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Marvel’s best entry.
The villains aren’t what make this memorable, however. Let us ponder the multiple possibilities for failure with this film- a talking, irascible CGI alien raccoon, a stoic alien tree that can only utter four words, a former pro wrestler in a pivotal role, a green-skinned assassin, and a talented, but unproven lead. In the hands of lesser talent, Guardians would be a disaster. As it is, Gunn and crew took all of those same possible eccentricities and spun them into positives. Pratt is a star- and he’s brilliant as Star-Lord/Quill, showcasing both his comic timing and his action chops. Cooper and Diesel, while just voices, offer such a depth of character with the small amount of time they have. It’s truly remarkable how Rocket and Groot are realized, both behind the mic and behind the CGI wizardry. Saldana, playing off her existing connections to sci-fi popular culture (Star Trek, Avatar), brings depth to her character and elevates it from being a simple hired hand. Bautista was a real revelation- who would have thought he could bring a dry, comic awareness to a character named ‘Drax the Destroyer’? What appeared to be a weak link with his casting actually stood out for its’ brilliance. There are new, exciting worlds loaded with strange, bold new visuals, prompting me (a critical sci-fi stickler) to fixate on the screen in wonder.
Other than the obvious comparison to another pop culture titan in Star Wars, one needn’t look much farther than another Marvel mind for a more prescient comparison. The late “Firefly” series and subsequent film entry Serenity are good, low-budget templates for this material, but Guardians stands taller. The ironic part is that Guardians, for all of its’ visual brilliance, actually owes its’ character chemistry in large part to Joss Whedon’s cult favorite. What sets it apart is Gunn’s inherent odd sensibility- the need to place a gross joke in the right place, or a gnarly alien to ground it in a different universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy does care about the larger “Avengers” universe, but only by proxy. The filmmakers have forged their own beast here, rife with the fantastical and the improbable, and it works. Ok, not only does it work, it’s wonderful. Despite my minor protestations (and they are minor), Guardians succeeds where others haven’t- bringing the spirit and fun of something like Star Wars back to pop culture, a task that even the latter’s creator failed to accomplish. There are brash heroes, skilled warriors, sly sidekicks, idealistic factions, and loyal friends. Simple? Sure. Pandering? Not at all. Guardians is the film experience the Star Wars prequels wishes it could have been- but as a function of artistry, the film isn’t the slightest bit worried about comparisons, expectations, or symmetry along the lines of a franchise. I appreciate that rebel sensibility, and it should be commended for being so bold as to cast a lead like Pratt, for being weird, and for coming off like the middle child that wants to be noticed, but is fine to do its’ own thing. Guardians is fun enough to make me say I “felt like a kid again”, and actually mean it.
*note: the mid-credits scene would be throw-away, if not for the already obvious Star Wars/George Lucas link. By getting the scene right, it shows just how wrong Lucas was/is, and solidifies Guardians as a new standard-bearer in sci-fi/fantasy.