Jerry Maguire

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- ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (**)

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The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.
The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.

 

“The Fault in Our Stars”  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, and Willem Dafoe

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (screenplay), based on the novel by John Green

Directed by: Josh Boone

 

When the credits rolled and the darkness lifted following “The Fault in Our Stars”, something fascinating took place.  The sound of hordes of tweeners sobbing created what I can only describe as a palpable, awkward tension in the room.  It was as if we’d all just witnessed cinematic history, or perhaps the ritual sacrifice of puppies.  Either hypothetical event would have been sufficient for the influx of tears, but neither took place.  This audience, the perfect prey for the predator that is this movie, was game.  Game for a soulless, Mola Ram-like filmmaker to forcibly remove the heart from every teenage girl and strum their chordae tendinae like a concert cellist.  Far be it from me to cheapen someone’s real emotion, oddly misplaced as it may be- but this is a film rank with the stench of insincerity, failing to capture our minds, as it is so clearly preoccupied with manipulating our hearts.

Extreme hyperbole aside, this wasn’t an entirely awful experience, so I’ll explain. Shailene Woodley of “Divergent” fame stars as Hazel, a young lady with terminal cancer and little in the way of positive life experiences.  Due to the relative success of an experimental drug, Hazel’s life has been extended, but as she puts it, she’s on borrowed time.  Her mother (Dern) nudges her into joining a support group, where she meets Isaac (Wolff) and Augustus, or Gus (Elgort).  Gus is a cancer patient in remission at this point, and is there to support his buddy Isaac.  Lo and behold, Gus takes a shine to Hazel, warts and all, and the two begin something akin to a relationship, centered around a fictional novel that she uses to make sense of her life.  Woodley and Elgort are fine if not awkward in their roles, in spite of a script that doesn’t play to the best of their abilities (see “The Descendants” for what Woodley is capable of).

Theirs is a different courtship- a pairing for the ages if you believe the hype, but is it?  We know she is doomed, and the film tells us as much.  There cannot be a happily ever after, nor can we have the typical meet-cute followed by a whirlwind romance.  Ergo, they fit the very definition of ‘star-crossed lovers’, which cinemagoers have seen countless times.  Is there anything unique about Hazel and Gus?  Sure, they have both been touched as youngsters by the cruelest of diseases, which should bring a gravity and suddenness to their romance.    Unfortunately, this script cheapens their relationship by creating a seemingly endless series of climactic, tear-jerking scenes that stand to simply leave one exhausted and confused.

A glaring example of said confusion is the film’s desire to show these late teens (he’s 18, she’s 17) as ‘adult’ figures, waxing poetic about the philosophy behind pain and death, attending community college and the like, but then treating their feelings as if they were children.  There is nothing more odd and off-putting in this film than the portrayal of a strong, mature connection between Hazel and Gus, then the perplexing decision to purposely, and without explanation, keep them away from each other at their most vulnerable moments.  One can understand overprotective parents (this film never makes it seem like that is the case) or a desire to ‘keep it in the family’.  It does seem clear, however, that both Hazel and Gus simply want to be with each other, and the film blatantly ignores both reason and explanation in this regard.  If, as a youngster I saw this film, I would understand that A) it is ok to run the gamut of adult emotions, ranging from love, intimacy, and death, but B) when the clock strikes midnight, my voice would be stifled, my desires ignored, my confidant kept away. Someone will likely tell me that the novel explains these oddities, and I will respond in kind by saying “that’s nice”.

Director Josh Boone’s film is at its’ strongest when the realities of cancer permeated the forced emotion.  Cold as that may sound, it’s true.  Watching these characters endure pain washes the sheen of ‘teenage wasteland’ from the film, even if but for a short while.  The unlucky couple’s brief moments of understanding about death and their illnesses also brought a needed poignancy to the film. Another scene consisting of a conversation about the parent’s plans after Hazel’s imminent death was particularly moving- I imagine such talks, while unpleasant, are necessary for both parties to accept the realities of life.

I’ve heard the hype behind this movie, and the completely unquotable quotables this offers (Okay, Okay is simply a lazier “You had me at hello”).  If this is the quintessential romance for the younger generation, then pardon me while I walk into traffic.  This film (I stress the term film to ensure I don’t invite the wrath of the novel’s legions), while competently shot, put together, and performed, seems to exist primarily as an excuse for the young adult crowd to cry in public amongst friends for two hours.  At best, it gives something of a voice to children with cancer, and could inspire to make the most of an awful situation.  At worst, it fails to reconcile the odd coupling of adult feelings with children’s lives, and inserts far too many climactic emotional scenes to the point of overkill- more than any film I can remember.  There is the possibility of something better here, like other, stronger films before it involving the same audience (“The Lovely Bones” comes to mind).   “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t a completely silly, manipulative experience, but it most certainly is on the verge.

*note- I don’t quite understand the film’s (and by proxy the novel’s) title.  In a literal sense, I assume that author John Green was attempting to draw a parallel between ‘our’ constellations and the emotions we pin to them versus the realities of life, but that may be a reach.  The film itself, despite frequent stellar imagery, did not appear to broach the subject either.  It is fitting, in a way.  The title, much like the content of the film, grasps at straws.