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.
The Best of 2014
What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me. From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.
It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do. Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.
10. Inherent Vice– The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own. For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story. Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax. Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is. Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them. It really is that much fun.
9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection. Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man. Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice. Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.
8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue. The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level. I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me. Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.
7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills. Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain. What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind. Is greatness truly derivative of madness? You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.
6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most. The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film. It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well. Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son. It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.
5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film. Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been. It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.
4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure. The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show. Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable. This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.
3. Wish I Was Here– Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’. It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another. The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation. I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.
2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller. Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film. It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me. Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end. Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING. Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.
1. Gone Girl– This is a flawless film. How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece? David Fincher, that’s how. He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery. It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things. It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.
*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself
“Wish I Was Here” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, and Ashley Greene
Written by: Zach Braff and Adam Braff
Directed by: Zach Braff
Perhaps more than any filmmaker working today, Zach Braff is adept at focusing on a pivotal moment in a character’s life and capturing the emotional depth and lasting impact inherent in said moment. His 2004 masterpiece Garden State was a seminal film for me, and influenced not only my musical tastes but permeated my thoughts for some time. It seemed to exist solely to speak to my state of mind. Of course, it’s a film that I believe spoke to many in my age group, but that is the idea I’m attempting to convey- it captured something specific in that character and mirrored the emotions of the audience. Wish I Was Here is more of the same, yet different, if that makes sense, but a joy in its’ own right. As Braff the director, actor, and person has grown, his output appears to have followed, and it translates into one of the year’s best films.
Braff directs himself as foul-mouthed yet spirited father and struggling actor Aidan Bloom- inching towards 40, yet still not entrenched in a ‘life’s work’ situation. His two children (King and Gagnon) are reasonably well-adjusted, and his marriage, despite its’ financial difficulties, is strong. He and his on-screen wife (Kate Hudson) depict an unlikely film duo- realistic, likable, supportive, yet cognizant of their struggles, working together for something better. Their portrayals are a welcome breath of fresh air to on-screen couples- still sexy and oozing chemistry despite having to talk about all that silly ‘real life’ stuff. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two from what Braff does here- respecting his characters enough to have intelligent, real thoughts about their lives and not harbor mounds of regret- or look for an escape.
Aidan’s life, as a whole, is at a crossroad. Like men his age everywhere, he feels the need to take stock and find a direction forward. His cancer-stricken father (Patinkin) is not-so-subtly disappointed in his professional choices, his disconnected brother (Gad) lives by himself and doesn’t want to help, and he can’t get steady work. Braff makes a conscious choice here to do something different with this character. As opposed to falling back on a typical cinematic storyline for a character in dire straits, where they cheat on their wife, go on a lavish vacation, or buy a flashy car, Braff writes his character differently by allowing him to go back to what makes him happy. He daydreams about the good parts of his childhood, including the rich, make-believe world he and his brother created where they were heroes, escaping a ‘hooded’ dark figure on some remote planet (insert vague paternal symbolism joke here). He takes his children on a ‘quasi-vacation’ to places that gave him comfort before, spending only what he needs from the family’s ‘swear jar’. He makes a sincere attempt to bring his estranged brother back into the fold- for after all, as the oldest, it’s important to feel that sense of responsibility. These may seem like very ‘un-cinematic’ choices to make, but their simplicity actually enriches the story, and results in a series of touching, funny, and emotionally resonant scenes.
I must mention the brilliant accompanying soundtrack, which lends a very specific richness to the material. Braff clearly has the gift of matching songs to moments- whether or not he was directly or indirectly responsible for the music of “Scrubs”, it was generally spot-on. The music of Garden State was also a revelation- a compilation that led me to a side of the musical world I barely knew. Here, he uses Paul Simon again, Bon Iver twice, Badly Drawn Boy, and a wonderful track entitled “Raven Song” by Aaron Embry. As opposed to most modern cinema, where music is nothing but an odd, off-putting distraction or the set up for a punchline, Braff creates a real companion piece here with his selections, informing the plot as opposed to taking us out of it. I recognize that ‘indie’ music brings with it an air of pomposity, and Braff has been criticized for an overly emo/acoustic/hipster sensibility. Regardless of a person’s musical preferences, the music here is subtle, seamlessly flowing with the story.
Sure, there are countless films that tackle ‘life crossroads’, or the emotional impact of a parent’s illness. There are plenty of films that use indie sounds and sensibilities and symbolism ad nauseam. Wish I Was Here is all of those things- it’s just better than about every one of them. This is a script that takes its’ time to recognize poignant moments, has enough intelligence to hold back when it should, and a love for each character, giving every lead an important scene that makes their existence sensible and resonant to the story. I connected with this film on a deeply emotional level- perhaps it is because I like what Braff does; perhaps his character’s age simply mirrors mine and the emotions I tend towards now; perhaps there are just some films that seem to ‘get’ us more than others. This is a film that most definitely ‘gets me’, but in fairness, succeeds in spite of me as well. I can say with a degree of giddiness that I anxiously await Braff’s next creative project, but as the cliché states, sometimes genius takes time. Ten years between directing gigs may seem extensive, but if it results again in one of the year’s best films, it will undoubtedly be worth the wait.