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 Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, and Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by: Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, & Guillermo Del Toro (screenplay); J.R.R. Tolkein (novel)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
How can a film like this be boring? I love the previous four films (yes, four, since the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is so clearly connected to this), so what possibly could go wrong? Is it conceivable that I try harder to be ‘critical’ now that I’m writing about these things I love? Sure. Is it also conceivable that the bubble finally burst, and Peter Jackson delivered a bloated, plodding, nearly joyless Middle Earth film that actually feels three hours long before we even meet the marvelous titular character? Absolutely.
Up to this point, these ‘creatively adapted’ four films have given us visual splendors as well as soulful performances. Jackson and crew have no equals as it pertains to technical brilliance, and they have such an outward passion for the material that it has shown on-screen. His indie sensibilities paired with his keen eye for ‘dirty worlds’ have been a natural fit for J.R.R.Tolkein’s material, and I do not believe there is another filmmaker working today who could have come close to what he’s accomplished.
So, what is “The Desolation of Smaug” missing? To begin with, it lacks the sincerity and heart of the previous films. Perhaps it’s the lack of whimsical, wispy musical overtures like the ‘Shire’ theme. Perhaps it’s the lack of hobbits in general. Perhaps it’s the newfound toy Bilbo has that draws his darker side out. Perhaps it’s a creative choice to show all, or most of the main characters allowing their negative traits to shine through, leading them on dangerous paths. By themselves, all of these reasons would be solid markers to prove the lack of heart in the film, but together it snowballs into an unenjoyable conglomeration of CGI set pieces and choreographed battles.
Even the lightest part of the film involving the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) had no resonance once I learned that she was a completely fabricated character. I made a point not to read The Hobbit, as I figured that three films totaling 8 hours would probably provide all the narrative I needed. Finding out after the film that Tauriel was invented for this film was disheartening- after all, if Tolkein’s work alone, and Jackson’s prowess aren’t enough, why would we be interested? I think the answer lies in a cynical place- Tauriel exists to soften the edges, to attract more females to a film with a predominantly male cast, and mostly, to bring in more money.
Thus far, Jackson has been able to deftly navigate the muddied waters of studio interests, rights issues, fanboys, and casual viewers. Choosing to include a character not previously established, combined with the need to stretch this material into three films, disappoints me. I guarantee it has been difficult for Jackson to satisfy everyone, but I cannot deny the negativity that has now gathered around what had been a relatively pure experience for me. Call me naive, but that’s where I stand.
If there is one thing that works extremely well, it’s certainly the realization of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on-screen. If Smaug were in the rest of the film, I’d have to reconsider my overall opinion. Sadly, he’s only part of roughly 45 minutes, and it’s clearly the high-water mark for the film. Smaug’s slithering, booming voice strikes an excellent balance as he exchanges witty repartee with Bilbo, and his movements are so cool yet menacing that I can’t help but think of him as one of the better ‘villains’ of recent age. It should come as no surprise that he’s the best dragon we’ve ever seen in movies, with respect to Draco of “Dragonheart”, and the Hungarian Horntail of “Harry Potter” fame.
I imagine that the last entry for Middle Earth, next year’s “There and Back Again” will be a better film than this. One can only hope that Jackson has remembered what made these films the experiences they are as he finishes the editing process- they are deeply rooted, beautiful to look at, and strong with emotion and heart. The first two things are abundant in “The Desolation of Smaug”, but the heart is sorely lacking, turning this into an exercise in action choreography and CGI set pieces, nearly redeemed by a scaly talking monster.
*note- I saw this in 2D instead of the ‘groundbreaking’ High Frame Rate 3D format introduced with the last film. While I slightly regret this after taking in Smaug’s antics, I still don’t know if the HFR format is a thing or not. If you’ve seen it in HFR 3D, please, please let me know what you thought.