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.
“Gone Girl” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, and Casey Wilson
Written by: Gillian Flynn (screenplay), based on her novel
Directed by: David Fincher
The taste of love is sweet; when hearts like ours meet. I fell for you like a child; oh, but the fire went wild.
– Johnny Cash, “Ring of Fire”
Let’s be honest- “love” is a specific and occasionally exhilarating form of psychosis. After all, the emotions and actions of an individual in love exhibit many of the same qualities as a person diagnosed with a mental illness. The ups, the downs, the joys, the sorrows, the praise, the harsh words, the intimacy, the lack thereof- it can be a whirlwind from which some are left literally or figuratively scarred for life. From the viciously stated opening line to the equally bold coda, Gone Girl is a masterpiece portraiture of a relationship gone awry, perfectly capturing that inherent madness of loving, then possibly hating someone with your entire soul. David Fincher, like he is wont to do, elevated potentially sordid and flaky material into a dark, intelligent, ‘mad’ film. The result is the year’s best thus far.
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star as Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair that initially appears to be the perfect couple. He’s the handsome guy with the acerbic wit, and she’s the quasi-famous trust fund baby, anxious to live a quieter life. The first act of the film juxtaposes scenes from their happy past with increasingly disturbing scenes from their ‘present’, and catches us up with a particular morning- the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Nick arrives at a bar to see his sister Margo (Carrie Coon), and has a morning drink. We get the hint that he’s not enthralled with the marriage, and he returns home to find that Amy is gone, and there appears to have been a break-in. Nick, for all intents and purposes, is calm, cool, and collective about the situation, as it rapidly becomes a city-wide, then nationwide search for Amy. The preponderance of evidence, neatly woven with the narrative from Amy’s diary, gently suggests that Nick may be involved- or is he?
An ongoing discussion of the plot following that last line would reveal far too much about the film, so allow me to focus instead on what this film says about men, women, their interactions, their relationships, and in essence, gender roles. While watching this, I felt a connection with the two leads (having understood the madness myself a time or two), and how their words perfectly framed the dissolve of their union. Nick spits out his truths like “I’m so sick of being picked apart by women”, displaying his gargantuan insecurity whilst simultaneously proving their point. Amy ‘s diary contains sharp revelations such as “I forged the man of my dreams” and “What did he expect- unconditional love?” whilst expressing confusion and frustration about why Nick wasn’t the man he used to be. I was transfixed by this fictional couple, and how their relationship ran the gamut of love’s emotions, resulting in what you might call the ‘anti-love story’. As opposed to living happily ever after, Gone Girl appears more interested in the possibility that it’s not possible. Nick and Amy created idealized images of themselves in their heads and to each other. Over time, the pressure of upholding those images led them to a place of deep resentment, springing forth undesirable behaviors, and ultimately, well, you’ll have to watch. Fincher and Flynn may or may not have meant to have all of those issues come through in the film, but I certainly interpreted it that way. Sometimes, I wonder how men and women actually get together at all, considering the vast differences in presentation and interpretation the two sides have. I believe this is a film that understands that, on a primitive level.
Gone Girl isn’t all about Nick & Amy, however. Fincher, again as he is wont to do, goes to an uncomfortable, dark place in order to resolve this story, and as is typical with his films, I was happy to plunge alongside him. There are a number of unexpected and harsh occurrences in the film’s third act, laced with a biting satire of today’s media frenzy surrounding any sort of story that attracts viewers. A man suspected of killing his wife is such a story, and I love how Flynn and Fincher ape the sadistically pointless cable news shows (looking directly at you, Nancy Grace) and their insatiable quest to suck the life out of journalism. I also love how Affleck is able to embrace a character that is nearly a mirror image of himself, distinctive chin and all. Naturally, there’s also a part of this film that deals with an actual investigation, which is handled with intelligence and wit, mostly thanks to the relentless curiosity of Kim Dickens’ homicide detective.
Aside from Dickens, there are standout performances throughout. Relative newcomer Carrie Coon is flawless as Nick’s twin sister, and even Tyler Perry shines. Perry’s casting is an especially smart choice, for when he shakes his head in disbelief at the sensational nature of the happenings around him, the audience, aware of his existing sensational nature, buys the words even more. I’ll reserve a grand heap of praise for both Affleck (whose skill as an actor I’ve doubted many times before) and Pike, for they deserve it- both have never been better. Affleck is at once both chill and possibly menacing, a difficult balance to achieve. Pike is asked to pull off an incredibly varied range of performances, and aside from an interesting take on an American accent, is flawless. Their portrayals are both daring enough to seriously merit awards consideration, if not a complete lock for Pike.
I admit to a modicum of bias toward this film, as Fincher creates films with a distinct visual style that I’m drawn to in a ‘fanboy’ sort of way. On the other hand, independent of my preferences, there is a menacing, psychological genius to this movie like none before it. Oh sure, there are the films of Adrian Lyne, or The War of the Roses, and I’m sure a plethora of other pictures that I haven’t begun to understand that tackle the madness of love, but I haven’t seen anything as bold or ego-piercing as Gone Girl. Fincher’s work continues to take chances, and he varies his subjects ever so slightly. He may just be the best working director. This latest effort is the best film of the year at this point, leaving the audience exhausted from their own whirlwind of emotions. It is almost as if we’re the ones that had to experience the Dunne relationship- for I was left just as charmed, then roused, then complacent, then emotional, then enraged as the characters on-screen. Madness, I tell you.