Film Review: ‘Aloha’

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Film Review: ‘Aloha’.

Unbalanced, unwieldy, and at times nearly unintelligible, “Aloha” is unquestionably Cameron Crowe’s worst film. After being warned by his ex-girlfriend that her husband, Woody, is a man of few words, military contractor Brian Gilcrest and Air Force pilot Woody Woodside engage in a deft and funny bout of silent communication. Paced like a record on the wrong speed, or a Nancy Meyers movie recut by an over-caffeinated Jean-Luc Godard, the film bears all the telltale signs of a poorly executed salvage operation disfigured in the editing bay. It’s one of the finer riffs in writer-director Cameron Crowe’s romantic-comedy “Aloha,” which stars Bradley Cooper as the contractor who arrives at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base with unfinished as well as unforeseen business.

Ever since the two co-starred in 2009’s Zombieland, Murray has extolled the actress’s virtues in the rare interviews that he’s given. “I love that Emma [Stone]. . .Just a doll,” he told Esquire. “I really like that girl, Emma,” he said during press for the film back in 2009. “She’s really, really got it. . . But as far as misfires from great American filmmakers go, it’s a fascinating one, less a simple failed Cameron Crowe film than a total deconstruction. She’s really funny.” He also revealed that while filming his Zombieland cameo, Stone cracked him up so often that he broke character in almost 15 takes. (The actress so impressed Murray that The Ghostbusters star even suggested her for the female reboot.) So when the two reunited to film Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, and Stone fell ill, Murray took it upon himself to make his protégé feel better.

Given its rather extraordinary bad pre-release buzz and what is sure to be poor word of mouth from any viewer expecting a new “Jerry Maguire” (or even a new “Elizabethtown”), the film’s commercial prospects look murky. Some of his best have made a lasting impression, pop-culturally speaking: “You had me at ‘hello,’ ” and “Show me the money!” came from 1996’s “Jerry Maguire.” So did “Help me … help you,” a personal favorite. Why should Aloha, Crowe’s latest romantic dramedy set in Hawaii, where local tradition still bristles under the weight of over a century of cultural displacement by white interlopers, be any different? During an interview with Yahoo!, Stone revealed that Murray noticed she was having a health issue and became concerned. “I think Bill Murray was a little bit worried about me during Aloha because I had a really bad acne problem that they [edited] out of the movie [in post-production] because I was having some sleep issues.

But when faced with a work this fatally misguided, one can only hope it will serve an emetic purpose, a cleansing of the system before Crowe can get his mojo working again. But seriously, on like a daily basis, he would bring me nice little presents.” Given that this is Bill Murray we are speaking about, the presents were not skin creams and flowers. That Oscar- and Golden Globe-winner starred George Clooney as a very tan white Hawaiian, but at least explored the tricky terrain of identity and ownership bubbling under the surface of local politics in modern Hawaii.

Instead, Stone said of the tokens: “He would go to a concert and bring me a key chain, or he would go to a store and bring me Maui Onion potato chips. . .a visor, some slippers. From former Sony Pictures co-chief Amy Pascal’s fierce critiques in those infamous hacked memos, to Hawaiian groups expressing concern, sight unseen, that the film would represent a whitewashing of native culture, the project was put through the wringer long before critics and most industryites even had a chance to see it.

Alas: Aloha falls more in line with the Elvis Presley tradition, in which Hawaiian concerns serve as plot-driving stepping stones for a white hero’s personal and romantic misadventures. It’s also a puzzlingly disjointed ditty that falls much closer to Elizabethtown than Jerry Maguire on the spectrum of Cameron Crowe hits and misses. By the time the film is actually unleashed on the world, viewers are more likely to be grumbling about the fact that, despite an introductory voiceover and numerous rapid-fire bursts of expository dialogue, it takes an exceedingly long time to figure out just who the characters are, what they want, and what they’re doing. “Aloha” centers on Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a disillusioned former pilot and space aficionado with a shadowy past in Afghanistan, who is currently working as a military contractor for a flamboyant industrialist (Bill Murray).

Amy Pascal was right in those leaked Sony emails when she bemoaned a story that made no damn sense and declared, “I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous.” Charming Bradley Cooper plays charming Brian Gilcrest, an emotionally obliterated but morally dubious defense contractor who returns to the Hawaiian military base he once called home after royally messing up a shady exchange in the Middle East. He’s en route to Oahu to supervise the “blessing of a pedestrian gate.” The precise nature and purpose of this task is hazy, but it seems to involve some bargaining with natives on a sanctuary, the relocation of ancient bones, and a mysterious satellite launch.

Select Alison Ng, it’s the scenes in which little is said that often exert the most charm in “Aloha.” When he lands in Honolulu, Gilcrest is a tarnished Air Force vet who’s gone on to work in the private sector. There, he reunites with the ex-girlfriend he ran out on 13 years ago (Rachel McAdams), who’s now married with kids to one of his old Air Force buddies. Immediately after stepping off the plane, Gilcrest is confronted by old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who is married to a hard-working Air Force recruit (John Krasinski) who has recently stopped speaking. (At times this simply means he’s taciturn; at others he appears to be an actual mute.) Meanwhile, the local colonel (Danny McBride) has arranged for Gilcrest to be accompanied by a handler — a fast-talking, by-the-book fighter pilot named Allison Ng (Emma Stone). She’s proudly one-quarter Hawaiian, a plot point that’s sure to raise red flags, though in context it plays more like a running joke, akin to the lily-white frat brother who talks endlessly about his vague Cherokee heritage. On that note, while it’s perfectly germane to ask why an actual Hawaiian actress couldn’t have tackled the part, “Aloha” is hardly culturally insensitive.

And their early interactions have the kind of bite to them that reminds moviegoers that Crowe is a practicing fan of the screwball comedy and its typically tart/smart hook-ups. Gilcrest has sold his soul to the devil, a cunning billionaire with an interest in satellites (Bill Murray) and is in town to hustle together a deal to get local Hawaiian sovereignty leaders to bless a ceremonial gate opening that has something to do with a U.S. military rocket launch. Real-life Nation of Hawaii leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele plays himself in a substantial cameo role — wearing a T-shirt that reads “Hawaiian by Birth, American by Force” — precisely to lament mainlander imperialism, and island myths factor heavily, if typically obliquely, into the story. As Ng and Gilcrest criss-cross the islands, doing whatever it is that they’re supposed to be doing, they hatch a hesitant romance and may or may not have a supernatural experience, while Gilcrest’s sporadic discussions with Tracy hint at the questionable parentage of her preteen daughter (Danielle Rose Russell). Most, but certainly not all, of these divergent narrative strands come together by the end, yet the filmmaking is so haphazard that it’s hard to care about any of it.

Meanwhile, Aloha’s already caught heat from Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders for appropriating its title from a word laden with meaning and history. If it seemed obvious whom Gilcrest would wind up with when Ng picked up him on the tarmac at the start of “Aloha,” it becomes less so as the story moves them closer but also creates hurdles, romantic and professional.

Sometimes “Aloha” almost feels like an expression of frustration, a frantic feature-length attempt to bundle all his narrative tics and stray emotional bric-a-brac into a rocket and blast it off into space. A scathing statement issued by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans fired the first shot. “60% of Hawaii’s population is [Asian American Pacific Islanders].

Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population [of Hawaii], but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 99 percent,” said MANAA President Guy Aoki. “This comes in a long line of films—The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor—that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. Ng is almost fleshed out by Stone’s energetic performance, though the character’s essential contradictions — for one, she’s terrified of the idea of weaponized satellites polluting the peaceful purity of the Hawaiian sky, even though she’s a fighter pilot — keep her feeling like an undercooked writerly device. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.” MANAA and other Aloha critics didn’t get to see the film before issuing their statements; Sony didn’t conduct a press day for the movie (translation: no stars did interviews) and hid the film from everyone, including journalists, until three days before it opened. And an unkempt Murray appears to have been given free rein to simply goof off through his scenes, making the pic’s already befuddling military intrigue subplot even more surreal. When he requests Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” at a holiday party it’s not entirely clear whether he’s going for irony or not.

And Stone and Murray stage a dance-off to Hall and Oates that’s appealing for reasons which should be self-explanatory, even if it might as well have been shot at the wrap party, for all the sense it makes to the narrative. The opening credits begin with a montage of newsreel-style images of Hawaii around the time it became the 49th state and the military’s space-program efforts. Production design, camerawork and art direction are all topnotch, and the film showcases a bevy of beautiful island landscapes with nary a swimming pool nor a beach resort in sight. When Gilcrest and Ng travel to a rural commune to get a Hawaiian blessing for a checkpoint, their visit has the feel of a trek to a reservation to meet with a tribal council. Hawaiian folk music supplements Crowe’s predictable classic rock selections on the soundtrack well enough, and a score from Sigur Ros offshoot Jonsi and Alex is appropriately transporting.

Native, because the blond, green-eyed Ng is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter Swedish, making Aloha the first major studio movie to explain to white folks how you pronounce the name “Ng” (like ‘ring,’ without the R). Crowe might’ve even gotten away with it if he’d cast any of his supporting characters with minorities, more accurately repping the ethnic makeup of the islands. Instead, his “love letter” to Hawaii feels about as authentic as a mainlander’s #TBT to that one exotic Oahu vacay years ago, sipping Mai Tais on the beach at sunset while watching the hula show.

Americans took the land away from its rightful owners long ago, he says with friendly reserve, resisting Gilcrest’s offer to get in bed with the U.S. government. Sony also pointed to Kanahele’s involvement in the film as proof of validation by endorsement: “Filmmaker Cameron Crowe spent years researching this project and many months on location in Hawaii, cultivating relationships with leading local voices. He earned the trust of many Hawaiian community leaders, including Dennis ‘Bumpy’ Kanahele, who plays a key role in the film.” Unfortunately, the plot thread involving Kanahele and the Native Hawaiian cause dissipates like the mythological Menehune into the misty Hawaiian night. Aloha’s minority characters take the backseat, left to look for signs in the sky as Cooper’s flawed hero saves them from a fate of his own making, transformed by the island’s mana, and by love.

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