On three separate occasions this past weekend, after mentioning that I'd seen Cameron Crowe's Aloha, I had friends or family members reply with some variant on "Ugh, how bad was it?" That's usually the response I get after telling people I just came back from the latest Happy Madison flick or Paranormal Activity: Yup, We're Still Churning These Out. But to hear that kind of pitying condolence regarding a new Crowe endeavor was troubling. Sure, the reviews were largely dreadful, and the previews leaned toward the achingly twee, and the movie's reputation in the hacked Sony e-mails ("the script is ridiculous") didn't help matters. Beyond all that, though, is the collective disappointment of Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, and We Bought a Zoo so pervasive and infuriating that it overwhelms the memory of Say Anything ... , Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous?
Quite possibly, and I'm not merely pointing fingers. That trio of post-Famous efforts is to be steadfastly avoided, the previews for Aloha do make the film look unbearable, and I'll unhappily but readily admit that I am one of those people who now greets news of a new Cameron Crowe project with a hesitancy bordering on dread. Yet unsatisfying though it is, I'm moderately relieved to say that Crowe's latest isn't deserving of its advance fear and loathing. God knows it's a mess, with its plotting a shambles and its characters maddeningly inconsistent. The film, however, is also filled with charming throwaway touches, unusually easygoing rhythms, and attractive stars doing their best with what they're given, and it boasts what might be the most gorgeous final shot I've ever seen in a pretty bad movie. The more critical reviews I've read aren't exactly inaccurate, but there's definitely more, and better, going on here than in all three of Crowe's last releases combined.
This isn't to say that much, or really anything, about Aloha makes sense, which is perhaps to be expected in a film that casts Emma Stone as a woman who's one-quarter native Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese. (Must be some powerful genes in those two other quarters.) In basic outline, the movie is a rom-com triangle involving Bradley Cooper's contractor Brian Gilcrest, Stone's Air Force captain Allison Ng - her last name a continual source of alleged hilarity - and Rachel McAdams' Tracy Woodside, Brian's former girlfriend who's now a mother of two married to a man-of-few-words pilot played by John Krasinski. (How few? In one scene, John's and Brian's entire wordless conversation is delivered through subtitles.) Given the aggressively Crowe-ian sincerity behind Brian's and Allison's love/hate repartee and the waves of chaste passion in Brian's and Tracy's reminiscences and smoldering glances, one would think that'd be enough, especially with all those stunning Hawaiian vistas serving as backdrop. But no. There's Bill Murray as some kind of military-backed billionaire trying to launch a private satellite. There are negotiations over land ownership between Brian and the noted Hawaiian activist Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele (who plays himself). There's Danny McBride as an Air Force colonel and amateur DJ nicknamed "Fingers" because to his friends' amusement, and our irritation, he can't stop twirling his fingers. And there are scores of Hawaiian myths and legends recounted by at least three characters - all of which are fascinating, and of far more interest than anything else in Crowe's sloppy storytelling.
Not that I'd want to see it, but maybe this would all work in some four-hour director's cut of the material - one that explained why Allison keeps vacillating between cartoonishly clipped and cartoonishly ethereal, or why the Woodsides' seemingly happy marriage turns sour so quickly, or what the hell Alec Baldwin is doing there. But the start of nearly every scene in this 105-minute offering appears to be some kind of narrative do-over. From moment to moment, Brian is either ultra-competent or one freak-out away from Cooper's Silver Linings Playbook manic-depressive, and the other characters, as presented, are so sketchily conceived that you eventually throw up your hands and stop expecting them to behave in any logical or rational way. Is Murray an endearing eccentric or a dangerous nutjob? Is Krasinski a brooding brute or a tongue-tied sweetie? Is Baldwin's general a vindictive, shifty-eyed psychopath, or is he just acting like one? We're not given any reason to care, and by the finale, even Crowe doesn't really seem to.
Yet astonishingly, Aloha remains a not-unpleasant experience, and for that I mostly credit/blame Hawaii. Sadly for me, I haven't yet vacationed there. Yet everyone I know who has says they never wanted to leave, and you can actually feel that primal pull - the breezy, lulling intoxication of the those islands - all throughout Crowe's movie. Just about every scene here is shapeless, but in the best ones, that shapelessness is intrinsic to the scenes' appeal. In sequences that find Brian going to the Woodsides' for dinner, or enjoying a night at the officers' club, or simply viewing the night sky, the narrative motion relaxes for moments of offhanded loveliness: Stone and Murray gently dancing to Hall & Oates, say, or Cooper and McAdams gazing at one another with looks that register a dozen years of missed opportunity. Nearly every time you're ready to give up on the picture, Crowe's talents of old waft through via some touchingly perfect music cue or romantically idealized image that stabs you in the heart, and they remind you that no matter how mannered his dialogue has grown over the past 15 years, the man is still capable of silent miracles. (When Brian stares with wonder at the Woodside daughter, played by Danielle Rose Russell, as she practices her hula moves, it's reminiscent of the scene in which Kate Hudson, with her long-stemmed rose, dances in Almost Famous's empty amphitheater - i.e., as good as Crowe gets.) The ingratiating, quick-witted Cooper, Stone, and McAdams do a lot of heavy lifting here and are all equally welcome. But if the state inspired Crowe to at least momentarily reconnect with his former gifts, it's Hawaii itself that deserves Aloha's heartiest ovation.
After Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, it took a number of years - and we might not be entirely beyond them - to again become invested in comic-book villains who didn't approach the Joker's combination of threat, terror, hilarity, and bone-deep fascination. (Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin in Netflix's Daredevil series probably comes closest to approaching Ledger's greatness.) For those of us who've seen and loved Mad Max: Fury Road, is it going to take a similar length of time to again become invested in CGI? I ask because during my screening of director Brad Peyton's disaster epic San Andreas, with George Miller's sublime practical effects still on the brain, I couldn't stop focusing on how phony it all looked. The earthquakes, the tsunamis, the crumbling buildings and bridges - everything has the sophisticated yet inherently unrealistic sheen of an animated feature by Pixar, yet without any of the wit, and with Dwayne Johnson's emotions seemingly more computer-generated than Woody's or Buzz Lightyear's.
Not that state-of-the-art realism would've much helped San Andreas, a laughable pile of boring "The Big One" nonsense that finds The Artist Formerly Known As The Rock and screen wife Carla Gugino searching the bizarrely unpopulated streets of San Francisco for their college-age daughter (Alexandra Daddario, looking every bit the 29-year-old she is). But excellent visuals, or even one truly exciting scene, would've at least briefly taken our minds off the hysterically asinine plotting, wholly suspense-free action, and "tension-breaker" gags that would've been insulting in an Irwin Allen potboiler of 40 years ago. Those seeking unintentional laughs, however, will be in Heaven, because if Kylie Minogue's hideous acting doesn't do it for you, you also have the Welsh Ioan Gruffudd's American accent or the embarrassingly wimpy British boys (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) who serve as Daddario's accidental sidekicks to choose from. Or, if you're a like-minded soul, the five-second pauses Johnson employs after characters ask, "What do we do now?!?", and before he replies with such thoughtfully pithy pearls as "Now we get our daughter," or "Now we rebuild." I'd share more choice examples, but why give away all of San Andreas' default lines?
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
It's entirely possible that, had it been released in the 1990s, director Thomas Vinterberg's Far from the Madding Crowd wouldn't be nearly as satisfying as it feels now, primarily because movies of its type were so much better in the 1990s. Howards End, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park ... nearly every month, it seemed, we were treated to another tony yet accessible adaptation of some esteemed (and veddy veddy English) literary classic that didn't make you think too much was being lost in the transition from page to screen. That certainly can't be said of Far from the Madding Crowd. In adapting Thomas Hardy's romantic touchstone of 1874 - the tale of independent farm owner Bathsheba Everdeen and her three suitors - screenwriter David Nicholls is forced to excise any and all breathing room, turning Hardy's sprawling saga into a two-hour Greatest Hits package of coincidental incidents with no true sense of escalating drama or the passage of time. (When Bathsheba tells her servant, "A man did ask me to marry him some time ago," the sentiment sounds all wrong, because the editing makes it seem like he asked her just a couple days ago.) And there's a central problem in Vinterberg's movie that even a more generous running length wouldn't fix, because Tom Sturridge is so grossly miscast as the purportedly rugged and sexy Sergeant Francis Troy - who, here, emerges more as a prissy, self-infatuated dandy - that Bathsheba looks like something of a dimwit for ever falling for him.
Still, classic-lit adaptations on the big screen are so rare these days that you can handily (or at least largely) overlook this one's flaws. Until Hardy's narrative forces her back in the performer's traditional simpering mode, Carey Mulligan shows more star presence as Bathsheba than she has since her 2009 An Education breakout, Michael Sheen delivers an abashed, moving portrayal of suitor William Boldwood, and the production and costume design is expectedly topnotch; between the film's look and Hardy's words, it's an easy film to relax into. And Matthias Schoenaerts is quite wonderful as Gabriel Oak, the simple sheep farmer who loses his fortune and gains Bathsheba's trust, and spends most of the movie watching her, with heavy-lidded romantic ardor, make one damned mistake after another. By its finale, you're so stoked to see Oak receive his Happily Ever After - even if Bathsheba's own is something of an afterthought - that you can leave thinking this Far from the Madding Crowd is a grade-A tearjerker, even knowing that as a faithful and rewarding literary translation, it barely rates a C.
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