Monday, June 27, 2016

The Pull Of The Unknowable

Depression. Cynicism. Anger. Pain. And then there are the bad days. That’s the world right now and that’s the way it is. Much as I may feel that way I know it’s an ugly, evil thing, resulting in a year like 2016. It’ll end eventually, I hope. Of course, cynicism can be necessary and integral to the world view of a film whether we’re talking about Wilder or the Coen Brothers or whoever. This brings up issues of what a movie should be or what we may want it to be. I saw Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA on opening weekend way, way back in May 2015 after months of bad buzz coming from a delayed release date as well as Amy Pascal emails that were leaked in the wake of the Sony hack. The film encountered further criticism after opening, much of which having to do with female lead Emma Stone playing the one-quarter Hawaiian “Allison Ng” which Crowe himself apologized for mere days later. These complaints had validity for reasons having to do with the film and otherwise, speaking to the greater issue of diversity in casting these days whether speaking of race, age or other factors. Of course, if Emma Stone had been playing, say, “Allison Jones” not to mention if it had actually been an Asian-American actress in the role there still would have been the rest of the film to deal with.
Thinking of Cameron Crowe’s association with Billy Wilder immortalized in the book “Conversations with Wilder” for which he has my eternal gratitude I went on Twitter after seeing ALOHA and drew a comparison between several past Crowe films and several Wilders in terms of their parallel careers—deciding for a variety of reasons that the acclaimed ALMOST FAMOUS can be seen as his equivalent of THE APARTMENT, the disastrous reception of ELIZABETHTOWN serving as his own THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, WE BOUGHT A ZOO an attempt to make something commercial just like the Lemmon-Matthau THE FRONT PAGE and so on. And I concluded that the undeniably personal yet maybe unworkable ALOHA served as his very own FEDORA, a Wilder which is also admirable (and considerably better) yet also containing problems that go down to its very core. The fine writer Miriam Bale replied that this actually made her want to see the film (gulp, people really are reading what I say on there?) but it took me until now, after I revisited and wrote about FEDORA, to actually take a second look at ALOHA. To be totally honest, I didn’t have a strong dislike for the film a year ago—mostly what I remembered were the pleasant Crowe hangout vibes more than anything else. I didn’t think it was good but it seemed modest and amiable enough, nothing to get too upset over. So what I discovered on this revisit felt like a splash of cold water on the face within the first ten minutes, an unfortunate discovery where almost nothing seemed to work as if I was watching an abbreviated intermediate cut of material that was never correctly focused to begin with. There’s talk in ALOHA of what the past and the future can mean so when it comes to Cameron Crowe maybe those two things are what we should focus on as well. Maybe with this film we need more time for the present to become the past. Unfortunately, I’ve already started writing about it so I guess I have to continue.
Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) has arrived in his one-time home of Hawaii to negotiate with locals to allow a blessing on a new pedestrian gate for his boss, billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray) and to assist on a project involving Welch’s impending satellite launch. He is assigned a military liaison in the form of Air Force pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone) but soon finds himself encountering old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who now has two kids and is married to the near silent Woody (John Krasinski) with two kids which forces Brian to confront the ghosts of why he left Tracy to begin with. But as he spends more time with Allison the two of them are drawn to each other as Brian finds himself dealing with the truth of what Carson Welch has in mind with his satellite launch.
This is kind of sort of a plot synopsis of ALOHA. I think. After several viewings I'm still not entirely sure. Which of course is part of the problem since right from the beginning way too many elements are thrown at us for anything to really cohere. As the opening credits roll we get old home movie footage of Hawaii intercut with military activity as old school Hawaiian music plays that gets interrupted by the expected track by The Who bringing us up to date under a Bradley Cooper voiceover, clearly added after the fact to clarify backstory and set up the plot but it just adds confusion and it seems impossible to know which of these elements to focus on. It’s one of those films where it can be tough to figure out what the relationship between certain characters ar before the start of the film not to mention what the actual story is supposed to be so even fifteen minutes in it feels hard not to wonder what’s going on and what purpose anything serves—even after several viewings there are times when specific information is given that I find myself zoning out, occasionally going back to replay a line that I missed. Is the dialogue too mealy mouthed? Are the actors mumbling? Was the on-set sound recording bad? Is it me? Is it the film? I can understand the rationale behind moving from one scene to the next because a film is supposed to do that, but I’m not always sure why we, allegedly following this story, are moving along with it. There’s too much here but still not enough, as if it began as a 300 page draft cut down to feature length only what needed to stay and what needed to go all got mixed up in the notes.
ALOHA is a movie which is at least partly about accepting the past but we barely understand what that past means for the characters, let alone the present they’re muddling through--the all-powerful billionaire Carson Welch dismisses the past (nostalgia and a trap, he says) and warns of fear of the future (a brutal force that will steamroll you if you’re not watching) in favor of a present that he wants to control. But for all the portentous statements too much of what’s going on feels hazy as if Crowe just wants to get to certain jokes and cute interplay at the expense of story and the greater meaning of it all. The 104 minute running time gives the impression that cut footage would enhance things in a way similar to how the UNTITLED cut of ALMOST FAMOUS, already a good film, made that experience much richer. Unfortunately what can be found on the ALOHA Blu under ‘Alternate Opening’ entirely consists of footage running about 19 minutes, including Jay Baruchel who doesn’t appear in the release version as Cooper’s brother, all taking place before the film begins, making me wonder about a script going into production where apparently the first 20 or so pages didn’t matter. Too much is left vague, as if during editing they got so used to some of the exposition that they just cut it out, forgetting what we needed to know--sampling a few minutes of the audio commentary, Crowe talks about the independent nation of Hawaii headed by Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele who plays himself in the film and what this has to do with the specific reasons for why Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest needs to negotiate with him in the first place making me wonder why this info wasn’t made more clear in the actual movie. At least they could clarify why “taking care of a blessing on a new pedestrian gate” is so important. Maybe background on Hawaii is the sort of thing that should have been brought up in the opening narration instead of the backstory of Brian Gilcrest but then again Alexander Payne had sort of covered that ground at the start of THE DESCENDANTS a few years ago. Look, writing a film is hard. Coming up with the right idea is hard. But it’s as if instead of coming up with a clear idea for what this script was going to be, that ‘one line’ Paddy Chayefsky would tape to his typewriter so he would always stay on theme, Crowe’s version of that one line became ten pages long so he couldn’t see his own screenplay while he was writing it. The movie becomes about so many disparate elements that it winds up not really being about any of them.
My memory of ELIZABETHTOWN, which I haven’t looked at recently, is that it was a mess but that Crowe was putting himself completely out there maybe more than ever before. Until we saw the result, that’s what we wanted Cameron Crowe to do. The modesty of WE BOUGHT A ZOO felt dialed down in comparison as if he was trying to find a personal connection to the story but for once not deal with every single emotion that he’s ever had in his entire life. ALOHA plays as somewhere in between and is maybe more frustrating because of that as if all of those emotions were once in the material but what remains either feels truncated or simply empty, not enough for the right emotional connection to take hold. Spare pieces of dialogue that seem meant to lead to The Big Statement, like how Gilcrest apparently represents ‘the Arrival Myth’ sent to wreak havoc in the sky, feel forgotten in exchange for making the film a smooth ride, a pleasant interlude in Hawaii with likable characters and nonstop music. And a subplot involving nuclear weapons getting launched into space. There is imagery in the cinematography by Eric Gautier which in its occasional placement of characters within the frame hints at a yearning beauty the film never quite reaches but the use of handheld cameras in more intimate scenes which are maybe meant to keep the relationships feeling uneasy comes off as too scattershot, almost as if we’re watching filmed rehearsals and it’s all going to be completely formed when they shoot the real stuff. Things do come to life in a party scene about 40 minutes in which allows us to track glances between various characters as if they’re silently keeping tabs on where others are at that point in the plot so for a few minutes there’s actually some rhythm to things. The sequence also gives us the sight of Bill Murray and Emma Stone dancing to Hall & Oates which, granted, doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the movie. I’m not even sure if the two actors are bothering to stay in character here but for a few minutes the film needs nothing else other than this tiny, unexpected piece of joy.
Storywise, if we’re going to bring the ghost of Billy Wilder, there’s maybe some DNA of AVANTI! and A FOREIGN AFFAIR in ALOHA – you could even say that this film feels a little made up of pieces of the plots of those films turned inside out only I’m still a little hazy on the specifics of what the plot of ALOHA is without looking at the Wikipedia summary (that’s a lie—I had to read it) to figure out why Brian Gilcrest is so integral to Carson Welch’s plan to begin with or the vagueness of the Afghanistan backstory (more to it in those 19 minutes cut from the start, not that we need them back) or why Allison Ng attaches herself to him so insistent about the glory of his purest self as if she’s been studying up on his childhood or why his old girlfriend has avoided telling him something important for so long. It’s a hangout movie which occasionally seems to remember that we need to be very concerned about certain plot points but the information hasn’t been made clear enough to get us to remember why. The idea of personal triumph coming out of failure is a familiar one in Cameron Crowe’s films whether ELIZABETHTOWN or even a little of JERRY MAGUIRE too but it never means very much this time, playing more like another encapsulation of Cameron Crowe themes than a story for its own sake that has an emotional impact on its own. The film wants to tell us that the answers to everything that we’ve forgotten in our cynicism are there as long as the sky above us remains pure and I’m open to searching for the positivity in that metaphor but it never winds up meaning very much.
There’s the feeling that Crowe supplied his actors, even some of the bit players, with pages and pages of character biographies which makes some of them pop during their brief time onscreen—for whatever reason, Ivana Milicevic’s mostly silent Carson Welch biographer lurking on the edges of scenes reminds me of her henchwoman dropping a mickey in James Bond’s drink in CASINO ROYALE—but he forgot to insert the necessary dialogue into the script so the relationships would make sense. Occasionally moments connect like the look on Emma Stone’s face when she realizes that Bradley Cooper is opening up to her but even though some of those touches feel like pure Cameron Crowe too often they’re isolated from everything else so massive close-ups of Rachel McAdams as a connection gets made, no matter how well shot they are, don’t have any impact.
Clarification is missing and maybe so are the right grace notes, maybe what we’re given just isn’t enough to build the foundation of a plot structure on so it doesn’t stand. You can look at an action thriller and say ‘cut it down to the plot’ but if the story is based on human interaction that requires some sort of emotional logic, even if it’s only movie logic, the plot beats aren’t going to be enough so it contains containing a haphazard pace which made some of it seem to take forever and seeming rushed through at the same time, reactions from characters whether happy or sad that come too abruptly. The release version feels like a compromise so everyone can agree, ‘Well, at least it isn’t too long,’ and finally get the movie finished but that doesn’t help us very much. I’m still a little vague on the plot mechanics of Cooper sending a sonic upload to the satellite which seems like a very Crowe-ian concept, similar to Tom Cruise being surrounded by the overwhelming mass of pop culture in VANILLA SKY or maybe to him it’s a cinematic representation of what it was like to be a kid hearing “A Day in the Life” for the first time, that the only way to stay pure in the world is to let all that wash away from you. It just never feels very clear why it needs to be a part of this movie.
Maybe Cameron Crowe wants to believe in the sweet-sour aspect of Wilder’s worldview more than he really does. He’s too cheery and optimistic about human nature for the sour to play but at the same time he’s trying too hard to remind us of that optimism instead of just letting certain moments happen. He can’t seem to bring himself to make anyone unlikable, at least for longer than a few minutes, and it leaves the movie with characters yelling at each other when there isn’t any real conflict. The messiness of the film isn’t uninteresting, it’s just frustrating in the intensity of its haphazardness. And it’s depressing because, Crowe or not, this is the sort of film I want to defend and Crowe is one of the few people left with any sort of clout to make it at a studio anymore. At least, he was until this film. Does James L. Brooks have any projects in the pipeline these days? Should I revisit HOW DO YOU KNOW next? The final scene closes things out on a moment of grace which would have the potential to be absolutely transcendent, finally giving beauty to the recurring theme of silent communication throughout the film, if anything connected to it beforehand had a shred of emotional plausibility. But it doesn’t. So it doesn't. And writing about that isn’t much fun at all.
In terms of performances, the problem is more the film than the actors whether it’s Bradley Cooper who feels like he’s trying to make it work even though we have to take much of his character’s reawakening on faith or that this is the rare film where Bill Murray doing the Bill Murray thing feels wrong somehow or any of the actors staring at each other, mostly at Cooper, with unaccountable yearning that they can't quite put into words. Some of them, like Danny McBride as “Fingers” don’t get to make much of any impression at all. Alec Baldwin at least gets a few laughs by calling Cooper things like “Mr. Three Day Beard Boy” during his big scene chewing Gilcrest out but when the next time he’s seen his Air Force General is relaxing in a Hawaiian shirt drinking a beer it feels like there’s some sort of joke there about the discrepancy but it’s tough to tell. I don’t even want to blame Emma Stone for that controversy connected to her since as an actress she seems custom made to star in a Cameron Crowe film but everything about her character just seems tone deaf by now, a female device to ‘save’ his male surrogate one time too many by now. Allison Ng is a fighter pilot and apparently some sort of pet project of Hillary Clinton’s according to dialogue but in the context of ALOHA what’s most important is that she’s the lead character’s last chance to achieve the glory that is his destiny, nothing more.
Rachel McAdams is also stranded, clearly bringing as much strength as she has trying to make her part work as if Crowe was so determined to squeeze some sort of love triangle in here whether it fit or not. Through no fault of hers, it’s either a character who didn’t need to be one of the leads or maybe should have been the lead in a different movie. That also extends to John Krasinski role as her husband jealous of Gilcrest but their conflict never means anything and his sometimes silent, sometimes not nature manages to be both overly cute and a head-scratcher as well. It’s the mostly silent relationship between Cooper and Danielle Rose Russell as McAdams’ daughter that almost gets there thanks to a few glances at the right moments but with the rest of the movie surrounding them it’s just not enough.
Early one evening way back in 2005 I was walking through the Paramount lot. As I passed a window where a light was on I glanced inside and could see sitting in an office, obviously engaged in an intense discussion with someone, Cameron Crowe. This was only weeks before ELIZABETHTOWN’S disastrous premiere in Toronto and I’ve always imagined that in the conversation taking place at that moment he knew what was coming. After all, he’s no dummy. And now over ten years later I suppose I don’t believe the Crowe optimism anymore, not while I’m getting older, not in 2016. Which may not be his fault but it also doesn’t feel like what the world is anymore. People are too cruel. I haven’t even looked at ALMOST FAMOUS, probably my favorite of his, for a long time now since I’m afraid the connection would be gone. His past several films have been about the redemption which can come out of returning to wreckage, the triumph which can come out of failure. And I still hope he finds that redemption—for starters, there’s his upcoming Showtime series ROADIES. The thing about ALOHA is, I want to I want to believe in a movie that contains the line, “Tonight’s the first night I’m truly glad I lived.” Right now, in the midst of all this depression and anger and cynicism and pain, I need to believe that. This just isn’t the film to make it happen. Apparently what I said on Twitter a year ago really did get Miriam Bale to see it and she wasn’t kind (looking up her tweets, “fascinatingly awful” is one term used) but if she held this against me she never said anything. I hope she doesn’t. Consider that right there a small piece of optimism. It’s better than nothing.


Fred said...

This is the frustrating, heartaching thing about Crowe: when his films are based around an emotional tone (Say Anything; Almost Famous), they can be wonderful. When they actually try to work according to a plot, you're left with something like Warren Beatty's McCabe, wandering in the snow.

Adam Ross said...

"almost as if we’re watching filmed rehearsals and it’s all going to be completely formed when they shoot the real stuff."

This is one of the best descriptions of the feel of this movie. I almost laughed out loud at the parade of character introductions when he first lands in Hawaii, we meet the potential love interest, the love interest, the obstacle to the love interest and the antagonist within like 2 minutes of each other.