Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinki, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Jaeden Lieberher, Danielle Rose Russell
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

In his 2005 film Elizabethtown, writer/director Cameron Crowe's depressed protagonist infamously attempted to differentiate between a failure and a fiasco. Now, after the disastrous release of his poorly received Aloha, he's probably asking himself that same question. It's not the most promising sign when the biggest question going into a film is whether it's really as bad as everyone says. How can any movie directed by Crowe and starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams and Bill Murray be THAT bad? But the truth is that any movie starring or directed by anyone can be, and it still takes an enormous amount of talent and to even do that.

Aloha isn't entirely successful, but it's not a disaster either. Far from it. And it certainly doesn't deserve to end a filmmaker's career, especially considering most of what ends up on screen proves he's still got it, occasional missteps and all. Despite what's been said, this is vintage Crowe, aside from an overly ambitious plot that's unlike anything he's previously done, sometimes to the film's detriment. But what's been lost in all the manufactured controversies is that it also contains one of the best directed scenes of his career, on par with anything from Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire or Say Anything. Unfortunately, the movie it's in is not. This begs the question of whether Crowe's work has really changed at all, or audiences have just grown more cynical, leaving our bright eyed optimism in the 90's, the decade this type of film seems practically enshrined in.

Following a failed stint as an Air Force pilot, military contractor, Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) returns to Hawaii to aid billionaire Carson Welch (Murray) in his efforts to develop land into a space center and launch a privately-funded satellite. He also encounters ex-girlfriend, Tracy (McAdams), who's now married to a pilot of very few words in Woody (John Krasinki), with whom she's raising their two kids, 12 year-old Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and 9 year-old Mitchell. Brian's liason for the mission is Air Force Captain Alison Ng (Stone), whose sparkling personality and connection to the island's rich spirituality helps smooth things over with the native Hawaiians. As he eventually falls for her, it not only complicates Carson's mission, but Tracy's already shaky marriage as well.

As tempting as it is to describe the almost needlessly ambitious main plot as having something to do with Hawaii and space, all those aforementioned details are required to grasp it. And yet, no amount of them could suffice. It's not that it's convoluted or confusing so much as everything moves so quickly that it's tough to take it all in. Perhaps thankfully, Crowe is more interested in setting than story this time as he spends most of the opening hour drafting a love letter to the Hawaiian culture, drenching us in its mysticism and spirituality. But unlike The Descendants (with which this will most frequently be compared), the location doesn't feel quite as seamless and organic to the story, as Crowe really lays it on thick in the first hour.

If the satellite plot isn't enough of a head-scratcher, try keeping up with Cooper and Stone's characters meeting with Hawaiian sovereignty activist Dennis 'Bumpy' Kanahele, lending an impressive presence as "himself," even if it's his shirt that ends up stealing the show. Crowe should only wish that's the only controversy this film courted, as his casting of Stone as an Air Force pilot who's "half Swedish, one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian," created a noticeable stir. But let's just call it what it really is: PC nonsense that has little to do with the film's merit or content.

Actors act. That's what they do. And sometimes they even take on roles that are a drastic departure from who they really are. Other than Crowe having Stone's character pointlessly remind everyone of her ethnicity out of what seems like some massive insecurity, it's hardly worth a discussion. But judging from the extreme reaction, you'd think Stone was playing Mickey Rooney's role in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Whitewashing is a problem, but so is the fact that Crowe felt he had to apologize for how he cast his own movie. If anything, his only mistake was writing the character's ethnicity into the script without anticipating a media firestorm. But that's Crowe, completely idealistic in believing audiences would care enough about these characters to drown out the noise and disappear into whatever world he's created. He probably didn't even give a second thought to the implications of Stone's casting and, in a strange way, that's kind of reassuring. 
Joining Ione Skye, Kate Hudson and Kirsten Dunst as the latest in a long line of Crowe's Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Stone might be playing the most manic. Given what she's done up to this point, that path does seem right, but watching the opening hour it's hard not to consider Alison Ng one of the more overbearing, hyperactive MPDG's to be experienced in a while. It's easy to see how Brian would be completely put off by her, as are we. But just when the volume is pumped up so high on the character she starts making Dunst's Claire Colburn seem as if she's on depressants, the script, and Stone start to find their groove.

The exact turning point comes during a Hall and Oates dance sequence involving Stone and Bill Murray that's so weirdly compelling you're forced to just surrender to both actors' charms and the pure random absurdity of it. That Murray's supposed to be playing a self-serving, meglomaniacal CEO makes little difference to him, and of course, us. It's impossible to dislike the guy and he knows it, lending an eccentric quality to Carson that makes this nonsensical space plot bearable for at least the scenes he's in.

Bradley Cooper not only comes out of this unscathed, but demonstrating a versatility and charisma in a lead Tom Cruise would seem perfect for fifteen or twenty years prior. Jerry Maguire meets Top Gun meets Silver Linings Playbook would probably be the best way to describe the film, as well as Cooper's work in it. Depending upon how you feel about the idea of the actor starring in that kind of a project, he gets us on Brian's side quickly, rooting for the redemption of a guy who's kind of a self-absorbed jerk. Two big scenes near the end confirm just how smoothly Cooper excels at this, and whatever problems exist within the film, he definitely isn't among them.

Despite what was advertised, this isn't some kind of romantic comedy love triangle in which Brian is torn between Alison and his ex, played by McAdams. That this doesn't at all occur is most refreshing aspect of Crowe's script, as is the treatment of the family Tracy's built with aloof husband, Woody. Everything about their lives is handled so realistically and intelligently you almost want the whole film to be about them. McAdams occupies a different space than we're used to seeing her in on screen, making Tracy seem almost defeated and agitated at her ex's arrival, despite her marital problems being present long before.

In a nearly wordless performance, Krasinki delivers what's probably the best big screen turn of his career thus far as the complicated Woody, whose unpredictable reaction to Brian's arrival flies in the face of what's expected. Everything isn't as simple as an ex-boyfriend arriving to destroy a marriage, and the few scenes Krasinki shares with Cooper are successful for doesn't happen rather than what does.

Only Crowe could could find a way to work David Bowie and Bob Dylan into a space satellite scene and get away with it. Well, maybe he doesn't exactly get away with it. It's about as ridiculous as it sounds, even if you can't help but think the space storyline was the biggest casualty in the editing process, chopped and cut until it made little sense. As usual, Crowe uses his personal playlist as a backdrop to the action, but the best choice might be going with Jonsi again for the score since their We Bought A Zoo collaboration felt as natural a fit for his work as possible without sounding too cloying or whimsical. There's a lot of that same sound here too, as no one could ever accuse Crowe of merely phoning it in with a soundtrack.

The better movie stuck inside Aloha struggling to break free comes through in the last scene, which tops every single minute that came before, lending the film an unexpected emotional pull that nearly toppled me over. Without spoiling it, there's an obvious, conventional resolution you assume will be the last scene, before Crowe pulls back the curtain to reveal the actual finish, which brings the focus back to exactly where it belongs.

Subtly bubbling under the surface the entire time, the picture's most perfectly executed subplot takes center stage in the final few minutes, reaching its logical culmination and knocking us out with the scene we didn't know we wanted until it came. Wordlessly displaying an entire range of emotions in a matter of moments, young actress Danielle Russell provides us with a 30 seconds so astounding it would play well even out of context. But placed in the context of the entire film, it's safe to say Aloha primarily exists just so we can arrive there.

Anyone watching how skillfully Crowe constructs the end would probably assume a masterpiece precedes it. And they'd only be setting themselves up for disappointment. But not as much disappointment as you've heard. If all the doomsday prognosticators are correct in proclaiming Crowe's big screen directorial career over (which it won't be), it's hard to imagine a better, more fitting scene to close it. Neither a failure nor a fiasco, Aloha sits somewhere in between, leaving to our imaginations an alternate version in which everything went right. But that movie wouldn't be nearly as interesting to talk about or revisit. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, LeBron James
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's easy to assume you have Judd Apatow's Trainwreck all figured out before even seeing it. It'll be an uncomfortable, awkward mixture of comedy and drama with some toilet humor thrown in, eventually culminating in an unlikable, emotionally arrested protagonist learning to grow up. And since it's an Apatow production, there's always the chance it'll take thirty minutes longer to arrive at that revelation than it should. In the best case scenario, that would be just over two hours, or in the worst case, closer to two and a half. While those details do prove correct, there's something very different about the execution this time, resulting is his most purely satisfying effort in a while.

After essentially repeating the same formula that worked in the 40-Year-Old Virgin, but grew progressively worse with Knocked Up, Funny People and This is 40, Apatow finally nails it. Maybe it's the absence of
autobiographical subject matter or a willingness to relinquish his desire to be the next James L. Brooks, but he's delivered a movie that stands out from his others. But you have to figure the real difference maker is Amy Schumer, who in her first big screen starring role proves she's more than deserving of all the hype surrounding her.     

The film opens with a flashback in which a young Amy and her sister Kim are told their parents are divorcing, and warned by their drunken, philandering, Mets obsessed father, Gordon (Colin Quinn) on the dangers of monogamy. Flash forward twenty-three years and an adult Amy (Schumer) has internalized that advise, regularly smoking, drinking and sleeping around with guys like gym rat, Steven (John Cena) in order to escape the possibility of an actual adult relationship. Meanwhile, Kim (Brie Larson) has done the exact opposite, settling down with Tom (Mike Birbiglia) a dorky, if generally decent guy with an equally nerdy son Amy finds annoying.

It's Amy's intense dislike of sports that causes her intimidating editor at S'nuff men's magazine, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), to assign her a piece on renowned sports surgeon, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader.), who spends most of his free time hanging with best friend LeBron James (as "himself") and is currently preparing for a major surgery on Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire (himself again). With a promotion on the line and her father recently admitted to a nursing home, Amy hasn't a clue what to do when she actually starts dating and falling for a genuinely good guy who really likes her, faults and all. So, of course, she does her best to sabotage it, not realizing the person she's hurting most is herself.

This is a comedy that gets a lot right, which is a big surprise considering how much it's attempting to do at once, and how shaky Apatow's previous attempts at juggling this type of material have been. Helping is a really strongly defined character at the movie's center, which is evident immediately upon her introduction in the first few minutes. There's no doubt Amy likes to have fun, and it's interesting to note that when she wakes up in some random guy's bed completely hung over without a clue where she is, we realize this isn't a scene we'd even wince at if the protagonist were male. Schumer (who penned the script) and Apatow know this and are always a few steps ahead of our thinking she's a slut by having her admit to being one with little hesitation and no regrets.

I know very little, if anything, about Amy Schumer other than the fact that she has a show on Comedy Central a lot of people love that's supposedly dirtier and more controversial than this. That her casting was met with groans that she's not "hot enough" for the role is an especially bizarre complaint considering this isn't exactly the kind of female part we frequently see. Schumer makes it soar, hilariously transforming what should be detestable character traits into relatable, often painfully sympathetic quirks. She's also able to switch gears on a dime between the laugh-out-loud scenes and some of the more serious, soul-searching moments which are thankfully never all that serious in her hands.

The movie's secret weapon is Hader, would seem to be as atypical a choice as Schumer to lead a romantic comedy, which makes him an inspired choice, while marking sort of a divergence from the goofball characters he's known for playing since his SNL days. She's not as funny without Hader's straight man to play off and if the running joke is that Aaron's supposed to be boring, than it would be tough to find another actor who makes boring as interesting. Similar to Schumer, audiences will walk away from this experience with a higher opinion of his acting talents than when they went in, potentially opening the door to different types of roles we can picture him in.     

What separates this from other entries in an increasingly popular comedy subgenre is that this is actually invested in exploring what's behind Amy's behavior, while still consistently eliciting laughs doing it. She's on a journey with a very clear end point but the plot doesn't feel as forced or telegraphed as usual does because the writing and acting are so strong. It's the little details that count, such as the hilarious workplace scenes where we get to see an unrecognizable, but delightfully evil Tilda Swinton endorse one ridiculous story idea after another, as Amy and her hapless co-workers (played by Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park and Jon Glaser) sweat with fear.  Or how John Cena's musclehead character becomes a little too boyfriend-like for Amy to handle. Even a sub-plot involving Ezra Miller's overeager intern that has no business working, somehow pays off hilariously.

Every scene with LeBron and Bill Hader's Aaron, specifically those involving the world's highest paid athlete stiffing the latter with every bill. It's worth noting that Cena and especially LeBron's roles are almost ridiculously substantial compared to what would be expected of them. Neither necessarily feels like stunt casting and both end up excelling in supporting parts that don't ask too much of them and actually serve a function in the story. The real celebrity stunt casting actually comes at the end, and it's so random and unexpected that it rightfully earns some of the film's biggest laughs.

Colin Quinn playing Amy's ailing father in a nursing home while looking exactly like his 56-year-old self is definitely a head-scratcher that strangely serves to make an already hilarious performance seem that much funnier. At worst, Quinn's trademark sarcasm and deadpan delivery is put to such excellent use that it's difficult to even notice or care that he's playing someone nearly two decades older. As Kim, Brie Larson is given a slightly undeveloped role she still manages to still do a lot with, allowing us to see through her how Amy turned into such a disaster. And as her oddly matched husband, the loony Birbiglia unexpectedly steals most of the scenes he's in.

Despite employing the usual Apatow tricks, the movie never forces us to like Amy. We just do, and that's all Schumer. The running joke will be that this is really a guy's part since Hollywood dictates only they can struggle with the issues she does here. It's almost impossible to watch without thinking her script's really on to something that hasn't been publicly acknowledged, at least on the big screen. In finally figuring out how to effectively juggle comedy and drama, without giving audiences a headache, Apatow does creep over the two-hour mark, if just barely. But this time it doesn't feel like a drag or mishmash of tones. The only quibble might be the ending, as it's difficult not to wish for a conclusion a little less pat, and maybe a bit more ambiguous or edgier. But that may have been asking too much. As it stands, Trainwreck is the kind of movie we all not so secretly wish Woody Allen could still make, even when it's poking fun at him.