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Review: ‘Aloha’


In Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, his latest romantic jaunt full of pregnant, sentimental stares and buried emotions between his characters, the location is Hawaii and the good looking stand-in is Bradley Cooper. Returning home after several years of physical and mental damage caused by contractor work in the Middle East, there’s no grand mission statements a la Jerry Maguire (1996), but he’s plenty remorseful for leaving old girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) and the beautiful, mythic territory of the renowned island.

Not only does he go about trying to amend for past mistakes, but morph into a better person, which is the theme writer-director Crowe has been exploring for two decades now with varying degrees of success. It worked beautifully in Almost Famous (2000), but since then, Crowe’s films have succumbed to treacle more often than truth. Sadly, Aloha veers much closer to this zone of self indulgence, sparked by a script that gives everyone such eloquent words of wisdom that it alienates each and every character as a specifically designed elicitor-of-audience-emotions. Take for example the opening voice-over of Cooper, who describes himself as a “cat waiting for scraps outside a take out Chinese restaurant.” It’s this type of strained seriousness that sinks Aloha from the very beginning.

Once back on Hawaiian land due to his recent gig with billionaire entrepreneur Carson Welch (Bill Murray) and because of his excellent track record with NASA and military flying operations, Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) immediately runs into old girlfriend Tracy (McAdams), now happily married (to John Krasinski) with two precocious children. His military chaperon, Captain Ng (Emma Stone) is a ball of energy who shares Gilcrest’s fading appreciation of all thing space and sky related. Of course, there’s an attraction that develops between them as well and Gilcrest finds himself trapped between his ambivalent feelings for Tracy and new found attractions to Ng…. not surprisingly, both of them witty, waif-like blondes that embody the sweet specter of that ‘somegirl’ who’s haunted all of Crowe’s films since Kate Hudson’s radiance in Almost Famous.

Bracketed around the carousel of shifting emotions and tenuous embraces is a soundtrack full of Crowe’s sharp interest in music (and scored by Sigur Ros’ lead man Jonsi), replete with Rolling Stones, The Who and my own personal (underrated) favorite The Blue Nile, which is used to powerful effect in a key final scene. It’s one of the few moments in Aloha that coalesces nicely.

All the ingredients are there for auteur Crowe to deliver a knockout adult drama, but the pieces never come together in any real, honest manner besides scattershot moments. Aloha mostly feels like a fabrication of monologues and snatches of dialogue that sound smarter on paper than delivered within flesh and blood conversations. And when one scene involves subtitles to deliver the silent, bro-hood moment between Cooper and Krasinski, one yearns for the outrageously simple but effective image of John Cusack in Say Anything holding a boombox up in the air. It may be an iconic (and manufactured) moment, but one that works because the cult of Crowe hadn’t yet been defined and endlessly repeated. Crowe has genuine things to say about the messy and intricate crashes between people who love one another, but they just can’t be found in Aloha.

Review: ‘Serena’

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in 'Serena'
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in ‘Serena’
After the successful and magnetic pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in both Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), there’s no reason to believe the third time isn’t the charm as well. That’s the first mistake of Susanne Bier’s woefully overcooked dramatic western, Serena, which places the pair as fierce lovers along the front lines of America’s expansion in rural North Carolina during the 1920’s.

Struggling to keep his construction company afloat during an especially trenchant railroad-clearing job through those Carolina hills, head honcho Pemberton (Cooper) has to deal with all types of problems. If it’s not the local sheriff (Toby Jones) protesting the project for strictly personal reasons, it’s the dissolute courage of his partner Buchanan (David Dencik) whose determination is broken by mounting debts and repeated accidents to the workers.

During a trip back home to Boston, Pemberton meets and falls head over heels for local girl Serena (Lawrence). Their torrid relationship is explained quickly in the first few minutes. After all, Serena isn’t really a romance, but a black-hearted examination of how corrupt and infested love can manipulate someone even with the best intentions.

Once settled together back in rural North Carolina, their relationship changes. Serena begins to take charge of the construction operation through insidious methods, namely aligning herself with the gritty, stout accomplice of her husband named Galloway (Rhys Ifans). Feeling as though he just stepped out of a Sergio Leone western, Ifans’ character is the most allegorical, serving as a guide for Pemberton’s failed attempts to track and kill a black panther that’s been rumored to be roaming the area. Like everything else in his life recently, Pemberton is searching and waiting for something magical, but it’s the harsh natures of reality that eventually catch up with him. And oh do they ever.

Written by Christopher Kyle (based on a novel by Ron Rash), director Susanna Bier seems like the right person for a passionate exploration of madness and murder based on her previous dour efforts, but everything in Serena feels rushed and disjointed. We’re barely acclimated to the relationship between Cooper and Lawrence before things shift into film noir territory, followed by the potboiler thriller aspects of the final third involving past lovers and burning homes. It’s all too much, too fast. The rumors of being heavily re-edited and sacked onto a studio shelf for more than two years seem to have honestly drained the life and coherence from it.

All of this is a shame since the idea of manifest destiny and the geographic/emotional tolls it unleashes has been the subject of some complex films, like Robert Altman’s masterpiece McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2001). What is it that causes people to go crazy in the wilderness? Is it the suffocating locale, prone to scathing winters and humid summers? Or is it the rugged sense of alienation and the stressful idea of standing on the precipice of an unscathed territory?

Like those previous films, Serena longs to answer these vivid questions, yet its strained seriousness avoids any real artistry and settles for being a histrionic soap opera instead. While Lawrence delivers screams, rants and Shakespearian plots of revenge, everyone else looks bored with the whole affair. I understand Cooper and Lawrence are currently filming a fourth film together. Maybe four times is the charm instead.

Serena opens in limited release on March 27th

Review: ‘American Sniper’

Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood's 'American Sniper'
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’

Actor turned director Clint Eastwood is the closest thing modern Hollywood has to the craftsmen of the 1940s studio system. Effortlessly shifting between genres (a musical with Jersey Boys earlier this year, now a war movie) and producing work at a pace more prolific than filmmakers half his age, American Sniper is his latest entry in a series of character studies that examine the shifting psychosis of America and its War On Terror.

Starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, whose memoir the film is based upon and written by Jason Hall, American Sniper charts his four tours of duty in Iraq after September 11th where he became the most deadly sniper in military history. While the film shows his evolution from young boy in a strict Bible belt household to Navy SEAL to celebrated, almost mythic, status among his brothers-in-arms, we also observe the seething tensions that develop below the surface when he’s not in a war zone.

Juxtaposed against the scenes of battle in Iraq are those of his wife, portrayed by Sienna Miller, who endures psychological duress at home, endlessly worrying about her soldier husband when he’s in the line of fire and equally distressed at his blockaded persona when he’s out. It’s in these quiet, reflective moments that American Sniper shines. Though the war scenes are deftly handled- especially a climactic fire fight on the fringes of an enveloping sandstorm that harrowingly exemplifies the helpless chaos of war – American Sniper is really about the singular fight. At first, full of good ol’ boy patriotic swagger, Cooper shifts into the pangs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and conveys a world of confusion, tension and unrealized aggression convincingly. He gives a tremendously interior performance.

Less successful, though, are the scenes between Cooper and Miller. Eastwood often works in simplistic brushstrokes, emanating a clear-eyed vision of core values. In American Sniper those messages are a bit too simple, reducing their marriage to a series of over dramatic conversations and well-trodden ideas concerning the emotional conflict of duty versus family. Their relationship, meant to heighten the stakes for Kyle in Iraq, end up serving as cliché checkpoints in the canon of distraught military marriages.

It’s an especially disappointing side of American Sniper when every other facet feels acutely honest and incisive. Each sniper mission depicted is expertly framed and edited, half inside the rifle scope and half outside to reveal the larger dynamics of a war torn landscape. Overall, <b>American Sniper</b> suffers from this same bifurcation, unable to blend the aspects of home and abroad into a completely compelling portrait.
American Sniper is currently playing in limited release and opens wide on January 16.

-Joe Baker

Reviews: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ and ‘American Hustle,’ Two Sides of a Uniquely American Coin

Oscar Isaacs in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Oscar Isaacs in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

What a fascinating contrast we have in the latest films from the Coen brothers and David Russell. Among the best films of the year, they ably present two sides of a uniquely American coin.

Set in February 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis follows one week in the life of the titular character, played by Oscar Isaacs. He is a folk singer at the epicenter of the music scene in Greenwich Village, New York. He is also a man with no fixed residence, no steady income, and few if any prospects. He couch-surfs and scrounges meals. He plays guitar, and he writes and sings his own songs. He may not have much materially, but that is of no consequence to him. He is an artist and he is proud; he will accept money for his art, but he will not perform like a trained seal. “Civilians” may believe that he is deceiving himself, that his “art” will never amount to anything, that he is wasting his youth.

Llewyn Davis begs to differ. And he is right, because when he sings, he puts his heart and soul and mind and body into the performance, and it is spellbinding. Granted, it’s not particularly catchy, but it is real and it is art and it is deeply affecting.

Set in the late 1970s, American Hustle follows a period of months in the lives of three characters who are all deceiving themselves. Unlike Llewyn Davis, what they are doing is not art, yet their criminal self-deceptions take on the sprawling appearance of artistic endeavors. None of them is particularly young, as is made abundantly clear when Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) takes off his shirt; he is paunchy and balding, a typical small businessman who has found success on the side with shady loan dealings. Beyond his looks, though, his personality is boundless in its charm; he may be slick, but his faux-sincerity seals the deal.

That’s what draws Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to him. They fall into a relationship that is based on their ability to deceive themselves and others; Irving is married to a young, needy wife (Jennifer Lawrence), while Sydney affects a British accent to feel good about herself. Their con game attracts the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who dragoons them into luring bigger fish into their criminal activities. Richie, too, imagines himself to be something that he is not, desperately striving upwards while curling his hair and living at home with his mother.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle'
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper in ‘American Hustle’

Both films feature wonderful ensembles. Inside Llewyn Davis makes good use of Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and more, while American Hustle is enlivened by the likes of Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, and Michael Pena. Both are marvelous evocations of their respective eras, Inside Llewyn Davis with its coffeehouses, monochromatic fashions, and pitch-perfect songs (“Please Mr. Kennedy” is the catchy pop-ish breakout), American Hustle with its rich variety of locatrions, loud and colorful fashions and hairstyle, and well-chosen pop songs (perhaps most appropriately, America’s “A Horse With No Name”).

Both films reflect the strengths of their respective directors: Inside Llewyn Davis is tight, fluid, restrained, and subtle; American Hustle is sprawling, messy, loose, and happy to call attention to itself. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote their original script, while David Russell rewrote Eric Singer’s screenplay, inspired by the true story of the Abscam scandal. (The original, more accurate title was American Bulls***.)

The filmmakers are well-matched with their material, and their teams are fully up to the task of realizing distinctive visions of America. And what a contrast we have! Inside Llewyn Davis takes place just a few weeks after President John F. Kennedy assumed office, signaling the dawn of a new era in the country. Llewyn is in the vanguard of his generation, even though he doesn’t know or care about such things; he is compelled to pursue and preserve the purity of his artistic vision.

American Hustle unfolds at the tail end of the “Me generation,” when the spirits of the country had been laid low with the energy crisis. Irving and Sydney are self-centered and materialistic, although Irving insists on keeping theit con-game targets within reason. (On the other hand, Richie is determined to make a name for himself and insists on targeting bigger and bigger targets.) Irving, and to a somewhat lesser extent Sydney, is compelled to pursue and preserve the purity of his financial vision.

Both Llewyn and Irving are seeking their own versions of the American dream, which helps make Inside Llewyn Davis and American Hustle irresistibly American films with fierce independent spirit.

Inside Llewyn Davis and American Hustle are now playing in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth.

Steven Spielberg Will Direct ‘American Sniper’ With Bradley Cooper As Chris Kyle

Actor Bradley Cooper and director Steven Spielberg attend the 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for BFCA)
Bradley Cooper and Steven Spielberg attend the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for BFCA)

Steven Spielberg will direct American Sniper, based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL (and Texas native) who became a military assassin and recorded more kills than any other American. Bradley Cooper has been developing the project; he will serve as a producer and play the title role. Jason Hall has completed a script, and production is tentatively scheduled to begin early in 2014.

Born in Odessa, Kyle enlisted with the U.S. Navy in 1999 and served four tours of duty. He was wounded in service twice and was awarded the Bronze and Silver Star medals multiple times. He was honorably discharged in 2009 and wrote about his experiences in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which became a bestseller after its publication in January 2012. He was shot and killed by a fellow military veteran he was endeavoring to help in February of this year.

Cooper’s production company acquired the big-screen rights to the book in May 2012. He received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance in David Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, losing out to Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, directed by Spielberg. He is currently filming Russell’s followup, American Hustle, which is due out at the end of the year; it’s based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s / early 80s. He will next be seen in The Hangover Part III, heading to theaters on May 24.

As for Spielberg, he put production for science-fiction action-thriller Robopocalypse on hold in January of this year, stating that he “found a better way to tell the story more economically but also much more personally. .. I’m starting on a new script and we’ll have this movie back on its feet soon… I’m working on it as we speak.” Theoretically, Spielberg could finish up work with the writer(s) on the script for Robopocalypse and then move on to American Sniper. Or he could just leave the robo-action flick for another director to pursue.

Spielberg has not tackled anything approaching contemporary life — without a fantasy or science-fiction angle — since the beginning of his career. (The Terminal (2004) was set in the modern day, but that verges on fantasy territory.) His first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), was inspired by a true incident and was set in Texas, following a husband and wife who kidnap first their infant son and then a police officer; they end up pursued by dozens of law enforcement officers across the state of Texas (toward Sugarland, of course).

Though I haven’t read Kyle’s book, it evidently spends a fair amount of time with his wife as she deals with his military career and the strains that it places on their relationship. The book is 448 pages in paperback, so obviously big chunks will have to be condensed or omitted for the big screen, as always, so it will be fascinating to see what it is, in particular, about Kyle’s story that has drawn Spielberg. Clearly he has respect for the military, so that’s not an issue, but can he get out of his own way, as a director, as he tried to do with last year’s Lincoln?

If all goes well, American Sniper could be heading to theaters in late 2014.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter. Portions of this article originally appeared in somewhat different form at Twitch.

Review: The A-Team

'The A-Team'
'The A-Team' in action

Many movies aspire to be live-action cartoons, but few succeed as well as Joe Carnahan’s big screen version of The A-Team.

The action sequences are informed by lunacy. Instead of ink and paint and word balloons, the raw materials are CGI, stunt doubles and constant wisecracks. It’s a diverting mixture, and proves to be satisfying entertainment for genre fans who prize explosive weapons above all else. When you see a crack team of ex-Army Rangers parachuting out of an exploding cargo plane while strapped inside a huge tank and under attack from drone planes, you may think you’ve seen it all. But that’s only the first act.

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