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Sony Pictures // PG-13 // August 25, 2015
List Price: $30.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 24, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Being an enthusiast of Cameron Crowe's work hasn't been an easy thing over the past, oh, ten-plus years, where the likes of Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo received marginal praise and firm criticism. Sure, the kitschy soft-heartedness and blase, buoyant pace of those flicks reveal some flaws in the filmmaker's perspective, flaws which have clearly intensified with time, but there's still something worthwhile to be found there in the intimacy of his characterization and audiovisual lyricism. Boasting a darling cast and the gorgeous Hawaiian setting, the latest film from the writer/director, Aloha, touches on familiar themes -- inopportune love, breaking from the corporate machine, fish-outta-water adjustment -- that surround a tidy romance between a defeated antihero and a chirpy girl who's gonna pull him out of his slump, stuff well within his wheelhouse. Alas, even this supporter of Crowe's imperfect but pleasant-enough output over the last decade can't defend this awkward, disjointed nosedive.

Traditionally, this is where the review will go into further detail about the story, but it's tough to figure out whether more time should be dedicated to explaining what's going on in the plot to help potential viewers out ... or quickly get through the messiness of the script and move on. There are a lot of things going on in Aloha, far more than Crowe can keep coherent within an hour and forty-five minutes: rocket launches and corporate politics, old flames and marriage drama, native Hawaiian patriotism and mythology, and a healthy dose of standoffishness from our mentally and physically wounded rogue. In one way or another, it all involves unforthcoming military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), who's arrived in Hawaii -- the scene of his more significant professional accomplishments and his big missed shot at true love -- to facilitate a joint military-corporate venture that's putting a satellite in the air and breaking ground at a new facility. A lively and persistent local fighter pilot, Allison Ng (Emma Stone), has been assigned to accompany Gilcrest during his stay.

While the verdant tropical landscape, the vibrant tunes of Sigur Ros' Jonsi and Alex, and the attractive faces of these talented stars might be beautiful distractions, they're not distracting enough to a point where folks simply aren't capable of following the nuances of the story, a problem that Aloha runs into shortly after departure. Lacking coherent details behind the situation with this rocket launch, writer/director Crowe abruptly drops Gilrest into the middle of the bustle and constantly forces us to play catch-up with what exactly goes on across the span of an overactive five days, relying on a secondhand pastiche of exposition and vague conversations to piece together the remnants of a plot. Ignoring the particulars of Gilcrest's mission and reducing them to the broadest of strokes -- corporate agendas are duplicitous; United States control stifles native culture; Gilcrest knows things about the launch that others don't -- becomes the only way to embrace what the film wants to be. That surely wasn't intentional in this "love letter" to Hawaii, one with big-hearted ideas about the islands' citizens and their sacred attachment to the land.

Cameron Crowe's work has always been more about emotion resonance than clear dramatic plotting anyway, but even the director's sentimental streak gets lost in static interference here. Frankly, everything in Aloha seems to exist as background noise or story fuel for the unsurprising, complacent romance between Gilcrest and the quarter-Hawaiian Allison, built around resuscitating Gilcrest's positive merits through the energetic musings of yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a moniker coined about Crowe's character in Elizabethtown that serves many of the same functions. Therein lies the problem: this potentially endearing, indomitable female character -- a jet fighter pilot! -- ends up serving functions for the astray male lead without deepening her own character, unhelped by Stone's overclocked performance that plays like she's powered more by too many Red Bulls than Hawaiian "mana", the antithesis to her delightfully subtle effervescence in last year's Magic in the Moonlight. As Alec Baldwin's General Dixon asserts later in the movie, she deserves better.

Somewhere in Aloha looms another of Crowe's signature journeys of reflection and resurrection for a dishonored man of importance, a la Jerry Maguire and Drew Baylor, driven by the triumphs and mistakes of Brian Gilcrest over the past fifteen years that give him just enough clout in Hawaii to accomplish things and just enough personal conflict to complicate matters. The script's cluttered structure and on-the-nose stiffness of dialogue bears most of the blame for the film's problems, but Bradley Cooper essentially playing himself doesn't take any strides to elevate the material, rendering a stilted renegade type of character whose murky despondence and general purpose for returning to Hawaii produce a frustratingly hollow character examination. The personal drama involving Gilcrest's ex-girlfriend from decades ago, Tracy -- along with her stoic military husband, Woody (a strapping John Krasinski) and their two children -- suffocates underneath him as a result, despite the budding catharsis involved and the bittersweet charm of Rachel McAdams' performance as "the one that got away".

Thing is, despite all this, small moments of intimacy and substance still manage to strike chords in Aloha, ones that thrive without investment in the overarching plot. A dance between the idealistic military pilot and the conniving corporate tycoon at a Christmas party, a reunion of sorts for Zombieland cast members Emma Stone and Bill Murray as Carson Welch. The lingering experience in watching familiar characters hula dance, interacting with Hawaii's energy through hand gestures. A silent conversation between Gilcrest and Tracy's husband, built purely out of body language and subtitled for our convenience. These little things offer glimmers of the emotional tempo intended by Crowe, funneling into a brassy, unyieldingly sentimental conclusion built on moral obligation and family duty that's unmistakably of the director's design. In the end, writer/director Crowe makes someone wish that they cared more about these characters instead of actually caring about them, that his feel-good maneuverings had welcomed viewers into the embrace of the islands' magic instead of waving goodbye to the film's meager potential.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

As one can expect from a contemporary project from the visually and sonically lyrical filmmaker, from the Hawaiian landscape and from Sony Home Entertainment's handling of a higher-profile new release, Aloha looks rather smashing on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode hits expeted notes with the lush landscape, encapsulating the scope of the island atmosphere with impeccable rendering of depth and the inherent gradation of beauty within foliage, expansive water, and hazy mountains. The film really isn't that much of a postcard piece, though, spending plenty of time within Tracy's house and throughout the meeting spots, party halls, hotels, and control rooms around the military sites, capably preserved by the Blu-ray with shrewd contrast balance -- no crushed blacks anywhere -- and applicable warmth based on the lighting. Intimate close-ups and rotations of the camera are crucial here, though, and the caliber of detail on skin surfaces and while preserving a fluid 24p range of motion is almost impeccable, barring a handful of mildly soft shots here and there. Aloha looks beautiful.

Aeronautical flybys, the majestic rustling of leaves, and the persuasive tunes of Jonsi and Alex comprise the bulk of Aloha's memorable sonic elements, deftly preserved in Sony's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Atmosphere plays a big part in many of Crowe's scenes, whether it's experiencing the "mana" of Hawaiian nature or the constrained clarity of dialogue in cockpits and in vehicles, many of which expand into the rear channels for a subtle yet effective immersive effect. Dialogue wavers a bit in a few spots, but the drops in clarity -- which never renders verbal delivery indiscernible -- only occur in sequences where it makes sense, adding to the naturalness of the ambience Crowe's after. The most delightful aspects of Aloha's tracks are, unsurprisingly, in the scoring and the music selections: Jonsi and Alex's soundtrack offer full, slightly insistent beauty from all angles of the surround presentation, while the strums of guitars and other on-location music are crisp and organic. English, SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Aloha seems like it was destined to be a subpar film under any conditions, but there was a time when Cameron Crowe's failed outing in Hawaii had things making a great deal more sense at the beginning than its theatrically-released version, revealed in the appropriately-titled Original Opening (19:08, 16x9 HD). Some scenes out of this material will be recognizable, as they're reused for relatively similar context later in the film, but most of what's presented here focuses on some rather necessary narrative building (spoilers ahead): the chronological progression of events in how Gilcrest got injured, a quirky funeral sequence featuring Jay Baruchel as Gilcrest's flask-guzzling brother, and Gilcrist's struggles in acclimating to his post-injury lifestyle. More importantly, this alternate beginning clearly explains the "What?" and the "Why?" of Gilcrest's mission to Hawaii -- messily reduced to a few lines of vague narration in the original cut -- and provides some tangible history for the character before dumping him there. An Alternate Ending (4:20 16x9 HD) has also been included, whose positive and negative traits ultimately make it weaker than the theatrical cut. Both arrive with optional commentary with Crowe.

Cameron Crowe's elaboration on the material continues over into the Feature Length Audio Commentary, which tends to be about what you'd expect from the director's tracks: casual conversation that results in equal measures of low-key plot/situation description and subtle insights into the making of the film. A theme that becomes prevalent fairly early on is that Crowe did a fair amount of research into Hawaiian culture and the life of a military family, which emerges within his discussion about discovering locations, how the cast prepped for their roles, and happy bits of improv that stayed in the film. A lot of the same substance gets repeated in the 70-plus minute documentary on the film The Untitled Hawaii Project: The Making of Aloha (1:13:51, 16x9 HD), from the inspiration behind Cooper and Stone's performances to the essence of Hawaii itself, but it's accompanied by highly intimate behind-the-scenes photography that helps accentuate Crowe's perspective. The making-of pieces follows a relative chronology of the film's events and features a lot narration and music, drawing out the pace into something soothing and, admittedly, a bit boring for someone who wasn't wowed by the film.

The rest of the substantive extras mostly focus on a collection of brief featurettes: The Awe of Space 2:36, 16x9 HD) whimsically recalls the passion of space travel as a quasi love-letter to NASA, without really saying anything about the film; Ledward Kaapana: Music is Everything (14:40, 16x9 HD) expands a bit on the passionate focus on the film's Hawaiian guitar tunes as the musician himself sits down for a conversation and strumming session; Uncle Bumpy (5:53, 16x9 HD) features five minutes of an uncut chat with the Hawaiian leader, activist, and actor in the film; and Mitchell's Film (2:00, 16x9 HD) is a two-minute editing together of footage shot by Tracy's son throughout the film's events. Sony have also included a Gag Reel (6:26, 16x9 HD), an extensive Photo Gallery with Optional Commentary by Neal Preston that's difficult to navigate out of, and a series two Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary with Cameron Crowe (11:22, 16x9 HD), one of which runs about ten minutes and includes both extensions to existing scenes and new material.

Final Thoughts:

Coming from someone who has really appreciated both Cameron Crowe's high points (Almost Famous) and some of his more divisive ones over the years (Vanilla Sky), still finding things to relish in his last two flawed but admirable theatrical productions, it brings no joy whatsoever to send Aloha off with a firmly negative appraisal of what the writer/director ended up with here. Dialing up the sentimentality without sorting out and strengthening the film's narrative strands, it ends up being a mess of convoluted happenings, trite dialogue, and unimpressive performances, surrounded by big emotion and Crowe's signature aesthetic power working really hard to make it all a thing of deeply-felt beauty. Instead, what results is an exercise in frustration, a clutter of noble intentions and personal reflections that simply doesn't come together into a persuasive romantic drama, family drama, military drama or anything else it tries to be. Sony's Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, though, and the disc is worth a Rental to check out the numerous special features ... notably the original opening and how its removal resulted in a less comprehensible film. If you're not interested in that kind of thing, however, just let this one fly by.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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