Review: Aloha

Aloha (2015)
Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

alI’m going to address, as succinctly as I can, the controversy stirred up by Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, and then review the film on its own merits, which of course it deserves as an artistic creation for its own sake.

Emma Stone is Allison Ng, an air force captain stationed in Honolulu. She has a half-Chinese father and a half-Hawaiian mother, making her half Caucasion, a quarter Chinese, and a quarter Hawaiian. In Hawaii, that’s not an unusual mix, and Crowe has stated that this character was always meant to look Caucasian and to have issues about not looking Hawaiian. This, too, is not unusual; in fact, it demonstrates a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s mix of ethnicities than Hollywood is known to represent.

oI admit that I’m still confused about the controversy, but if I get most of it, The two major issues among complainants are (1) that very few characters in leading roles in mainstream films are Asian or Pacific Islanders, so when a prominent character like this comes along, it should be given to an Asian or Pacific Islander actor, since Asian and Pacific Islander actors almost never get a fair shot at ethnically non-specific parts, and (2) that Stone doesn’t look at all Chinese or Hawaiian, and therefore is undeserving of the part. Boiled down to its essence, the problem with casting Stone is that (1) she isn’t actually Hawaiian or Chinese, thus taking a role someone else should get, and (2) she doesn’t look Hawaiian or Chinese, thus representing these ethnicities poorly, or white-washing a character of color.

I agree with where the first complaint comes from, but I do not think a director should cast a lesser actor merely because he or she is descended from certain people. In much of the published outrage when Aloha was in theaters were lists of actors from Hawaii who would have been great. The sentiment is admirable, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the assessment of those actors’ chops. Emma Stone is a very, very good actress, with a presence and likability matched by very few actors her age. If you first saw her in Superbad, as I did, you know what I’m talking about. Even in that minor role, she had the presence of a star. Sure, she’s had a few bad films and bad performances, but it’s tough to argue against her talent. To be clear, I am not saying those local actresses are not good. I am saying that what I’ve seen of them does not tell me they are clearly better choices for a starring role opposite Rachel McAdams and Bradley Cooper. And yes, I understand the irony of not being able to picture those actors in these roles when those actors have never been given a shot at these roles. It’s a problem I don’t deny, but I will repeat my assertion that even in small, supporting roles, Emma Stone gave every indication that she would someday be the star she is today.

haI’m less objective about the second complaint, which implies that Hawaiian-ness or Chinese-ness must be represented by a certain look. Like the Allison character, I am of mixed ethnicity, and I’ve been told my whole life that I don’t look Caucasian. I’m totally okay with that assessment, but it’s unfair to deny me my racial identity, as some have, just because I don’t look a certain way. My sister looks much more Caucasian than Asian, and I’ve seen the way some people treat her with a certain mistrust because of it, a treatment I have never received despite the fact that our lineage is identical. Stone looks as Asian as I look Caucasian, so I don’t see a disconnect between her appearance and this character’s racial composition, and neither should anyone who spends even a little bit of time in Hawaii.

It is a conversation worth having, because representation is no small issue. I wrote my Masters thesis on sex representation in children’s literature, so I am sensitive to the cause. Still, a concern about the issue doesn’t have to be expressed in outrage, especially not the sort that implies an artist’s responsibility to serving any issue other than the realization of the artist’s vision. If the writer-director’s vision says Emma Stone will best serve his art, he owes an explanation to nobody. If it succeeds, the success belongs to him and the other contributors to the film’s production. Likewise if it fails. And if it fails, maybe it is because he didn’t cast a more Hawaiian-looking actress in the role, but that’s his decision to make, with no apology. It’s unlikely Crowe would tell you how to make your film; why is it your place to tell him how to make his?

So strong are my feelings about art for art’s sake that the more I read about the outrage, the more determined I was to liking Aloha. Alas. Despite my fervent efforts, that just isn’t meant to be, because Aloha is a bad movie, and the casting of Emma Stone is a huge, huge reason.

But it’s not because Stone isn’t Hawaiian or Chinese. It’s because she hasn’t spent enough time in Hawaii. Her pronunciations, which are mostly okay in a textbook sense, sound forced, as if she’s just learned them and is auditioning for a part. The syllables are all there, but the inflections and rhythms are all off, and while someone not from Hawaii might not recognize a mispronunciation, just about any reasonably attentive moviegoer can recognize a struggling actor, and that’s where Stone’s performance fails.

I was convinced of this during a few scenes near the end, when Stone is forced to reach into that place actors go whenever they really have to emote sincerely. For those short moments, you see the actress she usually is, and you see why Crowe thought she was right for this part. Unburdened with unfamiliar ethnic backgrounds, Cooper and McAdams are their usual magnetic selves, with McAdams performing especially well. As well as possible in a pretty bad story, anyway.

I’ll spare you too much of a summary, but the guts of it look like this: Cooper is a former military pilot hired to work with a billionaire in launching a satellite from Hawaii. He needs the permission of a native Hawaiian group (modeled after an actual group), and because he’s friends with the group’s leader, he’s well suited for the job. But the military doesn’t trust him, so Allison Ng is assigned to tag along and keep him out of trouble. Meanwhile, he reconnects with a former lover (McAdams), now living on base with her pilot husband (John Krasinski) and two children. She’s unhappy with her marriage, and it seems Cooper has come along at just the right time for the saying of long-unsaid things.

Crowe tries to do a lot with this script, most of it admirable but misguided. He calls this film his “love letter to Hawaii,” and it’s a sincere letter, but it betrays an insufficient relationship with the fiftieth state for what the movie tries to do. Casting Alec Baldwin and Bill Murray in cartoonish roles exaggerates the story’s lack of authenticity, and there are a few silent exchanges between Cooper and John Krasinski that are well imagined but cartoonishly executed. Combined, these missteps remind me of those maddening days in the Sunday funnies, when the inking is off by just a few millimeters, bleeding over the black lines meant to give them their purpose.


Review: Ant-Man

Ant-Man (2015)
Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Bobby Canavale, Michael Douglas, Judy Greer, Michael Pena, T.I. Directed by Peyton Reed.

antScott Lang is just out of prison for stealing from some kind of tech corporation after the firm has been discovered to be ripping people off. Lang used his computer savvy to return the ill-gotten money to customers’ bank accounts. His combination of technical aptitude and cat-burglar dexterity make him an ideal candidate to wear the Ant-Man suit, which not only shrinks him to the size of an ant, but also enables him to command ants to do his bidding.

The suit is the property of Hank Pym, who apparently was once involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. but left after a disagreement about how to use it. His estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne, has worked with his former protege, Darren Cross, in the company Pym used to run. Cross is close enough to duplicating the technology to worry Hope, who turns to her father to intervene. This is where Scott comes in.

Ant-Man is an origin story, so we are treated to extended sequences of Scott learning to control the suit and the magnified strength he has in his tiny form. He also learns to control ants of various species, each with its own abilities.

manRudd seems to be everyone’s favorite everyman (if that title doesn’t go to Jason Bateman), which makes him just right for this role, and he plays it with a nice vulnerability that sells the Ant-Man transformation better than a more machismo-laden actor might have. The film aims for several layers of sentimentality that, with a less sensitive actor, would never have worked. As it is, performances by Bobby Canavale and Michael Douglass work against that, but it might be the fault of the script, whose dialogue often comes right out of the comic book cliche factory.

Rudd’s likeable portrayal holds the movie together, and creative effects playing with the shrinking-enlarging technology keep things from getting too serious even in the midst of some pretty heavy action sequences. I’d welcome a sequel.


Review: Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

shaunThere are two things to know about Shaun the Sheep Movie: It’s from Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for the Wallace and Gromit films, and it has no dialogue. These two items are enough to tell you whether you want to see it or not, really. I wanted to see it. Although Aardman’s output isn’t reliable (I didn’t think much of Chicken Run), its writing is usually clever enough to take a chance on. I wondered if it would still deliver the wit in the absence of any dialogue.

It’s not as clever as its Wallace and Gromit brethren, not even judging strictly by visuals, but it’s cute enough, and the pacing, which can be everything in a movie with no narration or dialogue, is pleasant. The film is delivered mostly from Shaun’s point of view, making it a real challenge to feel anything for any of the characters, and this is its greatest shortcoming. I was amused and entertained, but I didn’t feel invested in the outcome.

You could do a lot worse, but my guess is that whatever your options on any given day, you could also do a lot better.


Review: Mistress America

Mistress America (2015)
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Noah Baumbach.

mistressTracy has just begun her frosh year at Barnard, and college isn’t turning out quite the way it was promised. She’s rejected from the literary society, her roommate is unfriendly, her professors aren’t happy with her contributions in class, and if the fun campus life that was illustrated in the viewbook still exists, she can’t seem to find it. But her mother is about to remarry, and her future step-sister, the thirty-something Brooke, has an apartment, a life, and several jobs in New York City, so Tracy gives her a call one evening after finishing dinner by herself. So needy is she for caring companionship that when Brooke asks if she’s eaten yet, Tracy says she hasn’t, and meets Brooke for dinner and drinks.

Brooke is free-spirited and adventurous: she jumps on stage and sings with the band in one of the bars she visits with Tracy; she lives in a huge apartment that’s zoned for commercial use; she has a boyfriend who’s helping her open her own restaurant. Tracy sees in Brooke a life lived outside the lines, someone who inspires her to stretch herself as a person and as a writer.

americaWhen things go a little crazy, Tracy comes along for the ride, bringing a frosh Columbia student and his girlfriend along, too. The foursome meets an ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend at the mansion they share.

Greta Gerwig as Brooke is flighty and charismatic, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s smart or just really good at acting smart, and Tracy as her wide-eyed future stepsister is involved but not really involved, a kind of Nick Caraway to Brooke’s Jay Gatsby. It’s an interesting relationship, and the character’s conversations are fascinating, but not for how well they connect Brooke with Tracy. Instead, each character’s lines seem to be inspired by the other’s, without actually being responses, as if each is only vaguely aware that there is a topic of conversation, not really listening to the other except for jumping-in points where they can share their next thoughts.

Add a few more characters to the dynamic, and you have a truly bizarre situation with non-sequiturs galore. Conversations sound like two or three different plays are being performed at the same time in the same space, and at times the blocking and set resemble those belonging to a stage play, each actor playing to an imaginary audience. I was reminded of several of David Mamet’s films, all adaptations of his plays, and wondered if the script wasn’t first conceived of as a play.

It’s more strange than funny, but it’s funny enough to keep one engaged.


Review: Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015)
Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno. Written and directed by Alex Garland.

exCaleb is a programmer working for the most-used search engine in the world. He wins a contest whose prize is a week spent with the company’s founder at his private mansion, a compound so top-secret that the helicopter flying him there must land in a field from which the house cannot even be seen. “This is the closest I’m allowed to get,” says the pilot. “Just follow the river until you see it.”

machOn his arrival, Caleb is informed that he’s there to participate in a test of the company’s latest artificial intelligence. As the human component in the tests, his goal is to determine whether the human-shaped container for the AI, whose name is Ava, can interact with a conscious being in such a way that the human cannot tell he is conversing with a computer. But Caleb voices one of the problems with this kind of testing: a chess computer might be able to beat any opponent, apparently thinking better than a human, but does a chess computer know that it’s playing a game? Does it even know what chess is? How do you interrogate a computer so that you can be convinced the computer knows what it is? And once a computer is intelligent and self-aware enough to pass that test, how do you know you can trust any of its responses? And once it starts to ask you questions, how do you know you’re not the one being tested?

inaAs science fiction, Ex Machina is interesting and thought-provoking, if not quite as provocative as better films in the genre. As thriller, it’s a lot more successful. Not as good a science fiction as Oblivion, for example, but as good a thriller as In Time. Oscar Isaac as the billionaire founder and Domnhall Gleason as Caleb are an excellent combination, and the set design is wonderfully cold and glassy. Everyone’s talking about Alicia Vikander nowadays, and now I can see why. She’s sort of the Mara Rooney of 2015.

A better film than its advertising hinted at, and a nice surprise worthy of its critical response.


Review: When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep

When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep (2012)
Chen-tung Ko, Man-shu Chien, Shu-yao Kuo. Directed by Chi-jan Hou. Mandarin with English subtitles.

when a sheepA young man looking in the mirror one morning sees that a sticky note has been attached to his forehead. The message, written by his girlfriend, says “I’m off to the cram school.” His first response is to do nothing, for days on end, his apartment falling more and more into slovenliness, but when he finds himself with nowhere to live, he sets out for the area of Taiwan where the cram schools are, hoping to find his misplaced love. Instead, he meets the proprietor of a copy shop, whose clients include the cram school he believes his girlfriend is attending. The shop owner offers him a job and a place to live; the job offers multiple opportunities to visit the school and interact with its students, examination proctors, and instructors.

falls in loveThe copy boy befriends some interesting people, including a recovering alcoholic Christian minister whose hobby is selling noodles from a booth late at night, a cute young woman driven only by her love of money, and a proctor who likes to draw sheep in the margins of the tests he photocopies for her. She, too, is recovering from a lost love, counting the days to the deadline she’s set herself for getting over his absence, but she’s not the only one. It seems everyone in this film, perhaps everyone in the city or even everyone in the world, is dealing in some way with some kind of separation, some actively seeking resolution, some passively waiting for conclusions they can only imagine. The noodle-seller, the money-hungry girl, the garlic rice vendor, even the people who’ve left their belongings in the rental lockers that are soon to be torn down: each has a story, and if there are happy endings around here, they’ve yet to be realized.

with a sheepWhen a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is mostly lighthearted fare, a romantic comedy with deeply bittersweet undercurrents. It tells its story simply, with very creative visuals including stop-motion photography to quickly show the passage of days and crudely animated sequences to illustrate some of the narrative. I laughed aloud a few times at clever editing and surprising details, and although the film’s conclusion doesn’t quite pass the would-this-happen-in-real-life test, the visuals it produces are worth the small dent in believability.

Is there such a thing as “forever and ever,” and should we be concerned about that if we cannot be sure of its existence? Or should we accept what we’re given today, when the only things we can be sure of are within sight of this moment? Here’s a film that, while not delving too deeply into the philosophy, delivers its take through the eyes and hearts of one small group of young people. It’s a fun exploration with a visually pretty climactic moment.


Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (2015)
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, and Paul Giamatti.
Directed by F. Gary Gray.

straightWith a running time of two hours and twenty-four minutes, Straight Outta Compton still feels a little short, although I’m imagining that only long-time fans of N.W.A. will think so. Younger fans who aren’t as familiar with the story of the gangsta rappers will probably think it’s just about the right length, if not slightly too long in the attention it gives the post-N.W.A. life of founding member Eazy-E (whose widow is one of the film’s producers). The film covers a lot of ground, from the days leading up to the group’s formation through its early success, its arrest in Detroit for performing “F*** tha Police,” its untimely breakup, and the later successes of Ice Cube as a solo artist and Dr. Dre as a groundbreaking producer.

Yet many of the stories dramatized here are already well known. What’s missing is some resonant presentation of these guys as friends. What were the relationships really like, and who were these guys as people? When Eazy meets Ice Cube in a nightclub, the moment is at first tense, but as the artists give each other enormous hugs, there’s a relief in both their eyes, a kind of righting of wrongs that rings true even though there’s not enough in the film for that to be the payoff. Eazy suggests that the guys get back together, and Cube says, “If Dre wit’ it, then I’m wit’ it,” and you realize that you understand the sentiment, but you’re only really accepting it on faith or based on some other knowledge you came to the theater already possessing, not because of anything the film has already shown you. This is the film’s greatest omission, the relationships away from the group, although if you’re a fan, you’ll also be taken aback by how little a role in this story is played by M.C. Ren, thought by many to be the best rapper in the group. If you didn’t know anything about Ren going into the film, you still didn’t know anything when you left the theater.

outtaI’ll tell you what, though: the stories this film does tell are terrific, and the performances are strong. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is more than passable portraying his real-life father Ice Cube, and if there’s a character the script does try to delve into, it’s Dr. Dre, played by Corey Hawkins. Here are five young men making an effort to create something, motivated partly by wanting to get out of the cycle of violence they see around them every day, and partly by the need to express the rage that’s inspired by that violence. When these young men are warned against performing that song by the Detroit police, there’s never a second’s doubt that they’ve only got one option, and as the tension builds, leading up to that moment, you can’t help taking their side, even if you remember having mixed feelings about it when you first read about that story in your college newspaper. It’s the film’s best scene.

Okay, I have one other, much smaller criticism of the way this film is put together, and it’s the conspicuous absence of a full-length performance of the song whose title gives this movie its name. We see and hear snippets of it, mostly Eazy-E’s part, but come on. Viewers who are seeing some of this stuff for the first time should be shown what the big deal is with this song, and those of us who already know it should have the opportunity to relive it in some semblance of context. Leaving out this obvious detail is a huge disservice to the effectiveness of this film.

I don’t have teenagers of my own, but if I did, I would make them watch Straight Outta Compton.


Review: The People I’ve Slept With

The People I’ve Slept With (2009)
Karin Anna Cheung, Wilson Cruz, Archie Kao, Lynn Chen, James Shigeta, Randall Park. Directed by Quentin Lee.

the peopleAngela (Karin Anna Cheung) is a single woman in her late twenties, an unapologetic lover of sex who says, “a slut is just a woman with a man’s morals.” She rejects the traditional get-married-have-kids-be-successful model of happiness her older sister Juliet (Lynn Chen) has embraced, happy with her retail job in the daytime and casual hookups at night.

i've sleptWhen she discovers she’s pregnant, she’s confronted with a few situations in need of being worked out, not the least of which is figuring out who the father is. With the encouragement and assistance of her best friend Gabriel (Wilson Cruz), Angela works through her issues, aided also by the collection of photos she’s amassed of all her romantic partners (cutely labeled with nicknames, measurements of length and girth, and occupations).

withCheung, in case you’ve forgotten, was the female lead in Better Luck Tomorrow, a mile-marker of sorts in Asian American film. She was outstanding in that film, and is quite good in this one, especially in scenes where she delivers lines by herself. There are a few scenes that feel under-rehearsed, as if the actors are still getting to know each other and their characters’ relationships. The timing feels off in these few scenes, and the actors’ deliveries present as if they’re waiting for their turns, rather than listening to what’s being said to them before they speak. They give the film a kind of rushed feeling, despite otherwise strong performances all around.

It’s a fun movie with well-conceived characters, touching on several issues young adults of any American ethnicity confront in some way, with a few plot situations you’ve probably never seen.


Review: American Ultra

American Ultra (2015)
Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh.

AMERICANMike is a stoner convenience store clerk in a small Virginia town, where he lives with his girlfriend Phoebe. When he’s not stoned, he’s kind of a mess, ridden with anxiety and subject to panic attacks. One very late night, he catches two guys messing with his car, and when he confronts them, they move to attack him. Mike uses a spoon he’s carrying and a cup of instant ramen, combined with reflexes he doesn’t know he has, to kill both attackers in horribly violent ways. Soon, he is the target of a series of psycho killers and doesn’t know why, but he seems to be their equal in assassination skills, much to his own surprise.

ultraJesse Eisenberg is always an interesting actor, and pairing him as Mike with Kristen Stewart as Phoebe might not seem like natural casting choice (although they starred together in Adventureland, a film I liked very much), but it works pretty well, and Stewart is probably the best I’ve seen her. Topher Grace and Connie Britton play characters whose roles I won’t give away, but they’ve got something to do with the situation Mike and Phoebe find themselves in, and they’re kind of a comically serious couple of rivals. American Ultra works if you sit back and let it have its way with you, not overthinking the plot or the jokes. If you appreciate the creative stunts of a good Jackie Chan film, you might find a lot to like in the action sequences here, ‘though their very violent nature and execution cause them to lack the charm and acrobatic silliness of Chan’s best work.


Review: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
2005 English dubbed version: voices of Alison Lohman, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos, and Mark Hamill. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

nausicaaNausicaa is the teenaged princess of the Valley of the Wind, a peaceful kingdom that has remained untouched by the killing spores that have ruined other towns and taken over the forests. Because the valley remains mostly pristine, it is the object of desire for other kingdoms who have not taken such good care of their lands, and the aggressive army of Tolmekia threatens to move in, bringing with it an unsafe willingness to manipulate nature to do its bidding, an ignorant exploitation that threatens its own survival as well as that of the Valley of the Wind.

These three conflicting factions–the Valley of the Wind, the invading Tolmekians, and the gigantic forest insects called Ohm–seem unavoidably headed to a war that will destroy them all, but Nausicaa, who appears to be gifted with an ability to understand plant and animal life, seeks to bring peace without anyone’s resorting to violence, seeing it as the only way for all to survive.

valleyNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s feature-length animated films. It predates his Studio Ghibli, which was built on Nausicaa‘s success. People often speak of it as an environmentalist film, but while it has elements of that theme throughout, its dominant theme is of pacifism, with strong undercurrents of feminism, and it seems to target a younger audience that will be forgiving of its heavy hand. A pleasant surprise is how solidly science-fiction it is, with rather elaborate imaginings of a made-up ecosystem. Miyazaki, who based the film on a manga he wrote, definitely moved more into realms of fantasy as his career progressed, but this story is textbook SF.

While the artwork is up to the Ghibli standard, the animation seems crude by comparison to the rest of the studio’s formidable work, reminding me more of television-quality cartoons than the brilliant work it produced in later decades, and the pacing seems more suited to the Saturday-morning crowd. My favorite thing about a good Miyazaki film is its quiet, reflective moments, which are completely lacking in this film.

However, its main character is among Miyazaki’s most likeable, a sensitive, strong, intelligent young woman determined to fight for the common good, rather than just for the survival of her people. Nausicaa grasps the profound interconnectedness of her people with the land, and her people’s land with other people’s lands. It’s impossible to determine whether her understanding of the planet’s creatures is the product of her sympathy for them, or whether her sympathy comes from taking time to understand them, an ambiguity that adds to the film’s complexity and fortifies its themes. Nausicaa, unlike some of Miyazaki’s other heroines, is a fully realized character impossible to root against. Young viewers will find in her not only a heroic saver of worlds and defender of forests, but an admirable daughter, friend, and person. Highly recommended for young viewers.