SFF & Aloha

June 6, 2015
Emma Stone in 'Aloha' (2015)
Emma Stone in 'Aloha' (2015)

Preparing for the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, with its 12 days of screenings from morning till night, is a bit like training for a marathon. I’m prepared to watch four movies a day but many people think this is madness. Don’t they all run into each other, becoming an indistinguishable mess? I can only answer on a case-by-case basis, as the best movies remain etched in one’s mind while the duds biodegrade.

As the Festival features 335 screenings of 250 films from 68 countries, there are limits as to how much one can absorb. Much as I’d like to savour David Stratton’s selection of classic Ingmar Bergman films, I’ve seen them already and have them all on disc. For the real film buff this wouldn’t be a deterrent because a classic is, by definition, a work of art that always seems new, even after multiple exposures. And of course, everything looks better on the big screen.

Some people plan their annual holidays to coincide with the SFF, travelling all around the world via the medium of cinema. On a micro-level it’s hardly possible to travel from the State Theatre to Event Cinemas to Circular Quay to Newtown to Cremorne, chasing particular sessions.

Among this year’s sub-themes there is a strong documentary component; another installment of films about food, (Gourmet Cinema); two sessions of indigenous short films, (Screen: Black); a raft of new music films (Sounds on Screen); family films, horror films, animations, restorations, and a special focus on South African cinema. The celebrity guest is documentarist, Alex Gibney, whose 7 June conversation at the Sydney Town Hall is selling out rapidly.

At the time of writing I’ve seen four SFF films, which is not enough for any kind of assessment. I’ll come back to the Festival next week and devote the rest of this column to some of the other movies opening in cinemas around the country.

Firstly to the mainstream, with Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, which is failing to wow audiences in the United States. It would be nice to believe this is because the Americans have finally got fed up with sentimentalised romantic comedy-drama, but the explanation is more prosaic: they don’t like the idea of Bradley Cooper’s character flirting with a married woman, showing contempt for the sacred institution of the nuclear family.

Putting moral outrage to one side, I’d suggest the real problem with this film is a plot that tries to combine too many different storylines and ends in a tangle.

Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest a military contractor who has left the forces to work for billionaire businessman, Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Following an incident in Afghanistan where he was seriously injured, Gilcrest is being given another chance. He is returning to Hawaii, a scene of former glories, to help launch a rocket for Welch, and apparently to help smooth relations with the indigenous community.

As this is a joint enterprise between private money and the US airforce, Gilcrest is given a minder, one Captain Allison Ng, played by an implausible Emma Stone. Captain Ng is supposedly an officious, forward-thrusting type but she falls for Gilcrest like a little girl for a puppy. He, however, is indifferent to her charms, having renewed acquaintances with Tracy (Rachel McAdams), an old girlfriend who is now married with two kids. Her problem is that her husband, Woody, (John Krasinski), is the strong silent type and it’s driving her crazy. There is also some suggestion that Gilcrest might be the real father of her teenage daughter.

You may be thinking this sounds complicated enough but there is also a mystery over exactly what nasty things Welch is putting in his satellite; what unpleasant activities Gilcrest got up to in Afghanistan; and a lot of syrupy, quasi-mystical stuff intended to show the profound spiritual affinity Gilcrest and Ng share with the native Hawaiians.

Ng has a special closeness as she is supposedly one quarter Hawaiian, one quarter Chinese, and half Swedish – although those Swedish genes seem highly dominant. If this sounds ridiculous it’s probably not as unlikely as Gilcrest rebuffing Ng’s advances for half the movie (“Is he gay?” one wonders), then succumbing completely. His stoic resistance wins this week’s “You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din” award.

The uncomfortable cliché is that Stone represents the ‘fast’ blonde with whom a chap might have a good time, while McAdams is the nice brunette one marries. Cooper is equally clichéd as the flawed but good-hearted guy seeking redemption for his past misdeeds – both romantically and politically.

It may be harder for Cameron Crowe to find redemption. Ever since those glory days of Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000), his films have taken on an even stronger scent of fromage. In Aloha, my nose started twitching almost immediately, and by the end the aroma was overwhelming. The saving grace is the ‘cut and paste’ nature of the plot which provides a certain distraction as one tries to figure out what’s going on. There are also goodish bits embedded in the story, like raisins in a cake, but you never know when one will appear. Aloha is a shambles, but still vaguely entertaining if you simply must get out of the house one evening.

Sydney Film Festival
3-14 June
www.sff.org.au

Aloha
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdam, John Krasinski, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin
USA, rated PG, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th June, 2015.