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Naturals and Disasters

Stars try to shine in Aloha and San Andreas




ALOHA. The word "aloha" means hello and goodbye, making it an appropriate title for a movie that leaves about that strong an impression. I've been quick to defend writer/director Cameron Crowe over the years, thinking of him by default as some kind of modern American auteur. But looking more closely, I think I've been defending him to my own truer self. On balance, I don't really like his movies all that much. Almost Famous (2000) remains shrouded in warm nostalgia, as an early shared interest for me and my wife. And the "Bootleg" cut is the highest achievement of Crowe's career. Maybe because it is semi-autobiographical, its combination of earnestness and reverence really works, feeling authentic, if a little saccharine. Not so with his latest.

Former spaceman turned military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) — whose backstory we learn in some of the worst, most poorly placed voice-over narration in recent memory — has made his way back to Honolulu, where he apparently made his name. This time out, he's a little stiff, recuperating as he is from being blown up in Kabul. He's in the employ of eccentric billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray), tasked with calming the locals and overseeing the launch of Welch's dubious new satellite project. Abstruse as this is already getting, there's more: Gilcrest's former flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams) is still on the island, having settled down with active Air Force pilot "Woody" (John Krasinski) and their two kids. And then throw in Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), the morally upright oddball mystic charged with keeping Gilcrest out of trouble; will they or won't they? Don't kid yourself.

Aloha quickly reveals itself as a fragmentary composite of decent, if malformed ideas. The majority of the movie's action is subsumed by mountains of expository dialogue, scenes that go to great lengths to tell us very literally what the excellent cast could convey with timing and glances. The dynamics between the characters are entirely workable, but not in this rough-draft kind of form. Take, for example, the relationship that develops between Gilcrest and Ng. It's plausible that he, the handsome, broken rogue from all over the world, would be both drawn to and slightly repelled by her, a gorgeous free spirit with celestial dreams hiding in a government-issue starched shirt. But the transition in his thinking, the replacement of physical attraction and flight impulse with something scarier and more substantial, requires careful plotting and real insight into the characters. On screen, that background work is simply nonexistent. Ng is all headstrong bureaucracy in one moment, then suddenly overcome with childish fear and wonderment at the suggested presence of some misty mythological figures. Because the material gives him little else to work with, the formerly acerbic Gilcrest falls back on mooning facial expressions and lets the old baby blues get the job done; he's falling in love. Because it's Bradley Cooper, this actually works, but that's not the point. The point is that the writing here — upon which the movie is completely reliant, lacking a strong visual sense, compelling pacing, or any other cinematic grace notes — feels dull. Cobbled together from scraps, it has in it glimpses of greatness that are too quickly lost in the landslide of mediocrity.

There are effective scenes in Aloha, no doubt about it. But they are, to a one, attributable to a great cast doing their level best with weak material. Plot-wise, as in its character development, the movie never really finds its feet. The first 90 minutes want to be conversational relationship dramedy, but then the movie shifts into ill-advised pseudo-thriller mode for the last 15. The climax, such as it is, turns on a toothless red herring and feels tacked-on, pointless. As a minor distraction, an opportunity to watch some beautiful people talking at each other in a pretty place, Aloha is adequate. Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride are a relief, if underused, in funny cameos. PG13. 105m.

SAN ANDREAS. Dwayne Johnson may deserve his stardom as much as anybody in the movie business. He's a consummate hard worker, a hit maker and by most accounts a pretty decent dude. I may be willing to cut him some slack regarding the movies he makes, with San Andreas as a prime example. Were this movie to appear with almost anybody else's name above the title, it would likely be a bigger disaster than the one it describes. But because he's so irrepressibly charismatic, so otherworldly-yet-down-to-Earth, it's kind of okay.

Johnson plays Ray, a Los Angeles County Fire and Rescue pilot. He and his team are the best in the business, which is made abundantly clear when they execute an impossible cliff-side rescue in the opening. He's also a wounded man, mourning the drowning death of his younger daughter and the pending divorce that it precipitated. He maintains a strong bond with his older girl Blake (Alexandra Daddario), and plans to drive her to college over the weekend. But then a series of giant earthquakes set in, destroying most of the West Coast and sending Ray into hero mode. That's really the long and short of it.

A pretty typical disaster picture, down to the separated family and the beautiful but resourceful young daughter in jeopardy. The effects are serviceable, there's no plot to speak of and none of the characters are developed enough to make us worry about them. As a popcorn movie it works, thanks in no small part to its star. PG13. 114m.

John J. Bennett


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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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