Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Defending "Aloha": Filmmaker Cameron Crowe, as Always, is Classier and Smarter Than His Critics

You go, Cameron Crowe! In an unprecedentedly honest and unpretentious missive released to the public today, Crowe, the producer-writer-director of the much-maligned new film "Aloha," explains the allegedly controversial and supposedly racist casting choices he made for the movie. In so doing, Crowe, as usual, comes out looking classier and smarter than his misguided, hapless critics. 

For the record, I'm in the evidently small but thankfully vocal minority who loved "Aloha," which chronicles the life and loves of a troubled defense contractor (played by Bradley Cooper) who was injured and really screwed up in Afghanistan and is vying for redemption. 

Sure it's an imperfect film. There are some real problems with editing, dialogue, structure and even pacing that even a plebe would instantly recognize, let alone a crusty movie critic. And Cameron uses the hand-held cameras a little too much. It's rather dizzying. But overall this movie works for me. There are in fact some transcendently funny and touching scenes that are definitively Crowesque and rival anything from his "Jerry Maguire" or "Say Anything." 

It's one of those fun, messy classics that I promise you will improve as time goes by. Watch it again on TV in a few years and you will wonder why you hated it so much. Of course, like all of Crowe's work this film is a piece of populist cinema that is packed with the kind of humor, joy and compassion for which Cameron is best known. I saw the flaws, sure, but I still loved it. 

So you can pick up your stinkiest mud now, folks, and bring it. Really let me have it. You know, like: "OMFG, Reno, that movie totally freakin' sucked, man! What the hell are you thinking? Are you a total idiot or what!?" 

Cameron Crowe (left), Emma Stone & Bradley Cooper
If that's your best shot, save it. Here's the thing: Cameron's "crime" throughout his esteemed journalism and filmmaking careers has been simply that he isn't cynical enough. It just isn't trendy or cool to be happy. 

Cameron's work is not Pollyanna, there's plenty of conflict and sadness in his screenplays. Some actual darkness, even. But his Billy Wilderesque appetite for funnily and positively exposing the thankfully redemptive human condition are just too much to stomach for some of you innately dark-hearted movie critics, specifically, and all you artsy cynics in general.

In most of Cameron's movies, which I should say have been met mostly with raves despite critics' generally crabby disposition, everything really does sorta work out in the end. It's quite a risky concept, actually.

I'd read at least a half-dozen scathing reviews of "Aloha" before I even saw the film. I knew there were going to be problems. But as we watched, my wife and I kept looking at each other and shrugging in a sort of happy disbelief. Without words, we were saying to each other, "The hell with the critics, I am really enjoying this movie!"

Scene after scene touched us, made us laugh, and yes, made us cry. The cast is ridiculously good. Cooper is a movie star. Period. He's of the old-school variety: a charismatic, strong and just a little dangerous leading man with real depth. I believed him as someone who is suffering suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD). 

Some have suggested that this performance is light years away from Cooper's Oscar-nominated one as Chris Kyle in "American Sniper." But is it, really? Both characters have dark sides but are trying to find their way back to the light. Both are hurting inside and both crave normalcy and love. Could this character have simply been Kyle after a few years back home, had Kyle not been tragically killed by another veteran?

And for the record, we thought Emma Stone was great. She gives an over-the-top, scene-stealing performance in all the best ways. Neither my wife nor me have even the slightest problem with her being cast as multicultural. Just chill, people.

What struck me most about this movie, in fact, was how culturally sensitive Crowe really is. He went to great lengths to learn about Hawaii's traditional culture and history and present that in the movie. Sure, the story focuses on a white male. Get over it, folks. 

Cameron even hired many well known and respected indigenous Hawaii locals for this film, including Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, the always outspoken Hawaiian nationalist and leader and head of state of the Nation of Hawaii group. He played himself. That casting took balls.

Cameron has nothing for which to apologize, folks. But he did it anyway. Because that's just who he is. Full disclosure here: I'm an avowed fan of Cameron's work, both his Rolling Stone magazine journalism and his films, and he and I have a history, of sorts. 

We got off to an interesting start more than two decades ago when I broke the stories of his involvement and at times conflicts with the real-life Clairemont High (San Diego) folks who were immortalized in Cameron's brilliant Fast Times at Ridgemont High book and film

I wrote about that for such publications as the San Diego Union, which Cameron now has posted on his website,  and for Premiere, the once-popular but long-defunct movie mag. That story is also posted now on Cameron's website. 

I also wrote about this when I was a correspondent with People magazine, telling the story of my old friend Andrew Rathbone, a globally known author of several bestselling computer books who was the basis for the "Rat" character in Cameron's film and book.  

Rathbone, who was the editor of our college newspaper The Daily Aztec at San Diego State University, has long-since forgiven Cameron for using Andy's real nickname in the book and movie, which of course made it easy for people to identify on whom the character was based. 

As Rathbone has told me, there are worse things than being a nerd in high school. For the record, "The Rat"in Fast Times was a kind-hearted kid, and not that much nerdier than any high school boy.

I did put Cameron in a rather uncomfortable position back in the day by asking him to share his thoughts about going undercover at a San Diego high school and writing about the kids he befriended. Some of those "kids," who were in their late 20s when I caught up with them for the stories I wrote, were not all that happy about being chronicled in the book and film. 

But that's all water over the dam now. It was never Cameron's intent to hurt anyone. And it has exalted the real-life Clairemont (Ridgemont) High class of 1979 to nothing short of legendary status.

I haven't spoken to Cameron for years, but he knows I admire him. He's a sensitive guy who has always tried to to be the peacemaker and do the right thing. And he's at it again. For the record, Cameron's a better man than me. If this were my film, I'd tell the mean-spirited bashers to take a hike.

But with characteristic patience, candor and thoughtfulness, Crowe, who hasn't a racist bone in his body, responds on his website to those who are absurdly bent out of shape over the multi-cultural character Allison Ng, portrayed by Stone:

A comment on Allison Ng
By Cameron Crowe

From the very beginning of its appearance in the Sony Hack, “Aloha” has felt like a misunderstood movie. One that people felt they knew a lot about, but in fact they knew very little. It was a small movie, made by passionate actors who wanted to join me in making a film about Hawaii, and the lives of these characters who live and work in and around the island of Oahu.

Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice. As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one.  

A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii.  Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.

Whether that story point felt hurtful or humorous has been, of course, the topic of much discussion. 

However I am so proud that in the same movie, we employed many Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian and Pacific-Islanders, both before and behind the camera… including Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, and his village, and many other locals who worked closely in our crew and with our script to help ensure authenticity.

We were extremely proud to present the island, the locals and the film community with many jobs for over four months. Emma Stone was chief among those who did tireless research, and if any part of her fine characterization has caused consternation and controversy, I am the one to blame.

I am grateful for the dialogue. And from the many voices, loud and small, I have learned something very inspiring. So many of us are hungry for stories with more racial diversity, more truth in representation, and I am anxious to help tell those stories in the future.

Thanks again

Cameron Crowe


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