"Almost Famous" is always entertaining

by Robert J. Hawkins | Mar 14, 2001
"This is the circus. Everybody`s trying not to go home. Nobody`s saying goodbye." That`s Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), lead guitarist for the fictional band Stillwater, explaining life on the rock `n` roll road to young William Miller (Patrick Fugit), reporter for Rolling Stone in the blissful, quasi-autobiographical "Almost Famous" (DreamWorks, R, VHS/DVD).

Writer-director Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire") did indeed write for Rolling Stone as a 16-year-old in the early 1970s - and it is his love of the music that informs every scene. It shines through and carries this movie to euphoric heights.

Miller is a precocious young teen who inherits his sister`s rock album collection in 1969, when she flees their San Diego home to become an airline stewardess. She is escaping from their loving, but smothering mother (Frances McDormand in an Oscar-nominated role). Eventually Miller`s talents as a rock journalist capture the attention of a real-life rock writer, the acerbic (and now dead) Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in yet another small role elevated to greatness by his talent).

As altruistic editor of Creem magazine, Bangs gives young Miller his big break and the benefit of his wisdom: "Build your reputation on being honest and unmerciful" and "these people are not your friends."

Despite the sage advice of Bangs ("friendship is the booze they feed you"), Miller finds himself succumbing to the charisma of the band Stillwater, on its first major concert tour. The band, meanwhile, with a single hit song, finds itself succumbing to all the distractions of life on the road - ego, jealousies, travel fatigue, sex, drugs and rock `n` roll.

Right before William`s eyes, Stillwater comes dangerously close to self-destructing. (Shades of the Eagles?) His anchor through all this - besides the frequent and anxious phone calls from his mother - is the friendship of a young groupie with a flair for creating the dramatic moment out of touring tedium. She calls herself Penny Lane (Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson), and sees her role as Muse to the rock stars. While it lacks the visual drama of, say, "The Perfect Storm," the struggle inside William - over risking his growing friendship with the band and the compelling mandate to write the truth - is a gripping one.

Patrick Fugit`s performance, in a movie crowded with Oscar-worthy performances, is most memorable and complex. He marinates a deeply pure innocence with a sharp intelligence.

Enough good things can`t be said about this movie. It is nothing like you expect - yet everything you hope for in a good rock `n` roll memoir. The DVD version has lots of juicy extras, including a Stillwater music video for their "hit" song, "Fever Dog." Meanwhile, DreamWorks and Crowe are working on a DVD "director`s cut" of the film - to be released later this year. (So, whose version are we watching now?)

ALSO THIS WEEK:

"The Contender" (Artisan, R, DVD/VHS) - First-rate political thriller has Oscar-nominated Joan Allen as a U.S. Senator nominated to fill the suddenly vacant vice-presidential spot.

Despite an exemplary career, the senator experiences the agonizing wounds of assassination by smear of her private life - alleged private life. She delivers many memorable lines, among them: "Principles only mean something if you stick by them when it is inconvenient."

Jeff Bridges, as the president, adds another unforgettable performance to his lengthy career. Gary Oldman is chilling as the nominee`s conservative Capitol Hill nemesis.

"Wonder Boys" (Paramount, R, DVD/VHS) - Michael Douglas is a burned-out college professor and writer whose life is changed by a dour, but brilliant young student (Tobey Maguire), who is packing one hell of an unpublished novel in this Oscar-nominated dark comedy.

Frances McDormand (again!) is outstanding as Douglas` lover and wife of the head of the English Department. Robert Downey Jr. is Douglas` New York editor - a wee stressed over the absence of a manuscript long-overdue from the professor.

"Tuesdays With Morrie" (Buena Vista, unrated, DVD/VHS) - Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria star in this made-for-TV adaptation of the popular memoir of the same title.

Azaria is Detroit sports writer Mitch Albom, who reconnects with his old college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz (Lemmon), who is dying of Lou Gehrig`s disease. Morrie presses Mitch to re-evaluate his assumptions about success.

Elegant and thoughtful performances all around. Next best thing to the book itself.

"The 6th Day" (Columbia TriStar, R, DVD/VHS) - Arnold Schwarzenegger is anything but happy, in the near future, to discover that he has been cloned by an evil corporation. He risks all to expose their nefarious plans.

Also-ran: Jackie Chan in "The Legend of Drunken Master."

HE SEES DEAD PEOPLE

If you think the critics were unhappy with "The Book of Shadows: Blair Witch2," you should hear its director, Joe Berlinger.

"I was trying to create an adult psychological thriller - a satire with biting social commentary about the blurring of lines between fiction and reality," he said last week from his snowed-in home in New York.

Instead, the studio (Artisan) sucked out most of the humor, spliced in some overt gore shots, broke up a lengthy interrogation scene and interspersed the chunks out of sequence and basted it all with a heavy metal soundtrack. The result: "A teen horror movie," says Berlinger with clear disdain. Not the first time that studio suits have hijacked a movie and dumbed it down to their contemptuous perception of movie audiences.

Berlinger - a respected documentarian ("Brother`s Keeper" and "Paradise Lost") - doesn`t mince words. A good thing for you DVD owners: If there were an award for the most-candid commentary track on a DVD by a director, Berlinger would be the front-runner. Let`s just say, while he didn`t get his director`s cut, he got in the last word on the disc. What bemuses Berlinger is that Artisan`s suits originally came to him, asked him to develop a concept for the sequel to the huge hit-on-a-shoestring "The Blair Witch." They said they loved his concept.

Then, in typical Hollywood fashion, they gave him a pitiful $15 million and less than nine months to complete the picture. One point on which Berlinger will challenge the critics: The sequel has not been a box-office bust.

"It cost $15 million to make, grossed $13 million the first weekend and has made $27 million domestically. It is expected to gross $50 million worldwide. Since its video debut (two weeks ago), it has brought in $25 million in revenues. The movie overall is expected to make $60 million. In the end, the studio is looking at a $15 million to $20 million profit," he says.

"The business story, portraying this as a disaster," asserts Berlinger, "is a bit overdone."

Berlinger knew going in that he was making the movie "in the glare of worldwide cynicism."

The original was a scarry and entertaining phenomena - a movie made by unknowns for nothing that raked in millions on the strength of its ambiguity and word-of-mouth. Ironically, it was the supplanting of explicit carnage with psychological terror that appealed to the movie`s fans - mostly thirtysomethings and younger raised on a steady diet of explicit teen-slasher flicks. This was new, fresh - and was it real? The blurring of reality in the first movie is what disturbed Berlinger the most - albeit he is a big fan of the movie and its savvy marketing. That is the issue he wanted to exploit in the sequel, in a documentary style that is the very thing it is scrutinizing: pseudo reality.

Berlinger now faces that uniquely Hollywood dilemma: a successful movie in his name, but not of his vision. Needless to say, he has nothing to do with the studio`s current promotional gimmick in the video release: the five mysterious and utterly superfluous images implanted into the movie - and described as "the secret of Esrever" - that`s "reverse" spelled backward. There is no secret. It is just plain dumb.

HIM AND HUR

Before there was Russell Crowe and "Gladiator" with its stunning Coliseum battle scenes there was Charlton Heston and "Ben-Hur" with a Coliseum chariot race that still dazzles more than 40 years later. (Available this week for the first time on DVD.)

In "Gladiator," Crowe is a nobleman and warrior who loses everything to Roman treachery, becomes a slave in a distant land and fights his way back to Rome bent on revenge. In "Ben-Hur," Heston was a Jewish nobleman, undone by Roman treachery, who fights his way back to Jerusalem (by way of Rome), bent on revenge. Before there was "Gladiator" with its 12 Oscar nominations, there was "Ben-Hur," nominated for 12 Oscars and winner of 11 - the most ever by one picture (tied only by "Titanic"). And guess who is a big fan of "Gladiator"? Charlton Heston.

"I think it is a very good film," Heston said in a recent phone conversation. "Russell Crowe is extraordinary. In fact, all the roles were well done.

"I hope it wins many Oscars," he continued - adding after an epic pause, "but not as many as `Ben-Hur.`"

As good as "Gladiator" is, it isn`t likely to threaten the "Ben-Hur" record. However, "Gladiator" has beaten "Ben-Hur" in one key area. It has been available in DVD since November. "Ben-Hur" makes its DVD debut just this week. But what a debut.

The William Wyler-directed epic is restored to its wide-screen glory - the widest ever used in making a motion picture. The image is vibrant and sharp, the audio is exceptional. The program extras (including a terrific documentary and a commentary track by Heston) are outstanding. Of Wyler, Heston doesn`t mince words:

"Best director ever ... an infallible director who knew exactly what he wanted out of a scene."

Both "Gladiator" and "Ben-Hur" have incredible arena scenes, seemingly populated by casts of thousands. Check the making-of features on both to compare how they achieved this visual slight-of-hand trick 40 years apart. One of the most memorable stunts in the "Ben-Hur" race scene - in which Heston is catapulted out of the chariot in a wild head-first summersault - was no stunt at all. Heston`s stand-in wasn`t supposed to be launched out of the chariot. He survived by landing a handspring on the crossbar between the horses and vaulting himself out of danger.

When Wyler saw the footage the next morning, he decided to keep it in the film - but since Heston had to win the race (by staying in the chariot), Wyler came up with a solution.

"I wasn`t thrilled about it," says Heston, "but he had me hanging off the side of the chariot and climbing back into it (with the horses at full gallop)."

In fact, Heston did nearly all his own chariot driving for the race sequences. But the driving he remembers best was by the chauffeur for Emperor Hirohito during the opening of "Ben-Hur" in Japan. Instead of parking the royal family limo at the curb like everyone else`s, Heston recalled, the man drove right up the steps of the newly refurbished Ginza Theater and almost into the lobby.

The royals exited the car to be greeted by Heston - his chiseled jaw nearly at his knees and his eyes as wide as a Roman soldier`s shield.

"Planet of the Apes" footnotes: One of Heston`s most popular pictures, "Planet of the Apes," is being remade and the actor has a cameo role in it - this time as an ape. Heston graciously corrected this writer when he mangled the movie`s most memorable line: "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" - delivering the line as if the cameras were rolling only yesterday.

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert J. Hawkins

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