(Movie Review Written September, 2000 and 11/01)
Every so often, maybe once a year, it happens. You sit down and see a movie so wonderfully written that the rest of the world, all of your problems and worries, just fall away. You find yourself pulled completely and totally into the world that the filmmakers create. And for two hours, you don't want it to end. Director Cameron Crowe's new movie is one of those wonderful instances.
The film, which has an almost scarily perfect sense of time and place, stars newcomer Patrick Fugit as William, a young writer who finds himself falling in love with the world of rock and roll, and one night, asked to come along with a band on their latest tour. He's looked over by an remarkably cautious college professor mother (Frances McDormand). McDormand is not a constant part of the movie but her performance is still one of the film's most impressive; she may be a comedically overbearing mother on the surface, but her scenes show so much more - a mother who truly loves her child and just wants the very best for him. With a different actress, this character may have ruined the party.
William starts out by sending his material into famed rock critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, solid as always). The two quickly become friends, and the older critic is always there when William needs advice. While going to interview Black Sabbath one night, he runs into the opening band, Stillwater. After a bit of trouble, the band and young reporter hit it off, and William finds himself on the road with the band, with an assignment as his mission - to interview the band for Rolling Stone magazine. Accompanied by a group of groupies...er, I mean the correct term, "band aides", William gets quickly caught up in the party that accompanies life on the road, only to eventually realize what's going on around him.
This is Fugit's first performance and I have to say that it's brilliant. At first glance, he seems like a naive kid who's going to make it through about 5 minutes worth of life on tour. But as the film goes on, the actor reveals more and more to the audience, showing that he's more of an adult and understands the world more than most of the characters he runs into. Also outstanding is Kate Hudson as "band aide" Penny Lane, a sweet, charming performance that deserves award consideration. Also excellent are Jason Lee and Billy Crudup as the band members that recieve the most focus. This is the kind of film where there are so many performances that are worthy of praise, I could go on and on.
The William character is based upon a person quite close to the film...director Crowe himself. The director's last film was "Jerry Maguire" which was a good film and things about it will last. I think that "Almost Famous" though is so good that people will be talking about the whole film for quite a while. Crowe has obviously lived the life of this character, and he welcomes us into this world completely. He's helped by ace cinematographer John Toll, who won awards for his outstanding work on "Braveheart" and "Legends Of The Fall"; his work in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" was also truly breathtaking. He captures the story wonderfully here, and his work is deserving of Oscar notice.
The entire film is simply deserving of Oscar notice, and I'd be dissapointed if "Almost Famous" isn't nominated for Best Picture; many of the actors should also recieve nominations in their catagories as well. I can go on and on about what I enjoyed from "Almost Famous", but rather than ruin the suprises, let me just say - go see the film now. It's just that good. Praise to Cameron Crowe for delivering a wonderful film that's simply a joy to watch.
*** Looking back over the past few years that I've been reviewing movies, there have been few pictures where I've stepped out of the theater and wanted more. I liked the characters and story enough that I wanted to continue that journey and "Untitled" does just that, but in a superb, subtle way. Minor character details are added and sprinkled throughout the movie in a way for a total of 39 minutes of additional footage (the running time of the theatrical cut, according to the back of the box, is 2 hours, 3 minutes and "Untitled" is 2 hours 42 minutes.)
Both editions are excellent, but I really felt that "Untitled" made a great film noticably better and a richer experience. For those who would like to compare, this new set includes both the theatrical cut (disc two) and the "Untitled" director's cut (disc one).
(DVD review elements - mix of 2000 and 11/2001)
VIDEO: "Almost Famous" is another excellent work from Dreamworks. It always helps a presentation to have a film that contains marvelous cinematography, and John Toll ("The Thin Red Line", "Legends Of The Fall") does wonderful work throughout "Almost Famous". Image quality is uniformly excellent, as sharpness and detail are top-notch. Flaws are almost non-existent throughout the film, as there's only a slight bit of shimmer once or twice - nothing at all distracting.
The image is thankfully free of all but a few very minor print flaws - just a couple of stray specks. No pixelation or edge enhancement were seen. Just a very clean, crisp image that looks like it did when I saw it in theaters. Colors are especially beautiful, looking natural and vibrant throughout the film, especially during some of the scenes driving on the bus through the fields. Overall though, I was hoping for a fantastic presentation of this great picture and Dreamworks didn't dissapoint.
*** Thankfully, the studio has done a very nice job presenting the "Untitled" version. There have been "director's cuts" occasionally where it becomes evident that the footage is the new footage because of the varying quality. For "Untitled" though, the new footage blends in almost seamlessly with the original footage - there's a second or two here and there where the new footage seemed slightly softer, but that's a minor complaint. Both editions are simply excellent. The layer change on "Untitled" happens at 1:25:33, right after "Rock stars have kidnapped my son."
SOUND: "Almost Famous" is presented, like most new Dreamworks titles, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio (*** the DTS version is not available on the "Untitled" cut, probably due to length). Much of the film is really dialogue-driven, but when the music comes into the picture, either in the background or in the concert sequences, its handled wonderfully. Surrounds are used quite well to re-inforce the music, with occasional crowd sounds during the concert sequences.
Audio quality throughout is excellent. The songs sprinkled throughout the soundtrack sound fantastic, with excellent clarity and detail, with a warm, full sound. While listening to the concert sequences, I wished that more concert presentations that are released on DVD sounded as good as these do, as they offer a great "front-row" feel, with good bass and a very enveloping sound. Dialogue remains clear and crisp, with no issues in terms of clarity. Both presentations offer strong audio, but the DTS version is prefered, as it boasts a more seamless and immersive presentation of the music. The general DTS audio is, although only mildly so, crisper and clearer sounding.
Although "Almost Famous" occasionally folds-up into a dialogue-driven film, when the music enters the soundtrack, it becomes apparent that care was taken in presenting it and that it's important to the feel of the overall film. *** On "Untitled" there is no variation between the sound quality of the new scenes and theatrical cut sequences.
MENUS: Both menus offer the same beautiful new animated menu, with tons of polaroids floating away from the screen, leading to a subtly animated main menu, complete with new music from Crowe's wife, Heart's Nancy Wilson. Not an agressive introduction or anything - it does perfectly set the mood for the movie.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Cameron Crowe, as well as Cameron Crowe's mother Alice and other folks, including Vinyl Records folks and others. Yet, Crowe and Crowe's mother certainly do the great majority of the talking, which is terrific, since Crowe does a wonderful job providing a commentary of all things "Almost Famous". There's a great deal of discussion about both the production of the film and many of the scenes that have been added back into the picture, as well as the reality behind many of the film's moments. There's some wonderfully funny stories throughout the track and Crowe and friends keep things going throughout the track with almost no pauses. This is really one of the best commentaries that I've heard in quite a while. This commentary is only available on the "Untitled" cut.
Intro By Cameron Crowe: A quick audio introduction to the set; there are also other audio introductions throughout the set, which can be found by clicking on the little microphones.
Interview with Lester Bangs: This is a 2 minute interview with the real-life Bangs, who was played in the movie by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Rallying against some of the rock stars of the time (it looks like it was shot in the 70's or around there), it's a lot of great moments packed into a couple of minutes.
Love Comes And Goes: This is a 5-minute version of Nancy Wilson's "Love Comes And Goes", which is presented in the background, while various instances of on-set footage and rehearsals play.
B-Sides: This is another short featurette that offers production footage, including behind-the-scenes clips, screen-tests and other bits. Look for Jason Lee wearing a "Clerks" shirt during one of the clips.
Also On Disc One: Cameron Crowe's Top 10 Albums of 1973, Cameron Crowe's Rolling Stone articles. Also, look for another very strange deleted scene hidden in the special features menu.
Audio Interview: Disc two starts off with the same audio introduction by Crowe, and other audio introductions are also available for some of the supplements again on this other disc.
Small Time Blues: A short deleted sequence that offers a rough performance of "Small Time Blues".
Stairway to Heaven: This is a 12-minute deleted scene from the picture, which was meant to include "Stairway to Heaven". Not able to get the rights for the song, Crowe came up with a way to still show the sequence, but without the song - it sort of involves audience participation, as you're asked to start up your copy of the song, if you happen to have one. If not, just sit back and check out the scene.
Cleveland Concert: This is the entire 15-minute concert sequence by the band, which is quite cool to be able to view in its entirity. 2.0 audio.
Theatrical Trailer: The theatrical trailer in Dolby Digital 5.1.
Also: Production notes, the entire screenplay (on the DVD-Video portion, not the DVD-ROM portion), cast/crew and filmmaker bios. Last, but certainly not least...
The CD: Making it sort of a "three disc" set, the last feature is a CD of Stillwater songs (6 of them). Neatly tucked inside the fold-out cover (complete with nice artwork), this is certainly a very cool supplement to round out this well-produced set.
Final Thoughts: "Almost Famous" was one of the best films of 2000, in my opinion, and "Untitled" only made it a fuller, more enjoyable experience. This new set allows the viewer the option to watch either, but it also provides some great supplements - especially the Crowe commentary, which is one of the best commentary tracks I've heard in a while. This new set is most certainly recommended.