Almost Famous, and six more movies

Almost Famous

I saw this flick when it first came out, and thought it was pretty good. Saw it again several years later, and thought it was better. Now I've seen it a third (and then a fourth) time, and I'm floored by how good it is. 



April 15, 2023

It's sort of a true story, about a dweebish music-crazy teenager who fake-deepens his voice on the telephone and gets an assignment writing for Rolling Stone. The magazine wants him to follow and write about an up-and-coming band on their road trip.

The teenager grew up to be moviemaker Cameron Crowe, writer and director of Almost Famous, so he's basically made his own biopic. 

For the kid, played by wide-eyed Patrick Fugit, it's a dream come true, and for this old fat guy in his recliner, it's a rock'n'roll fairy tale.

Instead of being stuck in high school, the kid is riding in the band's bus, listening to the music and the band's backstage arguments, trying to get an interview with the lead singer, falling in love with a pretty girl, saying no to drugs but yes to sex, all interspersed with worried calls home to Mom because he's only 15.

Sid & Nancy it's not. Everything ugly about the 1970s has been wiped away, leaving only happy memories for the film. It's exuberant, bright, often funny, never loses its way, and builds to a fine conclusion.

"I always tell the girls, never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt, you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends."

Great cast, led by Frances McDormand as the kid's ferocious but loving mother who hates rock'n'roll, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Creem critic Lester Bangs, Kate Hudson as the groupie who insists she's more than a groupie, and Zooey Deschanel as the kid's runaway older sister. Even Jimmy Fallon, whom I despise, is perfect as a shallow all-about-the money band manager.

Score by Nancy Wilson, and the film's fictional band sings a few good songs written by Wilson and Peter Frampton.

"From here on out, I'm only interested in what is real. Real people. Real feelings. That's it, that's all I'm interested in, from here on out."

My wife loved movies as much as I did, and we didn't disagree often, but she hated Almost Famous. "I get that most of it happened to Cameron Crowe, but for everyone else it's nothing but a teen-boy fantasy, Porky's with pretensions."

As usual, I could see her point, but as a former-teenage boy, and I love this movie.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Color Out of Space (2019)

Nicolas Cage runs a tiny alpaca farm, where a glowing meteorite lands. This causes squishy mold to come to life in the shower, makes Cage's character increasingly reptilian, messes with the wi-fi, takes over the TV like in the original Poltergeist, and makes everyone in the family crazier than they already were, which was already crazy. Also, there's something at the bottom of the well.

If they didn't have me at Nic Cage, they certainly had me by 'alpaca farm'.

Spacey music is layered over too much of the dialogue, but the freaking out is suitably freaky, the colors are colorful, and "Something is happening to the alpacas." It's all nuts, but toss in a teenage witch and a goopy kiss goodbye, and it's nuts in a good way. 

"Looks like we're going to have to walk out of here."

"In the dark? Across twelve miles of ancient woodland?"

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Her (2013)

Writer-director Spike Jonze gave us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" music video, with Christopher Walken dancing on air. This is Jonze's latest movie, and it's ten years old; since then he's done shorts and music videos, but I wish he'd make another movie. He hasn't made a bad one yet.

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lovable schlub who works at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, writing romantic notes for people who can't write their own (though you'd think that's a job ripe for automation). He's lonely, and falls in love with the synthesized female voice of his home computer's operating system, which calls itself Samantha. 

I didn't hear the term "artificial intelligence" in the film, but Samantha's personality is AI, so are her emotions artificial, too? And what about his? If you're in love with a machine, is that really love? Is love even important, if the illusion of love is convincing and fulfilling?

These and other questions at the film's core are great for heavy thinking, but the movie doesn't get bogged down with existentialism.

It's not far-fetched science fiction, either. Set in a Los Angeles that's only slightly smoggier and more fake than in the present day, the story is a plausible extension of where we are now, with everyone's heads buried in iPhones and social media, wearing almost a uniform of upscale-smart-casual clothes, everyone with very busy schedules but nothing really going on.

The computer's voice is Scarlett Johansson's, and that's the movie's only problem. Everything rides on your belief that you're hearing a computer talking, and it was difficult believing it. Has Johansson always sounded so breathy and cloyingly teenager-like? Would anyone but a perv install that voice as an OS option? It got on my nerves, and sounded artificial — not artificial like an OS speaking, but artificial like an actress trying very hard.

Almost everything else about Her is excellent, though. The script and direction rock, the performances of Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, and Chris Pratt are excellent, and it adds up to a skewering of the manufactured shallowness that makes up much of our lives now, and the new and improved manufactured shallownness yet to come.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Knightriders™ (1981) 

This is an odd indy movie written and directed by zombie kingpin George Romero, about a small troupe of present-day renaissance performers who travel the American countryside, staging medieval jousts. The knights are on motorcycles instead of horses, and of course all the props are rigged for safety and show, not to hurt anyone.

The re-enactors take it all seriously, staying mostly in chivalrous Middle Ages character as they travel. There's a king who might as well be called Arthur (Ed Harris), a queen reminiscent of Guinevere (Amy Ingersoll), and a Lancelot character who's hot for the queen. 

"I'm not trying to be a hero — I'm fighting a dragon," King Harris explains. There are no dragons, though. I kept waiting for a supernatural element, but there are no ghosts, goblins, or monsters beyond some crooked cops. This is not a horror show.

Novelist Stephen King camps it up as 'Hoagie Man', a fat slob in the audience who belittles the performers at some of the jousting shows.

The drama is low-key, and the running time is too long — two and a half hours — but it's a good movie, with great costumes, a feeling of real camaraderie, and a gay-friendly subplot. And you can't go wrong when there's jousting on motorcycles. There are even occasional hints of having something to say.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

This is the very best adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, everyone seems to agree, but I'll cast a dissenting vote.

The train seems lovely. The meals look delicious. There's probably a nice view out the window, but the flick takes half an hour to pull out of the station, and even when it's underway it's only occasionally interesting.

Albert Finney stars as perhaps Christie's most famous character, Hercule Poirot, trying to figure out whodunit as a classy train rolls across Europe.

I've always liked Finney, but he's shockingly bad in this role. His fake accent is atrocious, the hair and makeup he's caked under is gawdawful, and his delivery is never lifelike. Then again, I've never read much Agatha Christie — maybe the great detective Hercule Peroit is supposed to be a buffoon, in which case Finney nailed it.

The all-star cast features Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bissett, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark in the title role, and Michael York, but there's not enough for any of them to do, and each serves only as a reminder of much better movies they were in. 

Without giving anything away, the killer was who I thought the killer would be. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Robowar (1988)

The is a low-power action movie, made in the Philippines but performed in English. It rips off every big hit action movie of the '80s, but mostly it's an unauthorized remake of Arnie Schwarzenegger's Predator

The always-adequate Reb Brown is adequate as Major Murphy Black, leader of an ex-military band of merry men who call themselves the Bad Ass Motherfuckers (BAMF). They're on a super-secret mission against a military cyborg that makes silly bip-bop-boop noises, leading to plenty of laserfire, gunfire, machine gun-fire, unfunny wisecracks, guys looking tough, and stuff blowing up.

Of course, there's a beautiful, big-bosomed blonde. She's the only woman in the whole movie, and her character's name is Virgin.

"It's like collard green stew — if you get caught in it, you'll never get out, man."

The movie has some seriously awful acting in its first moments, but soon rallies to become watchable, stupid but never too stupid. There's also a catchy soundtrack driven by electric guitar. 

You have to know going in that this ain't even Predator, but it's enjoyable.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

This Beautiful Fantastic (2016)

This is a very soft-spoken British film about a young woman (Jessica Brown Findlay) who wants to be a writer.  She works in a library, and we see her interactions with a few young men pursuing her, and a grumpy old man (Tom Wilkinson) who's her neighbor.

It's all very charming and (have I mentioned?) British, funny when it wants to be, serious when it wants to be. It builds slowly, and delivers some bellylaughs and tears at the end.

I enjoyed it so much that I watched it a second time, but during the rerun the movie's fluffy "charming and British" music started getting on my nerves.

It's still quite good, though — charming, British, and recommended. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming soon: 

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
The Exiles (1961)
Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)
My Brother the Time Traveler (2017)
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Such Interesting Neighbors (1987)
Targets (1968)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. I kinda thought you and I saw Almost Famous together, but maybe not. I agree with you, though I haven't seen it since release - it's a small-g great movie.


    I also have not seen "Her" since release, but I did not have the problem you did. I loved it, and think it was the best movie I saw that year - or at least, I did at the time. He's a truly gifted filmmaker. Being John Malkovich was far and away the best film of that year, IMO, and the nominees that year were a fucking joke.

    1. Yes to Spike Jonze. He's batting 1.000, wish he'd make another movie.

      And yes to BEING JM, still his best movie.

      ALMOST FAMOUS opened on 9/15/2000, says Wikipedia. I was still in SF then, so we probably saw it a few months later at the St Frank with fast food burgers snuck in.

    2. It's also possible that Steph had moved to SF, and the four of us saw it separately, as two couples. You and her, me and Shawna. I was married by then.

    3. Sometimes I do forget that you weren't merely my buddy and sidekick, but a man with a life of his own.

    4. YOU were the sidekick, motherfucker.


    5. Other than the XOXOXO, I was almost certain you'd say that.

  2. The only thing Cameron Crowe was associated with that I like was Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which I LOVE, nearly as much as American Graffiti. But of course he only wrote that, didn't direct, thank god.

    As for Johansson in Her, have you seen Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin? A flawed film, but still almost completely compelling. Very disturbing art / sci-fi. And Glazer's Birth is a masterpiece, highest recommendation.

    Love Ed Harris' early films, Knightriders, Right Stuff, and especially A Flash Of Green (same director as Ruby In Paradise). His later work is kind of pompous and blowhardy, though History Of Violence is utterly brilliant.

    Targets: My favorite Captain Ascot flick

    1. You didn't like Cameron Crowe's SAY ANYTHING? Surely you liked his masterpiece, WE BOUGHT A ZOO?

      Never saw UNDER THE SKIN. It seemed skeevy, as I recall, so I don't know why I missed it. Will check it out, and BIRTH sounds potentially icky but it's a masterpiece? Goes on the list. I always add a few titles to the list when you recommend something.

      Who's Captain Ascot? A Navy officer in something called HALO? Which is a comic book?

    2. https://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Premiere+Universal+Pictures+Bourne+Ultimatum+K4zibs8wb1_x.jpg

    3. Bogdanovich...

      Not being a big fan (of his, or of anyone's), I hadn't heard that nickname for the guy. I wasn't even sure who he was from the photo. Took me about two minutes of, "Where do I know that face from?"

      Also had to look up 'ascot'. My ignorance is infinite.

  3. Strong dislike for Almost Famous and every Crowe-directed film not named Say Anything. What really left me wondering WTF? is how Lester Bangs character is portrayed as this wise old sage and yet CC ignores every bit of advice that wise Lester imparts to him. He wrote toothless features about his favorite bands for Rolling Stone, becoming essentially a publicist for the bands he was supposed to be profiling honestly. Golden gods, my ass. -- Linden Arden

    1. Ignorance is bliss, and I never read any of Crowe's journalism. Don't think I ever bought a copy of ROLLING STONE or CREEM, and you're right, he ignored all of Bangs' advice.

      It's a fairy tale, though. Might as well tell L Frank Baum that monkeys can't fly.

      My greatest resistance to Crowe is Jerry McGuire. It's *so* commercial and calculated and everything about the story seems market-tested to appeal to the widest audience possible. And yet, sang it, I'm in that audience and enjoy it every time I re-watch it.

    2. Well, Cameron is pretty open in his appreciation for Frank Capra vs. a more realistic director. I guess when your own life is like a fairy tale, you have an easier time believing in them. - Arden

    3. But other than Fast Times, none of Crowe's work approaches the depths of any Capra film.

      Lost Horizon is one of the most yearning and bittersweet utopian narratives ever put to film, all the more so in hindsight.

      And It's A Wonderful Life has some of the most nightmarish - but grounded in reality - imagery and themes of any post-WW2 movie, more than any film noir, more than any European art film. Other than the last five minutes, it's a horror film.

    4. Also throw in You Can't Take It With You, which is one of the most genuinely subversive and anarchic stories from a Hollywood studio.

    5. Crowe maybe isn't Capra, but he also isn't a fart in a darkened cinema. Or is he? Film at eleven...

      Which reminds me, it's been too long since I've seen any genuine Capra.

    6. You know who else I hate (haha)?

      John Fucking Hughes.

      My age group was going apeshit for his stuff as it came out, but I didn't really start watching films until ten years later, and didn't see his stuff until even later in my thirties. And thank god. It always looked suspicious to me, and having seen all of his "work" I'm happy to say I was right.

      What a middle-of-the-road, audience pandering, bootlicking milquetoast! Every single one of his stories is about a poor person or weirdo who aspires to be rich or normal -- and every one of his films reinforces the idea that that is a good objective, an achievable goal, rather than embracing or understanding what it really means to be poor or weird.

      Dozens of other films and directors in the 80s did a much better job of examining the working class or poor "milieu" with films that had real empathy and fascination for these characters and showed the desperation and consequences of such lives. Even romanticized films like The Outsiders, At Close Range, or River's Edge, My Bodyguard, Tex, etc. had more a rounded view of class relations than Hughes' shit.

      For that matter, a Canadian show called Degrassi Junior High (1987) may have been the best representation of teens ever committed to film. Highest recommendation.


    7. You're not acknowledging that Molly Ringwald was hot? She made me partial to redheads ever since (with help from a girl at summer camp) so the brilliant artistry of Hughes cannot be discounted.

      Sure, his films generally had the depth of a credit card and his oeuvre was an endorsement of normalcy, but Bueller? Bueller?

      Hey, I remember DEGRASSI. Very good show.


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