ALMOST FAMOUS (A-4,
R): Writer-director Cameron Crowe, with two fresh, well-crafted movies
already in his credits (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire),
revisits his own coming-of-age. His early 1970s career started at
age 15 as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone.
The semi-autobiographical tale describes a long cross-country bus-and-plane
tour with a fictional “almost famous” band. Billy (endearingly played
by fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit) is a naive young fan who observes
close-up the hedonistic and ego- and money-driven excesses of the
culture. He befriends and has a positive impact on some of the guys
and groupies by writing the truth about their lives.
The situation is a dreamlike fantasy for someone who aspires to be
a writer and also loves the music. Billy’s challenge is to get close
enough to observe but not to lose his integrity. As his famously obsessive
rock-critic mentor, Lester Bangs (a standout performance by Philip
Seymour Hoffman), advises, “Don’t be friends with rock stars.”
Billy violates the rule, befriending the self-centered but likable
lead guitarist (Billy Crudup). He also falls for the exploited, quicksilverish
Penny (luminous Kate Hudson).
There are few surprises in the band’s juvenile sex-and-drugs lifestyle,
which seems more shabby than glamorous from the enlightened perspective
of 30 years later. (It’s sort of like watching a star-struck baseball
fan discovering the messy off-the-field, not-so-heroic exploits of
Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.)
Viewers with moral sensitivities who are not so crazy about rock
are likely to sympathize with the perspective of Billy’s conflicted,
no-nonsense mom (superb Frances McDormand), the film’s feisty but
imperfect moral center. Trying to be wise, she allows her son the
chance of a lifetime (by going on the trip) but then bugs him relentlessly,
determined also to save his innocence.
Otherwise, Crowe’s best scene provides something of an eternal perspective:
Panicked band members confess their sins in a private plane during
a severe thunderstorm. Honest but probably too sympathetic observation
of reckless times, partly redeemed by final moral outcomes; satisfactory
for mature audiences.
REMEMBER THE TITANS
REMEMBER THE TITANS
(A-2, PG): Upbeat dramas about racial integration are rare these days.
This one is slick and hard to resist. It’s based on a real-life miracle
high school football season when blacks and whites united in 1971
to win a Virginia state championship.
Another issue is the increasingly desperate need to win in sports.
This used to be a substitute for war but is now nearly equivalent,
routinely requiring military discipline and medical units on the sidelines.
Denzel Washington lends his star power to the project as Herman Boone,
the intense black coach brought in (over all kinds of white resentment
and hostility) when the school (and team) had to be integrated. Those
were idealistic and openly racist times.
Boone is a taskmaster tough on both races. Beginning from ground
zero (the kids won’t talk or sit next to each other), he bonds the
players by running preseason training like a Marine boot camp. The
union is fragile and must be preserved in the face of stress from
other students and parents.
The movie doesn’t make it seem easy, but winning helps. Washington,
both credible and inspiring, delivers some terrific speeches to the
kids, including an improbable but impressive one in the fog of dawn
at the Gettysburg battlefield.
Director Boaz Yakin gives a unique look to the football scenes: few
long shots to show plays develop, mostly close-ups with noisy music
and crunching sounds.
The script uses many typical football-movie ingredients wisely, from
the displaced nice-guy white coach (Will Patton) and his marvelous
football-crazy 10-year-old daughter to the presumably dumb, hulking
white lineman who loves black music to the white mothers and girlfriends
who must be won over. The unlikely friendship between the alpha black
and white players is nicely developed to a climactic scene that earns
one large macho handkerchief.
They may joke that producer Jerry Bruckheimer, long famous for overblown
junk (Coyote Ugly, Armageddon), is using this film to
save his soul. That’s O.K.: It’s never too late to use testosterone
wisely. Overall, positive (if not profound) use of sports machismo
to serve interracial compassion and partnership; satisfactory for
adults and youth.
THE CONTENDER (A-4,
R): Hollywood reaches for dramas built on prejudice against minorities
(Jews, blacks, gays, disabled people). In this case, the victim is
a woman senator, Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). She’s appointed to fill
the unfinished term of a deceased vice president and thus become the
familiar “heartbeat away” from leading the world’s most powerful nation.
Writer-director Rod Lurie (West Point-educated, Los Angeles movie
critic) wants to show misogyny at work in the confirmation hearings.
They’re led by a sinister Midwestern congressman (Gary Oldman). He
raises issues that, presumably, would never be used against a male
(chiefly a college sorority sexual escapade, but also the circumstances
of her marriage, the possibility of pregnancy-in-office, her pro-choice
views on abortion).
These tactics are likened to “sexual McCarthyism.” Hanson’s primary
virtue is that she refuses on principle to respond to questions about
her personal life or to fight back in the usual way (by slinging mud
at the chairman). We’re not sure until the very end, however, whether
she’s stonewalling ŕ la St. Thomas More or tactically covering up
a lot of guilt.
Allen (Oscar-nominated for her role as Pat Nixon in Nixon)
has depth and dignity. The movie is fine as long as it’s got fairness
and equal rights as the main issue. But Lurie doesn’t so much win
our sympathy for Hanson as assume it. We really don’t know much about
her or whether she’d make a good veep or prez. She seems smart but
doesn’t have to show it.
Hanson’s comments about religion make her a Joan of Arc for atheists,
and she is forced to represent too many diverse causes.
In fact, nobody of either gender is likely to avoid sexual questions
(by opponents or media) for some time to come. In its favor, The Contender
heats up the brain cells, presents a ton of ideas many will be challenged
by, and also adds some melodrama to politics. Jeff Bridges has a wonderful
time as the calculating, folksy, food-loving president trying to make
Hanson’s appointment a surprising twist to his last days in office.
A political suspense likely to steam you, one way or another; O.K.
REQUIEM for Father Ellwood E. “Bud” Kieser, the movie-savvy Paulist, former TV producer (the Insight drama series) and filmmaker (Romero, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story) who died September 16 at 71. Father Kieser achieved a dream among his generation of Catholics. He didn’t just criticize and complain but went out and made good movies about bright, progressive and holy people.
Kieser’s high quality was a testament to his talent and hard labor in the ups and downs of the showbiz badlands. This good priest who loved movies and respected their power earned his place of honor in the work-in-progress that is American Catholic culture.
DEADLINE (NBC, Mondays)
catches some nostalgia for the glory days of big-city print journalism.
It’s built around a colorful maverick columnist named Wallace Benton
(Oliver Platt) and his competitive almost-ex-wife (Hope Davis). They
work for The Ledger, a clone of today’s New York Post. It’s credible,
with just enough make-believe to avoid the drudgery of much daily
You don’t want to be an estranged spouse in real life, but the relationship
works well for central figures in drama. They’re almost-in-love and
almost-not, somewhat single (in secular terms) but still sharing a
past and possibilities of reconciliation. Benton also teaches grad
students, opening the door to fresh faces, idealism and ethical quandaries.
Creator-producer is Dick Wolf, who has developed the similarly constructed
(always starts with a crime, then the institution reacts) Law &
Order into a gritty, usually reliable torn-from-the-headlines
franchise. The stories always remind you of something you read recently,
and the cast is very deep. (Bebe Neuwirth, Tom Conti, Lili Taylor
are regulars around the newsroom.)
But mostly it’s the dialogue, snappy and sassy with little chunks
of truth in it like diamonds, usually putting down the wicked and
arrogant. (An early episode featured a scam of the newly rich, who
were victimized because they couldn’t tell good art from bad. Now
that is a national disease.)
Deadline follows many of the same types of crimes as L&O,
but it allows a different, outside law-enforcement perspective. Cast
and writers clearly intend to have fun. An early Ledger headline,
after the arrest of a pianist suspected of murder, read, “SLAYER PIANO!”
Adult drama worth surviving.
SHORT TAKES: A major poll says Americans believe television by far has the most negative impact on children of any entertainment medium. Yet TV is (theoretically) subject to the most parental control and (properly used) still the greatest educational tool ever at their disposal.
I spent a career teaching TV criticism but don’t know where the critics are coming from lately. A panel on Charlie Rose reviewing the new season seemed to think “good” equals pushing-the-envelope (always a dubious criterion), and picked Mafia epic Sopranos over The West Wing, which may be the best-written drama in TV history.
Thank goodness: No more focus groups displaying their well-developed ignorance on the networks until the next election. Only horse-race coverage justifies the silliness of listening to the least informed and least interested.