Almost Famous (DreamWorks). Another home run from Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire). The story, a pet project he had been working on for over 10 years, is based on Crowe’s own experiences as a teen rock journalist in the’ 70s, which he spent following musicians such as Led Zeppelin and Neil Young. The movie is touching, smart, and “a welcome antidote to the chic misanthropy that often masquerades as artistic seriousness” in contemporary films (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). Critics lavish praise on the cast, which includes Frances McDormand, Phi l lip Seymour Hoffman, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, and newcomer Patrick Fugit as the teen- aged Crowe character. A small minority of reviewers say the film borders on the annoyingly warm’ n’ fuzzy: The idealistic teen “is not placed in enough danger—morally, spiritually, sexually, or any other way—to become a hero for us, and after a while we may wonder what’s at stake in this movie” (David Denby, The New Yorker). (This Cameron Crowe fan site includes links to Rolling Stone articles he wrote in the ‘70s as well as info on his more recent work.)
Bait (Warner Bros.). Most critics call this comedy-thriller starring Jamie Foxx “numbingly incoherent” (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Foxx plays a criminal implanted with a tracking chip by the police, who use it to follow his every move in the hopes he will lead them to a stash of hidden gold. Holden wants to know the answer to a question many other reviewers also pose, namely “why, oh, why Mr. Foxx, who was so impressive in Any Given Sunday, chose to make a movie so boring and idiotic that it barely meets minimal standards of lowest-common-denominator entertainment.” One critic dissents: In an unexpectedly sunny review, Roger Ebert calls the film “a deadpan action comedy with a little Hitchcock, a little Bond, and a lot of attitude” (the Chicago Sun-Times). (Find out more about Jamie Foxx on his official site.)
Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (MGM-United Artists). “Borrowing its unwieldy title if little else from Dostoyevsky” (Jessica Winter, the Village Voice), this film about suburban revenge gets hacked to bits by the press. Though it was made before American Beauty, it has many of the same plot points (unhappy daughter of a fracturing couple is wooed by a video-camera-toting freakazoid, whom she ends up falling for). But it’s not done nearly as well as the other film: You “may well feel that the ‘crime’ was that it was made in the first place and the ‘punishment’ is having to watch it” (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to read the full text of the novel Crime and Punishment online.)
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Excellent reviews for Atwood’s 10th novel, which traces a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace and mixes in a pulpy sci-fi novel-within-the-novel. The good responses fall into three categories: 1) Ecstatic. “In sheer storytelling bravado, Atwood here surpasses even The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace” (Publishers Weekly). 2) Satisfied. “[M]ost purely a work of entertainment—an expertly rendered Daphne du Maurieresque tale that showcases Ms. Atwood’s narrative powers and her ardent love of the Gothic” (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). 3) Disgruntled. “As sheerly enjoyable as The Blind Assassin is, I can’t help but feel that the book may be just a little too easy somehow, that it covers its ground expertly but without really breaking into new imaginative territory” (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post). The only genuinely negative write-up comes from the New York Times Book Review, in which Thomas Mallon writes somewhat snottily that “unlike life … writing provides the opportunity to revise or abandon a journey even after it’s been taken. Which might have been the best course here.” (Click here for essays on and interviews with Margaret Atwood.)
When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf). The latest novel from the author of The Remains of the Day isn’t exactly a dud, but it leaves reviewers cold. It’s “more tantalizing than fulfilling, a whodunit with no real who or it” (Paul Gray, Time). The author tells the story of a British detective who travels to Shanghai to unravel the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, and weaves in layers of confusion about the reliability of the narrator, which works against the novel, some reviewers say: “The drawback to this complex subtle pattern is that while undoubtedly fascinating it is also occasionally frustrating in its opacity, like a puzzle without all the pieces” (Peter Ho Davies, the Chicago Tribune). Though he nails many things about life in England and Shanghai in the ‘20s and ‘30s, “there’s a dulling airlessness to this exquisite historical masquerade” (Celia McGee, the New York Daily News). Or as Jonathan Yardley writes in the Washington Post, “One can admire the intelligence and ingenuity” of Ishiguro’s book, and “wish as well that its heart were as large as its brain.” (Find out more about the author here.)
Red Dirt Girl, by Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch). Because she’s known mainly for her interpretations of other artists’ work, critics prick up their ears at this album of songs she wrote herself: “In song after song, she conveys the same artistic grace and penetrating observation that she has previously found in the works of other writers,” which makes this is “a major step for Harris” (Robert Hilburn, the Los Angeles Times). This sentiment is shared by most reviewers, but Rolling Stone takes an unusual stance. After praising her “ethereal voice, with its silken core and ragged edges” and calling the album “swamped in beauty,” critic Arion Berger goes on to kvetch that it’s “stiflingly exquisite,” and that “the songs, lovely as they are, are emotional dead ends … free of tension, excitement or ambiguity. If Emmylou Harris was ever a product of the rich red Southern soil, all the grit has washed off by now.” (This fan site includes tour dates and sound clips.