Almost Famous a fascinating 4K time capsule – while Mortal Kombat 4K will test your TV's reds
By Jim Bray
Cameron Crowe hit it out of the park with Jerry Maguire, and followed it up with this even better movie, a semi-autobiographical tale that's also a wonderful capturing of a moment in pop culture history.
And if you like your game-inspired movies violent and graphic, Warner Brothers thinks it has you covered.
Parmount's Almost Famous, unlike Maguire, doesn't come with a built-in high-powered star, and I think that works to its benefit. As for the pop culture moment, just like George Lucas' American Graffiti captured the feel of its era, so too does Almost Famous. It's a time I happened to live through, and in fact its 1973 setting is the year I got married. I had also dabbled with bands by that time and after, and also with producing the written word. So, yeah, this movie really got to me.
And now, Paramount Pictures has produced a nice steel book 4K version of the film, complete with both the original theatrical version that I prefer, as well as the extended "Bootleg" edition that was how the original DVD came out.
Crowe's story is of a young writer, 15 years old, in fact, coming of age as he struggles with his first major assignment as a rock journalist, going on tour with the minor-but-maybe-major-someday band Stillwater.
William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is growing up in San Diego and he's so smart he's two years younger than his school classmates, a fact which causes him some angst early in the film. Causing even more angst is his mother (Frances McDormand), who means well but who, as a single mother, wants to protect him and his sister (Zooey Deschanel) from the dirty world outside their home.
The apparently overbearing mother causes William's sister to run away from home, though she leaves him what she says is the key to his future: her collection of rock albums.
In a transition staged beautifully to The Who's "Sparks", which cuts seamlessly from the original Tommy album to the incredibly powerful Live at Leeds version as the movie jumps forward in time, we rejoin William as a fifteen-year-old rock journalist wannabe. Thanks to the quality of his writing, coupled with some good old-fashioned persistence, he endears himself to the editor of a Rolling Stone-compatible rock rag (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and gets a couple of minor assignments from him.
Ah, but the folks at Rolling Stone have seen his stuff and think he should be writing for them (Crowe really did this in real life) and assigns him to the road trip with "Stillwater." Over his mother's strenuous objections, William hits the road with the band and its entourage, living and loving with them and soaking up the rock environment via their tour bus and their gigs and the hotels between them. Oh, and a plane. Can't forget the plane.
This quick look doesn't do the story justice, but I also don't want to ruin for you what is a compelling, funny, sad, and raucous film that rocks and rolls along at a good clip, taking you with it happily.
The film also features "real people and events" (for example, at one point they share a hotel with David Bowie, though we don't meet him) that give the "fictional" story a nice grounding in rock reality history.
The look and feel of the film are very authentic and the entire production comes off as an obvious labour of love by Crowe.
I must also mention the musical soundtrack and score. There's plenty of classic rock, songs performed either in their original versions or reproduced by the band (jamming in their hotel room or singing on the bus, for example), and bridging them is some fine work by Crowe's wife at the time, Nancy Wilson – who came to fame with Heart.
Paramount Pictures has gone to town with the Almost Famous 4K UHD (with HDR) disc, even offering both the original and "bootleg" editions on their own separate discs. The lion's share of the supplements are on the original version's disc, which is kind of surprising in an era where supplements for 4K titles often get their own separate Blu-ray disc. Alas, this isn't to be, so the film has to share disc storage space with a bunch of extras that are well worth experiencing, but which also makes me wonder if the film's picture quality would have been even better than it is already if it had all the space on the disc.
I guess we'll never know.
So how does that picture look? Splendid, in fact, though it's by no means the greatest demo material I've seen in the 4K marketplace.
Fortunately, the picture still shines, with a very film-like look and with very natural colours and grain. The image is sharp and detailed and intimate, looking almost as if it were shot back in 1973. I never saw the Blu-ray of this title, but can't imagine it would come close to this very nice transfer.
Alas, Paramount chose not to drag the audio soundtrack, kicking and screaming or whatever, into the Dolby Atmos world – though this probably won't bother most folk who still have 5.1 or 7.1 channels of amplification and speakers. And to be fair, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack does sound very nice indeed.
It isn't a really bombastic sound track anyway, though the "live performances" sound great. But most of the film is talking, so there isn't a lot of need for whiz bang surround most of the time.
I love how Paramount labelled the supplements! Extras that haven't been seen before are listed as "New Releases", while the classic stuff recycled from previous home video versions are "Greatest Hits". And there's lots to savour in both sections.
Only one extra comes on the Bootleg cut (an older commentary track), but cruise around the theatrical version and you'll find lots of meat, including:
And that's just the new stuff. "Greatest Hits' Includes:
…and more, including a code for a digital download of the film.
So far, anyway…
Mortal Kombat, meanwhile, looks and sound great but after having sat through it and being washed clean by its particular brand of bloodfest, I still really don't know exactly what was going on. And found it difficult to care.
The opening scenes apparently take place in Japan of centuries ago. There, some dude who can freeze things attacks a village where a mighty ninja lives, and that's the opening narrative hook. Then the story jumps to "present day" and its focus on Cole, an MMA fighter who just happens to have a birthmark shaped like a dragon. This birthmark, not surprisingly, will prove quite important later.
Is this our Earth? I think so, but there are also other realms, such as Outworld, and our little blue marble is threatened by these baddies. There's some kind of Mortal Kombat tournament involved, too, but I didn't care about it enough to pursue figuring out exactly what they're pushing. It's simply a home theatre ride and should be treated as such – like a giant monster movie only not as much fun and a lot grosser.
But we get a dazzling plasma fest with good action scenes, great production values, and even some humour. Plenty of cussin', too, as well as the aforementioned gore.
The gore, to me, would be particularly over the top if it weren't that I've seen the Mortal Kombat game in action and know the movie is just continuing its lead and, if memory serves, is actually not quite as bad (or good, depending on your view). So, if you don't like being washed in fake blood periodically, don't watch this disc – and beware that this is apparently only the first in a new reboot trilogy of films based on the game.
Where the 4K disc shines is in its spectacular video and Dolby Atmos audio. This could be a reference disc for the strong of stomach, thanks to dazzling brights and colours and a rumbling soundtrack that'll give your speakers a good workout – all of them.
There's a Blu-ray of the film included in the box (as well as a digital code), and it comes with a bunch of extras, from deleted scenes to "making of" stuff.
Obviously, not my cup of tea but if you're a fan of this type of movie and have the stomach for the graphic, er, graphics, this excellent presentation might be right up your alley.
Copyright 2021 Jim Bray