A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
One of the many glories of Robert Altman is that he never pretends to know everything there is to know about the characters in his movies, and doesn't expect his audiences to, either. In an Altman film, you may think you have someone all figured out, until a later scene proves that you haven't begun to understand what makes them tick; Altman is fascinated with the dichotomy between characters' public and private faces. (It makes perfect sense that he eventually filmed a murder mystery.) It sometimes seems that there's not much going on in an Altman movie, and audiences could easily assume the same about the director's latest, A Prairie Home Companion. But if you're as enthralled with character as the director is, and with the drama of actors gradually revealing character, his ambling, "plotless" films can be sheer bliss.
The director's Nashville - widely considered Altman's masterpiece - is the work his subsequent films have invariably been compared to (and generally unfavorably), and it may be the greatest plotless movie of all time. The film, over the course of nearly three hours, follows 24 characters as they spend a few days in Nashville, and ... that's about it. But the joy of the movie lies in your continuous discovery of new, unexpected aspects of the on-screen personalities; Nashville is endlessly surprising the way people are endlessly surprising. (I've seen the movie a half-dozen times, and the finale, with characters displaying a resolve and talent we couldn't have guessed they had, moves me to tears every time.) At its best - which is often - A Prairie Home Companion evokes similar sensations.
Written by Garrison Keillor - whose own, beloved Prairie Home Companion has endured since 1978 - Altman's film takes place on the night of the eponymous show's final radio broadcast. (A Texas conglomerate is tearing down the Minnesota-based program's Fitzgerald Theater to make way for a parking lot, a plot point both ludicrous and oddly touching.) Some of the performers and stagehands are miserable about Companion's demise, some are disarmingly matter-of-fact about it (including Keillor, who, hosting the program, more or less plays himself). But, in any event, The Show Must Go On, and the film (clocking in at a crisp 95 minutes) blends performances from the live Companion broadcast - presented with its dry wit and cornball beauty intact - with the backstage goings-on among the show's participants. And, as in Nashville, that's about it.
Except, of course, it's not. In addition to the delightful musical performances - many from regularly featured musicians on the actual Prairie Home Companion - and the low-key hilarity of Keillor's dialogue, Altman and the film's actors provide an inexhaustible amount of character detail, which creates a sort of inherent, self-sufficient drama. You're constantly alert at this movie, because, despite its rambling, seemingly throwaway presentation, you're always discovering new facets of the people in it. (Part of the reason modern movies are so dull is that you immediately glean everything you need to about their characters with their first appearances.)
Watch the way Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly - as sweetly lewd singing cowboys - scratch each others' nerves early on, and how they eventually, subversively ally themselves against a common enemy. Listen to the funny, overlapping backstage banter between singing sisters Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, and then notice how Tomlin watches Streep on stage, her familial love giving way to professional resentment. Take in Lindsay Lohan's self-pitying teenage misery, which, by the end, gives way to a lightness of spirit even she may not have known she possessed. Scene after scene, marvelous performers pop up and keep you guessing as to their motivations and "true" natures - the film may not have much in the way of a story, but that's because the characters are the story. (The inspired cast includes Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Mary Louise Burke, Maya Rudolph, L.Q. Jones, and Kevin Kline, who's the sole disappointment - after his first appearance, Kline's Guy Noir actually doesn't show any different sides). I've read lukewarm analyses of Prairie Home Companion that have called Robert Altman's film dawdling and meandering, peppered with occasional high points. I don't quite understand why that's meant to be faint praise. To me, that sounds like life.
Just to be clear: I didn't like Pixar's Cars, but that has nothing to do with Larry the Cable Guy's contributions to it. Or rather, it has something to do with Larry's contributions, but in a way that's not at all Larry's fault.
John Lasseter's latest computer-animated work - the first he's directed since Toy Story 2 - takes place in a world completely devoid of human and animal life, and concerns an egocentric racecar (voiced by Owen Wilson), headed toward Los Angeles, who finds himself stalled in a sleepy desert town on Route 66. While there he learns the requisite lessons about Friendship and Trusting in Others, but it's the fellow automobiles he learns these lessons from that bothered me beyond belief: Paul Newman is a cantankerous former champ. Bonnie Hunt is a genial sweetheart. George Carlin is a hippie. Cheech Marin is the wisecracking Mexican. Jenifer Lewis is the sassy African American. And Larry the Cable Guy, stretching himself, is the dim-witted hick. Could this casting be any more obvious?
Sadly, the film's jokes are as lame as its vocal stereotyping. You can always count on visual invention from Pixar, and Cars has its share of awesome animated sights. But the film has almost no personality - like its central character, it's a shiny, lifeless thing - and once Wilson's racer is stuck in Podunkville, the film's pace slows to a crawl; I never thought I'd experience a Pixar movie that I couldn't wait to escape from. How sad that Cars would be the first of the studio's films that doesn't freaking move.
In John Moore's remake of The Omen, Mia Farrow is spectacularly creepy. Playing the demon seed's overly protective nanny, Farrow, with an insinuating smile perma-pressed to her face, is about as decadently evil as you could hope for, and there's so much lurid enjoyment built into both the performance and the casting itself - The Rosemary's Baby actress as a Satanic Mary Poppins! The famed adoptive mother malevolently chirping, "I'm wonderful with kids"! - that it's heartbreaking that The Omen itself is such a dud.
But David Seltzer's script - nearly a scene-for-scene rehash of his 1976 screenplay - is simultaneously earnest and nutty (the need for a nanny makes no sense, as Julia Stiles' jobless mom admits that she never leaves Damien's side), and Moore, while acceptable at imagery, doesn't show much gift for sustained scares; he lets the eardrum-splitting soundtrack do all his work for him. As yet another entry in our seemingly endless series of horror remakes, The Omen isn't terrible; it has some performance heft, courtesy of Liev Schreiber, David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite, and others, and at least it has a story. But it's still a slog. Bring on the Rosemary's Baby remake, and give Farrow a shot at Ruth Gordon's role.