A Prairie Home Companion [DVD]
Director : Robert Atman
Screenplay : Garrison Keillor (story by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZebnik)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Woody Harrelson (Dusty), Tommy Lee Jones (Axeman), Garrison Keillor (G.K.), Kevin Kline (Guy Noir), Lindsay Lohan (Lola Johnson), Virginia Madsen (Dangerous Woman), John C. Reilly (Lefty), Maya Rudolph (Molly), Meryl Streep (Yolanda Johnson), Lily Tomlin (Rhonda Johnson), Marylouise Burke (Lunch Lady), L.Q. Jones (Chuck Akers), Sue Scott (Donna), Tim Russell (Al)
With his hangdog mug and mellifluous voice, Garrison Keillor has been a mainstay of public radio since the mid-1970s when he came up with the idea of producing a musical-comedy variety show with fictional commercials that would recall the 1930s heyday of radio, when it was the center of American popular culture and the primary source of news and entertainment. Performed live on-stage at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, A Prairie Home Companion is a uniquely nostalgic throwback to an earlier day, and Robert Altman’s film, which presents a slightly fictionalized version of a night in the life of the show, is like a warm, comforting cup of tea. It goes down so smoothly that you might be sad when you get to the bottom of the cup.
With 81 years of life under his belt, Altman has certainly mellowed with edge. Much like his 1999 film Cookie’s Fortune, A Prairie Home Companion’s big heart and warmly inviting milieu stands in stark contrast to the edgy, subversive films that defined his career in the 1970s, when Altman was a Hollywood radical upending the system from within. With its large cast and fine attention to detail, A Prairie Home Companion shares many characteristics with quintessential Altman films like M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), and The Player (1992). Thirty years ago, I doubt that anyone would have thought that Altman’s last film (which he has avowed this is) would be such a gentle ode to simple pleasures, albeit one that is haunted at the edges by the specter of death (quite literally, in fact), something that is surely close to Altman’s heart in the twilight of his years.
Keillor penned the screenplay and also stars as himself, and Altman surrounds him with his typically diverse universe of Hollywood character actors playing fictional musical guests. The film’s main conceit is that this is the last night of the program since the radio station that produces it has been bought out by a large conglomerate that plans to tear down the historic theater the next morning. There are a few other conceits as well, including Kevin Kline as the humorously named Guy Noir, a private detective who works security at the Fitzgerald and also supplies the film with clichéd hard-boiled narration, and Virginia Madsen as a mysterious angel in a white trench-coat.
We slowly get to know the various characters, including Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a singing sister act, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson. Yolanda’s moody, suicide-poem-writing teenage daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), is also there, although the manner in which she is eventually drawn into the fabric of the show and given a moment in the spotlight is the film’s only real forced moment. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are cleverly cast as a country duo known as Dusty and Lefty, and their amusingly risqué song “Bad Jokes” reminds us of how much pleasure there is in dirty humor that is not demeaning.
There is little or no “story” in A Prairie Home Companion beyond the primary idea of the show being closed down (the person waiting to swing the axe is brusquely played by Tommy Lee Jones and is known quite plainly as “The Axeman”). The film is so light, in fact, so care-free and seemingly effortless, that it constantly risks evaporating right before our eyes. Its short running time and direct focus on “a night in the life” keep it focused, though, and the cast brings enough casually infectious life to their roles that we forget how little we really know about them.
Altman lets his camera roam smoothly throughout the dressing rooms and backstage corridors, capturing the liveliness of the characters’ interactions as though he were an invisible documentary filmmaker with a perfectly tuned Steadicam. He takes in the action with beautiful, constantly moving long takes, allowing the ’Scope frame to draw in all the details of the environment (the best being the dressing room, which allows the character interactions to be endlessly reflected from multiple angles by dozens of mirrors). Altman treats the film’s folksy musical performances, which take up about half the film’s running time, in much the same manner, soaking up the ambiance and charm with an effort so subtle and natural that it’s easy to overlook how masterful it can be.
|A Prairie Home Companion DVD|
|Distributor||New Line Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 12, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|New Line’s DVD of A Prairie Home Companion features an anamorphic widescreen image that is just slightly softer than you would expect. This is likely because the film was shot on high-definition 1080p digital video, rather than film (I’m assuming the transfer was direct from the video source, rather than from a print, which would result in it being even softer). Oddly, the box label mistakenly claims that the film is in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, when it is clearly framed at 2.35:1. Altman tends to shoot everything in long and medium shots, so sharpness and clarity are of particular importance in bringing out the jumbled richness of the imagery. The digital image isn’t quite as strong in this department as one might hope for, but again this is likely because of the digital video source, rather than anything relating to the transfer. Colors look good throughout, as do contrast and black levels (the image appears a bit dark, but this is its intended look). The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is excellent, highlighting the depth of the film’s musical variety without overworking it.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary with Robert Altman and Kevin Kline, which Altman dubs “The Bob and Kevin Show,” is a laid-back, amusing, but edifying ride through the film. Kline plays interviewer (and also adds color with various joking asides), asking Altman various questions about his approach to filmmaking in general and specifics about A Prairie Home Companion. For his part, Altman is lucid and informative in his discussion, and it’s always a pleasure listening to an old master talk about his craft. “Come Play With Us: A Feature Companion” is a thorough and engaging 50-minute making of documentary that is divided into six segments, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the film (for example, the genesis of the Garrison Keillor’s radio show, assembling the cast, Altman’s approach to filmmaking). It features interviews with Altman, Keillor, and every member of the cast (some of whom stay in character during the interviews), as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and photographs. For those who loved the film’s music, there is a section on the disc titled “Onstage at the Fitzgerald: A Music Companion” that captures 10 complete musical performances that appear only as fragments in the film, as well as six complete faux advertising segments, the best of which is for “New Munich Beer,” which prides itself on being cheap. The disc is rounded out with the film’s original theatrical trailer (all the supplements are presented in anamorphic widescreen).|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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