Sunday, June 18, 2006
Written by Garrison Keillor
Directed by Robert Altman
Real life American radio show, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, becomes fictional fodder in director, Robert Altman’s film of the same name. After 32 years on the air, the show has not changed a bit. Host, Garrison Keillor (played by Keillor himself) broadcasts live from a Minnesota theatre in front of a loyal audience. Various acts perform songs, ranging in message from spiritual to romantic to borderline naughty while messages from sponsors are interspersed throughout. Gracing the stage in song are colorful, quirky (read Altman-esque) characters played by a gamut of folk from Meryl Streep to Lily Tomlin to Woody Harrelson to John C. Reilly. It doesn’t stop there either. The cast continues to round out with the likes of Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones and little Lindsay Lohan. And those are just the A-listers. Nearly the entire story takes place over the course of the show’s final broadcast, practically shutting out any possibility for conventional structure and allowing for character work and integrated back story. Altman has given us a backstage pass to A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION’s swan song, what ultimately becomes a contemplation on death that is served with soothing melodies that soften the looming sadness and grief.
At 81 years old, director, Robert Altman, admits that mortality is in his thoughts and it is certainly running rampant through the wings and dressing rooms of this homely theatre. The death of the comforting show opens the door to conversations about corporations crushing simple people and sensitive souls as well as the neighborly values sung about in the songs. An aging character dies on this fateful night allowing cast and crew’s reactions to permeate to the surfaces of their faces. Should something be said in his honour? Should words be said about the demise of the show in its honour? Is death a reason to honour life or is life reason enough? As both host and screenwriter, Keillor seems more in favor of honouring life while it is still with us, choosing to perform each show like it were his last. This makes the last show no more significant than any of the others, at least not just because it is the last one. Death is so acutely prominent on this night that it even takes the form of an angel of death, dressed in a glowing white trench coat. She presides over the duration of the show, visible only intermittently to those around her and not even all of them at that. Her function, as an angel of death, is to take souls to whatever comes next when their time has come. Though her duties for the evening had already been fulfilled, she cannot leave as she is haunted by her own death, which came while listening to A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. Even angels cannot fully piece together the puzzle that is the transition from life to death.
As the angel of death, a character billed as Dangerous Woman, Madsen sadly gives one of the film’s weaker performances. Though not entirely her fault as her white over coat is a little too white, too perfect, her stride is more of a glide and her speech is always calm, docile. Together, these approaches come off as more farcical than supernatural. Equally clichéd is Guy Noir, an over glorified security guard played by Kline. His private eye speak seems out of place amidst the rest of the realistically based characters. Luckily, Altman’s strange decisions to have these characters play to such stereotypes did not detract from all the rest. Individually, the rest of the major players are strong but they are stronger still as part of the miniature groupings they belong to. As duo Dusty & Lefty, Harrelson and Reilly play off each other like they’ve been doing it for years. Not surprisingly but still seriously appreciated are Streep and Tomlin as the Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda. They round out each other’s stories and harmonize like only sisters would. Tomlin even has a hint or irritation in her eyes whenever Streep drifts towards a more whimsical train of thinking. Of course, many an eye is on Lohan to see how she holds up as the third wheel to these two unquestionable talents. And hold up she does as the next generation representer of the Johnson family,
A daughter who sings of death but at least she sings. Some things don’t die; they just evolve.
In true Altman style, all of these different lives converge to create a world unto itself. This world is reinforced by Altman standard elements like lengthy credit sequences, conversations running over others and fluid camera movement crossing from the back stage to the actual stage and from floor to floor. The result is a multi-leveled maze that Altman somehow manages to make sense. Whilst doing so, Altman also sneaks in the film’s greatest irony, that some traditions don’t die but continue to thrive after four decades of filmmaking.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Written by Jeremy Garelick & Jay Lavender
Directed by Peyton Reed
Although I try to limit my reading of celebrity gossip rags to while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, I will admit to being taken in by the plight of frequent cover girl, Jennifer Aniston. She’s the girl next door and the poor thing was left behind by one of the prettiest boys on the planet for one of the prettiest girls on the planet. She locked herself away in her Malibu beach house and spoke to no one but family and former cast mates from FRIENDS, the TV show that made her into an international star but whose success is making it very difficult for her to establish herself as bankable movie star. When THE BREAK-UP began filming in Chicago, the irony of the casting caught on and before long the rumours spread that Aniston and co-star, Vince Vaughan, were getting close. As they have no interest in confirming details of their relationship to the public, the intrigue is still high more than a year later. In that time, countless articles have dropped about the broken girl and the man determined to bring happiness into her life again and each of those articles has made mention of this movie. THE BREAK-UP is the world’s keyhole to peer through for a glimpse of what Jen and Vince are really like.
Of course that’s ridiculous as they are actors playing parts in the movie but neither of these actors stretches themselves much further than their established personas so its pretty darn close. And director, Peyton Reed (BRING IT ON, DOWN WITH LOVE), gives the audience exactly what its been craving without delay during an opening credit montage of photographs of the happy couple doing nothing but being madly in love. It’s a succession of every photograph the paparazzi wishes it could get hold of. Jen and Vince, who should count themselves very fortunate their names don’t blend well into one defining moniker, play Brooke Meyers and Gary Grubowski, two people who look simply natural and happy photographed playing games with friends or dressed as cows for some costume contest. Not only does this satisfy the bizarre celebrity fascination that inexplicably drew us to the theatre in the first place, it also serves a great function for the film as well. We are now set up to realize what these two are throwing away when they break up in the next scene.
The break-up itself exemplifies what works and what does not about this film. It comes fast and early in the film and it is not pleasant to watch. There are many an angry word said and the condo the couple share stinks of regret, uncertainty and fear once all the doors have been shut. The level of pain reached in this scene is unexpected and atypical for a romantic comedy but commendable for it’s striving to be realistic. Break-ups are not funny; they hurt and this scene does not pretend otherwise. But are break-ups still happening because of the tired issues these two have? He wants to just come home and have a beer and a minute to himself while she wants him to want to do the dishes. Obviously, there is more to it than that but neither one of them seems to have a clue how to say it and instead of realizing that they’re both not expressing themselves properly, they yell louder so the other can really get it. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t work.
And so the now defunct couple fights for ground and supremacy for the rest of the film. The war that ensues grows out of hand with mixed results. Fighting with witty banter can energize a viewer to take sides and get into it but fighting that pretty much entails nothing more than screaming hurtful things is just awkward and can make the viewer want to leave the room to give them some privacy. And while the laughs do come, they are not always enough to forget that these two never really wanted to break up in the first place. Their antics make it more and more impossible to go back and repair their busted relationship that the hope they will finally learn how to say what they truly need to each other, like the not-so-complicated “I just want us to see each other, be there for each other and not take the other for granted”, falls further away. Before you know it, this romantic comedy has become a romantic tragedy.
Friday, June 9, 2006
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
The crowd is hushed in anxious anticipation as the man they wait for makes his way through the maze of the backstage corridors. The fervor builds as the man stops to shake another’s hand, pose for a photograph. We can only see him from behind. We can barely make out who it is. Until, the wait comes to its end. Ladies and gentlemen, the man you’ve all been waiting for, the self-described man who used to be the next president of the United States, Al Gore! And, the crowd explodes in a respectfully enthusiastic show of admiration and reasonable applause.
In AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, plays host to a lecture series audience on the impending impact global warming will have on our planet in his and your potential life time. Although it may sound odd in passing, Gore’s lecture series has been given around the globe, hundreds of times. In the time since he lost the bid for presidency, he has rededicated his life and passion to the subject of global warming and made it his priority to increase the awareness of its importance to people everywhere. Contrary to what one might expect from a lecture given by Gore, for example a long snooze, this particular series is actually thoroughly engaging. Of course, the subject matter itself is compelling enough as Gore walks us through image after time-lapsed image demonstrating a shockingly sparse amount of ice where once there was plenty and numerous graphs, be them bar or line, showing significant hikes in temperature and carbon dioxide emissions in the earth’s atmosphere from recent years. No matter the topic, one needs a compelling host to make sure the message hits where it should. The shock of the advanced progression of global warming may end up taking a back seat to the complete personality readjustment of Al Gore as he is charming, witty, sarcastic without being obnoxious and ultimately very comfortable, both with the material and himself. One can’t help but wonder why he didn’t demonstrate this side of himself when running for the presidency in the first place.
One also can’t help but wonder that because filmmaker Davis Guggenheim breaks up Gore’s seminar with allusion to Gore’s past from his upbringing to the election debacle in the state of Florida in 2000. The goal is to demonstrate how Gore came to be crusading for global warming awareness. Drawing a link between the death of his sister from lung cancer due to years and years of excessive cigarette smoking despite the knowledge of its likely tragic outcome and the general population’s ignorance towards the effects of global warming and our need for tragedy to inspire action is one thing. Drawing a link between a near-fatal car accident his son had when he was very young and Gore’s conviction towards the importance of human life makes sense but detracts from the focus of the film. Gore’s motivation or interest in the subject seems almost entirely irrelevant as the film is about the presentation, not the guy giving it. Not only does this filler detract but it also taints. Bringing up America’s decision to ultimately vote George W. Bush into office seems somewhat damning, as if to suggest that global warming is not getting any better because of you America. You voted for someone who doesn’t care about the environment and therefore disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which the film says was much worse due to the warming of the ocean water it traveled over between Florida and New Orleans, might not have been as bad had you voted in a president that cared about the planet. I’m sure Guggenheim isn’t trying to make such strong accusations but the implication is still made through his editing and the film falls off track occasionally as a result.
AN INCONVENEINT TRUTH is being dubbed the “Must-See” documentary of the summer, picking up where past hits THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS and FARENHEIT 9/11 have left off. I have a difficult time agreeing with this praise. I do believe it to be must-see but this is because the content is important and the facts need to heard. And albeit an enjoyable experience, the content cannot be all that is judged as it is still a film and it is one that is flawed.