Friday, May 29, 2009

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Robert Altman was a filmmaker who never seemed to feel the need to keep "in fashion" the way other directors have. Beginning with his real breakout film, "MASH", he developed a very personal approach to filmmaking with emphasis on character and dialog that was perfectly suited to certain films ("Nashville", perhaps his supreme masterpiece), but other times seemed wrong for the material ("Popeye").

Altman's final film is a wonderfully dreamy film that depicts a highly theatrical world; in this case, the backstage of the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Stylistically, the film belongs to Altman, although it's cheery yet dry humor is pure Garrison Keillor. Keillor holds court with his performers, acting as a kind of master of ceremonies for a variety of acts, mostly country-western types (recalling "Nashville"). The performers are all standouts: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a sister country-western act, Lindsay Lohan as their daughter, Kevin Kline in a wonderfully comical turn as detective Guy Noir, L.Q. Jones as Chuck Akers, an aging country music singer, and perhaps the biggest standouts, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as a comic cowboy duo, whose "Bad Jokes" number provides the best laughs in the film.

Most interesting is Garrison Keillor playing himself, an inveterate weaver of tall-tales and interesting characters, and facing his responsibilities as host with a wonderfully deadpan sense of humor and calm. Keillor is a living legend, and this film (from his own script) stands as a real testament to his unique brand of humor that stems from a long tradition going back to Twain.

Altman died just shortly after completing the film. Like Stanley Kubrick, who died just weeks after completing his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion" is also a kind of tribute to the show business world in which Altman spent his career working. In one scene in which the new owner (Tommy Lee Jones) of the show's theater arrives to survey his new property, he comments that the whole thing seems like something out of the past, a point also made in the opening narration by Kline's Guy Noir. There is also a wonderfully supernatural element to the film that seems particularly resonant given Altman's passing shortly after the film was released.

"A Prairie Home Companion" is a film both of an earlier time, and ahead of its time. It stands as one of Altman's finest and most personal works, and a wonderful record of the uniquely American humor of Garrison Keillor.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Scorsese's First Feature: Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)

Scorsese's debut feature, Who's That Knocking at my Door has an interestingly checkered history which may account for moments of unevenness in an otherwise intriguing and personal film.

According to various sources, the film began life in 1965 as a student short by Scorsese at NYU, about J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and his friends. This was then combined with the plot between J.R. and the Girl that became a feature in 1967, then titled I Call First. Finally, in 1970, an independent distributor agreed to pick the movie up if Scorsese shot some sex scenes to be edited into the film.

As it is, the film has much to offer. The clear influence here is John Cassavetes. In fact, there are moments that the film feels so much like a Cassavetes picture that it's almost hard to tell them apart stylistically. Scorsese lets his actors improvise long scenes of dialog, which doesn't always work well. As in Cassavetes' work, the improvised dialog all too often comes across as awkward, unnatural, and even occasionally embarrassing. There is also simply too much talk-the scene where the guys go hiking in the woods, for instance, could have played much more effectively without the dialog.

The moments that stand out are the scenes with Keitel and Zena Bethune, both who achieve a good chemistry with oneanother. Their initial encounter is pure Scorsese, with Keitel extolling his praise of John Wayne, and of The Searchers in particular.

The film takes an interesting and dark turn when Keitel finds out that the girl has been raped, or so she claims. Torn with guilt, he must choose whether or not he can continue his relationship with her. What stands out in the film is Scorsese's clear embracing and exploration of his Catholic upbringing. At a time when so many Catholic film makers were exploring their faith on screen, Scorsese in particular stands out for his fascination with the Catholic iconography, beautifully photographing the inside of the St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The black and white cinematography, no doubt more a budgetary choice than an aesthetic one in this case, actually works to the film's advantage, and offers a few moments that are visually stunning, especially the scene on the deck of the ferry, with Keitel and Bethune cast in harsh, bright light from the lights on deck. As it is, though, the film is primarily carried through its dialog, and does not present as many of the visually distinct, stylistic flourishes that Scorsese developed in his proceeding films.

What ultimately makes the film of such interest is that it is an intensely personal work by a film maker who has always pursued a singular vision, even in his more "commercial" projects, and seamlessly weaves aspects of his own life, experiences and interests into a work that transcends its time and place.