Saturday, June 03, 2006

Altman (and action)

There's no reason to walk out on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Picturehouse, opening June 9), as a half-dozen media types did when I attended a screening earlier this year. But there's no urgent reason to walk in, either, unless you enjoy the Garrison Keillor radio broadcasts that the movie toys with, or get a kick out of director Robert Altman's all-star japes, like H.E.A.L.T.H (1979) or PRET A PORTER (1994). The audience for the second pre-condition is limited, and I suspect masochistic, though the new film offers some amusement if you suspend memories of NASHVILLE or GOSFORD PARK, where Altman takes more care, and applies more rigor, to the scenarios. And I suspect Keillor's audience, accustomed to his gentler barbs and rue, a Midwestern prickliness, will be aggravated by much of the film's in-your-face crassness, which at its lowest point descends to unfunny fart jokes, painfully detailed--as if Altman, at this late date, decided to play in the same arena as the makers of AMERICAN PIE.

The film has many stars, and, unlike, say, the celebrity-chasing Woody Allen, Altman gives them plenty of screen time--maybe too much, in the case of Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, as the singing cowpokes Dusty and Lefty, of the broken wind and bad-joke songs, the ones that had some of my audience on their feet and out of the screening room. The one unerring contribution is the one made by the veteran cinematographer, Ed Lachman. Shooting vibrantly, and steathily, in high-definition (transferred to 35mm), Lachman takes us deep inside the Fitzgerald Theater, in downtown St. Paul, MN, where the last broadcast of a show not unlike Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" (but not entirely like it, either) is shakily proceeding.

Keillor, as "G.K.," is the diffident host, seemingly oblivious of the importance of the occasion and the impending demolition of the theater at the wrecking balls of Texas real-estate magnate The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who makes a third-act appearance via stretch limo. The show, which continually threatens to veer off course under G.K.'s lax supervision, blends familiar "Prairie Home" onstage and backstage personalities with in-character turns from Meryl Streep and Altman veteran Lily Tomlin as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, all that's left of their family's singing quartet; an initially ill-at-ease Lindsay Lohan as Streep's depressive daughter, Lola, who eventually relaxes in the little cocoon the movie forms; and bumbling P.I. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, indulging in weak slapstick), whose investigation of the evening centers on a Dangerous Woman, vapidly played by Virginia Madsen. Death hovers lightly over the entire film, which is strongest when the Grim Reaper is sidelined, as during the actresses' musical numbers, which are sweetly, appealingly performed. Maya Rudolph, as G.K.'s heavily pregnant assistant, quite literally adds a little life to the show, as does L.Q. Jones, in an affectionate performance. [Under Lachman's care, the theater, and Mickey's Diner across the street, which is illuminated in Edward Hopper tones, do equally fine work.]

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is no big deal, a minor, mild picture with off-putting surface details and a vaguely defined center. I've no doubt it was exactly the picture Altman and Keillor wanted to make, sidestepping expectations at every turn, but whether it's a picture you want to see depends largely on your tolerance for quirks and mannerisms, some engaging, some not. I didn't walk out, and have no regrets about walking in, but a return engagement is unlikely.

By this time the summer movie season has usually yielded one propulsive gem, but the action-movie crop has never been so thin. The culprit, I think, is overwatering the emaciated scripts of M:i:III and the new X-MEN movie with gallons of CGI, as if that alone could draw attention away from defects elsewhere. It's particularly galling with the latter, where characters more sharply defined in the prior installments and potentially interesting plot threads are quickly subordinated to a barrage of tiresome computer tricks. And the studios wonder why these things nosedive in the second week of release.

So the tendency to overpraise a diamond in the rough, like the French import DISTRICT B13 (Magnolia Pictures), by labeling it a diamond in the rough, is understandable. It's good-quality paste jewelry, but not quite the real thing, lacking that little spark that a film like SPEED has. What is undeniably real, and exciting, is the action, a brand of two-fisted, two-footed urban gymnastics called "parkour," as practiced by Leito (David Belle), a resident of one of Paris' troubled, headline-making immigrant districts, and an elite supercop, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), who has been sent in to locate a high-yield explosive that has fallen into the clutches of one of the district's criminal gangs. The film is set in the near future, when the French government has cordoned off the districts, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK-style, a provocative premise that is short-changed by having all of the district inhabitants look, and act, like Barbary Coast pirates in an old swashbuckler. [The twist in the tail shows that cynicism about one's government isn't limited to America.]

The leads, who jump in and out of car windows and transoms, and scale and clamber down walls without ropes, are personable in the manner of vintage Jackie Chan*, if a little gloomy, and the action nimbly directed by cinematographer Pierre Morel. [He is, the production notes say, the "protege" of producer and co-writer Luc Besson, who has committed crimes against cinema like THE FIFTH ELEMENT, but will perhaps escape this dubious parentage.] The film is, however, front-loaded, and lacks a more bang-up ending, once the most fearsome opponent, the Yeti (Jerome Paquatte, pictured with Belle) is dealt with by Leito. DISTRICT B13 is nonetheless a lithe and diverting 85 minutes, just no classic. That the French have to show us Yanks how to make this kind of picture, which we owned (or at least leased more effectively, as Hong Kong action was grafted onto Hollywood films), is a blotch on national pride.

*I watched Chan's latest, THE MYTH, on DVD. As much as I love Jackie (and who doesn't?) it's time for the 52-year-old performer to give it a rest. His stunts are augmented by too much crap CGI, and the more straightforward setpieces, like a fight in a glue factory, don't have that zing anymore. I wouldn't mind so much if he would, for once and for all, grow up, but here he is again, making platonic goo-goo eyes at his much younger female co-stars. It's a persona that's overdue for the glue factory.

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