As my "sainted mother" said in the comments (and she is saintly, in her quilt-lady fashion), we saw A Prarie Home Companion at the movies onThursday of last week. Later that same day, I saw the remake of The Omen. But first, A Prarie Home Companion.
The more I think about this movie the less I like it. The film was written by Garrison Keillor, the host of the radio program "A Prarie Home Companion", as well as an infrequent novelist, essayist (he writes for Salon.com all the time), and a contributor to the New York Times Book Review. He's got a great voice that can do folksy small-town wise man and then quickly switch into a Nicodemus-like (think Secret of Nimh) voice from beyond time. Uncharitable though it may be to say, when they coined the expression "a face for radio", they must have had ole Garrison in mind. He looks a little like someone grabbed him by the jowls and yanked the skin down hard in one big jerk. His charms as a radio host aren't readily apparent, but after a while you get used to hearing his voice every now and again on the radio. The show itself is never offensive, never out-and-out bad, so before long, if you're in your car and the music stations are all playing crap, you might actually seek out "A Prarie Home Companion". Someone once said that no matter where you are in the country, when you hear "A Prarie Home Companion" come on the radio, "you feel like you're at home". I'd say there's something to that, but only if you think not of your literal home, but a metaphorical "home" where everyone was always nice, no one had any dirty thoughts, people sang country songs that weren't actually country songs, and told only clean wholesome jokes (but just a few with a slightly PG edge to them to prove they're not prudes). APHC is the radio equivelent of Cracker Barrel or maybe Frontierland at Disneyland. Not a bad place to be, but not many make the mistake of thinking that mythical, unattainable "home" ever looked anything like Cracker Barrel or Frontierland. Anyway. The film was directed by Robert Altman, he of Short Cuts and Popeye fame (those are the ones of his I've seen that I've liked), and I'd have to say this was not one of his better efforts.
My hope for the film adaptation of APHC was that it would be the quintessential episode of the radio show, the best one ever (especially since, with a film version, they would have the luxury of multiple takes) except that it would be filmed in 35mm, there would be an interesting narrative arc upon which the usually episodic radio show would hang, there would be fascinating glimpses from "behind the scenes", we'd see what sort of actor Garrison Keilor would make, and all of this with the contributions of genuinely good actors like Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, and Lily Tomlin.
This isn't exactly what Keillor or Altman had in mind.
What they came up with is more of a thoughtless mishmash that pretends to be thoughtful and nearly gets away with the act. Keillor gets to talk about death a lot -- a weighty, intellectual subject, for sure -- but whatever universal truths he was trying to get to in the script seem pretty muddled, and never quite resonate. Virginia Madsen was given the worst role in the film: she plays an angel who visits the theater where "A Prarie Home Companion" is being broadcast live, to dispense her otherworldly yet completely insufferable brand of wisdom to pretty much everyone working the show that night. Some see her, some don't. Keillor gets to have a whole conversation with her. Not a word of explanation as to why some people can see her and talk to her and others cannot. And I doubt the costume designer's going to be putting stills from this movie in her portfolio -- Madsen's white trenchcoat costume is about the uglisest thing I've seen a character wear in the movies in a long time, and I don't usually pay attention to that.
Another problem character for me was Guy Noir, played in the film by Kevin Kline. Noir's a favorite character for fans of the radio show. He's a character straight out of Raymond Chandler -- a hard-boiled P.I. who gets mixed up with dames while solving mysteries -- but the sketch is a comedy, so Noir gets into goofy circumstances and tries to keep up his hard-boiled facade. He's actually the first character we meet in the film, and though the audience is primed for some Guy Noir hijinx, hijinx are nowhere to be found. Keillor writes Noir as a fairly straight-forward security guard/assistant theater manager. There isn't really anything particularly noir-ey about him. Just one of many tone-deaf missteps.
I did like a few things about the movie. I liked the scenes backstage before the radio show was set to go live. It felt authentic and I got a plesant feeling of anticipation, back when I thought there was something anticipate. I liked John C. Reilly's and Woody Harrellson's characters, the cowboy minstrels Dusty and Lefty. They told some funny jokes which helped relieve the dullness that settled over the rest of the thing. And Meryl Streep was good. It was interesting to see her play a flighty, good-natured ditz. You never get to see her play dumb.
Taken as a whole, the movie was a failure for me. Altman's penchant for actorly improv is in full effect here, and it looks forced and awkward. Storylines appear and disappear arbitrarily, flaming up as they're introduced and then fizzling out meaninglessly as the movie gets close to the end. For example, a half hour into the film we discover that Streep's character and Keillor's character (he plays himself) used to have a romantic relationship, and she's still upset about it because she still has feelings for him. Though this is laughable on its face, the fact that Keillor's had 5 wives or so in his life maybe gives this C-story a little more credence. But the subplot is without use: it seems like an afterthought that either Altman added in because the on-stage interplay was too dull and needed some subtext to add some sense of conflict (ham-handed though it may be), or an afterthought tossed in by Keillor when he found out Streep would be in the movie. The whole movie felt to me like one big lazy, slapdash effort from two people who probably could have done better. Oh well.
Enough of that. Onto The Omen. Not to sound like a 12-year old horror buff with no taste or anything, but of the two, this was the better movie. I know: a remake of a goofy horror movie was better than the Altman film. Go figure. Anyway, I'd only seen a few scenes from the original Omen, and as I remember, the original was extremely cheesy. For example, the scene in the snow-covered graveyard when Gregory Peck and his friend are attacked by Satan-smacked attack dogs looks like it had been filmed in between sound stages on the Warner lot. But this '06 remake was a serious-minded effort, I thought -- serious-minded in that the filmmakers were intent on a) improving on the original, and b) making the world of the Antichrist as plausible as they could make it; making the implications of the plot frightening, in addition to all of the dopey, sound-effect scares they throw in there because isn't a whole lot of room for them in a movie like this. The Omen isn't about making you jump out of your seat, (though it did do that a few times, and not all of them were cheap scares), it's more interested in making you feel a kind of rising dread. It's an interesting journey to take with the hero of the film -- by the end of it, you want to murder a child, too. Man, did I want Damien dead at the end. For those who haven't seen either the original or the remake but plan to, I won't give the ending away, but by the time it came down to whether the dad would murder his son, I was riveted.
Great acting all around. David Thewlis is good as the photographer who helps the Ambassador get to the bottom of Damien's origins, Pete Postlewaithe is very convincing (and excellent as always) as a fanatical priest trying to warn Damien's father about his son's true nature. And Mia Farrow is really persuasive as the harridan nanny, and because I always like those clever, slightly "in" nods to actors' past roles by casting them in something that plays off that former role (Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State was another great example), this was a great bookend to her role as the hapless mother in the classic, Rosemary's Baby. Also: the kills in this film are excellent. Richard Roeper compared the gruesome deaths of The Omen to those in the Final Destination movies, in that most of the fun of Final Destination was watching the creative ways the characters were going to be killed off. There are similarities between the two, but in a good way. One of more effective horror movie decapitations I've seen. Anyway, this was a fun movie, and maybe even worth a visit to the theater.
And I'm spent. More tomorrow.