A Prairie Home Companion

"A Prairie Home Companion" is pure Robert Altman, who just died within the past week (11-20-06). With his trademark overlapping dialogue, I always come away from his movies swearing to get the DVD so I can find out what they had been saying. This one is no different.

Kevin Kline ("Dave" and "Life as a House") seems to be reprising his role from Steve Martin's recent remake of the "Pink Panther." (He was the French police commissioner.) And Meryl Streep ("Stuck on You" and "The Devil Wears Prada") is annoying as always, but she CAN sing! ...and so can Lindsay Lohan ("The Parent Trap" and "Mean Girls").

Rounding out the cast are John C. Reilly ("Chicago" and "The Good Girl") and Woody Harrelson ("Ed TV" and "White Men Can't Jump"). Everybody sings with a "Country" vocal style, and Tommy Lee Jones ("The Fugitive" and "Coal Miner's Daughter") is properly menacing as the "suit" who is closing down the show.

One thing bothers a lot of us: The impression given at the end of the movie is that "Prairie Home Companion," the classic radio show, has been cancelled. Garrison Keillor should have known better! Don't be misled. It's still on the air, despite this movie.


The Queen

Although I already expected Helen Mirren ("Calendar Girls" and "Greenfingers") to be wonderful, I didn't realize what a huge role Tony Blair played during that week between Princess Di's death and the services for her at Westminster Abbey. Michael Sheen ("Music Within" and "Blood Diamond") portrayed Prime Minister Tony Blair; evidently he has played that role in some other film, as well. He is very good and extremely believable as Blair.

Interesting tidbits, I assume they are true:
  • The royal family was at Balmoral in Scotland and the Queen had no intention of going to London. She maintained that since Di was no longer "HRH" the planning and execution of the funeral was to be left strictly to Di's family.
  • The Queen fully believed that the British looked to her for a dignified and restrained response to Di's death. "This dignity is why the world looks up to the British." Ergo, no public statements or rituals.
  • Prince Philip took the boys "stalking" (deer hunting) and they were isolated with no radio, newspapers or telly.
  • Prince Charles correctly read the mood of the crowd and fully expected to be assassinated.
  • The Queen drives her own Land Rover in Scotland.
  • Tony Blair had barely become Prime Minister when the princess was killed. His urging of the Queen to make a statement was not welcome.
  • The flag over Buckingham, like flags over most royal palaces, is there to signify whether or not the royal is in residence. The British expected a Union Jack to be flown at half-mast and when it wasn't, it generated unbelievable resentment.
  • In the interests of time, they used the basic plan that had been worked out in anticipation of the Queen Mother's funeral (much to HER indignation) substituting movie stars, dress designers and rock stars for heads of state. Had to do in a pinch!
  • When Elizabeth yielded and made a televised statement, it was construed as a major victory to the anti-monarchists (Blair's wife being among them).
  • Blair and the Queen have developed a warm friendship with mutual respect.
The movie is cleverly done, interspersing old TV clips with current (but grainy looking) bits that also look like TV clips but which feature the actors. Television plays a HUGE part for all concerned. Everyone is riveted by the events, the PM's staff, the Queen's staff, the PM, the Queen, Prince Philip (although he is enraged by it and turns it off whenever he can). The amount of personal detail in this depiction is notable. I have to assume it has been authenticated. Can a Queen sue for defamation?

The Station Agent

"The Station Agent" is a quiet, insightful study in loneliness, friendship and tolerance. Peter Dinklage ("Elf" and "Find Me Guilty") plays the title role, a handsome dwarf who has made his lifetime hobby of trains into a quasi-obsession when he retires to live near the railroad tracks. He is a solitary soul, content to wallow in his solitude.

Enter a gregarious young man played by Bobby Cannavale ("Shall We Dance" -2004 and "The Night Listener"), who runs a mobile hot dog stand in the back of a van; he has decided to be friends with our hero and he simply can't take no for an answer.

Patricia Clarkson ("Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Miracle") is a divorced artist deeply troubled by the death of her young son. Michelle Williams ("Brokeback Mountain" and "A Thousand Acres") is a local small-town librarian who takes a shine to our leading man.

This is a sweet, poignant examination of solitary people who manage to find each other...and that is enough.


Vera Drake

On November 14th, I spent the day at a friend's house on the Issaquah Plateau. Along with general catching up, we watched "Vera Drake" starring Imelda Staunton. It's hard for younger people to imagine a world where abortion was illegal and illegitimacy was an unbearable scandal. The movie takes place in 1950 and my friend hadn't been born yet.

My, my, how things have changed...

Suffice it to say, Staunton ("Shakespeare in Love" and "Much Ado About Nothing") does a terrific job as a religious, hardworking, upbeat, financially strapped British maid and housekeeper.

Oh yeah, she's also the friendly neighborhood abortionist.

She never takes a penny from her "poor girls," doing her careful work with nothing but pity and charity in her heart; but the acquaintance that does the referrals is doing a land-office business!

The casting of Imelda and her simple family is so authentic it's spooky. Those folks look REAL! The awkward courtship of their painfully shy daughter is a thing to behold! And their house is so authentic you practically get chilblains just watching!

Staunton was nominated for an Academy Award for this role...in which she is totally unglamorous and genuinely believable.

It's very well done, but I had avoided it for just exactly the reasons I observed today. It's not exactly an "upper," now, is it!



First, a little background. My Swedish friend and I went to the Guild 45 on Super bowl Sunday. Our plan was to see the movie, then eat at Bizzarro's just off Stone Way. We saw the movie, then engaged in a spirited discussion of what we had just seen, all the way from the theatre to the restaurant, only to discover the restaurant was not open, to quote the note on the door, "...because of the Greatest Game in the World." We ended up at University Village, because the next two restaurants were closed for the same reason!

"Cache" stars Daniel Auteuil ("The Closet") and Juliette Binoche ("The English Patient"). It is a cryptic, spooky head-scratcher, extremely well done. The two stars play a successful TV talk-show host and his equally successful wife. They live a life of upscale ease.

A video tape is dropped off at their front door and it turns out to be nothing but a surveillance view of their house. The single camera, unmoving, films only occasional cars or people moving past. This is weird, and a little disconcerting.

From that beginning, you watch these baffled people try to discover who is watching them, and why. It is spellbinding and compelling.

Here is part of what I saw in a magazine a few days later.

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It was a review of "Cache." The last few sentences read, "Haneke's camera, so quietly predatory, is the herald of disaster. And we the viewers are its beneficiaries, watching and waiting for something awful to happen. Here it does, first subtly, then spectacularly. The twist is not revealed until the last shot--if you keep your avid eyes open."
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By renting this DVD, you will have the luxury of replaying parts that baffle you. I had to go back and BUY a movie ticket! Aarghhh!