Sunday, February 11, 2007

Billy Wilder and the Last of Altman

Here are two short reviews of the A Prairie Home Companion and Billy Wilder Speaks.

Billy Wilder Speaks

The man, the legend, Billy Wilder. Billy Wilder Speaks appears to be a rather skimpy documentary on the famed director if you were to only look at the running time, coming in at a slim 71 minutes. But it doesn’t skimp on the meat, it even gives you a little of the fat. Speaks covers a selective flexography of the late director that are still debated and loved today. Unlike most films about members of the film industry, it is a very intimate conversation with the acclaimed artist and the filmmakers. The viewer gets to see first hand, Billy Wilder and the filmmakers discuss his films that made him a legendary director and the working relationship with his actors and actresses.

Due to the intimate nature and format of the documentary, it is almost as if it takes an enlightened route for its beginning. Instead of the obvious academic biographical documentary, directors Gisela Grischow and Volker Schlondorff start with the premise and how the project started. After all, this was supposed to be him and another working on his autobiography. Because of Wilder’s attitude going into these conversations with a tell-all attitude, the documentary is only filled with genuine content. It almost feels like you are in the room with him. The one drawback that I can see is his accent, but whenever he slips into German subtitles pop up.

Like most “talking heads” documentary, this suffers from being very targeted into its audience. Grischow and Schlondorff’s audience is an avid film fan or the classic cinema fan. I would argue that most people of the MTV generation wouldn’t care to see this, or would even know who Billy Wilder is, but this strengthens the film. It was made for the film fanatic, after-all it was premiered on Tuner Classic Movies.

I am say that I love this documentary because of the subject matter, for which I am biased in my love for film and classic one at that. When watching this, I was instantly seduced by his charm. I think it is his German accent and the nervous little and’s that he adds in when he cannot think of the correct English word. If I was to look at the overall structure of this film, it is well balanced. Billy Wilder Speaks for the most part tries to stay in a rather chronological fashion, although it strays from time to time. For instance he talks about the film Apartment before he discusses the films starring Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. It is almost like Grischow and Schlondorff tried to save the best for last.

One of the few complaints I have with the film is what was included in it. This was filmed over the course of several weeks. There must have been hours and hours worth of footage, so you would think that he talked about everything that he directed or possibly wrote. With these mountains of footage, there was no talk about any of the later of his films? I would of liked to hear him talk about some of the more personal projects he worked on such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It just seems odd that they only touched on his earlier works. Aside from that complaint, I would give this a generous B+ rating. It was very informative and entertaining, although some of the events that took center stage in the doc were not information that was new to the public.

A Prairie Home Companion

If you are like me and have yet to see all of Altman’s films, I would still tell you to check out this little nugget of gold. It is a solid take on the final bow from this director’s last stand. When watching a movie like this, it is hard to not buy into the charm of this slice of Americana. I don’t want to be an ageist, but A Prairie Home Companion is not really my idea of a good time on a Saturday night, but for this vacation into Garrison Keillor’s Saturday night with Altman at the helm is quite a delight.

A Prairie Home Companion opens up like a noir film out of the 40’s, set in a diner with voice over of a private eye talking about his story. Now-a-days voice over is just a lazy attempt to fill in the audience because they couldn’t craft a more visual way to set up the story. But Altman knows this, as does the audience. Altman turns it into a joke, making us fell happiness before he sets in with his undertones of nostalgia and sadness.

Garrison Keillor’s long running radio variety show is one of a kind and as seen as a pillar of wholesome entertainment. The show is light and fluffy, filled with music and comedy that you could raise a family on. Although it is wholesome it is very funny and entertaining. I feel like this is one of the films that I would take my family to. I still had a number of belly laughs with the “Bad Jokes” number by Dusty and Lefty as well as the extended Duct Tape commercial, where it goes to levels of lunacy then accusational. Aside from the laughs, the rest of the time is spent with number that you just want to sing along with.

Seeing this film after Altman’s passing sheds new light on the film. It is almost as if he knew this would be his last film and wrote a letter to the film going public. This is most apparent with the death of Chuck, to which G.K. (Keillor) responds “We never look back, that’s the beauty of it. No one gets old. No one dies. We just keep going.” Also another line is “There is no tragedy in the death of an old man. Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care.” This is Altman’s way of responding to death, people will morn him, but he wants them to continue to soldier on. P.T. Anderson was signed on as a stand-by director to Altman , which reportedly was needed by the insurance company who financed the film.

One of the best things about this film, aside from the old-time music and jokes, is the cast. It is filled with nothing but great actors and a surprisingly good performance out of Lindsey Lohan. Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Merlyn Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, and more that you can check out on the cast list. It is one of the best casts of 2006, except for The Departed.

A Prairie Home Companion is a deeply poignant last film of Altman, but damn is it entertaining too. It is filled with a great cast, good laughs, and something to sing along to. Very deserving of an A-.

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