`Prairie Home Companion': Deft directing, first-rate acting

Critics' picks: New DVDs

October 08, 2006|By Nick Madigan

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION -- New Line Home Entertainment / $27.95

Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, a gentle rhapsody to homespun values and country vaudeville, looks and feels as though the veteran director had simply ordered the camera switched on and then sat back to enjoy the show. His touch is so deft, and the actors so light on their feet - other than Kevin Kline, an incorrigible ham - that the story unfolds without apparent effort, an ensemble play of first-rate thespians who calmly defer to each other's best moments.

Having said that, the 105-minute film, released in theaters on June 9 and available on DVD with multiple special features on Tuesday, lights up whenever the luminous Meryl Streep appears on screen. She and Lily Tomlin play the Johnson Sisters, a singing duo with an easy charm and a way with banter. When their dressing-room conversations hearken to younger days, their reminiscences embody all the melancholy of the film's central premise - the closure of their radio show, performed for decades from the stage of an old Minneapolis theater, set to be torn down by a rapacious developer (Tommy Lee Jones).

Garrison Keillor wrote the screenplay and, as in the real world, is the radio show's host, apparently so bewildered by its imminent demise that he refuses to acknowledge it to the packed house, lest it be seen as sentimentality. Lindsay Lohan plays the Streep character's daughter, the author of morbid poems about suicide who nevertheless shines when asked to sing on the hallowed Fitzgerald Theater stage.

Comedic levity is provided by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the cowboy duo Dusty and Lefty. It was probably Dusty and Lefty's penchant for bathroom humor that earned the film a PG-13 rating.

The special features include commentary from Altman and Kline, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scene "featurette" and some extra musical performances.


AKEELAH AND THE BEE --Lions Gate / $ 28.98

When it was released in theaters in April, Akeelah and the Bee could easily have been pegged as another formulaic tale of a child overcoming overwhelming odds and triumphing. Instead, the film, directed by Doug Atchison, handily overcame its limited expectations, in much the same way that its protagonist, 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson, does with the life she is given.

A product of Los Angeles' gang-plagued South Central district, Akeelah (Keke Palmer) has had a rough ride: Her father is dead, her mother is distracted and her brother is a gang-banger.

After missing too many classes, Akeelah signs up for a spelling bee at school to avoid detention. She wins and then dreams of joining the bee circuit. Her mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), doesn't see much future in it, but a former professor, Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), steps in as a mentor.

The DVD's special features include an audio commentary, a behind-the-scenes segment and a gag reel. The 112-minute film is rated PG.


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