Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In the spirit of Life Of Riley, the final film by Alain Resnais, we’ve singled out other swan songs from master directors.

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

There’s not a whole lot of depth to Robert Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, about the (fictionalized) last live performance of Garrison Keillor’s NPR radio show. Yet, what it’s lacking in narrative substance, it makes up for in its layered visuals, the crisscrossing foreground and background imagery. The movie has a free-floating, deep-focus beauty, especially in sequences set in backstage dressing rooms. The aesthetic pleasures elevate this portrait of the myriad personalities who come together to send off Keillor’s show, whose station has been purchased by a Texas corporation. That firm’s axe-man (Tommy Lee Jones) is the figurative devil of this rambling tale; he’s juxtaposed with an angel (Virginia Madsen) who floats through the hallways to comfort those dreading the end of the program, and the community it fostered between its cast members.

A Prairie Home Companion captures its source material’s sense of folksy Midwestern goodwill and humor, though its greatest strength is its ensemble cast, led by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a cowboy comedy duo, Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin as a singing-sisters act, and Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, the gumshoe caricature who provides security for the theater. Altman (who was supported by Paul Thomas Anderson, in case his health failed) segues among his various characters with graceful fluidity and cheeky wit, and his gliding camerawork evokes a sense of both communal togetherness and the fleeting nature of the proceedings (and by extension, of life itself). Bolstered by a series of music numbers that capture the simultaneous joy and melancholy of moving on, A Prairie Home Companion never quite reaches the heights of Altman’s best work. But as an auteurist swan song, it has a rambling, prickly life of its own.

Availability: A Prairie Home Companion is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant Video.

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