Posted in Books, Television

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), Colin (Will Poulter) and Mr. Thakur (Asim Chadhry) Checking Out Nohzdyve

Charlie Brooker has done it again.

“Bandersnatch,” the latest “Black Mirror” entry which dropped on Netflix last week, is an infernal maze of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” that’s maddeningly intriguing. This is the first Netflix presentation that requires viewer interactivity—you have to watch with remote in hand in order to select from among the potential plot options along the way. Fans have already produced maps, flow charts and critical path drawings of the various outcomes, and while they’re helpful, it’s so much more fun to go into this world on your own. I guarantee you’ll visit multiple times.

We begin in 1984 with young Stefan Butler’s attempt to create a game called “Bandersnatch” based on a multiple outcome novel of the same title. Its author, a mad genius named Jerome F. Davis who believed in multiple existences and parallel universes, later became notorious for beheading his wife. Stefan takes his concept to a company named Tuckersoft (nice nod to “San Junipero”) headed by a Mr. Thakur who immediately enthuses over Stefan’s work in progress. He offers him a spot working on premises with a development team, and this is where the viewer makes the first key choice: Does Stefan work collaboratively or on his own? The later options increasingly raise the stakes—does Stefan see his psychiatrist when he becomes blocked in his work, or does he seek counsel from Colin Ritter, Tuckersoft’s resident genius game creator? Does he take his meds or not?

Each fork in the road leads to a significantly different outcome involving the characters’ various fates, and more amusingly, the rating eventually given to the “Bandersnatch” game by a quintessentially nerdy TV reviewer. There’s method in Charlie Brooker’s and Netflix’s madness: If you’re not happy at any point with the story you’ve essentially created, you can’t rewind or fast forward—you can only erase your choices by starting over again from the beginning. However, when certain options lead to premature or dead ends, you are presented with the ability to redo a critical selection. This is occasionally irritating, but the more time you spend with “Bandersnatch” the more intriguing it becomes.

At its core, “Bandersnatch” is a world of mirrors reflecting mirrors. The references and homages enhance rather than detract from the experience. In addition to that reappearance of Tucker, we see that Colin’s current best-selling game is called “Metl Hedd,” reflecting the “Black Mirror” episode of the same title from Season 4. More audaciously, one of the “Bandersnatch” outcomes uses a plot device straight from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode entitled “A World of Difference,” where determining what exactly is reality is impossible. And let’s not forget the origin of the word “bandersnatch” either….through the Looking Glass (punny, isn’t it?) indeed.

The acting is uniformly excellent, though special honors go to Will Poulter as Colin Ritman, who fills the role of Stefan’s guru. With that white hair and the character’s various obsessions, you can’t take your eyes off him (And speaking of which, I’d love to know how his buggy eyes were achieved during a key sequence).

So when you have the time, key in Netflix, keep your remote in hand, and start your “Bandersnatch” adventure. Good luck!

● ● ● ●

There’s no better way to wait for the rest of “Black Mirror,” Season 5 than to read “Inside Black Mirror,” a thorough history of the show and a compendium of commentary by the creative team for each episode. It’s fascinating to see where and how the concept for each story originated and how it grew, was modified and ultimately realized on-screen. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, his producing partner, are wonderfully readable, but the best chapters are those in which the actors contribute to the discussion, including among others, Jon Hamm on “White Christmas,” Bryce Dallas Howard on “Nosedive” and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis on “San Junipero.” With all the razzle dazzle of “Black Mirror” and its storytelling, the show’s consistently astute casting shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Inside Black Mirror” makes for compulsive reading and of course the need to revisit all those episodes, if only to pick up on details you may have missed the first time around. It’s a keeper.

 Happy New Year to all!

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Posted in Movie Reviews

The Great War

“They Shall Not Grow Old”

The faces you see in the above still belong to just a few of the many British soldiers who come alive in Peter Jackson’s unique documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Produced in conjunction with the 14-18 Project and the Imperial War Museums, which supplied the 100 hours of vintage film that Jackson has cleaned, tweaked, 3D’d and for 40 glorious minutes, colorized, the resulting experience is extraordinary. That the subject is near and dear to his heart is consistently evident—his grandfather, whose photo we seen in the end credits, was a veteran of the war who eventually succumbed at the age of 50 to the effects of the wounds he had suffered in combat.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” shows us what it was like to be a soldier in the Great War, from training camp through combat to either death or recovery. Jackson lets the troops speak for themselves—there is neither narration nor talking heads, but instead an overlay of voices of a multitude of veterans whose experiences were captured on video in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Their stories give testimony to the attitudes of the times, including the initial popularity of the war which led so many teen-aged boys to lie about their ages in order to enlist. And astonishingly, there was pressure to do so. One of the veterans recalls being confronted on the street by a woman who demanded to know his age. Though he insisted he was only 17 (minimum enlistment age was 19), the woman, a total stranger, thought he was lying and threw a white feather in his face to signify his supposed cowardice.

While the film’s restored black and white footage is marvelous, the shift to color when the troops arrive in France is incredible. The vividness of the image makes you want to jump into the frame, to meet these men, to talk with them, to hear their thoughts. At times, though, there’s a bit of a creep factor—the facial expressions and gestures of the soldiers, brimming with life, are so like ours, but then you remember they’re long dead. Nevertheless, their images will stay with you for days.

As screened in theaters, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is followed by a 30-minute documentary narrated by Peter Jackson in which he shows how the vintage film was prepared, tweaked and assembled into final form. This is almost as fascinating as the feature film itself, and provides wonderful insight, not only into the creative process but into the “why” of the movie. It includes scenes of Jackson’s visit to France, where we see the actual location, virtually unchanged after 100 years, where we earlier viewed soldiers assembling immediately prior to charging the German trenches. It’s a searing moment when Jackson, rerunning this segment that so captures the full range of the soldiers’ expressions, from fear to anticipation to sarcasm, remarks that the majority of men pictured would be dead within the next 30 minutes.

Fortunately there are lighter moments in the documentary: Foley artists tramping in mud to capture that sound, forensic lip readers checking what the troops were saying so that their accents could be properly dubbed, and colorization experts viewing vintage uniforms to ensure the accuracy of the final footage. Best of all is the sight of the eight British representatives that Jackson, who wanted authentic accents instead of his native New Zealand twang, recruited to record a song to accompany the end credits of “They Shall Not Grow Old.” There they are, amateurs all, in the recording studio in their shirtsleeves belting out chorus after chorus of “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” parlay-vooing to the hilt.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” will next be shown in theaters in the United States on December 27th. Don’t miss it, and by all means, stay for the documentary that follows—it’s quite an addition to the main event.

* * * * * * *

Maggie Smith, “Oh! What a Lovely War”

The music heard in “They Shall Not Grow Old” prompted me to re-watch “Oh! What a Lovely War,” Richard Attenborough’s first film as a director (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit this one has a special place in my heart—I first saw it as a college freshman and it made me change my major from psychology to history). While both movies focus on World War I, “Lovely War” doesn’t show the blood and gore of the documentary. Instead, when a character is about to die, he either plucks a poppy or is handed one. To further the fantasy element, the war is at times viewed in microcosm, as taking place on Brighton’s West Pier (The film was shot in 1968, long before that pier deteriorated, burned and ultimately vanished). These scenes are juxtaposed with the muck of the trenches and the bone-chilling cold of No-Man’s Land.

But “Oh! What a Lovely War” is essentially a musical, featuring the evocative songs of the First World War, both from the home front and of course more profanely, from the soldiers themselves (Wait until you hear “When This Lousy War is Over,” sung to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Holding all this together is the saga of the Smith family, whose five young men all don khaki; their sister will serve as a field nurse. They’re roused from their seaside holiday in Brighton by a marching military band which leads them onto the pier and the commencement of the war.

“Oh! What a Lovely War” features a good portion of the English acting hierarchy of the time: three Redgraves (Michael, Vanessa and Corin), Sirs John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier (a particularly harrumphing general) and some actors who would later become much more prominent, such as Ian Holm. But what stands out are the musical numbers: Jean-Pierre Cassel doing a soft-shoe to “Belgium Put the Kaibosh on the Kaiser”while French cavalrymen ride a shiny-white carousel; Corin Redgrave, the very essence of a young British lieutenant, singing “Goodbye” as he circles the pier on a kiddie train; John Mills as Sir Douglas Haig, gracefully dipping his partner in the “Oh, It’s a Lovely War” production number; and most memorably, a young Maggie Smith as a theatrical star compelling enlistments with her unique rendition of “I’ll Make a Man of You.” Her sequence is startling—we see her virtually seduce young Harry Smith into joining her on stage, but as he reaches his destination he sees her up close, her make-up frighteningly garish. No longer an enticing woman, she looks like the oldest whore in the world. War ain’t so grand after all.

The DVD of “Oh! What a Lovely War” appears to be out of print but the film can be rented on Amazon. It’s well worth your time.

Posted in Books, Music, Opera

Marnie

Marnie (Isabel Leonard) and her Shadows (Copyright Metropolitan Opera)

Luckily Alfred Hitchcock did not have the last word. In its new, operatic form, “Marnie” is an interesting work, not necessarily in spite of its flaws but perhaps because of them. Composed by Nico Muhly with a libretto by Nicholas Wright, the opera ended its run at the Metropolitan Opera last Saturday with a live HD transmission. Prior to that I was fortunate to see it in the house.

For better or worse, what consistently drives “Marnie” is the drama. The problem? What works best on the page doesn’t necessarily work all that well on the stage. The basis of both the opera and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title is a 1961 novel by Winston Graham, author of the “Poldark” series. Narrated by the title character, “Marnie” is the story of a thief who steals from her employers and continually changes her identity to conceal her crimes. She’s caught in the act by Mark Rutland, head of his family’s publishing firm who’s obsessed with her. He essentially blackmails her into marriage though she has an absolute horror of sex. Her refusal to sleep with him culminates in what is now legally known as marital rape. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Mark continually protects Marnie as her past begins to catch up with her.

To say this is not your usual operatic subject is an understatement.

In resetting the work to 1958, the opera’s creative team made some alterations to the story, both major and minor. I think it was a mistake to make Mark’s mother something of a villain—I missed the cordial relationship Marnie has with her in the book, as well as her friendship with several of Mark’s tenants, all of which serve to present a warmer side of the character. Further, the original Terry is Mark’s cousin, not his brother as he is in the opera, and the corporate in-fighting between them plays a far larger and more bitter role in the novel. It’s Mark, not his mother, who’s behind a buy-out and later a sale of the company, thus triggering Terry, who knows full well of Mark’s obsession with Marnie, to retaliate by reporting her to the police. Most importantly, though, in a nod to more enlightened sensibilities, the creative team has turned Mark’s rape of Marnie into an attempt rather than a completed act, which is immediately followed by a stunning visual (in silhouette) of her suicide attempt. While this change was certainly welcome, I thought the operatic team should have picked up on Graham’s strong hint that Marnie had been sexually abused as a child by at least one of her mother’s “customers” during the latter’s time as a prostitute.

“Marnie” proves that Nico Muhly has grown enormously as an opera composer since “Two Boys.” He’s writing more closely to character now, and the music becomes more lyrical as the opera unfolds, especially in the second act. Muhly is celebrated for his choral writing, but perhaps we have too much of a good thing here. The first act chorus of office workers commenting on the storm and stress of Marnie’s life is somewhat excessive, and goes beyond just covering one of her fifteen (!) costume changes. On the other hand, his writing for the chorus at the country club dinner, and particularly at the hunt and at Marnie’s mother’s graveside, is spot on. Best of all are the Shadow Marnies, the four singers who frequently accompany her and illustrate her state of mind. Muhly directs them to sing in vibrato-less fashion, which results in an eerie sound perfectly suited to a psychological thriller. It’s an updated version of the theremin soundtrack used so often in 1940’s movies to underscore disturbed characters (See “Spellbound” and “The Lost Weekend”). The Shadow Marnies’ list of her many aliases in the opera’s final scene is particularly chilling, and they provide a great visual, especially during Marnie’s sessions with a psychiatrist, as they literally take turns on the couch.

Even the critics who panned the opera have applauded the production, and rightly so. Designed by Julian Crouch and directed by Michael Meyer, creator of the Met’s Las Vegas “Rigoletto,” this is the best I’ve seen at the Met since Robert Carsen’s “Der Rosenkavalier” of two seasons ago. Some choices seemed odd at first, especially the appearance of several male dancers in gray suits and fedoras during Marnie’s first theft—I thought they were plainclothes detectives. However, they’re put to excellent use during the hunt scene as they embody the tumult that ends in Marnie’s destroying her injured horse, Forio. Speaking of gray suits, the 1950’s costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, were classic, and stylishly worn by both principals and choristers. What a welcome sight to see such a unified vision on stage.

The cast couldn’t have been better. Muhly wrote the opera with Isabel Leonard in mind, and the role suits her to a T, both vocally and dramatically—plus she looked fantastic in her ’50’s wardrobe (all fifteen outfits). Christopher Maltman brought some gravitas to the obsessed Mark; his besotted gaze at Ms. Leonard when she tied his black tie but continually turned his head away from her, spoke volumes. His diction was superb, to the extent that I didn’t need the titles when he sang. Iestyn Davies was perfect casting for the slippery Terry; Muhly rightly illustrated the character’s observation to Marnie in the novel that “We’re two of a kind” by scoring Terry for countertenor, thus having him share a good portion of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. The supporting cast was likewise excellent, including Janis Kelly as Mark’s mother, and Anthony Dean Griffey (Mr. Strutt) and Denyce Graves, still in terrific voice as Marnie’s mother, both back at the Met after many years.

While I think “Marnie” is a good work, as opposed to a great one, it makes me want to hear more from Nico Muhly. He’s only 37. I’m eager to see what he does next.

Posted in Television

Bodyguard

Richard Madden and Keely Hawes: “Bodyguard”

If ever there was a series for which to avoid spoilers, “Bodyguard,” Netflix’s latest entry, is it.

“Rollercoaster” doesn’t even begin to characterize it. This is the most curious blend of shock and ambiguity I’ve seen in quite a while. Created and written by Jed Mercurio, who fills the same roles for “Line of Duty,” perhaps the best cop show ever, “Bodyguard” is difficult to discuss without giving plot twists away. So I’ll just leave it at this: The protagonist is David Budd (Richard Madden, truly late of “Game of Thrones”), an Afghanistan war veteran turned police sergeant, who, after thwarting a terrorist attack, is assigned as protection officer for the controversial Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keely Hawes). Unlike “Line of Duty,” which is a classic police procedural, “Bodyguard” is a thriller that never stops. So many shocking  developments occur that sneaking around the internet for spoilers will absolutely wreck your viewing experience.

It’s not hard to see why this show was a huge BBC hit. First and foremost, it features taut storytelling—there’s not an ounce of filler or flab in its six episodes. Which raises an important point: some recent Netflix series (I’m looking at you, “The Five”) are stretched beyond endurance. Ten episodes for a mystery or thriller? That’s definitely four too many. Brevity is not only the soul of wit—it’s frequently the hallmark of good writing for this genre.

In addition to Robb Stark—er, David Budd—there are some powerful women at work here. Aside from the Home Secretary, there’s Lorraine Craddock (Pippa Haywood), his immediate superior, and Anne Sampson (Gina McKee), Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command—all played by terrific actresses. Once again, Keely Hawes, so memorable in Seasons Two and Three of “Line of Duty”, turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Julia Montague. Ambitious and hard-nosed, she’s not afraid to tangle with the big boys in government. She’s matched, if not exceeded by Gina McKee, who plays her character’s ambiguity to the hilt. There’s not one second you’re sure of her. Is she working against the Home Secretary or is she loyal? Ms. McKee keeps you guessing for all six episodes. And she’s not the only one—you’re not even certain of David Budd. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Anjli Mohindra as Nadia, a woman forced by her husband to don a suicide vest.

One word of advice: “Bodyguard” is definitely bingeable, but you may want to take a breath or two along the way. You’re going to need it.

Bravo, Jed Mercurio!

Posted in Movie Reviews

Paranoia in Red, White and Blue

Parallax_View_movie_posterWe go through periods of time when American movies excel in looking nervously over their shoulder. The film noir era is a definite example, but is it any wonder that 1970’s films seemed to feature so many shades of paranoia? With the assassinations of the previous decade, and especially the byzantine twists of Watergate, it wasn’t surprising. What an overwhelming sense of ideals betrayed, with the Nixon administration as the prime agent of cover-up when not itself acting as the perpetrator of misdeeds.

“The Parallax View” (1974), based on the 1970 novel of the same title by Loren Singer, was clearly inspired by the coincidental deaths (or deliberate if you have a conspiracy bent) of witnesses to the JFK assassination and its surrounding events. However, while maintaining the book’s device of a shadowy organization masterminding these incidents, the film omits the novel’s hints as to the “why.” The audience is left with an overwhelming sense of isolation. Threats seem to be in the very air we breathe.

This is quite a turn from an earlier film which also culminates in an assassination at a political rally, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” There the threat was specific, not diffuse, and the Cold War message was loud and clear: “The Commies are everywhere.” Nevertheless you knew the villains would be thwarted and the government of the United States would be preserved. However, “The Parallax View,” far from offering such reassurance, says there are forces far larger than you and me and they’ll always, but always, win—it’s foolish to even try to do battle.

“The Parallax View” begins with a Fourth of July parade which leads to perhaps the most evocative assassination scene on film, as Senator Charles Carroll, an independent evidently exploring a Presidential run, works a fundraiser held at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. Maybe it’s because I have a problem with heights that I found this particularly unsettling, but seeing the attendees trapped when the shooting starts is a nightmare—if you lived through the ’60’s, this may bring it all back for you. Key players are rendered powerless, including Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV news reporter, and Austin Tucker (William Daniels), the senator’s political advisor, as they’re separated from the scene by a wall of blood-splattered glass. We see the senator’s fixed stare as he lies dying, so reminiscent of the famous photo of Bobby Kennedy sprawled on the hotel kitchen floor while a busboy leans over him to offer comfort.

Although a faceless investigation committee declares this the act of a lone disturbed man who sought recognition, we’ve been shown otherwise (Take that, Warren Commission). But when Lee Carter later shows up on the doorstep of reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) with “They’re going to kill me, six other witnesses have already died,” we’re off and running.

You may feel as I did that every plot hole in “The Parallax View” feels wide enough to drive a Mack truck through. At first I thought it was simply a bad editing job, but the novel shares the same problem of too much left unexplained. Perhaps it’s director Alan J. Pakula’s effort to make the audience work by forcing them to fill in the blanks themselves. It’s not always successful: Joe Frady remains an unlikely and unlikeable investigator. In Warren Beatty’s absent-minded performance, he seems rather dim and incompetent (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in “All the Presidents’ Men,” would have solved the mystery in less than half the time). When he survives the bombing that kills another assassination witness, you just don’t believe he had the capability to do so.

Beatty could have taken lessons from several actors who make the most out of minimal screen time. In fact Paula Prentiss’s big scene, Lee Carter’s insistence to Frady that the people present at the Space Needle are being murdered one by one, is something of a cult favorite. William Daniels as Austin Tucker does a wonderful job, initially as a dapper, in-control political operative, and later as a haunted and hunted man who trusts no one. The performances of several others are equally vivid: Kelly Thordsen as that staple of films of this genre, a corrupt local sheriff, Walter McGinn as the shadowy Parallax operative, and Hume Cronyn, not chewing the scenery this time, as Frady’s editor. But the climactic scene does what movies are best at—telling a story visually, as we watch Candidate George Hammond ride a golf cart through the large arena in which a campaign fundraiser is to take place. Shots ring out, he slumps in his seat, and the runaway cart crashes into banquet table after banquet table, all variously covered by red, white and blue tablecloths.

To a certain extent you wonder why it’s worth taking out Hammond when he orates only the same nondescript all-purpose political blather lampooned a year later in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” A portrait of America on the eve of the bicentennial, “Nashville” culminates in an assassination not of that film’s Presidential candidate, the invisible Hal Philip Walker, but of a celebrity—the film’s most fragile character, the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakly). Interestingly enough, this was not in Joan Tewksbury’s original script; Altman, clearly of the view that assassination had by this time been woven into the fabric of America, insisted on its inclusion.

nashville-gunshot
Nashville: Assassination by Loner

There’s no inkling during the film that we’re headed in this direction. But the running thread of Hal Philip Walker’s campaign and particularly, Lady Pearl’s (Barbara Baxley) teary speech about working for JFK and Bobby Kennedy, ring a faint alarm. At the rally at Nashville’s Centennial Park in front of the Parthenon, we follow the moves of both a Barbara Jean-obsessed soldier (Scott Glenn) and Kenny (David Hayward), a seemingly sympathetic young man who’s been toting a guitar case (it’s Nashville after all). Following a series of images—Barbara Jean performing in a long white dress, not coincidentally resembling Lady Liberty, with a huge billowing American flag on display behind the stage—we see to our shock that it’s the “nice boy,” Kenny, who whips out a gun from that guitar case and fires away. The phoenix-like emergence of the wannabee Albuqueque (the late great Barbara Harris) who rises from the chaos to calm the crowd with chorus after chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me” reassures us that we’re survivors, though it doesn’t erase the fear of what came before.

All the President's Men:
All the President’s Men: “In my day we called it a double-cross”

When “All the President’s Men” (1976) finally rolls around, the government has betrayed us all. What with CIA operatives, slush funds, hush money, campaign dirty tricks—all perpetrated by CREEP, that marvelous acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President—you can never be sure of anything. By the time Bob Woodward has his last late night meeting with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in his favorite underground parking garage, you too may want to pull up your collar and scurry away.

Enjoy the fear.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Second Time Around

Last-Picture-Show-The-09
Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman: “The Last Picture Show”

Do the films we love in our youth still resonate for us years later?

I clearly remember how “The Last Picture Show” bowled me over when I first saw it as a college student. Based upon the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film covers one year in the life of small town Anarene, Texas, during the early 1950’s. The windblown locale (Archer City, McMurtry’s real-life home town) is itself a character in the narrative and serves as one of the film’s strongest assets. It’s hard to shake the sense of desolation produced by that short strip of worn storefronts lining Main Street across from an equally dilapidated Texaco station. This stark image is accentuated by director Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to film the story in black and white—unusual at the time of its 1971 release, but absolutely fitting.

Viewing the movie so many years later, I was struck by how well Bogdanovich captures the claustrophobia and sheer boredom of small town life. The only entertainment spots in Anarene are the town movie theater, a tattered pool hall and Friday night high school football games in which the local boys always seem to be trounced. Everybody knows everybody else’s business—there really are no secrets.

Enter Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), two contrasting high school seniors, the latter a not-necessarily-very-nice guy, the former, a far deeper individual who sometimes doesn’t understand his own emotions. The casting of this film couldn’t be better, and it’s even more of a treat now to watch these young men at the outset of their careers to see how they were able to grow into mature actors. Jeff Bridges is terrific, and Timothy Bottoms is so heartfelt as Sonny that I was shocked to learn John Ritter was almost cast in the part (Nobody does suffering better than Timothy Bottoms). Ben Johnson’s performance as Sam the Lion, Anarene’s anchor and resident role model, has lost little over the years—that Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for this role was well-deserved, though his long monologue at the reservoir may seem a bit stagey today (fault of the script, not the actor). And Clu Gulager, playing Abilene, the local heel, may have the fewest lines in the movie but nevertheless leaves a strong impression.

Sadly, there’s one aspect of “The Last Picture Show” that’s become more grating over the years. This was model Cybill Shepherd’s first acting job, and unfortunately it shows. Chosen by Peter Bogdanovich to play Jacy, the prettiest girl in town, she fills the bill visually but it’s a shame that so many of her line readings go clank (One is reminded of Pauline Kael’s appraisal of an acting performance of Cyd Charisse: “She reads her lines as if she learned them phonetically.”) Of course she improved tremendously after this film, but there’s a difference between acting insincerely as Jacy does and insincerely acting which Ms. Shepherd does. However, she plays the comedy well—Jacy’s reaction to Duane’s non-performance in the motel room and later, her snappishness at Duane’s preening following his success, is classic. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic had a more skilled actress with a greater understanding of Jacy’s duplicity played the role (In a parallel universe equipped with time travel, Alexis Bledel would have been ideal).

But what’s particularly striking when watching “The Last Picture Show” now is that it provided such strong roles for three mature actresses: Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mother, Lois; Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the football coach’s wife; and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, who runs the town’s cafe owned by Sam the Lion. While few actors could play comedy as well as Ms. Brennan (check out “Private Benjamin”), it’s great to see her thrive in a more dramatic role. Both Ms. Leachman and Ms. Burstyn were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and while Ms. Leachman won, Ms. Burstyn is a lot more fun to watch. Although she’s bored to death by her husband, Lois still enjoys life. She’s accumulated more than her share of mileage, while Ruth has seemingly stayed in her shell. Nevertheless, both of these characters connect with the recessive Sonny in two of the best scenes in the film. Ellen Burstyn’s roguish, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” look at Sonny after she rescues him from his runaway marriage to Jacy, and Cloris Leachman’s explosion at the unfaithful young man when he seeks her out after Billy’s death, the scene which cinched her the Oscar, retain their power after all this time.

It’s a gift that “The Last Picture Show,” is the type of quiet movie that nevertheless still speaks to those who return to it after so many years. Seeing it again is certainly time well spent.