Texasville – Peter Bogdanovich (1990)

I enjoyed The Last Picture Show so much that I decided I’d take a look at the sequel, against my better judgement. The fact that the film was adapted from a sequel book by Larry McMurtry set me at some ease. At the least it would be instructive, thought I. Well, I escaped turning into a pillar of salt or a stony statue, I did not stab out my eyes, but sadly that ancient affliction known as “yep – shoulda figured” was unavoidable. Why does this film exist? There are reasons; it is not that bad. All the same, I don’t really feel like tiring myself enumerating them. The main problem is that this movie takes figures who, in the first film, are semi-mythic, mostly because of the proto-American setting and their taciturn nature, and makes them human, all too human. Where the first film’s real focus was on the town itself, and, to a lesser extent, Sonny as the emblem of this community, here Bogdanovich has refocused the drama on a reunion between Jacy and Duane. Did he really think their relationship was so central in the earlier film that it merited reopening? Is the topic of the film bridging the gulf of time, and their characters are the only viable ones left from the first film? Perhaps he felt he needed a more traditional anchor for a drama that is, if possible, even less dramatic than the first film (although it tries much, much harder). All I care to say is that watching this, so soon after having seen the first film, was like a fever dream in reverse – waking from one lovely, lilting unreality into a garish, nightmarish present. The choice to shoot in color, while making absolute sense, doesn’t help this feeling. Neither do the performances. Jeff Bridges is fine, as Duane wasn’t much of a character to begin with – kind of a doofus jerk, who, thirty years on, is an older doofus jerk, mellowed a bit. Cybill Shepherd does well too, and touches of the younger Jacy are still there in terms of her affect. The rest of the original cast, no matter how closely they hew to their previous incarnations, seem unsure of why they are back. For this, I blame the script. Whereas the first film primarily dealt in images, and talking was kept to a minimum, Texasville is almost all talk, and not very interesting talk at that. It makes the characters seem old and insecure, draining out any mystery that previously held sway. Perhaps this is the point. But poor, poor Timothy Bottoms as Sonny is a true tragedy. The script has him, in middle age, already senile and losing it (to be fair, half the characters seem in their premature dotage) – remembering the old days by sitting in the burned out movie theater and watching “movies in the sky” with his one good eye. Bottoms gives a limp, mannered performance. I don’t blame him, but it really is destructive of his work in the earlier film. The details also nag. The tone is semi-farcical, to provide some “action,” I guess, but the levity is undone by a lack of requisite yeast. Harvey Christiansen, for instance, plays Old Man Balt, a character who as far as I can tell is not in the earlier film, but who, in appearance and age seems to be a stand-in for the sheriff and his cohort. Instead of supplying some meaningful link to the past, he falls out of cars and off of horses and says stuff like “What’s on TV?!” while pulling a mug. Ug. Randy Quaid leads up a supporting cast that can find little to do but run around acting manic, looking sweaty, and shooting things up (this is Texas, after all). Whereas the lack of racial diversity in the prior film was a problem, left unspoken and unsolved, Bogdanovich now provides us with one black character – Pearl Jones as housekeeper Minerva, pure comic relief. Double ug. The new characters do better, although Duane’s children seem to be a tired retread and mash-up of aspects of the original young generation, with his son Dickie reworking Sonny’s attraction to the older Ruth into a veritable career of MILF womanizing (as if that was one of the themes of the earlier picture). The number of premature marriages and surprise pregnancies would make your head spin, if any of it mattered. On a positive note, I would like to pay particular homage to Annie Potts, who, as Duane’s wife of twenty years, is the most interesting and “real” of any of them, and dominates the screen handily in her scenes (which thankfully are many). I could go on and on about the alternating doldrums of leaden plot-shaped meatballs and thick slices of cheese which are draped all over this feast, such as Sonny’s dramatic “rescue” from himself at the top of the football field bleachers that brings all the characters together, feel-good eighties style, in the finale. But why bother? There might be something in here about selling out and flattening out in Reagan’s America, but do I care enough to excavate further? Obviously not.

Two stars out of five

A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (2014)

I’ll admit it: I dislike Jessica Chastain. Like most prejudices, there is no very good reason behind this one. She’s not a terribly versatile actress – and she never struck me as a sincere one either. (The tabloids have made some small fodder about her actual age, which she’s been coy about; this bothers me not a whit, as actresses need to be cagey given the crap they have to deal with to find work. All the same, playing a teenage orphan at age 31, as she did in Jolene, which “introduced” her to a wider viewing public, is pushing it, given that she looks close to her age). Her role in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life summed up her range: attractive in a porcelain kind of way, competent enough, but not much there there. No heat or depth, and “warm” and “caring” in that aloof way that fails to charm or convince. Her subsequent work in Zero Dark Thirty and, to a lesser extent, Interstellar, ostensibly gritty roles, did nothing to modify my view. A lot of strident striding around, being “tough” in a cardboard kind of way which also somehow verged on chewing the scenery. It is with some relief that I can thus report that her turn in A Most Violent Year, in the role of a Brooklyn mafioso’s streetwise daughter (scary to contemplate, I know) actually comes off with some subtlety. The accent is a bit dodgy, but her performance is, dare I say it, convincing, and even a little bit sexy. Her part, while well written, is somewhat underwritten too – or, at least, not the narrative driver that we expect. Many things about the film are unexpected, though.

What’s this movie about? I had no idea. It looked like a gangster movie, and the little I’d read didn’t dissuade me from that evaluation, except to add that the film was slow and had no plot. Okay, so what? (I like it better already, probably). In reality, this is a drama about the dog eat dog world of the heating oil business circa 1981 New York. Yes, this probably accounts for the mystique surrounding the promotion of the film. We keep expecting it to be a gangster movie, or at least, for heating oil to meet up with Chastain’s Dad in a back alley to seal the deal. No dice. Oscar Isaac, looking like the love child of Al Pacino and Armand Assante, plays Abel Morales, one of the larger players in said industry, on the verge of making it to the big leagues – he’s just put down his life savings on an oil import terminal, and now has thirty days to clear the money to own it outright, or lose his deposit and the property. The film is basically a portrait of those thirty days, and of his quest to secure the funds against the machinations of his competition (and the District Attorney). Chandor does not play this out the way you might think, however – little overt “suspense” or action, just time passing and bad news piling up. This is not a flaw, though, for the low-key portrait is plenty compelling and fits with the larger purpose of this tale. Morales, in some ways a false echo of Pacino in Godfather III, is set on playing it straight, doing things in an above-board way, and not solving violence with violence. The backstories to all the characters are alluded to, but never fully fleshed out (again, all to the good, at least in my mind). We get the feeling that he owes his business opportunity to his father-in-law, and that, since then, he has worked to differentiate himself from that path. Working against him, in smallish ways, are his wife, who instinctually reverts to the family way of solving problems, and his lawyer, played by an excellent Albert Brooks, who we come to understand is also Dad-in-law vestigial. The film keys us to expect that, given the continual road blocks thrown up to Abel’s plans, eventually he will turn to bad Daddy for help, and this will be his downfall. If not that, we think perhaps he will reveal his true colors, and the film does develop some tension along the lines of “how far can a good man be pushed?” And also: “is this a good man in a bad position, or a bad man trying to go good who, unable to change his ways, will pay for denying his true nature?” Without giving anything away, I will say that the film answers those questions without satisfying any expectations. More than anything, this is a film about how little distance there often is between being a businessman and being a thug; or rather, that being in business often means doing things the wrong way, grinding people down, and acting like a mafioso, because that’s the nature of making money, and that the firewalls society sets up to supposedly prevent this from happening are indeed disingenuous, obfuscations that allow us to pretend “civilized” behavior and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. As a portrait of life in (an admittedly shadier than average) business, and of New York in the early 1980s, it is extremely well done, always compelling and interesting without ever feeling trite or falling into generic expectations (as it is not a genre film after all). The ending, while a bit contrived and expected, is symbolic of the whole enterprise, and of Morales’s untenable position. On the whole a very satisfying, unexpected pleasure.

Three and a half stars out of five