TIME Television

Stephen Colbert: A Great Talk-Show Host? No, the Greatest!

Farewell to a magnificent comic actor who skewered the news, the media and his own blowhard character — and made it all incorrigibly, indelibly appealing

I’m blue. After nine years and two months, The Colbert Report is off the air. I’ve seen each of the 1446 episodes leading to tonight’s sign-off, and cherished almost all of them. The show’s conclusion will leave a void in my life and in my writing, since I’ve shoehorned Colbert references into reviews of Superbad, Prince of Persia, Pompeii, Jackass 3D, Nightcrawler and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and into essays about Richard Nixon, Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jeter, makeup artist Dick Smith and the 2012 Super Bowl. For my wife Mary Corliss and me, Colbert has been destination viewing. Even in the early years, we never took the show’s excellence for granted, agreeing that some day we’d look back on the double whammy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as the golden age of TV’s singeing singing satire.

That age ends now. Colbert is gone from TV until September, when he takes over David Letterman’s CBS 11:35 slot and, at 51, becomes the oldest man to debut as the host of a late-night network talk show. (Joan Rivers was 53 when she began The Late Show in 1986 on the upstart Fox network.) He’ll be off the air for nine months — a long time for admirers like me to go cold, or Colbert, turkey. And when he finally starts on CBS, he’ll just be Stephen Colbert. Not “Stephen Colbert,” the greatest fake newsman in TV history, and one of the richest fictional characters in any popular art form of the past decade.

I was around (as a toddler) for the late-night pioneers Steve Allen and Jack Paar, and for the 29-year reign of Johnny Carson. They established comedy as the tone de unit for post-prime time TV. And fealty forever to Jon Stewart, who took command of The Daily Show in 1999 and turned it into the prime exemplar of cogent, corrosive political comedy in any medium. The edge Colbert has on all these giants is that he is a magnificent comic actor, commenting cuttingly on his egotistical right-wing “Colbert” character even as he seems to live inside it. He made that Colbert both politically outrageous and personally appealing.

Without Stewart, of course, The Colbert Report would not have existed. Both shows skewer politicians, pop culture and that inexhaustible source of satire, the Fox News Channel. (It’s amazing that, with the same butts for their humor, the two shows rarely cracked the same jokes.) But the on-air Stewart was himself, not “Jon Stewart.” Colbert, who had been a Daily Show correspondent for two years before Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as host, was already honing his pompous-ignoramus persona, which he described in 2006 as “a fool who has spent a lot of his life playing not the fool – one who is able to cover it at least well enough to deal with the subjects that he deals with.” In other words, the authoritative bluffer, the officious fraud, the idiot know-it-all.

He played another incarnation of this all-hat-no-cattle character on the Comedy Central sitcom Strangers With Candy (1999-2000), which he also wrote with costars Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. High-school history teacher Chuck Noblet was every bit as seemingly self-assured and wildly misinformed as the Colbert Colbert. He instructed his students that Gandhi “was devoured by his followers,” that the 1840s Opium War was between China and Mexico and that the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s life was that “all this footage is in black and white. Imagine how powerful it would have been in color.” Frequently mentioning his lovely wife, Chuck actually carried a man-crush for Dinello’s slightly-less-closeted art teacher. (Dinello, a Colbert Report executive producer, has made appearances as Tad the building manager. And Sedaris crashed the Dec. 3rd episodes as a “canceled” guest.)

When The Colbert Report premiered on Oct. 17, 2005, a lot of people predicted that the character would quickly grow stale. This blowhard pundit, modeled on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, was too meta; to play along, you had to get the joke that he was dispensing a right-wing take on the news from a left-wing perspective. (I sometimes wonder: Do all his viewers appreciate that?) One wondered how long he could sustain the role: take the audience’s cheers as he trotted over to the guest’s table, or denounce bears as “godless killing machines,” or deflect charges of race prejudices because he’s color-blind (“People tell me I’m white, and I believe them…”) or preen through repeated segments of “Who’s Honoring Me Now?”

The answer turned out to be: forever. For Colbert and his splendid writing team had created a ferociously funny Col-BEAR — or Col-BARE, if you think this character exposes aspects of the man whom impersonates him —as an alternative to the bright, quiet, modest fellow whose family pronounces its surname COLbert. Both Colberts are ardent Catholics, born and raised in South Carolina and married with three children. But the TV Colbert went to Dartmouth, humiliates his underpaid staff and has harbored an almost stalker-y obsession with his teen love Charlene. The real Colbert graduated from Northwestern; is by all accounts a kind, caring boss; is married to Evelyn McGee (who played his mother on one episode of Strangers With Candy); and for years taught Sunday school near his Montclair, N.J. home. Need we also say, the real Colbert is a liberal.

The last weeks of shows have put poignant ends to some enduring Colbert shtick. His continuing segment, “Formidable Opponent,” in which the more moderate Stephen (blue tie) would debate an issue with the more conservative Stephen (red tie), got a final segment this week in which the cross-cutting ended with a split screen of the two men; and as red-tie Stephen faded out, blue-tie Stephen said, “And you, Sir, have been a most formidable opponent.” (Verklempt!) And in a visit last week to George Washington University, he turned his familiar conundrum to political guests — “George W. Bush: great President, or the greatest President?” — by asking the current President of the United States, “Barack Obama: great President, or the greatest President?”

We’ll bet that the “real” Stephen was touched by that moment. We know that he did get pumped by his audience’s cheers at the top of the show and, in the early years, express pleasured surprise at his renown — for example that “my Wikipedia page is longer than the line for the Lutherans.” (Wikipedia’s Colbert pages now run more than 300,000 words, to about 15,300 for Lutheranism.) Colbert has intimated he thought that, after nine years, his character had run its course. But isn’t it possible that COL-bert will miss Col-BEAR as much as we do?

If so, Mr. Colbert, please come back, at least occasionally. Your replacement show, Larry Wilmore’s The Minority Report, will be on hiatus eight weeks between its debut in January and your September stint on CBS. You may have felt worn out by “Stephen Colbert,” but we need more of the Greatest TV Talk-Show Host.

Read next: Review: The Colbert Report Is Dead. Long Live Stephen Colbert!

TIME movies

You Can’t See The Interview, but I Did

James Franco and Seth Rogen
James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview Columbia

Here's what you missed

Correction appended

A decade ago, when Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police made mock of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean regime didn’t threaten retaliation — maybe because Kim, like all the other people in the movie, was portrayed as a marionette.

The Democratic People’s Republic, under King Jong Il’s son Kim Jong Un, apparently had a more severe reaction to The Interview, in which two American TV journalists (James Franco and Seth Rogen) are charged by the CIA with killing the dictator while they’re in North Korea to interview him. Someone who took issue with this scenario hacked the computers of Sony Pictures, spilling internal gossip and downloading five Sony movies, including four yet to be released. As Stephen Colbert proclaimed on Monday night, the perpetrator “has to be North Korea. The only other person with that capability is a 12-year-old with BitTorrent.”

Hollywood’s escalating tension about cyberterrorism, which is no joke, led to the five largest North American movie chains refusing to show The Interview, and then to Sony’s announcement that it was withdrawing the movie, originally scheduled to open Christmas Day. That’s never happened to a major-studio mainstream film just a week before it was due to appear on thousands of screens.

So reviews like this one may be the public’s only way, for now, to find out what’s actually in the movie. One mixed verdict on The Interview: Beyond the ballsy premise — which got green-lighted by Sony Pictures’ U.S. moguls and its Japanese overlords, before (as the emails reveal) some late editing edicts from above — this is your basic Rogen farce about sloppy-happy-harried stoners trying to bluff their way out of trouble.

Read more U.S. Sees North Korea as Culprit in Sony Hack

We mean Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express, Neighbors, This Is the End and nearly all other movies Rogen has starred in or written, possibly excepting his voice work for Horton Hears a Who! and the Kung Fu Pandas. Directing The Interview with his longtime writing pal Evan Goldberg, Rogen serves up the usual farrago of sexual outrage and guy-bonding, only this time in the guise of nervy satire using real names. (When Sacha Baron Cohen played The Dictator, he made fun of a whole swath of Middle East tyrants, not just one.)

In a nifty opening scene, a lovely Korean girl sings a wistful, stirring anthem to Western values that U-turns into an international death wish; one line translates as “May they drown in their blood and feces.” (It’s an extension of the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” song from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret film, in which the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that the handsome blond teen singing it is a Hitler Youth.) Cut to the syndicated show Skylark Tonight, kind of Barbara Walters goes TMZ, with host Dave Skylark (Franco) interviewing Enimem. Suddenly the rap artist declares he’s a homosexual, saying that in rap lyrics “I’ve pretty much been leaving a breadcrumb trail of gayness.”

These two excellent bits in the first few minutes make a skeptic wonder: Have Rogen and Goldberg honed their talents to create, or smoked enough pot to stumble into, a movie that works from start to finish? But as always, they’re just teasing our expectations only to deflate them. The joke barrage becomes hit-or-miss, as if the creators — including screenwriter Dan Sterling, working from a story by Rogen and Greenberg — don’t know or care which is which.

Aaron, the Skyline Tonight producer played by Rogen, does know that his show isn’t 60 Minutes — because a 60 Minutes producer tells him so — and sees a chance to do News That Matters when he learns that North Korea’s Shining Star is Skylark’s No. 1 fan. Yes, he would sit for an interview, instantly stoking dim Dave’s dream of the greatest confrontation of journalist and potentate since David Frost corralled Richard Nixon. “In 10 years, Ron Howard’s going to make a movie out of this,” he exults, mis-recalling the Howard film title as Frosty Nixon. All is swell until the CIA, in the lissome form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan from Masters of Sex), adds a wrinkle to Dave and Aaron’s assignment: kill Kim.

Acting with Franco on and off for half his 32 years, since Freaks and Geeks, Rogen plays Aaron as a smart, underachieving 12-year-old, with Franco as his dumb, cute friend. And say this for Franco: few stars can radiate the joy he does in playing an idiot who happens to be popular. Uttering such pearls of sagacity as “This is 2014, women are smart now,” Dave is handsome, empty TV charisma rampant. And the sick thing is that, even to a skeptic, Franco makes grinning inanity attractive.

Pushing bromance even further than in other Rogen movies, the schlub and the stud exchange hugs, kisses and homoerotic endearments. “I am Gollum and you’re my Precious,” Dave tells Aaron. “I will cherish every moment; I will rub your tummy when you get back” — this when Aaron has to retrieve a CIA poison canister that he’s obliged to hide in a body part where, according to the Senate Torture Report, the agency’s interrogators sometimes inserted hummus in their terror suspects. Monitoring the pickup from Langley, Agent Lacey must be pleased that Aaron more or less voluntarily gives himself a colonic. See, that proves it’s not torture!

Read more 3 Reasons People Think North Korea Hacked Sony

Amid all the cartoon characterizations, the most complex and sympathetic — or at least pathetic — figure is Kim, played with alternating charm and menace by Randall Park (Danny Chung on the most recent season of Veep). Like Dave and Aaron, Kim is stuck in horny preadolescence. He loves basketball — with the hoops lowered so he can dunk — and Katy Perry, but with the poignancy of a poor little rich boy who must play the adult in his public appearances. Meeting Dave gives him a chance to reveal the real Kim, not a god but just one of the guys: he pees and poos.

Dave’s possibly genuine hookup with this man-child might pose a threat to his American BFF, except that Aaron’s having a fling with Sook, Kim’s most trusted security guard, a role to which Diana Bang (Jiao on Bates Motel) also brings more craft and heft to the project than required of the Occidental performers. Indeed, if the real Kim were to see The Interview, he might be flattered by the portraits of the two main North Koreans — at least until the last reel of political score-settling, war games and Tarantinian stuff blowing up.

In its parade of ribald gags and infantile preoccupation with body parts, not to mention a climactic decapitation, water-balloon style, The Interview displays all the mindless excesses that repressive regimes condemn in Hollywood movies. Which may be Rogen and Goldberg’s point — “See, here’s what they hate about us. And you’re gonna love it.”

Maybe you will love The Interview — if you can ever see the movie — as much as some people hate or fear it. But if you’re hoping for any cogent political satire here, then the joke’s on you.

Correction: This article originally misidentified The Interview’s screenwriter. He is Dan Sterling.

Read next: Everything We Know About Sony, ‘The Interview’ and North Korea

TIME movies

Review: Did Anyone Have a Good Time Making Night at the Museum 3?

Nothing comes to life in this rote, trite finale to the kid-friendly fantasy franchise

M.C. Escher’s “Relativity,” the 1953 lithograph that plays with gravity and perspective, receives a delightful tweak in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Larry the night watchman (Ben Stiller) and his antique colleagues Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) tumble into and scramble through the sideways stairways of Escher’s surreal courtyard. The scene is a compact epiphany of physical, borderline-metaphysical comedy — nearly as funny and impressive as Andrew Lipson and Daniel Shiu’s LEGO version of “Relativity.” Pushing the trope further, the producers commissioned a clever elaboration that’s used as a poster for the movie. Congratulations to all involved!

Sorry, but this concludes any warm comments about the third episode in the Night at the Museum series, a kid-aimed fantasy franchise that imagines the stuffed or wax figures at New York’s American Museum of Natural History coming to life and cavorting each night. Director Shawn Levy extended the 2006 original with a 2009 sequel set in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution. Because the two films earned almost $1 billion at the global box office, simple corporate math demanded a third installment, this time with a trip to the British Museum. The world tour might have extend to the Louvre or the Hermitage in future sequels, but apparently this is it.

A good thing too, since Secret of the Tomb gives every evidence of franchise exhaustion. In the screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, Larry and the gang travel to London to find out why the ancient Egyptian tablet that is the source of the museum figures’ revived lives has gone on the fritz. At the British Museum they encounter Lancelot, who has hard time adjusting to the 21st century and comes close to bolloxing Larry’s mission to save his old, old friends. The movie is content to reprise bits from the first two entries, and the few innovations — such as giving Larry a caveman double (also played by Stiller) — are rote, trite and feeble.

Did anyone have a good time making this movie? The actors seem to be reading their lines at gunpoint, in an enterprise whose mood is less summer camp than internment camp. Such exemplary comic spirits as Ricky Gervais (the AMNH’s director), Steve Coogan (the Roman soldier Octavius) and Owen Wilson (the antique cowboy Jedediah) have the look of abandonment, as if hoping that some prompter from the sides will whisper a line more deliverable than what the script has told them to say. “Get me a rewrite!” say these faces, frozen in a rictus of embarrassment.

Mickey Rooney, who died in April at 93, makes a brief appearance here in a wheelchair. Williams, in the last on-screen role he completed before his death this Aug., seems unusually muted, but he simply could have been interpreting the character as written. (The movie is dedicated to these two comedy immortals.) The only performers who suggest they’re enjoying themselves are Dick Van Dyke, in a spry cameo as a Natural History night watchman emeritus, and Crystal the Monkey, a scene-swiping Capuchin whose capers include peeing on the tiny figures of Octavius and Jedediah, during a Pompeii lava scene, and planting big smooches on every human in sight.

I could go on, but making jokes about failed movies is not my favorite part of this job. Besides, you already get the idea. Some day soon, the “Relativity” scene will be on YouTube. See that part of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and skip the rest.

TIME movies

Review: Do Enlist in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson's climax to his long Tolkien journey is a war movie with all the satisfactions of fellowship and expert filmmaking

“Of course!” said Gandalf. … “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.

With those words J.R.R. Tolkien ended his book The Hobbit, which he wrote from 1930 to 1932 and which, when published five years later, introduced the world to the Middle-earth of Dwarves and Elves, humans and the small, hairy-footed Hobbits of the Shire. By 1949 the Oxford don had completed an epic sequel, published in three volumes as The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955. Without much doubt the great fantasy books of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings in its film-trilogy version became the first fantasy movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Spurred by that success, as well as by his connection to the material and his eagerness to expand on the CGI artistry pioneered by his Weta Workshop, director-producer Peter Jackson made three feature-length episodes of The Hobbit, concluding this week with The Battle of the Five Armies. And now, 17 years after the Hobbit-shaped director launched his quest to bring Tolkien to the screen — and supervising two mammoth shooting schedules, each of 266 days — it’s over. “I’ve sort of done the once-in-a-lifetime experience twice,” Jackson said recently. “But not a third time. There won’t be a third time.

The three Lord of the Rings films (titled, like the books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) were essential, enthralling viewing. Jackson’s The Hobbit, on its own terms a satisfying rough cut of a very long good movie, could only be an ornate codicil to the thrilling endeavor of The Rings — however appealing the new series’ directorial vision, however robust its characters and tantalizing its emotions.

The plodding first act, An Unexpected Journey, released in 2012, was saved from terminal tedium by the encounter in which “Bilbo the Burglar” (Martin Freeman) steals the One Ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis). The trilogy sprang belatedly to dramatic life last year with wondrous set pieces in The Desolation of Smaug: a giant spider attack on the Dwarves, the escape from the Elves’ castle down a raging-rapids river, the siege of the humans’ Lake-town and Bilbo’s climactic confrontation with Smaug. A dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) as pompous as it is powerful, Smaug allowed Bilbo to outsmart it when he slipped on the Ring and disappeared with the Dwarves’ most precious treasure, the Arkenstone.

In the new movie, Jackson and his screenwriting colleagues Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens begin with a Smaug alert. Escaping his lair, the dragon flies to Lake-town for a sensational blitzkrieg defended by the episode’s unsullied human hero Bard the Bowman (stalwart Luke Evans). The tragic figure here is the Dwarf king Thorin (a splendidly conflicted Richard Armitage) who, having recaptured his people’s ancestral cave of gold, is tainted and maddened by it. Asked by the Elf king Thrandull (Lee Pace) if he will have peace or war, Thorin bellows, “I will have war!” and the five armies — Dwarves, Elves, men, Orcs and an unexpected fifth contingent — amass for a battle that consumes the last 45 mins. and nearly matches The Two Towers in its masterly visual choreography of sustained combat. (All hail Serkis, absent as Gollum but contributing his talents as second-unit director.)

Within the confines of a bustling war-movie — and, at 2hr.24min., by far the shortest film in either trilogy — Jackson is obliged to telegraph the moments of personal emotion. Yet the Elf princess Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) has time to make elevated love, and to go to war, with her Dwarf darling Kili (Aidan Turner). And in an interlude back in the Elven kingdom, the magnificent Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) fights off an unwelcome spectral guest with the intervention of Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the still-beneficent Saruman (Christopher Lee, still royally charismatic at 92). So many plot lines need tying up, under the martial supervision of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), that the lone Hobbit is often in the background; at times you may ask, “Where’s Bilbo?” He proves his mettle and justifies the movies’ title by employing the resources of his heart and his cunning.

For all the craft and energy on display in Five Armies, few fanciers of the Ring cycle will mourn that, in Jackson’s words, “There won’t be a third time”: he means he will not attempt to wrestle a coherent story out of Tolkien’s sprawling, posthumously published The Silimarillion. Even Jackson’s longtime admirers may whisper “Thank goodness!” that the director of early splatter comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead, and the teen-girl murder romance Heavenly Creatures, can say goodbye to reverent fantasy adaptations and get back to his proper job of subversive satire in tones either gross-out or surreal.

Some might even see this three-part Hobbit project as an example of the greed that Tolkien defined as the cardinal sin in both of his grand fables. Love of gold drives Thorin to madness; and the One Ring debases all those who keep or covet it. (The abiding lesson of both stories: baaad jewelry!) Remember that Jackson originally assigned Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to helm The Hobbit, which was planned as just two films. Then Jackson took over; he wanted The Hobbit for himself, just as he had possessed the Ring movies, and he decided it would be three features. Tolkien originally divided The Lord of the Rings into six books; if Jackson had carried more clout in the ’90s, when he started work on the series, we might have had a Ring sextet. (His sponsor, New Line Cinema, was already taking a $300-million risk in entrusting three features to a New Zealander with no hit movies on his résumé.)

The Jackson–del Toro backstory has a touch of the pathetic Gollum, who kept the Ring for ages and was corrupted by its possession before losing it to Bilbo and then Frodo. And why make a 300-page story into three movies? A potential billion-dollar worldwide gross for each! Next question?

But Jackson made good on his respect for the Tolkien books and their overarching theme of fellowship. These are tales about members of different species who become friends to achieve a single, near-impossible goal in time of war. Modern moviemaking is war by other means: acting on a bare stage in front of a green screen, and marshaling elements, real and CGI, that exist only on storyboards or in the filmmaker’s teeming brain.

If The Hobbit doesn’t equal the achievement of Jackson’s earlier Middle-earth movies — and, honestly, what could? — it is still, in sum, a thrilling effort, perhaps standing behind only Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as the most impressive and intelligent multi-film action epic since The Lord of the Rings. As Gandalf might say: You are a very fine storyteller, Mr. Jackson, and we are most grateful for your Hobbit.

TIME movies

Review: Mr. Turner: A Sour Man With a Painterly Genius

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner Sony Pictures Classics

Gorgeously rendered but dry as dirt, Mike Leigh's biopic of the 19th-century artist shows that a great artist doesn't have to be a nice person

Correction appended: Dec. 18, 2014

In the new film The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking’s father Frank glances at a J.M.W. Turner print and says, “I always feel as if his paintings had been left out in the rain.” Well, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an English landscape painter, and it does rain quite a bit in Old Blighty. Two centuries later, he is renowned for paintings that were dark, turbulent and magnificently wet.

Yet the picture that emerges in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is dry: cold and hard on the surface and in what we detect is its heart. Spanning the last 25 years of the artist’s life, and dominated by Timothy Spall’s performance, which won Best Actor awards from the Cannes Film Festival and the New York Film Critics Circle, this is the stark vision of a spectacularly insensitive soul — a portrait of the artist as an old boar.

Turner’s father was a barber; his mother came from a family of butchers. The young man wielded a softer scalpel: a brush, in the Sunday-painter medium of watercolors. Yet he shared his forebears’ talent for shearing. From his landscapes he pared the fat to find the meat, and located, in his evocations of angry sunsets and violent storms, the essence of visual art: light. TIME’s Robert Hughes proclaimed Turner “the most profound romantic artist in 19th century Europe.” In “the Beethoven-like grandeur of the last landscapes,” Hughes wrote in 1974, “the world of detail and substance has been fully absorbed into the vibration of light, pure self-delighting energy manifesting itself.”

Who put this elemental fury and rapture on canvas? Who was this pathfinder of the sea and sky — as Hughes insisted, “a far more ‘modern’ artist than any of the French Impressionists” a half-century later? He was neither starving artist nor slumming aristocrat. A poor boy, self-educated, Turner sold paintings from his early teens; he received the esteem of most critics, the Royal Academy and lordly patrons until his death at 76.

Spall, who spent two years researching Turner and learning to paint in his style, provides a remorseless impersonation of a man who was a kind of beast: he’s glum, gruff, with irregular teeth, and occasionally erupts in snorts and whinnies. When the mood suits him he takes abrupt sexual advantage of his dim, devoted housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). In scenes that play like drawing-room comedy with a poisonous edge, he curtly dismisses his mistress (Ruth Sheen) and their two daughters. He duns an impecunious painter, Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), for return on a 50-pound loan, though Haydon had lost five of his children to early death. (He spent time in debtor’s prison and killed himself at 60.) On and on, Leigh slams his message home: Artists don’t have to be nice people.

The writer-director is best known for the acerbic dramas — Naked, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake — that he prepares in months-long workshops with his cast. Leigh also served up the delightful Topsy-Turvy (1999), which detailed the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. His Turner film depicts some of the artist’s travels in search of inspiration for his paintings. On a ship in the North Sea, as a dreadful storm brews… but let’s hear the artist’s own words: “I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it. I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape; but I felt bound to record it if I did.” Hughes calls that painting, Snowstorm—Steamboat off a Harbor’s Mouth, a “devouring vortex of exquisitely modulated energy.”

Leigh surrounds Turner with many 19th-century estimables. Oh, look, there’s John Constable (James Fleet), Turner’s rival in landscapes. Here comes the scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), one of the first women elected to the Royal Academy of Astronomy. We attend a salon session with John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), the young critic whose book Modern Painters praised Turner and argued that any artist’s creed should be “truth to nature.” We even get a brief audience with Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews) and Prince Albert (Tom Wlaschiha). Except for Charles Dickens — who took time from writing novels to say of the hapless Haydon that “he most unquestionably was a very bad painter” — the gang’s all here.

Epic in breadth and length (2½ hours), and gorgeously photographed (digitally) by Bill Pope, Mr. Turner is intimate in incident. Except for the Snowstorm ordeal, it lavishes little attention on scenes of the suffering artist — though Turner occasionally must suffer fools, including a few critics and other painters. Leigh is more interested in Turner’s relationship with his father William (Paul Jesson), who once sold the boy’s paintings in his barbershop and later serves, faithfully and without complaint, as his son’s assistant. William’s death is one blow that penetrates the artist’s tough hide.

Having spent early years in the seaside town of Margate, Turner returns in his fifties and, using his middle name Mallord, takes up residence in a home owned by the seaman Booth (Karl Johnson) and his cheerful wife Sophia (Marion Bailey). After Booth’s death, the working-class widow becomes Turner’s enduring mistress, in one of the film’s few acknowledgments of human tenderness.

Another dour Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, proclaimed life as “nasty, brutish and short.” This long movie portrays Turner as nasty and brutish, an unpleasant man with the freakish gift of painterly genius. On his deathbed, he summoned eloquence to match his artistry. His final words: “The sun is God.” That’s an oddly uplifting conclusion to a film that shows so many storms of temperament from a man in a foul-weather mood.

An earlier version of this article misidentified the cinematographer. He is Dick Pope.

TIME movies

REVIEW: Don’t Let Your People Go See Exodus: Gods and Kings

Casting Anglo actors as Egyptians is far from the worst sin Ridley Scott committed in this Biblically and cinematically uninspired retelling of the Moses story

“And this is your famous Uncle Moses,” a Hebrew man says to a child in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. “He was once Prince of Egypt.” Renowned in movie history as in Bible history, Moses was indeed the star of the 1998 The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks’ first animated feature, also known in the industry as The Zion King. In the 1980 comedy Wholly Moses! he was the upstart who swipes the Ten Commandments from Herschel, the would-be Hebrew hero played by Dudley Moore. Most memorably, Moses was Charlton Heston of the sturdy torso and stentorian voice in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, released in 1956 and still, in terms of tickets sold, sixth among all-time box-office hits.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, famous Uncle Moses is Christian Bale — also a looker, but employing an accent that wanders like the nomadic Jews from stately Brit-speak to American Urban-Tough. The movie got swathed in controversy during pre-production when certain groups complained that white actors had been cast as the Egyptians and Hebrews, anyway the Semites, of 1300 B.C. The director’s retort was brusque and businesslike. “I can’t mount a film of this budget [$130 million, plus about $70 million in tax rebates], and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” Somehow this assertion that no Islamic performer would be a significant lure — plus the casting of an actor named Christian as the Jewish prophet who leads his people out of 400 years of Egyptian slavery — didn’t calm the protesters.

Racial sensitivities aside, this Exodus is a stolid mess, bleakly laughable without being an entertaining hoot like De Mille’s camp classic. On the plus side there are some vividly depicted plagues — alligators turning the Nile red, locusts, hailstones, a toad torrent (the frog of war), boils for the soulless, helpless Egyptians — and, in the parting of the Red Sea, the snazziest “enormous wall of water” since… well, since Interstellar last month. On the minus side is everything else.

MORE: Exodus and the True History of Moses

Working from a script by Steven Zaillian (an Oscar-winner for Schindler’s List) and three lesser scribes, plus possibly a few uncredited Pharisees, Scott presents Moses as a wise warrior, hunky dude and favorite of the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). Seti’s son Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is an envious coward who boasts of achieving the military triumphs actually earned by Moses. In Ramses we have the standard friend-rival figure who hounds the lower-born hero, as seen in Biblical and Roman movie epics from The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (Heston and Stephen Boyd) to Scott’s own Gladiator, where Russell Crowe is the solider soldier and Joaquin Phoenix the Emperor’s sicko son.

Scott’s royal Egyptians — Seti, Ramses and the Queen Mum Tuya (Sigourney Weaver) — are, in a way, colored. They’re golden, as if they’d rolled around in the largesse of Smaug’s cave and emerged as six-foot versions of the Oscar statuettes this movie will not be receiving. (According to Edgerton, he was also obliged to wear “gold underpants.”) A few actors from sub-Saharan Africa play minor roles, but only as slaves — another nettle for prickly reviewers. At least Wholly Moses!, a Life of Brian-esque parody of the Bible, had the racial grace to cast Richard Pryor at the Pharaoh.

Buff and buttery, with a sideline in snake-wrestling, Ramses sports heavier makeup than a Real Housewife of Memphis, or Lipsinka. He and his family swan around the palace, rolling their blue eyes and signaling almost as much homoeroticism as you’d find in a Seth Rogen bromance. Ben Mendelsohn, as Viceroy Hegep, is a fruit salad of gay mannerisms and Jewish jibes. (He calls the Israelites “a conniving, combative people,” adding, “And I thought you people were supposed to be such good storytellers.”) The one performer having ostensible fun with his role, Mendelsohn may also be the only one who watched the De Mille film and took his cue from Yul Brynner’s preening Pharaoh.

All this might be news to Scott, whose cinematic gifts are for marshaling strong images around dead-serious stories and not for sly satire with a feygele touch. Perhaps he means to portray the decadence of the Egyptian hierarchy, or of any family long in power. But most directors would try to give the imperial bad guys a little majesty, so the hero’s victory over them might have something to savor. The royals here are just fops who, with or without Moses, might have died out on their own, of inbreeding or ennui.

Stinting on the Moses backstory — of being set afloat by his mother for discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter — Scott first presents him as an outsider adopted by the Egyptian court. In an ancient variation on the famous Saturday Night Live “Jew, Not a Jew” sketch, Moses is an adult before becoming fully aware of his Hebrew heritage. When Ramses learns that his military better is a foreign slave, he banishes Moses. In the wild, the outcast builds a family, meets his God and fulfills his destiny.

MORE: How Ridley Scott’s Exodus Strays From the Bible

In another case of foot-in-mouth disease, Scott called religion “the biggest source of evil” — maybe not the most judicious way to promote an expensive movie that relies on the support of fundamentalist Christian audiences. He promised that his skepticism would make him the ideal fellow to tell a Bible story, because he’d first have to convince himself of its dramatic plausibility. That approach worked for Darren Aronofsky, the director of Noah earlier this year; he turned that Genesis tale into a climate-change parable of spiraling ambition and hallucinogenic wonder.

Not so for Scott, whose only risky choice was to make the Old Testament deity an 11-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews) with a balky disposition. He’s not genteel but a Gentile — a boy-God with a Goy bod — whose plan to free the Jews is to rain plagues on the Egyptians. Moses isn’t convinced. “From an economic standpoint, what you’re saying is problematic, to say the least,” he says, in clunkily verbose contrast to the God-child’s Pinteresque conciseness. When Moses asks, “Who are you?”, He replies simply, “I am,” which is arguably an improvement on the King James translation (“I am that I am”) or the Basic English Bible’s “I am what I am.” Popeye said that too.

He Who Is sets about tormenting the Jews’ tormentors, capped with the slaughter of every Egyptian first-born male — the event that Passover celebrates — while famous Uncle Moses leads his people through the CGI miracle of a parted Red Sea. The sequence is technologically impressive but, like everything else in Exodus: Gods and Kings, it lacks passion. Most secular audiences don’t care whether a movie like this is canonically faithful or a libel on the Bible. It also shouldn’t matter whether the director of such a film is Jewish, Christian or agnostic. But he has to believe in something, if only in his hero’s commitment to a quest or the thrill of Almighty spectacle. Otherwise, it’s not an epic; it’s just a waste of time and effort.

The movie’s sole genuine emotion comes at the very end, with the director’s dedication “For my brother, Tony Scott.” The younger Tony, who committed suicide in 2012, was known for highly sexualized, very American modern melodramas such as Top Gun and True Romance. Ridley usually took the loftier road of period epics like The Duellists, Kingdom of Heaven and of course Gladiator, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2001. “Nobody does toga movies like my brother,” Tony said.

Tony Scott didn’t live long enough to see Ridley’s kaftan movie, or to ask him the question that hangs over the full 150 mins. of this stillborn epic: If you don’t have something new to say or show, why make it?

TIME movies

Corleone Family Values: The Godfather Part II at 40

Al Pacino In 'The Godfather: Part II'Woody Allen And Mia Farrow In 'A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy''
Al Pacino in a scene from the film 'The Godfather: Part II', 1974. Archive Photos / Getty Images

The second 'Godfather' film made enduring stars of its lead players, defined the machismo of its generation and influenced every TV drama about ordinary families with the darkest secrets

Francis Ford Coppola didn’t want to make a sequel to his 1972 Oscar-winning blockbuster, recommending Martin Scorsese, fresh off Mean Streets, for the job. He finally said yes when Robert Evans of Paramount Pictures agreed that Part II could include extensive flashbacks of the young Vito Corleone, played by Mean Streets comer Robert De Niro. Marlon Brando was out because he wanted too much money, and the Clemenza character got dropped because Richard Castellano wanted his dialogue to be written by a friend. Director Elia Kazan, the first choice to play Hyman Roth, spent so much time with his shirt off during a conversation with Coppola that when Lee Strasberg was hired for the role, Coppola insisted he play one scene topless. That’s Francis’s mother Italia in the casket as the deceased Mama Corleone — actress Morgana King thought it bad luck to lie in a coffin — and his Uncle Louie, a dead ringer for Brando, in the Havana cake scene.

Coppola provided these anecdotal nuggets in a commentary on the 2001 five-disc DVD of the saga he made from Mario Puzo’s novels: The Godfather in 1972, The Godfather Part II 40 years ago (its New York premiere was Dec. 12, 1974; it arrived in theaters about a week after) and The Godfather Part III in 1990. Third time was not the charm, but the first two were sensationally popular, influential and cherished. Both won Oscars for Best Picture — the first and only time that’s happened — and made enduring stars of De Niro, Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone), Diane Keaton (Michael’s wife Kay), James Caan (his brother Sonny) and Robert Duvall (Consigliere Tom Hagen).

In TIME’s Godfather Part II review, titled “The Final Act of a Family Epic” — who knew, back then, that every movie epic had to be a trilogy? — Richard Schickel described the Lake Tahoe scene of a party celebrating Michael’s son’s First Communion and noted:

What happens at this point is that delicious sensation of letting-go familiar to readers of huge 19th century novels, but much less readily available to a moviegoer today. A skilled popular artist — the kind of man who can blend subtly observed details with a gift for socko showmanship — takes over to lead a guided tour of an exotic yet humanly recognizable and completely realized world. That’s really entertainment.

This is a much colder film, with austere aspirations — not fully realized — to transcend its melodramatic origins and to become an authentic tragedy. … As Michael plots his careful, lethal moves, the recurring, unforgettable image is of his eyes growing colder, until they finally go dead to the horrors around him.

The Godfather was its year’s box-office champ — its $135-million take at North American theaters would be nearly $700m today — and, in real dollars, still in the all-time top 25. Part II was sixth on the 1974 chart (Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles was No. 1) and is widely considered the darker and stronger of the pair. Together they formed a bold mural of America: crime infiltrating big business and Washington politics, all intersecting with the Corleones’ family values.

God I and God II had both immediate and lasting impact. They helped define machismo for a couple generations of young males, maybe females too. The films spawned countless Mafioso movies, and of course The Sopranos — in fact, every vaunted TV drama about loving families with a dirty secret. (They’re vampires, they’re polygamous, they run a meth business, they’re Commie spies.) True Blood, Big Love, Breaking Bad, The Americans and countless other were forged from the Corleone template.

On the Internet Movie Database’s all-time Top 250, “as voted by regular IMDb users,” the two Godfather films rank second and third, behind only The Shawshank Redemption (a terrific film but… come on). And who wouldn’t rate Michael’s New Year’s Eve takedown of his traitorous brother Fredo (John Cazale) as one of the greatest movie kisses? That “You broke my heart” moment was both passionate and chilling, like the films themselves. Part II’s final shot, closing in on Michael as he ponders the sins that brought him his power, left viewers to determine his admixture of hero and monster.

Forty years on, the films’ core stars are still prominently around. After seven Oscar nominations (two for The Godfathers), Pacino finally won Best Actor in 1993 for Scent of a Woman. De Niro matched his Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather with a Best Actor for Raging Bull. Keaton was Oscared for Annie Hall (one of her four nominations) and Duvall for Tender Mercies (one of his six). To these and Caan, add Francis’s sister Talia Shire (Connie Corleone) and his director daughter Sofia (“Child on Ship” in Part II). Also two legendary 88-year-olds: B-movie mogul emeritus Roger Corman (“Senator #2″) and that supreme hangdog character actor Harry Dean Stanton (“F.B.I. Man #1″).

As for Coppola, he had a great 1970s — The Conversation and Apocalypse Now as well as the first two Godfathers — but found it increasingly hard to raise financing for films he wanted to make. “It’s ironic that people should look back decades later and celebrate films I was given a lot of trouble on,” he said on the DVD commentary, “but that nobody wants me to make a movie right now. Talking to me about The Godfather is like talking to me about my first wife when I’m sitting next to my second one. I’d rather get some encouragement on what I’m doing now than celebrate old projects. It was no fun 30 years ago, and I’m still doing it, and I didn’t want to.”

That was in 2001, when the director was in a 10-year dry spell between projects. Since then, he has poured the profits from the Francis Ford Coppola winery into making his own low-budget, minimally-released indie films: Youth Without Youth, Tetro and the 3-D Twixt — intimate, moody melodramas closer in spirit to his 1963 Dementia 13 than to the impossibly ambitious films of his early prime.

At an indefatigable 75, does Coppola look around, see the stars he discovered still in the game, and wonder if maybe it’s time for a Godfather Part IV?

Read TIME’s review of The Godfather Part II here in the TIME Vault: The Final Act of a Family Epic

TIME movies

Review: Still Alice: Julianne Moore Reveals Alzheimer’s From the Inside

Still Alice
Julianne Moore in Still Alice Sony Pictures

One of America's great actresses turns this story of tragic forgetfulness into a heroic struggle, and a master class in the delicacy and power of performance

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) should be a whiz at Words With Friends: she’s a linguistics professor at Columbia University. But lately words have become her enemies. Finding the right one is occasionally as enormous a challenge as climbing to the top of… that mountain in Asia whose name she also has trouble summoning.

Alice’s poise and wit, her near-perfection, have long been taken for granted by all who know her, not least herself. So she immediately recognizes the warning signs: getting lost as she jogs to her seminar, or stumbling into a black hole in an otherwise familiar sentence. At 50, in the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer’s, she has started to follow the line of decay traced in Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”: “as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor / decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, / to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

Most movies about Alzheimer’s, like Iris, The Notebook and Away from Her, depict the effect of the disease on the sufferer’s spouses and relatives. Still Alice, which directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have adapted from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, sees Alzheimer’s from the inside — an interior drama sliding gracefully. irrevocably toward loss of self. It affords Moore the chance to inhabit a personality that doesn’t grow and learn but tragically diminishes, agonizingly forgets; and the actress seizes that opportunity to create the year’s most impressive, acute and poignant movie portrait.

At first Alice is angry, crying, “I wish I had cancer!”; she could accept it if her body, not her mind, were betraying her. Then she puts a heroic face on her condition: “I’m not suffering, I’m struggling.” But she knows that isn’t true. As a bright person in the process of losing her memory, she can’t help monitoring her disintegration — like the scientist, played by Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s 1986 The Fly, who tries to study and understand his metamorphosis even as he succumbs to it. The Alice she still is, for the moment, is in advanced mourning for the Alice she will become. Mourning and scheming: on her computer she hides a message of instructions for her later self to discover and use as a killer cure for their disease.

Worst is the indignity: forgetting where the bathroom in her home is, and then why she needed to go there. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and their grown children Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) want to help, but not to the extent of surrendering their own lives — or, perhaps, defiling their memories of the Alice they’ve loved, who may not still be Alice.

Glatzer and Westmoreland, a married couple who together or separately have written and directed inside-Hollywood movies (Grief, The Fluffer, The Last Robin Hood) drenched in the gay sensibility, play it straight, serious and perceptive here — with an urgency perhaps attributable to Glatzer’s 2011 diagnosis of ALS. (Unable to speak, he communicated during the shoot by tapping on an iPad.) They make selective use of that indie crutch, the plaintive solo piano, and refuse to push the viewer toward snap judgments of characters.

The filmmakers do stint a bit on fleshing out the members of Alice’s family, with John focusing on an appointment to the Mayo Clinic instead of spending precious months with his wife, and only Lydia, their youngest, paying much attention to Alice; she’s Cordelia to her quietly raging Mom Lear. But this isn’t the family’s story; it’s Alice’s. And from her disadvantage point, it may seem that she is estranged from, and forgotten by, all those she relies on.

Alice found the perfect vessel in Moore, who almost always manages to be both fearless and pitch-perfect. Even in extreme roles, like the aging actress fighting for one last great part in Cronenberg’s corrosive movie satire Maps to the Stars (to be released in the U.S. in February), she never showboats or grandstands. In a busy year when she took a flight with Liam Neeson in Non-Stop and played the rebel President in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Moore found a role of her lifetime — a sister of sorts to her character in the 1995 Safe, as the upper-class wife who believes that environmental toxins are robbing her of her personality.

Quietly magnificent, Moore plays Alice the way Pablo Casals played the cello, with delicate power and masterly vibrato. She locates each sad nuance as Alice tries valiantly to hold on to her memory, her bearings, her old cunning, her family, her self. The struggle may be doomed, but she can’t stop fighting. We hate to use the O word but, come Academy Award time, Still Alice should bring this four-time Oscar nominee the honor she has so long and richly deserved, for a performance that is — and Alice might appreciate this — unforgettable.

TIME movies

The Oscar Crystal Ball Gets Clearer With the Golden Globes Nominations

Still Alice
Julianne Moore in Still Alice Sony Pictures

Three near-certainties for Academy award night: Julianne Moore will be named Best Actress, J.K. Simmons will win Best Supporting Actor… and, with all those little movies in competition, hardly anyone will watch

The Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Jan. 15, but on this Golden Globes day we can make an educated guess about some of the finalists for major Academy Awards.

Actor: Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton for Birdman, David Oyelowo for Selma and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.

Actress: Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore for Still Alice, Reese Witherspoon for Wild and two others.

Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood, Meryl Streep for Into the Woods and three others.

Supporting Actors: J.K. Simmons for Whiplash and four other guys who don’t stand a chance against the prohibitive front-runner.

And Best Picture: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything and one or two others.

How do we know this — given that, in Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything”? Because in the first two weeks of Dec., three different kinds of groups have handed out their year-end awards or nominations.

First are the critics, who know what they like but don’t care whether the Motion Picture Academy agrees with them. Of the seven critics societies that have named their favorites so far, five chose Boyhood as the No. 1 film; Keaton, Simmons and Arquette were consensus winners in three of the four acting categories; and Marion Cotillard dominated in Best Actress for two films, the American The Immigrant and the Belgian Two Days, One Night. Cotillard, with her potential vote split between two little-seen films, is the longest of long shots to be Oscar-nominated.

Then there are the industry professionals, notably the Screen Actors Guild, whose membership significantly overlaps the Academy voters. SAG announced its nominees Wed., citing all the actors we named in the top paragraph plus a couple of surprises: Jennifer Aniston as a chronic-pain sufferer in Cake and Jake Gyllenhaal as the creepy newshound in Nightcrawler. (“Yaaay for Jake!” says this critic.) The nominees for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, SAG’s version of the Best Picture Oscar, were Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything — but not Foxcatcher or Selma. That isn’t a death notice to those two moves, as the Academy’s Best Picture category allows for as many as 10 nominations. (The list of SAG nominations is here.)

Finally we have two organizations of uncertain provenance but past masters at throwing star-studded awards parties: the National Board of Review and The Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The NBR, which has been around since 1909 with a membership of New York-based film lovers, went a little nuts this year and chose the period melodrama A Most Violent Year as Best Film, with the movie’s Oscar Isaac sharing the Actor citation with Keaton, and Moore taking Actress. Much more attention goes to the HFPA, a collection of L.A.-based showbiz reporters, not critics. Theirs are the only nominations announcements besides the Oscars that are broadcast live on national news shows, and their profligate list of nominees — 30 actors for movies, 40 for TV shows — makes their annual televised banquets a celebrity magnet. (The list of Golden Globe nominations is here.)

At the Globes, Moore will be competing with herself, in a way: she’s nominated for her dramatic role as the early-Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice and, in the Comedy or Musical category, for her gung-ho turn as a desperate actress in Maps to the Stars. Three nominees got their nominations by doing it the hard way: Witherspoon toted a backpack that weighs more than she does; Aniston ditched her trademark glamour to play a grumpy frump; and Helen Mirren, in The Hundred-Foot Journey, affected a preposterous French accent. With the exception of 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as the star of Annie, the rest of the HFPA’s Actress nominees play wives of various demeanors: Jones and Rosemund Pike (Gone Girl) in the Drama category, and Amy Adams (Big Eyes) and Emily Blunt (Into the Woods) in Comedy or Musical.

A couple dozen more critics groups will weigh in over the next few weeks. Then other industry guilds, from cinematographers to hair stylists, will hand out their own prizes — all in anticipation of Oscar night on Feb. 22. We have one solid prediction for that show too: virtually nobody will watch it.

Oscar broadcasts get their highest ratings when the chief contenders are box-office champions. Over the past two decades, the show scored some of its highest numbers in years dominated by such blockbusters as Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Avatar. Last year, audiences could root for big hits like Gravity and American Hustle. This year, no movie likely to secure a Best Picture nomination has earned so much as $60 million at the domestic box office; The Grand Budapest Hotel pulled in $59 million.

Mind you, some films haven’t officially opened yet, and others could build popular momentum through the awards season. But the list of early winners in critics groups and top nominees for SAG and the Globes reads like candidates for the Independent Spirit Awards: niche titles of a serioso bent, made for critics and other bestowers of awards, less so for the mass audiences that bring the industry its annual $11-billion bounty. The tone of the leading contenders is less High Hollywood than off-Broadway and Masterpiece Theatre.

Remember that, five years ago, the Academy expanded the Best Picture category because the previous year’s biggest hit, Christopher Nolan’s widely acclaimed The Dark Knight Rises, didn’t make it into the top five. This time, in an affirmative-action push for “real movies,” voters might actually push Gone Girl, or Nolan’s Interstellar, onto the Best Picture not-so-shortlist, just to include one or two pictures that a lot of people saw. But it will still mostly be a night for films that made only the vaguest impression on the mass market mindscape. No Marvel movie, no Bilbo Baggins, no Harry Potter.

If only J.K. Simmons had been in a movie written by J.K. Rowling.

TIME movies

Review: Inherent Vice: Pynchon and P.T. Anderson Share a Joint

Pynchon's stoner novel about L.A. lowlifes in 1970 becomes a shaggy sleuth comedy from the director of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood

“It’s groovy,” says a voice identifying itself as private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, talking about his stoner life in an L.A. coastal town in 1970. “Or I guess it was groovy, till one night my ex-old lady shows up with a story about her boyfriend, or actually older guy friend, and his wife and her boyfriend, At that point it gets sort of peculiar.” The voice we hear in a 2009 video promo for the novel Inherent Vice is that of its author, Thomas Pynchon, whom we are obliged to call reclusive, though he sort of showed up as himself on two episodes of The Simpsons. At one time it was rumored that Pynchon would make a furtive cameo appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice movie. For a hermit, the writer seems pretty gregarious.

Pynchon meets Anderson: that sounds intimidating. One thinks of the sprawl of characters, the collision of authorial tones, the hailstorm of literary references in such dense doorstops as Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. It’s not surprising that no film until now has been made of a Pynchon novel, or that Anderson would be the first to try. His films are every bit as ambitious, convening dozens of performers and plot strands in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Master, and thundering a jeremiad against capitalism in the sparsely populated but more forbidding There Will Be Blood. To see a movie this guy makes of that guy’s novel, you don’t buy a ticket so much as you cram for a final.

O.K., everybody can relax, as Pynchon did in writing Inherent ViceTIME’s Richard Lacayo called it “entertainment of a high order” — and as Anderson did in filming it. For both men, and for their audiences, this is a vacation at the beach, albeit one on a stormy day, with the odd corpse washing ashore at high tide. A kind of ’70s bookend to the San Fernando Valley porn shenanigans of Boogie Nights, and apparently aiming for no higher goal than to fulfill Doc’s definition of groovy, Anderson’s IV lays down a shag carpet of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, with L.A. Dolce Vita best viewed through a marijuana smog.

Set in the fictional Gordito Beach (standing in for Manhattan Beach, the raffish Los Angeles suburb where Pynchon lived in the early ’70s), IV offers a time capsule of attitudes from that precise moment when the Flower Power of hippie culture wilted under the anarchic forces of Vietnam turmoil, the incendiary rhetoric of the Black Panthers and the psycho-killer exploits of the Charles Manson gang. And don’t forget Nixon. It’s a time and town where paranoia is just common sense, for the Gordito lowlifes and the high-strung police. As one cop tells Doc, “Any gathering of three or more civilians is considered a possible cult.”

Pynchon threw all those elements into a private-eye pastiche that takes its cue from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, the cynical knight on a ’40s crusade to cleanse the mean streets of Los Angeles. Like Marlowe, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) wanders through all levels of L.A. society, from high Hollywood to beach bum, from angry cops to shyster lawyers and plutocrats with secrets. And like Chandler, who confessed that he couldn’t explain one of the deaths (the chauffeur’s) in The Big Sleep, Pynchon doesn’t bother tying up his plot’s loose ends. He wants audiences not to worry about the destination, just to enjoy the ride.

For cultural touchstones, consult a Netflix roundup of ’70s post-noir crime movies. IV has inhaled portions of Klute (the nexus of prostitution and big business), Chinatown (property swindles that key the growth of Los Angeles), Night Moves (a sleuth flummoxed by missing daughters and multiple deaths) and especially The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman’s deconstruction of the Chandler novel — and of any hero who tried to make sense of a world spinning into incoherence.

Incoherence is the M.O. of Doc, whom Phoenix plays by borrowing the knowingly slurry drawl that Pynchon used in the novel’s promo, and by wearing mutton chops that sprout like a heat rash across his face. Doc’s phone is turquoise, his beer Budweiser (a sign on the can reads “Burgle!”, as if Anheuser-Busch were aping Abbie Hoffman’s invocation to Steal This Book) and his intake of weed voracious. At times Doc tiptoes like Sylvester the cartoon pussycat; more often he’s supine and sleepy — but he’s all we’ve got as a relatively reliable guide through the proceedings.

True to the promo’s synopsis, Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Ray Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) shows up to say she’s worried that her current beau, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) may soon be the victim of a kidnapping engineered by his ritzy wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas). In a trice, Mickey vanishes, and Shasta too.

Wandering through the movie like guest stars in a hallucinogenic dream are Coy Harrington (Owen Wilson), an AWOL musician who, very improbably, played sax for surfer music; his wife Hope (Jena Malone), whose blindingly white teeth have been cleaned by Dr. R. Blatnoyd (Martin Short); Doc’s current sometime girlfriend Penny (Reese Witherspoon) from the D.A.’s office; former runaway Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whose father Crocker (Martin Donovan) has a business proposition for Doc; and Black Power advocate Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), eager to settle a score with neo-Nazi Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who winds up dead with the comatose Doc at his side.

That unlucky juxtaposition gets Doc framed for murder by Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a righteous cop with a buzz cut who dreams of movie stardom and is frustrated that he gets only bit parts on Jack Webb’s Adam-12. Bigfoot, “a walking civil rights violation” who beats the crap out of Doc (in slow motion), is nonetheless willing to chat up the P.I. to learn what he knows about a mysterious entity called the Golden Fang. (Is it a schooner? a drug cartel? a syndicate of tax-dodging dentists? all of the above?) Reprising the yin-yang antagonism-duality of the main men in There Will Be Blood and The Master, Bigfoot and Doc might share a fraternal vibe — kind of like Cain and Abel — though when Doc absently calls him “bro,” Bigfoot snaps back, “I’m not your brother.” “No,” Doc replies, “but you could use a keeper.”

By now you will have deduced that that the story is mostly played for laughs. Anderson says his style of directing actors was inspired by the farces — Airplane! and Police Squad! and its Naked Gun spinoffs — that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams made in the ’80s. But IV has less in common with the Zucker brothers’ tightly-wound, deadpan approach than with the Coen brothers at their louchest. It’s The Big Sleep played as The Big Lebowski.

Some of the humor is sly, as in the description of one miscreant whose forced his victim “to listen to the cast albums of Broadway musicals while he had his way with her,” or in a phone call the alluring Penny makes to Doc: she offers to come to his place with a pizza, and says “I can hear your pants growing.” More often, it’s pretty broad: an FBI agent (Timothy Simons, who plays Jonah on Veep) elaborately picking his nose; the coke-snorting Dr. Blatnoyd, who drops trou as he pursues a female patient; and Bigfoot’s fondness for fellating outrageously phallic popsicles — grape, chocolate and banana. Like him, the movie could use a keeper.

Often shooting in medium closeup from below, Anderson gives his actors plenty of time to chew on their lines and do double-take reactions. A few turns stand out. Some are notable just for showing up midway through. Look, there’s Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s shady lawyer; and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life partner) as Doc’s secretary. Others make a longer, stronger impression. Two-time Tony award winner Jefferson Mays is suitably oleaginous and subtly menacing as the doctor at a EST-like rehab center, which may also be a front for the Golden Fang. Wilson invests Coy with a lost-boy poignancy — but that could also be a ruse, since Coy is playing an informant’s dangerous double game.

Delaine Mitchell has a sharp comic vignette in the role of Bigfoot’s nagging wife (we learn a lot about the cop in those few seconds); Hong Chau reveals a pert intelligence under the cover of a massage-parlor madam; and Donovan is splendid in his one scene as a power broken who lays out a world of evil for Doc’s edification. Best of all is Waterston (daughter of Law & Order’s Sam) as Shasta, a beguiling flower child who’s smarter and more cunning than she lets on. In a sex-and-confession scene with Doc, which lasts six-and-a-half minutes and is shot without a cut, Waterston lends the movie as much human feeling and erotic tension as it’s ever going to accumulate.

For the rest of this 2hr.28min. jape, you’re advised to go with the flow. Never quite transcending the sum of its agreeably disparate parts, IV is less groovy than gnarled and goofy, but in a studied way. Call it an acquired taste with a kinky savor.

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