TIME movies

REVIEW: Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight: When Cynic Met Mystic

Jack English—© 2014 Gravier Productions, Inc

Colin Firth and Emma Stone play attractive opposites in Allen's latest comic diversion

No film character is riper for a take-down than the cynic with a sharp tongue, the nonbeliever whose only god is his own intellect. What other people search for — love, happiness, victory in the Hunger Games — he’s sure is a sham or a scam. This prideful man must fall, not because he’s wrong but because his world view goes against the central notion of movies: a technological conjuring trick that fools viewers into believing the impossible. The cynic calls himself a realist, but he is only fooling himself; his disillusion is his most desperate illusion. At heart he’s just an idealist who has lost his faith and needs redemption. He wants a sign: a lovely woman’s smile, or the sight of stars through the open roof of an observatory. Some magic in the moonlight, even.

This week’s cynic is Stanley (Colin Firth), a renowned magician who performs in Chinese makeup under the name Wei Ling Su. On stage he creates trickery; off stage he exposes it, in a sideline job of debunking phonies who claim mystic powers, “from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond.” At the urging of his old friend and rival conjurer Howard (Simon McBurney), Stanley journeys to the South of France to debunk one Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whose questionably psychic powers have beguiled a rich American (Jacki Weaver) and her son Brice (Hamish Link-later), a sweet, ukulele-strumming oaf who calls Sophie “a visionary and a vision.” For Stanley it will be a solemn duty to unmask the fraud, if such she is, and thus confirm his devout misanthropy.

(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s 10 Questions with Colin Firth)

Woody Allen could be the anti-Stanley: he can see through fakery but still loves the sly craft that created the illusion. That’s only natural: Allen performed magic tricks as a kid, and he’s spent nearly 50 years (since his screenplay for the 1965 What’s New Pussycat) in the con-art of movies. Many of the 44 features he has written and directed revel in deception, either criminal or emotional. His characters pretend to be what they’re not, taking down more gullible souls and often stealing their hearts. That’s the theme of Magic in the Moonlight, and the title cues viewers to which side of the debate Allen is on: some call it fraud, he says enchantment. A minor comic diversion about séances and illusions, the film stacks up as not great, not awful but medium Woody.

Magic in the Moonlight marks the eighth leg of Allen’s European film tour, which began in England with the 2005 Match Point (followed by Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) and expanded the itinerary to include Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Italy (From Rome With Love) and France (Midnight in Paris and now this). The movie also sends the 78-year-old writer-director into the gilded past: to the Côte d’Azur in 1928, when the Corniche highways were still dirt roads and, apparently, the prices were so high that the French couldn’t afford to live there. The film’s main characters are all American and English — the idle rich and their guests — who populated Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby on the Riviera.

(READ: Corliss on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby)

This is the fantasy, familiar in the Allen oeuvre, of an older man (Firth is 53) falling for a young woman (Stone is 25) who is not straitjacketed, as he is, by intellect. Or Stanley might be Allen’s take on Henry Higgins, from Shaw’s Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady: a haughty bachelor who, to win a bet, gets involved with a girl he first has contempt for, then comes to appreciate. As Stanley all but tells his worldly Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) while musing about Sophie, he’s grown accustomed to her face. And who could not love Stone, of the ginormous eyes and husky voice? As a chic psychic chick in sailor dress and beret — or, after a rainstorm, looking like the most adorable soaked cat — she’s a girl any man would want.

(READ: a love letter to Emma Stone)

Question is, who’d want Stanley? Though he strike a handsome figure in his three-piece vanilla suit, he fits his lifelong chum Howard’s description as “a genius with the charm of a typhus bug.” He’s a sour pill, incapable of uttering a single sentence without inserting some clause that insults the whole universe. Firth, working hard to suppress his patented bonhomie, gives the impression of having been force-fed the personality he’s supposed to inhabit. Like the downtrodden plutocrat played by Cate Blanchett in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Stanley is a social miscreant — bad company for the other characters and a chore for the audience to engage with.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Blue Jasmine)

Yet Stanley is presented as a potential mate for Sophie, as the perfect attractive opposite. The movie suggests that Stanley is the callow one, and Sophie the wiser, more mature soul, when he harrumphs, “We can’t go around deluding ourselves,” and she urgently replies, “But we must, to get through life!” At the end of a sojourn when everything has gone wrong, and this odd couple gazes up at the night sky, they and we are meant to feel the moonlight magic. Allen may not believe in mystics, but he does believe in the eternal truth of movie love.

You can see the film as a Brooklyn boy’s dream of a vanished civilization — all swank frocks and lawn parties — that perhaps existed only in the buoyant films he loved as a child, and beyond. Firth and Stone channel that poise and appeal; they could easily slip into a Golden Age rich-boy–clever-girl romantic comedy like Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. And Allen gets points for trying to revive the glamour, wit and heart of classic Hollywood at a time when other filmmakers just want to duplicate last year’s superhero smash. But the script lacks brio; it needs someone — perhaps Sturges, or the young Woody Allen — to punch up the laugh lines.

The audience is left hoping, like participants in one of Sophie’s séances, that a dead genre will somehow come alive in its full flower of wit and charm. It doesn’t, quite, except in its creator’s eyes. Which makes him the gullible party. This time, Woody Allen has fooled himself.

TIME movies

Home Movies: The Unreleased 1984 Oddball Nothing Lasts Forever Can Now Be Seen!!!

The same year as Ghostbusters, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd graced a sci-fi comedy musical romance directed by SNL auteur Tom Schiller. Finally this authentic weirdie has crawled out of the lost-film crypt


Thirty years ago this summer, Ghostbusters answered Hollywood’s call for a comedy blockbuster. The horror comedy, starring Saturday Night Live veterans Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, became the second biggest box-office smash of 1984, just behind fellow SNL refugee Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. So genial and lasting was the Ghostbusters vibe that the movie will be rereleased Aug. 29 in some 700 North American theaters.

Turns out that Ghostbusters, directed by Ivan Reitman, wasn’t the only fantasy comedy Murray and Aykroyd appeared in that year. Nothing Lasts Forever was the first feature film produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels. Its 20-year-old leading man, Zach Galligan, had starred in the horror-comedy hit Gremlins, also from the summer of ’84. Nothing Lasts Forever boasted sumptuous music by SNL bandleader Howard Shore, who would go on to win Oscars for two of his Lord of the Rings scores. The film’s writer-director, Tom Schiller, had created some of SNL’s most distinctive early short films for Gilda Radner (“La Dolce Gilda”) and John Belushi (“Don’t Look Back in Anger”). The movie was scheduled to open in September 1984, and since part of the story takes place on the lunar surface, it almost could have been called Moonbusters.

(READ: Ivan Reitman’s tribute to Ghostbusters co-writer Harold Ramis)

Some people loved Nothing Lasts Forever, especially the programmers at the Cannes Film Festival. “I got a phone call,” Schiller recalled in 2010, “and they said, ‘You have created a masterpiece! You will be a sensation at Cannes!’” Yet the movie didn’t play there — and didn’t officially open in U.S. theaters. The bosses at its distributor, MGM, decided it had no commercial potential, even with the Ghostbusters and Gremlins stars, and aborted its release. The film got a few showings at museums but was never released either theatrically or for home video.

Not until this month, when an “unreleased upgrade” grabbed attention on YouTube, could viewers see for themselves the movie that provoked all those cheers, all that unease. This long-missing movie even comes with a conspiracy theory. “WhylamWhatham,” who posted NLF on YouTube, provided this note with the upload: “MGM has given many reasons for why this film was never released, but those reasons will be very obvious to those that watch, if you have the eyes to see. The masonic big whigs apparently did not want the profane to know some of the things this film contains.” The Masons? Paging Dan Brown!

(READ: Inside the Masons with author Jay Kinney)

Freemasonry aside, NLF is an authentic weirdie: a sci-fi comedy that’s short on special effects and laughs; a young man’s movie with a bizarrely high proportion of old actors; a saturnine satire with a soft romantic heart. There are color sequences, set in underground Manhattan and on the moon, but most of the movie is in a broody, noirish black-and-white. And if you’re wondering, Aykroyd is in just two short scenes lasting about a minute and a half, while Murray has a larger supporting role as a smiling, sinister “sky host” on a bus to the moon. Still, Nothing Lasts Forever, which clocks in at a tidy 80 minutes, is well worth checking out as a unique goofball experiment.

The trailer promises “Magnificence! The most spectacular film ever produced.” That’s a joke, since NLF is at heart a young man’s journey of artistic yearning. Galligan’s Adam Beckett is first seen as a pianist wowing a crowd of Carnegie Hall music lovers with his interpretation of Chopin’s Polonaise. But his virtuosity is a fraud — he’s been banging away on a player piano — and, just as the ruse is exposed, he wakes up from his nightmare on a train in Europe. A kindly stranger (Jan Trinka) encourages the lad to follow his artistic star, sagely predicting, “You will get everything you want in your lifetime. Only you won’t get it in the way you expect.”

(WATCH: the trailer for Nothing Lasts Forever)

Adam returns to New York to stay with his aunt and uncle (jazz singer Anita Ellis and comic monologuist Mort Sahl) and finds the city under the tyrannical control of the Port Authority, the transportation monolith that now requires passport verification of travelers from New Jersey and Connecticut. Proclaiming his artistic intentions, Adam is obliged to take a test drawing a nude model but flunks it and is assigned a job at the Holland Tunnel, where Buck Heller (Aykroyd) is his harried supervisor and one of his co-workers is art-world vamp Mara Hofmeier (Apollonia von Ravenstein). Adam and Mara become lovers until he realizes she’s cheating on him with a performance artist (Marc Alderman) whose latest project is to walk a million steps on a treadmill.

A random good deed — offering food, money and shelter to a homeless man — brings him into contact with an underground tribe of otherworldly alterkockers; these must be the Masons. The supposedly homeless fellow, Hugo (British actor Paul Rogers in a spectral-benevolent role much like the one Claude Rains took in Here Comes Mr. Jordan), introduces Adam to saintly Father Knickerbocker (92-year-old Sam Jaffe, who had played the title role in the 1939 Gunga Din and Dr. Zorba on the ’60s medical drama Ben Casey). “We shall show you,” he tells Adam, “that New York City is a dream created by higher beings as a temporary lodging place in the earthly sojourn.” He gives good-hearted Adam a mission — to colonize the moon with kindness — and adds, “You will meet your soul mate there.” Adam has the knack of meeting strange men who tell his future.

(FIND: Saturday Night Live on the all-TIME 100 TV Shows list)

How to get to the moon? On an “Astrocruiser,” an ordinary bus with jet propulsion. Adam, who needs to escape both Mara and Manhattan, boards the bus believing it’s headed for Miami Beach, as indicated by a glimpse of his fellow passengers, all Social Security pensioners or older. So are the bus’s driver and stewardess. Adam doesn’t realize where he’s going until steward Ted Breughel (Murray as a friendlier version of the unctuous, showbiz-fringe performer he often played on SNL) identifies himself as the trip’s “sky host” and announces that shortly, “We will commence lunartini service.” (Moon-voyage perks include a free martini.)

Among the passengers are such veteran actors as Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar’s leading lady on Your Show of Shows; Coca’s husband King Donovan, who co-starred in the primal sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956; and Calvert DeForest, better known as Larry “Bud” Melman on David Letterman’s late-night NBC show. DeForest exudes his patented idiot enthusiasm when he exclaims, “That takeoff was a doozy!” and, later, “I can see the man in the moon — he’s smiling at me!” The headliner in the Astrocruiser lounge is Eddie Fisher, singing “Oh! My Pa-Pa” long past his crooner prime. When he mutters, “How the hell did I wind up singin’ on a bus to the moon?” a waiter (Avon Long) observes, “Must have been all them women, Mr. Fisher.”

(READ: Corliss remembers the tuneful, sinful life of Eddie Fisher)

Adam and the other passengers land to find that the moon is less Miami Beach than Honolulu: the lovely moon maidens dance to a “Lunar Hula.” One maiden, Eloy (Lauren Tom, later one of The Joy Luck Club daughters and a recurring voice on King of the Hill and Futurama), looks familiar to Adam; he saw her in his Carnegie Hall nightmare. Eloy is kin to the space cuties from ’50s endearingly trashy sci-fi movies — among them Cat-Women on the Moon and the Zsa Zsa Gabor Queen From Outer Space — and thus our hero’s predestined love interest. (Think Adam and Eloy.) Her name is also a variation on the Eloi race from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine; in the 1960 movie version, Yvette Mimieux played the blondest, loveliest Eloi.

Eloy informs Adam that the U.S. first landed on the moon in 1953 and quickly turned it into a Disneyland-like “carousel of consumer values” known as Moon-O-Rama. She drives him on a gold cart past a cratered Luna 2 Soviet spacecraft from 1959 and a pair of audioanimatronic astronauts planting the American flag on the Moon’s surface. As Murray’s Ted brays, “Shop! Shop!” at the elderly consumers, Adam and Eloy plot a lovers’ insurrection.

(SEE: Top 10 Sci-fi movies from the 1950s)

In any movie era, NLF would be a misfit, but it can be seen as a remnant of that brief phase in the late ’60s and early ’70s when many American filmmakers were under the sway of European art cinema — Fellini, Godard, that crowd. Going even further back, Schiller pulls from a grab bag of silent-movie iconic scenes: the Babylonian set from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance; the flight down the Odessa steps from Eisenstein’s Potemkin; the eyeball-slicing from Buñuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou. For those viewers who don’t want to ransack their old-film thesaurus, the director also offers the chocolate-factory assembly-line bit from an I Love Lucy episode in 1952 — just a year before President Eisenhower colonized the moon.

Visually inventive but a little lumpy in its pacing and direction of actors, NLF plays like a film-school project by a gifted tyro; it’s just that Schiller had a strangely starry cast and a $3 million budget. If the movie doesn’t quite work as either a comedy or a sci-fi homily, that could be because the director was really aiming for a musical romance. He and Shore composed several numbers for the film, most memorably the title love theme — a grandiose melody in the Chopin style performed by Tom (but sung in playback by soprano Mara Beckerman). “If this must be,” the climactic lyric proclaims, “let’s make forever never.” No, I don’t know what that means either. But I haven’t been able to get the tune out of my head. Maybe that’s the one thing from Nothing that will last forever.

In one sense, NLF is not anachronistic but prophetic. Adam evinces no talent for painting or writing or music, yet he believes he possesses an artistic impulse worth cultivating. That makes him the perfect prototype for this decade, when more college students major in visual arts than in all the more useful, potentially lucrative STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Any film-studies grads, living jobless in their parents’ basements, could find some entertainment and much instruction in Nothing Lasts Forever. They should just keep in mind that, over the next 30 years, Schiller never got to make another feature film. After this honorable debacle, he earned a living directing TV commercials.

TIME movies

James Garner: Tribute to a Marvelous Maverick

James Garner
James Garner as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files NBC/Getty Images

As a TV and movie star for nearly six decades, the Oklahoma kid made the hard art of acting seem like a game — as deft and persuasive as a gambler's con

He was a man’s man who relied on his wits instead of his fists; a ladies’ man who wouldn’t steal a fella’s girl. Famous for his Maverick Western series in the 1950s and The Rockford Files in the ’70s, and in movies like The Great Escape and Grand Prix in between, James Garner played amiable, independent characters for more than a half-century, and never lost his comforting, enduring appeal. He was like a pair of boots you wear for decades and never want to throw out.

In real life Garner was apparently the same: straight shooter, decent guy. When he thought a movie studio or TV network was doing him dirt, he’d sue them, and win. When in 1956 he met a girl he liked, and married her two weeks later, he stayed married till he died — late Saturday night, at 86, in his Los Angeles home.

Compare him with other stars who found their footing in early TV Westerns, and see what made Garner a natural for the small screen. He lacked Clint Eastwood’s mulish brand of menace, Steve McQueen’s sexy recklessness, Burt Reynolds’s self-parodying machismo. Garner didn’t simmer with resentment, wasn’t tattooed with old traumas. “Lady,” his Bret Maverick says to a scheming woman in an early episode, “I never worry about anything.” The actor’s ease with his character and himself made Maverick a welcome weekly visitor in America’s living rooms for three seasons.

And though he graduated to leading-man status in major studio feature films before Eastwood, Reynolds and McQueen did, and stayed there for more than a decade, Garner felt more at home on TV, where he found The Rockford Files waiting in 1974, and where his nearly unique level of affability was treasured, not taken for granted.

(READ: James Poniewozik’s tribute to James Garner)

Try to describe the character Garner created, and again you have to start by saying what he wasn’t. He didn’t fit any of the extreme Hollywood fashions for its heroes. He was not a loner or a joiner, not a fighter or a father type. In performance style he was neither a comedian of the broad stripe nor a let-them-see-and-feel-my-pain dramatic actor. He was pure affability, clever, charming and confident — just about the embodiment of how Americans liked to picture themselves back then, at the postwar apex of their nation’s power.

Born in Norman, Okla., on Apr. 7, 1928, James Scott Baumgarner couldn’t have been more American: his mother was half-Cherokee. She died when he was a kid, and he took some licks from his father’s second wife. He got out of town as soon as he could, enlisting in the Merchant Marines on his 16th birthday. Later he was a soldier in Korea, earning two Purple Hearts, one for wounds caused by friendly fire — “I got in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he recalled with his usual self-depreciating wryness.

Back in the States, Jim took a while to find his calling. As he told Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies in 2001, “I worked the oil fields, I drove trucks, I worked in grocery stores, chicken hatcheries, worked with the telephone company, did a little bit of everything and never found a job I really liked, until I finally got into acting. And it took me about two-and-a-half, three years before I liked that.”

A fellow Okie, Paul Gregory, was an agent and producer. In 1954 he cast his protégé as a member of the court in Broadway’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. With no lines to speak, Baumgarner at first thought his biggest challenge was to stay awake. Instead he paid attention to the stars around him, especially Henry Fonda; he must have inhaled some of Fonda’s Midwestern effortlessness, since it would soon be a hallmark of his own approach. (“I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” Garner later said.) As the star of the 1969 Support Your Local Sheriff! — perhaps the Garneriest role of his movie career — he leans back on a chair, his feet propped up against a railing, just like Fonda’s Sheriff Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine… before idly trip-roping a half-dozen varmints. He seems relaxed, but he’s really paying attention, supremely assured of his abilities.

Warners put the actor under contract at $175 a week, shortened his name to Garner, and launched him in Maverick, a Roy Huggins Western that went on the air Sept. 22, 1957, against CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show, the second highest-rated program at the time, and Steve Allen’s popular comedy-variety hour. Within a year Maverick had replaced Sullivan in the top 10, and Garner was a TV star.

He played — pretty much was, in that no-sweat, convincing way of his — Bret Maverick, gambler-rogue, inspired bluffer at five-card stud, with an eye for working scams that would rob the robbers and help the helpless. Though the show’s first three episodes (directed by Western B-movie genius Budd Boetticher) were relatively straightforward, Huggins soon exploited its young star’s way with a wry line, and Maverick became more comedy than Western. The show’s trump card was Garner’s strong, smiling demeanor, which made it a pleasure, almost an honor, to be defrauded by him. Viewers quickly afforded him the same welcome, trusting that he wouldn’t reach through the home screen and pocket the silverware.

Shooting a 50-min., dialogue-heavy episode each week proved impossible, so Huggins invented a younger Maverick brother, Bart (Jack Kelly), to fill out the season. Later an English cousin, Beau (Roger Moore), joined the series. By that time Garner had left the show, having sued his employers for breach of contract when they stopped paying him during a writers’ strike. He won by proving that Warners had secretly been banking scripts. Now he could go be a movie star.

On the big screen Garner occasionally played the dramatic stalwart; he was Audrey Hepburn’s fiancé in William Wyler’s 1962 film of Lillian Hellman’s lesbian-accusation play The Children’s Hour. (“First time I ever cried on screen,” he told Osborne. “Might’ve been the last time.”) But his usual job was squiring top actresses through romantic comedies: Doris Day in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling,
 Kim Novak in Boys’ Night Out. Often his rom-com roles had clear echoes of Bret Maverick’s 

con-artistry. In the 1960 Cash McCall, he’s an early practitioner of the leveraged buyout — a Mitt Romney decades ahead of his time — with Natalie Wood as his prettiest acquisition. In The Wheeler Dealers (1963) he plays Texas oilman Henry Tyroon, as in tycoon, cozying up to stock analyst Lee Remick.

Too young to serve in World War II, Garner spent 45 years, off and on, playing roguish combatants or grizzled veterans of the European campaign, from his film-star debut in Darby’s Rangers (1959) through the 1984 Tank and up to The Notebook (2004). In his biggest movie hit, the 1963 The Great Escape he’s Lt. “Scrounger” Hendley, another gloss on Bret Maverick: he knows how to find the materials needed for a group of British and American officers to tunnel out of a maximum-security German camp. Hendley shows his skill by flim-flamming or skim-scamming the main guard, and his valor by taking a fellow prisoner who is nearly blind along the escape route. But like Maverick, Hendley discounts any heroic impulses: he says he’s getting out just so he can get home.

Based very loosely on a true story, The Great Escape is mainly remembered for the scene in which McQueen (actually a stunt double) pilots a motorcycle up a ramp and over a barbed-wire fence; the scene was there because the star, a racing aficionado, insisted on a bike stunt. Garner got second billing to McQueen, who came to early fame in the 1958 TV Western Wanted: Dead or Alive. A few years later, Garner out-McQueened McQueen by starring in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, a three-hour action film about Formula One drivers, their women and their cars (but mainly their cars). At the same time, McQueen was planning a similar film, Day of the Champion, that never got made. The actual Formula One drivers on the Grand Prix location said Garner was a natural behind the wheel. Score one for the Maverick.

Once in a while, a Garner character could be on the other side of the con, as in 36 Hours (1964), which casts him as a U.S. soldier knocked out and kidnapped by the Germans just before D-Day and told, when he comes to, that the war is over; the nasty Nazis hope to extract secrets of the imminent invasion. Here, as in the modern-day, Stateside Mister Buddwing (1966) — where he’s an amnesiac seeking his identity and pulling the veil off a convoluted business scheme — Garner was the potential victim. But furrowed brows and helplessness didn’t suit this emblem of congenial self-confidence. He was much more at ease playing a man at ease, who never breaks a sweat, even in the tightest corner, because he figures he can talk his way out of it.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky took note of this Garner gift and ran amok with it in his script for the 1964 The Americanization of Emily, directed by Arthur Hiller. Garner is Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison, who has blustered his way onto a peaceful island owned by the Brits. When his superior officer goes bananas, Charlie must take on the assignment of filming the D-Day invasion, in the company of his starchy English driver, Emily Barham — Julie Andrews in the movie she made between Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. (Garner is billed first.)

Covering the Maverick character with the soot of misanthropy, and testing Garner’s ability to spit out tongue-twister dialogue, Chayefsky handed the actor reams of cynical soliloquies, a few of which can be found here. We’ll settle for this denunciation of war lovers: “We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers — the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.” Harrumph and gotcha! Chayefsky’s film rants would get even riper in his screenplays for The Hospital and Network, but they were never delivered with handsomer authority than Garner invested in Charlie’s antiwar speeches.

More comfortable in a saddle than on Chayefsky’s high horse, Garner made his share of movie Westerns. He played legendary lawman Wyatt Earp twice — in the 1967 Hour of the Gun and, 21 years later, in Blake Edward’s Sunset — and established a little franchise with director Burt Kennedy’s low-key hit Support Your Local Sheriff!, in which he agrees to the job because he thinks it’s easy pay. (‘Tain’t.) In Kennedy’s informal sequel, the 1972 Support Your Local Gunfighter, Garner amiably inhabits one of the oldest Western plots, of a grifter mistaken for a famous gunfighter, and sells it like the Brooklyn Bridge.

By then he was tiring of occupying the second tier of movie stardom. He returned to series TV with another Huggins show, Nichols, a slow-paced, quick-witted Western that ran only one season. (It remained Garner’s favorite TV gig.) By the ’70s, oaters were out of fashion on the small screen; detectives were in. So Garner played P.I. Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files, also produced by Huggins and with 20 of the scripts written by David Chase (The Sopranos). Over the six-year-span of the show, Garner and the writers fought with their studio, Universal, to keep injecting behavioral comedy — what the star was best at — into the whodunit plots. Eventually, Garner successfully sued Universal for his rightful share of the Rockford profits, netting a reported $14 million.

He never gave up movie work, earning an Oscar nomination for the 1984 Murphy’s Romance as the small-town druggist who loves rancher Sally Field. In Blake Edwards’ 1982 Victor Victoria he reteamed with Andrews (now Mrs. Edwards) as King Marchand, a shady Prohibition entrepreneur who falls in love with a female impersonator — that is to say, Andrews is a female, impersonating a man impersonating a woman. In their big scene, King tells Victoria, “I don’t care if you are a man” and kisses her. She says, “I’m not a man,” and he replies, “I still don’t care.” Edwards had acceded to the producers’ insistence that King know in advance the gender of the person who has smitten him; but it’s still evidence of a he-man star’s willingness to shatter what was then one of Hollywood’s sexual taboos.

In his seventies, long after quintuple-bypass surgery in 1988, Garner lassoed two of his strongest movie roles. In Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000), he costarred as a NASA pilot from the 1950s who’s de-mothballed four decades later to help Eastwood’s Frank Corvin fix a Soviet satellite that’s about to crash to earth. Frank, who had built the technology the Russkies swiped, goes up to fix the damn thing and takes his pals along for a senior-citizen road trip to outer space. The Over the Moon Gang rides again, in an alterkocker Armageddon.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Space Cowboys)

He capped his career with a rare weepie role, in the 2004 smash The Notebook, from Nicholas Sparks’s novel. As Duke, a retirement-home resident, he reads aloud passages from a diary kept by a patient (Gene Rowlands) succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, with flashbacks of the World War II love story enacted by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Directed by Rowlands’ son Nick Cassavetes, The Notebook is 99 and 44/100th-percent pure soap opera, given heft and conviction by two stars with a combined century in the business. In this tale of two ordinary people living together — till death do them part, and unite — Garner strips himself naked of all smooth pride to utter his last words to his beloved: “Good night. I’ll be seeing you.”

As faithful in life as in his craft, Garner held true to the Democratic Party, for which he campaigned on behalf of civil rights and a greener Earth, and to his wife of 58 years, Lois Clarke. (Their daughter Gigi also survives him.)

Calling himself “a Methodist but not as an actor,” Garner considered acting a job; golf was his passion. He knew his lines, stood on his mark and told the truth of his characters. Is that Acting? Not in the grand sense of Stanislavski or his heirs, from Brando to Gosling. But, as Garner plied the trade, it certainly was acting of the most persuasive order. “I think Jim is such a good actor because he leaves his actor at home and brings himself to the screen,” said Gretchen Corbett, one of his Rockford Files costars, in the 2001 book The Garner Files. “He’s also a very appealing human being. Both men and women feel safe with him; they feel like they get him.”

Everyone did. And anyone would want to spend more time with that engaging maverick, that rock of American confidence, James Garner.

TIME movies

REVIEW: I Origins: The Eyes Have It

Fox Searchlight

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling star in a science-fiction thriller that is also a convulsive, endearing love story

Hold your memory for a moment with a blind hand.
Write some stories for tomorrow.
From the bottle of amnesia
Find instructions to salvation, to oblivion supreme.
Don’t be tempted to look back. It has all happen before.

The words from the song “Dust It Off,” by the indie Franco-Finnish duo The Dø, play in the heads of molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and the girl of his dreams, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), as they begin a passionate affair of opposites. He’s a man of science, tracking the PAX6 gene in mice in an attempt to definitively disprove the fundamentalist Christian belief in a deity. She is a creature of the ethereal, eternal spirit; she’s also great in bed. Even more enticing are Sofi’s eyes: brown on the inner part, greenish gray-blue on the outer part, with specks of different colors. Ian has been taking photographs of eyes since he was a kid; the inspiration his lab work, they are also his continuing obsession, his own kind of religion. He sees Sofi and, instantly, the eyes have it.

Mike Cahill’s I Origins (as in “Eye Origins”) is a science-fiction thriller, with emphasis on the science, and a rapturous love story — perhaps a ghost story, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and David O. Selznick’s 1948 Portrait of Jennie. It leads viewers deep into the Ian-Sofi affair in the familiar confines of New York City, then dares a shocking, mid-film twist and spins defiantly off-kilter; it treks to Idaho and India, introducing plot strands of autism, Hinduism and elevator-phobia. I Origins is like a movie and its weird sequel — almost its antithesis — all in 105 minutes. But you needn’t buy Cahill’s complex, occasionally contradictory thesis in its entirety to find this one of the most ambitious, fascinating and weirdly endearing films of recent vintage.

(READ: Is Vertigo the best film of all time?)

Cahill’s text is the highly debatable adage, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” A scientist like Ian would say, “What soul?” Yet he is persuaded that the eyes are the key to the human personality: eye-dentity. Governments and corporations use iris recognition as the new ID card, a form of biometric identification. Is each pair of eyes unique? Or, if two people have eyes with the exact same aspects, are they similar in other ways? In their “soul”?

Ian and Sofi meet at a Halloween party in 2006, she outfitted in a black leather jacket, black stockings and a mask that exposes only her eyes. She’s a woman of mystery — he asks where she’s from, and she replies, “Another planet” — who has ferocious sex with him in a bathroom at the party, then disappears. They meet again, by chance or destiny, on a Brooklyn elevated subway car, where she offers him a Mento and he slips his headset on her to hear “Dust It Off.” She is so seductively other that, when she suggests he move into her place. the startled Ian says, “You have a place?” She has a place, all right: in his heart, now and forever.

Back in the lab, Ian’s brilliant assistant Karen (Brit Marling) has come close to a breakthrough in their research. She tells this to Ian on the day he and Sofi have decided to marry but must wait 24 hours while their license application is approved. Visiting the lab in her wedding dress, Sofi is horrified by the experimentation on mice, equating him with the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein when she says, “I think it’s dangerous to play God.” Ian would never play an entity he’s sure doesn’t exist; he’s really playing Richard Dawkins, the renowned Oxford scientist and atheist on whom Cahill says he fashioned Ian’s character. (We’d guess that Dawkins would not wholly approve of the portrait.)

(READ: Mary Pols’ interview with Brit Marling)

Sofi also detects a warming connection between Ian and Karen. Both wear glasses — which, the movie suggests, hides their own feelings. Their reliance on provable facts may have made them myopic. But noticing their intimate involvement in their work, Sofi can intuit a potential rival in Karen; she may not be Ian’s soul mate but could be a congenial life partner. That comes to pass in the film’s second half, seven years later, when he is now “Doctor Ian Gray” (he keeps calling himself that, as most Ph.D.s wouldn’t) and Karen is his pregnant wife. Tests on the infant will lead Ian on his world tour of eye examinations.

Cahill, who investigated a similar blend of science and spirituality in his first feature, Another Earth, turns I Origins into its own sophisticated eye test. At certain moments Ian will stand in the foreground as the people in an urban streetscape — Brooklyn, Delhi — proceed in hallucinogenic slow motion. A passing el train throws eerie, elusive shadows on a tenement building. Images will occasionally show white circles, like the flare in eyes exposed to harsh sunlight. Hundreds of photos of eyes lead you into mystery and toward a resolution. (Stick around for the climactic “eyes test” at the very end of the final credits; it points to a possible, even stranger sequel.) Besides the picture quizzes, I Origins plays a numbers game: On November 11th, Ian buys a lottery ticket at 11:11 a.m. and emerges from the bodega to see a #11 bus. (Eleven is 1-1, or eye-eye.)

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of the Mike Cahill–Brit Marling Another Earth)

Engaging the eye, the brain and the emotions in huge, unpredictable measures, the movie benefits from the charm and commitment of most of its actors. Pitt, who plays Jimmy Darmody on Boardwalk Empire, is a problem: his sullen, sluggish demeanor doesn’t jibe with Ian’s questing intellect and openness to revelation. But Marling, whom Hollywood is advised to steal from her exemplary work in indie films, invests her amalgam of intelligence and subtle sex appeal into a character always hovering near the movie’s central concerns. Those are confidently and mercurially held by Bergès-Frisbee, who was a nymph in the fourth Prates of the Caribbean movie and played the title role in Daniel Auteuil’s The Well Digger’s Daughter. She’s got a siren’s allure, a beguiling unworldliness; she might, as Sofi says at the start, come fro another planet, another time.

(READ: Corliss on Astrid Bergès-Frisbey in The Well Digger’s Daughter)

Plaudits also to Archie Panjali and the Indian girl Kashish, as two sympathetic souls Ian meets in Delhi. Both actresses possess the gravity and buoyancy to sell the film’s third act, in which I Origins returns to its beginning — to the swelling drone of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and the wispy promise of its lyrics: “I will see you in the next life.”

Believe who will; scoff who must. I’m a religious skeptic, but I Origins held me in its intense gaze. It’s the first movie since The Grand Budapest Hotel that made me want to see it again — see it more clearly — as soon as it ended.

TIME movies

REVIEW: Don’t Dare Watch This Sex Tape

Cameron Diaz;Jason Segel
Claire Folger—© 2013 CTMG, Inc.

As a married couple trying to revive their love life, Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel prove that the homemade porn industry may be thriving, but the romantic comedy is nearly extinct

With her blond good looks, her knowing cheer, and a smile that spreads across her face like an earthquake’s fault line, Cameron Diaz is a natural for romantic comedy. In her new, R-rated Sex Tape, she plays Annie, wife of Jason Segel’s Jay, and 10 years after they fell in love, she finds that their routine of work and parenthood has sapped the erotic ecstasy they once felt just by staring at each other. On her chatty blog, she asks, “How the hell do you get it back?”

You might pose the same question about the rom-com; these are perilous times for one of Hollywood’s richest and most reliable genres. Maybe modern culture is the culprit. The old trope of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl — a love story promising permanence — seems utterly out of sync with an age when boy and girl meet online, hook up in college, never need marry and, if they do, have a 50% chance of getting a no-fault divorce. Or perhaps we should blame bromance: the bonding of man to man has nearly replaced the guy-gal model.

(READ: Mary Pols on Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Bad Teacher)

Whatever the reason, no period in film history has been so rich in actresses primed to play romantic comedy and so poor in the quality of the movies they have to make. Veteran beguilers like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Diaz, and more recent stars like Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Banks and Emma Stone all boast deft line-reading skills and high adorability quotients, yet most of their rom-coms stink. The only reason not to write a learned essay on the topic is that’s it’s too depressing.

Grant the makers of Sex Tape — Segel and cowriters Nicholas Stoller and Kate Angelo working with director Jake Kasdan — their worthy attempt to update the traditional romantic comedy while adhering to the genre’s verities. Annie and Jay, whose love has deteriorated into rote endearments pronounced on the fly between more pressing duties, seize a rare night alone together without their two kids to rekindle the spark by performing all possible positions illustrated in Alex Comfort’s 1972 manual The Joy of Sex. They work away at it for three hours — apparently Jay has impressive powers of recuperation — and have a great, refreshing time. Small oops: Jay accidentally uploaded their improvised exertions to the cloud, for easy viewing by the many friends, relatives and acquaintances to whom he’s given an iPad.

(FIND: Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex on the all-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books list)

Ignore for the moment that Apple says this simply can’t happen, and consider the change in popular mores since 1995, when Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s explicit tryst on a yacht stoked a sensation on something called VHS. (The very phrase “sex tape” is an endearing anachronism.) These days everybody’s doing it, recording it and uploading it. Nude selfies abound, and YouPorn is, according to one recent survey, the 83rd most popular website in the world, just slightly ahead of Time.com. For some people, like Paris Hilton, a sex tape is a career move; for others, like Anthony Weiner, a nude selfie is a career-ender. Annie, who is this close to securing a big payoff for her blog from a children’s toy conglomerate, would be in the latter category. She and Jay must suppress their video triumph.

Banks and Seth Rogen traveled a similar route as a nice couple who go down and dirty in Kevin Smith’s bumpily agreeable 2008 comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno. There, both stars seemed willing, accomplished participants. In Sex Tape, Diaz fulfills her side of the bargain, miming radiance or desperation at the appropriate times, as if she were in a pretty good movie. Not so Segel, who in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement displayed the charm of an engaging galoot. This time he often speaks his lines — and remember, they’re lines he helped write — with the disheartened, robotoid elocution of a prisoner in an al Qaeda video.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Zach and Miri Make a Porno)

He has our sympathy, since halfway into the film he’s being chased around a mansion by a ravenous German Shepherd. The swank digs belong to Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), CEO of the company that may buy Annie’s blog. At the office Hank is a dewy, bespectacled John Green type; at home he shows Annie his bizarre tattoos, the collection of paintings he’s commissioned — with himself as, for example, Rafiki in The Lion King — and his stash of cocaine. While Annie is talking and toking, Jay is in a death match with that vicious canine. It’s a scene from a worse movie than Sex Tape has been, but not as awful as Sex Tape will become in its endless and implausible third act.

Rob Corddry and the appealing Ellie Kemper (Erin Hannon on The Office) play the mandatory neighbor couple, and young Harrison Holzer nails the role of their snooty, scheming son. Lowe, who survived his own sex-tape scandal a generation ago and looks not a day older, lends a sweet derangement to the movie just as it’s going massively stupid: preposterous yet boring. Sex Tape doesn’t fall off the cliff of competence so much as it executes a slow, agonized mudslide of failed intentions. Your watch tells you that the film lasts 95 minutes; your sinking spirit says it’s at least as long as Jay and Annie’s porn epic — without the redeeming prurient interest. It’s a sex comedy about love. And that’s the oddest element of this latest demonstration that the romantic comedy is a fatally endangered species.

TIME movies

REVIEW: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Who Needs Humans?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Movie Film Still
Caesar’s palace: the lord of the apes (Serkis) rules his forest realm WETA/20th Century Fox

The chimps get the best lines and the more potent motivations in this indie-vibe sequel to the irresistible Rise

“Prepare your families,” President Obama instructs a desperate nation. “Know your evacuation route.” It is 10 years after the events of the 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so for the Commander-in-Chief to remain in the White House, he must have seized imperial power, exactly as his most zealous detractors believed he would. And that’s not the scariest forecast in the new sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A “simian flu,” created in a lab, has killed most of the world’s Homo sapiens, and weaponized chimpanzees with Mensa IQs run wild across the Earth. It’s Ape-ocalypse Now.

Rise, directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was a wonderful surprise: a parable of parenting in which benign San Francisco scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) raises the genetically enhanced infant chimp Caesar (the great Andy Serkis under all those motion-capture gizmonics) to maturity while researching a serum he hopes will cure his own father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Somehow something goes wrong, and the humane ape foments a rebellion against the men who took him from Rodman and subjected him to beastly mistreatment. By the end of that terrific film, Caesar had led his ape army across the Golden Gate Bridge, toward a handful of sequels.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, while not nearly the masterpiece proclaimed by many critics, is certainly a fascinating cross-species: a big-budget summer action fantasy with a sylvan, indie-film vibe, and a war movie that dares ask its audience to root for the peacemakers. With Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) taking over as director, and screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) joining Jaffa and Silver, the new movie has politics on its mind, just like its predecessor — also like the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel and the original Charlton Heston film five years later. The difference is that this one meanders through the woods for much of its two-hour-plus running time. Only at the climax does it escalate into martial majesty.

In the wake of the flu epidemic, two tribes of foragers now occupy the Bay Area. Above, in Muir Woods, are the apes, led by Caesar. Below, in the wreck of downtown San Francisco, a ragtag band of human survivors have no electricity and are running out of fuel. Neither group has contact with the other until a few humans, seeking to restart a hydroelectric dam up in the forest, encounter a hairier host of primates. Can the two species live in harmony? Reeves and the writers want you to hope so, even as they must realize that any Paris Peace Accord of man and monkey would put the kibosh on a Noon of the Planet of the Apes.

(WATCH: The trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)

Whereas Rise devoted an hour or so to the hopeful if ominous domesticity of its daddy-day-care plot, the new movie begins by focusing on an ape Eden. The first dozen minutes — after a brief recap of the flu outbreak, and the Obama sound bite for a hurricane advisory turned into a warning of imminent Armageddon — play like the oddest episode of PBS’s Nature. Caesar leads his extended family in their daily routine: riding horses to chase a herd of deer, battling a grizzly bear and sharing such pacific lessons as “Ape not kill ape.” (They’ve apparently learned to speak English from the star of another PBS show: Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster.)

A former Che who wants to be Gandhi, Caesar agrees to let the human visitors — ex-architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his nurse friend Ellie (Keri Russell) and his teen son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the boy in Let Me In) — do their “human work” in rewiring the dam. That’s not cool by Caesar’s ape rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), once a victim of man’s cruel experiments; he points to his scars and mutters, “Human work.” He plans an assault on mankind, as Caesar and Malcolm join forces to prevent all-out war. If Caesar is the Roman emperor of Shakespeare’s play, then the understandably vengeful Koba is Cassius, a schemer with a mean and hungry look.

As long as we’re spitballing literary allusions, consider George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which posited that pigs would overthrow their landowner and commence to squabbling murderously among themselves. In Dawn, Caesar would be Old Major, the boar who fuels the uprising (Marx or Lenin in Orwell’s parable), and Koba the strong-arm Napoleon (Stalin). The pigs’ initial rallying cry, “Four legs good, two legs bad,” is later corrupted into “Four legs good, two legs better.” Koba thinks Caesar has betrayed the apes’ revolution by agreeing to collaborate with their natural enemy. And Caesar sees Koba as seduced by militarism. “I always think ape better than human,” he tells Malcolm. “I see now how like them we are.”

(FIND: Animal Farm on the all-TIME 100 Novels list)

Reeves is smart to concentrate on the apes. Splendidly realized by actors transformed by visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, the simians are creatures of remarkable power and nuance. Serkis, who brought Peter Jackson’s Gollum and King Kong to pulsing life, and who deservedly gets top billing in Dawn, plays Caesar as a wise, wizened leader stooped by the burden of wielding power judiciously. Kebbell’s Koba is provoked to operate by brute force because he suffered that in the cage Caesar freed him from. Other chimps undergo subtle or volcanic emotional shifts, and you can detect every thought and feeling on the “faces” of Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Koba’s son Ash (Doc Shaw). This is brilliant acting, even if the actors aren’t visible. Indeed, the movie invests so much more time and ingenuity on the apes than Rise did that you may wonder if further episodes in the series will dispense with humans altogether.

Maybe they should, because the humans here are mostly limited to rote bravado and fretting. They also lack character shading. Malcolm: good; guy who smokes cigarettes and shoots a chimp: bad. The human in charge down in Frisco (Gary Oldman) blusters a lot but can’t match Koba for Patton-like intensity. The movie threatens to come down with a case of the drabs. At times the story of some Greenies trying to make a big social statement with a hydroelectric dam plays out like a big-budget gloss on Kelly Reichardt’s recent Night Moves, with the same thesis of idealism curdled into terrorism.

(READ: Corliss’s review of that dam indie film Night Moves)

The viewers’ brain may be moved by Caesar’s statesmanlike sagacity, but their guts want war. This is an adventure film, not a Pacifica radio pledge drive. As one of the humans says of the apes, “They’re talking animals! With bad-ass spears!” Guns, too. And when Koba takes command and storms the human’s compound, Dawn finally makes good on its promise of merging action with artistry. Watch and wonder at the tracking shot from a tank turret, as apes seize the means of destruction from men. Listen, too, when Michael Giaccino’s score, which had gone indie-sensitive with pensive solo-piano noodling, revs into full symphonic clamor and roar.

No spoiler alert is needed here: Dawn ends with a closeup of Caesar pondering his lot, like Old Major from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This “Ape Forest” is no less plangent in musing on both the origin of the species and its potentially awful end. Also, when it gets going, it’s a pretty fine movie.

TIME movies

REVIEW: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood Is a Thrilling Epic of Ordinary Life

The movie that took a dozen years to make — a few days each year — portrays the growth of a Texas kid from grade school to college, and provides an indelible family album of American life


Richard Linklater has said that “not much” happens in Boyhood, his new movie about a dozen years in the life of a Texas family. The biggest shock, though not unexpected, is when the leading man’s voice changes. Leading boy, really. We’ve been watching Mason (Ellar Coltrane) since he was an adorable six, and the onslaught of puberty strikes us as forcefully as it does him. Our little boy is becoming a young man.

Linklater’s gimmick — actually, his genius — was to visit the same core cast of fictional characters, played by the same actors, for a few days each year. Rounding up Lorelei Linklater (his own daughter) as Mason’s elder sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as their mom Olivia and Ethan Hawke their dad, Mason Sr., the writer-director began in the summer of 2002, when its star actor was turning six, and concluded last autumn, when Mason is shown going off to college. Linklater eventually distilled these dozen years into a 160-minute movie that spends 10 or 15 minutes on each year. You might wonder if he made a 12-hour director’s cut for DVD release; he didn’t. But the seasons pass so fluidly, with Mason and Samantha maturing before our eyes as if through gentle time-lapse photography, that the movie could be much longer to afford the audience the pleasure of spending more time with people worth caring for.

(READ: Katy Steinmetz reports on the making of Boyhood)

That’s the seductive magic of Boyhood. Watching it gives viewers a protective, possessive feeling about Mason. We have the intense rooting interest of surrogate parents, or doting aunts and uncles on an annual family reunion. We hope that Mason will survive his mother’s broken marriage and later involvement with other men. We want him to grow out of that bad haircut, overcome his siege of acne, emerge intact from the heartbreak of first love. A home movie of a fictional home life, an epic assembled from vignettes, Boyhood shimmers with unforced reality. It shows how an ordinary life can be reflected in an extraordinary movie.

Films marking the development over the years of a single young character usually employ different actors at different ages, as Maleficent does for the child and teen gestations of Angelina Jolie. Among the very few notable exceptions is François Truffaut’s 1959 The 400 Blows, which focused on the restless 14-year-old Antoine Doinel, and grew into a five-film series spanning 20 years, all starring Jean-Pierre Léaud; it’s available in the Criterion DVD set The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. One unique documentary project, Michael Apted’s Up series, has traced the separate lives of about a dozen English people every seven years, from school kids in 1964 (Seven Up!) to late middle age in the most recent installment (56 Up).

(READ: Corliss on Michael Apted’s Up documentaries)

In fiction films, though, directors can’t wait years for their young actors to grow up; most pictures need to be finished yesterday. Who would gamble on a first-grader’s star quality, his sheer screen watchability, that can be sustained and enriched until he’s a college freshman? Linklater — who also hatched the same-time-next-decade romantic trilogy, with Hawke and Julie Delpy, that was capped last summer by Before Midnight — took that risk with the young Coltrane. And no, he didn’t sign the six-year-old to a 12-year movie contract; reenlistment was voluntary. “My hope,” the filmmaker told The New York Times, “was that his parents and him would see this as a positive thing in his life and a fun thing to be involved in every year.”

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight)

A beautiful child who goes on to endure a naturally gawky phase and grows up to resemble a slimmer, much taller Peter Dinklage, Coltrane has the gift of visible introspection; the subtle play of his face provides a window into Mason’s mind. As his sister, Lorelei Linklater is a natural showboater with preternatural poise; her closest pop-culture sibling would be Mad Men’s Sally Draper (always played by Kiernan Shipka), who in the show’s seven years has sprouted from a lovely six-year old into a willful teenager. Arquette ages as well, puts on a few pounds and persuasively inhabits a woman fighting for her own identity and finally locating it as a child psychologist. And Hawke, who has appeared in nine of Linklater’s 16 fiction features, plays fair with Mason Sr. — a man who creates a new family while trying to keep unbreakable ties with the one he left.

Since no title cards establish each new year, viewers must infer the period from references to Fallujah (2003) or the publication of the sixth Harry Potter book (2005) or the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Olivia recklessly has her kids plant Obama material on neighbors’ lawns. Gradually you learn to go with the flow, and to enjoy the privileged moments as they unfold: a bowling date or a camping trip or an Astros game (Roger Clemens manhandles the Brewers) with Dad; a conference with a sympathetic high-school teacher that points Mason toward pursuing his love of photography. The brief scene of Mason in class pledging allegiance to the Texas flag underlines the 53-year-old filmmaker’s affinity to his home state, where he shot his first two features, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, before following the elaborate itinerary of his later films.

(READ: Richard Linklater on his Dazed and Confused pal, Matthew McConaughey)

Olivia is no globetrotter. Though she moves her family from one Texas town to another, she feels cramped by having gone directly from being “somebody’s daughter” to being “somebody else’s f–king mother.” This woman needs a man, usually the wrong one. After her break with the kids’ dad she marries Professor Bill (Marco Perella), whose geniality masks an alcoholic belief that his new wife and stepchildren are his students, and his home a classroom that becomes a prison. He’s a horror — providing the film’s one potent flourish of domestic melodrama — but Mason would probably prefer his real dad to any pretender his mom hooks up with. “Why’d you even marry him?” the young Mason asks his mom about Professor Bill. Later, as a teenager, he tells Mason Sr. that he wishes the parents, whatever their abrasions, had stayed together. “It would’ve saved us from a parade of drunken assholes.”

Mason’s life has its difficulties but few extremities; it unfolds rather than exploding in reality-TV’s manufactured traumas. To sit through Boyhood is to page through a family album of folks you just met, yet feel you’ve known forever. Each picture tells a poignant story. In the first year, Samantha tries to entertain or annoy her kid brother with her grinding rendition of “Oops!… I Did It Again.” Before leaving the home he grew up in, Mason applies paint to cover the pencil marks measuring the heights of him and his sister. After Professor Bill insists that Mason get a buzz cut, the boy is humiliated — until he reads a note passed from a pretty girl in his class: “I think your new hair looks kewl.” Poor, wistful Mason: he might be any of the Texas boys raised by a tough dad (Brad Pitt) in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

(READ: The cinematic vision of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life)

At one family gathering we’re startled by the presence of a mother and daughter we last saw seven or eight years earlier (about an hour in screen time), befriending Olivia at a critical moment. For being there when Olivia when she most needed them, and for staying in her life, these two women deserve a big hug of gratitude. For his 17th birthday, Mason receives plenty of hugs and several presents: a 12-gauge shotgun and a red-letter Bible from his mom’s folks, and from Mason Sr. a personally mixed “Black Album” of songs by Beatles members after they left the group. Dad’s mighty proud of that gift, but what Mason really hoped for was the battered old GTO his father had offhandedly promised to give him when the kid was old enough to drive. Dad forgot about that.

Parents forget; kids remember. Or is it the other way around? We all recall what is or was important to us, and are astonished when it slips other people’s minds. Perhaps we dismiss as irrelevant matters of crucial concern to those we love. That’s life as most of us experience it, and which few movies document with such understated acuity as Boyhood does. Embrace each moment, Linklater tells us, because it won’t come again — unless he is there to record it, shape it and turn it into an indelible movie.

TIME movies

7 Reasons Nobody Went to the Movies on a Summer Holiday Weekend

Melissa McCarthy in Warner Bros. Tammy Michael Tackett—Warner Bros.

The Independence Day weekend, usually one of the year's biggest, fizzled drastically this time. Here's what to blame — and it wasn't the World Cup or Hurricane Arthur

What if they gave a July 4th party and nobody came? That’s what Hollywood is wondering in the wake of an Independence Day weekend that had moviegoers expressing their Declaration of Indifference — by boycotting the multiplexes.

The three-day skein totaled a meager $131.9 million for all films, nearly $100 million below the $229.8 million for the same period last year, and the lowest figure for the any weekend of the summer movie season (which began May 2). The top film, the holdover Transformers: Age of Extinction, took in just $37 million — the lowest winning total for the first weekend in July since 2001. The biggest new entry, the Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy, pulled in $21.6 million, more than $7 million less than last year’s runner-up, The Lone Ranger. (Remember what a flop that was supposed to be?) Last year on Independence weekend, eight movies earned at least $10 million. This time, only Trans4mers and Tammy did.

It’s been a slow summer at the movies, down more than 15% from last year, but the past weekend’s disaster sent industry solons scurrying for reasons (and for cover). We have seven explanations for the Dearth of July. But first, three things that don’t deserve the blame.

a. Don’t blame the Friday holiday. “The primary culprit was the calendar,” wrote Todd Cunningham of The Wrap. “Fridays are typically strong nights, but with the nation celebrating Independence Day this was a dud…” To rate this weekend against others, you must look back to recent years when July 4th fell on a Friday. And each time, new movies did just fine. In 2008, Will Smith’s Hancock earned $62.6 million ($69.4 million in real dollars). In 2003, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines took in $44 million ($58 million today). In 1997, Smith reigned in Men in Black, which registered $50.1 million ($87 million today). And in those years, the second-ranked movies — all in their second weeks — sold considerably more tickets than Tammy did this time.

b. Don’t blame the World Cup. The quadrennial competition of what everyone else calls “football,” and most American call “boring,” might have siphoned some viewers away from theater attendance — if the matches weren’t all played in the afternoon on the East Coast and mid-morning in the West. And with the U.S. team sent home after last Tuesday’s loss to Belgium, fans were free to attend the movies.

c. Don’t blame Hurricane Arthur. The season’s first hurricane barreled up the Atlantic coast, sparking the usual shots of TV weather reporters in high shore winds, but soon lost steam. People should have been out celebrating on July 4th — at some patriotic pyrotechnics and at a movie.

So when customers stay away in droves on a crucial summer weekend, someone or something must be at fault. On whom can we pin the rap?

1. Blame Pixar. The reigning CGI animation studio had slated Bob Peterson’s prehistoric family fantasy The Good Dinosaur for a May 30, 2014 release, virtually guaranteeing the summer with a $200-million domestic hit and at least $500 million worldwide. But last August, Pixar canned Peterson (who joined the studio in 1994 and codirected the 2009 hit Up) and pushed the release date back to Nov. 25, 2015. For the first year since 2005, the studio would not have a new feature in theaters. (And except for DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2, which in its sixth week yet to reach $300-million worldwide, the summer has no big animated features. Too bad: Universal’s Despicable Me 2 opened to a cunning $83.5 million this weekend last year, on its way to $368 million domestic and almost a billion dollars worldwide.)

2. Blame the other studios that didn’t instantly take over July 4th. To fill the late-May slot, Pixar’s parent Disney chose its live-action fantasy Maleficent, which opened to $69.4 million and has earned a magical $630 million globally. The Angelina Jolie movie’s original release date: July 2. If The Good Dinosaur had opened as scheduled, the news now would be about Maleficent’s magnificent box-office weekend. What’s odd is that no studio with a big action film stepped into the July 4th vacuum. Warner Bros. had the Tom Cruise Edge of Tomorrow, which got depantsed a month ago by the cancer teens of The Fault in Our Stars. If Warners had shifted Cruise to this weekend, as the only new behemoth around, Edge might be on its way to nearly matching its robust total in foreign markets ($248.6 million). Instead, it’s languishing at $90 million domestic.

3. Blame toy-bot overload. Michael Bay’s first three Transformers movies saturated the Independence Week theaters in 2007, 2009 and 2011, raking in the loot as if Optimus Prime had been magnetized to attract all available cash. Transformers: Age of Extinction, with actual movie icon Mark Wahlberg replacing former faux-star Shia LaBeouf, opened well in late June, earning $100 million, give or take, in its first three days. But this past weekend, despite zero competition in the action-fantasy genre, the movie fell 63% to $37 million. If you wanted to see Trans4mers, chances are you’ve already seen it and aren’t going back.

After 10 days, the movie’s domestic total is $174.7 million, which sounds like a lot until you check it against the 10-day totals of its predecessors: $228 million for T3, $269 million for T2 and $187 million for the first Transformers, back when ticket prices were far lower and no 3-D or IMAX surcharges inflated the revenue. For prime optimism, Paramount must look abroad, where Trans4mers has already earned $400 million, including $212.8 million in China. Yep, the take from the People’s Republic is nearly $50 million more than in North America. That’s both financially encouraging and, for a country that is used to being No. 1, at least in movie grosses, kind of depressing. America is mighty, but it’s no China.

4. Blame Melissa McCarthy. After an Oscar-nominated splash as a Bridesmaids potty-pooper, and costarring roles with Justin Bateman in Identity Thief and Sandra Bullock in The Heat, the soubrette had her chance to prove her marquee allure in a solo comedy. But Tammy — which McCarthy cowrote with her husband, director Paul Falcone — was the wrong project. Forget that it’s an awful movie, or try to. This story of a frowsy, rejected wife who goes on a road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) is failing because it has no heroine for the audience to root for and no huge stake for her to risk. The McCarthy persona in her earlier hits is an abrasive creature who brings chaos to the lives of sympathetic figures. In Tammy, the creature is front and center, and viewers are expected to embrace a character they would flee from in real life.

5. Blame genre exhaustion. Last year, the home-invasion thriller The Purge won an early-June weekend with $34.1 million, and six weeks later the possessed-woman drama The Conjuring earned $41.9 million, on its way to an amazing $137.4-million domestic haul. The message seemed clear: fright films needn’t be released only in cold weather. But horror hasn’t clicked in 2014. In February, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a spinoff of the once-dynamite series, struggled to an $18.3-million first weekend and a $32.5-million total, and no other scare movie has come near those modest totals. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s supernatural drama Deliver Us from Evil had a budget of $30 million (high for this sort of film) and, over the weekend, earned just $9.7 million. This genre needs more than an exorcism; it needs a time-out, until the fan base revives itself.

6. Blame moms. They didn’t take their kids to see the first wide-release family film in weeks: Earth to Echo, an E.T. derivative (three boys find a lonely alien) employing the tired found-footage technique. Disney produced the picture, then dropped it. For parents, the Disney brand might have been a Seal of Approval, and a marketing brand. Instead, Relativity released Echo, and flailed to a $8.4-million weekend. The LEGO Movie and Maleficent are the only family-angled movies this year to earn at least $150 million.

7. Blame Obama. Why not? The President gets the finger (sometimes just the middle one) pointed at him for all the country’s woes. Dinesh D’Souza detected a virulent anticolonialism in the Commander-in-Chief in the 2012 documentary 2016 Obama’s America, which marshaled right-wing viewers in that election year to the tune of $33.4 million — the second highest gross for any political docs (though way behind the $119.2 million cadged by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004). For this Independence Day, D’Souza and co-director John Sullivan released America, which argues that the nation is a force for good and that, whatever leftie professors say about slavery and the Trail of Tears, we should be proud patriots.

Playing in 1,105 theaters, the movie took in $2.7 million, less than half the $6.5 million earned by 2016 in fewer houses. Somebody said that D’Souza should have worked the President’s name into the title, to ensure good business with true believers — because they don’t love America as much as they hate Obama. That’s just one more way moviemakers failed their audiences on what should have been one of the year’s biggest weekends.

TIME movies

Fifty Years Ago Today: The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night

Made in an amazing burst of creativity, The Fab Four's first movie, remains as revolutionary as ever, and as much fun

Before anyone saw the movie, its title promised something different from the ruck of cheapo rock ‘n roll films: A Hard Day’s WHAT? As producer Walter Shenson told it, he and director Richard Lester were nearly finished shooting their little picture with the Beatles but had no name for it. Then John Lennon told Shenson that Ringo Starr occasionally mutilated the English language in droll ways. Example: to suggest his exhaustion after an evening’s concertizing and partying, Ringo would say, “It’s been a hard day’s night.” Shenson told Lennon that he and Paul McCartney should write a song with that title, pronto. The next morning they delivered a catchy 12-bar blues riff with a soaring bridge, about a working stiff whose girlfriend makes all his toil worthwhile. Plaaaang!

That’s the sound of the song’s first, long guitar chord — a brash wakeup call to the audience. The film’s first shot is just as startling: three of the Liverpool lads running toward the camera down a narrow sidewalk, hemmed in by parked cars. The screams of pursuing Beatlemaniacs rises under the song’s first phrase, as George Harrison, in the foreground with John, trips and falls, Ringo collapsing over him. John looks back, his deadpan face breaking into a wide smile, and George gets up to carry on running away from their fans and into the Marylebone train station. Now all three are laughing, perhaps at the silliness of pop stardom, while the sacred words THE BEATLES briskly unfurl across the screen, followed by A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

(FIND: A Hard Day’s Night on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Has any movie captured a moment in social, let alone musical, history with as much acuity and joy as A Hard Day’s Night? Directed by Richard Lester, then 32, and starring four musicians, the eldest of whom (Ringo) was 23, the film showed the world’s most famous foursome at that split second when they and their fans could enjoy their early apogee of superstardom. In the years until their 1970 breakup, the Beatles’ influence would broaden, their music become more sophisticated, their politics more complicated. But the world premiere of A Hard Day’s Night at London’s Pavilion Theatre on July 6, 1964 — 50 years ago today — marked the full flourish of Beatlemania on screen, in all its wit, musical bravado and, if we may say it about a canny rock band, innocence.

For the 50th anniversary, the film is showing in theaters in 100 U.S. cities, including Manhattan’s Film Forum. And the Criterion Collection has issued a 4K digital restoration of the film, which necessitated replacing missing parts of the original negative; and Giles Martin, whose father George produced most of the Beatles’ music, had to use a monaural mix of the movie’s closing song, “She Loves You,” for the stereo track. The result is a splendid tribute to this endearing, enduring film — which, when it opened here in August 1964, Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice called “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to legendary film critic Andrew Sarris)

Prescient and true: AHDT revolutionized pop musicals with the same thunder-clap force that Orson Welles brought to the Hollywood drama, and that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho infused into the horror film. A very local comedy with universal appeal, a daring blend of documentary and surrealism, Lester’s G-rated movie junked the tropes of traditional Hollywood musicals and instead found its muses in France: the avant-garde subversion of Luis Buñuel and Jean Vigo and the cinematic playfulness of New Wavers François Truffaut an Jean-Luc Godard. Lester punctuated the movie with swish pans, arc-light glares and an editing pace of controlled frenzy; he broke a thousand filmmaking rules and in the process established new ones that would reverberate decades later in music videos.

(In a making-of extra on the Criterion discs, the director says that “MTV gave me a very nice diploma … saying that I was the putative father of MTV.” He smiled and added, “But I’ve insisted on a blood test.”)

In the decade before AHDN, there were only two kinds of movies with pop stars. A hot star like Elvis Presley (and, in Britain, Cliff Richard) would be cast as a fictional character in an A-minus drama with music. (Frank Sinatra did the same in his ’40s films.) Or, down on the B-minus level, performers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard would play a couple songs as backup to a story of teen striving (as in the Alan Freed-hosted Rock Around the Clock and Mr. Rock ‘n Roll). The first kind of film tried to turn a pop sensation into fodder for the mainstream audience; that’s how Elvis got neutered in movies. The second kind used the artists as teen bait, then gave them only a few minutes on screen. The Beatles didn’t want any of that. AHDN was the first mainstream rock movie that seemed designed mainly to amuse its makers.

(READ: The Beatles Conquer America — 50 Years Later)

It all came together in a flash. In late 1963, Shenson, an American who had produced the 1959 Peter Sellers comedy hit The Mouse That Roared and its less successful sequel The Mouse on the Moon, agreed to produce a musical comedy starring the Beatles, who were just launching into the pop Britosphere. Shenson’s studio back home, United Artists, had no sybil’s foreknowledge of the band’s unique fame; it just wanted an album of new songs to promote, which would make back the film’s modest $500,000 investment.

Even after the Beatles conquered America on The Ed Sullivan Show and monopolized the pop charts like no recording artists before them, a UA executive asked that voice actors dub the Fab Four’s accents into a more intelligible mid-Atlantic patois. McCartney’s response: “Look, if we can understand a f–kin’ cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool.”

Lester could understand Liverpool. A Philadelphian who had worked in live TV drama in his teens, he had come to London, embraced its comic quirkiness and adopted its accent; it was said he’d become so English that he wanted his surname spelled Leicester. He had directed the jazz musical It’s Trad, Dad and, for Shenson, Mouse on the Moon.

More important to the Beatles, who loved that long-running radio anarchy The Goon Show, Lester had helmed an 11-minute experimental comedy called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Goons Sellers and Spike Milligan. (This short film’s outdoor shenanigans directly inspired surreal bits in AHDN like the Beatles running along outside the train they were just inside, as well as the “Can’t Buy Me Love” field frolic.) The four also approved of Alun Owen, the Liverpudlian writer of TV dramas, to pen the script.

(READ: Peter Sellers and The Goon Show)

The speed at which A Hard Day’s Night was conceived and born testifies both to UA’s original suspicion that the project would be a B-movie promo and to the industry and artistry its makers invested in it. Lennon and McCartney wrote about eight songs on a brief January holiday in Jamaica, leaving Lester and Owen to fit the songs somehow into a scenario about a day or two in the band’s hectic life. Shooting began Mar. 2 at Marylebone, climaxed late that month at the Scala Theatre where the band played for their fans and more or less finished on April 23, when Paul, George and Ringo cavorted on Thornsbury Playing Fields in Middlesex for the “Can’t Buy Me Love” segment. (John, at a signing for his book In His Own Write, was mostly absent from that larkishness.)

Shot in doc-style black-and-white, AHDN had a secret sibling film in What’s Happening: The Beatles in the U.S.A., shot during their first visit to America by the cinéma-vérité pioneers Albert and David Maysles. What’s Happening also depicts the Beatles routine: same dashing from train to limo to photo op to TV stage, the same release of tension on a dance-club floor, the same use of wit as armor against imprisonment and ennui — and the same amazing display of geniality by four blithe Liverpudlians. Also the same directorial nimbleness: the Maysles brothers learned of their assignment two hours before the Beatles’ plane landed at JFK airport on Feb. 7, 1964. Artists had faster reflexes then.

(READ: TIME’s 1964 review of the Lester and Maysles Beatles films)

AHDN didn’t open in the States until Aug. 11, more than a month after the London premiere, and for those of us who were young back then it was an essential votive experience. I remember seeing it at a movie house in suburban Philadelphia. I say seeing; hearing was out of the question, due to the shrieks of the band’s bobbysoxer brigade. The theater, I swear, was informally divided into quadrants, each inhabited by the attendant sisters of one band member: John in the lower left, Paul in the lower right, etc. A closeup of one Beatle would cue a communal wail from his quadrant. It was the sweetest form of pandemonium.

The Philadelphia girls, consciously nor not, were imitating the film’s climactic sequence, which intercuts shots of the band performing “She Loves You” with reaction shots from the young audience, and returns occasionally to girls mouthing the names of their particular heroes. The unforgettable one is a pretty blond undergoing a kind of anguished ecstasy. She is seen four times: first clutching her hair, then crying into her hand, then sobbing hand to head and finally, at the song’s last break (“You know you shou-ou-ou-ould…”) silently keening a desperate “George.” On one of the Criterion extras, we learn that editor John Jympson called this girl “the white rabbit.”

(READ: How The Beatles changed rock ‘n roll)

Ten years later, in Film Comment, I wrote my first Beatles nostalgia piece: “You probably have to be about my age — turning 30, and none too pleased about it — to look back nostalgically on a period as recent as 1964, and to smile crookedly when you think of A Hard Day’s Night. Most of us were the last stragglers of the ’50s… all we had were the private passions of movies and rock ‘n roll, which our teachers considered occasions of sin and not yet adventures in scholarship. With the Beatles, and specifically with A Hard Day’s Night, the unspeakable became acceptable. … A Hard Day’s Night today retains its vigor, its good humor, its Lancashire courtliness and easy grace. … We can also find in the film what we responded to then: its perfect distillation of a moment when, for a lot of us, it felt good to be young. … [Now,] we’ve aged, and it hasn’t.”

Another 40 years later, I have aged and the movie still hasn’t. Maybe the Beatles, perhaps even Lester and his team, didn’t know what they made, it soon became clear, was history — and did it with such good humor and blithe, unflappable grace. That’s a big reason for the unique then-and-now status of A Hard Day’s Night: it is both completely of its time and utterly forever.

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