TIME movies

When Mr. Smith Took Washington by Storm

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Seventy-five years ago, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' premiered in D.C. — and not everyone in the audience was happy about it

In 1939, Frank Capra had just won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director with his film of the Broadway hit You Can’t Take It with You. His 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town had also roused audiences with its story of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a naive bumpkin who inherits a fortune and is beset by big-city predators, including the tabloid press.

Capra had some capital to spend, and he spent it in the Nation’s Capital. His new film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, would send a Deeds-like naïf, James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, to the U.S. Senate, where his dewy ideals collide with the invested power of corrupt lawmakers. When the film opened 75 years ago, on Oct. 19, 1939, the TIME reviewer noted:

This new Capra fable is as whimsical, the Capra directing as slick, the script as fast and funny as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The acting of the brilliant cast is sometimes superb. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is bigger than any of these things. Its real hero is not calfy Jeff Smith, but the things he believes, as embodied in the hero of U. S. democracy’s first crisis, Abraham Lincoln.

A U.S. Senator dies, and the state’s governor names Smith, editor of a Boy Scout-type newspaper called Boy’s Stuff, to fill the seat. That’s fine with Boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who figures he can control Smith the way he has run, through bullying and bribes, the Governor, the local industry, the press, the state legislature and Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the senior U.S. Senator. When Smith proposes a bill to set aside an area near Willet Creek Dam for a Boy Ranger park, Taylor instructs Paine to denounce Smith as “a contemptible young man with a contemptible scheme,” falsely charging him with secretly owning the land the park is to be built on. Scorned by the entire Senate, but encouraged by his wily Chief of Staff Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith launches an all-night filibuster to prove his innocence and righteousness.

Arthur, who had starred in Mr. Deeds and You Can’t Take It with You, was top-billed, but Stewart carries the film in his first career-defining role. With a plangent voice always breaking as if he’s on the cusp of puberty, Stewart’s Smith proves how a young man’s ideals can trump his own ignorance and the infernal forces aligned against him. Seven years later, Stewart would play an older, more desperate Smith type as George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the all-TIME 100 Movies.

In the freewheeling, fire-breathing script by Sidney Buchman, Smith is an overgrown boy searching for a father figure; his own dad was “a struggling editor” whose efforts against men like Taylor led to his death — “slumped over his desk… shot in the back.” (If a politician thinks you’re in his way, he may kill you.) He thinks Paine might be a shining replacement, until he learns of the man’s craven fealty to Taylor. Paine’s rationalization — “I compromised, yes, so that all these years I could stay in that Senate, and serve the people in a thousand honest ways” — sounds like the forlorn words a weaselly Congressman shouts to himself in the bathroom mirror. Halfway through the film Smith realizes that his one and only father figure is the seated figure in the Lincoln Memorial.

Having castigated American governance as a do-nothing cabal of corruption (sound familiar?), Capra then had an even bolder idea: He would premiere Mr. Smith in a special showing hosted by the National Press Club in the capital, with members of the Cabinet and both Houses of Congress present. As TIME reported the following week:

When the picture was over, the audience applauded loudly. [But] Three Senators (who declined to be quoted) upheld Senatorial dignity with these pungent comments on the film: “Not all Senators are sons of bitches.” “Punk!” “It stinks!”

That translates as “How dare he!” — which had to be music to the nervy little Sicilian director. Like Jefferson Smith, Frank Capra had walked into the U.S. Senate, given it a stern civics lesson, endured the catcalls of its denizens and emerged triumphant. Mr. Smith would be nominated for 11 Oscars — winning only for Best Story (Lewis R. Foster) in the sweep year of Gone With the Wind — and became a popular, enduring hit. But Capra’s most savory memory had to be displaying the Senate’s venery to itself. What filmmaker today would have such big steels balls?

Read TIME’s full Oct. 1939 report on the D.C. premiere of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, here in the archives: Mr. Smith Riles Washington

TIME movies

Review: In Fury, Brad Pitt Wins World War II, Again

Columbia Pictures

The Inglourious Basterds star returns for another tour in this grisly account of an American tank crew in the war's last month

Correction appended: Oct. 16, 2014

“Done much killing?” tough Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) asks winsome newbie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). “No,” Ellison answers timidly. “You will,” the big guy spits out.

He’s not kidding. Fury, writer-director David Ayer’s war film to end all war films (fingers crossed), begins with Wardaddy killing a German cavalry officer with a knife, then cutting his eye out as a souvenir. It ends, a draining two hours and 10 minutes later, in a battle that makes the Alamo look like a pie dessert — à la mode.

This is War Movie 101: all fighting, nearly all the time. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down pictured a similarly unrelenting siege (Somalia), as did, in a fantasy landscape, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Rohan). Saving Private Ryan traced an American unit’s trajectory across World War II–era France, and Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, once that film got past the fatal hazing of basic training, submerged the viewer in the Vietnam nightmare as seen by its edgy American invaders. Fury doesn’t come close to the achievement of those edifying cinematic ordeals, let alone to Samuel Maoz’s harrowing Israeli film Lebanon, which summoned a claustrophobic psychopathy by setting virtually all its action inside an Israeli tank. But Ayer’s movie has the admirable ambition of showing how even the Greatest Generation could brutalize and be brutalized by war.

Brad Pitt, you’ll recall, already won World War II in Inglourious Basterds. Hell, last year he won World War Z. So how can he and the near victorious GIs of the 2nd Armored Division be established as underdogs in a movie set in Germany in April 1945, just a few weeks before Hitler would blow his brains out in a bunker? Ayer’s solution: put ‘em in a tank, where their rumbling weapon was far outclassed by the enemy’s. Henry Ford produced the Americans’ thin-skinned Sherman tank; Ferdinand Porsche designed the Germans’ much larger, sturdier Tiger. It was, essentially, the Tin Lizzie vs. the Mercedes-Benz Super Sport.

And though World War II would shortly end, the U.S. soldiers couldn’t take it easy, like college seniors in the final term before graduation. Their mission was to roll through Germany, whose Nazi leaders called for every citizen to fight the invaders to their death. To the Americans, each person they meet is a potential sniper; every man, woman and child is cannon fodder. Some of the soldiers became efficient killing machines. Some of them may have liked it.

Norman, who looks about 12 and takes most of the movie to grow stubble on his sweet peach face, doesn’t like killing, doesn’t want it and, when he’s drafted as Wardaddy’s gunner, doesn’t know how to do it. His first job is to scrape the remains of his predecessor off the insides of the tank, nicknamed Fury. He is the token innocent, the audience surrogate, almost the girl joining a quartet of grizzled veterans.

Because their characters are reduced to their religious, ethnic or lowlife stereotypes, they may as well be called Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Mex (Michael Peña) and Animal (Jon Bernthal). Their tour has taken them to hell and halfway back, which makes them the rude tutors in Norman’s life-or-death indoctrination. “The war’s gotta end, soon,” Wardaddy says, in one of the boilerplate truisms that serve as this movie’s dialogue. “But before it ends, a lotta people gotta die.”

Sometimes, even a little death is a lot. Conquering one village, Wardaddy and Norman enter a house that holds two frightened young German women, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg) and Irma (Anamaria Marinca, star of the Romanian prize winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Irma makes lunch for Wardaddy, who sends Norman off to the bedroom with Emma in what may be their mutual deflowering. The assignation is meant to be tender, but the viewer has to wonder if Emma (or for that matter, Norman) is a willing participant, and if the scene doesn’t carry the lingering toxicity of sexual violence. Then the other tank troopers barge in, and Animal uncorks a flood of insults that amount to assault. By velvet glove or iron fist, barbarism rules.

That, Ayer would argue, is just war, daddy. And in staging his big battle sequences, he brings Fury to fitful life. The attack of three Shermans on a giant Tiger is choreographed for maximum impact, as is the looming face-off between Wardaddy’s crippled tank and about 300 SS troops marching toward it. Pitt, who at 50 still looks great with his shirt off, has the gruff charisma to play a dauntless soldier with killer courage and a vestigial streak of humanity.

He carries a film that could stumble under the burden of its clichés. You know that when one character who’s chomped out bits of Norman’s callow butt for most of the movie finally makes gentle amends, he’ll be the next to die. And that another character, having faced death countless times by German fire or misadventure, will survive through an act of enemy kindness. World War II was a historical event, but also a movie genre, and Fury occasionally prints the legend. The rest of it is plenty grim and grisly. Audience members may feel like prisoners of war forced to watch a training-torture film.

The original version of this story misspelled the name of Brad Pitt’s character. It is Don “Wardaddy” Collier.

TIME movies

How Pulp Fiction Went from Cannes Surprise to Movie of the Year

Pulp Fiction
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Twenty years after its release, Quentin Tarantino's multipart melodrama retains its vivid savor and revolutionary kick

For the four stories in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which had its theatrical release 20 years ago on Oct. 14, 1994, here are four TIME articles tracing the movie’s progress from Cannes surprise to best movie of the year.

When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie seemed to come out of nowhere, which I’ve reflected on in the past. As I wrote at the time, it was a shock to the festival’s system:

For a while, everything was so quiet. The first week or so of the 12-day Cannes Film Festival proceeded as sedately as a Riviera quilting bee. … Then BLAM!, the Wild Bunch hit town. … Pulp Fiction brought some big-time, macho-and- mayhem, Uzi-in-your-gut star quality to Cannes. … It was as if Tarantino were telling Cannes, “O.K., nap time is over. Now, pay attention, and I’ll show you how it’s done. Here’s why they’re called moving pictures.”

Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein — who picked up the movie when TriStar, the original distributor, balked at John Travolta character’s being a heroin dealer and user — hosted a press luncheon on May 23, 1994, at le plus posh Eden Roc restaurant. At outdoor tables in the blissful Riviera sunlight, Travolta, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson joined the 31-year-old writer-director to charm the critics. They knew, as we did, that they had a winner at Cannes and beyond. And though the smart money for the Palme d’Or was on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, the Cannes Jury chaired by Clint Eastwood did the right thing and gave Pulp Fiction the festival’s top prize.

By the time the movie made it to theaters that fall, the signs were clear that the world had a phenomenon on its hands:

Onscreen, John Travolta had just raised an Adrenalin-filled hypodermic needle above the comatose body of Uma Thurman and, with desperate force, plunged it straight into her heart. In the audience at New York City’s Lincoln Center, where Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was being shown, a young man watched this scene and passed out. “Is there a doctor in the house?” someone actually asked. The film was stopped for nine anxious minutes before the announcement came: “The victim is just fine.”

The intensity of the Pulp Fiction experience for that one viewer indicates how Tarantino’s movie polarized audiences; tepid reactions were simply not allowed. Filmgoers who thought they’d seen everything hadn’t seen anything with quite this scope, nerve and kick. In a totally ’90s way, it went medieval on the ass of the Zeitgeist. So everyone had to see it. Made for a frugal $8 million, the film grossed $108 million in North America and another $106 million abroad, back when that was real money. “I wanted it to look like an epic,” QT said of this, his second feature. “It’s an epic in everything – in invention, in ambition, in length, in scope, in everything except the price tag.”

Read TIME’s Oct. 1994 review of Pulp Fiction, free of charge, here in the archives: A Blast to the Heart

Pulp Fiction — a great title, by the way — perched proudly and deservedly atop the 10-best Cinema list that Richard Schickel and I compiled for TIME’s 1994 year-end issue.

No. 1: Pulp Fiction. Now here’s a movie. … Quentin Tarantino’s adrenaline rush of a melodrama is a brash dare to timid Hollywood filmmakers. Let’s see, he says, if you can be this smart about going this far.

But more than a few movie professionals were pretty f—in’ far from O.K. with it. At the New York Film Critics Circle, where some members took an anything-but-Pulp-Fiction stance, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show was named Best Film, though Tarantino got the Director and Screenplay prizes.

At the Oscars, Pulp Fiction’s rivals for Best Picture included Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Shawshank Redemption (which had opened the same day as QT’s film). None of those won. The top prize went to Forrest Gump, whose broader, more genial appeal also made it the No. 1 box-office hit of 1994. Robert Zemeckis’s box of chocolates beat out Tarantino’s 200-proof Valentine sampler of cool old movies in a post-modern box.

About a decade later, Schickel and I would wrangle over many titles in our joint selection of the all-TIME 100 Movies, published in May 2005 — but Pulp Fiction was one of our easiest picks.

The (approximately) 46th, and most recent, film noir on this list, Tarantino’s multipart murder comedy is (unquestionably) the most influential American movie of the ’90s. … Yeah yeah, but Pulp Fiction is still fresh—in fact, astonishingly impudent—and fully up to matching its cocksure ambition with its care for framing a scene and its love for the actors within them. The joy of filmmaking is evident and infectious. The film still has the impact of an adrenalin shot to the heart. Seen today, 20 years after its premiere, the film impresses even more for its density, daring and precision — for fiddling with chronology (so that Travolta’s character, killed in the third story, is alive in the fourth), for out-of-nowhere scenes that later prove their resonance (Christopher Walken’s monologue about the watch), for dreaming up fake commercial brands (Red Apple cigarettes, McCleary blended Scotch whiskey, Sam’s Toaster Pastries).

A trivia bonus track on the 2003 DVD release, which chats away in subtitles for almost the entirety of the movie’s 2 hours and 34 minutes — as if Tarantino were sitting with you offering a frame-by-frame analysis — explains how certain “mistakes” (the bullet holes behind Jackson and Travolta in the first story) might have been intentional. At the moment of Travolta’s needle resuscitation of Thurman, we get a “Reality Check” from the Trivia track: “Don’t try this at home, because it wouldn’t work.” (The needle would break, and so would the patient’s sternum.)

Tarantino has made other terrific movies before and after Pulp Fiction. Our favorite is the double feature Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which is sprawling where Pulp Fiction was svelte. We also love large swatches of Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. And we drool in anticipation at The Hateful Eight, whose screenplay promises a Western showdown of comic or cosmic proportions.

But no film of the now middle-aged auteur can match the Shock of the New that Pulp Fiction administered in 1994. We envy those who see it now for the first time — a movie that remains young, smart, vivacious and extraordinarily, indeed coronarily, entertaining.

TIME movies

The Vampire as Messiah in Dracula Untold

In this non-horror origins story about the world's favorite bloodsucker, Luke Evans plays Vlad the Impaler as an action-film hunk with a bit of a Jesus glow

In a cave teeming with bats and littered with crushed skulls, a skeletal demon appraises the young stalwart who stands before him. “Most men reek of fear,” says the Master Vampire (Charles Dance). “In you I smell hope.” Vlad (Luke Evans), the King, top fighter and undisputed hunk of Transylvania, does have a desperate hope: that he can defeat the invading Turks of the Ottoman Empire. So the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) offers to bestow all the infernal powers of his species on Vlad. And, in a kind of infomercial twist on Faust, he’ll get a free three-day trial. The small print: If, in that time, Vlad surrenders to the insatiable lust for human blood—the vampire’s most delicious addiction—he is doomed to become a monarch of the eternal undead. No refunds.

Dracula Untold means not only to upend the charnel image of Bram Stoker’s vampire but also to give a sweet sheen to the legend of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula, the Wallachian king whose name Stoker borrowed for his novel. Known as a sadistic warrior who left his victims piked on spikes, like scarecrows in a cemetery, Vlad gets a bio-makeover comparable to turning England’s Richard III, another 15th-century king of fearsome rep, into Henry V. This origins story, directed by Gary Shore and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (all first-timers in feature films), casts Vlad as a loving husband, a protective father and a national hero—Vladímir the Redeemer.

That’s right: Dracula is a little bit Jesus. Like the Christian Messiah, Vlad spends part of his childhood in a foreign land (not Egypt but Turkey) before maturing into an idealist and a freedom fighter. Choosing to die—to be undead—for the salvation of his people, Vlad endures a Calvary of sacrifice and spends the requisite three days between Crucifixion and Resurrection. The difference is that for him the resurrection, as a vampire in training, comes first. He’ll pay later.

Intended as the launching of a film franchise—the movie’s last line is “Let the games begin!”—Dracula Untold grossed a tidy $23.5 million on its opening weekend in North American theaters. It has also earned about $63 million in its release abroad. Most reviewers slammed the movie, but it’s not nearly as awful, or offal, as its critical odor. If Untold isn’t exactly must-see big-screen fare, it would be a welcome companion on a long flight or as a rainy-day Netflix rental.

The big shock, if you were expecting a typical Dracula story, is that this not a horror film. You show up for the predatory pestilence of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or the toxic love bites of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst—to cite the two vampire films on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list—and instead find a stately epic in the Sword and (Satanic) sorcery genre.

Hewing with fair fidelity to the Vlad’s story as recounted by historians (or at least Wikipedians), the script recounts his adolescent years in the Ottoman court, where his father had sent him as a prince-captive, and his long battle as a leader of the Christian crusade that Pope Pius II had ordered against against the Muslim invaders. When the Turkish king Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands that Vlad hand over a thousand boys as soldiers for the Empire, including his young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson), he refuses.

That’s when Vlad makes his deal with the demon. It gives him the strength to singlehandedly defeat an army of thousands—whose soldiers courteously wait until he’s slaughtered one bunch before attacking him—and it creates an aura that will scare other troops. As he cogently observes, “Men do not fear swords. They fear monsters.” Very well: for God and country, he’ll be one.

The Transylvanian monks first mount the world’s fastest insurrection, then try to contain Vlad when they note those telltale vampire signs: fear of sunlight and the avoidance of gleaming silver. As the third of his free-trial nights nears its end, Vlad’s wife Malena (Sarah Gadon) learns of his deal just before she is to die at Ottoman hands. Like any good spouse, she insists he drink her blood for the strength he needs to defeat his foe. So Vlad’s transformation into vampire isn’t an act of infernal craving. It’s what he did for love.

The battles are robust but mostly bloodless; in a PG-13 action film, you see a weapon’s thrust, not its impact. This is no Game of Thrones (also shot in Ireland, also costarring Dance (as Tywin Lannister). To extend the Jesus metaphor, it’s more a Crown of Thorns. But cinematographer John Schwartzman finds strong, subtle tones in all the nighttime battles and photographs everyone to look great — even when they’re supposed to look bat-split ugly, like Dance. The actor, under his CGI makeup, has creepy majesty as the demon who’s grown long of tooth (and claw). And Gadon, the Canadian actress who played a teen victim of vampirism in The Moth Diaries, is both pure and sexy in the sort of role — faithful wife with heaving bosom — that Hazel Court so often took in old Hammer horror films.

Evans, the Welshman who made solid early screen impressions as Apollo in Clash of the Titans and as the rustic stud in Tamara Drewe, carries Untold by admirably fulfilling the two essential functions of a period-movie hero: to enunciate comic-book dialogue with Shakespearean authority and to look great with his shirt off. Any viewer, male or female, would be happy to meet him in a dark cave and give him a free three-day trial.

TIME movies

Review: Whiplash Moves to the Beat of a Driven Drummer

'Whiplash'
Daniel McFadden—Sony Pictures

Miles Teller is the prodigy and J.K. Simmons his remorseless teacher in Damien Chazelle's intimate and intimidating two-hander

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) lives to play jazz drums, and at 19, he’s the youngest drummer in the vaunted “Studio Band” at New York City’s Juilliard-like Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Little problem: the bandleader, 50-something teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), runs the outfit like a sadistic Master Sergeant’s boot camp. When Andrew ever-so-slightly screws up in a rehearsal of Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” a very complex composition with a 7/4 beat, Fletcher tosses a chair at him. He makes castrating jokes about Andrew’s father and mother. He slaps the boy, hard. Andrew wants to be “one of the greats,” and he might mature from a promising musician into an exceptional one — if he can just survive Fletcher’s tough love.

A hit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival, where it was nicknamed Full Metal Drum Kit, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash adds welcome flavor to the fall movie season, like Raisinettes sprinkled on a tub of popcorn. Directing with a cool, steady hand that renounces shaky-cam the way Fletcher would denounce rock ‘n roll, and getting strong performances from his two leads, Chazelle provides a potent metaphor for artistic ambition as both a religion and an addiction. You go through Hell to reach your goal, and maybe Hell was the best, most intense part of the process.

Chazelle, a 28-year-old Harvard grad, has suffused most of his films with music. (His script for the horror movie The Last Exorcism Part II doesn’t fit, so we’re ignoring it.) In his 2009 debut feature, Guy and Madeleine on a Park, characters burst into song — Chazelle also wrote the songs’ lyrics — as if in a Vincente Minnelli MGM musical or, given the black-and-white, spontaneous ambiance, Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave lark A Woman Is a Woman. Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for Eugenio Mora’s 2013 Grand Piano, a thriller about a classical pianist who, on the night of his comeback concert, finds in his sheet music the note, “Play one wrong note and you die.”

Fletcher’s instructional style carries that kind of threat: that Andrew must play through the pain — that his life almost literally depends on his keeping the beat. We never learn why these students in the improv art of jazz have to play the exact charts of pieces at least 75 years old: Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” (It’s as if an art teacher at the turn of the 20th century had told one brilliant student, “Hey, Picasso, stop painting those ladies as cubes!”) But we do know that Fletcher thinks the way to goad his pupils to their full potential is to demand more of them than they think they have to offer, and to refuse to accept less than what he thinks is their best. As he says, “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job.'”

He also enjoys citing a famous anecdote in which Count Basie drummer Jo Jones, in a 1930s gig with the raw teenager Charlie Parker, threw a cymbal at Parker when he went off-tempo. (Clint Eastwood replayed the incident in his 1988 bio-pic Bird.) But Fletcher apparently believes the drummers, not the alto sax players, should get the abuse. Except for one early scene, he doesn’t ritually humiliate the other members of the Studio Band. In the movie’s scheme, they are mere sidemen to the central conflict: their leader’s mission to haze his drummers toward greatness or madness. In Andrew’s first session with the Studio Band, Fletcher keeps questioning the tyro’s tempo: “Were you rushing or were you dragging?” It’s mental and physical torture of the kind applied by Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man when he asks Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?”

The difference is that Andrew wants to practice and play till his hands bleed; that’s a visual badge of devotion to his craft that may become his art. (It also suggests a reason for the reputations of jazz and rock drummers as junkies or crazies.) Like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, Andrew bonds with his captor, mimicking Fletcher’s mode of personal rancor with his sometime girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). And given that his father Jim (Paul Reiser) submerged his failure as a writer by becoming a high school English teacher, Andrew may also be fishing for a more authoritative father figure. Fletcher mocks Jim’s career defeat — those who can’t, teach — yet, a later scene at a jazz club, where Fletcher plays solo piano, shows why he’s a teacher: He’s not that good at what he’d love to be great at.

Conventional at its core, Whiplash has a lot in common with movies made from YA novels — The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner — that set daunting rites of passage for its protagonist to overcome. (In Divergent, Teller played Shailene Woodley’s hazer: bigger, stronger and, eventually, loser.) It’s also a backstage musical in which the young protagonist rebels against a brutal taskmaster — like the seminal Broadway show Gypsy, except that, this time, the one in authority is not the heroine’s mother but the hero’s college teacher. And like Gypsy Rose Lee, who blooms as a stripper instead of a chorus girl, Andrew hopes to prove that Fletcher is wrong, that you learn the system to beat the system, in a climactic battle of wills played out on stage at Lincoln Center.

To accept Whiplash as a totally successful film rather than a work of a promising young artist, audiences must indulge Chazelle’s piling on of coincidences — at crucial moments Andrew loses his rival’s playbook (accidentally on purpose?), then his drumsticks — and the needless melodrama of a car crash. They must also allow that a conductor would sabotage an important concert by humiliating his drummer off the stage, and risk presenting the rest of his jazz set with no percussion. There are times when the only justification for certain scenes is the familiar one: because it’s a movie. For Andrew to grab his dream by the cojones, he must fly over the abyss of implausibility. That’s what happens in dreams, and in movies with a more secure hold on tone and performance than on plot logic.

To raise money for the project, Chazelle first made Whiplash as a short film, with J.K. Simmons in the teacher’s role and Johnny Simmons (no relation) as the drummer. For the feature-length version, Chazelle replaced the younger Simmons with Teller. (Movie casting can be every bit as humiliating as band practice.) The two stars truly deliver. Teller, 27, has been playing drums since he was 15; he did most of the riff work, and that blood on the drum skin is his. He has just the right mix of youth and obsession to stand up to Simmons’s musical martinet.

Of this longtime character actor, people often say, “He’s always good.” They’re right. At 59, well into a protean career, he gets his breakthrough shot, as Richard Jenkins did in the 2007 The Visitor. Simmons could parlay the role, Jenkins-style, to an Oscar nomination. He would deserve it, because with little personal backstory he makes Fletcher a figure of frightening solidity. Viewers will march to his beat, in this intimate, intimidating film, because he’s so much damn fun to watch. He’s the whip of Whiplash.

TIME movies

Review: The Judge: To Mock a Killing Bird

Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in The Judge.
Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in The Judge. Claire Folger—Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall lend their high-powered histrionics to a courtroom drama that tests some knotty family ties

A judge may be deeply suspicious of the defense attorney in his court. One is sworn to dispense justice, the other bent on finding every legal loophole for clients to slip through. Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant schemer of a Chicago lawyer, defends the guilty because “Innocent people can’t afford me.” Judge Joseph (Robert Duvall), a veteran judge in rural Indiana, has only contempt for such wily rule-bending. “Imagine a faraway place where your opinion matters,” he tells Hank when the younger man shows up in Joseph’s jurisdiction. “Now go there.”

That Joseph Palmer and Hank Palmer are father and son, and have been estranged for much of their lives, is the first selling point of director David Dobkin’s The Judge, a courtroom drama of antagonistic family values. The second and more pertinent attraction is the pairing of two exemplary actors: Downey, who has holidayed from his early eminence (and notoriety) by playing Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes in a half-dozen fantasy blockbusters, and Duvall, the flinty patriarch of modern American cinema. Downey spits out dialogue at auctioneer speed; Duvall lasers that killer stare, like a male Medusa, or flicks a lizardly smile, which is even more chilling. Their collision-combustion strikes the expected sparks, in a movie that’s not quite worthy of the occasion. Billed as a heavyweight championship bout, The Judge is more a middle-of-the-card time-passer.

Like Ben Affleck’s Nick in Gone Girl, Hank has come home from the big city for his beloved mother’s death. His two brothers — the older, crippled Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the younger, slow-witted Dale (Jeremy Strong) — greet him warmly. Not so Joseph, whom all his children call Judge, perhaps because he laid down his stern law to them instead of lifting them with his love. An Old Testament type, secure in both his moral righteousness and his judicial rectitude, the Judge lavished affection only on his late wife and his ’71 Coupe de Ville… because, as we know from Gran Torino, The Bucket List and the new St. Vincent, every codger needs a vintage car. Hank can’t stand his dad and has stayed away from him. As he explains to his 10-year-old daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay): “Grampa Palmer’s dead to me.”

Grampa may be facing death because of a ride he took in his old Caddy. In the screenplay by Nick Schenk (who wrote Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, Joseph becomes a suspect in the hit-and-run demise of one Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely). Years before, the Judge had given a light sentence to Blackwell, who then committed a particularly heinous murder. The events left a blot of regret on the Judge’s conscience; the dead man left his bloodstains on the fender of that Coupe de Ville.

When arraigned, the Judge hires local doofus lawyer C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) as his counsel, but to mount a compelling defense against the slick prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) he will require a really clever advocate. Hmmm, who’s available? Maybe his hated son, who’s ready to take the job because, he says, he’s a little light on his pro-bono work this year.

Dramatizing a murder trial in a small town with intertwined guilty secrets, The Judge keeps wandering into territory staked by Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird. There are no racial overtones, since the Palmers live in quite the whitest part of Indiana. But Hank’s mentally challenged brother Dale is an obvious clear avatar of Mockingbird’s Boo Radley (whom Duvall played in the 1962 movie). Hank also alludes to Lee’s lawyer hero when he drily notes, “Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub.” The blood on the Judge’s car is his dead hooker.

Dobkin, who directed Vince Vaughn’s sharpest comedy of the past decade (Wedding Crashers) and his worst (Fred Claus), moves to drama with a slower rhythm — The Judge runs, or ambles, at a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes — but the same nudging of the audience: double-takes from the actors, a sudden storm during a big confrontation, the Thomas Newman score that points at the rise of any emotion like a grade-school teacher wielding a yardstick. Clever scenes, like Hank’s psychoanalyzing prospective jurors by asking what messages are on their bumper stickers, alternate with pokey detours. Hank’s old girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) is still in town… and she has a daughter (Leighton Meester)… who might be Hank’s! Fine, but can we get back to the trial?

The movie also goes heavier on bodily functions than an early John Waters film. In an early scene, Hank accidentally-on-purpose pees on the pants of a rival attorney. C.P., the Judge’s first lawyer, is so nervous as he approaches the courtroom that he vomits every morning. You start to wonder whether Dobkin is going to resurrect the joke about the old man who goes to his doctor. (Doctor tells him, “I’ll need a urine sample, a stool sample and a semen sample.” Old man says, “Here, take my underpants.”) Instead, he turns a moment when Hank intrudes on the Judge’s pathetic incontinence into a strange, strong affirmation of the father-son bond. As the Judge inches toward death, he becomes as helpless as a baby, and Hank is suddenly the parent cleaning up his child’s mess with a combination of duty, embarrassment and love.

Farmiga does small wonders with a thankless character: the wise, weary hometown girl who would be more comfortable in a Larry McMurtry multigenerational saga. Thornton is precise, ruthless and interestingly unknowable in the out-of-town prosecutorial sharpie role taken by George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder (a much sturdier small-town courtroom drama). There’s also Grace Zabriskie in the Grace Zabriskie role: the crazy lady she played on Twin Peaks and Big Love.

But you came for Downey and Duvall, and you get a lot of what they’ve got to give. Amazing that Duvall was in his forties when he first played lawyer Tom Hagen — and that first Godfather movie was more than 40 years ago. At 83, he’s old enough for false teeth, but he’s still got his chops; the Judge needs just a single bite to leave wounds on his ambitious son’s ego.

Downey, 49, might consider Hank pro-bono work between headlining in his big franchises, even though those movies flatter his strength of lending a comic touch to overbearing geniuses. His character in The Judge — as in The Soloist and Due Date, Downey’s only two other non-action-film leading roles of the last six years — has affinities to Stark and Sherlock: he’s a bright, tense guy whom the plot compels to come to the aid of people he might otherwise despise. The odd thing is that, these days, this accomplished, serious actor looks more comfortable in fantasy roles. He does fine as Hank when ladling out the spit and sarcasm. But in the quieter moments, he’s sometimes like a race car being gunned in neutral. He’s never Acting so much as when he’s Being Human.

Touching on home truths about justice and the law, aging parents and their balky children, The Judge launches enough emotional pyrotechnics to satisfy most audiences. They may overpraise it because it reminds them of older, better movies. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a modern version of Mockingbird or Anatomy of a Murder? Even the update of a solid John Grisham suspenser like The Client, A Time to Kill or The Rainmaker?

It’s tempting to lay the tissue of a cherished old movie on a new film of similar intent and, our vision clouded by nostalgia for a favorite genre, see its retro appeal. Years from now, we may even apply that retro glow to this movie. We’ll think of its upmarket stars and honorable ambitions and wonder, “Why don’t they make movies like The Judge any more?”

The answer: They do, but on TV network law shows.

TIME movies

Review: Bill Murray Bestows Some Grace on St. Vincent

Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher star in St. Vincent.
Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher star in St. Vincent. Atsushi Nishijima—The Weinstein Company

You'll come for Murray and stay for the spark he brings to this hokey redemption drama — the one about the mean old man and the sweet kid

In the movies, every crazy old fart needs a cool old car. Jack Nicholson drove a spiffy yellow 1970 Dodge Challenger two-door in The Bucket List. In Gran Torino, the cranky pensioner played by Clint Eastwood not only owned a 1972 GT Sport, he also used to build cars like that at the Ford plant. But maybe Bill Murray beats both of these stars. In St. Vincent he tools around lower Brooklyn in a wood-paneled ’83 Chrysler LeBaron convertible that is almost as dilapidated as he is. (I mean, has almost as much character)

At a Q&A after the Toronto Film Festival world premiere of his new movie, Murray was asked how he landed the title role of a grumpy old man. He looked at writer-director Theodore Melfi and said, “Because you couldn’t get Jack Nicholson.” Vincent does fit the Nicholson template — a crab apple that ultimately turns Delicious — in The Bucket List, As Good as It Gets and, provisionally, About Schmidt. The role might also have appealed to Eastwood, if he hadn’t already made his get-off-my-lawn movie. It remained for Murray, who at 64 is 13 years younger than Jack and a full two decades shy of Clint, to exercise his gravelly gravitas and bring some ornery life to a reductive fable of redemption.

In the third of this fall’s films (after The Drop and A Walk Among the Tombstones) set in the last ungentrified parts of Brooklyn, Vincent prowls through Sheepshead Bay like Marley’s ghost, from the local bar to Belmont race track to the arms of a pregnant Russian hooker named Daka (Naomi Watts). He’s deeply in hock everywhere, especially to the loan shark Zucco (Terrence Howard). So he could use the $12 an hour that a new neighbor (Melissa McCarthy), saddled with a double-shift hospital job, will pay him to mind her 12-year-old son.

Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) has his own problems: an absent father, his own personal bully (Dario Barossa) at school and, now, this awful old man as a babysitter. Yet, perhaps because he lacks companionship of his generation or any other, Oliver warms to his keeper. And when his Catholic school teacher (Chris O’Dowd) assigns the class to choose a living person for a “Saints Among Us” project, Oliver thinks of Vincent. A seedy misanthrope might seem an odd candidate for such an endeavor. But the movies have already given us Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa. Why not Bad Saint?

If you think Vincent will become Oliver’s nemesis or predator, rather than his mentor and savior, you are imagining a more complex, challenging movie than Melfi, a TV-commercials director making his first feature, has in mind. Yes, Vincent takes Oliver to the bar and the track; he barfs his bad moods all over this very decent kid. But he gives the boy life lessons, like how to fight off the brutes at school. Vincent also does some secret charitable work that shows he has a heart, and it won’t stop aching.

The overqualified actors often give quirky life to a script that denudes their characters of nuance. McCarthy goes nicely pianissimo for a change, playing it fretful rather than shrewish. Lieberher provides charmingly understated counterpoint to the star curmudgeon. Watts chips in with a few chipper chippie scenes. And Murray, taking a rare lead role (his only other in the past nine years was Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 2012 Hyde Park on Hudson), reminds us he’s a precious movie resource. He inhabits the part like an ingenious squatter in an abandoned tenement: picking through the detritus of plot and finding nourishment for Vincent’s pain and wayward grace.

Yet nothing can make a discerning viewer feel worse than seeing a “feel-good” movie like this one. Melfi ends scenes with visual punch lines that play like rim shots; he forces salvation on everyone (including Oliver’s bully); he politicks shamelessly for emotional uplift. This barrage of kitsch is enough to turn any saint in the audience into the old, grouchy Vincent, before he got canonized. We’d rather take a spin with that irredeemable bastard, enduring his insults while enjoying the ride in that LeBaron.

TIME movies

Review: Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Druggy Nights

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Warner Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix is the stoner detective in this shaggily faithful adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel set in 1970 L.A.

“It’s groovy,” says private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello of 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. We can’t say for sure, but Pynchon may also make a cameo appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice movie, which had its world premiere Saturday at the New York Film Festival and will open in real theaters Dec. 12.

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. Anderson’s 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 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. (In a weird fluke, this weekend’s horror movie Annabelle also dips into Manson Family values.) And don’t forget Nixon. It’s a time and town where paranoia is just common sense. 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 kudzu or a heat rash. 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 DA’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 buzz-cut cop 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 PI 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 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 spin-offs — 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 who 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 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 an 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 broker 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 about six minutes and is shot without a cut, Waterston lends the movie as much human feeling and erotic tension as it’s ever going to bestow.

For the rest of this 2-hr. 28-min. 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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