TIME remembrance

Remembering Mike Nichols: Let’s Talk About Sex

"The Real Thing" Broadway Opening Night
Mike Nichols attend the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway Opening Night After Party for 'The Real Thing' at the American Airlines Theatre in New York City on Oct. 30, 2014 Walter McBride—WireImage/Getty Images

From Virginia Woolf and The Graduate to the scalding Closer, this acclaimed director located the humor and pain in stories of erotic alliances

Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83, built such a prodigious and protean résumé that it’s hard to pin him down. An improv pioneer with Chicago’s Compass players, a forerunner of Second City, he teamed with Elaine May to create a series of duet skits, ranging from improbable romance to social satire, that made the writer-performers the rage of nightclubs, records and, by 1960, Broadway. Then Nichols gave up acting (except for starring in David Hare’s 1997 film The Designated Mourner) and became the preeminent director of sophisticated comedy on stage and screen. Broadway: The Odd Couple and Spamalot. Movies: The Graduate and The Birdcage. When a show or a film was smart and funny, it often was one of his.

Yet across the full half-century he spent as a Broadway director, from the 1963 Barefoot in the Park to the 2013 revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and his four decades plus making movies, from his sensational debut with the 1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War, Nichols could be the very model of a serious showman. He lured movie stars off-Broadway to do Beckett — Robin Williams and Steve Martin in the 1988 Lincoln Center staging of Waiting for Godot — and to play Chekhov in Central Park, where in 2001 Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, John Goodman and Christopher Walken brought fresh luster to The Seagull. His strongest TV work may be his 2003 miniseries of Tony Kushner’s AIDS epic Angels in America, with Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson. So we’ll say: Mike Nichols, all-round expert director.

We might be able to refine that epithet just a bit — for Nichols, in the age of “mature” cinema that he helped launch with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, was arguably the wisest director of movies about sex. And we mean not Show but Tell. Films can reveal startling erotic truths about their characters, about us, without exposing so much as a breast or a butt. In Nichols movies like Carnal Knowledge (1971), Heartburn (1986) and Closer (2004), what gets naked is a man’s or woman’s most urgent, reckless feelings and animosities.

He managed all this without writing a word of the text, or at least putting his name on it. (After An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, he took no writing credit except for the 2001 TV adaptation of the cancer play Wit.) In the age of instant auteurs, Nichols had an old-fashioned gift: energizing each moment in a good script, bringing clarity, subtlety and potency to the people on view. He was no Preston Sturges, a writer-director who created his own cockeyed caravan of stories and characters. His Hollywood model was George Cukor, a director of sublime taste and grace, who inhabited the writer’s words and world — in such film comedies as Holiday, The Women, and Adam’s Rib — and made them shine. The very least you think of a Nichols film is: This is the best this project could be.

He had directed just three Broadway plays, all comedies — Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple and Murray Schisgal’s Luv — when Richard Burton convinced Jack Warner to sign Nichols for the movie of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The tyro director promptly dismissed veteran director of photography Harry Stradling, who was trying to beautify Elizabeth Taylor in the role of a frowsy, fiftyish wife for which she had scrupulously gained a couple dozen pounds, and hired the rebel DP Haskell Wexler for the movie’s severe monochrome look. Nichols was faithful to Albee’s text; all but a few words in the movie were straight from the play. But because this all-night fight of a married couple and their younger guests (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) used words and emotions new to Hollywood movies, the film created a singeing intimacy that raised temperatures, eyebrows and hackles, and earned Oscars for Taylor, Dennis and Wexler.

His next film, The Graduate, detailed the passive, loveless affair between young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and the avaricious mother (Anne Bancroft) of his pretty neighbor Elaine (Katharine Ross). More daringly, it undercut the plot’s rah-rah climax. Remember that The Graduate broke a basic rule of romantic comedy and let Benjamin win Elaine just after, not during, her marriage to the blond lunk. But after this boy-steals-girl-from-another-guy triumph, they hop on a bus and, in the last shot, we see the excitement quickly drain from their faces. Ben seems to realize that he really wanted a great quest, not the Grail, and that he and Elaine are now condemned to become their parents. It’s true that ’60s audiences for this immensely popular film remembered the big win, not the post-climax depression. But Nichols gets points for plating a sour aftertaste. Hello, darkness, my old friend…

Nichols’ boldest early film was the 1971 Carnal Knowledge, which traced 30 years in the sexual lives of two perpetually immature men played by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel. The excoriating chatter in Jules Feiffer’s screenplay would be familiar to anyone who’s attended a college-dorm tell-all, or sat at a bar while the guy three stools down pours out his little black heart, but it was a jolt for mainstream movies. Nobody learns, let alone hugs. In sour midlife, the men still abuse their women, still treat them as sex toys to attain the mystical, apocalyptic orgasm that fades almost as soon as it explodes.

In Heartburn, which Nora Ephron scripted based on her revenge novel about being married to Carl Bernstein, Meryl Streep has to cope with husband Jack Nicholson’s rampant adultery; she’s especially annoyed that he put one of his hotel assignations on a credit card and asks (as I recall), “Why can’t you pay cash like an ordinary philanderer?” Primary Colors, which May adapted from the roman à clef by Joe Klein (sorry: Anonymous), anatomizes the frailties of another charming horndog: John Travolta as, basically, Bill Clinton. The most conventional of Nichols’ movie romcoms, the 1988 hit Working Girl, threw Melanie Griffith into the arms of Harrison Ford, but only after she found her boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, in bed with another woman.

Nichols’ one sci-fi comedy, What Planet Are You From, imagines Garry Shandling as an alien from an all-male planet; he’s come to Earth to have sex with women, but they’re distracted by his humming penis). The sort-of horror movie Wolf trumpets the rejuvenative pleasures of a publishing executive (Nicholson) who, under the full moon, becomes an animal. He’s a monster, and it’s hell on his family but, in his elemental element, he feels younger, sexier — great.

The director wasn’t building a misogynistic argument in his films; he followed the tone of each script and made it better. His two-woman comedy, Postcards from the Edge, is much gentler to its flawed heroines. Daughter (Streep) is a junkie in rehab, and Mom (Shirley MacLaine) is an alcoholic — though she says that she’s recovered, and that “Now I just drink like an Irish person.” Carrie Fisher’s script could have been as devastating as Feiffer’s, a kind of Maternal Knowledge, but it finds forgiveness in human frailty; isn’t frailty what makes us human? That was the message of The Birdcage, scripted by May from the French comedy La cage aux follies. The gay twosome (Williams and Nathan Lane), playing it straight for visiting conservative in-laws, is the most prominent faithful pair in a Nichols movie.

Mostly, though, Nichols films threw a wicked curve at couples who thought they were attending a date-night movie: At least one of you is cheating.

What must this couple have thought of Closer, the blistering sex drama Nichols made from Patrick Marber’s 1997 play? Covering the intersections of four people — Dan (Jude Law), Alice (Portman), Anna (Julia Roberts) and Larry (Clive Owen) — over four years, Closer is initially playful about the deceptions this handsome quartet of characters commit while falling in love and, later, climbing out. But there are scans to be ripped off, as when Anna tells Larry she’s sleeping with Dan. In just a few minutes, Larry endures the first five stages of the cuckolded male: denial, derision, pleading, sobbing, threatening. Now, in confronting Anna about Dan, he atavizes into Caveman, the Alpha Male in competitive fury. Where did you make love: what parts of the house, what parts of the body? How did Dan perform? What did he taste like? Was he “better”? “Gentler,” she acknowledges, depleted by the hard truths he’s forcing out of her. “Sweeter.” Larry finally has what he wanted: the instant, utter and mutual eradication of their year-long tryst. “Thank you for your honesty,” he tells her. “Now f— off and die.”

The scheme of Closer is simple: two people become a couple, break up, pair off with someone new. We are shown only the beginnings and ends of each affair, when hopes are surging, or betrayal sours the air. The piece is a series of cardiograms: hearts open and shut down. “Have you ever seen a human heart?” says Larry, a doctor. “It looks like a fist, soaked in blood.” Closer is a closeup of that heart, which keeps beating even when diseased. It challenges the big movie lie that in life there are heroes and villains, that the good we seek is easily distinguishable from the good-bad we do. This Nichols film is about four glamorous folks with severe but recognizable fissures in their façades. Not like movie people. Like people.

Nichols made movies in Hollywood but his home in New York, in part because he saw L.A. as a company town that value perception over achievement. As he told ace TIME reporter Josh Tyrangiel in 2004, “One of the great dangers of living in Hollywood, and the reason it’s really unwise, is that it’s very hard to fight the virus: ‘How am I perceived?’ And once you preoccupy yourself with that question you’re pretty much lost. It’s all over Hollywood: you can see whether your stock has gone up or down in the eyes of the parking attendant.”

For all those decades, in his journey from Young Turk to Old Master, Nichols kept directing high-IQ movies attentive to the nuances of emotional and sexual brutality. He made no sequels, no flat-out action vehicles (the war movie Catch-22 comes closest) and, excepting his Broadway Annie in 1978, nothing that aims for the adorable. His one box-office smash was The Graduate (nearly $700 million in today’s dollars), followed by The Birdcage, Virginia Woolf, Working Girl and Wolf (all more than $100 million). But after The Graduate, he made the expensive, acerbic Catch-22 and that brazen jeremiad Carnal Knowledge. Nichols just wanted to tell stories that interested him, without worrying what the parking attendant thought.

He could almost be called a minority director, since his films were about adults — who sometimes behave like disturbed kids — for adults. Sitting through them, you’d laugh or smile; and on the way out you might realize there was something deeper, darker, a hard truth worth contemplating and cherishing. Which is how you may feel now, at the end of Mike Nichols’ exemplary career.

TIME movies

Review: The Imitation Game: Dancing With Dr. Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game' Jack English—The Weinstein Company

Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the isolation of a man with a machine-like mind

Cumberbatch: It sounds like something you’d find in an eccentric prelate’s vegetable garden. Benedict’s mother Wanda Ventham advised him to choose a moniker less … cumbersome … for his acting career; his father went by the stage name Timothy Carlton. But the young man must have appreciated the curious loftiness of this word, which comes from Old English and loosely means “stream in a valley.” And after all, the name was his. So he found roles suitable for a Benedict Cumberbatch: men above and apart, like Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series, Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, Stephen Hawking in a TV movie. Fantasy filmmakers recognized his intimidating radiance and cast him as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness and the Necromancer and Smaug in the Hobbit movies. Soon he will be Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange.

Alan Turing in The Imitation Game may be the actor’s oddest, fullest, most Cumberbatchian character yet. The Cambridge genius who fathered the modern computer, known as the Turing machine–and who presciently asked, “What if only a machine could defeat another machine?”–seems part machine himself. Carrying himself with the hauteur of some creature from an advanced species on its first trip to Earth, he joins the Bletchley Park team charged with breaking the Nazis’ devious Enigma code and airily dismisses the theories of team leader Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), while defying the orders of Army Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) by going directly to Winston Churchill. A marathoner as well as a mathematician, Turing is the lonely long-distance runner who intellectually laps his colleagues while insisting on making all the crucial decisions. Why? “Because no one else can.” They are merely clever; he is brilliant. And in wartime, when results trump politesse, brilliance wins.

On its bright face, The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, fits into that cozy genre of tortured-genius biopics that sprout like kudzu just in time for the Oscars. But that’s not fair to the film, which outthinks and outplays other examples of the genre (The King’s Speech, The Theory of Everything) just as Turing outraced those around him. For this is a superhero movie of the mind. Unlike the Marvel troupe, whose skills are physical and endlessly watchable, Turing makes magic in his head. The beautiful wheels spin inside; that’s where he flies. And he defeats the villains of unsolvable equations not with a punch but with a keypunch. The “action” here is Turing tinkering with his machine. Or simply thinking–which, as Cumberbatch portrays it, is adventure of the highest order.

The actor doesn’t play Turing so much as inhabit him, bravely and sympathetically but without mediation; that’s your job. He recognizes that this supernal machine had a flaw, or thought it did. Turing’s Achilles heel was his heart, and his shielding his sexuality from his colleagues helps explain his emotional reticence, as the bullying he suffered at school almost justifies the pleasure he takes in being top dog at Bletchley Park. He even proposes marriage to the Enigma team’s one woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), as a cover for homosexual activities that were illegal in Britain throughout his life, and the penalties for which hastened his death. This superhero is really a tragic hero, doomed not by his “crime” but by society’s ignorant prejudice.

Critics won’t need a Turing machine to pick one of the most smartly judged, truly feeling movies of the year or its most towering, magnetic performance. And though the star’s achievement should be its own reward, he is sure to receive many prizes this Oscar season. He deserves a Cumberbatch of them.

TIME movies

How The Little Mermaid Cued the Disney Animation Renaissance

Disney

Twenty-five years ago, the old Disney magic launched an animation revolution that bloomed with Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney's own 'Frozen'

Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) has a cushy job: mermaid princess of her father Triton’s underwater kingdom. But she’s also a teenager, restless with wanderlust and fascinated by the “gizmos and gadgets” that have fallen from her sky — the water’s surface. She dreams of joining the magical creatures up on land and, this being a Disney animated feature, she dreams in song. In the Howard Ashman lyric put to Alan Menken’s tune, she sings: “Up where they walk, up where they run, / Up where they stay all day in the sun, / Wanderin’ free. Wish I could be / Part of that world.”

At an early screening of The Little Mermaid, the young audience got restless during that opening ballad — some kids actually started fighting — and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney Animation, considered dropping it. Writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements had to remind Katzenberg that the very first Disney feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, began with a similar “I want” song, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and that the bosses at MGM had wanted to drop “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz until smarter heads prevailed. Both of those numbers served their stories and became enduring hits. Why not stick with “Part of Your World”?

So the song stayed in, as a declaration of its heroine’s hopes. And The Little Mermaid, which opened 25 years ago, on Nov. 17, 1989, realized its makers’ dream: recapturing the magic of classic Disney as destination entertainment to enthrall generations of moviegoers. More than two decades after Walt Disney’s death, and following a series of less-than-fabulous cartoon features, this was the picture that launched the Disney Renaissance that soared with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

As I wrote in my most enthusi-woozy-astic tone in the Nov. 20, 1989, issue of TIME:

[F]rom the first frame, Disney’s suave storytellers cue you to wonderment in their adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. … For 82 minutes, The Little Mermaid reclaims the movie house as a dream palace and the big screen as a window into enchantment. Live-action filmmakers, see this and try to top it. Go on and try.

Many live-action filmmakers did try; they turned their adventure movies into special-effects showcases indebted to cartoons and comic books. The phenomenal critical and popular success of the Disney Renaissance features also prodded rival studios (including DreamWorks, which Katzenberg cofounded after leaving Disney) to start their own animation units and rake in the cash. That they did, making animation the industry’s most reliably money-making “genre.” In 2010, five of the 10 top-grossing movies were CGI-animated: Pixar’s Toy Story 3, Universal’s Despicable Me, DreamWorks’ Shrek Forever After and How to Train Your Dragon and Disney’s Tangled. But it all began with Ariel.

Walt Disney had first considered the story in the 1930s, as one segment in a proposed omnibus feature of Andersen tales. Fifty years later, Musker and Clements freshened the idea for Disney’s first fairy-tale animated feature since the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. That meant reviving the long-dormant Disney notion of a questing young female (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty) who battles for her life and honor against an evil older woman (the Queen, the wicked stepmother, Maleficient). Much later, this conflict of young beauty vs. middle-aged sorcery stoked the drama of Rapunzel and her crone captor in Tangled.

Ariel’s subterranean nemesis, the sea witch Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll), makes mischief aplenty; but the girl’s main challenge is finding her place in a hostile environment. She’s literally a fish out of water — an undocumented alien, if you will — who must acclimate herself to the strange customs of beasts who breathe through lungs, not gills. The one constant, ain the sea or on land, is true love, which Ariel discovers with the charming Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). You may debate whether the Disney heroines fit the feminist standard, but they don’t live in a democracy. Remember, they’re princesses.

The Little Mermaid further harkened back to the classic Disney features by mounting a full musical score with songs that explained the characters and propelled the action. The movie was basically a Broadway musical, but animated and underwater. For the job of custodians and innovators, Menken and Ashman, who had written the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, were a perfect choice. Menken could compose sumptuous melodies with a pop lilt, and the clever Ashman worked closely with Musker and Clements on the story. He suggested, for example, that Sebastian the Crab (Samuel E. Wright) be changed from a Jeeves-type English butler to a friendly Jamaican. From this decision came the calypso-inflected revel “Under the Sea” and the sweet samba “Kiss the Girl” — two numbers that broke out of the movie to become modest hits.

One measure of a song’s mainstream success is an Academy Award. Disney had earned Best Song Oscars in 1941 for “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio and in 1947 for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South. Then nothing — until The Little Mermaid again changed the studio’s luck. In the past quarter-century, ten Disney tunes have won the Best Song Oscar: “Under the Sea,” “Beauty and the Beast” (Menkin and Ashman), “A Whole New World” (Menkin and Tim Rice) from Aladdin, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (Rice and Elton John) from The Lion King, “Colors of the Wind” (Menken and Stephen Schwartz) from Pocahontas, “You’ll Be in My Heart” (Phil Collins) from Tarzan, “If I Didn’t Have You” (Randy Newman) from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., “We Belong Together” (Newman) from Pixar’s Toy Story 3, “Man or Muppet” (Bret McKenzie) from the live-action The Muppets and the worldwide smash “Let It Go” (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) from Frozen.

In some ways, The Little Mermaid was old-fashioned. Rendered in the hand-drawn style, it was the last Disney animated feature to use cels and Xeroxing. Pixar and its CGI imitators soon made that rigorous process obsolete. The Toy Story, Shrek and Ice Age franchises taught audiences to accept movies that emphasized comedy, not romance, and to forget that a cartoon feature was supposed to sing. Not until the return of the Disney princess musical — The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen — did moviegoers re-warm to the old pleasure of leaving a theater humming as well as smiling.

But the phrase “old-fashioned” means nothing to kids treated to their first view of a Disney classic like The Little Mermaid. Its humor and heart, not to mention its verve and impeccable craft, can touch any viewer today as it did in 1989. How lucky we are that this timeless movie became part of our world.

Read TIME’s Nov. 1989 review of The Little Mermaid, here in the archives: Festive Film Fare for Thanksgiving

TIME Theater

Review: Musical Triplets: The Band Wagon Times Three

The cast of 'The Band Wagon' during the Curtain Call on Nov. 9, 2014 in New York City.
The cast of 'The Band Wagon' during the Curtain Call on Nov. 9, 2014 in New York City. Walter McBride—Getty Images

First a breakthrough Broadway revue in 1931, then a legendary 1953 MGM musical, the grand old show gets a spiffy makeover in the latest Encores! revival

“This show is silly,” says the snooty choreographer to his colleagues as they prepare a new musical. “It won’t mean anything to anybody in 50 years.” The audience at City Center Encores! a knowing giggle. The show, The Band Wagon, was a popular and critical success when it opened as a Broadway revue in 1931, with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele in the cast, and achieved legendary status when reworked into the 1953 MGM movie, again starring Fred. Now, more than 80 or 60 years later, it’s back in New York for an 11-day run (ending Sunday), with the implicit hope of transferring to Broadway.

The new team has a superb pedigree. Broadway’s leading baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, in the Astaire role, is supported by Aussie star Tony Sheldon (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Laura Osnes from Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and ace stage and TV comics Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean. Kathleen Marshall, the director-choreographer, has brought polish and pizzazz to many a venerable musical, from Anything Goes and The Pajama Game to Wonderful Town, the 1953 show by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein that she spiffily revived in 2003 here at City Center.

Encores! itself is a New York musical treasure, having staged concert version of classic shows for 21 seasons. One of these, Chicago, made it to Broadway in 1996 and celebrated its 18th birthday Nov. 14th.

So how it the new show? A fine night at the theater, with Marshall’s bright staging, some clever lines in the Douglas Carter Beane book, a starry cast eager to please, pearly arrangements for Todd Ellison’s 12-piece orchestra and hummable melodies galore (“Dancing in the Dark,” “By Myself,” “New Sun in the Sky,” “Shine on My Shoes”) in the score by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. If this revival glides rather than soaring, that’s due not to the performers but to a curious misunderstanding of the source material: that The Band Wagon — intended in both its earlier incarnations as a showcase for the elegant, swellegant Astaire, the most revered dancer of the 20th century — should mostly just stand around and sing. If Arthur Freed, the producer of The Band Wagon at MGM, had seen this version, he would have ordered it and its leading man to get up and dance.

In his reign as MGM’s musical maestro, from The Wizard of Oz in 1939 through Gigi in 1958, Freed occasionally dipped into the trunks of famous songwriters and turned their legacy of hits into either musical bio-pics — Words and Music (Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart and Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers) and Three Little Words (with Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby) — or new scenarios with old songs, such as Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. Freed hit the jackpot in 1952 when he dusted off the tunes he had written with Herb Nacio Brown in the first years of talking pictures. He handed the job to ace scripters Comden and Green, let star Gene Kelly direct it with Stanley Donen and, voilà!, Singin’ in the Rain, widely and wisely considered the best original musical in Hollywood history.

Like Freed, Dietz worked at MGM; he was the studio’s chief publicist, creating the Leo the Lion mascot and the “Ars Gratia Artis” motto. On the side he wrote Broadway revues with Schwartz, a lawyer with enough spare time to put music to Dietz’s words in the scores of 10 Broadway shows from 1930 to 1937. These guys wrote fast: hired to provide the songs for a radio musical-comedy series called The Gibson Family, they composed 94 numbers in 39 weeks. In his memoir, Dancing in the Dark, Dietz recalls, “We weren’t touchy about criticism. I would say, ‘The tune stinks.’ He would say, ‘The lyric is lousy.’ We aimed to please each other. We figured that if we succeeded, there were a lot of people like us.”

Given the Dietz-and-Schwartz catalogue to shape into a Band Wagon movie, Comden and Green applied the same technique they’d used for Singin’ in the Rain: a backstage musical, but set in the theater instead of in 1920s Hollywood. Aging movie star Tony Hunter (Astaire) has returned to New York to get his mojo back by starring in a Broadway show. His old writing pals Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) provide him with a cute script and good songs. But renowned director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) sees the production as a modern Faust, solemn as a Teutonic funeral pyre, and hires ballet master Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) as choreographer, with Paul’s girlfriend Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the leading lady.

When high art clashes with showbiz in a musical comedy, guess which wins? Tony and Gaby fall in love, Jeff gets into the populist spirit, and at the end everyone sings “That’s Entertainment,” a perennial hit that that Dietz and Schwartz wrote specially for the movie — in 30 mins. Like we said, fast.

As directed, ever so sumptuously, by Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon doesn’t reach the Singin’ in the Rain stratosphere. In part, that’s because the movie was satirizing something that didn’t exist: the takeover of musical comedy by pretentious directors and choreographers.

On a helpful, if madly gushing, Band Wagon commentary track with Minnelli’s daughter Liza, show-tune historian Michael Feinstein says that Comden and Green based the Cordova character on José Ferrer, who in the late ’40s stoked the envy and animosity of old-fashioned Broadway types when he filled the actor-director-producer boy-genius role taken by Orson Welles a decade before. But Ferrer didn’t directed a Broadway musical (1958’s Oh Captain!) until four years after The Band Wagon was released. There’s no reason to make fun of a serious director except from the need to build some bogus conflict: Jeff is the guy who gets in Tony’s way, then gets out of it.

As for the tradition of dance directors infusing ballet into musical comedy, that had been a staple since the mid-1930s, when George Balanchine worked with Rodgers and Hart on four ’30s musicals, including Babes in Arms and On Your Toes. Another, younger genius, Jerome Robbins, choreographed such musical comedies as Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, Berlin’s Call Me Madam and the Comden-Green-Bernstein On the Town, proving an expert pleasure giver whether his dancers were sporting tap shoes or pointe shoes.

The most sensational early merger of ballet and Broadway was a piece that choreographer Albertina Rasch devised for her fellow Austrian, Tilly Losch, who wore long phosphorescent gloves in front of a large mirror on a pitch-black stage so that the audience saw only Losch’s arms in graceful motion. The song: “Dancing in the Dark.” The show: The Band Wagon.

O.K., so the 1953 story reeks a bit of anti-intellectualism. But the script percolates with attractive opposites: the all-American Tony vs. veddy British Jeff, the sour Lester vs. the perky Lily and, at its romantic center, the veteran hoofer Tony vs. the young ballerina Gaby. (When they made the movie Astaire was 53, Charisse 31.) Once the plot entanglements are unraveled, The Band Wagon becomes what the 1931 show was: a revue, a cascade of top songs brilliantly staged and performed.

The “Triplets” number presents three homicidal siblings (Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan in baby clothes) wishing they “had a gun / A wittle gun / It would be fun to kill the other two and be only one.” And “That’s Entertainment” has become a showbiz anthem, including the immortal couplet that reprises the plot of Hamlet in a dozen succinct words: “Where the ghost and the prince meet / And everyone ends in mincemeat.”

With Astaire as its star, this song-and-dance movie has lots of both. Michael Kidd, who came to MGM after choreographing the Broadway hits Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls, fashioned two Astaire solos — the moody “By Myself” at a train station and the exuberant “Shine on My Shoes” in a penny arcade — and the 12-min. “Girl Hunt Ballet,” a parody of Mickey Spillane’s tough-guy crime novels that’s aswirl in pulp poetry, with Astaire as a gum-chewing gumshoe and Charisse as the fatal dame with fabulous gams. Most gorgeous is “Dancing in the Dark,” in which Tony and Gaby, heretofore adversaries, take a walk through Central Park that slowly morphs into a pas de deux: courtship made palpable, poignant and rapturous.

In the new Encores! version, Tony (Mitchell) is still the fading movie star attempting a comeback on Broadway — like the Michael Keaton character in Birdman — but instead of a superhero legacy Tony’s fame came from musicals. (Pop quiz: Name a top star of the Hollywood musicals they don’t make any more.) Again, Lily and Lester (Ullman and McKean) have an idea for a fun show that Jeff (Sheldon) wants to turn into a modern Faust; and the choreographer (Michael Berresse) insists that his ballerina girlfriend (Osnes) take the female lead. For second-act wrinkles, Beane has added a one-way romance of Lily for Tony; it doesn’t resonate, but it allows Ullman to sing the lovely ballad “Sweet Music.”

This version restores some of the saucier Dietz lyrics that the 1953 film bowdlerized. In “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” Tony sings the original “Why did I buy those blue pajamas / Before the big affair began?” And the drinking song “I Love Louisa” restores the couplet, “Ach, when I choose ‘em / I love a great big boosom!” Beane has also written a elaborate number in which Lily pitches the script and the major songs to Tony and Jeff — a marvelous turn for Ullman, who could run away with this show standing still, but has the chops and body English to sell every line and emotion. If The Band Wagon does get to Broadway, she’s a cinch for a shower of awards. Sheldon, a late replacement for Roger Rees, is another bringer of brio. He makes Jeff’s bullheadedness seem almost innocent: an overflow of his zeal to put on a show.

Though this Band Wagon runs about a half-hour longer than the movie, it excises some important elements: the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the “Dancing in the Dark” pas de deux — indeed, any notion that dance is at the core of the story. Mitchell is a wonderful actor-singer, as he showed on Broadway in The Man of La Mancha and in the 2002 Encores! revival of Carnival opposite a 19-year-old Vassar student named Anne Hathaway. Osnes, who played Margaret in the Randy Newman Faust at City Center this summer, is a winning, charming soprano. What these two aren’t, and were never expected to be, are sublime dancers. So Gaby’s admiring declaration to Tony that “You got me dancing, the thing I love most in my life” is meaningless. Tony might as well be the cowboy star who made Gaby want to ride a horse.

Beane would have to admit that his Band Wagon (which played in a 2008 San Diego version as Dancing in the Dark) is an anachronism even for Broadway. The only performers who parlayed their dance skills to live-theater stardom in the past few decades are Savion Glover — a natural ti play the lead here in an all-black revival of the show — and Tommy Tune. The Jeff Cordova of his day, Tune starred in and directed the 1983 hit My One and Only and, in 1991, The Will Rogers Follies. At 75 he’s still lithe and active: he has workshopped a revival of Astaire’s Top Hat and a Studio 54 musical, Fifty*Four*Forever; and this Thursday he’s doing his one-man show as a Minneapolis fundraiser.

Tune is Fred Astaire as a 6-ft.-6-in. Texan, with the same ability to light up a stage through a down-home personality and electric footwork. If Beane and Marshall want to give one more rethink to a silly show with many pleasures and a few unrealized promises, they know which Tune to call.

TIME movies

Review: Can’t Get Much Dummer Than Dumb and Dumber To

Dumb and Dumber To
Universal

Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels return as the idiot prankster pals in this the Farrelly brothers sequel that's almost not worth getting annoyed at

I wish I could put as little thought into writing about Dumb and Dumber To as the Farrelly brothers did in making it.

Or maybe Peter and Bobby honed and fussed over the crude humor in the 20 years since Dumb and Dumber introduced Jim Carrey as Lloyd Dunne and Jeff Daniels as his pal Harry Christmas in a display of idiot friendship. That roughhouse farce earned nearly $250 million at the worldwide box office — about $470 million in today’s dollars — and benefitted from Carrey’s white-hot stardom; he was on a roll that began with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask and crescendoed with his roles as The Riddler in Batman Forever (yes, that Val Kilmer movie was a hit) and the lawyer in Liar Liar. Carrey’s manic rubbery verve played nicely against Daniels’ doofus sluggishness, and handed the Farrellys a smash with their first feature.

In the intervening two decades, the major participants’ careers have cooled a few kelvins, but all are eager to apply the same deranged energy to the sequel, from a screenplay by Sean Anders and John Morris. (Their script credits include She’s Out of My League, Hot Tub Time Machine, We’re the Millers and the forthcoming Horrible Bosses 2, so their comedy IQ level is simpatico with the Farrellys.) With Carrey, now 52, and Daniels, 59, still playing the kind of 12-year-olds who’d spend most of their school days in Detention, Dumb and Dumber To opens a new trunk of pranks on the old, the blind, the morbidly obese, the physically handicapped and — the Farrellys’ primary victims — the audience.

For the 20 years since the first movie, Lloyd has been hospitalized in a coma, obliging the visiting Harry to change his friend’s diaper and urostomy bag. Surprise! Lloyd is fine, and this is his most elaborate prank. Even Harry has to admit: “The shock treatments? The partial lobotomy? That takes commitment.” The Farrellys’ commitment to stupid human tricks inspires equal awe or dread, as Harry searches for a relative to donate the kidney he needs to stay alive. Hearing that he has a daughter Penny (Rachel Melvin) by his long-ago girlfriend Fraida (Kathleen Turner), he and Lloyd visit Penny’s adoptive parents and land in the middle of martial intrigue that sends them to El Paso for a Ted-like conference of science geniuses. Cue the Stephen Hawking joke.

As an impartial reporter, I must mention what I thought were a few good laughs: 1. The lads have left their pudgy cat with a blind guy who collects parrots. After devouring them, the cat farts bird feathers. 2. Harry riffles through 20 years of old mail, opens one letter and says, “I got accepted at Arizona State.” 3. At the funeral home where Fraida works, the boys get thirsty and start drinking a blue liquid. Fraida: “That’s embalming fluid!” Lloyd: “Does it have Aspartame?” Fraida: “No.” So they gulp it down. 4. In his fantasy of fathering, Harry is sipping red wine when the 12-year-old Penny appears with evidence of her first menstrual blood. Harry helpfully offers her the wine cork.

The richest gag, which the Farrellys somehow got the MPAA classification board to participate in, is that Dumb and Dumber To is rated PG-13. That means anyone of any age can see the movie, unaccompanied by parent, guardian or enabler. Which is probably advisable for parents, since they then don’t have to explain to their kids why Fraida’s surname is Felcher, or the part of an old lady’s anatomy Lloyd’s hand is probing when she tells him she’s stashed a cache of diamonds, um, between her legs. As Harry observes elsewhere: “God’s got a pretty warped sense of humor.” God and the MPAA.

With no children to fret over, I’m not really concerned if this movie warps their fragile little minds. I just want to laugh, and Dumb and Dumber To rarely coaxed me to that state of obscene bliss. Like the Farrellys’ recent botched attempt to revive the pummeling shenanigans of The Three Stooges, this movie breaks not only the canons of etiquette but of how to make people laugh. The usual methods are wit and surprise; the brothers go for aimless, charmless shock. That may make them subversive of a high order. Or possibly filmmakers who, 20 years on, have run out of funny.

Stick around for the end of the closing credits and you’ll find a teaser for “Dumb and Dumber For — coming 2034.” Another 20 years till the next one? I can wait.

TIME movies

Review: Jon Stewart’s Rosewater: Laughing Through the Torture

Rosewater
Open Road Films

In his make-good bio-pic of an Iranian-born journalist's imprisonment by the thugs of the Islamic Republic, the Daily Show host points to a major flaw of dictatorial regimes: They can't take a joke.

You know it’s Oscar season when you see a slew of new movies based on true stories whose resolutions you can find in three seconds on Wikipedia. Last week The Theory of Everything offered a history of the marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking. In a fortnight, Benedict Cumberbatch will star as another Cambridge mathematician, Alan Turing, in the World War II spy saga The Imitation Game. This week Foxcatcher, which depicts the fatal meeting of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz and zillionaire John du Pont, goes up against Rosewater, documenting the brutal interrogation of journalist Maziar Bahari in an Iranian jail just after the June 2009 election. Of all of these worthy bio-pics, Jon Stewart’s movie is the one that admits a saving sense of humor and proportion to the ordeals of its real-life protagonist.

You may recall the Iranian citizens’ plangent protests against the “landslide victory” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The story had everything: peaceful masses colliding with the political-religious complex, 21st-century gadgets like Twitter used to defy a medieval regime and the image of a gorgeous martyr in Neda Agha-Soltan. The uprising saturated cable news for a week — until Michael Jackson died. Instantly, like a Pixar dog distracted by a squirrel, the networks forgot about Iran and went all Jacko, all the time.

One of the incidental atrocities of the Islamic Republic that year was its imprisoning of Bahari. Born in Iran, schooled in Canada, based in London and covering the Iranian election for Newsweek, Bahari committed the crime of sitting for a Teheran interview for Jason Jones of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Jones, posing preposterously as an American spy, asked the London-based Bahari, “Are you a terrorist?” Bahari: “No.” Jones, smugly: “That sounds like something a terrorist would say.”

In a location piece at the time, Jones explained, “We’re not making fun [of the Iranians]. We’re kind of being ironic.” In the film, when Bahari is shown the Daily Show piece by his captors, he says, “It’s supposed to be funny,” adding sensibly, “Why would a spy have a TV show?” But irony is something that gets lost in translation from the satirists in a democracy to the enforcers in a theocracy. Recall D.H. Lawrence’s observation that “What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another.” To Bahari’s interrogator Jabadi (Kim Bodnia), nicknamed Rosewater for the cologne he wears, the straight-faced laughter of Jones and Stewart is the I-know-it-when-I-see-it obscenity of sedition. Pornography is Jabadi’s word for the DVDs of The Sopranos and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema that he finds among Bahari’s effects. And the Daily Show interview surely proves that Bahari is working for “CIA, MI6, Mossad, Newsweek” — as if three spy agencies were indistinguishable from a newsmagazine.

“For Lubitsch,” critic Andrew Sarris famously wrote of director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 anti-Nazi farce To Be or Not to Be, “it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable.” For Stewart, it was enough to say the Iranians can’t take a joke. Well, not quite enough for the TV host to spend the summer of 2013 making a movie of Bahari’s 2011 memoir Then They Came for Me. Stewart felt chagrined, and perhaps a tad culpable, that the facetious interview Bahari gave Jones contributed to his imprisonment. (The Egyptian TV comedian Bassem Youssef endured the cancellation of his Daily Show-inspired program after Stewart and 60 Minutes highlighted him.) So you may consider Rosewater an elaborate make-good for that transgression.

More important, the first time adaptor-director has created a fine film with few surprises but a genuine grasp of the director’s craft. Shot in Jordan by ace indie cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (The Messenger, The Iceman), the movie has a sharp grasp of time and place, as Maziar navigates the clogged streets of Teheran on the bike of his friendly driver Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) and listens to the voices of peaceful insurrection. Staying with his fierce, saintly mother Mollojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo), he is haunted by the ghosts of his father Akbar (Haluk Bilginer), a prisoner of the Shah in 1953, and his sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani), tortured by the Ayatollah’s minions; their faces are projected on walls and shop windows as Davood speeds Maziar through the city.

Undergoing Jabadi’s ham-fisted interrogation, Maziar manages to retain his sense of the absurd, as if realizing that Kafka wrote bleak black comedy about humankind’s awful unfairness. Ties to his family (in imaginary conversations with his dead dad) and to Western culture (as he moves to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”) both flirt with derangement and keep him sane. Getting into the spirit of his imprisonment, Maziar toys with his captor’s ignorance of the U.S. by inventing insidious tales of New Jersey massage parlors. The torture victim can play mean tricks too.

You may quibble with the international caste of Stewart’s casting: the Mexican García Bernal as Bahari, the Danish Bodnia (from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher) as his chief interrogator, the Anglo-Greek Leonidas his driver and the Turkish Bilginer (star of this year’s Cannes prize-winner Winter Sleep) as his father. Only Aghdashloo, an Oscar nominee for House of Sand and Fog, and Farahani are native Iranians. Do all foreigners, or Farahanis, look alike? That question matters less, given the strong and expertly judged performances all around — especially García Bernal’s nuanced juggling act of anger and anguish, hope and despair.

The virtue of this movie is its commitment to political ambiguity and emotional truth. If you expect a Jon Stewart film to sputter with cogent rage, as Stewart often does on TV, you will be disappointed. This film could be the work of Stewart’s more serious alter ego, Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz (his real name). Though not really a comedy, Rosewater is a demonstration of the creed behind The Daily Show: belief in the crucial need for impious wit against entrenched power. The freedom of the press is also the freedom to depress, and to inspire. That’s a message that can outlive any Oscar season. It would be nice if it could also overcome any regime.

TIME movies

Review: Foxcatcher’s Mat Madness

FOXCATCHER
Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher Scott Garfield—Fair Hill, LLC

Tatum scores a reversal

Wrestling is the most elemental of sports: one man grappling another in intimate combat. It follows that Foxcatcher is an investigation of men less comfortable in speaking than in expressing themselves through physical activity that can turn violent. These atavistic impulses start simmering when Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the only brothers in U.S. amateur wrestling history to have won both Olympic and world championships, sign up with Team Foxcatcher, run by John Éleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the gunpowder and chemicals fortune. Soon they will explode.

Director Bennett Miller’s third feature blends the themes of his previous films: the complementary psyches of killer and journalist in Capote and sports as a nexus of genius and roughhouse in Moneyball. The difference is in Foxcatcher’s strange, bold muteness. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote was profligately articulate; Brad Pitt’s baseball executive communicated clearly in words, stats and caroming body English. The Foxcatcher men have no such eloquence; Miller describes their discourse as “repressed male noncommunication.”

Du Pont may have been bred to reticence; raising one’s voice on the Foxcatcher estate was simply not done. As for the Schultzes, they express their fury, grudges and superb skills on the mat. A marvelous early scene shows Dave leading his younger brother in a warm-up exercise–a stark ballet of embraces, pats, grips and flips that eventually draws blood. Beautifully choreographed, and revealing emotional vectors that the rest of the movie withholds, the sequence is equally a fraternal tussle, a grudge match and a love match.

John wants into that circle. An accomplished ornithologist, he chafes in the imperious shadow of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and all the trophies and ribbons she has amassed as an equestrienne. John considers horses “dumb”; his mother calls wrestling “low.” Eager to show his mettle, he founds Team Foxcatcher–his own stable, with manflesh replacing horseflesh–and collects wrestlers dependent on his largesse.

Even in his comedy roles–The Office, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the Despicable Me animated franchise–Carell projects a melancholy suitable for lovable losers and, here, a lonely aristocrat. In a delicate, creepy turn that is only occasionally upstaged by the gigantic prosthetic nose he wears, Carell plays John as gray and graceless, an inert entity. John has repressed so many of his family anxieties, as well as his urges to watch muscular men wrestle for his pleasure, that by the middle of the film he is emotionally dead. He may need to kill someone just to prove to himself that he’s still alive.

Ruffalo is fine as Dave, the one major character at ease in his own skin and with others. But Tatum’s is the central performance: most daring because it’s least giving. He has often played young men of thick athleticism and slow wit. It’s proof of Tatum’s intelligence that he can make the audience feel smarter than the characters he plays–until they reveal a sly brilliance halfway through the movie. His Mark never makes that Mensa leap. A gentle galoot, he is so lacking in introspection that he seems not to understand the resentment he’s supposed to feel at being John’s pawn.

Foxcatcher acutely observes the collision of these men–strong in some ways, weak or disturbed in others–without explaining them or the violent act that tears them apart. Even at the end of this potent, perplexing work, the mystery lingers.

TIME movies

Review: To Shill a Mockingjay Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence is still splendid, but her Katniss is mostly a passive spokeswoman in this throat clearer for the Hunger Games finale

“Your girl on fire has burned out,” Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). The incendiary female he refers to is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a victor in the last two Hunger Games and now a refugee from Panem’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss’s emotional temperature has cooled; she’s dazed and confused, depressed and logy, and so is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, the third in a four-movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ YA trilogy.

The first two Hunger Games installments earned more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, so the new film’s makers—director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong—dispense with a lengthy recap of the story thus far. Katniss simply whispers a skeletal précis of the plot in the first 15 seconds. In a sentence: War is on; she’s in the underground District 13; and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her Games co-victor and public boyfriend, is Snow’s captive and counterrevolutionary mouthpiece back in the Capitol. O.K., now what?

Not much. In the greed-is-good tradition of the Harry Potter and Twilight movie franchises, the overseers of The Hunger Games have split the last book into two films. You may recall that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 was the only lame episode in the entire canon and that Mary Pols titled her TIME review of the penultimate Twilight film “Breaking Yawn Part 1.” Expectations for the artistic and entertainment possibilities of this half-Mockingjay should be at least as low, though it’s likely to be the top-grossing movie of 2014. Hundreds of millions of people will go see it in the same way reluctant Catholics used to attend Sunday Mass: under threat of the mortal sin of having to confess you skipped it.

For a start, in this Hunger Games, there are no Hunger Games. The Survivor-for-real televised spectacle, which started with 24 young contestants and meant to kill off 23, has been called because of war. And war games aren’t much fun, especially when Mockingjay Part 1 allows for only one massing of troops, one ISIS-style public execution of hooded men and one Navy SEALs-ish guerrilla raid, in which Katniss takes no part. She’s back at District 13 HQ, being schooled in the art of the propaganda video, or “propo,” by Plutarch, costume adviser Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Katniss’s old coach, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). If The Hunger Games series were an actual dystopian reality show now available on DVD, Mockingjay Part 1 would be the making-of extra.

We’re backstage with the star, Katniss, as she tries to rally rebels in other districts against the fatherly despot Snow. Like a famous athlete trying to make a public-service commercial, she looks stiff and sounds shrill when the cameras roll. Wearing eye makeup that even a Kardashian would find excessive, Katniss is a genuine military leader who can’t play one on TV. Not until she ventures aboveground and sees Snow’s air force bomb a District 13 hospital does she explode into telegenic fury and make her big Joan of Arc speech, proclaiming, for all the districts to hear, “If we burn, you burn with us.” Effie, for one, feels the magic. “Everybody’s gonna wanna kiss you, kill you or be you,” she tells Katniss. “Everything old can be made new again. Like democracy.”

There might be some pizzazz, or at least some satiric bustle, in these scenes, but they’re infected by Katniss’s dyspepsia. She’s in mourning for her lost Peeta, or maybe for the zippy woodland capers of the first two movies. The District 13 decor is drab, almost colorless, and the bad-taste splendor and gaudy gowns of the second episode, Catching Fire, have given way to a Stalinist poverty of the visual imagination. Even glam-gal Effie sports the “no-makeup” makeup look, and her stab at making Katniss the best-dressed rebel in history falls far behind Che Guevara’s fatigues as a fashion statement.

So you hope for some erotic crackle between Katniss and her brace of swains. Her old beau Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) should have pride of place; he’s strong and sensitive, and doesn’t take advantage of Peeta’s absence to press his affections. Yet Katniss gives him just one soft kiss, and that, he can’t help noting, is “because I’m in pain. That’s the only way I can get your attention.” Our heroine’s guilt over leaving Peeta behind—even though, or especially because, he’s been turned into a counterrevolutionary mouthpiece for Snow—overwhelms her fondness for Gale.

Why would that be? Fess up, Hunger Games fans: Does anyone care about Peeta, or find him attractive? He’s the Ron Weasley of the series: he gets points for callow valor and sympathy for his run of bad luck, but he remains a pasty, earnest bore. (Contrarian opinions are welcome in the Comments section.)

As in The Hunger Games and its first sequel, Mockingjay Part 1 springs to life around the 80-minute mark. Hearing a flock of mockingjays chirp overhead, Katniss sings a folk-song dirge, “The Hanging Tree,” which builds into a stirring, thumping chorale and leads to some long-promised action sequences. But the number has no more impact than (as Gale observes sourly) “a fight song at a funeral.” It’s certainly not enough to make this film more than a placeholder for the finale, Mockingjay Part 2, which is expected to hit theaters on Nov. 25, 2015.

The distinguished actors, including Oscar winners Lawrence and Hoffman, often deliver their dialogue in a flat, disengaged tone, as if at a first reading. And though we still believe that Lawrence, who turned 24 in August, can do no wrong, she isn’t given much opportunity to do anything spectacularly right here. Her performance is a medley of sobs and gasps, in mournful or radiant closeup. This time, her Katniss is as much a prisoner of her circumstances as Peeta is. She and the movie are both victims of burnout.

“It’s the worst terror in the world,” President Coin tells Katniss, “waiting for something.” The two-hour foot-soldier slog through Mockingjay Part 1 forces audiences into mostly wasteful waiting for something special to happen. Coin and her idealistic minions have hurt Katniss in a way President Snow barely dreamed of by turning this military heroine into a celebrity spokeswoman. The same goes for Collins and the film’s makers: they created the most popular activist-heroine in modern movies—with one of the biggest, most gifted and appealing stars in the world—and make her sit this one out.

TIME movies

REVIEW: The Theory of Everything: My Left Brain

Film Review The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in a scene from "The Theory of Everything." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Liam Daniel) Liam Daniel—AP

In a weekend of science-fantasy, this story of Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane is true science with a complicated heart

At the movies, this is Science Friday. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the Disney animated feature Big Hero 6 will battle for weekend box-office domination with tales about scientists of the near future trying to save the Earth by flying into wormholes and other astral phenomena. But those films are the merest, or coolest, fantasies. In limited release is The Theory of Everything, describing the extraordinary life, cosmological breakthroughs and complicated marriage of Stephen Hawking.

The real Hawking is a ghostly presence in the Black Hole space chase of Interstellar, whose science advisor and executive producer Kip Thorne is a longtime Hawking colleague. And the kids in Big Hero 6 are all students at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, a nod to Caltech, where Thorne taught and Hawking was a visiting professor. The Theory of Everything is not science fiction; it really has very little science, since few viewers would sit as still as Hawking for a lecture on relativity and quantum mechanics. Instead, it’s a domestic drama that uses Hawking’s peculiar fame to provide a thoughtful, plangent example of the Oscar Wannabe genre.

To compete successfully for major Academy Awards, a movie should be a true-life portrait of an exceptional man — sorry, ladies — who struggles against impossible odds in a noble quest. It’s a narrow genre that studios ignore the rest of the year in pursuit of fantasy-film box-office billions, but it often pays off in statuettes for Best Picture (A Beautiful Mind, The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave) and Best Actor (Sean Penn for Milk, Colin Firth for The King’s Speech, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club).

This month, just under the wire for the critics-groups’ prizes, the Great Man Theory flourishes in two bio-pics about brilliant Cambridge mathematicians with phenomenal achievements despite physical or social impediments. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) helps win World War II by breaking Germany’s Enigma code but suffers because he is gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. That film opens Nov. 28, and will earn awards galore for Cumberbatch’s exceptional performance. For now, here’s The Theory of Everything.

Struck by motor neuron disease at 23 and given just two years to live, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) has survived and thrived for another half century, due in large part to the loving care of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten from Jane’s 2007 memoir, the film both adheres to and gently upends the conventions of the Great Man genre.

For a movie about the author of A Brief History of Time, this is a studiously chronological retelling of Stephen and Jane’s 30-year marriage. Theory finds its saving nuances in the story of a vigorous young man whose disease turns him into his wife’s invalid child. Bodily degeneration is one scientific fact Stephen ignores with a mulish cheerfulness, even as he takes for granted Jane’s delaying of her own scholarly goals in order to tend and fend for him. He can grasp the complexities of the cosmos more easily than he can Jane’s need for upright male friendship with her choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). And as Stephen’s view of the universe evolves, so does his take on the immutability of marriage. A pretty nurse (Maxine Peake) can have that effect on a theory.

Memoirs by ex-spouses tend to play up the grievance factor; they are often a settling of scores — the other party might have gotten the house, but the writer controls the story. Jane Hawking’s story might be boiled down to this: “I gave up my career to help my husband through his illness for decades. Then he left me for his nurse.” (He married Elaine; Jane married Jonathan.) Jane, who was studying medieval Spanish poetry when she met Stephen at Oxford, did eventually get her Ph.D., without being able to make productive use of her degree. “It hasn’t led to a career, of course,” she told The Guardian in 2004, “although I have done some sixth form teaching, and some university teaching, and in a sense the frustration is greater now than it ever was because I feel I have had a great deal to offer but I have nowhere now to go.”

Given all this, the movie is almost spectacularly even-handed. Renouncing the principles of melodrama, it describes a joining of, and then a conflict between, Good and Good. Before their marriage, when his disease has begun to debilitate Stephen, Jane avers, “We’re going to fight this illness together. All of us.” Their arguments are more likely to be over able agnosticism (his) vs. Christian belief (hers) than on the heroic drudgery they both endure. If there is naivety, it’s Stephen’s. When he says, “We’re just a normal family,” she needs to correct him: “We’re not a normal family.” She’s right: they were an extraordinary family.

Marsh, who won an Oscar for his documentary Man on Wire, overdoes the visual fireworks. To prepare viewers for the horror of his subject’s immobility, he shows Stephen bicycle-riding, playing pinball, serving as cox on the university rowing team. The camera is every bit as acrobatic: it whirls, indulges in extreme soft-focus, distorts Stephen’s vision through a wide-angle lens. By insisting that his movie will move, dammit, Marsh gives the impression of not trusting his material.

Yet he’s attentive to the telling domestic details that suggest the Hawkings were a real, plausible couple. And he lets his actors breathe inside their characters. Redmayne, himself a Cambridge grad, transcends the eerie physical impersonation; he splendidly reveals both Stephen’s grand resolve and his peculiar blind spots. But this is finally Jane’s story, and The Theory of Everything gives Jones (an Oxford grad) the chance to take control of its emotional center. She seizes it with spectacular subtlety, and helps make Jane the most fully realized human character in any of this weekend’s Science Project movies. Jones proves that behind this Great Man movie is a woman — an actress — who’s every bit her man’s equal.

TIME movies

REVIEW: The Huggable Marshmallow Robot of Disney’s Big Hero 6

BIG HERO 6
Disney

This sci-fi animated feature has a caregiving android to cry for. And there's a Feast before the film even starts.

Go to Disney’s Big Hero 6, and you’ll see a wonderful movie: the short cartoon before the animated feature. In Feast, a Boston terrier named Winston feeds on the treats his master tosses him: bacon and eggs, pizza, nachos — all the snacks a single man thrives on. When the man begins seeing a woman, the scraps left for Winston turn organic: a Brussels sprout topped with a sprig. In six minutes, writer-director Patrick Osborne synopsizes a dozen years in a man’s life, from loner to dater to husband and father, as seen and shared by winsome Winston. Shot with a narrow color palette and dramatically flat shapes, and overflowing with heartful wit, Feast is a banquet for all lovers of dogs, food and movies.

Stick around for the feature attraction — on which Osborne worked as co-head of animation — and you’ll find another non-human character every bit as appealing as Winston. It’s Baymax, a robot caregiver for young Hiro, the hero of Big Hero 6. In repose, Baymax fits into a small suitcase. But when it hears the word “Ow,” it inflates into a six-foot, white, vinyl balloon animal with black eyes and the pudgy shape of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters, or Po the Kung Fu Panda. Programmed to speak in a benign, avuncular tone (voiced by Scott Adsit) as he detects and corrects health problems, Baymax becomes the fussy guardian of Hiro, his friends and virtually any other creature it sees. Finding a big orange cat, Baymax pets it and soothingly whispers, “Hairy baby!”

Hiro (Ryan Potter) needs help. In the future city of San Fransokyo, this 14-year-old brainiac makes his living as a petty criminal hustling his own prize robot at underground bot fights. Adhering to a Disney tradition as old as Snow White and as recent as Frozen, the new movie makes Hiro an orphan who must fend for himself. He then loses his big brother and fellow science genius Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney) in an act of sabotage at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, where they have both become students. To solve the mystery of his brother’s death, he teams with four other SFIT misfits: perky Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), lumbering Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), cool GoGo (Jamie Chung) and party-hearty Fred (T.J. Miller). Add the resourceful Baymax, and you have the Big Hero 6 team.

Directed by Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt), and very loosely based on a lesser galaxy of Marvel Comics characters, this is the rare Disney animated feature that sets out to establish a franchise. (If it’s a hit, there’ll surely be a Big Hero 6 2.0.) Except for Baymax, and possibly Hiro, the team members are rudimentary sketches of clumsy or foxy nerds; the amiably doltish Fred, for example, is simply a pale copy of Shaggy, the Scooby-Doo sidekick voiced by Casey Kasem.

Initially meant to illustrate the effective use of brain power, the kids transform themselves into a military-industrial complex, becoming weapons masters in a montage scored to Fall Out Boy’s “Immortals.” (Even Baymax gets outfitted in red Iron Man armor.) In sum, they are the Mission: Impossible crew relocated to San Fransokyo’s Mission district — or, to make a Disney-Pixar comparison, The Incredibles without the emotion or verve.

The plot, which involves the theft of the microbots Hiro has invented, is also on the generic side: a Kabuki-masked villain has turned Hiro’s potentially life-saving bots into an army of evil, shape-shifting dominoes. But in the screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts, there’s also an odd parental twist. Having killed off Hiro’s mother, father and older brother, and allowing the other team members no visible parents, the writers introduce two father figures who are either untrustworthy (tech titan Alistair Krei, who is voiced by Alan Tudyk and looks like a sleazy Julian Assange) or violently missing presumed dead (the Malden-faced SFIT Dean Robert Callaghan, voiced by James Cromwell). So it’s odd that the third act should turn on a father who is both grieving and enraged.

If the story doesn’t grab you, the visuals will. San Fransokyo is sumptuously designed as a clash of Tokyo and Bay Area architecture; the Golden Gate Bridge tower is pagoda-shaped. The kids, like those in anime books and movies, have Japanese-American features, suggesting the melding of races as our future world interbreeds attractively. Finest of the movie’s hybrids is Baymax, a robot who’s also a mensch. He doesn’t have much competition, but he’s the most human character in Big Hero 6.

On the high-quality scale set by the Disney animated features in their latest Renaissance — The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen — this one doesn’t quite measure up. But Big Hero 6 is sure to entertain millions of smart kids and their escort parents. They may all want Baymax as their personal caregiver. And if they see the adorable Feast, there’ll be a run on Boston terriers as Christmas pets.

 

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