TIME movies

How Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper Went Both Bad and Sad in Serena

Jennifer and Bradley together again. Sounds great — but not in this drama made in 2012, now getting a release that's really an autopsy

Bad movies: they can be tatty classics of crazed ineptitude, like Edward D. Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, or big-budget misfires like the 1987 Ishtar, a would-be comedy that sent Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman on a Hope-Crosby Road to Dystopia. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a “bad movie” that practically torpedoed its sponsoring studio, United Artists, is actually often a great one — anyway, much of it errs on that side — but in “gate” notoriety it’s up there with Richard Nixon’s Water-, Bill Clinton’s Monica- and Chris Christie’s Bridge-.

Connoisseurs of bad movies are looking for bold wrongness: the urgency of a child screaming its lungs out with what may be madness or a hint of genius. But another type of certifiably awful movie just sits in a corner muttering about issues that neither it nor any spectator can care about. Such a one is Serena, Danish director Susanne Bier’s DOA adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 bestseller. Filmed in 2012 and finally limping into theaters after a few weeks on VOD, Serena fails in ways that are fun neither to sit through nor to write about.

The picture would barely be worth an obit except for its leading actors, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. They made ideal wounded sparring partners (and ballroom dancers) in Silver Linings Playbook. They flirted with malicious intent in American Hustle. They’re big stars, frequent Oscar nominees and, from available evidence, decent people for whom one wishes the best. And somehow they stumbled into a muted kind of worst: the story of a North Carolina lumberman and his Colorado bride, in an effort that has star wattage up the wazoo but zero emotional voltage.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a powerful rogue employing any means necessary to battle government regulations in the first years of the Great Depression. He must also cope with his new wife’s knowledge that, before they met, he fathered a child with a local girl (Ana Ularu). Serena (Lawrence) says that nothing in the past matters; but that’s just the cooing lie of a femme fatale — the type that Barbara Stanwyck brought to seductive life and death in Hollywood’s Golden and Noir ages.

Iconographically, Lawrence looks just right for the period. Platinum blonde, she instantly evokes such early-talkies actresses as Mae West. Toby Wing and Jean Harlow. Too bad she gets no help from Bier, who won a Foreign Film Oscar in 2011 for the Danish In a Better World after a calamitous foray into Hollywood drama with the 2006 Things We Lost in the Fire.

Foreign-born directors, from Billy Wilder to Alejandro González Iñárritu, can be the most acute observers of American ways and mores, but Bier lacks either the empathy or the simple competence to establish a forboding tone and bring the Serena story to pulsing, plausible life. The movie was shot in Prague, not in the American South, but distance is no excuse for disaster. The Anglo-Italian Anthony Minghella filmed a dark Carolina love story, the 2003 Cold Mountain, in Romania and still managed to extract plenty of Tar Heel kick from his Civil War epic.

In Serena, stuff happens, then nastier stuff, without ever engaging the viewer’s rooting interest or sick fear. Sometimes it’s a question of sloppiness on the set or in the editing room. In one intense scene with Cooper, Lawrence provides the money shot of a tear coursing down her cheek. In the next closeup, her face is dry, suggesting that no one noticed or nobody cared.

Behind this inert movie is the shadow of a better, or at least creepier, one. Serena was originally to star Angelina Jolie and be directed by Darren Aronofsky immediately after he made Black Swan — a movie that reveled in the display of a sympathetic woman going toxically bonkers. Black Swan shared some of those excesses, but its vigor gave it a liveliness he might have applied to the Serena project. Bier’s directorial timidity spells doom.

It’s like some fateful old Broadway tryout that should have closed in New Haven. In fact, Serena opened last Oct. at the London Film Festival. Lawrence graciously showed up, beckoning the audience to embrace the movie. “And if you don’t,” she added, “just don’t tweet about it.”

The more appropriate social medium would have been Grumblr, the Tumblr spinoff that, like Serena, suffered an early death in 2012. This weekend’s theatrical premiere marks only the sighting of a glamorous zombie — a movie that is a poignant subspecies of bad: just plain sad.

TIME movies

Don’t Tell Anyone, But I Kind of Liked Get Hard

Denounced for homophobia and racism, the new Will Ferrell–Kevin Hart comedy has a warm heart to overcome its rude humor

The early reviews are in, and the verdict is nearly unanimous: Get Hard, the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, is a war crime of a movie. Edward Douglas, ComingSoon.net: “Finally, a comedy that homophobes, racists and generally stupid people can all enjoy together!” Alex Needham, the Guardian: “In years to come, media studies students will … be astonished that such a negative portrayal of homosexuality persisted in the mainstream in 2015.” Drew Taylor, the Playlist: “Absolutely horrible … a morally repugnant movie … a non-stop parade of racist, homophobic bile that would be bad enough from any comedian, but coming out of Ferrell and Hart has the effect of watching a childhood hero committing some horrible act.” Somebody call the cops.

Scanning these denunciations before seeing the movie, I was prepared for an ordeal. Ferrell and Hart are two stars with clearly, cleverly designed personalities but whose films are often lazy and coarse in execution. I’d been warned that this first screen pairing of the 6-ft. 3-in. Ferrell and the 5-ft. 4-in. Hart was all about the fear of prison rape. R-rated bromances often go heavy on a blithe homoeroticism; this movie would make the anticipation of gay sex both explicit and terrifying.

So during the first half-hour or so of Get Hard, I was primed for a high atrocity factor. Primed and disappointed. One note I scribbled read, “Still waiting to hate this.” An hour in, I realized to my shock that I was having a good time. Justin Chang of Variety would chalk this up to the “unexamined homophobia needed to fully enjoy Get Hard.” But laughter trumps political fairness, and Get Hard made me laugh at, and with, situations I hadn’t thought could tickle me. The movie has a warm heart beating under its seemingly scabrous shell.

In the script by Jay Martel and Ian Roberts (show runners of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele), Ferrell’s James is a successful, fabulously wealthy hedge-fund manager — a Wolf of Wall Street, L.A. branch — who has just made partner at the firm run by Martin (Craig T. Nelson). When not making millions each day at the office, he frolics in bed with his fiancée, and Martin’s daughter, Alissa (Alison Brie), who seeps out of her peignoir to give him great sex and spur him to finance her gaudiest whims; she’s James’ Lady Macbreast. Each morning James exercises nude — mandatory Ferrell butt shot — in full view of his gardening staff, to whom he pays no more attention than to the black guy, Darnell (Hart), who washes his car.

You’ll recognize James as that comedy stereotype, the empowered idiot, a cousin to Stephen Colbert’s TV persona. Ferrell has built his film career on playing guys who are cocooned in, and sustained by, an utterly unwarranted belief in themselves, most enjoyably in Blades of Glory. In that and the Anchorman movies, and here too, he’s not mean, exactly — just stupendously ignorant of certain social niceties and stupefyingly oblivious to the working-class people around him. James was born and bred in the 1% bubble. Like Mitt Romney, he’s learned what he needs to nosh on the upper crust, but no one’s taught him how to survive what for the bottom 47% is real life.

So when he is charged and convicted on 76 counts of fraud and embezzlement, for crimes he insists he did not commit, and ordered to do his time in maximum-security San Quentin, James plummets into panic. The very thought contorts his face into a Munchian scream. All he knows about prison, to which he will be sent in 30 days, is that it’s an unrelenting nightmare of enforced fellatio. As his lawyer (Greg Germann) predicts, “He’ll be chokin’ on a mouthful of balls.” To toughen him up for hard time, James needs a tutor and goes to the only black man he knows: Darnell.

James assumes that Darnell must be an ex-con, because he’s an African-American male. In fact, Darnell is an upwardly mobile family man tending to his wife Rita (Edwina Dickerson) and young daughter Makayla (Ariana Neal). But he’ll take a big payday by pretending to be a gangsta — he swipes his invented biography from the plot of Boyz n the Hood — and putting James through a regimen of hurt. Imagine that the J.K. Simmons teacher in Whiplash were really a pussycat, feigning sadistic intent to impress his naive pupil. The role is a twist for Hart: no longer the bantam battler of Ride Along and Think Like a Man, here he’s the ordinary underdog, the audience surrogate that skeptically appraises Ferrell’s character and eventually comes to accept it.

Director Etan Cohen (who helped write King of the Hill, Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder) pushes these clever conceits at a brisk pace while allowing his stars room to do their stuff: Ferrell’s on-the-nose-pathetic impersonation of Lil Wayne, Hart’s simultaneous playing of three cons — black, Hispanic and gay — whom James could expect to get up in his face. Tip (T.I. Harris) brings sexy, authentic menace to the role of Darnell’s gang-boss cousin. The movie flags only toward the end, when James has a comedically flat encounter with some neo-Nazis, then gets back on track by belatedly realizing its plot requires a whodunit resolution. By then you’ll recognize Get Hard as a modern gloss on the Dan Aykroyd–Eddie Murphy Trading Places: a little ruder and not quite as sharp, but in the ballpark of that 1983 comedy landmark.

Yes, the movie does have a middle section about James’ fear of enforced fellatio: many jokes about Dickipedia and dick-ade and a fairly explicit toilet-stall rendezvous (with Veep‘s Matt Walsh). I will not arbitrate on the humor content of this episode. I’ll just say that the adult audience for which Get Hard is designed should be able to get through it without gagging. You needn’t approve ethically of everything in a movie you enjoy.

And by “you,” I mean this reviewer. His last words, before he was hauled away by the critique police, were, “I kind of liked Get Hard.

TIME Late Greats

Remembering Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s Iron Man

Chuck Bednarik, of the Philadelphia Eagles.
AP Chuck Bednarik, of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Playing the full 60 minutes on offense and defense, the Philadelphia Eagles bruiser helped secure one of pro football's most thrilling title games

I’ll bet Chuck Bednarik sneered at the glitzy name the National Football League pinned on its championship game in 1967: the Super Bowl. To Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles star from 1949 to 1962, a football game was not a piece of crockery deigned by Andy Warhol. It was trench warfare every Sunday afternoon, in the Iron Age of professional football. And Bednarik, who died Saturday at 89 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was the NFL’s Iron Man.

No. 60 was also the 60-Minute Man, often playing both offense (center) and defense (linebacker) for an entire game—including the title skirmish against Vince Lombardi’s legendary Green Bay Packers, on Dec. 26, 1960, which brought the Eagles their most satisfying championship, and their last to date. More than a half-century later, Philly fans of advanced age remember that game as the pinnacle of civic pride, the Billy Penn’s hat of sporting events, and a testament to the city’s working-class grit as exemplified by “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik.

The son of a Bethlehem, Pa., steelworker from Slovakia, Charles Philip Bednarik had a body built for the game—6 ft., 2 in., 235 lb., back when that was mastodon-size—and the requisite remorseless dedication. A two-way star at Bethlehem’s Liberty High School, Chuck enlisted in the Army Air Force and spent the war flying 30 combat missions over Germany as a B-24 waist-gunner. Back home, he played four seasons for the University of Pennsylvania in its brief college-football glory and finished third in the Heisman Trophy vote. In 1949 he became the Eagles’ first draft pick and made All-Pro in eight of his 14 seasons. As much punishment as he dished out, Bednarik could take even more: he missed only three games in his pro career.

With the blue eyes and brutal demeanor of actor Charles Bronson, another rock-solid, coal-country son of Eastern Europeans, Bednarik personified the Eagles as dominant enforcers. Fans saw the players not as faraway star athletes but as guys doing a tough job with honor—in a way, our cops—and for not much money. Signed by the Eagles for a $10,000 salary and a $3,000 bonus, Bednarik never made more than $27,000 a year. The “Concrete Charlie” nickname didn’t refer to his remorseless blocking and tackling; he had to take an off-season job selling concrete to make ends meet.

No question, though, that Bednarik was an artist of legitimate violence: no dirty plays, just the brick-wall force of an immovable object. The words on his plaque in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—”rugged, durable, bulldozing blocker … a bone-jarring tackler”—are almost an understatement, especially to anyone who has seen footage of the November 1960 game in which he leveled Frank Gifford, the Hollywood-handsome running back for the New York Giants, knocking him out of the sport for a year and a half.

A famous Sports Illustrated photo shows Bednarik seeming to exult over the prostrate Gifford. Fifty years later, Bednarik denied the charge—while emphasizing his team’s proletarian underdog status. “I wasn’t gloating over him,” he said. “I had no idea he was there. It was the most important play and tackle in my life. They were from the big city. The glamor boys. The guys who got written up in all the magazines. But I thought we were the better team.” Class resentment aside, that tackle secured a win against the Giants and propelled the Eagles to their Boxing Day title game.

It happens that 1960 was a crucial year for pro football. On the 23rd ballot, the NFL elected a compromise candidate, Pete Rozelle, as commissioner. Moving the league offices from Philadelphia to New York, Rozelle established franchises in Dallas and Minneapolis. The NFL launched this expansion to ward off its feisty rival, the American Football League, which began operations that fall. Six years later, when the NFL swallowed the AFL, creating the Super Bowl, it was well on its way to becoming America’s sport and a multi-zillion-dollar behemoth.

On the day after Christmas in 1960, though, the Big Game was only so big. It was not played in some balmy city with two weeks of walk-up hype; the team with the best division record served as host. The Eastern Division–winning Eagles didn’t have their own stadium; they were tenants at Penn’s Franklin Field. (Bednarik played all his home games, college and pro, in the same place.) Since Franklin Field had no lights, the match started at noon, so that a sudden-death overtime game, like the one two years before between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, would not be called on account of darkness.

Fans had bought all 67,325 seats for the Eagles-Packers contest, yet the game was blacked out on local TV. You had to drive to New Jersey to watch it. Or you could do what I did as a teenage Philly sports fan: take a train to the stadium and buy a ticket from a scalper. The official price was $8; outside the gates, I paid $6. It was a long time ago.

The Packers would become the most successful franchise of the ’60s, winning five championships, including the first two Super Bowls. But in 1960, quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor were figures of promise, not legend. Still, the 8-4 Packers were significant favorites over the 10-2 Eagles. Philly’s squad might have been found at a Germantown garage sale: 12 of the 22 starters were castoffs from other teams. And their wins seemed feats of green magic. In six of their games they were behind entering the fourth quarter; they won six by less than a touchdown. How could their luck hold against the surging Pack?

Playing on a field with some frozen patches and a few puddles where snow had melted, Green Bay penetrated the Philadelphia red zone four times but mustered only six points, because Lombardi, as he later acknowledged, was too greedy for touchdowns. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Eagles trailed 13-10. Ted Dean, one of the team’s three black players, returned a kickoff 58 yards. Later he took a handoff from quarterback Norm Van Brocklin for five yards and the go-ahead score.

In the game’s last minute, the Packers had advanced to the Eagles’ 22-yard line. Starr lobbed a short pass to Taylor, with nothing between him and the end zone—and victory—but Concrete Charlie. Bednarik wrestled Taylor down at the 10 and sat on him as the final seconds ticked away mercilessly. Eagles 17, Packers 13. “You can get up now, Taylor,” Bednarik finally growled. “This damn game’s over.”

A Sports Illustrated photo, taken moments later, shows mud-caked No. 60 with a rare smile as he shakes Starr’s hand and wraps his other paw around the much smaller, defeated Taylor. It never got better for the Iron Man. And for many Philly fans, like this one, it never got as good.

Even in retirement, Bednarik held true to his truculence, criticizing modern pro athletes as “pussyfooters” who “suck air after five plays” and “couldn’t tackle my wife Emma.” He also dismissed the few two-way stars, like Deion Sanders and Troy Brown because, as wide receivers and defensive backs, they weren’t jolted by hard contact on every play, as he had been back in the day.

We should be grateful that the steelworker’s son didn’t soften in his later years; he never tired of being Chuck Bednarik. That’s why his fitting eulogy should be the cartoon that Rob Tornoe drew of Concrete Charlie’s final play: bulldozing his way into Heaven by ripping open the Pearly Gates. For the Iron Man, this damn game is never over.

TIME movies

REVIEW: There’s Nothing Urgent About Insurgent

In a sequel that plays more like a remake, Shailene Woodley faces her sternest test: Can she survive being photographed in closeup for an entire movie?

We’re back in the woods with the kids. After three Hunger Games movies, plus a bunch of Twilight forestry escapades, one Maze Runner (with more to come) and that dawdling sylvan interlude in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the yawning YA genre packs its young audiences off to another Teen Boot Camp. Tris Prior, the flinty heroine played by Shailene Woodley, goes rural in Insurgent, the second episode in the inevitable four-part trilogy now called The Divergent Series. (Four-part because no matter how fashions change in semi-blockbuster franchises, the one unyielding Hollywood principle is greed.)

Given the modest surprise of last year’s Divergent — who’d have guessed that the nth YA retread could be so … O.K.? — Insurgent has two hurdles to scale: building on the promise of the first film and permanently anointing Woodley as the industry’s ferocious deadpan goddess. The picture comes up short in both categories. It’s wandering, not urgent, while indicating that all-Shailene-all-the-time can be too much of a pretty good thing.

Divergent, directed by Neil Burger, displayed an admirable seriousness and some grim verve in laying out the boundaries of novelist Veronica Roth’s dystopia — six segregated but ostensibly harmonious regions defined by their inhabitants’ skills. Latecomers can apply the mnemonic device FACADE: Factionless for the outsiders, Amity for the famers, Candor for the truthsayers, Abnegation for the selfless, Dauntless for the daring and Erudite for the smarties.

The first film had the benefit of being new — newish, given the familiarity of movies about kids getting hazed by ruthless adults — in picturing Tris’ emergence through those worlds into her own unique entity. She is not just a Divergent, the blending of several factions, but The Divergent. Neo from The Matrix. The Redeemer. The One. In pop-culture terms, Michael Jackson at his “Billie Jean” apogee. In liberal politics, sort of Obama 2008.

Insurgent, directed by Robert Schwentke, has Tris grappling with her superstar status and battling the powerful forces who might well be rid of her — all women in Roth’s full-fledged matriarchy. (Has any modern or ancient trilogy been so bereft of father figures?) Among the adversaries and potential allies are the queens of three other realms: Erudite’s Jeanine (Kate Winslet), Amity’s Johanna (Octavia Spencer) and Evelyn (Naomi Watts), rebel warrior of the Factionless.

In her own generation, Tris also has to gauge the shifting loyalties of her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), her Candor pal Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and the snide mercurial Peter (Miles Teller), while relying on her studly protector Four (Theo James). Having to arch up with all these characters propels Tris on a grand tour of her old haunts; with its repeat itinerary, Insurgent is less a sequel than a remake. The movie has an ordinary middle-chapter scenario, less The Empire Strikes Back than Attack of the Clones.

It does provide a few high-tech flourishes. The trio of new screenwriters — first-timer Brian Duffield, action specialist Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) and designated Ron Howard scripture Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code) — has junked reams of plot from Roth’s second novel and added a magic box, a gift from the elders that will suss out the one true Divergent and, I don’t know, either save or ruin the land. (There’s also a scene in which, if I correctly read my Wikipedia synopsis of the book, one of the major characters is given a different murderer.)

Strapped into a Clockwork Orange apparatus with some Christian Grey leather, Tris endures a bunch of simulations that vault her across the Chicago skyline and into netherspace. These are moderately cool, but they simply underline the paucity of nuance and suspense in the people parts of the movie. Winslet and Watts, though never more gorgeous or glowering, mostly just strike attitudes, as if referencing Madonna’s old “Vogue” video.

The younger actors have even less luck. James, who made for a solid, stolid prince consort in the first film, turns whiny here. The only connection with more sizzle than fizzle is the enmity between Tris and Jeanine’s henchman and all-time rotter Eric (Jai Courtney). During the ample downtime watching Insurgent, you can amuse yourself by gleefully imagining dreadful ways to kill off Eric.

In the middling Divergent or the water-treading Insurgent, through the series’ thickets and longueurs, the one shining constant has been Woodley, the 23-year-old graduate from indie fare (The Spectacular Now, White Bird in a Blizzard, The Fault in Our Stars) to franchise savior. Without a touch of movie glamour, she wowed critics and forged identities with her young fans through her quiet intensity.

I confess I’ve been guilty of committing such rhapsodies, writing of Woodley, as Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, that she:

has the gift of acting internally: she makes you watch her watch something, lets you read the mind of her character like a good book. Often photographed in dermatological closeup, Woodley’s face is its own engrossing movie — an autumnal symphony of darker and lighter browns. She makes Hazel the ideal narrator and receptive audience to Augustus’ agreeable showmanship.

But Schwentke seems to think that the way to bring epic heft to this 3-D franchise is to wallpaper the whole movie with intimate images of his young star. Over and over, her visage fills the giant IMAX screen like a sign painter’s view of a Hollywood Boulevard billboard during a two-hour traffic jam. One face, even Woodley’s, can endure only so much rapt attention. So for the last two chapters in the series, everyone is hereby ordered to step back a few paces. In the Allegiant movies, Woodley has to be ready for her medium shot.

Read next: Shailene Woodley Calls Edward Snowden a ‘Hero’

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TIME movies

REVIEW: Disney’s Live-Action Cinderella Rekindles Old Studio Magic

CINDERELLA
Jonathan Olley—Disney Lily James stars as Cinderella in Cinderella

With Lily James of 'Downton Abbey' as the sooty heroine and Cate the Blanch-ificent as the stepmother, this new version of the fairy tale plays it straight, daringly romantic and visually gorgeous

The Cinderella story, codified by Charles Perrault as Cendrillon in 1697, has been a movie staple since the beginning of the medium. That prime cinemagician Georges Méliès conjured up a Cendrillon in 1899, employing trick photography to turn a rabbit into a footman, rats into coachmen and a pumpkin into a carriage. The role was played in 1914 by Mary Pickford, the movies’ first star actress, and, in a gender-bending switch, by Jerry Lewis in the 1960 CinderFella. Julie Andrews graced Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 TV musical version, remade in 1966 with Lesley Ann Warren and in 1997 with Brandy. Drew Barrymore brought feminist spark to Ever After: A Cinderella Story in 1998; Anne Hathaway endured ogres and snakes in the 2006 Ella Enchanted. A few months ago, in Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella found to her chagrin what happens after “happy ever after.”

But if the Cinderella fable has an owner and chief curator, it’s Walt Disney. Of the hundreds of movie versions, his 1950 animated feature is the most popular and best remembered. All these decades later, the studio expects only good luck from the Friday-the-13th release of a lavish live-action version directed by Kenneth Branagh, adapted by Chris Weitz and starring Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as the stepmother Lady Tremaine. Most of the industry touts are forecasting at least a $60-million opening in North American theaters.

The Disney fascination with the sooty heroine, the Prince and the glass slipper goes back to Walt’s earlier days as a cartoon producer. He was just a kid when he made his first Cinderella as a Laugh-O-Gram in his Kanas City studio. The movie premiered on Dec. 6, 1922, the day after Walt turned 21 — the same age as his invaluable pal Ub Iwerks, who animated and directed the movie (and, later, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie”). Running a brisk 7 min. 23 sec., Disney’s first Cinderella is the old fable transplanted to the Jazz Age, with physical comedy trumping dreamy romance.

The plucky orphan, “whose only friend was a cat,” gets bossed around by “two lazy and homely step sisters” — but no wicked stepmother. The Prince, “a wonderful fellow” whose only friend is his little white dog, is first shown hunting bears by shooting them in the butt (early Disney is a trove of ass gags). The Prince schedules a ball, for “Friday the 13th,” but Cinderella’s stepsisters say she can’t go. A crone-like Fairy Godmother shows up to give the girl a snazzy flapper gown and change a trash can (not a pumpkin) into a Model T; the black cat is her chauffeur. It’s love at first sight for the Prince; they dance the night away to the strains of a Paul Whiteman-like jazz band. At midnight Cinderella flees, leaving her glass slipper. The chase is on; the Prince finds her and embraces her, as his dog does her cat. “And they lived happily ever after.”

The 1950 version was the studio’s first full animated feature since Bambi eight years earlier, and it rescued the Mouse House from near-bankruptcy. Cherished for the hit songs “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bibidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” it is also the least faithful to its source. About half of the 1hr. 14min. movie is devoted to the shenanigans of the heroine’s closest companions, a quartet of talking mice, and their slapstick battles with Lady Tremaine’s obnoxious cat Lucifer. The feline role reversal from the 1922 cartoon may have been Disney’s attempt to mimic the Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry cartoons, which won five Oscars for Best Animated Short between 1943 and 1948 — the very prize Walt had previously monopolized with 10 wins between 1932 and 1942.

The Prince is virtually AWOL in the 1950 movie; he doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through and speaks only a few words. (In the duet “So This Is Love,” his singing voice is supplied by future talk-show host Mike Douglas.) He is mainly a pawn in the machinations of his temperamental father the King and a fussy Grand Duke. The big drama is again with the critters: Will the mice Jaq and Gus will be able to lug a key up to the attic that imprisons Cinderella? Whatever its appeal to many generations of children, this is one Disney feature that today looks coarse and ill-conceived.

The latest version proves that third time’s the charm, with a Cinderella that is not revisionist but plain old visionist. In the recent Disney tradition of live-action film spun off from classic cartoon features — after Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010 and, last year, the Angelina Jolie Maleficent, from Sleeping Beauty — this Cinderella plays it straight and pretty. Make that gorgeous: the settings by Dante Ferretti and the gowns by Sandy Powell (each with three Oscar wins) turn the film into a fantasy land that is its own theme park. Even the attic to which James’s Ella is consigned by Blanchett’s Lady T. is less a Tower of Terror than an airy aerie.

First, though, the movie has to kill off Ella’s loving parents, with the ruthless efficiency that Disney perfected in such early features as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi. Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) succumbs to the sort of genteel movie disease that deprives her of life but not of luster, instructing the child to “Have courage and be kind.” Father (Ben Chaplin), hoping to give Ella another mother and two new sisters her own age, marries the widow Tremaine, then dies while on a business trip. In short order, we see that Tremaine is no lady; she spits out her stepdaughter’s name as a cruel, cackling curse.

Tremaine has demoted Ella to charwoman in the service of the Lady’s sullen, stupid daughters Anastasia (Holiday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). When the King (Derek Jacobi) invites every maiden to a ball at which the Prince (Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on Game of Thrones) will choose his bride, Ella is left at home, finding transportation as well as transformation courtesy of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). Ella leaves a glass slipper fit for a princess bride. Prince meets commoner, and the rest is fantasy.

Less a remake of the 1950 movie than a sensible correction, the Branagh Cinderella does without the old hit tunes or new any ones. Though it often seems ready to burst into song, it doesn’t, instead relying on Patrick Doyle’s sumptuous, nonstop score. It also reduces the mice, now CGI critters, to minor characters; Cinderella chats with them but they don’t talk back, content to await their roles as pumpkin-coach horses when the fairy godmother, in Bonham Carter’s mildly campy approximation, materializes. The movie’s only nod to modernity is in the casting of Afro-Brit Nonso Anozie (Xaro Xhoan Daxos on Game of Thrones) as the Prince’s stalwart Captain of the Guards.

Like Jolie in Maleficent, Blanchett gets top billing here. She earns it by radiating a hauteur that chills as it amuses; the performance is grand without skirting parody. The movie doesn’t rehabilitate Lady T., as Maleficent did for its sorceress. (In Disney’s 1950s Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, both the Stepmother and Maleficent were voiced by Eleanor Audley.) But it does allow its star to sizzle as Cate the Blanch-ificent.

Blanchett’s Tremaine is the prisoner of her personality, parrying Cinderella’s aghast “How could you?” with a vitriolic and poignant “How could I not?” Behind her sadism is the sad awareness that her stepchild has all the graces her daughters lack. Her only blessing is that she finds an ally in the venal Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård), as adept as palace intrigue as Lady T. is at domestic iniquity. Perhaps these meanies should star in a sour sequel: Sinned- or Chagrined-erella.

The wicked stepmother gets a suitable antagonist in James, who plays Lady Rose on Downton Abbey as a figure of whim and rebellion: flirting with a black jazzman, marrying a Jewish lord. Her blond hair framing subversive dark eyebrows, James creates a Cinderella that is both classic and modern, the sculptor of her destiny.

This Cinderella needn’t wait for the royal ball to dazzle the Prince; she meets him earlier — as an equal, on horseback in the forest, with neither knowing the other’s identity — and persuades him to spare a stag he was hunting. He knows instantly he must marry the girl, who has been true to her mother’s last words: she is courageous and kind.

As expansive and well-scrubbed as any of the floors the heroine is obliged to scour, this PG-rated treat rekindles the old Disney magic in a ballroom dance of two strangers becoming lovers. It mixes romance and a measure of droll wit without ever evoking the dread phrase “rom-c0m.” Doing it the old way has paid off for the studio. Nearly a century after that black-and-white cartoon short, and 65 years after a “classic” animated feature that missed the mark, Disney finally got Cinderella right — for now and, happily, ever after.

TIME movies

Review: It’s Nature vs. Torture in Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie

1251623 - Chappie
Columbia Sharlto Copley plays the voice of Chappie in Chappie

The director of the wondrous District 9 hatches a violent parenting parable starring a sci-fi robot that falls victim to the Jar Jar Jinx

Why did Neill Blomkamp decide to give the robot hero of his artsy-violent new sci-fi film the name Chappie? Because, as my brother Paul William Corliss Jr. could tell you, Chappie is an alternative nickname for a boy with the same name as his father — like Bud, Chip, Tad or Deuce.

The South African director’s movie, set in a grungy future Johannesburg, is also a descendent of his debut feature District 9, which in 2009 wowed the world of critics (like this one) and audiences ($211 million worldwide box office on a thrifty $30-million budget). An Apartheid parable disguised as a alien-settlement thriller, District 9 was both a wondrous achievement on its own and a promise of greater things from the 29-year-old Blomkamp.

It didn’t quite happen that way. He got lost in the political thickets with his second feature Elysium, an affectless tale of Obamacare in outer space that wasted the glamour of its stars, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Now Blomkamp, back home in Joburg, finds new ways to go off the cinematic rails with Chappie.

In the very near future — 2016 — the law is enforced by a team of “Scouts,” police robots created by techno-genius Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) for the TetraVaal company run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). When Michelle nixes his plan to extend the machines’ consciousness to human capacity, Deon steals a trashed robot, works his computer magic and, ta-daah! The creature comes to life with an infant’s readiness to assimilate experience and to become, perhaps, more human than human.

That was the phrase applied to the “replicants” from the 1982 Blade Runner, one of dozens of science fiction stories — Short Circuit, RoboCop, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, ad almost infinitum — that Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell (his wife) borrow from without managing to enrich their own story.

Chappie has the kernel of a good adventure in the interoffice rivalry of Neon and Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, in a rare pure-villain role), a TetraVaal employee who has proposed a rival force of huge, galumphing, man-operated tanks called Mooses. The bubbling of tension between the two men and their clashing views of policing — liberal vs. totalitarian — could inform a taut, brisk allegory punctuated by fabulous scenes of stuff blowing up and suppurating in the hallowed District 9 tradition.

Instead, Blomkamp handed over his picture to a couple of radically unappealing musicians: the tattoo-slathered Ninja (real name: Watkin Tudor Jones) and the grimy blond Yolandi ViSSer (Anri du Toit) of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for The Answer). Using their stage names as their character names in the film, and playing a pair of gangstas in urgent need of big money, they hijack Neon and compel him to let them tutor his inchoate robot to fulfill their criminal schemes. The movie wants to explore a nature vs. nurture scenario, but it’s closer to nature vs. torture.

In submitting Chappie (voiced and performed by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley) to a rough form of surrogate parenting, Ninja is the cruel, ignorant stepfather figure — “You gave me a retarded robot,” he shouts at Deon — who outfits the creature in bling and teaches it the hostile arts of tossing knives and ninja stars. Yolandi is the borderline-doting mother who gives the creature its name when she notes, “You’re a happy chappie.” And where is Deon, Chappie’s loving, protective maker? Oh, he goes back to work and leaves his charge in the care of these miscreants.

This is just one of many plot implausibilities that occupy the movie’s middle hour and test the audience’s threshold of pain. Finally Blomkamp remembers that he has secured the services of Hugh Jackman, an actual movie star, and summons him to grace a climax that makes no more sense than the rest of Chappie but does have some redeeming explosions.

A few good things. First, there’s a scene set in the Ponte City Apartments (now called the Vodacom building), a 54-story cylinder that Blomkamp briefly transforms into Ninja’s own Thunderdome. That’s about it. On the weird side, the movie takes place in South Africa’s largest city, with a teeming multiracial population; yet it has fewer roles for black actors than Disney’s new live-action Cinderella. Blomkamp has reimposed Apartheid on his own movie.

The Chappie robot, designed without a face that could convey emotion to the viewer, tries to make up in chattiness what it lacks in winsomeness. “I can’t shoot peoples,” he protests to Ninja, in a moment that underlines the creature’s similarity to a certain bumbling Gungan from The Phantom Menace. Chappie might have been an E.T. or a WALL•E, but he falls victim to what even George Lucas might recognize as the Jar Jar Jinx.

Incidentally, the nickname for a boy with his grandfather’s name but not his father’s is Skip. Which is what Neill Blomkamp admirers, and my brother Paul Jr., should do with Chappie.

TIME movies

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: Still Great, Still Shameful

The Birth Of A Nation
Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images A poster for D.W. Griffith's 1915 drama 'The Birth of a Nation'.

The most popular and notorious film of the silent era reaches its centenary with its cinematic splendor and racial notoriety intact

At earlier screenings in Los Angeles it was called The Clansman, after the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel and play on which it was based. But David Wark Griffith must have realized that his film deserved a grander title. For its New York premiere on March 3, 1915, exactly a hundred years ago, he renamed it The Birth of a Nation.

Released on the 50th anniversary of the last full month of the Civil War, Griffith’s monument became a groundbreaking popular, technical and critical success. Produced for $100,000 and charging a top price of $2 (when tickets to most movies cost a dime), Birth was the seminal blockbuster of the silent-film period and the most widely seen of all motion pictures until it was eclipsed by another Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, in 1939. Griffith’s film is estimated to have earned $18 million in its first few years — the astounding equivalent of $1.8 billion today. In current dollars, only Avatar and Titanic have earned more worldwide.

In its bold editing and composition of shots, in its contrast of intimate scenes with spectacular battles and a final thrilling chase, The Birth of a Nation was the culmination of six years of pioneering artistry by Griffith, the would-be novelist who at first thought he was slumming when he began working in the movies in 1908 but who established in the hundreds of one- and two-reelers he directed a cinematic textbook, a fully formed visual language, for the generations that followed. More than anyone else — more than all others combined — he invented the film art. He brought it to fruition in The Birth of a Nation, an enormous risk that he embarked on without a real script and using just one camera manned by his invaluable cinematographer, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer.

On Griffith’s death in 1948, TIME critic James Agee synopsized the achievement of the man who made movies move:

Before he walked on the set, motion pictures had been, in actuality, static. At a respectful distance, the camera snapped a series of whole scenes, clustered in the groupings of the stage play. Griffith broke up the pose. He rammed his camera into the middle of the action. He took closeups, crosscuts, angle shots and dissolves. His camera was alive, picking off shots; then he built the shots into sequences, the sequences into tense, swift narrative. For the first time the movies had a man who realized that, while a theater audience listened, a movie audience watched. “Above all … I am trying to make you see,” Griffith said.

(Read TIME’s Aug. 1948 remembrance of D.W. Griffith, here in the archives: Last Dissolve)

In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made audiences see the Civil War through his eyes — the eyes of the son of a colonel in the Army of the Confederacy. The potent drama of the movie’s subject and method stirred President Woodrow Wilson to say, “It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Or truly terrible. The most ambitious and powerful film of its time was also the most controversial, indeed notorious. The rhetorical fire it kindled makes recent arguments over the validity of such Oscar-nominated films as Selma and American Sniper seem like the most decorous debates in the Red Hat Society — for The Birth of a Nation not only was about the country’s history, it changed it, unarguably for the worse.

Like many popular films of the next 40 years, Birth took the side of the South in its depiction of the Civil War. It saw the antebellum South as a paradise of Anglo gentility and the Reconstruction Era as the crushing of that dream. At heart a Romeo and Juliet story extended to gargantuan proportions, the movie focuses on two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, whose eldest sons fall in love with girls from the other family. Though the Civil War places the young men on opposing sides, they retain respect for their old friends — Ben Stoneman (Henry B. Walthall) stops mid-battle to comfort a wounded Cameron — and love for their ladies.

So far, so predictable. The Birth of a Nation occupies a view of the South not far from Scarlett O’Hara’s in Gone With the Wind, and modern audiences have to wrestle with that beloved movie’s romanticizing of racism. But Griffith’s film went further, lower. Taking its cue from Dixon, whom film historian Russell Merritt aptly describes as a “professional Southerner and white supremacist,” Birth revels in the coarsest racial imagery: of crude Negroes (most of them played by white actors in blackface) who act like savages both in the Reconstruction Senate, as they deprive the white gentry of their rights, and in their sexual brutality toward Southern white women.

It is romantic chivalry, Griffith insists, that led to Southerners’ retaliations against Negroes. A rapacious black man stalks a young white woman until, to protect her virginity, she leaps off a cliff to her death. To avenge such indignities and defend the honor of white womanhood, Ben Stoneman and his noble fellows give birth to the Ku Klux Klan (who, in the film’s climax, gallop to the rescue to the music of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”). That racist realm, not the restored United States, is the true Nation of the film’s title: the land of lynchings, voter suppression and second-class citizenship for Southern blacks.

The seductive artistry of Griffith’s masterwork made his virulent, derisive depiction of blacks all the more toxic — one could say epidemic. This was not simply a racist film; it was one whose brilliant storytelling technique lent plausibility and poignancy to the notion of blacks as stupid, venal and brutal. Viewers could believe that what they saw was true historically and emotionally. Birth not only taught moviegoers how to react to film narrative but what to think about blacks and, in the climactic ride of hooded horsemen to avenge their honor, what to do to them. The movie provoked protests and riots in Northern cities with large black minorities. And by stirring bitter memories in the white South, it helped revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan, which for the next few decades went on a righteous spree of killing black men.

In a 1930 conversation with actor Walter Huston (then starring in Griffith’s first talking picture, Abraham Lincoln) for the re-release of The Birth of a Nation, the director argued that the Ku Klux Klan, riding like the cavalry to the rescue of the South from rapacious Negroes, “at that time was needed to serve the purpose.”

However myopic that sounds today, Griffith wasn’t alone in his sentiments. He had Huston read a passage by Woodrow Wilson, positing that the purpose of Reconstruction was “to put the white South under the heel of the black South,” under black officeholders “who knew none of the uses of authority except its insolences … The white men were roused by an instinct of mere self-preservation, until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern country.” Bilge, all of it, and sadder still that it comes from a Southerner who was a noted historian and the head of Princeton University before becoming President. But it shows that a racist view of American history was near the norm in “civilized” society a hundred years ago, and for decades thereafter.

Yet The Birth of a Nation is nearly as antiwar as it is antiblack. The Civil War scenes, which consume only 30 minutes of the extravaganza, emphasize not the national glory but the human cost of combat. “On the battlefield,” announces one of the film’s intertitles, “War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice.” For all the spectacular panoramas of the battle footage, its explosions and ragged processions of soldiers, the most impressive and startling moments are the more intimate views of the battle’s end. “War’s peace,” reads another intertitle, and we are shown a tableau of a half-dozen dead soldiers, as if taking a restorative rest after their fatal labor. These images have the impact of defiant art: Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. Griffith may have been a racist politically, but his refusal to find uplift in the South’s war against the Union — and, implicitly, in any war at all — reveals him as a cinematic humanist.

Stung by attacks on Birth, Griffith made an even more ambitious film, Intolerance. Cutting among four stories in four periods of world history, from Babylonian times to the present, Intolerance made a plea for universal brotherhood (not specifically including Americans of color). In 1919 he directed Broken Blossoms, an early interracial love story (but involving a man who was Chinese, not black). But he never could erase the stain that Birth left on the body politic. By the time talking pictures replaced the silents in 1930, Griffith the innovator was Griffith the anachronism. As Agee wrote:

“Charlie Chaplin said, ‘The whole industry owes its existence to him.’ Yet of late years he could not find a job in the town he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, eaglebeaked man, sardonic and alone. At parties, he sat drinking quietly, his sharp eyes panning the room for a glimpse of familiar faces, most of them long gone. David Wark Griffith had been The Master, and there was nobody quite like him afterwards.”

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