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Beautiful Creatures (2013)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Satanic Rites Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood"
2 stars

Now that the "Twilight" saga his run its cinematic course--at least until the inevitable reboot--Hollywood has been searching for a new property combining the supernatural with gooney teenage romance with the potential to be spun off into a new billion-dollar franchise. Judged solely from a commercial standpoint, "Beautiful Creatures" seems to have been designed solely for just such a purpose. Not only does it offer up the familiar template of a love story involving a couple of high school outsiders complicated by one of them having unnatural powers, it even throws in bits and pieces cribbed wholesale from the even-more-lucrative "Harry Potter" series as a way of further covering the metaphorical waterfront. From a money-making perspective, offering viewers an amalgamation of two proven narratives may be a shrewd move indeed (as the success of "Warm Bodies" a couple of weeks ago demonstrated, there is a market for "Twilight" derivatives out there) but anyone other than a Warner Brothers stockholder is likely to come away from it with the weary feeling that there is nothing to it that they haven't seen before. Watching it is like eating leftover Thanksgiving turkey for three straight days in a row--even at its best, it is still little more that a reheating of overly familiar ingredients that all but the most indiscriminate gluttons will be thoroughly sick of after a while.

Based on the first book of a four-volume young adult book series by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, the film is set in Gatlin, South Carolina, a burg so behind the times that not only do recreations of Civil War battles appear to be the central form of entertainment, participation in them are a requirement (and possibly the only one) for getting a passing grade in history class. One kid who can't wait to break free of the metaphorical kudzu in order to see the world is Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a hunky rebel who, reeling from the death of his mother and the emotional collapse of his father, spends his days reading Charles Bukowski (cuz he is, as previously mentioned, a rebel) while counting down the days to graduation. Lately, Ethan has been haunted by dreams of a mysterious and beautiful young girl that all end with him dying as a result. Through these visions, he falls in love with this non-existent girl but before he can get a scholarship to Notre Dame, she turns up in his homeroom as awkward-but-quietly-beautiful Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert). Although technically the new girl in school, Lena is a known commodity to the snootier members of the populace--her family, who have long owned most of the land in town, has long been accused of supernatural dealings and rumors abound of odd occurrences at her previous schools, many of which are somewhat confirmed when a bout of teasing ends with all the windows in the classroom suddenly exploding.

Naturally, Ethan is smitten and just as naturally, Lena wants nothing to do with him but eventually they begin to bond over their shared love of "dangerous literature" (she is more partial to Vonnegut) and the fact that they are so much more attractive and photogenic than any of their classmates. Their budding romance does not settle well with Lena's uncle, Macon Ravenswood (Jeremy Irons, in what can only be described as the John Malkovich role), a rich recluse who does not want her associating with anyone from town, least of all a boy who will complicate her life with feelings of romance and whatnot. In his defense, he has a point because, as Lena eventually lets on, she is a "caster" (i.e. a witch with a good sense for branding) who will learn on her upcoming 16th birthday whether her already-extraordinary talents will be claimed for the forces of good or evil, a decision that could have lasting repercussions for all mankind or something along those lines.

While Macon tries to convince her that everything will work out fine--as long as she frees herself of this peskily all-consuming romance--the evil perspective is represented by Lena's long-vanished mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson), who has taken over the body of an overtly religious local to hide in plain sight as part of a plan to lure her to the dark side in order to take over the world. Complicating matters further is the arrival of cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who used to be sweet as can be until she turned dark and whose loyalties are constantly shifting. As Lena's date with destiny grows closer, she and Ethan try to figure out a way to change their fates and it all comes to a climax during that rarest of events--a Civil War reenactment in which something interesting actually happens.

To give "Beautiful Creatures" credit, it is evident that, unlike the approach taken by the "Twilight" series, the producers have at least invested some time, money and effort to bring it to the screen. To adapt and direct the film, they hired the estimable Richard LaGravenese, whose credits include the screenplays for such cult favorites as "The Fisher King" and "The Ref" and the lovely, little-seen 1998 effort "Living Out Loud." Instead of filling the two leads with whomever is popular with the kids these days, the roles have been cast with the relatively unknown Englert, who is the daughter of no less a figure than Jane Campion in real life and who is also featured in the intriguing upcoming film "Ginger & Rosa ," and Ehrenreich, who made an impression on the few people who saw him in the lead of Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro." Supporting them, LaGravense has not only brought in such award-winning talents as Irons and Thompson, he even throws Viola Davis into the mix for good measure. The behind-the-scenes crew is just as impressive--acclaimed cinematographer Philippe Rousselet gives the proceedings a stylish visual sheen and clearly no expense has been spared in the visual effects department. The film even dares to court controversy by using its story to critique the kind of self-righteous Bible-thumping that uses religion as a means justify ones prejudices against things they neither like nor understand.

And yet, despite having brought all of this into the picture, "Beautiful Creatures" still never quite manages to click. While I have not read the original source material (which I have not read and which I understand has been changed quite a bit in its journey from the page to the screen), I have seen more than my share of would-be fantasy film franchise kickoffs over the last few years and if this film is nothing else, it is certainly one of them and then some. And yet, even though there is precious little that will come as a surprise to anyone watching it, it seems as if half of the running time consists of the characters explaining its increasingly tortured mythology to each other--the other half finds them ducking and dodging the numerous visual pyrotechnics. The two young leads are attractive enough and place off of each other nicely enough but they are playing a couple of bores whose tribulations fail to generate much in the way of interest. As for the more high-profile actors, Davis and Rossum are largely wasted in meaningless roles while Thompson and Irons chew the scenery shamelessly--based on Irons' work here, it would seem that he was turned down for the lead in that upcoming Liberace biopic and decided that the work he had already put into the role would not go to wast--without ever seeming to derive any discernible amount of fun from their efforts. LaGravenese keeps things moving along in a professional enough manner for a while but it eventually grows a bit listless and flabby as though even he had run out of patience with what he was given to work with and just threw in the towel. And while it is a relatively minor concern, the film's desperate attempt to cultivate a sense of outsider status merely by name-dropping the likes of Bukowski, Vonnegut and Salinger grows increasingly ridiculous after a while. Frankly, the very notion that nonsense like this could have anything in common with the works of an authentic rebel and rabble-rouser like Charles Bukowski is enough to drive a man to drink.

As adaptations of young adult fantasy novels of late go, "Beautiful Creatures" is certainly better and more ambitious than the "Twilight" series entire. On the other hand, it doesn't begin to hold a candle to even the weakest of the Harry Potter films or even last year's surprisingly effective screen version of "The Hunger Games." While it may play decently enough for overly dramatic 14-year-old girls in need of constant validation of the idea that the dreamy boy in class will recognize just how special and unique they truly are (and even they may have to force themselves to overlook some of the more glaring narrative flaws), anyone finding themselves standing outside of that particular marketing demographic are going to find it seriously wanting. And yet, even though I cannot recommend it at all, there is a part of me that is happy to see it playing in theaters. After all, now that it has been released, that means that I never have to see the damned omnipresent trailer, which has played before roughly every movie I have paid to see in the last five months, again as long as I live. You think I am kidding but I am giving it an extra half-star just for that alone.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23472&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/13/13 19:03:01
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User Comments

2/17/13 PAUL SHORTT PLODDING, PREPOSTEROUS MESS 2 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  14-Feb-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 21-May-2013

UK
  N/A

Australia
  14-Feb-2013
  DVD: 07-May-2013




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