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Beautiful Creatures Review

February 17, 2013 | Posted by Jeremy Wilson
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Beautiful Creatures Review  

Directed by: Richard LaGravenese
Written by: Richard LaGravenese
Based on the novel Beautiful Creatures by: Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

Ethan Wate: Alden Ehrenreich
Lena Duchannes: Alice Englert
Macon Ravenwood: Jeremy Irons
Amma: Viola Davis
Ridley Duchannes: Emmy Rossum
Larkin Ravenwood: Kyle Gallner
Link: Thomas Mann
Mrs. Lincoln / Sarafine: Emma Thompson
Aunt Del: Margo Martindale
Emmaline Duchannes (Gramma): Eileen Atkins
Emily Asher: Zoey Deutch

Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material.
Running Time: 124 minutes

“Love is a spell created by mortals to give women something they can have besides power.”

Beautiful Creatures suffers from a lack of nerve. A lack of nerve to go all the way. To go bigger, bolder…better. To use that quote above (delivered by Emma Thompson as the Evil Dark Caster Sarafine) as its guiding principle, its thesis, its shot across the Twilight bow at Stephanie Meyer. Its strengths and weaknesses are mushed together, swirling in a mix of self-serious teenage romance and campy supernatural scene-chewing. It wants to be taken as a smarter, more self-aware pop supernatural romance, especially since it knows everyone – whether they end up liking it or not – will be comparing it to a certain vampire-mortal teenage love story. And against that low bar, Beautiful Creatures is both smarter and more self-aware. However, that is still a very low bar to clear and when all is said and done, Richard LaGravenese’s film doesn’t quite reach all of its goals. In the end, its co-opting of Kerouac and Bukowski and Salinger and Lee feels hollow, as it fails to deliver anything more than a perfunctory nod to those works and artists. That’s what happens when you straddle the line between two seemingly incongruous poles, hoping to infuse the spirit of those renegade artists with the nakedly commercial whoring and puritanical morality that define something as repugnant as Twilight. You can’t have both and that’s why Beautiful Creatures lacks nerve and spine, ultimately settling for pleasant mediocrity.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to like or that the final product isn’t an improvement over its spiritual cinematic predecessor. There are undeniable links to the Twilight franchise and no doubt Warner Bros. is hoping to capitalize on the vacancy in the market left by that series’ conclusion. Instead of vampires and werewolves, Beautiful Creatures revolves around teenage boy Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) and the new girl in town Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) who happens to be a witch (they prefer the term Caster). Trapped in Gatlin, South Carolina – aka small-town Hell – our two lovebirds are self-styled members of their very own modern Beat Generation, separate and different from the conservative, fearful and prejudiced small townsfolk around them. Ethan reads Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut, all the while dreaming of the day when he can follow the road out of Gatlin and never look back. Lena reads Charles Bukowski and writes her own poetry, written on the walls of her bedroom inside the creepy Ravenwood mansion on the edge of town. There she lives with her Boo Radley-esque uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), the town recluse whose family’s wealth and history afford him a special place in the community, even if his neighbors fear him.

For months before her arrival in town, Ethan dreams of a mysterious dark-haired beauty which turns out to be Lena. It’s not love at first sight (unlike Twilight); Ethan has to work for Lena’s attention. The enigmatic Lena is obviously different from the other material and status-obsessed girls that make up Gatlin’s high school scene. They believe she and her family are devil worshipers, a label not helped when Lena’s uncontrollable power blows out the classroom’s windows. But what the rest of Gatlin fears and sees as different, Ethan sees as special. So he goes a-courtin’ as they might say. As they start to have feelings for one another, they both touch a magical locket which shows them the love story of their descendants from 150 years ago. That love story was the foundation of the Duchannes family curse, which leads all female Casters in Lena’s family without the choice of Light and Dark and seemingly causes most to go Dark. This is important since Lena only has months until her 16th birthday, when “The Claiming” will settle her fate and choose her for the Light or the Dark (Good or Evil). Lena’s mother Sarafine – in the body of the town’s extra-crazy Christian soldier Mrs. Lincoln (played by Emma Thompson) – has also arrived to make sure her baby follows her to the Dark Side. Uncle Macon does his best to dissuade his niece from falling in love with Ethan, since no Caster can love a mortal and it could lead to dire circumstances and definitely push Lena into being a Dark Caster. Or something.

Frankly, it’s all very complicated and there are many, many unspoken or unwritten rules involved that the audience just has to accept to make it all work. I watch a lot of movies and very rarely do I get confused, but Beautiful Creatures left me a little baffled as to its own world-building and rules. LaGravenese obviously wants to tone as much of the supernatural stuff down as possible, focusing more on the characters, the story’s central relationship and Lena’s familial concerns. It’s understandable why that would be his focus; even with the similar story and tone of Twilight, LaGravenese has more to work with in this franchise than Catherine Hardwicke did in the first Twilight film.

First, the leads are better actors and more likable than their Twilight counterparts, Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart. It is easy to see why people are drawn to Ethan even though he’s essentially the cultural outsider (choosing to read banned books and hang with the weird new girl). Ehrenreich is about 180 degrees from Pattinson’s Edward Cullen. Of course, it helps that the roles are reversed, with the boy being the mortal in this story. You believe him and you root for him, even if he tries a little too hard at points. Ms. Englert – the daughter of director Jane Campion – is even more interesting as the female lead. At first enigmatic, Englert never feels too cold or distant, instead instilling a Jane Austen-esque heroine into a modern-day Southern Gothic setting. Neither character nor their blossoming relationship feels forced or frustrating and you continue to root for them until the very end.

Then there is the supporting cast, which is shockingly good for this type of material. Kudos to LaGravenese for bringing this caliber of cast together around his young, unknown leads. World renowned British thespians Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Eileen Atkins join acclaimed American actresses such as Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum and Margo Martindale in a hugely talented cast that brings color and some fun camp to material that needs and wants it. Irons, Thompson and Rossum in particular obviously relish the opportunity to swing for the fences. The accents are thick and all over the place, the costumes are unbelievable (seriously, Emmy Rossum is wearing the Helena Bonham Carter-meets-Victoria’s Secret collection) and the line delivery is 100% ham. Thompson, in particular, revels in the absurdity of the character, the material and the setting as every word she utters is with a maniacal Southern drawl full of honey and venom. On the flip side, Viola Davis is unfortunately wasted, stuck in a thankless role of housekeeper/librarian/seer. When adapting the novel, LaGravenese combined the seer and librarian characters into the one portrayed by Davis, but it doesn’t play to her strengths as an actress and is not written well or concisely. In fact, it appears some of the harshest excisions from page to screen are some of the familial subplots (Amma, Macon, Ethan’s parents) which may have helped shed some light on what turns out to be a rather convoluted narrative.

While the cast, production design and self-awareness are all certainly a plus, Beautiful Creatures is far from perfect. There remains an extremely uncomfortable thematic strain which has plagued the sub-genre as a whole in the wake of Twilight’s massive success. While it is not as thematically disgusting and troubling as Stephanie Meyer’s dreck, LaGravenese’s film’s central story still revolves around whether Lena will turn out “a good girl” or “a bad girl.” Light is what her uncle aspires for her, even though he himself is a Dark Caster (yes, the men apparently get to choose whether they’re “Light” or “Dark” and it doesn’t appear binding…women, you’re screwed). Dark – shown through her monstrous mother and lingere-wearing cousin – is slutty town U.S.A., where the women are Grade-A bitchy and unrepentant in their sexual and mortal-killing (see: man-killing) ways. Lena struggles to control her emotions and too often the subtext screams “Women = Overemotional Loose Cannons.” However, all of this is painted with the broadest strokes possible; after all, this is still a studio-pushed, PG-13 piece of entertainment. Don’t want to rock the boat too much. The clothes stay on, genuine teenage issues are danced around or go unresolved, while the stifling, puritanical morality remains. You can feel LaGravenese pushing the story in different ways – maybe too many.

This is also a problem because LaGravenese never really defines what all the fuss is about. Cousin Ridley is a sassy, man-controlling slut and Mommy Dearest Sarafine is an incorporeal spirit controlling the town’s biggest religious nutjob who sort of wants Casters to rise to their proper place in the world ahead of mortals. Unfortunately, the world of Light and Dark Casters is never really given depth. If it were a clear case of Good versus Evil, then why is Macon – a Dark Caster – choosing to be Light? How can he? Is there are larger struggle between Light and Dark Casters beyond the Maconwood/Duchannes clan in Gatlin? What does the movie’s conclusion mean for Lena and what does it mean for her relationship with the mortal Ethan? Unfortunately, these are questions not meant to be addressed or answered in this film. Instead, the story unfold in standard Hollywood fashion, its irreverent and entertaining start squandered. We might get answers, or even more interesting questions, but you’ll have to wait for the sequel(s). Welcome to the modern cinematic franchise where nothing gets fully resolved and there’s always a feeling of “tune in next week.”

Unlike Twilight’s insipid high school love-at-first-sight premise, Beautiful Creatures begins with the understanding that there is more to this story than a simple high school romance, that supernatural elements are bringing these two individuals’ fates together, as it did the Civil War ancestors who started the curse. This mostly succeeds until the film’s third act, when the more standard Hollywood conventions force the story and the film to go down less interesting and more forced paths. At that point, as plot points start crashing into each other and the buildup to the film’s climax clicks into place, you can see and feel LaGravenese’s script slipping. Even in making numerous changes from book to screen, the longer it goes, the more routine and dry it becomes. What started out as a sly, winking supernatural fantasy commenting not only on the Twilight phenomenon but on small-town America, the Deep South, banned books and the relationship between youth and culture, suddenly morphs into the same sanitized endgame you hoped it wouldn’t be, yet feared it was. It’s all still ridiculous, but the fun and energy is sapped like so many films of this ilk before it. It shouldn’t surprise, yet the film’s third act stings nonetheless.

What started as some bizarrely watchable hybrid of Dark Shadows, Twilight and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof suddenly and depressingly becomes just another Twilight-esque Hollywood entertainment. Perhaps that’s a harsh assessment, but it doesn’t change the fact that even with a more interesting setting, more entertaining script and a better cast from top to bottom, Beautiful Creatures lacks bite and the nerve to truly break out of Twilight’s shadow. When the characters say “Define good” at different points in the movie, it feels like a perfectly suitable evaluation of Beautiful Creatures itself. Just because it’s better than Twilight doesn’t necessarily mean its good.

The 411: Richard LaGravenese's Beautiful Creatures follows in the supernatural teenage romance vein of Twilight but replaces the dreary, perpetually gray setting of the Pacific Northwest and turns it into an occasionally more vibrant, funny, winking and literary Southern Gothic tale. Leads Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert are likable and believable, while the supporting cast around them (Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum, Viola Davis) are hugely talented performers who are clearly relishing the campier aspects of the material. It starts out well and it is genuinely funnier, more entertaining and more believable than any Twilight film (which it will undoubtedly be compared to), but loses its way and becomes bogged down in a convoluted narrative. It also suffers some of the same thematic issues that cause many to despise Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga. Ultimately, while it tries its best to follow in the path of the Beat and post-modernist literary artists and works it so openly embraces, it can't help but fail, tethered to the naked commerical and troubling thematic similarites with Twilight that it can't shake. It wants to have its cake and eat it too, but in the end, the finished product is exactly that – a product that wants the safety and dollars of the Twihard crowd rather than the spirit and conviction of genuine art.
Final Score:  5.5   [ Not So Good ]  legend

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Jeremy Wilson

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