Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Review: Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures
Directed by: Richard LaGravenese.
Written by: Richard LaGravenese based on the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich (Ethan Wate), Alice Englert (Lena Duchannes), Jeremy Irons (Macon Ravenwood), Viola Davis (Amma), Emmy Rossum (Ridley Duchannes), Thomas Mann (Link), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Lincoln / Sarafine), Eileen Atkins (Gramma), Margo Martindale (Aunt Del), Zoey Deutch (Emily Asher), Tiffany Boone (Savannah Snow), Rachel Brosnahan (Genevieve Duchannes), Kyle Gallner (Larkin Ravenwood), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Mr. Lee).
Ever since Harry Potter became a huge hit, Hollywood has tried to mine other successful Young Adult novels and turn them into a profitable series. For everyone that hits – like Twilight and The Hunger Games – we seem to have one that misses – like The Golden Compass and now Beautiful Creatures. The quality of the movies themselves don’t seem to be a huge factor here – The Golden Compass is far better than any of the Twilight movies, and roughly equivalent to The Hunger Games, and even though Beautiful Creatures isn’t a very good movie, it can certainly stand alongside Twilight on the quality scale. Hollywood, it seems, isn’t very good at judging just how passionately young readers feel about the source material – hence initially you had executives who wanted to completely change the Twilight series from the novels, or why they green lit Beautiful Creatures at all, which given the box office performance of the film, no one really seemed to be demanding – and the sequel of which we will never see. While I cannot argue that’s a great loss, it is slightly disappointing – because while Beautiful Creatures itself is a merely mediocre movie, the story has potential – and when it focuses on the adult characters instead of the star crossed teen lovers, it is at times a downright riot.

The movie stars Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate who lives in a small North Carolina town, and longs to get out. While the other students in his class seem to be idiots – who think it’s a wonderful thing their church has so much influence they can ban books like To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum, Ethan fancies himself smarter than the rest – a writer in waiting – who reads Vonnegut and will move onto Bukowski. He’s just about to enter his Junior Year, and is counting down the days until he can go to college anywhere, as long it’s far, far away – his mother died years ago, and his father has pretty much locked himself in his bedroom ever since.

Into Ethan’s life enters Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) – who everyone is school takes an immediate dislike to, since she is a member of the famed Ravenwood family – who may be the richest family in town, and own half of it, but are hated because they are suspected of being Satanists, and the family leader Macon (Jeremy Irons) is too stuck up to ever venture into town. He’s Lena’s uncle, who has agreed to let her attend school, even though he doesn’t like the idea. While everyone else hates her Ethan, of course, falls for her. And because he’s so witty and charming, she falls for him too – but she has, of course, a secret that will take the movie in the direction of the supernatural.

Beautiful Creatures is not a very good movie. The screenplay was written by director Richard LaGravenese, and he cannot overcome the overwrought, melodramatic dialogue that was probably part of the novels (I’m assuming, since most Young Adult novels are filled with it). As a director, he seems to be aping Tim Burton, and although there is some wonderful art direction in the Ravenwood mansion, LaGravenese cannot match Burton for his sense of weirdness, that Burton pulls off in his sleep.

Still, the movie comes far closer to succeeding that it probably should because of the performances. Ehrenreich is a natural movie star if he’ll be ever to find the right role – he has that effortless charm that wins you over despite of yourself. Englert, far better in the recent Ginger and Rosa, is still quite good – the kind of beauty that could be an outcast only in the movies. They’re fine together, even if you never quite believe their story. The real reason to see the movie – if you must – is for the performances by the adults. Viola Davis is mostly wasted as Amma, the librarian who harbors secrets of her own – as are two other very good actresses, Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale. Perhaps all three signed up because they thought this would become a franchise and would be an easy paycheck for a few years or because future installments promised more for them to do– but as it stands, the movie doesn’t do anything with them, and with the series dead, it never will.

However, whenever Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson or Emmy Rossum are onscreen, the movie comes alive. Irons seems to have no real criteria for what movies he’ll do – he’s been in far too much crap for an actor as good as he is – but in the role of Macon, he is clearly having a blast and has some great moments – especially at a town meeting he is not wanted at – even if he too is saddled with too much explanatory dialogue. Even more fun is Emma Thompson, who shows up as the true antagonist of the movie, and rips into her role with gusto, obviously relishing the chance to play the villain for once. Do either of these British actors come close to a believable Southern accent? No – but then I don’t think they were trying to. They seem to enjoy going completely over the top in their exaggeration of their accents – and so I enjoyed them as well. Even better than both of these actors – surprisingly – is Emmy Rossum who owns the screen in her all too brief appearance as a cousin of Lena’s – able to control men even more than a woman who looks like Rossum should be able to. Build a movie around her character, and you got yourself a movie.

But they didn’t build a movie around her – they built it around an overwrought, melodramatic teen romance that somehow ends up bringing the Civil War into the proceedings. Far too much of the movie is spent telling the story, which isn’t all that interesting, and far too little is spent on the characters you actually want see onscreen. I don’t think Beautiful Creatures is a very good movie, but it did have potential. Perhaps a TV series would have worked better than a movie because this is the type of story you want to dig deeper into – where you want to background to come to foreground.

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