Skip to main content

Uncle loves Google.

Beautiful Creatures
(2013)

Another week, another failed Young Adult adaptation. This one floundered on its release about this time last year and it’s easy to see why. Possessed of the Southern flavour flaunted by True Blood, but without the libido, Beautiful Creatures is entirely mechanical in its construction of a supernatural world where teenagers both mortal and immortal (see Twilight) interact in a post-Whedon landscape of chosen ones and dark destinies. Richard La Gravenese, who made a splash early in his career with The Fisher King for Terry Gilliam, does his best on scripting and megaphone duties, but he’s unable to wring out anything very memorable.


The movie starts reasonably well though, and unlike many a YA picture, La Gravenese has managed to attract a supporting cast of colourful thesps who, when they’re occasionally granted a scene to themselves (as is more common during the first half) dispel the overpowering odour of the rather insipid love story. That’s not to diminish the leads. Both Aldren Ehrenreich (as mortal Ethan) and Alice Englert (as nearly-come-of-age caster – read witch – Lena) are much more skilled and vital than most of their corresponding YA protagonists.


The scenario is all-too familiar; boy wants to leave small town, meets strange and mysterious girl, they fall for each other but their love is forbidden and dangerous. As such, the mystery of the set up of is much more engaging before we’ve found out who is who and what is what. The intimations of possible past incarnations during the American Civil War is an intriguing one, but unfortunately is revealed to be (relatively) mundane. Indeed, the whole back-story of the Macons’ (Lean’s family) ownership of the town of Gatlin is under-explored. And, when the entire family are introduced, it’s something akin to The Addams Family meets Twilight. But not nearly as twisted as that sounds.


So thank heavens for Jeremy Irons, digging into a southern drawl as if there’s a serious ham shortage looming. As Lena’s Uncle Macon Ravenwood he gets all the best lines, dripping with sardonic superiority (“A voice of reason in a town of buttermilk minds” Macon says of Ethan’s mother). When he bewitches Ethan into reeling off a particularly depressing future life map, which ends with “And when I’m 64 I’ll hang myself”, Macon congratulates him; “You’ve got it all planned out. Good for you”. Indeed, early scenes such as this briefly fooled me into thinking Beautiful Creatures might be a genuinely sharp and witty tale throughout. Ehrenreich deftly shows off his comedic skills during a fractious dinner invitation to the Ravenwood residence; alas it descends into subpar CGI, but there’s a some vibrancy and fun there for a while. 


I had hopes for Emma Thompson’s dual duties as Bible-bashing Mavis and fearsome sister of Macon Sarafine (there’s a curse on the females in the family such that they turn to the dark side, you see), but La Gravenese doesn’t offer her nearly enough naughtiness (there was surely plenty of potential for Witches of Eastwick-esque antics with a pillar of the community possessed by infernal forces).


I should also single out Emmy Rossum, who not only looks delicious as Lena’s black-hearted cousin and former best chum Ridley but enters the scene with the energy and confidence that suggests she will steal the picture from the leads and her elder supporting co-stars. Unfortunately that’s not to be, as Ridley has to make room for Sarafine and is all but forgotten. I haven’t been watching the US version of Shameless, so I can’t speak for her performance there, but if nothing else Beautiful Creatures ought to be an effective calling card for bigger and better feature roles.


The Christianity versus the old religion subplot is so overused these days it’s not funny; I think we’re all aware by now how the ones purportedly teaching forgiveness are really the intolerant ones and those practicing the black arts are just misunderstood. That’s the chief problem here; co-authors (of the novel) Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl seem to have taken the teen fiction writers’ guide (mean kids at school, just the one who really understands the misfit, abundant obstacles to true love winning through), grafted on the South Carolina setting, and ensured every hoary old cliché of both is present and correct. 


There are tiresomely obvious speeches about how immortals admire humans for never giving up (this is the Spock/Gandalf school of bigging up the little people) and teenage admonishments of how everyone has to deal with shit; the special are nothing special in that regard. Viola Davis, possibly intended to take on the Giles role from Buffy, unfortunately ends up fulfilling just the latest in the dubious tradition of “Magical Negro” supporting characters. Such predictability doesn’t appear to have affected the series’ sales (four have been published so far), but it seems cinema audiences are less forgiving.


The biggest problem with Beautiful Creatures is that the middle section gets irretrievably bogged down in Lena’s search for a spell to break her curse. Which entails moping about a library (a nicely rendered library, but a library nonetheless) for what seems like an eternity. Once the momentum has gone from storytelling La Gravenese can’t reignite it, and even a rather decent twist I didn’t see coming can’t make-up for the descent into tedium the picture takes.


La Gravenese, aided by frequent Tim Burton cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, ensures the picture at least looks lush (the effects budget frequently can’t match the ambition, however), and the design is effective; the Ravenwood mansion evidently had a fair bit spent on it (nice stairs). As writer, he also sprinkles on an array of literary and pop culture references; not as fastidiously as Whedon is wont to, but I liked the addition of the “e” in Finale Destination 6.


Of course, everyone involved was hopefully this would be the next big thing so the picture ends with an eye towards the next instalment. I guess at one mighty argue that, however horrible Twilight mostly was, it did pull some genuine weirdness in its last episode(s). I doubt that anything unpredictable was in store for Beautiful Creatures. I keep wanting to call it Heavenly Creatures, which makes for highly unflattering comparisons. Full marks for imaginative casting then, but La Gravenese needed to throw half the novel out of the window if the was going to make it work on screen.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).