Thursday, February 14, 2013

Looks Aren’t Everything: “Beautiful Creatures”

Movie Review by Jack Silbert
First of all, they’re not witches, they’re Casters. And not those roll-y things on the bottom of ottomans, either. In case you didn’t read the 563-page (!) book that Beautiful Creatures was based on, let me give you the basics. We’re in a small Southern town in which having supernatural abilities is considered almost as bad as being a Democrat or gay. Young Ethan, his head filled with crazy ideas from all those banned books he loves, dreams of getting out. (It’s a town full of losers, and baby he was born to run.)

Eileen Atkins as Gramma, Alice
Englert as Lena 
Duchannes and 
Jeremy Irons as Macon Ravenwood. 
Enter Lena, mysterious new girl in town, she of the black hair and Addams Family complexion. You guessed it, she’s a Caster, and we’re counting down to her 16th birthday. No, not for her learner’s permit, silly; this is the age when Casters have their Claiming ceremony, to decide if they’ll go in a more Glinda direction or due west to Wickedville. Lena is all set to learn her fate when—what, you guessed this too?—she falls in love with human Ethan, which muggles everything up.

It adds up to an enjoyable-enough film that you don’t have to be too concerned about your tweens and teens going to see. Which they’re likely going to do if they’ve been reading the top-selling series.

And I very much liked the important role that reading played in this movie. Ethan’s bookworm ways may inspire teen viewers to pick up Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (They may have to do this in their spare time, if the Common Core State Standards squeeze fiction out of the curriculum. But that’s another discussion for another time.)

Left to right: Thomas Mass as Link,
Alice Englert, and Alden
Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate. 
As our narrator Ethan, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is terrific. The young actor reportedly was discovered by Steven Spielberg at a bat mitzvah. (Huh, the only thing I ever got from the bar and bat mitzvahs I attended was a cellophane-wrapped commemorative mug.) Physically, Ehrenreich blends the devilish spark of Vince Vaughn with the innocent charm of Colin Hanks. And he does a solid job with a Southern accent.

Alice Englert, as Lena the Caster, gives a nice restrained performance in a role that easily could’ve gone way over the top. Perhaps she learned subtlety from her mom Jane Campion, director of The Piano. And OK, if you’re pressing me for a celebrity resemblance, Alice recalls a young Trini Alvarado.

Emmy Rossum as Ridley Duchannes
with Alden Ehrenreich.
You parents who end up at the multiplex with your kids for this will enjoy seeing Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson having a lot of fun in Beautiful Creatures. Irons is the slightly foppish mysterious Southern gentleman (“I do declare!”) feared by the small-minded townfolk. Their concerns are reasonable enough, as he is indeed a Caster—but one of the good kind. Thompson has a dual role, as the straitlaced ultra-conservative community leader who somehow gets possessed by Irons’ bad-girl sister.

Viola Davis also has sort of a dual role, which I doubt will earn her a third Oscar nomination. In compressing the massive book into a two-hour movie, the two characters Amma the housekeeper and Marian the librarian have been merged into one. And I was wondering why the library lady was spending so much time in Ethan’s house!

I actually wish that director/screenwriter Richard LaGravenese had compressed things a bit more, maybe down to a 90-minute movie (instead of two hours). As the magic elements ramp up and more and more characters show up, things got a bit convoluted for my tastes and seemed to drag. Yet, I imagine a dedicated series reader will follow the plot just fine.

Alden Ehrenreich and
Alice Englert.
Despite the supernatural trappings, the teen romance is what really resonates here: Awkward Ethan falling for a girl from the wrong side of the Judeo-Christian Framework of Good and Evil while but-you-just-don’t-understand adults try to keep them apart. And fear not, things don’t get too hot and heavy. This is rated PG-13 but is on the soft side of that classification. Emmy Rossum, as Lena’s evil cousin who arrives in a red convertible and drives all the boys crazy, is the most sexualized person here. And even she’s fairly tame. Emmy Rossum, you’re no Emma Stone.

There’s humor mixed in too; some works, some doesn’t (including a very random potshot at Nancy Reagan, and an extended sequence that feels like an outtake from Beetlejuice).

The film rebounds for a solid ending and, assuming the box office is strong enough, sets us up for sequels based on books two, three, and four. And just when you were happy to be rid of Twilight!

All photos by John Bramley ©Warner Bros. Not for reuse.

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