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At The Picture Show
February 2013

Beautiful Creatures

Is she a good witch, or a bad witch?

'Beautiful Creatures' is a cut above its teen romance predecessors, but it can't escape its own jumbled mythology

Beautiful Creatures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Thomas Mann and Emmy Rossum
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 4 minutes
Opened February 15, 2013
(out of four)

And so it begins.

The ultimate manifestation of the Twilight franchise's legacy arrives in full force in 2013, in the form of all the supernatural teen romances it has engendered. As always, the film industry reacted to a pop-culture phenomenon by attempting to recreate its success* with a nearly identical formula (seemingly neglecting to take into account all the other mitigating factors that made the phenomenon in question popular in the first place).

*It's no coincidence that two such YA follow-ups, February's Warm Bodies and 2011's I Am Number Four, cast Kristen Stewart lookalike Teresa Palmer.

Now that the aforementioned series has come to an end, Hollywood will cross its fingers and hope one of its attempted rip-offs pays off. Here we have one of the first official successors in Beautiful Creatures, and it certainly won't be the last. Next month, The Host (another Stephenie Meyer adaptation) hits theatres, and later this summer we get The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

But first things first. Beautiful Creatures, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (the first in the Casper Chronicles series) and adapted by Richard LaGravenese, actually isn't half-bad. At least for the first hour or so. The film takes the radical approach of giving its romantic leads some degree of personality and charm, as opposed to the Twilight method of making the leading man a mopey, insufferable man-child and the leading lady an irritating, narcissistic emotional basketcase.

True, these characters are limited by their mechanical functionality to the plot (lovesick teens driven apart by forces beyond their control!), and yes, they may not be as edgy as the filmmakers insist they are. But still, it's a step in the right direction.

Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich, who earned the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro a few years back) is a discontented high-school junior living in the small, backward town of Gatlin, South Carolina. He's brighter and more broad-minded than most everyone else in town, and he longs to leave his hometown behind for good the first chance he gets. We know he's too hip for Gatlin because he reads Bukowski, Burroughs and Kerouac, references that Beautiful Creatures wears like a hipster affectation instead of genuinely embracing the transgressive attitude and politics of the Beat Generation.

As summer ends and a new school year begins, along comes the mysterious Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), an immediate outcast and subject of scorn, rumor and innuendo. Living with her hermetic and equally enigmatic uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), Lena is rumored to be a witch. It's said that coincidence and mysterious tragedy follow her everywhere she goes. It's said that she comes from a family of devil worshipers.

As it turns out, those rumors aren't entirely unjustified. Lena comes from a family of "casters" - the term they prefer over witches - and she's mere months away from her 16th birthday, at which point her true nature will be revealed and she will be chosen either for the light or the dark. Her sexy cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) was chosen for the dark years earlier, and she and Lena's mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson) - supposedly the most powerful caster around - seem reasonably confident that Lena will follow suit.

Macon is not so sure, though he worries about it constantly. Worries so much, in fact, that he bars her from spending time with her new boyfriend Ethan, who for one silly reason or another is a threat to Lena's ultimate destiny. The mythology and its arbitrary interference with the romance are where the film starts to lose itself. What begins as a moody, southern Gothic character piece descends into nonsense, sacrificing much of its early character work in favor of the obligatory plot mechanics.

LaGravenese and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Big Fish, A River Runs Through It, Interview with the Vampire) establish an elegant atmosphere - the town's old buildings crawling with ivy, sheltered by an abundance of willow trees - utilizing a hazy green color palette to give the film an equally hazy, dreamlike mood, at least in its best scenes.

But they're not as successful in trying to pull off the more fantastical sequences. In fact, one of the earliest attempts to do so - a scene involving a spinning dinner table and dueling witchery - is laughably bad, like something out of a third-rate theme-park attraction. Ultimately, it's the supernatural elements that prove to be Beautiful Creatures' undoing. At its best, this is an intriguing and visually lush piece of work, buoyed early by Ehrenreich's enthusiasm and charm and Englert's strong and quiet presence, and later by the delightful scenery-chewing of Irons and Thompson. But as the wheels of the story click into motion, the movie gets buried underneath its own folklore. Still, given the standards we've become accustomed to with this subgenre, this is a certainly a big leap forward.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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