Wednesday, February 20, 2013

She Blinded Me with Magic

Even after the final installment was released this past fall, the "Twilight Effect" remains in play. What began as an attempt to follow up on the success of the Harry Potter franchise with a more romantic-based supernatural story has inspired dozens of literary and a few film clones, each one hoping to match the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, which has grossed billions worldwide. Now that the atrocious vampire/werewolf/boring-as-hell-human romance has reached its conclusion, studios are desperate to recoup some of the money that that supernatural romance genre has brought in. Unfortunately success has been directly inverse to quality. The Twilight flicks were just horrible; even fans of them won't champion their storytelling, visual effects or even acting. But despite their collective ineptitude, the series became a major financial success, while far superior titles like I am Number Four floundered to find an audience.

You might not find a more cute couple in 2013.
The same is sadly true for Beautiful Creatures, a good movie based on a popular teen fiction series that failed to make much of an impact over President's Day weekend. Based on the books by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the story tells of a normal boy named Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), who feels trapped in the tiny, ass-end-of-nowhere town of Gatlin, South Carolina. His biggest hope is to go to college far away and escape this small town, but meanwhile he still has two more years of high school to get through. As he is about to start his junior year of high school, he runs into the new girl in town, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who bears a striking resemblance to a faceless girl he has been seeing in recurring dreams. As Ethan pursues her companionship, he learns of her dark secret; she's a Caster, gifted with magical abilities but soon to undergo the "Claiming", in which her soul will be claimed either by the powers of light or dark. She's afraid of becoming a Dark Caster, and doesn't want to hurt Ethan if that comes to pass. But he refuses to give up on her, and the pair seek out a way to guarantee that she will not follow the dark path. But an evil sorceress (Emma Thompson) will stop at nothing to guarantee Lena's descent into darkness.

To beat evil curses, nothing beats checking out your local library!
There are a few reasons that Beautiful Creatures is far better than many supernatural romances. One is the excellent setting. The tiny (and fictional) town of Gatlin is precisely the kind of place you would expect nothing of value to happen. It's the place of small minds, religious zealotry and book banning, and director Richard LaGravenese (who also adapted the screenplay) manages to emulate this prohibitive environment without condemning the entire population to stereotypes or cliches. Instead the characters actually feel like real-life people, from the bible-thumping conservatives to the rebellious teens trying to expand their horizons to the small-minded folk caught up in reenacting the minor Civil War battle that took place nearby. Setting a supernatural plot in this location is borderline genius, and while the heavy southern accents can get a bit distracting at times, they also add to the film's charm.

As Inspector Gadget might exclaim: Wowsers.
And charm is Beautiful Creatures' main draw, especially when it comes to young leads Ehrenreich and Englert. Both have emerged onto the scene recently, and the pair have both supreme acting talents and excellent onscreen chemistry. Ehrenreich narrates large parts of the story, and is a natural showman in that regard, expressing both drama and humor with equal aplomb. Englert meanwhile manages to thread that line between spooky and charming with apparent ease. They alone would be worth the price of admission, but they are have the benefit of being surrounded by a bevy of talented support staff, including Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis and Emmy Rossum. Each has their own addition to make to the story, and while some characters were not as thoroughly explored as I would have liked (perhaps intended for use in sequels), there really isn't a weak member of the bunch. Unfortunately, what ARE a little weak are some illogical plot threads that result from some rushing (seriously, the whole thing was an hour and a half. You couldn't pad the story a little more?), and while the ending isn't TOO pat, the flimsy switcharoo that ultimately saves the day definitely comes off as somewhat trite.

If your girlfriend starts doing this, run.
Mediocre endings aside, I rarely had a dull moment sitting through Beautiful Creatures, a somewhat short entry into what could have been an enticing franchise had it not completely flopped. We may never know how the story would have turned out (at least on screen, the books are already available), but I definitely think that if you wasted your money on Twilight, the least you can do is give this much better movie a legitimate shot. The leads are charming, the humor and story work on multiple levels, and even the effects are far superior to almost everything else released so far this or last year. Far better than perhaps it should have been, Beautiful Creatures comes in at #4 for 2013. Enjoy it when you can get the chance.

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