Friday, February 15, 2013

Beautiful Creatures (2013) - Movie Review

I'm already tired this year of using "Twilight" as a blanket comparison to any teen romance, but I'm gonna do it again...

Beautiful Creatures is naturally going to draw those comparisons, as it has familiar elements, a teen romance, supernatural elements, but that's about where it ends.  For one, when dealing with magic, you have a mythology that has a little more room for leeway, so you automatically don't have the irritation of sparkly vampires. Second, you cast two young actors that have way more chemistry and acting chops. Third, you round out your cast with Oscar-caliber actors.

I'll admit that I really wasn't looking forward Beautiful Creatures.  The trailer looked terrible, and appeared to be yet another Twilight clone with bad southern accents. Much like Warm Bodies, it quickly won me over.  When Beautiful Creatures starts though, I'm still on the defensive because the narration from Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), is delivered with a pretty over-the-top accent.  Once you realize that he's actually an intelligent kid, it's easier to get past that.  He lives in the very small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, and longs for the day he can get out.  It's the kind of small town that still bans (maybe even burns) books, where he's an avid reader, so he doesn't feel like he fits in.  Ethan explains that he's had this recurring dream about a girl, but doesn't understand the meaning or why he keeps having it.  The school year starts and Ethan is intrigued by the new girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), and believes she may be the girl from those dreams.  Lena's from a notorious family that most people in town believe are Satanists, so she's rejected by her new classmates.  There's a lot of bible thumping and veiled slams on southern or Christian values, but I didn't think that was too over the top.  I tend to have a blind spot regarding political or religious undertones in movies, so I didn't focus on that much, but it's definitely there.

Ethan and Lena start hanging out and their love slowly blossoms.  However, Lena reveals that she's actually a witch (they prefer the term 'Caster') and that on her 16th birthday she's either going to be claimed for the Light or Dark.  Lena's concerned that she's going to be taken for the Dark (it runs in her family), so she tries to keep Ethan at a distance.  She's actually forbidden by her family to have a love, especially with a normal guy, but Ethan won't let up, and doesn't believe she's capable of being Dark.

Then the movie takes a turn for the awesome when Jeremy Irons shows up as Macon, Lena's uncle.  I hear the name Macon and can't stop thinking about bacon.  Mmmmm...bacon.  Sorry.  Irons has a pretty awesome opening scene, and generally classes the place up.  Just about any time Jeremy Irons appears he raises the level of the film and his scenes are some of the highlights.  One of the better qualities to Beautiful Creatures is that the adult characters actually have things to do, and are more than just parents there to warn their kids about danger.  Emma Thompson also really excels in her role as Mrs. Lincoln. There's more to her character than meets the eye and when this is revealed, Thompson is a blast to watch.  The same can be said for Viola Davis as Amma, who's a comforting presence when on screen.

When I looked at the cast, I thought of a basketball team where you have two rookies as your starting point guard and shooting guard, but then you have a team of experienced all-stars as your center (Irons), power forward (Thompson) and small forward (Davis).  If everyone knows their role and plays their part right, then you've got a really great team.

The movie works because you do like Ethan and Lena and they feel like normal kids.  That's to the credit of Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert.  Their performances are why this feels like the anti-Twilight, as they can act circles around Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.  Englert starts out a little cold, but she warms up as the movie goes on and shows just enough personality for you to understand why Ethan is still pursing Lena so hard.  There were a few times where Alice's native New Zealand/Australian accent would creep in over her southern accent from time to time, but that's forgivable.  Ehrenreich really impressed me though.  While his southern accent was a little too jokey at first, he reigned it in a bit and he shows a lot of charm in his performance.  There's great chemistry between the two, and it's helped by the natural and sometimes clever dialog.

Another thing I liked about Beautiful Creatures is that it does pretty decent job with explaining it's own mythology.  It get's a little convoluted towards the end, but I never found myself lost, confused, or questioning it.  It helps that much of the exposition is taken care of by the veteran actors, and Ethan's character stands in for the audience in many of these scenes.

The effects weren't that bad either.  I don't know what the production budget was, but I'm guessing it wasn't huge.  There were few things here and there that looked a little cheap, but they did a good job for the most part.

The only real problem I had with the film is that once it gets going there's a little too much going on, and the film drags on just a tad longer than it probably should.  Emmy Rossum appears as Lena's cousin, Ridley, who's witch powers were to make her super hot and sexy, but it didn't feel like there was much for her to do otherwise.  I enjoyed her performance, so I don't want to say they should have gotten rid of her character, but I'm wondering if Ridley was more substantial in the book.

Director/writer Richard LaGravenese, adapted Beautiful Creatures from the book of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  It's interesting to note that some of the criticisms of their book (i.e. protracted climax, overall length could have been tightened up) apply to the movie as well, so I'm guessing it's a pretty faithful adaptation.  I think LaGravenese understood how to keep the dialog natural and smart between the leads, and then got out of the way of Irons and Thompson and just let them do their thing.  Overall, I thought he did a good job from someone who's previous films I haven't been crazy about.

Beautiful Creatures is a supernatural teen romance that's smarter than it lets on.  It does a good job of setting up a rich magic universe, and then populating it with fun and natural characters.  It's strengthened by good performances from the leads and an awesome supporting cast.  It caught me be surprise and I recommend checking it out.  It's worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

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