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Film review: Formulaic ‘Beautiful Creatures’ Fills ‘Twilight’ Void

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES 2Missing those Twilight films (if you’re like my teenage daughter, you are)? Well, I’ll tell you what – let’s have a movie where the boy is the mortal, and let’s change the location to the Southeast. Oh, yeah, and let’s make the girl a witch (but we’ll call her something different like “caster” so the label isn’t so tired and predictable), not a vampire or werewolf (also tired and predictable by now). Oh wait, there is a motion picture like that now, and it’s called Beautiful Creatures! How nice that someone already thought of it.

If my words seem sarcastic, they’re not really meant that way, though we all know once Hollywood makes money off a concept they’ll repeat until they stomp all signs of life out of it. Richard LaGravenese’s adaption of the first in a series of bestselling teen novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl thankfully isn’t lifeless, largely because it keeps a sense of humor about all its nonsense and provides scenery-chewing moments for fine Oscar-winning actors like Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, but we’ve definitely been down this teenage-angst-meets-horror road before.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES 9There have certainly been some changes between the 2009 novel and this movie – the father of the protagonist doesn’t figure in the film as he does in the book, and two prominent characters in the original story are combined into one, to give two noteworthy examples. But LaGravenese, Oscar-nominated for his 1991 The Fisher King script and as writer-director for the 2007 feature version of P.S. I Love You, has fashioned a screenplay containing many elements that will be familiar to those who’ve enjoyed the Garcia and Stohl novels.

Seventeen-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, who’s in the upcoming Stoker that was filmed in Nashville) is haunted by a dream in which he’s about to meet a young woman on a Civil War battlefield until lightening (literally) strikes. Imagine his surprise when he goes to school and there she is!

At least Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who is the niece of rich-man-recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons), is someone who appreciates things others in ultraconservative Gatlin, S.C., do not (this is a town where banning “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Fountainhead” are considered prudent by residents described as “the stupid and the stuck”). Hey, they even end up sharing a love of Charles Bukowski! (I’m happy that the man once described by Time Magazine as a “laureate of American lowlife” gets a mention in this flick, but even my generation as teenagers hardly knew him though he was still alive then, so it’s really magical to have these two enjoy his work, to put it nicely.)

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES 8There are forces aligned against our two lovers, though, and not just the oh-so-bible-thumping townspeople – Uncle Macon thinks the union is bad news and so does the town’s seer/librarian Amma (Viola Davis of Doubt and The Help fame), a guiding influence on Ethan since his mother died who predicts trouble should the young couple stay together. You see, when Lena turns 16 she’s going to be claimed by either the light or the dark, and all Hell is expected to break loose when that happens. Of course, with baddies like Sarafine (Thompson, who doubles as Mrs. Lincoln, Gatlin’s answer to Phyllis Schlafly) and Lena’s cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) around, who’s to say Hell-on-Earth hasn’t already arrived?

New Orleans and other places in Louisiana were used as locations for the film, and LaGravenese (along with Academy Award-winning A River Runs Through It cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) does a good job of capturing the Southern Gothic look needed for the story. Kudos also go to production designer Richard Sherman (Gods and Monsters), particularly for the mood-altered rooms of the Ravenwood Manor, as well as costume designer Jeffrey Kurland (Bullets Over Broadway), whose chic mix of styles from various eras is quite appealing. The spooky score by the alt-rock group thenewno2 is pretty engaging, too.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES 4Ehrenreich and Englert (the daughter of The Piano director Jane Campion) have some nice chemistry together, and believably register as the awkward, will-I-find-my-own-voice teenagers they play. Irons’ character seems to have more than one Southern dialect at his disposal, but he and Thompson fully commit to some enjoyable over-the-top moments that make the film fun. Davis provides her usual doses of grounded wisdom and comfort to Amma, and Rossum makes sure her character delights in the dark side in a very delicious way.

Yes, it’s easy to say that the film version of Beautiful Creatures follows in the footsteps of the Twilight saga (with drops of True Blood, The Hunger Games and even Romeo and Juliet among others added for good measure). And while I’d be surprised if this feature is enough to launch a film franchise of its own, this formulaic flick contains enough currently-appreciated elements – and quality production values – to fill the teen-flick void for now.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES 5Beautiful Creatures (beautifulcreatures.warnerbros.com) opens in wide release nationally today (Feb. 14). For locations and show times in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material, 124 min. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins and Zoey Deutch.

 

*Photos by John Bramley courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).