Not all Young Adult Fiction adaptations are created equal.
Riding the Twilight wave has its advantages and disadvantages, the keystone of the Young Adult fiction genre working as a hook for enthusiastic readers, and a warning sign for those who caught the early exploits of Bella and Edward. Beautiful Creatures owes its cinematic existence to the uber-successful series, but the connective tissue ends there. Based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the movie is ripe with energy, drawing from its preserved, Southern gothic setting of South Carolina, two vivacious young romantics, and an ensemble of seasoned vets who chew up their scenes with twang. Beautiful Creatures doesn't wallow in relationships, it sparks them with frank sexuality and a dash of biting commentary. So long, Twilight.
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Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro) stars as Ethan, an ambitious resident of Gatlin, SC who dreams big and has a particular penchant for plowing through the town's banned book list (yes, even in modern times, there are people who don't see To Kill a Mockingbird as reading fit for teenagers). Waking him up from the doldrums of suburban life is new student Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert of Ginger & Rosa), niece of the towns' notorious Ravenwood family, who becomes the target of public shaming. Beautiful Creatures does not skirt around the strong Christian influence of Southern culture and, as someone the kids believe is a Devil worshipper, Lena is an instant outcast under violent, verbal attack. Quite literally, kids pray in the class room to protect themselves from Lena's bad vibes. If Ethan didn't find the girl attractive in her own right, her position at the bottom of the social ladder fuels his infatuation.
Because today's young romances demand a supernatural element, Lena eventually reveals to her courter that she's a "caster," the nice word for witch in the world of Beautiful Creatures. When Lena turns 16, she'll be subject to "The Claiming," a decision (made by the moon?) that will force her to either the light, nice and peachy side, or the dark, wicked and bloodthirsty side of casting. It's a countdown for Ethan, who realizes he has little time to connect with and possibly save his newfound love. Believing she has the ability to choose her fate, patriarch Macon Ravenwood guides Lena in the ways of the light — while disapproving of her relationship with Ethan.
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The magic logic is as ridiculous and overly complex as it sounds, but Beautiful Creatures writer/director Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S I Love You) never loses track of his characters and their interesting quirks. Jeremy Irons is a master spinster of exposition — if his Macon is laying down a mythology-building speech or rattling off the "rules of the Ravenwood family curse," it all sounds like Shakespeare. Emma Thompson does double duty in this department, playing the disturbingly conservative Mrs. Lincoln with recognizable, motherly terror, and her alter ego, a version of Lincoln possessed by a banished witch looking for revenge on Lena. Thompson spars with Macon and cackles in all her thick Southern accent glory, jumping between personas without a misstep. It's glorious.
LaGravenese makes two inspired discoveries with Ehrenreich and Englert, who set the bar for performances in the genre. Ehrenreich is charming and warm, acting like an actual human being in the midst of a fantasy. He makes adorably awful small talk to woo Lena, he worries about her when she destroys the windows of a classroom with her mind, he becomes vicious when the Ravenwoods attempts to interfere with their relationship — all natural. Englert is like a young Kathleen Turner, her husky voice and sharp wit turning Alice into an unusually strong female lead. The young caster is vulnerable as her relationship blossoms, but fully capable of turning a family dinner into a merry-go-round from hell. The two are electric on screen, even at their campiest moments. Yes, they're destined lovers, descendants of a couple murdered during the Civil War, but even without the back story, Alice and Alden have a sweet, scary, and fiery romance.
At nearly two hours, Beautiful Creatures could stand to lose a few plot threads — Emmy Rossum arrives halfway through as Lena's Siren cousin, a painful attempt by the actress to steal the spotlight with exaggeration — but stands as proof that tween source material can be done right. As it does with the cast, the film is enhanced by its moody visuals and engaging soundtrack by alternative rock band Thenewno2, all setting the tone for Alden and Alice's fateful entanglement. The movie shows no fear depicting teens in love or the ramifications of America's belief system — touchy subjects that feel daring in a Hollywood production. That's the movie's real magic.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
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In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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During World War I there was at least one night devoid of bitter fighting and rampant bloodshed: Christmas Eve 1914. On that night British French and German soldiers on the frontline cease fire. Most instrumental in the brief peace offering is Sprink (Benno Furmann) a renowned tenor who’s ordered to report as a private in the war. When his singing partner and lover a soprano named Anna (Diane Kruger) arranges for the two of them to sing together before a private and esteemed audience Sprink is reluctant to be away from his comrades and fulfilling his responsibilities. So he and Anna attempt to lift the spirits if only for a night of the German soldiers in the trenches by performing for them. But their enemies can’t help but hear the voices and the two risk gunfire by moving to a more central location for all soldiers to hear. Unthinkable magic ensues: weapons are dropped. But then morning comes. Much like the global scope of World War I the Joyeux Noel (“Merry Christmas”) cast spans several nations--all European in this particular case. In Germany’s corner are Furmann and Kruger (Troy National Treasure). Furmann’s performance is more compelling than Kruger’s but both suffer the untenable fates of lip-synching opera music; it is arrestingly atrocious but such scenes are truly a case of “Damned if you do damned if you don’t” include them. For the French there’s Guillaume Canet who gives a strong performance as a lieutenant who’s deeply troubled internally as he awaits word on his pregnant wife’s well being. And Brits Steven Robertson and Robin Laing who play young brothers eager to join the war both conjure up convincingly the calamitous nature of war in general as does Gary Lewis who plays their local priest. Writer-director Christian Carion apparently takes his World War I movies with a side of sugar. Which will undoubtedly please some viewers weary of watching the rough stuff on the History Channel while others might be put off by the sweet taste left in their mouths. Not that there isn’t the “war is hell” intimation here--in fact it could be argued that it is underscored even more by Carion’s decision to interrupt battle scenes for song--but when all the sides mingle during the cease fire the tone seems to go awry. Soccer games and pen pals amongst sworn enemies suggest Carion’s sentimentality fraternized too and a “What’s wrong with this picture?” vibe emerges. That’s the only real hitch for the film but it is a resounding one. Otherwise Joyeux Noel is shot beautifully and stories intertwine seamlessly. And Carion is further praiseworthy for setting out to explore a different side of the War even if it’s more sappy than divisive.