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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Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
It wasn't exactly like the nosy newspaper said it was going to be, but as expected, "American Beauty" was the big winner, nabbing a field-best five Oscars, including Best Picture, at tonight's 72nd Annual Academy Awards.
"Beauty" star Kevin Spacey was named Best Actor. The relatively no-name Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") bested Spacey's big-name co-star Annette Bening in the Best Actress race. The Wall Street Journal may have spoiled some of the surprises (including the Swank victory) with its controversial scoop-the-Oscars story Friday, but nobody here seemed to care.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was looking at the night's scorecard and realizing that, after "American Beauty" (which also claimed wins for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Original Screenplay), the other big film was "The Matrix," which swept the four technical categories in which it was nominated.
Here's an annotated recap of the night's winners at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium:
BEST PICTURE: "American Beauty."
Kevin Spacey BEST ACTOR: Kevin Spacey, "American Beauty." Heavy favorite or no, Spacey says he's "stunned" and goes on to inexplicably thank, um, Jack Lemmon. Backstage, when the "American Beauty" winners converge with the adoring press, Spacey explains that he first met Lemmon when he was 13 (Spacey, not Lemmon) and considers him a mentor. Lemmon's turn as a corporate schmuck in "The Apartment" (1960), in fact, was the inspiration for Spacey's Oscar-winning performance. "He really was a model for Lester Burnham. Without his performance in 'The Apartment,' it never would have been possible for me," Spacey says. The press here are adept at posing some odd questions, and when a scribe asks Spacey if he was "surprised" that he got so emotional onstage (and thus stammered through his acceptance), the actor retorts: "Actually, I was experiencing an aneurysm."
BEST ACTRESS: Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry." "We have come a long way," says the star, formerly of "The Next Karate Kid." And, for those wondering what husband Chad Lowe said in Hilary's ear before she accepted her award, it was: "Breathe and be free." He should have said, "Don't forget to thank me when you're up there," 'cause once she took the stage, he started bawling (aw!) and she started talking about not him.
Hilary Swank Backstage, Swank fixes the boo-boo with a "Thank you, honey, you're my everything," and explains that the faux pax occurred because "it's very surreal up there." Meanwhile, Swank proves the hippest and most chatty Oscar winner paraded in front of reporters. She waxes about living in a car with her mom ("My mom has been the biggest believer in me. … We picked up from Washington state, we got in our Oldsmobile with $75 to our name, and we drove down to Los Angeles" and lived on air mattresses until Swank got a job on "Growing Pains").
Michael Caine BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Michael Caine, "The Cider House Rules." On stage, a hyperventilating Caine reels off a the-other-guys-were-really-wonderful-too speech. By the time he finishes, it's Friday. When Caine finally comes backstage, we raise our number in the air (that's the way it works back here if you want to ask a star a question -- getting called on is kind of like winning a raffle), but, no, we don't get called on. We actually had two questions we wanted to ask Caine -- one was about all the abortion protesters lining Jefferson Boulevard outside the Shrine tonight (he plays an abortion doctor in "Cider House'), the other one was, "Hey, Michael, what was the best part about making 'Jaws: The Revenge?'"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Angelina Jolie, "Girl, Interrupted." Angelina Jolie Onstage, Jolie (looking like Wednesday from "The Addams Family") thanks her brother (a lot). Backstage, the 24-year-old-star offspring of Jon Voight (a winner himself for 1978's "Coming Home") gets used to the feel of Oscar. "My dad's mother had his [trophy] in a goldfish bowl, on the mantelpiece," Jolie says. "I never held it. You know, you grow up with it, and you kind of think it's just this strange thing in grandma's house." As for the brother thing -- the guy's name is James Haven Voight and, according to Jolie, "he and I were each other's everything."
BEST DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes, "American Beauty."
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Alan Ball, "American Beauty." Ball used to write for "Cybill." He doesn't write for "Cybill" anymore. Instead, he uses his mike time at the Shrine to thank plastic bags that float in the wind and, you know, inspire him.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: John Irving, "The Cider House Rules." After author Irving thanks Miramax on stage for having the guts to make a film about the "abortion issue" and praises Planned Parenthood for getting behind the film, Irving ducks out -- he's the only high-profile Oscar winner to avoid meeting the press backstage.
IRVING G. THALBERG MEMORIAL AWARD: Warren Beatty. In a rambling to-all-the-girls-I've-loved-before speech, Beatty pays tribute to wife Annette Bening: "She is my treasure." Reflecting on his award in the press boom afterward, Beatty talks a lot of cybertalk about the "broadband revolution" and delivers some of that great stammering that he's known and loved for. Asked whether he's dismayed that Bening didn't get the Best Actress nod, the almost-presidential candidate star says: "I'm disappointed, but Annette did win. She's, it, it's, this thing about, I mean, who could possibly say that Annette is anything other than a winner? So, uh, it's one, one, and, and I think that Hilary gave a terrific performance in a wonderful movie, you know. I don't think it's the greatest idea in the world to think of these things as competitive."
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 1: Jack Nicholson introduces a filmed tribute on the subject of Warren "Mad Dog" Beatty. In a fit of good taste, the package features just one testimonial from a Beatty ex-girlfriend (Julie Christie).
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 2: Edward Norton pulls duty on introducing the perfunctory people-who-died-last-year clips. Madeline Kahn and George C. Scott win on the applause-o-meter. Proving timing is everything, Hedy Lamarr, who passed away in January about 50 years after she was really famous, draws only minor hand-clappage. And, hey, what about Bones McCoy? Didn't DeForest Kelley, who played the good "Star Trek" doctor die in 1999, too? Respondeth Academy spokesman John Pavlik when asked about the omission: "Who?"
BEST SONG: "You'll Be in My Heart" (from "Tarzan"), Phil Collins. Backstage, as Mr. "Sussudio" drones on about how the critics never like his music and so forth, most of the disinterested reporters watch Michael Caine on the TV monitors. To add insult to insult, one writer prefaces his question to Collins with a "Congratulations, guy."
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 3: Best Song presenter Cher is attacked by her dress. She declines to press charges.
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 4: "South Park" warbler Robin Williams sings "fart" and "bitch" on national television. In other news, the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 5: Horshack from "Welcome Back Kotter" sings the Oscar-nominated "Music of My Heart" with Gloria Estefan. Er, make that 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake sings "Music of My Heart" with Gloria Estefan.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: "The Red Violin." We do not think Keanu Reeves was forced at gunpoint to present this category. We just think it sounded that way.
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 6: The Oscar producers may have eliminated The Pointless Dance Number, but they've come up with a new one: The Pointless Song Medley. Time to go to refrigerator. Unless you're into hearing Queen Latifah "sing" "The Way We Were." Others on hand: Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks, apparently after taking a wrong turn at the Coun ry Music Association Awards.
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Conrad L. Hall, "American Beauty." This is Hall's second win. He won his first Oscar a hundred years ago (well, back in 1970 for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid").
BEST ART DIRECTION: "Sleepy Hollow."
BEST MAKEUP: "Topsy-Turvy."
BEST EDITING: "The Matrix."
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: "The Matrix." Presenter Arnold Schwarzenegger's hair color, while a fine visual effect in itself, apparently did not qualify.
BEST SOUND-EFFECTS EDITING: "The Matrix" (again). Somewhere, George Lucas broods.
BEST SOUND: "The Matrix." A few minutes after this category is announced, an Academy staffer asks the backstage media if anyone is interested in meeting "The Matrix" sound-geek guys, no hands are raised; ditto for the "Topsy-Turvy" folks who took the Oscar for Best Makeup. Know this: The Oscar press cares about stars, not necessarily winners.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN: "Topsy-Turvy." Backstage, winner Lindy Hemming isn't totally ignored, but the best question a reporter can muster is, "What do you think of all the outfits the stars are wearing?"
HONORARY OSCAR: Andrzej Wajda Jane Fonda -- sans Ted Turner or a cause -- does the presenting honors on this one. Without incident, she introduces Polish filmmaker Wajda who surprises no one by speaking in, yes, Polish.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: "All About My Mother" (Spain). "PEEEEDROOO" Almodovar (in the vernacular of presenter Penelope Cruz) accepts the Oscar. When the Director Who Made Antonio Banderas a Star comes backstage, he's greeted by rousing applause, much of which comes from the substantial Latin media corps. In addition to picking up the Oscar, Almodovar gets points back here for his wild hair, cool all-black tuxedo and (natch) cool name.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: "One Day in September." This is first (and only) upset of the night. The heavy, heavy favorite was "Buena Vista Social Club" (aka the only doc civilians have heard of).
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: "King Gimp." Was this an upset? Heck if we know.
BEST ANIMATED SHORT: "The Old Man and the Sea."
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York." No, we've never heard of it, either.
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 7: In his opening, host Billy Crystal acknowledges Willie Fulgear, the man who found Oscar, ending a week's worth of media oversaturation.
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 8: Hackneyed or tradition? Doesn't matter. Billy Crystal's going to do it, anyway -- his opening song salute to the Best Picture nominees. This year, "The Green Mile" gets set to the tune of "Green Acres," "The Sixth Sense," to "People," "The Insider" to "The Minute Waltz," "The Cider House Rules" to "Mame," "American Beauty" to "The Lady Is a Tramp."
TELECAST ASIDE NO. 9: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Robert Rehme opens the show. Exciting, no? No. But it's only a front -- a way to intro host Billy Crystal's romp through cinema history, including stops in "Casablanca," "The French Connection" and "West Side Story." Fortunately, Crystal avoids a detour to "My Giant" Village.