Category Archives: Romance

Freaky Firsts Day 5: Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Beautiful CreaturesNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Richard LaGravenese

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone

Plot: Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager in a small South Carolina town, is plagued by dreams of a beautiful girl he’s never met. His town is crushing him – oppressive and overbearing, driving him to read banned books like To Kill a Mockingbird (this is how you know he’s edgy, kids). When he gets to the first day of school, he meets a new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) who looks mysteriously like the girl in his dreams. People in town gossip about Lena, even accusing her and her uncle Macon Ravenwood (seriously, that’s his name, and he’s played by a Jeremy Irons who chews so much scenery he probably got lockjaw) of being devil worshippers. When the crowing of her catty classmates becomes too calamitous, Lena accidentally causes the large windows in the room to shatter, convincing everyone she’s freakier than they thought.

Ethan gives Lena a lift home from school, and they grow closer, which Macon doesn’t approve of at all. Eventually, Lena confesses to Ethan the truth: she and her family are “casters” (because “witch” isn’t a politically correct term anymore), and on her 16th birthday she will be driven to embrace either the light or dark nature of her power. Because this is a movie and the plot requires it, she fears that she’ll fall to the darkness. To make matters worse, her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) shows up, aiding Lena’s long-lost mother Sarafine, who has possessed the Bible-thumping Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson, who along with Irons clearly made this movie as a lark). Sarafine wants to drive Lena to the dark and use her power to exterminate all the humans in the world.

Ethan and Lena discover their ancestors during the Civil War were in love, and when Lena’s great-great-ish grandmother used a forbidden spell to save Ethan’s great-as-sour-candy grandfather’s life, she cursed the Duchannes women in some way that isn’t entirely clear but, I believe, has something to do with their stupid southern accents. In order to undo the curse, someone Lena loves must die. To protect Ethan, she gives him a snowfall for Christmas and wipes out his memory.

During the town’s annual Christmas Civil War reenactment (who the crap knows?) Ridley arranges to Ethan to be shot by a real bullet. When he lies, dying, Ridley and Sarafine try to turn Lena to the dark, but fails when Ethan reveals himself to be a magically-disguised Macon, whose death satisfies the terms of the curse and lifts it. He dies telling Lena to “claim yourself.” She rips her mother from Mrs. Lincoln’s body and traps her, but still isn’t really sure if she’s good or bad. Six months later, Lena runs into Ethan – still with no memory of their time together, and she gives him a book to take on a college tour. As he rides away, he reads a passage that triggers his memory of her and calls her name. She hears him, and wrenches herself free of the darkness.

Thoughts: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m usually aware of what books are popular with teenagers at any given time. For a few years there, that Beautiful Creatures series was on a pace to perhaps outstrip Twilight as the pseudo-horror romance of choice. As such, I pretty much stayed away from it. When the movie came out last year, I was somewhat amused to see how violently the book’s fans seemed to react to it, saying it “ruined” their beloved novel. It just goes to show you, doesn’t matter if it’s comics, books, TV, video games… hardcore fans are all the same.

It would be easy to write off Beautiful Creatures as just one of the dozens of Twilight knock-offs out there, but based purely on the movie, there aren’t as many similarities as one would think. There’s no creepy stalker vibe, first of all – Lena is actually 16 years old and not a century past her sell-by date. There’s legitimate tension within her family. There’s no attempt to paint either Ethan or Lena as perfect, and in fact, they both take strong, decisive action at various points in the movie in an attempt to protect the other, something that Bella Swan couldn’t even imagine doing.

None of this is to say that Beautiful Creatures is a good movie, mind you, just better than Twilight. There’s still a lot about this movie that’s just plain goofy, and not really in a fun way. The nonsense about calling witches “casters,” first of all. In The Walking Dead, we’re asked to accept the conceit that this is a world where there were never any popular zombie movies, books, TV shows, etc., and that the word “zombie” does not exist, so it’s okay to call them “Walkers.” Silly as that is, at least it’s an effort. This movie has several people straight-up accusing the Ravenwood family (whose name we need not even begin to discuss in terms of pure goofiness) of being witches, but they somehow can’t quite embrace the term.

Ehrenreich and Englert, our star-crossed lovers, both put in passable performances, but never really heat up the screen together. There’s as much chemistry here as any high school production of Grease (and here I am specifically referring to the chemistry between Kenickie and the high school principal), and while you can kind of see why they’re drawn together, the script works way too hard to convince us they’re right for each other than the end result puts on display. Their mutual love for “banned books,” for example, is pretty heavy-handed… almost as heavy-handed as the scene in English class where one of their classmates says she can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s been banned by the church and that she doesn’t think she should have to be in a class with non-Christians like Lena anyway. As if that weren’t enough, she immediately starts a prayer circle, which the teacher impotently warns her she can’t do in school. Between the Christian-bashing and the mocking of the politically correct crowd, I’m not entirely sure who the movie was trying to slander, but it succeeded mostly in making the viewer wish they’d rented Hocus Pocus rather than convincing anybody of anything of substance.

The accents in this movie are so over-the-top that you want to climb into the screen, look behind the camera at the director and shout, “Okay. They’re southern. WE GET IT.” The only ones who even come close to selling it are Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, who are in fact both treasured actors and way the hell too good to be in this movie. One can only assume that each of them either has a teenage daughter that really wanted them to take the part or that they’ve reached that blessed pinnacle of their careers where they’ve made all of the award bait they can handle and they feel like just screwing around for a few years making fluff.

While not a horrible movie, there’s not an awful lot to recommend Beautiful Creatures either. You won’t need to set your TV on fire if it happens to show up when you flip to HBO, but there’s no real reason not to switch to HBO2 and watch a rerun of Game of Thrones either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Gut Reactions: Ruby Sparks (2012)

Ruby SparksDirectors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Writer: Zoe Kazan

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat

Plot: After an early success, writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has been stuck with writer’s block for years and has found failure after failure in his relationships with women. Upon the advice of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins writing about a girl he sees in a dream. After a few dreams, the girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in his home, miraculously brought to life. The two begin a romance that starts to crack when it becomes apparent that Ruby wants more of a life than the sequestered world Calvin has created for her, and in the end, Calvin finds himself in a struggle between love with the girl of his dream and trying to control that which he made.

Thoughts: Every so often those Netflix recommendations get it right. I’d never heard of this film, but when I read the description I figured I’d give it a try. I had no idea just how deeply it would hit me.

Admittedly, I may have a bit of an occupational bias when it comes to this movie. I may not be quite the success as a writer that Calvin Weir-Fields is (of course, as he reminds us during the film, he’s “no J.D. Salinger”), but I think any person who really pursues creative arts will be able to relate to this movie. The story hits upon a time in Calvin’s life when he’s struggling between crushing creative blockage and unbearable loneliness, something that’s all too real. And in fact, I can’t imagine there’s any writer out there who didn’t – at his weakest point – fantasize about doing exactly what he does in this movie. The idea of creating the perfect person, the perfect companion out of your imagination is tantalizing, powerful, and engaging.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-

Of course, this is just a fantasy, and like most fantasies it doesn’t really maintain if you hold it up to the light of reality. We all may have imagined being able to create the perfect girl, but a little critical thinking will reveal a thousand reasons this would be a bad idea. Zoe Kazan (who both played Ruby and wrote the screenplay) takes this idea and dissects it beautifully. Early on Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) points out the difference between this perfect, idealized girl and the realities of a functional adult relationship. When Ruby turns out to be more real and less idealized than Calvin thought, he begins to use his writing to manipulate her, which again backfires. His first effort makes her frighteningly clingy and needy, the next turns her into a bounding child. Even attempting to erase his mistakes bounces back on him, as he instead leaves her an emotional wreck.

The climax of the movie, I admit, is somewhat painful to watch. Frustrated and angry, Calvin reveals the truth of Ruby’s existence to her and “writes” her into performing a series of degrading, humiliating tasks (barking like a dog, for instance) to demonstrate his power over her. I cringed at each moment, watching him take someone he loved and turn her into a puppet. Each time he finished a sentence I found myself asking how he could do it, how he could possibly treat someone he loved in such a fashion, how anyone could be so frustrated that he’d do something that so utterly stains his own soul? Like the most painful things we see, though, it’s at its most horrible when we question what we would do in that same predicament. I don’t think I’d have it in me to do what Calvin does at the end, but it’s very easy to say that, knowing I’ll never have to face such a situation. In the heat of the moment, who can say what any of us are truly capable of? And if we ever did cross that line, would we ever be deserving of forgiveness, or capable of forgiving ourselves?

Although billed as a comedy, Ruby Sparks is definitely not cut from the standard romcom cloth that churns out so many practically identical movies a year. It’s not even the same as other “romantic dramadies.” For example, I recently watched Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, another romance from last year that treads the line between comedy and drama, including a dose of speculative fiction for the sake of the plot. In that one, Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley set out to find his lost high school sweetheart amidst the collapse of society that comes after final efforts to prevent an extinction-level asteroid from colliding with Earth fail. (Yes, this too is ostensibly a comedy.) While that movie wasn’t bad, in the end I found it sadly predictable. Ruby Sparks, on the other hand, isn’t predictable at all. Once Kazan deals with some of the more necessary tropes (showing how people react to this mysterious girl who’s appeared in Calvin’s life, a little interaction with his wacky family), the film is left in a sort of free roaming state where it could go absolutely anywhere. I never felt like I knew how the movie was going to end, which is probably the most exciting feeling I can imagine having during a movie. That open-endedness, that powerful, driving uncertainty finally brings us to an ending that’s ultimately sweet and hopeful, and a final line that couldn’t fit any better.

Again, this is a movie that struck me on a very personal level, which makes it difficult to say if I would recommend it to just anybody – I can’t honestly tell you if you would have the same visceral reaction that I did. But I can tell you that it’s well-written, well-acted, very emotional, and different from all the other cookie cutter movie romances in ways that satisfied me greatly.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!