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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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Freaky Firsts Day 2: Detention (2012)

Detention 2011Note: 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: Joseph Kahn

Writers: Joseph Kahn & Mark Palermo

Cast: Alison Woods, Julie Dolan, Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Joe Keane, Parker Bagley, Marque Richardson, Aaron David Johnson, Spencer Locke, Travis Fleetwood, Carrie Wiita, Tiffany Boone, Erica Shaffer, Walter Perez, Dane Cook

Plot: Head cheerleader Taylor (Alison Woods) doesn’t show up for school, as she’s been inconveniently murdered by a movie slasher named Cinderhella. Since she’s unavailable, the film instead focuses on Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a depressed young vegetarian whose suicidal tendencies start to flare up. She’s actually saved from an attempted hanging when Cinderhella attacks her, prompting her to fight her way loose. Unfortunately, nobody believes her, even though a fellow student was butchered just that morning.

Cinderhella turns up again at Riley’s house that night, but she again manages to escape as he (she? I think it might actually supposed to be a she) gets caught up in the neighbor’s swing set, then leaves her in a pool. She tries to convince hipster heartthrob Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) that she’s not crazy, but instead somehow winds up on a double-date with him and her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), while she’s stuck with nerd-with-a-crush Sander (Aaron David Johnson).

There are several irrelevant scenes after this, including a football game in which the star player has flashbacks to his own conception (his father was a fly monster), and a fight at a party that wasn’t a costume party after all. That party ends with lunatic jock Billy (Parker Bagley) getting killed by Cinderhella, making us all hope she’s just getting started. Finally, three hours and 27 minutes into this 93-minute film, Riley and several of her friends are given Saturday detention. At night. During the Prom. For the crime of being at a party off-campus when one of their fellow students was killed. Then again, the principal is Dane Cook, so maybe that makes sense in his brain.

Oh yes, there’s also some time-travel, body-swapping, and a kid who has been in detention for 19 years. It’s… it doesn’t even make sense in context. But eventually, it leads us to our cast barricading the school library while Cinderhella tries to break in and kill them and a weird kid (Walter Perez) warns them that the world is going to end in 9 minutes 19 years ago and I think I just got a nosebleed writing that sentence. Riley uses a stuffed bear to go back in time and stop the apocalypse, which is evidently being caused by Clapton, or maybe Sander, or maybe Poppa Freaking Smurf for all I can tell at this point. (As they’re in 1992, my wife commented that the high school must be how “old people feel when they watch a movie about when they grew up and it’s all wrong.” “Baby,” I replied, “I think we’re the old people now.”) And they fix the timestream and… the principal is cool now… and… and… oh, and Cinderhella turns out to be Sander, who fights Clapton in a Mortal Kombat-esque sequence that leads into a Breakfast Club ending, and now I want to go somewhere and cry.

Thoughts: Detention’s inclusion in this list is the result of what I like to call “NetFlix Roulette.” My wife scrolled through the available horror movies with the intention of watching whatever it landed on, then did it again when the first winner was in black and white. I think she regretted this almost immediately.

Detention takes an interesting approach by starting with a character – Alison Woods’s Taylor – who is so thoroughly repulsive as a human being that you’re actually quite happy when the killer “Cinderhella” pops in and slaughters her after only a few minutes of her railing to the camera about how to be as pathetically shallow as possible. It’s actually a nice little bit with a decoy protagonist, although director Joseph Kahn takes it a little farther than is wise – two more minutes of Taylor and I may have turned it off and looked for another film to review.

After the admittedly satisfying death scene at the beginning, the movie then goes through a seemingly interminable sequence introducing our cast – a series of teenagers who are all miserable in different ways that are allegedly entertaining to watch, but in fact, just make them all seem pretentious as hell. Josh Hutcherson, for example, seems poised to be our hero, and therefore distinguishes himself by promising to start a blog where he dismisses any music popular enough for anybody else to have heard of and then argues the relative merits of Patrick Swayze as an action hero versus Steven Segal. Shortly thereafter, my wife started to announce, “Isn’t this supposed to be dying people? I want these people to die and nobody is dying.”

The film cuts around to assorted Family Guy-style aside scenes, frequently punctuated by title cards and weird on-screen commentary, such as assuring us that the movie Detention takes a firm stance against drunk driving, which is probably a relief to all the parents who were waiting for this particular movie to teach their children that valuable lesson. I’m all for metafiction – movies and TV shows that are, in fact, about movies and TV shows can be highly entertaining. But whereas something like Scream was both an interesting commentary on horror movies and an entertaining slasher film in its own right, Detention seems to have been generated by scrawling a bunch of pop culture references onto blank Cards Against Humanity cards, playing a few rounds, and then calling that a script. (I include casting Dane Cook as the principal in this category.)

This movie has many, many faults, but I think most of them can be summed up by comparing it to a shotgun. Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo clearly intended to parody a dozen different things, but rather than figuring out what point they wanted to make and focusing in on it, they stuffed as many different things down the barrel as they could and shot at the wall, hoping something – anything – would hit the intended target. What they got instead of a hodgepodge of unfocused, uncoordinated scenes that don’t actually seem to mean anything. They aren’t funny enough to work as sketch comedy, and they’re certainly not cohesive enough to make for an effective scary movie.

In the end, Detention is probably one of the scarier movies I’ve seen recently, although not for any of the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. (If you want a movie that has a similar sensibility but is actually… y’know… good… I recommend John Dies at the End.)

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!