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February 13, 2013

'Creatures' beautiful to look at, but that plot...

“Please stop with the ‘Twilight’ comparisons!” comes the plaintive cry from online, anticipating reviews of the film “Beautiful Creatures.”

Well, sorry – I can’t.

Not when it’s about two characters who meet in a small-town high school, one a motherless bookworm and the other an immortal whose family discourages contact with humans. Not when a force of darkness contends for the immortal’s soul, or when a seductively murderous relative comes to town to wreak havoc outside the family. Not when the plot hinges on one teen’s willingness to sacrifice happiness to protect the other from destruction.

Sure, there’s a reversal of sexes: The boy has the normal life span, and the girl belongs to a clan of “casters” (a term she prefers to “witches”). The town is in Lowcountry South Carolina, not Washington state. “Creatures” has a sense of humor about itself that “Twilight” (which I slightly prefer as a movie) did not.

But the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl came out in fall 2009, when the first “Twilight” movie was a massive hit, and the “Twilight” novels were omnipresent. So draw your own conclusions.

Whether or not you think of this as a knockoff, it has a ripeness “Twilight” never did.

Emma Thompson, who plays a down-on-her-knees church lady and the sneering sorcerer who takes over her body, whoopingly gives reign to craziness in both roles. Jeremy Irons, happy to be cast for once as a good guy, stays at his highest level of menacing drollery. (I always enjoy this kind of casting against type.)

The young people, played by quietly seething Alice Englert and the vibrant Alden Ehrenreich, keep us focused on what matters: Love will, or won’t, conquer all. Add Viola Davis as a librarian in charge of dark secrets, and you have a cast whose depth of expression trumps all competitors in the field I’ve seen to date.

Philippe Rousselot, the cinematographer who brought some of Tim Burton’s memorable visions to life (“Big Fish,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), saturates the screen with intense hues: Color trumps special effects here, though those are fine, too.

This is all fortunate, as the narrative train frequently stops at the town of Cliché Viejo and sometimes goes off the rails altogether for a bit.

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese introduces characters and loses track of them, builds toward a mildly daring ending and backs cravenly away from it, even seems to contradict himself: On the girl’s 16th birthday, she’ll end up on the light or dark side of casting, and she won’t have a choice in the matter – errrrunless she does. (She’s the first witch in millennia who may decide for herself? Why would that be?)

The movie takes place in some invented Southern corner of Hollywood, where citizens equate “Democrat” and “Satanist.” The high school history teacher forces pupils to take part in Civil War re-enactments to pass his class, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been banned from the English curriculum. (Yet this virtually all-white town was enlightened enough to elect a black man as its mayor.)

Characters that grew up there have different accents and use “y’all” when they’re talking to one person. I’d have assumed LaGravenese never came to the South, but the film was shot almost entirely in Louisiana. That gets my dander up: If somebody’s going to dump scorn on the Palmetto State, South Carolina ought to profit by it!

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