David Stratton on the delights of Beautiful Creatures
THE Twilight franchise, after a reasonably promising start, ground inexorably to an inglorious conclusion last year, so why celebrate what appears to be an attempt to create a similar franchise?
Because, happily, Beautiful Creatures, despite the limitations inherent in its basic plot — romance between a supernatural creature and a mortal — is not only head and shoulders above the lowest common denominator approach of the Twilight films but heralds the arrival of an exciting new antipodean actress, Alice Englert, daughter of director Jane Campion.
This is the third feature Englert has made in the past year, but the first to reach Australia (her first, Ginger & Rosa, a British film by Sally Potter, has opened overseas but hasn’t yet been seen in this country). In Beautiful Creatures, Englert brings a refreshing humour, depth and pathos to the character of Lena Duchannes, a 15-year-old who arrives in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, to live with her uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons).
Before Lena’s arrival in town, we’ve been presented with an introduction to life in Gatlin by Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), who is just starting his junior year of high school. Ethan is a fish out of water in Gatlin, a town boasting 12 churches and a library with a list of banned books. These include Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which Ethan is reading, and as the camera pans around his bedroom we see other literary and cinematic influences include A Clockwork Orange and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This is clearly a young man who craves the wider world especially, as he complains, as the nearest Starbucks is in far-off Charleston (‘‘How sick is that?’’) and the local cinema plays movies only after they’re out on DVD. Gatlin is no place for a bright young man to be growing up in without a mother, who died some time earlier, and with a father so reclusive we never see him. The only influence on Ethan seems to be Amma (Viola Davis), whose role in the household is ambiguous.
Ethan’s girlfriend, Emily (Zoey Deutch), like most of the population of Gatlin, is extremely religious; she’s already miffed that Ethan has been avoiding her through the summer and she takes out her frustration on Lena, the new girl who is ‘‘ different’’.
Ethan, however, is smitten with Lena because she reads books even he hasn’t discovered yet (by Charles Bukowski, for example). Before long they’re so obviously attracted to one another that Emily’s jealousy can’t be hidden. ‘‘ I pray you go straight to hell,’’ she tells Ethan, who responds: ‘‘ I’m going to stop in New York first.’’
So, despite the basic similarities with the Twilight films, Beautiful Creatures proves surprisingly literate and witty. It was written
and directed by Richard LaGravenese, whose screenplay for The Fisher King was a model of its kind, and even as it attempts to skirt horror-romance cliches it manages to charm — I especially liked being informed that the
‘‘ casters’’, as these witches prefer to be called, used to be based in Washington, DC, but were thrown out by Nancy Reagan, ‘‘ the only mortal they were ever scared of’’.
I presume this is the first film in a new franchise and I just hope it continues to be as sprightly. There are already some signs of flatulence (at just more than two hours, the film is too long), but I hope the series never takes itself too seriously. The plot in the initial episode hinges on whether Lena will become a
‘‘ dark’’ caster — like her scandalous cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) and like her mother, Sarafine, who spends much of the film occupying the body of the God-bothering Mrs Lincoln (Emma Thompson) — or a ‘‘ light’’ (and thus mortal-friendly) one.
Handsomely photographed and designed, with some sparingly used but very striking visual effects, Beautiful Creatures may almost be good enough to attract movie-goers who don’t like fantasy films. At the very least the young actors, and especially Englert, are worth checking out.
SAFE Haven, which opened across the country on Valentine’s Day, is based on a book by Nicholas Sparks. That information alone tells you what to expect: safe’’ is certainly the
‘‘ ‘‘ right word. Life is full of second chances,’’ proclaims one of the characters with heavy emphasis and that, presumably, is Sparks’s mantra. There’s nothing very new here — last year’s The Lucky One featured a handsome stranger in a small town getting involved with a beautiful widow and her son, and Safe Haven has a beautiful stranger in town (not the same town, though it could easily be) getting involved with a handsome widower and his two ever-so-cute children. No one else could have written this.
In an attempt, not very successful, to be edgier this time around the heroine, Katie (Julianne Hough), is first seen fleeing Boston in the rain after a barely glimpsed incident involving a knife and blood. A Boston cop (David Lyons) is determined to track her down, but loses her after she boards a bus for Atlanta and gets off at a picturesque seaside township in North Carolina (probably not all that far from Gatlin). Here she rents a cottage in the woods (despite a hole in the floor, it is beyond cute) and easily gets a job as a waitress in the local diner. And here she meets gorgeous Alex (Josh Duhamel), whose wife died recently of cancer and who is rearing a pair of precocious youngsters.
There are no prizes for guessing where this relationship is going, though the film takes its time to get there. However, there are a couple of twists which, of course, I won’t reveal, and they add a slight frisson to the proceedings. There’s also Jo (Cobie Smulders), an attractive woman who, like Katie, lives in the woods; I thought at first Sparks was venturing into lesbian territory with this character, but it proved not to be the case.
So while Katie and Alex get to know one another — a day at the beach, a trip in a canoe that is mysteriously abandoned the moment it starts to rain — the Boston cop doggedly continues his investigations and gets ever closer. The big question is: Will the lovers get to bed before the cop tracks Katie down?
This sort of thing is designed to a formula solely to provide a few easy, feel-good vibes, and it certainly doesn’t in any way tax the actors involved who, as usual in Sparks’s films, are beautiful (once upon a time, in The
Notebook, superior actors such as Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were involved). Swedish-born director Lasse Hallstrom could do this sort of thing with his eyes shut, and he makes it all seem fairly effortless without in any way disguising its inherent blandness. Fans won’t be disappointed, but Safe Haven remains the kind of instantly forgettable film that is offered to the romantically inclined at this time of the year.
Left, Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel in Safe Haven; above, Alice Englert as Lena in