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Five Things to Know About Beautiful Creatures

Nothing says Valentine's Day like young love, picturesque rural landscapes, attractive twentysomething actors pretending to be teenagers... and witchcraft. All of these elements are on display in Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural love story that's seeking to own Valentine's Day in the way that the not-so-dearly departed Twilight series owned Thanksgiving. But before you drag your significant other to a post-candlelit dinner showing of this particular creature feature, here are five things you really should know about what you're getting into.

It's Based on Yet Another YA Franchise You've Probably Never Heard Of
On second thought, I should probably amend that to read, "You've Probably Never Heard Of (If You're Over the Age of 25)." But the general point still stands: in their ongoing attempt to turn every book in the Young Adult section of your local library into a major motion picture, Hollywood has stumbled upon the just-concluded Caster Chronicles quartet, penned by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. The first installment, Beautiful Creatures, hit shelves in 2009 and three sequels -- Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos and Beautiful Redemption -- followed in as many years, with the concluding installment arriving in October 2012, four months shy of the Creatures' big-screen debut. (Full disclosure: I haven't read any of 'em.) While not a crossover pop culture phenom on the level of Harry Potter, Twilight or The Hunger Games, the Caster Chronicles were apparently well-liked by the target audience, a significant chunk of whom were at the preview screening of Creatures I attended. Listening to their reactions to the movie proved far more entertaining than the film itself, as they whooped and applauded the entrances of certain characters, as well as specific lines of dialogue. And while that early enthusiasm did wane as the movie dragged on (and on... and on...), the general tenor of the fan chorus seemed upbeat as the credits rolled. That won't automatically translate into box office gold, of course, but should Creatures become the hit the studio is clearly hoping for, prepare yourselves to spend the next three Februaries following the Caster Chronicles.

It's Basically Twilight Meets Star Wars
Published four years after the first Twilight tome, the set-up to Beautiful Creatures borrows so heavily from Stephanie Meyer's book, it's almost as if the authors did a find-and-replace search as they sat down to sketch out their story. To wit: In a small Pacific Northwest Southern town named Forks Gatlin, a moody teenage girl boy with a dead mother and mostly absent father falls for a gorgeous guy girl who hails from a clan of vampires witches. Despite the disapproval of their friends and family, the two embark on a passionate, but chaste love affair until the arrival of a batch of evil vampires witches turn up in town, leading to a big fight. In place of Bella and Edward, Creatures introduces us to Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and Lena (Alice Englert), the latter of whom belongs to the witchy Ravenwood collective that lives in a run-down estate on the outskirts of Gatlin. It's here that the authors start cribbing from Star Wars as well, as we come to learn that Luke Lena has been sent to live with her Uncle Owen Macon (Jeremy Irons) to avoid detection by her powerful father mother, Sarafine, a witch of tremendous power who crossed over to the Dark Side many moons ago and intends to see that her son daughter follows the same path. Lena will discover whether she's a Light or a Dark witch when she hits her 16th birthday, whereupon her good or bad nature will assert itself. As if that's not complicated enough, there's also a curse running around that suggests her burgeoning relationship with Ethan might be the catalyst that tips her to the Dark. The one piece of good news? They're definitely not brother and sister.

It Makes Up Words
Just as Twilight made its vampires all sparkly and Harry Potter introduced the word "Muggle" into the lexicon, Beautiful Creatures strives to invent its own supernatural mythology and slang. Hence, these witches aren't "witches" -- they are "Casters," as in "Gonna cast me a few spells, sonny boy." Other buzzwords frequently heard throughout the movie include the aforementioned trio of "The Curse," "The Dark" and "The Light" and while a witch's... excuse me, a Caster's body doesn't sparkle in the sunlight, their eyes do glow orange whenever they're touched by the Dark. What the movie never really gets around to explaining, however, is what the hell Casters do with their apparently copious free time. I mean, the witches and wizards who populate the Potter-verse invented an entire world that exists parallel to the real one. Based on Beautiful Creatures, Casters appear to be a far less ambitious species; the Light ones lead reclusive lives and rarely use their powers, while the Dark ones are primarily concerned with employing said powers to annoy the goody-goody Lights. They don't even seem to have a strong interest in ruling the world, Voldemort-style. That makes the stakes of the movie absurdly low, as even if Lena goes over to the Dark, it doesn't seem like she'll amount to being anything more dangerous than the irritating relative who ruins the annual family reunion with her bad attitude and ability to control the weather.

The Young Actors are Into It, the Older Ones Could Care Less
I'll say this in the movie's favor: both Ehrenreich and Englert are far more engaged and interested in their roles -- and each other -- than K-Stew and R-Patz were during the bulk of Twilight's run. It's hard to say how much range they might have outside of the YA genre (and whether they'll still be this enthusiastic if and when they shoot the fourth movie), but their romance is the one aspect of Beautiful Creatures that has some personality. Also making the most of her limited screentime is Emmy Rossum, who chews the scenery as Lena's cousin Ridley, another Dark Caster specializing in the art of seduction and wearing lingerie as outdoor clothing. (Apparently, dressing like Elvira is one of the other skills you gain when you go Dark.) Their elder co-stars, on the other hand, couldn't be less interested in the proceedings if they tried. Irons' attitude towards his performance is perfectly summed up by his ever-changing accent, which veers from Southern to British and back again, oftentimes within the same scene. His fellow U.K. refugee, Emma Thompson -- playing a zealously conservative Gatlin resident who is possessed by Sarafine from time to time -- at least remembers which country she's in, but doesn't strain herself to be anything more than a walking stereotype. And then there's poor Viola Davis, once again tasked with being "the help" who looks after the movie's white heroes. To be fair, in addition to cleaning up Ethan's home, Amma has a second job as Gatlin's librarian and possesses a supernatural background of her own. But she's given no demonstrable concerns or interests outside of keeping Ethan alive and/or fed. Small wonder then, that you can practically see her counting the days until her scenes are wrapped and she can move on to more interesting material.

It's Really Boring
If one of the goals of Beautiful Creatures was to interest a new crop of readers in the Caster Chronicles, writer/director Richard LaGravenese has a lot of 'splainin' to do to the authors, because the movie version completely drains the narrative of whatever charm or intrigue might have existed on the page, leaving behind a dry, withered husk. There's no snap to the storytelling and little tension in the more action-oriented sequences, which are further marred by distractingly low-rent special effects. Mostly, Beautiful Creatures plods along for 124 minutes, marching inexorably towards a big climax that turns out to be of little consequence. You'd have to be a fan of the books to want to sit through the movie, because on its own terms, Beautiful Creatures is more DOA than YA.

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