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BEAUTIFUL CREATURES

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If Tim Burton had made “Twilight” on an off day, the result would have been something like this. Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl has the jokey spirit and splashy style that Burton brought to a misfire like “Dark Shadows,” but while in contrast to the deadly earnestness of the Bella-and-Edward trilogy it has a refreshingly loopy sensibility, “Beautiful Creatures” doesn’t succeed as winningly as “Warm Bodies” did in overcoming a been-there-seen-that feel.

The human half of the equation here is Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a rebellious high-school student in the provincial—read culturally backward—South Carolina town of Gatlin. He’s broken up with pretty mean girl Emily (Zoey Deutsch) and spends his time reading “banned” books like Vonnegut’s novels when not wasting time with gangly best buddy Link Lincoln (Thomas Mann) and dreaming of ditching his hopeless home town for college.

Enter Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a dark, brooding newcomer to the campus who immediately attracts the attention of Emily and her crowd. Their rudeness stops, however, when a wind comes up to shatter the classroom windows and spray the students with glass. Lena’s suspended—on the simple ground that she’s the niece of the town recluse, the mysterious Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), in whose mansion she’s now staying after incidents at her previous schools—after complaints from such religious fanatics as Link’s mother (Emma Thompson).

Ethan’s understandably attracted to the girl and makes his way to the forbidding Ravenwood Estate, where he encounters not only Emily but her guardian, as well as, eventually, the rest of the odd family, Gramma (Eileen Atkins), Aunt Del (Margo Martindale) and Cousin Larkin (Kyle Gallner). And he and Emily fall for one another. But there’s a big problem to the relationship going anywhere. That’s the fact that the girl is a witch—or, as they prefer to be called, a caster; not only that, but she’s a caster living under a family curse that will see her “turn” to either to good or the dark side on the occasion of her imminent sixteenth birthday. And her mother Sarafina (Thompson), who’s possessed Mrs. Lincoln, and sultry cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum)—both of whom are decidedly of the “dark” variety—are in town to insure she goes their way, something Macon is so determined to prevent that he enlists the help of an unlikely ally, Amma (Viola Davis), the town librarian who also happens to be a benign voodoo priestess (as well as, it seems, Ethan’s housekeeper).

If that sounds complicated, rest assured it’s only the tip of the densely plotted iceberg; there are other wrinkles, including references to Ethan’s recently-deceased mother (who, it appears, was once involved with Macon), and Ridley’s backstory, which turned her to the dark side and leads her to seduce Link for nefarious purposes. It’s all pretty silly and—at least in this telling—obscure (since the book series extended to four volumes, it probably comes across more easily there). But as LaGravenese obviously doesn’t intend it to be taken seriously, that isn’t terribly important.

What’s far more significant is the style and tone he brings to the telling, and in that respect “Beautiful Creatures” feels like recycled merchandise. There’s a Burton-like vibe to it all (or worse, something akin to the remake of “The Stepford Wives”), apparent in the strenuously clever dialogue (much of it referencing the Bukowski books Emily introduces Ethan to) and the candy-colored, comic-book look courtesy of production designer Richard Sherman, art director Lorin Flemming, set decorator Matthew Flood Ferguson and costume designer Jeffrey Kurtland.

The actors fall in with the directorial approach, with Ehrenreich going the full sassy route while Englert apes the angsty Kristen Stewart look acceptably enough and Mann (who had the misfortune also to appear in “Hansel and Gretel”) handles the obligatory goofy best-friend part amiably enough. Apart from Davis, who underplays in an apparent effort to keep to the background, it’s the adults who camp it up. Both Irons and Thompson go for broke, reminding us that he wasn’t afraid to take hammy roles in piffle like “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Eragon,” and that she fully embraced comic grotesquerie in the “Nanny McPhee” pictures. Atkins and Martindale aren’t far behind, and Rossum—while younger than them all—seems equally happy to do a caricature of the ravenous seductress.

Visually “Creatures” is indeed beautiful, with lots of voluptuous images, of both human and background variety, captured by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot; and occasionally one or another of the lines—especially Ethan’s throwaway observations—earns a chuckle. Overall, however, LaGravenese’s movie doesn’t reinvigorate the “Twilight” template they way “Warm Bodies” did, as much as remind us of how tired it feels.

BROKEN CITY

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A thrill-free, strangely sluggish political potboiler, “Broken City” suggests that it perhaps wasn’t wise for Allen Hughes to go on his own after co-directing stints with his brother Albert. The one point in its favor is that Russell Crowe at least doesn’t try to sing.

Crowe does, however, rouse himself from the lethargy he brought to Inspector Javert to play Nick Hostetler, the back-slapping, volatile mayor of New York. In a close election campaign against appropriately-named reformist councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), he hires disgraced cop, now cash-pressed PI Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), to trail his lovely wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he believes is having an affair.

One might wish that this set-up would lead to something mysteriously sinister in the vein of Hitchcock’s ’Vertigo.” Unfortunately, Brian Tucker’s script goes off in a far more conventional, much less interesting direction. The model is old-fashioned film noir, but it’s a botched job involving secrets on both sides of the political divide—and in Taggart’s past, too. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too many of the details, however far-fetched they might be, but it’s symptomatic of the screenplay’s poverty of invention that the MacGuffin is a contract about a real estate transaction that our hero happens upon after rummaging about in a box of trash for about five seconds.

“Broken City” has action set-pieces, of course—a fight between Taggart and a ruthless thug, a car chase. But they’re curiously unexciting, largely because of poor staging (attributable to Hughes and cinematographer Ben Seresin) and ineffectual editing (Cindy Mollo). And it’s weighed down by one subplot concerning Taggart’s love life with aspiring actress Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), whose debut in a terrible-looking indie movie wastes far too much screen time, and another about hard-nosed police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright), who’s engaged in machinations of his own.

Wahlberg muddles through the movie with a smidgen of charm but not much conviction, looking understandably bored during the numerous stakeout sequences, and in the scenes he shares with Crowe, he simply fades into the background and allows Hizzoner to chew up the scenery. (Taggart’s supposed to be a recovering alcoholic, but the plot turn when he falls off the wagon and belts down what seems to be a fifth of whiskey without seeming at all the worse for wear comes off as rather unconvincing as Wahlberg plays it.) Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, is more model than actress this time around, and it looks as if most of her dialogue was dubbed in post-production. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine that the sallow-faced Pepper could be taken seriously as a populist (and popular) mayoral candidate, even if Tucker puts into his mouth lines that sound as though they were lifted from speeches by President Obama (and really aren’t appropriate for a local, rather than national race anyway).

Among others caught up in the byzantine but pedestrian plot, with his bald pate and stern manner Wright reminds one of Megamind or Ming the Merciless, and Kyle Chandler is all vacuous integrity as Valliant’s campaign manager. As a business crony of Hostetler, Griffin Dunne looks more than ever like Harry Dean Stanton. Alona Tal, however, provides a few engaging moments as Taggart’s feisty secretary—the sort of gal one might have found working in Sam Spade’s outer office.

A small phalanx of producers—including Hughes and Wahlberg—are credited on “Broken City,” but they haven’t been very successful in providing the picture with a production (designed by Tom Duffield, with art direction by Christina Eunji Kim) that’s anything more than mediocre. Certainly the New York locations deserve better than this.

A surprisingly large number of movies have been “Broken,” title-wise, and some of them have actually been pretty good. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.