The dawn of a new Twilight

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES (M)

Stars Alice Englert, Alden Ehrenreich, directed by Richard LaGravenese; 124 minutes.

Two and a half stars

Now the Twilight series is finally dead and buried, get set for an onslaught of imitations.

Beautiful Creatures is even sillier than the real thing, and vastly more entertaining: a convoluted young-adult Southern Gothic with a touch of Tim Burton.

As if to counter Twilight's reactionary subtext, writer-director Richard LaGravanese works in progressive messages about the evil of censorship and the value of literacy - perhaps left over from Freedom Writers, his 2007 inspirational biopic with Hilary Swank.

At its core, the story - based on a novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl - is your basic supernatural romance. Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a South Carolina jock with a literary bent, falls for Lena (Alice Englert), the new girl in town, a Bukowski fan who comes from a family of witches.

Lena is just about to turn 16 - at which point she'll be drafted into a long-running battle between light and darkness, waged in the shadows of human history for indefinite stakes. The spell that will lift her curse proves to be hidden in an underground library, forcing her to read like she's never read before.

Ehrenreich, who starred as Vincent Gallo's brother in Francis Ford Coppola's neglected Tetro, gives a very strange performance here: he grins and lifts his eyebrows like Jack Nicholson without the menace, and regularly breaks into a high-pitched chortle. Englert broods like Cathy from Wuthering Heights, waiting in vain for her Heathcliff to show up.

The grown-ups are more fun. Jeremy Irons plays Lena's uncle Macon in an imperious manner that recalls both Christopher Lee and Liberace, and Emma Thompson as the chief villain goes so far over the top she transcends camp and becomes genuinely unnerving.

As a screenwriter LaGravenese has worked with everyone from Terry Gilliam to Clint Eastwood, but he struggles when directing his own material: he has little control of tone, and writes long, florid dialogue scenes with no idea how to stage them. Much of the intentional humour falls extremely flat - but I did laugh at a joke about Nancy Reagan, the kind of zany non sequitur that will puzzle the kids.

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