The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


Stop! In the name of love...

Stop! In the name of love…

(2013) Supernatural Fantasy (Screen Gems) Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, Aidan Turner, Jemima West, Godfrey Gao, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Harry van Gorkum, Stephen R. Hart, Chad Connell, Chris Ratz, Elyas M’Barek, Melantha Blackthorne, Lucy DeLaat. Directed by Harold Zwart

Even William Shakespeare knew enough to write “tis nothing new under the sun” and nearly 500 years later that’s even more true. We’ve seen it all and there is little out there that is going to be completely original. Of late there have been a spate of young adult fantasy books that have gone for film franchise-dom a la Harry Potter and Twilight with varying degrees of failure – most don’t get past the first installment. Is this another would-be phenomenon destined to crash and burn?

Clary (Collins) is a fairly normal Brooklyn teenager who has just had her 18th birthday (at least I think so – she’s apparently old enough to go to bars and drink) who has had enough of her overprotective mother Jocelyn (Headey). She’s not really seeing anybody, although her bookish buddy Simon (Sheehan) wouldn’t mind changing that which Clary is wholly oblivious to.

However Jocelyn has good reason to want Clary home early – she’s part of a half-human, half-angel group of warriors called the Shadowhunters, who battle demons in the ongoing war of good against evil. When Clary witnesses (apparently) a brutal murder in a nightclub, she’s pretty shaken up but more so when she comes home to find her apartment trashed and her mother missing. Oh, and there’s a demonic dog waiting to play fetch with her intestines.

She’s saved by a Shadowhunter named Jace (Bower), a blonde even prettier than Clary who’s a bit of a badass in his metal band leather pants and bad boy with a heart of gold attitude, certainly enough to have teenage girls hearts melt in ways that Buffy’s Angel and Twilight’s Edward could only dream of. He takes her to the Institute, home base for the few remaining Shadowhunters where they and housebound Hodge (Harris) discuss ancient runes and compare Goth tattoos.

Apparently Clary is being stalked by Valentine (Meyers), a renegade Shadowhunter who only wants to rule the world (doesn’t everybody?) and his thugs as well as vampires (bad) and werewolves (good). They discover that Valentine is after an artifact called the Mortal Cup, one of several powerful artifacts that Hodge is aware of. Clary and her friends will seek the help of a somewhat agoraphobic witch (Pounder) and a mackin’ wizard (Gao) but the only salvation for Clary and her mother will lie inside Clary. But when Clary finds out the truth about who she is, which side will she choose?

The source young adult novel by author Cassandra Clare was over 500 pages in length. There are a couple of ways to go about adapting it – one, cut extraneous plot points out and condense the novel into a 120 page script, or cram as much as you can in there. The filmmakers went the latter route and unfortunately that leads to the serious drawback of an often confusing and conflicting plot. While those who love the series (and there are 22 million copies of the book sold worldwide) will be happy that they didn’t skimp (although the book is far more detailed on the background of the Shadowhunters), those that are less familiar with the books may feel like they’re treading water.

We might be able to tolerate the overabundance of plot if it weren’t so darn familiar. Those who wait for the home video edition of the movie can have themselves a nifty little drinking game if they try to spot all the plot elements borrowed from other movies – I stopped keeping track after I saw things from Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Priest. Someone can get themselves smashed real good playing that game.

The mostly young cast are exceptionally attractive (even the semi-nerdy Simon is quite the hunk) so that will appeal to the teen audience to whom such aesthetics are important. In terms of their skills as actors, let’s just say they’re an attractive cast and leave it at that. Collins in particular doesn’t seem to have done much more than reprise her work from Mirror, Mirror.

While the movie looks good and the CGI isn’t bad, the movie’s final confrontation suffers from an excess of histrionics. I do think they were going for an epic scale on this one but really fell short of the mark. I also think that they are really trying to play to the Twilight crowd with a plucky heroine with hidden powers who has two gorgeous guys vying to be her protector and both deeply in love with her yet she merely bestows semi-chaste kisses on one and not even that on the other. Screen Gems confidently green-lit the sequel even before City of Bones opened but the anemic box office and terrible critical reception may cause them to reconsider. Unfortunately, this is just another in a long line of young adult fantasy adaptations that fails to make it as a cinematic franchise which begs the question – maybe if they tried doing some adult fantasy series (i.e. The Wheel of Time, The Codex Alera or Shannara) maybe they might attract a broader audience – but maybe people who read a lot of books don’t have time to go to the movies as much.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive cast. Decent effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Meandering plot. Overwrought climax. Borrows from other sources a bit too freely.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence of a fantasy nature, some fairly disturbing-looking demons and some sexually suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins, who was an ardent fan of the book series, active campaigned for the role of Clary when she discovered that there was to be a film made of it.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: American Reunion

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Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant


Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

John C. Reilly can't really explain why the film bombed.

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Michael Cerveris. Directed by Paul Weitz

After the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, the studios are searching for the next young adult cash cow that will fill their coffers and up their bonuses. The results have been a mixed bag, mostly of failures – some of them spectacularly so. The Saga of Darren Shan, a 12-book teen vampire series, gets it’s turn at the plate.

Darren Shan (Massoglia) is a good kid; he loves spiders, gets good grades and never gets in trouble. That is, unless he’s in the company of Steve (Hutcherson) who’s the poster boy for “bad influence.” Steve has a cruel streak in him, prone to fits of vandalism and rage and pushes Darren to do things he would never ordinarily do.

One of those things is to attend a freak show that has taken up residence in a decrepit old theater in town (which appears to be New Orleans, where the movie was filmed – transplanted from the UK where the books are set). They pay their money, get bitten by a small furry creature in the ticket booth (now that spells enticement) and are met by gigantic doorman Mr. Tall (Watanabe) who ushers them inside in a sort of teenage fantasy sequence (no ID needed).

The show is hosted by Larten Crepsley (Reilly), with flaming red hair and a wardrobe that he got at the estate sale of the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The show has some fairly freaky characters, including the truly deformed Alexander Ribs (Jones) and a snake boy (Fugit). However, when Steve convinces Darren to steal a fist-sized spider that looks like a bad LSD trip, complete with garish colors, they discover that Crepsley is actually a vampire. Steve wants very badly to become one, but Crepsley doesn’t think he qualifies; he’s a bit too cruel and vampires, contrary to common belief, are actually quite gentle.

Through a series of misadventures, Steve is driven to death’s door largely due to Darren, who feels much guilt over this. Enough guilt in fact that it leads Darren to Mr. Crepsley’s door, who in exchange for saving Steve’s life turns Darren into a half-vampire, someone who can run Crepsley’s errands during the day (while sunlight doesn’t turn vampires into a plume of smoke, fire and ash , extended exposure can be fatal) as his assistant.

Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly a good time to be a vampire because they are at war with the Vampaneze who are led by the creepy but jovial Mr. Tiny (Cerveris) and the creepy but creepy Murlaugh (Stevenson). Darren is caught in the middle between the two as is the Cirque, much to the dismay of Mr. Tall. Perhaps Darren’s extended lifespan will be a lot briefer than he anticipated.

The movie is based on the first three books of the 12-book saga, which in my opinion is never a good idea. There is so much going on that sometimes you get a feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been on a runaway roller coaster in the dark. The filmmakers might have been better served to take one book and embellish it some, or even combine the first two books. The three-book thing is like trying to cram a 52” waist into 30” jeans.

Director Paul Weitz has some very good films on his resume (including About a Boy and In Good Company) and this one isn’t as bad as I was led to believe it was. Sure, the plot is a bit of a mess and Dafoe’s Gavner Purl character serves to drop in from time to time, snarl out some exposition, and then disappear until further exposition is needed. That’s a criminal waste of talent as far as I’m concerned.

There’s plenty of talent in front of the camera though, starting with Reilly who gives Crepsley a kind of monotonic vocal intonation that seems nearly like a stoner until he goes into kick-ass mode. It’s an outstanding performance, worth a full point all by itself. There is also a good deal of special effects, most of which are pretty fun. I found that the whole movie had a Tim Burton-esque air to it that pays homage to such things as Beetle Juice and The Nightmare Before Christmas and especially The Corpse Bride without seeming derivative.

Unfortunately, the good-hearted Darren is just way too bland to sustain any interest, which I think is more a function of the way the character was written than an indictment of young Chris Massoglia’s acting skills. For my money, most lead characters need a hint of something a little bit dark in order to hold the audience’s interest. Characters that are too good are also not believable, and the audience begins to actually resent them. That may be just me talking, now.

So it’s another swing and a miss for a potential film franchise. It’s a shame too – I’m all for big franchises like Harry Potter. This might have made a good one too if they didn’t try so hard to turn it into a franchise, even giving it a bit of a cliffhanger ending that obviously sets up the next film which, judging on the anemic box office receipts and DVD sales, is never going to be made. It will be relegated to the Island of Failed Franchises where it will be greeted by The Golden Compass which was coincidentally directed by Paul’s brother Chris, and other films like Eragon, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, The Spiderwick Chronicles and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief among many, many others. There is a lesson to be learned here; if you want to establish a profitable franchise, start by making an extraordinary movie that will excite the imagination of not just the target audience but of every audience. That’s what makes Harry Potter so commercially viable. On the other hand the Twilight series taps into a large predominantly female audience that is absolutely rabid; but that’s the exception, not the rule.

WHY RENT THIS: Reilly is a hoot as Crepsley. The effects are pretty nifty. A good deal of Tim Burton-like quirkiness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Yet another attempt at young adult fantasy fiction franchise that falls flat. While not an epic fail, is still a fail – the filmmakers should have stuck to one or maybe two books for source material instead of taking on three; they tried to cram too much in.

FAMILY VALUES: Due to the violence and thematic issues, I’d think twice before letting younger children see this. Otherwise, it should be okay for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Stephen Trask, better known as the composer/lyricist behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M in total box office on a $40M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Planet 51