Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Abundant Acreage Available

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New Releases for the Week of March 3, 2017


LoganLOGAN

(20th Century Fox/Marvel) Hugh Jackman, Sir Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle, Stephen Merchant. Directed by James Mangold

It is the near future and humans are winning the war against mutants. Logan, bone-weary and battle scarred, is hiding out on the Mexican border where he is caring for an ailing Charles Xavier. Everything changes however when a young mutant with a very personal connection to Wolverine finds them – a young girl who is also being pursued by some very bad men. The legendary mutant may have to do battle for one last time to save a young girl and perhaps, to save the mutants that are left.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity)

A United Kingdom

(Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport. In 1947 Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Botswana, is attending university in England when he meets a young and beautiful office worker named Ruth Williams. They fall deeply in love and Khama intends to take her as his bride but both the British and South African governments object. South Africa is just implementing their apartheid policy and don’t want a neighboring country to have a black King with a white bride and since Britain needs the resources from South Africa they choose to side with him. Since Botswana is a British colony, they order that Seretse be exiled and parted from his bride. The two must overcome incredible odds to return to the country they have both come to love and that Seretse yearns to rule.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Romance
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for violence and disturbing images

Before I Fall

(Open Road) Zoey Deutch, Liv Hewson, Jennifer Beals, Logan Miller. A pretty high school senior has it all; cute boys, great friends and is invited to all the right parties. All that changes though when she is forced to relive the worst day of her life over and over and over again. Think Groundhog’s Day for young adults – without the comedy.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Teen Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images and language – all involving teens)

The Shack

(Summit) Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga. A family vacation turns into tragedy for a young family. The father is particularly devastated, pushing away those who love him. His crisis of faith will lead him to an isolated cabin deep in the Oregon woods and face to face with a woman named Papa who may have the answers to those questions that are tearing him apart.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence, some suggestive content, rude humor and thematic elements)

Table 19

(Fox Searchlight) Anna Kendrick, Steven Merchant, Margo Martindale, Lisa Kudrow. Once upon a time the maid of honor at her longtime best friend’s wedding, Eloise is dumped via text by the jerkwad of a best man. Determined to be at the wedding of her friend, she is exiled to the table in the back with all the other people who were not expected to show up – but were expected to get a gift. Unexpectedly, these complete strangers bond over their mutual unsuitability and end up having the time of their lives.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity)

XX

(Magnet) Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Casey Adams, Christina Kirk. Here is a different look at the horror anthology as four respected directors – all of whom are women – take on four distinctly out of the box (pun intended) points of view on four bewitching tales of terror.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Anthology
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Friday and Saturday midnight showings only)

Rating: R (for horror violence, language and brief drug use)

Why Him?


Talk about a generation gap...

Talk about a generation gap…

(2016) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Griffin Gluck, Zack Pearlman, Jee Young Han, Tangie Ambrose, Mary Pat Gleason, Kaley Cuoco (voice), Steve Aoki, Richard Blais, Elon Musk, Adam Devine, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Andrew Rannells, Casey Wilson. Directed by John Hamburg

 

The father-daughter relationship is a very special one. A man’s daughter is always his princess; the light of his heart, the twinkle in his eye, she inevitably has him twisted around her little finger. It goes without saying that no man will ever be good enough for Daddy’s Little Princess.

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is by all appearances a successful guy. He’s a pillar of his Michigan community and runs a paper company that has been one of the most successful in the Midwest for years; he has put his daughter Stephanie (Deutch) through college at Stanford where she is nearing graduation and his life is generally going just swell.

His bubble is on the verge of bursting though; his company is in serious financial trouble and there isn’t much of a future for it anyway – paper is going the way of horse and buggy given that most communication is electronic these days. His wife Barb (Mullally) and son Scottie (Gluck) are mainly unaware of this. However, the biggest blow is that Stephanie has a boyfriend that they don’t know about and what’s worse they’ve been together for more than a year. This disturbs Ned who had always assumed that his daughter told him everything. It seems she has a whole lot of secrets that he isn’t aware of. With the holidays coming, Stephanie invites her family to spend them in Northern California.

Said boyfriend is Laird Mayhew (Franco) and rather than being a doe-eyed college boy he turns out to be a 30-something tech magnate who earned his billions developing videogames. With a chest full of tattoos and absolutely no filter, he is a bit of a handful and a lot for the conservative Fleming family to take in. Most parents would be overjoyed that their daughter had caught the eye of a billionaire and seemed to be very much in love with him besides but not Ned. He’s suspicious of Laird and is positive that he’s up to something and Laird, to be honest, is a fairly manipulative guy. His high-tech Palo Alto mansion is full to the brim with all sorts of gadgets and toys, including a Japanese toilet/bidet combination that doesn’t quite work right (and hilarity ensues), a Siri-like house computer whose voice is that of Kaley Cuoco from Big Bang Theory and who tends to get cranky from time to time (more hilarity ensues) and a brand new bowling alley that Laird installed because he heard that Ned loves to bowl. Midwestern, right?

There is also a stuffed moose preserved in an aquarium full of it’s own urine which you just know is going to get all over someone sooner or later (not a spoiler: it does) and a valet named Gustav (Key) who is about every Eastern European goofball that populated sitcoms and movie comedies in the 80s and 90s and who, like Kato in the Pink Panther movies, attacks Laird with martial arts without warning (although to be fair the movie does name drop the series for additional laughs).

Laird means to marry Stephanie and wants Ned’s blessing, a blessing that isn’t forthcoming. It’s Christmas though and miracles can happen – although it might take several miracles to make this happy ending come true. Stephanie tries to make her father see that beneath the cursing (Laird drops F bombs constantly, a product of having no filter) and the sometimes bizarre behavior Laird is really a very nice guy, but that will be a tough sell to a father who already thinks that no guy is good enough for his princess.

In many ways this movie perfectly illustrates the disconnect between Hollywood and Mid-America which in turn spotlights why Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. Ned and Barb as well as son Scotty are portrayed as extremely naive particularly about pop culture sexuality, not knowing what either motorboating or bukake mean – not that those are common terms but certainly the way that it is portrayed here is that they’re the only ones not in on the joke and quite frankly it’s a bit cruel. The West Coast hip tech types, standing in for the elite liberal crowd, are condescending and a little put off by the squares. It may interest the left to know that there is Internet in the Midwest and most of the people living there are a lot savvier than given credit for.

Cranston and Franco are no strangers to each other and it shows here. The chemistry between them is letter perfect and both exhibit a lot of give and take in terms of who gets the laughs and who is the straight man. Both perform beyond what you’d expect for what is essentially a holiday comedy which often tend to be just paychecks for big name actors. Cranston and Franco earn both of theirs.

But all the good intentions and strong performances can’t save a script that has little bite and feels more like a sitcom than a big screen comedy. There are some really funny moments (like when Laird brings in Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS for Ned and Barb who are avowed members of the KISS Army) and a few cringe-worthy moments (the aforementioned moose piss gag) but by and large there’s nothing truly offensive here. Neither is there anything truly noteworthy either.

REASONS TO GO: Cranston is on point as always and he has some terrific chemistry with Franco.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little heavy-handed and riddled with clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language and some sexual innuendo throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ape Assassins game that made Laird Mayhew famous is available for download on the iTunes App Store.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 13th

New Releases for the Week of December 23, 2016


SingSING

(Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton. Directed by Garth Jennings

A once-grand theater is dying and the owner, one Buster Moon, has an idea to save it; hold a massive American Idol-like singing contest. True to his predictions, the contest captures the imagination of the whole town as ordinary people with extraordinary dreams compete for fame, fortune and opportunity.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for some rude humor and mild peril)

Assassin’s Creed

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson. Based on the hit videogame, a convicted criminal is executed…and brought back to life for the sole purpose of utilizing his genetic memories. Sent back as part of the Assassin’s Guild (to which his family has belonged for generations), he and the Assassin’s fight the mysterious and malevolent Templars in both the past and present.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Action/Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release (opened Wednesday)

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong language)

Dangal

(UTV) Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra. The true story of wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, a champion Indian wrestler. He was unable to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and vowed that since he failed, his son would do what he could not. The universe having a perverse sense of humor delivers four children to Mahavir – all daughters. At first devastated, he observes that two of them have the tools to become champions themselves – and he swallows his pride and trains them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Fences

(Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson. Directed by Washington and based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson who also penned the screenplay, this is the story of a proud African-American man trying to raise his family in the 1950s. Bitterly disappointed by life, he turns his back on his son who wants nothing more than to please him while the father seethes, knowing that his son could go much farther in life than he ever did.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens on Sunday)

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material)

Lion

(Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman. A young boy found wandering in the streets of Kolkata is adopted by a kindly Australian couple. Years later as a grown man he begins to experience some childhood memories and knows he must return to India to find his mother and siblings. However, all he knows is that he somehow was mistakenly put on a train and left on it for two days; his home and family could be nearly anywhere in the country. Undeterred, he sets out to find his past so he can help define his future.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sensuality)

Passengers

(Columbia) Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Sheen. On a spaceship headed on a 120-year voyage to colonize a planet outside the solar system, the colonists are in pods that keep them asleep for most of the journey. When a man and a woman find themselves awake 90 years too early with no way to get back to sleep, they are devastated at first but soon they discover that their early wake-up call was the beginning of even more catastrophic malfunctions aboard the ship.

See the trailer, clips and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Wednesday)

Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality, nudity and action/peril)

Why Him?

(20th Century Fox) Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mulally.  Stephanie is a great young woman and the apple of her daddy’s eye. Her new boyfriend could be the one, but when mom and dad meet him, it turns out that he’s a Silicon Valley tech billionaire. Quite the catch, no? No. He’s socially awkward but tech-savvy in ways dear old dad could never be. The two enter a one-upmanship contest – advantage, boyfriend – and soon Dad realizes that he could lose his daughter forever…to someone who has no filter whatsoever.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Wednesday)

Rating: R (for strong language and sexual material throughout)

Everybody Wants Some!!


The 70s become the 80s.

The 70s become the 80s.

(2016) Comedy (Paramount) Blake Jenner, Juston Street, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Courtney Tailor, Taylor Murphy, Christina Burdette, Zoey Deutch, Sophia Taylor Ali, Austin Amelio, Tanner Kalina, Forrest Vickery, Jonathan Breck, Ernest James, Justin Alexio, Celina Chapin, Shailaun Manning. Directed by Richard Linklater

College circa 1980 was a different place than it is now. Back then, there were no cell phones, no laptops, no Internet. There was a lot of sex and while there were sexually transmitted diseases, they could be cured with penicillin. There was a lot more facial hair and your music collection didn’t fit in a small box; you used a milk crate to carry your records around. A lot of things though, haven’t changed.

Linklater, whose last film was Boyhood and elevated him to perhaps the most successful indie director in the business, calls this film a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. None of the characters from that film appear here but I can see his point – while that film took place in the last year of high school, this one takes place in the first year of college.

It follows the members of the fictional Southwest Texas University baseball team during the three day weekend prior to school starting and the fall preview games for the team. It is August in Southwest Texas which means, well, heat, lots of beer and pretty girls wearing hardly a thing. There’s a lot of what we now call “Classic Rock” on the radio (but back then we just called it rock) and it’s about to be morning in America.

Jake (Jenner) is our proxy amongst the jocks. We see things unfold through his eyes. He’s smart enough to know that while he was the star of his high school team, he may not be talented enough to be a starter on this team and as for moving on to the major leagues, probably only McReynolds (Hoechlin) has a shot. But in the meantime, he’s making friends with the other players, including Willoughby (Russell), a California stoner who is kind of a Deepak Chopra of the pitcher’s mound, Finnegan (Powell) who knows that this will be the best time of his life and plans to make the most of it, Jay (Street) with an explosive temper, and Beuter (Brittain) who is an unsophisticated rube.

Over the weekend, the guys bang back beers, smoked a little leaf and do whatever it takes to get laid. All of that rings true to the college experience, then and now. Jake meets a comely freshman theater major (Deutch) and the two begin to hang out and develop something of a romance. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess – after all, we’re talking about the first weekend at college for the both of them.

I think that for the most part Linklater nailed the period (as he usually does) with a few quibbles; the guys play The Legend of Zelda which didn’t come out until the following year, for example nor would it have been likely that a college student had a VCR, which retailed for about $600 back in August 1980. Still, he gets the flavor of the period right.

This is very much a guy’s picture; only the theater major is given any sort of character and most of the women in this film are reduced to being the sexual prey of the baseball players. In a sense, we’re getting the worldview of the jocks – all bros and no hoes. Some viewers might have a problem with that. Still, this is a Linklater film so it’s thoughtful right?

Not so much. In many ways, this is one of his most mindless films yet. I kinda got the sense that this was almost a throwaway movie, one that he didn’t give a lot of thought to (even though it arrives in theaters a year and a half after his last one). To me, it doesn’t have the depth of character that is a hallmark of Linklater’s movies; the characters all seem much more to be stereotypes.

The acting is a little bland as well. The cast is largely unknown and while Jenner stands out by default, the rest perform their roles without distinction but at least without making a mess of it either. Damned by faint praise, I know.

But there is more to the movie than just a great soundtrack (and it really IS great) and capturing its era nicely. This is a Richard Linklater film and even though it will likely not be considered one of his best works, there are still moments that show you how good a director he is and how gifted he is at structuring comedic sequences. There are some really good light-hearted moments. Not the big laughs of a big Hollywood comedy, but the introspective chuckles of recognizing something as ridiculous that perhaps you took part in when you were younger.

I will admit that I’m definitely the target audience for this thing. While I didn’t go to college on an athletic scholarship, I knew some who did and I was there during this precise era (in August 1980 I was starting my Junior year). While I like to think I wasn’t quite so sex-obsessed as these guys were, I probably was – guys that age are hormones on legs. So while this isn’t one of Linklater’s best, it certainly isn’t his worst and even a subpar Linklater movie is worth checking out, and this clearly is worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the era dead to rights. Terrific soundtrack. Some really funny sequences. Doesn’t overstay its welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little sexist. Bland cast. Not as thoughtful as previous Linklater films.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of profanity, plenty of drug use, a good deal of sexual content and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The credits include one for a cat wrangler credited to Bernie Tiede, who was the subject of Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Angry Birds Movie

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard