Viola Davis, Alice Englert, and Alden Ehrenreich in Beautiful CreaturesBEAUTIFUL CREATURES

As it concerns a sensitive high-schooler who enters a world of trouble after falling for a moodier version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it should come as no shock to learn that the supernatural romance Beautiful Creatures is based on the first in a series of popular young-adult novels. But while I'd never argue that the YA-lit genre is completely humorless, surely the gender-reversed Twilight knock-off by co-authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl can't be as legitimately, intentionally hilarious as this big-screen adaptation, right?

Granted, the film does sometimes make you want to giggle at the material, primarily for its mythology-creation pretensions and unbridled, rather shameless steals from the Stephenie Meyer oeuvre. (There's even an awkward Meet the Cullens scene in which our heroic teen first dines with his girlfriend's family of witches, called Casters here and played by a roundly wasted assemblage that includes Margo Martindale, Kyle Gallner, and the marvelous Eileen Atkins.) Yet beginning with the opener's sly, sardonic narration by high-school junior Ethan Wate (the sensationally appealing Alden Ehrenreich), it's clear that this outing by writer/director Richard LaGravenese is going to be far funnier and smarter than you might anticipate. Considering that LaGravenese was also the writer of The Fisher King and the wildly underrated 1994 comedy The Ref, and had the temerity to include actual jokes (and good ones) in his scripts for The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer, maybe Beautiful Creatures' spiky cleverness shouldn't come as such a surprise. I still, however, didn't expect that its first five minutes would be quite so full of inventive verbal and visual gags. When Ethan, in voice-over, derided his sleepy South Carolina town for its annual Civil War re-creations with a dismissive "As if it's gonna turn out different this time," I chuckled. When he complained about his local one-screen movie house only showing films already on DVD and misspelling their titles to boot, and the camera tilted up on a marquee advertising "Leo DiCaprio in Interception," I laughed out loud for five seconds straight.

The amusement rarely abates during the movie's first half. But with events taking an inevitable turn toward the more traditionally teen-angst-y, the film, at more than two hours, is still way too long, even with several significant plot points apparently lost in the editing process. (Jeremy Irons' outwardly malevolent Caster Macon Ravenwood apparently has a change of heart regarding Ethan off-screen ... perhaps in the same off-screen locale where Ethan learns that his devoted nanny, played by Viola Davis, has supernatural powers of her own.) Yet despite the presentation's occasional clunkiness, and CGI effects that might actually be a step down from those in the Twilight series, Beautiful Creatures is a fine, involving entertainment, with bonus points earned for its fantastically strong lineup of female talent. Beyond the typically excellent Davis and the pert Zoey Deutch as a prissy schoolmate, Alice Englert is thoroughly wonderful as protagonist Lena Duchaness, melding the evocative sullenness of Rooney Mara with the crack timing of Anna Kendrick. Emmy Rossum, flashing a joyously wicked cat-who-ate-the-canary grin, supplies devilish charm as Lena's untrustworthy cousin Ridley. And dually cast as a meddlesome holy roller and a vicious high priestess of sorcery, Emma Thompson appears to be having more fun on-screen than she has in nearly two decades. Its middling opening-weekend box office may prevent it from happening, but if LaGravenese and his divine cast want to continue the Twilight theme and treat us to five movies based on the Beautiful series' four books, so far at least, I have no reason to bitch.


Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney in A Good Day to Die HardA GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

"Do you have a plan?" asks John McClane's CIA-operative son at a moment of intense peril. "No," replies John McClane himself. "I thought we'd just run in, guns blazing, making shit up as we go ... ." And that, in a nutshell, is the experience of A Good Day to Die Hard, the fourth sequel to 1988's practically peerless Die Hard, and an action thriller so lacking in wit, panache, and basic sense that it seems to have been made up on the spot, and not at all well. Near the start, there's a flash of hope that this Moscow-based adventure might actually be fun, when Bruce Willis' gruff Manhattan cop enjoys some good-humored repartee with a Russian cabbie who croons a heavily accented "New York, New York." But sadly, fun is in short supply in this visually ugly, incoherently staged, totally unnecessary follow-up that finds the bored-looking Willis acting the prototypical Ugly American in extremis - he punches a Russian in the face for daring to speak to him in Russian - and director John Moore and screenwriter Skip Woods trotting out one hoary, '80s-action-flick cliché after another. (We even get a reprise of that "classic" bit that finds our hero handcuffed to a chair but able to escape his shackles after getting his gun-wielding nemesis to cackle at some dumb joke.) A Good Day to Die Hard is slack and unconvincing and, despite its incessant noise, duller than hell, and watching the film, even its star seems to know it. If you're Bruce Willis, how can you deliver your once-priceless "Yippee-ki-yay, motherf---er" catchphrase in a Die Hard sequel and still manage to sound dead asleep?

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