Friday, August 30, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Children, rejoice, the Twilight Age has ended.  "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" was not its killer, nobody could have killed a phenomenon such as Twilight - trust me, I tried.  Merely the legions of preteen girls and their sexually unsatisfied middle-age mothers moved on, finding some other fad to obsess over.  2013 has swung three times to rebuild the Twilight Golden Goose with three new franchises:  "Beautiful Creatures" - despite being a legitimately decent movie - drowned, "The Host" was a crime against all sentient life, and finally, "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is best ignored entirely.  Teen supernatural romance has ended, as they say, not with a bang, but with an empty theater.

Where between the curiously well-made camp of "Beautiful Creatures" and the unabashed atrocity of "The Host" does "The Mortal Instruments" lie?  Right in the least interesting place:  mediocrity.  Its not surprisingly decent, nor is it so unbelievably awful as to be fascinating.  Its just a pretty lame supernatural adventure, and unfortunately, it carries itself with a kind of self-conscious embarrassed weight.  Almost as if its aware that its hunting after a market that no longer exists, and unable to understand what in the Hell made Stephenie Meyer's vampire nightmare so damn popular, its simply going through the motions, without much of a care if anything its showing or saying will really make an impression.  So naturally no impression is made by anything it shows or says.

As story, "The Mortal Instruments" is essentially every teen girl fiction story ever written:  adolescent discovers she has supernatural powers, making her essential to saving the world, also she meets brooding blond hottie who totally wants her froggy-style.  So its like Harry Potter plus Twilight, sounds like it would be relatively simple, right?  Not at all.  "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is one of the most confusing movies I've seen all year, not because it has a needlessly complicated plot with excess pointless characters and all manner of magic rules that are never well-explained.  But because it introduces all manner of usual plotlines, and just cliffhangers them all, perhaps hoping for a sequel.  So let's drive another two hundred miles on empty, hoping there will be a gas station offering less than three dollars per gallon, I'm sure that will work out just fine, "Mortal Instruments", don't worry.

Why did Twilight managed to be that one huge cultural phenomena that it was?   It almost immediately inspired a pantheon of rip-off book franchises written by mercenary authors dreaming of seeing their names up on the big screen.  For the most part, every rip-off franchise I've seen has turned out to be much much better.  "Beautiful Creatures" was like this wild, almost impossible to imagine moment where this teen romance crap happened to find the right kind of voice, which was shamelessly silly and mildly self-aware.  But that's probably why that movie failed.  The audience - which has already moved on - doesn't want self-aware or high camp.  They want it sincere, sincere in a way that only Stephenie Meyer can bring.  No author would possibly declare their work to be the greatest romance ever written, unless they have no sense of shame or humility, and apparently, there's only one person on Earth who fits that bill:  Meyer.  "City of Bones" here is somehow more despicable than the Twilight films.  Because at least those came from an entirely derange trench of the female id* - making them completely hilarious and fascinating -where "City of Bones" feels like a cynical marketing decision.

Oh them kids like that Harry Potter stuff, and they like that Twilight stuff.  Let's throw them together!  It will make millions!  You know, if you're going to be a stupid vampire romance, go in all the way without any shame, or go so over-the-top and silly that you become interesting again.  This movie tiptoes its way through the motions, unable to really commit to anything, hoping to be just unoffensive enough to get a pass and be a franchise.  Please?  Pretty please with a cherry on top?**

Anyway, let me actually explain what "City of Bones" is, even though I'm sure that my description pretty much killed all interest you had in this movie.  The idea is that New York City is secretly a nexus of supernatural freaks and nightmares, all hidden from our Muggle I mean, Mundane view.  Teenage Girl #34 dreams of adventure beyond her small existence.  I mean, actually, she doesn't do that.  Her character is an entirely vague mixture of Bella Swan and a generic movie female, with almost no personality written in, and almost nothing in terms of hopes or desires.  She doesn't have the slavish obsession with her vampire beau of Bella Swan or the legitimate human dimensions of the "Beautiful Creatures" kids, she's just generic.  Anyway, turns out she's really a Nephilim, which were an Ancient Jewish occult race of the offspring of humans and angels, but in this movie are the considerably less interesting race of demon hunters who like to tattoo themselves which somehow give poorly-explained magical powers.  (Johannes Bach was a demon hunter, didja know?)  Teenage Girl #34 meets Brooding Supernatural Boy #56 all to fight Not-Voldemort #9,895,342.5.   So begins magical adventures across various weird locations against all manner of monsters and things, to save Lena Headly, Teenage Girl #34's mom, and the best actress in this film by far (which is why she's in it for about ten minutes, can't have Cersei Lannister making things too interesting, can we?)

But then again, all of these movies need a love triangle, right?  The Nephilim fight demons in secret to protect humanity, though its never explained why they bother to do this, they just do it because that's how secret orders of demon hunters usually act in stories like this.  For that same reason, there's a love triangle, just because that's how things usually go.  It doesn't really make sense to this particular story, but I don't think Cassandra Clare, writer of "The Mortal Instruments" really particularly cares.  Teenage Girl #34 has this nerdy best friend boy, who has been friendzoned to absolute absurdity.  He immediately wound up becoming my favorite character, if no reason other than I could never figure out why he was in this movie.  After you've seen everything, a plot point you can't really predict becomes the most fascinating.  He briefly gets kidnapped by vampires, and then foreshadows some kind of magical transformation when he mentions that he no longer needs glasses, but this never adds up to anything.  Mostly he's here to get Supernatural Boy #56 massively jealous, to the point of bitchiness.  But like so many plotpoints in this film, Nerdy Boy's existence is probably a set-up to some future story that will get settled eventually, assuming they make a next movie.  (Hint:  they won't.)  But since its never settled, it just add to the massive air of confusion and ridiculousness that pollutes every second of this film.

I suspect that "The Mortal Instruments" might have actually been an adaptation of several books in this series, or roped in plotpoints from other books that didn't exist in the original tome, because the movie feels massively long, even while not really adding up to all that much in terms of story progression.  The titular City of Books shows up for exactly FIVE MINUTES, and it turns out the heroes' visit to there was entirely pointless and the City's only scene could have been cut.  Then again, the editing is all over the place, with several plotpoints being left curiously vague, and several points where the movie lurches forward unnaturally, right over a scene that should have been left it.  Teenage Girl #34 is in a coffee shop with the poor nerd she's roping along and will never ever sleep with, and then the next scene we see her outside with Supernatural Boy #56, did I miss something?

The acting, the casting, the directing, the dialog, it all feels so damn standard.  As in, this is the very least we can do.  The film never manages to develop a tone or personality of its own.  Some scenes have decent enough dialog and clever tricks, like when a homosexual vampire club leader says "I like the pretty one" causing Teenage Girl #34, another demon hunter girl, and Supernatural Boy #56 to all say "thank you".  But that's such an exception to the usual uninteresting slog.  The acting too is all over the map, showing that director, Harald Zwart*** - best known for "Agent Cody Banks" and "The Pink Fucking Panther Fucking 2" - has no place behind the camera.

Then the movie throws me a fastball.  Just when I thought it couldn't possibly be more predictable, Not-Voldemort #9,895,342.5 announces that Teenage Girl #34 is his child, and together they can rule the Galaxy as father and daughter.  But there's more, Supernatural Boy #56 is his son, and her brother.  So boom, INCEST.   (The whole movie, Dude #56, who played one of the damn Vulturi from Twilight looked to be ten years older than the girl anyway, so it was never not creepy.)  I think I flipped over in my seat when that got thrown out, this is exactly the incest map of Star Wars!  So far we haven't had any of the weird perversions of Twilight, then brother sister incest.  Good thing they only kissed that one time... and then totally made-out.  Or maybe they aren't brother and sister, the movie can't seem to decide.  And that's the cliffhanger we're left on.  Will these two fuck even though there's a chance doing so might turn them into unholy abominations?  But even this is barely given much examination at all, just a thirty second brief conversation and an awkward bike ride.  Can't we have just one wonderfully freaky kink for me to mock?  Go balls deep, come on!  In the Meyer-verse there's a werewolf humping a baby - that's comedy gold.  Come on!

Here's my advice.  If you're looking for something beautifully awful to laugh at, there's always the Twilight films.  If you actually want a decently-performed teen romance, there's "Beautiful Creatures".  If you want something violently generic, there's "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bores".

I, for one, can't help but feel somewhat depressed about this whole thing.  For years now, the Twilight films have represented a rare strain of reliably awful entertainment, something I could sit down and mock every year.  I had fun having a punching bag to rip into, we all did.  Now its over.  Its so over that even its rip-offs are over.  I barely laughed at all during "The Mortal Instruments" and when I did, it was from appropriate moments, when the screenwriter actually wrote a decently funny line.  Is there anything stupid and shameless enough to take Twilight's place?  Unfortunately no.  Its over.  We were blessed for a short time with a series of absolutely awful, hideously disgusting, murderously lousy movies, and its over.  We can only look back, with pleasant memories, of the shit age we once had.

* And really, after so much macho blockbusters and male gaze comedies, which are typically written with only a single female character - if that - I guess the girls deserve one Twilight.  We can have The Fast and the Furious, The Transporter, Transformers, Star Wars, Superheroes, 80s action movies, war movies, kung fu, Dragon Ball Z, and Power Rangers, they get Twilight.  Okay?  Of course, now we men also have to compete with impossibly pretty skinny supermodels, so maybe we just doomed the species.

** America's answer:  No.

*** One of the few directors whose name is dumb enough that he could have been a character in this movie.  Harald Zwart sounds perfectly natural next to Magnus Bane, right?

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