Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones — Completely mundane

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense fantasy violence and action, and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Every time I endure a clumsy fantasy such as this one, I’m reminded of what a rare and wonderful creature television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, during its run from 1997 through 2003.

Our so-called heroine is Clary (Lily Collins), the one cowering at the far right. Despite
some intriguing powers, she's pretty useless in a fight, unlike her new colleague
Isabelle (Jemima West), every inch a gritty warrior. Goodness, even Clary's longtime
— and fully human — friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), despite his constant terror, is
more resourceful.
Which is to say, I’m reminded of the care that Buffy creator Joss Whedon took, with respect to characters, plotlines and — most essential of all — tone. Buffy was droll without being stupid, and Whedon and his fellow writers rigorously obeyed the rules that had been set forth, sometimes years earlier.

And if characters developed a fondness for each other — sometimes pairing off in highly unexpected fashion — they did so reasonably maturely (well, allowing for the crazed parameters of the show’s universe, anyway). They behaved like strong, self-assured and intelligent young adults. Most of the time. When not driven by ill-advised impulses ... but, even then, we rarely rolled our eyes in scorn.

Whedon respected us, as viewers.

In great contrast, director Harald Zwart and scripter Jessica Postigo don’t respect us at all, with their big-screen adaptation of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. It’s the epitome of a dumb fantasy, and its core characters — male or female — behave, at all times, like puerile little girls with absolutely no control over their emotions.

Which begs the question: What is this film’s target audience? The violence and monsters are too vicious for 8-year-olds, but the material and tone are too juvenile for older tweens and teens.

I hoped, going in, that this film would be a gender-flipped Harry Potter clone, with a stalwart female lead whom viewers could embrace. Instead, Zwart borrows much more heavily from the long-suffering sighs, pouty expressions and moronic motivations typical of the Twilight series. Our so-called heroine, Clary, simply isn’t worthy. And if our mortal realm honestly depends on her — and her hormones-in-hyperdrive “Scooby gang” — for survival, then we’re all in a lotta trouble.

Zwart’s film is based on the young adult fantasy series by Cassandra Clare (actually a nom de plume for Judith Rumelt), currently up to six books and counting. I’m not familiar with the books, and therefore unsure who to blame for this film’s breathlessly melodramatic tone. Perhaps Postigo made the best of what she was given, in which case Clare’s young readers deserve better.

But I can say this much with certainty: The film frequently feels more like a genre rip-off than a fantasy homage, whether dealing with little details — referring to us ordinary types as “mundanes,” a term swiped from both Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels and television’s Babylon 5 — and larger plot twists, such as a familial theme shamelessly snitched from the Star Wars series.

Factor in a longstanding antipathy between werewolves and our “Shadowhunter” protagonists, and one can’t help hearing echoes of the Twilight books, as well. Indeed, it feels as though Postigo (and/or Clare) borrowed key elements from several existing (superior) properties, mashed ’em all together and expected a result that, by definition, couldn’t help being just as popular.

Doesn’t work that way.

Mostly, though, I’m irritated by Postigo’s reliance on half-baked plot developments, absurd narrative twists and characters who can’t decide whether to be good, evil or something in between. Then, too, it’s mighty convenient that all these nasty demons can appear and disappear at will, be all-powerful enough to kill in the blink of an eye — victims hauled away, screaming, before we can register the attack — and yet be dispatched deftly by our heroes whenever a given scene demands as much.

Once again — and how many times have I complained, bitterly, about this? — our heroes and villains are only as strong, or as weak, as they need to be, at a given moment. All of which gives this film a slapdash feel, its momentum akin to the random behavior of a pinball machine.

The plot, such as it is:

Of late, Brooklyn-based Clarissa “Clary” Fray (Lily Collins) has been obsessed with an odd symbol that she keeps doodling, even in her sleep. This clearly troubles her mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), who exchanges worried glances with longtime family friend Luke (Aidan Turner). Jocelyn’s husband — Clary’s father — is long out of the picture.

Then, while visiting a nightclub with best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary witnesses a horrific murder committed by a hooded young man with eerie eyes; oddly, nobody else in the club notices anything amiss.

Clary soon meets this fellow more formally, learning that he’s Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower). He explains — knowing that she won’t believe him — that he’s a veteran demon hunter, a Shadowhunter, and that the apparent “murder” was merely a demon being dispatched. Indeed, Clary doesn’t accept this crazed information ... but then she receives a frantic phone call from her mother, hurries home to find the place trashed and her mother gone, and very nearly loses her own life to a ghastly dog-type monster (a “ravener demon,” for those keeping track).

Jace, trying to be helpful, takes Clary — and tag-along Simon — to The Institute, a Shadowhunter stronghold whose mentor, Hodge (Jared Harris), possesses the wisdom to teach her how to control and use an increasing variety of supernatural talents.

At least, that’s what should happen next. But we see little evidence of actual training; Clary spends all her time mooning over the hunky Jace, much to the displeasure of both Simon — who has loved her from afar, since childhood — and fellow Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood (Kevin Zegers), who has his own not-so-secret crush on Jace. Cue romantic interludes, chaste kisses and bosom-heaving sighs, particularly every time Clary glances at Jace, who obligingly flips his long blond hair in the manner of a male model in a bodice-ripping romance novel cover shoot.

Okay, minor points to all concerned for the unusual romantic trapezoid, with two corners occupied by a potential gay relationship. But this development is handled with bizarre incompetence by Postigo, who has Clary confront Alec over his concealed desires, only to abandon this plot thread for the rest of the film. And while this heated exchange between Clary and Alec is lifted directly from Clare’s novel, the point is that Zwart doesn’t elicit believable performances from his two actors, as they squabble. The result is unintentionally hilarious. And painful.

But the gag-me-with-a-pitchfork moment arrives when Jace and Clary, enjoying some quiet time in The Institute’s attic greenhouse, wander among the plants in what becomes a music montage, with a maudlin, third-rate love song complementing their mutual come-hither expressions.

Can you imagine a Harry Potter movie interrupted by such a gratuitous sequence? The howls from enraged fans would have been heard for miles.

Is this still the state of things, in the 21st century? Where is it written that girl-oriented fantasy must be marred by such soggy, sentimental, senses-dulling slush?

But I digress.

Our primary cast is completed by Isabelle (Jemima West), Alec’s battle-hardened sister, who is every inch the take-charge warrior that we wish Clary could be. Should be.

Everything subsequently revolves around the “Mortal Cup,” a mystical totem bequeathed to the original, long-ago Shadowhunters by the angel Raziel, and which now is sought by the evil Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his two vicious acolytes, Blackwell and Pangborn (Robert Maillet and Kevin Durand). The latter remind me an awful lot of Croup and Vandemar, the vicious acolytes from Neil Gaiman’s 1996 TV miniseries-turned-novel Neverwhere.

In fairness, Zwart and Postigo handle a few things fairly well, most notably Clary’s various encounters with her spooky, fortune-teller neighbor (CCH Pounder, playing the part superbly). I also got a kick out of J.S. Bach’s historical role as an early Shadowhunter.

On the other hand, it’s rather odd that a story subtitled City of Bones spends only a few minutes within the actual, mystical “city of bones” ... and to no effect, I might add. Frankly, given this film’s primary focus, it should have been titled The Mortal Instruments: Young Love at The Institute.

Collins, perhaps remembered as Snow White in last year’s lamentable Mirror, Mirror, tries to make something of her character, but she’s given little by Postigo’s script; Clary is the least interesting character in this story, which is bad news for a so-called heroine. Zegers’ Alec remains a cipher, and Headey remains underused as Clary’s mother.

West fares better as Isabelle, and Godfrey Gao makes a strong impression as Magnus Bane, the High Warlock of Brooklyn. Sheehan does reasonably well as the love-struck Simon, also the focus of a subtle plot device left unresolved, apparently in anticipation of a sequel (and good luck with that). And poor Harris can’t begin to get a bead on his performance as Hodge, whose allegiance seems to shift by the nanosecond.

Bower delivers the strongest performance, his Jace a young man of genuine mystery. Bower carries himself properly, looks capable in a demon-infested fight, and is the only cast member capable of putting the correct spin on a sarcastic one-liner. Everybody else flops miserably, while trying to deliver a quip; the so-called jokes rip us out of the story every time.

It’s also impossible to track how we’re supposed to feel about whom, during the course of a 120-minute flick that overstays its welcome by at least half an hour.

Jace warns Clary, early on, that demons can take on any form, without a “mundane” being able to tell, and that she should trust nobody.

He should have warned us viewers not to trust Zwart and Postigo, because they’ve absolutely no feel for this genre.

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