Monday, August 26, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones / *1/2 (2013)

There have been countless pictures featuring actors who basically phone in their performances, but “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is the first in a while in which the screenplay encourages that laziness. Penned by newcomer Jessica Prostigo, the movie plays like one of those film school experiments where everyone on set remains aloof from the material because their drive is dictated by getting class assignments out of the way rather than having passion for the craft. She and her director Harald Zwart find an odd choice to exhibit this behavior for, however: the movie is the first based on a popular series of young adult novels penned by Cassandra Claire, which by definition would suggest that they might have a stake in its success. Instead what we get is a result with a bad case of attention deficit, built around clichés and half-inspired visual and narrative gimmicks in which characters pass through scenes of flashy textures, discuss predicaments with inane dialogue, and occasionally stop to kiss one another when the soundtrack cuts to a pop song.

There is a dialogue exchange early on that foreshadows these problems. The heroine Clary (Lily Collins) discovers that her mother is a “shadow walker,” part of an elite group of people assigned to fight and kill demons, and is bewildered by the prospect that she, too, will follow in those footsteps. But she doesn’t remember any piece of her childhood where something might have been amiss, to which another character suggests her memory was wiped clean by her mom. Her retort: “I don’t remember anything she would want me to forget.” See the roundabout way it reveals nothing? The whole movie plays like that. It is a two hour exercise of circular vagueness in which a lot is spoken but little is said, bringing audiences no closer to understanding what the general attempt is here other than flashy camera edits used to create the illusion of a lot of things going on.

Bear with me as I attempt to explain what I know of the story. Clary is a young girl living the traditional life in the city, but has an unconscious impulse to sketch the same symbol over and over on random scratch paper (if you’ve seen the promo images, you know what I am referring to: it looks like a rune with devil horns). She knows nothing of what it means, but her mother’s quick dismissal of it indicates it signifies something great. But she, alas, isn’t privy to the details until far too late: one night at a club, Clary sees someone being murdered and screams, which alarms the perpetrators because no one else but her can actually see them.

The next day, one of them named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) follows her to the coffee shop and they exchange outburst in the back alley. “What does this symbol mean!?” she demands. “Why can I see you and no one else can?” He veers off on vague tangents that lead to one key observation: “You’re not a mundane.” What is a mundane, exactly? Think of the Muggles from the Harry Potter universe: they are human beings without that magic gene that allows them to enroll in places like Hogwarts. Unfortunately for the characters in “The Mortal Instruments,” being more than a mundane means you are sentenced to an existence that involves tracking down demonic entities and slaying them with fancy weapons that radiate a blue hue. The young adult genre prides itself on telling stories that allow characters from normal walks of life to be swept into tales of adventurous peril, but here she seems more like a kid caught up in a runway show of fashion models pretending to be actors. Scarcely a scene goes by, in fact, when one of the players (good guy or otherwise) is not viewed through a lens that accentuates cleavage or open shirts revealing abdominal definition.

The “City of Bones” referenced in the title, I guess, is kind of a mortuary of sorts for the remains of dead shadow hunters, which the movie displays in one brief scene that requires Clary to undergo some kind of total recall of her missing memories. The beings who preside over this underground mausoleum are called “silent brothers” and have stitched mouths and empty eye sockets but still manage to somehow see their surroundings and speak in low rumbles. But they provide Clary with various fragments of missing memories, which allows her to help propel the story forward. Her mother has gone missing because she snatched and hid an artifact from her colleagues years before called the Mortal Cup, and a sect of rebellious hunters wants it back. The cup, I guess, gives the hunters their strength and allows them to replicate, but a vindictive hunter named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has darker intentions for it involving some sort of blood merger between demons and his own kind.

This is a premise that might work in the hands of more eager filmmakers, but here it is reduced to a collection of fragmented scenes designed to mystify and infuriate. Zwart’s direction is indicative of someone who is in over his head, and he photographs the content more like a cameraman tossing around the equipment in a fit of rage. But the primary problems are in the screenplay, which plays like a paste job from textbook examples of clichés to avoid in Screenwriting 101. Consider some of the choices in the things these characters shout at each other. “Demons don’t die easily!” “You killed a cop!” “They weren’t real cops!” (The latter is repeated three times in sequence). One has to wonder what the writer of the original books thinks of all of these choices in outbursts, assuming she could stop laughing long enough to convey those feelings.

Those are not even the biggest offenses. Consider the lapses in logic contained in two critical sequences, and think for a moment if you would allow yourself to not ask vital questions on the set before moving on. In the first, Jace explains to Clary that the great composer Johan Sebastian Bach was also a shadow hunter (!), and that a series of complicated piano riffs he created are actually a ruse to lure demons out of hiding – this is followed by a scene in which he plays the same riff on a piano and gets an agitated response from someone in the room, and Clary pays no heed to the warning so that she can reveal the whereabouts of the Mortal Cup. A great follow-up scene would have contained Jace chastising her for failing to remember that crucial factoid from the prior scene, but that requires a character to be smart enough to realize it in the first place, I suppose.

Later still, when the young shadow hunter learns that she can create runes out of thin air that have differing spell effects than those scribbled in the shadow hunter textbooks, she makes one on the spot that freezes demons in place long enough for she and a group of comrades to move from one corridor to the next without being attacked. Obvious question: why didn’t anyone just slaughter the frozen demons before moving on? Why keep going and then act all surprised when they regain their movement and then try to ambush everyone from behind? The teenagers at the viewing I attended picked up instantly on this oversight, suggesting that they may have been better choices at writing a script. Those sentiments are topped even later in the film when another random rune tattoo is crafted that allows her to move furniture and clean an apartment with just the wave of a forearm. Suggestion for the sequel: have her create another that allows her to escape this story and find refuge in a more intelligent one.

“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is probably as well-intentioned a teenage fantasy as the “Twilight” films, but it is such a lethargic mess that it inspires no desire in us to understand the material beyond just a simple outline. This wasn’t true of other famous movie franchises like “Harry Potter,” which had its own struggles early on but left behind trickles of intrigue that encouraged one to explore the story deeper, even if it involved descending into J.K. Rowling’s writing. That becomes kind of a necessity in an ongoing series of stories when you invite viewers in that have no exposure to the source. Other obligatory inclusions, of course, are intriguing storytelling, well-drawn characters and a conflict that builds a sense of tension – all of which stand on their own. Now comes the first movie of its kind to opt out of that responsibility, a picture so lacking in ambition and energy that you can almost imagine everyone involved making key decisions from the comfort of a Barcalounger.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Fantasy (US); 2013; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action, and some suggestive content; Running Time: 130 Minutes

Lily Collins: Clary
Jamie Campbell Bower: Jace
Kevin Zegers: Alec
Jemima West: Isabelle
Robert Sheehan: Simon

Produced by
Don Carmody, Hartley Gorenstein, Robert Kulzer, Michael Lynne, Martin Moszkowicz, Dylan Sellers, Robert Shaye and Veslemøy Ruud ZwartDirected by Harald Zwart; Written by Jessica Prostigo; based on the novel by Cassandra Claire


Anonymous said...

I like your critique bro! And I must say, I absolutely agree with you. I don't see any shining future for the sequel of this movie

Anonymous said...

Yep we were all annoyed about the lapses of logic in the film. It seemed that they barely though about scenes such as the piano one. The bit where the demons all started to unfreeze and attack them just seemed like a lazy way to create more action and drama (cos Luke is put into danger.)

Also did Simon get turned into a vampire or did he not? Because after they rescue him from the vampire den and Clary is talking to him, there's a shot where it zooms in on two little pinpricks of blood on the front of his neck. There's a bit of dramatic music, and then the whole plot-point is tossed aside.

Does Clary tell anyone that Simon might be a vampire? Of course not, she skips off to snog Jace instead.

It's never touched on again and poor Simon remains generic, or should I say "mundane"

Migaira said...

After enjoying the books (nice holiday read), I was rather disappointed in the movie. The main character cast was ok, but the translation of CC's world was surely lacking - although the movie was definitely long enough. Instead of once using the word "stele", superfluous scenes like this completely unnecessary story about Bach (I really can't remember reading that) and the playing around with the portal were introduced. Also putting up a half-naked Simon in the "Hotel du mort" like a modern day Jesus rather than sticking to the book where he had been transformed into a rat and accidentally picked up by the vampires was probably just for teenage girls' eyes.
I like a good fantasy story and don't mind jumbling pieces of other fantasy stories together, and rather see it as a homage - since Simon does that himself in the books, referring to dungeons and dragons as well as Star Wars himself. There's no bad in it and as for "convoluted story world", fantasy fans know how to deal with that. Those are the bits and details which make up the fabric of the fantasy world.
The lack of those details (very variable demon races, more stringent story) really disappointed me in the movie. Also putting all the secrets they have to hunt after in the book, like who was Clary's mother, what, in the movie, they so conveniently find in picture books on the table, and, worst, that they tell the audience from the beginning that the pretense of Clary and Jace being siblings is a lie, takes away a lot of the suspense. Probably, presenting a budding love couple as potentially brother and sister might have risen an uproar in audiences or might have messed with the PG 13.
After all, what remains on the positive side is the casting of the young actors. Not to bad if they are going to learn how to keep their clothes on (especially the men).

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