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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

by Kevin Taft
Contributor
Wednesday Aug 21, 2013
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Jamie Campbell and Lily Collins star in ’The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’
Jamie Campbell and Lily Collins star in ’The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’  (Source:Sony Pictures Classics)

Hoping to find some sparkle like Edward Cullen on a sunny day, Sony’s new Young Adult lit-turned-big budget motion picture "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is set to take the world by storm. But with a late August release, do they have any faith in it?

Based on a series of books (and eventual spin-offs), "City of Bones" is the first of the original collection of "The Mortal Instruments" fantasy novels by Cassandra Clare. The narrative thread concerns a girl named Clarissa "Clary" Fray (Lily Collins) who discovers she has a very close connection to an underworld of Shadowhunters -- a group of angel-human warriors who battle demons in order to protect the world.

The film opens on Clary’s birthday and she quickly heads off to spend the night with her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) at a poetry reading. After being bored out of their minds, they roam the streets of New York when a mysterious symbol catches Clary’s eye -- a symbol she has been absently drawing all over her room. The symbol is a part of a night-club sign (although she’s the only person who can see it) so she gets in and that’s when she witnesses a strange ritualistic murder performed by a strange leather clad guy named Jace (Jamie Bower Campbell). Again, no one is witness to this but her which, of course, makes her a target, because clearly something is different about Clary.

Before you know it, her mother has been kidnapped by demons and everyone is on the hunt for Clary. She eventually teams up with a band of Shadowhunters in order to find a chalice called The Mortal Cup that is being sought out by the demons themselves. The artifact in question is a cup responsible for the creation of the Shadowhunters a thousand years before; since then, it’s been hidden by Clary’s missing mother.

Directed by Harald Zwart ("The Karate Kid") and written by newcomer Jessica Postigo Paquette, "City of Bones" is a fairly entertaining combination of "Twilight" and "Percy Jackson." While it has some original elements, it does feel a bit like we’ve been down this road before. In fact, last Spring’s "Beautiful Creatures" (also based on a YA novel) has a similar storyline. It seems as though the popularity of "Twilight" gave way to gothic romance YA fiction that all revolves around magic in the modern world, where either a mortal ends up being infused with supernatural powers, or a mythical creature in the guise of a hot guy or girl falls for a mortal.

While the story is clearly of a preternatural nature, the actors sell it with just enough of "what the hell is going on" gob-smackedness that it makes the crazier stuff go down easily.

This is no different, except insofar as it’s a bit more clever than most films of its genre and the dialogue is sometimes reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s writing during his "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" days. While the story is clearly of a preternatural nature, the actors sell it with just enough of "what the hell is going on" gob-smackedness that it makes the crazier stuff go down easily.

The able cast is led by the daughter of singer Phil Collins, Lily, whose last outing was playing Snow White in the abysmal "Mirror Mirror." Here she is funny, tough, and vulnerable in equal measure. Her best friend Simon, who is clearly in love with her (even though she is clueless about it), is also charming. He’s the Xander of the bunch (for you "Buffy aficionados") and acts as the doubting Thomas, but is still able to kick some butt when things get freaky. The romantic lead is the Shadowhunter Jace and Campbell is effective, although his look more or less calls to mind a eurotrash 80’s rock star so it’s not always easy to buy Clary’s attraction to him. That said, he holds his own and brings enough presence to the character that you are still engaged with him.

The supporting cast includes CCH Pounder as Clary’s palm-reading neighbor, Jared Harris as a teacher for the Shadowhunters who hides a secret past, and Lena Heady ("Game of Thrones") as Clary’s mom. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has a smaller role (for now) as Valentine Morgenstern -- a renegade Shadowhunter who desperately wants the Mortal Cup so he can create his own hybrid race of hunters. Or something like that.

Within the inventiveness of the world Clare has created, there are a lot of subplots, side characters and rules, so much so that by the second half of the film it gets hopelessly bogged down in its own mythology. This can make the audience start to check out. After the film was over, I had to ask my friend (who had read the book) a slew of questions so I could keep the story straight. It’s probably not the best end result when the casual viewer has to ask directions to get through the narrative tangle, but on the other hand, screenwriter Paquette does a commendable job of translating the book into a movie rather than a miniseries.

The special effects are plentiful and impressive. Even better, Zwart somehow manages to keep all of his players on the chess board. With demons, hunters, vampires, werewolves, and fire creatures, there is a lot to move around. Kudos to him for keeping it relatively fresh. He thankfully allows his audience to see the action (rather than editing it to shreds) and maintains a modicum of suspense throughout.

While "The Mortal Bones" doesn’t smell like a new franchise in the vein of "Harry Potter" or "Twilight," it’s still pretty entertaining and a fun distraction for the closing of summer. Older audiences probably won’t take to it, but the younger set will find it to be pleasurable enough that they might stick around for part two which is currently in pre-production.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to ’Star Wars’ and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg. He can be seen in the flesh on the weekly PBS movie review series "Just Seen It."

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