Saturday, May 28, 2011

May Quick Picks and Pans

Tokyo Godfathers (2003) Director/co-writer Satoshi Kon spins a tale about an unlikely trio of homeless people who discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve.  The dramatis personae are: Gin, a middle-aged man who subsequently lost his wife, his daughter, and his job; Hana, a drag queen who just wants to belong somewhere; and Miyuki, a jaded 16-year-old runaway girl who’s haunted by an incident in her recent past.  Their only link to the baby’s origins is a public locker key, leading them to a few scant clues.  They name the baby Kiyoko (meaning “pure child“), and set off to find out who her mother is, and why she was abandoned.   Each of the three primary characters has a gaping hole in his or her life, and the baby somehow fills that void.  Either wittingly or unwittingly, they acquire a sense of purpose because of their quixotic adventures with the infant, winding their way through the streets of Tokyo, looking for clues that will lead them back to the parents. 

There are a series of serendipitous events in Tokyo Godfathers that will seem life affirming or frustratingly contrived, depending on your point of view.  Are these events major coincidences or minor miracles?  You’ll have to decide.  What Tokyo Godfathers does best is capture the gritty realism of life on the streets of Tokyo, with memorable and quirky characters.  The lively animation and detailed cityscapes paint a picture of a modern Tokyo, warts and all.  A photorealistic Tokyo Tower looms prominently in the background, lording over the city’s drama like a silent Greek chorus.  Satoshi Kon hits all the right notes with the overall tone, displaying a deftness of balancing comedy with drama that distinguishes the best anime from its heavy-handed American counterparts.  It’s hilarious at times, while other times touching, but never to the point of feeling saccharine. Highly recommended.
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Plague of the Zombies (1966) Some have cited Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies as a key influence on Night of the Living Dead, which arrived on the scene two years later.  Personally, I don’t see the connection.  There are significant differences between the depictions of zombies in both films.  Night of the Living Dead represented a milestone in the zombie genre, reflecting more modern sensibilities and a pseudo-scientific cause for the outbreak.   Plague of the Zombies is grounded in more traditional representations, as depicted in such films as White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, where voodoo rituals are the catalyst.  Another primary distinction is that the Zombies in Plague of the Zombies are under human control, while the George Romero zombies are relatively autonomous.

Dr. James Forbes visits his protégé, Peter Tompson, in a small village dominated by ignorance and suspicion of outsiders.  Twelve villagers have died, in as many months, of an unknown illness.  Forbes and Thompson are unable to investigate further because autopsies are prohibited by the scheming local magistrate, played by John Carson.  Vexed by the lack of progress, the doctors decide to take matters into their own hands.  Plague of the Zombies starts off with a bang, but sags in the middle, and suffers from a somewhat lugubrious pace.  Like many Hammer productions, however, it saves most of the action for the final scenes.  The sporadic zombie mayhem is more atmospheric than scary.  Although it’s not quite the trailblazing flick it’s been hyped to be, it’s still a worthy entry in the overall genre, and deserves a look.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

The Legend of 1900 (1999) Tim Roth stars in this flawed but fascinating film, about a man who lives his entire life on an ocean liner, never once setting foot on land.  Taken at face value, it’s more than a little unbelievable, but it has a way of getting under your skin.  The Legend of 1900 is galvanized by Roth’s enigmatic performance as 1900 (Yes, that’s the character’s name.), who was born and subsequently abandoned on the ship Virginian and raised by a coal stoker.  1900 is immensely talented as a jazz pianist, but unwilling to go beyond the confines of the ship.  There’s something admirable and pathetic about 1900, with his uncompromising ideals and impenetrable shell.  He enjoys the peripatetic lifestyle of living on a ship, passively watching things from port to port, but never actively participating in what goes on from the land.  Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore sets a tone that shifts from dramatic to whimsical, often in the same scene.  The Legend of 1900 is inconsistent and frustrating at times, full of many unanswered questions.  The film does not bother to answer how 1900 managed to stay on the ship all of these years, but Tornatore is interested in the broad strokes, not the details.  He endows the film with an almost dreamlike quality, which carries over to 1900’s view of the world.  Tornatore appears to be winking at you the whole time, with a film that’s silly at times, sporadically amusing, but never pretentious.  If you can manage to turn off your cynicism for a couple of hours, you might just fall under its spell, and sympathize with 1900’s perspective.  After all, stepping off the ship would be analogous to stepping out of a dream, and who really wants a good dream to end?

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD. 

Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg) (1962)  This little known Hammer film was released in the States under the unfortunate title of Night Creatures, instead of the better Captain Clegg, as it’s known elsewhere.  American distributors probably wanted to capitalize on Hammer’s reputation for horror films, but it’s something else entirely.  Part pirate tale, part intrigue, Night Creatures features Peter Cushing, in one of his best performances, as the mysterious Dr. Blyss, who works with local bootleggers to outsmart the British Royal Navy in a game of cat and mouse.  Cushing apparently relished his role as Blyss, and it shows.  He infuses his character with a lot of wry wit and humor, which you don’t normally associate with Cushing.  According to the Marcus Hearn’s informative book, The Hammer Story, Cushing himself wrote the screenplays for two sequels, which sadly were never produced.  It’s too bad that the world will never know where Cushing would have taken his character in later chapters, but at least we have this film, capturing him in his prime.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Old Dark House

(1963) Directed by William Castle; Written by: Robert Dillon; Based on a novel by: J.B. Priestley; Starring: Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott and Joyce Grenfell
Available format: DVD

Rating: *** ½ 

The Old Dark House is best described as a macabre comedy/mystery. This odd little production was the result of an unholy alliance between William Castle and Hammer Productions. Considering the sensibilities of both parties, it certainly looked like a great match on paper, and for the most part it works. The Old Dark House has the distinction of being one of the least conventional Hammer films and one of the more straightforward Castle films. The film was bereft of Castle’s usual gimmickry, but rife with eccentric characters. It’s easy to see why the distributors didn’t know what to make of it when it was initially released in 1963, then re-released in 1966 (in color, but missing several minutes of footage). The film was based on the same J.B. Priestley story that spawned the classic 1932 movie with Boris Karloff, but this is a different beast altogether, with an emphasis on humor and general weirdness instead of atmospheric scares.  

The animated opening credit sequence, with drawings by Charles Addams, evokes comparison with one of his best known creations, The Addams Family. There’s a similar darkly whimsical tone throughout The Old Dark House that combines odd characters with gallows humor. Most of the story takes place within the confines of Femm Hall, and concerns the residents’ efforts to secure their pirate ancestor’s inheritance. The fortune will be distributed among the remaining descendents, but there are some specific, bizarre stipulations.  The rudimentary plot is merely a flimsy framework that exists to showcase Femm Hall’s weird ensemble.  The fewer descendents that survive, the less there is to share. This results in a rising body count, as we’re left to wonder whodunit.

Tom Poston plays Tom Penderel, who’s probably the only sane person in this film. He’s an American living in England, and shares a flat with Casper (Peter Bull, who also plays his twin brother Jasper). Casper, who’s noticeably absent in the evenings, invites Tom to accompany him to the family estate. Unfortunately for Tom, Casper’s untimely demise plunges him into the middle of the family’s drama. Tom seems bland by comparison to the other characters, but his purpose is clearly to provide an everyman for the audience to identify with -- a safe harbor sheltered from a sea of weirdos.

Fenella Fielding is the amorous Morgana, isolated from the outside world and starving for affection. Fielding provides an over the top, but not off the rails comic performance.  Morgana’s overtly seductive behavior makes Tom instantly ill at ease whenever she’s in the room, which only encourages her more. Her advances are continually thwarted by her unstable father, Morgan (Danny Green).  We learn that her previous boyfriend fell victim to Morgan’s paternal jealousy, and vanished under mysterious circumstances  Tom fears, not unjustly, that he will be next.

Janette Scott is Morgana’s less flashy, but no less enigmatic, cousin Cecily. There is a mutual attraction between Cecily and Tom, but she implores him to get out while he can. In a house full of loonies, she’s arguably the most “normal” of the bunch.  Based on Femm Hall’s other residents, we’re left to wonder what secrets she might hide.

Robert Morley portrays the gun-obsessed Uncle Roderick. On account of his dubious hobby and unpredictable nature, he seems the most likely suspect in the recent killings. Rounding out the cast are the elder members of the Femm clan, Potiphar and Agatha. Both are ensconced in their own time-consuming hobbies, which involve building an ark (already populated with animals) and incessantly knitting, respectively.

The Old Dark House could easily be dismissed as a weakly plotted assortment of goofball characters and not much else, and you would be right. It’s not liable to wind up on anyone’s “best” list for Hammer or William Castle films, but that would be selling this film short.  It’s certainly fun in its own right, and not without its requisite charms, if you’re up to the ride. There’s a darkly pervasive silliness throughout, that’s oddly infectious, although it probably won’t appeal to everyone’s taste. If you’re in the mood for a twisted house double feature, The Old Dark House would make a good pairing with the even stranger film House (read my review here).  Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Hit

(1984) Directed by Stephen Frears; Written by: Peter Prince; Starring: Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth; Laura del Sol; Available on DVD

Rating: **** 

Here are three words that are seldom associated with each other: existentialist crime drama.  The Hit rises above a genre that’s admittedly not my favorite, thanks in no small part to the depth of the performances by the lead actors, and the film’s contemplative nature.  One might argue that this is actually a road movie, since most of the action takes place in one car or another, and we learn a little about each character during the course of their travel.  Of course, in this road movie, they’re not buddies, but mortal enemies engaged in a life-or-death struggle.

Terence Stamp stars as Willie Parker, member of a notorious London crime syndicate.   The film begins in the 1970s, as he testifies against several of his associates.  Flash forward ten years later...  He’s been hiding out in a Spanish villa, but it’s only a matter of time before his whereabouts are discovered.  Soon enough, he’s abducted by a band of thugs for hire, and he’s back in arms of the London crime lords, or at least their agents.  There’s no way out, as he’s whisked away in a car, bound for the French border where his execution awaits.  Just because Parker is their captive, however, does not imply that he’s passive about his impending fate.  He has a way with slowly getting under his captors’ skin, finding subtle methods of turning the screws a little bit tighter each time.   His words have an infectious quality on those around him, as he plants seeds of doubt and watches them subsequently germinate and take root. 

Braddock, played with icy conviction by John Hurt, is Parker’s designated hitman.  He approaches his current assignment with a been-there, done-that sense of weariness.  This particular job is just one of many.  It’s only business after all, nothing personal.  Braddock does his best to play the role of the cold killer, maintaining an impenetrable exterior for all to see.  He’s the toughest nut to crack, but Parker still finds the gaps in his armor.  As mistakes are increasingly made and plans are not going as smoothly as intended, he begins to doubt his own judgment.

Braddock’s eager apprentice Myron is played by Tim Roth, in his first theatrical role.   Myron’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the hardware store, but makes up for any inadequacies with bravado.  He’s full of tough talk, without much to back it up.  He’s blinded by the prospect of making a quick 1,000 quid, without considering the potential pitfalls and inherently duplicitous nature of his chosen profession.  Parker zeroes in on Myron’s myriad weaknesses, imploring him to question what’s going on, while implying that he’s not quite up to this business.  Myron’s ensuing missteps simply add to the mounting confusion.

Laura del Sol portrays Maggie, the wild card in the deck.  Her involvement is purely accidental, but she’s sucked into the situation when she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She’s a witness to everything that’s going on, an unintended consequence that Braddock couldn’t foresee.  Now, she’s just collateral, as far as Braddock is concerned, but Maggie is more resourceful than she initially appears.

Above all, the primary reason to see The Hit is Terence Stamp’s brilliant performance as Parker.  Parker is unnaturally calm about his fate, which seems to put everyone else on edge.  He sees a bigger picture, however, existing on a different philosophical plane than the other characters.  The last ten years were productive ones, as he fortified his mind instead of lying wait in fear of the inevitable.  During the course of his impromptu education, he stumbled upon certain universal principles that put his mind at ease.  When he confronts Myron with the realization that everyone dies eventually, Myron seems completely dumbstruck by this obvious truth.  It’s clear that Myron has never really stopped to look beyond the here and now.  Parker also points out the symmetry of life and death, and how we return to the same state of nothingness when we die, as before we were born.  There is a nice scene later in the film when he’s standing amidst a rolling brook in a lush, wooded area, drinking in the serenity of the moment.  Escape is not part of his plan.

The conclusion of The Hit is a bit of a letdown, considering the dialogue and tense moments between the characters.  The ending suffers by comparison to the rest of the film, seeming a little standard with regard to what preceded it.  Maybe this is the only way things could have gone, but I still enjoyed the ride with Parker while it lasted.  If nothing else, Parker illustrated how all good things eventually come to an end.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Classics Revisited: Time After Time

(1979) Written and Directed by Nicholas Meyer; Based on a novel by Karl Alexander; Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½ 

What’s It About?

What if H.G. Wells had actually constructed a functional time machine so that he could witness the future utopian society that he had long envisioned?  Time After Time begins with this premise and runs with it, having fun along the way by contrasting 19th and 20th century societies.

The story begins in 1893 London.  Jack the Ripper is loose in the streets of Whitechapel, and another prostitute has met her untimely end.  The trail leads to Wells’ friend, John Leslie Stevenson, who arrives late for a dinner party.  Stevenson successfully evades the police by escaping into the future with Wells’ time machine.  Wells takes it upon himself to pursue Stevenson to modern-day San Francisco and bring him to justice.

H.G. Wells is played by everyone’s favorite droog, Malcolm McDowell (in a rare protagonist role).  He must have enjoyed this casting choice, considering that his co-star, David Warner is stuck playing Jack the Ripper.  Over the years, McDowell and Warner have usually been typecast in villain roles, so it begs the question, did they flip a coin to determine who’d play the bad guy and who’d play the good guy?

McDowell is convincing as the slightly nerdy, intermittently befuddled (but astute) Wells.  He’s the proverbial fish out of water, and a perfect representative of the 19th century.  His puzzled reactions to the 20th century represent a disconnect between his naive concept of a future utopia and the realities of a changed world with relaxed social mores.  His observations are tainted, viewed through a lens skewed by quaint notions of chivalry.  Much to his chagrin, he learns that giving his word as a gentleman doesn’t get him very far in contemporary San Francisco. 

David Warner does what he does best in the villain role, as John Leslie Stevenson, conveying an unrelentingly calm menace while never seeming over the top.  He’s a sly predator, versed in the ways of polite society, yet unable to contain his true nature.  Stevenson is always one step ahead of Wells, as evidenced by his chess match with him at the beginning of the film.  Filmmaker Nicholas Meyer references Sherlock Holmes several times in the film, and the contentious relationship between Wells and Stevenson appears to closely parallel Holmes and his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty.

As Wells’ modern-day love interest Amy Robbins, Mary Steenburgen compliments McDowell and Warner’s more showy roles.  Robbins is a contemporary woman, in charge of her fate, not content to passively accept whatever life throws at her.  Steenburgen brings a sincere, natural quality to her character.  She’s intelligent, independent and assertive, but not to the point of being overbearing.  There’s some good chemistry between Steenburgen and McDowell, which isn’t all too surprising, considering their real-life offscreen relationship at the time.

The music in Time After Time inhabits its own distinctive character.  Prolific composer Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, The Thief of Bagdad) provides a fantastic score that perfectly captures the feel of a classic science fiction film from yesteryear.  Sweeping and romantic, with a hint of intrigue, Rózsa’s score lends the film a more epic scope.  It punctuates the action, transporting you back to another time when suspension of disbelief was the only price of admission.

Time After Time is not above some minor quibbles.  Sadly, the modern world isn’t what it used to be.  Time After Time shows its age in the fashions, technology and music of 1979.  It’s hard not to laugh, seeing David Warner cruising a disco in his groovy threads (Only in the 70s would wearing a black turtleneck sweater with a denim vest not be considered a fashion faux pas.).  The date of events depicted in the film are also a bit off, similar to the previously reviewed Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.  The scenes in Victorian London take place in 1893, although the Jack the Ripper murders occurred in 1888.  

Why It’s Still Relevant:

The subject of time travel, inherent paradoxes and all, continues to fascinate filmgoers and filmmakers alike.  Who wouldn’t want to open a window into another era, either to passively observe or actively change the course of events?  It doesn’t really matter that attempting to logically assess time travel as it occurs in movies forces one to inevitably go around in circles and never accomplish anything except a big headache. 

On a side note, Mary Steenburgen was no stranger to the time travel motif, as she would explore similar character dynamics a decade later in Back to the Future III.  While the settings were different, she would once again play someone grounded in her own time, falling in love with a man from another century, and faced with believing the unbelievable.

Despite the now-dated “modern” world depicted in Time After Time, much of the social commentary remains intact.  There is certainly more that we can relate to in the society of 1979, compared to 1893.  Wells envisions a future utopia that is bereft of war, poverty and inequality of the sexes.  What he encounters in 1979 is far from the world of his dreams.  Stevenson argues that time has caught up with him, and it is Wells who is out of step.  Society has only become more violent, modern warfare has become more efficient at wholesale slaughter, and guns are more easily accessible.  A fleeting glimpse of numbers tattooed on a concentration camp survivor’s arm is testament to this increasingly alarming paradigm.   There has been no widespread distribution of wealth in the 20th century.  Everything is still driven by money, as Wells soon discovers.  Although the women’s liberation movement referenced in the film seems dated by 21st century standards, many of the concepts behind it are not.  Gender issues such as sexual harassment and wage inequalities are still as topical now as they were more than 30 years ago.  On a lighter (but no less insightful) note, Meyer’s script takes a jab at the ubiquitous fast food culture that has emerged.  Convenience has taken precedence over quality, as embodied by Wells’ disconcerting visit to a McDonald’s restaurant.

Time After Time asks us to imagine that H.G. Wells’ speculative fiction stories were not mere flights of fancy, but based in reality.  The film works as a fine pseudo-sequel to 1960’s The Time Machine, but stands on its own as an alternate history about the “real” history of Wells.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

(1971) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by: Brian Clemens; Starring: Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander and Susan Brodrick;
Available formats: DVD (Out of print)

Rating: ****

The early 70s marked a transitional phase for Hammer horror films, with productions that attempted to keep up with the public’s demand for more lurid content while often stretching the boundaries of taste.  Many of Hammer’s output from this period attempted to maintain the atmosphere and production values of releases from the past couple of decades, but reflected the changing times.  Thanks to a rapidly evolving sensibility and relaxed censorship, filmmakers could now show what could only be implied before.   Although the films released by Hammer during this turbulent age were often uneven, the studio still had a few tricks up its collective sleeve.  Hammer studios may have been past its prime, but it was still capable of creating some notable films with a distinctive touch (The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus spring to mind).   Paradoxically, one of the best examples from that period is probably one of the least known and most underappreciated.

The dubiously titled Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde suggests that it could have easily been a quickie exercise in exploitation in less capable hands, but it manages to be a unique and witty addition to the genre.  It’s a surprisingly effective film that breaks the rules by using the original Robert Louis Stevenson story as a launching point, not a bible.  Screenwriter Brian Clemens created a unique, gender-bending take on a classic story, infusing his own original and darkly humorous tone into the well-worn source material.

The eponymous doctor tirelessly searches for an elixir that will extend human life.  His experiments with female hormones lead him to a possible solution, but the side effect is a spontaneous change in gender.  Encouraged by his initial results with a fly, Dr. Jekyll becomes his own guinea pig for further experimentation.  When he suddenly becomes a she, Dr Jekyll is forced to pass off himself/herself as his own sister.  As the gender shifts become increasingly unstable and more frequent, it becomes less clear which sex will prevail.   

In order to continue his experiments, Dr. Jekyll requires a constant supply of female hormones.  He initially secures the services of the infamous duo Burke and Hare to acquire the bodies of young women.  When they’re unable to keep up with his demand for fresh corpses, he’s forced to take matters into his own hands.   The brutal murders of several prostitutes in Whitechapel are conducted with surgical precision, suggesting that someone with a doctor’s knowledge of anatomy has committed the crimes.  Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde blends the factual incidents of Jack the Ripper and the Burke and Hare murders with Stevenson’s original work of fiction.  The filmmakers took some liberties with the timeline of events in the varied source material, as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written in 1886, while the Jack the Ripper murders took place in 1888, and the Burke and Hare murders were in 1828.  This scarcely seems to matter, as all of these elements are skillfully blended in service of the plot.

What sets Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde apart from other interpretations is Dr. Jekyll’s duality.  The struggle is not between good and evil, but between man and woman.  Martine Beswick endows Sister Hyde with a seductively menacing persona, as she exerts her formidable sexual charms to lure men to their doom.  She’s all too happy to carry on with her doctor counterpart’s dirty work as well, continuing to increase the body count of the female victims.  Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde has much to say about sexual politics, and playfully turns the tables on classic gender expectations.  Many of the men in the film are portrayed as predators of one type or another, viewing women as sex objects or potential victims.  When Sister Hyde abruptly enters the scene, neither men nor women, are safe.

Ralph Bates’ restrained performance as the obsessive Dr. Jekyll is atypical of other filmed versions as well.  He’s a far cry from the mild-mannered, genteel researcher who delved too far into the unknown, only to find his more animalistic side.  His hands are just as bloody as Sister Hyde’s, as he deems his ideals of scientific discovery to supersede society’s laws and ethics.  His moral ambiguity and relative lack of innocence leaves him as a less than sympathetic character.  As a result, we’re left without a primary character as a protagonist.  This might be considered a fault of the movie, but it’s unlikely that you’ll care, because the story is so much dark fun.

With its sense of wicked humor and unique take on the original story, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde stands as one of Hammer’s finest.  The filmmakers were clearly cognizant of the inherent ridiculousness of the material, but that didn’t stop them from fashioning a refreshingly good yarn.  While those expecting a straightforward interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale will likely be disappointed, others with a more modern perspective should be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Under the Mountain

(2009) Directed by Jonathan King; Written by Matthew Grainger and Jonathan King; Starring: Sam Neill, Tom Cameron, Sophie McBride, Oliver Driver; Available formats: DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel confused.  The little-known film Under the Mountain is a magical mess from New Zealand, a would-be fantasy epic concerning a pair of psychic fraternal twins and their effort to save the Earth from certain destruction.   Despite the cataclysmic overtones, New Zealand pedigree, and effects by Weta Workshop, any similarity to another Kiwi-filmed epic is purely coincidental.  Instead of building on each subsequent scene, it’s a frustrating parade of incoherence that masquerades as an adventure fantasy for the Harry Potter generation.

Under the Mountain begins with the first of several tired fantasy clichés, loss of a parent.  Teenage fraternal twins Rachel and Theo return home to learn that their mother has died in some poorly explained accident.  Presumably as a result of their distraught father’s insistence, they’re promptly shipped off to live with their aunt, uncle and cousin, who live several hours away.  Amidst their unresolved grief, they discover things are not quite right in this new town.  The mountains that populate the region take on a sinister role, and strange things are afoot at the nearby funeral home.  As their senses become attuned to their new surroundings, the twins’ latent, untapped abilities seem to be emerging.

Without the aid of a prologue, or anyone to serve as a reliable guide to the weirdness, it’s difficult to stay invested in the story.  Judging by the amount of background information that wasn’t disclosed, I surmised that Under the Mountain was part of a much more substantial work.  A little sleuthing revealed that the film was based on a 1979 novel, which also spawned an early 80s eight-part (!) television miniseries. What’s left is quite obviously a severely truncated version of a story that demanded much more than could be contained in a scant 90 minutes.

One of the foundations of a good fantasy film is strong characterizations.  It’s easy to swallow a lot if the characters are properly fleshed out, and their actions seem at least marginally credible.  The normally reliable Sam Neill is reduced to a ranting nutcase (No, that’s not a clinical term.) named Mr. Jones, who somehow manages to convince the main characters that they are in a life or death struggle between worlds.  His character should serve as an anchor, linking the known to the unknown, but he just adds to the confusion.  He’s aloof, gruff and unlikable, and looks like he slept under a bridge for the past week when the twins initially meet him, yet somehow he readily earns their trust.  We learn that he’s been traveling through time and space to recruit other twins to do battle, against the forces of evil.  Why twins, you might ask?  As far as I can ascertain from the sketchy details, some twins possess a special bond known as “twinness” that imbues them with special (albeit vague) powers to combat the forces that would enslave humankind and bring about their ultimate destruction – or something like that. 

Under the Mountain’s antagonists don’t really fare any better.  The main foes, referred to as Wilberforces, resemble a cross between the Tall Man in the Phantasm movies, Davy Jones from the interminable Pirates of the Caribbean series and Agent Smith from The Matrix.  When one of them uses his caustic juices to burn through a metal door, this sets up an obligatory disbelieving adult scene, in which the twins’ uncle sees the corroded door, and dismisses it as adolescent mischief.  The Wilberforces are merely in the service of a much more menacing threat, the Gargantuas -- massive creatures that lie dormant underneath several mountains in New Zealand, with the potential to destroy the world if awakened.  If you’re hoping to see more than a momentary glimpse of the omnipotent monsters, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  Only one of the Gargantuas makes an appearance, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.  In fact, you might want to skip this altogether, and see the far more entertaining War of the Gargantuas, which really isn’t much more coherent, but makes up for it in monsters you can actually see, and possesses an undeniable kitsch factor.  Oh well, back to the review…

The twins (and the actors for that matter) do little to distinguish themselves as the film’s protagonists.  In one scene, Rachel knows that she’s in imminent danger, and just passively stands by the door, waiting for one of the Wilberforces to break through.  Most of the time, she’s left with the thankless role of damsel in distress.  Her twin brother spends most of his time being unpleasant, alternately oblivious and hostile to his sister’s concerns.  When Theo callously thwarts his cousin’s amorous encounter with his girlfriend, it’s unclear why the annoyed cousin would agree to help him.  It’s safe to assume that at least some of his behavior could be chalked off to grief over his mother’s death, but nothing remains fully explored, and his conduct is more of a distraction than an integral facet of the plot.  The twins’ eventual discovery of their powers seems more accidental than revelatory, as a perfunctory service to the script.

Under the Mountain seemed like a trial as my initial interest rapidly gave way to tedium.  I can’t really comment on the original source material, but based on what’s left on screen, the omissions were considerable.  If you haven’t read the novel, which would probably include most of the population outside of New Zealand, then you’ll likely be at a loss to determine what’s going on.  Under the Mountain is a reminder that not everything that’s lost is necessarily worth finding.  At least the world was spared the word “twinness” from wider usage.