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Review: Under the Mountain, Amelia and Planet 51

By March 9, 2011No Comments

Under the Mountain posterAs the recent fuss over The Vintner’s Luck demon­strated, film­makers adapt­ing beloved New Zealand books open them­selves up to all sorts of poten­tial cri­ti­cism, so when Jonathan King and Matthew Grainger announced that their next pro­ject was going to be a ver­sion of Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain there were a great many excited people (mostly around my age it seemed) thrilled that their favour­ite child­hood book was going to get the all-action big screen treatment.

And yet, as a story pitched at older kids and young adults, it was going to have to be brought out of the ori­gin­al 70s con­text (and updated from its early 80s TV incarn­a­tion) or nobody would come. It’s a fine bal­ance and for mine I think King and Grainger have done a good job – even if the rest­less crowd at Readings on Saturday after­noon might sug­gest otherwise.

Ginga twins Theo and Rachel (played by new­comers Tom Cameron and Sophie McBride are packed off to Auckland when Dad (Bruce Hopkins) can’t cope after Mum’s death in an acci­dent. They share a psych­ic bond (although Theo res­ists) and it’s that bond – and their flam­ing red hair – that brings them to the atten­tion of the creepy Wilberforces, neigh­bours on the oth­er side of Lake Pupuke in the heart of the sub­urb­an North Shore.

It turns out that the Wilberforces are malevol­ent beings from anoth­er plan­et bent on des­troy­ing the world with the help of dormant mon­sters called Gargantua who are sleep­ing under Auckland’s dormant vol­ca­noes. Only psych­ic red-headed twins, with the help of mys­ter­i­ous Sam Neill, have the power to stop them and there’s a race against time to pre­vent the end of the world.

There’s a lot to like about Under the Mountain. The kids are enga­ging (Tom Cameron flares his nos­trils like a young Tom Cruise) and the make-up effects spe­cific­ally are quite bril­liantly done although the digit­al effects are slightly less suc­cess­ful. Oliver Driver is unre­cog­nis­able and very effect­ive as the Wilberforce lead­er and the sup­port­ing cast do a good job of, you know, supporting.

A spe­cial men­tion should go to the city of Auckland which looks an abso­lute pic­ture through­out the film, par­tic­u­larly via the beau­ti­ful aer­i­al pho­to­graphy. It almost made me want to visit.

Amelia posterHilary Swank has already won two Oscars (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999 and Million Dollar Baby, 2004) but she’s giv­ing her­self anoth­er crack at the prize by Executive Producing Amelia, a biop­ic about the doomed aviat­rix Amelia Earhart who beguiled America in the 1930s before dis­ap­pear­ing over the Pacific on the final leg of her attempt to be the first per­son to fly around the world. It’s a role that many act­resses have dreamt of and good on Swank for actu­ally get­ting it off the ground.

As befits a star like her, she’s bathed in a beau­ti­ful golden glow through­out but the film itself rarely escapes the tired old clichés of the tra­di­tion­al Hollywood bio­graphy. Faked news­reels; spin­ning news­pa­pers (even at one point a spin­ning news­reel which was very odd); char­ac­ters hav­ing four sen­tence con­ver­sa­tions which seem only to serve the pur­pose of telling each oth­er (i.e. “us”) what they already know. You know the sort of thing.

Only when that final flight begins, and the scenes can really stretch out, does the film grow in to some­thing more. The final 20 or 25 minutes is grip­ping and tense and, even though you know the out­come in advance, quite mov­ing. Recommended but with reservations.

Planet 51 posterAbsolutely not recom­men­ded in any cir­cum­stances, for any ages, is the anim­ated “com­edy” Planet 51 in which an astro­naut with the voice of The Rock (I know, he’s not The Rock any­more) vis­its a strange far-off plan­et that just hap­pens to look like America in the 50s – if America had been pop­u­lated by liz­ard people who walk around with no trousers. They’re just like us, you see, and their ali­en inva­sion para­noia means that they chase the goofy inter­loper around the place until a bright young inde­pend­ent thinker called Lem (voiced by Justin Long) helps him out. Simply not funny.

Finally, a brief word about audi­ences. Is it counter-intuitive to sug­gest that audi­ence num­bers for movies might be fall­ing because of the beha­viour of audi­ences? The Under the Mountain crowd on Saturday were the most rest­less audi­ence I’ve ever exper­i­enced: run­ning in and out of the theatre, tex­ting (we can see the glow even if you try and hide it under your jack­et), talk­ing loudly. And then on Sunday night at Amelia two blokes behind me put their feet up on the back of the seat right by my head. And one of them didn’t even have shoes on which is just gross!

Audiences need to remem­ber that buy­ing an expens­ive movie tick­et does not give them the right to behave in any way they want. It buys the right to enjoy a film with a com­munity of oth­er people, all shar­ing the same exper­i­ence. If you behave that way at home, well, good for you. But you owe the rest of us a little bit of respect.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 December, 2009.

This is anoth­er one of those pieces that got lost dur­ing a busy peri­od. Posted here for com­plete­ness rather than use­ful­ness (or enter­tain­ment value).