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Friday 26 December 2014

Movie Review: An unexpected marathon

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Fantasy. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Ian Holm, Ken Stott, Andy Serkis, James Nesbitt, Sylvester McCoy, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee. Directed by Peter Jackson. Cert PG

So, a commercially lucrative and much-loved trilogy concludes, but its creator can't resist returning to the fantasy world he brought into being and decides to gift the fans a second trilogy by way of a prequel. Hmmh, now where have I heard that before?

In undertaking the task of following his Lord of the Rings epic with three movies based around JRR Tolkien's earlier work, The Hobbit, Peter Jackson can't have been unaware of what happened when George Lucas delved back into the Star Wars universe for three prequels to the initial body of work.

Commercially successful though they clearly were, Star Wars 1, 2 and 3 were dismal; pieces of work which came close to sullying the fond memories fans had of the original films. So while An Unexpected Journey isn't quite as bad as The Phantom Menace (there's a quote for the poster), it's still a seriously flawed film.

The chief problem is the source material, in that while the three books in the Lord of the Rings saga ran to almost 1,200 pages, The Hobbit is a slim, simple children's tale which clocks in at under 300 pages and could be read by a reasonably bright 12-year-old in not much more than an afternoon.

Yet, Jackson and his co-writers have deemed this worthy of almost nine hours of screentime with the result that this first instalment is stretched beyond belief and, indeed, far beyond the threshold of boredom.

Following a spectacular pre-title sequence in which we're told how the kingdom of dwarves was destroyed by the dragon Smaug, the story begins with familiar faces Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, preparing for the former's birthday party when Frodo finds a journal and Bilbo recounts how he reluctantly went on an adventure some 60 years previously.

Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman) is visited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a group of 13 unruly dwarves who eventually recruit him for a trek to Lonely Mountain, where they hope to retrieve treasure from Smaug's lair. This takes over an hour.

With the journey eventually beginning we finally get to see some of Jackson's considerable skills as a film-maker, as he makes great use of some spectacular scenery. What he appears to have mislaid somewhere though is the art of storytelling, merely shoving a ridiculous amount of detail and exposition onto the screen.



Riddles

As the company encounter orcs, trolls, stone giants and goblins, the tedium mounts, not helped by the fact that bar the presence of Richard Armitage, Ken Stott and James Nesbitt the dwarves are effectively interchangeable beneath layers of rubbish-looking make-up.

It's only when Bilbo encounters the fallen hobbit Gollum (Andy Serkis returning to his breakthrough role), engages in a battle of riddles and finds himself in possession of the ring which sparks the subsequent trilogy that the film lifts at all. Even then, the scene goes on way too long and feels like something that should have been left for a director's cut on the DVD release.

Much publicity has surrounded Jackson's decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second, double the normal frame speed, and while there is a clarity in definition, it really only succeeds in highlighting the unreal nature of the make-up and production design. Also, with the director favouring lots of swooping shots, rapid-fire editing and, of course, 3D, there are times when the viewer can feel queasy. Best not watched on a full stomach.

In fairness, Martin Freeman is a likeable presence as Bilbo and there's the odd exciting battle sequence, but there's no sense of tension or danger (how can there be when we know that the two main characters won't be killed?), merely the feeling of being fleeced by a cynical, money-making operation. Still, better than The Phantom Menace.

2/5

YOU WILL BE MY SON Drama Starring Niels Arestrup, Lorant Deutsch, Patrick Chesnais, Anne Marivin, Nicolas Bridet. Directed by Gilles Legrand. Cert 15A

The wonderful setting of a vineyard in France's St Emilion region provides the backdrop for this tense, Shakespearean family drama. Vineyard owner Paul (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet/The Beat that My Heart Skipped) is a domineering presence, openly dismissive of his son Martin (Lorant Deutsch), who he regards as weak and unworthy of his respect.

When Paul's chief wine-maker Francois (Patrick Chesnais) announces that he's suffering from terminal cancer Martin offers to take charge of the next harvest, only to lose out to Francois's son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), who's returned from a job working in Francis Ford Coppola's vineyard.



Civilised

All the classic elements are in place here with jealousy, resentment, ambition and frustration all bubbling below the surface. Things do become slightly overwrought in the final third but there's enough going on here to make for a thoroughly fine viewing experience.

In fact, the experience will be all the more enjoyable for anyone who buys a ticket for any IFI screening this weekend as you'll get a free glass of red wine from the vineyard where the film was shot. How perfectly civilised.

3/5

GIRLFRIEND Drama Starring Evan Sneider, Shannon Woodward, Amanda Plummer, Jackson Rathbone, Jerad Anderson. Directed by Justin Lerner. Cert 15A

This low-key American indie drama centres on life in a rundown town in upstate New York where a young man with Down Syndrome, Evan (Evan Sneider), is given a large sum of cash after his mother dies. Ever since they were classmates in high school Evan has had a crush on Candy (Shannon Woodward), a struggling single mother who's soon receiving sums of money from her admirer who begins to assume that they're an item.

Girlfiend has a semi-improvised feel and is clearly well-intentioned, but the overall effect is that of unrelenting grimness in a story which at times makes for a very hard watch.

2/5

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