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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Freeman’

One of those tried-and-tested rules of cinemagoing that they keep going on about (whoever ‘they’ are) is that if you’re going to the cinema on a date, it’s best to make it a trip to a horror movie – mainly because the effect of watching a really scary movie is that it will move you on to the ‘clinging sweatily to each other’ stage much sooner than would otherwise be the case. All very well, I suppose, for those whose horizons extend so far, but – well, here’s what happened to me.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Unsane with a friend of mine, whom I will be referring to as Olinka in order to save her blushes. She is a very good friend who I don’t feel I see nearly enough and so I suggested we do it again and see Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, which we caught the trailer for. Olinka was keen, provided she could bring her friend Yekaterina, who was in the UK for her very first visit. So down we settled in the theatre, with your correspondent the meat in a sandwich mostly comprised of young Russian womanhood.

As usual, the trailers were carefully selected, for the most part: we had the trailer for Truth or Dare, a grisly-looking imminent horror movie, and then the trailer for Hereditary, another scary movie which is on the way. And then a couple more in the same severed vein. ‘Why all movies here so horrible?’ Yekaterina whispered in the dark, sounding rather aghast.

‘This is a horror movie, so they are showing us adverts for other horror movies,’ I explained.

‘Horror movie?’ Yekaterina was turning even paler.

‘Relax, it’s not a horror movie, it’s a thriller,’ said Olinka, with her usual unflappable confidence.

‘Ol, you saw the trailer for this, of course it’s a horror movie,’ I said, rather incredulously. (I had forgotten this was a woman who watched Legend and thought it was meant to be a comedy film.)

Anyway, the film started and we soon found out just who had been paying attention best. Due to the kind of movie this is, there is a degree of narrative sleight-of-hand going on, but let’s try and keep this straightforward and spoiler-free: Nyman co-writes, co-directs, and stars as Professor Philip Goodman, a parapsychologist and professional debunker of supernatural phenomena – something he was inspired to do by a man who disappeared years ago.

But now his predecessor resurfaces, bearing details of three extraordinary cases which, Goodman is assured, will convince him of the existence of otherworldly forces, if he can summon the courage to investigate them properly.

A troubled security guard (Paul Whitehouse), alone in a derelict mental hospital in the middle of the night, begins to realise there may be something there in the dark with him. A nervous and fragile teenager (Alex Lawther), driving home through the woods one night, has a disturbing encounter which brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘roadkill’. And finally, a wealthy man (Martin Freeman), whose wife is in hospital with complications connected to her pregnancy, finds his home invaded by a malevolent force of some kind. But beyond all this, is there something even worse at work? Something with a personal connection to Goodman himself…?

Well, it may be very pleasant to go to the cinema with someone you’re in a relationship with and have them yelping and lunging at you in the dark, but when you are there with two young Russian women, neither of whom you are close to in that way, and one of whom you only met an hour earlier, and the pair of them are grabbing at you and clinging on and occasionally shrieking – well, you know, I found this somewhat challenging and was not entirely sure how to respond appropriately, not least because I was doing the odd spot of cringing and meeping myself. Which if nothing else should tell you that Ghost Stories really does work as a scary movie.

Andy Nyman is one of those people who seems to have been around for ages, doing lots of different things without ever really becoming well known: he was in Kick-Ass 2, for instance, and also Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set; he has also been a key collaborator of Derren Brown’s for many years. Jeremy Dyson, on the other hand, is famous as the lesser-spotted member of the League of Gentlemen, the one who occasionally looks like Michael Sheen.

If this, together with some of the casting, gives you the impression that Ghost Stories comes from League of Gentlemen/Black Mirror/Derren Brown-ish kind of territory, you’d be absolutely right. The League of Gentlemen practically drips with affection for and knowledge of a certain type of British horror movie of years gone by, but here the goal is pastiche much more than parody, and it is pastiche very effectively executed.

I’ve seen quite a few articles recently discussing the phenomenon of what they’re calling ‘post-horror’, a label they’re cheerfully sticking on films as diverse as Personal Shopper and It Comes By Night (also A Quiet Place, out at the moment, which I have a therapist’s note excusing me from seeing). The two schools of thought on post-horror are that either this is a movement using the raw material of genre horror to tell stories which aren’t constricted by the usual conventions and cliches, or just an empty new buzz-phrase concocted by journalists looking for a new angle. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – it occurs to me you could describe films like Under the Skin, Annihilation, and Upstream Color as post-SF with equal accuracy – but the thing about Ghost Stories is that it doesn’t muck about trying to second-guess or deconstruct itself. This is a proper horror movie.

That said, there is virtually no gore in this movie, and it does draw heavily on a very British tradition of portmanteau horror films that started with Dead of Night and includes the famous Amicus horror anthologies, amongst others. (It is perhaps ironic that the only obvious in-joke in the movie is a reference to Tigon, not Amicus.) But the influences on the movie extend further – there are surely traces of things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, and even those genuinely terrifying public safety films from the 1970s. The film’s world is one of dismal housing estate pubs, seafront caravan parks, waste ground, all places with their own bleak and very British eeriness.

It may be that the Diversity Police turn up on Ghost Stories’ front steps, for this is primarily a film about white men, but on the other hand it is also a film with superb performances from all of the principal cast – Nyman is clearly a very skilled performer, but each of the other three manages to eclipse him completely in their segment of the film. It isn’t even as if any of these is blazingly original – Whitehouse’s segment just has him wandering about a dark building with a torch, for instance. And yet it builds and builds until you are frozen to your seat, unable to look away.

In the end, of course, there is a revelation of sorts – this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, not least because of the heavy prosthetic make-up one character is clearly wearing – and the leap into nightmarish surrealism this involves is also extremely adroitly handled. A dozen little seemingly-trivial details from earlier in the movie snap into focus, and you realise… well, no spoilers here.

It initially seems like Ghost Stories may be trying to say something about existential dread and guilt, but in the end I get the impression the film is mainly constructed the way it is to enable the bravura twists and reveals in its final few minutes. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, for this is a horror movie which succeeds completely in its first duty, which is to seriously put the wind up the audience. Maybe there is something old-fashioned and formal about it, but it’s still a terrifically alarming, entertaining experience. I very rarely use the words ‘instant classic’, but in this case I am minded to.

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Slightly further down this very page I will be sharing my opinion of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. You may agree with me about this film, partly or fully. You may well not. Now, I would normally say that there was nothing very exceptional about this fact: people have different opinions all the time, after all, it’s a fact of life.

But it isn’t, apparently: advance publicity on Black Panther went off on a bit of a tangent last week, with the exposure of an organised campaign to trash this film’s ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, courtesy of a bunch of people who hadn’t even seen it yet (some of them associated with extremist right-wing groups). The reason for this rather eccentric behaviour? They claim to be sick of movies based on DC Comics getting lousy reviews from professional critics, while ones from Marvel Studios are generally much better received. They make accusations of systematic bias and corruption amongst the critics.

Putting entirely to one side the issue of Wonder Woman, a DC movie which received some of the most glowing notices of last year, one wonders if it has occurred to these people that the reason DC’s movie output generally gets lukewarm reviews is because DC movies, of late, have usually been somewhat lousy. Apparently not: the concept of an honest difference of opinion does not seem to have occurred to them. The only reason someone could not share their point of view must be because they are part of a conspiracy to hide the truth – whether that’s because they’re in the pockets of Marvel, or because they’re pushing a particular politically-correct agenda. Levelling this particular accusation in the vicinity of Black Panther is especially provocative, given the film is largely distinguished by the fact it is very much a non-Caucasian take on the superhero genre of which Marvel are currently the masters.

It seems to me to be particularly symptomatic of our current times, anyway: recent months seem to have witnessed a terminal breakdown in the very concept of consensus, the idea that there are things that everyone can broadly agree on. Either the news media is a principled establishment telling the truth about a troubled and chaotic administration, or it’s a fake instrument of a liberal conspiracy trying to topple an elected leader – there’s not much in the way of middle ground here, and the UK has its own gaping divisions about the main political issues of the day.

Just to be clear, I am not in the pockets of Marvel (though if Kevin Feige is reading this, I would be willing to open negotiations) – or, if I am, it is only because of the consistently high standard of their film-making. Feel free to disagree with me about this or anything else.

Normally I would say it was slightly absurd to be making such a fuss about what is, after all, a comic-book superhero movie, but, you know, Unique Cultural Moment, and the supposedly radical nature of Black Panther has been front and centre in its publicity. Some mildly silly things have already been said of this movie – apparently it is the first ever superhero movie with a black lead character (no it’s not, there was Meteor Man (1993), not mention Spawn and Steel (both 1997), and Marvel’s own Blade (1998), to name only a few), while the BBC claimed it has an ‘all-black cast’, which probably came as a surprise to Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, both of whom feature prominently in it. Can the movie itself possibly stand up to all this hype?

Well, this is the seemingly-unstoppable Marvel mega-franchise project, so you never can tell. Following on fairly closely from the events of Civil War, the movie opens with Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his remote African homeland of Wakanda so he can be crowned the new king, and take up the mantle of Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. The wider world thinks Wakanda is a quiet little third-world country full of trees and shepherds, but this is an elaborate ruse to conceal the fact that it really possesses the most advanced technology on the planet, courtesy of being struck by a meteorite full of magic alien metal in ancient times.

The new king’s first duty is keep this secret, but he also feels bound to avenge an old wrong – namely, a raid on Wakanda many years earlier by the South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Serkis, reprising the role from Age of Ultron). Given the CIA also has an interest in Klaue’s activities, can he do so without exposing Wakanda to the world? There is also the problem that one of Klaue’s associates is a mercenary known as Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), an embittered and angry scion of the Wakandan royal house, who is intent on seizing the throne…

It will come as no real surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with developments in cinema over the last few years that Marvel show no sign of dropping the ball with their latest project: Black Panther is a finely-machined piece of entertainment, lavishly mounted, with a solid script and a carefully-judged tone. There are fantastically thrilling action sequences, very good jokes, charismatic performances, and plenty of little references to reward people who’ve been following along with the ongoing meta-plot for the last ten years or so. Boseman radiates nobility and cool as the Black Panther, Jordan matches him as Killmonger, and Andy Serkis is having a whale of a time as the absurdly evil Klaue (who’s not in the movie nearly enough).

Anticipation is high for every new Marvel movie, but especially so in this case: even before the current Unique Moment came about, there had been murmurings about the perceived lack of diversity and Euro-centricity of the Marvel films, and Black Panther has deliberately been pitched as restitution for this: it’s not quite an all-black movie, but the majority of the roles are filled by non-white performers.

There’s a sense in which Black Panther is essentially a piece of diversity wish-fulfilment, for at the heart of the film is its depiction of an Afrofuturistic utopia where, unravaged by the attentions of colonial European powers, African culture has developed technology decades ahead of the rest of the world. It’s probably best not to think about this too much, to be perfectly honest, nor about the way that this supposedly progressive new presentation of African characters still concludes with people riding around on rhinos waving spears. This is at heart still a piece of entertainment, after all.

Having said that, the film also contains some very interesting and genuinely subversive ideas about culture and colonialism. Coogler draws a very clear distinction between T’Challa, his purely African hero, and Killmonger, a villain who has been corrupted – it is implied – by growing up African-American, with all the injustice and prejudice one associates with this. There is a restrained but palpable sense of anger about this film at times, and one can’t help but recall that in the comics T’Challa briefly operated under the codename Black Leopard in order to distance the character from the Black Panther Party, a radical socialist group.

However, just as the first Captain America film couldn’t show a superhero ending the Second World War in 1942, so Black Panther can’t depict the magical solution of all the racial problems in the world today. It’s when the film butts up against real-world issues that it seems most in danger of losing its way – it has to walk a tricky tonal tightrope, for instance, when confronting the fact that Wakanda’s fierce isolationism makes it to some extent complicit in the woes inflicted on Africa by Europeans and Americans.

Is this to take a Marvel superhero film too seriously? Normally I would agree, but this movie is sincerely being hailed as a watershed moment in the way African culture is portrayed in Hollywood movies, and a great leap forward for blockbusters with predominantly non-white casts. Well, maybe: this is a Marvel movie, after all, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that different rules seem to apply here. Black Panther‘s place in cultural history will become apparent with the passing of time; what we can be sure of now is that this another superbly entertaining fantasy from the studio.

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It almost goes without saying that the trilogy of Hobbit movies has, outside of the confines of the hardcore Jackson-Tolkien axis fanbase at least, had less of a cultural impact than the Lord of the Rings films they are so clearly meant to emulate. Not, I suspect, that the bean-counters at Warners, New Line and MGM will be overly worried: it’s hard to be too upset about a ten-digit box office return, after all. Perhaps there has just been something a bit too openly mercenary about the way in which a slight and quirky children’s story has been pulled about and bloated to enable just that same return. Nevertheless, I suspect that the final episode, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, will earn itself some goodwill, especially from those of us who have been along for the ride all the way since December 2001, when Jackson released his first film set in Middle-Earth (one which this film dovetails with perfectly, as you might expect).

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Viewers of the last film may be somewhat discombobulated to see that the menace of saurian psychopath Smaug is dealt with practically before the credits have finished rolling, leaving the uninitiated to wonder exactly what’s going to happen for the next two and a bit hours. Well, here is where the story of The Hobbit takes the darker and more cynical turn that sets it apart from most children’s literature.

With the dragon dead, claimants to his vast hoard of treasure start coming out of the woodwork with astounding speed. Already on the scene and in possession are Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves, but Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Laketown quite reasonably want some recompense for having their homes incinerated, while the King of the Elves (Lee Pace) also has a few outstanding debts he wants clearing up. Unfortunately, all the gold seems to be going to Thorin’s head, with the result that everything seems to be on the verge of turning nasty…

Even worse, also bearing down on Smaug’s former residence are not one but two armies of Orcs in the service of Sauron, who recognises the strategic location of the dragon’s former lair. With Bilbo (Martin Freeman) unable to make Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) still a prisoner in Dol Guldur, and inter-species relations rapidly turning hostile, the future for Middle-Earth looks bleak…

It is true that in the past I have occasionally been a bit lukewarm about earlier installments of the Hobbit series, mainly for the reasons touched upon earlier. Well, what’s done is done, and one may as well just enjoy the rich stew of elements Peter Jackson brings to the table for this final offering. The appetiser (I warn you now, this metaphor is going to be horribly overstretched) is Smaug’s devastating visit to Laketown, with which the director serves notice that he’s going to start with the sound-and-fury knob turned up to ten and only get louder and bolder (not just overstretched but somewhat mixed as well, it would seem). Another early treat is a sequence in which Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Sylvester McCoy show up like Middle-Earth’s answer to the Avengers: and it really is glorious to see Lee, at the age of 92, getting one more moment of scene-stealing awesomeness to add to one of the most distinguished careers imaginable.

There are few longeurs early on in the film, but these really just mark the director carefully getting his ducks in a row for the second half of the film, which really and honestly does live up to its title: the titular clash dominates the movie, and feels like it goes on for hours. Peter Jackson is at his most uninhibited here, and it really is his conception of The Hobbit that we see, rather than Tolkien’s. In fact, it’s tempting to view this film as really a summation and celebration of everything that has made Jackson’s realisation of the Professor’s work so very memorable and justifiably beloved.

True, there is some very questionable comic-relief, some disconcerting stunt casting – Billy Connolly’s voice is instantly recognisable even when he’s covered in prosthetics – and some of his amendments to Tolkien really don’t ring true – a dwarf shouting ‘You buggers!’ at the Orc hordes I can just about accept, but another telling a comrade ‘I’ve got this’? I think not. A seeming cameo appearance by the Sandworms of Dune is just peculiar. And, of course, parts of it are cringemakingly sentimental, verging on the schmaltzy.

But set against this we have all those sweeping helicopter shots of tiny figures in epic landscapes, the stirring crash-bang-wallop of the panoramic battle scenes, the endless invention of those intricately choreographed action sequences, the sheer thought and attention to detail that’s gone into making Middle-Earth feel like a real place. He even manages to take performers not perhaps noted for their dramatic range, and invest them with a certain presence and charisma: and if this means giving Landy Bloom another load of outrageous fight scenes like something out of a computer game, so be it.

You could probably argue that somewhere in all the chaos and frenzy, Tolkien gets lost completely, and also that for a book called The Hobbit, Bilbo himself actually gets sidelined for long stretches of the movie. But, looking back over the last thirteen years and the assorted wonders he has treated us to, Peter Jackson has earned the right to indulge himself just a little, especially at Christmas (and who’d have thought it – I seem to be getting a little sentimental myself in my old age). No-one has ever made this kind of fantasy film as well as Peter Jackson, and I think it will be many years before we see its like again. It may not be the greatest film he’s ever made, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his work in this milieu, and a terrifically entertaining ride.

 

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And so it sprawls amidst the stupendous pile of treasure which dictates its every action, like some great segmented worm, bloated, grotesque, and yet somehow rather majestic… on the other hand perhaps I should stop being quite so rude about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It is, as they say, all simply a question of perspective.

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This second whopping slice of prequel action is subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, after the region of Middle-Earth in which its final movements take place. Obviously, it takes ages and many helicopter shots of scale doubles yomping across hillsides before we actually get there, of course. The action opens more-or-less where the previous film left off, with timorous burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise old wizard Gandalf (‘he’s a bad role model, and he’s lazy’) the Grey (Ian McKellen), smouldering dwarven prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and their followers on the run from a pack of orcs.

What follows is, for the most part, a picaresque piece of epic fantasy: the company enjoy the hospitality of a werebear, brave the giant-spider-infested depths of Mirkwood, fall foul of the Elves of the region… I’m sorry, this is turning into the bridge section of Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. Anyway, they eventually end up at Erebor, the ancient dwarf city currently being squatted in by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that an equally lengthy final chapter is on the way this time next year.

As I say, I was distinctly luke-warm about the first Hobbit movie twelve months ago, rather to the derision of some friends of mine who were delighted simply to see the Tolkien-Jackson axis back in operation again. And, admittedly, it is with some ruefulness that I recall my own glowing response to the first Lord of the Rings movie, which I praised mainly on the grounds that Jackson did not feel himself overly bound to be reverent towards the book. Can I then criticise Jackson for departing too far from the original text of The Hobbit and hope to retain any shred of integrity or credibility?

Well, I would argue there’s a difference between cutting and rewriting stuff to bring a huge story down to a filmable size and comprehensible shape, and just adding everything and the kitchen sink simply because it strikes you as being cool. Nevertheless, I have come to accept that these movies are not, in any real sense, a straightforward adaptation of The Hobbit, but rather a palimpsest of it: by which I mean they are a wholesale rewriting of the story, through which vestiges of the original can still occasionally be glimpsed.

To his credit Jackson and his writers manage the transition between the different kinds of material rather deftly, and I doubt anyone unfamiliar with the book will be able to tell apart the sections which feel impressively faithful to the novel (some sections of the spider fight, Bilbo’s initial conversation with Smaug), those which are derived from what was implicit in the book (such as what Gandalf is up to most of the time), and stuff which has been stuck in simply because Jackson thought it was really cool (a full-scale action sequence with Legolas (Landy Bloom) tackling a pack of orc commandos in Laketown).

I am sort of reminded of the old joke asking where an eight-hundred pound gorilla sleeps – the answer being wherever he damn well pleases. When it comes to these films, Peter Jackson is very much one of the eight-hundred-pound gorillas of the film directing world, and I get a very strong sense of him doing things just because he wants to throughout this movie. Luckily, it seems that what he wants to do on this occasion is simply to make a really good fantasy epic. His penchant for idiosyncratic casting persists (no Andy Serkis this time around, nor Christopher Lee and the guy who doubles for him in wide shots, but in addition to the usual crowd there is Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Evangeline Lilly as a somewhat token-ish female elf, and perennial bellwether of dimbo action movies Luke Evans as Bard), but his facility with astoundingly ambitious and intricately-choreographed action sequences remains, as does his capacity to create a real sense of otherworldly scale and wonder. The best scenes of Desolation of Smaug do bear comparison to the highlights of his earlier sojourns in Middle-Earth, although some elements of the new film do feel rather contrived and implausible – an Elf-Dwarf romance being the most obvious. (And for a film called The Hobbit, there are quite long stretches where Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems a bit sidelined!)

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that this series are prequels to the Lord of the Rings movies as much as anything else, and this is a major influence on the film – virtually the first thing that happens in the film is an in-joke that only fairly dedicated fans of the first trilogy are going to get, while imagery and themes from those films become increasingly dominant as it goes on. Tolkien later tried to retrofit The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings – Jackson obviously has a much freer hand in doing so. He persuasively presents Middle-Earth as a patchwork of different principalities and domains consumed by petty rivalries and political feuds, with everyone oblivious to the apocalyptic threat which is slowly taking shape in a remote part of the wilderness.

The question, of course, is quite how far Jackson is going to go down this road in the final chapter. But that’s also a question for next year. Until then, I really am happy to report that The Desolation of Smaug indicates that both the director and this series are back on form. I turned up to this one with a mental attitude of ‘come on then, impress me if you can’ – along with a side order of ‘I hope the giant spider sequence doesn’t give me a heart attack’ (I am a bit of a megaarachnophobe) – and found myself, for the most part, engrossed and entertained throughout. Is it in the same league as any of The Lord of the Rings movies? No, but it’s still probably one of the half-dozen best epic fantasy films ever made, with the single best dragon ever seen in movie history (Vermithrax Pejorative has had a long run at the top, but…). In most respects, this is a vastly accomplished and very enjoyable film.

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Yet another new Vue this week, readers: I know, I know. I was all set to check out the Everyman on Baker Street, but then I had a couple of hours to spare, wandered over to Leicester Square, and found out that if I just spent the afternoon there I could enjoy a couple of new movies and a tasty Mexican-inflected burger-based meal. The only downside was that one of the movies had to be at the Leicester Square Vue, but there you go. This does at least seem to be as nice as any other Vue (which is to say, quite nice in most respects), and Leicester Square is a fun place to go to the cinema. I note that weird, costume-wearing Frenchies have already started queueing to see The Lone Ranger, a film so blatantly and painfully misconceived that it’s currently 50-50 as to whether I go to see it at all (and this is from someone who paid to watch Battleship and After Earth). Hey ho.

Anyway, the film I saw at the Leicester Square Vue was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, his latest re-teaming with writer and star Simon Pegg (not to mention co-star Nick Frost). To briefly recap, after making an name for themselves in TV, these boys scored a bit of a hit with the 2004 zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead – still pretty much the gold standard when it comes to funny zombie films – and also did rather well with the 2007 comedy action pastiche Hot Fuzz (a film I personally find somewhat less accomplished, but still bags of fun). Then Pegg and Frost went off to make Paul with someone else, a film which did quite well though it wasn’t particularly great, and Wright went off and made Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a film which didn’t do very well even though it was quite good.

Now here they are again, with what’s being advertised as the final instalment of a trilogy – helps with the marketing, I suppose, because in terms of story the three films are completely separate, not even taking place in the same genre.

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This time round Pegg plays Gary King, a highly dubious and unreliable character, who at the start of the film is intent on reuniting the gang of his teenage years. Frost plays his best friend Andy, while comprising the rest of the crew are Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman. Many years ago this bunch set out to complete an epic pub crawl in their home town, but failed: now Gary is insisting they give it another try.

However, the freewheeling teenagers of decades before have grown up to be lawyers, estate agents, and so on, and even getting everyone back together is a challenge. Slowly the realisation dawns that Gary himself hasn’t appreciably grown up at all, and the question of exactly what his motivation for this reunion is becomes increasingly pressing.

Several pubs into the crawl, of course, things take a rather different and unexpected turn, as does the tone of the film. This does rather come out of nowhere, if you haven’t seen the trailer anyway, but suffice to say that, as usual, what started as a comedy turns into a different sort of genre movie entirely…

I seem to recall being instinctively well-disposed towards Shaun of the Dead when it came out in 2004, mainly because I’d met Simon Pegg the year before and he turned out to be one of the good guys. (Pegg’s rise to something approaching bona fide moviestardom since then has been gratifying.) I find myself equally inclined to say nice things about The World’s End, but again I am unsure whether this is simply due to the quality of the film, or the fact it seems precision-aimed at me as its target audience.

Because this is essentially a film about looking down the barrel of forty, realising your youth is all but over, and coming to terms with the fact that the past is past. All the characters have done this except Gary, and the emotional arc of the film is about how this affects their relationships. There is inevitably a good deal of nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s, which is reflected in one of the most evocative and memorable soundtracks I can recall: Blur, the Stone Roses, the Soup Dragons, Suede, they are all here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story winds up hitting a few emotional notes you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a mainstream comedy film, but I found this just made the film more engaging. Certainly, I went to see The World’s End looking forward to the genre element of the story, but found myself enjoying the character-based comedy-drama much more. In addition to sharp and witty dialogue, there is also some well-executed slapstick and a brilliant gag about the plague of homogenous gastro-ification sweeping British pubs.

This is not to say that the other stuff is by any means bad, of course: it’s smartly written and immaculately assembled, with some superbly inventive action choreography along the way (even if the unarmed combat skills displayed by virtually every character seem a little implausible). But by the climax, one almost gets a sense of the film itself having had a couple of pints too many – things become just a touch out of control and silly, though not enough to spoil proceedings. (It’s definitely a stretch to claim the film is on some level an homage to Wyndham or Youd, as some publicity materials are claiming.) The conclusion, though fairly logical, seemed to me to be distinctly odd and tonally rather at odds with the way the rest of the film had been going.

Nevertheless, this is still a quality piece of work, as you would expect from the assembled talent involved in making it. Given the A-Team of actors involved, the only real surprise is Nick Frost’s continued ability to steal scenes apparently without effort. Doing that when you’re sharing the frame with Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman (often all at the same time) is a really remarkable talent. Frost might also want to consider branching out into action movies: he shows considerable potential in this department. Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan also pop up in key roles: there’s something weird about the fact that not much more than a decade ago it was perfectly okay for the two of them to get it on in a movie, but now he’s being cast as her former schoolteacher. Typically strange cinema attitudes to ageing, I suppose.

The World’s End is very much of a piece with the two other Wright/Pegg/Frost films in the way it combines comedy-drama with genre pastiche, but it isn’t afraid to try some new things – the roles played by the two leads are effectively reversed, while there’s less of a focus on their relationship and more of an ensemble feel to the film. For the most part, this works, and if this really does turn out to be the last time these three work together, they are concluding their relationship on a high. The World’s End is consistently very funny, frequently moving, and often rather exciting. A great piece of intelligent entertainment, and one of the best films of the summer so far.

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It was, as I recall, a Tuesday afternoon in the Autumn of 1998 and I was flicking through the latest issue of a popular SF and fantasy magazine during the drive home from work.

‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘It says here that they’re making a film of The Hobbit.’

‘Oh,’ said my father, who was driving. ‘Where are they going to film it?’

‘Well,’ I said, perusing the (rather minimal) article in more detail. ‘It’s not official yet, but it says that locations in New Zealand are being scouted… some people say they’ve heard they’re going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s silly, of course, The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable, and anyway you’d want to do The Hobbit first, wouldn’t you? It’d only be sensible. They must be making The Hobbit. That’ll be interesting.’

‘That’ll be interesting,’ my father agreed.

Well, how wrong can you be? Peter Jackson did not want to do The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is not, it would appear, unfilmable. And the film version of The Hobbit is…

Hang on a minute; it is interesting. But the big question – the absolutely key, inescapable question, in every respect – is, how does it compare with Jackson’s monumental, decade-defining version of the Rings?

JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a fairly lengthy children’s book, in 1937 and you could be forgiven for assuming that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of an adaptation of the same. I would argue it is not, or at least not entirely: what it is, is an attempt to use material from this book to form the basis of a prequel to the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. For many people this may be too fine a distinction; I hope I can persuade you otherwise.

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The bulk of this film is set sixty years prior to the previous trilogy and recounts the youthful adventures of the titular home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). For slightly obscure reasons, Bilbo is recruited by the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a band of itinerant Dwarves led by exiled prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). These Dwarves are displaced and dispossessed, their home kingdom of Erebor having fallen to the terrible dragon Smaug. Ignoring the misgivings of many of the finest minds in Middle Earth, Gandalf is intent on helping Thorin get his throne back – and he’s also quite insistent that Bilbo come along on the journey too.

Well, there are Trolls and Orcs and Goblins along the way, along with ominous portents of a dark power resurgent in the realm – none of which seems particularly connected to the Dwarves’ quest, until Bilbo happens upon a magical ring in the course of his travels…

I have to say I turned up to watch this first part of The Hobbit almost out of a sense of obligation, without much genuine excitement and with my expectations dialled down very low. Quite why this should be I can’t really say – I was genuinely excited when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was going to be directing a diptych of Hobbit films, but the news that Peter Jackson was going to do three just made me very dubious.

Part of this is just mathematical – The Hobbit is about the same length as one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I can see how you’d justify a nine-hour movie trilogy based on a 1200-page epic novel. I can’t see how or why you would want to make a nine-hour movie trilogy (which is what this promises to be) out of a 350-page children’s story.

Except, of course, this isn’t what Jackson’s doing. Where Lord of the Rings still had to have great chunks chopped out for the screen, The Hobbit has had to have large quantities of new material added just to (delete according to taste) expand the story onto a larger canvas / bloat the running time sufficiently to justify making people pay for three movie tickets. Some of this is extrapolated from stuff mentioned in the novel, other bits are derived from additional material in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings itself (it looks like Jackson and his team may not have the rights to all of Tolkien’s peripheral material, as they don’t appear able to use the names Alatar and Pallandro), and quite a lot of it looks like it’s completely new.

Now, in some ways this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Jackson and his crew to open out their vision of Middle Earth even further, and it is – of course! – lovely to see people like Cate Blanchett and Sir Christopher Lee coming back to reprise their characters (even if it is fairly obvious that Lee has a stand-in most of the time he’s not in close-up). We also get the pleasure of Sylvester McCoy giving a very – er – Sylvester McCoy-ish performances as the psychedelically-addled wizard Radagast (Peter Jackson is apparently a big fan of McCoy, which makes you wonder why he’s made the actor perform all his scenes covered in birdshit). Take this as you will, but Landy Bloom is being held in reserve for later installments in this trilogy.

But the upshot of all this new material is that the narrative focus of the film is all over the place – it’s baggy and saggy and strangely paced, and, for a film called The Hobbit with an actor as good as Martin Freeman playing the Hobbit in question, the protagonist gets relatively little chance to shine. Freeman is good in his opening scenes, and again in the riddle-game sequence playing opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum, but too often the rest of the time he’s either lost in a crowd of Dwarves or not on the screen at all – there’s so much other stuff going on that Bilbo Baggins largely shrinks almost to obscurity.

It’s a shame, especially when you consider that the filming of these movies was very eccentrically scheduled simply in order to allow Freeman to appear here while still honouring his commitments on Sherlock. That, if nothing else, exemplifies why I have a problem with this movie – it’s just fundamentally very self-indulgent film-making, and too often this shows.

I suppose when you’ve won over a dozen Oscars and made over a billion dollars, you’re entitled to exert a little clout in future projects: so why not film on different sides of the world and shut down and restart production just to meet the availability of some of your key cast members? Why not write characters in just to satisfy your  existing fanbase (I can’t think why else Elijah Wood appears as Frodo in this film)? Why not throw everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative?

Certainly, telling Tolkien’s original story doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. I popped into one of my favourite restaurants for a buffaloburger before seeing this film, and got chatting to the waitress. It turned out she was considering seeing The Hobbit herself, but hadn’t seen The Lord of the Rings. I confidently assured her that, as this story took place earlier, no prior knowledge was needed. This is not the case, I suspect: the way the film is written and played seems to me to assume you already know who Frodo is, who Saruman and Galadriel are, the significance of things like Mordor and ‘Morgul blades’, and so on.

I know I have been very negative about The Hobbit, and this honestly pains me, partly because the Lord of the Rings movies are so special, but also because, in many ways, this film is technically brilliant (even in 24FPS 2D on the small screen with the inadequate rake at the Phoenix). There are breathtaking visuals, striking effects sequences, a stirring score and some memorable performances – but even here it seemed to me that the film was just aping the style of its distinguished predecessors. Thorin comes across as a brooding heir-in-waiting in a very Viggo-esque manner, while the big action sequence with the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins hits so many of the same beats as the Moria section of the first film.

There are enough good things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to make me excited about seeing the other films in the series, and not even regret promising to see it again in the not-too-distant future. But it’s a bloated spectacle rather than a compelling story. The Lord of the Rings films were so special partly because they seemed to be taking a leap into the unknown and tackled bringing epic fantasy to the screen with ceaseless originality and imagination. The Hobbit, on the strength of this first outing, just feels like an exercise in ticking boxes in order to meet the requirements of a pre-existing formula – in many ways a beautiful formula, but a formula nevertheless. The toxic miasma surrounding the words ‘prequel trilogy’ still lingers, somewhat.

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