February’s not generally the most exciting month of the year for films, but there are plenty of opportunities to escape the cold with trips into worlds of high fantasy, with trips around Middle-earth, Asgard or a train ride across a post apocalyptic future all in store. If realism is more your thing, a couple of top-notch historical dramas will bring you back down to earth in a couple of Oscar-contending entries.
By Christopher O’Keeffe
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
While critics continue to bemoan the fact that the admittedly short source novel has been split into a whopping three-part film series, fans will rejoice at the return to Middle-earth in this second installment of The Hobbit. Even the most ardent of fans probably felt that Bilbo Baggins and his merry band of dwarves took their time getting started on their quest in the bladder-challenging, three-hour The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Part two, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, makes short work of the preliminaries, firing straight into the action and keeping the momentum up throughout as Dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield continues to lead the party to the Lonely Mountain for a date with the dragon Smaug. Martin Freeman is back as the Hobbit Bilbo, with Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Orlando Bloom returning to his Lord of the Rings role of Legolas the Elf. Everyone knows whether they love or hate these films by now and for fans this offering won’t disappoint.
In a nice break from all the sequels and reboots hitting our screens comes an original piece of science fiction filmmaking from Joon-ho Bong, one of Korea’s most promising directors. Snowpiercer marks Bong’s return to sci-fi action, and the film has already created quite an internet buzz. The director’s English-language debut boasts an impressive cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Jamie Bell who must survive in a post-apocalyptic future wracked by an ice age that killed off most of the life on earth. The survivors of the global catastrophe live aboard a gigantic train—the “Snowpiercer”—governed by a rigid class system that is ready to collapse.
Actor Bruce Dern has been around for years, but he’s always been more of a supporting actor than leading man. After an appearance in Tarantino hit Django Unchained, Dern is back in his biggest role in years in Nebraska, garnering praise and award nominations for his efforts. Dern plays a crochety old man who becomes intent on traveling across the country to pick up a million dollar prize which, quite clearly to everyone but himself, is a scam. Will Forte plays the son who accompanies his father on what becomes a road trip into the heart of Middle America, coming to terms with their troubled relationship along the way. The film is directed by Alexander Payne, whose impressive back catalogue includes The Descendants and Sideways.
The Tale of Iya
One of the more interesting Japanese entries at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, The Tale of Iya appeared in the Competition section and was praised for its stunning images of the remote mountainous region of Iya on the island of Shikoku. The film begins with a wonderfully enigmatic opening in which an old man makes his way across a snow-covered mountainside to find a baby abandoned in the snow. The girl grows up with the old man as the region changes around them, the younger generation feels the pull of the city, and the people left behind must face up to the effects, both good and ill, of development and modernization. While the film has its lags from time to time, there’s a lot to like in director Tetsuichiro Tsutata’s debut film.
The Butler is roughly based on the life of a butler in the White House who served for over three decades. Forest Whitaker plays the man who served under seven different presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, taking in some of the major historical events of the twentieth century and watching the world, and his family, change along the way. The film boasts a stellar cast, including some major names stepping in to play the roles of various presidents: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Set amidst the fast paced world of 1970s Formula One racing, Rush tells the story of one of sport’s great rivalries: that of naturally gifted English playboy James Hunt and his technically brilliant opponent, the Austrian Nikki Lauda. Hunt is played by the Mighty Thor himself—Chris Hemsworth—and the excellent young German actor Daniel Brühl of Goodbye Lenin and Inglorious Basterds is his rival. As the two fiercely competitive drivers battle it out on the racetrack, not even a major accident can derail their thirst for victory. Both drivers experience setbacks, as Hunt’s hard partying lifestyle and personal relationships begin to impact upon his career, but it’s a terrible accident on a rain-swept course that threatens to put Lauda out for good. There’s a lot of excitement around this biographical sports drama directed by Hollywood heavyweight Ron Howard and it could be his most successful film since he won the Academy Award in 2001 with A Beautiful Mind. Tron: Legacy’s Olivia Wilde co-stars as Hunt’s supermodel wife Suzy Miller.
Thor 2: The Dark World
Before the Avengers assembled to smash global box-office records, Norse god Thor appeared in his first solo outing in an entertaining introductory film that mixed fantastical Asgardian fantasy with tongue-in-cheek earth-based action. The son of Odin returns in Thor 2: The Dark World to do battle with Dark Elves in a suitably beefed-up sequel. Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, as does Tom Hiddleston as his scene-stealing brother Loki, last seen being led away to face trial at the end of the Avengers movie. The plot centers around Dark Elf king Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who plans to bring darkness to the universe forcing our hammer-wielding hero to join forces with his scheming brother to stop him. There is a suitably epic feel to proceedings this time around as the characters travel between planets leading to an apocalyptic finale in London. Comic touches, based around the fish-out-of-water quality of having Norse gods roaming around the streets of London keep things fun. Natalie Portman returns as love interest Dr. Jane Foster and Anthony Hopkins adds weight to the proceedings as Odin, king of Asgard.