COLUMN: 2015 Winter Movie Preview



It has to be said every year, but the slowest season of the box office year are the months of January and February.  It's a dumping grounds for studios in slow months of cold weather and foot traffic at the multiplexes.  These are movies that aren't good enough for awards qualification and the holiday audiences of December or for the chipper personality of spring.  It's cold, slow, and drop off from awards frenzy.

Speaking of Oscar contenders, those are the films that usually keep this season afloat.  The holdovers and wider releases of films from November and December that are riding the awards buzz from January's Golden Globes and the forthcoming Academy Award nominations get an empty month and zero substantial competition to play for more people.  Other than that, this is the month for Mark Wahlberg leftovers, Jason Statham broken records (and noses), and annual Liam Neeson tough guy shows.  The one weekend that consistently produces box office winners is President's Day/Valentine's Day weekend in mid-February.  Last year, that winner came two weeks early in the form of "The LEGO Movie."  This year, your Valentine's Day stud is the complete opposite of a family film.  Read on and learn about the new season!  


"The Woman in  Black 2: Angel of Death"-- Let's make this quick: underwhelming horror film gets an even more underwhelming sequel without the big name draw ("Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe) that made people even see the first film in the first place.  I don't like its chances.  (trailer)

"Leviathan"-- This Russian re-working of the Book of Job with landowners and crooked government is a finalist on the short list for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.  Playing in limited release, this gets a chance to turn a few heads on this side of the pond.  (trailer)

"A Most Violent Year"-- Here's where the Oscar contenders start to branch out into wider releases.  Starting this weekend and further into January, the third feature film from up-and-coming director J.C. Chandor ("Margin Call," "All Is Lost") looks like the real deal of Scorsese-esque crime and seedy underbelly we thought "American Hustle" would be last year.  This was already named the Best Picture of the year by the National Board of Review.  Put it on your list.  (trailer)


"Taken 3"-- Alas, another winter season has come and another Liam Neeson actioner aligns itself next to zero competition to rake at the box office.  "Taken 3" claims to be the last chapter and trilogy finisher to this very successful mini-franchise.  This will be your #1 box office earner for the month of January.  (trailer)

"Selma"-- Newcomer female director Ava DuVernay has the bankroll backing of Oprah Winfrey to bring this ensemble history picture surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It doesn't have the big names of "Lee Daniels' The Butler," but David Oyelowo plays Dr. King where the film focuses on the titular location of 1965 voting rights marches directed towards Montgomery, Alabama.  This is your second of four Oscar contenders getting wider releases. (trailer)


"Blackhat"-- On paper, anything with a crime angle and director Michael Mann at the helm should be a slam dunk.  However, the hacker subject material, the lone name star in Chris Hemsworth, the soft marketing, and weak January release date seem second tier and indicate a lack of quality and studio confidence in Mann's latest film.  It's been a long six years since 2009's middle-of-the-road "Public Enemies."  Has Mann lost a step?  We'll find out after this one.  (trailer)

"The Wedding Ringer"-- Kevin Hart has attained the saturation point to join Mark Wahlberg and Liam Neeson as annual "sloppy second" rulers of the winter box office season.  Like last year's double-shot of "Ride Along" and "About Last Night," Hart returns with two more early-year entries in 2015.  "Get Hard" with Will Ferrell comes out in March, but the first is "The Wedding Rigner" where Hart is paired opposite Josh Gad as a dapper best-man-for-hire assisting Gad's sad sack fiance to hottie Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting.  (trailer)

"Paddington"-- By this time in January, "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" will likely have run its course, leaving the family demographic searching for their next entertainment fix.  The nostalgia factor of the famous Paddington Bear brand should be enough to grab welcoming audiences. Ben Whishaw is the voice of Paddington and is joined by human actors Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, and Peter Capaldi.  (trailer)

"Spare Parts"-- This is a little independent offering from Lionsgate Pictures starring George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Marisa Tomei.  The film, from the director of "Soul Surfer," covers the true story of a group of STEM student high schoolers that try to compete in underwater robotics competitions.  If it can match a shred of the inspiration and quality of "Soul Surfer," this might be a underdog winner to match its premise.  (trailer)

"Still Alice"-- Tally up Oscar contender number three of four.  The reason to see "Still Alice" is the outstanding lead performance from four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore as a college professor diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer's disease at age 50.  I have been lucky enough to see this film already.  Go ahead and hand the Best Actress Oscar to Moore.  The race is over.  See it and you'll agree.  (trailer)  (full review)

"American Sniper"-- The last Oscar contender waiting to expand to national theaters has the highest profile of the four coming this month.  Legendary Clint Eastwood brings his grit and heart to the compelling true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, portrayed by Bradley Cooper.  Kyle is the most lethal sniper in American military history and the film dissects his challenges on and off the battlefield.  Like "Still Alice," I have been lucky enough to see this film and it's one of the finest of the year.  (trailer)  (full review)


"Mordecai"-- I guess there's always room in Johnny Depp's closet for another quirky character.  "Mordecai" is his latest creation as Depp re-teams with his "Secret Window" director David Koepp.  Johnny plays the title character of charm and good looks from the Kyril Bonfiglioli book trilogy that comically dodges suspension as a spy.  Is this an easy sell or tough sell?  (trailer)

"The Boy Next Door"-- Original "The Fast and the Furious," "XXX," and "Alex Cross" director Rob Cohen directs this tawdry thriller about an older teacher (Jennifer Lopez) who has a one-night stand with an obsessive younger neighbor ("Step Up" series star Ryan Guzman).  Gosh, that'll end well.  (trailer)

"Strange Magic"-- Longtime ILM sound designer and seven-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom makes his feature film directing debut with this Walt Disney Pictures animated feature released under the LucasFilm and Touchstone Pictures banners.  With the voice talents of Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Maya Rudolph, and Kristin Chenoweth, this fairy tale with golbins and elves was inspired by Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  The marketing is quiet for such a release, so let's see how it does.  Its cardinal competition remains "Paddington," which has merchandise and signage everywhere.  (trailer)

"Black Sea"-- Director Kevin Macdonald impressed a niche audience in 2013 with "How I Live Now," building off of his work in 2009's "State of Play."  His latest pits Jude Law, a submarine commander, hamstrung into a shady job of recovering a sunken submarine supposedly filled with gold on the bottom of the Black Sea.  "Argo" supporting actor Scoot McNairy and Grigoriy Dobrygin of "A Most Wanted Man" round out the cast behind Law.  (trailer)

"Red Army"-- The documentary film covering the Cold War dominance of Russia in the Olympic sport of ice hockey has been playing strong through the festival circuit, with stops in Chicago, Cannes, Toronto, New York, Moscow, AFI, and Telluride.  This might be a nice historical gem nestled in the middle of hockey season.  (trailer)  


"Wild Card"-- You know he was coming.  Here's your annual winter season Jason Statham film.  Let me guess.  It's about revenge and crime.  Sure enough, Statham plays a recovering gambler who's stuck taking odd security jobs to pay for his addictions.  Stanley Tucci cashes a paycheck, likely as the villain, with Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Hope Davis, and Cedric the Entertainer thrown into the Las Vegas mix.  Predictable doesn't get more predictable than Jason Statham.  (trailer)

"Project Almanac"-- MTV Films and producer Michael Bay team up for this camcorder/found footage-heavy time travel thriller starring Jonny Weston of "Chasing Mavericks."  Its trailer gives too much away and looks more like "Chronicle" blended with "Butterfly Effect," but expect the teenybobber crowd to show up all the same.  (trailer)


"Jupiter Ascending"-- This title has been circulating since it stepped back from a summer 2014 release and delayed until this dreary winter session.  I don't discount the Wachowskis' ability to world-build.  "The Matrix" series granted them creative carte blanche and "Cloud Atlas," though flawed, had a lot to offer.  "Jupiter Ascending" is skewing the "Cloud Atlas" direction with Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, and Sean Bean about Earth being the unknown subjects of a master alien race.  Was the delay because Warner Bros. has a lemon on their hands or has the extra time seasoned the final product.  That's the question.  (trailer)

"Seventh Son"-- Speaking of even worse delays than "Jupiter Ascending," this Ben Barnes/Jeff Bridges/Julianne Moore swords-and-sorcery flick has been delayed over a year until now.  While there is hope for "Jupiter Ascending," this reeks of pure lemon and a bomb waiting to happen.  Lately, everything Jeff Bridges touches turns to stone.  I hope this blemish doesn't hurt Julianne Moore's Oscar chances in the far superior "Still Alice."  (trailer)

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water"-- Good lord, hold down the screaming and shirt-tugging kids.  Parents, good luck getting stuck on a Saturday afternoon at this one.  As if the TV series wasn't annoying enough.  This is is four-times longer.  Ouch.  I'm glad it's you and not me.  (trailer)


"Fifty Shades of Grey"-- Here is your future box office stud.  Expect "ladies night" wrapped around the block as if "Magic Mike XXL" was coming out early.  Take "Gone Girl" and multiply it by ten with the film adaptation of the tremendously scandalous and popular E.J. James novel.  Relative newcomer director Sam-Taylor Johnson has enlisted a pair of virtual unknowns (Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson) for the leads.   The big question will be what can the filmmakers get away with under an R-rating from its X-rated source material.  (trailer)

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"-- This is another film that was delayed from a summer/fall 2014 release to the dead of winter.  "X-Men: First Class" and "Layer Cake" director Matthew Vaughn adapts the Mark Millar comic book about an underground British Secret Service that recruits at-risk youths to become secret agents.  Colin Firth is the mentor and newcomer Taron Egerton is the star pupil.  Michael Caine (naturally) and Samuel L. Jackson are also along for the ride.  (trailer)

"The Last Five Years"-- Let me say this now.  I hate movie musicals, but I loved "The Last Five Years" when I had the chance to see it as one of the centerpieces of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival last fall.  Anna Kendrick and Broadway star Jeremy Jordan star as a hot couple that we observe in opposing timelines.  One is telling their story from the beginning of their courtship, while the other is reflecting at the end and looking back.  Great energy, romance, and music.  This is a gem and the real Valentine's Day weekend date movie you should be seeking out over "Fifty Shades of Gray."  (trailer)  (capsule review)


"Hot Tub Time Machine 2"-- The wild and crazy time traveling loungers are back, but this time they are bounced into the future instead of the past.  Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, and Clark Duke all return with Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, and Gillian Jacobs joining the party. (red band trailer)

"MacFarland, USA"-- Disney's latest live-action family film covers the true story of a southern California P.E. teacher (Kevin Costner) in the titular town that starts a cross country team comprised of immigrant Mexican-American farm workers.  Maria Bello gets the thankless wife role.  "Million Dollar Arm" didn't move the needle much with a summer release, so this couldn't be much more than that.  (trailer)

"The Lazarus Effect"-- With shades of "Flatliners," Evan Peters, Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, and Donald Glover lead a troupe of medical school students that find a way to raise the dead.  Zombies anyone?  Write this down as you potential indie hidden gem of the season.  (no trailer yet)   


"Focus"-- The writer/director team from "Crazy Stupid Love" step up from romantic comedies to a slick con man caper starring Will Smith and "The Wolf of Wall Street" vamp Margot Robbie.  Smith plays the veteran that adds the sexy rookie Robbie to his team with challenging consequences for his latest big job.  This has a catchy feel that could be a spark for this slow cinema season.  (trailer)

"Maps to the Stars"-- Eccentric director David Cronenberg ("Eastern Promises," "A History of Violence," "The Fly") put together this satire last year starring Julianne Moore (busy this season), Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, and Robert Pattinson.  The plot pertains to two grown child stars and their disillusioned reflection of Hollywood and Western civilization.  Julianne Moore won the Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival (which led to a recent Golden Globe nomination) for this film and the reviews have been coming in very mixed and polarizing.  I had my friend Heather Hagan see this film as a "Guest Critic" back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.  She was not impressed.  (trailer)

"Little Boy"-- This small independent offering might strike a chord with the faith-based demographic.  "Little Boy" covers a young man who aims to will his father back from World War II, but causes other coincidental events to occur in his small town.  Child actor Jakob Salvati is your title character and Kevin James, Emily Watson, Ted Levine, Michael Rappaport, David Henrie, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, and Ali Landry comprise the community ensemble.  (trailer)

Once again, pay attention before hitting movie theaters as release dates shift all the time, especially in this weak winter season.  Enjoy!