The ball has dropped, the confetti has been swept up, and the kids are back in school. Another holiday season come and gone, in other words -- and if the transition from lights and tinsel to dreary January skies wasn't depressing enough, we've also got the annual switch from holiday blockbusters to last year's leftovers at the cineplex. Nothing says "winter at the movies" like a succession of reheated trickle-downs from the previous 12 months; the studios have long used January and February as a toxic dump site for films that have been pushed back 'til they can't be pushed back no more.
There's plenty of that going on in '08 -- hello, "The Eye" and "Vantage Point" -- but this winter may also signal a shift in the way the studios treat those cold winter months. Consider, for instance, the January 18 debut of the much-hyped "Cloverfield," a monster movie that would have had "summer blockbuster" etched onto it in any other year. This winter's slate also includes a new movie from Will Ferrell ("Semi-Pro"), the long-awaited screen union of Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman ("The Other Boleyn Girl"), and...well, it also has the third Rambo sequel and the latest horror from Larry the Cable Guy. These trends take time to change, people. Be patient.
A Chill in the Air
So long, holiday cheer! Winter is the time for dark hallways, rivers of blood, and plenty of terrified screaming -- and this winter provides plenty of opportunities for all of the above. The scares start early, with "One Missed Call" on January 4, starring Ed Burns and Margaret Cho in the story of a mysterious wave of killings whose victims' deaths are prefaced by...wait for it...a missed call on their cellphones, accompanied by a recording of what their final moments will sound like. Will it be as scary as the nosedive Burns' career has taken since "The Brothers McMullen"?
Later in the month, American filmgoers will finally be able to see "The Orphanage," the Guillermo del Toro-produced screamer that wowed European and South American critics last year. As if people didn't already have an aversion to orphanages, this one comes equipped with a malevolent spirit that might be wreaking havoc on the life of a woman who grew up there, and has returned to help restore its former lustre. No good deed goes unpunished!
Jessica Alba will look to send a different sort of shiver down your spine in February's "The Eye," in which she plays a blind violinist whose corneal transplants leave her tormented by unpleasant otherworldly visions. Originally slated to come out last year, "The Eye" represents the latest in Hollywood's series of attempts to put together a Japanese horror remake that works as well as "The Ring." Think this'll do the trick?
Also premiering in February is "The Poughkeepsie Tapes," which treats viewers to the shaky hand-cam footage left behind by a serial killer from -- where else? -- Poughkeepsie. Judging from the trailer, "Poughkeepsie" looks a little like "The Blair Witch Project" crossed with "Halloween" (the John Carpenter version, not the Rob Zombie one), and could wind up becoming this winter's biggest low-budget horror sensation.
Finally, April brings us "Prom Night," Screen Gems' latest exercise in '80s horror vault-raiding. Brittany Snow stars in the remake of the 1980 teensploitation cult classic. The original provided Jamie Lee Curtis with a gateway out of the horror-movie ghetto -- will the remake do the same for Snow?
Hot Winter Action!
Gray skies got you feeling like you want to strap on a machine gun and go blow off a little steam? This winter's collection of action movies might be able to provide you with a little cinematic therapy. After all, who embodies the action thriller more than Sylvester Stallone?
This January brings Stallone's long-mooted fourth "Rambo" flick to theaters in the form of "John Rambo," in which everyone's favorite Vietnam vet ventures into the Burmese jungle to rescue a group of Christian missionaries. Plot's secondary, though -- the only thing you need to know is that Stallone rocks a tank top, a machete, and a homemade sword as well as he ever did.
Later in the month, there's "Untraceable," featuring Colin Hanks and Diane Lane as members of a cybercrime task force who may have bitten off more than they can chew with a killer who broadcasts his murders live over the Web. Lane remains smokin' after all these years -- will her latest movie's box office be able to say the same?
Like a little sci-fi with your action? Then Doug Liman's "Jumper" is the winter film you won't want to miss. Hayden Christensen stars as a man with the ability to teleport -- an ability he has used to underwrite an opulent, shiftless lifestyle. His carelessness leads him into the path of a group sworn to eradicate "jumpers" like himself -- and into a special effects-laden battle with Samuel L. Jackson. And don't forget "Cloverfield" -- Abrams and crew are keeping most of the details under wraps, but at the very least, action fans can go in knowing they can comfortably expect monsters, explosions, and an unexpected twist or two.
Meanwhile, Sarah Michelle Gellar still enjoys making movies that require her to scream a lot, like February's "Possession," in which she plays a woman whose husband may have infiltrated the body of his good-for-nothing brother. Will this be a "Cruel Intentions"-sized return to form for Gellar, or another pitstop on the way to Made for DVD City?
February also brings "Vantage Point," which boasts an all-star cast (Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt) to go along with its action-packed storyline. Originally scheduled for release last year, "Vantage Point" actually looks like it might be one of the few pushbacks whose delay was related to scheduling snafus rather than overall lameness -- but the critics might have something else to say come February 22.
Few modern directors do big-budget action like Roland Emmerich, and in March, he'll show us how it's done all over again with "10,000 B.C.," in which competing tribes of ancient English-speaking warriors duke it out over a prophecy or something. Plot? What plot? Dig those special effects! Decidedly more cerebral are "Pride and Glory," which features Colin Farrell, Edward Norton, and Jon Voight as members of an NYPD family tainted by corruption, and "Stop-Loss," in which Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum deal with the military's refusal to let them return to civilian life.
Finally, martial arts fans have "The Forbidden Kingdom" -- which unites the ass-kicking prowess of Jet Li and Jackie Chan for the first time -- to look forward to in April. Early indications seem to point to more of a comedy than the true action epic that fans were hoping for, but with Li and Chan together onscreen, there's bound to be at least one great fight scene, right?
First, the good news: This winter's comedy slate does not include a sequel to "Wild Hogs." Now, the bad news: "Wild Hogs 2" is on its way, and this winter will bring you new movies from Rob Schneider and Larry the Cable Guy, as well as painfully unfunny comedies from the likes of Diane Keaton, Matthew McConaughey, and Eva Longoria Parker.
To continue the good news/bad news theme, January brings us more of the lovely Katherine Heigl...but she's starring in "27 Dresses," which looks for all the world like a cross between "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "The Wedding Planner." (Translation: No boobies.) January also plays host to "First Sunday," in which Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan play con men whose probation has them doing community service in a church with a temptingly big collection plate. Sounds dreadfully formulaic...but Tracy Morgan is always good for a laugh, and at least it isn't another one of Cube's terrible "Are We..." movies.
There appears to be no good news associated with "Mad Money," which takes a true-life bank heist and turns it into a comedy starring Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes, along with a bewildered-looking Ted Danson. It's the type of film that the easy-to-please filmgoer in your life often refers to as "cute." Nothing to see here, people. Move along.
February brings us "Over Her Dead Body," in which Longoria Parker plays the dead fiancee of a man who's falling in love with the psychic he hired to put him in touch with her ghost. Ha, ha, ha! The month also marks Steve Zahn's return to comedy filmmaking with "Strange Wilderness," which follows the exploits of a local-access wildlife show's host as he goes to ridiculous lengths to save his job.
Speaking of ridiculous, how about Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson teaming up for the buried treasure action-comedy "Fool's Gold"? If you're in the mood for a tropical heist caper and are somehow prevented from renting "Romancing the Stone" or "Jewel of the Nile" on February 8, this is a must-see; otherwise, it looks like a lot of pointlessly lazy slacking from both of its stars. Also breaking no new ground -- albeit much more pleasantly -- is "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins," starring Martin Lawrence as a star whose return home is greeted with something less than unqualified adoration from his family. And how could we forget "Witless Protection," the latest from biological stain Larry the Cable Guy?
The season's biggest comedy is doubtless "Semi-Pro," featuring Will Ferrell as Jackie Moon, the owner/coach/power forward of a minor-league basketball team. Yes, Ferrell has done this many times before -- he's running out of sports to spoof -- but he's very good at it, and with a cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Maura Tierney, and Will Arnett, odds are that he's good for at least one more sports-spoof hit.
In March, Owen Wilson arrives as "Drillbit Taylor," the bargain soldier of fortune who answers an ad and winds up playing bodyguard to a group of high school nerds. Wilson's personal life will no doubt be a large part of the publicity surrounding his return to the screen, but if "Taylor" is as good as its trailer (try saying that ten times fast), it could help him put last year's suicide scare behind him. Arriving not long after "Drillbit" is "Run, Fat Boy, Run," a collaboration between David "Ross Gellar" Schwimmer and Simon "Hot Fuzz" Pegg that stars Pegg as a man whose efforts to win back the woman he left pregnant at the altar lead him to run a marathon against a very healthy-looking Hank Azaria.
Finally, April brings a slew of comedies, including the Drake Bell/Ryan Pinkston boobiefest "College," Tina Fey's "Baby Mama," and the aforementioned Rob Schneider vehicle, "Big Stan" -- but the ones to watch are "Leatherheads," starring George Clooney and John Krasinski as teammates vying for the affections of Renee Zellweger; "The Rocker," starring Rainn Wilson as a washed-up hair-metal drummer whose nephew's band offers him another shot at the big time; and "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo," in which the two lovable stoners from "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" try to smuggle a bong through customs and wind up in the hoosegow to end all hoosegows. What does that have to do with Neil Patrick Harris riding a unicorn? You'll have to wait until April 25 to find out.
For the Kids
Face it -- your kids are eventually going to get tired of playing with their new toys and start nagging you to take them somewhere. Happily, if you're too lazy to think up something to actually do with your family, there are at least a few films the whole crew can enjoy this winter -- particularly if your progeny are into "Harry Potter"-esque fantasy adventure.
For instance, February will bring "The Spiderwick Chronicles," the first in a hoped-for series of adaptations of the best-selling children's books. Freddie Highmore leads the cast's juvenile contingent, while the grown-ups on hand include Nick Nolte, Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, and Martin Short. Expect a mystical quest and plenty of cute little magical critters -- some of them not so nice, so if you've got young ones, you may want to hold them out this time.
With March comes "Horton Hears a Who," the CGI-animated adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic featuring a slew of famous voices, including Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, and Jim Carrey, who will try to atone here for the Seuss mockery that was "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Later in the month, Brendan Fraser stars in "Inkheart" as a man with the ability to bring books to life simply by reading them -- a power that drops him into the clutches of a nasty literary baddie with world-conquering ambitions.
Come April, Jodie Foster stars in the Walden Media family fable "Nim's Island," as an agoraphobic travel writer whose rugged alter ego is Abigail Breslin's only hope of saving the island paradise where she and her father are under assault from a pack of bad guys. Gerard Butler plays Foster's invisible friend, which is sure to be a source of amusement for tongues still wagging over Foster's recent coming out of the closet. Think the fundies at Walden will be laughing along?
And that, in a very large nutshell, is an overview of what you can expect to find at a theater near you between now and the end of April. But it isn't everything -- be sure to take a look at each of our monthly rundowns for more in-depth looks at each of the winter's biggest releases!