Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The Commuter (Photo: Lionsgate), Insidious: The Last Key (Photo: Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures), 12 Strong (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Neeson is the reason for the season: 19 movies coming this January

The Commuter (Photo: Lionsgate), Insidious: The Last Key (Photo: Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures), 12 Strong (Photo: Warner Bros.)

So many movies, so little time. Every week brings a new crop of them, opening in multiplexes and arthouse theaters across the nation, and arriving in increasingly high volumes on streaming platforms like Netflix. How’s a voracious moviegoer to keep up? That’s where The A.V. Club comes in. The first week of every month, we’ll be previewing all the major movies coming to theaters (or laptops or gaming systems or Rokus) near you, helping narrow down these upcoming releases by making educated guesses on whether they’re worth your time and money.

Insidious: The Last Key

Theaters everywhere January 5

Yes, it’s a prequel to Insidious, the 2010 low-budget hit that started James Wan’s career reinvention, turning the onetime “Saw guy” into a massively successful purveyor of formulaically identical (but effective) haunted-house scares. Wait, we already had one of those? Well, this one focuses on Lin Shaye’s aging spirit-medium character and the two annoying sidekicks played by Angus Sampson and series screenwriter Leigh Whannell. Wait, that one did too?
Will it be worth your time? Directed by The Taking Of Deborah Logan’s Adam Robitel, Insidious: The Last Key is one of the weakest films to come out of Wan’s genre factory, reducing the producer’s formula of creepy houses, jump scares, and derivative horror imagery to its least interesting essentials. We’d sit this one out and just wait for the next spin-off of Wan’s more consistently accomplished The Conjuring series; there’s one due in July.

Before I Wake

Netflix January 5

Filmed under a different title in 2013, this creepy supernatural fantasy from the prolific horror writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) had its theatrical release moved and canceled several times before Netflix snatched up the distribution rights last year for an under-the-radar streaming release. (They haven’t even bothered to cut a new trailer.) Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane star as a married couple who try to get over their son’s death by foster-parenting an 8-year-old orphan (a pre-Room Jacob Tremblay) who’s been passed from one home to another under mysterious circumstances. Suffice it to say they get more than they bargained for.
Will it be worth your time? Traumatic backstories are one of modern horror’s most durable tropes, but Flanagan’s strong interest in his characters has always put his movies a cut above the rest. Though advertised as a scare fest, Before I Wake is the closest thing he’s made to a straight drama.

The Commuter

Theaters everywhere January 12

It’s that time of the year again—time for Liam Neeson to get angry and growl into a phone. This time around, the serious Irish thespian turned action star will be doing his growling and throat-chopping on a moving train; he’s playing a white-collar, ex-something family man who gets roped into a convoluted whodunit while on his commute home from Manhattan.
Will it be worth your time? This is Neeson’s fourth collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed the star in Unknown, Run All Night, and the terrifically fun Non-Stop. The Spanish-born B-movie expert has a knack for subverting Neeson’s latter-day ass-kicker persona while still delivering the goods, and in this case, it helps that he’s already shown that he can make the most of a narrow, confined space (in Non-Stop, which was set almost entirely inside of a plane) and a few recycled Hitchcockian themes.

Paddington 2

Theaters everywhere January 12

The marmalade-loving bear from “darkest Peru” is back in this sequel to the surprisingly thoughtful and funny 2015 live-action adaptation of the late Michael Bond’s classic children’s series—but this time, he’s in prison, framed for stealing a one-of-a-kind pop-up book by a has-been ham actor (a Jeff-Goldblum-ing Hugh Grant) looking to recover a lost White Russian fortune. (Yes, that’s really the premise, and yes, the first film’s Brechtian calypso band has somehow followed him there.) Never mind the busy, episodic story, which cuts between efforts by Paddington’s adopted family (Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville) and neighbors to prove the naïve ursine’s innocence and the little bear’s gradual adjustment to his new life behind bars; as with its predecessor, the real appeal is in its clever gags and its child’s-eye perspective on life in a multicultural metropolis.
Will it be worth your time? Like the first film, Paddington 2 is sometimes hamstrung by its overheated plot. But in its most inspired moments, this is about as delightful as an effect-heavy family entertainment gets nowadays, with director Paul King—who cut his teeth helming The Mighty Booshshowcasing even more technical ambition and variety than he did in the original.

Proud Mary

Theaters everywhere January 12

Taraji P. Henson gets into the Sony Screen Gems game as Mary, a badass hit-lady who runs afoul of the usual even-worse guys when a job doesn’t go according to plan. Though Neal McDonough is not particularly visible in the trailer, it’s probably safe to assume he plays one of those even-worse guys. It’s even safer to assume that Henson will make a charismatic gun-toting lead.
Will it be worth your time? The trailer is a peculiar hybrid of slick and low-rent: Its cutting to the movie’s namesake song builds nicely, but the actual footage being cut doesn’t show much actual badassery, focusing instead on the sounds that guns make before they’re shot. It’s the kind of click-click fetishizing that announces: This movie may or may not feature any entertaining gunplay, but it does have plenty of guns! And as promising as it is to see Henson suiting up for some January action pulp, keep in mind that director Babak Najafi made London Has Fallen, honored with the prestigious A.V. Club award for worst movie of 2016. That may have something to do with Proud Mary apparently not screening for critics.

Lover For A Day

Select theaters January 12

French filmmaker Philippe Garrel has been specializing lately in gossamer-thin portraits of failed relationships, usually shot in gorgeous widescreen monochrome. His latest effort offers a bit of a twist on the formula, throwing a third wheel into the mix. Heartbroken after being dumped by her boyfriend, Jeanne (Esther Garrel, the director’s daughter, also currently on view in Call Me By Your Name) shows up seeking refuge with and comfort from her father, Gilles (Éric Caravaca). She’s unaware, however, that Gilles is now living with Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), a former student of his who’s exactly Jeanne’s age.
Will it be worth your time? Like all of Garrel’s work, Lover For A Day looks magnifique, and the shifting dynamic among the characters—with the two young women first competing for Gilles’ attention, then becoming fast friends—beguiles for most of the film’s fleet 76 minutes. Only the conclusion, which sees sexual infidelity rear its ugly head (as it reliably will in a Garrel film), proves disappointing.

The Polka King

Netflix January 12

In what looks like a more antic spiritual sequel to Bernie, Jack Black plays another gregarious, locally-beloved real-life figure hiding a crime: Jan Lewan, a Polish-American polka master who also apparently ran a Ponzi scheme. The Polka King may itself be part of a scheme to make a cockeyed satirical biography of anyone who ever ran a high-profile financial scam in the United States. But at least this one has the courtesy to offer up a number of gifted comic actors with Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and Vanessa Bayer on hand to dance through the only-in-America wreckage.
Will it be worth your time? The writing-directing team of Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky hasn’t had much luck in features (apart from Wolodarsky’s side career as a Wes Anderson bit player), but the duo’s TV-writing cred is considerable, with credits on The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, and American Crime Story between them. (Wolodarksy even wrote “Last Exit To Springfield,” possibly the greatest Simpsons episode ever made). For 95 minutes on Netflix, this seems like a reasonable bet.

Mary And The Witch’s Flower

Select theaters January 18

Studio Ponoc, the new Japanese animation outfit founded by longtime employees of Hayao Miyazaki’s legendary Studio Ghibli, makes its feature debut with this adaptation of the early-’70s British children’s novel The Little Broomstick. Directed by Miyazaki protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World Of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There), the movie centers on a clumsy young girl who stumbles upon a witch’s broomstick and a magic flower in the woods, and gets whisked away to a Hogwartsian sorcering academy. The English dub cast includes Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner, and The BFG’s Ruby Barnhill in the title role.
Will it be worth your time? No modern animation studio—no, not even Pixar—has been more consistent in artistry and quality than Studio Ghibli. Studio Ponoc may not boast the creative visions of Miyazaki or Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, but it’s carried over much of the behind-the-scenes talent.

12 Strong

Theaters everywhere January 19

It’s January, so it must be time for modern warfare! On the heels of American Sniper, Lone Survivor, and Michael Bay’s Benghazi garbage comes a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced true story that follows a Special Forces team into Afghanistan right after 9/11. The cast is a classically eclectic Bruckheimer’s Row of good actors: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Michael Peña, and sometime cut-up/former Marine Rob Riggle. Some of them will ride horses; the nonfiction book it’s based on bears the more memorable title Horse Soldiers.
Will it be worth your time? It’s been over six years since War Horse left the world hungering for additional war-horsing content, and that one scene in Wonder Woman didn’t cut it. The former Horse Soldiers just might turn out to be noticeably sub-Spielbergian, but Bruckheimer’s forays into noble carnage have an easier bar to clear when judged against, say, 13 Hours (to which this is not a prequel).

Den Of Thieves

Theaters everywhere January 19

One corrupt L.A. cop (Gerard Butler) takes on three elite robbers (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Pablo Schreiber, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who are planning to loot a Federal Reserve bank. The movie reunites Butler with Christian Gudegast, who was among the phalanx of credited screenwriters on London Has Fallen and now makes his directorial debut. The good news is that Gudegast collaborated on the script with Prison Break creator Paul T. Scheuring, who clearly has some experience with nefarious plotting. The bad news is that the film still apparently features such deathless dialogue as, “Gangbangers these are not.”
Will it be worth your time? That depends on how invested you are in commenting knowledgeably next December on the A.V. Club’s annual list of the year’s worst films. There’s no guarantee that Den Of Thieves will be on it, admittedly, but Butler has an impressive track record in that department of late.

Forever My Girl

Theaters everywhere January 19

Nicholas Sparks is sitting this January out, but Forever My Girl offers a shoulder to cry on, along with the hallmarks of the most romantic movies ever made: parenthood, precocious kids, humble small-town stores, and the grim specter of death forever hanging over the characters’ every move. Actually, this romance novel adaptation about a country singer (Alex Roe) returning to the jilted ex (Jessica Rothe) who’s raising the daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) he never knew they had doesn’t seem like it’ll end with anyone dead or turned into a ghost. But who can say when the rest of the story is spelled out so clearly by the trailer?
Will it be worth your time? Frankly, it’s not a stretch to imagine that almost anyone besides Nicholas Sparks could write a more engaging romance, and Rothe showed movie-star chops in Happy Death Day. But though Sparks himself has nothing to do with this movie, it looks like it might share his smug piousness.

Mom And Dad

Theaters everywhere January 19

After making four high-octane action films with Mark Neveldine (including Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance and both Crank movies), Brian Taylor goes solo with this high-concept thriller about kids in peril. Parents throughout a suburban community suddenly begin murderously assaulting their children, without prelude or explanation, as if in the grip of some irresistible compulsion. The good news for the kids is that only their own parents want to kill them. The bad news for Carly and Josh Ryan (Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur) is that their homicidal mother and father are played by Selma Blair and… Nicolas Cage.
Will it be worth your time? Devotees of Cage at his most unhinged won’t want to miss his performance here, during the course of which he smashes a pool table to smithereens with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey.” Blair is arguably even more delectably psychotic. But the movie as a whole is a bit threadbare, running out of ideas not long after it cuts its two adult stars loose. Still, at least it’s an improvement on Neveldine’s The Vatican Tapes. Let’s get this duo back together.

The Final Year

Select theaters and iTunes January 19

Thread-tweeting liberal nostalgia for the (actually very complex) legacy of Barack Obama continues unabated with this documentary about the end of the Obama administration, set to be released on the one-year anniversary of the 44th president’s last full day in office. Directed by Frontline veteran Greg Barker, The Final Year offers a backstage-pass view of the Obama Doctrine, with appearances by such fan-favorite characters as Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and Secretary Of State John Kerry.
Will it be worth your time? That depends on whether something billed as “a real-life version of The West Wing” makes you want to retch. Few presidential teams were as articulate in handling the media as the Obama administration; the chance that this will be anything like a candid examination of its politics is close to zero.

Small Town Crime

Select theaters and VOD January 19

John Hawkes takes a rare leading role, playing an alcoholic ex-cop who stumbles across a woman’s dead body and haphazardly becomes sort of an amateur private eye to investigate further. Consummate supporting actor Hawkes, whose recent filmography has plenty of titles that sound nearly interchangeable with this one (Life Of Crime, The Driftless Area, Low Down) leads an appropriately character-actor-heavy ensemble that includes Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr., and Daniel Sunjata, among others.
Will it be worth your time? A trickle of reviews from some festival playdates last year suggests that Small Town Crime is at very least agreeable, and may be smarter and more distinctive than that. Movie fans looking for a midwinter noir fix may want to check it out.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Theaters everywhere January 26

Yes, it’s maze-running time again! Has it really been over two years since The Scorch Trials… scorched some trials, presumably? (Lead actor Dylan O’Brien got run over by a car while shooting an action sequence, delaying production for almost a year.) All of your favorites—you do have favorites, right?—are back for the third and ostensibly final film in this absurd franchise, reportedly joined by Walton Goggins as an anarchist revolutionary who doesn’t appear in the trailer for some reason (or if he does, look fast). Will our heroes find a cure for death? Even if they don’t, they will surely live in our memories forever.
Will it be worth your time? Well, let’s see here. The Scorch Trials grossed about $82 million in North America during its theatrical run. Assuming an average ticket price of $9, that means more than 9 million people went to see it. Are you one of those 9 million people? Do you still care what happens next? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” have at it.

A Ciambra

Select theaters and VOD January 26

Relatively few Americans saw Mediterranea, Jonas Carpignano’s debut feature, which told the story of an immigrant (Koudous Seihon) who makes his way from Burkino Faso to Italy and is befriended by a local family. A Ciambra isn’t being advertised as a sequel to Mediterranea, but it features many of the same actors (including Seihon) playing the same roles, loosely based on their own lives. This time, the focus is on teenage Pio (Pio Amato), a minor character in the previous film, who becomes the man of the house after his father and older brother are both jailed for stealing electricity.
Will it be worth your time? There’s no need to have seen Mediterranea, though viewers who have will better understand the close relationship that Pio shares with Seihon’s Ayiva, who provides the boy with a crash course in petty theft. What matters most is one’s predilection for movies that straddle the line between documentary and fiction, creating a ramshackle narrative inspired by real, everyday events. Carpignano handles this particular approach to filmmaking well, but it’s not for everybody.

A Futile And Stupid Gesture

Netflix January 26

Some of last year’s festival fare is only making it into release this winter, but A Futile And Stupid Gesture will be available on Netflix within days of its Sundance premiere. Based on the nonfiction book by Josh Karp about National Lampoon magazine and co-founder Doug Kenney (played here by Will Forte—and also Martin Mull, apparently commenting on how he, the “real” Kenney, looks nothing like Forte), this seems like a passion project for everyone involved, including director David Wain and the litany of celebrities who have lined up to play other celebrities. Sight unseen, the most spot-on casting might be Joel McHale as Chevy Chase or Paul Scheer as Paul Shaffer.
Will it be worth your time? Comedy nerds will get a thrill (or possibly a compelling disappointment) from an irreverent behind-the-scenes tour of National Lampoon, as well as Animal House and Caddyshack, guided by Forte and Wain. Plus, Forte’s track record as a leading man is weirdly strong; maybe this splits the difference between Nebraska and MacGruber.

Have A Nice Day

Select theaters January 26

Bleakly set in a depressed Chinese city, the second DIY feature by the independent animator Liu Jian (Piercing I) follows a cast of local lowlives, mobsters, and cons as they chase after a bag stuffed with cash. The tangled, darkly comic plotting might smack of an assortment of crime movies from around the world, but the visual style has a distinctive character, closer to the static panels, crisp lines, and muted colors of modern graphic novels than to traditional animation.
Will it be worth your time? Advance word on Have A Nice Day has been good; the film received warm reviews and picked up a share of awards when it played festivals last year. Look at it this way: We probably wouldn’t be including a low-budget, low-profile animated film from China in this roundup if we didn’t think it looked mightily intriguing.

Please Stand By

Select theaters January 26

Those suffering from Sundance envy might consider trekking through some cold weather to watch Please Stand By; its portrait of a young autistic woman (Dakota Fanning) on a road trip to deliver her Star Trek fan-fic to a writing contest looks and sounds exceptionally Sundance-y. For moderate nerd cred, the movie includes onetime movie Trekker Alice Eve as Fanning’s sister, and nerd-of-all-trades Patton Oswalt as a friendly cop.
Will it be worth your time? A premise this self-consciously quirky is a minefield this movie appears happy to skip through—on its way to another land mine created by potentially likening an autistic character to Mr. Spock. But even if the odds are against it and the situation looks grim, the basic concept is irritatingly enticing.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!

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