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2014 winter movies: A preview of upcoming film releases for January and February

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Movie fans, the changing of the calendar might bring new hope and enthusiasm in our personal lives, but, let me tell you, this is, annually, the worst season for movies. Enjoy the Christmas leftovers while you can, because these are the annual dog days of winter at the multiplex. The awards season with the upcoming Golden Globes and Academy Awards keeps a few things shiny, but the months of January and February are predominately the dumping grounds for movies that weren't deemed good enough for Oscar or hit-worthy enough for kids and families on holiday break.

This is the time of the year where Liam Neeson and Mark Wahlberg troll to get their annual gritty hits and one family film conquers an open playing field with zero competition. That's about all you're going to get. Here are your upcoming releases for the winter of 2014 covering the months of January and February. Just to perk the list up a little, I included the Oscar contenders that opened back in December for a limited qualifying release, but finally reach the general public this month. I promise better business come March.

JANUARY 3

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones-- Is this fad and franchise finally wearing thin? It looks that way. Normally, the Paranormal Activity movies are an annual Halloween weekend smash hit. With the minor revival of real and not knock-off horror last year with The Conjuring, The Purge, and Insidious 2, the Paranormal Activity franchise got bounced to January. This one wasn't even screened for critics and was beat by a seven-week-old Frozen for the top spot at the box office this past weekend. (trailer)

JANUARY 10

The Legend of Hercules-- Like comet/asteroid movies or bad Snow White remakes, there are two competing Hercules projects this year. The higher profile one stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson this summer and is directed by Rush Hour train wreck artist Brett Ratner. This first one, from Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea director Renny Harlin, has Kellan Lutz, some beefcake from the Twilight franchise, playing a slave who becomes a gladiator dusting off bad action movie theatrics and cliches. Neither film will be good. This one will be the worst. (trailer)

Lone Survivor-- After Hercules, the other three wide releases on January 10th are all awards movies finally getting larger audiences. The first is this true account Marine story from Afghanistan directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Battleship) and starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster as a squad of guys escaping from behind enemy lines. This is definitely a little classier than Mark Wahlberg's usual sloppy January title (Contraband, Broken City) and is earning solid reviews. That might just wipe the bad taste of Battleship out of a few mouths for Berg and Kitsch. (trailer)

Her-- The next awards expansion is the phenomenal new film from Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich). I was lucky enough to see this film early and it's outstanding. Her is the #2 film on my year-end "10 Best" for 2013. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a lonely separated husband who begins to fall in love with the artificial intelligence operator of his personal device voiced by Scarlett Johansson. As weird as it looks and sounds, the movie is very smart, sweet, and highly intelligent. Highly recommended. (full review) (trailer)

August: Osage County-- Finally, the last award-worthy film growing to more theaters is another from my "10 Best" of last year. I was lucky enough to catch August: Osage County back in October at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. Boasting a big cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, the Tony Award-winning Tracey Letts play gets the big screen treatment and it's completely terrific acting on display. Meryl is as good as you would expect and Julia might be even better. This is the scathing R-rated family drama you've been waiting for this year. (full review) (trailer)

JANUARY 17

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit-- In a move sure to upset hardcore Tom Clancy fans, director Kenneth Branagh and Paramount hopes to reboot the Jack Ryan character with an original and modern story not matching any particular novel from the character's esteemed history. The torch is getting passed to Star Trek star Chris Pine and Kevin Costner gets to be your mentor character. Branagh steps in front of the camera to be the shady Russian villain and Keira Knightley is the girl in the middle of both sides. Get your grain of salt ready. (trailer)

Ride Along-- Kevin Hart hopes to continue his movie hot streak from Think Like a Man and other fun supporting appearances elsewhere with a leading role opposite Ice Cube in an action comedy about a guy getting a cop ride along with his fiance's tough big brother. He's a hoot and almost worth the price of admission. (trailer)

The Nut Job-- You get animated squirrels in a heist film trying to steal nuts. That's it. How far down has the animated family film sunk? Low enough that this one borrows gags from funnier and better movies. For voices, you get Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Jeff Dunham, and Brendan Fraser. How's that for a list of mostly failed has-beens? Don't let your kids tug your shirt sleeves for this one. Watch Frozen again or wait for The Lego Movie. (trailer)

JANUARY 24

I, Frankenstein-- I've been one to quickly rant about the wasteful and bloated action-injected fairy tales. It appears the trend is spreading to classic novels because I, Frankenstein bastardizes Mary Shelley's monster as a trench-hoodie-wearing modern anti-hero fighting evil gargoyles come to life. Somebody must be tying a noose around poor Aaron Eckhart's neck. This film is aiming for the Underworld crowd. Good luck. (trailer)

JANUARY 31

That Awkward Moment-- Here's my pick for a winter "hidden gem" in the making. That Awkward Moment talks about three 20-something roommates who vow to stay single for solidarity after one of them experiences a break-up. The romantic comedy hitch is they start some relationships that they have to hide from each other. Zac Efron, Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan, and The Spectacular Now's Miles Teller are three promising young actors that look to have great manly chemistry in a fun sex comedy. (red band trailer)

Labor Day-- The last and longest delayed wide release of an Oscar contender is the new film from Up in the Air and Juno director Jason Reitman. In quite a departure from his usual quirky comedy style, Reitman pulls out a romantic drama between a lonely housewife, played by Kate Winslet, and an escaped convict, played by Josh Brolin, told through the eyes of her teen son. This is another film I was lucky enough to see early at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival and it's an excellent film. It made #7 on my "10 Best" of 2013. It's that good. (full review) (trailer)

FEBRUARY 7

The Lego Movie-- This movie is going to make a killing. When I saw Frozen this past holiday season, this was the preview every kid went nuts for. With instant connection and all kinds of fun tie-ins, the Lego empire gets a big screen adventure from the team that brought you 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This looks like a ton of fun and has a wide open season with no family competition. (trailer)

The Monuments Men-- The latest directorial effort from George Clooney was primed to hit theaters during the December awards season, but was bumped for editing, effects, and changes to a post-Oscar February wasteland against The Lego Movie. As most of you have seen, Clooney leads an all-star cast beside Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Jean Dujardin for a World War II true story about a special crew of soldiers who were sent to enemy lines to save and recover stolen Nazi art and antiquities. Unless it is good and voters have a long memory, that delay will cost its Oscar hopeful chances for next year. That said, we hopefully get the benefit of a legitimately good movie to watch in the dog days of winter. (trailer)

FEBRUARY 14

Robocop-- Leading the list of 80's movies that definitely didn't require a remake, Sony is out to cash-in action figures and merchandising by transforming the dark R-rated social satire of Robocop into a law enforcement superhero for the PG-13 crowd. This film, starring Joel Kinneman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Gary Oldman, reeks of being soaked in sanitizer. Enjoy your Valentine's Day weekend, ladies, while your boyfriends drag you to this film. (trailer)

About Last Night-- Kevin Hart hopes to continue his streak... wait a second. I said that already. You mean he's got two movies in a month?! Apparently so. This one is back in the romantic comedy vein that made him a success in Think Like a Man. He and Michael Ealy re-team for a loose remake of the 1986 sex comedy based on the David Mamet play of the same name that starred Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. Regina Hall and Joy Bryant play their love interests and the setting moves from Chicago to L.A. (trailer)

Endless Love-- We may not get an annual Nicholas Sparks novel adaptation movie this year, but will still get some tawdry, scandalous affairs built for this holiday in the form of Endless Love. This too is a loose 80's remake of the 1981 Franco Zeffirelli film that's more remembered for hit duet title song from Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and being a footnote as Tom Cruise's debut film than for starring a young Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt. Magic Mike's Alex Pettyfer and Carrie's Gabriella Wilde play the torrid young lovers. (trailer)

Vampire Academy-- The garbage train of young adult novels turned into movie wannabes that strive to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games continues with this first (and hopefully last) chapter of Richelle Mead's popular series. Vampire Academy is just what it sounds like. It's Mean Girls without the comedy, but populated by vampires going to school to learn their craft and future. Yup, it's that dumb. (trailer)

Winter's Tale-- It looks like Russell Crowe is slated to attempt to throw away his respectability for the second winter in a row after last year's disappointing Broken City. I see he's looking to bring down Colin Farrel with him in an odd supernatural film about guardian angels and ghosts falling in love in Manhattan across a century. Somehow, Will Smith is in this movie as well. This whole fiasco is the feature film directorial debut of long-time Hollywood screenwriter and A Beautiful Mind Oscar winner Akiva Goldsmith, the same man who still wrote us two terrible Joel Schumaker Batman films in between John Grisham adaptations (A Time to Kill, The Client). (trailer)

FEBRUARY 21

Pompeii-- Following the Titanic blueprint of taking a historical tragedy and exploiting it for fictional romance and high adventure, Resident Evil franchise steward Paul W.S. Anderson brings us Pompeii. Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington plays a slave who becomes a gladiator (where have I heard that before?) who is separately from his true love (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning) who is betrothed to a senator (Kiefer Sutherland) right as the historical disaster starts. I'm rooting for the volcano, folks. (trailer)

3 Days to Kill-- Charlie's Angels and Terminator: Salvation director McG (yes, that's his name) and French action writer Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional) spin Kevin Costner out as a dying assassin given one last assignment while trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Amber Heard and True Grit Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld co-star. (trailer)

The Wind Rises-- Something in the "diamond in the rough" territory is the American release of The Wind Rises, the latest and possibly final manga animated feature from retiring heralded director Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo). The film, with an English-speaking voice cast that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, and William H. Macy, has won several awards as the best animated feature of 2013, topping even Frozen. (trailer)

FEBRUARY 28

Non-Stop-- Finally, we've come to the annual angry Liam Neeson ass-kicker. Our favorite Irish tough guy re-teams with his Unknown director to play an Air Marshall who is branded a hijacker after a bomb is discovered and assassinations start on a long flight from New York to London. Julianne Moore, 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o, Anson Mount, and Scoot McNairy are along for the bumpy flight. Neeson's act always works. Look for another hit right here. (trailer)

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