Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to January

I’ve joked in the past about January being a dumping ground for all the misfit movies that the studios deemed unworthy of a more attractive release date, but the truth of the matter is that there are 12 months in a year, and you can’t expect every month to be overflowing with quality programming. With that said, however, this year’s pickings don’t look as bad as usual, with a surprising amount of action films led by big-name stars, some of which have real sleeper hit potential. The general lack of confidence by the studios suggests otherwise, but when expectations are this low, anything is possible.


Who: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas and Ben Foster
What: To protect his brother-in-law from a drug lord, a former smuggler heads to Panama to score millions of dollars in counterfeit bills.
When: January 13th
Why: It’s pretty funny that a movie about counterfeiting should turn out to be an imitation itself (the Icelandic film on which its based featured the U.S. version’s director, Baltasar Kormákur, in the lead role), but despite the fact that its clichéd plot seems to have been ripped off from a number of generic action thrillers just like it, “Contraband” has one thing that a lot of those films didn’t – a killer ensemble cast. Mark Wahlberg has had his share of duds over the years, but he’s always entertaining to watch, and guys like Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster and J.K. Simmons are some of the best character actors in the game. It’s probably not something you should rush out to see on opening weekend, but “Contraband” at least looks like it’ll be a fun way to kick off the 2012 movie season.


Who: Kate Beckinsale, Michael Ealy, Stephen Rea and Kris Holden-Ried
What: When human forces discover the existence of the Vampire and Lycan clans, Selene leads the battle to protect both of their species.
When: January 20th
Why: For as entertaining as the first “Underworld” movie was, I’ve never understood how the series has managed to stick around for as long as it has. The second film was really bad and the third one was even worse, but for some reason, Screen Gems is intent on milking the vampire/werewolf franchise for as long as they can. And until people stop blindly handing the studio their money, they’ll keep making them. The only reason anyone should even consider seeing this fourth installment is for the leather-clad return of Kate Beckinsale as vampire heroine Selene, because the rest of the film reeks of desperation. Why else would they be releasing it in (undoubtedly subpar) 3D?


Who: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Antonio Banderas
What: A black ops soldier seeks payback after she is betrayed during a mission.
When: January 20th
Why: The last thing that anyone expected from director Steven Soderbergh was an action movie, but considering his diverse body of work, it’s not as strange as it sounds. Designed specifically as a starring vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano, “Haywire” looks like a pretty kick-ass action movie that retains Soderbergh’s indie sensibilities. Though it’s not much to go on, the trailer suggests that Carano is actually a pretty decent actor, and regardless of the film’s success, it could mark the arrival of Hollywood’s newest female action star. But for as much faith as Soderbergh has placed in the tough-as-nails newcomer, it was smart to surround her with actors like McGregor, Fassbender and Banderas, who will undoubtedly improve the film beyond the typical January fare.


Who: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael B. Jordon and Bryan Cranston
What: A crew of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program is finally called into duty after spending most of World War II on the ground.
When: January 20th
Why: George Lucas can thank “Star Wars” fans for the eventual release of his WWII passion project, which he’s been trying to get off the ground for decades before finally deciding to finance it himself using his Scrooge McDuck-sized fortune. Though Lucas is credited for the story, he thankfully didn’t write the script, instead handing those duties over to TV writer John Ridley. But while the finicky Lucas has entrusted “Red Tails” to Ridley and first-time director Anthony Hemingway, his fingerprints are unmistakably all over the movie. You can expect plenty of clichéd dialogue as a result, but between its cast and the promise of some exciting dogfights, this might not be as bad as it looks.


Who: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave
What: A banished hero of Rome allies with his sworn enemy to take revenge on the city.
When: January 20th
Why: Don’t let the trailer for Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, “Coriolanus,” fool you into thinking it’s an action movie, because it’s far from it. A political drama that re-imagines William Shakespeare’s historical tragedy by replacing ancient Rome with modern-day Serbia, the movie has its moments (particularly early on), but there’s a good reason why it’s one of the Bard’s lesser known works. Fiennes plays the title character with a rabid intensity that’s required of the role, and Vanessa Redgrave delivers an excellent performance as his controlling mother that has even garnered Oscar buzz, but your own mileage will vary depending on how you feel about the modern setting. And, of course, whether you can handle badasses like Fiennes and Gerard Butler talking so “funny.”


Who: Liam Neeson, Dermont Mulroney, James Badge Dale and Joe Anderson
What: In Alaska, an oil drilling team struggle to survive after a plane crash strands them in the wild with a pack of hungry wolves.
When: January 27th
Why: Director Joe Carnahan may not have the kind of career that a lot of people were expecting from him after his sophomore effort, “Narc,” but lately, he seems to be fighting to win back the respect of moviegoers and his peers. “Smokin’ Aces” didn’t quite live up to its potential, but “The A-Team” was a lot more fun than it deserved to be, and “The Grey” looks like it could be yet another surprise hit for star Liam Neeson along the lines of “Taken.” The actor’s involvement is certainly one of the things to be most excited about, as he tends to make just about every movie he’s in better, but the real draw will undoubtedly be the Neeson vs. wolves face-off that the film’s trailer heavily showcases. I’m sure that there’s more to “The Grey” than that, but really, what could be any better?


Who: Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, Daniel Sunjata and John Leguizamo
What: Unemployed and newly-divorced Stephanie Plum lands a job at her cousin’s bail-bond business, where her first assignment puts her on the trail of her ex-boyfriend.
When: January 27th
Why: Based on the popular series of novels by Janet Evanovich, Lionsgate pushed “One for the Money” from its original release date to the much more forgiving January slot because, well, have you seen the trailer? If it weren’t for the fact that the studio is trying to jumpstart another franchise, they probably could have dumped it directly to DVD, with Katherine Heigl already taking heat from Evanovich’s loyal fanbase about her supposed miscasting as amateur bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. This is the kind of source material that would have fared much better as a TV series on a channel like the USA Network, because from the look of things, it’s highly unlikely that the studio will get the chance to adapt the entire Plum series, let alone the follow-up “Two for the Dough.”


Who: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty and Ben Foster
What: Set in 1999 Los Angeles, renegade police officer Dave Brown works to take care of his family and struggles for his own survival.
When: January 27th
Why: Oren Moverman stormed onto the film scene in 2009 with his excellent debut, “The Messenger,” and has been a director to watch ever since. His latest effort reunites him with actors Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster for this gritty police drama co-written by popular crime novelist James Elroy. But for those hoping for a movie about the Rampart scandal that also served as inspiration for the FX cop drama “The Shield,” you might want to dial back your expectations, because its title is somewhat misleading. Moverman’s film is about a completely different (and fictional) scandal that takes place around the same time, and although it’s worth watching for Harrelson’s mesmerizing performance, it would have been a lot better if it focused on the actual Rampart case.


Who: Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris and Edward Burns
What: As a police psychologist talks down an ex-con threatening to jump from a Manhattan hotel rooftop, the biggest diamond heist in history is being committed.
When: January 27th
Why: It’s probably too much to hope that this will be any good, because although the concept is pretty ingenious for a heist film, I just don’t have very much faith in star Sam Worthington, who’s still yet to deliver a single performance that actually warrants his sudden rise to stardom. Not to mention, director Asger Leth is largely untested as a filmmaker (he only has one previous, and pretty obscure, directing credit to his name), while writer Pablo F. Fenjves has built a career penning low-rent TV movies, most of which were made in the 90s. Though it’s entirely possible that the film’s cast could turn this around, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this in and out of theaters by mid February.


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