Keith: We’ve all been at this movie-reviewing thing for a while, long enough to know that after the feast of the end-of-the-year awards season that runs from September through December comes the famine of January. In some respects, the month gets a bad rap: For much of the country, it’s when a lot of movies that got limited releases in December finally make it to theaters. Right now, there are probably more great movies playing in local theaters than at any other time of year, even if they’re all titles that those of us who write about movies for a living have already seen. And in some ways, January gets mischaracterized as a wasteland. There are usually a couple of interesting movies kicking around. (I’m certainly hopeful about Michael Mann’s soon-to-be-released Blackhat.)
But there’s no getting around the fact that January also serves as a convenient dumping ground for low-budget junk and movies deemed unsuited for release in more competitive months. Some aren’t awful. Last year’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a largely serviceable bit of international intrigue. Nothing I’d recommend, but nothing to dread. But for me, the quintessential January film is Virus, a dreadful bit of nautical science fiction starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland that Curtis later called, accurately, a “piece of shit.” It was supposed to be a big summer blockbuster, but it got bumped from the 1998 schedule to early 1999, where it joined other troubled 1998-intended projects like Neil Jordan’s In Dreams and the blind-Val-Kilmer-can-see-again-drama At First Sight. I saw them all that year, and don’t have much nice to say about any of them.
As fellow veterans, I thought we could open this conversation by trading January war stories. Then let’s talk about how January movies have changed over the years, if at all.
Tasha: It’s worth noting that January is sometimes a good season for imports: Some extremely solid foreign films have made it to the U.S. in January, like immigrants unaware of the local customs, not realizing they’re arriving during the off-season. Films like Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?, Brazil’s spectacular City Of God, the Dardenne brothers’ The Son, and Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers all got their U.S. launches in January. But that seems to be significantly less common now than it used to be five or six years ago. We are getting the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night this month, and Tomm Moore’s lovely Secret Of Kells follow-up Song Of The Sea is rolling out now, so the trend isn’t entirely dead. But I wonder if foreign-film distributors have mostly caught on to the January dead zone, and are avoiding it along with everyone else.
But the real way to detect a stinker isn’t looking for a lack of subtitles, it’s checking for changed release dates. For me, the quintessential January film release will always be 2011’s Season Of The Witch, a supernatural horror-thriller in which medieval knights Nicolas Cage (in grim-and-gritty boring mode instead of shrieky fun mode) and Ron Perlman have to drag a caged woman to a distant abbey where she can be cleansed of her evil witchishness. Originally scheduled as a major release in March 2010, it was pulled, re-edited, and relegated to January: still a sign of lack of studio confidence or interest in a product. And hoo boy, no wonder. It’s an overcharged, overripe, painfully cheap-looking joke of a movie, mostly suited to giving people plenty of time to catch a nap during a bad-movie marathon. Movies bumped from more respectable release dates to January often feel like the last puppy at the pound: not just picked over and passed by, but all the more mournful because someone once believed they had a chance of inspiring love and devotion.
Looking at the last decade or so of releases, one pattern I’m seeing is a lot more movies like Season Of The Witch—specifically overwrought supernatural melodramas that seem to be taking advantage of January’s reputation by promising people an unrestrained, over-the-top experience that mashes together all things bad-ass, regardless of genre or period. Films like I, Frankenstein, Scorpion King 3, In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, BloodRayne, Elektra, and Underworld: Evolution all seem to suggest, “If you’re going to see a terrible film this month anyway, at least it should be full of swords, guns, monsters, and glowering women in painted-on clothes.” It’s like a CGI sorbet palate-cleanser after a month of meaty, redolent-with-respect courses.
Nathan: As someone who loves bad movies almost as much as the good ones, I love that January is the cinematic land of misfit toys, a home for failed experiments (the Robert-Altman-meets-John-Grisham misfire The Gingerbread Man); gaudy, unapologetic trash with a short shelf life (Spice World); and movies with titles like the B.D. Wong-and-a-seal comedy Slappy And The Stinkers. Promising movies with big-name casts and/or directors are rightly viewed with suspicion when they open in January, like the bewildering Jacqueline Susann biopic Isn’t She Great. There’s an assumption that something must have gone awry for studio movies to end up in January, and in the case of Isn’t She Great, everything went wrong.
But some of those orphans can be winning, and seem to have been relegated to the land of wind and ghosts because they don’t fit in the best possible way, like Jake Kasdan’s oddball sleeper detective comedy Zero Effect, or Vondie Curtis-Hall’s prickly dark comedy Gridlock’d, which features one of Tupac Shakur’s best and most unexpected performances.
It’s also worth noting that the low expectations and decidedly unpromising contenders of January make it a popular home for sleepers and surprise hits. So I will single out as my WTF successes Snow Dogs and Kangaroo Jack, both of which became hits partly because of marketing that played up fantasy sequences where animals talked (sassily!) to make it seem like they were talking-animal movies (which everyone loves), when they most assuredly were not. In the case of Kangaroo Jack, the studio actually went back and shot more deceptive talking-animal fantasy sequences when those scenes tested well with audiences. That is a decidedly January, carny-style bait and switch: making audiences think they were paying good money to see a proper talking-animal movie, then delivering movies where characters only think they’re talking to animals. This is in sharp contrast to another surprise January hit, Racing Stripes, which advertised itself as a talking-animal movie, then at least had the decency to actually be a talking-animal movie.
I often find that January is filled with movies whose titles and premise promise a lot more dumb, crazy fun than they actually deliver. Like Spice World, which is so intent on being good-bad in such a stilted, self-conscious way that it ends up being no fun at all. So I will toss this question back to y’all: Looking through the dregs of January, can you single out movies that were objectively terrible, but in a way you enjoyed? I’ll start with Grandma’s Boy, a film that answered the question “Can Adam Sandler make a vehicle for everyone in his crew?” with a “Hell yes” by focusing on least-likely-to-star-in-a-movie inveterate supporting player Allen Covert. I did not care for Grandma’s Boy at the time, but it’s grown on me in a goofy, unassuming, why-the-hell-not sort of way.
Keith: That’s a challenge, but I’m not going to back down from it. Uwe Boll’s 2005 adaptation of the videogame Alone In The Dark is one for which I think we all share affection. This was early in Boll’s game-adapting career, a point where he was merely an extremely incompetent director trying to make a movie, with hilariously awful results, rather than a professional incompetent leaning into his identity as a maker of bad movies, with much less hilarious results. Its pleasures are many: a crawl that opens the film with an indigestible chunk of confusion, Tara Reid’s performance as a super-scientist (complete with smart-making glasses), some of the murkiest “scary” scenes ever put to film.
I’m also kind of fond of a genuine January hit from the previous year: The Butterfly Effect, which thinks it’s a dramatic illustration of chaos theory, but is really a dramatic illustration of what happens when smart ideas get put through the dumbest possible filter.
Tasha: I’ll throw my vote at one of my favorite-ever January movies: 2008’s Outlander, still the best Vikings-vs.-aliens cheesefest on the market. Sometimes January movies feel like studio detritus, dropped on the trash heap with held nose and averted eyes. This one felt like a late Christmas gift, accidentally pushed so far behind the tree that it wasn’t located until the studios packed up the holiday gear in January. Objectively, it isn’t particularly different from Season Of The Witch or I, Frankenstein: It’s a self-important, dour, heavy-handed fantasy, in this case a reworking of Beowulf with Grendel as an alien monster. But it’s consistently, delightfully ridiculous, and surprisingly beautiful, and Jim Caviezel, John Hurt, and Ron Perlman (the saving grace of any self-important, dour fantasy) sell their roles well. Also: aliens vs. Vikings. And while we’re talking space fantasy, I’ll give a shoutout to 2000’s hilariously bad Supernova, which is so overwrought and self-important in its story of an alien sex toy (well, maybe) that might blow up the universe that I howled through the whole thing.
Here’s the next obvious question, though: Do you have favorite January releases that were defensibly terrific films, rather than cheesy pleasures? I can think of two: Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which has its minor faults but is largely a stripped-down, effective, snappy action thriller, and Cloverfield, Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie. That was a divisive film—still, I believe, the fault of deliberately secretive marketing that whipped people into a frenzy without preparing them for what they were going to get—but I love it unrestrainedly, and it’s one of my most rewatched movies of the decade. It never gets old for me, seeing how convincingly Reeves manufactures what looks like a disaster captured on film mostly accidentally, and sometimes at tremendous cost to the characters.
Nathan: I earlier singled out Gridlock’d and Zero Effect as January orphans worth adopting. There’s also Waiting For Guffman, the first of Christopher Guest’s hilariously culturally specific make-’em-ups (if you don’t include This Is Spinal Tap, which he co-wrote and starred in but did not direct). But I don’t think I need to make much of a case for it; if you like comedy even a little, you’ve probably seen it and enjoyed it a lot. And The Big Bounce is a shaggy, dismissed oddball adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel that was dumped into January with zero fanfare. I found it a meandering, low-key delight, thanks largely to star Owen Wilson and an unusually awesome supporting cast that includes Willie Nelson, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, and Gary Sinise. It was a predictable flop, but I found it winning. I also enjoyed Albert Brooks’ meta-comedy Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, a sly romp through cultural differences that was sleepily received, but really holds up. Movies like Bubble and Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story were also released in January, but these ambitious, offbeat treats from major filmmakers are definitely the exceptions rather than the rule. And then there are Fish Tank and John Dies At The End, modest films of tremendous ambition, whereas most January films begin and end with scoring a token theatrical release as a loss-leader before home video.
So we have talked about the good, the bad, the ugly, the preposterously named, and the talking animals. To get back to an earlier Keith question, how has January changed over the years? Has it evolved? Devolved? Because looking over the January releases from the past 18 years I’ve been writing about films, I’m seeing the same kinds of movies over and over, mostly gimmicky, pandering crap with a few sleepers thrown into the mix, along with some left-field hits. What am I missing? What kind of changes have you noticed in January movies through the years?
Keith: Hmm… When you put it that way, maybe it hasn’t changed that much. But in a strange way, that’s why I look forward to January. After the year-end rush of quality (and sometimes “quality”) films, there’s something to be said for unpredictability. And whether it’s producing unexpected sleepers or misfit movies that don’t fit anywhere else on the calendar, January is certainly unpredictable.
Tasha: I think we’re seeing a lot more movies made as January movies—made to order as cheap, or cheesy, or low-ambition/high-intensity, or just ridiculous, like the CGI crapfests I mentioned earlier, or the Dwayne Johnson vehicle Tooth Fairy. And I think we’re seeing more and more reasonably prestigious action and horror films—generally not more than one or two a year, but as a consistent pattern—being released in January, where they won’t have to compete with the onslaught of summer blockbusters. And those films, like The Book Of Eli, Haywire, Taken, The Grey, and Mama, tend to be low-key and wintery, without the explosive splash of summer films. Everyone in the States feels a little subdued in January, after the crash and dash of the holidays, and with the colder weather really settling in. January’s thrillers tend to be subdued, too.
Nathan: It seems like January is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet for moviegoers exhausted or turned off by the strained tastefulness of award season. A lot of transparent, high-concept junk that broadcasts its chintziness with titles like Code Name: The Cleaner; opportunistic horror movies looking to take advantage of an empty field and low expectations; low-budget movies targeted at teens familiar with the month’s healthy supply of sleeper teen-oriented hits; and troubled projects being dumped in the low-stakes world of January movies. To take the buffet analogy further, most of the fare is of exceedingly low quality, and cheap, but that doesn’t keep the cinematically hungry from filling up our plates all the same.