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Non-Stop Action, Festival Favorites and More: A Winter 2017 Film Preview

It's easy to pick on the section of the film calendar that stretches from the first week of January to the end of April, but this year smells different. Maybe my time watching trailers and checking out buzz has gotten me used to a foul stench, but I'm thinking there just might be a chance that the first film months of 2017 won't be so rotten. 

As you'll see below, it's going to be a busy set of months (which we're referring to as the winter season, for simplicity's sake). There are a LOT of action movies on the horizon, a fair amount of horror stories that lie in wait, a healthy handful of exciting filmmaker projects, and just one movie directed by Zach Braff. That's not to forget the awards season leftovers from 2016 that will be either receiving a more official release or coming to a theater closer to you, or some of the titles we've seen at previous festivals. There is, of course, a whole section named "Last and Probably Least," but in paraphrasing a wise poet: you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have, the facts of life (as a moviegoer). 

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Below is just a whiff of what's playing in the winter season, with plenty of films due in theaters that we will surely be reviewing here at RogerEbert.com. Release dates are listed but subject to change, as are expectations in case that Zach Braff movie proves to be a halfway decent. 

Non-Stop Action

If this winter schedule looks like a summer season sequel, you can blame the mess of action movies that are coming, making this a more loaded set of months, action-wise, than this past summer. (And let us optimists not forget that this is the time of year that gave us "Blackhat.") It starts this week with "Underworld: Blood Wars," and continues almost weekly from there: Jamie Foxx tries to get back his kin in "Sleepless" (January 13), and then Vin Diesel returns as his extreme superagent with "xXx: Return of Xander Cage," out January 20. The following week on January 27, "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter" offers more Paul W.S. Anderson polarizing direction and promises that it's the last one. 

The Friday after that, on February 3, Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones star in the Autobahn-set thriller "Collide," which also stars Anthony Hopkins. In a possible season highlight, just in time for Valentine's Day the world will give us "John Wick 2," a sequel to a movie that eviscerated initial inklings and now has to out-do itself. The following week, Matt Damon makes a bit of movie history with the US-Chinese production "The Great Wall" (directed by "The Flowers of War"'s Zhang Yimou), which could be the dawn of more Chinese stories put into American multiplexes. 

Action fans will get one week off until March 3, when James Mangold's Wolverine movie "Logan" comes to theaters, boasting a more adult-focus with its inevitable R-rating (which Hugh Jackman reportedly took a pay cut to ensure). The following week on March 10 will see two action efforts: King Kong reboot "Kong: Skull Island" (starring Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell) and Doug Liman's "The Wall," the latter a very curious sniper thriller starring only three people, two of them being Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena as two soldiers trapped in an enemy sniper's crossfire. The gun action reaches a possible peak the following Friday (March 17) with Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire," which boasts a cast including Brie Larson, Sam Riley, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley, along with the tagline of "All Guns. No Control." For good measure, two TV adaptations are thrown into the mix on March 24: Dax Shepard's "CHiPS," which he wrote and directed, and "Power Rangers" (starring Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin and Dacre Montgomery). March ends with the long-anticipated "Ghost in the Shell" remake (March 31), with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. It's worth noting, too, that these latter titles also have that summer feeling of being possible franchise-starters. 

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April only has one major action movie on the docket, and it's for good reason. Future Best Picture winner "The Fate of the Furious" arrives on April 8, and should bring peace on earth with its tale of family and cars driving very fast, probably right into each other. 

A Healthy Amount of Horror

At a rate second to action movies, horror films are set to keep most of the winter season busy with titles of various degrees of curiosity. Sure, we start with generic-looking boogey-guy story "The Bye Bye Man" (January 13), but there's potential for James McAvoy's 23 different personalities in the M. Night Shyamalan thriller "Split," which arrives the following week on January 20. I'm hoping that the movie is productively unusual, at the very least. 

In February, the world will finally see another questionably-needed sequel to "The Ring," as the long-delayed "Rings" hits theaters on February 3. And not for nothing, viewers will get to see the latest horror effort from "The Ring" director Gore Verbinski, whose 145-minute "A Cure for Wellness" (February 17) boasts a bizarre medical treatment narrative and the lead casting of Mia Goth and Dane DeHaan.

Here's hoping that the genre ends its time with a memorable bang, as Jordan Peele (of "Key & Peele") makes his writer/director feature debut with "Get Out" (February 24), a racially charged horror movie starring Keith Stanfield, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Even if the horror servings are a bust, there's no doubt that Peele's "Get Out" will provide plenty of conversation until summer.

2016 Awards Season Leftovers 

One fun detail about the awards season is that its releases trickle into the next month. It's a curious list of movies that screened for select voting groups and were hosted at a tiny amount of LA/NY theaters, waiting for a more "official" release. If it sounds confusing, that's because it is, but can usually be isolated to movies that didn't seem to carry buzz (either with preliminary awards or even critic group nominations). This includes Ben Affleck's gangster throwback "Live by Night" (January 13); Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc performance in McDonald's biopic "The Founder" (January 20) or "Gold" (January 27), which features an overweight Matthew McConaughey venturing for you know what, and was supposed to come out around Christmas, but only showed up at a few theaters. On February 3, Robert De Niro's offers his latest take on dirty words with "The Comedian." 

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The awards delay of course is more strategic for smaller movies, like animated film "The Red Turtle," which was eligible for awards (and screeners were sent out, despite lack of press screenings) but now only gets a release on January 20, or Asghar Farhadi's ''The Salesman," which played in a similar situation but will be more available on January 27. 

Exciting Players

When it comes to an overwhelming season, sometimes you have to look at the players involved. In this case, it’s directors or actors taking on ambitious projects, either with debuts or breakouts, in ventures that have a clear potential to be great. 

I’m particularly curious about “Belle” director Amma Asante continuing her rise as a filmmaker, this time with the interracial love story “A United Kingdom” (opening February 10) about the controversy of a prince from Botswana (played by David Oyelowo) marrying a white woman from London (Rosamund Pike). There's a similar curiosity in how director Chris McKay will do with the unenviable task of duplicating "The Lego Movie" magic with spin-off "The Lego Batman Movie" (February 10), which features the voice talents of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes and more. And on the same day, stateside viewers with Netflix accounts will get a chance to see how Ricky Gervais does with his own "Office" spin-off, featuring his boss David Brent now as a wannabe rock star.

In a whole different realm of experience but the same type of sophomoric anticipation, it’ll be interesting to see whether Danny Boyle can make a “Trainspotting” sequel seem worthwhile with his newest film, “Trainspotting 2” (March 3). The original cast returns, including Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle.

There’s also something enticing about “Table 19" (March 3), a wedding party comedy from Jeffrey Blitz (documentary “Spellbound,” along with many other comedy TV shows like “Review”), starring Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Tony Revolori, Wyatt Russell and more, working from a script written by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass. March 10 will also be the Netflix premiere of "Burning Sands," a fraternity hazing drama from "Fruitvale Station" producer Gerard McMurray, starring the likes of Alfre Woodard, Trevante Rhodes and a debut performance from Trevor Jackson (we'll be reviewing it in a few weeks at Sundance, so stay tuned). I'm also rooting for the Jessica Chastain vehicle "The Zookeeper's Wife" (March 31), a WWII drama from "Whale Rider" and "North Country" director Niki Caro

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For fans of “The Spectacular Now” or “The End of the Tour,” director James Ponsoldt takes on sci-fi thrillers, a David Eggers novel and an evil(?) Tom Hanks with his new film “The Circle” (April 28). It sounds like “Antitrust” for a new generation, while throwing Emma Watson, Karen Gillan and John Boyega into the mix, but I trust that Ponsoldt has a few tricks up his sleeves. 

And, not to be overlooked, comedian Ken Marino makes his debut as a feature director (after directing the amazing “The Bachelor” parody series “Burning Love”) with “How to Be a Latin Lover,” also arriving on April 28. Even more important, the film marks one of Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez’s biggest projects yet, and his first English language starring role. 

Films We've Seen at Previous Festivals 

This is the category which involves movies we’ve actually seen (instead of me just hurling two cents into the wind). For example, I can vouch for “As You Are" (February 24), an adolescent epic that I saw at Sundance last year and have been waiting to revisit since; the debut from promising director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte tells the story of a teenage love triangle and a murder, featuring the talents of Charlie Heaton (“Stranger Things”), Amandla Stenberg and Owen Campbell.

Or, there’s Olivier Assayas' “Personal Shopper” (March 10), which we particularly liked at Macau International Film Festival. Simon Abrams even called the film “unmissable” in his write-up. On the same release day, Julia Ducournau's cannibal story “Raw” finally comes to limited theaters, a movie that Matt Fagerholm called “revolting, hilarious and oddly moving.” In the following month, “‘Dope meets ‘The Prestige’” Sundance 2016 entry “Sleight” (April 7) hits theaters, which Brian Tallerico reviewed back during its world premiere. A week later, “The Immigrant” director James Gray will see his latest film hit theaters, the adventure story “The Lost City of Z” (April 14), starring Tom Holland, Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller. Our own Godfrey Cheshire saw it during its world premiere at the New York Film Festival this past October, and called it a “beautifully wrought drama.” 

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Last and Probably Least 

While the action and horror line-up has its promise, or at least enough offerings that there's something for everyone, the comedies on the horizon offer a collective grimness. Ed Helms and Owen Wilson play brothers looking for their biological father in "Bastards" (January 27); Charlie Day screams at Ice Cube, who then apparently wants to beat him up, in the toxic masculinity meltdown "Fist Fight" (February 17). These are bound to be as forgettable as “Unforgettable” (April 21), which, looking at the trailer, could be remembered as this season’s honorary trash comedy. For good measure, Adam Sandler will add to the mess on an unspecified date in spring with Netflix project "Sandy Wexler," a decades-spanning comedy featuring Sandler as a talent manager who falls in love with a singer played by Jennifer Hudson

And of course, no preview of the upcoming months would be complete without a few mentions of some big, possibly disastrous ventures. The "Fifty Shades of Grey" franchise lumbers onto part two with "Fifty Shades Darker," which has a trailer that at least promises a superb helicopter crash. On the same level of temptation, Zach Braff tries his hand at studio comedy, this time working with "Going in Style," a remake of Martin Brest's 1979 film, now with an unappetizing promotional poster (are they walking away from a wall?) featuring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin

Not to be forgotten, of course, is the March 31-released animated film "The Boss Baby" (with the voice talents of Alec Baldwin, reprising the title role of Donald Trump), a "Beauty and the Beast" live-action version starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, and "The Shack" (March 3) which fills in the release calendar of last year's "Miracles from Heaven," and stars Octavia Spencer as God. Or, if you'd prefer to hear Josh Gad as a dog, he voices many of them in the reincarnation drama "A Dog's Purpose" (January 27). It's going to be an eventful pseudo-summer. 

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