The promotional materials for "The Hateful Eight" proudly declare it "The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino." It hardly seems necessary. Tarantino's films are practically their own genre; even without his name in the credits, the film would be unmistakably his. "The Hateful Eight" is the latest entry from the writer-director at the top of his game. It is a composition of contradictions, both gorgeous and grotesque, excessive and deliberately indulgent while simultaneously brisk and exciting, epic in spirit while so narrowly focused it could be done on stage. I'm not sure what the whole bloody affair left me feeling, but I know I enjoyed the ride.

That ride begins in the post-Civil War frontier as a carriage carries John "The Hangman" Ruth and his quarry, Daisy Domergue, to Red Rock where she will hang for murder and he will collect on the $10,000 price on her head. They are twice stopped by men looking for lifts; first, Major Marquis Warren, a former Union officer turned bounty hunter who is stranded while delivering his own bounties to Red Rock; next, Chris Mannix, a former Confederate rogue claiming to be the town's newly appointed sheriff.

This is a slow burn. To say it merely begins with the carriage ride is misleading; the first two of the film's six chapters take place almost entirely in the carriage cabin. Thirty minutes in a carriage may not sound like an exciting way to start a movie, but Tarantino is famous for his dialogue and there's some A-grade material here. The three men all know, or know of, each other. They tell their own stories but more interestingly fill in the sordid details of each others'. Set upon by a blizzard, the travelers take shelter at Minne's Haberdashery with four other strangers: the store's Mexican caretaker, an elderly Confederate general, a traveling cowboy, and Red Rock's executioner. John Ruth instinctively distrusts anyone's intentions on Daisy. He is, of course, right to be suspicious. Someone is not who they seem.

"The Hateful Eight" soars on the strength of Tarantino's script and the performances of the ensemble cast. These characters, save carriage driver O.B., are all varying degrees of dis-likable.  Kurt Russell's John Ruth comes across as a gruff but ultimately well meaning man. He swings between showing Daisy small kindnesses to sudden bursts of violent anger towards her. Daisy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh is a delightfully nasty cuss who has her fingers on her captor's buttons and revels in mashing them. Samuel L. Jackson as Marquis Warren is perhaps the most likable of the lot but even he, a practical survivor, is somewhat sadistic. Watching all of the characters trapped together in Minnie's Haberdashery suspect, question, bicker and eventually start killing each other is immensely fun.

The threat of violence lingers over every scene. The film's ominous first moments set tensions at a low simmer. Characters are allowed to take the time to monologue, explain, and argue at length. The longer they talk without firing a shot the more fraught each moment becomes. In one of the most tense (and best) scenes in the film, Daisy plays a guitar while watching characters pour and drink coffee. The scene lasts several minutes. By the end you may find you've been holding your breath. Throughout the film, Tarantino expertly ratchets tensions higher and higher until they finally boil into bloody climax.

Tensions are further buoyed by Ennio Morricone's brilliant score. Morricone, the godfather of the spaghetti western score whose previous work includes "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," has composed a perfectly bleak score which gives every accompanying shot a morose foreboding. Since this writing, the score has already both won the Golden Globe and been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The music isn't the only place Tarantino has looked to classic westerns for inspiration. "The Hateful Eight" has a distinctly retro feel complete with opening overture and a 15 minute intermission (if you see the 70mm version).

Tarantino's excesses are generally a strength but in two significant areas seemed an indulgence too far. In the first case, Marquis Warren delivers a monologue describing abhorrent acts in a way so juvenile that it actually pulled me out of the film. The lines insist on how outrageous they are; you can almost here Tarantino saying "Can you believe I'm going here?" Second, the not-insignificant amount of violence inflicted on Daisy in the first half of the film is disconcerting. These moments are visceral and seem to be played for laughs. By the third time she was getting punched or pistol whipped for saying something the men found disagreeable, I was genuinely uncomfortable with the laughter. Fortunately these problems are restricted to the first half of the film, which is otherwise fantastic.

On the whole, "The Hateful Eight" is a fine installment in Tarantino's catalog that will please his fans and do little to sway his detractors. Love or hate him, his films offer an experience you can't really get anywhere else. I'm firmly in the pro-Tarantino camp. "The Hateful Eight" is thoroughly fun and offers a mystery that is engaging from start to bloody conclusion.

Score: 4/5

Before we jump into the upcoming releases, a word of caution on expectations.

The start of a new year means that it's time for a month of largely mediocre (if not downright awful) new releases. Why? Studios have little incentive to release their biggest or best films when they are neither eligible for upcoming awards nor likely to be remembered for future nomination. Also, consumer wallets are tapped out from the financial blitzkrieg of holiday shopping, meaning fewer tickets sold. According to Box Office Mojo, the total January 2015 box office gross was $405 million, representing only 4% of total receipts for the year - a stronger performance than the two previous years.

Studios cope in a few ways, none of which are good for moviegoers. The Atlantic summarizes some release strategies here. Not all January releases are bad, of course, but the month's reputation as a "dump month" ain't for nothing. Variety ran a fun article ranking the past 25 years by the average Rotten Tomatoes score of their January releases: Only two years had averages above 50%; almost half were below 30%.

But enough of the pessimism, let's get to the movies! There are twelve films heading to the big screen in January. Below are some general thoughts on each.

In Theaters January 8

The Revenant

At a Glance: "The Revenant" is a revenge story set in the snows of a harsh 1800's midwest winter. Helmed by Academy Award winner Alejandro Iñárritu ("Birdman") and starring frequent nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, the picture has garnered critical acclaim ahead of its wide release, both a nominee for the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Drama and named an AFI Movie of the Year.

Initial Thoughts: You're allowed to be excited for this one; after all, "The Revenant" is not a true January release. In order to secure eligibility for the upcoming awards season, the film released on Christmas Day in Los Angeles and New York City. This movie is going to be beautiful. Gritty, dirty, hard to watch, yes, but also visually stunning. Did you know the entire movie was shot using natural lighting? Leo's performance as frontiersman Hugh Glass is also one of my most anticipated of the year. No one tell eleven-year-old me, who hated DiCaprio for some weird teenage boy reason back when he was still king of the world.

Recommended Hype Level: Five of five failed attempts to outrun the hype bear.

The Forest

At a Glance: "The Forest" is a supernatural horror film starring "Game of Thrones" actress Natalie Dormer as Sara. When Sara's twin sister suddenly goes missing, her search brings her to Japan's Aokigahara - the so-called "Suicide Forest." Despite warnings from locals, she enters the depths of the forest and becomes increasingly haunted by its grim heritage.

Initial Thoughts: The movie has an interesting premise; Aokigahara is a real place with a truly morbid history as one of the top three suicide destinations in the world. There's a lot of potential for some deeply disturbing scenes (think the climactic TV crawl from "The Ring") but the trailer feeds us some pretty standard horror fare. "The Forest" is rated PG-13, placing it in good company with "Mama," "The Ring," and "Drag Me To Hell." Whether it serves up their seriously unsettling chills or falls back on lame jump scares remains to be seen.

Recommended Hype Level: Three of five pervy ghosts peeping while you shower. 

In Theaters January 15

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

At a Glance: "13 Hours," the latest offering from director Michael Bay, may well be the most controversial movie released this year. The film, based on Mitchell Zuckoff's novel of the same name, tells the true story of the six man security team that defied orders to respond to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that ended in the deaths of four men, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Both sides of the American political spectrum seized on the book as ammunition in the ongoing public debate about that night and it's hard to imagine the film won't become similarly politicized despite Michael Bay's insistence that it carries no political agenda.

Initial Thoughts: "13 Hours" hopes to replicate the successes of other military themed January-releases like "American Sniper" and "Zero Dark Thirty." Michael Bay is nothing if not a money maker. Critically, he takes a lot of flack for his films favoring flair over substance, making his try at this much more serious subject matter something of a morbid curiosity. Will Bay finally inject a dose of humanity and nuance into a picture? Failure to do so would be grossly negligent filmmaking, reducing this recent American tragedy to a mere amusement park ride.

Recommended Hype Level: Three of five hearings by the select committee on Benghazi.

Norm of the North

At a Glance: "Norm of the North" is an animated family comedy by Splash Entertainment starring Rob Schneider as the titular polar bear Norm. When a corporation begins developing in the arctic, Norm and his friends travel to New York City to save their home.

Initial Thoughts: It's always disappointing in comedy when a film's best jokes are spoiled by the trailer. If these are "Norm of the North"'s best jokes, the rest of the film must be downright depressing. There are two writers on the film; this is their only writing credit. The animation appears to be about on par with 2001's "Shrek." It's worth noting that "Norm of the North" was originally slated for a straight-to-DVD release - in fact two direct-to-DVD sequels have been announced! Maybe the movie turned out great and that's why the distributor changed its mind about a theatrical release. Probably not though.
Recommended Hype Level: One of five arctic seals clubbing themselves to death after watching "Norm of the North."

Ride Along 2

At a Glance: "Ride Along 2" is the sequel to 2014's box office hit action-comedy starring Ice Cube as hardened detective James and Kevin Hart as newly graduated rookie and all around dunce Ben. This time their mission takes them to Miami, where they are tasked with the arrest of a drug lord.

Initial Thoughts: Fun fact: the original "Ride Along" held the record for highest grossing January opening weekend with $41 million until "American Sniper" blew it away with a whopping $89 million opening take. I never saw the first. The ceiling fan gag in the trailer made me do a kind of half chuckle; the rest left me stone faced. 
Recommended Hype Level: Two of five box office hits that make you go "smh."

In Theaters January 22

The 5th Wave

At a Glance: "The 5th Wave" is the latest young adult dystopian book series to leap onto the big screen. The human population has been decimated by four waves of alien attack. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Cassie, a survivor determined to rescue her brother kidnapped by the Others. But the invaders now walk among us, indistinguishable from humans. With the fifth wave underway, can Cassie trust anyone to help her? 

Initial Thoughts: The novel on which this film is based has received rave reviews from The New York Times and other publications. Good source material doesn't promise a great movie though; the "Divergent" books received positive reviews but have so far turned out average-to-subpar movies. The trailer doesn't do much to excite me. Spectacle is easy and often empty. A good movie lies in Cassie's reactions to this unsettling world and the difficult choices she faces trying to survive it. A bad one lies in turning such an interesting premise into a paint-by-numbers action movie.

Recommended Hype Level:  Three of five family members secretly replaced by aliens.

Dirty Grandpa

At a Glance: "Dirty Grandpa" is a road trip comedy starring Robert DeNiro and Zac Efron as grandfather and grandson Dick and Jason Kelly. Following his wife's death, Dick convinces Jason to take him to spring break in Daytona Beach for a weekend of unrestrained debauchery.

Initial Thoughts: I'm not sure what to make of "Dirty Grandpa." I appreciate rowdy, vulgar humor as much as anyone, but the trailer seems to be a string of some really low-effort and lazy jokes. For example, I was definitely not expecting a premature ejaculation joke when he squirted the lotion on that lady, let me tell you what. I can imagine a scenario in which this is a good film whose soul got buried in the marketing. It could be a comedic but life-affirming road trip movie tinged lightly with sadness about a man facing his own mortality while struggling to cope with profound loss, ultimately achieving peace after finding emptiness in his drug and sex fueled attempts to bury his pain. It's probably not that. Maybe I'm out of touch and what the people really want is a movie about an old man putting his face on some boobies. 

Recommended Hype Level: Two of five viagra and call me in the morning.

The Boy

At a Glance: "The Boy" is a supernatural horror film from William Brent Bell, the director of 2012's widely panned "The Devil Inside." Greta is hired to care for Brahm, a doll of a long dead 8-year-old boy. The boy's parents treat the doll as if it was flesh and blood, giving her a list of strange instructions for the doll's care. When she breaks several of these rules, Brahm becomes the center of disturbing events that lead Greta to question whether or not he could be alive after all.

Initial Thoughts: I really want to be excited for "The Boy," but when I say the director's only other notable film was panned, I mean it was panned: the film received a woeful 6% critic score and a pitiful 22% from usually more charitable audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. Bell both directed and co-wrote that film, while he is only directing "The Boy." Cause for hope, I suppose. Having never seen "The Devil Inside" I can't judge if it's problems were largely in the script or largely in everything else, but with scores that low it's safe to assume Bell had something to do with it either way. Set expectations low on this one and pray for a pleasant surprise.

Recommended Hype Level: One of five buried secrets in an inanimate object's past.

In Theaters January 29

Fifty Shades of Black

At a Glance: "Fifty Shades of Black" is a parody of last year's lukewarm favorite of moms everywhere "Fifty Shades of Grey." It is directed by Michael Tiddes (whose previous work includes the two "A Haunted House" films) and stars Marlon Wayans as Christian Black. 

Initial Thoughts: I am almost certainly not the target audience for this movie, and I've never seen "Fifty Shades of Grey" rendering a parody pretty toothless. In any case, the trailer doesn't seem very funny. Instead of my thoughts on the film or its trailer, here is instead a fun bit of trivia for you: "Fifty Shades of Black" is being made on a shoestring budget of a mere $5 million, 20% of the budget of the first "Ride Along."

Recommended Hype Level: Follow your heart (it's one of five).

Kung Fu Panda 3

At a Glance: "Kung Fu Panda 3" is, stop me if this shocks you, the third installment in DreamWorks' wildly successful Kung Fu Panda franchise. An already star studded ensemble cast headed by Jack Black is joined by Bryan Cranston as Li Shan, Po's father. In the film, Po must help train a village of pandas to face down Kai, an evil spirit stealing powers from kung fu masters.

Initial Thoughts: Is there any question that this is going to be a hit? Both prior films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and dominated the box office when they were released. DreamWorks has hit gold with "Kung Fu Panda." There's nothing to suggest that's going to change with this film.

Recommended Hype Level: 5 of 5 likely sequels in this Kung Fu Franchise.

The Finest Hours

At a Glance: "The Finest Hours" is a historical drama from Walt Disney Pictures based on the US Coast Guard's attempts to rescue the crew of the SS Pendleton, one of two oil tankers destroyed by a nor'easter in 1952. The film stars Chris Pine as Bernard Webber, coxswain of the motor lifeboat tasked with the rescue.

Initial Thoughts: There is evidence to suggest that Disney doesn't have much confidence in this picture. They have not released a feature film in January since 2006, yet here we find "The Finest Hours" after having its release date bumped twice. I vaguely remember being unimpressed by the first trailer; it seemed to lack focus, relegating Chris Pine to heroic one liners while the drama of the film happened around him. I've linked the second trailer, which is better but doesn't shake the question of where the heart of the film really lies. It's Disney though, so benefit of the doubt.

Recommended Hype Level: Three of five readers swooning over an oh-so-dreamy Chris Pine.

Jane Got a Gun

At a Glance: This western stars Natalie Portman as the titular Jane, whose husband is left nearly dead after a run in with the outlaw Bishop Boys, led by Ewan McGregor. Home and family threatened as the gang closes in, Jane turns to a former lover for help. Release ready since 2013, the film is finally seeing theaters after a troubled production history.

Initial Thoughts: "Jane Got a Gun" overcame so many challenges getting to the big screen it may as well be titled "Jane Got a Release." Before filming began, the director, cinematographer, and half the cast left the project. The script was rewritten. After filming wrapped, the distribution company filed for bankruptcy, cancelling its release until The Weinstein Company acquired the rights. Despite it all, there's room for hope. The cast is unquestionably talented and director Gavin O'Connor earned positive reviews with his prior films "Miracle" and "Warrior." And what the heck, it's a new year. I choose optimism. 

Recommended Hype Level: Four of five wishes for a January release miracle.

What January films are you most or least excited to see? Sound off in the comments below!
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