Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise, from left: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Photo: Lilies Films), Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) (Photo: Claudette Barius), Downhill (Photo: Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Twentieth Century Film Corporation), Sonic The Hedgehog (Photo: Paramount Pictures/Sega of America)

Harley Quinn and Sonic The Hedgehog bring some colorful mayhem to the big screen this February

Clockwise, from left: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Photo: Lilies Films), Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) (Photo: Claudette Barius), Downhill (Photo: Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Twentieth Century Film Corporation), Sonic The Hedgehog (Photo: Paramount Pictures/Sega of America)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

So many movies, so little time. Every week brings a new crop of them, opening in multiplexes and arthouse theaters across the nation, and arriving in increasingly high volumes on streaming platforms like Netflix. How’s a voracious moviegoer to keep up? That’s where The A.V. Club comes in. The first week of every month, we’ll be previewing all the major movies coming to theaters (or laptops or gaming systems or Rokus) near you, helping narrow down these upcoming releases by making educated guesses on whether they’re worth your time and money.


Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn)

Theaters everywhere February 7

The breakout star of Suicide Squad gets a star vehicle of her own as Margot Robbie reprises her role as manic murder clown Harley Quinn. In this spinoff, Harley has reinvented herself as a vigilante after breaking up with The Joker (the one played, to little fanfare, by Jared Leto, who isn’t in this film) and is running with a new, all-female crew that includes June Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, and Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, a detective who joins the super heroines in their quest to take down crime lord Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Will it be worth your time? Given that Birds Of Prey is the first R-rated entry of the DCEU proper (Joker, remember, doesn’t tie into the rest), one might expect for it to take a dark and gritty approach similar to that of its predecessor, David Ayer’s widely maligned (but very profitable) Suicide Squad. But director Cathy Yan’s vision is colorful and kaleidoscopic, promising, if not high art, at least a refreshing change for this normally dour cinematic universe.


The Lodge

Select theaters February 7

Though it actually comes courtesy of the horror specialists at legendary UK production house Hammer, there’s a strong A24 vibe to the new slow-burn thriller from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. Like their disturbing Austrian shocker Goodnight Mommy, the duo’s English-language debut concerns the simmering tensions between two siblings and a mother figure. In this case, the latter is a survivor (Riley Keough) of a Christian death cult, who gets stranded alone with her new fiancé’s two resentful children at a snowbound lodge in the boonies over Christmas. To put it mildly, cabin fever ensues.
Will it be worth your time? Fiala and Franz have a weakness for twisty plots, which in the case of The Lodge ends up necessitating a rather significant suspension of disbelief. But as an exercise in suffocating religious dread, the film is chill-down-the-spine effective, further establishing Fiala and Franz as rising talents of the genre and budding masters of unsettling mood.


To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You

Netflix February 12

What happens after Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) fall into each other’s arms at the end of Netflix’s hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before? It’s a postscript not often explored by high-school rom-coms that conveniently fade to black well before the introduction of complicating real-life factors (like, you know, college). P.S. I Still Love You finds Lara Jean navigating her first real relationship—but there are still plenty of her accidentally-sent crush-confession letters in circulation. Hence the re-appearance of John (Jordan Fisher), object of her middle-school affection and possible point in a new love triangle.
Will it be worth your time? It’s hard to resist the idea of continuing and deepening Lara Jean’s story. The only question is whether a romantic comedy, not a typically sequel-heavy genre, lends itself well to franchising.


Sonic The Hedgehog

Theaters everywhere February 14

Fresh from his second, Twitter-mandated bake in the CGI oven, Sega’s bright blue speedster is ready to face the harsh, judgmental light of day at last. Director Jeff Fowler pits the azure dash-mammal—voiced by comedy darling Ben Schwartz—against mustachioed supervillain Doctor Robotnik, played by Jim Carrey in what looks to be one of his goofiest performances in years. Meanwhile, James Marsden is stuck in the thankless James Marsden role, serving as a straight man while random acts of computer animation happen all around his genially smiling head.
Will it be worth your time? Given that Schwartz is confined to unseen quipping duty, the real determinant of Sonic success will be how much fun Carrey can eke out of playing the biggest character he’s had a chance to sink his teeth into in some time. And speaking of teeth: God bless all the poor animators who broke their backs to recreate a version of the title character with some actual visual appeal, which might turn out to be the video game adaptation’s only other saving grace.


Fantasy Island

Theaters everywhere February 14

Proving that you really can Blumhouse anything if you put your mind to it, director Jeff Wadlow offers up a PG-13 take on the classic TV wish-fulfillment drama. In this version, Michael Peña takes over the role of genie-esque hotelier Mr. Roarke, inviting Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, and more to spend a week on an island designed to cater to their deepest fantasies. But can any island getaway truly be a paradise when Michael Rooker and Kim Coates (playing a character named “Devil Face,” natch) are there to horror things up?
Will it be worth your time? The tone of the Fantasy Island trailer is all over the place, simultaneously suggesting that it might be trying to be a heartfelt drama, a light comedy, and a torture-porn-esque conspiracy thriller all at once. (The dangers of adapting a long-running anthology series, perhaps.) We’d be as excited as anybody to see Peña get a big break, but so far this looks more like a cinematic Fyre Festival than anything worth checking out.


The Photograph

Theaters everywhere February 14

Writer-director Stella Meghie intertwines love stories on two timelines, as Mae (Issa Rae) learns about the romantic history of her estranged, recently deceased mother Christina (Chanté Adams) while embarking on a relationship with Michael (LaKeith Stanfield)—who happens to be a writer profiling Christina and her work as a photographer. Lil Rel Howery, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Courtney B. Vance round out a highly impressive cast, which may mitigate the trailer’s emphasis on the timeless question of whether two people in love should continue to make each other happy or push each other away for dramatic reasons.
Will it be worth your time? Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s a romance from an original screenplay with no connection whatsoever to Nicholas Sparks!


Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Select theaters February 14

The lady on fire is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), an 18th-century aristocrat whose mother plans to marry her off against her will. The portrait is by Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young artist summoned to the family estate on a remote French island, where she’ll masquerade as a confidant for Héloïse but work in secret on a painting for her suitor. From this simple setup, writer-director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) unfurls a slow-burn romance, which premiered to swoons and raves at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Will it be worth your time? Very much so. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire was one of our favorite movies of last year, a love story for the ages. After a very brief qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles back in December, it’s getting a wider release just in time for Valentine’s Day. Nothing opening this year is likely to be nearly as rapturously romantic. Don’t miss it.


Downhill

Select theaters February 14

At a swanky ski resort in the Alps, a family man experiences a critical failure of nerve during a false-alarm avalanche, sending tremors through his marriage and destabilizing his ego. If that premise sounds familiar, it’s because it belongs to Force Majeure, the withering Swedish comedy by Ruben Östlund, which recently experienced a boom in (idiotic) viral visibility when a bunch of people on Twitter mistook its pivotal scene for cell-phone footage of a real incident. Downhill is the perhaps inevitable American remake, starring Will Ferrell as the panicked husband and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his exasperated wife; Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back) wrote and directed.
Will it be worth your time? Only if you haven’t seen Force Majeure—and actually, you’d still be better off just watching that instead, as it’s a sharper and funnier treatment of the same material. Downhill is very much what you’d expect from an American remake, complete with broader humor and an extra dose of incongruous sentimentality.


Ordinary Love

Select theaters February 14

Liam Neeson has spent so much of the last decade slugging bad guys (and occasionally subverting his late-career growling-action-man screen persona) that it’s easy to forget that he was once known chiefly as a charismatic and commanding dramatic actor. Ordinary Love stars Neeson and Lesley Manville as a sixtysomething retired couple whose happy marriage is thrown for a loop by a breast cancer diagnosis.
Will it be worth your time? It’s good to see Neeson tackling less explosive material for a change, and Manville, a Mike Leigh regular who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, is always a welcome presence.


I Was At Home, But…

Select theaters February 14

Perhaps the year’s least easily synopsized film, this German prizewinner (Angela Schanelec took home Best Director at last year’s Berlin Film Festival) might as well have been titled I Thought I Had A Basic Grasp On What Was Going On Here, But… Its disparate elements include the secret lives of barnyard animals, a classroom full of elementary-school kids rehearsing a rather ambitious production of Hamlet, and a widowed mother’s increasingly frustrated efforts to get her money back after buying a used bicycle.
Will it be worth your time? “Where some saw a devastating masterpiece,” read one review out of Berlin, “others perceived pretentious garbage.” Many viewers are likely to fall in the latter camp, frankly. Schanelec (who’s made at least eight previous features, none of them commercially released in the U.S.) is very much an acquired taste, and while there is a cohesive structure underlying this film’s apparent jumble of unrelated quirkiness, it takes a great deal of the patience to search for it.


Brahms: The Boy II

Theaters everywhere February 21

It’s a good thing that dolls don’t age, because if they did, Brahms: The Boy II would have some work to do explaining the malevolent plaything’s growth spurt. Director William Brent Bell returns for the sequel to his 2016 killer-doll movie The Boy, with Katie Holmes on board as the mother of a young boy whose attachment to the porcelain menace of the title quickly becomes disturbing—and perhaps even deadly.
Will it be worth your time? Even in today’s IP-obsessed film industry, The Boy—a late January release that flopped with critics, and opened at No. 3 at the domestic box office—is an unlikely candidate for a sequel. And given the original’s heavy reliance on cheap jump scares, it’s unlikely that The Boy II will bring anything new to the genre. Funny title, though, we’ll give it that.


The Call Of The Wild

Theaters everywhere February 21

Freed from his Star Wars obligations and not yet wrapped up in his next round of Indiana Jones obligations, Harrison Ford returns to a leading role for the first time since Blade Runner 2049 for a revisiting of another classic: the Jack London adventure novel following a dog who journeys from California to the Yukon in the 1890s. Ford isn’t playing another gruff canine à la Secret Life Of Pets 2; he’s the token good human, acting opposite a CG dog with (based on the trailer) some disturbingly overexpressive eye movements. Director Chris Sanders is trying his hand at more traditional human/animal friendship after working on more fantastical variations like Lilo & Stitch and the first How To Train Your Dragon.
Will it be worth your time? Witnessing the next technological breakthrough in the field of dog reaction shots doesn’t sound appealing, but an old-fashioned adventure story from the writer-director of Lilo & Stitch does.


Emma

Select theaters February 21

Music video director and portrait photographer Autumn de Wilde makes her feature-film debut with a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, starring The Witch and Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy as the “handsome, clever, and rich” title character. Bill Nighy and Mia Goth also lead the film’s ensemble cast of early 19th-century aristocrats, whose personal lives are the subject of Austen’s cutting satirical eye in this classic comedy of manners.
Will it be worth your time? De Wilde’s resume points toward a stylish take on the material, and trailers for the film suggest a bright tone to match the sparkling wit of Austen’s prose. On the other hand, transitioning to feature filmmaking from other mediums can be a tricky prospect, one that some artists have been able to pull off more successfully than others.


Greed

Select theaters February 21

Prolific and eclectic director Michael Winterbottom reunites with a regular collaborator: Steve Coogan, who plays a tax-dodging billionaire retail impresario planning an impossibly self-indulgent 60th birthday party as the movie flashes back to various moments earlier in his destructive career. Isla Fisher appears as his sometime wife, while U.K. comic David Mitchell (Peep Show) seems to be the mostly-ignored voice of semi-reason. It looks a bit like Winterbottom’s version of The Laundromat, a satire pitched somewhere between farce and angry screed.
Will it be worth your time? The movie garnered mixed reviews at its Toronto Film Festival debut last fall, though it’s possible that a Winterbottom/Coogan satire spiced up with the likes of Fisher and Mitchell could look a bit better during the early-year doldrums.


Young Ahmed

Select theaters February 21

Belgian filmmaking duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are rather perennial festival darlings, nabbing acclaim and awards almost every time they bring a new movie to the French Riviera. So it was a bit of a shock when their latest stylistically spartan moral crucible earned a more mixed reception at Cannes. The rub for some was the hot-button subject matter, as the Dardennes turned their roving handheld camera on a radicalized Muslim teenager (Idir Ben Addi) sent into the juvenile detention system after an act of violence.
Will it be worth your time? Young Ahmed is characteristically involving and sturdily staged, and it mostly handles the topic of extremism with sensitivity. (This isn’t a fear-mongering polemic.) At the same time, though, the Dardennes never quite crack Ahmed as a character, which does leave the film looking a little dramatically malnourished—a rare complaint to lodge against the makers of such superb corkers as The Son and Two Days, One Night.


Vitalina Varela

Select theaters February 21

The Portuguese director Pedro Costa has spent the last two decades creating spellbindingly enigmatic and dreamlike art films about the inner lives of the Cape Verdean immigrants who inhabit the slums and housing projects of Lisbon. Characters (actually non-actors playing poetically fictionalized versions of themselves) and themes carry over from one film into the next in Costa’s “Fontainhas” cycle. The protagonist of Vitalina Varela was previously featured in his last feature, Horse Money, and the filmmaker’s male muse, the former construction worker Ventura, makes another appearance.
Will it be worth your time? Stark, sometimes impenetrable, and lit like Rembrandt paintings, Costa’s films are nonetheless works of a powerful vision; he remains one of the great portrait artists of contemporary film.


The Invisible Man

Theaters everywhere February 28

The umpteenth reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic stars Elisabeth Moss as a scientist who becomes convinced that her abusive ex hasn’t actually committed suicide—he’s just managed to turn himself invisible. The film was originally planned as an entry in Universal’s disastrous Dark Universe horror franchise (remember The Mummy?), but don’t let that put you off; it comes courtesy of writer-turned-director Leigh Whannell and producer Jason Blum, two bona fide stalwarts of the genre.
Will it be worth your time? This is basically Hollow Man without the element of queasy viewer identification, right? Regardless, the invisibility-as-trauma metaphor is an intriguing one, and Whannell’s last film, the body-horror-inflected sci-fi thriller Upgrade, was a lot of fun.


Wendy

Select theaters February 28

Eight years after making his auspicious debut with Beasts Of The Southern Wild—and scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Director in the process—Benh Zeitlin finally returns with another movie. It’s a slightly more naturalistic “reimagining” of Peter Pan, as Wendy and her brothers are whisked away from their working-class home to an island where no one ages. The film premiered last week at Sundance, in what amounted to a belated homecoming for its celebrated creator, an alum of the festival.
Will it be worth your time? Turns out Zeitlin is something of a lost boy himself, given how little he’s progressed, artistically, in nearly a decade. His long-gestating second feature is a slackly paced encore, applying basically the same aesthetic to a primal but undercooked retelling of the J.M. Barrie classic and losing all the excitement—and the magic— of the tale in the process. Even those who loved Beasts may find their patience tried.


The Whistlers

Select theaters February 28

After a string of bone-dry anti-dramas that deliberately provoked and played with tedium, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu (The Treasure, 12:08 East Of Bucharest) takes a hard and unexpected left turn into breezy genre fare. The Whistlers casts Vlad Ivanov, frequent villain of the Romanian New Wave, as a stoic policeman who gets sucked into the plan to bust a shady businessman out of prison—a complicated jailbreak scheme that necessitates learning a coded whistling language. The plot, a tangled web of allegiances, unfolds in nonlinear fashion, like a lost crime picture from the late ’90s.
Will it be worth your time? For the initiated, it’s quite fun to see Porumboiu and his leading man do something completely different—to make a lark, straightforward in appeal if not plot. But you don’t have to be up on your Romanian downers to enjoy this change of pace, which has some of the pleasures of a twisty Tarintoesque caper, just filtered through the prism of a slightly… greyer and more austere national cinema.


Burden

Select theaters February 28

This “based on a true story” inspirational drama from first-time writer-director Andrew Heckler stars Forest Whitaker as a South Carolina reverend who ends up sheltering a white supremacist redneck (Garrett Hedlund) and his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) after they decide to break their ties with the local KKK chapter. The supporting cast includes Tom Wilkinson (as the head of a “KKK museum”) and Usher Raymond.
Will it be worth your time? Burden premiered to decidedly mixed reviews at Sundance two years ago. Though it ended up picking up the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award (won in previous years by the likes of Whiplash and Fruitvale Station), it’s taken more than two years for this apparent crowdpleaser to make it to theaters. Take that as you will.


A White, White Day

Select theaters February 28

Iceland’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar (it didn’t make the cut) sounds a lot, in broad outline, like the forgotten Harrison Ford drama Random Hearts. Following the death of his wife in a tragic car accident, a policeman (Ingvar Sigurdsson) discovers, among her effects, evidence that she’d been cheating on him, and becomes pointlessly obsessed—despite the lack of any compelling present-tense reason—with doing something about it. In this case, the other party in the affair is still alive, which does complicate matters.
Will it be worth your time? It’ll be a black, black day if you miss it. Random Hearts was ultimately a romance that merely feinted at addressing grief; this bleak bone-chiller goes to startlingly uncomfortable places, thanks to Sigurddsson’s volcanic performance and director Hlynur Pálmason’s incorporation of the protagonist’s tender relationship with his granddaughter. The Academy made a mistake in passing it over.

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