Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Legos, dragons, and art thieves animate a cartoon-heavy February at the movies
Photo: Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Warner Bros.), What Men Want (Paramount), Miss Bala (Sony Pictures), Cold Pursuit (Summit Entertainment), How To Train Your Dragon 3 (Universal), Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

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.


Miss Bala

Theaters everywhere February 1

Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke returns to the big screen after a four-year absence with this English-language take on Gerardo Naranjo’s intense thriller of the same name. Like the Spanish-language original, the Miss Bala remake takes place largely on the U.S.-Mexico border. And like the original, it focuses on a young woman (Gina Rodriguez, taking the role previously occupied by Stephanie Sigman) who’s forcibly recruited into a powerful, violent drug gang after witnessing a murder at a Tijuana nightclub. Beyond that, official synopses are vague, though the film’s plot-heavy trailer teases scenes taken directly from the first film.
Will it be worth your time? Hardwicke’s debut feature, Thirteen, was celebrated for its emotional honesty and grittiness, but based on the promotional materials released so far, Miss Bala looks more like flashy pulp action than unflinching character study. Plus, it will have to hustle to top Naranjo’s harrowing, very un-Hollywood take on the material.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Select theaters and Netflix February 1

“All art is dangerous,” goes the tagline for Dan Gilroy’s satirical Netflix horror movie Velvet Buzzsaw, in which the work of a dead, unheralded painter makes a literal (which it to say, supernatural) killing in the contemporary art world of Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal, who delivered the most electrifying performance of his career in Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, stars as an obnoxious critic—just one of many potential victims in the film’s gallery of highly murderable artists, collectors, and faux aficionados, played by the likes of Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Daveed Diggs. Is Gilroy taking some kind of Tales From The Crypt-style revenge on the lukewarm reviews and poor box office that greeted his second feature, Roman J. Israel?
Will it be worth your time? Looks like Gilroy has a whole new set of grudges to nurture, as the critical response to Velvet Buzzsaw has been decidedly mixed. Our own A.A. Dowd gave it a C, calling it a stale and “facile slasher-satire with some very shopworn thoughts on the greed and superficiality of the modern art world.”


Select theaters, VOD, and digital outlets February 1

Nicolas Pesce, who wrote and directed the disturbing serial-killer thriller The Eyes Of My Mother, takes on a novel by Ryû Murakami, author of the book that became Audition. It sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but there’s as much dark comedy as gruesomeness in Piercing, about a secretly homicidal young father (Christopher Abbott, from Girls and James White) who checks into a hotel on the pretense of a business trip, when his real plan is to sow some very wild oats by murdering and dismembering a prostitute. What he doesn’t anticipate is that the woman who shows up (Mia Wasikowska) may have a few screws loose herself.
Will it be worth your time? That may hinge on one’s appetite for very grim jokes, of which Piercing has plenty. Even those with a sick sense of humor may wonder about the motivations of Wasikowska’s character or feel underwhelmed by the way Pesce sustains his cat-and-mouse scenario.


Select theaters February 1

Chilliness is one of Mads Mikkelsen’s signature qualities: To American audiences, at least, he’s probably best known for playing icy villains in films like Casino Royale and Doctor Strange, to say nothing of his tenure as TV’s hungriest and most malevolent shrink. But it isn’t Mikkelsen supplying all the cold in Arctic, a survival thriller that casts the Danish actor as a lone man stranded in the polar wilderness after an airplane crash. Talk about getting a taste of your own frozen medicine.
Will it be worth your time? If the brutal temperatures that have been pummeling the upper regions of the U.S. this past week didn’t do the trick, you can get that numbing sensation from Arctic, which Ignatiy Vishnevetsky describes in his review as ultimately “ponderous, prosaic, and largely actionless, falling short of its potential for both grit and majesty.”

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Theaters everywhere February 8

How long has it been since The Lego Movie hit theaters, and went from suspicious exercise in branding to instant animated classic? Long enough for Warner Bros. to produce two spinoffs (the moderately well-received Lego Batman Movie and the less well-received LEGO Ninjago Movie) and for writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to work on another animated feature entirely (the extremely well-received Spider-Man cartoon still playing in theaters everywhere). Hopefully that’s at least partially a sign that the filmmakers took some care with this sequel, in which Emmet (Chris Pratt) must rescue his plastic buddies from mysterious alien invaders.
Will it be worth your time? The Batman spinoff implied that maybe Lego cartoons could be a consistent source of kid-movie mirth. The Ninjago one implied, well, maybe hold up on that. This official follow-up skews more towards the fun of the former, without ever really approaching the highs (and stealth poignancy) of the original. Still, it’s a solid sequel.

Cold Pursuit

Theaters everywhere February 8

It just doesn’t feel like the year has started until the first Liam Neeson movie hits theaters. It’s been 10 years since Taken opened in the dead of January and turned the imposing Irish actor into a growling action star, but his run of pulpy grief-revenge thrillers is still going strong. In Cold Pursuit, he takes on the role of the awesomely named Nels Coxman, a snowplow driver who exacts icy vengeance on a gang of drug dealers after his son dies of an apparent heroin overdose. The jokes about “a very particular set of skills” practically write themselves.
Will it be worth your time? Director Hans Petter Moland’s original 2014 Norwegian film, In Order Of Disappearance (starring Stellan Skarsgård as, no joke, “Nils Dickman”), got decent reviews, and this English-language remake delivers a similar mix of genre kicks and black comedy. Between this and last year’s very literal Neeson vehicle, The Commuter, Neeson charging in to save audiences from stale winter pablum is becoming something of a tradition—not that we’re complaining, of course.

What Men Want

Theaters everywhere February 8

Hollywood’s gender-swapping trend reaches its apotheosis with this female-led What Women Want remake that swaps out Mel Gibson for Taraji P. Henson and Nancy Myers for Hairspray and Rock Of Ages director Adam Shankman. The first of two romantic comedies coming out this month in which the female lead sustains a head injury in the first act, What Men Want stars Henson as a sports agent passed over for a promotion at her male-dominated agency who develops the ability to hear men’s thoughts after a dangerous combination of drugged tea and a night out at the club.
Will it be worth your time? Aside from the always-worth-it Henson, the main reason to see this almost assuredly very silly movie is its supporting cast, which includes Erykah Badu as the psychic who doses Henson into hearing a walking YouTube comments section everywhere she goes. The original is aggressively sexist, so there’s definitely room for this reboot to make real improvements.

The Prodigy

Theaters everywhere February 8

Cool your jets, Fat Of The Land diehards—this isn’t a Bohemian Rhapsody-style biopic of the Essex-based electronica duo. It’s just another creepy-kid horror movie, with Taylor Schilling starring as a mom who starts to suspect that her young son’s genius-level intellect may signal something sinister and broken inside his giant brain. The kid is played by Jackson Robert Scott—Georgie from the recent first chapter of the It movie.
Will it be worth your time? The film’s tagline—“What’s wrong with Miles?”—is a blatant knockoff of the Orphan tag “There’s something wrong with Esther,” which subtly sets up inflated expectations about how bonkers this movie might get. Based on the trailer, our guess is not nearly bonkers enough.

High Flying Bird

Netflix February 8

The unstoppable Steven Soderbergh is back behind his iPhone with this Netflix production scripted by playwright and Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. André Holland stars as a sports agent trying to make the most of an NBA lockout; an entire film devoted to multi-million-dollar contract negotiations is very on-brand for the director. His stellar supporting cast includes Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke, and Kyle MacLachlan.
Will it be worth your time? Soderbergh’s last feature, the bumpy Unsane, was an unflattering experiment in consumer-tech filmmaking, but High Flying Bird is more in his wheelhouse, and looks much better to boot. It gets into some thorny territory about the power imbalance of professional sports, all while offering the typically...Soderberghian pleasure of fast-talkers and wheeler-dealers doing their thing.

Lords Of Chaos

Select theaters February 8; VOD February 22

The death-and-blasphemy-obsessed black metal scene of early ’90s Norway gets a glib biopic that its subjects would have hated in this tribute of sorts from Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund—a former black metal drummer himself—to the satanic wannabes of his youth. Fans of heavy metal and/or true crime are probably already familiar with the story, documented relatively faithfully here. For the uninitiated, it begins with a violent suicide and ends with a murder, with lots of church burnings in between.
Will it be worth your time? Åkerlund’s intention is to portray Mayhem’s Euronymous (Rory Culkin), Burzum’s Varg (Emory Cohen), and their various hangers-on as nothing more than poseurs barely out of their mom’s basements—not an unacceptable angle to take, albeit one that will incense some black-metal diehards. But telling the story in the style of a typical teen movie minimizes the very real consequences of the scene’s homophobia and Nazism with a dismissive “boys will be boys” tone. And the rock ’n’ roll clichés are pretty tedious, too.

Happy Death Day 2U

Theaters everywhere February 13

Wait, haven’t we done this all before? Blumhouse further compounds the meta déjà vu factor of Happy Death Day, which was already basically just Groundhog’s Day with a masked killer, by putting its recycled premise on repeat. In this sequel to the horror-comedy sleeper, cursed coed Tree (Jessica Rothe) is pulled back into the death cycle she broke in the first film, forced once again to die and relive the same day on loop, this time to stop a new maniac targeting her friends. Originally scheduled to open on Valentine’s Day, as some love-stinks counterprogramming, Happy Death Day 2U was moved forward a day at the behest of Parkland parents, who implored Universal not to release a movie with this title and plot on the one-year anniversary of the school shooting.
Will it be worth your time? The original Happy Death Day was more lightly amusing than it ever was clever or scary, especially once the novelty of its genre pastiche wore off. Perhaps, like Tree or Phil Connors before them, the filmmakers will become better versions of themselves by soldiering through the same story again. At the very least, they seem to have recognized what worked best last time—namely, Rothe’s (ahem) loopy comic performance, on new display in scenes from the sequel’s trailer like the one where she jumps backwards out of an airplane, beaming in a bikini, without a parachute.

Isn’t It Romantic

Theaters everywhere February 13

Although she’s definitely not the “first-ever plus-sized” woman to star in a romantic comedy, as she erroneously claimed on Ellen back in November, Rebel Wilson is still far from your typical Hollywood romantic lead. That’s the role she nabs in high-concept comedy Isn’t It Romantic, where Wilson plays a cynical New York City architect (a cliché of the genre in itself) who becomes convinced she’s living in a rom-com after smacking her head on a subway pole. So she’s starring in a rom-com about starring in a rom-com, and although the rom-com within the rom-com isn’t real, the overarching rom-com structure is, which means Wilson is both simultaneously starring in and not starring in a rom-com. It’s all very meta.
Will it be worth your time? Wilson was funny as the party-hearty hookup queen/loyal best friend in How To Be Single, and given that the projects share a writer in Dana Fox, Isn’t It Romantic should be similarly suited to Wilson’s comedic persona. That being said, the last time a rom-com tried to interrogate the genre’s tropes, we got I Feel Pretty. So we’re greeting this one with skepticism.

Birds Of Passage

Select theaters February 13

Colombian filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego apply the psychedelic, Werner Herzog-influenced approach of Guerra’s Oscar-nominated Embrace Of The Serpent to the violent gangster epic in this story about a family that gets involved in the illegal drug trade in the late 1960s. As in the earlier film (which Gallego produced), the two are out to reimagine a familiar story from an indigenous point of view; their characters are Wayúu, inhabitants of an arid peninsula at the northern tip of South America.
Will it be worth your time? Despite some behind-the-scenes difficulties (namely, the fact that the co-directors got divorced during filming), Birds Of Passage premiered to excellent reviews in the Directors’ Fortnight parallel competition at last year’s Cannes. Besides, who isn’t down for a landscape-centric, possibly surreal crime saga?

Alita: Battle Angel

Theaters everywhere February 14

Robert Rodriguez was a half-Hollywood, half-DIY workhorse for the first chunk of his career, directing a dozen features in his first 15 years. After dead-ending with underwhelming sequels to Machete, Spy Kids, and Sin City, Rodriguez is back on his biggest canvas yet, helming a long-developing adaptation of a beloved sci-fi manga. James Cameron was attached for years and co-wrote the script of this version, which stars Rosa Salazar and the uncanny valley in a joint performance as the title cyborg. Say what you will about Salazar’s gigantic CG eyes: They’re certainly a choice.
Will it be worth your time? It probably depends on your tolerance for potential sci-fi/fantasy boondoggles like Mortal Engines or the live-action Ghost In The Shell, as well as your ability to look into those bulging eyes without shivering in revulsion. But it’s hard to resist Rodriguez tackling a big budget and Cameron indulging his inner fanboy.

Fighting With My Family

Select theaters February 14

Give Fighting With My Family some credit upfront for some of the strangest surprises of the moviegoing season: This origin story for British WWE wrestler Paige is written and directed by Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, stars tony up-and-comer Florence Pugh in the main role, and features an appearance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, arguably the biggest global movie star around. (Johnson also serves as executive producer.) Pugh’s Paige faces conflict outside the ring when she starts to eclipse her brother and fellow aspiring wrestler Zak (Jack Lowden).
Will it be worth your time? Don’t expect a particularly hard-hitting look behind the scenes of pro wrestling; WWE produced this formulaic crowdpleaser, which accounts for its fairly rose-colored perspective. Nonetheless, the film’s charms are honest (it’s funny and genuinely stirring at times), and Pugh is touching in her unlikely starring role. At the very least, it’s up there with The Rundown and Oculus in the illustrious filmography of WWE Studios.

Sorry Angel

Select theaters February 14

Romances are a specialty of the extravagantly French filmmaker Christophe Honoré, director of such hyper-stylized pop reveries as Love Songs and La Belle Personne. But he’s probably never made a love story quite as grounded as Sorry Angel, about the attraction that is sparked between a novelist and single father (Pierre Deladonchamps) and the twentysomething film student (Vincent Lacoste) he meets in a movie theater. It’s set in roughly the same milieu as the recent BPMthe gay community of Paris circa the early ’90s—but approaches the devastating AIDS epidemic of that era from a more personal, less procedural vantage.
Will it be worth your time? Although Honoré has tabled some of his more over-the-top flourishes, Sorry Angel is still plenty indulgent; its plot is a gabby ramble through the extended social lives of its characters. But this is also a tender, thoughtful relationship study, with good chemistry between its leads, and—given when it’s opening—the rare LGBTQ-themed Valentine’s Day release.

Hotel By The River

Select theaters February 15

A new Hong Sang-soo movie—has it been six months already? The prolific South Korean writer-director’s stories of boozing, longing, and awkward conversation are notoriously consistent; the biggest surprise in his latest is that its central male character is an aging poet obsessed with his own mortality, instead of one of Hong’s self-mocking, not-quite-famous filmmaker alter egos. Convinced that he’s about to die, the writer (Hong regular Gi Ju-bong) tries to reconnect with his estranged sons, one of whom happens to be a movie director. Hong’s muse, Kim Min-hee, co-stars as a guest who’s staying at the same hotel.
Will it be worth your time? Although last year’s The Day After was a rare bum note, Hong’s work continues to mine surprising depth from a limited set of themes; few directors have gotten more creative and dramatic mileage out of repeating themselves, both within and between films. Now if only some enterprising distributor would finally bring 2014’s Hill Of Freedom—Hong’s funniest movie, and one of his most accessible—to American screens.

Ruben Brandt, Collector

Select theaters February 15

It’s the month’s second thriller set against the backdrop of the modern art world (see also Velvet Buzzsaw, above)—though in this Hungarian animated import, paintings only attack people in their dreams. Specifically, that’s a reoccurring nightmare of the eponymous Ruben Brandt (voice of Iván Kamarás), a psychotherapist who refashions himself as an art thief, “The Collector,” and recruits several of his patients—all career criminals—to help him steal a baker’s dozen of priceless masterpieces from museums across the globe.
Will it be worth your time? This cartoon curio from writer-director-editor Milorad Krstic didn’t make the cut for this year’s Animated Feature Oscar lineup, but critics who saw it on the festival circuit praised its striking mixture of 2D and 3D techniques, evoking classics of noir and German expressionism. Fans of adult-oriented animation, at least, probably shouldn’t miss it.


Select theaters February 15; VOD February 22

Illustration for article titled Legos, dragons, and art thieves animate a cartoon-heavy February at the movies
Photo: IFC Films

The films of Tim Sutton (Dark Night, Memphis) have foremost been mood pieces about Middle American life, which makes him an equally inspired and unconventional choice to adapt Frank Bill’s backwoods crime novel about bare-knuckle fighters and meth dealers along the Indiana-Kentucky border. Jamie Bell and Frank Grillo play rival brawlers competing for the prize in a $100,000 cage match—the former an ex-Marine with trouble at home and bills to pay, the latter a mythically unstoppable killing machine.
Will it be worth your time? Donnybrook’s distributor, IFC, has done next to nothing to promote the film since it premiered at last year’s Toronto film festival to polarized reviews; critics seemed to be split on whether the film was lyrical pulp or lurid misery porn. We’re hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Theaters everywhere February 22

DreamWorks Animation recently took its biggest-ever gap between movies; after years of releasing two or even three feature cartoons in a given year, they skipped last year, the first such break from the studio since the turn of the millennium. Now that Illumination has supplanted the studio as chief purveyor of animated nuisances, DreamWorks returns with the third and presumably final installment in their most critically approved series. How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World continues the story of the now-grown Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon bestie, Toothless, who apparently falls in love against the backdrop of additional human world/dragon world tumult.
Will it be worth your time? The much-hyped Dragon sequel didn’t match the freshness of the original, but early reviews for the third installment, which is already playing in Australia, have been sterling.

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