Just in time for the big romantic holiday, we get the joker's wife, and a horror film-a-week schedule to keep up with. If that's not properly amorous, Harrison Ford bonds with a noble dog up in the arctic, Sonic the Hedgehog runs from Jim Carrey's untoward attentions, and period flashbacks induce a couple into copulation. Happy Valentine's Day.
February 2020 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
February 9, 2020
1. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (February 7th)
Birds of Prey is another relentless entry in the patently indestructible comic book superhero genre, so I was going to write something nasty, but then I saw that the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92%, so I decided to write something really nasty.
(it's 82% now; so, in a forgiving mood, I went through the whole piece and took out the hard-core profanity.)
Harley Quinn is the Joker's "moll" (I know, it's a racist, sexist, outdated term, so I'll put it in), his assistant and lover who endured heaps of his abuse for no discernible reason other than her great and burgeoning love for a man most recently depicted (in Joker, 2019) as an odorous, rail-thin, ineloquent social pariah. There's some statement about toxic relationships that's been made there, but any deeper discussion of the topic is well above my pay grade (and, perhaps, the film's).
Originally created by the animated Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, Harleen Quinzel, as she was known to her parents, was a psychiatrist who abandoned social conventions and niceties to become a trigger happy bleached skin nightmare. As played by Margot Robbie, she made her big screen debut in 2016's Suicide Squad, where she was somehow crucial in assisting the U.S. government in defeating the supernatural army of an ancient, p----d off, teenage sorceress (don't ask), though in fact she spent much of the run time delivering humorous and quippy banter at her fellow castmates. All of this mess grossed a ridiculous though strangely unfrontloaded $325m total, guaranteeing that Ms. Quinn had not had her final day in the 3D-enhanced sun.
For the actress, it's now almost a signature character; and she's made the role her own. Really, Robbie as Harley was probably Suicide Squad's big win, the neat trick of casting a popular actor as a non-traditional superhero who's pre-tailor-made to their peculiarities - Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, Tom Hardy as Venom, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet. And while Harley will indeed return in Suicide Squad 2 in 2021 (... I would like to pre-emptively apologize on behalf of Warner Bros.), we didn't have to wait nearly that long to see her again, because giving the putative Mrs. J her own film was not in question.
In Birds of Prey, Harley's the star, having broken up with Joaquin Phoenix, Jared Leto, Jack Nicholson, fled any incarceratory facilities that may be calling her name, and posited herself down into the dirty, crime-ridden, anguished streets of Gotham City, perhaps as their new saviour. There, she meets and female-bonds with a number of other comic book creations (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smolett-Bell, the still inimitable Rosie Perez), assembles the gals into a team of violence-prone antiheroines (previously depicted in a 2002 television series of the same name), and endeavours with them to rescue a kidnapped girl and generally fight any crime that may come their way. Antics ensue, good times had by all.
The bad men who messed with the wrong women are led by multiple murderer Zsasz (Chris Messina), and by his employer, the local gangster Black Mask, who is borrowing a like-sounding name from Riverdale's masterful suburban night stalker Black Hood (or maybe it's Hoody who's borrowing it, but whatever; Black Hood rules). More to the point, Black Mask isn't pictured wearing any face-covering on any of the posters, which means he still looks an awful lot like Ewan McGregor.
These characters and probably some unlucky others ("cannon fodder," as the French call them) will appear and argue and duke it out with fists and gun metal in the streets of Gotham City, undefended at the moment because the Dark Knight is off filming his latest movie and having facial reconstruction surgery to look exactly like Robert Pattinson (So it's Pattinson, eh? I thought Cole Sprouse would have been an interesting, off-beat choice. No worries, there's always Batman 2028).
For the box office, Birds of Prey has been banking on a lot of recent precedent: February has previously given us big comic book movie hits with Deadpool ($132m open!?) and Black Panther ($202m!?!?!). And the reviews place this in the same box, though some critic had the balls to write "this is the movie DC fans were waiting for" - as opposed to, I presume, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam!, or Joker, which, while offensively bleak, seems to be favored by a suspiciously enthusiastic number of members of the Academy Awards nominating committee (I'm talking about Shazam, of course). Hey, most of those DC movies were pretty good. Birds of Prey might be too. I'm only harsh because I love. It's the scolding of a devoted parent.
(post-script: I cheated and peaked at the box office returns as they were coming in. This movie... is not doing too well).
Opening weekend: $100 million $33 million / Total gross: $312 million $78 million
2. Sonic the Hedgehog (February 14th)
Love the release date. Can you imagine a millennial man trying to drag his girlfriend to see this? "Honey, bright blue-colored lightning-fast computer-made animals combatting nutty comic mad scientists are, too, romantic."
And they are. Under orders of then recently-deceased Emperor Hirohito, the arcade game Sonic the Hedgehog was created in 1991 in a labyrinthian dungeon underneath mountainous Japan, and was released upon the rest of the world not too long after; within days, Sonic had breached U.S. arcades, where it has retained its prominence for decade after decade as children (and grown men) jostle to defeat evil and win the game. (Did I ever play Sonic the Hedgehog, obsessively, compulsively, repeatedly, in my younger years? Well, judge, I do not recall).
Now, in the 2020s, and not a moment too soon, Sonic joins video game characters like Super Mario Bros, Pokémon, and The Rock in soliciting a big-screen film adaptation.
The film tells us that Sonic is an outer-space being who must return home postehaste, lest he start falling behind on his favourite, alien, television shows (such heart-tugging origin story didn't move me to tears in E.T., but I'm willing to try again). He is fairly conversant in English, fortuitously, or at least as conversant as Ben Schwartz, who voices him. And then the cast is admixed with human beings - James Marden a police officer with a speedometer who frowns upon Sonic before enjoining to save him, Tika Sumpter as his doting wife who's probably a little less fond of the big 'hog. They are there to laugh at Sonic's jokes and romance each other on the public dime.
And then Jim Carrey arrives to make science's case on the matter: he is Dr. Robotnik, a name I distinctly remember from the video games, though I dredge up no other memory other than the assumption that the man is an evil physician wearing Von Bismarck-style monocles and a face-wide grin that is far from reassuring, and that he perhaps wishes to acquire use of Sonic (or of his dead, increasingly rotting carcass) for some form of medical experimentation. Well, if it's for science...
So this is another movie billed as starring a wildly charismatic CGI animated creature, but who is in fact propped up by presumably less entertaining humans, or maybe it's the other way around; in the tradition of Alvin and the Chipmunks (with Jason Lee and Zachary Levi alternating homosapien bystander slots), Transformers (where Shia LaBeouf perfected the art of running from cartoon explosions), and, of course, Hop with Russell Brand, where a hyper-animated creature matched wits with a human played specifically by James Marsden, who has clearly found his niche.
Sonic the Hedgehog has decades of brand recognition and sentimental goodwill among the millennial moviegoing public (and they are legion), and so regardless of where it actually places on the Tomatometer (your guess is as good as mine), it should choke out some decent opening weekend. Even if the film has actually already inspired controversy:
when the first trailer was released, Sonic looked insufficiently like his former self as to inspire fan disgust and protest. To allow time for more CGI corrections to this near-unpardonable error, the film was delayed from its November slate, robbing us of another potential winter blockbuster (we had to make do with Ford v Ferrari and Knives Out instead), but giving this February what surprisingly looks like will be its biggest film. He can apologize to Harley & co. later.
Opening weekend: $45 million / Total gross: $111 million
3. The Invisible Man (February 28th)
Universal Studios drips into their classic horror film library once more, in the tradition of The Wolf Man from February 2010 or their Mummy films, numerous as they have become. Now, I wouldn't have spent too much time thinking about The Invisible Man nor ranked it this high if not for the fact that, hey, the movie's trailer is really, really good.
Elisabeth Moss stars, decidedly not in the title role, as a woman whose abusive former boyfriend apparently kills himself; or perhaps has in fact invented an invisibility device so that he could make himself unseen and stalk her into insanity, oblivion, and beyond. These are your two options. (as a demented metaphor for the end of a romance, perhaps there was some use slating it for Valentine's Day instead. Or at least for the day after).
Now, Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Dwayne Johnson's chaser from Faster) plays the boyfriend, although we're just going to have take their word for it (pointedly, he's called Adrian Griffin, the same surname as in H. G. Welles' original book). Aldis Hodge is a nicer man in Moss' life, while writing and directing has been assigned to Leigh Whannell, the horror aficionado who co-wrote and co-starred in Saw and directed Insidious 3 and Upgrade, which was a really rather solid story of science gone awry. And Blumhouse, which still swings right more often than it misses, produces.
Hollow Man was the last big horror film to tackle the fear of a man who can't be seen, but The Invisible Man spins the fable around as more of a mystery - sure, we all assume poor Elisabeth Moss really is being stalked by her supernatural former beau, but what if she's just nuts? (given some of Moss' other roles, this shouldn't be taken off the table, too quickly).
Now, I don't always read an audience right, and I'm genetically a harsh critic of just about anything ("everything sucks?"), but The Invisible Man's trailer really did stand out to me as fast, suspenseful, and scary. Its timing is also advantageous: the 2020 last-of-February release spot is shared by no other film, and is also the same weekend slate as was once occupied by another Universal horror movie, Get Out, which opened to $33m and went on to do all kinds of stuff, most of it indescribable.
At a point of interest, The Invisible Man arrives at a time of gloom doom and defeat for the horror genre (even if the gloom and doom were intentional). Stephen King's Doctor Sleep grossed $31m in November, and while people curiously complained that just wasn't enough money for their tastes, $31 mil now seems like a high-blockbuster benchmark for horror films - Black Christmas, Underwater, The Turning, and Gretel & Hansel have all since opened to teary-eyed single digits, with The Grudge, which with its bony finger just touched at an $11m first weekend, remaining the biggest horror movie since King's, and the only one to try for double digits. In short, there's a lot of room out there for new material, especially for fans of the genre, who having sat out the last three months are probably ready to get back to chillin' and killin' at the theatre.
Opening weekend: $35 million / Total gross: $73 million
4. Fantasy Island (February 14th)
Speaking of the genre... this is another fright film twist on previously more docile material, a concept that could work as nothing else but horror today. Fantasy Island was a television show most often described as "kitschy" by people who I assume have at the very least seen it, and which I've always garbled up with fellow of-its-time relic The Love Boat in my fragile little mind. It has been remade as a full-fledged horror film with a now-ironic title.
This is the one with Hervé Villechaize (played by Peter Dinklage in a recent cable film) running after Mr. Roarke, played by Khan from Star Trek (Ricardo Montalbán!) and yelling "boss, the plane!," which perhaps is the only knowledge the average person, myself included, may have absorbed of it down from the pop culture cloud. That unforgettable '70s pair has been replaced in this film by Michael Peña and Michael Rooker, the former playing Roarke in a pleasant only in a deceptive manner, and the latter, in a decidedly non-Villechaize role, bringing to the table the permanent glare he's held since at least the time he portrayed Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Travelers land on a mysterious island in the darkest depths of the Caribbean Sea, where their ideal vacation dreams and deepest fantasies are set to be fulfilled, as well as also trying to eat and kill them. For example: a woman who, innocently enough, wants payback on a noxious childhood bully, is startled to see the offender appear in a ready-made torture chamber tailored for her entertaining pleasure. Kill or be killed, she is told.
The non-islander cast is led by Lucy Hale, who headlined Truth or Dare? in 2018 and starred on Pretty Little Liars on television for what seemed like forever and a day. Other potential permanent islander residents are Austin Stowell, Maggie Q, and Jimmy O. Yang. And, as with The Invisible Man, Blumhouse produces (this is a studio that's doing for horror what Netflix has for 200+ minute long awards contenders).
Now, horror doesn't oft open on Valentine's Day, but when it does, it's always special. Even if a better idea for the times would have been The Love Boat with gore.
Opening weekend: $22 million / Total gross: $50 million
5. The Photograph (February 14th)
As period flashbacks fill the screen, a younger couple explores the romantic trials and tribulations of a famed photographer who happened to be one of their mothers. This is romantic.
Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield star, in their first major studio film as the stars of the show - Rae, a quippy, comedic entity, has long been known for HBO's Insecure, and as an audience entry point for less naturally humorous beings in Little (2019); and Stanfield, a so very intense, off-beat, presence, who has been found at more of the edge of the screen in rewatchable recent films like Get Out and Knives Out (repetition unintentional). As they explore the past, romance ensues. Given their varying, dissonant acting styles, it's a pairing of contrasts. Let's see how they match.
The direction is by Stella Meghie, previously of Everything, Everything, a reasonable hit in the summer of 2017, and supporting actors include Courtney B. Vance and Lil Rey Howery, a humorous, jolly Rogen-like who's threatening to be in everything - everything! - these days (well, who's even threatening anymore? he is). And this promises to be one of those films like The Longest Ride that beats back forth between a modern-day romance and scenes of another love affair, illuminated in varying light by the director of photography to show the passage of time (if there are people out there who really believe the 1940s looked entirely black and white, you can't really blame them).
Not counting blood-bound romantic thrillers like The Good Liar or Queen & Slim (out of the four cumulative lovers in those films, at least two ended up dead), the last romantic comedy film that at least somewhat did justice to its description was Last Christmas, on November 8th. And the last unabashed big-screen romance arrived long before that, too long ago that even I, all-knowing sage that I am, can't be much help to the reader in identifying it. So the market for films about such basic human endeavours as conscious coupling ("falling in love") remains relatively chaste, just in time for the impending holiday.
However, the release date of the fourteenth couldn't come sooner. And maybe the movie could have used another week before the big day. After all, once February 15th hits, Valentine's will be over and mankind will return to its rightful and much more welcome state of hating each other again.
Opening weekend: $18 million / Total gross: $41 million
6. The Call of the Wild (February 21st)
Harrison Ford stars as the gruff and no-nonsense owner of a wonderful dog, a sturdy mix of St. Bernard and Scotch Collie (oh, it's played by a computer, not a dog. Well, it's the thought...). Ford and his many CGI animators reside in the remote tundra of the Yukon, where they undergo merry and grueling adventures that bond man and canine, in the first big-screen adaptation of Jack London's book of the same name since Charlton Heston took his shot with a real Bernard-Collie in 1972 (although this material gets made into a lot of mini-series). At one hundred and nine - million! - dollars, I won't even check to see if it's the most expensive.
Our heroes are assisted by Dan Stevens (who really missed out on that Downton Abby movie, by virtue of his character being too dead to be in it), and Karen Gillan, who seems to be getting more and more roles that don't require creepy blue make-up (blame the MCU for doing that to her). Chris Sanders, of several animated films, transitions into live action to direct.
So, this is a nice, Disneyesque film that has eliminated the esque after Disney purchased its maker, 20th Century Fox, and rebooted it as "20th Century Studios" (isn't it weird that something called "20th Century" was created just last year?). It's an old-fashioned man and his best friend story, the kind the Mouse House used to make many years ago, before they became enamoured with special effects and untold riches (as opposed to their old interest, considerable riches). And it is released on about the same weekend as the old Paul Walker movie about an Antarctica field guide rescuing his rescue dogs, Eight Below, which opened on February 17, 2006 and grossed a remarkable $81m. (does anyone also remember Snow Dogs, which also was from Disney, and made precisely $81m in January 2002? A pattern forms).
Times have changed, tastes have changed, hairstyles have changed, and I don't know if I see The Call of the Wild, too, bursting out of the gate like a wild and untarnished flame into the fires of the night. For children, it's a rough-and-tumble story with an adult lead who's a very grown man. But settling the frontier is in the American tradition, and this the type of adventure that could play at reasonable pace for a few weeks, before the numerous more branded films (Pixar, Mulan) arrive in March to stomp it out of town; the kind of movies that scream more 2020s than, like this film, 1920s.
Opening weekend: $11 million / Total gross: $40 million
7. Brahms: The Boy II (February 21st)
When it comes to horror sequels, I often provide a long and quite detailed (some say anguishingly tedious) history of every previous film, box office score, development stage issue, and social dissertation involved with the horror franchise in question. It's what I do best.
Here, my job is much more simple: The Boy was a horror film about a woman (Lauren Cohan) sent to serve as a house-keeper of a gargantuan, windy mansion somewhere far in the remote outdoors (I assure you, this happens all the time in real life), where she is confronted with a child-like doll figurine that appears to be haunted. Watch our boy, the nice old couple tell her, before heading out to the nearest lake and drowning themselves dead.
January 2016 is when The Boy opened, with a $10m weekend and quite supple multiplier for the genre, 3.5, for a (drumroll) $35 million. And it must have done quite well on "DVD," too, for now we have our sequel. Four years later, a little long for a horror film, but once it's on screen the wait will be forgiven.
Anyone who's seen The Boy, and I assume it is most of us in the civilized world, will know that it ended with a peculiar plot twist that was at least somewhat delightful, believability shoved mildly aside. This sequel, however, stars the few people left who have not seen the original film and are not aware of how it ended, moving in as they do to the same cliffside sprawler and encountering many of the same horrific anecdotes as did the star of the original film.
William Brent Bell, writer-director of the first, returns to usher in the second. Katie Holmes and Christopher Convery are a mother-and-son, with Owain Yeoman as the father who I suspect must be much more expendable. And The Boy of the title still lives in this mansion, brilliantly able to juggle open houses and price bartering on offers to get people to buy his folks' big old abode and move in with him to share in the horror. It looks like the market's just been murder.
Opening weekend: $11 million / Total gross: $25 million