What to watch (and skip) in theaters and on Netflix this weekend
Whether you’re standing in the theater lobby or curled up in bed, deciding what to watch next is often the most difficult part of any pop-culture junkie’s day. And with dozens of films in theaters on any given weekend, plus virtually endless layers of streaming purgatory to sort through in search of your next binge-watch, there’s more out there—and tougher decisions to make—than ever.
Fortune‘s here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling all the entertainment out there down into three distinct recommendations: should you see it, stream it, or skip it? Find out below.
SEE IT: ‘Birds of Prey’ (In theaters)
The official name of DC’s latest is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). And though few journalists will ever be caught addressing it as such, that subtitle neatly tees up what director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson have managed to deliver with this superhero caper: a particularly cheeky, propulsive slice of action-cinema cheesecake that makes one Harley Quinn, played by one Margot Robbie with all the colorfully explosive force of fireworks shoved up an exhaust pipe, the star of her own show.
Yan’s film opens with a slick animated prologue in which we learn Harley and the Joker, her giddily deranged partner and paramour, have called it quits, sending Harley into a post-breakup depression that involves blowing up chemical plants and picking up a pet hyena, as one does. But with Harley’s heartbreak arise complications. Minus the immunity that came with being Joker’s girl, it’s suddenly open season on Gotham City’s premier mischief maker, a declaration that’s music to the cauliflowered ears of every thug she’s ever crossed.
Even more troublingly, Harley’s attracted the attention of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a gloriously preening nightclub owner and criminal kingpin who’s associated with the sadistic heavy Zsasz (Chris Messina). They share a beautiful friendship, maybe more than a friendship, and enjoy slicing people’s faces off together. Roman can’t decide whether he wants to kill Harley or own her, both disconcerting possibilities to our newly single antiheroine. Luckily, she has some backup, mostly in the form of Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Roman’s club with hidden gifts of her own, though it must be said Harley’s not much for making friends.
Hodson’s script pinballs back and forth in time to match Harley’s scatterbrained narration of this setup, and it’s a bold choice just about held together by the batty charm with which the character is written and inhabited. That technique, however messy, also allows the film’s other female protagonists to enter the story early on, even if its zig-zaggy mechanics don’t bring them together until late in the game.
There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a hard-nosed cop on Harley’s trail, and the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding new arrival in Gotham with Kill Bill-shaped baggage of her own. A young thief (Ella Jay Basco), whose name I’ll leave unmentioned, ends up in the picture after stealing something valuable from Roman.
But, mostly, Birds of Prey is the Harley Quinn show, reaffirming Robbie’s talent early and often, most cleverly by adopting fizzy voiceovers and a playfully screwball energy to suggest a Harley Quinn movie made not only on her block but from the character’s uniquely anarchic perspective. There’s no question that Robbie is deserving of this big-studio vehicle for her movie-star talents; from the start, she was perfectly cast. It was the rest of her first film in the role—2016’s roundly rancid Suicide Squad, directed leerily by demolition fetishist David Ayer—that let her down, badly.
Birds of Prey feels like an emancipation most from that sorry chapter of the DC universe, its candy-shell exterior and subversive sense of humor standing in impressive contrast to the dour, incoherent morass of Ayer’s film. Yan (scouted for Birds of Prey off her Sundance-minted debut Dead Pigs, which still doesn’t have U.S. distribution) exhibits visual imagination and a knack for orchestrating organized chaos, particularly in the fight sequences, which are far and away the most kinetic and eye-popping offered thus far by DC, from a pitch-perfect street pursuit throughout Harley wants nothing more than to enjoy her breakfast sandwich, to a bruising escape from Gotham’s police headquarters that makes inventive use of space and props (all the firepower in the world couldn’t protect John Wick from Harley with a Louisville Slugger).
That the story eventually settles into rote grand-finale kick-punching is almost beside the point. Birds of Prey exists to give Robbie’s Harley Quinn a lurid, loopy, neon-drenched spotlight, and it’s through remaining committed to that maniacal mission—Harley on rollerskates! Harley lobbing glitter bombs! Harley leading her own fantasy dance sequence!—that these Birds truly soar.
STREAM IT: ‘Horse Girl’ (Netflix)
Horse Girl is two-thirds the film you think it is—before a visual stunner of a third act heightens it into something more curiously surreal and unknowable than any of its indie-beige trappings could have possibly prepared you for.
Alison Brie, in a sensational performance, stars as Sarah, a crafts store employee whose mental health gradually unravels as she experiences lucid dreams about two people she hasn’t yet met, only to wake up in unfamiliar locations. That her mother recently took her own life, and that mental illness runs in Sarah’s family, are both factors in this deterioration considered more by the film than Sarah herself, who rather swiftly accepts that something much more unearthly is afoot than her own trauma processing.
Increasingly convinced that she may in fact be both a clone of her grandmother and even the victim of an alien abduction, Sarah steadily isolates further from the few people in her orbit, including a kindly coworker (Molly Shannon), well-meaning roommate (Debby Ryan), and dorky romantic prospect (Josh Reynolds). There’s a tragically innate loneliness to Sarah, whose initial quirks—including an obsession with the supernatural crime procedural Purgatory, and with the horse she once owned and continues to visit, much to its new owner’s vexation—darken with her escalating paranoia. And, in a refreshing change of pace for this specific subgenre of psychological thriller, those around her are alert to Sarah’s impending collapse and intent on intervening.
Written by Brie along with director Jeff Baena, Horse Girl rides a tricky tonal line between questioning Sarah’s increasingly unmoored mental state and indulging it, so as to better chart the ordeal from her perspective. Some may fault it for leaning too far into the latter category toward the end, especially throughout an extended psychosis that finds Sarah tumbling uncertainly through dream reality. But the film’s unquestionably intelligent in how it frames that rabbit-hole odyssey, coming up with clever visual and narrative cues to couch Sarah’s uncontrollable fantasies in a more firmly rooted reality.
When Sarah’s first introduced, her cheery disposition and warm manner of interacting with those around her cuts a sunny but reserved figure—the kind that always shows up in indies executive-produced, like Horse Girl, by mumblecore CEOS Mark and Jay Duplass. But there’s a latent darkness to Sarah, too, one the film teases out with a quiet insistence and sincerity that subverts, then entirely rebukes, the twee artificiality of that subgenre. As delightful as it is to watch Brie snatch this kind of role away from Kristen Wiig, Horse Girl leaves a decidedly solemn and melancholy after-taste, implicating the audience in their own enjoyment of this character’s splintering state. It’s an ambitious, odd project, and one that sticks stubbornly in the mind’s eye.
‘Horse Girl’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
SKIP IT: ‘Locke & Key’ (Netflix)
“Echoes can come to life in this place,” warns the woman in the well, her voice coy and comforting to the little boy above, who’s too naive to sense its underlying darknes—until it’s too late.
She’s discussing Keyhouse, the New England manor where 9-year-old Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) and the rest of the Locke family uncover magical keys to all kinds of bizarre, extra-dimensional side-pockets. But the woman (Laysla De Oliveira) might as well be talking about Locke & Key as a series, a decently fun haunted-house ride that nevertheless cycles through elements of nearly all its genre contemporaries—not to mention most of Netflix’s proven hits—in search of an identity to call its own.
First and foremost is Netflix’s own Haunting of Hill House, evoked especially throughout the series’ early going, as the Locke clan are drawn back to Keyhouse following the death of family patriarch Rendell Locke (Bill Heck). The manor is eerie and expansive, darkened by years of disrepair. When mother Nina (Darby Stanchfield) and children Kinsey (Emilia Jones), Tyler (Connor Jessup), and Bode are met at its entrance by Rendell’s brother Duncan (Aaron Ashmore), it looms behind them like a gaping maw. Every family is grieving Rendell in their own way, though Locke & Key doesn’t seek to externalize this across the house in ways as ambitious or unsettling as Hill House did.
Instead, as the kids begin to turn up those aforementioned keys, the series settles into a well-worn fantasy groove somewhere between The Chronicles of Narnia and Stranger Things, with the former’s hidden doors to strange realms and the latter’s more horror-tinged approach to the characters navigating them. Bates Motel (with whom this adaptation shares showrunner Carlton Cuse) is a better reference point for the ancillary high school dramas enveloping Kinsey and Tyler, from flirtations with classmates to whispers regarding their father’s violent death. It’s Supernatural, though, that comes to mind most in the depiction of that woman in the well, who doesn’t stay confined there for long, entering the real world in an oddly kinky sequence out of step with the series’ lighter tone.
Such patchwork pastiching does not make Locke & Key “bad” per se, and this review has not come to bury it. But the first season of this series feels deeply uncertain about what tone to strike, which complicates questions of who exactly it’s meant to please. With more episodes, perhaps, will come a sturdier sense of self.
Locke & Key‘s tone flips the ratio of horror to fantasy present in Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s original comics, likely a product of its new home at Netflix. The series spent a decade in development, during which time it’s been set up as a TV pilot at Fox, a film franchise at Universal, and (most tangibly) a series at Hulu last year. Each time, Locke & Key fell through, making its arrival at Netflix early this spring all the more exciting. But the finished product is evidence of what Netflix saw in Hill’s novels (a Stranger Things-style spooker) and what they didn’t (a scary and sometimes gloriously weird affinity with all things unmoored and uncanny). Few adaptations of tonally tricky comics succeed in capturing their source material, but Locke & Key does feel, disappointingly, like a flattened reflection of itself.
The best of the rest
On Disney+, original feature Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (streaming Dec. 7) gives Tom McCarthy his first such directing vehicle since his Spotlight won the Oscar for Best Picture. Based on a children’s book, the quirky setup finds an 11-year-old boy (Winslow Fegley) moonlighting as an amateur detective with the help of his best friend, a CGI polar bear named Total.
Amazon now has the Starz spy thriller Counterpart, which ran for two seasons to relatively sparse viewership, available for streaming. Set in modern-day Berlin decades after a portal between two worlds has been discovered, leading to a new Cold War between parallel dimensions, it stars the great J.K. Simmons in dual roles as an analyst in one universe and a stone-cold killer in the other.
Also streaming on Amazon is Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf’s gorgeous, experimental passion project in which he plays a version of his own father, with A Quiet Place‘s Noah Jupe in the role of a child actor struggling to reconcile his love for his father with the heartbreak and confusion of being abused by him. A dark horse that never crossed the finish line in the ongoing Oscars race, it’s nevertheless an invigorating, tremendously moving watch.
Meanwhile, on Tubi, a packed February slate includes Jake Gyllenhaal’s 2015 boxing drama Southpaw, an emotionally bruising affair highlighted by one of the actor’s most sincere and committed performances (though one that went largely unappreciated back in 2015). Other highlights include Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011), a globe-trotting and beautifully rendered adaptation of the comics, and Ella Enchanted (2004), a thoroughly charming fairy tale that remains still one of Hathaway’s best roles more than 15 years on.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—How the Indie Spirits and Oscars will reflect an exhilarating—and often odd—awards season
—How Randy Newman’s family built a film-scoring dynasty over the course of a century
—How much is an Oscar worth?
—Bombshell‘s Charlize Theron and John Lithgow reflect on the film’s indelible impact
—Taika Waititi on Kiwi humor, directing as Hitler, and why kids should see Jojo Rabbit
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.