The Jungle BookTHE JUNGLE BOOK

Nearly all action movies, even those in which the action is determinedly family-friendly, live or die by their villains, and director Jon Favreau’s remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book has a phenomenal one: the Bengal tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba. Scarred from a murderous tussle with a human and left with only one functional eye, this creature – created, as all the film’s animals and landscapes are, via the magic of CGI – prowls his kingdom with lithe, dangerous authority, and manages to one-up even Jeremy Irons’ Lion King meanie in terms of fierceness and frightening malevolence. Yet Shere Khan’s visage and movements aren’t half as scary as Elba’s maliciously insinuating vocals that fall somewhere between a purr and a growl, and while listening to these deliciously evil readings, I had a perhaps heretical thought regarding this movie and its reported $175-million budget: Wouldn’t all this have worked much better as a radio play?

Kristen Bell and Melissa McCarthy in The BossTHE BOSS

As far as her recent movies are concerned, only one thing separates a good Melissa McCarthy comedy from a bad one, and that thing is Paul Feig. (Those awkwardly unfunny previews for Feig’s forthcoming Ghostbusters reboot, however, make me wonder how long that’ll be the case.) In the director’s Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, McCarthy has been a blistering and wonderfully human riot, but the films themselves are so solidly constructed that you know they would’ve worked even with someone less naturally gifted in her roles. Yet the same can’t be said for the dismal Identity Thief, or the tonally nuts Tammy, or the debuting The Boss, which finds McCarthy’s ex-con entrepreneur Michelle Darnell seeking redemption through a makeshift Girl Scout troop, homemade brownies, and excessive bullying techniques. In each one, when she isn’t being humiliated, McCarthy is the best thing in it. In each one, that’s hardly saying much.

Helen Mirren in Eye in the SkyEYE IN THE SKY

Eye in the Sky concerns an impending act of drone warfare on a seemingly peaceful village in Kenya, and it’s one of the few films of its type released since 1964’s Fail-Safe: a pulse-pounding, nerve-racking inaction thriller. One scene after another finds individuals or cloistered rooms of military officials doing little more than staring at screens – in governmental war rooms, in flight simulators, on iPhones – and awaiting orders from higher-ups before they themselves can make any decisive moves. Yet the experience of director Gavin Hood’s thoughtful nail-biter is nonetheless spellbinding. The seconds feel as though they last many minutes (in the best way), and the cumulative 100 minutes feel like they’re over in a flash.

Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the LightI SAW THE LIGHT

The opening credits for I Saw the Light reveal that writer/director Marc Abraham’s bio-pic was adapted from Colin Escott’s book Hank Williams: The Biography. That “Just the facts, ma’am” title would’ve been perfectly fitting for Abraham’s staid, logy, passionless movie, too – although Hank Williams: The Skimming of the Artist’s Wikipedia Page would’ve been even more appropriate.

Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeBATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice never gets better than its wittily imagined, narratively essential scene of mass destruction five minutes into the movie. It never gets worse than the thunderously oppressive, soul-draining two hours and 20 minutes that follow.

Zöe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Theo James, Miles Teller, and Maggie Q. in AllegiantALLEGIANT

Over the past seven months, YA-lit adaptations have arrived in the forms of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The 5th Wave, and now Allegiant, the first part of the second sequel (yeah, I know ...) to 2014’s teen-dystopia thriller Divergent. And in each one of these releases, we’re taken to a hidden facility where our heroic youths are trained in combat and wartime procedures, sleep in bunk beds, eat in mess halls, and don nearly identical outfits designed, one presumes, to give them a collective sense of unity, purpose, and pride.

Jennifer Garner, Queen Latifah, and Kylie Rogers in Miracles from HeavenMIRACLES FROM HEAVEN

If you’ve seen its previews, which appear to give away every nanosecond of its plot, you’d be right in guessing that the inspirational drama Miracles from Heaven is not for those who like surprises. (Although you won’t realize it until you see the film, even the narrative’s climactic shot is given away in the preview.) But as wholly surprise-free outings go, director Patricia Riggen’s adaptation of Christy Beam’s memoir is an earnest and effective tearjerker, and sometimes even more than that. On at least three separate occasions, my stomach muscles were aching from withholding those trying-not-to-audibly-sob sobs that can make movie-viewing indistinguishable from a lower-ab workout.

John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

If your biggest complaint about a movie lies with its title, that movie is probably pretty great, and director Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is pretty great – a splendidly acted, hugely entertaining nail-biter that continually surprises despite its claustrophobic setting and cast of characters that can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But while it may lure fans of 2008’s astoundingly irritating “found footage” monster mash Cloverfield, did that title really need to be baked into this one, effectively establishing Trachtenberg’s outing as some kind of sequel or prequel? Theoretically, the thrill of 10 Cloverfield Lane lies in our not knowing where its true threat lies. It’s a measure of the film’s success that it works despite a title implying exactly where that threat lies.


Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango FoxtrotWHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT

Two of my favorite repeat-viewing movies, for wildly different reasons, are Broadcast News and The Hurt Locker. But as much as I love them, I would never have dreamed they’d wind up loving each other, getting married, and having a baby – which is kind of what we have in the new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. On the surface, it would seem an uneasy, if not unholy, blend: James L. Brooks’ snappy workplace comedy meets Kathryn Bigelow’s intense war thriller. In the hands of directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, however, what results is a humane and thoughtful entertainment that, blessedly, doesn’t sentimentalize or cheapen the subject of Middle Eastern conflict. It’s the film last fall’s Rock the Kasbah could have been if it had a brain in its head.

the team behind Best Picture winner SpotlightWhether it was a conscious decision on their parts is something, of course, that we’ll never know. But faced with #OscarsSoWhite outrage and numerous categories seemingly locked tight as drums, voters for last night’s Academy Awards did the smartest, and perhaps only, thing they could do: They changed the story, so that instead of talking about the controversy, we talked about the winners – more often than not, the surprise winners.

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