Sunday, June 26, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence



How can the same thing happen to the same planet twice? Independence Day: Resurgence sees our bright blue orb invaded once again by aliens twenty years later -- to the day! A lot has changed on Earth in the two decades since those aliens blasted all of our landmarks, humanity fought back and we celebrated our Independence Day. The salvaged alien technology from the many ships crashed on Earth has been rejiggered into impressive new weapons and vehicles. Our cities and landmarks have been rebuilt. We have a lunar base. A generation has grown up admiring the heroes of 1996, like Jeff Goldblum, former President Bill Pullman, and the late Will Smith, gone but not forgotten. Their children, Jessie T. Usher as Will Smith's son and Maika Monroe as Pullman's daughter, now grown, are the new top gun fighter pilots ready to defend the Earth, along with Liam Hemsworth, Rain Lao, and Nicholas Wright. Mankind has become a united species, the kind of Utopia Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry would have loved to see. Humanity has banded together, ready to meet the threat of a second alien invasion. And the aliens are definitely coming; apparently they (like we) have spent the last two decades hearing and memorizing Pullman's rousing speech from the first Independence Day.

So the aliens are back, and they're not wasting any time. In the original Independence Day, dozens of alien ships ominously took position over Earth's cities and systematically annihilated each one over the course of a three day holiday weekend (2 1/2 hours in movie time). Now, the aliens only send one ship, a titanic craft 3000 miles in diameter that squats over the Atlantic Ocean, wiping out the UK and the East Coast of the United States (amusingly only nudging the rebuilt White House). As far as mass destruction of our cities go, only London really gets demolished; the aliens gave the Brits no time to #Brexit before their annihilation. Compared to the original movie, the destruction porn in Resurgence is quick and subdued. The aliens are way more interested in settling a score with specific humans, launching a direct attack on the new President Sela Ward, and then coming after Goldblum and Pullman in their base in Area 51. The aliens must have been bummed (like we are) Will Smith isn't around; they probably wanted to settle his hash the most.

"We knew they'd come back," Goldblum warns when things start to get weird again. The aliens captured and imprisoned in Area 51 for the last 20 years start to go batty and then break out. (Incidentally, why did the humans imprison the aliens without removing them from their tentacled battle suits?) Pullman, bearded, hobbled, and haunted by visions of the aliens (and possibly visions of the movie Aliens) rants about the aliens having a Queen. He's right, they do. And she's pissed. Scientist-weirdo Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner, unapologetically in zany comic relief mode), thought dead in the first Independence Day, was actually in a coma all this time, and suddenly reawakens. In Africa, the lone alien ship from the first invasion that is largely intact comes back online. Goldblum realizes it's drilling into the Earth's core to destroy the planet from within. When a worm hole opens up above the moon, our swaggering leaders order the emerging alien craft shot down, but Goldblum quickly surmises this new white spherical space ship is a different alien species and leads the attempt to rescue it. Turns out Goldblum is right, as ever. The white alien sphere represents other species the evil aliens, now called Harvesters (Mankind never named the aliens themselves in the last 20 years), have hunted. All the other aliens also heard about the first Independence Day and want the human race to lead their alliance to fight the aliens -- in space!

But first, there's the matter of repelling this new invasion. Once again, it involves a battle in the air and on land in the salt flats outside Area 51, and once again, Bill Pullman pilots a fighter plane and leads the charge against his now-arch rival the alien Queen. This time, however, the Queen, clad in a 50 foot tall battle suit, fights back like a Kaiju monster; Independence Day: Resurgence riffing hard on Pacific Rim. Luckily, a sword-wielding African warlord Goldblum befriended, one of the many new weirdo characters Resurgence introduces, teaches humanity how to beat the aliens in their battle suits -- by stabbing them in the back. Fitting. Hemsworth, Usher (who's really more like his mother Vivica A. Fox than his dad in the charisma department), and Monroe, fight the aliens heroically, but this new generation is of a blander sort than their parents. Speaking of parents, Goldblum's father Judd Hirsch drives a school bus full of orphans right into the Area 51 battle, because of course he does. While promising a starry-eyed continuation of this franchise, Independence Day: Resurgence echoes the greatest hits of the original, but it's a rushed, tepid remix reminding us that though we always knew the aliens would be back someday, we also rather they just stayed away.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Shallows



The Shallows, director Jaume Collet-Serra's sun-kissed, bloody good Blue Crush-meets-Jaws mashup thriller, is Blake Lively's The Revenant. In The Shallows, Lively plays a medical student mourning the death of her mother by escaping to surf the unnamed Mexican beach her mother once surfed. Though her journey to this spectacular paradise (the name of the beach is assiduously guarded by the locals), mildly echos a different Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach, soon Lively is pitted body and soul against the ocean's most ferocious killing machine. There's a Great White shark in them there waters, and it's hell bent on taking Blake's livelihood in a manner even the bear DiCaprio fought in The Revenant wasn't. This damn shark wants Blake Lively to be his chum, and not in a friendly way.

Like DiCaprio in The Revenant, Lively endures a physical and emotional hell in her efforts to survive. When the shark attacks Lively and soon makes shark meat out of the two other surfers she befriended, Lively's only recourse is to take refuge on a jagged, shallow reef 200 yards from shore. Time is against her. High tide will once again submerge her meager shelter. She's exposed to the elements. And she's grievously injured; beyond multiple cuts and abrasions, the shark chomped on her leg. Gangrene threatens to set in. Pleasingly, Lively is no damsel in distress. Through up against impossible odds, Lively gathers her wits and thinks her way out of her dilemma. She uses her medical training and her earrings to rather gruesomely suture her wounds. She uses her Body Glove to create a tourniquet. She even sets the broken wing of her lone companion, a scene-stealing seagull she names Steven Seagull. (Lively uses Steven Seagull as a decoy kind of like how Batman uses Robin.) As Lively's options narrow, the shark remains relentlessly on patrol, drawn to the steady streams of Lively's blood in the water.

When the shark enters a realm of sheer malevolence that goes beyond what one would believe even a hungry Great White would actually do, The Shallows, which had remained mostly compellingly straightforward, teeters on the brink of jumping the shark in the third act. As high tide takes her reef under, Lively's last desperate gambit is to swim to a nearby buoy. The shark's dogged pursuit has it literally tearing through the metal of the buoy in order to sink its teeth in Lively. And yet, Lively's last ditch maneuver to kill the shark, while sheer lunacy, is surprisingly rousing. On screen for nearly every second of the entire movie, Lively gives a heroic - nay, superheroic - performance. As physically perfect as she is when The Shallows begins, Lively, broken, bleeding, exhausted, and nearly drowned, achieves an awesome level of total bad assery in her climactic showdown with the shark. Even if one in jest were to command,"Physician, CPR thyself," to the shark's chagrin, Blake Lively does. The shark bet on Blake losing the dead pool, but it was sorely mistaken.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Game of Thrones: How I'd Invade Westeros in 8 Easy Steps


This is Westeros. My favorite place on Earth, or, whatever planet this is. I'm now to going to plot its invasion. If I'm planning Daenerys' invasion and conquest of Westeros, this is what I would advise my Khaleesi to do:

Step 1: Take Dragonstone. Symbolically, the Targaryen seat. Establish a secure base. Also, no one is there. No resistance.

Step 2: Take Storm's End. Is anyone there? Is there even a House Baratheon anymore? Control the Usurper's keep south of King's Landing.

Step 3: Parley with the Eyrie. Unholy alliance with Littlefinger, but secure the loyalty of the Knights of the Vale. 

Step 4 & 5: Parley with Highgarden. No loyalty to the Lannisters there. Then send the dragons with the Ironborn to retake Pyke.

Step 6: Finally, invade and take King's Landing. Secure the Iron Throne. The Lannisters can flee to Casterly Rock or die. They'll flee.

Step 7: When they get to Casterly Rock, they'll find the western seas are controlled by the Ironborn. Take the Riverlands by conquest.

Step 8: And that's it. Finish the Lannisters off. Get the North and Dorne to bend the knee. Then we all die at the hands of the White Walkers. Easy!

Friday, May 27, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse



X-Men: Apocalypse's mutant power is an overwhelming sense of deja vu. When En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the first, handsomest (until he turns blue), and most powerful mutant known as Apocalypse, awakens from a 3600 year slumber, he plunges the X-Men into an adventure where they end up doing a lot of things they've done in prior X-Men movies. Stop me if you've heard this before: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is kidnapped and held hostage for his mutant psychic abilities. The X-Men are captured and brought to a base in Alkali Lake, where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was created. Wolverine goes into a beserker rage, carving up the troops of his arch nemesis William Stryker (Josh Helman) with his adamantium claws. (All greatest hits from X2: X-Men United.) Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) take turns quoting their closing dialogue from the first X-Men movie 16 years ago (which is, confusingly, 17 years in the future from this episode, set in 1983). And there's all the usual stuff to X off the list in an X-Men movie: new students joining Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, visits to Cerebro underneath the X-Mansion, and plenty of callbacks to stuff that happened in X-Men: First Class, which happened 20 years prior to the events in Apocalypse, though nary an X-Man or anyone else in that movie has aged a day. (Xavier makes mention of non-mutant Moira MacTaggert's, played by Rose Byrne, uncanny ability to look exactly as young 20 years later, and the movie moves on.) On the other hand, an X-Men comics tradition finally occurs in a movie when the X-Mansion is destroyed. Luckily, Magneto and young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) have the mutant power to be contractors.

Working from a screenplay from Simon Kinberg that crams a ton of mutants into an under cooked tale, director Bryan Singer busily checks in with the exploits of his ever-growing, under-serviced cast of mutants. X-Men: Apocalypse tells us that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not feeling the blues and spending most of the movie looking like her movie star self) has become a mutant folk hero since the climactic moments of X-Men: Days of Future Past, when she saved President Richard Nixon from Magneto in 1973. Lots of young mutants have her poster on their wall, including a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who lives as a sneak thief in Cairo, Egypt. Other than recruit a young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and bring him to Xavier's School, Mystique has precious little to do in the movie, except fail to sweet talk Magneto from destroying Cairo, get choked by Apocalypse, and then become the X-Men's drill sergeant. Mystique does find time to make jokes to Beast (Nicholas Hoult) about getting a "War Plane," a canny reference to Hoult starring as a War Boy in Mad Max: Fury Road. We meet young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the newest student at the Xavier School, who's just learning to control his mutant optic blasts. Cyclops in turn meets Jean Grey, the future love of his life, and host of the all-powerful Phoenix Force, which Apocalypse shoehorns in as another major plot point, setting up a second swipe at telling the "Dark Phoenix Saga" in a future X-Men movie.

When Apocalypse awakens, like Ivan Ooze did in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, he finds he missed the Black Plague, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Brady Bunch Reunion. Like Ivan Ooze, he finds the modern world wanting, and decides to destroy it, so he can rule it, or something. Apocalypse's logic is hazy and he's not much more than a collection of villainous platitudes. Unlike Ivan Ooze, Apocalypse isn't funny and he isn't much for idle chatter when he recruits his helpers, the Four Horsemen, who are Magneto, Storm, the metal-winged Angel (Ben Hardy), and the ridiculously hot Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who makes purple telekinetic swords and whips. To work for Apocalypse means a lot of standing around and not saying anything, hence the Horsemen turn out to be as dull and uninspiring as their leader. Apocalypse steals the world's nuclear missiles, thousands of them, and strands them all in space; an idea Superman (Christopher Reeve) wouldn't have until 1987 in Superman IV. But mainly, Apocalypse just wants to kill everyone. He's cool with the strongest mutants surviving. If any of this sounds like a good idea or not to Storm, Psylocke, Magneto, or Angel, they don't vocalize it. Turns out Apocalypse, with his ill-defined mutant powers of teleportation and making walls consume people like they're frozen in carbonite, is the shits as a world conqueror. What Apocalypse is great at, however, is designing super villain costumes. He personally gifts his Horsemen with new duds, and they all look smashing (especially Psylocke). Apocalypse could have been the mutant Tom Ford, but alas, he thinks too small.

Like the Johnny Appleseed of mutants, Magneto has been spreading his seed around, not just fathering Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who, like in Days of Future Past, steals the show with his speed but in a sequence that is somehow both more elaborate and perfunctory, but also having a new family in Poland, where he works in a steel mill. Having gone completely apeshit in 1963 and 1973, Magneto is right on schedule with his homicidal tantrums when he is discovered by local authorities who murder his family. Once more, an X-Men movie becomes about saving Erik's soul, and saving the world from scary Erik, until Charles is able to remind Erik of their bromance and he finally calms down. So Erik's good for another decade, all pals with Charles and Mystique again at the conclusion of Apocalypse until his next inevitable meltdown in 1993. As for Charles, perhaps the strangest choice in Apocalypse turns out to be the secret origin of how Xavier loses his hair: Apocalypse trying to transfer his consciousness into the world's most powerful psychic somehow snatched Xavier's edges bald. Did Apocalypse realize if he'd succeeded, he'd have been in the body of a paraplegic? No matter, he's probably got a mutant power for that.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Captain America: Civil War



Sokovia. The most important fictional country in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fallout from the devastation of Sokovia in last year's Avengers: Age of Ultron rips the Avengers asunder in the sensational Captain America: Civil War. Ostensibly a third Avengers movie bearing Captain America (Chris Evans)'s name and featuring him as its centerpiece and star-spangled moral compass, directors Joe and Anthony Russo's Civil War is an assured and magnificent escalation of Marvel's superhero movies. It is certainly the best Avengers movie thus far, deepening Marvel's superhero characters by exploring their personal beliefs and testing their loyalties to each other. Deftly juggling over a dozen superheroes - plus introducing two immensely important new additions to Marvel's movie pantheon in the Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) -- in a dense, globetrotting (Lagos, Vienna, London, Berlin, New York, Bucharest, Siberia, Wakanda), action-packed extravaganza laced with clever character beats and endearing humor, Civil War makes us love the Avengers even more than we already did, even as they lay the smack down on each other. 

Accountability is the big issue facing the Avengers. After a mission in Lagos to apprehend the super villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo) goes sideways, resulting in the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)'s attempt to save Captain America's life from a bomb accidentally killing dozens of innocents from the African nation of Wakanda, the Avengers' methodology is called into question by the new Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). "The world owes the Avengers an unpayable debt," admits Ross, before declaring the Avengers, who operate with unlimited power and no government supervision, vigilantes. The United Nations wants the Avengers accountable to them. The UN plans to ratify the Sokovia Accords, international law that places the Avengers under UN jurisdiction, giving the UN the power to tell the Avengers where and when to fight or not fight evil.

The Avengers are required to sign the Accords or quit being superheroes. Captain America, played as stalwart and admirable as ever by Evans, sees this as an affront. He feels with the kind of power the Avengers possess, "The safest hands are our own." Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who essentially kicked off this age of Marvels when he became Iron Man eight years ago, is riddled with guilt over his personal and professional failures. Stark supports signing the Accords. The Avengers debate the issue, intelligently and entertainingly. Most agree to sign, including, surprisingly, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). She and Stark agree: capitulating now staves off something worse down the road. We agree with them; it's the smart, safer move to sign. Captain America cannot yield his beliefs and will not sign. And we agree with Cap, because we trust Cap. Everyone is right. But who's more right? Civil War tests everyone, Avengers and the audience, probing for answers, as we thrill at the conflict that results.

Meanwhile, the Avengers implosion is the endgame of a devious plot by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), a Sokovian spy who lost his family in Age of Ultron, and wages a silent war on the Avengers. Zemo bombs the UN signing of the Sokovia Accords in Vienna, murdering King T'Chaka of Wakanda. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is framed for the act of terror. Cap sets off to find Bucky before the Avengers and T'Chaka's son T'Challa, the Black Panther, do, triggering the hostilities of the Civil War as The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), rally to Cap's side. Meanwhile, Stark recruits some hitters to back him up, including a reluctant Black Widow, and his loyalists the Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and best of all, Spider-Man. 

As a villain, Bruhl underwhelms, but he's really besides the point, just a means to the glorious ends of seeing Marvel's superheroes have at it in an incredibly entertaining superhero spectacle. Some of the best bits are old buddies Black Widow and Hawkeye fighting it out but still asking each other if they're still friends, Black Panther and Winter Soldier hacking away at each other with robot arms and vibranium claws, the Falcon letting loose his terrific drone Redwing, and everything Spider-Man says and does. Civil War finally delivers the young, brash, wise-cracking-in-battle Spidey we've always wanted to see, to the chagrin of pretty much all of the other Avengers. But the show stopper turns out to be Rudd's Ant-Man, so grateful to be included in this melee, and when he suddenly grows into the 60 foot-tall Giant-Man. Stark's stunned reaction -- "Does anyone on OUR side have their own SHOCKING and FANTASTIC ability they want to share now?!" -- is hilarious and pitch perfect.

"He's my friend," Captain America says to Iron Man about Bucky in the most famous exchange in the movie. "So was I," Stark retorts. There's a very pleasing undercurrent of friendship for a movie called and about Civil War. Virtually all of the heroes' actions are because they're trying to do what's best for their friends. Cap tries to save Bucky because they go back nearly a century and no one else believes his innocence. (Bucky also rightly wonders aloud if he's even worth all this trouble.) The Falcon, who is presented to be utterly fantastic, the ultimate wingman (pun intended), sides with Cap out of friendship, and so does former SHIELD agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), though strictly friendship with Cap isn't her primary motivation. (Falcon and Bucky grinning at Cap for kissing Sharon makes us want a Falcon/Winter Soldier buddy movie right now.) Meanwhile, Vision, following Stark's orders, tries to keep Scarlet Witch (a Sokovian ex-pat living in America as an Avenger the media solidly blames for the Lagos tragedy) safe in the Avengers compound until Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the first Avenger who believed in her, comes to bust her out and make her #TeamCap. Poor Natasha Romanoff is the one most caught in the middle of this schism between Stark and Cap: her head sides with Stark, but her heart and loyalties side with Cap. Ever the double agent, Black Widow tries to do right by both sides, and pays the price. Speaking of paying the price for loyalty, no one suffers more than Stark's best friend James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), the main casualty of the Civil War. The amazing feat Civil War accomplishes is keeping all of the Avengers likeable and honorable despite their differences.

Amidst all this chaos, the additions of the Black Panther and Spider-Man to the Avengers universe were seamlessly done. As the Black Panther, Boseman brings the necessary honor and regality to the now-King T'Challa of Wakanda, even when he's consumed with a quest for vengeance through much of the movie. Yet, Civil War still makes room for clever quips, like the Falcon assuming T'Challa must really like cats if he's dressed like a cat. (Falcon also scoffs at his winged gear being classified as a "bird costume.") Meanwhile, Stark pays a visit to a house in Queens, New York and introduces us to young Holland's Spider-Man while also not letting the fact that the new Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is also young and attractive escape his attention. Marvel trumpets the youth of their new Spider-Man by making a point that to him The Empire Strikes Back is "a really old movie." (If Peter Parker is 15 or 16, then he was born right around the time George W. Bush first became President. Now we all feel old.) When Captain America battles Spider-Man, we grin as Cap does when he learns Spider-Man is a kid from Queens and commiserates that he himself is a kid from Brooklyn. If there still isn't enough Spidey in Civil War for you, the final tag at the end credits spotlights the web-slinger and the final words of the credits are the promise that "Spider-Man Will Return."

"Congratulations, Cap. You're a criminal," frowns Rhodey midway through Civil War. Indeed. Yet, while Captain America defies international law to lead his Avengers gone rogue and keep Bucky out of Stark's hands, he somehow remains in the right. One can forgive Tony Stark for his bitterness. Six years ago, Stark stood in front of Congress and grandstanded about keeping the Iron Man tech out of government hands, but that hard-partying, irreverent Stark disappeared when he flew a nuclear missile through the wormhole over New York City and saw the Chitauri fleet in the first Avengers movie. Stark is a changed man, and not for the better. He's now the guy he never wanted to be, the one who bears the burden of answering to bureaucracy, responsible for the Avengers and their failings to people who can never understand what it costs to do what they do. The secret of how and why Tony's parents Howard and Maria Stark were murdered becomes a pivotal plot point in Civil War as well, fueling the division between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. It becomes a sad state of affairs that when we finally see The Raft, Marvel's maximum security super prison, its only prisoners are the former Avengers who sided with Captain America. "The Avengers are yours now," Cap writes to Stark at the conclusion of Civil War, but a head count makes one ask "What Avengers are left?" In the end, I remain #TeamIronMan. I think Tony Stark was right. But Captain America was also right. The beauty of Civil War is the audience can be left debating whose side they are on until the glorious day the Avengers finally assemble once again. That day can't come soon enough.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Green Room



Traveling around the country cramped in a crappy Scooby Doo van, siphoning off gas from other cars because you have no money, putting on gigs in an empty pizza parlor for six bucks a head... being part of an unsigned punk rock band kinda sucks enough -- details Green Room captures persuasively -- and that's before they unwittingly witness a gruesome murder in a dingy Pacific Northwest club owned by neo-Nazi white supremacists. This is what happens to the members of the band The Ain't Rights (billed incorrectly as The Aren't Rights), played by Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Joe Cole, and Callum Turner. They just showed up to play a gig for $350 (delightfully opening with "a cover song" aimed right at pissing off the neo-Nazis in the audience), but when Yelchin returns to the green room to retrieve Shawkat's iPhone, he finds a fresh corpse of a girl with a knife in her head The Walking Dead-style, her friend Imogen Poots in hysterics, and a bunch of huge neo-Nazis standing around looking guilty. Because they did it. Next thing you know, Yelchin and his band mates are trapped in the green room, barricading themselves in, as things get much, much worse for them and everyone involved.

The arrival of the police is quickly neutralized by the arrival of the club's owner and the leader of this neo-Nazi cadre, Sir Patrick Stewart, playing against his beloved type as a menacing schemer more than willing to let young bodies be hacked by machetes and mauled by dogs to address the growing problem in his club's green room. Most of Green Room takes place within the green room, as the band and Poots attempt to weigh their shrinking options and rally some form of escape. Yelchin's left arm is an early casualty, gruesomely hacked up by Stewarts' men so that his hand is nearly severed from his wrist. Thank God for duct tape (a sentiment Matt Damon echoes in The Martian). Green Room relentlessly ratchets up the brutality as the band and Poots make repeated attempts to escape the club, only to find rabid dogs and shotguns and more machetes waiting for them, so that fewer and fewer of them are able to return to the relative safety of the green room to lick their wounds. 

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier maintains a harrowing and merciless edge to the proceedings, with the question of which band would be each character's "desert island band" as the lone source of welcome comedy occasionally diffusing the tension. (The shout out to Prince could not have been more timely or welcome.) Yelchin, who plays Mr. Chekov in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, confronting Stewart, whom everyone in the Alpha Quadrant reveres as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, late in Green Room plays like some kind of bizarre but thrilling Star Trek mirror universe episode or fan fiction. In the end, the bloody and remorseless Green Room leaves us with one less punk rock band in the world, but also a lot fewer evil skinhead a-holes in the world, and ultimately, it seems a fair trade.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Jungle Book



Jon Favreau's delightful live action The Jungle Book, adapted from the beloved Disney cartoon which was adapted from the beloved (?) tale by Rudyard Kipling, is like a really weird episode of Naked and Afraid with a bunch of talking CGI animals. To be fair, Mowgli (a charming Neel Sethi), the young "man cub" found by a talking panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito), is rarely afraid. Mowgli is a bright, cheerful boy, growing up in the jungle and doing the best he can to be a good wolf to his pack, while at best tolerated by all the other beasts. Except for one beast who finds him simply intolerable, the savage tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba, from, appropriately, Beasts of No Nation). Shere Khan killed Mowgli's father years ago for the crime of intruding upon the jungle, but was scarred by the "red flower," the one weapon Man possesses that all in the jungle most fear -- fire. As such, Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead, and, being a tiger, he doesn't really have much else to occupy his time besides hunt the man cub and give him a good mauling.

Mowgli is forced to abandon the wolf pack and make a run for it. (Which really doesn't say much about the wolves -- a whole pack of them can't take down one tiger? No, we find out in the climactic battle, turns out they can't. Those are some wussy wolves.) Bagheera attempts to return Mowgli to his own people, but Shere Khan hunting them makes that impossible. They are separated, and Mowgli has the misfortune to be robbed of his scavenged fruit by a pack of wild monkeys, hypnotized and nearly eaten by a giant snake (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who somehow knew Mowgli's entire origin story, but Mowgli also has the good fortune to meet his new bestest bear buddy Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). After what happened to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Leo must have been pissed seeing The Jungle Book's bear being so nice to that friggin' kid. The Revenant's bear never let Leo float on his stomach down a river while singing "Bear Necessities" to him. Then again, Leo was never tricked by his bear to climb up a cliff and risk getting stung by bees to bring down honeycombs. Still, Mowgli had it way better than Leo.

Mowgli can't help but be a do-gooder, though. Like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, young Mowgli possesses inherent skills in building and using human tools, and he has a profound understanding of pulleys and winches most civilized adults don't even have. Mowgli does a bunch of elephants a solid when he uses his skills to rescue one of their cubs from a pit, and it turns out no good deed by Mowgli goes unrewarded when the elephants later use their abilities at jungle terraforming to save the jungle from being burned down by the fire Mowgli accidentally started (oops). Besides the evil tiger who wants him dead, monkeys are the bane of Mowgli's jungle life, as he is soon kidnapped by monkeys and brought before a giant ape named King Louie who lives in "a giant monkey temple" and wants that red flower (voiced by a distracting Christopher Walken, to be honest, who also sings). One waits for Walken to tell Mowgli a story about his father and a gold watch, to no avail. Also, considering how far Mowgli traveled, apparently, one night of running through the jungle can bring him right back to where he started from for his fateful final battle with Shere Khan. In the end, The Jungle Book is a winning and enjoyable tale of a man cub becoming one with nature, after killing the things in nature that want to kill him, and nearly burning down that nature by being careless. But hey, man cubs will be man cubs.