Wednesday, December 20, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Shape of Water

Movie Review: The Shape of Water
Released: 2017
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins

I'm not posting a full review (yet again), not because I don't have much to say about this one that hasn't been said better but because I can hardly imagine that I'll have less to say about this movie as time goes on. Right now I don't really have the words or the time to do justice to every thought I have on this as a disabled person, as a fan of its director, as a lover of weird things. So here's the gist of it.

The Shape of Water was my most anticipated movie of the year by a colossal margin, and even though it's already been said that the basic plot hasn’t broken any new ground, I'm happy to report it met every one of my expectations. It's a beautiful (visually and otherwise) movie about love and hope and how outcasts find happiness when they look out for one another because the rest of the world sure doesn't have their back. Because it's a movie by Guillermo del Toro, however, it also has gore, sex, and fish monsters. It's brutal and kind in equal measure. Somehow it manages to be the most inspiring movie of the year, a genuine “fairytale for adults” when that term has almost lost its meaning due to overuse. I could watch this one again and again, and I probably will. It's without a doubt del Toro’s finest achievement since Pan’s Labyrinth—one of the first movies that shook me to my core, when I was 13—and like that movie, there is so much to say about it that it deserves more than a quick little blog post.

Score: ***** out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Get Out

Movie Review: Get Out
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Released: 2017
Starting: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford

In lieu of posting a full, in-depth take on Get Out, I'm deferring to three takes on the film that not only praise it for what I liked about it but also tackle it from a perspective that almost definitely matters more than mine. This movie came out in February and everything has already been said about it by much smarter, more qualified people.

In short, my thoughts on Get Out are as follows: it's easily the best horror film to come out of Hollywood in the past decade. It's creepy, smart, subtle, given just the right amount of comic relief (and the comic relief is hilarious). But even taking all of this into consideration, what really makes it an exceptional first horror film is how it uses the genre as social commentary—many directors with more film experience than this aren't able to do that as well. I might have had criticisms of a few things in the third act, and maybe it felt the tiniest bit too slick, but what major horror film released lately doesn't have similar problems? Jordan Peele is a horror director the genre needs right now, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Released: 2017
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

My first instinct when talking about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (aside from shortening the title by three words) is to call it a very funny movie about people in absolutely devastating circumstances. This feels reductive. It’s billed in part as a black comedy, sure, and it has more moments of actual hilarity than the vast majority of comedies released this year. But stripping this movie down to just the funny moments and memorable quotes found in the (admittedly excellent) trailer doesn’t convey how genuinely powerful—in so many senses—the whole movie is. It’s also part crime drama, part western (a little bit), and a whole lot of small town drama. It recalls several great movies released in the past few years, but ultimately is wholly unique and genuinely refreshing in its complexity. Get ready to hear a lot more about this one over the next few months.

If you’re a reasonable and rational human being, you’re probably wondering how the hell a movie about a woman pissed about her daughter’s rape and murder going unsolved could ever be hilarious. The answer: by not even trying to joke about that. The main reason why I’m hesitant to call this a black comedy is because it doesn’t play taboo subjects for laughs. Most of what’s funny here is the idiocy of the local racist buffoon cop Dixon, or Mildred’s to-hell-with-everything-else attitude toward the people in Ebbing. A lot of it’s in the dialogue. Even more of it’s in the performances. Honestly, I think it’s necessary for the film to work. People in bad circumstances tend to joke to get themselves through it, and the same is true for the finest movies about horrific tragedy and loss. It’s impossible to imagine this movie as a straight-up drama. Just try to get through the scene where the local priest comes to Mildred’s house and tell me this movie didn’t need to be funny. Even in the third act, where things get heavier and the painful truths of these characters’ hearts aren’t quite as humorous as they once were, there’s still a joke thrown in every so often to keep things from being a wallow. Somehow, it lands every time and never cheapens the drama and heartache, of which there’s plenty to go around.

I really don’t want to mince words here: the performances are so good it’s unreal. Frances McDormand, never bad but never better than this, is an absolute force of nature as Mildred. This is a woman who’s been hurt a lot by life and who bites back when she feels provoked or wronged. It’s often awesome, like when she defends herself against a disgruntled dentist, but occasionally straddling the line between awesome and embarrassing, like when she takes a knee to the groins of egg-throwing teenagers. The woman who starts off as a badass hero turns out to be a bit less badass than she probably hopes to come off, oblivious to everything but her own grief. McDormand’s performance turns this woman, who could’ve otherwise been a character in a Lifetime movie or a caricature of angry Southern women, into a flesh-and-blood human being. The scene that says it all to me is when Mildred sits in Angela’s room, flashes back to their argument the day before her murder, and then cuts back to Mildred sitting there in barely composed silence. No histrionics; the argument was average mother-daughter stuff and the “present” of the film is just stunned, numb grief. It would be so easy to overplay this, but there isn’t a single misstep. Given even more of a challenging role is Sam Rockwell, object of my well-documented adolescent affections and one of the most perennially underrated actors currently working. He’s tremendous at playing characters who are complete screw-ups—see his phenomenal work in Snow Angels and strong work in The Way Way Back if you really needed proof of that—but Dixon is a character who requires a careful performance. Focus too much on his impulsiveness and he’s just an idiot. Emphasize his bigotry and he’s loathsome. Sure, every actor wants to play an awful guy who redeems himself, but Rockwell finds the humanity in a character most actors wouldn’t really want to find the humanity in. Dixon isn’t a showy sort of awful character; he’s the sort of guy who’s too much of a doofus to be the Bad Cop and really shouldn’t be in law enforcement anyway. Through this performance, he’s never unbearable even if he’s not exactly likable, and you actually want to see this human trainwreck of a man get his act together. Like McDormand, Rockwell is perfect for the role and genuinely deserves an Oscar for his work here. He’s long overdue for the attention.

The rest of the cast is mostly good too. Woody Harrelson, second-billed in the cast, conveys just what kind of decent-but-maybe-not-perfect guy the local police chief is and why people would be so quick to jump to his defense. You kind of wish Mildred would back off him, kind of wish he’d get the damn point and get to work already, and still hate hearing that he’s gravely ill. (It’s not really a spoiler—it’s told within the first half hour.) He conveys a lot in a small amount of screen time, adding another memorable performance to the cast. Also strong is another favorite of mine, John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone fame, as Mildred’s awful ex-husband. I wish he’d had more screen time, but hated the character so much thanks to his quietly chilling performance that I’m kind of glad he didn’t. I was less fond of Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife—was it just me or did her accent kind of go all over the place?—and Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son was fine but nowhere near as good as he was in Manchester by the Sea. These two performances are just blips, though, and easy to overlook when the three top-billed performers are so strong.

When it comes down to it, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t about justice. We never find out for sure who killed Angela, and in some ways the characters are worse off than they were before. Like any good Southern Gothic story, like the one Red is seen reading in the beginning of the movie, life isn’t fair here and the characters know it. If anything, it’s about the futility of anger and the cost of impulsive decisions. Whether it’s Mildred acting out because she feels like nobody wants to solve her daughter’s murder or Dixon getting angry because people think he’s a joke and he and the police force are useless, anger and wrath make everything worse. Yet in moments where characters who used to hate each other show each other the faintest bit of kindness, it refutes the sort of nihilism that you might think would come from a story like this. The ending might seem unsatisfactory compared to what we really want to know, but it truly ends at the only point that could be wholly satisfactory after everything that came before.

The kind of movie that screams for awards without actually screaming for awards attention, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the richest experiences you can have at the movies right now. I could say it’s maybe five minutes too long, but it’s easy to forgive that when so much of it is expertly written and performed. Much like The Florida Project, my other favorite film of the year so far, it’s a movie that beautifully encapsulates human experience, and while this one might be mostly about the lows while that one’s mostly the highs, I still see it as hopeful—these characters are going to find a way to go on, no matter how crazy and awful the world can be.

Score: ***** out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Florida Project

Movie Review: The Florida Project
Directed by: Sean Baker
Released: 2017
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite

There really is no way to quick-pitch The Florida Project without making it sound horrendous to people who won’t find it to be Their Thing. How do you sell someone on two hours of a poor six-year-old’s cinema verite adventures in a motel outside of Disney World as the adults around her try to help the best they can? Yeah, I’m on board with that, but how do you convince everyone else that it’s worth watching? You can’t, unless the movie is basically magic. I’m reluctant to use that word to describe a movie—especially one that’s as thoroughly realist as this one—but if any movie released in 2017 deserves to be called magic, it’s The Florida Project. This is probably ironic, since the movie takes place in an area that is definitely nothing like Disney World and is probably one of the most resolutely un-Disney things you’ll catch on a big screen this year.

This movie is probably not the movie to watch if you hate kids. I’m not talking about the precocious little moppets usually seen on screen, but actual kids. Annoying, gross, messy, destructive, chatty, mouthy, kindergarten-aged kids are a rarity on the movie screen, though not without good reason, and it’s even rarer still to see their world depicted on screen with anything resembling respect or truth. (One example is The Spirit of the Beehive, a very different film from this one.) Throughout the entire movie, I was stricken with how real the children on screen were, how their behavior and dialogue never felt scripted even once. The kids aren’t always likable—Moonee, the girl whom most of the film follows, frequently behaves in ways that might appall audiences the way it appalls the “decent” characters in the movie—but they’re always lovable because of how real they are. Moonee and her friends are little balls of energy because it’s summer and they’re all six, and they have no idea what the world around them is really like.

This is where the movie gets into the realistic territory that keeps it from being just a parade of kids doing kid stuff: These are poor folks living in a motel we’re talking about here. Moonee’s mother, Halley, is barely into her twenties, and she is a difficult (putting it mildly) person who would test the patience of a saint. She’s just shy of a complete jackass to the manager of the motel she lives in. She’s petty and argumentative. She’s not particularly equipped to be a mother, and you’d be hard pressed to say she’s a good one, but it’s plain to see that she loves Moonee and is determined to do anything she can to make sure her kid has a happy life. As the reality of the situation this family is living in encroaches on the film—so subtly at first that the ending sneaks up on you—most viewers will be of two compartmentalized minds on Halley: she is absolutely not fit to take care of Moonee, and at the same time she is the only person you would ever want to take care of Moonee. After all, the kid’s POV is so easy to agree with after a while.

All of this would be fine theoretical content but lacking if the performances here weren’t uniformly stellar. Most of the Oscar buzz is going to Willem Dafoe for his role as Bobby, the gruff but unquestionably kind manager. He probably won’t win, but he deserves a nomination; I had to remind myself numerous times that this was the same guy who played the Green Goblin. Bobby’s the practical heart of the movie, never a pushover but so much more caring about the people in his motel than anyone else in the world seems to be.

I mention him first because he’s the only real name in the cast and responsible for several of the movie’s finest moments, but the two breakout stars deserve the same plaudits. Brooklynn Prince is the heart of the movie and has an almost supernatural amount of talent for a kid in the single digits. I often had to remind myself that this kid was an actor, who was acting, and not just a random little kid they found on the street and started filming. I’d argue that she deserves to be one of the youngest Best Actress nominees, and if she continues getting good roles there’s no telling what she can do in the future. And Instagram star Bria Vinaite is also astoundingly good, a young woman driven to all sorts of crushing lows to provide for a kid she shouldn’t really have at her age but would do anything for. She allows Halley to be unlikable and truly annoying without trying to soften her edges more than what we’d see with Moonee; it’s a hell of a first role, but she proves to be as gifted as her co-stars. The supporting cast is excellent as well; nobody’s acting is ever showy or anything other than convincing.

The Florida Project is, for the most part, not a movie with giant emotional moments or showy displays of acting. As a largely episodic story that eventually builds to one of the most powerful endings of the year, its strengths are almost entirely in its tiny moments. A few of my favorites: Three kids having too much fun washing a car as their guardians bicker. The same three kids passing a bunch of stores on their way to beg for ice cream. A boy giving away all of his toys as he and his father head to another state. Bobby chasing off a creeper at the playground (complete with a shoutout to my hometown). Bobby and his son(?) moving a broken ice machine into and out of an elevator. Two children hiding the truth from their moms after a disastrous prank. Moonee and Halley having breakfast. Twice. None of these scenes are remotely exciting on paper, but on screen is a different matter entirely.

In 2017 t’s tempting to ascribe an overt political agenda to The Florida Project, which is about “invisible homeless” people struggling and being cast aside by society. There are certainly some people out there who will hate the movie for daring to show poor people—poor children—as human beings who maybe deserve better than what they have. In the end, though, this isn’t a movie that’s out to make a statement. Much like last year’s incredible Manchester by the Sea or my beloved Short Term 12, all it’s trying to do is show the life of a few flawed but decent human beings just trying to live their lives and mostly be good to one another, even if they aren’t always up to the task and the world is stacked against them. There are no great triumphs or profound inspirational moments that you’d find in a Poverty Porn movie. All there is is a stubborn refusal to give into despair even as your world starts to cave in. When everything's said and done, this persistence of humanity makes it more inspiring and devastating than anything I’ve seen in ages.

I thought they didn’t make movies like this any more. It turns out they still do, and they might be better now than ever.

Score: ***** out of 5 stars.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: mother!

Movie Review: Mother!
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Released: 2017
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem

The way mother! has been received by the moviegoing public does not remotely surprise me. Very little of that has to do with the manufactured outrage from certain disreputable outrage machines. Most of it comes from the indisputable fact that expecting a normal movie from the guy who made Pi is a bad idea, and Paramount’s marketing sure didn’t help there. Sure, the movie’s content was bound to upset those looking for a fight about anything even slightly critical of religion, but this is not a movie that was ever going to hit it big with many people. It’s self-consciously artsy and obscure and its narrative is one of the most baffling in recent memory. mother! is the Marmite of 2017 film, loved or loathed with little in-between, because it’s so different from most of what’s out right now. It's because of all of that that I was surprised I not only liked it, but liked it a lot. At the same time, I completely understand why many other people hate it. It is a confounding movie in so many ways, and I enjoy it while basically feeling as if I don't know who to recommend it to.

First, a quiz: Do you want to see a good old-fashioned throwback horror film, or do you want to spend two hours frantically mapping characters in your head and analyzing every interaction to figure out what’s supposed to be going on? If you said the first answer, you almost certainly will want to go see It instead. This is not a movie to half-watch, unless you really enjoy being confused (in that case, please watch it that way). That’s not to say it won’t be tempting to doze off, considering this particular movie has the pacing of a glacier made of snails, but patience and attention is pretty much a requirement to get anything out of this beyond incredulous chuckles. Taken at face value, it’s just a parade of barely logical and later flat-out absurd events tormenting a confused woman and her worryingly welcoming husband. Taken at anything other than face value and it’s a million other things.

Another tip: If you’re the type of person who loathes symbolism, who responds to test questions about an author’s choice to make blue curtains blue by saying “he just meant the curtains were blue,” stay far away from this movie. There are more symbolic elements here than there are actual symbols. This was made for those college classes all about analyzing meaning in a given piece of media, and the only thing stopping my analytical self from buckling down and writing out a thesis on it (aside from that taking forever) is that there are so many interpretations that the film supports. The biblical allegories are the most widely discussed, and definitely the most contested, of course, and some of those are so blunt as to smack you upside the head and irritate you if you have a particularly religious background (oh, two brothers, son of the first man and woman seen in the film, fighting with each other? Wonder what that means…). But if the biblical symbolism isn’t your particular cup o’ tea, you could easily take this movie as an allegory for the way certain sects of our society treat and neglect women. If that doesn’t work, mother! might be a metaphor for mother nature’s war with humanity and overpopulation. If you’re of a particular strain, you might see it as a criticism of the male artistic ego and how male writers of literary fiction take women as their “muse,” whether or not the woman involved is willing. Or maybe just power dynamics in relationships? Essentially, this movie is so abstract in its symbolism that an argument could be made about it being about damn near anything, which is why I’m looking forward to how opinion on it changes over time. I have a feeling particularly geeky film students will have a ball with it, if my reaction to the richness of the symbolism is any indication.

Jennifer Lawrence is the main draw of the movie for most people, and she does the role plenty of justice, but it’s almost entirely a reactive role. Fortunately, she’s pretty good at reacting, and Aronofsky wisely keeps the camera on her for almost the entire movie. Every ounce of her confusion, her anger, her sadness, can be felt. It’s far from her finest performance (see Winter’s Bone for that one), but she was definitely the right pick for the role. The real draw, though, is Javier Bardem, playing this enigmatic man whose moods are fickle, whose kindness is a door to chaos, and who claims to love his wife but never really acts like he does. He’s compelling enough to make you forget that there isn’t much consistency or humanity to the character, and becomes this towering, menacing buffoon by the end (which, of course, Means Something). Of all the people who show up in the weird little house in the movie, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the most present and the most compelling; the former is a strange mixture of scary and sympathetic, the latter beautifully obnoxious and a fountain of symbolism in her own right for the way she treats Lawrence.

If you still don’t have a concrete idea of what the actual movie is about, beyond a lot of highly symbolic events, based on this review, there’s a reason for that. mother!’s biggest failing, and why it won’t have appeal to others besides symbolism junkies, is that the story taken at face value is more or less a failure. Darren Aronofsky can talk all he wants in interviews about absurdist comedies and cite Bunuel all he likes, but by the third act the movie throws out the pretenses of a proper story (which even absurdist comedies tend to have) and decides to fling symbols and genuinely gruesome imagery at the screen. By this point the religious imagery is all but unavoidable and definitely not comforting. In this sense it most recalls the controversial, hallucinatory films of the late Ken Russell, another filmmaker who depicted religion in ways little-loved by the religious (though this film is quite a bit more vague about that). But it doesn’t have same sort of dramatic payoff most surrealist films have, and mostly only comes together once you try to figure out what it’s all talking about. This is a little disappointing; even most David Lynch movies work on a basic storytelling level.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that I want to hold mother!’s weakness in the narrative department against it too much. It works so well as an allegory that I can’t honestly say Aronofsky failed at what he set out to do, even if what he set out to do was alienate a good 80% of moviegoers. (Yeah, he definitely succeeded there…) I have a feeling that in a decade, away from its opaque marketing and the fans who went because its star was Hollywood royalty, mother! will be seen more for what it is rather than what made it fail at the box office. Of course, whatever it is is highly dependent on the viewer. In any case, I thought it was one of the more fascinating films in recent memory, the sort of movie I can’t believe actually got made and released by a big-name studio. That in itself is worthy of praise.

Score: ***½ out of 5 stars.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Manchester by the Sea

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Released: 2016
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams

Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make movies very often, so when he’s got one coming out it’s cause for celebration. Those unfamiliar with his work, or who only know about his troubled production history with the eventually-released-in-2011 Margaret, might find this confusing. Anyone who’s seen You Can Count on Me, without question one of my favorite indie films of last decade, will be more than willing to believe the hype. While his movies don’t sound all that exciting on paper, the truth is that what makes Lonergan an extraordinary director is his power to capture the minutiae of everyday life—down to the smallest details that often go unobserved in film. There are a million movies out there exactly like Manchester by the Sea, and at the same time there are none. If you’re a Lonergan fan but found the “uplifting indie drama” vibes of the trailer a bit on the repellent side, your worries are in vain.

This advice is quadrupled if the biggest problem you had with the commercials was the “uplifting” factor.

A pretty poster, a bit of clever cherry-picking in the trailer room, and generic movie commercial music might be able to disguise it, but Manchester by the Sea is definitely not the sort of amiable indie flick you might take your parents to. It’s two and a quarter hours of beautifully wrought heartbreak. Our protagonist endures trauma that would break nearly anyone, depicted in such a bleak manner that a subset of the population wooed by its awards buzz will probably find too much to bear. It’s downright frigid compared to the warmth of You Can Count on Me, and I haven’t seen a great many American independent films with the same focus on utter emotional desolation. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the only foreign films I’ve seen post-1990 with the same unrelenting focus on a character’s bleak prospects were directed by the Dardenne Brothers.) Does it sound like a slog now? Well, it’s not—despite all of the pain, there is a warm current of humor underneath the majority of the film. One of its most wrenching moments is followed up almost immediately with a very quietly-played bit of visual humor that is quintessential Lonergan, and which could very plausibly have happened in a real life situation. The humor isn’t mocking or mean-spirited and tasteless, it’s just intertwined with all the sadness in a way that makes both elements more palatable than either one would’ve been on its own. It arises from the details of everyday life—ever been to an extraordinarily awkward dinner with a relative you haven’t seen in forever, or forgot to turn your phone off during a funeral?

Casey Affleck is on screen for the majority of the film, and he owns it. If you for some reason needed a reminder of which Affleck brother was the better actor, look no further. I’ve known he could play a good miserable sad sack since the days of the mostly-forgotten Lonesome Jim, but this? This is a revelation. Lee Chandler is a character who (excepting flashbacks) has an emotional range that could be bested by a particularly lively bowl of Jell-O, but somehow this man who is mostly dead inside is one of the most fully alive characters of 2016 cinema. Rarely are we reminded that this is Gigli’s younger brother giving a performance. It helps that he's got some great supporting performances alongside him, of course. Newcomer Lucas Hedges takes a character who could easily be one-note and turns him into the most realistic teenage boy in recent film memory, a boy who might be seeming to hold it together but isn't much better off than his uncle. And while Michelle Williams’ character isn't in that many scenes, she sells each one that she's in so damn well, with such nuanced pain (and a little bit of showiness towards the end that never feels fake) that I wouldn't be surprised if the Supporting Actress Oscar is hers already. These actors and the majority of the other big-names in the cast (though they're in smaller parts) are so compelling that it makes the movie’s less-talented minor players (namely the children) easier to bear.

Taking its seemingly innocent poster imagery from one of its most moving scenes (good luck looking at it the same way ever again), Manchester by the Sea is a truly “adult” movie in that it deals with real issues in a wholly realistic way. We get a few thousand “adult is forced to care for a child after their parent(s) dies” movie every year, but none show the reality of what an arrangement might entail or make the circumstances of their characters quite so bleak. Instead of drawing its powers from artifice and tried-and-true Hollywood storytelling beats, it makes a lasting impression by putting its characters in their own emotional hell and allowing them to help each other find at least a little emotional peace. You'll probably need a day or two to recover from this one, but it's well worth it. If any movie is finally going to put Kenneth Lonergan’s name on the tongues of all film lovers, this is it.

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Jungle Book (2016)

Movie Review: The Jungle Book
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Released: 2016
Starring:  Neel Sethi, the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken

The review:

I don’t really know who it is that’s requesting all these live action Disney remakes, but it sure ain’t me. I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, but only with the massive caveat that they were deeply flawed in the script department, and I avoided Cinderella and plan to avoid Beauty and the Beast as well. I’m not anti-remake on principle since nearly every movie is basically a remake of some other story if you really break it down; I just don’t find these movies all that interesting. I grew up with the originals, and if something’s not broken I don’t see the need to fix it. Of course, many people would argue that The Jungle Book wasn’t one of Disney’s best movies. I haven’t seen it in ages so I can’t argue for or against it. What I do know is that this remake of The Jungle Book is… certainly something that exists. Yup. It is a series of film clips arranged to tell a story. Frankly, I’m amazed that this movie has done as well critically as it has; it’s perfectly fine, sure, but nothing to get excited about. But it is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, so it at least has that going for it.

On that note: would you look at the CGI in this thing?!? I honestly thought those were real animals edited with CGI throughout the movie (with the obvious exception of the gargantuan King Louie), but no: those animals were all-CGI. Far be it from me to praise movies that are CGI fests (cartoons notwithstanding), but I was seriously impressed with the work the effects department did. The cinematography is also beautiful throughout; there’s never a shot that looks anything less than stunning. Overall, it’s a feast for the eyes. Other organs, the brain and heart in particular, may be left disappointed.

First thing’s first here: I don’t know why you’d be coming to this blog of all places to find out whether or not a movie’s appropriate for your kids, but if you’re wondering, no, this is not the family-friendly romp the trailers and commercials made it out to be. It’s significantly darker and more violent than the original film was; if you’re not interested in seeing a movie where a child is in genuine life-threatening peril for the vast majority of the run time, go see Zootopia to get your animal kicks. This makes it considerably more realistic than its predecessor, but a lot less fun. There’s also a lot of non-cute animal-on-animal violence, and a climactic scene that will be nothing short of distressing for the under-ten set if they’re not used to violence in movies yet. This is not a reason to ding it, since it doesn’t do that tone poorly most of the time (though the moments when it’s suddenly light-hearted occasionally create a tonal whiplash I didn’t particularly enjoy), but it something to keep in mind.

As with so many movies these days, the big problem here is the pacing. Everything simply happens too fast here. Mowgli’s relationship with Baloo here is too fast and, by the time the big lug of a bear is trying to shoo Mowgli away, it’s supposed to be a Big Emotional Moment. This happens in roughly five minutes of movie time. Bagheera also comes to trust Baloo too quickly, the whole ordeal with Kaa is only about a minute long and completely irrelevant to the rest of the movie (a criticism of the old movie, yes, but still), and it feels as if there’s rarely a moment to breathe and grow attached to these characters.

So, the performances? What you’d expect, no more or less. First, the voice actors: Ben Kingsley does a good job in Bagheera’s role, though the character doesn’t do a whole lot. Bill Murray creates a charming Baloo, with a little bit more of an edge than the old Baloo we know and love. Scarlett Johansson does her usual thing as Kaa, and despite the short screen time of the character her voice work is memorably menacing. Christopher Walken is the highlight of the voice cast in his role as King Louie, and not just because his rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” is easily the best thing in the movie. He’s a great mix of scary and just plain weird, in the tradition of many a great Walken performance. Idris Elba, fresh off his small Zootopia role, Basically, the whole cast is at the top of their game using just their voices; if that doesn’t convince you of the importance of voice work to creating real characters, nothing will.

So what of our Mowgli? He’s… perfectly fine. This is Neel Sethi’s first movie, and unfortunately he suffers from Child Actor’s First Movie Syndrome too many times—there are a number of moments where his line delivery either falls flat or he goes for too cute. But honestly? The kid’s acting next to basically nothing and he never once fails to convince that there are actual animals right next to him. Most adult actors can’t even pull that off, so I’ll just chalk up his missteps to inexperience. Or it might be Favreau’s fault. Most directors don’t know how to work with kids very well, after all; let’s just talk about the good the kid did do. Also: they actually got a non-white kid to play a non-white character? Awesome. (I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Lupita Nyong'o's voice work as his mother wolf and Giancarlo Esposito’s brief work as the leader of the wolf pack… really, this movie is more racially diverse in casting than many other films and it’s a shame they were mostly on off-screen roles, but that’s still huge.) Everybody here’s fine; it’s just that there are so many characters and events that it’s impossible for anything to stand out.

I rarely ask for big movies to be any longer than they are because they tend to suck and take too long to finish sucking as it is, but The Jungle Book would’ve benefitted from a two-hour running time. Fourteen more minutes would’ve made a lot of difference in this case. This is a perfectly enjoyable movie that has a hard time lingering in the memory; it’s undeniably well-made in all areas except the writing. A decent but unremarkable remake of a decent but unremarkable movie. Not bad, but still missing one of the bare necessities: a little patience.

Score: *** out of 5 stars.