The_Red_TurtleThe Red Turtle (2016)

Director- Michael Dudok de Wit

PG- some thematic elements and peril


REMINDER: This website is moving! You can now find me at Writers Block Parade will only remain active until shortly after 2016’s Top 20 is posted; after that, it shuts down for good. Please follow me at my new location. Thank you!

A man stranded on a desert island finds his attempts to escape thwarted by a mysterious red turtle.

I’ve heard it said that genres of music spring into existence in reaction to other genres of music — loud, obnoxious, stripped-down punk in reaction to the sweeping excess of early 70s rock, for instance — and I wonder if we aren’t seeing the same thing happening in animation. As mainstream animated films become manic, louder, more comedy-oriented, and rendered in often lifeless 3D, an entire niche industry is forming around traditional animation, preserving and reinventing it simultaneously, approaching the form like a sacred relic that must be handled with love and care. It’s hard not to miss the glory days of 2D animation, when it was everywhere and each year offered numerous quality films in the style. But the reverence with which the last of its devotees treat it now is inimitable, a fondness born of absence, something that could only ever have been achieved organically.

In short, I’m not sure if The Red Turtle could have existed twenty years ago, and that, if nothing else, is an incredible silver lining to the slow, but hopefully impermanent death of this genre.

All movies are art, in my opinion, even the bad ones, but The Red Turtle feels like the sort of thing for which that pedestal is especially reserved — expressive, far-reaching, daring, trying to capture the full sweep of human existence and distill it into something simple and emotive, something we feel capable of grasping even as its complexity continues to elude us. It’s a beautiful piece of visual poetry and a moving exercise in the philosophy of cinema as pure experience.

The Red Turtle feels like the sum total of the progression of film animation to date, simultaneously old-fashioned and distinctly modern. Its lush, hand-painted vista of rainforest and sea immediately summons the most vibrant of animated classics to mind, but the fluidity and grace of its animation places it distinctly in the modern world. It’s an ideal blend of 2D and 3D animation, used to fill its gorgeous world to the corners of each frame.

It’s a film that hides complexity beneath a simplistic veneer in many respects, and that includes the animation — it isn’t showy; there’s never a moment where it’s self-consciously trying to show you something beautiful. It isn’t out to impress. It simply is beautiful, and if your eyes are open, you won’t miss a moment of it. It allows the wonders it has created to sink in, drawing viewers’ reactions from within themselves rather than shouting it from the screen until someone pays attention.

It suits the story, which somehow manages to be everything you expect it to be and something wholly unique all at once. You can’t strip a film much barer than The Red Turtle — the movie begins on and never goes anywhere other than the island, only develops a cast of three human characters, and has no dialogue, instead telling its story through sound and visuals. Even as someone who’s used to this kind of thing, it never ceased to amaze me how much depth The Red Turtle was able to acquire solely through images. It doesn’t need words to sketch detailed characters or a compelling world. It’s the ultimate exercise in “show, don’t tell,” conclusively proving that what we see connects with us much more deeply than what we hear. What begins as a simple story of survival becomes so much more as the movie, through pure suggestion, adds more layers. It becomes a parable of life itself, in all its joys, wonders, tragedies, and struggles. It’s gently moving and deeply cutting, and there’s no contradiction — it’s simultaneously one of 2016’s most beautiful and most melancholy movies. It’s uplifting, life-affirming, and depressing. It, as life, contains multitudes. It’s layered in metaphor and ambiguity, feeling very much like the fairy tales that seem to have been its inspiration — it makes more emotional than logical sense, but the sense it makes is near-perfect nonetheless. Despite its familiar structure, it becomes one of the year’s most unpredictable films — it’s too adventurous, and casts its net far too widely, to succumb to foregone conclusions.

Any movie will generate a mix of reactions — different strokes, after all. But The Red Turtle especially so. It offers both a framework and a blank canvas for its viewers to paint on, drawing their own conclusions and connecting with it in their own way. I was unprepared for its potency, the extent to which it would have my heart in its hands to do with what it pleased. It’s brisk but memorable viewing, heartfelt in a way that has to be seen in order to be properly understood. However underwhelming it was on the whole, 2016 at least had the decency to save a few of its best for last.

L'AvenirThings to Come (2016)

Starring- Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob, Sarah Le Picard, Solal Forte, Elise Lhomeau, Lionel Dray, Gregoire Montana-Haroche, Lina Benzerti

Director- Mia Hansen-Love

PG-13- brief language and drug use


REMINDER: This website is moving! Writers Block Parade will shut down in the near future. My future writings will appear on Please follow me there!

A French philosophy professor deals with a sudden cycle of change in her previously stable life.

Things to Come is challenging to discuss because there’s a certain formlessness to it, which doubles as its charm and its Achilles’ heel. If I have little to say about it, it’s only because of the expansiveness of it — not its overall quality as a film.

Though it must be said that Things to Come provokes a somewhat contradictory reaction. It’s the sort of movie that seems very good while you’re watching it — and it is — but fades in the memory almost immediately. It’s strange, the way it commanded my attention and then vanished the second it ended.

In the end, I think that’s because it’s a more performance-oriented film and not necessarily a treatise on the human condition. I’m honestly surprised that no significant Oscar campaign was mounted for Isabelle Huppert here; whether or not the film as a whole is better than Elle (I think it is, but that’s just me), it’s certainly less controversial and discomfiting. She’s fantastic, playing the reserved intellectual under siege with grace and subtlety, allowing the character’s withdrawn countenance to mask her feelings without taking them entirely off the table. This isn’t a movie about dealing with grief or change or struggle so much as a movie about a person’s reaction immediately after any one of those things sets in. Things to Come couldn’t be a more truthful title — it lives in that moment that follows the major catalysts in our lives, after characters have realized that things are changing but before that becomes a battle. The real struggle in these characters’ lives is primed to set in sometime after the credits roll; right now, the change is fresh, and they’re convinced they can keep on keeping on with few adjustments.

The movie’s key strength is the way it captures those important shifts in our lives, things we all experience albeit in wildly different ways. There’s something exciting about new circumstances, as well as something stressful. There’s never a moment where we let go of the past and embrace the future all at once; we cling to pieces of both for a while, all of them becoming whole one at a time. So our emotions are contradictory and sometimes difficult to understand — we mourn the loved ones we lose, but take relief in the end of their suffering and even, sometimes, in the end of our obligations to them. Given the chance to reinvent ourselves, the world opens up into a realm of infinite possibilities, but we also know the consequences if we screw it up. After the initial rush comes that moment of contemplation, casually wondering about where we’ve been and where we’re going. We have one foot in the past to keep us feeling like the world’s still spinning and one foot in the future to keep us feeling like we’re stuck. It’ll get hard later, but right now, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

That’s the space in which Things to Come finds itself. Things are changing, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet — oh, the characters know their lives are about to be very different, but they haven’t had time to track the way the dominos are going to fall. They don’t realize how hard it’s going to be. None of us do, and that’s probably for the best — if we did, we would root ourselves to the spot and die there, unchanged.

Things to Come floats around that premise more than it dissects that; it’s a fluctuating emotional state more than a story. It can feel empty on occasion, as scenes begin and end with no clear purpose and characters of varying detail and strength wander in and out of things seemingly on a whim. It doesn’t end so much as just stop. And the lack of meaningful connections between these moments blurs them all together to the point that little of the movie stands out afterward. It isn’t boring to watch, but it is a touch boring to reflect upon.

I don’t think there’s anything too terribly wrong with that. Sometimes, a movie is just a personal experience that only matters to you. It isn’t something you can explain to someone else. I suspect Things to Come is going to be that movie for most of its viewers — everyone liking it, but for different reasons they’ll be unable to completely justify to one another. We’ll all see different parts of our lives reflected in it; we’ll connect with some of these experiences and brush past the others. The end result may not be 2016’s most memorable film, but it’s a gem nonetheless.

Small_Crimes_posterSmall Crimes (2017)

Starring- Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jacki Weaver, Robert Forster, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Macon Blair, Pat Healy, Larry Fessenden, Jasson Finney, Tara Yelland, Tyrone Benskin, Michael Kinney

Director- Evan Katz


IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m going to attach a regular reminder to these reviews now that this website is moving. You can now find me at This website will be closing after I finish up the movies of 2016, which is likely to happen within the next month or two. Please follow the new site for continued updates. Thank you!

A crooked cop (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) recently released from prison tries to figure out his next move only to find his past catching up with him.

Small Crimes continues the trend of Netflix originals that are too messy to love but too strange to immediately dismiss — they’re always out of focus, throwing their bizarre plots and off-kilter tone at you one scene after another until there’s so much to pick apart that it takes days to figure out whether you actually liked what you just saw. Call it the Girlfriend’s Day Principle.

Even a few days later, I still feel like I need to chew on Small Crimes a bit, to make sure I have some foundation on which to make sense of it. It’s short but complicated, grounded but weird, rocketing from something at least adjacent to black comedy to crime thriller brutality. It’s a redemption story that isn’t at all about redemption, a thriller that never even attempts to make you like its characters. If you played a Coen Brothers movie in fast forward and took out most of the irony, you’d probably get something close to Small Crimes. At the very least, its misanthropy gives even the Coens a run for their money. It wields its cynicism like a knife’s edge, cutting through every last shred of its characters’ basic human decency.

There’s a lot that’s good here, but it’s tough to contextualize any of it. A lot happens in its brisk ninety minutes, alongside plenty more that happens off-screen but has to be established in the moment. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is the anchor that just barely keeps the movie from running off with itself, providing the consistency it so desperately needs. His performance here is top-notch. His crooked cop, Joe Denton, is almost a sociopath, or at least, as another character eventually diagnoses him, so narcissistic that it doesn’t even matter. The movie definitely finds a perverse sort of joy in the way it upends the usual arc of this sort of story. Usually, the prisoner comes out reformed, having found a moral compass or at least having decided that he never wants to be locked up again; his battle now is to cut the prior influences out of his life and keep them from corrupting him.

Joe isn’t particularly reformed; at the very least, it’s obvious that he isn’t particularly remorseful. He comes out of prison not exactly sure what he wants. He doesn’t want to go back, but he has no idea what that will entail. It might be time to walk the straight and narrow, but if he goes that direction, it’s only for pragmatic reasons. He has certain attachments he doesn’t want to lose, particularly the daughters he hasn’t seen for six years, but even those are clouded by his egocentrism — they’re simply among the planets that orbit around his star. So are his parents, for whom he appears to have some affection, even though he uses and abuses them. He has no clue who he wants to be, other than a person who is not in prison. In his laziness and entitlement, he mostly figures the answer will come to him.

He’s incredibly manipulative, too, and that’s where Coster-Waldau’s performance sweeps in and saves the day. Small Crimes has very few scenes where you get to see the real Joe Denton. Usually, you only have access to the act he puts on for different people in order to get them where he wants them — his facade of repentance for the chaplain in prison, the victimhood he adopts around his parents, the nice guy he pretends to be around women, and the schemes he concocts to satisfy the various criminal elements bearing down on him for additional favors and the fulfillment of old debts. He isn’t quite great at playing the manipulator, however; in fact, he plays it in a childish sort of way, much as a whiny teenager would. And that gap gives the movie plenty of personal failures to drive the characters’ storylines — he never has anyone quite as convinced as he thinks he does. They’re no dumber than he is. Coster-Waldau is acting for two, basically — as the character, and then as the character presenting himself to others. We mostly see the latter, Joe weaponizing his only half-functional charisma around everyone else. Even his biggest emotional moments are often as much show as reality, designed to elicit certain reactions from other characters. You don’t see the cracks often; only rarely does Coster-Waldau allow that mask to fall long enough to see the human being underneath them. Not that the movie ever tries to make you like the guy. He’s very much the architect of his own destruction.

It adds up to what is often a very interesting twist on an old formula, taking the Oscar-friendly uplift of your average ex-con movie and injecting it with darkness and grime. It also has a comic leaning that emphasizes its genre flick elements and bloody violence that sometimes plays like an 80s movie and other times like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. It contains multitudes, in other words, and it’s gleeful about its novelty and unpredictability.

Even so, it runs so far up and down the spectrum and packs every scene with so much detail that it’s really difficult to get a sense of it. So much of the story is in Joe’s past, how he became corrupt, what he did, and how that still affects his day-to-day, and we’re dropped into his life well after all of that has ended, on the day of his release from prison. And since the movie starts with his release, it also has to take him through his tour of the town and various meetings with friends, family, and colleagues. With all the characters to introduce, relationships to establish, and history to explain without just bluntly saying it, I think I spent at least two-thirds of the run-time playing catch-up, just trying to get all the basic elements in place. And even once I did, the movie is still too dense and charing through its numerous plot points far too quickly, as supporting characters just start doing things out of the clear blue sky and any development not related to Joe specifically getting constricted into mere minutes. The climax kicks in right around the time you feel like the movie should be getting started, just when you understand everyone and know what they’re in for.

It’s a mess, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a darkly entertaining one in places. Small Crimes is the sort of movie I’m starting to think couldn’t even exist without a distributor like Netflix — a little too half-baked to pick up major studio representation but too singular to condemn to the dust heap. Maybe, then, we should be grateful that it has a home. I don’t know.

Silence_(2016_film)Silence (2016)

Starring- Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka

Director- Martin Scorsese

R- some disturbing violent content


A pair of Jesuit priests venture to Japan to learn the fate of their vaunted mentor, rumored to have apostatized under the weight of the country’s fierce persecution of Christians.

This life will test many of the things we believe most strongly, but at least it will never give us cause to doubt that Martin Scorsese is anything other than a living legend. Who, at the age of 74, is still making art as vital and challenging as they did in their heyday — especially when that heyday is a long list of some of the greatest movies of all time?

Silence, like just about every Scorsese film I’ve ever seen, sneaks up on you. It’s always engaging, and you leave certain that it was good. And immediately, your mind starts turning it over. What was good becomes great. What seemed at the time like insignificant moments become emotional lynchpins. The story begins to take shape. The loose, detached messaging tightens and deepens and soon becomes the cinematic equivalent of a doctoral thesis that somehow sweeps the human condition while narrowing the depicted experiences to specificity that approaches the obscure. You start talking to other people about it, and they share what they perceived; you put the pieces together. Before the day ends, you’re ready to call it a no-bones-about-it masterpiece.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to talk about this one. There’s so much to parse here, and for me, it ranges from the intellectual to the personal — Silence hit me where I live, and I’m still somewhat dumbstruck in its weight. It’s also incredibly complex, the year’s densest and most layered film by a considerable margin, and I’m skeptical of anyone who claims after only one viewing to have grasped it in its entirety. Certainly I haven’t.

So start here, an article in which the always-brilliant Film Crit Hulk breaks down not only Silence but a vast swath of Scorsese’s filmography in far more detail and depth than I could ever hope to achieve. His examination hits on what I consider to be the key secret to Scorsese’s greatness — not the only factor to be sure, since his work is genius in numerous respects, but the major quirk in his approach that makes him who he is. It’s his ability to make movies that truly live inside their characters, that confront their problems — and by extension, society’s problems — with thorough, unflinching honesty. It’s the fact, as that article states, that he’s one of the few filmmakers remaining who will challenge his audience — not simply relate ideas his audience will agree with and applaud in the hopes that they connect with those other people over there. We want movies to condemn what we perceive (rightly, in many cases) as immoral or foolish, and most filmmakers satisfy that impulse — and don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for that. But that isn’t Scorsese. In a Scorsese film, evil actions only meet evil consequences when reality is big enough to accommodate them. Sometimes, he gets to make a movie like Goodfellas, where the characters end up dead or forever under the oppressive thumb of witness protection. But sometimes, all he can make is The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Wall Street tycoon Jordan Belfort got away with everything and went on to instruct others on his unethical practices. Because, well, how many Wall Street execs are suffering these days? Even after everything they’ve done? In the end, all he could do was present the situation and turn it over to us to do something about it. Anything else would be dishonest.

For me, the real revelation in that article is Scorsese approaching the critique of an idea or lifestyle through the most extended form of empathy — making the best possible argument for the thing it’s dissecting, capturing it without judgment or condescension, making it as real to the audience as it is to the characters.

Here, he’s turned his lens, once again, on religion. Every time Scorsese talks about his Catholicism, it always seems to boil down to: “It’s complicated.” His relationship with faith is unusual, to say the least. Which makes him the perfect artist for the complex, conflicted take on religion presented in Silence. It’s a film about doubt, and quite fittingly, it always feels as though he’s not just trying to convince us, he’s trying to convince himself. Again — presenting the best possible argument for it, and then bringing it into conflict with harsh, unfeeling reality, where it still doesn’t appear to pass muster. So much of the movie feels like lived-in experience: not that Scorsese, or many of the people who will watch it, have been horribly persecuted for their faith but that the religious and formerly religious among us have all gone through seasons of doubt, where we began to question the foundation upon which we built our entire lives, where nothing makes sense and everything seems cold and empty and meaningless.

This is where it got personal for me. Scorsese captures so well what’s going on in his protagonist’s head, and all of it rang with eerily familiar truth — again, not in the specifics of horrible, violent religious persecution in 17th-century Japan, but in the way it affects this particular character’s worldview. I may be ill-equipped to assess quite a lot of what this movie does — maybe even what most movies do, to be honest — but I know doubt, and Scorsese has his finger on the pulse. He knows exactly the form doubt takes, particularly religious doubt, and the way it cycles through your mind and breaks you down, reshapes you. He sees the way it emerges as a whisper, a nagging sense that something is wrong and you might be part of it, persistent but easy to drive into the background and ignore. He shows how it intensifies, the anxiety that sets in, the fear, the regret. He shows the way it deconstructs every system of thought you’ve devised to prop up this particular belief, unraveling the threads that hold your very personhood together, robbing you of everything you were and everything you thought you were going to be. He knows the persistence of hope, as well as how that hope gradually becomes something darker and more terrorizing. At first, there’s faith enough to get through the day, but attack after attack after attack, whether internal or external, mental or physical, thins those barriers. Soon, that hope is something you force yourself to maintain, not something that comes naturally. Joy becomes its own kind of suffering — you latch onto every moment of strength, every successful demonstration of faith, every thought you have that draws you back to your starting point, every piece of evidence you believe you encounter. It builds you up to the top of the world, and you become certain you’ll stay there — but you come crashing down from it as soon as that certainty becomes desire and that desire becomes an impossible uphill climb. Your need to retain that soundness of spirit becomes the source of the attack itself — you’re unhappy because you’re unhappy, and trying to become happy only makes you unhappier because your persistent failure to accomplish that task drains your hopes, your sense that you’re strong enough to thrive in this world. And you just cycle through those ups and downs again and again and again until, at least, either doubt or faith claims you. Of course, you’re never the same person on the other side; you can only pretend to be as you continue to cling to the ghost of what you once were. One way or another, you’re picking up the pieces, trying to rebuild yourself from the ground up. You created yourself for the circumstances you believed existed; now that you know something else to be true, you’re no longer sure who you are. What happens from that point depends on where the process has taken you and how far you are from where you began. It’s easier for some people than it is for others.

Scorsese walks that line so gracefully, and with the experience and insight that can only belong to someone who has lived through it. Silence understands that cycle, how it both breaks and makes you, and how it’s a constant roller coaster from peace to torment and back again. The movie shows it as the never-ending process it is — there are some things you will always wrestle with, and it will be painful. Not a one of us is ever done growing. People will search for a message in Silence and are unlikely to find it. I’m not sure there is one. I’m not sure there could be one in the first place. What is there to learn from something so all-encompassing and endless, something too complex to ever strip down to its components? Where could we find the neat bow to tie this up in? No, we can only draw conclusions on the individual level of the characters and ourselves, and even then, not so much conclusions as vague projections of where we are and where we’re going.

Silence is brutal and often painful. It’s the farthest thing from the feel-good movie of the year. It shouldn’t be. It’s not here as affirmation of its audience’s religious opinions. It’s the great uniter in that sense, and there’s something uplifting in the way both religious and secular communities have embraced it, at least tepidly. It’s a challenge to everyone, presenting nothing in quite the context either side of the religious divide would want. It finds good and bad in everything it depicts, and weaves them together to the point that one cannot truly be extricated from the other. It’s all a part of the tapestry of humanity’s ceaseless struggle to understand its place in the universe, to apply some meaning to the chaos we see all around us.

Silence wrecked me. It challenged me. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. It isn’t easy viewing, but it’s vital — and enriching, if for no other reason that it reminds us we’re not alone, that many of us have fought our way through the despair of doubt and uncertainty. It’s of excellent make besides — it’s one of the best-looking of Scorsese’s films, and maybe the best-looking period, and I will never properly understand how Andrew Garfield received an Academy Award nomination for Hacksaw Ridge in the same year he did this. It’s a shattering film, grimly beautiful, moving, complex, human, unforgettable. Silence is the real deal.




Anyway, I promised you an important announcement a while back, and now that it’s been several months and everyone’s forgotten, here it is.

All good things must come to an end, except for when they aren’t really ending, they’re just moving.

That’s right, folks — I have a new website! And as such, Writers Block Parade is, sadly, breathing its last. The reason is simple: As much as I love this site and what I’ve done here, and as fun as it is to get to tour my opinions throughout the years, it also isn’t the greatest representation of my work. Here’s what’s happened (and you could consider this another fun announcement, I guess): I finally cut the apron strings on my novel and am shopping it around with publishers and agents. I think a healthy online presence will be helpful in this regard. At the same time, if someone important is googling me, I’d like them to see fresh writing — not reviews I wrote when I was 17 years old that only I know were written back them. I want them to find only work that I 100 percent stand by. In other words…this place had to go.

But over at, I’ll be doing pretty much the same thing I’m doing here — just more explicitly structured as an author page. I’ve already moved a few 2017 reviews over there, and I plan to keep my nerdtastic rambles a-comin’ for the foreseeable future.

I’ve deeply appreciated the support of the handful of you who have been regular readers, and I hope you’ll stay on — please head over to the new site and follow me there!

As to the future of this site… I haven’t decided exactly when I’ll close it. I’ll finish out 2016 for sure. When I publish my Top 20 for 2016, we’re in the home stretch. After I publish that, I’ll start uploading exclusively to the new site. Sometime after that, I’ll shut this one down.

Thanks again for your readership and occasional comments, and I hope to see you over on the other site!

A_Monster_Calls_posterA Monster Calls (2016)

Starring- Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, James Melville, Geraldine Chaplin

Director- J.A. Bayona

PG-13- thematic content and some scary images


Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones) has been diagnosed with cancer, suddenly finds himself the unwilling recipient of a series of visits from a giant monster (voice of Liam Neeson) only he can see.

Message from the front: I mounted a well-armed and strategically sound resistance to the heavy-handed sentimentality of what might as well have been called Obvious Metaphors: The Motion Picture, but while my emotional forces acquitted themselves quite well on the field of battle, I’m afraid I must report that I cried like an idiot.

I’m not sure whether A Monster Calls is actually a good movie or just a beneficiary of the kind of premise that crushes any heart that isn’t made of stone. Its overall effectiveness, in my case, is probably a combination of the two — the movie is okay, and its chosen subject is one of those things it’s difficult to remove yourself from, even when it isn’t sketched in all that much detail.

Mostly, the problem is that it’s a little too obvious, screaming thoroughly established themes to the heavens. The monster approaches Connor with a series of stories that he tells over the course of the film, and just about every one of them wraps up with a self-conscious: “GET IT? IT’S A METAPHOR!” The secret meaning behind each one is explained almost immediately, and you find yourself waiting for that inevitable climactic monologue in which the characters explain how all of the stories fit together and what Connor is Supposed to Learn.

The movie also tries to hold a few too many ideas in balance and doesn’t always focus on them in the way it needs to — it never really tells you exactly what’s going on with Connor until the climax, and rather than expanding your understanding of the story, it leaves you wishing that the movie had managed to tease it earlier (it isn’t a reveal or a plot twist, and I don’t think the movie is trying to hide it; it just fails to establish it noticeably). Sometimes, it hits a few potholes that grind its thematic arcs to a confusing halt (the monster’s third tale, in particular, has a nigh-incomprehensible effect on the plot in terms of characters and motivations). Happily, the movie isn’t openly slamming the readily available easy button whenever it starts to struggle narratively, but the lack of depth in the characters eventually leaves it in a place where “little kid with dying mother” is the only card it has to play.

But there’s a lot here that works. It tends to come in fits and starts rather than defining the whole film, but it’s just enough to captivate. A Monster Calls received largely positive reviews, but a lot of them stipulated that its tone is somewhat wobbly, which I find strange, because I think the movie’s tonal management is one of its strongest points. Yes, its tone stretches from here to infinity and back again, but that suits it perfectly — it’s about a child dealing with the dawning realization that his mother is dying and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. That’s a tense situation for which no one, much less a child, could ever be prepared, and the movie’s focus is almost exclusively devoted to the conflict in Connor — he doesn’t know what he wants, how to feel, what to think, what’s coming next, he doesn’t understand what’s happening to him, he wonders whether he’s doing it “right,” he isn’t even sure how to react to everyone else’s pity. His world is defined by instability, so it’s fitting that the tone should be so jarring and explosive. I wasn’t sure about the young star, Lewis MacDougall, for a while, but eventually, his performance made sense to me and became one of the movie’s most outstanding features — he plays Connor is withdrawn and anxious, his emotions checked by uncertainty and confusion, until everything bubbles over and he suddenly becomes volatile. It’s all over the map, and it should be — there’s no way to give shape to the thoughts and feelings of a child enduring tragedy well above his developmental level, so A Monster Calls makes that lack of form the form itself. It’s about the tortured thoughts that keep Connor up at night, the conflict between hope and despair that both props him up and tears him apart, the fears playing at the corners of his subconscious. The monster’s stories aren’t just about showing him how to deal with the situation but helping him figure out what the situation is in the first place. So the movie is fantastical but dark, even hellish in places — it twists you up inside, and that’s exactly what it should do.

The monster himself reflects this. The character is not only a tremendous effect (I’m told it was an animatronic in some shots, and that just boggles me) but a memorable presence overall. The movie keeps him just far enough outside the plot that he never registers as a character all his own, but since we only ever see him from Connor’s perspective, that’s as it should be. We don’t know what the monster is, where he came from, what he wants, we’re not even entirely sure he’s real — he needs that mystique to best reflect Connor’s own emotions. He’s fierce and standoffish, insistent, often terrifying, but also capable of gentleness, exuding the wisdom of centuries. He involves himself in Connor’s life without really involving himself in it — briefly crashing into it to impart a few brusquely delivered life lessons and then disappearing. His influence often makes the situation worse before it makes it better. Movies like these usually take a relatively straightforward approach to the fantastical metaphor character — they represent the ultimate good, kind and all-knowing. I like the chaos of this monster, that he can’t completely be trusted and all of his truths are complicated, difficult, and painful. Liam Neeson’s voice work is tremendous; he growls every line but projects it as emphatically as he can, completely overpowering every scene he’s in.

Naturally, then, A Monster’s Call is pretty good when it’s focused on the kid and the monster; it’s the stuff in the middle that succumbs to the more generic tropes of the “disease drama.” Felicity Jones is absolutely heartbreaking as Connor’s mother but gets little to work with beyond the surface pain of the situation in which she finds herself. There just isn’t a whole lot to the character. She has no shortage of Oscar reel moments here, but they never become anything whole — you leave the movie remembering individual scenes but not the character herself. There isn’t much to the relationship either, other than “a mother who loves her son, who loves her back”; the closest the movie gets to any kind of interesting detail is that Connor got his interest in art from her and she taught him everything he knows. Connor also spends time dealing with his attitude toward his cold, unapproachable grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and I spent the duration of the film waiting for the revelation that would allow him to understand her, connecting the relationship to the monster’s stories and putting a cap on the characters’ development; that revelation never came. The movie just arcs in the direction it feels as though it ought to and doesn’t justify it, doesn’t find the empathy needed to make it work.

It’s certainly a mixed bag. I spent significant portions of the movie loving it and significant portions being completely disinterested. But there’s something there, at its heart, that’s too compelling to pass up, a thematic cleverness that isn’t fully realized (and is couched in overly obvious storytelling) but draws you in anyway. I think I liked the experience of A Monster Calls more than I liked A Monster Calls, but I liked both anyway.

Bring tissues.

Sand_Castle-401145921-mmedSand Castle (2017)

Starring- Nicholas Hoult, Logan Marshall-Green, Henry Cavill, Tommy Flanagan, Glen Powell, Beau Knapp, Neil Brown Jr., Sam Spruell, Navid Negahban, Gonzalo Menendez, Ziad Abaza, Sammy Sheik

Director- Fernando Coimbra


Soldiers in 2003 Iraq travel to a remote village to restore water service that was destroyed by an American bomb and struggle with the “hearts and minds” part of the job.

I don’t know why everyone seems to be ignoring this movie. It might not be saying a whole lot, but Sand Castle is one of the better Netflix movies, and that’s coming from someone who hasn’t been moved by an Iraq War movie since…The Hurt Locker, maybe? The Iraq War genre feels like something society isn’t ready for yet; so far, it tends to lack the courage of similar movies made during, say, Vietnam, which had no reservations whatsoever in going full-throated political. Iraq War movies feel more tepid to me, like we’re far enough into the “it was a bad idea” part of the conflict that the politics can be there, acknowledged, but restrained so as not to offend anyone.

Sand Castle isn’t all that different — political, but not that political. Movies back in the proverbial good old days knew how to excoriate the politicians and not the soldiers, or at least were unafraid that people would interpret them that way; nowadays, they seem unable to separate the two. But Sand Castle is strong enough in other ways to make up for its lack of a distinct perspective.

Honestly, the long and short of it may simply be its authenticity — the reason for and the ultimate success of nearly the entire movie. In fairness, having never been to war, I’m not especially qualified to judge the reality of what I see in movies like Sand Castle. All I know is that it feels right — that these characters are strong, that their relationships are natural, that the actors’ performances click immediately. The platoon has its own dynamic, a brotherly camaraderie that’s lived-in, engaging, and often just plain fun to watch. Screenwriter Chris Roessner, I’m told, was a machine gunner in Iraq and based the script on his experiences. It shows — it’s all too specific to have been made up. His script isn’t perfect — it starts to unwind a little toward the end, when it begins to search for its ultimate purpose, and it never quite defines its protagonist’s role relative to the story or themes (i.e., the movie is following this particular character, but why, specifically, is it following this character?) — but it’s a solid debut. Keep an eye on this guy.

The direction fills in some of the emotional gaps. Fernando Coimbra is a new name to me — this appears to be only his second feature — but he acquits himself fairly well here. This, of course, is the part of the review where I wonder whether I’ve started subconsciously holding Netflix to a lower standard than other studios, because I find myself saying things like: “Sand Castle actually looks like a real movie shot for the big screen and contains moments of actual visual storytelling!” But Coimbra doesn’t just hit adequacy; he works very well around the film’s limitations. Like most Netflix acquisitions, it seems unlikely that all that much money was spent making this movie; unlike them, however, Coimbra knows how to strip down a scene without making it look stagey. He takes you into a battle scene and finds organic reasons to isolate characters in limited scenarios that don’t require hundreds of millions to shoot. The fact that the camera stays in one place, rarely showing you what the soldiers are shooting at, feels like an artistic rather than budgetary decision; he locks you into the main characters’ perspectives and uses the claustrophobic atmosphere to make it seem like danger is closing in from all directions.

Sand Castle isn’t great, and I doubt I’ll watch it again. Obviously, I don’t have all that much to say about it. But it’s still well-made and deserving of attention that has eluded it thus far. Let’s reward this one instead of Sandy Wexler, perhaps. It’s worth watching, and hopefully heralds better things to come.

ac957a1dbe0cbcdb8ca2238e9d18b57828559e1bTramps (2017)

Starring- Callum Turner, Grace Van Patten, Michal Vondel, Mike Birbiglia, Margaret Colin, Louis Cancelmi

Director- Adam Leon


Danny (Callum Turner) is trying to stay out of trouble when his older brother coopts him for a shady deal. Ellie (Grace Van Patten) is just trying to get out of a bad situation. They’re strangers until they end up working the same job — the simple delivery of a mysterious briefcase. But Danny accidentally gives it to the wrong person, sending the pair on a desperate run to get it back before their bosses decide they want blood.

I finished Tramps feeling somewhat underwhelmed by it, but in retrospect, I’m developing a weird sort of respect for it. We sometimes underrate the value of a movie that’s just enjoyable — short, breezy, low-stakes, feel-good cinema. Tramps didn’t blow my mind, and I suspect the same will be true for most people, but you know what? It gave me eighty perfectly pleasant minutes today, and I’m grateful for that. It’s exactly the sort of lighthearted escapism I needed.

It’s nowhere near as dark as a brief plot summary would suggest. It resists the sort of poverty tourism that would bog down similar films, and the crime thriller half of it is more a unique twist on the boy-meets-girl movie than an end in itself. It creates a reason for the main characters to meet and presents them with a conflict they must resolve together and otherwise isn’t given all that much weight. Really, Tramps isn’t a thriller at all — it isn’t all that tense, there’s no violence, and only the bare minimum physical threat ever registers with the characters, existing mainly in the form of the distant sense of what might happen if they fail to retrieve the briefcase for their bosses.

And even that isn’t really the point of the movie, just an excuse for the leads to be together. The central conflict gives the movie structure but is secondary at best on an emotional level. The movie bets that audiences will be okay spending a little time with some characters they like and sharing in their romantic fantasies. It bets correctly, for the most part. It keeps the stakes low, proceeds largely unencumbered by conflict, and simply uses the fact that our boy and girl, in this case, are criminals as a tool to color it in a little. The way the central conflict resolves itself is almost anticlimactic, but the movie plays it with knowing humor and a reminder that it was never the point.

The extent to which the movie softens all of its blows would bother me under most circumstances, but not here. It’s fundamentally a fairytale, just one that’s borrowing the trappings of the real world. It’s not meant to be realistic, it’s not meant to examine much of anything, it’s just reveling in young love and enjoying a modest, ordinary sort of adventure. It’s a brisk watch, but it also feels like it’s taking its time, just going with the flow, taking in the sunlight that fills every frame or relaxing in travel montages set to a soundtrack of folk/country. It has a solid storytelling sensibility that keeps everything in check but never feels showy or desperate to impress — it’s willing to allow interesting details to be just that, and to feed into the easygoing chemistry between the two leads.

It’s sweet, it’s likable, it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s far from great, but it almost doesn’t mean to be. It won’t last, but its fleeting nature only adds to, rather than subtracts from, its strange magic. It’s a good time. I can’t be angry about that.