Animator and author Ken Priebe talks about his three fantastic children's books in the latest Looking Closer podcast episode

In the latest episode of the podcast Looking Closer with Jeffrey Overstreet, Vancouver B.C. author, illustrator, animator, and educator Ken Priebe talks about his three outstanding children's books: Gnomes of the Cheese Forest, Let There Be Owls Everywhere, and The Ice Cream Truck at Midnight, all of which you can enjoy by ordering through the website of your favorite independent bookstore... or through the corporate giants, if you need to.

Author Ken Priebe is amazed that Overstreet has the strength to hold all three of his substantial storybooks at once!

Listen to our hour-long conversation here!

Priebe has been a friend and kindred spirit for many years, enthusing with me over the Muppets, favorite animated films, beloved children's books, and more. It's extremely rare that I meet anyone whose lifelong passions overlap so much with mine.

Ken Priebe reflects on his career of animation, illustration, and storytelling.

He's also a generous artist. He's surprised me with illustrations from time to time, like this one of one of a viscorclaw, one of the creepy wooden monsters from my own fantasy series The Auralia Thread:

A "viscorclaw" from The Auralia Thread, drawn by Ken Priebe.

Here are a couple of portraits he has done for my endeavors at Looking Closer:

It's been a goal of mine for many years to feature Ken Priebe at Looking Closer in a way that will inspire readers to discover his imagination for themselves. So listen in to this wide-ranging conversation about monsters, mayhem, and the life-saving power of play.

Nicolas Cage the Great returns in what may be 2021's most memorable surprise

Watch for the moment in Michael Sarnoski's film Pig when Robin — a formidable, Jesus-bearded truffle hunter living as a recluse in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon — walks through a fancy downtown restaurant like Obi-Wan Kenobi making his way to the heart of the Death Star, reluctantly leading his anxious young driver Amir to the threshold of a secret underworld. As they descend into a forgotten world of old Portland history, Amir's panic increases; he doesn't know where they're going or why. When he flicks on his iPhone flashlight to light their way, Robin, brusque as always, snaps at him: "Turn it off. Your eyes will adjust."

Those are fleeting comments, as incidental as anything this wounded old man says along the journey. But those words, in retrospect, sound like a larger lesson — a summation of everything Robin means to teach this young, materialistic, and ambitious entrepreneur.

The trailer for Pig led me (and probably everyone who saw it) to anticipate a John Wick-style revenge thriller. It captured our attention and inspired our skepticism with glimpses of a bloodied and furious Nicolas Cage emerging from the woods on a seemingly violent campaign to regain something precious that had been taken from him. "I want my pig back," he snarled, and that's all we had to go on. I braced myself for a video-game sequence of scenes in which a wrathful hero slashes and bashes his way toward a showdown with a Final Boss of some kind, leaving broken bodies in his wake.

But the surprise awaiting viewers is that Pig is something altogether different.

Nicolas Cage plays Robin, a woods-dwelling truffle hunter whose only friend is his pig.

And what it is is best categorized in a genre that's much less popular but much more rewarding: Let's call it "Mentor and Student" or "Master and Apprentice."

Watching it, I found myself trying to remember a dynamic that might serve as a good comparison — perhaps Sean slowly saving Will from his paralyzing insecurity and trauma in Good Will Hunting, or — better — Olivier disciplining himself into the role of surrogate father for a troubled juvenile delinquent in Le Fils (The Son), because that film is more focused on the teacher than the student.

But what's even more interesting about the central relationship in Pig is that young Amir (played by Alex Wolff as an arrogant poser slowly coming apart like Tom Cruise in Rain Man) thinks he's the guide, at first, lecturing Robin as he brings him out of the woods and into the "jungle" of the contemporary Portland restaurant scene. But Amir will quickly learn that the world he thinks he knows is built on lies, and it's actually Robin who knows how the world really works.

"I'd like to speak to the chef." Robin tosses a philosophical grenade into a fancy Portland restaurant.

Fair warning: The movie does take violent turns. In a surreal, David Lynchian sequence early in the film, Robin gets beaten to a pulp, and he hauls his bloodied carcass around after that like a testimony of abuse and losses, the camera often revering him as if he were Jesus Himself. (I'm not the only reviewer reminded of The Passion of Joan of Arc.)

But don't let that give you the wrong impression. Pig is, above all, a meditative film that prioritizes its short but weighty conversations between a begrudging guru and an obstinate idiot. Robin is a sort of sensei or Jedi Master from an ancient world when Portland chefs were like samurai or Jedi with a code of honor and excellence. Amir is like a begrudging Padawan learner who begins as a salesman for pretentious artifice and scams, one who ends up humbled by his first encounters with profound artistry. (I can hear Kenobi's voice haunting the film: "You've taken your first step into a larger world.")

Amir (Alex Wolff) is about to have his fiercely competitive impulses on the Portland restaurant scene dismantled by goodness and truth.

I'm seeing the title now as carrying a double meaning: It can be read literally, as a reference the titular MacGuffin, or it can be read as a world-weary condemnation of the villain — the kind of person who, corrupted by a lust for power, abandons conscience and conviction. The movie is, ultimately, about the value of Authenticity, and how the costly path we must navigate to attain it is a lonely road that leads us out of the mainstream, with its money and glamour and power games, and into the wilderness where the remaining goodness of the world might still be glimpsed and savored in quiet, fleeting moments.

The less you know about the plot going in, the better. If you can stop here and go see it on my whole-hearted recommendation... do so! Having said that, I will minimize spoilers in what I say going forward.

Let frame the story with more clarity:

The film opens with a short series of moments in which we observe Robin's routine of truffle hunting with his charming, fuzzy pig. As I've just seen the documentary The Truffle Hunters, I was intrigued to see the film propose that this strange harvesting technique is the same just outside of my hometown of Portland, Oregon as it is in the forests of Northern Italy.

Cutest MacGuffin of 2021?

Amir, the son of a "king" of the Portland gourmet dining scene, wants to make his own way and prove to his power-drunk, egomaniacal father (Adam Arkin in a chilling turn) that he's worthy of respect and love. He pep-talks himself in the mirror: "I'm the king of the jungle. I'm the king of the jungle!"

But Robin's going to help Amir's eyes "adjust" to just how dark this world really is, how deep the delusion of hipsterism really goes, and how painful it can be to carry the knowledge of what is possible, what is beautiful, what is true. He will lead Amir on a tour of his own neighborhood and show him how to really know the nature of the place for the first time.

As the voice of Wisdom — and, thus, the bearer of unfathomable grief — Nicolas Cage delivers the most nuanced and soulful performance we've seen from him in more than a decade. Cage, whose performances in the '80s earned him lasting respect, has since then seemed inclined to take any role within reach, even as he has seemed less and less interested in doing anything interesting with those roles. Occasionally, something will bring out the memorably manic edge (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Mandy) that characterized his 1987 breakout roles: Ronny in Moonstruck, H.I. in Raising Arizona. But I haven't seen him invest in a distinctive character with meaningful and memorable results since the 2002–2003 sequence of Matchstick Men and Adaptation. In Pig, he gives Robin a gravity, a physicality, and a measured way of speaking that conveys discernment born of suffering and experience. In that sense, this is like David Thewlis's titanic performance in Mike Leigh's Naked if that main character had been well-intentioned instead of nihilistic and self-destructive. I hope Pig represents a turning point in his career, the beginning of a new era of textured, nuanced, subtle performances that I believe he is fully capable of contributing.

In Pig, Cage is better than he's been in many, many years.

Much of the film's sadness comes from moments when Robin asks for something in civilization that the locals know nothing about — for example, there's a particularly poignant moment when he visits a property he once knew and asks a child about a particular persimmon tree he remembers and cherishes. The child blinks and asks, in complete innocence, "What's a persimmon?" A word has been lost, and, along with it, a city's access to a specific wonder, a particular treasure.

That is one of the things we might say that Pig is "about": When we cease to care about the world we're living in and care only about imposing our ideals upon it, thinking we know what is best, and desiring only our own benefit, we destroy what is already there — a wonderland that might have humbled, enchanted, and blessed us.

So, no — Pig doesn't leave me with that sense of exhaustion I feel after hyper-violent movies. Nor does it give my spirit that bitter aftertaste so typical of revenge epics.

"Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere!" — This isn't a line from Pig. But it might as well be.

Instead, I find myself thinking of Babette's Feast, in which a worldly general, his soul hollowed out by vanity and violence, suddenly recalls a memorable meal served by a world class artist. I think of that unforgettable moment at the climax of Pixar's Ratatouille, when a single forkful of food becomes the key that unlocks the secrets to redemption. I think of The Son, in which a broken man takes up a burdensome cross, determining to teach a young man whom he has every reason to despise.

Still, I can't quite put into words why I find this wild — and, yes, in some ways absurd — motion picture so moving. I found myself, quite unexpectedly, grieving near the conclusion. It's as if Robin has given me a character through which I can acknowledge deeply personal losses, sufferings I find hard to describe. With each passing year, I see it becoming harder and harder for those who seek beauty and truth in the world to find it. The demons of commerce and consumerism make it particularly difficult for artists to do good work, and even harder for audiences to find it. At the movies, it seems that the cliche, the derivative, the counterfeit, and the corrupt continue to trump occasions of poetry. This film is, I am grateful to discover, about that very thing. And at the same time, it gives me hope, because it is an exception to that trend: It's a film of startling imagination, honesty, and grace... one that has reached the big screen in a time when such occasions are rare.

I'm reminded of the moment when Samwise, in the film version of The Two Towers, reminds his despairing friend, "There is some good in this world ... and it's worth fighting for." And yet here, even more meaningfully, the enemy of all that is good is fought not with swords and violence, but with generosity, beauty, and grace.

Sunday Song: Sault return with "Nine" songs of lament, luxuriant pop, and hope

They've done it again.

That mysterious collaboration of London artists called Sault, who released a one-two punch of albums in 2020 that became my favorite records of the year — Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) — have surprised us with another album in 2021.

Nine is shorter, but it's every bit as affecting, challenging, and irresistible, with producer Inflo cultivating a consistently surprising weave of sounds from different genres, eras, and places. (I'm learning that this Inflo is very good at this: he did the same for Michael Kiwanuka's self-titled 2019 album, which was such a joy, and which won the Mercury Prize.)

Recurring Sault vocalists Cleo Sol and Little Simz shine in a variety of spotlights and styles here, constantly changing up the sound in ways that highlight hardship and grief without ever losing sight of hope, humor, and, somehow... joy.

On Sault's Instagram account, they introduced Nine and its contextual focus with straightforward specificity:

Some of us are from the heart of London’s council estates where proud parents sought safer environments to raise their families. Community is the only real genuine support & the majority of us get trapped in a systemic loop where a lot of resources & options are limited.

Adults who fail to heal from childhood traumas turn to alcohol & drugs as medicine.

Young girls & boys looking for leadership can get caught up in gang life.

It’s very easy to judge.

What would you do if this were you?

(Thanks to Ryan Leas at Stereogum for catching this post. I follow Sault, but I clearly needed to catch up.)

That note serves as a clear, concise outline for the album.

As there are ten tracks, I wasn't sure what the title was referencing. They have previous releases called 5 and 7. It could just be that Track 9 is titled "9," or it could be that Sault have indicated that the album is only going to be streaming for 99 days. I'm grateful for Kitty Empire's review at The Guardian, where she points to other possibilities: "Another 'nine' occurs ... on 'Trap Life': 'Don’t reach for that nine, nine, nine,' Sol begs, referring to a firearm; the repetition also suggests dialling 999."

On a propulsive beat — one that Empire "sounds like the Chemical Brothers’ 'Block Rockin’ Beats,'" "London Gangs" focuses on London's deep-rooted culture of gang violence, but it does so without glorifying violence or turning it into melodrama. Rather, the lyrics are location-specific enough to suggest that they are meant primarily for those who live there, those who will recognize keywords. Until I looked it up, I didn't know that wagwon is a Jamaican expression, a conjunction of "what's going on" —· and it's used here probably to reflect a common greeting between London locals. But I suspect it's also a nod to Marvin Gaye's famous melodic lament "What's Going On," the spirit of which is threaded throughout this record.

After rumbling through lines that bear witness to gang life's eye-for-an-eye ethic — "Revenge is all you know / They did your big bro" — Sault shifts into a softer, gentler mode, a still small voice of counsel and care:

I know what you try, but it's a fight uphill
It's not a secret you're lost
But I believe it's just centred on war
The salt will heal the wounds...

That play on words in the last line is the clearest mission statement I've yet heard for this band. So far, their m.o. seems to be a refusal to participate in the attention-seeking, ego-serving tactics of most commercial music, and a prioritization of testimony, lament, and healing. I can't speak as one among their target audience, but insofar as these songs are awakening me further to a world of hurt among neighbors I've never known, they educate and inspire me to know more, to amplify their cries and their glory, and to look for occasions to raise them up.

By the end of the album, the full Nine experience feels like another step in the birth of a new genre, a fusion of styles that open up location-specific testimonies and weave them into sounds from around the world, emphasizing common ground without sacrificing respectful specificity. Can albums be artful documentaries? Sault seems to think so.

Describing this particularity in a focus on the album's final track, "Light's In Your Hands," Pitchfork's Tarisai Ngangura gets it just right: "The song’s specifics are hyper-local, but zoom out of London, and these narrators and their lives weave themselves into the fabrics of Black stories across the globe."

That closing track offers up the last of several documentary-style testimonies from particular storytellers, authentic voices reminiscing about what it's been like to grow up in their neighborhoods, what it's been like to live their unique experiences of hardship and hope. "When you think about it, I never really had a childhood,” a man says. "I was constantly on edge. Throughout my whole childhood. But, we just, we drew accustomed to it, to the point now we're adults and we got thick skin. You shouldn't have to have skin as thick as ours, like... you shouldn't."

His story is framed with one of the most soothing and consoling choruses we're likely to hear all year:

Without love, it's hard for you to give it a try
So many promises that turn into lies
Don't wanna start again and give someone a chance
Can't you see the light's in your hands?



The secrets of Cartoon Saloon's success: a talk with Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

In the latest episode of Looking Closer with Jeffrey Overstreet: The Podcast, Dr. Lindsay Marshall and I talk with the world-class animators and storytellers Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, makers of The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers.

You can listen to it here:

This episode became possible when Cartoon Saloon reached out to me as a response to last year's podcast episode in which Dr. Marshall and I celebrated the arrival of Wolfwalkers and declared our love for Cartoon Saloon's body of work.

You can listen to that early episode here.

Would you like to meet Tomm Moore? He will be a special guest later this month during my film seminar at the Glen Workshop. If you're joining me for those daily conversations during the last week of July, you'll get your chance to meet him and ask him some questions yourself. Details here: Workshops and Seminars 2021 - Image Journal

Whale Writer: Peter Wayne Moe on his passion for whales, writing, and teaching

If you are on the hunt for great books about writing, great books about teaching, great books about faith, or great books about whales — yes, whales — have I got a recommendation for you!

Here is the full Facebook Live conversation I had with Peter Wayne Moe on June 17 about his book, which invites us into meditations on =whale-chasing, writing, and faith: Touching This Leviathan.

Melissa Bear and David Brewster of The Edmonds Bookshop hosted this event, captured it, and delivered this recording so that we could share it with a larger audience. (The original live event ran into technical difficulties, and the first 20 minutes of the event did not stream. Fortunately, thanks to Brewster's efforts, we can now share the whole thing.)

If you have any trouble playing the video below, follow this link to the original Facebook post.

Anne and I have been buying up copies of this book, too — we're that enthusiastic about it. It's great when you find that your friend's new book is legitimately the best thing you've read all year.

Learn more about Dr. Moe and his extraordinary book at

So Much Love: a conversation with Lowland Hum about their reinvention of a Peter Gabriel album

How rare is it that you fall in love with a musical discovery and it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship — not just with the music, but with the musicians?

In April of 2018, during an annual meeting of the Chrysostom Society at Laity Lodge (a retreat center at the edge of the Frio River near Kerville in Texas), I had yet another amazing musical encounter thanks to some brilliant networking by my friend Steven Purcell, the Lodge's events director.

Lowland Hum at Laity Lodge in April 2018.

Lowland Hum — the married singer/songwriter duo of Daniel and Lauren Goans — performed a set of stunning poetry, profundity, and humor. They played songs from across their first several albums, told stories about how they met and began making music together, and won a new community of fans and friends.

I remember quickly bonding with them over favorite albums — including the delightful discovery that we all prefer Paul Simon's The Rhythm of the Saints to his far more popular Graceland. 

Kindred spirits — (l-r) myself (a happy fanboy), Lauren and Daniel Goans, Steven Purcell — at Laity Lodge, April 2018.

And then, a year later, they released what I'd argue is their strongest album yet: Glyphonic. I included it on my list of favorite records of 2019. (Here's my favorite track from that record: "Slow.")

During the pandemic lockdown of 2020–21, Lauren and Daniel stayed very busy "delivering" two new releases: their first child, and a record that already means a lot to me.

My very first CD, way back in 1986, was Peter Gabriel's classic art-pop masterpiece So, and this year marks its 35th anniversary. So — of course — I was overjoyed when Lauren and Daniel sent me a little secret: They were reimagining that entire album, track by track, to celebrate that landmark.

They call their hushed, haunting recreation So Low. And I love it.

I love it so much, in fact, that I sent four or five videos via text in which I tried to express some of the ways in which the album was amazing and blessing me and Anne. That led to a conversation over Zoom where we talked about the project for almost two hours.

You can listen to most of that conversation in this 82-minute "Master Shot" episode, my first Looking Closer podcast episode in several months.

Here, we talk about Lauren and Daniel met and how the band came to be. And then we take a deep dive into appreciating the marvels of that astonishing, mysterious Peter Gabriel classic... examining it track by track.

There's even a moment that in the conversation where I surprise them by holding up the very first CD I played on my very first CD player — and on the podcast, well, you don't get to see what I'm sharing with them:

"My very first CD."

I hope you enjoy our conversation. More than that, I hope you enjoy Lowland Hum's amazing catalog of music, particularly this remarkable release.

Sunday Song: Listening Closer to Rhiannon Giddens and Nick Cave

In her long season of pandemic lockdown, Rhiannon Giddens worked with her partner in love and life, Francesco Tussiri, on a surprising new album of spirituals. 2021 has been a year in which almost everyone has lost a loved one, or knows someone who has lost a loved one, to COVID-19, and so the reality of our fragile existence has been on our minds more than usual. Contemplating the nearness of death through the lens of the Gospel, Giddens grieves, she memorializes, and she hopes. "Avalon" is just one of many stunning tracks on the album They're Caling Me Home. 

Speaking with Bob Boilen on NPR's All Songs Considered, Giddens says the song is "a cross-section of the two main themes ... of the record: It's about home — missing home, what is home — and then it's also death."

She goes on:

I find this always happens like I write something. [I] make it, and then think about all the things that it means afterwards. So like, for me, "Avalon" is kind of operating on two different levels: the words, which are sad because it's talking about a mother or a father who have passed on to the other side. And you're kind of contemplating, 'OK, hopefully they're waiting for me where I'm I'm going to go one day,' right?

But then there's this kind of undercurrent of joy that kind of came out in the way that it was written, in the way that we performed it, which I think is the other side of the coin that we don't always get to. The one constant that we all have is that we will die ... and there's actually a comfort in that. That is something that is not a question.

As her last album — there is no Other — was my favorite of 2019, I suspect that They're Calling Me Home will end up in my top 10 of 2021 as well

As I discussed in my podcast episode on Flannery O'Connor, and as I discussed with my Literature and Faith class at Seattle Pacific University, there are few fiction writers who have ever shown a greater dedication to the fearsome truth of the Gospel, how it exposes the ugliness in all of us, and how it exposes even more so the immeasurable grace of God. (Disclaimer: Yes, while she was powerfully progressive in her thinking and writing on the subject of race, it is undeniable that the times and the culture in which she grew up tainted her, just as it tainted any other white American in the South, no matter how conscientious they were.)

O'Connor's writing has clearly influenced the great Nick Cave, and his own storytelling and song lyrics have often been described as O'Connor-esque in the ferocity of their Christian vision. He is an uncompromising writer, and in recent years, in his dedication to truth-telling and honesty, he has taken listeners with him on a tour of grief — grief brought on by the death of his son in a fall. This is the third album in which that subject has been focal. But where The Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen were sonic experiments, Carnage returns Cage to some of the sounds of his earlier work, reconciling a wide range of styles into something whole, coherent, and grand.

This title song is rich with mysterious imagery both harrowing and hopeful.

In a review of the album at Rolling Stone, Kory Grow observes,

Since at least the second Bad Seeds record, 1985’s The Firstborn Is Dead, Cave has been alluding to kings and kingdoms. Then, the kingdom was Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of the inspiration for Cave’s trademark coiffure (and the King of Rock & Roll), Elvis Presley. By the Nineties, on The Boatman’s Call — the record, where Cave finally left guile behind in his search of true love and devotion — the kingdom is finally biblical, a place he hopes to dwell one day with his lover. It’s about as gothic as Christian rock gets. That kingdom is the same as the one on Carnage, though it feels more distant here.

A Quiet Place Part II is loud with familiar summer movie thrills

The most highly anticipated sequel of the summer of 2021 so far is called A Quiet Place Part II, but it seems familiar enough in some ways that I'm inclined to nickname it 474 Days Later. We have, after all, seen actor Cillian Murphy navigate similar genre territory before, playing one of the few survivors of an abrupt and global apocalypse, in 28 Days Later — one of the greatest zombie films ever made. I couldn't help but think of veteran director Danny Boyle's thrilling and thought-provoking film about the undead when up-and-coming director Jon Krasinski focuses his characters' attention, during this alien invasion flick, not on the aliens themselves but on the monsters that global troubles have "turned other people into."

Ultimately, though, it isn't Boyle who comes to mind most often in this relentlessly familiar entertainment. A Quiet Place Part II plays, above all, like a mash-up of suspenseful scenes from James Cameron's 1986 sequel Aliens, Steven Spielberg's 1993's Jurassic Park, M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 sci-fi jumpfest Signs, and Spielberg's 2005 re-imagining of War of the Worlds. In fact, I'd call this the most overtly Spielberg-ian exercise to hit the big screen since Super 8.

Is that a bad thing? No, not really, because Krasinksi proves he's learned a lot from the master of adventure and suspense. His big scenes are imitations, but they work like a charm. And, during one of my first post-lockdown visits to a big screen, I was delighted by waves of nostalgia. Except for the fact that it lacks much of anything that feels inspired or new, this is how summertime moviegoing used to feel.

The Abbotts venture out into a wilderness loaded with almost unstoppable monsters. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]
Based on the film's long #1 run at the box office, it seems that audiences are not bothered by the familiarity. They're getting what they paid for.

The Abbott family, unfortunately, aren't having any fun at all. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is still leading what remains of her family on tiptoe through a world of noise-activated human-smashers from outer space. She's lost one of her sons. (No spoilers there — it happened early in the first film.) She's lost her husband Lee (Jon Krasinski) — although we get to see plenty of his heroics in the film's opening flashback scene (which is spectacular) to the day that the aliens began their planet-wide slaughter of humankind.

(By the way, if my mention of Lee's death is a spoiler for you, forgive me, but this is a sequel, and there's no way to offer even a brief summary without revealing that fundamental plot point. Critics who write about The Empire Strikes Back should be able to talk about Obi-Wan Kenobi's ghost, right?)

Guns don't kill aliens — people do. But, as Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) knows all too well, the guns help. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]
And so, traumatized but determined, she marches on, training up her remaining children — her deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, increasingly impressive), whose cochlear implants have become a sort of superpower, her jittery teenage son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and, of course, her predictably noisy newborn son.  They're armed with the only effective formula they've yet discovered for defending themselves against the aliens — a maneuver involving sound and a shotgun.

There will be stumbles: one involving a bear trap, one involving a trip wire, and various other noise-making blunders. This will keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

But, more importantly, there will be some thoughtful ethical dilemmas that raise the question about what it means to "love your neighbor" in circumstances as dangerous as these. When they discover the possibility of more survivors in the region, they face decisions that wil divide them: Should they move in with Emmett (Murphy), an old friend who has been similarly traumatized by the loss of his family? Should they risk everything to follow a signal that might be sent deliberately as a beacon of hope to survivors?

Does Cillian Murphy have nightmares? If I played so many traumatized survivors of global apocalypses, I would. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.] 
As alien/zombie-apocalypse movie routines go, it's compelling enough as it plays because, well... Steven Spielberg is a genius, and if you can imitate him effectively and direct children skillfully, you'll find that his tricks are reliable.

Still, this falls far short of most Spielberg films in the depth of its storytelling because there just isn't anything particularly interesting happening beyond the moment-to-moment tiptoeing and trying not to scream. The more we see the aliens, the less interesting they become.

What's more, the most compelling actor in this ensemble is Emily Blunt, and she doesn't get to do much more than sneak around in various stages of panic, while the film promotes Regan to the prominent role, suggesting that this trilogy is, above all, her story. Fortunately, Simmonds is up for the challenge of a demanding role, even if the film's finale deprives her of any significant breakthroughs or discoveries. There's something vaguely dissatisfying about a film that's focused on survival when the audience doesn't take much more home than the relief that, yes, at least some of these characters have survived.

Regan (Millicent Simmonds) sets out on her own in this episode, relying on cochlear implants for more than just hearing.

Let us praise, however, the work of cinematographer Polly Morgan, who makes everything look great. (Hooray! Another woman behind the camera making a strong impression in a male-dominant field!) Variations on Spieberg's Jurassic Park kitchen sequence and the War of the Worlds alien-in-the-old-house sequence look slick and effectively suspend disbelief.

But the movie has no storytelling twists to deliver any cleverer than the first film's "how we kill the monsters" gimmick — which struck me as too coincidentally convenient in the first (quiet) place — and it has even less on its heart. Don't think about it much or you'll fall screaming into plot holes. And don't hope for surprises: We can tell how it's going to end from the opening minutes. It's a predictable and familiar amusement park ride — a very well-built one.

For what it's worth, two hours after the end credits of A Quiet Place Part II ran out, I looked up from my afternoon session of grading student essays and thought, "When I'm done with this, I should go to a movie." And then I realized, "Oh. Wait. I've already been to one today." The experience had evaporated that quickly.

John Krasinski makes sure his character Lee gets plenty of onscreen hero time and plenty of tears shed over his absence — mostly from his real-life partner Emily Blunt, who plays his wife here too. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]
In my creative writing classes, I can usually tell pretty quickly which students have signed up because they're excited by the prospect to write their own variations on things they've read in genre fiction or seen in genre movies. And while it's true that most artists learn the skills and techniques and routines they need by imitating masters, it's also true that few have the discipline or vision to move beyond imitation to innovation. It takes work to commit oneself to creative effort that does more than just make more of what we already have. It takes work to observe the world around us, reflect on what we see, and apply ourselves to long-suffering endeavors of discovery through artmaking. A Quiet Place Part II deserves high marks for technical achievements in genre filmmaking, but its screenplay reminds me of so may derivative disappointments: Everything I'm seeing seems like it was inspired by a movie that was inspired by a game that was inspired by another movie. If I was given this script in a screenwriting class, I couldn't give it anything higher than a 'B.' And I'd have a chat with the writer about whether they'll be content as a writer who merely copies what more inspired imaginations have done, or if they're willing to work harder and find something visionary, something that is truly their own.

I'd argue Krasinski hasn't given us A John Krasinski Film yet, just as I'm inclined to argue that J.J. Abrams hasn't ever given us a distinctive J.J. Abrams Film. Given the evidence, I think they're both skillful impressionists. I'm not saying their movies can't be fun; I'm just saying I've never had that "I'm witnessing something visionary and new" feeling that I'm always hoping for when I engage in the liturgies of cinema. Sometimes, big movies do nothing more than go through the motions, providing us two engaging hours of escape from summertime heat. In this case, we've got a movie that gives us a momentary escape from our own all-too-familiar troubles by immersing us in the all-too-familiar — and far more entertaining — sufferings of others.

So, if you're eager to get back to big-screen moviegoing, enjoy A Quiet Place Part II! If you're cool staying home, make a wiser decision: revisit one of the more substantial films it imitates.

Follow-up Question:

Is it possible that some biggest moments in this series have been inspired by something from another genre altogether?

In the Heights lives up to the hype

Full disclosure: I'm not a big fan of Hamilton. And I think it's important you know that before I dare to offer any thoughts on In the Heights.

Undoubtedly, the circumstances of my first Hamilton viewing — on my home television via Disney+, rather than in a theater watching a live performance — made a difference. Live theater in a packed house is one thing; watching carefully edited footage of a stage on a 32" screen in your living room while the phone rings and the cat wants to be fed... that's something else.

But could it also be that my expectations were too high? Perhaps. My first experience of Lin-Manuel Miranda's blockbuster Broadway show about the founding fathers took place more than a year after Hamilton hysteria peaked. It was impossible not hear the raves, the cheers, the famous quips ringing in my ears even while the Disney logo sparkled on the screen before the actors appeared onstage.

Whatever the case, I assure you that I was skeptical as I approached it. And, as the end credits rolled, I was conflicted about my experience.

At the risk of looking as bad as Aaron Burr, I hereby confess that I'm not a Hamilton stan.

That's not Lin-Manuel Miranda's fault; as a writer and composer, he achieved something undeniably extraordinary with that play, something of lasting cultural significance that has inspired artists and audiences around the world.

No, the problem here is largely personal: Broadway musicals have never really been my thing. Big, boisterous shows like those rarely enchant me. If I feel that a work of art is working hard on my emotions but not my intellect, I distrust it and I back away. And, in my experience, the artists at the controls of big Broadway-style theater productions — especially musicals — seem intent on astonishing an audience, entertaining them by giving them huge portions of things they already love, and thus overwhelming them and forcing them to surrender. If art appeals only to #TheFeels, it can leave an audience convinced, in their delirium, that they've experienced greatness when, in fact, they've just been overstimulated. What's more, it can too easily persuade the audience to embrace dangerous ideas.

When I did finally see the Disney+ document of the show's original run, I was impressed, to some degree, by the performances, the songs, and the relentless genius of the lyrical wordplay. Granted, there's a lot more food for thought in Hamilton than in most musicals. In the end, though, I was exhausted by the too-muchness of it all.

And that wasn't all: I was — as I explained in my original review (exclusive to Looking Closer supporters) — disillusioned by how Miranda's storytelling emphasized the importance of striving for and achieving greatness without really asking the audience to reckon sufficiently with the inevitable "collateral damage" that can come from such passion and single-mindedness. And, since my experience was to watch a "movie" of the play, I was hoping for a more cinematic experience, something through which imagery speaks. And, in this case, it doesn't.

Even a freeze-frame of In the Heights is likely to convey energy, energy, energy!

So perhaps this explains why I've been skeptical of In the Heights since I first saw the trailer.

  • A) It is, first and foremost, a big Broadway stage production.
  • B) It has a reputation of being a big crowd-pleaser.
  • C) It's obviously flamboyant and supercharged with energy, exploding with big emotions and expecting to evoke big emotions in its audience.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly a once-in-a-generation genius when it comes to putting on an extravagant show that will make an audience cheer repeatedly. And it has seemed inevitable that In the Heights, a winner of multiple Tonys for its Broadway manifestation back in 2008, would become a big-screen sensation. But those three factors were like flashing neon signs: "This is not your kind of thing, Overstreet." I approached it with some reluctance, braced for another super-sized exhibition of showmanship of the sort that frazzles my nerves and leaves me snarking about "sound and fury that signifies... not much."

Well... surprise!

I love this movie. And I think you'll love it too.

I'm as stunned as any reader will be that I am wholeheartedly recommending In the Heights to moviegoers, and that I'm encouraging them to round up their friends and families and get out to a theater to experience it.

Don't just run to your nearest cinemas — go to the one with the biggest screen and the best sound system. I saw it in a Dolby Cinema presentation, and I was dazzled by the exquisitely textured, radiantly colorful, images; the contagious energy; and the spectacular sound design.

Let me be clear: I don't mean that I was forced to surrender by another case of too-muchness. I do think it might have been a better film if director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, adapting Miranda's stage play, had trimmed ten minutes along the way. But no, when I say that the movie dazzled me, I mean that it served up distinctly cinematic pleasures: wonders that can only happen at the movies. This movie is full of thoughtful and, more importantly, meaningful imagery. Song by song, scene by scene, special effects by special effects, performance by performance, In the Heights won me over and made me care about the community in the spotlight. It's the most consistently inventive, cinematically satisfying big screen musical I've seen since Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! 

I'm comparing it to Moulin Rouge! for a good reason. What made that movie work as a movie musical was that it was conceived specifically for the screen. It was only bound by the limitations of cameras and animation. If you had told me that In the Heights was imagined first and foremost as a movie instead of a stage play, I might have believed you! This never feels like a stage show adapted for the screen; it’s a thrillingly imagined motion picture.

I’m inclined to say that if you haven’t seen it on the big screen … you haven’t really seen it.

Now, before you decide to make In the Heights your next date movie, a caution: If it's a compelling love story you're after, I suspect that neither of the central love stories in this web of Manhattan-focused narratives will scratch your itch, and the combination of the two central love stories only weakens both threads.

The arc of the romance between bodega-owner Usnavi (the charismatic Anthony Ramos) and salon-worker/fashion-designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, apparently auditioning to play Frida Kahlo) is strangely slight. The two suffer an awkwardness between them that seems to exist only to frustrate the audience until the most visually advantageous moment to silhouette a first kiss. (Don't tell me I'm spoiling things: All of this is evident in the trailers we've been watching for a year.)

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play Usnavi (oos-NAH-vee) and Vanessa, lovers-to-be making things unnecessarily complicated for themselves.

In a scene that almost made me sprain my eyes for rolling them, Usnavi, on a date with Vanessa, pushes her into dancing with other charismatic suitor for... what reason again? I'm reminded of a Schitt's Creek episode in which David urges Patrick to date someone else just so he can have the reassurance that Patrick will come back to him.

Do real people suffer such ridiculous lapses in judgment? Do they do such things on first dates?

The love story about Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace, who should be fined for exceeding all standards of cuteness) and taxi dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins, suave and charming) is even slighter:

Disillusioned and dehumanized by racism and loneliness, Nina has abandoned her pursuit of a college degree and return to Washington Heights, seemingly content to focus on "inhaling the sweet and unthreatening air" (as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane so aptly puts it).  Benny is thrilled that she's back, and they quickly rekindle their interrupted romance. But Nina clashes with her father (Jimmy Smits) about her future and whether or not his investment in her is selfish or not. It all seems too easy, and if we could have felt the stakes of her decision more viscerally — that is, if we were convinced of Nina's rare intellectual promise which the whole neighborhood seems invested in — this story would take a stronger hold on us.

But this is not enough of a problem to spoil the fun. These individual love stories played for me as secondary; the larger, more compelling story is about a neighborhood in Manhattan called Washington Heights, primarily Latino, and under threat of dissolution. And despite the unstoppable tide of gentrification, they fight for their block and, even more, for their "chosen family" bonds, finding strength and purpose in the love that they show for one another. In celebrations of their diverse cultural foundations (Dominican, Puerto Rican, and more), they remind each other of dignity, strength, and the value of their wild and diverse imaginations.

I found myself far more interested in, and moved by, the film's supporting characters — particularly Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the humble matriarch of the neighborhood, who bears the greatest burden of the past and the strongest belief in possibility; Sonny (the brilliant Gregory Diaz IV), a young and charismatic undocumented immigrant whose future in a Trumpist America seems unlikely; and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a salon owner who refuses to let her community collapse under the weight of gentrification without a fight.

While the lovers' stories are drawn in bold strokes, simplistic and — to use a word my students seem to value above all else — relatable, like pop songs that instantly connect to a massive audience, it is in the quieter, more intimate, more specific exchanges with the secondary characters that the movie takes on greater depth and dimension, a richer sense of lived experience. One of the moments that will be remembered for its delicate truth-telling comes when Claudia shares some of her one-of-a-kind sewing, a pair of gloves once worn by Nina's mother. Claudia's needlework becomes a symbol of how people survive harsh circumstances through creativity and art. “We had to assert our dignity in small ways," Claudia says, "little details that tell the world we are not invisible.” That's what makes this musical special; if you zoom in, you find a tapestry of "small" moments that resonate with lived experience.

Miranda himself plays one of these characters that, while seemingly "small" in the grand scheme of things, become the secret to the movie's truthfulness. He pushes a piragua cart around the neighborhood, pouring vivid sugar syrup over shaved ice — small cups full of love and life. ("Think of him," writes Anthony Lane, "as a warm-weather descendant of Jack, the lamplighter whom Miranda played, with an idling charm, in Mary Poppins Returns (2018).")

Miranda's musical celebrate an America that can achieve a harmony of distinct voices, flying many flags at once without asking people to give up their histories or pride.

The ice man's treats seem so trivial, but they come to seem essential (and appealing to us as moviegoers) in the midst of a heat wave that will have viewers fanning themselves, much the way they did in the furnace of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The heat is an easy but effective metaphor for the relentless pressures — cultural, financial — on Washington Heights. Some critics are pointing to Lee's film in order to malign Miranda's musical as too sentimental and sweet. In The L.A. Times, Justin Chang observes, "[U]nlike Spike Lee’s much more trenchant evocation of a humid New York summer, the squeaky-clean In the Heights remains unblighted by bad vibes or bitter conflict...." But he seems to appreciate this movie's alternate take on trouble:

The problems its multigenerational Latino characters face are undeniably complicated and deeply entrenched: the pressures to advance and assimilate; rising gentrification and diminishing opportunities; the seemingly endless quest for a place that can honestly be called home. But those problems are notably confronted here without violence or rancor — a newly tacked-on scene at a DACA protest as politically barbed as it gets — and they are resolved, as much as they can be, with a winningly amiable spirit.

I think In the Heights would make a remarkable and revealing double-feature with Lee's 1989 classic, providing an expression of hopefulness that would serve to balance out the grim but truthful troubles that fracture Lee's New York in so many ways.

In subway tunnels, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is haunted by her troubled past and yet fixed upon the bright lights of her hopes and dreams.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the way in which Chu finds unique inspirations for almost every musical sequence, delivering one surprise after another:

  • an opening stroll that moves more like a dance in a way that recalls Baby Driver;
  • an emotional subway ride in which flashes of light and shadow trigger flashbacks;
  • guys rigorously rapping as they swagger through town, their gestures enhanced with chalky animation;
  • a tremendous swimming pool sequence involving a host of dancers and synchronized swimmers, set to a song about lottery-ticket dreams; and
  • another intimate dance between two lovers near the end of the film that defies gravity in ways I won't spoil for you.

Every time I began to feel a hint of Sensation Fatigue, Chu would spring a new surprise that did more than jolt the audience; it seemed meaningful.

Alissa Wilkinson (Vox) describes Washington Heights as being more than just a context: "What cinema affords so readily to its storytellers is the ability to visually build a full, richly layered world in a way you really can’t do onstage. [Chu] leans into the possibilities. Now, Washington Heights is a character, not just a few buildings. Its residents are singing and dancing on the street corners, in the alleys, in living rooms, in salsa clubs. The film is an intoxicating capture of both a culture and a city." (You can read Wilkinson's interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Jon M. Chu here.)

The dreams of a community erupt in a boisterous Busby Berkeley-style swimming pool number the likes of which I haven't seen since... The Great Muppet Caper?

As an affirmation of — indeed, a defiant embrace of — Latino immigrants' histories of endurance, of hope, and of imaginative flourishing in the midst of hardship, it reminds us of what America can make possible for people from lands troubled by violence and poverty. (Man, this movie made me so jealous of people who have a cultural heritage they take pride in. As a white American who grew up in a primarily Republican community where I was subtly conditioned to accept system racism, I can’t imagine what that’s like.)

Ultimately, In the Heights plays for me as a celebration of America's as-yet-unfulfilled vision: the ideal of a country where rivers of humanity merge without losing their distinction, where everyone can make their home in harmony without giving up what is best about their cultural DNA, and without suffering condemnation or marginalization.

When the Washington Heights community comes together to honor one of their own, raising up torches in salute, we see a host of living statues of liberty, an overwhelming affirmation of that bold symbol. Living through a time when American Republicans are abandoning the ideal of "liberty and justice for all" in favor of cruelty and white supremacy, I cannot help but be moved by such an image.

This passionate affirmation of the true American ideal, it happens to correspond beautifully with Christ's call to the whole world: Love your neighbor as yourself. Emma Lazarus's famous poem, engraved upon the Statue of Liberty, make plain what I was taught to believe about America: We say to the world, "Give [us] your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." Until recently, I genuinely believed that this was what the American people valued; today, I stand dismayed to observe how half the nation has seemed willing — even eager — to scrap this radical vision in the name of fear, hatred, exclusion, and self-interest.

"A thousand points of light"? In Washington Heights, everyone who believes in the dream is carrying the Statue of Liberty's torch.

But, like Usnavi and his community, I am not willing to give up such a dream.

Even if the United States' vision has been doomed by traitors to its people and its Constitution, by vandals and criminals in Congress, by Antichrists in the churches who advance the cause of so-called "Christian nationalism," the vision of a True America will remain something more powerful than a nation with borders: it will live on as a restless and inclusive spirit ever searching for a new occasion, a new home.

In the Heights suggests that cinema itself can be one of those places where that spirit is alive and well and boisterous and loud, despite the efforts of villains and fools to silence it. Here, we're invited to enjoy a beautiful day in the neighborhood, one forged by imagination, hospitality, and love.

It may well win a whole community of Oscars — and I suspect it will take home the big one.

If it does, I won't complain. The Oscars are (typically, anyway) a popularity contest, and In the Heights is riding an advantage that it could never have seen  coming: It has become, accidentally, the occasion that brings people back to the theaters after America's long national nightmare, the pandemic in which a dreamer-hating, immigrant-slandering American President amplified American casualties by hundreds of thousands with his vanity and neglect. How right it seems, then, that the occasion of the Grand Reopening should be celebrated with a whole-hearted and defiant rejection of Trumpist Republicans' inhumane agendas.

Usnavi looks "through a glass darkly" at the neighborhood that he, against all odds, believes in.

Without leaning too hard into political sloganeering, In the Heights is an affirmation that, in the grand scheme of things, true joy belongs to the people who open their arms and open their hearts. Traitors to the American way can take away property, scatter a neighborhood, and build walls that oppress and divide. But they cannot kill this multi-culutral vision, which will ultimately find its fulfillment in God's time, God's promise of justice, God's grace and reconciliation. Evil spirits can break up the block of Washington Heights. Evil spirits cannot erase the beauty of human beings as fully alive as these, nor can oppressors crush the distinctly American spirit flourishing here through the imaginative power of art.

As America's greatest songwriter once sang to his own oppressors, "There is something happening here / And you don't know what it is, do you?"

In Wrath of Man, violence leads to (shocker!) no good

"From paleolithic man to diabetic house-husband...."

That's how one of the Many Manly Men that make up 19 of 20 important characters in director Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man describes a perceived crisis of masculinity early in this film.

And it's just one of many lines that highlight what the film acknowledges as the real problem: a world in which too many men think that a capacity for coercive force is masculinity's defining trait, or — worse — masculinity's raison d'être.

Back in the '80s, we watched Bruce Willis's John McClane knock off one bad guy after another and he seemed so cool, seemed to have so much fun doing it. Today, we watch this generation's Bruce Willis picking off the bad guys with pinpoint shooting, and he seems absolutely miserable, a role model for nobody.

And that, I think, is a certain kind of progress.

The man known as "H" (Jason Statham) may look like he's down for the count. But no — his eyes are open. He can see the face of the man who shot him. He won't forget.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Die Hard so much I saw it enough to be able to recite the dialogue while it played. It remains the most impressively designed, efficiently scripted, and entertaining cops-and-robbers movie I've ever seen.

But I'm increasingly convinced that the glorification of McClane-types on the big screen have deceived American men into thinking that that a cocky, gun-toting vigilante is basically the Masculine Ideal — a god who has every right to pass life-and-death judgement. And the faster we can dismantle that archetype, the better. It will take generations for American men to grow up, learn what it really means to "be a man," discover what real strength and courage and leadership looks like, and put aside their childish attachment to deadly devices. In short, my ongoing enthusiasm for Die Hard is showing me that I am complicit in the celebration of a toxic genre.

Wrath of Man is different — somewhat. It's a film in which there are no good guys — just guys who commit violence, some for arguably nobler reasons than others. And even those lesser villains, seemingly the best options if anyone's going to be the last men standing, are already too hollowed out ("the hollowed men"?) by violence before this narrative even begins. If they win, they won't enjoy their victory. Any peace they ever had is gone for good.

If you're up for a very dark, very violent movie about armored-truck teams and violent mercenaries/ex-security contractors, you may find, as I did, that Ritchie's latest somehow overcomes its weaker points — screenwriting, action choreography — and becomes surprisingly compelling. It may not be the smartest film in its genre, but it comes with a flicker of conscience. That's worth something.

It follows Patrick Hill (Statham) — who is quickly branded with the nickname "H" because, as Christopher Nolan seems to have noticed, our leading men don't really need names anymore. This is the age of avatars and RPGs, and so who needs a distinctive character name when movies are more about experiences than narratives? Anyway, do I seem distracted from offering a synopsis? I am — the story is not particularly interesting.

Wait, whoa... Josh Hartnett is in this? As the guy who's too shaky to be good with a gun?

Suffice it to say... the iron-jawed action figure 'H' gets a job with Fortico Security in spite of his low firearm test scores, but then quickly silences any skeptics by snapping into a sort of firefight-#BeastMode when one of the company's armored cars gets attacked. 'H' isn't liked by his coworkers, but they're in awe of him after he dispatches the attackers with the efficiency and accuracy of John Wick.

It's not hard to see that 'H' has taken this job for a reason. And soon we learn the unsurprising truth: Someone dear to him was killed during one of these truck heists, and he's hoping to track down the guilty party by riding along and carefully digging around for evidence of an inside job. You can see where this is going. But it takes a while to get there, with 'H' fishing for red herrings that take us through one underworld amusement park ride after another until he finds the guilty party pretty much where we expect him to.

So, no... I'm not here to sing the story's praises. There's a lot about Wrath of Man that feels routine in a Training Day-meets-Heat-meets-John Wick kind of way.

Nor am I here to celebrate its performances. Statham is perfect for this role: He has the sturdy physique of a Bruce Willis action figure, an irresistible double-furrow between his eyebrows that represents his conflicted spirit, and he makes gunplay look like an Olympic event. But you'll notice I'm not bothering to name the supporting cast — it seems to me that those characters are blanks that could have been filled by just about any Hollywood action standbys.

Mindhunter's Holt McCallany plays "Bullet," the armored-car-duty teacher who raises up Statham's Patrick Hill in the way that he should go. But it's clear that the name "Bullet" should belong, in this case, to the student.

I'm not here to celebrate Guy Ritchie either. I admired some of his craftsmanship here, primarily for how different it feels from the celebratory violence of his past work. I never feel disoriented by the backward-and-forward time shifts or by the action scenes. Your armored-truck mileage may vary: Note that the perceptive and persuasive Bilge Ebiri at Vulture had a very different experience than I did. "There’s a fine line," he says, "between enigmatic and confusing, and [Ritchie] here repeatedly bulldozes past it." And later, "Wrath of Man could have been salvaged had it delivered on some decent action sequences, but once such sequences come, they tend to be either lifeless or unintelligible or both."

I do echo Ebiri's impatience with the film's cringe-worthy dialogue — "macho hothouse banter ... regularly delivered in such half-hearted fashion that we might wonder if we’re listening to a read-through by mistake." There's even a variation here of a line that I hate from Tony Scott's Man on Fire, a quip about a notorious killer: "Let the painter paint!" (At its worst, this movie veers too close to the lurid nature of Man on Fire's revenge plot. That's a film I sincerely disrespect.)

You can always measure the intensity of Patrick Hill's angst by the depth of the furrows in his brow.

Nevertheless, there's enough here to earn my disclaimer-laden recommendation.

It's Wrath of Man's haunting sense of weariness and despair that intrigues me most. For the kind of story it is — a story about how men who have signed up for and participated in too much violence can end up knowing no other language but violence — I find it intriguingly conflicted.  This isn't overly aestheticized with visual cleverness, slo-mo special effects, or tongue-in-cheek Tarantino smart-assery. In other words, it doesn't try to excuse its violence by making it fun. This is more in the territory of Michael Mann's Heat or John Frankenheimer's Ronin, where we're supposed to be appalled by the firepower. (Let me be clear: I much prefer Heat, and this movie's Relentless Killing Machine protagonist is too superhero-ish for me to take him as seriously as I do Michal Mann's corrupt cops and impressive robbers.) I admire its ultimate refusal to glorify any of its characters, even if one's sharpshooting skills are staged to impress.

The overbearing tone of it — like Christopher Benstead's annoyingly relentless and repetitive score — makes it one of those "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny" films. And everyone involved is already well on their way along the dark path as the story begins. If anyone comes away from this film thinking these gun-loving guys are role models, then they brought problems with them to the movie, problems that are already dangerous.

I watched this on the same day I saw Robert Aldrich's noir classic Kiss Me Deadly for the first time, and while both films are terribly disturbing, they both ring far too true about the world we live in and America's self-destructive addiction to toxic masculinity. That term gets tossed around a lot these days, I know. But I think it's a meaningful term, and one that relentlessly prevents boys and men alike from discovering and fulfilling their potential. It keeps us from learning that it takes far greater courage and strength to pursue the path of Love and Humility and Service than the ultimately corrupting path of Control and Arrogance. You'll only find men who wield guns making meaningful progress on one of those two paths.