Silk Road

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:40 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie is drug dealing, offscreen death due to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Law enforcement-related peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
Copyright 2021 Lionsgate

Ross Ulbricht was a libertarian, a follower of Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises who believed that “every action we take outside of government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.” He wanted to change the world. And so he created a website that was like Amazon or eBay except that it operated in the dark web and instead of being a place to buy consumer goods with credit cards it was a place to buy illegal goods, primarily drugs, with untraceable crypto-currency. The website was named for the ancient trading route linking China, India, and Rome. Ulbricht’s screen name was taken from a more modern source, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. He called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts after the character (spoiler alert) who passed his name on to a series of successors to keep the legend alive. And he learned, as so many theoretical libertarians have in the past, that the problem with giving people freedom is that they do things with it you might not approve of, including things that limit the freedom of others.

“Silk Road” is the story of Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) and of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), the FBI agent who tracked him down. Think “The Social Network” crossed with “American Gangster. A sharp, clever, script by Tiller Russell (“Bernie”) and David Kusher and Russell’s dynamic direction make this a gripping rise-and-fall, cat-and-mouse story with vivid and believably flawed characters.

“This story is true,” we are told at the beginning. “Except for what we made up or changed.” So if you want to know what really happened, read Nick Bilton’s book. As far as the Ulbricht side of the story goes, though, it sticks pretty close to what really happened. He was a bright drop-out — we see his father deride him for not following through on anything. But he has big ambitions for changing the world to make it work the way he thought it should, meaning as free from government control as possible. And then he comes up with an idea, combining two ideas — the Tor gateway to the dark web and cryptocurrency, a kind of dark money. He thinks of what he is doing as practically humanitarian, saving consumers from the risks and inconvenience of in-person drug buys. He thinks he is being clever when he leaks information about the Silk Road to a journalist.

You can buy illegal drugs on the internet. But you cannot deliver illegal drugs on the internet. Law enforcement picks up on an unusual uptick in the drugs being shipped. And Ulbricht will learn that one problem of working with crooks is that they are often…untrustworthy.

This is where Bowden comes in, and one of the least accurate but most interesting part of the movie is the contrast between the computer-savvy kid who sets up the Silk Road and the old-school FBI agent who tracks him down. The film cleverly cuts back and forth between them, as in one early moment when they both resort to instructional videos on YouTube for a little help.

Crisply edited and sharply written, “Silk Road” does not ask us to think of Ulbricht as a hero or, as some who have argued for clemency, a dupe. One pre-credit exculpatory claim and another character’s sympathy-provoking motive to break the law may go father than needed in softening the story, but we also get a look at some of the consequences of making illegal drugs freely available. And this is a smart movie about smart people doing some not-smart things and facing the consequences that keeps us absorbed and, probably, making a mental note to stay well on the right side of the law.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and violence including murder for hire that does not happen and a drug-related death. Characters use strong language and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Themes include criminal behavior and law enforcement.

Family discussion: Do you agree with what happened to Ulbricht and Bowden? How were they alike and how were they different? How do we balance privacy and accountability?

If you like this, try: “The Social Network” and “Brick”

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The Little Things

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:00 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer crime drama
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
Three Oscar winners cannot save “The Little Things,” a crime thriller that starts out promisingly and about halfway through completely loses its way. It’s almost like the screenplay was created by two different people, or undermined by the director. But John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen”), both wrote and directed, so he is responsible when the story veers into Gothika Rule territory.

It takes place in 1990, and we begin with a pretty young woman driving on the highway and singing along to the Go-Gos as a sinister motorist behind her makes her uncomfortable and then terrified. The first half sets up two mysteries. The first is the realization that the young woman who has been murdered is the victim of a serial killer, expanding and making more urgent the search to find the one responsible. The detective in charge is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who takes the job very seriously, even personally. “We work for her,” he says about the dead woman.

A lower-level officer named Deke Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been sent to Baxter’s police station to pick up some evidence. The second mystery is why the people there are (mostly) so hostile to him and why a clearly experienced, capable, and dedicated has not risen in rank. “And they say Black guys never return to the scene of the crime,” another detective says with acid in his voice. But the forensic pathologist seems more sympathetic, agreeing to spend some time with him when a delay in making the evidence available keeps him there overnight.

There’s “something like it up north,” Deke says, and soon he and Baxter are beginning to work together to find the killer. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” says Baxter. “Still gotta catch ’em? Then nothing has really changed that much,” Deke says.

So far, so good. As long as Deke and Baxter are behaving like intelligent, dedicated professionals, the movie holds our interest as a police procedural with intriguing characters. But then Jared Leto enters the picture as suspect Albert Sparma and it all begins to fall apart. Baxter seems to have an inexplicable change of personality with a decision so monumentally stupid and contrary to day one of any kind of law enforcement training not to mention basic common sense that it takes us out of the story.

Meanwhile, what we learn about Deke’s past is not as meaningful as the movie clearly thinks it is, making the story’s primary mystery secondary to the point of almost inconsequential. Washington’s is the only performance that continues to hold our attention as Leto hits one creepy note and stays there and Malek is unable to overcome his character’s inconsistency. More important, the swerve in tone undermines the film’s aspirations for moral complexity. The title of the film refers to the little things that are important to get right, whether you are a killer trying to evade justice or law enforcement trying to achieve it. In the case of this movie, the little things are all right but the big thing, the screenplay, is a mess.

Parents should know that this movie is about a serial killer and it has some grisly and graphic images and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Deke send the package to Baxter? How was that decision tied to his own experience? Why did Flo keep the memento on her keychain?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Silence of the Lambs”

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American Bar Association: Documentaries about Crimes That Change Lives

Posted on August 3, 2020 at 8:32 pm

The American Bar Association’s magazine has an article about “documentaries that swayed criminal cases.” Documentaries can be a very effective form of journalism, advocacy, or both. One example in the article is Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost Trilogy, three films over a period of fifteen years about three teenage boys accused of the May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys. Because the accused boys listened to heavy metal music and had been in trouble for various petty offenses, the prosecution alleged that they killed the young boys as a part of a Satanic ritual. The filmmakers originally assumed that the boys were guilty. One of them confessed. But as they talked to the families of the murdered boys and reviewed the evidence, they concluded that they were not guilty. The documentaries, the attention brought to the case by celebrities including some rock musicians, and the review of DNA evidence that showed no connection between the boys and the murder, led to their being released from prison, though not a full exoneration.

The article also discusses Surviving R. Kelly, which gave women who had been sexually abused by the singer the opportunity to tell their stories. “Days after the premiere, Georgia and Illinois opened criminal investigations and encouraged more victims to come forward. By the next month, Kelly had lost his record deal and been charged by the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago with sex abuse. In July 2019, he got hit with federal sex abuse charges as well. At press time, he sits in a Chicago jail awaiting trial.” He had managed to avoid responsibility in an earlier trial. The evidence in the documentary provided a path to holding him accountable.

Other documentaries mentioned include The Central Park Five, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and documentary podcasts In the Dark and Serial.

The “documentary” footage taken by amateur observers has had an enormous impact recently, in tragedies like the death of George Floyd and in angry disputes over racist comments and wearing masks. Footage like that will certainly have an increasing impact on criminal and civil cases.

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The Gentlemen

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:47 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, overdose
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic violence, guns, poison, arson, many characters injured and killed including young adults
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright 2019 STX

Writer-director Guy Ritchie is back where he belongs. “The Gentlemen” is, like his early films “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” a nasty, twisty, stylish, and darkly comic crime thriller set in England and featuring low-life characters with impenetrable accents. This is a relief after his plodding mis-matches like “Aladdin” and “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword,” though I got a kick out of seeing the poster for his underrated “Man from UNCLE” in this film.

It starts with a bang (a blood-spattered shooting in a pub) and then goes back in time, a story within a story, with Hugh Grant, as someone Ritchie considers even less worthy of respect than murderous, drug-dealing criminals — a sleazy tabloid reporter named Fletcher with a long-lens camera, a friend who can lip-read, and a story he wants to sell for 20 million pounds. Grant himself has had his problems with sleazy tabloid reporters and is clearly enjoying himself tremendously and getting some revenge in the role. His performance is deliciously devastating.

The person he wants to blackmail is Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American expat with a highly successful marijuana growing and distribution business. Pearson is trying to sell the business so he can retire, and is about to close on an offer from another American expat drug dealer, the effete Matthew (“Succession’s” Jeremy Strong). They’re in the stage that business types call due diligence, confirming the valuation of 400 million pounds. Michael has another offer, from a thuggish upstart known as Dry Eye (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Henry Golding). His bid is much lower in cash, but he plans to make up the difference with threats.

All of this is well known by Michael’s closest associate, Ray (Charlie Hunnam). But Fletcher, who has shown up unexpected and uninvited in Ray’s home, is relishing the chance to tell the story, even setting it up as though he is pitching a movie, even providing details of film stock and lenses, which the movie we are watching obediently demonstrates, reminding us of the air quotes that keep the bloodiest parts of the story from getting too bleak.

Michelle Dockery, a long way from Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey,” is also having a lot of fun playing Michael’s wife, as tough as he is or tougher, with a Cockney accent and as sharp as her Louboutin stilettos. You could almost see the Lady Mary of 2020 having the same cooperative arrangement with Michael that the other estate-poor gentry do in the film. Some of the twists are not as twisty as they intend and some of the characters are not as colorful as the movie thinks they are, but it is still a welcome return to what Ritchie does best.

Parents should know that this is a crime drama with extended and very graphic violence, many characters injured and killed including young adults with devastated parents, disturbing images, guns, poison, arson, murder, kidnapping, sexual references, drug dealing and overdose, and constant very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Would you say that there are any good guys in this movie, or at least better guys? Who, and why? What will happen to Michael next?

If you like this, try: “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Get Shorty,” and “Layer Cake”

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Crime DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies

Bad Boys for Life

Posted on January 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, guns, grenades, bazookas
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 16, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright Columbia 2019

There’s a lot that’s hard to believe in “Bad Boys for Life” (not that we’re expected to), but the one I want to bring to your attention is the repeated assertion that this is one last time. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as the lovably bickering, impetuously rule-breaking buddy cops from the original Bad Boys movie 25 years ago and the sequel eight years later, and it is clear that they are not done yet.

Smith and Lawrence have the same immensely likable screen chemistry they did in the first film, though it is clear that Smith has much more range as an actor. We hardly have time to notice, however, as in the first five minutes of the movie we get to see a Porsche racing through the streets of Miami, some quippy brio (“We’re not just black. We’re cops, too. We’ll pull ourselves over later”), some skimpy bathing suits, a new baby, a prison break featuring a shootout and a witch’s curse.

That baby is the first grandchild for Marcus (Lawrence), the devoted family man, who is so moved by his becoming Pop-Pop that he decides to retire from the police force. Mike (Smith), the player with an upscale apartment no cop could afford (see above re believability) is furious. When Mike is shot by an assassin who is going after everyone involved in a criminal conviction from the past, Marcus stays by his side, and promises God that if Mike lives he will never be violent again. Once Mike recovers, however (with Marcus listed in his phone as Quitter), Mike persuades him to come back — say it with me — for one last time.

That will involve AMMO, a new high-tech police operation with the kind of high-tech surveillance and firepower that you might find in the Pentagon, run by Rita (Paola Nuñez), an officer with whom Mike has history. Mike wants to find the mysterious black-clad person on a black motorcycle who shot him. This is a challenge because, as a character says, “Who doesn’t want to kill him?” The Pepto-Bismal-chugging captain (Joe Pantoliano, also returning from the earlier films) tries to stop him, but the thing about Bad Boys is that they don’t follow the rules. Whatcha gonna do? Soon Mike is trading insults with the upstarts at AMMO, including Vanessa Hudgens and “The Sun is Also a Star’s” Charles Melton.

I’d estimate it is about one-third banter (we get some insults about getting older now) and two-thirds action, much of it very intense and very, very violent, with lots of blood, explosions, and heavy artillery. “I know ‘thou shalt not kill’ but these were bad guys” describes their view of law enforcement plus “We ride together. We die together. Bad boys for life.” (Someone does point out that they should think of themselves as bad men. Which may be why there’s also more crying than you normally see in this kind of movie. It’s dumb, and the action/comedy mix is not entirely successful given the carelessness about collateral damage and the outright carnage. But the charm is there and it is watchable, a summer movie in January. By the end, if you stay for that post-credit scene, you might just be ready to see what they do next.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and extended action, peril, and violence with very graphic and disturbing images, chases, explosions, fire, very strong and crude language, sexual references, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: What made Mike and Marcus good partners? How have the movies changed since the first one? If you and your friend had a go-to motto, what would it be?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Bad Boys” movies and the “Fast and Furious” series

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