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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Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: June 11, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018

If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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Based on a book Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week GLBTQ and Diversity High School movie review Romance Stories about Teens

Everything, Everything

Posted on May 18, 2017 at 5:57 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medication
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of potentially deadly illness, reference to sad death, domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017

“Everything, Everything,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, is an updated fairy tale about a princess trapped in a castle and the prince who does not exactly rescue her but gives her a reason to rescue herself.

It’s not an enchantment or a curse that keeps her inside. It’s an illness that means any exposure to bacteria or a virus could be fatal. Maddy (Amandla Stenberg, Rue in “The Hunger Games”) cannot remember a time when she was allowed to be outdoors.

Diagnosed at 2 with the immune deficiency SCID, Maddy lives in an irradiated and sterile environment. She has never left her home and has never met anyone other than her doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). She has books, she has an exercise machine, she has 100 identical white t-shirts, and she has an online SCID support group. She and her mother watch movies and play phonetic scrabble. Maddy studies architecture and builds model rooms, placing the figure of an astronaut in each one. This avatar is her opposite. Her world is measured in square feet; the astronaut’s is unlimited.

Maddy stands at the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the backyard and imagines what it would feel like to stand on grass or feel a breeze of unfiltered air. And she has a seat in the corner of her bedroom overlooking the house next door, which is how she peers down at a new family moving in, a new family with a boy who has a beautiful smile. He is Olly (Nick Robinson of “Kings of Summer”). He draws his phone number on his window opposite her bedroom, and soon they are texting each other, sweetly portrayed as a face-to-face conversation at a table in Maddy’s model diner, with the astronaut looking on. She wears white; he wears black. She says, “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside.” But when she talks to him, she wants to go outside. And both of them find their worlds getting less black and white.

The elements of a young teen romantic fantasy are all here, primarily the disapproving parent, the utterly devoted and hunky but not too aggressive young male, adoring and supportive, and the big reason that they cannot get too physical, except maybe one perfect time. In “Twilight,” he was a vampire who could lose control and kill her. Here it’s just his normal human germs. Anyone over the age of 15 may be distracted by impracticalities and plot developments that go from improbable to preposterous, but even people who know that you have to have ID to get on an airplane and money to pay a credit card bill might just enjoy the pleasures of watching Maddy wake up to the world and Olly, through her, wake up to a few of his own.

Parents should know that this film includes risky teen behavior, some strong language, serious illness, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Did Carla make the right decision? Why does Maddy put an astronaut in her model rooms?

If you like this, try: “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Before I Fall” and “The Fault in Our Stars”

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Where You’ve Seen Them Before: The Cast of “Jurassic World”

Posted on June 13, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Of course the dinosaurs and the geniuses at ILM who created them are the real stars of “Jurassic World.”  But the highest compliment we can pay the human performers is that they can hold their own next to the CGI dinos.  If they look familiar, it may be because you’ve seen them before.

Nick Robinson plays Zach, a teenager visiting the Jurassic World theme park.  I first noticed him in the hilarious Cox commercials, but he also starred in the terrific independent film, The Kings of Summer and on Melissa & Joey.

Chris Pratt starred in two of the biggest movies of 2014. He was the voice of Emmett in The Lego Movie and he was Peter (also known, at least to himself, as Star-Lord) in Guardians of the Galaxy. But before that he was often seen playing comic relief best friend type roles in movies like “Delivery Man” and “The Five-Year Engagement.”

Bryce Dallas Howard played a mean, racist socialite in The Help and she played Victoria in the “Twilight” series. And she wants you to know she is not Jessica Chastain.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhRIKwMp0c4

Vincent D’Onofrio is familiar to fans of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” But he has had a remarkably varied career, in films from Adventures in Babysitting to The Judge, and Full Metal Jacket.

Judy Greer plays the mother of the two boys and the sister of the woman who runs the park. She has been in pretty much everything, playing best friends in rom-coms and on television shows like “Arrested Development” and “Archer.” She even wrote a book about it: I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star

Irfan Kahn plays the billionaire whose company owns Jurassic World. He appeared in “The Life of Pi” as the title character and in “Slumdog Millionaire” as the game show host. His lovely film “The Lunchbox” is well worth seeking out.

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Actors Where You’ve Seen Them Before

Interview: Nick Robinson of “The Kings of Summer” (and the Hilarious Cox Commercials)

Posted on June 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm

I love the hilarious Cox commercials, with Nick Robinson as the perpetually-humiliated teenager whose father thinks he is super-cool as he shows off all of the great features of Cox television, internet, and phone.  And I love “The Kings of Summer,” the hit independent film about three boys who run away and build a house in the woods.  He also appears on “Melissa and Joey” and is getting ready to go to college.  So I was especially pleased to get a chance to talk with Nick Robinson about the movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuLH6P2PE7I

It must have been really hot filming in the woods in the summer.

It was hot and it was the humidity that killed me.  But the natural beauty in Ohio made up for it.  The locations were amazing.  The best day was when we got to swim around in the quarry.

What made you want to play this role?

I fell in love with the sensibility of the script.  It really captured the experience of being 15, stuck in that weird no-man’s-land between childhood and adulthood.  It’s awkward, no one really knows how to treat you, you’re aware of the world and know all kinds of things but still have this childlike wonder and imagination and creativity.

It looked like you guys really were friends who had known each other forever.

It’s hard to fake chemistry.  Everything you saw on screen was very real.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts gave us improv training beforehand to let us get to know one another and get ready to go toe-to-toe with some of the funniest people on the planet.  Have of the film is improv.  Jordan would just take us out to the woods with the camera.  The pipe scene, where we’re all banging on the pipe, that was completely improvised.  They just said, “Go for it,” and we stared messing around.  The sound is just iPhone sound.

How do you keep a straight face acting opposite Nick Offerman, who plays your dad?

I don’t!  I ruined I don’t know how many takes.  It was intimidating when I first met him, but once you get to know him he’s a complete teddy bear.  Also, just one of the most talented and funniest people I’ve ever worked with.  He has that stonewall, straight-drive delivery and it just kills me.  I could hardly keep it together.  That was me biting my tongue to keep from laughing.

What did your character, Joe, and the other boys want to find when they went to the woods?

They really just wanted to be independent for once in their lives, to be free from their parents, who were overbearing or in Joe’s case downright mean sometimes, to be their own men and kind of find themselves and find their potential.  They wanted to live off the land free from any societal pressures and free from their parents especially.

But not free from Boston Market!

No, thank goodness!  Without Boston Market it would have been more like “Lord of the Flies.”

What would you bring if you were going to live in the woods?

A tent, a pocket-knife, and some matches or flint, just the essentials.  You can find water and food.

What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?

Acting’s not particularly complicated.  But the great thing is you can step into somebody else’s shoes without dealing with the consequences.  It’s very therapeutic in that way.

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Actors Interview
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