Movie Review ~ Silk Road

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.

Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, Paul Blott

Director: Tiller Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: A handful of movies every year feel like some kind of oddball homework assignment you would have been given in school and been grateful for at the time but serves no purpose outside of a classroom teaching modern history.  You go into the movie knowing what the meaning of it all is and at least hoping to get some entertainment value out of it for the time you’re putting in.  Usually, there’s one of two performances to draw some memorable moments from or genuine unknown knowledge that can be pocketed as takeaway trivia for your next night with intellectuals as a way to impress them.  The wish and hope always is that it’s not just a bland rehash of the facts you could have quickly skimmed a magazine article about that’s been dramatized for effect.  

Released in February but totally blown down by review queue by accident, Silk Road is sadly one of those films that is never written into your memory at any point and therefore winds up being an eternal “Did I See That?” title you’ll likely watch the first ten minutes of repeatedly before realizing you’ve seen it before and turn it off.  Even writing a review some three months after seeing it I’m straining to remember some basic details so in a way it’s lucky writer/director Tiller Russell’s film isn’t creative in its storytelling and largely sticks to the order of events.  Adapting Rolling Stone columnist David Kushner 2014 article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, Russell’s only gutsy instinct is to give the film a bookended framework meant to create some suspense, though if you’ve ever watched a weekly procedural television show you know where it’s all headed.  And those are works of fiction. 

The film follows the rise of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Shadow in the Cloud), a Texas native that initially started a book selling business online but eventually moved into the trafficking of illegal narcotics once his first endeavor failed.  Realizing he needed a stronger network to move his product, protect his customers, and safeguard his money, Ulbricht was a largely self-taught internet whiz that would up creating a piece of the dark web that traded in cryptocurrencies known as Silk Road.  Starting out small potatoes and winding up owning the whole crop, Ulbricht was the target of numerous government investigations both overt and behind the scenes as they searched for ways to prove his participation in Silk Road which began to attract all sorts of sordid business dealings. 

One person that became obsessed with tracking him down is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Pet Sematary), or, more to the point, Bowden serves as an amalgam of two different agents that tracked Ulbricht over the years.  Watching Clarke’s twitchy performance, it often feels like he’s playing two characters as well, with the actor never truly settling into the role and instead overcompensating for his discomfort by going big with everything he does.  Clarke is better than this and I honestly don’t know what he’s going for. Bowden comes across not just merely out of the loop on current tech matters but computer illiterate to the point of not knowing how to turn one on. The way Clarke pitches Bowden as on hair-trigger edge makes him feel like more of the villain of the piece than Ulbricht could ever be. 

Of course, Ulbricht is the villain and while Robinson has often been quite likable in previous roles he’s neither likable nor gives reason to root against him either.  We’re just indifferent to seeing another privileged white male float up the ranks in a origin story that feels similar in many ways to Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as portrayed in The Social Network.  Like that Oscar winning film, Ulbricht loses all of his friends and personal romantic relationships on his ascent but then realizes he likes it better being successful because he can replace people with more agreeable cronies.  The character is so aggravating that it goes beyond us not liking Ulbricht, the smarminess in Ulbricht and within Bowden makes the entire watch just drag on endlessly. 

If the low spot of the film is Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as an early Ulbricht recruit (can I just ask something? What in the world is Hauser doing with his career that was only going up?  Performances like this, which feature him once again playing a slovenly male, support a stereotype he needs to avoid) then the bright spot is Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix). Playing Ulbricht’s girlfriend, she sticks around as long as she can until she becomes excess baggage that needs to be jettisoned along with other non-essential items.  Shipp understands how to make an impression with limited screen time and I wished we had more time with her. 

A trip down the Silk Road is not a journey you’d have to make.  Instead, why not read the well-researched Kushner article right here and get the facts yourself.  It’s just like watching the movie anyway.  I had honestly expected something better from Russell having just come off of watching his fantastic (and fantastically creepy) Netflix miniseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.  While it does have some nice touches visually, dramatically this one doesn’t even make it out of the driveway. 

Movie Review ~ Come True

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A teenage runaway takes part in a sleep study that becomes a nightmarish descent into the depths of her mind and a frightening examination of the power of dreams.

Stars: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Tedra Rogers, Chantal Perron, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Elena Porter, Brandon DeWyn, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Christopher Heatherington, Carlee Ryski, Austin Baker

Director: Anthony Scott Burns

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think I was born with a raging case of FOMO because I’ve always been a terrible sleeper.  Naps were nonexistent as a child and I was never one of those high schoolers that slept through their alarm like in some cliché teen comedy.  I stayed up late in college and preferred early morning classes so I could keep my afternoons free for, what else?, catching an early movie matinee if I felt like it.  I’m sure it has wound up taking a toll on my health in some way, but I’ve just had this aversion to sleep and perhaps that’s why movies about beddy-bye time have continued to intrigue me.   

Aside from the obvious Freddy franchise that kicked off with the landmark A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, plenty of films have explored the endless possibilities of dreams and the dark side of nightmares, not to mention a slew of documentaries following sleep studies and what we can learn from why and how we sleep.  The entire process is fascinating if you delve deep into dreamland and I’m always on the lookout for a new film coming down the pike that wants to dip into these waters. Taking stock of what has come before and then seeing what they can stir up can be fun, especially if it’s being released by an independent horror studio that has a solid track record for picking winners. 

At the outset, director Anthony Scott Burns Come True, being released by IFC Midnight, has the makings of giving you a fine little thrill that doesn’t give one inch in the way of hinting at what’s going to happen from scene to scene.  Viewers are dropped into one story that’s reached its climax just as another is about to begin. So we’re asked to keep track of where we’re going while piecing together how we got here in the first place.  Gradually, it becomes obvious Burns has gone and gathered so many ideas that it overwhelms the central core of his narrative and things outright collapse, only to be blown to smithereens by a sure to be controversial ending. 

For some reason, Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) doesn’t want to go home, preferring to sleep in a nearby playground and only briefly sneak back to grab some food and a change of clothes before heading off to school.  Looking weary and wary, she asks to stay at a friend’s house for a time but that isn’t going to solve her long-standing problem at home or do away with the haunting dreams she’s been having where she’s being pursued by a malevolent figure.  Coming across an ad for a sleep study that would pay her to sleep in a bed every night, she can’t believe her good luck and applies for the opportunity. 

Joining a small group of test subjects, Sarah’s dreams become more vivid and eventually cross the line into reality with deadly results.  With occasional answers being provided by a research assistant (Landon Liboiron) who falls for Sarah quickly as he watches her sleep (um, weird) and the other subjects either dropping out, getting injured, or worse, Sarah becomes convinced there’s more to the overall study that meets the eye.  The longer she participates, the closer the monster in her dreams gets to catching up with her until it’s too late for anyone to stop what’s coming forth. 

For only his second feature film, Burns definitely went all in and made sure the movie was his singular vision.  Serving as the director, writer, cinematographer, and composer (with Electric Youth) of the synth heavy but all together perfect score, it never feels like he didn’t know when to self-edit. Consider that remarkable when you think how often directors can barely do two things without it seeming like too much for them to make tough decisions on.  The visuals alone are enough to recommend the movie in some fashion.  It’s rare to see dreams put on screen with such clarity or cleverness but Burns has done it and they’re both distinctive and disturbing at the same time.   

Where Burns does suffer some is in the newbie-ness that comes with being a junior member of the indie directors coming up right now.  The first thing he has to do is find someone to show him how to direct a sex scene because there’s one in Come True that is so uncomfortably awkward I had to put my hands over my face until it was over.  I can’t explain it, you’ll just have to witness it for yourself.  Then there’s that ending which is just a love it or hate it kind of deal and I just c-o-u-l-d-n’t go with it…sorry, but I couldn’t.  Not when applied to what came before in the previous 100 minutes.  If you’re going to throw a wrench in your already twisted plot, make sure it’s at least part of the same family of tools. 

While IFC Midnight isn’t having quite the rock ‘em, sock ‘em year they had in 2020, their titles so far in 2021 (The Night, The Vigil) have been more cerebral than anything else and there’s room for those in the horror genre as well.  Come True follows suit which I supposed keeps it on brand. While it may leave viewers scratching their heads when the credits roll, up until then the stuff the dreams are made of are a pretty psychologically scarred picture indeed.