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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Complex webs of crime—and sometimes punishment

Screen Grabs: Complex webs of crime—and sometimes punishment

Silk Road tells a sordid tale of drugs and the Internet. Plus: Mafia King, Test Pattern, and a very Wrong Turn

Crime actually does pay—at least to a point—for the protagonists in two of this week’s more notable streaming releases, both liberally dramatized takes on high-profile, real-life cases. Silk Road is about the short-lived (2011-13) “darknet” platform often described as “eBay for drugs,” which permitted users to buy all kinds of contraband goods anonymously, their identify kept secret by a combination of elements including Bitcoin payment and generic (such as USPS or Fed Ex) delivery services. 

Naturally, this was an idea doomed to catch the attention of law-enforcement authorities in a big hurry, though that seemingly came as a surprise to Silk Road’s mastermind. Ross Ulbricht (played here by Nick Robinson) was a Texas-raised college grad enraptured with libertarian economic theories, who believed it was “un-American” for “the government to tell you what you can and can’t do”—though our government, like every other, has done exactly that since its inception. 

After a couple failed initial ventures he hit on “using the internet as an instrument of liberty” by, well, peddling drugs. (The film sidesteps entirely the matter of where those drugs came from, and barely acknowledges the harm they might do.) In a heartbeat the site was generating over $1 million per day. But needless to say, this did not go unnoticed by the Feds, with the result that about 30 months after he launched Silk Road, the 29-year-old Ulbricht was arrested—in San Francisco, where he was then living incognito. 

Writer-director Tiller Russell’s film gives nearly-equal screentime to Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, a ringer who’s going to be the obvious choice someday to play current Most Hated Man in the Universe Ted Cruz), a DEA agent. Personal problems get him re-assigned from cartel-busting to a cybercrimes unit, where his computer illiteracy is a major stumbling block. However, in a rather patly drawn “Us old-school dudes aren’t as useless as you brats think” contrast, his street smarts end up ensnaring tech-savvy Ulbricht anyhow. (An opening disclaimer makes it unclear just how much this narrative resembles what actually happened.) 

It’s a great story, with a potentially great antihero (or even two), but Silk Road doesn’t seem to have a perspective on it. Robinson’s pretty, pouty Ross says things on the soundtrack like “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to change the world,” and a coda suggests the movie thinks he got a raw deal in his harsh sentencing. Yet depending on the views you already hold, he’ll come across here either as a classic libertarian hero-entrepreneur championing the free market to benefit all, or a classic libertarian shit purveying self-interest as “liberty.” 

I subscribe to the second angle, so it was difficult to swallow a film that seemed to give Ulbricht’s exploitative profiteering and entitled self-absorption too free a pass. Nor does it help that Russell’s screenplay falls into various true-crime cliche traps, or that the women here (Alexandra Shipp as Ross’ girlfriend, Katie Aselton as Rick’s wife) get stuck with the most thankless kinds of nagging/worrying doormat roles. This remains an interesting tale that hopefully will one day have a better movie made about it. Lionsgate is currently releasing Silk Road to VOD, digital, DVD and Blu-ray formats.

Considerably more satisfying is Mafia Inc, which likewise utilizes dramatic license in creating a clean (but still complex) narrative from the tangled web of journalists Andre Cedilot and Andre Noel’s original Canadian best-seller. Their big-picture view of a largely Italian-heritage, Montreal-based organized crime network is here narrowed to the evolving conflict between coldblooded syndicate boss Frank Paterno (Sergio Castellitto) and hot-tempered lieutenant Vince Gamache (Marc-Andre Grondin), who’s taken into “the family” after doing a solid by Frank’s son Giaco (Donny Falsetti) when they’re both teens. But as Vince’s fortunes rise, so does his recklessness, setting him on a collision course with the Paternos—even as government investigators and rival criminal operations close in on the whole, multinational racket. 

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Not as stylistically flamboyant or graphically violent as your Scorsese-style mob joint, director Podz and scenarist Sylvain Guy’s film is nonetheless in the same ballpark, delivering the same kinds of rewards in terms of tension and intrigue. You may be surprised this sort of thing happens in Canada at all. But then as in GoodfellasThe Irishman, et al., the milieu depicted is so self-protectively insular, mainstream society hardly factors into it. Mafia Inc (on VOD and digital from Film Movement) is a strong thriller-cum-expose whose 2.5 hours pretty much fly by.

Crime of a very different sort provides the question mark at the center of Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern, which starts out not-all-that-promisingly with the meeting and courtship of an interracial couple, corporate development specialist Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and professional tattoo artist Evan (Will Brill). They’ve moved in together by the time her friend Amber (Gail Bean) insists on a “girls’ night out” that he declines to turn co-ed. 

At the upscale bar they go to, the two women are approached by a couple slick dudes supposedly “in e-commerce” (Drew Fuller, Ben Levin), and Renesha reluctantly bows to her pal’s pressure to party. Only things soon get out of control—have the women been drugged?—and to her horror, our heroine finds herself waking up in a hotel bed, with no idea how she got there or what happened. It is Evan who insists later that they go to a hospital to access a rape kit, something that turns into a trauma-compounding nightmare of bureaucratic evasion and red tape.

Set in Austin, Test Pattern is deliberately discomfiting, ambiguous, and ambivalent in depicting exactly the sorts of situations where in real life you’d hope for saving clarity. Some directorial decisions border on the excessively mannered. But even then, Ford arrests your attention. This is a movie whose bold strokes and arguable flaws alike announce a confident new talent. Kino Lorber has released it to virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee (more info here).

Moving from the equivocal to the crudely on-the-nose, there’s the new Wrong Turn, which could hardly be more aptly titled as an auto-critique, even as it’s going to piss off horror fans who followed the prior series of six (!) films under that name. The first one was a straightforward but taut 2003 thriller in which some unlucky backroads travelers found themselves confronting cannibal yokels in a sort of Appalachian The Hills Have Eyes. The intervening five sequels were uninspired trash, but at least they kept the basic concept. This reboot, however, leads one to expect more of the same, then goes in an entirely different direction—a terrible, terrible direction, albeit one so ill-conceived you kind of have to admire the filmmakers’ wildly-misapplied chutzpah.

Actually Turn goes wrong almost immediately, as the movie makes the most pandering kind of forced “inclusive” casting/character choices, which are evolved only in the sense that apparently gays are now the new Black people in horror cinema (i.e. here because “diversity,” yet dispatched first to gory death.) This wee rainbow coalition of sheltered, collegiate daypackers duly gets lost in the woods, quickly stumbling into traps. After numerous endless “We’ve got to get the fuck outta here!!!” conversations, they then get abducted by presumably barbaric hillbillies. 

At that point, series creator Alan B. McElroy springs a surprise that is meant to even our sympathies out, but which instead only heightens the film’s cartoonish blue-vs.-red stereotyping. While I won’t play spoiler, suffice it to say this Wrong Turn winds up being quite possibly the most flabbergastingly muddled attempt to inject political commentary into a horror movie since Neal LaBute ruined The Wicker Man fifteen years ago. 

It’s all so ludicrous, with mile-wide logic gaps, that you might wonder at times whether director Mike P. Nelson & co. are playing some kind of convoluted joke on the viewer. But the sadcore closing-credits version of “This Land Is Your Land” (yes, even worse than J-Lo’s) suggests they really believe they are Making A Statement. You know, about “the state of the mind of the world today.” (That is an actual press-release quote from Nelson.) I kinda hated this movie, but nonetheless appreciate that it’s quite bonkers enough to perhaps someday become a kind of camp classic. If you must, it is On Demand, Digital, Blue-ray and DVD from Saban Films as of Tues/23. 

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