Review: ‘Lakewood,’ starring Naomi Watts

September 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Naomi Watts in “Lakewood” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

“Lakewood”

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. city called Lakewood, the dramatic film “Lakewood” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed mother races against time to get to the high school where her teenage son is at during a school shooting. 

Culture Audience: “Lakewood” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Naomi Watts, but this movie is an erratic mix of realistic suspense and unrealistic melodrama.

“Lakewood” is intriguing but infuriating in how it depicts a mother’s frantic attempts to “rescue” her teenage son during a deadly shooting spree at his high school. Thanks to star Naomi Watts’ talent, the movie authentically shows how parents would panic in this situation and would want to do whatever it takes to get their children to safety. However, “Lakewood” becomes a tacky melodrama and demolishes a lot of the movie’s credibility with a few manipulative plot twists, including the heroic mother suddenly acting as if she’s a member of law enforcement.

Directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Chris Sparling, “Lakewood” takes place in a fictional suburban U.S. city called Lakewood, but the movie was actually filmed in North Bay, Ontario. “Lakewood” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Watts portrays central character Amy Carr, a widow who is grieving over the loss of her beloved husband Peter (played by Chris Marren in brief flashbacks), who died in a car accident nearly a year before this story takes place. Amy and Peter’s two children are Noah (played by Colton Gobbo), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, and Emily (played by Sierra Maltby), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. They live in a middle-class area on a quiet, tree-lined street.

The movie begins on what the Carr family thinks will be a typical and uneventful day. It’s a Friday in September. Amy is shown signs of being depressed because she’s lying in bed, looking mournful, and listening to a self-help motivational recording on her phone. She decides she’s going to take a personal day off from work (she works as an auditor for the fictional Marion County Division of Taxation), so she texts her supervisor and says that she will be back at work on Monday.

Not long after a school bus picks up Emily to take her to Lakewood Elementary School, Amy goes into Noah’s room to see if he’s awake. Noah attends Lakewood High School. The door to Noah’s bedroom is barricaded with furniture, but Amy manages to get inside. To her dismay, she sees that Noah is still in bed.

Noah says he’s feeling sick and won’t be going to school. Amy makes an attempt to convince him to get out of bed, but he refuses. Amy then leaves him alone and says that they’ll talk about it later after she comes back from a morning jog. Viewers find out a little later that Amy doesn’t plan to be gone for long because she has an appointment later that morning with a repairman who is coming to the home to fix a hole in a wall that Noah punched out of anger.

It’s explained later in the story that Amy’s relationship with Noah has become very strained, ever since Peter died. Noah was very close to Peter and took his tragic death very hard. Noah has become emotionally distant but also shows flashes of anger, as evidenced by the hole he punched in the wall. During her morning jog, Amy finds out something else about Noah through a phone conversation with one of her friends who has a child at the same high school as Noah: Noah is being bullied at school.

Amy goes for her morning jog in a nearby wooded area that’s fairly deserted. Because most of this movie chronicles Amy’s frantic race through the woods, she spends a lot of her time communicating with other people by phone. Before all hell breaks loose, she speaks to a co-worker named Greg Minor (voiced by Jason Clarke); the wall repairman (voiced by Juan Pope); her mother (voiced by Edie Mirman); and Amy’s close friend Heather (voiced by Michelle Johnston). While Amy is having these conversations, she notices some police squad cars speeding by on a nearby road.

And then, the frantic calls to Amy start. It starts with an emergency text alert that the local police have sent to announce that all of the schools in Lakewood are in lockdown and that parents and other loved ones must stay away from the schools. The police have set up a shelter at a local community center where students and their loved ones can gather, and more information will be given later. Through a series of calls and looking up information on the Internet, it isn’t long before Amy finds out that there’s an active shooter at Lakewood High School and that Noah did end up going to school that day.

Amy does a map search and finds out that she’s four miles from the community center, and it would take about one hour to get there by foot. She’s unable to reach Noah on his phone, but she finds out that Emily and the people at Emily’s school are safe and sound at the shelter. There are very few people Amy can call to pick her up in the woods to give her a ride on such short notice. The ones she calls are either not answering their phone or they are parents who are already at the shelter and don’t want to leave.

In desperate need of transportation, Amy books a ride with a Lyft driver (played by Paul Pape) to pick her up, while she continues to run in a panic through the woods. But then, the driver calls to tell her that he’s stuck in traffic and won’t get there for at least another 40 minutes. Amy doesn’t want to wait that long, so she keeps running. There’s a point in the story where she changes her plans to go to the community center and decides to go to Lakewood High School instead.

And in a melodramatic movie like this, Amy predictably stumbles and injures herself in the woods. Twice. The first injury happens early on in her race to get out of the woods. Amy sprains one of her ankles, so for the most of the movie, she runs around with a limp. In the other injury, she falls down and hits her head.

These injuries don’t stop Amy, of course. She wades through a creek, runs through the woods like a marathoner, and becomes a one-woman detective agency through a series of phone calls, text messages and Internet searches. The movie also reveals if Noah is a victim or if he’s the shooter.

Amy’s tripping in the woods isn’t the only thing that stumbles about “Lakewood.” The movie takes a steep nosedive into ridiculousness when Amy starts acting like she’s a law enforcement juggernaut. She takes certain matters into her own hands and breaks a law or two to do it. It’s not too far-fetched that a panic-stricken parent would want to act this way.

What’s far-fetched and too hard to take about this movie is that the law enforcement officers ultimately approve of what Amy does and go along with it. And that’s why “Lakewood” becomes just a crass and borderline offensive way to depict what parents would be allowed to do in an active shooter situation. This movie takes the real-life turmoil that parents and other loved ones feel in similar situations and warps the reality of how law enforcement handles these tragedies, just for the sake of making a movie more dramatic.

“Lakewood” star Watts—who is in almost every scene of “Lakewood” and is one of the movie’s producers—brings a lot of believable anguish to the role, so her performance is definitely this movie’s biggest asset. And “Lakewood” certainly has effective technical elements (such as cinematography, music, editing) in building a lot of suspense. But when the movie concocts a ridiculous fantasy of Amy being able to do certain things faster and better than trained law enforcement, it’s just so wrong, distasteful and ultimately insulting to people who have endured these school shooting traumas in real life.

UPDATE: Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “Lakewood” in 2022, on a date to be announced.

Review ‘Silk Road’ (2021), starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp in “Silk Road” (Photo by Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate)

“Silk Road” (2021)

Directed by Tiller Russell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Baltimore, Austin, San Francisco and briefly in Utah and Australia from 2010 to 2013, the crime drama “Silk Road” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Based on real events, a rebellious young man becomes a multimillionaire after starting a darknet website called Silk Road, which becomes a popular destination to buy illegal items, and he becomes the target of FBI and DEA stings after bragging about the website in media interviews.

Culture Audience: “Silk Road” will appeal to people who are interested in true crime movies that have good acting but are ultimately predictable and formulaic.

Jason Clarke and Darrell Britt-Gibson in “Silk Road” Photo by Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate)

Even if you didn’t know that the crime drama “Silk Road” is based on a true story, it’s very easy to see within the first 10 minutes of the film that the main character is going to get busted for something major and illegal. “Silk Road” (written and directed by Tiller Russell) is the dramatic retelling of what happened when a brash tech entrepreneur named Ross Ulbricht launched a darknet website called Silk Road as an online marketplace to sell illegal items through cryptocurrency—just because he didn’t feel like working in an honest job.

It’s a tale of hubris and greed that’s somewhat oversimplified in this film. “Silk Road” has solid performances from most of the cast members, but also too many eye-rolling moments of melodrama that were obviously fabricated for the movie. The movie gets a lot of elements wrong in how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigated this case.

Most people who’ve heard of Silk Road associate it with sales of illegal drugs. However, the website was also known for many other types of sales, such as illegal weapons, stolen identity information and even the services of assassins. When Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in 2013, at the age of 29, Silk Road had been operational for two years, and his net worth was estimated at $28 million, according to Forbes.

In 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents and conspiracy to traffic narcotics by means of the Internet. That same year, he was sentenced to a double life sentence plus 40 years without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht and his supporters have been trying to get his prison sentence reduced.

All of this information has been widely reported. And therefore, many people watching this movie will already know what happened to Ulbricht and his punishment in real life. Viewers of “Silk Road” will mainly watch out of curiosity to see what led to Ulbricht’s rapid rise as a cybercriminal and how it all came crashing down on him.

However, the “Silk Road” movie spends almost as much time on the story of a fictional DEA agent named Rick Bowden (played by Jason Clarke), who ends up playing a “cat and mouse” game in his quest to bust Ulbricht. Nick Robinson portrays Ross Ulbricht with the expected mix of cockiness and insecurity that’s typical of people who commit these audacious crimes. The Rick Bowden character, who has a quick temper and a troubled soul, is supposed to be a composite of real-life law enforcement agents who worked on the Ulbricht investigation.

Clarke is a very good actor, but the movie’s deep dives into Rick’s personal life, including his alcoholism and marital problems, just seem superfluous and don’t leave much room to answer a lot of questions about Ulbricht. Do viewers really need to know that Rick has a special-needs daughter at home and is worried about how to pay for tuition to a private school that can better handle her needs? No.

There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s intro that cheekily reads: “This story is true. Except for what we made up and changed.” Writer/director Russell’s “Silk Road” is based on David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone magazine article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall.” This movie is not to be confused with director Mark de Cloe’s 2017 Norwegian “Silk Road” movie that covered the same topic.

In the movie’s opening scene, which takes place in San Francisco in 2013, Ross makes his way to a public library as he says in a voiceover: “For years, I was frustrated by what seemed to be insurmountable barriers between the world as it is and the world I wanted. So, I began making a website where people could buy and sell anything anonymously.”

Ross continues, “Silk Road is about something much bigger than thumbing your nose at ‘the man.’ It’s about taking back our liberty. As corny as it sounds, I just want to look back on my life and know I did something that helped people.” As he sits down at a library desk with his laptop computer, Ross gets a phone call. And then, the movie goes into flashback mode. It’s at this point you know that the movie will go back to this library scene because it has something to do with his arrest.

“Silk Road” jumps back and forth in the timelines for Ross and Rick, as if to show how these two men’s lives eventually collide. (The movie takes place from 2010 to 2013.) In 2010, Ross was a well-educated, aspiring entrepreneur living in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He was a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas (he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics) and Pennsylvania State University (he graduated in 2009 with a master’s degree in materials science and engineering), but his career was floundering with some failed business ventures, including a mobile bookstore called GoodWagon.

During this time in his life, Ross declared himself to be a Libertarian. He was also a devotee of the iconoclastic political theories of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. As Ross smugly explains to someone at one of the many parties he’s depicted as going to in the movie: “Every action that we take outside of the government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.”

He also imparts this philosophy that he believes in passionately: “The state cannot legislate what a person can and cannot do. It’s un-American.” And later in the movie, Ross repeats to people closest to him what he believes about himself: He thinks he was destined to change the world. Is it any wonder that this guy thought that the law didn’t apply to him?

It’s at one of these parties in Austin that Ross meets Julia (played by Alexandra Shipp), a student at the University of Texas at Austin who shares Ross’ love of partying. (The Julia character is based on the real-life Julia Bates.) She’s intrigued by his self-assured ways. And they quickly become lovers, by hooking up on the same night that they meet. When he tells Julia what his philosophies on life are, Julia’s response is, “Seriously? I fucked a Libertarian.”

Meanwhile, in 2010, as Ulbricht was planning to “change the world,” DEA agent Rick Bowden is shown in Baltimore trying to get his life back on the right track. Fresh out of rehab for alcoholism and a stint in a psych ward, Rick is cranky when he makes his way to a convenience store, where he tries not to stare at the liquor on sale. Rick is looking disheveled and rough around the edges, as if he no longer cares about his physical appearance.

At the convenience store, Rick sees a confidential informant named Rayford (played by Darrell Britt-Gibson), who’s happy to see Rick. But Rick isn’t thrilled to see Rayford, especially when Rayford loudly mentions that he heard that Rick was recently in rehab and a psych ward. When Rayford notices Rick’s standoffish demeanor and says, “I thought we were friends,” Rick growls in response: “I have no friends. I have informants.”

The movie eventually reveals (but does not show in flashbacks) that Rick had a meltdown during a drug bust in Puerto Rico (he called a crime boss a “Mongloid”), and this meltdown sent him over the edge and eventually into rehab. Because he’s now been labeled as a loose cannon, Rick has been reassigned to work in the DEA’s cybercrimes unit. He argues with his supervisor Johnny Morales (played by David DeLao) about the transfer, but Johnny tells him that the decision was made by his superiors and there’s nothing he can do about it.

It’s a transfer that Rick hates, because he thinks it’s a demotion and a wimpy office job. He prefers to be out in the field as an undercover agent. And to make matters worse, Rick doesn’t even know how to use a computer and he has to teach himself. This part of the movie is very far-fetched. It’s as if we’re supposed to believe that the DEA couldn’t be bothered to train Rick in computer skills.

Rick is also annoyed that his new supervisor in the cybercrimes unit—a 26-year-old guy named Shields (played by Will Ropp)—is young enough to be Rick’s son. Shields knows that Rick is practically computer illiterate, so he tells Rick in a condescending manner that Rick should think of this reassignment as a way to coast on the job and collect an easy paycheck. But hard-driving Rick can’t be that complacent. Needless to say, Shields and Rick clash with each other in this story.

Meanwhile, back in Austin, the relationship between Ross and Julia heats up and it becomes serious enough where they end up living together and she meets his parents. In one of the better scenes in the movie, Ross and Julia have dinner with Ross’ parents at the parents’ house. This scene gives a lot of insight into his family dynamics and what might have driven Ross to become an antisocial criminal.

During this dinner, Ross’ father Kirk (played by Mark Silversten) doesn’t hold back on belittling Ross in front of Julia. Kirk expresses his disappointment in Ross not being able to find a steady career path. Ross has a pattern of coming up with business ideas, sometimes launching these businesses, and then giving up when things don’t happen as quickly as he’d like. And that pattern has led his father to lose respect for Ross. Ross’ mother Lynn (played by Beth Bailey) is portrayed as someone who’s more understanding and not as judgmental as her husband is about Ross’ business failures.

Based on this “meet the parents” dinner scene, it’s easy to speculate that one of Ross’ motivations to start Silk Road was to get rich quick to impress a lot of people, including his father. Sure enough, shortly after that dinner, when a scowling Ross walks away from the house with Julia, he comes up with the idea for Silk Road. And almost immediately, the website because a darknet sensation. It isn’t long before Ross is making millions from Silk Road.

Julia and Ross’ close friend Max (played by Daniel David Stewart) know about Ross’ illegal activities and express their concerns to him, but Ross ignores their warnings that he could get arrested. As Ross says, “The war on drugs is a farce.” In the movie, Julia and Max are portrayed as stoners who prefer to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude when it comes to Silk Road.

Just as in real life, the movie shows that Ross used the alias Dread Pirate Roberts (the name of a character in “The Princess Bride” fantasy novel and movie) as his Silk Road persona. Ross doesn’t call attention to himself by lavishly spending his fortune. Just like in real life, the movie shows that he continued to live in a modest apartment up until the day of his arrest.

However, Ross made the mistake of giving an interview about Silk Road to the gossip website Gawker. He did the interview based on an impulsive suggestion by Julia, who knew the Gawker reporter personally. The reporter, whose name is Adrian Chen (played by Walter Anaruk), does the interview by phone, and Ross obviously doesn’t use his real name for the interview. But Ross gives enough information about Silk Road so that it will be easy to find.

The subsequent publicity from the Gawker article and coverage by other media outlets made Silk Road more popular than ever and Ross made millions more in revenue. But it came at a very steep price. You can’t really have an “underground” website if it’s getting a lot of media coverage. And so, law enforcement inevitably started investigating Silk Road.

In an obviously contrived part of the movie, Rick ends up enlisting his informant Rayford to teach him more about darknet activities. The movie makes it look like Rick never even heard of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin until Rayford told him. Seriously, what people watching this movie are going to believe that a DEA agent is that clueless? And then, there are the inevitable scenes of Rick trying out Silk Road himself by buying illegal drugs off of the website as a test to see how Silk Road works.

Rick feels territorial about wanting to get the most credit for busting the owner of Silk Road, so he’s not very cooperative when the FBI also does its own investigation. Two of the FBI agents who are part of the sting include Chris Tarbell (played by Jimmi Simpson) and Kim Yum (played by Jennifer Yun). Rick also doesn’t want to share too many details about his investigation with his boss Shields, because he thinks Shields will ruin Rick’s chances of completing the investigation.

Meanwhile, there’s an entire subplot about Rick’s shaky marriage to his wife Sandy (played by Katie Aselton), a nurse who wants to continue to be loyal to and supportive of him, but he makes it difficult with his erratic ways. They have a daughter named Edie (played by Lexi Rabe), who is about 7 or 8 years old and has a learning disability. It’s hinted at in the movie that Sandy and Rick have been separated in the past, and not just because he was in rehab.

Edie has an opportunity to get a scholarship to a private school that’s better-equipped to teach special-needs kids. Rick becomes so consumed with the Silk Road investigation, that it puts more strain on his marriage. There’s a scene where Rick’s workaholic ways result in him blowing a chance for Edie to get that school scholarship because he skips a meeting that he and Sandy were supposed to have with school officials.

Ross’ obsession with Silk Road also causes problems in his personal life, as Julia becomes fed up with Ross spending more time locked in a room with his laptop computer than paying attention to her. At one point in the story, Ross goes to Australia, where he is visited by his younger sister Cally (played by Raleigh Cain), who sees that Ross is preoccupied and hiding something, but she’s kept in the dark about his illegal activities.

Ross eventually relocates to San Francisco. And one of Ross’ main Silk Road sellers named Curtis Clark Green (played by Paul Walter Hauser), who lives in Utah and uses the online alias Chronic Pain, plays a key role in Ross’ downfall. The movie makes it look like Rick orchestrated the sting that eventually led to Ross’ arrest.

By spending so much time on the personal problems and office politics of DEA agent Bowden, “Silk Road” gets distracted and doesn’t provide a lot of details that would have improved this movie. For example, there’s not much insight into how Ross was able to set up his Silk Road business so quickly. One minute he’s talking about selling illegal things on the Internet. The next minute, Silk Road has launched with no explanation for how he was able to get such a large network of sellers—the people who listed their items for sale on the website and were responsible for mailing these items to customers.

The direction of the movie also takes a ludicrous turn when it tries to make it look like Rick going “rogue” was the reason why the investigation progressed in the way that it did. In reality, a DEA agent would have a hard time keeping the sheer amount of work needed for this investigation a secret from a supervisor and other co-workers. And the movie has an unnecessary subtext that Rick has a personal resentment toward millennials (based on some demeaning comments he makes), which is one of the motivations for him to take down Ross.

However, one of the things that “Silk Road” writer/director Russell does get right is including solid counterpoints to Ross’ constant claims that he was operating a “victimless” business. The movie mentions drug fatalities that came directly from drugs bought on Silk Road. There’s really no telling how many people died in other ways because of Silk Road transactions, but Ross is portrayed in the movie as not too concerned (or in a lot of denial) about people getting hurt by Silk Road.

Unfortunately, the movie missed an opportunity to have more exploration of who else profited from Silk Road, since the website required a vast network of people for it to become as huge as it was. Ulbricht might have been the mastermind, but he had plenty of help along the way. And that would’ve been a more fascinating story than the typical “burnout/workaholic cop out for revenge” story arc that takes up so much screen time in “Silk Road.”

Lionsgate released “Silk Road” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

2018 Venice International Film Festival: ‘First Man’ announced as opening-night film

July 19, 2018

Universal Pictures’ First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and starring Ryan Gosling,Jason Clarke and Claire Foy, has been announced as the opening film, in Competition, of the 75th Venice International Film Festival (August 29 – September 8, 2018), directed by Alberto Barbera and organized by the Biennale di Venezia, chaired by Paolo Baratta. The announcement of the world premiere of the film comes on the eve of 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

Barbera declared: “It is a true privilege to present the world premiere of Damien Chazelle’s new, highly-awaited film. It is a very personal, original and compelling piece of work, wonderfully unexpected within the context of present day epic films, and a confirmation of the great talent of one of the most important contemporary directors of American cinema. Our gratitude goes to Universal Pictures for premiering First Manat the 75th Venice Film Festival.”

Chazelle declared: “I am humbled by Venice’s invitation and am thrilled to return. It feels especially poignant to share this news so close to the moon landing’s anniversary. I eagerly look forward to bringing the film to the festival.”

First Man will be shown in its world premiere screening on Wednesday August 29, in the Sala Grande at the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido di Venezia.

On the heels of their six-time Academy Award®-winning smash, La La Land, Oscar®-winning director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling reteam for Universal Pictures’ First Man, the riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969. A visceral, first-person account, based on the book by James R. Hansen, the movie will explore the sacrifices and the cost—on Armstrong and on the nation—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.

Written by Academy Award® winner Josh Singer (Spotlight), the drama is produced by Wyck Godfrey & Marty Bowen (The Twilight SagaThe Fault in Our Stars) through their Temple Hill Entertainment banner, alongside Chazelle.  Steven Spielberg, Isaac Klausner, Adam Merims and Singer executive produce.  DreamWorks Pictures co-finances the film.