Review: ‘Queenpins,’ starring Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Paul Walter Hauser, Bebe Rexha and Vince Vaughn

September 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Kristen Bell in “Queenpins” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Queenpins”

Directed by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Southwest region of the United States and in Chihuahua, Mexico, the comedy film “Queenpins” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class

Culture Clash: A neglected housewife and her best friend team up for a coupon-stealing scam that could make them millions of dollars.

Culture Audience: “Queenpins” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Kristen Bell and anyone who likes cliché-filled comedies.

Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn in “Queenpins” (Photo courtesy STX)

“Queenpins” could have been a hilarious satire of coupon culture, but this boring and unimaginative comedy fizzles at the halfway mark and never recovers. Kristen Bell is usually the best thing about any of the bad movies she’s in, but in “Queenpins,” she just seems to be going through the motions. This movie has several talented stars but they’re stuck portraying two-dimensional characters and are forced to say a lot of cringeworthy dialogue that isn’t very funny.

Written and directed by husband-and-wife duo Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, “Queenpins” hits all the cliché beats of comedies about ordinary people who decide to rob the rich in order to fight back at an unfair system. The movie is inspired by true events. In “Queenpins,” the thieves are unhappily married homemaker Connie Kaminski (played by Bell) and unemployed YouTube personality Joanna “JoJo” Johnson (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who are best friends and next-door neighbors in Phoenix. Connie and JoJo are in debt and are tired of being broke.

Within six months, Connie and JoJo end up making $5 million in a scam of stealing coupons from a coupon redemption company called Advanced Solutions and then reselling the coupons. Because they’re committing fraud against major corporations, Connie and JoJo think of themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods—except they don’t really give any of their misbegotten fortune to poor people. They end up keeping the $5 million for themselves. And then, they panic because they think they should launder the money. And so, Connie and JoJo get mixed up in illegal gun deals and other shenanigans.

This scam was all Connie’s idea. She’s become a coupon addict, ever since she had a miscarriage of a baby girl. Connie is using her coupon addiction to cope with her grief. Connie’s aloof husband Rick Kaminski (played by Joel McHale) is a senior audit specialist for the Internal Revenue Service. The couple had been trying to start a family through in vitro fertilization treatments, which have left Connie and Rick more than $71,000 in debt.

Connie and Rick’s arguments with each other are mostly about money. Because of Connie’s coupon-using obsession, she has overstocked their home with products that they don’t need. After the miscarriage, Rick decided to take on more traveling responsibilities in his job, so he’s away from home for about three weeks out of any given month.

JoJo lives with her cranky mother Josephine Johnson (played by Greta Oglesby), also known as Mama Josie, who’s gotten tired of supporting her jobless daughter. JoJo has been trying and failing to become a beauty-product guru on YouTube. And she’s heavily in debt because she was the victim of identity theft, which ruined her credit. At first, JoJo is very reluctant to get involved in Connie’s plans to commit coupon fraud, but Connie convinces JoJo that they probably won’t get caught.

During their coupon-theft scheme, Connie and JoJo predictably come across a series of “wacky characters” and the inevitable people who try to bust these coupon scammers. The first authority figure who gets suspicious of this fraud is uptight but dimwitted Ken Miller (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a loss protection manager for the Southwest region of a supermarket chain called A&G. He’s eventually joined by gruff-mannered Simon Kilmurry (played by Vince Vaughn), a U.S. Postal Service inspector. Ken and Simon both have huge egos and inevitably clash over who should be in charge of the investigation.

“Queenpins” has a talented cast, but the problem is in the dull screenplay and hackneyed direction. Connie and JoJo have believable chemistry together as friends, but the supporting characters just come in and out of the story like disconnected pieces of a puzzle. Bebe Rexha plays a bustier-wearing, cynical ex-friend of Connie’s named Tempe Tina, who is a con artist/computer hacker extraordinaire who dresses in all-black clothing. Connie and JoJo go to Tina for advice on how to be successful criminals.

“Queenpins” attempts to make jokes about race relations that end up falling flat. JoJo’s mother constantly has to point out what she sees as differences between white people and black people. Mama Josie has a fear of JoJo losing her “blackness” by hanging out too much with white people like Connie and having the same interests that Connie has. Mama Josie’s mindset is racist, but it’s somehow supposed to be excused and thought of as humorous in this movie. This attitude becomes annoying after a while.

And when Connie and JoJo go to Chihuahua, Mexico, they recruit a married Mexican couple named Alejandro (played by Francisco J. Rodriguez) and Rosa (played by Ilia Isorelýs Paulinoa), who work at Advanced Solutions’ biggest factory. Alejandro and Rosa are enlisted to steal the boxes of coupons that end up making about $5 million for Connie and JoJo. When Connie and JoJo first meet Alejandro and Rosa, they follow the couple by car when they see Alejandro and Rosa outside of the factory.

Alejandro and Rosa mistakenly think that Connie and JoJo want to rob them, so the couple almost physically assaults the two pals, until Connie and JoJo explain that they want to hire Alejandro and Rosa for this theft. Rosa explains why she and her husband were so quick to attack: “You never follow people in Mexico,” thereby stereotyping Mexico as a dangerous place all the time.

The movie makes a very weak attempt at social commentary about labor exploitation and how American companies outsource jobs to other countries for cheaper labor. But those ideas are left by the wayside, as the movie follows a very over-used formula of amateur criminals (Connie and JoJo) who make things worse for themselves. As an example of how “Queenpins” brings up and then abandons labor exploitation issues, Connie and JoJo are shocked that Alejandro and Rosa each make a factory salary of only $2 an hour, but then Connie and JoJo continue with their selfish and greedy plans.

Viewers won’t have much sympathy for Connie and JoJo because they make so many dumb mistakes. As a way to sell their stolen coupons, Connie and JoJo create a website, which is not on the Dark Web, called Savvy Super Saver. JoJo also peddles the coupons on her YouTube channel, thereby making it very easy to identify her as one of the culprits.

“Queenpins” is told mainly from Connie’s perspective, because she is the one who does the movie’s voiceover narration. Connie has an unusual history as a three-time Olympic gold medalist in race walking, but that background is barely explored in the movie. Instead, Connie says a lot of uninteresting things in her bland dialogue.

Of her Olympic experiences, she comments: “You know what that’s worth in the real world? Nothing!” She has this personal motto on saving money in her coupon fixation: “Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” And when Connie decides to become a criminal, she explains her justification to JoJo this way: “You know who gets rewarded? People who don’t follow the rules. It’s time we start bending them a little!”

Among the other irritating aspects of “Queenpins” are the overly intrusive sitcom-ish musical score and soundtrack choices. When Connie struts into a business meeting with the fake persona of being a powerhouse entrepreneur, she wears a snug-fitting blue dress and blue blazer, while the movie’s soundtrack blares Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ 1967 hit “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” It’s just too “on the nose” and corny, just like the majority of this movie. There’s a gross (but not too explicit) defecation scene involving Ken, after he talks about his food habits and defecation routine, which seems like a lazy and cheap shot at someone who’s plus-sized.

Some of the other supporting characters in “Queenpins” include postal carrier Earl (played by Dayo Okeniyi), who has a crush on JoJo and becomes her obvious love interest; Greg Garcia (played by Eduardo Franco), a jaded cashier at the A&G store where Connie does her grocery shopping; a coupon buyer named Crystal (played by Annie Mumolo), who reports her suspicions about JoJo; and Agent Park (played by Jack McBrayer), one of the law enforcement agents involved in a sting to capture Connie and JoJo.

“Queenpins” has all the characteristics of a substandard TV comedy, which means it’s certainly not worth the price of a movie ticket. People who are very bored, have low standards, or are die-hard fans of any of the “Queenpins” headliners might get some enjoyment out of this film. At one point in the movie, Bell’s Connie character says, “You may be asking yourself, ‘Who won and who lost in all of this?’ I guess that’s really for you to decide.” If you don’t want to lose or waste any time on silly comedies that don’t do anything original, then you can decide to skip “Queenpins.”

STX will release “Queenpins” in select U.S. cinemas (exclusively in Cinemark theaters) on September 10, 2021. Paramount+ will premiere “Queenpins” on September 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Cruella,’ starring Emma Stone

May 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone in “Cruella” (Photo by Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Cruella”

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1952 to 1974 in England (primarily in London), the comedy/drama “Cruella” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this “101 Dalmatians” origin story, an aspiring fashion designer has conflicts with her cruel boss and vows to get revenge. 

Culture Audience: “Cruella” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, as well as anyone who doesn’t mind watching lengthy origin-story movies of classic Disney characters.

Emma Thompson in “Cruella” (Photo by Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

In this “battle of the villains” origin story, “Cruella” can be a little too overstuffed and filled with inconsistencies, but the dynamic duo of Emma Stone and Emma Thompson (as well as top-notch costume design) elevate this sometimes tedious movie. “Cruella” is a prequel to Disney’s 1996 live-action “101 Dalmations” movie, starring Glenn Close as villain Cruella de Vil. “Cruella” benefits from having a talented cast, including Stone as Cruella during her youth in England. At a total running time of 134 minutes, “Cruella” might test the patience of people with short attention spans, but the movie has enough dazzling moments and star charisma to hold people’s interests during the best parts of the film.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, “Cruella” at times seems a little too enamored with itself and could have benefited from a slyer sense of comedy. The jokes sometimes fall very flat, and the pacing drags during the middle section of the film. It’s a shame, really, because Stone and Thompson have immense comedic talent, but so much of it could have been put to better use if the “Cruella” screenplay (written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara) had been wittier and more creative. The supporting characters are underwritten by not having enough depth to their personalities. (Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s novel “The One Hundred and One Dalmations” is the basis of this movie franchise.)

“Cruella,” which occasionally features Stone’s voiceover narration as Cruella, begins by literally showing Cruella at birth (in 1952), and being raised by her mother Catherine (played by Emily Beecham), a mild-mannered and patient single parent. Cruella’s birth name is Estella, and the movie shows that she was born with her famous two-toned hair, which is black on one side and white on another. It’s later shown how she gave herself the nickname Cruella, to describe her evil and vindictive side.

Estella/Cruella says in a voiceover: “From an early age, I realized I saw the world differently from everyone else, including my mother. It wasn’t her I was challenging, it was the world. But, of course, my mother knew that. That’s what worried her.”

The first 15 minutes of “Cruella” show her childhood at 5 years old (played by Billie Gadsdon) and at 12 years old (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), with Estella and Catherine (who has work experience as a maid) living in an unnamed suburban part of England. As a 12-year-old, Estella enrolled in a new school and was bullied by boys. Because she physically fought back, she often landed in the school headmaster’s office.

Because she was usually blamed for fights that she didn’t start, Estella learned early on not to trust authority figures. One bright spot to her miserable experiences at school was that she made a friendly acquaintance with a fellow classmate named Anita Darling (played by Florisa Kamara), but they didn’t hang out with each other enough to form a close friendship. Estella is an only child, and her closest companion is a stray, mixed-breed brown puppy she found in an outdoor garbage bin. She names the dog Buddy.

Estella gets in so much trouble at school that she’s eventually expelled by the headmaster or withdrawn from the school by her mother. The movie has what’s supposed to be a funny scene of Catherine debating with the headmaster (played by Leo Bill) over who made the decision first for Estella to leave the school. It’s another version of “You can’t fire me because I quit” schtick that doesn’t work very well in this scene.

At any rate, Catherine decides that she and Estella need a fresh start in the big city of London. But first, Catherine says they have to visit someone who can help them finance their relocation. Catherine seems reluctant to ask this person for help, but one evening, she drives herself and Estella to a grand estate called Hellman Hall, which is located on the top of a cliff.

A lavish costume ball is taking place at Hellman Hall. Before she gets out of the car, Catherine takes off a necklace with a red circular stone. This necklace, which Catherine describes as a “family heirloom,” is a big part of the story that’s linked to family secrets that are exposed later in the movie. Catherine tells Estella to stay and hide in the car.

But, of course, rebellious and curious Estella doesn’t stay in the car. Estella takes the necklace with her while she and Buddy crash the costume ball, Estella gets caught by a valet named John (played by Mark Strong), and the expected mayhem ensues. Three aggressive Dalmations give chase to Estella.

Estella gets cornered and hides near the cliff, where she sees Catherine talking to a woman (whose back is facing Estella) and asking the mystery woman to borrow some money. Suddenly, the Dalmations charge and jump on Catherine, who falls off of the cliff to her death. A horrified Estella runs away with Buddy and accidentally drops the necklace in the chaos.

An orphaned Estella is wracked with guilt because she blames herself for her mother’s death. With her dog Buddy in tow, Estella is now homeless and living on the streets of London. And it’s where she meets two other street urchins who are the same age as she is: somewhat dimwitted Horace (played by Joseph MacDonald) and intuitive Jasper (played by Ziggy Gardner), who both eventually take Estella under their wing. They make money as beggars, thieves and con artists.

The movie then fast-forwards 10 years later. It’s 1974, and Estella (played by Stone) is now living with Horace (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (played by Joel Fry) in a large warehouse-styled loft. They are still being grifters for money, with some help from a white and brown terrier mix dog named Buddy and a Chihuahua named Wink. There’s a montage of this team of thieves working in tandem to do things like pickpocket wallets or steal jewelry from a jewelry store by posing as customers.

Estella (who wears a red wig to hide her distinctive black-and-white hair) designs a lot of the clothes that she, Horace and Jasper wear as disguises. Her ultimate goal is to become a famous and successful fashion designer. And her biggest idol is a designer named The Baroness (played by Thompson), who is considered to be one of the top haute couture designers in the fashion industry. The Baroness is also the boss from hell, who demeans and insults almost everyone she’s in contact with, and she takes credit for her employees’ work.

“Cruella” wastes some time setting up the convoluted circumstances that led to Estella working for The Baroness, whose first name is not mentioned in the movie. First, Jasper embellished Estella’s résumé/CV, and he found a way to get it into a stack on a hiring manager’s desk at a high-end clothing boutique called Liberty. Somehow, Estella was hired for an entry-level position at Liberty without even interviewing for the job. Jasper tells Estella this news one day. And she’s elated, because working at Liberty is a dream job for her. Naturally, Liberty carries fashion by The Baroness.

But the entry-level job at Liberty isn’t what Estella thought it would be. She’s the store housekeeper, which means that she mostly has cleaning duties. Meanwhile, her snooty boss Gerald (played by Jamie Demetriou) doesn’t care that Estella is an aspiring fashion designer and ignores her suggestions on how to style the store’s displays. Gerald just wants Estella to shut up and clean when she’s at work.

Horace thinks there could be some kind of thieving angle they can work in Estella’s Liberty job, but Estella and Jasper both insist that this job will be off-limits to their con games. Jasper seems to be in tune to Estella’s desire to break into the fashion industry honestly. Does that mean Estella, Jasper and Horace will straighten out their lives and leave their criminal ways behind? Of course not.

One day, Estella walks into a vintage clothing shop called Second Time Around and meets an androgynous sales clerk named Artie (played by John McCrea), who’s clearly influenced by David Bowie’s 1970s glam rock style. Predictably, Artie becomes Estella’s flamboyant sidekick, which seems expected when there’s a scripted movie that takes place in the fashion industry. Artie is very sassy, but unfortunately, viewers will find out almost nothing about Artie while watching “Cruella.” He seems like a fascinating character who deserves more of a storyline.

Estella grows increasingly frustrated by her dead-end job at Liberty. And so, one night, she gets drunk, goes to the store when it’s closed, and completely rearranges Liberty’s front-window display to make it look like an anarchist punk took over the space. She passes out and wakes up the next morning as the store is opening for the day.

And guess who happens to be visiting the store at that moment? The Baroness. Estella’s boss Gerald panics because there isn’t time to change the window display back to what it was. The Baroness wants to know who did the window display. Gerald points to Estella, but he says that she’s been fired.

However, viewers shouldn’t be surprised that The Baroness loves the display because it’s so edgy. She gives Estella her business card. And it isn’t long before Estella is working as a junior designer at The Baroness’ chic designer workshop.

Estella soon finds out that The Baroness is a tyrant boss. And this is where “Cruella” looks like Disney’s version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” except that Estella doesn’t battle with any co-worker peers and she doesn’t get involved in any romances. Through a series of circumstances, the rest of the movie is about Estella getting revenge on The Baroness, as they try to out-do each other as diva villains.

Most of Estella’s revenge plans are done under her alter ego Cruella. Viewers are supposed to believe that during much of the Cruella/Baroness feud, The Baroness doesn’t figure out that Cruella and Estella are the same person, just because Estella has red hair and wears glasses while on the job. It doesn’t make The Baroness look very smart, so it dilutes some of the comeuppance competition between The Baroness and Cruella/Estella.

And the tactics used by Cruella fall into catty stereotypes of women being cruel over who looks better, with Cruella doing some form of “The Baroness is an old has-been” type of humiliation. The Baroness has a formal Black and White Ball where the attendees are require to wear only black and/or white, but Cruella crashes the event by wearing a bright red dress. In another scene, Cruella upstages The Baroness at a high-profile gala, by literally wearing black makeup on her face that reads “The Future.”

And in another scene, with Jasper and Horace’s help, Cruella outshines The Baroness at another public event. The Baroness is prevented from getting out of her car when she arrives. Cruella stands on the car and unfurls a dress that has the words “The Past” pointing down at The Baroness.

Meanwhile, Anita Darling (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is now working as a society columnist for a Daily Mail-type tabloid newspaper called Tattletale. She has been reporting on Cruella’s shenanigans in her column. And because Anita is someone with common sense, she immediately figures out that her former school acquaintance Estella is really Cruella.

In her coverage of the Cruella/Baroness rivalry, Anita seems to side with Cruella. And so, one day, The Baroness confronts Anita about it and demands that Anita help The Baroness find out Cruella’s true identity. “Don’t cry,” The Baroness tells Anita. When a calm Anita says that she’s not crying. The Baroness gives a slight pause and says ominously, “You will.” It’s an example of how comedically gifted Thompson is in this villain role.

It should come as no surprise that The Baroness owns Hellman Hall and the Dalmatians that Estella/Cruella saw that fateful night when Catherine died. Therefore, there’s a long part of the movie where Estella wants to get back the lost necklace from The Baroness. Various schemes are put in place. And at one point, the Dalmatians get kidnapped.

Because “Cruella” is supposed to be a family-friendly movie, nothing too disturbing happens in the story. However, much like director Gillespie’s 2017 dark comedy film “I, Tonya,” the title character is often upstaged by a bigger scene-stealing villain. Thompson’s The Baroness actually becomes more riveting to watch than Cruella in many scenes.

It’s not that Cruella isn’t potent in her own right, but she’s often conflicted about how evil she wants to become while getting revenge. There’s no ambiguity for The Baroness, and Thompson seems to be reveling in being an unabashed villain in a lot of the showdown scenes. As Cruella, Stone is perfectly cast and plays the role with the right combination of toughness and vulnerability, but there’s no denying that Thompson is a formidable presence too. Cruella gets a despair-driven monologue which is one of the film’s emotional standouts.

Aside from Stone and Thompson working so well together in “Cruella,” the movie’s other atrributes are its costume design by Jenny Beavan and production design by Fiona Crombie. (Tom Davies handled the eyewear design.) The makeup and hairstyling are also outstanding. There are set designs in the movie that look right out of a fairy tale, which is clearly the intention.

However, the “Cruella” screenplay needed a lot of improvements. There’s a big reveal in the movie about Catherine’s death that has a major inconsistency/plot hole that would require a certain person to almost be in two places at once to commit a certain act. The timeline just doesn’t add up.

And the movie’s visual effects are hit-and-miss. Some of the scenes with the Dalmations obviously used CGI dogs, not real dogs. And there’s a scene with a big fire that looks too fake, because more characters should’ve gotten fire burns in that scene, but they were able to unrealsitically walk away unscathed.

And most of the supporting characters are underdelevoped. Estella has been living with Jasper and Horace for several years, but viewers don’t learn anything interesting about these two Estella/Cruella confidants by the time the movie ends. And, if we’re being honest, the casting of this trio is age-inappropriate. Estella, Jasper and Horace are supposed to be in their early 20s, but the actors in these roles look at least 10 years older than that, because they are. That doesn’t take away their ability to act in the roles, but they just don’t look entirely convincing as people who are supposed to be in their early 20s.

There’s just so much untapped potential for the movie’s supporting characters, who are really just incomplete sketches with limited personalities. All the supporting characters—including Anita, John and The Baroness’ attorney Roger (played by Kayvan Novak)—just react to whatever Estella/Cruella or The Baroness does. The Baroness has a lackey assistant named Jeffrey (played by Andrew Leung), who is constantly by her side, but Jeffrey doesn’t say an entire word during the movie.

The way that the soundtrack songs are used in “Cruella” borders on jukebox placement instead of feeling organic. It’s a good selection of songs, but sometimes they blare in places that seem way too intrusive and distracting. At times, it just seems like shameless shilling to buy the “Cruella” soundtrack.

And there’s a bombastic outdoor concert scene where Cruella makes a big entrance to The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” with Artie singing as an emcee, Jasper playing a guitar and Horace being a DJ. This is the part of the movie where viewers who love punk music might be rolling their eyes, because there are no DJs in real punk music. The movie would’ve worked better if Cruella and her mates had more 1970s London punk authenticity, not a watered-down Hollywood version of this subculture. The adult Estella/Cruella, Horace and Jasper have a polished actor sheen to them that isn’t entirely consistent with these characters who are supposedly to be scrappy con artists who grew up on the streets.

The scenes with the adult Cruella are supposed to take place in 1974. However, some of the soundtrack choices might annoy pop music aficionados who will notice that there a few songs in the movie that were released after 1974, such as Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing” (released in 1976) and Blondie’s “One Way or Another” (released in 1978). These are small details, and a movie director who really cares about musical accuracy wouldn’t make these mistakes. The “Cruella” soundtrack also has the obligatory new and original song that will undoubtedly be promoted for awards consideration: Florence + the Machines’ “Call Me Cruella,” which was co-written by Florence Welch and “Cruella” composer Nicholas Britell.

Despite some of the flaws with the screenplay, editing and song selections, “Cruella” can be enjoyable to watch if viewers brace themselves for the overly long run time. “Cruella” isn’t a superhero epic origin story, although at times it seems to want to use that template when it should have been a movie under 100 minutes. “Cruella” is a movie that’s supposed to be a fun and cheeky romp, but the jokes and slapstick comedy just aren’t very imaginative and edgy as a young Cruella is supposed to be. If not for the great comedic talents of Stone and Thompson, “Cruella” would be nothing but cast members playing elaborate dress-up in a bloated and mediocre Disney movie.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Cruella” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on May 28, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD is on September 21, 2021.

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.

Review: ‘Songbird,’ starring KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stromare, Alexandra Daddario and Demi Moore

December 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

KJ Apa in “Songbird” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Songbird”

Directed by Adam Mason

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles during a coronavirus pandemic in the year 2024, the sci-fi thriller “Songbird” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During the pandemic, a minority of people have immunity to the disease but are also supercarriers of the virus, and this dichotomy affects relationships and has caused a black market to sell illegal immunity passes.

Culture Audience: “Songbird” will appeal primarily to people who like watching tacky disaster movies with ridiculous plot developments.

Peter Stromare in “Songbird” (Photo courtesy of STX)

In the horrifically tasteless disaster film “Songbird,” which takes place during a coronavirus pandemic that has killed millions of people and devastated the entire world, unscrupulous and greedy people have exploited the situation so that they can benefit financially. Ironically, it’s the same mindset that is obviously why this moronic film was rushed into production during the real-life COVID-19 pandemic—to cash in on people’s fears about the pandemic and use the movie’s pandemic storyline as a gimmick to sell it during a real-life pandemic. The results are a useless movie where every single second looks like it was based on an early, substandard screenplay draft, with none of the filmmakers caring about taking the time to improve the film’s quality.

“Songbird” (directed by Adam Mason, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Simon Boyes) takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2024. The worldwide mortality rate has risen to 56% and 8.4 million people have died because of COVID-23, which is supposed to be a deadlier strain than COVID-19. And there’s no vaccine. The desolate and devastated landscape of Los Angeles looks like a city in the aftermath of a tornado, and there’s a general atmosphere that a corrupt, totalitarian government is in charge. Because of this high mortality rate, Los Angeles has been on lockdown, with people ordered to stay at home, except for essential workers.

One of those essential workers is a bike courier in his mid-20s named Nicholas “Nico” Price (played by KJ Apa), who works for an online retailer called Lester’s Gets, which sells a variety of items that people can use in their homes. It’s not a giant company, because Nico’s boss Lester (played by Craig Robinson) is the only person shown in the dark video control room that monitors the movements of the company’s couriers, via GPS. In other words, the film’s budget was so low that the filmmakers didn’t bother to cast anyone else to work in this monitor room.

Lester communicates frequently with Nico and has to watch Nico like a hawk, because Nico often takes detours, goofs off, and is late with deliveries. For example, in one of the movie’s scenes, Nico randomly shoots hoops at a basketball court while in the middle of a delivery. Lester lectures Nico about Nico’s constant tardiness, but Nico acts like someone who knows he probably won’t be fired.

And why hasn’t Nico been fired because of his tardiness? Because he’s one of the small minority of people on Earth who are immune to COVID-23, and therefore he can freely go outside without needing any face coverings. However, these Immunies, as they’re nicknamed in this movie, are also supercarriers of COVID-23. And so, they’re both envied and shunned by the general population.

Immunies are identified by immunity passes (which look like yellow wristbands) that can be scanned to reveal their personal information. These immunity passes are highly coveted by people who want to be able to go outside whenever they want without fear of being fined or arrested. People are required to take frequent COVID-23 tests at home, which are done on government-issued hand-held monitors that can diagnosis people just by scanning their faces.

People who are found to be infected with COVID-23 are forced to go to the Q-Zone, which is not a health recovery center but it’s described in the story as a death detention center. These detentions are handled by the sanitation department, which is headed by Emmett D. Harland (played by Peter Stromare), who’s an Immunie. Emmett is such an over-the-top, creepy villain that you just know he’s involved in more misdeeds than just being rough and unmerciful with the people he detains.

Because of these drastic changes in society, Los Angeles (and presumably, most of the rest of the modern world) has become a place where people have become paranoid about going outside, for fear of being sent to the Q-Zone. Masked military soldiers patrol the streets and are ready to send people to the Q-Zone if they don’t have immunity passes. Some of these patrollers are quick to draw their guns if they see anyone on the street without a mask. It’s what happens to Nico when he tries his make his way to a home for a delivery, and he’s blocked by overzealous soldiers until Nico shows them his immunity pass.

The high demand for immunity passes has caused these passes to be sold on the black market at prices that can only be afforded by wealthy people or people who can come up with the cash any way that they can. Two of the people who are considered among the top-tier sellers of illegal immunity passes are unhappily married couple William Griffin (played by Bradley Whitford) and Piper Griffin (played by Demi Moore), who are already living an upscale life but apparently are greedy and want more money. William’s day job is as a high-ranking executive in the music industry, even though the movie never shows him doing any work except his illegal side hustle of selling immunity passes.

And because “Songbird” is a movie like the 2005 drama “Crash,” which eventually shows how everyone in the story is connected to each other in some way, the Griffins’ home is one of the places where Nico makes a delivery. People are not allowed to open their doors to delivery people. Instead, deliveries are dropped into a capsule outside a home, and the item in the capsule is then disinfected through ultra-violet rays.

Nico has been to the Griffin home enough times that the house residents recognize him when he arrives. William and Piper have a daughter named Emma (played by Lia McHugh), who’s about 11 or 12 years old and who has respiratory problems, because she always has to wear an oxygen tube. The implication is that she’s especially vulnerable to getting COVID-23.

Emma is really just a “token” underdeveloped character that doesn’t serve any purpose in the movie except to try to make William and Piper look more sympathetic. It’s a futile effort, because these two spouses, who have simmering hatred for each other, are ruthless and sleazy, although one of them turns out to be a lot worse than the other. An innocent and sweet kid like Emma doesn’t deserve the parents she has.

Meanwhile, although Nico might seem to have a cavalier and cocky exterior when he’s on the job, the movie slowly shows that he’s actually in a lot of emotional turmoil. His entire family is dead, presumably because of COVID-23. And before the pandemic, he was a paralegal with plans to become a lawyer, but he had to abandon those dreams. There’s a scene where Nico goes back to the now-deserted law office where he used to work and bitterly goes through some of the remnants of his past.

But more heartbreaking for Nico than the loss of his career dreams is the fact that he’s fallen in love with a woman who’s around his age, but they haven’t been able to be in the same room together because of the pandemic. Her name is Sara Garcia (played by Sofia Carson), who lives in an apartment with her beloved grandmother Lita (played Elpidia Carrillo), whom Sara calls Grammy. Sara’s parents are also dead because of COVID-23.

Nico and Sara met when he made a delivery to her apartment. They had an instant connection and fell in love through constant contact over the phone. Nico also visits Sara by going to her apartment, but not going inside and instead talking to her outside the apartment door. It’s explained that the apartment building is under heavy government surveillance, because it’s a “hot spot” for COVID-23 infections. Therefore, Nico and Sara know they could be arrested if he’s allowed inside her apartment, and Sara and Lita could be sent to the dreaded Q-Zone.

Sara sees firsthand (through her front-door keyhole) how brutal one of these arrests can be, when one of her female neighbors is dragged from her apartment, yelling and pleading for mercy, because the neighbor tested positive for COVID-23. Before the hazmat-suit-wearing sanitation workers arrive to take her to the Q-Zone, the neighbor begs Sara to let her inside Sara’s apartment to hide, but Sara refuses to hide the neighbor, on Nico’s advice. Emmett is supervising this particular detainment with sadistic glee. And he vows that he will be back to this apartment building to get more people because he’s convinced that the entire building is infected.

There are several scenes in “Songbird” where Nico talks to Sara through her apartment door, like he’s her pandemic Romeo to her quarantined Juliet. It’s supposed to be romantic, but Nico and Sara just utter cheesy soap-opera-type dialogue to each other that will make viewers roll their eyes or laugh at the corniness of it all. And when Lita starts having a persistent cough, you know exactly where this movie is going to go in the “race against time” part of the film that’s supposed to make this movie a suspenseful thriller.

Meanwhile, one of Lester’s employees who works from home is a lonely paraplegic named Dozer (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a military veteran in his mid-30s who lost the use of his legs during the war in Afghanistan. Dozer, who’s been a self-described shut-in for the past six years, uses a drone to keep track of Lester’s courier employees. Dozer has a strong sense of right and wrong and likes feeling as if he’s a “rescuer,” which all affect his actions later in the story.

Dozer has been a subscriber to a pretty YouTuber named May (played by Alexandra Daddario), who is a self-described struggling singer/songwriter. She has a YouTube channel called May Sings the Blues, where she sings cover songs and her own original music during livestreams and in prerecorded videos. People who watch her YouTube channel have the option to donate money to her, because she often tells her viewers that the pandemic has made it impossible for her to make money by performing in person.

Dozer has been one of her biggest donors, so May decides to connect with him online and reaches out to him to personally thank him. They begin chatting and soon get very candid with each other about the problems in their lives. Dozer tells May about being a shut-in: “I was in lockdown before it was fashionable.”

May tells Dozer that she moved to Los Angeles because a guy in the music industry promised to make her a big star. She and the guy ended up having an affair, which she now regrets, but the guy still wants to keep seeing her. And then the pandemic happened, and she’s been stuck in an uncomfortable limbo where she still needs the guy to help her with her career, but she wants to break off their affair.

Because of the strict lockdown, it’s illegal for people to have in-person social visits with other people who don’t live in the same household, but May’s lover insists on visiting her for their sexual encounters. May confides in Dozer that she’s afraid of getting infected and/or arrested because of this guy. Dozer offers to help her any way that he can. May’s “mystery lover” is eventually revealed, and it will be shocking to no one who’s seen enough of these types of formulaic, unimaginative movies.

Except for the COVID-23 pandemic aspect of the movie, there’s absolutely nothing unique about “Songbird,” which is a lot like many other badly made post-apocalyptic movies that have a weak, nonsensical plot and dumb action scenes. There’s a chase scene where Nico gets trapped in a building with Emmett and some of Emmett’s armed goons. And out of nowhere, Nico gets help from a gun-toting vigilante named Boomer (played by Paul Sloan), who randomly shows up in the scene and then is never seen in the movie again.

Viewers will also have sit through lots of inane dialogue, such as during another scene when Emmett has cornered some people he wants to capture. He taunts them by saying, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. You think you can hide? I’ll find you!”

One of the producers of “Songbird” is Michael Bay, who’s best known as the chief filmmaker for the “Transformers” movie franchise and the first two “Bad Boys” movies. Even though those movies had mediocre-to-bad screenplays, at least those films had high-octane action to keep people interested and wanting more. “Songbird” doesn’t even have memorable action scenes, unless you think it’s an improvement that at one point in the story, Nico ditches his bicycle and replaces it with a stolen motorcycle.

It all leads up to an ending that’s so terrible that it will make people either laugh or get angry, depending on how much it might bother people that their time was wasted by watching this garbage. And why is this movie called “Songbird,” when the only singer in the movie is a supporting character, not a leading character? Just like this entire ludicrous movie, it doesn’t make sense and it’s too lazy to try to give any logical explanations.

STX released “Songbird” on VOD on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Mélanie Thierry

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Da 5 Bloods”

Directed by Spike Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Vietnam, the drama “Da 5 Bloods” has a racially diverse cast (African American, Asian and white) portraying the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Four African American men who are Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam with one of the men’s sons to find a hidden stash of gold bars, and they confront issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loyalty, greed and the cultural wounds left by the war.

Culture Audience: “Da 5 Bloods” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about friendships bound by trauma, but sensitive viewers might be disturbed by the film’s significant level of bloody violence.

Johnny Trí Nguyên, Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Spike Lee’s sprawling epic drama “Da 5 Bloods” takes viewers on a thrilling, heartbreaking and absorbing ride that will reel you in, shake you up, and leave you feeling uplifted and solemn at the same time by the end of the movie. Simply put: “Da 5 Bloods” is one of writer/director Lee’s best films of the 21st century. Delroy Lindo gives a masterful performance that will stay with people long after watching “Da 5 Bloods.”

The plot to “Da 5 Bloods” is pretty simple, but there are many complexities that weave the story together. It’s the type of movie that people might feel compelled to see more than once to revisit all the story’s layers. The movie clocks in at 155 minutes (or two hours and 35 minutes), but every minute is worth it.

In “Da 5 Bloods,” four African American men who were Army buddies in the Vietnam War return to Vietnam to find the hidden treasure they left behind back in 1971—a safe filled with gold bars that they were entrusted to deliver on behalf of the U.S. government but the pals decided to keep the gold for themselves. The safe got lost in a plane crash and a mudslide, but there’s a chance that they could find the gold again.

The four men are Paul (played by Lindo), a politically conservative curmudgeon who’s suffering from PTSD and refuses to get treatment for it; Otis (played by Clarke Peters), a friendly medic who has a possible addiction to Oxycontin pills; Melvin (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a fun-loving jokester who’s married but has an eye for other women; and Eddie (played by Norm Lewis), a well-to-do businessman who’s made his money through several car dealerships.

All four men are haunted by the Vietnam War death of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman, who appears in the movie’s flashback scenes), who was the fifth member of their group and the one who inspired them the most. The five men called themselves Da 5 Bloods. The surviving members all say that they have dreams about Stormin’ Norman, who died a hero in the plane crash. The four surviving members of the group are hoping to find the remains of Stormin’ Norman, so that he can get a proper burial.

Soon after they arrive at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s clear that Paul is the most emotionally volatile one of the group. He makes racist and dismissive comments about the local Vietnamese people, and he has a quick temper. While having dinner at the hotel, a boy with one leg wanders in and goes over to their table to beg for money. Paul tries to shoo the boy away, but Otis compassionately gives $20 to the boy.

Paul, who is a unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, gripes: “It’s time we got those freeloading immigrants off of our backs and build that wall.” Otis, Eddie and Melvin don’t like Trump at all, but their political differences with Paul don’t drive a wedge between the four friends. Paul likes to wears a red Make America Great Again baseball cap (which was the Trump campaign’s signature apparel item for the 2016 U.S. presidential election), and that cap is used as a metaphor in different parts of the story.

After the four friends spend the night partying at a nightclub and drinking at a bar, Paul goes back to his hotel room to find a surprise: His son David (played by Jonathan Majors), an African American studies teacher, has unexpectedly shown up, and Paul is furious about it. Paul makes it clear that not only does he not want David there, but he also doesn’t want David in his life at all.

“You ain’t been nothing but an anchor around my neck since the day you were born,” Paul cruelly tells David. Why does Paul dislike David so much? That answer is revealed later in the movie. Majors gives an outstanding performance as David, who is desperate for his father’s love but is trying to hold on to his masculine dignity in seeking his dad’s love and approval.

Even though Paul doesn’t seem to want anything to do with his son, David isn’t going to leave. David tells Paul that he found out about the treasure hunt and that he wants to help. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that for David, this trip isn’t about finding the gold. It’s about trying to connect with his father, who goes out of his way to express his animosity toward David. This stressful father-son relationship is truly one of the most compelling aspects of “Da 5 Bloods,” and it will leave many viewers in tears during certain scenes.

Meanwhile, Otis has taken on the role of a surrogate father figure to David, as well as the group’s peacemaker when conflicts inevitably happen. Otis is also the one who leads the planning of the treasure hunt, since he has figured out the coordinates of where the plane might be, based on satellite photos.

Otis has enlisted the help of an ex-lover named Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who now works in international exports. Tiên has assisted Otis in arranging a meeting with one of her contacts: a shady businessman named Desroche (played by Jean Reno), who promises that he can give the treasure hunters a way to convert the gold to American funds without them getting caught. In exchange, Desroche will get a percentage of the money as his fee.

It’s a deal that has to be made on trust, because none of Da 5 Bloods knows Desroche personally, since he was recommended by Tiên. Paul is the most suspicious of Desroche, because he thinks it’s possible that Desroche will try to double-cross them and steal the money for himself. Paul also tells Otis that he doesn’t really trust Tiên either. During an argument with Otis, Paul also accuses Otis of the possibility that Otis and Tiên are secretly in cahoots with each other to steal the money.

And what about that gold treasure? A flashback scene shows when Da 5 Bloods decided to keep the gold, Stormin’ Norman made a pledge to donate the money to the Black Liberation movement: “We repossess this gold for every black boot that never made it home, for every brother and sister stolen from mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia, way back in 1619.”

“Da 5 Bloods” makes an unusual and bold artistic move for the flashback scenes. Instead of having younger actors portraying the young Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie, the movie keeps the same actors for these roles in which they have to portray the characters as their younger selves. There are also no visual effects that de-age the actors in the flashback scenes. By not changing the physical age of the actors in the flashback scenes, it actually creates the sense that although they have physically aged when they remember this time in their lives, there’s a part of them that is still mentally trapped in their Vietnam War days.

But in the present day, the surviving members of the group have mixed feelings about that pledge. Paul is the one who unapologetically says that he wants to keep his share of the money for himself, while Eddie still wants to hold true to the promise that they made with Stormin’ Norman to donate the money toward causes that empower African Americans. The dilemma of greed versus philanthropy causes major friction with the characters during different parts of the story. If people want to read more into it, the gold and what to do with it are metaphors for the conflicting ideals of capitalism and socialism.

Before their big trip to the jungle, the five men spend some time in a restaurant/bar. While there, David meets a French woman named Hedy Bouvier (played by Mélanie Thierry), who works for nonprofit organization called Love Against Mines and Bombs (LAMB). As part of her job, she looks for old land mines and detonates them. Two of her co-workers—an American named Scott (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and a Finnish man named Seppo (played by Jasper Pääkkönen)—are also in the bar.

David and Hedy are immediately attracted to each other and they begin flirting and talking about their lives. Hedy says that she and Seppo “occasionally use each other for sex,” but she makes it clear that she’s single and available. And so is David.

For the treasure hunters’ trip to the jungle, they have a local guide named Vinh Tran (played by Johnny Trí Nguyên), who is easygoing and knowledgeable, but  Vinh isn’t told the real reason for the trip. During a boat ride, a middle-aged Vietnamese man tries to sell Paul a live chickens and refuses to take no for answer. Paul gets so angry that he begins yelling and threatening the man, who accuses Paul of killing his parents because African American men in Vietnam are assumed to be American military men.

The accusation triggers Paul into an emotional meltdown, where his PTSD is on full display. It’s during this breakdown that he confesses that his dreams about Stormin’ Norman are really nightmares. There are several scenes in “Da 5 Bloods” that are disturbing close-ups of Paul’s mental deterioration. And his relationship with estranged son David also takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster.

One of the striking technical aspects of “Da 5 Bloods” is how the flashback scenes are filmed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. The scenes are shot as if they’re news film from the late 1960s/early 1970s, with 16mm and 4:3 aspect ratio. When the movie switches back to the present day, the scenes are in 2:40 aspect ratio before they go to the jungle. And for the scenes in the jungle, the film is in a 1:85 aspect ratio, to portray an environment which is wide open to the possibilities of the unknown.

It wouldn’t be a Spike Lee film without social commentary as part of the story. Lee and Kevin Willmott (who both won adapted screenplay Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman”) wrote “Da 5 Bloods” screenplay with Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. The movie has plenty to say about race relations, colonialism and civil rights, not just in the United States but also in Vietnam.

“Da 5 Bloods” also makes blistering observations about how the Vietnam War was the first American war fought with a fully racially integrated military, which meant that more African Americans were on the front lines to die, compared to previous American wars. And although Vietnam War veterans of all races experienced divisive and painful reactions when they returned home, African American veterans had the added burden of racism in trying to adjust back to civilian society.

Throughout the film, there are snippets of African American history lessons to put much of the movie’s story in context. The beginning of the film opens with a montage of archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale talking about the Vietnam War and/or the American government. And there’s mention of war hero Milton Olive III (who died in 1965 at the age of 18),  the first African American man to be award the Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War.

Lee’s best movies are known for their memorable soundtracks. “Da 5 Bloods” is no exception. Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album “What’s Going On” is prominently featured. And so is the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” which seems to be a staple in movies that have themes of African American empowerment, just like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” seems to be in a lot of mobster movies. Music composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s, once again does a great score that enhances the essence of each scene.

“Da 5 Bloods” also includes striking and often brutal archival photos and videos to show the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War, such as the American protests against the war; combat footage; and disturbing photos of people being murdered and children’s bloody corpses. The last half of the film, which primarily takes place in the jungle, is especially gruesome with gun shootouts and other bloody mayhem.

However, whatever violence is in the film is a manifestation of the emotional horrors the characters feel in trying to face personal demons. That psychological turmoil is the biggest gut-punch in “Da 5 Bloods.” People can try to avoid bullets and bombs, but they can’t run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Da 5 Bloods” on June 12, 2020.