Review: ‘Enemies of the State’ (2021), starring Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart, Gabriella Coleman, Adrian Humphreys, Carrie Daughtrey, Brett Kniss and Larry Butkowsky

August 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

A 1990s family photo of Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart and Matt DeHart in “Enemies of the State” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Enemies of the State” (2021)

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the U.S. and Canada, the true crime documentary “Enemies of the State” features an all-white group of people discussing the controversial case of computer hacker Matt DeHart, an American who became a fugitive of the law with his parents Paul and Leann DeHart when they defied his house arrest and they all fled to Canada.

Culture Clash: Matt DeHart was accused of luring underage teenage boys into creating child pornography, but Matt and his parents claim that Matt is not guilty of these charges, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy to prevent Matt from going public about dangerous secrets he uncovered about the U.S. government.

Culture Audience: “Enemies of the State” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about international fugitives or government conspiracy theories and don’t mind if there are no easy solutions presented at the end of the movie.

Re-enactment actors Christopher Clark, Joel Widman and Suzanne Pratley in “Enemies of the State” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The documentary “Enemies of the State” comes across as a compilation of interviews and re-enactments rather than an investigation that reaches a firm judgment about what really happened in a case involving numerous accusations. People who don’t mind open-ended conclusions to a movie will probably like this documentary more than people who expect mysteries to be solved by the end of the film. The movie keeps viewers guessing on who’s really telling the truth.

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, “Enemies of the State” does a fairly good job of presenting various perspectives of a complicated matter. At times, the documentary looks like a TV-movie-of-the week docudrama, because a lot of screen time is devoted to re-enactments with actors. However, the documentary’s subject matter is intriguing enough and presented in clear-enough ways that it will be easy for viewers to determine the angles that the filmmakers chose to take in presenting this story.

Some of the major questions put forth in the documentary are: “Is computer hacker Matt DeHart guilty of treason against the U.S. government?” “What classified government information did he uncover?” “Is he a patriot or a traitor for wanting to reveal this information?” “And how credible is he when he’s been accused of being involved in child pornography?”

Here are the known facts that all of the involved parties agree are true: Matt DeHart (who was born in 1984) was part of the computer hacking movement called Anonymous, consisting of people who work covertly to expose corruption secrets of authorities. In 2008, Matt enlisted in the U.S. National Guard, where he was an intelligence analyst whose job included working in the National Guard’s drone unit.

In 2009, Matt was honorably discharged from the National Guard, due to his issues with depression. In January 2010, the DeHart home in Newburgh, Indiana—where Matt lived with his parents Paul DeHart and Leann DeHart—was raided on a warrant to search for child pornography that Matt was accused of soliciting from underage teen boys whom he met online. No child porn was found during this raid.

Shortly after this raid, Matt and Paul went to the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., to seek asylum, but their request was denied. They made a similar request to the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., and were also turned down. In April 2010, Matt moved to Canada to become a college student. He first lived in Montreal and then moved to Prince Edward Island. He applied for a student visa at the U.S. border and was taken into custody by FBI agents.

Matt was kept in custody in Bangor, Maine, until he was transferred to Tennessee, where was jailed for 21 months. In May 2012, he was released but kept under house arrest and living with his parents in Newburgh. On April 13, 2013, Matt and his parents were in Deerhart, Indiana, when they secretly left the U.S. and fled to Canada.

Matt was deported back to the U.S. in March 2015. He pleaded guilty to child porn charges in November 2015, and received a 72-month prison sentence in February 2016. Matt was released from prison in November 2019.

Here’s where things start to get murky and where people’s stories conflict: According to Paul and Leann (who are interviewed in this documentary), Matt was drugged and tortured by the FBI when he was first arrested in 2010. The DeHarts say that Matt was targeted because he had uncovered some bombshell information about the U.S. government, and the government was afraid that Matt would make the information public through his Anonymous activities. Leann says that Matt also had ties to Wikileaks, as has been widely reported. According to captioned statements in the film, representatives for the FBI and the U.S. National Guard declined to participate in the documentary.

Matt’s parents also claim that shortly after their home was raided in 2010, Matt went to Mexico, where he gave a valuable flash drive with a lot of the classified information to an unidentified friend from the United Kingdom. Matt and his parents have refused to publicly say who this mystery friend is. Some people who know about Matt’s story believe this person exists, while others believe that the friend is a complete fabrication.

Leann claims that Matt asked her to look at the classified files that he uncovered, as a safety precaution, in case anything happened to him. She breaks down in tears when she says that what she saw convinced her that Matt was a target because of the dangerous information that Matt discovered about the U.S. government. In the documentary, the most scandalous thing that Leann talks about is that she found out from the classified files that the anthrax poison attacks of 2001 were “perpetuated by the CIA, in order to drum up support for [George W.] Bush for the Iraq War” and that the CIA’s involvement was “covered up by the FBI.”

Viewers won’t get to see Matt being interviewed for this documentary. It’s not revealed until the end of the film that he agreed to be interviewed on camera, but he never showed up for the interview. Therefore, his parents do all the talking for him in this documentary. And it’s clear that Paul and Leann will do anything for their only child.

Paul and Leann are both veterans of the U.S. military, which they say makes their current disllusionment with the U.S. government so devastating to them. Paul was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force, while Leann was an electronic warfare voice intercept operator in the U.S. Army. In other words, these parents have first-hand knowledge of how U.S. government surveillance works in the U.S. military.

Leann says that when she and her husband asked Matt if the child porn charges were true, he vehemently denied it, and the parents say they believe him to this day because of what they say they know the U.S. government is capable of doing. Leann gives her thoughts in the documentary about what she says is the U.S. government’s persecution of Matt: “We decided as a family that we were going to fight this as a family. Little did we know it was a mistake.”

And she has this to say about the U.S. legal system, which she says has victimized her, Paul and Matt: “The truth does not matter.” During an interview in the DeHart home, Leann says that they decided to live as recluses in a secluded area. She confesses that she feels paranoid every time she sees a heliciopter, plane, car or strangers walking near their property because she thinks it could be the government spying on them.

Paul and Leann sound like upstanding American citizens, right? Not according to Michael Terry, a former attorney representing Matt. Terry went from being an ally of the DeHart family to being an outspoken critic. In the documentary, Terry says that he and the private investigator he hired could find no evidence to support the DeHarts’ conspiracy claims. Terry says that he now believes that Paul lied about the government conspiracy as a way to distract people from Matt’s child porn charges.

Terry gives a damning interview by essentially saying that Paul is mentally unstable and dangerous. Terry also comments that he became alarmed by Paul and Leann’s “control over Matt’s decisions.” One of the last straws for Terry, which led him to quit working with the DeHarts, was when he says that during a meeting, Paul began babbling to him about seeing the windows in the room vibrate at that moment. According to Terry, Paul tried to convince Terry that the U.S. government was causing the windows to vibrate because the government was spying on them.

As for the child pornography charges, the law enforcement officials interviewed in the documentary present compelling evidence (text messages, email and phone recordings) to show that Matt solicited nude and other sexually explicit photos and videos from two underage teenage boys whom he sought out online. (The photos and videos are not shown in the documentary.) Paul and Leann don’t deny that this evidence exists, but they say that Matt only pleaded guilty because he was pressured to take a plea deal by the prosecution.

The Middle District of Tennessee’s U.S. Assistant Attorney Carrie Daughtrey, one of the prosecutors in the child porn case against Matt, says that Matt used a false online persona of being a teenage girl to get the teen boys to masturbate on camera. The evidence uncovered also showed that Matt used another fake persona with the underage teens who were part of the child porn case: Matt pretended to be a mobster’s son and used that lie to intimidate his victims into not telling authorities about the illegal sexually explicit contact that Matt had with them.

Brett Kniss, a former police detective for the police department of Franklin, Tennessee, says that the real victims in the Matt DeHart case are those whom Matt manipulated into making child porn, as well as their families. (None of these witnesses is interviewed in the documentary.) Kniss was directly involved in the child porn investigation, and he doesn’t mince words when he says that what Matt did was despicable. Kniss also says the investigation uncovered a third underage teenager to be an alleged victim, but Kniss says this accuser was afraid to get involved in the case by making a formal complaint.

Kniss doesn’t really comment directly on the DeHarts’ government conspiracy theory. However, Kniss does want people watching the documentary to know that Matt initially denied having anything do with child porn but pleaded guilty after he found out about all the evidence against him. In other words, Kniss believes that if Matt could lie about being involved in child porn, then he could lie about anything else.

The DeHarts have their share of supporters who are outraged because they think Matt was set up by the U.S. government on the child porn charges, in order to silence Matt over what he knows about the U.S. government. The supporters consider Matt to be a “hacktivist,” a term used for computer hackers with activist intentions. Many people consider Anonymous and Wikileaks to be part of this “hactivist” movement.

One of Matt’s supporters is Larry Butkowsky, who is the DeHart family’s immigration lawyer. In the documentary, Butkowsky essentially repeats a lot of the claims that Paul and Leann make. Also interviewed in the documentary are DeHart family supporters such as Matt’s former psychotherapist Ralph Nichols; Lily Tekle, who was Matt’s immigration attorney in Canada; Matt’s former criminal defense attorneys Mark Scruggs and Tor Ekeland.

Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University instructor who is an expert on Anonymous, says in the documentary she’s inclined to be on Matt’s side because she believes he found out information that the U.S. government wants to be kept from the public. Coleman says that she first heard about Matt when he contacted her in 2009 to claim that he had secret CIA information. Coleman comments that uncovering classified government information “was the main reason why the government went after hackers and hactivists who were part of Anonymous.”

The documentary also interviews DeHart family friends such as Jonathan Barrier, Josh Weinstein and Michon Hemenway, who is Barrier’s mother. Because the DeHarts were a military family, they moved around a lot during Matt’s childhood and teen years. Barrier and Weinstein knew Matt when they attended the same high school (in Indiana for Barrier, in New Jersey for Weinstein), and they both describe Matt as an eccentric computer geek who had a rebellious streak and a sense of grandiosity about himself.

Weinstein says that when Matt ran for the school’s student-body president, he “hired” two friends to pretend to be his bodyguards during the campaign. Matt would act like a real government official who needed to be protected. And when Matt lost the election, he put dead fish in one of the school’s main vents, so that the stink of the fish would permeate on campus.

Hemenway compares Matt to the smarmy Eddie Haskell character from the classic “Leave It to Beaver” comedy series. Eddie Haskell was a troublemaker and a bully, but he put on a smooth-talking polite persona to authority figures, in order to fool them. Hemenway says of Matt: “He can talk himself into any situation, good or bad. He can talk himself out of any situation.”

While in high school, Matt formed a computer hacker club called KAOS (an acronym for Kaos Anti-Security Operations Syndicate), which was an early indication that he would become immersed in the hacker community. In the documentary, his parents say that although they never really encouraged Matt’s computer hacking activities, they didn’t discourage it either. “We raised him to think critically,” says Paul. “We raised him to be free.”

Based on these interviews in the documentary, what emerges is a portrait of the DeHarts as a family that gave only child Matt a lot of leeway in pursuing his interests, even if those interests could get him in trouble. Paul and Leann DeHart essentially think of Matt as a good, misunderstood son with some mental health issues made worse by torture from the U.S. government. And because Paul and Leann went on the run to Canada with Matt, resulting in all three of them becoming fugitives, it shows how far these parents are willing to go to protect him.

Other people interviewed in the documentary don’t really take sides but comment on what they’ve observed in this case. Investigative journalist Adrian Humphreys wrote about Matt’s case extensively for the National Post in Canada. Humphreys says that when he began the investigation, “I didn’t realize at that point how bizarre and twisting and turning and complicated the story would really be.” Carmen Mullholland, a former nurse at Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, Maine, says in the documentary that she witnessed Matt being incoherent and unsteady on his feet while was in custody, but she denies stories that Matt was given Thorazine when he was in that jail.

The documentary’s re-enactment footage is a bit of a distraction and used more than it should be, for the sake of creating melodrama. For example, when Paul describes seeing Matt in prison, curled up in a fetal position and twitching on the floor, there’s a re-enactment of that. The actors portraying the DeHarts are Joel Widman as Matt, Christopher Clark as Paul and Suzanne Pratley as Leann, who are mostly silent in the re-enactments. But when the actors are supposed to speak in certain scenes, their voices are dubbed over with audio recordings of the real Matt, Paul and Leann DeHart. That’s what happens in re-enactment scenes depicting the DeHarts’ 2014 immigration hearings in Canada.

There’s a lot of people who feel strongly about either side of this complicated case. The documentary doesn’t advocate for one side or another, but it does show how Matt’s child porn legal issues and his government conspiracy issues can be thought of as intertwined or separate, depending on who’s being interviewed. Is he telling the truth about one or the other issue, both issues, or neither issue? “Enemies of the State” is the type of documentary that lets viewers make up their own minds.

IFC Films released “Enemies of the State” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Lansky’ (2021) starring Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly and John Magaro

July 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sam Worthington and Harvey Keitel in “Lansky” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Lansky”

Directed by Eytan Rockaway

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami, New York state, Israel and Switzerland, the dramatic film “Lansky” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Notorious gangster Meyer Lansky tells his life story to a journalist who wants to write Lansky’s official biography, while an ambitious FBI agent wants the journalist to breach confidentiality ethics to give information about Lansky to the FBI.

Culture Audience: “Lansky” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about famous American mobsters.

A scene from “Lansky” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has mastered the art of making movies about American mobsters. “Lansky,” about real-life 20th century crime boss Meyer Lansky, is one of numerous cheap and trite imitations of a Scorsese gangster film. “Lansky” is not a terrible movie, but it’s so formulaic that it’s often quite dull.

“Lansky” (written and directed by Eytan Rockaway) makes a half-hearted attempt to appear neutral about how complicated Lansky was. But in the end, the movie glorifies his murderous mayhem and almost justifies it by putting a lot of emphasis on how his corrupt business dealings generated a lot of money for local economies. The entire tone of the film is, “Never mind how many people were slaughtered because of Lansky, because he was a godfather of the gambling industry that’s given people a lot of jobs and boosted tourism.”

The 1999 HBO film “Lansky,” directed by John McNaughton and starring Richard Dreyfuss as Meyer Lansky, was a more conventional biopic that focused on Lansky in his prime. Rockaway’s “Lansky” movie attempts to take more creative risks by having it be about Lansky (played by Harvey Keitel) toward the end of his life and telling his story for a possible biography that he wants published after his death. Lansky died of lung cancer in 1983, at the age of 80.

In the production notes for “Lansky,” Rockaway says that his father “had the opportunity to interview [Lansky] just before he died. Meyer was a husband, father, friend, killer, genius, criminal, patriot and the founder of the largest crime organization in American history … He is both the protagonist and antagonist of this story. This film is not about loving or hating this man, it is about understanding him.”

Rockaway also admits in the “Lansky” production notes: “Growing up with a father who was an historian with expertise in the history of crime and the underworld, I was always intrigued by the adventurous and dangerous lives of gangsters. That dark and elusive underworld, with its own rules and codes of conduct operating in the shadows of civilized society, was fascinating. As a young boy, it sounded more like a fantasy world rather than historical reality.”

The movie tends to over-glamorize Lansky’s life and shuts out any depiction of the long-term damage of his crimes, except for how it made his wife angry at him and ruined their marriage. There’s almost no thought given to his victims. Although there are scenes that depict the brutal violence of Lansky’s crimes, he’s rarely shown actually doing the dirty work because the movie mainly shows other people carrying out murders and assaults for him.

In order to work his way up to being a mob boss with that type of power, this “Lansky” movie glosses over all the brutal crimes he had to commit along the way when he was a henchman, not the boss. And the movie barely mentions Lansky’s legal problems. As an adult, he only spent a couple of months in jail, but he was still very entangled in the court system because of frequent accusations (assault and tax evasion, to name a few) against him.

The other protagonist of “Lansky” is a fictional character named David Stone (played by Sam Worthington), a down-on-his luck journalist who travels to Miami in 1981, because he has a chance to interview Lansky for a biographical book on Lansky. The movie switches back and forth between what happens in 1981 and what happens in Lansky’s storytelling version of his life prior to 1981. By 1981, Lansky already knew that he was dying of lung cancer.

Lansky also knows everything about Stone’s background, including his education (Stone is a Princeton graduate), his work history (including being a crime reporter of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in Indiana) and his personal life. Stone is having financial problems and is currently separated from his wife Christina, nicknamed Chrissie. They have two underage children together: a daughter named Eva and a son named Jack. Stone’s family members are not seen in the movie, but Stone is shown having phone conversations with Christina and Eva.

When Stone and Lansky meet for the first time at a diner in Miami, Lansky is firm in telling Stone that everything that Lansky says in the interviews will be “off the record,” unless Lansky approves it. Lansky stipulates that he doesn’t want this biography to be published until after Lansky’s death. “Betray me and there will be consequences,” warns Lansky. “I hope our collaboration will be a successful one.”

Lansky’s life story in this movie begins in Lansky’s hometown of New York City in 1912, when Lansky was 10 years old and developed a fascination with numbers and dice games played on the street. The movie doesn’t mention that Lansky was born in the Russian Empire to a Polish Jewish family who immigrated to the United States, when he was 10 years old. As an example of how this movie tends to glorify Lansky, it completely skips over any heinous stories about how Lansky paid his dues as a henchman while working his way up the ranks in New York’s Italian mafia.

Instead, the movie goes straight to when a young Lansky (played by John Magaro) was already a trusted right-hand person for mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by Shane McRae), who was Lansky’s mentor. In this flashback scene, the movie “Lansky” mistakenly puts the year as 1918, when Lansky was just 16 years old. In reality, Lansky didn’t reach this level of mafia authority until he was in his 20s. Luciano’s criminal activities were funded by operating gambling businesses, which is also how Lansky ended up making his fortune.

The friendship between Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Siegel (played by David Cade) is also depicted in the movie. As Lansky explains to Stone, Lansky and Siegel were like brothers. Lansky handled the numbers, while Siegel was the enforcer in their mafioso activities. Predictably violent gangster scenes of torture and murder are in the movie, which includes Lansky’s influential involvement in the crime organizations Murder Inc. and National Crime Syndicate.

As an up-and-coming gangster, Lansky met a woman named Anne (played by AnnaSophia Robb), who would become his wife and the mother of his children. (In real life, her name was Anna Citron. She and Lansky eventually got divorced, but their divorce is not in this movie.) Their first meeting is depicted as an impromptu “double date” situation, when Lansky and Siegel were at a restaurant. Anne and her friend Elise happen to be at the same restaurant, are introduced to Lansky by Siegel, and join the two men for dinner.

When Anne and Elise ask Lansky and Siegel what they do for a living, Siegel and Lansky say they’re in the “truck rental business.” But as their conversation goes on, it becomes pretty obvious that Lansky and Siegel are involved in criminal activities. It makes Elise nervous, and she leaves, but Anne decides to stay because she tells Elise that these two strangers “seem nice.” It’s implied that Anne, who less than smart, is attracted to the “bad boy” type.

The next time that Anne and Lansky are seen together, they’re married parents to a disabled toddler son named Buddy, their eldest child, who was born with an impaired ability to walk. When a doctor tells Anne and Lansky that Buddy will have to wear a leg brace for the rest of his life, Lansky takes the news very hard. He sees it as a sign of weakness that Buddy was born disabled, but Lansky eventually accepts it and is depicted as someone who is devoted as he can be to his children. (The movie shows that Anne and Lansky eventually had two sons and a daughter.)

But things get worse for Anne, because she becomes miserable in the marriage, Most of the later scenes between Anne and Lansky show them getting into shouting matches and physical fights. She hurls insults at him for being a murderer, while he doesn’t want to hear this truth, and he gets angry. Lansky, who admits to Stone that he was often unfaithful to Anne because he it made him “feel good,” seems to think that Anne should just shut up and be happy with all the wealth that he’s been able to provide for their family.

The movie shows how Lansky’s wealth increased considerably when he got the opportunity to oversee the gambling industry in Cuba. And, according to Lansky, he was an unsung hero in fighting Nazis before and during World War II. There’s a very hokey scene in the movie of some of Lansky’s thugs breaking up a pro-Nazi, German-American Bund meeting in Yorkville, New York, in 1937, and getting into a bloody brawl that ends with the Nazis being defeated. It’s mentioned in the movie that Lansky was behind several disruptions of these types of Nazi rallies in New York in the 1930s and 1940s.

Not only is Lansky depicted as a great American patriot in the movie, he’s also portrayed as a Jew who takes pride in uplifting his family’s Israeli roots by getting involved in funding weapons for the Israeli military. It’s a movie that shows Lansky practically being an American diplomat to Israel. He has conversations with Israeli government leaders, such as Golda Meier, who is depicted as politician who allied herself with Lansky and later turned against him when his gangster reputation became too scandalous.

It can be argued that because Lansky is telling his life story in the movie, he’s naturally going to exaggerate or make himself look like a hero. But the movie lazily goes along with this concept. A more interesting approach to the movie would have been to put the fictional character of Stone to better use as a journalist—someone who would and should do his own independent investigation rather than just taking Lansky’s word for everything.

Instead, the “Lansky” movie has a useless subplot about Stone getting sexually involved with a woman named Maureen Duffy (played by Minka Kelly), who’s staying at the same motel in Miami. There’s a scene with Stone getting into a fist fight with Maureen’s jealous ex-boyfriend Ray Hutchinson (played by James Devoti), a drug dealer who’s convinced that Maureen was the snitch who set up him up to be arrested. It’s a giant clue/foreshadowing of what comes later in the movie about Maureen, who is never seen again soon after her secret is revealed.

In fact, “Lansky” is such a cliché American gangster movie that the only two female characters with significant speaking roles in the movie (Anne and Maureen) are only there to fulfill the role of wife or lover, which often translates to “nagging shrew” or “sexy temptress.” It’s all so hackneyed, boring and unimaginative. Robb and Kelly are perfectly adequate in their acting, but they don’t have much to do beyond the stereotypical roles that were written for them in this movie.

There’s another subplot, taking place in 1981, of an ambitious FBI agent named Frank Rivers (played by David James Elliott) who’s determined to find out if the rumor is true that Lansky has $300 million hidden away somewhere. And so, there’s a scene of Agent Rivers trying to convince his reluctant boss R.J. Campell (played by James Moses Black) to give him more budget money to investigate. And it should come as no surprise that the FBI finds out what Stone is doing in Miami. How it all plays out is very predictable.

The acting in “Lansky” isn’t particularly outstanding—Keitel has played a gangster so many times in movies, he can do it in his sleep—but Magaro as the young Lansky stands out as the one who’s best able to convey some character depth. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue falls into cornball territory, which lessens the impact of the violent scenes. And the movie’s pacing gets sluggish in the last third of the film.

The dialogue spewed by the elderly Lansky often makes him look less like a gangster reflecting on his sordid life and more like someone who’s trying to be a life coach/therapist for Stone. In one scene, Lansky tells Stone that they’ve both had lifelong insecurities about feeling like outsiders because their fathers rejected them. Lansky’s father never approved of his son’s criminal lifestyle, while Stone’s father abandoned his family when Stone was a child.

And then there are the preachy platitudes that Lansky imparts to Stone, as if Lansky is giving some kind of sermon. In one scene, Lansky lectures: “When you lose all your money, you lose nothing. When you lose your health, you lose something. When you lose your character, you lose everything.” Says the man responsible for an untold number of murders and other destruction of people’s lives.

“Lansky” was made for a certain audience that loves to see gangsters glorified on screen. However, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to go beyond the usual mobster biopic tropes, because there’s no one in the movie who challenges or investigates Lansky’s version of events. As much as writer/director Rockaway might say that this movie is not about “loving or hating” Lansky, the movie essentially puts Lansky up on a pedestal in a loving way, in an effort to give Lansky “legendary” status.

Vertical Entertainment released “Lansky” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 25, 2021.

Review: ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,’ starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson

June 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

Directed by Michael Chaves

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1981, the horror sequel “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Hispanics) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife, who are well-known demonologists/paranormal investigators, get involved in a murder case to try to prove that the defendant was possessed by an evil spirit when he committed the murder. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of people who are fans of “The Conjuring” franchise, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will appeal to people who are interested in horror movies that blend the supernatural with real-life legal drama.

Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Vince Pisani, Sarah Catherine Hook and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

How much people might enjoy “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will depend on how much they can tolerate “The Conjuring” universe taking a “Law & Order”-like turn in this particular sequel. That’s because demonologist/paranormal investigator spouses Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Wilson (played by Vera Farmiga) go beyond the typical haunted house/exorcism storylines of previous “The Conjuring” movies and get involved in a murder case to the point where the Warrens are investigating crime scenes like detectives and giving legal advice like attorneys.

It has the potential to make “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” a convoluted mess. But somehow, it all works out to be a satisfying horror thriller that makes up for its predictability with good performances, some terrifying visual effects and overall suspenseful pacing. The movie also has some unexpected touches of humor and romance that take some of the edge off this grim and gruesome story.

Directed by Michael Chaves and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (also known as “The Conjuring 3”) is inspired by a true story from the case files of the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren. The case was about Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who stabbed his 40-year-old landlord to death in Brookfield, Connecticut, in 1981, when Johnson was 19 years old. Johnson admitted to the stabbing but pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

His defense? The devil made him do it. Johnson claimed that during the stabbing, he had been possessed by the devil, which entered his body a few months before, during an exorcism of an 11-year-old boy named David Glatzel, who happened to be the younger brother of Arne’s girlfriend Debbie Glatzel. It was the first known U.S. murder case where demonic possession was used as a defense argument.

In real life, the Warrens got involved in the case because they were at this exorcism that was the catalyst for this tragic turn of events. And the Warrens ended up testifying on behalf of Johnson. (The trial doesn’t happen until toward the end of the movie.)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with an effectively horrifying re-enactment of the exorcism of David Glatzel (played by Julian Hilliard), which takes place in the movie at the Glatzel home on July 18, 1981. In the movie, David is 8 years old, not 11. Ed and Lorraine Warren are at the exorcism, along with Arne (played by Ruairi O’Connor) and Arne’s live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Sarah Catherine Hook), who have a very loyal and loving relationship.

Arne and Debbie are both in their late teens and live in another house in Brookfield. Also at the exorcism are David and Debbie’s father Carl Glatzel (played by Paul Wilson); David and Debbie’s mother Judy Glatzel (played by Charlene Amoia); and the Warrens’ videographer/assistant Drew Thomas (played by Shannon Kook), who is filming this exorcism.

When the movie begins, it’s implied that the exorcism has been going on for hours, with David showing ebbs and flows in his demonic possession. At one point, David has reached such a state of exhaustion that Arne takes David up to David’s bedroom to tuck the boy into bed. Arne is depicted as a mild-mannered and polite person.

Arne tells David, “You’re one brave kid. I was a little runt growing up, so I know what it’s like to be picked on, but that was nothing compared to what you’re going through.” David says, “I don’t feel very brave.” Arne replies, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you’re scared, but you’re hanging in there. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

David then says, “Arne when are you going to ask my sister to marry you?” Arne replies with a slightly embarrassed tone, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Despite this friendly banter, there’s a lingering sense of danger in the air. Arne looks outside David’s bedroom window and sees that a priest has arrived by taxi.

The priest is Father Gordon (played by Steve Coulter), who will be the official exorcist for David. Whatever evil spirits are around seem to know that a clergy person is there, because all hell breaks loose soon after the arrival of Father Gordon. David starts attacking like a demon child, beginning with stabbing his father in the leg. He goes through various contortions. And the inside of the house begins to look like a full-force tornado with swirling gusts of evil.

During this chaos, possessed David attacks Ed, who is knocked down on the ground. Arne sees that the demon won’t leave David’s body, so Arne grabs the possessed child and shouts at the demon: “Leave him alone and take me!” And not long after that, David calms down, but Arne won’t be the same. And neither will Ed, because he’s had a heart attack during this exorcism.

It’s a powerful way to begin the movie, which grabs viewers’ attention from this opening sequence and keeps this heightened level of tension throughout the film. David seems to be “cured,” but Arne starts having nightmarish visions. There’s a sinister-looking woman (played by Eugenie Bondurant) who keeps appearing in the visions, with a clear intent to harm Arne. For example, the first time that she attacks Arne, she starts to strangle him, but he’s able to stop it when he comes out of his trance.

At first, Arne doesn’t tell anyone about his visions because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s crazy. But then, things happen to the point where he can no longer keep it a secret that strange things have been happening to him. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who this evil-looking woman is and her ultimate malicious intent.

Ed’s heart attack lands him in a hospital emergency room. He’s eventually released, but he has to use a wheelchair for a good deal of the story. Over time (this movie takes place over a six-month period, from May to November 1981), Ed doesn’t need the wheelchair anymore, but he has to use a cane. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” includes a flashback to May 1981, when the Glatzels moved into the home that appears to be where the family first encountered the demon, which attacked David in a memorable scene involving a water bed.

Meanwhile, Arne and Debbie are trying to get their lives back to normal. Arne works for a tree service company, and Debbie works for Brookfield Boarding Kennels, a pet service company that’s located inside a two-story house. Debbie and Arne live in the house rent-free as part of her job. It’s a house that’s filled with barking dogs kept in cages when they’re inside.

In a conversation that takes place after the exorcism, Arne suggests to Debbie that they move away from Brookfield. He also drops hints that they should eventually get married. Debbie seems reluctant to move away from Brookfield because she and Arne can’t really afford to move yet and she doesn’t want to live too far away from her family. However, she tells Arne that she’ll think about it.

The owner of Brookfield Boarding Kennels is a creepy drunk named Bruno Salz (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has an underpaid Debbie doing most of the work. She’s very responsible and caring in her job, where she’s essentially the manager and bookkeeper for the business. And that’s another reason why Debbie doesn’t really want to move: She’s afraid that the dogs won’t be taken care of very well if flaky Bruno is left in charge of the kennel.

Bruno has been pestering Arne to repair Bruno’s broken stereo in the house’s living room. And one day, when the stereo is repaired, Bruno decides to crank up the music and have an impromptu party with Debbie, Arne and plenty of alcohol. Bruno plays Blondie’s “Call Me” full blast on the stereo and starts dancing with an uncomfortable-looking Debbie. (“Call Me” will be featured in another part of the movie too.)

Suddenly, Arne seems to be losing touch with reality. And this is where he’s supposed to be possessed by the demon. There’s an almost psychedelic nightmare that’s depicted on screen. And by the end, it’s revealed that Bruno was stabbed to death by Arne. (The stabbing is never shown on screen.) The murder in the movie takes place in September 1981, but in real life, the murder happened on February 16, 1981. It was the first murder in Brookfield’s history.

In a daze, Arne walks down a deserted road, with blood on his hands and clothes. A police officer (played by Chris Greene) in a patrol car stops to ask Arne what’s going on. And that’s when Arne says, “I think I hurt someone.” Arne is arrested for Bruno’s murder. And guess who’s coming back to Brookfield to investigate?

Fans of mystery solving will appreciate the added storyline of Ed and Lorraine Warren doing a lot of detective-like investigating, as the Warrens dig deep to find out the origins of this evil spirit that seems to have taken possession of Arne. In the movie, the demon isn’t inside of Arne all of the time. Arne is placed in the psychiatric ward in the local jail, and he’s a fairly passive prisoner most of the time. But there are moments when the demon comes back to haunt and possibly harm Arne.

In the movie, the Warrens are depicted as being the ones to convince Arne’s defense attorney Meryl (played by Ashley LeConte Campbell) to use demonic possession as a defense argument for Arne. It’s an unprecedented legal strategy that Meryl is convinced won’t work, until Ed and Lorraine show the attorney what they found in their demonologist research over the years. Debbie and the rest of the Glatzel family fully believe that Arne was possessed when he killed Bruno, so the Glatzels are supportive of Arne before and during the trial.

The Warrens take it upon themselves to help gather evidence for this case, but they also want to see if they can get rid of this demonic spirit that they believe exists. The Warrens’ investigation leads them to Danvers, Massachusetts, where they find out how the mysterious case of two teenage girls who were best friends is somehow connected to Arne’s case.

The teenagers are named Katie Lincoln (played by Andrea Andrade) and Jessica Louise Strong (played by Ingrid Bisu), who went missing in May 1981. Katie was found murdered, while Jessica is still missing. The Warrens also track down a former priest whose last name is Kastner (played by John Noble), who might have some answers about this particular demon.

Along the way, Ed and Lorraine also get help from a jail priest named Father Newman (played by Vince Pisani) and a police detective in Danvers named Sergeant Clay (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who is skeptical at first about helping the Warrens. But then, things happen that change Sergeant Clay’s mind. The movie has a few far-fetched things in the story, such as Sergeant Clay being willing to share his case files with Ed and Lorraine, when in reality that’s a serious breach of police protocol.

And some of the horror scenes are over-the-top with visual effects happening in a very “only in a movie” way, instead of depicting what the real exorcisms probably looked like. The amount of body contortions alone would break bones and put someone in a hospital. But elaborate scare spectacles are what people who watch horror movies like this expect to see.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” delivers in a way that’s effectively chilling but not as disturbing as 1973’s “The Exorcist,” the gold standard for exorcism movies. However, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a vast improvement over director Chaves’ feature-film directorial debut: the bland 2019 horror flick “The Curse of La Llorona.” Because of Arne’s murder trial, there’s a lot more at stake than the usual attempts to rid a person or a house of an evil spirit.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is also helped by a suitably convincing production design (by Jennifer Spence), which involves a lot of dusty, dark and unsettling places. And it’s easy to see why the movie changed the seasonal time period to the late summer/early autumn, instead of winter, because cinematographer Michael Burgess effectively uses a lot of autumn-like brown and gold for the exterior shots to contrast with the black and gray of the biggest horror scenes in the film. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” would have looked like a very different movie if it took place in the winter.

Viewers will also see little bit more backstory to Ed and Lorraine’s relationship. In brief romantic flashback scenes, it’s shown how the couple met: Thirty years prior, when Ed and Lorraine were both 17 years old, Lorraine (played by Megan Ashley Brown) went with some friends to a movie theater, where Ed (played by Mitchell Hoog) was working as an usher. It was attraction at first sight, and they began dating shortly afterward.

The movie doesn’t have these scenes as filler. Lorraine is reminiscing about this courtship because of Ed’s near-death scare with his heart attack. It’s caused her to reflect on their longtime relationship. And it’s made the couple appreciate their marriage and partnership even more.

But the movie also has a few touches of comic relief, by showing some of the personal dynamics between this longtime married couple. There are some subtle references to the gender roles that were and still are expected of couples who work together. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine has to take charge of much of the literal physical legwork in the investigation because of Ed’s recovery from his heart attack.

In a scene where Ed and Lorraine want to investigate a cellar in the Glatzel house, Ed (who is using a cane) realistically won’t be able to crawl around in the cellar. However, Ed tells Lorraine, who tends to dress like a prim and proper schoolteacher: “Honey, let me handle it. You’re going to ruin your dress if you go in there … Be careful.” With an “I can handle it” expression on her face, Lorraine calmly says, “Just hold my purse,” as she hands her purse to Ed. It’s a very realistic and hilarious moment that says it all about how women are often underestimated by men.

The film also shows Ed’s frustration at not being able to physically move around in the way that he’s been used to for all of his life. His anxiety isn’t portrayed in a heavy-handed way, but it’s a nod to the lifestyle adjustments that people who’ve been able-bodied have to go through when they find themselves disabled, even if it’s a temporary disabled condition. Ed does some griping about it, but not in a way that’s too self-pitying.

In a scene where Ed and Lorraine leave a courthouse after a preliminary hearing for Arne, observant viewers will notice that Ed needs to be carried in his wheelchair down the courtroom steps. It’s because the story takes place nine years before the Americans With Disabilities Act made it federal law in 1990 for buildings to provide reasonable access for disabled people. Nowadays, a courtroom building with outdoor steps, such as the building depicted in the movie, is also supposed to have ramps for people who use wheelchairs or walkers.

Since the first “The Conjuring” movie was released in 2013, Farmiga and Wilson have settled into these roles with a charming familiarity. Lorraine is the more level-headed and articulate one in this couple, while Ed (and his East Coast dialect slang) is the more approachable and down-to-earth spouse. Farmiga and Wilson are believable as a couple with a very deep love and respect for each other.

The rest of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, but the characters that are new to “The Conjuring” franchise for this movie were clearly written as only for this movie. The character of Arne is a little on the generic side, but O’Connor does an admirable job of conveying Arne’s inner turmoil. Bondurant’s role as the mystery woman who’s been plaguing Arne definitely brings a menacing aura to the movie, but she hardly says anything, so her presence is literally more muted than it needs to be.

Make no mistake: Ed and Lorraine Warren are the main characters for viewers to be the most invested in emotionally. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine’s psychic abilities are a major part of the story. People might have mixed feelings about how these psychic visions are depicted in the movie and how much of this real-life case was embellished into a Hollywood version.

But just like the rest of the story, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” isn’t about trying to explain a lot of things that can’t be explained by scientific facts. Whether or not viewers believe that demonic spirits exist, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” succeeds in providing plenty of memorable horror that makes it a worthy part of “The Conjuring” universe.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 4, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Above Suspicion’ (2021), starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston and Johnny Knoxville

May 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Above Suspicion” (2021)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky from 1988 to 1989, the crime drama “Above Suspicion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A drug-addicted woman becomes a confidential informant to the FBI, and complications ensue when she gets emotionally involved with the FBI agent who is her contact.

Culture Audience: “Above Suspicion” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable and pulpy crime movies that put more emphasis on being tacky than being suspenseful.

Johnny Knoxville and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The cheap-looking and tawdry drama “Above Suspicion” is based on a true crime story, but the movie foolishly gives away the ending at the very beginning of the film. In other words, if viewers don’t know what happened in this case in real life, they’ll know exactly what the outcome is in the movie’s opening scene, which has a morbid “voice from the dead” narration from the movie’s main character. “Above Suspicion” just goes downhill from there.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “Above Suspicion” is one of those “flashback” movies where the narrator is telling what happened in the past. And in this movie (which takes place in 1988 and 1989), the narrator tells viewers that she’s already dead. Her name is Susan Smith (played by Emilia Clarke), a divorced mother of two children. She was in her late 20s when she died.

In these flashbacks of her life, Susan is a cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, marijuana-smoking ne’er do well who makes money by committing fraud. She’s been collecting government welfare checks from the state of West Virginia, which she’s not entitled to have because she actually lives in Kentucky, where she gets welfare checks too. And occasionally, Susan sells drugs to make money.

In the movie’s opening scene, Susan says in a voiceover: “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think. Thinking is painful. Knowing things is painful.”

To serve as a warning to viewers, a better way to open this movie would have been: “You know what’s the worst thing about a brain-dead movie? It wastes too much time. Watching it is painful. Knowing this movie could be so much better is painful.”

And sitting through all the cringeworthy lines that stink up this movie is painful. Chris Gerolmo wrote the “Above Suspicion” screenplay, which is based on journalist Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name. People who’ve read that book will probably find this movie difficult to watch because it takes what was fascinating about this true crime book and turns it into a trashy melodrama.

Clarke, who is British in real life, attempts to give a believable and edgy performance as a Kentucky mother who’s lost her way in life and ends up falling for and clinging to a seemingly straight-laced married FBI agent. But there are moments when Clarke’s true British mannerisms come through, such as when she slips up and says the word “whilst” instead of “while” during one of the many scenes where her Susan character is yelling at someone. “Whilst” is not the kind of word that would be in the vocabulary of a Kentucky hillbilly like Susan.

Because “Above Suspicion” reveals in the opening scene that Susan is dead, the rest of this 104-minute movie is really just a countdown to Susan’s death. Given the lifestyle that she leads and what’s at stake when Susan gets involved with a married FBI agent with a squeaky-clean reputation, it’s not hard to figure out how she’ll die. And it won’t be from a drug overdose. If viewers don’t know what happened to the real Susan Smith in this case before they see “Above Suspicion,” it’ll become pretty obvious what her fate will be soon after this movie begins.

Susan lives in a dirty and disheveled house in Pikeville, Kentucky, with her sleazy ex-husband Cash (played by Johnny Knoxville), who’s a small-time drug dealer. They’re still living together because they can’t afford to get their own separate places. (In real life, the name of Susan’s ex-husband was Kenneth, but he really was a drug dealer.) Susan and Cash’s two children—an unnamed daughter who’s 7 or 8 years old (played by Lex Kelli) and a son named Isom who’s 5 or 6 years old (played by Landon Durrance)—don’t say much, probably because they’re shell-shocked by living in such a dysfunctional home.

Someone who does talk a lot is Susan. She and Cash have arguments and physical fights with each other, and she gets irritable or impatient with almost anyone who crosses her path, except for her children. Two other people who live in Susan and Cash’s dumpy house are an unemployed couple in their 20s: Joe B. (played by Karl Glusman) and his girlfriend Georgia Beale (played by Brittany O’Grady), who don’t seem to do much but sleep all day. Joe met Cash when they were in prison together. Cash is the one who invited Joe to stay at the house after Joe got out of prison. Needless to say, Susan isn’t very happy about it.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Joe makes inappropriate sexual comments to Susan, who understandably gets upset. Joe also calls her “Susie,” which she hates. But then, Susan also takes her anger out on Georgia about it. Susan bursts into the room where Georgia is sleeping and berates her about Joe being a creep. As Susan storms back out of the room, she screams at Georgia, “Pay me my rent money, bitch!”

Joe actually has been making money, but in an illegal way. He’s secretly a bank robber who has been targeting banks in cities near Pikeville, with Georgia’s help as his occasional getaway driver. Susan knows this secret because Joe’s red Chevy pickup truck fits the news media’s description of the getaway car. And she’s found Joe’s stash of cash with the guns that were used in the robberies.

“Above Suspicion” has some druggie party scenes that are exactly what people might expect. And it’s only a matter of time before fights break out at these parties. Susan’s volatile younger brother Bones (played by Luke Spencer Roberts) predictably gets in one of these fights, which leads to a particularly violent scene that was fabricated for this movie, just to add more melodrama.

Susan says in a voiceover: “Welcome to Pikeville, the town that never lets go.” She also says that in Pikeville, which is plagued by drug addiction, there are two main ways that people make money: “the funeral business or selling drugs.” And earlier in the film, this is how Susan describes herself: “I was a regular girl once. But things go wrong, as things will.”

Susan’s life takes a fateful turn when she meets Mark Putnam (played by Jack Huston), an ambitious and fairly new FBI agent, who has transferred to Pikeville to investigate the bank robberies. When Susan first sees Mark, who’s two years older than she is, she describes him like a hunk straight out of a romance novel. It’s lust at first sight for Susan.

And when Susan finds out that Mark is the FBI agent leading the investigation into the robberies, she sees it as an opportunity to get to know him better. It isn’t long before she drops hints to Mark that she knows who the bank robber is, but she’s afraid to be exposed as a snitch. Mark offers to pay Susan for bits and pieces of information, and she becomes his main confidential informant.

Susan dangles enough tips for Mark to investigate to keep him coming back for more. There’s an ulterior motive, of course. Susan wants to seduce Mark. And because Mark is so different from the men she’s used to being involved with, Susan starts to fall in love with him. However, it’s debatable whether it’s true love or if it’s Susan just wanting a ticket out of her dead-end life. At one point, when Mark asks Susan what she wants most in her life, she answers, “Rehab and money.”

Susan knows that Mark is happily married and has a baby daughter with his wife Kathy Putnam (played by Sophie Lowe), but that doesn’t seem to deter Susan from having a fantasy that Mark will eventually leave Kathy to be with Susan. When Susan and Mark meet in out-of-the-way and deserted places in other Kentucky cities such as Portersville and Martin, it’s just like the clandestine way that secret lovers meet. Susan starts to tell Mark that they both make a great team, but she wants to make their “partnership” about more than FBI work.

“Above Suspicion” portrays Susan as toning down some of her vulgar and mean-spirited ways to try to seduce Mark. She gives him a lot of flattery and attention. And anyone watching this movie will not be surprised when Mark starts to fall for Susan too because he’s become slightly bored with his marriage. But Mark doesn’t feel so strongly about Susan that he wants to leave his wife. Mark has a big ego, and he enjoys being with someone who fuels that ego. Huston’s portrayal of Mark is as someone whose top priority in life is being the best at his job and getting recognition and praise for it.

Even if Mark were an available bachelor, Mark and Susan’s relationship has too many other issues, including a power imbalance and a difference in their social classes. And most troubling of all for Mark’s career is that getting sexually involved with Susan is a breach of ethics and an automatic compromise of the evidence that Mark is getting from her for this investigation. And once the investigation is over, where does Susan fit into Mark’s life?

Clarke and Huston (who is also British in real life) aren’t terrible in their roles, but they are hindered by a subpar screenplay. Huston’s Mark character is often written as two-dimensional, while Clarke’s Susan character displays over-the-top trashiness that becomes increasingly annoying, especially when Susan begins stalking Mark and his wife Kathy. It’s supposed to make Susan look emotionally needy, lovesick and vulnerable, but her obsession with Mark only makes her look mentally unhinged. As for Knoxville, his abusive Cash character is just another version of the scumbags that Knoxville usually portrays in movies.

There are some supporting characters in the movie that don’t add much to the story. Susan has a concerned older sister named Jolene (played by Thora Birch), who lives in West Virginia and occasionally calls Susan. Mark has a colleague named Todd Eason (played by Chris Mulkey), who’s retiring from the FBI in six months. There are an informant named Denver Rhodes (played by Omar Benson Miller) and an international drug dealer named Rufus (played by Brian Lee Franklin), who both appear in the last third of the movie.

Noyce’s direction of “Above Suspicion” aims for the movie to be gritty noir, but it’s really just low-budget junk. It’s very easy to predict how this story is going to end. And until that ending, which Susan already blabbed about in the voiceover narration, it’s just one scene after another of contrasting Susan’s riff-raff life with Mark’s law-enforcement life. These two worlds end up crashing in the most horrific of ways. And it’s too bad that the overall result is that “Above Suspicion” is a cinematic train wreck.

Lionsgate released “Above Suspicion” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 14, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 18, 2021.

Review: ‘City of Lies,’ starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker

April 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“City of Lies”

Directed by Brad Furman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “City of Lies” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and a few Latinos) representing middle-class citizens, law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bitter former Los Angeles police detective joins forces with a TV journalist to try to solve the 1997 murder of rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.

Culture Audience: “City of Lies” will appeal primarily to people interested in the Notorious B.I.G. murder case or movies about true crime, but the movie drags with a sluggish pace and mediocre performances.

Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

The life and murder of The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, has turned into a cottage industry for filmmakers, since there have been several documentaries and narrative feature films about the rapper, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. The same could be said of the numerous movies about rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Both murders are speculated to be linked to each other, and these two murder cases remain unsolved. The dramatic film “City of Lies” (directed by Brad Furman) focuses on the Biggie Smalls murder case in such a lukewarm and unremarkable way that people will be better off watching any of the several documentaries about the same subject.

The troubled behind-the-scenes story of “City of Lies” is actually more interesting than the movie itself. “City of Lies” was originally supposed to be released in 2018, but the movie’s release was abruptly cancelled by then-distributor Global Road Entertainment, formerly known as Open Road Films. The company was sued by Bank Leumi, which loaned $32 million to make the movie and wanted the money back since the movie’s release was cancelled. In a separate lawsuit, “City of Lies” star Johnny Depp was sued by the movie’s former location manager Gregg “Rocky” Brooks, who claimed that Depp assaulted him on the set of “City of Lies.”

Global Road filed for bankruptcy in 2018, thereby shielding the company from debt collectors. As of this writing, Brooks’ lawsuit against Depp is pending. [UPDATE: In July 2022, Brooks lawsuit against Depp was settled out of court.] Open Road Films was revived in 2019 under new ownership. Meanwhile, “City of Lies” was shelved until Saban Films purchased the rights to the movie and released the movie in 2021.

It’s easy to see why “City of Lies” wasn’t considered a priority release by its original distributors. It isn’t a terrible film, but it’s a terribly monotonous one, with lackluster acting and tacky re-enactments of over-recycled theories about Biggie Smalls’ murder. “City of Lies” throws in some unnecessary fictional characters to bring more drama to the story. Christian Contreras wrote the “City of Lies” screenplay, which is based on Randall Sullivan’s 2002 non-fiction book “LAbryinth.”

The movie, just like the book, takes the angle that former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (played by Depp) had the most plausible theory that Smalls was murdered by corrupt LAPD cops who were working as off-duty security for Marion “Suge” Knight, the founder of Death Row Records. Knight and Death Row (which was the Los Angeles-based record label that Shakur was signed to when he was murdered) were involved in a bitter East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry with Sean Combs, the founder of the New York City-based Bad Boy Entertainment. The Notorious B.I.G. (a Brooklyn, New York native whose real name was Christopher Wallace) was signed to Bad Boy. The media often made it look like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were enemies, when the two rappers actually were friends early on in their careers until their record label bosses started feuding with each other.

“City of Lies” opens with a scene that takes place on March 18, 1997, in North Hollywood, California. An undercover LAPD cop named Frank Lyga (played by Shea Whigham) gets into a road-rage incident with a guy in a SUV over the type of music that is loudly playing in the SUV while both are stopped next to each other at a traffic light. There are racial undertones in their argument because Lyga is white and the other driver is African American.

The SUV driver starts to threaten Frank and chase after him in the car. During this car chase, Lyga shoots and kills the other motorist, who crashes his SUV into another car. It turns out that the other driver was also an undercover LAPD cop. His name was Kevin Gaines (played by Amin Joseph), and his alleged connection to the Biggie Smalls murder case is explained later in the movie for people who don’t know already.

Poole is called to the scene of Gaines’ death. Lyga claims he killed Gaines in self-defense. But in the wake of the 1992 riots over the Rodney King trial verdict, the LAPD does not want a repeat of these riots. Gaines’ family files a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. This lawsuit might or might not have affected how the LAPD investigated Gaines’ alleged involvement in the Biggie Smalls murder.

It’s not the best way to start off “City of Lies,” which is mostly about how retired LAPD detective Poole teamed up with a TV news journalist named Darius “Jack” Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker) in 2015 to re-examine the Biggie Smalls murder case. Poole left the LAPD in 1999 to start his own private detective agency, where he continued to investigate the Biggie Smalls murder. Although most of the characters in “City of Lies” are based on real people and the characters keep the names of their real-life counterparts, Jackson is a fictional character who works for the fictional American World Network, which is supposed to be like CNN.

Jackson is a character fabricated for this movie so that he can be a sounding board for Poole’s theories and so that Jackson can do a lot of the legwork of investigating that Poole might not be able to do because of Poole’s alienation from the LAPD. Jackson seeks out Poole at Poole’s cluttered and dingy apartment/home office because Jackson is doing a retrospective special on the Notorious B.I.G. and he wants to possibly interview Poole for it. When Jackson arrives unannounced at Poole’s apartment, he finds the door unlocked and enters. The unlocked door is a small detail that doesn’t ring true, considering that the movie goes out its way throughout the story to show how paranoid Poole is.

Poole surprises Jackson by pulling a gun on him. It didn’t help that Jackson showed up unannounced. After the former cop sees that Jackson isn’t a threat, Jackson explains why he’s there and reminds Poole that he actually interviewed Poole years before, for a documentary called “East vs. West,” about the 1990s East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry. Jackson proudly mentions that the documentary won a Peabody Award, but Poole isn’t impressed.

Poole, who is divorced and lives by himself, has his apartment walls covered in clippings and other items related to Biggie Smalls and the unsolved murder. In conversations with Jackson, it becomes very apparent that Poole has been so obsessed with the case, it’s cost him his job at the LAPD (he quit under a cloud of discontent after being suspended) and he lost his family over it. Poole’s wife divorced him, and he is estranged from his son Russell Poole Jr. (played by Joshua M. Hardwick), who is a minor league baseball player.

Sure enough, this hackneyed movie has a subplot of Poole pining for his lost relationship with his son. There’s a scene of him watching Russell Jr. during baseball practice, but keeping his distance because there’s too much bad blood between them. Jackson is with Poole as they watch Russell Jr. in the stands.

There are also a few flashbacks to Poole and his son in happier times when Russell Jr. was a 6-year-old child (played by Antonio Raul Corbo) and they did father-son activities, such as fishing. Poole also has an adult daughter (played by Ashleigh Biller), who isn’t even given a name in the movie. Meanwhile, the movie never shows anything about Jackson’s home life.

“City of Lies” goes back and forth between showing how Poole was on the original LAPD investigation team in the Biggie Smalls murder case in 1997, and how he’s still investigating the case as an under-funded private detective in 2015. Poole was also part of the internal affairs investigation over the 1997 shooting death of LAPD police officer Gaines by fellow LAPD cop Lyga. “City of Lies” references the LAPD Ramparts scandal, which involved some of the same cops who were connected to the Biggie Smalls murder. One of those cops was Rafael Pérez (played by Neil Brown Jr.), who was accused of being a member of the Bloods, a gang affiliated with Death Row founder Knight.

Other LAPD characters in the story who worked on the Biggie Smalls murder case in the late 1990s include Detective Fred Miller (played by Toby Huss), who was Russell’s closest co-worker on the case, and Detective Varney (played by Michael Paré), who gets scolded by Miller for saying that Biggie Smalls was behind Tupac Shakur’s murder. Other law enforcement officials who are part of the story include City Attorney Stone (played by Louis Herthum) and FBI Agent Dunton (played by Laurence Mason), who is undercover as a street thug connected to Death Row chief Knight. The movie is a bit heavy-handed in depicting Poole as the only LAPD cop willing to take down some of his colleagues if he thought they were murderers in cases that he was investigating.

In 2015, the LAPD cops that Jackson has to deal with include Commander Fasulo (played by Peter Greene) and Lieutenant O’Shea (played by Dayton Callie). These cops have written off Poole as a crazy loose cannon. However, Jackson isn’t so sure, and he begins to believe that Poole could be right about the LAPD being involved in some kind of cover-up to protect corrupt cops who might have been involved in the murder.

If you believe the main theory presented in the movie, a rogue LAPD cop named David Mack, nicknamed D-Mack (played by Shamier Anderson), was one of the key people with direct knowledge of the Biggie Smalls murder. Mack’s involvement is a theory that has already been widely reported, but it won’t be revealed in this review, since some people watching the movie might not know the theory. In real life, Mack was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for a December 1997 bank robbery of $722,000 in Los Angeles. The bank robbery is re-enacted in the movie.

Just as Poole ran into problems with his superiors for believing that the Biggie Smalls murder was a conspiracy among corrupt LAPD cops working for Knight, so too does Jackson get pushback from his boss named Edwards (played by Xander Berkeley) because Jackson wants to present this theory in the TV special. Jackson getting stonewalled by his boss is somewhat of an unbelievable part of the movie, because this theory was widely reported long before 2015, so Jackson really wouldn’t be reporting anything new. In the world of “City of Lies,” viewers are supposed to forget all of that and believe that Jackson will be breaking this news on TV for the very first time.

“City of Lies” includes cheesy re-enactments (some parts in slow-motion) of the Biggie Smalls murder, which happened after he left a Soul Train Music Awards after-party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He was a passenger in a SUV that was at a stoplight when he was shot by someone in a car that pulled up to the SUV. The role of Biggie Smalls is played by Jamal Woolard, who’s played the rapper in multiple films, including the 2009 biopic “Notorious.” An eyewitness named Tyrell (played by Dominique Columbus), a character fabricated for the movie, is interviewed in 1997 flashback scenes.

And just so the audience knows that “City of Lies” was approved by the family of Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace, his mother Voletta Wallace (portraying herself) has a cameo in a scene where she meets with Poole and Jackson in a diner. She thanks Poole and Jackson for clearing her son’s name when there were rumors that The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in the murder of Tupac Shakur. The only purpose of this scene is so people see that Voletta Wallace considered Poole to be an ally when it came to investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls.

“City of Lies” is very much told from Poole’s perspective, because the flow of the movie is frequently interrupted by his voiceover narration where he spouts some hokey lines. After the opening scene where Poole is called to the scene of LAPD officer Gaines’ death, Poole says in a voiceover about Gaines’ death and Biggie Smalls’ death: “I didn’t connect the two at first, but when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day, on that street corner, the labyrinth opened.”

Later in the movie, Poole says in retrospect of how the LAPD was investigating Gaines’ death: “The ghost of Rodney King was still haunting the city, so there was only one way this was going to end. I was the only idiot to think otherwise.” When Poole and Jackson meet in Poole’s apartment for the first time, Jackson asks Poole directly: “Who shot Christopher Wallace?” Poole replies: “I don’t know. I had a theory, and my investigation was ripped out from under me.”

You get the idea. “City of Lies” is about portraying Poole as a noble but very flawed martyr for his theory. The problem is in the the way it’s presented in “City of Lies,” which oversimplifies things and makes it look like Poole is the only person who had this theory and the only one to uncover key evidence in this theory. But by his own admission, what he uncovered wasn’t enough to solve the murder.

By the time Jackson meets Poole in Poole’s apartment, the former cop is jaded and distrustful, but Jackson’s interest in the case seems to renew Poole’s spirit and he gradually learns to trust Jackson. But the movie also spends a lot of time on flashbacks of Poole working on the case in 1997, and Jackson retracing Poole’s investigative steps instead of trying to look at other theories too. It’s lazy journalism that shouldn’t be glorified in a movie.

Depp and Whitaker have a lot of talent in other films. Unfortunately, they aren’t very interesting together in “City of of Lies.” The direction of the movie makes everything look fake. The actors playing cops look like actors, not cops.

And some of the re-creations of people in the rap music industry look awkward, as if these scenes were created by people who only know about hip-hop culture from watching music videos. When the release of “City of Lies” was originally cancelled in 2018, movie audiences didn’t seem to know or care that much. And now that “City of Lies” is available, it’s easy to see why this movie is so inconsequential and forgettable.

Saban Films released “City of Lies” in select U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is April 9, 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, this is Julia’s response: “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, did the “Silk Road” filmmakers think that 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: ‘If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story,’ starring Juan Martinez, Jennifer Willmott, Maria De La Rosa, Rachel Blaney, Robert Geffner, Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes

February 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jodi Arias mugshot in “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

“If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story”

Directed by Christopher Holt

Culture Representation: The documentary “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” features a group of white people and some Latino people discussing the case of Jodi Arias, the California woman who was convicted of the 2008 murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in Arizona.

Culture Clash: Some people interviewed in the documentary say that justice was served with the murder conviction, while others say that the conviction was unfair because they believe Arias’ claims that she acted in self-defense.

Culture Audience: “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in notorious true crime cases.

Jodi Arias and Travis Alexander in “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

The Jodi Arias case has gotten so much publicity that most people who followed the story already know what the outcome was. On June 4, 2008, she killed her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander by stabbing him 27 times and shooting him at his home in Mesa, Arizona. Arias claimed it was self-defense, but she was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013. In 2015, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The documentary “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (directed by Christopher Holt) doesn’t reveal anything new, but it does a very good job of presenting both sides of this tragic story.

The documentary includes interviews with some of Alexander’s friends and members of law enforcement who wholeheartedly believe that Arias is guilty. Representing the other side in the documentary are members of Arias’ defense team and an unidentified female relative, who wholeheartedly believe that Arias is not guilty because they think that Arias acted in self-defense. The documentary seems mostly objective in trying to present a balanced view of both sides.

The people interviewed in the documentary are:

  • Christopher Black, who knew Arias in high school
  • Rachel Blaney, a police detective in California’s Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office who interviewed Arias and investigated the case
  • Jeff Jensen, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints elder who knew Alexander and Arias
  • Maria De La Rosa, a defense mitigation specialist who is on Arias’ side
  • Professor Robert Geffner, a psychologist for the defense
  • Tom Fichera, Arias’ former boss at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, California
  • Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes, a former husband and wife who were friends of Alexander
  • Juan Martinez, the former Maricopa County, Arizona prosecutor who was the lead attorney in the state’s case against Arias.
  • Taylor Searle, one of Alexander’s friends
  • Richard Van Galder Jr., a homicide sergeant in Arizona’s Mesa Police Department
  • Jennifer Willmott, who is Arias’ defense attorney
  • An unidentified female relative of Arias who wanted to remain anonymous

The movie includes excerpts from Arias’ diaries that are read by an actress in voiceovers. There are also re-enactments for some of the scenes that involve Arias driving from California to Arizona on the day that she committed the crime, as well as re-enactments of Arias and Alexander’s relationship in happier times. These re-enactments are a little tacky. The voiceover readings would have been sufficient.

A diary excerpt that’s read in the beginning and end of the documentary is: “Five things I’m grateful for: (1) babies; (2) pizza; (3) the shape of my body; (4) my hair; (5) Travis Alexander.” Considering what Arias is convicted of doing to Alexander, these words are haunting.

The movie goes pretty deep into the background and psychology of Arias. Viewers can make up their own minds if she’s an evil sociopath or a victim of a long history of abusive relationships. One thing is clear: She and Alexander had a relationship that was doomed to fail because of her obsessiveness and his unwillingness to give her the commitment that she wanted.

Born in Salinas, California, on July 9, 1980, Arias is the daughter of William “Bill” Angelo Arias (a former restaurateur) and Sandy Arias. Jodi has an older half-sister, two younger brothers and a younger sister. According to the documentary, her life was relatively stable until the family moved in 1995 to the smaller city of Yreka, California, so that Sandy could be closer to her relatives and because Bill was having some health problems.

In Yreka, Jodi was a misfit who was often bullied by other kids in high school, according to her former classmate Black. He describes Yreka High School as a “diverse” school when it came to race, but most of the students knew each other for years, so Jodi’s status as a newcomer automatically made her an outsider. Excerpts from her diaries reveal that she became addicted to smoking marijuana during her unhappy years in Yreka. She also had a troubled relationship with her parents, especially with her father. (Her family supported her before, during and after the trial.)

While she was in high school, Jodi began dating a man named Bobby Juarez, who was a few years older than Jodi. Juarez lived in a trailer and is described in the documentary as a strange recluse and very domineering. Jodi eventually dropped out of high school and worked as a waitress to support herself and Juarez, who was chronically unemployed. They broke up because he reportedly cheated on her often.

Jodi then moved to Big Sur, California, and got a fresh start working in hospitality at the Ventana Inn & Spa. Her former boss Fichera remembers her has a pleasant and down-to-earth employee. She was also romantically involved with a co-worker named Darryl Brewer, a much-older man who was a divorced dad. According to Fichera, that relationship didn’t last because Jodi wanted to get married and start a family with Brewer, but he did not.

Her next serious romance was with Alexander, who was born in Riverside, California, on July 28, 1977. He was a rising star as a salesperson/motivational speaker for Pre-Paid Legal Services (PPL). Jodi met Alexander in September 2006, at a PPL convention in Las Vegas. In November 2006, Jodi converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon religion, which was Alexander’s religion. Jodi and Alexander officially began dating in February 2007, but their relationship was tumultuous with multiple breakups and reunions.

Because she lived in Palm Desert, California, and he lived in Mesa, Arizona, for most of their relationship, they would often meet and stay at the home of Chris and Sky Hughes, who lived somewhere in the middle, in Murrieta, California. In 2007, Jodi moved to Mesa to be with Alexander, but that arrangement didn’t last. Alexander’s friends warned Alexander that Jodi wasn’t good for him, but he couldn’t make a complete break from her.

Chris and Sky Hughes, who were married during the time they knew Alexander, say that they saw signs early on that Jodi was too possessive in her relationship with Alexander. Sky says that she often caught Jodi spying on Alexander. Jodi would do things such as snoop in his phone without permission or eavesdrop on his conversations.

The documentary doesn’t go too much into Alexander’s background, except to reiterate what has already been reported. His friends describe him as a fun-loving, outgoing guy who was very flirtatious with women. The documentary doesn’t mention how he and his seven siblings were raised by his paternal grandparents, starting when he was 11, because his parents (who are now deceased) had drug problems.

As has been reported elsewhere, Alexander had two sides to him: He presented himself as a strict Mormon to some people and claimed that he was saving his virginity until he got married. But the reality was his other side: He definitely like to party, and he wasn’t a virgin.

He and Jodi took sexually explicit photos of each other. These photos surfaced after his death, and she detailed their sexual relationship in her diaries. Ultimately, Jodi and Alexander were incompatible because he was interested in dating other women, and she wanted a monogamous commitment from him that would lead to marriage.

Even though Alexander told people in 2008 that his on-again/off-again relationship with Jodi was over, and he was dating someone else, he was still secretly seeing Jodi on the side for sex. By all accounts, she thought that she still had a chance to get back into a serious relationship with him, but he saw things differently. Prosecutors say that the motives for the murder were jealousy and revenge.

On the day that Jodi killed Alexander in his home, they had sex. She took explicit nude photos of herself and Alexander. And she took photos of him during and after the murder. She left the camera in the washing machine, thinking that water would destroy the photo evidence. But through computer forensics, investigators were able to recover the damning photos from the memory card.

Even though Jodi’s supporters vigorously defend her, they can’t erase the fact that she lost credibility when she changed her story more than once. First, she denied having anything to do with the crime. Then, when the photo evidence was found, she claimed that she and Alexander were victims of a home invasion by unknown intruders. And then, her last excuse (which was used in the trial) was that she killed Alexander out of self-defense because he was allegedly abusive to her.

Jodi’s arrest, interrogations by police and highlights from the trial are all covered in the documentary. Police detective Blaney remembers that Jodi came across as emotionally aloof when Blaney interrogated Jodi before the arrest: “It was hard to find Jodi’s soft spot.” The documentary does not portray Alexander as a saintly, since it mentions evidence brought up in the trial that he sent derogatory messages to Jodi when they were having problems in their relationship.

Jodi’s supporters in the documentary try to victim-blame Alexander, by saying that any mean-spirited text and email messages that he sent to Jodi somehow constitute enough reason for her to kill him in-self-defense. Defense psychologist Geffner says that Alexander was “leading a double life” and that “there was emotional and verbal abuse during the entire relationship” between Jodi and Alexander. Defense attorney Willmott comments that there was “formidable power and jealousy and cruelty from Travis.” De La Rosa goes as far to say that Jodi didn’t get a fair trial because of sexism and misogyny toward Jodi. Because Jodi was sexually active, “that made people hate her,” says De La Rosa.

What these defenders didn’t mention but the documentary does bring up is that Jodi admitted in her court testimony that there was no proof that Alexander physically abused her. The defense’s legal representatives also sidestep the issue of why Jodi changed her story so many times and tried to cover up the fact that she killed Alexander. And the defense psychologist doesn’t state that the excessive number of stab wounds and choosing an additional way to kill by shooting the victim are indications of overkill rage that go beyond self-defense.

In the documentary, Alexander’s friend Searle becomes so overcome with emotion that at a certain point in the interview, he couldn’t speak. He comments on this tragic murder: “There’s nothing in the world that can make sense of what happened.” Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes, who wrote a 2015 tribute book about Alexander called “Our Friend Travis: The Travis Alexander Story,” also express sadness over the tragedy of his death. However, police interview footage shows that shortly after Alexander was found brutally murdered, Chris and Sky were oddly laughing and grinning in the interview room when they said that Jodi probably committed the murder.

The documentary mentions that former prosecutor Martinez, who was fired and disbarred in 2020, has had his reputation ruined because he was accused of sexually harassing several women in situations unrelated to the Jodi Arias case. He was also accused of having a consensual but unethical sexual relationship with a female blogger who covered the Jodi Arias case, and leaking information about the case to the blogger.

Martinez believes that his tainted legacy won’t change the facts and the outcome of the Jodi Arias trial. He says he got “no joy” in his victory in the Jodi Arias case. “I see myself as a conduit of the truth,” Martinez adds. Jodi’s attorney Willmott says that she is hoping that Jodi will get a new trial. But that is extremely unlikely, considering that Jodi’s own testimony at the trial had a lot to do with her conviction and why she was sentenced to life without parole.

Discovery+ premiered “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” on February 12, 2021.

2021 IDCon: Dead of Winter announces lineup

February 9, 2021

The following is a press release from Discovery+

ID’s beloved fan appreciation event engagement event is returning for another virtual edition – this time with a streaming twist. Presenting the very best crime and mystery programming powered by ID and streaming at discovery+IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER will Zoom the most coveted stars in the true crime business and the most jaw-dropping cases straight to fans in the comfort of their own couches – all for free. With IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER, armchair detectives can face the dreary doldrums together and commiserate about the cases that keep them up at night, with special appearances by their favorite faces in the genre throughout the evening event. Attendees will receive sneak peeks of upcoming true crime offerings from discovery+, and registered fans will be treated to surprises, insider knowledge, and a chance to have their own burning fan questions answered.

Fans can join the sixth annual IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER via Zoom on Saturday, February 27 beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Sign up for a special link to enter the event, be entered for surprises, and submit questions for the panels at IDCONDeadofWinter.com. In lieu of an attendance fee, ID is encouraging donations to nonprofit organizations that we support, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In addition to sneak peeks and special appearances by Paula Zahn, Candice DeLongJohn WalshChris Anderson and Fatima Silva, IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER will have six confirmed panel sessions, outlined below:

American Detective with Lt. Joe Kenda

New episodes released Wednesdays on discovery+

After nine seasons captivating viewers with his own haunting cases, ID’s Homicide Hunter Lt. Joe Kenda brings viewers astounding investigations from across the country in American Detective. Join Detective Dan from the hit podcast ”Small Town Dicks” as he catches up with the Kendas in quarantine, chats about Joe’s  upcoming book “Killer Triggers,” and they shed light on why small town crimes still deserve big attention.

In Pursuit: The Missing with Callahan Walsh

Special begins streaming on Sunday, March 7 

With the acute understanding of someone whose family has been through the unimaginable tragedy of losing a child, join victim’s advocate Callahan Walsh as he actively investigates two mysterious disappearances and shines a light on additional unsolved missing persons cases from around the country. Callahan will give fans an exclusive sneak peek of his new special The Missing, as well as share breaking news about his fugitive-catching series with his legendary father, In Pursuit with John Walsh.

Unraveled: The Real Story of the Long Island Serial Killer

Unraveled” podcast available now; Special begins streaming on Tuesday March 9

Against a backdrop of police corruption, sexual misconduct, and cover-ups at the highest levels of the Suffolk County Police Department lies one of the most frustrating serial killer cases in recent history. Join retired police sergeant Derrick Levasseur (Breaking Homicide”Crime Weekly”) as he leads a discussion with true crime journalists, Alexis Linkletter and Billy Jensento reveal the disturbing evidence they’ve uncovered behind just why the case of the Long Island Serial Killer has remained unsolved for more than a decade.

Onision: In Real Life

Streaming now on discovery+

After an explosive special exposed allegations of predatory behavior and grooming against the influencer Greg Jackson, known online as ‘Onision,’ YouTube finally took action and demonetized the controversial figure. Now, Jackson’s ex-fiancé and one of the first accusers to come forward, Shiloh, will share her first-hand accounts of Jackson’s behavior, with internet safety advocate Alicia Kozak joining to speak to influencer culture and the dangers of online criminals. The discussion will dive deep into this dark YouTube controversy, and hint at what is yet to come in the jaw-dropping final episode currently in production. 

Barry Levine Author Chat from ID BOOK CLUB Selection, “The Spider: Inside the Criminal Web of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell” 

“The Spider” is available for purchase nowWho Killed Jeffrey Epstein? is available to stream now

Former Brooklyn, New York prosecutor Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi (True Conviction”Anatomy of Murder”) hosts a discussion with author Barry Levine about his explosive investigation into the Jeffrey Epstein case. By shining a light into the darkest corners of Epstein’s world, Levine unearths never-before-reported details in the most comprehensive account yet of the disgraced financier’s life, corrupt criminal web, and shocking death. The sordid tale doesn’t end there, and the two will discuss how Ghislaine Maxwell’s entanglement with Epstein has landed her in a Brooklyn jail cell, awaiting trial on several counts of sex trafficking minors and perjury.

Unseamly: The Investigation of Peter Nygård

Streaming now on discovery+

Peter Nygård built an international fashion empire and led an extravagant lifestyle, but hiding beneath the outlandish public persona, scores of women claim, was a dangerous sexual predator. More than 80 women have joined a class action lawsuit accusing Nygård and his companies of rape, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. Their accusations led to an investigation by the FBI and Nygård’s December arrest in Canada. Hear from survivors and those closest to the Nygård saga who exposed his alleged crimes and discover what is being done now to finally hold him accountable.

You can follow discovery+ on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

About discovery+

discovery+ is the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service. discovery+ has the largest-ever content offering of any new streaming service at launch, featuring a wide range of exclusive, original series across popular, passion verticals in which Discovery brands have a strong leadership position, including lifestyle and relationships; home and food; true crime; paranormal; adventure and natural history; as well as science, tech and the environment, and a slate of high-quality documentaries. For more, visit discoveryplus.com or find it on a variety of platforms and devices, including ones from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku and Samsung.

February 27, 2021 UPDATE: The following is the livestream of IDCON 2021:

Review: ‘JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?,’ starring John Ramsey, Cindy Marra, Mark Smit, Paula Woodward, John Anderson, John San Agustin and Greg Walta

January 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

JonBenét Ramsey in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Polaris/Discovery+)

“JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?”

Directed by Kim Duke

Culture Representation: The documentary “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one Asian) discussing the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, a Colorado rich girl who was brutally killed on Christmas Day 1996, when she was 6 years old.

Culture Clash: The unsolved case has been controversial because investigators and prosecutors disagree over evidence and who might be the prime suspect or suspects.

Culture Audience: “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” will appeal primarily to people interested in this case or in true crime overall, but the documentary does not reveal any new facts that are helpful to this case.

Lou Smit in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

Because there have already been so many news reports and documentaries about the JonBenét Ramsey case, any new ones that come along almost never have new information that can help make progress in the case. Almost every documentary about the case seems to have an agenda to push only one or two theories of who killed JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered on Christmas Day 1996 in her millionaire family home in Boulder, Colorado. This highly disputed case remains unsolved because there are conflicting accounts about the crime-scene evidence and numerous theories about who committed the murder.

It’s rare for a JonBenét Ramsey documentary to truly include perspectives of people who have very diverse viewpoints and theories about the case. “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (directed by Kim Duke) is one of those “agenda” documentaries, because it seems less concerned about interviewing people with a variety of perspectives and more concerned about being a one-sided tribute to Andrew “Lou” Smit, who was a prominent investigator for the Boulder district attorney’s office on the JonBenét Ramsey case. He was also an unpaid private investigator for the case when he stopped working for the Boulder D.A.’s office.

Smit (who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 75) firmly believed that an unknown intruder or intruders committed the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The documentary includes interviews with people who say the same thing (including JonBenét’s father John Ramsey), but not any interviews with people who believe in other theories. Furthermore, a copious amount of time in the documentary looks like a fawning biography of Smit instead of a well-rounded investigation that looks at all sides of this contentious murder case.

The documentary pushes a narrative that Smit was a crusading and often-misunderstood investigator who constantly battled over this case with the Boulder Police Department, because the Boulder PD immediately put JonBenét Ramsey’s parents at the top of the list of suspects. The documentary (which uses a lot of the same archival footage that’s been in many other JonBenét Ramsey documentaries) includes clips from Smit’s personal diary-type audio tapes that he made during the investigation. However, these audio tapes do not reveal anything new, unless you want to hear some ranting from Smit about how he felt mistreated by the Boulder PD. An epilogue in the documentary mentions that the Boulder PD declined to participate in the film, because the Boulder PD has a policy not to comment on the JonBenét Ramsey case.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Smit refused to believe the Ramseys could be guilty because he thought that they seemed like nice people. In his audio tapes, Smit says that people like the Ramseys don’t kill their children, and he had a gut feeling they weren’t guilty. What happened to the crime investigator rule that even if people who appear to be “nice,” it isn’t enough of a reason to decide that they can’t commit a crime? It’s about evidence, not personality. It’s no wonder that Smit got a lot of criticism for not being objective enough in this case.

Smit often accused the Boulder PD of having tunnel vision by not properly looking into other suspects. However, Smit displayed a certain amount of tunnel vision of his own with very biased actions during his investigation, by going out of his way to show the Ramseys that he was on their side. The documentary mentions that during Smit’s investigation while he was working for the Boulder D.A., Smit would park in front of the Ramseys’ house every day to pray for them and even invited John Ramsey to pray with him too. While this praying activity with a possible suspect might be considered noble by some people, it’s actually very unprofessional for a murder investigator to act this way with a witness who’s under suspicion while the investigator is working on the case.

Although there have been very divisive opinions on who committed the murder, these are the indisputable facts, which have been widely reported and are reiterated in the documentary: JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home sometime during the night or early-morning hours. Her parents (businessman John Bennett Ramsey and homemaker Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey) and JonBenét’s older brother Burke, who was 9 years old at the time, were also home at the time of the murder. All of them have denied having anything to do with the murder. The Boulder D.A. Office cleared the Ramseys as suspects in 2008, mainly because the Ramseys’ DNA did not match the unknown male DNA on JonBenét’s clothing that was on her dead body.

On the morning of December 26, 1996, Patsy called 911 to report that JonBenét was kidnapped. At the crime scene was a three-page, handwritten ransom note that was written on Patsy’s notepad and using a pen that was owned by the Ramseys. When the police arrived at the Ramseys’ 11,000-square-foot, three-story house, John and Patsy had already invited several of their friends and neighbors over to the home to comfort them. The Ramseys called some of these visitors over to the house before they called the police. Unfortunately, all of these people in the house inevitably contaminated the crime scene.

Instead of securing the crime scene and telling the visitors to leave, the Boulder police officers let the visitors stay and asked John to search the house again for JonBenét. John found JonBenét’s body in a basement-like area of the house. An autopsy determined that JonBenét had blunt force trauma to her head and had been strangled with a wiry cord that was still tightly wound around her neck. There are disagreements among investigators over whether she had been hit on the head first or had been strangled first. JonBenét had also been sexually violated with one of Patsy’s broken paintbrushes that was found near JonBenét’s body.

Although a former schoolteacher named John Mark Karr (born in 1964) confessed to the murder in 2006 and was arrested for it, it was later proven that Karr gave a false confession, and he was never prosecuted for the murder. He wasn’t even in Colorado when the murder happened, and his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Karr is now living as a transgender female named Alexis Valoran Reich.

Whatever people think about the JonBenét Ramsey case, the main theories of who committed the murder identify these four possibilities:

  • John Ramsey
  • Patsy Ramsey
  • Burke Ramsey
  • An unknown intruder or intruders

People who believe that the Ramseys were involved think that the Ramseys know more than they’re telling and that the Ramsey family is covering up the truth. (Patsy died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 49.) The severe ligature strangulation of JonBenét indicates that it was done by an adult.

Those who think Burke was the real culprit have a theory that Burke brutally hit JonBenét on the head with an unknown object during an argument, and the blow possibly left her unconscious. According to the theory, John and Patsy found out and perhaps thought JonBenét was dead, and so the parents might have panicked because they were afraid of the scandal that it would cause their prominent family.

The “Ramseys are guilty” theory usually believes that John and/or Patsy then further assaulted JonBenét to establish another cause of death and to make it look like a stranger did it, in order to confuse investigators. A kidnapping was staged to also confuse investigators, according to the “Ramseys are guilty” theory. People who believe this theory think that even if one person in the Ramsey family actually committed the physical crime, the other family members who were home at the time eventually knew about it and helped cover it up.

Most people who think the Ramseys are guilty point to clues that the killer or killers seemed comfortable taking a lot of time to commit the crime without fear of being caught in the act. There was the highly unusual and long ransom note, written on a paper and pen from the Ramsey home. Handwriting analyses ruled out John as the writer of the note, while Patsy could neither be completely identified nor completely ruled out as the writer of the ransom note.

Everyone agrees that the words of the ransom note indicate that it was written by an educated adult. The only fingerprints found on the note were those from Patsy (who said she found the note), investigators and visitors who were in the house. The intruder theory is that the intruder could have worn gloves.

Another big clue, which was not mentioned in this documentary, was that the autopsy of JonBenét found some undigested pineapple in her stomach, indicating that she died shortly after eating the pineapple. A bowl of pineapples was on the kitchen counter when the police arrived at the crime scene, but the Ramseys denied knowing anything about it and said that it was unlikely that JonBenét prepared the pineapple meal herself.

Was it an intruder? And if so, what kind of intruder would feel comfortable enough in the Ramsey home to kidnap a child but stay long enough to feed the child a pineapple meal? And why use Patsy’s notepad in the house to write the ransom note instead of writing the note somewhere else in advance?

The Ramsey family was out attending a party earlier that evening, and the intruder theory is that an intruder could have been hiding in the house for hours and written the ransom note while alone in the house. (The Ramseys did not have all of their doors locked when they were away and when they were at home.) But no one can seem to explain the sequence of events that led to JonBenét eating pineapple in the middle of the night shortly before she died.

Police found that there were no signs of a disturbance in JonBenét’s bedroom on the night of the crime. Investigators have different theories on how JonBenét could have gone from sleeping in her second-floor bedroom, to being murdered, to her body being found by her father in an area of the house that’s below ground level and was known to few people outside of the Ramsey family. John, Patsy and Burke have maintained that they were asleep when the murder happened, and that they didn’t know that something had happened to JonBenét until the next morning.

People who believe the intruder theory think that the intruder used a stun gun to subdue JonBenét, because there were marks resembling a stun gun on the side of JonBenét’s face and on her back. People who believe that John, Patsy and/or Burke were involved think that JonBenét likely went down to the kitchen for her pineapple meal voluntarily, and something happened that caused her violent death. The marks on her face and back also matched a detached section of a toy train track owned by Burke, according to several news reports with details of what the police found at the crime scene.

The documentary also mentions that Smit was able to show in video evidence that an intruder could have easily entered and left the side window to the room where JonBenét’s body was found. Smit demonstrated by climbing in and out of the window himself. However, what the documentary didn’t mention is that photographic evidence at the crime scene showed that after JonBenét’s body was found, an open window in that room had undisturbed dust and cobwebs on the window sill. If there was an intruder, the undisturbed dust and cobweb evidence definitely can raise doubts that someone entered or left by that window.

A neighbor reported hearing the sound of a frightened child screaming from the Ramsey house on the night of the murder. The documentary mentions that Smit found that there was a pipe in the room where JonBenét’s body was found that can carry sound from that room to outside of the house, but the sound cannot be heard on the upper floors inside the house. It fits into the theory that John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey couldn’t hear any signs of distress during the murder, if they were asleep in their bedrooms as they claimed.

However, the documentary doesn’t question the other side of this belief: If a kidnapped child was crying out that loudly inside the house while being murdered, how did the killer know that other people in the house wouldn’t be able to hear those noises? Furthermore, several people in the documentary describe JonBenét’s murder as slow and tortuous. And yet, it’s never explained why a kidnapper/intruder would feel comfortable murdering a screaming child in her own home, in a slow and tortuous way, without any fear of being caught by other people in the house. Wouldn’t a scared intruder kill her quickly instead of slowly torturing her?

The documentary mentions the biggest evidence to support the intruder theory: unknown male DNA was found in JonBenét’s underwear and on her longjohns that she was wearing when her body was found. All of the Ramseys’ DNA did not match this unknown DNA. What the documentary didn’t mention is that police have not ruled out that this DNA could have been touch DNA, which is DNA that could have gotten there if a man, such as a store employee or factory worker, had contact with this item of clothing before it was packaged. Because John Ramsey got to JonBenét’s body before the police did, and he carried her body to another location in the house, his DNA was all over critical areas, so it did not prove either way if he killed her or not.

Because this documentary seems to have been made to convince people that the intruder theory is the only correct theory and that Smit should get the most credit for this theory, it’s an echo chamber of people who essentially agree. In addition to John Bennett Ramsey, the documentary has interviews with John Andrew Ramsey (JonBenét’s oldest brother, from John Bennett Ramsey’s first marriage); Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra; Smit’s son Mark Smit; and Smit’s attorney Greg Walta. Also interviewed are investigative journalist/author Paula Woodward, who covered the JonBenét murder case from the beginning; John Anderson, a retired sheriff of Colorado’s El Paso County; and Ramsey Family private investigator John San Agustin, a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office commander.

The beginning of the documentary lists Smit’s impressive work credentials, including his role in helping solve the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest, Colorado, as if it’s proof that he could never be wrong. He spent more than 20 years working for the Colorado Springs Police Department, in addition to experience working in a coroner’s office and as an investigator for district attorneys. He later became a private investigator who refused any payment and gifts for working on the Ramsey case. John Bennett Ramsey says in the documentary that Smit even refused his offer to buy ice cream for Smit.

And yet for all this investigator experience, Smit is heard on audio saying about the Ramsey case: “I don’t think this ransom note was written by the parents. Look at all the references to death and dying.” It’s as if Smit believes that “good” parents aren’t capable of talking about their children dying. That’s Smit’s opinion, but this opinion shouldn’t be used as proof of the parents’ guilt or innocence in this case.

In another audio clip, Smit says the Ramseys should be ruled out as suspects for this reason: “There’s no bad character with the Ramseys.” Just because someone doesn’t have an arrest record or seems to have a “nice” personality isn’t proof that someone can’t commit murder. It’s an appallingly bad assumption for a murder investigator to have, because it’s based on opinion and bias, not evidence.

This documentary makes it clear that Smit had it stuck in his head that the Ramseys (who were millionaires at the time) couldn’t possibly be involved in this heinous crime. And there’s nothing wrong with believing in “innocent until proven guilty.” But time and again, in audio tapes played in the documentary, Smit makes telling comments that show a conscious or unconscious bias that appears to be based on the Ramsey’s social class. He says he thinks that the Ramseys are too “nice” or “not the kind of people” to be involved in murdering a child. It’s all really code for “I don’t think people in this income bracket should be considered likely suspects.”

One of the most noticeable flaws in this documentary is that it doesn’t offer anything substantial about what kind of person would commit this crime. If the killer was an intruder, then who else had access and intimate knowledge of the Ramseys’ home and sleeping habits to get away with this crime so easily? None of that is mentioned in the documentary, even though Smit and other investigators surely developed profiles of possible suspects.

The documentary has a brief and vague mention of a large computer database of tips from the public and other information that Smit compiled. But he also complains in his audio diaries that the police didn’t follow up on the majority of this information. Smit acknowledges what has already been widely reported: The Boulder PD was fixated on proving the Ramseys guilty, while Smit was fixated on proving the Ramseys were not guilty. The clashes were inevitable, but they show flaws and narrow-mindedness on both sides.

In 1999, a Boulder grand jury indicted John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse related to JonBenét’s murder. However, then-Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter declined to prosecute John and Patsy Ramsey, based on lack of evidence. This secret grand jury decision wasn’t made public until 2013. John Bennett Ramsey, who gives credit to Smit for influencing Hunter to make this decision, comments in the documentary that Smit “saved our lives.”

JonBenét’s father doesn’t say anything in the documentary that he hasn’t already said in other interviews. He comments that when people ask him what he would say to JonBenét, it would be this: “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That’s my job as a dad.”

He also defends JonBenét’s participation in beauty pageants, by saying it was JonBenét, not he or his wife Patsy, who insisted on being in these contests. John and Patsy were vilified for allowing JonBenét to dress and act like an adult in these pageants, with critics claiming it was “proof” that John and Patsy were bad parents. There has been speculation that JonBenét could have become a murder target because of her pageant activities.

We might never know why JonBenét Ramsey was killed and who murdered her. But her father says in the documentary that the “real tragedy” is that Patsy “has been maligned as awful. She was an amazing mother.” He also says that the Ramsey family and their supporters won’t give up until JonBenét’s killer is caught. Sadly, unless there is a confession backed up with proof, this is a murder that’s unlikely to be solved.

Smit’s family members seem to be carrying on his legacy by being interviewed about the case and by making public his audio and video recordings that he made about his investigation. Smit’s granddaughters Lexi Marra and Jessa Van Der Woerd (who have a JonBenét Ramsey podcast) and his daughter Cindy Marra were prominently featured in ABC’s “20/20” episode titled “The List: Who Killed JonBenét?,” which aired on January 15, 2021.

This “20/20” news report is very similar to “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (including interviewing some of the same people), except the “20/20” report had a variety of interviewees and at least made the effort to discuss other people (besides the Ramseys) who fell under suspicion for the murder. The “20/20” news report also had more mention of Smit’s suspicions (he kept a semi-confidential list that he shared with other investigators) about who could have been the killer. Unfortunately, whatever has been reported in JonBenét Ramsey documentaries like this one just adds up to recycled information that does nothing to make a breakthrough in the case.

Discovery+ premiered “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” on January 4, 2021.

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