Gold

(USA 2016)

“The taste of it on your tongue, the feel of it on your fingers—it’s like a drug.”

—Mike Acosta

Not everything gold glitters; such is the case with Stephen Gaghan’s Gold, his first film since the acclaimed Syriana over a decade ago. Matthew McConaughey is Kenny Wells, a redneck businessman running his collapsing mining company from a smoke-filled tavern in Reno, Nevada, in 1988. Acting on little more than gut and some pawn shop cash from hocking gifts he gave his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) in better days shown as the movie opens, he abruptly heads to Indonesia to track down geologist Mike Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) to find a gold mine.

Their first meeting doesn’t go well at all. Looking like he stepped out of Banana Republic when it was a safari store in the ’80s, Acosta is shrewd, rugged, and quite experienced. Balding and sweaty Wells, with his jagged teeth and paunch, is sloppy and desperate. He reads as broke. Unimpressed, Acosta passes when Wells suggests they partner up—until the latter raises $200,000 for the proposed venture. After a series of miscalculations and mishaps (including a bout with malaria), they hit the jackpot in the middle of a jungle. Suddenly, the same banks and big investors that turned up their nose at Wells before want in on the action.

Gold isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not the impressive work it wants to be. The pace is fine, but the plot twists are unsurprising if not downright predictable. The problem is that I’ve seen this story before, and recently: mainstream films like The Big Short (https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/the-big-short/), The Wolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle deal with the same themes in a similar manner. I’ve seen McConaughey be the same character, too. The curious statement “inspired by a true story” after the opening credits is the cue to something I found disappointing: Gold is a fictionalized account of a true story, changed enough that I guess it can’t claim to be “based on” reality. I’m not sure where that line is drawn, but it turns out much of the story is made up (http://www.financialpost.com/m/search/blog.html?b=business.financialpost.com/news/mining/gold-the-movie-about-the-bre-x-mining-scandal-that-isnt-about-bre-x&q=Bre). Plus, it’s never a good sign when the music in a film—here, artists ranging from Orange Juice to New Order and Joy Division to the Pixies and a new song by Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse—elicits the most enthusiastic response from me. Overall, meh.

Also starring Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Rachael Taylor, Joshua Harto, and Timothy Simons

Produced by Boies/Schiller Films, Black Bear Pictures, and Highway 61 Films

Distributed by TWC-Dimension

121 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C

http://gold-film.com

 

Middle Man

(USA 2016)

“No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.”

—Fatty Arbuckle

Lenny Freeman (Jim O’Heir) is a wussy ageing milksop who quits his job as an accountant to pursue a career in standup comedy after his mother (Barbo K. Adler) dies. The problems with his plan are numerous. For one, his idea of comedy comes from old radio greats of the 1930s and 1940s—hardly cutting edge or relevant stuff. Further, Lenny has led a sheltered life with his mother. He’s naive. He has no confidence. He isn’t funny. He isn’t particularly perceptive: he doesn’t quite get it when, say, he’s being insulted or threatened. To make matters worse, he’s never even performed for an audience.

Driving from Peoria, Illinois, to Las Vegas in his mother’s 1950s Olds, Lenny picks up a shady hitchhiker (Andrew J. West)— aptly and cornily named “Hitch”—who claims to manage comedians and offers to get Lenny on the very TV show for which he’s on his way to an audition. They make a contract, and Hitch takes Lenny to The Yuck Stop, a desert roadside club in fictitious Lamb Bone, Nevada, to test his material at open mic night. Spoiler alert: Lenny sucks, and the rough crowd is vicious.

Somehow, the corpse of the nastiest heckler (Danny Belrose) is inside Lenny’s trunk in the morning. Lenny thinks he killed him and spends all day in the desert unsuccessfully attempting to dump the body. Hitch pushes Lenny—unglued and soaked in sweat and blood—back onto the Yuck Stop stage, where he confesses to the murder. The crowd takes it as schtick, and this time loves Lenny. Thus begins a killing spree that benefits Lenny’s act more and more with each murder.

Screenwriter and first time director Ned Crowley is onto a good idea with Middle Man, an exploration of selling one’s soul for the spotlight. He references the Coen Brothers, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and perhaps in a sense Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. I particularly love sick jokes and dark humor, and Crowley liberally applies both throughout. The execution here is uneven, though. The dialogue really shines, but some characters are disproportionately more interesting than others. Hitch’s motive is probably ambiguous on purpose, but it nagged me and got in the way of fully enjoying the film. Most unfortunately, main character Lenny gets old after awhile. Watching his confidence soar in a romantic subplot with his rival standup’s girlfriend, Grail (Anne Dudek), starts out well enough but soon fizzles badly.

Middle Man takes a decidedly sinister turn about 20 minutes before its ending, which is predictable and not as weird or harrowing as Crowley might have intended. Overall, though, this is a respectable debut that doesn’t take itself too seriously—that’s the most refreshing thing about it.

Screening followed by a live discussion with director Ned Crowley and actor Jim O’Heir.

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.middlemanmovie.com