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Gold Glitters

goldGreed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

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Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale

live_by_night_filmStrong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.

This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.

After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.

While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.

Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life. Read the rest of this entry

Leadership: Alexander the Great vs. Darius III

alexandervdarius1Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander presented an interesting contrast in leadership styles, particularly during its portrayal of the Battle of Gaugamela. From what I’ve read about the battle, Oliver Stone’s cinematic reenactment is fairly accurate. But it’s not the film’s accuracy or the battle tactics (per se) that I want to highlight. The battle shows the benefits and pitfalls of authoritarian vs shared leadership styles, personified in the characters of Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius III.

Historically, the Battle of Gaugamela was fought in what is today northern Iraq in 331 BC between the Hellenic League army, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian army, led by Darius III. Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, formed the the Hellenic League, a federation of Greek states, in 337 BC and was elected its Hegemon. Philip plotted to invade the Achaemenid Persian Empire in revenge for Persia’s previous invasions of Greece, but was assassinated before he could carry it out.

Alexander the Great took up this campaign and after a series of battles met King Darius III’s army near Gaugamela. Darius’ army is thought to have outnumbered Alexander’s 100,000-250,000 to 47,000. It was the largest army ever assembled at the time. Darius chose a flat, open plane on which to fight in order to maximize the effectiveness of his heavy chariots. Alexander, however, developed a tactic to defeat the chariots, and they were never again used as a weapon of war. Alexander crushed Darius by executing a faint with his cavalry on the right flank, then turning to exploit a gap that opened in the Persian center. In Alexander, the Hellenic army is portrayed as a professional army of free men, fighting against a mass of poorly equipped conscripts drawn from all over the Persian Empire. When Darius fled, his army gradually crumbled and melted away. Read the rest of this entry

The ‘Burbs: An American Gothic Tale

A cul-de-sac in an unassuming Midwestern suburb is the setting for this classic dark comedy from the ’80s. Though underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) is one of my favorite movies and helped spark my interest in the unusual. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood. Though on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delves deep into the American gothic and the double-sided nature of modern American society, a society that consumes true crime, horror, and paranormal books, movies, and television behind picket fences and manicured lawns.

On Mayfield Place in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and retired Lieutenant Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) suspect a family named Klopek, who live in a dilapidated house next door to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), are really satanists responsible for the disappearance of the house’s previous occupants, and later, an old man named Walter Seznick. Ray Peterson is skeptical, simply wanting to enjoy a quiet weeklong vacation at home with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son. Strange events gradually convince Ray his friends are right, and they break into the Klopeks’ home seeking evidence of their crimes.

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Power and Force in ‘Crash’

CrashPosterOn the surface, the Academy Award-winning film Crash (2004) purports to be an emotional portrayal of race and prejudice in America. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, the filmmakers portray characters of several different races and ethnic backgrounds as they interact over the course of two or three days on the streets of Los Angeles. At every point in the film, the main characters express prejudice in one form or another. Some are seemingly redeemed after dramatic moments, and others never change.

The message of Crash is, perhaps, that everyone harbors some form of prejudice. However, social critics like Bell Hooks have maintained that Crash utterly fails in its attempts to discuss race or class, and instead actually confirms and reinforces typical Hollywood stereotypes.

If Crash was solely a film about race or class, Bell Hooks may have a point. When viewed through the lens of race, Crash is, of course, a cynical portrayal of race relations in which all Americans are trapped in a never-ending cycle of hatred, remorse, and self-loathing (aside from a few moments of catharsis). But Crash falls flat in its attempts to discuss those issues, partially because those issues are not what the film is really about. Looking a little deeper past issues of race or class, Crash is a film about power and force (the raw exercise of power).

For instance, in the second scene, a Persian man and his daughter walk into a gun store to buy a pistol and they begin to chat in Farsi. The store clerk, whose persona is reminiscent of Archie Bunker, mistakes the pair for Arabs, insults the man, and they argue. The store clerk instructs his security guard (who apparently has been standing off camera) to remove him. At this point, the store clerk has exercised force to remove a perceived threat. He could have thrown the man’s daughter out as well, but chose not to. He then bombards her with sexual innuendos as she attempts to complete the purchase.

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Labyrinth’s 30th Anniversary

labyrinth_ver2This afternoon I watched a special 30th Anniversary theatrical showing of Jim Henson’s final film, Labyrinth. I loved Labyrinth as a kid. It was the only VHS tape my grandma owned, and I  watched it every time we visited. Seeing it in the theater was definitely an experience worth having. I was surprised to learn Labyrinth did not do well at the box office. I suppose seen for the first time through the eyes of an adult, it would seem like a silly movie. But to a child, it’s magical. Henson’s puppets are finely crafted and the sets and characters are unique and entertaining. The music by David Bowie and Trevor Jones is outstanding. It’s a testament to the quality of the film that rather than be forgotten, 30 years later it’s being replayed in theaters around the nation.

Released in June 1986, Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), who must journey to the center of a complex labyrinth to rescue her infant brother, Toby, who has been kidnapped by Jareth (played by David Bowie), the Goblin King. Along the way, she makes friends with colorful characters like Hoggle, a dwarf; Ludo, a large hairy beast; and Sir Didymus, a tenacious Fox Terrier. The film was a commercial disappointment, losing $12 million. Depressed by the failure, Jim Henson never made another feature film. He died four years later, in 1990.

The 30th Anniversary theatrical showing included interviews with Jennifer Connelly (who was 14 years old in 1986) and Jim Henson’s son, Brian, as well as a look at the Henson collection at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. It showed the care and detail that went into making the puppets. In Labyrinth, two brass door knockers seem to come to life. The door knockers are not CGI: they were actually made of foam painted to look metal. The illusion holds up even on the big screen. I’ve always thought that CGI hasn’t come close to the puppets, miniatures, and practical effects of the 1980s in terms of realism. There’s something too clean, too perfect and precise about CGI. Labyrinth does use some effects like matte paintings and green screen that look terrible, but overall the effects quality is solid. Interestingly, Labyrinth contains one of the first uses of a CGI animal in a film–the owl in the opening credits.

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