Salvation Boulevard (2011)

2015 #101
George Ratliff | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Reuniting Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear, stars of comedy-thriller The Matador (reportedly Brosnan was cast first and asked for Kinnear), comedy-drama Salvation Boulevard stars Brosnan as evangelical preacher Dan Day and Kinnear as a member of his flock, Carl, a recent convert thanks to his even-more-committed wife (Jennifer Connelly). When Dan accidentally shoots an atheist (Ed Harris) with Carl as the only witness, Dan tries to cover it up, but Carl isn’t so sure, soon finding himself on the run from other members of the church who’ll do whatever Dan tells them…

A soft-toothed satire of America’s fundamentalist mega-churches, Salvation Boulevard trailed very well, but they must’ve stuffed all the funny bits in, because in the final film such moments of hilarity are few and far between. The biggest problem is that the film doesn’t have the cojones to skewer organised religion as thoroughly as it could. It’s undoubtedly skeptical of the whole shebang, and I wouldn’t say it paints it in a positive light, but it comes up short of outright deconstructing it. Instead, we get an increasingly-complex run-around, including bringing in a Mexican drug cartel who want the land Dan is intending to build a new town on.

Intriguingly, it’s adapted from a novel that, based on the blurb, sounds nothing like the film. It appears to be a fully-fledged thriller, for one thing. It follows a detective, who is at least a born again Christian, but there’s a suspect in custody who’s a Muslim, and a Jewish defense attorney would seem to play a prominent role, and the plot description is full of language about “his most basic beliefs are tried” and “he can’t stop searching for the truth no matter what the personal cost”. This is not the Salvation Boulevard that has ended up on film. I tried to hunt down an explanation for why co-writer/director George Ratliff had deviated so, but the best I could unearth was this interview. Asked whether the characters are different from the book and how they went about translating the novel to the screen, Ratliff answers:

A lot of the names are the same. The book is very good and Larry Beinhart is a very good writer, but it’s just a different animal, and we went and did something completely different. […] definitely the spirit of Larry’s book is in the movie. A lot of the things that happen in the book happen in the movie. It’s just set up very differently. It is absolutely an adaptation of the book, but I need to be clear that we did change a lot.

Which… doesn’t really answer my question. But hey, it only really matters if you like the book.

Even more baffling is Brosnan’s accent. He seems to have decided to do each scene slightly different, evoking English, Irish, Australian, South African, southern US, and goodness knows what else along the way.

I shouldn’t have expected much given the poor reviews, but I like the cast (which also includes Ciarán Hinds and Marisa Tomei), I really enjoyed The Matador, and the trailer was suitably promising, all of which encouraged me to seek it out. I wouldn’t say Salvation Boulevard was an entire waste of time, but I couldn’t help but feel there was potential for a funnier, more cutting movie hidden in the material. Shame.

2 out of 5

John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

2014 #61
Neveldine/Taylor | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceBest known for the trailer that showed its hero pissing fire, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a semi-reboot of the Marvel comics franchise about a demon-possessed vengeance-seeking motorbike rider.

This new take has trashier, almost grungy, stylings, which at least make it more interesting than the “mainstream blockbuster”-styled first attempt. That doesn’t make it a good film by any means, but it does make it somehow less objectionable — it seems to better suit the tone of the character, which is inherently dark but also a bit bizarre and pulpy. It allows the directors (best known for the trash-action Crank films) to have fun with it too. While that only pays off occasionally — just as often it’s crass or cheap — that’s more than could be said for the previous movie.

Again taking the title role, Nicolas Cage looks considerably older and pudgier than last time. Maybe it’s all the scenery he’s been chewing. A villainous Ciarán Hinds gives him a run for his money, though — between them it’s a wonder there are any sets left. Maybe that’s why it all takes place on location, apparently in the country of Eastern Europe, I'll eat you like I ate the scenery!where adults have east European accents but kids sound American, and Idris Elba pretends to be French.

With classy dialogue like, “Everyone’s robbing me! It makes my balls hurt!”, it’s a wonder anyone allowed a superhero franchise from a major studio to receive this treatment. Points for boldness, but most of them are negated by uneven execution.

2 out of 5

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.