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

The Rocketeer (1991)

2015 #46
Joe Johnston | 104 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The RocketeerBased on an ’80s-created superhero modelled on the matinee serials of the ’30s and ’40s, The Rocketeer sets its scene in 1938, when stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) winds up in possession of an experimental rocket pack. Initially donning it as part of the stunt show, when Cliff uses it to rescue another pilot he, a) attracts the attention of the hoods who originally stole it, and b) discovers his true calling as a hero, etc. Throw in a love interest (Jennifer Connelly) who’s a Hollywood extra with connections to the swashbuckling film star (Timothy Dalton) who’s really behind the theft, and you’ve got yourself an adventure!

After years stuck in development — including, variously, attempts to make it in black & white with an unknown cast (I guess someone realised that would never make money), having to persuade studios of the possibilities of a comic book movie (this being before Burton’s Batman, even), neutering the source material to make it kid-friendly (in the comic Connelly’s character was a Bettie Page-inspired nude model), and attempts to set it in the present day (until someone pointed out the success of Indiana Jones) — the version that finally emerged on screen is a bit of a mishmash.

The real problem is the first act. It drags and unbalances the film, which picks up considerably (though gradually) after the Rocketeer himself finally turns up. It would feel a much better film, and perhaps be better regarded, if it didn’t dilly-dally for so long before getting to the meat of the plot and action. It doesn’t help that it has ambition ahead of its era when it comes to special effects. The limitations of the time mean there’s not that much action of the hero actually flying, his raison d’être. He mostly jets around a room, along the ground, or via a handful of very brief green-screen shots that are mostly confined to one sequence. Jennifer Connelly is in this movie, what else do you need to know?We all know effects alone do not make a good movie, but equally trying to make an effects-y movie when you can’t achieve said effects is a fool’s errand. Fortunately there’s some other derring-do to make up for it, and the climax atop a zeppelin isn’t at all bad.

Campbell is a nondescript lead, but there are some excellent scenes involving Jennifer Connelly and/or Timothy Dalton — in particular, the bit where he’s trying to seduce her and she keeps identifying the movies he’s stealing lines from. Connelly’s role certainly isn’t your standard “damsel in distress”, a plus side of that long development period, where it was noted they needed to strengthen her character. She very much holds her own, with a nice line in bashing people over the head. Elsewhere, Dalton’s Errol Flynn-inspired movie star is a great villain — well, us Brits always do that best, don’t we?

A lot of people seem to love The Rocketeer; I think it has a bit of a cult following, even. I wanted to like it that much, and as it goes on it plays more into such territory, but it wastes too much time early on and is somewhat hamstrung by the production limitations of its era.

3 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2014 #136
Darren Aronofsky | 97 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / NC-17*

Requiem for a DreamOn Coney Island, the faded and decrepit one-time pleasure place of New York City, four people — Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his mother Sara (Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn) — find themselves accidentally drawn into a whirlwind of drug addiction. Not to put too fine a point on it.

A lot of people say that Requiem for a Dream is the bleakest or most depressing movie ever made, and you kind of think, “yeah well, we’ll see — how bad can it be?” For most of the film, that notion is indeed misleading. Not that it’s a happy-clappy affair, but it’s a very watchable drama, not a gruelling slog through misery. However, I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes later. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.

The rest of the film may not be its equal in terms of condensed impact, but it’s of course vital in leading you to that point. These characters lead relatively normal lives — not exceptionally bad, certainly not exceptionally good, but pretty humdrum and bog standard. They all try to better themselves in some way — Sara through diet pills, Harry and Tyrone by getting rich through selling drugs — and it all goes horrible awry.

It may be a descent into misery, then, but director Darren Aronofsky keeps it watchable through pure cinematic skill. The editing, camerawork, lighting, sound design, and special effects are all incredible throughout. There’s a surfeit of ideas and innovations from everyone involved. And yet they are never show-off-y for the sake of it — this isn’t a Guy Ritchie movie. None of the tricks or striking ideas are put there to render the film Cool, even in the way they are in some equally brilliant films (Fight Club, for example). No, everything that is deployed is done so in aid of emulating a real-life feeling or experience, or conveying a concept or a connection. At times it’s breathtaking.

I must also make special mention of the score by Clint Mansell. The primary theme is arguably most famous for being used in The Two Towers trailer a couple of years later (that’s certainly where I discovered it). Something that works fantastically on the trailer for an epic fantasy war movie might not sound like it sits well in a junkie drama, but it really works.

Requiem for a Dream may have a bit of a reputation at this point; one that might put you off viewing it, or possibly only deigning to attempt it in a certain frame of mind. While there is an element of truth to that, it is a brilliant film — not “enjoyable” in the easily-digested blockbuster sense, but as a mind-boggling and awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking, yes. Incredible.

5 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* After the film was given an NC-17, it was decided to release it Unrated — so, technically, it’s not NC-17, it’s Unrated. Ah, the quirks of the US classification system. (There’s also an R-rated version, which is the same except for some shot removals and replacements during the ending.) ^

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

2014 #39
Ron Howard | 135 mins | Blu-ray + download (HD)* | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Beautiful MindThe big winner at the 2002 Oscars (four gongs from eight nominations), A Beautiful Mind adapts the true story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a Cold War-era mathematics student at Princeton who hit upon a groundbreaking theory and ended up working covertly for the government…

Reviewing A Beautiful Mind is initially a choice between spoiling or not. There’s a Big Twist that they skilfully kept out of the advertising, and which many people have done a fair job of keeping quiet for the past 13 years; but, unlike most Big Twists, this one isn’t at the end of the film — in fact, it’s pretty early on, and the bulk of the movie is spent dealing with its fall-out. As with any movie that’s based on a true story, there has to be something that makes the tale remarkable and worth adapting into fiction. Here, it’s actually the post-twist portion that’s the draw; so it was a clever feat of marketing to have found another “this is why it was made” element to sell to the public. That’s not an instance of the much- (and justly-) criticised bait-and-switch style of marketing, but instead an effective rug-pull. So I’ll try to maintain that.

Both sides of the reveal lean on the central performance, and Russell Crowe is up to the task. His initially twitchy, uncomfortable representation gives way to a fragile, broken, confused shell of a man, and both sides of the character are convincingly depicted. They’re also both a world away from the grandstanding military leaders of Gladiator, Master and Commander, Robin Hood, Les Misérables, et al, Crowe’s best-known and most-frequented screen persona. He didn’t win Best Actor — losing to an equally atypical turn from Denzel Washington in Training DayJennifer Connelly is in this picturebut the display of range probably merited it; perhaps more so, in retrospect, than his win for Gladiator the year before.

As Nash’s wife, Jennifer Connelly did take home the Supporting Actress trophy. It’s a less (for want of a better word) showy role, but like so many secondary leads in films with large central performances, her well-judged support props up the more obvious Acting of the lead.

Ron Howard is a safe pair of hands in the director’s chair. Early on the visuals occasionally display the easy familiarity of Heritage cinema, and if the rest doesn’t exactly transcend that then it at least stops being too distracting. The same isn’t always true of James Horner’s plinky-plonky music, which chooses to do things like score a car chase as if it’s a romantic scene. Different, at least, but feels more like a “look how changing only the music affects the mood” demonstration rather than a solid artistic choice. In fairness, in many other places the score is perfectly effective or, at worst, unobtrusive; but those action beats… It doesn’t need to be Hans Zimmer, especially as this really isn’t an action movie; but it distracted me, and that means it didn’t work.

Highly suspiciousA Beautiful Mind won Best Picture in spite of being up against the incredibly more innovative, entertaining, and game-changing double-bill of Moulin Rouge and The Fellowship of the Ring, which certainly says more about the predilections of the American Academy than the quality of films released in 2001 (innovation, entertainment and game-changing-ness aren’t among their favourite attributes). Still, it’s an interesting tale, well told, and excellently performed.

4 out of 5

* Another one. ^