Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Video-On-Demand: "Salvation Boulevard" and "Julia's Eyes"

Salvation Boulevard (2011)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: D

On paper, "Salvation Boulevard" has a tops ensemble and a potentially biting premise for a religious comedy-thriller. But the result is a muddled misfire. Director George Ratliff misuses his largely talented cast that hasn't been directed on how to approach their respective roles so they're left to their own devices: mug and mug some more. Written by Douglas Stone and Ratliff, who adapt from a novel by Larry Beinhart ("Wag the Dog"), the movie is too obvious to be an effective, toothsome satire and not dark enough nor that funny to be a dark comedy. Whatever message the filmmakers were attempting to make can be boiled down to one "shocking" statement: all Christians are hypocrites! 

A former pot-smoking Deadhead, Carl Vandermeer (Greg Kinnear), is born again from a charismatic evangelical preacher, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), who uses Carl as his "miracle" in small western America at the Church of the Third Millennium. One night, after a stage confrontation with best-selling atheist professor Dr. Paul Blaylock (Ed Harris), Dan accidentally shoots Paul, with Carl there too, and puts the blame on Carl. Obviously, Dan's mega-church members, particularly Carl's overzealous fundamentalist wife Gwen (Jennifer Connelly) and her stone-faced father Joe (Ciarán Hinds), stick by their pastor and think Carl is just hallucinating. Meanwhile, after Dan commits such a sin, he watches the movie "Legend" and immediately starts receiving calls from an unknown number whom he believes to be Satan. Meanwhile to said meanwhile, Paul's lapdog/cameraman, Jerry (Jim Gaffigan), is sent out to cover up his master's sinful act in a reference to God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. 

So many plot threads are introduced and go nowhere: Carl's anonymous 9-1-1 call following the accident is never brought up in the case, Gwen and Joe want to propose their blueprints of an all-Christian movie theater to Dan, and Joe finds blood on his theater blueprint and takes it to the police but his sleuthing is all for nothing. The "Satan call" subplot has juicy promise, but it's paid off in a detour, involving a gangster (Yul Vazquez) supposedly in Mexico City, that feels oddly out of step with the rest of the film. Then again, nothing seems to work here. 

Misguided, irritating, and patronizing, "Salvation Boulevard" is a bust from shrill, cartoony performances, confused tones eating at each other, jokes being unable to write themselves, and a narrative that goes around in circles. Satire or not, nearly every person on screen is either a one-note, openly mocked caricature of a hypocritcal evangelist or a Christian believer. As the born-again Carl, Kinnear plays him as a village idiot whose actions don't always make sense. God must be on his side because Brosnan at least feels like he could play this windbag slickster in his sleep. It's too bad Harris checks out far too early as the shaggy atheist because he's the most fun. Though thought to do no wrong, Jennifer Connelly gives her lone worst performance, obnoxiously shrill and one-dimensional as Carl's fanatically religious wife. Isabelle Fuhrman, so startling in "Orphan," is lost in all of this as Carl and Gwen's wise daughter, Angie. As stoned ex-hippie turned security guard Honey Foster, Marisa Tomei is amusing the way she ends every sentence with "man," but vanishes halfway through and never returns. Her scenes must have been left on the editing floor, as there's no sign of Honey except in an age-old "Where-Are-They-Now" epilogue. One thing is for sure: there is a Hell.

Julia's Eyes (2011)
112 min., not rated.
Grade: B

Of the two horror films "presented" by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro being released the same week, the Spanish-made "Julia's Eyes" (next to the American remake "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark") is the more effective creepout. This one reunites producer del Toro and lead actress Belén Rueda from 2008's "The Orphanage," so take that Katie Holmes. Sharing the same degenerative eye disorder as her twin sister Sara, Julia Levin (Rueda) has an inkling that something is wrong and rushes to Sara's house with psychologist husband Isaac (Lluis Homar) after a six-month estrangement from her own sister. They find her hanging in the basement, having been incapable of coping with her loss of sight. Julia is unconvinced it was suicide and suspects foul play. But as she investigates Sara's death further and discovers a strange stalker lurking in the shadows, Julia finds her own eyesight failing her. 

Turning in another commanding central performance, Rueda is captivating on screen as always, especially in a demanding role such as this. She plays Julia as a strong, savvy woman who shows her vulnerability when her world literally turns to darkness. Julia having the upper hand from the killer, when unwrapping her eyes four days early, is cleverly crafted and acted on Rueda's part. The blind-woman-in-jeopardy tropes have been done before (most memorably 1967's "Wait Until Dark," 1992's "Jennifer Eight," and 1994's "Blink"), but writer-director Guillem Morales' film is supremely well-made that it justifiably makes the list. Morales shrouds the entire film in a beautifully bleak atmosphere and to make us feel at one with Julia when she's "blindfolded," every character is virtually faceless (being shot from the back or below the chin). It doesn't hurt that the film is stunningly lensed by Óscar Faura (who also shot "The Orphanage") who precisely frames each shot like a haunting photograph. One sequence set in a blind women's locker room is superbly creepy, as is the use of Burt Bacharach's popular 1967 song "The Look of Love" as a harbinger of dread. One image involving an eyeball has the same wince and cringe factor as Spanish director Luis Buñuel's 1929 silent surrealist short, "Un Chien Andalou." 

If there's any shaky ground, Morales' script could've been trimmed to make a tighter, even more mysterious film. When Julia decides, against all good judgment, to stay in her dead sister's house…blind…and alone, except with a care worker named Ivan, it feels like an overcooked horror-thriller contrivance to dumb down Julia and move the plot along. But "Julia's Eyes" is quite engrossing and deliciously suspenseful as cat-and-mouse thrillers go, wrestling with our expectations and ratcheting up the tension when it should. Though there's a little bit less here than meets the eye (hah), "Julia's Eyes" ends on a rather poignant note when it's not making you tensely hold your breath.

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