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After five years away, Superman returns to Earth only to find Lois Lane with another man and Lex Luthor free from prison. Brandon Routh is the Man Of Steel, Kevin Spacey plays Lex and Bryan Singer directs
Superman Returns picks up where the four Superman films of the 1970s and 1980s left off. Whereas Batman Begins pretended the Batman films of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher did not exist, here director Bryan Singer takes the intriguing decision to work within the range established by Richard Donner and Richard Lester. From the brassy oompah of John Williams' main theme to the digitally disinterred appearance of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman's father, the presence of these 1970s icons gives the story a rich, lived-in quality.
While the Superman character has appeared in hundreds of different forms over the years in comics and TV shows, Singer takes the cinematic heritage as his canon. We are spared a full re-run of the superhero's origin story, enjoying instead flashbacks to the time when the youthful Superman leapt through cornfields and learnt to fly. When his alter-ego Clark Kent (Routh) rolls back into the 'Daily Planet' after years of being away, the history and hurt of his relationship with Lois Lane (Bosworth) is already established. But the down side to relying on the earlier films as back-story is considerable; there is nothing shockingly new here for Superman.
Director Bryan Singer's vision for Superman unfolds at an elegant measure, capturing moments of arresting beauty: Superman drifting in space as he eavesdrops upon the world; the ruck and flap of his cape as he takes flight; his enormous red boots upon which Lois Lane steps to enjoy a turn upon the ballroom of the sky. Superman holds a car above his head in the same pose as he appeared on the cover of Joe Shuster's 'Action Comics Number One'. The detail and precision to the production cannot be faulted.
Brandon Routh has an alien intensity as Superman that was outside the remit of Christopher Reeve's all-American hero. The parodically patriotic Fox News blathered about the de-Americanising of Superman, picking up on an aside about Superman believing in "Truth, Justice, all that stuff". The American Way does not fit this vision of the Man Of Steel. When he loiters outside the family home Lois Lane has made with new man Richard (Marsden) and child Jason (Lake Leabu), using his super-hearing and super-vision to observe them preparing for dinner, Superman becomes a kind of Superstalker. Routh's steely eyes show us the otherness of the hero. The über-jock has gone. He may have taken Lois up into the sky in ways her husband never can, but this Superman is not a good guy to raise a family with.
As for Lex Luthor, Kevin Spacey takes Gene Hackman's devious land-grabber and adds a prison-hardened thuggishness and a headful of helter-skelter. Hackman had Ned Beatty's hapless Otis and Valerie Perrine's tart-with-a-heart Eve Teschmacher. Spacey's cohorts have a more modern malignancy. With the face of a bulldog tattooed on the back of his 8-ball head, Brutus (Fabrizio) broods over his prisoner Lois Lane with palpable menace. Later, Luthor's henchmen deliver an almighty beating to our hero and it has the dirty, nasty delight of a street fight. You can't imagine these villains sneaking around in arrowed outfits, like Hackman and Beatty.
For all these subtle differences, blatant similarities nag away at our sense that we have seen all this before, and it wasn't that great the first time around. Familiarity takes contempt out on a date about halfway through the film. By the end, the two of them are breeding like rabbits. Luthor trots out the same "my Daddy told me people will always need land" speech from Superman. His plan to create real estate value through the wholesale destruction of America is trotted out, containing the same flawed economic reasoning at its core. An action sequence in which Superman struggles to save an out-of-control airplane and space shuttle reaches the kind of exultant climax that makes you feel like special effects cinema is a kind of sex. It is a peak the film never scales again. Each time Superman flies in at the last moment to avert civic disaster, you wonder: this again?
For all the mountains of kryptonite ranged against him, you never fear for Superman or Lois Lane, never experience anything more intense than the fret of mild peril. The longer the film continues, the further the returns diminish. A final flourish likening the superhero to a messiah ranks up there with Josh Harnett's death scene in Pearl Harbor as Least Interesting Use Of Crucifixion Imagery In A Summer Blockbuster.
Superman's diminishing returns.
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