Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Menschen und Übermensch

Lucy, a film by the German director Henner Winckler (no relation to Henry, aka the Fonz) is a film of the sort familiar to regular viewers of contemporary European cinema. It's not particularly bad; the acting is good (from a largely teen cast), the direction is assured and the film's overall argument is intelligent and hearfelt. The Lucy of the title is a baby, born to Maggy, a teenage mother played by the excellent 19-year-old Kim Schnitzer, herself the daughter of a youthful mother (Feo Aladag, the actress that plays her is a mere 33). Maggy has left the equally young father of the child and shacks up with a barman and cyberspace barrow-boy, who has so much the face of a ne'er-do-well that it's probably a registered trade-mark. There is little of consequence in the plot, other than the use of the baby of the title as a potential plot catalyst, like the Chekovian gun on the wall in the first act that perforce must go off in the third. One awaits continually disaster to befall the young mother, given her fecklessness and her entrusting the baby rather foolishly with disinterested teenage boys. But this film is not Ken Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird, not unthankfully, and the action continues boiling slowly beyond the film's end. The main fault I can find with the film though is the overall good taste and the good intentions. There is too little conflict to raise the interest at any time. One can credit Winckler for using a cast of real teenagers (as opposed to twenty-something actors) well; underdeveloped both physically and socially, they fumble around the screen sheepishly, desperately trying to fill the adult roles allotted to them. Winckler also does not feel the need, unlike a career perv such as Larry Clark, to get them to simulate fellatio to demonstrate that teenagers do that sort of thing, you know. But ultimately the film is too indulgent of everybody in the film; there are too many nice guys and girls. Winckler should tap the depths of at least one blackguard in his next film.

Now to Superman. The caped crusader was the first ever brand I fell for. At the age of three, I fell asleep at a screening of Richard Donner's 1977 film version, but enough was imprinted on my mind to ruin my parents financially for the next five or six years and also for me to harbour some unrealistic career hopes. All the other big brands, the Holy Cross, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, even Marlboro (despite some astute and prominent product placement in Superman II) never got me but Superman was a brand I identified with for some time, before cruelly dumping it at the age of eight for Manchester United, which, believe me, in 1984 was an act of masochism, one that came disturbingly natural to a child so young.

I watched the first three Superman films over and over again, my favourite still being Dick Lester's second one, with Terence Stamp and Susannah York as gloriously devilish baddies. The special effects look a bit ropey these days but so will, very soon, the CGI many of today's films. I was a bit disturbed, but ultimately intrigued, by the darker side of Superman III, where Superman, laden down with a kryptonite depression and lack of self-esteem following a bungled rescue, turns against, well, the world. Richard Pryor, plays Gus a computer genius, a basically good sort roped into working for the baddie played by Robert Vaughan (a man I never had any respect for following this film and his character's cowardly showing in The Magnificent Seven). I passed on Superman IV, made in 1987, and an entry for Superman into the nuclear age, because MU was by now the brand leader. Not even topless photographs of its co-star Mariel Hemingway in The News of the World could get me interested, though this same tabloid article did introduce me for the first time to her grandfather Ernest.

Superman Returns begins with the return of Superman to his mid-west home-from-home, having gone back to his home planet Krypton five years previously and having stayed away despite there being nothing left there. It transpires that he may also have been fleeing alimony payments. There is a touch of the Victorian novel about this opening but it is soon diffused when Clark Kent resumes his job at the Daily Planet, doing nothing really it seems, and Superman/Clark fits back seamlessly enough into a world of plasma screens, the Internet (strangely underused in the film), mobile phones (Clark has given up on finding a phone booth to change in, presumably they are all demobilised), child food allergies and dreadlocked bicycle courriers (surely an emblem of the age if there ever were one).

Superman's first sortie is to save his dear old Lois Lane from a crashing plane where she has been covering the launch of a new space shuttle, the launch-pad being the roof of the plane (given NASA's poor track record on safety, I imagine they will be watching this very closely). Poor Lois has not managed to buckle her safety belt and while everyone else is fitting their oxygen masks on their faces, she is being hurtled about the cabin with such violence that one wonders if Lars von Trier had stepped in at the last minute to direct the film. When Superman restores equilibrium however, she momentarily regains composure, seeming unusually comfortable even, before swooning. And so begins a strange tale of fully-clothed sado-masochism that can be enjoyed by all the family. It is really the only remotely interesting thing about the film.

Lois is compromised on two fronts, having started a relationship with the nephew of the legendary Planet editor Perry White (sagely made to look like Ben Bradlee), and she has also won the Pulitzer Prize for an article 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman' (oh, you tryin' too hard baby). She reluctantly takes on the Superman lead once again, while shrewdly seeing that a number of strange black-out and eruptions are the real story, caused by the return of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey, the only person, along with his moll Parker Posey, to bring the camp quotient anywhere near the level of the old films. It's nice to see Posey in a film again, little has been seen of her since Hal Hartley was forced to down-size some years ago.

The real action starts when Lois does a Veronica Guerin and brings her young son on a seemingly dicey assignment. It all gets messy as Luthor reacts rather badly to finding an investigative journalist on his premises. He then talks her through his plan to submerge most of North America (but not California, it appears) by creating a rival contintent, that will make him his fortune in real estate. The continent though is generated from the crystals of kryptonite stolen from the meteors that broke off Superman's home planet and the topography is like a huge Giant's Causeway. Great for Caspar David Friedrich but I couldn't see much beach-front property going up there. Anyway, Superman survives a callous kryptonite stabbing by his nemesis and saves the day eventually, even stranding Luthor on a tiny desert island for good measure.

Superman Returns is possibly one of the most visually unattractive big-budget films ever to have been made; the mise-en-scène is strafed with badly focussed shots, cheaply unconvincing CGI effects (the scene where Superman stops a bullet with his eye is supremely idiotic and unimpressive). The director Bryan Singer, whose flashy but exhilarating The Usual Suspects is now but a distant memory, continually employs the same battery of annoying gimmicks, foregrounding grosso modo objects rattling on a table to indicate the onset of a tremor, tsunami, explosion etc. The director of photography uses so much low-contrast light at times that the film has the look of an old porn film.

Of course people will say that a comic book adaptation is primarily for kids; which is questionable considering how many people will go see this out of nostalgia for the comics they bought as a child (and sometimes still buy). I would sooner watch animated kids' films like the Incredibles or Shrek, which at least acknowlege that not only are kids not stupid, but that their accompanying elders might need a little bit to keep the interest up. In this film it seems that only grown-up idiots are being targeted.

That said, I cannot say that I disliked Superman Returns more than last year's overweeningly pious and pretentious Batman Begins. Of course, objectively speaking, Christopher Nolan's film is far more accomplished, better directed, scripted and acted. But the conception of Batman as a muscular liberal capitalist in that film, tough on terrorism but soft on third-world sweatshops, was a bit too much for me to take. I can imagine the constitutional carve-up of two years ago: the neo-cons saying "we'll take the legislature, the judiciary and the executive and you guys can have Batman". Of course we know what the Democrats went for. Superman doesn't even mention the American way in this one. Globalisation, I suppose.