Mysticism, hokum and a fine balance

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We live in the age of boomerang movie franchises. The further a screen saga is thrown, the faster or harder it seems to come back. Just when we thought it was safe to turn away, Superman Returns hits us in the back of the neck. The film was at once impossible and inevitable. It couldn’t happen (we thought), or, at least, not within a decent space of Christopher Reeve’s death. Yet it couldn’t not happen – some time.

Brandon Routh, a name made in publicist’s heaven, is such a Reeve lookalike that we suspect DNA trickery on Planet Warner. But isn’t that the point? The Superman series has returned to an Earth obsessed with themes of recycling, regeneration and miraculous continuance. Only yesterday The Da Vinci Code wowed us with heresies about a Jesus Christ blood line. Now we learn that Superman himself, looking the same but younger after his space-time vacation, may have sired a son: one tantalising plot-bait among several.

Every character seems a little younger. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) looks 23, though she has a child, supposedly sired by her boyfriend, the Daily Planet editor’s nephew. And Lex Luthor has swapped Gene Hackman’s weatherbeaten phiz for the unctuous chops of Kevin Spacey, who looks boyish even when handing a disappointed little-girl cousin the mop-head toupee in which he has just soft-talked his dying mother into signing everything to him in her will. “You can keep that,” he tells the cousin. “The rest is mine.”

Armageddon is soon erupting in the usual way. Luthor steals a cosmic energy source and starts building a new continent. Superman foils Luthor’s plot to down a space shuttle and the Lois-
containing passenger plane on which it is piggybacking towards space. (This scene is a humdinger: take care that flying wing fragments do not hit you in your seat.) And the late Marlon Brando, intoning from the afterworld, his features glimmering from fluted rock formations on Krypton, says to his super-offspring reassigned to Earth: “I have sent them you, my only son.” Those needing a further nudge to discern Christly parallels get one in the cruciform posture favoured by Superman when dreaming in space.

Down on Earth, the planet is in crisis as well as in Christ obsession. The US has lost faith in itself – “truth, justice, all that stuff,” blurts Planet editor Frank Langella, conspicuously omitting “the American way” – and the film’s production design is rife with tottering skyscraper motifs. Light-dotted pinnacles groaning with doom are latent or blatant everywhere. What more inevit-able than that a Saviour should drop to ground, offering to repair parts of the geo-machinery that Bush and Blair have long failed to reach and probably messed up in the first place?

The film is long, passably spectacular and likeably idiosyncratic. The director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) has provided the Superman saga with a convincing second coming. Where it goes from here – onward and upward into mysticism or downward and backward into hokum (while siring, we assume, Superman the next generation) – is for future franchise-handlers to determine.

If Nicole Kidman ever returns to Earth, I hope it will be as Naomi Watts. The first-named Australian blonde passed into unreachability long ago. Snatched from reality by iconisation, she now lives on Planet Celebrity. She was barely recognisable as an earthling in Birth, as a human in The Human Stain, or as anything at all in Bewitched.

Naomi Watts is still goofily, beautifully mortal. She is hysterically funny for much of Ellie Parker, playing a bad actress trying to make a living in LA. Shot on DV because “it expresses fragmentation better than any other way of filmmaking” (and because it’s cheap), Scott Coffey’s first feature took four years to make. Watts was barely known at the start, a luminary by the end. Sportingly she finished the job.

Perhaps the King Kong star’s memories were still fresh of doing four auditions a day, from southern belle to Skid Row hooker. Ellie changes make-up and dresses while driving; swaps boyfriends weekly like printer cartridges; hotheadedly an-nounces retirement to her agent (Chevy Chase) before he lures her back the next day by reporting a returned call. Expanded from a short film, Ellie Parker feels a little stretched. But then feeling stretched is what portraits of acting – bad acting or good acting – are all about.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a 2½ -hour Romanian film about dying. If that sounds like a suicide note from your local art cinema – “We are ending it all now, the liquidators will refund your membership” – it is, on the contrary, a blistering reveille. Cristi Puiu won the top prize in his Cannes sideshow for writing and directing this first in a planned sequence of six reality-based Bucharest docudramas.

It may be the best film about hospitals ever made. A 63-year-old widower with head and stomach pains is plucked from his dingy flat, where two pet cats help to combat the loneliness of a life without wife, sister (living far away) and daughter (in Canada). The sympathetic visiting social worker embodies the last kindness he will meet. For the remaining night he is in a Dante’s hell of cyclical trund-lings, from one medical super-pile to another, as doctors size him up, size him down, push him into machines, pull him out, make him wait, make him do tricks and say helpful things such as: “These neuroplasms are Discovery Channel stuff”, or: “I’d take him straight to the crematorium.”

The film is not unkind; it is unsparing. It is not depressing; it is funny, tragic, dignified and never in denial about life’s dysfunctional treatment of the dying. Welfare states are like this. Professionals are too stressed to take control. Patients are too stressed to co-operate. And we the witnesses, peering through a hospital’s glass walls or a cinema’s fourth wall, are powerless to do anything at all.

Should it matter that Mr Lazarescu drinks too much? Eats badly? May have given up on life? That doesn’t mean we should help him give up. Ion Fiscuteanu’s performance is too good for an acting award: it is hard to believe he is not the blinkered, bemused, tormented blanket-case lost between this world and the next, whose only wish is for straight answers from straight people. If he has not got so far yet as to formulate all the questions, that is life. We have no idea why we are here. But if anyone tries to ease or hurry us out, we’ll take that person to hell in the short time left to us before we are posted, hopefully, to the other place.

Oskar Roehler’s Atomised is a dull travesty of Michel Houellebecq’s scabrous novel about sex, biology and social history. Everything good that is French – wit, ingenuity, insolence – becomes everything bad that is German, from the clunky dystopian dialogue to the drab-as-a-slab cinematography.

11:14 takes a jolly idea for a drive, like Paul Klee taking a line for a walk. Part thriller, part black comedy, its hit-and-run premise has cynical mileage, at least until too many subplots and cameos (Hilary Swank, Patrick Swayze) create last-reel gridlock.

SUPERMAN RETURNS

★★★☆☆

Bryan Singer

ELLIE PARKER

★★★★☆

Scott Coffey

THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU

★★★★★

Cristi Puiu

ATOMISED

★☆☆☆☆

Oskar Roehler

11:14

★★☆☆☆

Greg Marcks

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