Dracula (BBC1, 28 December 2006, Bill Eagles)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s 1899, which is a little later than in the novel. The locations include the fictional Castle Holmwood and the genuine graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Whitby; the fictional Westenra House and the genuine Harley Street, Chelsea and Highgate Cemetery in London; and the fictional Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? This TV version of Stoker’s novel is another one of those vaguely faithful adaptations that nevertheless makes many changes.
* For a start, the first character we meet – in a spooky prologue – is Abraham Van Helsing (David Suchet). He doesn’t appear in the book until nearly a third of the way in.
* The lead character here is a secondary character in the novel. Arthur, aka Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens), is a wet fish who quotes poetry at girlfriend Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles). Nevertheless she agrees to marry him.
* This disappoints Arthur’s pal John Seward (Tom Burke), who fancies Lucy too. The novel’s third suitor, the American Quincy Morris, has been dropped.
* Arthur then travels to his childhood home, Whitby, to see his insane, dying father. He also learns that the syphilis-related condition that soon kills his dad is hereditary… (Why Arthur was being called Lord Holmwood while his father was still alive is not addressed. In the novel, his father is not insane and dies ‘off stage’.)
* A month later, looking for a cure, Arthur visits a mysterious man called Singleton (Donald Sumpter). Together they plot to bring a “magician” to England so he can use his knowledge of blood transfusions to cure Arthur…. The character of Singleton was created for this film. Being Dracula’s ally in the UK, he takes the place of the lunatic Renfield from the novel.
* We then meet Lucy’s friends Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall) and Mina Murray (Stephanie Leonadis). Jonathan is a newly qualified solicitor who’s soon given a job. He’s told that a client called Mr Singleton has an associate on the continent who wants to buy some London property, so Jonathan travels to Transylvania to meet the secretive nobleman Count Dracula (Marc Warren). He looks very old – a detail from the novel that’s almost always abandoned in adaptations – and insists that Jonathan stays longer than planned. We get the usual scenes of Harker being trapped in a scary castle and being unnerved by his host’s demeanour, but in a break from the book’s plot he’s then killed rather than escapes.
* Cut back to England, and Arthur and Lucy are getting married in the rain. Lucy’s joy is short-lived, though, because Arthur chooses to go off with Singleton rather than be with her on their wedding night. This lack of interest in sex makes John suspicious so he tails Arthur, who takes part in a bizarre religious ceremony.
* Meanwhile, Dracula is travelling to Britain on board a ship called the Demeter.
* The next day, Arthur sheepishly turns up in Whitby and gives Lucy a necklace. She responds by grabbing his crotch, but he resists because of his secret syphilis.
* The Demeter beaches at Whitby, but the crew have vanished and Jonathan’s corpse is aboard. The only cargo is a box of earth. Lucy and an in-mourning Mina soon encounter Dracula, who now looks younger and doesn’t have an issue with daylight. Arthur is angry that they’ve all become friends and demands that Dracula does what he was brought to England for: cure Arthur. But the vampire openly says he’s more interested in the women of the house.
* We’re told that Dracula is 900 years old (it’s quite refreshing that no connection is made to Vlad the Impaler) then see that he can transform into a bat.
* During the night, Dracula uses his hypnotic vampire abilities to sexually abuse Lucy while Arthur sleeps in the same bed. He forces her to feed from his chest.
* Lucy subsequently falls ill, so Arthur calls in medical doctor John. He says she needs a blood transfusion, but it doesn’t work and she dies. She’s buried in Highgate Cemetery, which also features in the novel (if disguised with a fake name).
* Now that Dracula is in the UK and feeding, he doesn’t need acolyte Singleton any more so kills him. John, still on the case of what the fuck is going on, finds the corpse in a room full of ritualistic paraphernalia then searches the cellar underneath. There he encounters Abraham Van Helsing, a gibbering lunatic who’s been imprisoned because he knows a lot about Dracula. (He dodged death because he has a crucifix round his neck.)
* Van Helsing explains that Singleton and Arthur are part of the Brotherhood of the Undead, a cult who arranges for vampires such as Dracula to come to Britain. John then travels back to Whitby to confront Arthur.
* Dracula, meanwhile, targets Mina in London.
* Having cleaned up both his clothes and his mind, Van Helsing tells Arthur and John that they must view Lucy’s corpse. They creep into her crypt at night and find the coffin empty. Luce then appears standing behind them; she’s a vampire so attacks her husband and taunts John. Arthur must stake her. As he does so, we see that elsewhere Dracula is simultaneously hurt.
* The men find the Count at the Brotherhood’s HQ. He murders Arthur – by twisting his head off! Then Van Helsing distracts the vampire with some Christian rhetoric (which is very reminiscent of dialogue from The Exorcist) so that John can stake him. Dracula dies.
* In the final shot, we see a seemingly resurrected Dracula living rough on the streets of London…

Best performance: David Suchet as Van Helsing. It’s little more than a cameo – like a big famous actor showing up for a day’s work on a low-budget movie – but at least it’s an interesting performance.

Best bit: How good Sophia Myles looks in a nightgown.

Review: One of the crowns of the BBC’s Christmas schedule in 2006, this 90-minute TV movie falls very flat indeed. It has no life to it; no blood coursing through its veins. By shuffling the book’s plot, it also leads to some odd storytelling. Arthur is the lead character, but is quite unlikable and selfish. The focus then shifts to Jonathan, who meets Dracula barely a few minutes after being introduced and is killed off very quickly. The script also changes the motivations of several characters, notably Arthur. The story is now about his hubris, rather than the savagery of Count Dracula. Admittedly, it’s an interesting idea that Dracula targets our group of characters because one of them made a deal with the devil. In the novel, he more or less picks them at random. But the biggest problem with this film is a general sense of going through the motions. The cast lack energy, the script lacks distinction, and the direction is boring. It’s very difficult to care about anything that’s happening. There’s also precious little discussion of vampirism; it’s just assumed that every character and every viewer knows all about it. As BBC adaptations go, this is not a patch on the 1977 effort.

Three garden parties out of 10

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006, Brett Ratner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a ‘cure’ that suppresses special abilities is discovered, battle lines are drawn in the mutant community…

Get used to multiples names…
* Heroes returning from previous films include Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Halle Berry, in yet another wig), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin), Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Scott Summers aka Cyclops (James Marsden). Charles and Scott are both killed off, in separate incidents.
* An old ally of Xavier’s – Hank McCoy aka Beast (Kelsey Grammer), a mutant who’s a member of the US cabinet – also gets seconded into the team.
* Now she has drama scenes to play, mutant student Kitty Pryde (aka the girl who can walk through walls) has been recast with Ellen Paige.
* After her sacrifice in the previous film, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is resurrected here… by some pretty vague means. She’s not quite herself any more and hooks up with the bad guys… again, for not very clear reasons. We also see a young Jean in a flashback.
* Dr Moira MacTaggert (Olivia Williams) appears briefly a few times. She’s a scientist who clearly knows Charles from way back.
* The chief bad guy is again Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen), who for unexplained reasons now has an English accent. X2’s John Allerdyce aka Pyro (Aaron Standford) is still at his side, and during the film Magneto also acquires some new mutant hangers-on, including a guy with spikes on his face (played by Miles from Lost), a girl who can move fast, a dude who can replicate himself many times over, and a man who can demolish walls with his head (played by Vinnie Jones… Give me strength). All are pretty thinly written characters.
* Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) is also with Magneto to begin with, but after she’s accidentally ‘cured’ of her mutation he coldly abandons her. An odd choice, given how hot she looks with dark hair.
* Characters involved in the ‘cure’ plot include Warren Worthington (Michael Murphy), his son Warren aka Angel (Ben Foster), and a mutant child called Jimmy. None gets much screen time.
* We see the President (Josef Sommer) but he’s a different guy from in X2 so presumably there’s been an election since. One of his entourage is called Trask (played by Bill Duke from Commando and Predator). The latter character is from a famous comic-book run and was being seeded for a potential sequel.

Stan Lee cameo: We spot him early on. He plays a bemused man watering his garden when a young Jean Grey starts causing mayhem. (X-Men comics writer Chris Claremont is in the same scene.)

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that are contradicted or expanded in other movies.
* The opening scene is set ‘twenty years ago’ and sees Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr visiting a teenage Jean Grey in order to recruit her for their school. CGI has been used to make Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look two decades younger. It comes off as just creepy – it’s like they’re wearing masks of themselves. Charles and Erik are best buds in the 1980s, which doesn’t match with X-Men: First Class where the two men are estranged in 1962.
* The second scene of the film is set ‘ten years ago’ (ie, circa the mid-90s) and features the character of Warren Worthington aka Angel as a child. However, in X-Men: Apocalypse we see him aged about 25 in the early 1980s. (Keeping up?!)
* The *next* sequence sees our heroes in a virtual-reality simulation. It’s a training session and is visually inspired by the comic-book series later used as the basis for 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Additionally, a very different version of this film’s Trask character is in that later movie.
* The first post-credits scene of this series shows Moira MacTaggert seemingly bringing Charles Xavier back from the dead – which explains how he can show up alive and well in 2013’s The Wolverine. However, Moira’s age (she looks to be in her 30s) is contradicted by Rose Byrne playing her in later films set in 1962 and 1983.

Review: Give it its due: this film comes alive during the action sequences, which are exciting and often inventive. However, elsewhere there are lots of problems. A big one is focus. Plots and characters just keep going missing. Our heroes learn about the mutant ‘cure’ but then get distracted by Jean’s resurrection for a really long time. A Rogue/Bobby/Kitty love triangle is set up early on, but then we don’t see the characters again for ages. When not on screen, stories seem to freeze until we get back to them. Another issue is that the two threads of the movie, the cure and Jean’s return, don’t especially affect each other. The resurrection itself is also pretty naff. It requires retconning and clunky, vague explanations – and still doesn’t make much sense. Frankly, it seems to be there purely as lip service to comic-book fans. The cure subplot, meanwhile, is just too on-the-nose. The first two X-Men films had themes and subtexts. This one gives us characters spelling out metaphors and numerous scenes of single-opinion mobs. After the sleek X2 and its character-driven storytelling, this has the air of reverse-engineering a plot once you’ve decided on its action climax. It’s probably significant that the classy Bryan Singer has been replaced as director by Brett ‘Rush Hour’ Ratner. This is shallow and often cheesy hokum.

Five Golden Gate Bridges out of 10

The Omen (2006, John Moore)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this remake of the 1976 original, Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) is appointed deputy ambassador to Great Britain, so blah blah blah moves to England blah blah blah wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) blah blah blah son Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) blah blah blah strange deaths…

Best performance: In almost every main role is a decent actor, yet not one of them betters the first movie’s equivalent. Having said that, Pete Postlethwaite is appropriately troubled as Father Brennan; Mia Farrow is creepy as Mrs Baylock. (Harvey Stephens, who’d played Damien in 1976, has an unconvincing one-line cameo as a journalist.)

Best death: The beheading of photographer Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) is given a neat twist – rather than a sheet of glass flung sideways, it’s now a metal sign that falls loose of the wall, swings down and chops his head off as he stands.

Review: This mechanical remake was directed by John Moore, who later spunked up another film series with the abysmal A Good Day to Die Hard. As others have said, it’s more a release date than a movie – the temptation of The Omen coming out on 6 June 2006 (6/6/6, if you squint) was too strong to resist. And it comes off quite badly when compared to the original. For instance, see Robert Thorn’s first encounter with Father Brennan. In 1976, the scene was staged in a small, cramped office with its door locked; Thorn is backed into a corner and feels trapped and threatened. Now, the conversation is in the enormous, empty lobby of the embassy, so Robert is able to call for help from armed guards any time he likes. Also, check out the scene where Damien visits a zoo and the animals go, well, ape-shit. Originally, Damien and his mother are in a small car driving through a safari section – they get attacked from all sides and it’s terrifying. Now, the scene is in an unimpressive interior space and the primates are all behind thick glass. In short, the director’s staging choices have no relationship to the drama. There are also many more horror-movie clichés than in the original – especially in dream sequences that go very quiet then SUDDENLY THROW IN A LOUD SOUND. That superficial trick is emblematic of the whole film: it wants to jolt you, rather than *disturb* you. It’s perhaps telling that fun can be had in spotting how often the colour red is linked to Damien and his activities – it’s evident in Kate’s nightmares, Damien’s bedspread, a balloon at the zoo, the strawberries fed to the boy by Mrs Baylock, the flowers Kate is tending when she’s hit by Damien’s (red-wheeled) scooter, and at many other times. But you shouldn’t be consciously noticing this sort of thing if the film is doing its job.

Four sacrificial daggers out of 10

Young Dracula: series one (2006)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The modern day in a town called Stokely, seemingly in Wales.

Faithful to the novel? No, not really. It’s a CBBC sitcom based on Young Dracula and Young Monsters, a 2006 children’s book by Michael Lawrence. In episode one, Count Dracula (Keith Lee Castle) moves to Britain with his two children, Vlad (Gerran Howell) and Ingrid (Clare Thomas); his servant, Renfield (Simon Ludders); and a sentient stuffed dog called Zoltan (voiced by Andy Bradshaw). They’ve been chased out of Transylvania by a mob of peasants. Dracula and Renfield are characters from Stoker’s book, of course, while the family’s car is called the Demeter in reference to the ship from the novel. Vlad is the series’s lead character – he’s 12 and, despite being Dracula’s heir, doesn’t want a vampire life. Instead, he joins the local school and tries to be a normal kid. Older sister Ingrid, meanwhile, prides herself on being evil – she *doesn’t* want to join the local school but has to. Both siblings are still young vampires, so can go out in sunlight and don’t need to feed. Vlad soon meets and befriends a fellow pupil called Robin (Craig Roberts), who has a fascination with vampires – in fact, an early episode suggests Vlad and Robin might have been swapped as babies – and wants to be one himself. Robin also has a pair of dim parents, a pair of dim brothers and a wise younger sister called Chloe (Lucy Borja-Edwards). Episode two introduces teacher Eric Van Helsing (Terence Maynard), who is secretly a self-styled but hopeless vampire slayer. He spends the series suspecting Dracula and his family of evil; his suspicions are finally confirmed in the final episode. Johnathan Van Helsing (Terry Haywood) is his son and goes the school but is constantly frustrated by his father’s obsession. (In another nod to the book, the little-seen headmistress of the school is called Miss Harker.) Vlad and Ingrid’s mum – the arch, camp Magda Westenra – shows up for the first time in episode three.

Best performance: Terence Maynard, who went on to play Tony Stewart in Coronation Street, is quite funny as the hapless, deluded, earnest Van Helsing.

Best episode: The final part, Countdown, has the Count host a vampire ball in order to find a new wife. But Van Helsing sneaks in and tries to kill him. Scarier than the other episodes, it also sees the plot finally move on after a lot of water-treading.

Review: Series one of this likeable show contains 14 half-hour episodes. It’s in the vogue of The Sarah Jane Adventures (which began the following year), though is not as emotionally rich. But it’s also not as cosy and has a more earthy sense of humour. It can be limiting: the self-contained episodes are mostly set in the Draculas’ castle or at the school, while there are few guest characters. But the regulars are quite fun. A good running gag has Dracula blatantly favouring his son over his daughter. Sadly the actor playing Vlad is not that great, but overall the series is diverting enough.

Seven blood tests out of 10

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006, Richard Donner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In the late 1970s, director Richard Donner began filming two Superman movies at the same time, but was replaced by Richard Lester before the second one had been completed. The Superman II released in 1980 used some of Donner’s footage but Lester re-shot certain scenes, dropped others and added lots of new ones. I’ve already reviewed that version. Then in 2006, the original raw footage was dug out of the archives and Donner was given the chance to assemble a version as close to his original vision as possible. (In some cases, to keep the story flowing, he was forced to plug small gaps with Lester material.) Rather than a full-blown review, here I’ll just deal with the differences from the original. It’s not a complete list; just thoughts on the more interesting ones…

New best bits:

* The new opening recaps the key events on Superman: The Movie, using different takes of Zod’s trial and including clips of Marlon Brando (who was cut from the original Superman II to save paying him more money).

* Some new trippy shots of Zod, Ursa and Non in the Phantom Zone.

* The ending of Superman: The Movie is retro-fitted to suit the new story: it’s now Lex Luthor’s rocket that frees Zod and co from their prison, not – as in the 1980 Superman II – a nuclear bomb. All the stuff in Paris with the bomb, which was added by Lester, has been excised.

* A cracking new Daily Planet scene. The latest edition of the paper refers to the end of film one, telling us Superman saved the day and Lex Luthor was sent to prison. Jimmy Olsen says it’s a shame Clark Kent missed all the excitement and Lois replies that Clark is “never around when Superman’s here…” This gets her thinking and she draws Clark’s glasses, hat and suit onto a photograph of Superman. The action continues into…

* A new scene in Perry White’s office. Lois keeps dropping hints that she’s guessed Clark’s secret, which make him uncomfortable. Perry then assigns them both to cover a story about honeymoon scams in Niagara Falls (a plot point that was unexplained in the original cut). The whole exchange is snappy, witty and enormously charming. Then the scene takes a turn when…

* Willing to bet her life on her deduction, Lois casually jumps out of the window, assuming Clark will have to turn into Superman and save her. Unwilling to do that, he races down to the street level in a flash and secretly engineers it so she lands relatively safely on a market stall.

* Because of the above, the scene of Lois throwing herself into a river – cooked up by Lester – has been jettisoned.

* In the familiar Fortress of Solitude scene, Lex and Miss Teschmacher see a hologram of Jor-El rather than some random Kryptonian dude.

* The film’s most striking change is the addition of a scene in Clark and Lois’s hotel room were she shoots him to test her theory that he’s Superman. When Lester took over, he replaced the scene with one where Clark puts his hand in a fire but isn’t burnt, confirming Lois’s suspicion. Inconveniently, Donner hadn’t got round to filming the gun scene before being fired. Serendipitously, however, he had used it when testing actors for the roles of Lois and Clark – and both Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve’s filmed auditions still existed. So footage from those two tests are cut together to form the scene in this film. The eye-lines don’t always match and Reeve’s hair changes alarmingly depending on which test the shot has been taken from (he played Clark in Kidder’s audition) – but it simply doesn’t matter. It’s a sensational scene. After Lois has shot him, Clark stands erect and his expression changes. In a masterful bit of acting, Reeve turns into Superman before your eyes. “If you’d been wrong, Clark Kent would have been killed,” he says. Lois smiles and says, “With a blank?” She holds up the gun. “Gotcha.”

* A fair bit of Zod terrorising small-town America has been deleted.

* There’s more Jor-El when Superman asks the hologram of his father what he should do about Lois. In the 1980 cut, Brando was replaced with the presumably much cheaper Susannah York. Here, Lois looks on from afar dressed in the top from Superman’s costume (they’ve just had sex). In a creepy moment, the hologram seems to notice Lois and turns to her menacingly. Later on, there’s another snatch of Brando when Superman wants his powers back – the hologram seems to become real for a moment and touch his son’s shoulder.

* In the scene of Zod, Ursa and Non trashing the Daily Planet, Lex’s line, “When will these dummies learn how to use the doorknob?” has sadly been cut.

* A few of the more slapstick moments from Zod terrorising the public have gone.

* Lex now doesn’t get sidelined (and played by an obvious stand-in) during the final showdown in the Fortress of Solitude.

* There’s a new ending. Rather than Clark kissing Lois to make her forget he’s Superman, he turns time back a few days. We see Zod’s destruction being put right, Perry White’s toothpaste being sucked back into the tube, and Lois’s expose article being unwritten. This ending was the original, original plan for the climax of Superman II. During production, though, it was decided to use the idea at the end of Superman: The Movie instead – hence why Lester had to come up with the kiss, and why this version essentially repeats the gag from the first film.

* A capping scene back at the Daily Planet with Clark being the only person who can remember the events of the film. Christopher Reeve, seemingly effortlessly, pulls off a brilliant bit of business when trying to hang his hat and coat on a rack.

* Even though it now makes no sense – time has gone back to before their first encounter – Clark still returns to the diner to embarrass the bully who beat him up.

Review: There’s a certain Frankenstein’s monster quality to this. We get a mishmash of familiar scenes from the original Superman II (some shot by Richard Donner, some shot by Richard Lester), previously unseen footage directed by Donner, and screen tests that were never meant for public view. However, just like the 1980 original, this is a terrific movie. The subplot of Lois trying to prove that Clark Kent is Superman works much better in this version – and it’s generally a real treat to see new footage of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in their prime – while it does make more sense to have Jor-El give his fatherly advice.

Nine screen tests out of 10.

Next time: Why so serious?

Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having been away for five years, Superman comes home to Earth – just as Lex Luthor is kick-starting a new diabolical plan…

Good guys: In the years since Superman IV, there’d been numerous sequel or reboot projects that had failed to take flight. Directors such as Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Martin Campbell, Brett Ratner, McG and Wolfgang Petersen were attached or asked; actors as varied as Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, Will Smith, Christian Bale, Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, David Boreanaz and Ashton Kutcher were considered, courted and in some cases actually cast in the lead role. But when Bryan Singer took over as director, he decided upon the unknown Brandon Routh to be the new cinematic Superman. He’s doing a Christopher Reeve impression for the most part, but if you’re going to steal then steal from the best. The character has been off in space for five years, searching for the wreckage of his home planet (guess what: it’s not there any more), but crashes like a meteorite near the Kent family farm. In his Clark Kent persona, he returns to his old job at the Daily Planet, but when he hears about a crisis aboard a 747 he turns into Superman and comes to the rescue. He then meets up with old flame Lois Lane as well as her new partner, Robert, and their son. The boy’s age means that maybe Robert’s not the father… Superman later spies on Lois, Robert and Jason (bit stalker-y, this), and is upset to hear Lois deny she once loved Superman. So he flies into space and floats above the planet like a god. He can hear the entire Earth at once, but his ears zero in on a bank robbery in Metropolis. (All those rapes will have to wait, I suppose.) When master criminal Lex Luthor creates a new landmass off the eastern coast of America, Superman flies there to sort him out – but the ground is tainted by Kryptonite, so he’s incapacitated and gets stabbed. Lois arrives to save him, then he dives into the ocean and lifts the entire continent up out of the water and flings it into space. Job done. Lois, meanwhile, is played by Kate Bosworth. It’s a dreary, dead-behind-the-eyes performance, empty of energy and charm. It’s difficult to fathom what either Clarke or Robert see in her. At the start of the story, she’s researching a story about a new space shuttle. When the plane she’s on falls out of the sky thanks to a power surge, Superman arrives to save her – knowing he’s back in town, she now feels guilty about writing a recent article called Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. We get a gag about how she’s a poor speller – but she’s still about to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize (give it to the Daily Planet subs, I say). Mum-of-the-year Lois then takes her five-year-old son along when she investigates the source of the power surge, and they both end up being kidnapped by Lex Luthor.

Bad guys: Lex is played by Kevin Spacey, who’s having great fun with the role. After Superman failed to show up for a court date, Luthor was released from the prison sentence he was given earlier in the series. He’s since been conning an old woman (Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in 1948-1950) out of her fortune. Using a massive luxury yacht as his base, Lex now has a number of sidekicks and a plan to create a new continent so he can sell the real estate. Using crystals stolen from Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude and some Kryptonite nicked from a museum, his creation is a jagged, desolate outcrop in the north Atlantic. Why anyone would want to live there is not addressed. Luthor’s chief lieutenant is the sarcastic Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey, who would have made a much better Lois Lane). Kal Penn – sometime Kumar, sometime politician – is one of the henchmen. For reasons not explored, another is constantly filming things with a video camera.

Other guys: James Marsden turned his back on the X-Men series in order to play Richard White, Lois’s boyfriend and the nephew of the Daily Planet’s editor. For third-act reasons, he has a seaplane docked outside his house. Young Jason is played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Frank Langella appears as Perry White; Sam Huntington doesn’t get much to do as a wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen. Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for On The Waterfront and was in North by Northwest, plays Martha Kent. Coincidentally, her Waterfront co-star is also in Superman Returns – in a move that’s maybe a smidgen too pleased with itself, the film re-uses 1970s footage of Marlon Brando playing Jor-El.

Best bits:
* The creepy opening scene: Lex lying to the old woman he’s conned as she dies, then confronting her disgusted and disinherited family. Pulling off his wig, he hands it to a distraught little girl. “You can keep that. The rest is mine.”

* The interior of Lex’s yacht – a huge studio set that tilts from side from side.

* Clark’s dog drops a tennis ball at his feet, so he throws it and it flies miles into the distance. The dog starts to run after it, then stops, turns and whines a whine that clearly says, “You bastard.”

* The Daily Planet newsroom. It’s hectic and feels old-school – men in suits, ties and braces, women in tank tops – but also has computers and plasma-screens.

* Lex and his gang return to the empty mansion. A dog is eating a bone. Kitty wonders what happened to the other pooch…

* The room filled with an enormous and enormously detailed model train set. WANT!

* “Wow, that’s really something, Lex,” deadpans an unimpressed Kitty when his demonstration fails to happen. “Wait for it,” he says. She does, for a second, then repeats, “Wow, that’s really something, Lex.”

* When the model train set is trashed by the power surge, we get gags referring to older Superman movies: the earthquake from film one, the destruction of Mount Rushmore from film two and the plant fire from film three are all recreated in beautiful miniature.

* The first appearance of Superman, climaxing in a moment when he holds up an airliner vertically by its nose to prevent it crashing into a baseball stadium.

* The emergency editorial meeting called now that Superman in back. Perry White rattles off assignments: “Okay, everybody, listen up. I want to know it all, everything. Olsen: I want to see photos of him everywhere; no, I want *the* photo. Sport: how they going to get that plane out of the stadium? Travel: where did he go? Was he on vacation? If so, where? Gossip: has he met somebody? Fashion: is that a new suit? Health: has he lost weight? What’s he been eating? Business: how is this going to affect the stock market? Long term, short term? Politics: does he still stand for truth, justice… all that stuff?”

* Lois and Clarke in a lift, which is filled with other people reading the Daily Planet (headline: ‘The Man of Steel is back!’) There’s muzak and the pair trade nervous glances.

* Superman standing before a machine gun, the bullets bouncing off his chest. The bad guy then takes out a handgun and unloads into Superman’s face (steady…), but the bullet harmlessly impacts on his eyeball and slides off.

* Kitty driving manically through the city, endangering lives left, right and centre, as a diversion while Lex breaks into the museum. (She later slaps Lex and says, “I was going to *pretend* the brakes were out!”)

* A quick reference to Gotham City.

* Lex finding Lois on his boat while he’s cleaning his teeth.

* Lex: “Kitty, what did my father used to say to me?” Kitty: “You’re losing your hair?” “Before that.” “Get out?”

* While being held hostage with his mum, Jason plays the piano aboard Lex’s yacht. In a pleasingly whimsical moment, the henchman guarding them sits next to him and joins in.

* A shock wave hits Metropolis.

* Every time the Superman theme tune swells up.

* Superman picks up a continent.

* Lex and Kitty get stranded on a tiny atoll in the middle of nowhere. They have a helicopter… but no petrol.

* The final shot: a deliberate copy of Superman: The Movie’s final image.

Review: It feels a bit mean to criticise Superman Returns. Its heart is clearly in the right place and I don’t doubt the love put into it. But it largely doesn’t work. Slightly strangely, the film is a sequel to Superman II. It ignores the events of Superman III and Superman IV, and asks you not to worry that 25 years have passed yet no one’s aged. After a caption card that sums up the backstory, we hear Marlon Brando’s voice and John Williams’s theme music before a credit sequence modelled on the 1978 movie. That’s just the start of references to those earlier films – and, while plainly well intentioned, it’s a big problem. The film is just too deferential, too afraid to be bold. It doesn’t have a voice of its own, and as a result lacks zip and drive. It’s also too long and falls into that action-movie trap of having a really boring final third. (In comparison, the previous year’s Batman Begins gets more interesting the longer it goes on.) Visually, the cinematography is going for a romantic, classical look. It’s very soft, perhaps because the movie was shot digitally rather than on film; has lots of muted colours such as turquoise, sea-green and yellow; and often looks like an old painting – something to be admired from a distance rather than something to get wrapped up in. The film’s not a disaster, by any means. Routh and Spacey are great and I’d have loved to have seen them again. But it’s nothing special.

Six Pulitzer Prize-winning articles out of 10.

Next time: Superman II redux’d.

Love (2006)

LOV

Title: This is the tie-in album for a Cirque du Soleil theatre show of the same name, which was based on and used the music of the Beatles. George Martin and his son Giles mixed the show’s soundtrack from the band’s original multi-track recordings, using 130 different songs and mashing up and cross-editing elements left, right and centre. They had the entire Beatles discography to play with to create their soundscape…

Cover: It uses swishes of yellow, orange and red, presumably to suggest some kind of hippy trip, but it’s pretty bland and corporate.

Best song: For its sheer bravado, the mash-up of Drive My Car, The Word and What You’re Doing is fantastic. The 114-second track takes three songs recorded over a spread of 14 months and makes them seem inseparable. (The guitar solo from Taxman is also thrown in for good measure.)

Honourable mentions: The opening ‘movement’ is extraordinary. We begin with Because’s pure, clean vocals and no instruments, then the famous piano crash from the end of A Day in the Life is played in reverse (so rather than fading out, it ‘powers up’). When that peaks, the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night acts like the swish of the stage curtains: the show has started. Next comes Ringo’s drum solo from The End, thrillingly set to the pumping guitar of Get Back, before the latter song kicks into gear; we then dramatically cut to a section of Glass Onion. This is fantastic stuff, showing real invention and wit on the part of the producers. And the highlights keep coming… Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite! has a sinister new ending: a nightmarish leap into an abyss, using the music from I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and vocals from Helter Skelter. Conversely, one of the album’s most beautiful moments comes when 26 seconds of Blackbird’s finger-picked guitar gracefully acts as an overture for Yesterday. Strawberry Fields Forever is a mash-up all on its own: various takes, including a John Lennon home demo, are blended together with invisible edits. The effect is music that grows in intensity and complexity as it goes along, echoing the song’s original writing/production process. There’s also an anarchic play-out that quotes numerous other songs, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, In My Life, Piggies and Hello Goodbye. One of the most attention-grabbing sections of the album is Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows, which combines the former with the latter’s relentless bassline and drum pattern. It’s a remarkable fit, giving George’s Indian song an almost trance quality. The track then segues into Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds via a deliberately disjointed segment that spaces out the notes of Lucy’s guitar riff. More great ‘new intros’ follow: the music from Good Night is used as an opening on Octopus’s Garden, while Lady Madonna is teased by repeating a drum fill and bringing the saxes up front before the song proper begins. Finally, one of my favourite sections of the whole album is the way Hey Jude merges into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise). The music drops out, leaving just Paul’s evangelical singing, the backing vocals and the drumming. Then the deliciously plump bass rejoins, followed by the orchestra for a few more iterations of ‘Naaah, nah, nah, nah-nah-nah-nah’ – then the horn section’s notes are stretched out to provide a platform for Sgt Pepper’s rock guitar to kick off. Superb.

Worst song: Whether we need Sun King played in reverse is debatable.

Notable outside contributions: The only new recording on the album is a string accompaniment, written by George Martin, for the acoustic take of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Alternate versions: Three songs worked on at the time but left off the album were Girl, The Fool on the Hill and She’s Leaving Home. The first two were later released as iTunes exclusives: The Fool on the Hill is my favourite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MTMq17m0_0

Review: The Martins showed genuine vision in creating this 79-minute mash-up. As a listening experience it’s magnificent. It couldn’t fail to be with this track listing. And as a formal exercise in remixing, it’s both fascinating and engrossing. Some tracks are essentially left ‘as are’ – for example, other than being programmed into a segueing sequence, Help! and Revolution are presented as we all know them. But the album’s real joy comes when songs crash, collide and cross-pollinate. For those of us who have known the Beatles canon for longer than we can remember, spotting how different elements are being used – a piano part here, a bassline there – is an endlessly enjoyable puzzle. (“Oh, it’s Hey Bulldog’s guitar riff!” “Are those the backing vocals from Nowhere Man?”) Few would suggest that Love betters any of the original productions. But as a fresh, exciting, vibrant, new context for the greatest music of all time, it’s a total triumph.

Ten little hideaways beneath the waves out of 10.

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Casino Royale 2006

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

Pierce Brosnan was let go after Die Another Day (to his chagrin) and, for the first time, the series was definitively rebooted. The producers wanted to film Ian Fleming’s first novel, in which Bond is a rookie double-O agent. It was the bravest, boldest move the series has taken. And my God, did it work. The movie begins in black and white, shot like a film noir – but then we cut to glorious, eye-popping colour for the beautiful title sequence. A triumph of graphic design, it’s both old-school and modern, timeless and fresh, just like the rest of the film. Casino Royale has a justified and earned confidence about it – at every step, it makes the right decision, takes the correct turn. As with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell’s contribution is immense. He drives the storytelling with powerful momentum, but also a delicate touch. Tension is created especially well: huge chunks of the middle third are scenes of people sitting round a card table, but our attention and engagement don’t flag. The film is 138 minutes yet never feels dull or fatty. This is all muscle. The first two Bourne films had recently raised the bar for action cinema – both in terms of spectacle and emotional resonance – and Casino Royale clears it with ease. Crucially, we always see the results of the story’s events, both physically (Bond is often bleeding and bruised) and emotionally (Vesper has a breakdown after witnessing a violent death). This is blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order. Licence to Kill is, and will remain, my *favourite* James Bond movie. But Casino Royale may very well be the *best*. Ten Algerian love knots out of 10. Christ, 11 out of 10. A million out of 10.

Bond: Lots of people reacted skeptically or downright negatively when Daniel Craig was announced, fearing he was too short or too blond or too ugly or just nebulously not right. How fucking stupid do those craigisnotbond.com idiots look now?! He is superb. This is recognisably the same man we’ve been enjoying for 20 movies – cocky and charming, clever and cultured – but Craig brings a new sophistication of emotion as well as a fantastic physicality to the role.

Villains: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, excellent) is our lead bad guy. He takes puffs from an asthma inhaler, his eye weeps blood, and he’s clearly under pressure from his bosses. His cat-and-mouse games with Bond – ending with a brilliantly played torture scene taken from the book – are a joy. He gets killed off with 30 minutes to go by Mr White, a shadowy fixer from their unnamed criminal organisation. There’s also bent MI6 station chief Dryden; bomb-maker Mollaka (played by the guy who invented freerunning, Sébastian Foucan); Ugandan warlord Obanno, who invests $100m with Le Chiffre then wants it back; Alex Dimitrios, a dodgy middleman who loses his 1964 Aston Martin to Bond in a card game; dialogue-less bomber Carlos; Mr White’s colleague Adolph Gettler, who wears mismatched sunglasses; and Le Chiffre’s bald bodyguard, Kratt.

Girls: Le Chiffre has a girlfriend, Valenka, played by Ivana Miličević (who was Angelique in an unaired pilot for a Dark Shadows remake in 2004). Bond seduces Dimitrios’s incredibly sultry wife, Solange, to get some information – her first scene, where she horse-rides along the beach in a bikini and Bond steps out of the water in swimming trunks, has something for everyone. The hotels in the Bahamas and Montenegro both have pretty receptionists. But the star of the show is Vesper Lynd. “I’m the money,” she says when she meets Bond. “Every penny,” he says, clearly and understandably impressed. That opening scene is a sexually charged flirtation where we’re skillfully told an awful lot about both characters. The actors are just terrific: it’s a high score draw. Vesper has a vital role in the story and a seismic effect on the character of James Bond. She’s played sensationally well by French actress Eva Green. Perhaps her English accent is ever-so-slightly off now and again, but no matter: she ranks alongside Tracy di Vicenzo and Pam Bouvier as one of the very best female characters we’ve seen. She is also *extraordinarily* sexy (and, frankly, has the best boobs in the entire series).

Regulars: Creepy bad guy Mr White will appear again. Despite the reboot, M is still played by Judi Dench (yeah, it doesn’t make sense: get over it). The first time she speaks in the film she gets a rattling-good monologue: “Who the hell do they think they are? I report to the Prime Minister and even he’s smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don’t care what we do. They care what we get photographed doing. And how the hell could Bond be so stupid? I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.” We see both her home – an expensive flat with views of Canary Wharf – and her husband. All the M/Bond scenes are great. There’s no Moneypenny or Q, however: in the former’s place is a male aide called Villlers, in the latter’s is a team of computer boffins. René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) is a character from the novel who will be in the next movie too. And we get a new Felix Leiter, played with pensive worry by Jeffrey Wright.

Action: We see Bond’s first ever kill: a frenetic, violent fight in a gents. The freerunning sequence near the beginning of the movie is *fantastic*. Outlandish, breathtaking, but always grounded in plausibility and full of character, it’s the greatest foot chase in cinema history (step aside, Point Break). Bond and Dimitrios struggle silently in a crowded museum, Bond stabbing him to death without anyone noticing. The extended sequence at Miami Airport is wonderful – plot, character, tension, action and wit all in evidence. Le Chiffre and Valenka are attacked by machete-wielding thugs; Bond has a very violent fight with them in a stairwell. During the card game, Bond is poisoned – cue a terrific scene in which he has to call MI6 HQ for advice on how to restart his heart (after he passes out, Vesper saves the day by administering the vital defibrillator shock). When Vesper is kidnapped, Bond chases after her in his Aston Martin – the scene ends with a dramatic, done-for-real crash where the car flips over and cannon rolls seven times (a world record for a movie stunt). Finally, there’s a mad dash through Venice (Vesper the only person wearing red so we can spot her in the crowd) and the climactic sequence in a sinking building (superb).

Comedy: Much more than some people assume. “Put your hand down!” orders a frustrated Bond to undercover ally Carter, who keeps touching his earpiece and giving himself away. When Bond later breaks into M’s swish Docklands apartment, she asks him, “How the hell did you find out where I lived?” He replies, “Same way I found out your name. I thought M was a randomly assigned letter. I had no idea it stood for–” and then M interrupts: “Utter one more word and I’ll have you killed.” In the Bahamas, Bond crashes a Range Rover to cause a distraction then casually throws away the keys. When flirting with Solange, Bond suggests a drink ‘at his place’. When she asks if it’s close, he drives quickly round the hotel car park and back to where they started. Richard Branson has a blink-and-miss cameo. Bond’s laconic ‘ow!’ when injected with a tracker device is very funny. When he teams up with Vesper, Bond reads aloud their assigned cover story: “…and you’re Miss Stephanie Broadchest,” he lies. The banker controlling the poker game’s stakes, Monsieur Mendel, is a deliberately camp and quirky character. When asked, for the first time, if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond snaps, “Do I look like I give a damn?” Twice, Bond returns to the card table after Le Chiffre thought he was dead: Mads Mikkelsen’s dry double-takes are very good.

Music: David Arnold’s fourth score in a row. The best bit is early action cue African Rundown. Because this is essentially 007’s first case, the full-blown James Bond Theme is held back until the very last shot. The theme song is Chris Cornell’s dull-but-inoffensive You Know My Name.

Personal connection: I went to see this at the cinema twice – firstly with Mark Wright at the Odeon Marble Arch on Tuesday 21 November 2006, and then with Robert Dick at the Odeon Beckenham on Saturday 20 January 2007. It demanded to be seen again.

People I’ve met: In 2003, I briefly worked with actor Robert Jezek, who has a tiny role as a policeman in Casino Royale.