The Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

Damien

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a series of strange deaths, the American ambassador in the UK fears his son, Damien, may be the Antichrist…

Best performance: Gregory Peck holds the whole thing together, playing Robert Thorn as a man emotionally tortured into thinking the unthinkable. But it’s a notably strong cast, with terrific turns from David Warner as suspicious photographer Keith Jennings, Patrick Troughton as troubled priest Father Brennan, and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Baylock, the terrifying nanny.

Best death: Keith Jennings, who’s decapitated by a sheet of glass that’s been flung sideways off the back of a truck. The stunt is shot from numerous angles and the edit shows us the impact four times. The fake head then spins off almost poetically, while behind Keith a shop window breaks and red wine is symbolically thrown up into the air.

Review: The really smart thing about this film is – to use the director’s term – its verisimilitude. Everything is played absolutely for real. It’s a horror film seemingly about the son of Satan, yet nothing inexplicable or supernatural actually happens. A nanny hangs herself, there are some tragic accidents, a child throws a tantrum or two… The horror instead comes from these plausible events mounting up, the way they’re centred on a creepy little boy, and – most effectively – the fact a father allows himself to be convinced that his son is evil. But is he right? One interpretation of the story is that Damien is just a normal child and Robert has gone mad. It’s a fascinating idea. The Omen is a great movie, helped by some terrific incidental music by Jerry Goldsmith, fine location filming at the genuine American embassy in Grosvenor Square, and an all-round excellent job of directing by Richard Donner. Superb.

Nine armies on either shore out of 10

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

superman2RD_1

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: The Movie (1978, Richard Donner)

superman78

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent has a secret – he’s actually a powerful alien who was exiled from his doomed home planet as a child. When criminal mastermind Lex Luthor plans to destroy California, Kent’s superhero alter ego – Superman – sets out to stop him…

Good guys: Christopher Reeve stars as Clark Kent/Superman (he’s only got third billing, after the title, due to the blockbuster casting of two other roles). He’s just terrific and is equally believable and interesting as both sides of the character. The difference in the two personas, costume aside, is brilliantly achieved through posture and attitude. It’s some very smart acting. Clark’s got his job as a reporter because editor Perry White thinks he’s the fastest typist he’s ever seen. He’s seemingly a bumbling, nervous, old-fashioned doofus, and meets colleague Lois Lane when he starts work at the newspaper – he actually gets assigned to her ‘city beat’. They become pals, though, especially after he saves her life during a failed mugging. (Jeff East plays Clark as a teenager, though Reeve dubbed the dialogue.) Lois is played by Margot Kidder, who’s absolutely knockout. When we meet her, she’s writing a story for the paper (“How many Ts in bloodletting? How do you spell massacre?”). She’s adorable, feisty, sassy and a bit of a klutz. She’s not fussed by Clark’s attentions, but she falls for Superman after he saves her during a helicopter accident. Kidder beat a lot of talented actress, including Anne Archer, Stockard Channing and Lesley Ann Warren, to win the role. Jackie Cooper appears as the no-nonsense, hyper Perry White; Marc McClure plays photographer Jimmy Olsen, who’s on $40 a week but gets to feature in the film’s climax.

Bad guys: Gene Hackman – an actor who can basically do anything – plays our bad guy, Lex Luthor. He has a lair hidden in a disused section of Metropolis’s train station and wears a succession of wigs (a sly nod to the fact the character is traditionally bald… and a compromise because Hackman wouldn’t go for it). Lex has two sidekicks: the buffoonish Otis (Ned Beatty), who calls his boss “Mr Lu-THOR,” and has his own comedy cue in the incidental music; and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), who helps Superman after Lex is mean to her. Hackman and Beatty has some fantastic comic chemistry. There are also cameos from Jack O’Halloran, Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas as the villains we’ll be getting to know in the next film.

Other guys: Marlon Brandon was paid an absolute fortune – about $19 million – for his small role as Jor-El, Superman’s father. He plays it straight if not especially charismatically. Jor-El predicts the destruction of Krypton, so sends his infant son off to Earth in a space ship. He doesn’t want the boy to miss out on his education, so the pod contains a series of talking books where Jor-El explains who Einstein is and how many galaxies there are. Brando later pops up as a hologram too – Superman’s dad didn’t half record a lot of material for his son to view later on in life. Didn’t he have other things to do during the last 30 days of his planet’s existence? Susanna York plays Jor-El’s wife. Glenn Ford appears as Clark’s adoptive human father – the way he plays the character’s fatal heart attack (a quiet, scared, “Oh, no…”) is touching. We also briefly see Clark’s high-school crush, Lana Lang.

Best bits:

* The black-and-white opening – a child’s narration setting the scene and the context, a comic book’s page being turned over, and a set of cinema curtains swishing aside as the image becomes widescreen for…

* …the opening credits. Big, bold, blue – they thunder into view, scored by John William’s fantastic fanfare (which you can sing along to: “Su-per-man!”).

* The ice-covered surface of Krypton.

* The scene setting up the sequel (which was shot concurrently with this movie). A trio of menacing villains are introduced, tried, convicted and imprisoned in a spinning mirror floating in space.

* The highly reflective clothing on Krypton. “Front-axial projection,” shouts anyone who’s seen the documentary about the making of Doctor Who serial Silver Nemesis.

* The destruction of Krypton.

* Mr and Mrs Kent finding the infant Clark in a meteorite crater. Moments later, he lifts a truck’s back end up on his own.

* Teenage Clark running alongside a speeding train. (A little girl spots him through the window. An extra scene in the director’s cut tells us it’s a young Lois Lane.)

* Clark heads north – and uses a crystal from Krypton to build his Fortress of Solitude.

* Our first view of Superman in costume – and of Christopher Reeve in the role, actually – is after 46 minutes, when he flies across the Fortress’s cavern.

* The Daily Planet newsroom: we get whip-cracking dialogue sensationally rattled off by the cast, some superb blocking and brilliant bits of business.

* Lois accidentally backs into Clark’s crotch and gives him an approving look.

* A mugger fires a bullet at Lois; Clark catches it.

* Lex Luthor, on his sidekick Otis: “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”

* Lex’s secret lair.

* The film’s second scene in the newsroom consists of a single 121-second take: an elaborate, far-moving but never show-off-y camera move.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Lamb playing a journalist!

* After the helicopter accident, Lois falls from a great height. Clark runs towards a phone box so he can change into Superman, but it’s an open-sided booth so he has to use a revolving door instead. The first person to see him after his costume switch is… well, it’s a comedy 1970s black pimp, isn’t it?

* “You’ve got me?! Who’s got you?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Oz Clarke playing a robber!

* Superman uses his X-ray vision to check whether Lois, a smoker, needs to worry about lung cancer.

* Lois interviewing – and flirting with – Superman.

* Superman taking Lois for a fly. She’s terrified at first, then enjoys it. We hear her thoughts as the form of a spoken-word song (“Can you read my mind?”), which is one of the film’s more charmingly bonkers moments.

* In a brilliant bit of movie-making magic, we see Superman – demonstrably Christopher Reeve – fly away from Lois’s balcony and then Clark – again, clearly Reeve – walk into her flat, all done in one camera shot. (There’s not enough time for the actor to change costume and make-up, so how did they did it? When we see Superman, it’s actually a pre-recorded take being projected onto a screen built into the set. Ingenious stuff.)

* Clark considers telling Lois the truth. He takes his glasses off while she’s not looking and seems to grow a foot taller.

* Lex’s frustration at his inept sidekicks wittering on.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Hagman! Cameoing in a bizarre scene where a group of soldiers ogle and consider sexually abusing a car-crash victim rather than get her some help.

* When he learns of Lex’s plan, Clark discreetly jumps out of the window and switches into Superman on the way down.

* When he shows Superman his proposed map of the new California, Lex is dumbfounded to see that Otis has added a place name: Otisburg.

* Oh, look: it’s John Ratzenberger as a missile control-room operator.

* Lex tricks Superman into opening a box containing Kryptonite.

* Lois’s car breaks down during the earthquake – she spots the approaching crack in the ground in her rear-view mirror.

* All the model work during the earthquake is superb.

* Lois is buried alive!

* Superman’s anguish after he finds Lois dead.

* In order to save Lois, Superman turns back time by flying round the planet really quickly – thereby disobeying Jor-El’s commandment. (It’s a testament to how enjoyable this film is that you forgive it this enormous storytelling cheat.)

Review: The title’s apt. This is a *movie*. There’s a great sense of epic scale, with a long running time, a chapter-like structure and some ambitious special effects. But it’s far from po-faced. It’s often very funny, in fact. Director Richard Donner has spoken about how verisimilitude was his key word for this film – and he keeps things plausible and believe-in-able at all times without ever losing sight of lightness and fun. There’s real soul to everything on show. Other writers are credited with the script – including The Godfather’s Mario Puzo – but the movie as filmed was actually the work of creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die). And what a great job he did, combining comic-book concepts with His Girl Friday banter; action with comedy; style with substance. The movie is in three main sections: a 17-minute opening set on Krypton, all mythic dialogue and sci-fi sets; a 15-minute sequence featuring a young Clark in Smallville, full of bucolic charm, wide open spaces and American Gothic simplicity; and the main bulk set in a hustling, bustling Metropolis of wisecracking journalists, arch criminals and men who wear hats even though it’s the 1970s. A great cast – especially Reeve, Kidder and Hackman – only add to what is an enormously likeable experience.

Nine boxes of Cheerios out of 10.

Next time: So… whatever happened to those three villains from the beginning?