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Wrapped Up in The Mummy

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

The summer box-office season unofficially got under way on Friday when Universal's much-discussed remake of THE MUMMY roared into theaters everywhere, earning a spectacular $44.6 million (a non-holiday May record). Knowing that this film fits securely with the company of '90s monster hits (like THE RELIC, SPECIES, MIMIC, CONGO and ANACONDA) should tell you how much you're going to appreciate this picture--my review follows below.

In other happenings, the first PHANTOM MENACE screenings were held last week, and I don't know about you, but I quickly tired of reading reactions from hardcore fans who were almost certainly expecting the Greatest Film Ever Made and other early blurbs from critics (namely Rolling Stone's Peter Travers) who tend to snicker at effects-heavy sci-fi fantasy pictures in the first place. That said, the comments coming from other critics who attended the press screenings last week seem to indicate that this movie is indeed good, solid entertainment--and while perhaps not being as fresh and invigorating as STAR WARS was on first viewing (what would be?), is not at all out of place in its company. If that turns out to be the case, I think most audiences will be thrilled, and THE PHANTOM MENACE will turn out just fine.

Soundtrack fans everywhere, meanwhile, flocked to grab the first copies of THE PHANTOM MENACE album last week, and reaction predictably was mixed. As I wrote last week, the album could easily be a context-heavy work that requires a viewing of the film to fully appreciate--as it turns out, this CD is one of those instances.

However, I found several aspects of this latest John Williams work to be particularly striking. First, the tone of the music, the depth and complexity of the various cues and the arrangements contained therein, indeed surpasses the dimension of the original STAR WARS soundtrack in terms of sheer dramatic scope. The use of chorus and the various orchestral timbres Williams utilizes throughout this work are thrilling to hear, even without the benefit of seeing the almost-assuredly spectacular images they accompany on- screen. The use of the original STAR WARS motifs at various, key points is also effective and intriguing, and the principal new themes Williams composed here ("Duel of the Fates" and "Annakin's Theme") are both gems, no doubt about it. How "Annakin's Theme" incorporates just a few notes--albeit crucial ones-- from the "Imperial March" is just one of the delicious surprises to be found in Williams's score.

That said, a lot of the music is programmatic and seems to be context-heavy. Several folks have pointed out that this album isn't as accessible on first listen as, say, the RETURN OF THE JEDI soundtrack, but remember that when you first heard that JEDI soundtrack, it was a 45 minute album with numerous concert arrangements substituting in place of genuine film cues. That doesn't make THE PHANTOM MENACE any less of a great film score, and we'll need to see the movie to be able to fully appreciate Williams's work on this latest George Lucas adventure.

In the meantime, THE MUMMY is a splendid appetizer for the big May 19th opening (and should receive plenty of carry-over business from all the PHANTOM MENACE screenings that will be sold out for the first few weeks), and counter-programming will also be available for those seeking a romantic diversion such as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (opening Friday) and the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant teaming NOTTING HILL, opening on May 28th.

In the meantime, send your comments and reactions along to me at dursina@att.net and we'll be ready for one last Preview come next week. May 19th... .almost there!

In Theaters

THE MUMMY (***): It occurred to me about halfway through this latest incarnation of THE MUMMY that I'm just a pushover for this kind of film. The sort that you could routinely find on the outer ends of the UHF dial when I was a kid, where monsters lurked around every turn and dialogue was silly and often obvious ("you'll have to run for it!")--but that, always, was part of the fun.

Stephen Sommers's new revamp for one of the staple characters in the Universal Monsters roster is a good, old-fashioned formula entertainment that provides plenty of action, great special effects, and engaging performances. It's a movie that acknowledges its origins, spoofs them to a mild degree, but more often than not revels in the kind of monster mayhem and "safe scares" that made the old Universal movies so appealing while adding, of course, that degree of high-tech effects work that its predecessors completely lacked. It's not RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but then again, few films are, and for kids who have never heard of Boris Karloff or even the "Creature Double Feature" from my time, this MUMMY ought to fulfill the quotient of a fun-fright movie for a whole new generation.

Brendan Fraser, as an American adventurer, and Rachel Weisz, as a bumbling librarian, are quite likeable as the protagonists who unwillingly resurrect and then try to stop the villainous Imhotep, a mummified Egyptian (Arnold Vosloo, who once filled Liam Neeson's shoes in the DARKMAN direct-to-video sequels) wrecking havoc on 1920s Cairo by invoking the plagues of his native country. Thus, there are scampering beetle attacks, fireballs falling from the sky, blood pouring forth from water fountains, resurrected armies of the undead and, best of all, a living Mummy wanting to be reunited with his beloved, who killed herself centuries before when the Paraoah discovered her liaison with Imhotep. Following through on the original storyline, and before you can say sarcophagus, Imhotep realizes that he needs Weisz, to fulfill a ritual sacrifice in order to resurrect his lost love, which leads Fraser and her brother (John Hannah) on a rescue mission before the slowly-regenerating villain brings back his lady-corpse-love and takes over the world.

Writer-director Sommers uses the original MUMMY films as a springboard for his movie, one that's pointedly tongue-in-cheek from start to finish. Sommers may not be Steven Spielberg or even John Milius, but at least he understands the spirit of this kind of popcorn-munching entertainment and has made a sensational looking adventure that should appeal to the young and those of us who have yet to outgrow this kind of picture. His script has its fair share of big laughs (surprisingly so, in fact) and the use of ILM effects in the movie--from the opening shots of ancient Egypt to the Undead Soldiers Imhotep resurrects--is consistently impressive in scope. More over, Fraser, Weisz and Hannah--along with Vosloo--do a good job keeping the movie from becoming overly melodramatic or campy, enabling THE MUMMY to exist right in the middle of both extremes. It's comic book but engaging, and Weisz and Fraser build up some credible chemistry along the way.

If you have never been captivated by monster movies, Saturday matinee-styled adventures, or the sight of creepy creatures from the classic days of Universal horror, this picture will feel as lifeless as a mummified corpse in the bottom of King Tut's tomb. For those who are, and have an affinity for this kind of B-movie spectacle (done up in A-grade trimmings), THE MUMMY provides a rousing good time, fully deserving of its big opening weekend box-office take. (PG-13, **1/2 by Jerry Goldsmith on Decca--definitely not one of his "worst" scores as Variety wrote last week, although not the classic it perhaps could have been, either)


ELECTION (***1/2): Don't be put off by the MTV Films banner that headlines the advertising of ELECTION, since this is easily the year's funniest and most insightful high school comedy--a keen and savvy film about the consequences that result from tampering with the natural order of life.

In ELECTION, that means the downward spiral experienced by Nebraska high school teacher Matthew Broderick when he decides to derail the chirpy and cheerful Tracy Flick's candidacy for School President by hiring a noble but knuckle-headed football player to run against her. The eager Flick, splendidly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon with a manic energy that veers the character away from complete and unbelievable dementia, wants to prove herself to the world; Broderick, meanwhile, secretly hates her for having the courage to overachieve (a theme that runs throughout the movie).

That sets in motion a series of events that are sometimes subtle and often quietly humorous, as director/co- screenwriter Alexander Payne comments on the immorality and dubious intentions of the various characters while never judging them outright or bathing ELECTION in a completely pessimistic or bitingly sarcastic tone. The movie feels real because the filmmaking enables the performances to bring out a variety of colorful shades in the characters; subsequently, there are no evil or completely hateful people in the film, since the audience can identify with a predicament or feeling that each one of the principal characters feels at a particular point in the picture.

ELECTION isn't as static and inaccessible as RUSHMORE, and has the smarts that its spring high school cinematic brethren have completely lacked (namely, SHE'S ALL THAT and NEVER BEEN KISSED). The kind of movie that never settles into a predictable formula, ELECTION may go over the heads of its intended target audience--who undoubtedly are more into the brainless hodgepodge that was VARSITY BLUES than a comedy with actual issues on its mind--but the movie should still go down as one of the best films of its kind. If you've been avoiding the explosion in the teen movie genre over the last year or so, ELECTION should give you proper reason to go out and see a high school movie again. (R, *** quirky soundtrack features an eclectic and effective score by Rolfe Kent)


Aisle Seat Reader Bag

I received a handful of terrific emails following last week's PHANTOM MENACE-related soundtrack column. Here are a few of them for your enjoyment, and be sure to send in your thoughts on hearing THE PHANTOM MENACE for the first time, Goldsmith's THE MUMMY score, or anything else of note to me at dursina@att.net in time for next week's column!

From Daniel Montoya Jr. <danielmontoya.jr@swt.edu>

    I just bought THE PHANTOM MENACE score at 12:00 on Monday and listened to it immediately. I feel this is a very wonderful score and in my opinion, I like it better than the original three. Being a music education/composition major, I feel this shows off more variety of musical forms. From the 12-tone row in Anakins theme, to the percussive strings throughout. It is a wonderful score. The only qualms I have about it though is the "Phantom Menace Theme." If you listen to it carefully, it is very familiar. Listen to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, track 11. When the choir comes in full force with the timpani 2:20 into the track, it sounds like TPM theme. Maybe I'm hearing something that isn't there. But it is still a wonderful score.

Hmm... anyone have any thoughts on this?

From Howard Liverance (HLIVERANCE@tpa.HealthPlan.com>

    Re your comment: "The Phantom Menace album may only run 75 minutes and still contain the most significant passages in the film Williams only wants it that way, I would expect "

    The moment I read this sentence, my immediate reaction was "Oh yeah, then why am I still waiting for that cue in Empire Of The Sun!", only to see Empire mentioned a few paragraphs down. I too have also felt this film never got the due it deserved. How ironic that Spielberg was taken to task for trying to tackle a serious subject like life in a WW2 Japanese prisoner camp, only to be applauded years later for "finally growing up" with Schindler's List.

    Anyway, the cue in Empire that didn't make the album underscores Jim's frantic effort to revive his Japanese friend. It would probably be entitled "I Can Bring Them All Back". The wordless choral arrangement builds ever slowly to a stunning conclusion. What a terrible omission. Oh, is this frustrating.

From Eric McClellan (Andante7@aol.com):

    I agree with you that Far and Away is among Williams' very best. "The Land Race" is an orchestral tour de force that is tremendously exhilarating. Enjoy your column keep up the good work!

NEXT WEEK... Your PHANTOM MENACE soundtrack reactions (send them in, please!) plus whatever business we need to take care of before the movie opens. See you then, and voice all opinions to dursina@att.net! Excelsior!


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