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"The Mummy" Returns With a Vengeance

Plus: SUPERMAN and JAWS 2 reviewed on DVD!

An Aisle Seat May Sweeps-travaganza By Andy Dursin

Everyone has their favorite movies when they were growing up. For me -- and don't ask how or why this happened -- one of them was JAWS 2. Not so much the original "Jaws" (which has since become my favorite film of all-time), but the 1978 sequel, which was a big hit in theaters despite receiving mixed reaction from critics, who, predictably, compared it unfavorably with Steven Spielberg's 1975 masterpiece.

Now, nobody is going to say JAWS 2 is a better film. It's not as fresh, not as well-written, not as suspenseful. But, as sequels go, this is clearly one of the good ones, even if it was the catalyst for so many abysmal, obligatory follow-ups to money-making machines that followed. And, as a kid, I think I could identify with the sea-going teenagers more than Robert Shaw, who, in some ways, was even scarier than Bruce the shark himself!

Here, Roy Scheider is, of course, back as Chief Brody -- brasher and just a bit more paranoid this time out when a pair of divers go missing and a boating accident claims the life of a water skiier and her boat- motoring mom. The camera from the missing divers shows the evidence that another big fish is lurking out there, but the Amity town council, predictably, doesn't see the obvious. Meanwhile, the town's teenagers, including the Brody kids, have taken to cruising the open ocean in search of good times and free beer. And don't you know which favorite shark of ours is after them?

JAWS 2 had a messy production history: original director John Hancock was fired several weeks into filming after the producers and studio honchos didn't care for his "darker" approach. Jeannot Swarzc ("Somewhere in Time") was brought into replace Hancock, Carl Gottlieb was called into to re-write the script, and some actors were re-cast (Dana Elcar was out as Amity's real estate mogul, Joesph Mascolo was in), but the deadline for a Summer 1978 opening held firm.

With virtually the entire movie being overhauled while filming hastily resumed (primary colors worked their way back into Joe Alves' production design), it's a wonder that JAWS 2 turned out to be watchable at all. Fortunately, the skill of the production team turned the picture into a great deal more -- Michael Butler's cinematography, some funny lines in Gottlieb's script, decent action scenes courtesy of director Swarzc, and most of all, John Williams's gorgeous, more colorful score (a departure from the original but in some ways superior) all helped turn JAWS 2 into a blueprint for a successful sequel. A follow-up that, however unnecessary it might have been, managed to produce the goods and recycle elements of its predecessor in an effective, yet predictable, fashion.

Universal's DVD of JAWS 2 will be released on May 22, and even though it is not officially labeled as a Special Edition, this package is jammed with more extras than many of your typical deluxe-advertised discs. Laurent Bouzereau's 45-minute "Making of Jaws 2" features interviews with producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, along with Swarzc, Gottlieb, and Alves. It's a fascinating look behind-the-scenes at how some of the movie's often-surprisingly effective shots were achieved, and dives beneath the surface of the turbulent production history (though there's conflicting stories about whether Steven Spielberg truly wanted to return to salvage the picture). According to Swarzc, Roy Scheider (who doesn't appear in the program) wasn't enthralled with shooting the sequel, but came around and delivered a solid performance once it was clear that Gottlieb and the director had overhauled the concept.

It would have been great to see some of Hancock's footage, but, all things considered, this is a solid overview of the movie, even if it dwells too much on technical details at times.

Two shorter interview segments are also featured, running about 7 minutes each: one spotlights actor/director Keith Gordon, reflecting on his experiences on the set. The other -- sure to be of interest for FSM readers -- is a talk with John Williams, who discusses composing music for sequels in addition to his specific work on "Jaws 2." Swarzc also appears here, describing how amazing Williams' music is -- and indeed it is that, a truly glorious score that remains one of my all-time favorite works of the composer.

Both an original trailer and a re-release teaser have been included, along with production photographs, publicity notes and a handful of other goodies. The 2.35 anamorphic transfer is excellent, surpassing the old, pressing-plagued LD release, though, unfortunately, the 2.0 mono soundtrack sounds quite pinched. Even the laserdisc sounds as if it is in stereo by comparison -- there's no body to the music and dialogue is sometimes hard to hear.

While it's disappointing that Universal couldn't have remixed the sound for 5.1, this edition of JAWS 2 otherwise is a tasty treat for all nostalgic fans of this late '70s hit, and comes at an ideal time. With temperatures warming up, it'll soon be beach time for a lot of us -- and somehow or other, the ominous notes of Williams' Shark Theme will once again creep into your mind the next time you see a shadow briefly appear beneath the ocean....


In Theaters

THE MUMMY RETURNS (***): Saying that there's a lack of surprise involved with this bigger (and, in some ways, better) sequel is a bit absurd, given that there wasn't much in the way of originality in its predecessor. This time out, writer-director Stephen Sommers has cut down on the labyrinthine, claustrophobic settings of his original and made a broader, more expansive adventure with exciting fight sequences and a brisker pace.

The plot revolves around the bracelet of one Scorpion King (wrestler The Rock, on-screen for last than a handful of minutes), the resurrection of our old pal Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo again), and the quest for control of an army of the undead which could give the Mummy -- or the Scorpion King -- power over the entire world. In order to save us all, Brendan Fraser is back with wife Rachel Weisz, Egyptian warrior Oded Fehr, and brother-in-law John Hannah, all of whom are not only after the bracelet but Fraser and Weisz's wise-acre eight-year-old son, whom Imhotep has kidnapped. Also back in a more prominent role is Patricia Velasquez as the latest reincarnation of Imhotep's beloved, Aksunamon.

THE MUMMY RETURNS is more Indiana Jones-like in its execution than the original -- meaning it's even less like the vintage Universal horror series it loosely originates from -- but I liked the fact that there was, simply, more to this sequel. Adrian Biddle's colorful cinematography, ILM's special effects (which range from merely-adequate to excellent), and Sommers' set-pieces are all more elaborate than the original film, meaning there's a lot less of Fraser wandering around corridors and more scenes of warring armies, lush forests in the middle of the desert, and flashbacks to ancient Egypt.

Alan Silvestri's able, romantic score tops Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack from the original, and the actors fit comfortably back into their roles, with the addition of Fraser's young son being far less of annoyance than Kevin J. O'Connor's inane comic relief from the previous installment.

THE MUMMY RETURNS is old-fashioned escapist entertainment, enthusiastically handled by filmmakers and a cast that don't seem to be simply going through the motions. The movie's colossal box-office in-take this past weekend confirms the popularity of the original and the broad appeal of the subject matter, though next time out, I'd like to see more of the Mummy and his quest for eternal love -- further developing the character's tragic, somewhat sympathetic qualities more than Sommers has in these two pictures.

For the time being, though, THE MUMMY RETURNS more than fits the bill for the kind of fun, summer- time movie excitement we have been deprived of lately at the movies. (PG-13)


SUPERMAN DVD thoughts

After jumping through hoops to try and get a pre-release copy to review for you faithful Aisle Seat readers (which we were denied by the most obnoxious non-studio PR people we've ever dealt with!), I did what every respectable Superman fan did last week -- pick up a copy of the 4-disc COMPLETE SUPERMAN COLLECTION DVD box set, to see just how Warner fared packaging a Special Edition of one of their most beloved movies.

We had all heard varying statements about this release, both positive and negative, but the good news is that Superman is flying on DVD in a package that basically should satisfy any legitimate fan of the original 1978 film.

From the opening notes of the newly remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, I was, quite simply, blown away by the sound -- this is one newly overhauled stereo track that truly sings. John Williams' music has a dimension and clarity that the original Dolby Stereo mix completely lacked; compared to the new mix, the old stereo track sounds like a monophonic recording that was re-channeled into stereo via an echo effect. Sure, some additional sound effects have been added, but none detract from the overall enjoyment I got out of this new mix, which seems to have been handled with care by all involved. Even the much-maligned opening "whoosh!" effect, newly recorded for this edition, ranges in intensity based on the music playing (it's dialed down a few notches during the "Can You Read My Mind?" interlude of the main titles, then returns with a flourish at the conclusion, when the director's name appears on-screen).

And the picture? Well, at times the elements don't appear like they're in the best shape, but by and large, it too breezes past all previous transfers of SUPERMAN we've ever seen. The Krypton scenes look like they were shot during an entirely different era when compared to the fuzzy hues that were present on the original letterboxed laserdisc. Sometimes the picture seems a bit dark, or perhaps pinched on the sides when compared to the LD, but it's hard to imagine many fans having a legitimate complaint with the picture.

Director Richard Donner has added eight minutes of footage back into the movie. While most of these scenes are superfluous, they do restore all of Brando's contribution to the original film, and add the bullets/fire/ice "test" Superman goes through when he reaches Lex Luthor's lair. I would have been just as satisfied with these sequences contained in a supplement as opposed to them being restored to the film (the theatrical cut still moves better), but they're not all that out of place here.

Interestingly, though: while the Krypton scenes add a few minutes of previously cut footage, John Williams' original underscoring of the entire sequence has NOT been restored to this edition. In the expanded TV airings, and on the soundtrack album, there's original music running under the footage leading up to baby Kal-El's spaceship taking off. Here, as in the theatrical version, the music opens with the Superman Fanfare once the ship crashes through the roof of Jor-El's abode. (You can hear the original, unedited version on the second side's Alternate Music Cues section, which features an alternate scoring of the Main Titles and other goodies. The isolated score track, as well as the new sound mix, have also been mastered from the original 1" elements -- a noticeably different source than Rhino's restored soundtrack. Also included in the Alternate Music Cues section is the pop version of the "Can You Read My Mind?" flying sequence which on the 2CD set was missing the string section.)

The disc's supplements will prove to be a gold mine for Superman fans. Two separate, 30-minute long documentary features, hosted by Marc McClure, feature new interviews with Donner, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, John Williams, editor Stuart Baird, and others involved in the production. While I'm not sure why the two half-hours weren't edited into one longer documentary feature, there's priceless footage to be found here: some of it culled from the original making-of programs, but most has been newly uncovered, giving viewers a compelling glimpse into the creative process (like fascinating test footage from Guy Hamilton's lengthy tenure as the project's first director). A 17-minute piece on the Special Effects work is also included.

Perhaps even more revealing are the abundance of screen tests, including Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren, Deborah Raffin, Stockard Channing and Holly Palance's try-outs as Lois Lane! Watching some of these tests makes you understand how Kidder was selected, as she seemed to be the only actress to approach the role from a natural, believably human angle (everyone else seemed to think Lois required an over-the-top, larger-than-life approach).

The many trials and tribulations behind-the-scenes -- most notably the conflicts between Donner and Alexander Salkind, plus the Salkinds and Warner Bros. -- are discussed openly and honestly in the documentaries. The only element of the interviews -- as well as the candid and often interesting commentary track with Donner and script "doctor" Tom Mankiewicz (whose voice is hard to hear at times) -- that I DIDN'T care for is that it seems as if only one side of the well-publicized argument between the filmmakers and producers was being addressed here.

A Warner Bros. executive, Donner, Mankiewicz, and Kidder disparage the Salkinds at every turn, and while this is perhaps deserved, one gets the feeling that the entire side of the story isn't being divulged. Richard Lester's name is mentioned only briefly, and -- when the documentary sounds a death knell from Williams' score when it briefly goes into how Donner was fired when it came time to complete SUPERMAN II -- it's a little much.

I'm not trying to belittle Donner's contribution or say that he didn't hold the ship together, but to completely not address Richard Lester -- who Christopher Reeve himself commended for making SUPERMAN II into such an effective film -- without so much as even talking to the man on-camera doesn't seem too fair at all. Donner's ego doesn't seem to be held in check too much during the commentary, either, as he repeatedly makes snide comments about the producers and takes full credit for anything positive about the movie.

The rest of the box-set is a mixed bag, to be sure, which is especially surprising given how popular and successful SUPERMAN II was.

Some fans and viewers seem to have forgotten that SUPERMAN II was generally received more warmly than its predecessor was critically. Ask most people ten years ago how to make a successful sequel and you would routinely hear GODFATHER II, ALIENS, and SUPERMAN II.

Given that the movie was nearly as commercially successful, and that extra footage exists in the film's TV airings, you wonder why Warner didn't bother including anything other than a routine 2.0 stereo soundtrack (actually far more "pinched" than the LD's audio) and a trailer on the bare-bones DVD release. The transfer is basically adequate but not much more.

Similar care was given to the much-maligned later sequels -- 1983's enjoyably comic-book SUPERMAN III (which has a lot of good stuff in it that many fans overlook), and 1987's cheapjack Cannon bomb SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (every bit as bad as you remember), with the latter making its 2.35 debut on video and the former receiving a better transfer and audio soundtrack than it ever has before.

Nevertheless, aside from trailers, there's nothing else there, which is a tad disappointing given all the supplements that could have been included (a planned Japanese DVD of SUPERMAN III was recently canceled that would have featured extra footage, a documentary, and other supplements).

So, is the set worth it? For $60, absolutely yes. But it IS disappointing when you consider the missed opportunity of the supplements: there are literally hours of footage from the entire series left on the cutting room that we're NOT seeing, and excised shots of Brando working on SUPERMAN II that have been left out due to legal issues. And perhaps Richard Donner should have used a little more tact on the first disc's supplements before taking the opportunity to rant off about how everything he did with SUPERMAN was right and everything else about the series was wrong, because the evidence isn't entirely in his favor.


NEXT WEEK...Your comments, more DVDs, and A KNIGHT'S TALE in theaters. Send all emails off to me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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