11/28/06 Edition

Superman II Flies Again
Andy Reviews The Long-Awaited RICHARD DONNER CUT
Plus: Warner's BRANDO Box; SUPERMAN Serials; and More!

What does one say when you've waited a good portion of your life to see a legendary unreleased film -- only to be disappointed with the result?

A few years ago Universal rectified one of their studio’s wrongs by restoring director Ridley Scott’s original version of his 1985 fantasy “Legend.” While the “new” film was still far from perfect, most viewers agreed that Scott’s movie functioned far more effectively in its intended form, with Jerry Goldsmith’s glorious music complimenting the spectacular visual trappings of the film better than the U.S.-edited version with Tangerine Dream’s new age rock soundtrack.

“Superman II,” meanwhile, offered a different predicament than merely restoring a completed, albeit unreleased, film: director Richard Donner finished “Superman: The Movie” and shot a substantial amount of footage for its sequel...but was fired before his version was completed.

In a move that fans continue to debate and argue over, Richard Lester took the reigns of the follow up and his “Superman II” became a huge smash worldwide in 1981 -- meeting with near-unanimous critical approval (Roger Ebert compared it with “The Godfather: Part II” as one of the few follow-ups to improve on its predecessor) and big box-office grosses.

As the years have progressed, however, Donner’s firing has become something of a rallying cry among fans -- especially on the internet, where websites and message boards have inquired for years about seeing Donner’s version of “Superman II” released.

It didn’t matter that Donner never completed his film -- making a true “Donner Cut” virtually impossible to construct in the first place -- or that Lester’s movie was excellent to begin with: certain fans, over time, have come to associate anything positive about the “Superman” franchise with Donner, and anything remotely negative with Lester.

However, those fans may have to rethink their positions now that Warner and editor Michael Thau have diligently performed as major a restoration as one could hope for with SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT (116 mins., PG), which will finally be released on November 28th from Warner on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs.

Though a fascinating curiosity for any Superman fan, this strange compilation of Donner footage (from his incomplete version), Lester fragments (from the theatrical cut), outtakes, screen tests, new special effects, and tracked music from John Williams’ original “Superman” score proves to be anything but a satisfying viewing experience when taken on its own terms.

Since a good amount of the released “Superman II” originated from Donner’s footage in the first place (any scene with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, for example, was shot by Donner), it may be surprising to some that this shorter version isn’t all that different from the Lester theatrical cut, and is noteworthy for what it doesn’t include so much as what it does.

In addition to more Gene Hackman (in sequences that were included in ABC’s TV broadcasts of the film during the 1980s), Donner’s version offers a totally different opening scene. Gone is the entire Eiffel Tower sequence, and in its place is an outtake wherein Lois tries to expose Clark as Superman by jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. It’s a cute sequence, but it doesn’t work as effectively as Lester’s version where Lois attempts -- at Niagara Falls -- to prove that Kent is the Man of Steel by throwing herself into the chilly depths. After seeing the two versions, the Donner sequence just seems a bit more outlandish.

More surprising, though, is that the “Donner Cut” lacks the heart and soul of the theatrical “Superman II.” Some viewers have forgotten entirely that the finished “Superman II” offers a satisfying and moving love story between Lois and Clark, where Lois’ discovery of Clark’s hidden identity plays with a generous amount of poignancy and tenderness.

Here, all that remains of the Donner/Tom Mankiewicz version of that sequence is screen test footage of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in their roles, set against a bare-bones backdrop -- and through no fault of their own, their early, “preliminary” performances fail totally to match the drama and emotion of the Lester-filmed version. The way in which the sequence is also presented here -- with a quick cut to the Phantom Zone villains’ arrival in Texas, with no fall out from that pivotal moment -- further amplifies the problem: there’s no genuine emotion instilled in the viewer because what you’re watching is rough, incomplete, and compromised. For that reason alone, it’s virtually impossible to take “The Donner Cut” seriously from a dramatic standpoint (I also found Lois a lot more manic and cartoonish in this version as well, jumping out the window of the Daily Planet and pulling a gun on Clark in what borders on a psychotic obsession with proving he’s Superman! Though it’s clear Donner wanted this to be more playful than what Lester shot, it’s also sillier and less dramatic).

Since footage was used from a variety of sources, it’s understandable that there’s no cohesion in the presentation -- something likewise amplified by the tracked music cues from John Williams’ original “Superman: The Movie” score. Say what you will about Ken Thorne’s “Superman II” soundtrack with its reduced orchestra and diminished arrangements, at least Thorne’s music fit the sequences it was intended to accompany. Here, we get the same repetitive motifs used over and over, further removing the viewer from the film’s universe and making one aware that “The Donner Cut” is essentially an expensive attempt at mixing outtakes with elements from exterior sources.

Where “The Donner Cut” does prove fascinating is in its “new” Marlon Brando sequences.

Brando had appeared as Superman’s father, Jor-El, in the original “Superman” but a contractual split meant that Richard Lester had to re-shoot his “Superman II” scenes, substituting Susannah York (as Kal-El’s mother) for Brando.

Brando’s sequences have never been seen before and are here restored to the movie for the first time. However, with one exception (the pivotal moment where a now-human Clark regains his powers), the sequences are leaden and, surprisingly, inferior to Christopher Reeve’s scenes with York in the completed “Superman II”!

If you’ve seen the “Director’s Cut” of “Superman: The Movie,” you might recall that the added scene with Reeve and Brando in the Fortress of Solitude was awkwardly staged, with the two stars not generating a whole lot of chemistry together. If there was a minor problem with Donner’s original “Superman,” it’s that the film felt like several different movies rolled together, with different styles and, indeed, performances: Brando’s pontificating felt like something you’d find in a 1950s Hollywood costume epic, whereas Reeve’s more natural, “human” performance provided a stark contrast and grounded the movie in a reality that made his interpretation of the Man of Steel so warm and appealing.

Their interaction here also just seems a bit “off,” and since York’s suggestions about love and human interaction seem more appropriate coming from her than the comparatively stone-faced Jor-El, I found myself missing those moments in “The Donner Cut.”

Another major issue is the film’s ending, which offers the same resolution as “Superman: The Movie” (the “turn back the Earth” finale) but retains the comical coda where Clark returns to the diner to beat up the obnoxious trucker...which now makes no sense at all since that original confrontation never occurred in the first place!

Warner’s DVD includes a featurette on the restoration of the film, highlighting the work of editor Michael Thau, who also included alternate takes and shots when possible, adding to the fun of watching the added footage for die-hard Superman fans. The duo of Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz also contribute a commentary track, but their insistence that this version is a lot more “heartfelt” than Lester’s cut ring hollow here. Deleted scenes are also offered, all of which were contained in the ABC broadcast of “Superman II” (and mainly involve Lex Luthor) with the exception of an alternate “prison break” sequence where Miss Tessmacher uses her charms to take the warden out on a date!

Visually the 16:9 transfer varies depending on the elements being utilized, but it’s as solid as one could anticipate, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise satisfying given the nature of the source materials. Curiously, while a disclaimer runs prior to the movie about the elements (screen tests, rough footage, etc.) used to complete "The Donner Cut," there's no mention of this anywhere on the packaging -- something that may mislead viewers, unaware of the project's history, who will be expecting a completed, polished feature.

Editor Michael Thau is to be congratulated for doing all he could with “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” but while the film will be forever viewed as a fascinating curio, it simply does not function dramatically at all. Perhaps after all these years, its arrival may make some fans reconsider Richard Lester’s involvement in the franchise and appreciate his “Superman II” for being the high-flying, and most satisfying, Superman sequel that it is.

Also New From Warner Home Video

In addition to unearthing more of Brando’s long-lost Jor-El scenes, Warner has also recently released a highly satisfying, five-film collection of some of the star’s finest performances in the aptly-titled THE MARLON BRANDO COLLECTION.

Highlighted by Brando’s impassioned performance as Marc Antony, Joseph Mankiewicz’s JULIUS CAESAR (***½, 121 mins., 1953) makes its DVD debut here with a superb 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that does full justice to Miklos Rozsa’s outstanding score. An introduction from TCM’s Robert Osborne and a new featurette, “The Rise of Two Legends” (a terrific, if short,  retrospective on Brando’s performances sporting comments from Laurence Fishburne, John G. Avildsen and Dennis Hopper among others), compliment a fresh black-and-white transfer in what’s arguably the highpoint of the set.

Also available separately in its two-disc Special Edition (the other films in this anthology, it should be noted, are not for the time being) is the epic 1962 MGM adaptation of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (***½, 185 mins.), which is presented here in a new transfer from restored 65mm elements. The film looks breathtaking (even more so on HD-DVD), and the remastered 5.1 sound captures the power of Bronislau Kaper’s score vividly.

Extras on the two-disc edition aren’t extravagant (several featurettes focus in on the Bounty itself), but do include the movie’s original prologue and epilogue, which were included in a 1967 ABC TV broadcast but haven’t been seen since. Both are in surprisingly good condition (16:9 widescreen in fact) and provide a fascinating alternate intro and close to the film, though both were wisely dropped before the picture went into Roadshow exhibition.

The three other films in the set offer additional, varied Brando performances:

-The actor’s turn as an Okinawan interpreter does date the 1956 Cinemascope comedy THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (***, 123 mins.) as a product of its time, but it’s still an engaging, light studio effort with enjoyable performances from Eddie Albert, Glenn Ford and Paul Ford, who recreates his role from the John Patrick play, which the author here adapted for the screen. The 2.35 transfer appears to be in healthy condition and a brief, vintage “Operation Teahouse” featurette is also on-hand.

-Author Carson McCullers’ works didn’t really translate to the screen, with “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” remembered today primarily for Dave Grusin’s heartfelt score and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (**½, 109 mins.) serving as a footnote in the careers of Brando, co-star Elizabeth Taylor and director John Huston for many years since its 1967 release. Warner’s new DVD edition may help rectify that, at least partially, as this sordid tale of repressed sexuality in the deep south offers some bonkers moments and over-the-top performances from its stars -- not to mention a bizarre, gold-tinted color scheme which Huston insisted upon. Warner-Seven Arts, however, felt differently at the time, and the movie went into general release with its original Technicolor hues intact.

Huston’s “golden” visual intentions have been restored for DVD here, though you may grow tired eventually of the bland visuals (the theatrical trailer, on the other hand, is presented in full color). On the supplemental side, some 20 minutes of extensive, silent black-and-white behind the scenes footage is available, while the 16:9 (2.35) transfer appears well-composed and the mono sound offers an eclectic, not altogether satisfying score by Toshiro Mayuzumi.     

-Few viewers remember the behind-the-scenes struggles between director John G. Avildsen and writer-producer Steve Shagan back when their 1980 thriller THE FORMULA (**, 117 mins., R) was released...actually, come to think of it, few remember this MGM production at all.

Shagan’s adaptation of his then-popular novel offers a cluttered, unsatisfying tale of a police detective (George C. Scott) trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy involving a German formula for creating a synthetic fuel. Brando, meanwhile, pops up in little more than an extended cameo as a shady oil magnate who knows more than he’s letting on.

Avildsen and Shagan battled over the editing of the movie, with Avildsen stressing the need to simplify the story line so audiences could understand it (according to Roger Ebert, this public feud played itself out in the Los Angeles Times back before the film was released).

The duo appear to have patched up their differences, since Avildsen and Shagan are both on-hand to provide an amicable DVD commentary for their movie, but the picture itself remains a bore more often than not, with only the performances of Scott and Brando making it watchable. The 1.85 (16:9) transfer is decent and the mono sound on the tinny side, sporting a solid though not overly memorable Bill Conti score.

Warner’s box offers all the movies (with the exception of “Bounty”) in slim-line cases preserving their original art work. For Brando fans this is a must-have release and represents another great job by Warner, preserving five productions from the vault in uniformly strong transfers.

More SUPERMAN and Other New Warner Releases

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN: Complete 5th and 6th Seasons

Warner has wisely exploited this week’s release of “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” the new Special Editions of the Christopher Reeve features, and last summer’s “Superman Returns” (the less said, the better) by diving into the TV and vintage vaults for a trio of additional box sets.

The Dean Cain-Teri Hatcher “Lois & Clark” series finished up its run by jumping in and out of the ABC schedule during the 1996-97 season. The series had more or less run out of steam by the time its fourth and final season rolled, but the program nevertheless enjoyed a full season run, and while it was pulled for sweeps, fans were generally happy with how it ended, even if most storylines involved the married couple trying to have a child (maybe they should have asked Bryan Singer for help!).

Warner’s six disc set includes all 22 episodes from the series’ last group of shows in satisfactory full-screen transfers, Dolby Surround soundtracks, and an interactive timeline of Superman’s history hosted by Dean Cain provided on the supplemental side.

Cain’s small-screen predecessor, George Reeves, continued his long tenure of the Man of Steel in “The Adventures of Superman,” which returns to DVD this week in a box set compiling the program’s fifth and sixth seasons (produced between 1957-58).

The five-disc box-set includes 26 full-color episodes from the series’ fifth and sixth seasons in fresh full-screen transfers, with a special feature focusing on Jack Larson’s memories of playing Jimmy Olsen.

Before Reeves essayed Kal-El, Kirk Alyn became the first on-screen Man of Steel in a pair of serials just coming to DVD for the first time.

Warner’s four-disc “Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection” includes both the 1948 “Superman” as well as the 1950 “Atom Man Vs. Superman,” both in satisfying transfers preserving the (very) modest budget of these late ‘40s productions. Special features include interviews with Noel Neill (Reeves and Alyn’s original Lois) and numerous film historians, reflecting on the significance of these Saturday matinee programmers. A must for fans!

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: Complete 7th Season (1984-85, 17 Episodes, 822 mins., Warner): The end of the road arrived in ‘84-‘85 for Luke, Bo, Daisy and the gang, but the good news for fans is that “The Dukes” is one of the few shows to successfully sell well enough to warrant its entire, seven-season release on DVD. Warner’s box set of this final year for the CBS series (which had run its course but nevertheless goes out in relatively strong style) offers the program’s final 17 episodes in solid full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks, with a new “Good O’l Boys” music video featuring stars Tom Wopat, John Schneider and Catherine Bach and a tribute to Waylon Jennings included on the supplemental side.

THUNDERCATS: SEASON 2, VOLUME 2 (1986-87, 687 mins., Warner): The Thundercats take on Mumm-Ra in the final 31 episodes of the short-lived but fondly-remembered ‘80s animated series. Warner’s eight-disc (!) box-set of this fan-favorite show includes an interactive game bolstered by the participation of “Lion-O” voice artist Larry Kenney, trailers, and colorful, 3-D packaging on the front cover. Just as “Gargoyles” captivated kids and adults in the ‘90s, “Thundercats” did the same during its brief duration in the ‘80s, and its admirers ought to have fun reliving the series in this final DVD release.

HOT WHEELS ACCELERACERS: THE ULTIMATE RACE (2006, 60 mins., Warner): Decent animation fuels this fourth and final “Acceleracers” movie -- sort of like a kids’ animated version of “The Fast and the Furious,” and sold under the brand name of Mattel’s ever-popular “Hot Wheels” line. Warner’s DVD includes a nifty “family friendly” Widescreen (16:9) transfer in 1.66 widescreen with 2.0 Dolby Digital audio and numerous interactive features for the little ones.

ANIMANIACS: Volume 2 (531 mins., Warner): Steven Spielberg's manic animated series returns to DVD in a five-disc set offering 25 more episodes featuring Yakko and Wakko, Dot, Rita and Runt, plus Slappy the Squirrel and the gang. Special features here include a writers' discussion of favorite episodes lead by Maurice LaMarche, the voice of "The Brain" (as in "Pinky and the Brain"); 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks; and fine full-screen transfers. (Available Dec. 5)

PINKY AND THE BRAIN: Volume 2 (478 mins., Warner): The "Animaniacs" spin-off proved to be nearly as popular as its predecessor, despite having lept into the prime-time WB line-up and enduring poor ratings (like most of its network brethren at the time). Warner's latest DVD concoction includes 22 episodes in colorful full-screen transfers and 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo, with an amusing extra offering Mark Hamill and Wayne Knight answering a casting call to do voices for a "Pinky and the Brain" film -- only to meet actual voice artists Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche instead! A must for series fans. (Available Dec. 5)

TOOT & PUDDLE: I'll Be Home For Christmas (2006, 45 mins., Warner): Feature-length (err, at least 45 minutes) and quite pleasant cartoon adaptation of the Holly Hobbie created characters offers an amiable tale of Toot trying to get back to Woodcock Pocket in time for Christmas. A bit of educational geographic content is added where applicable (no surprise with National Geographic Entertainment having produced it), but kids ought to enjoy the story and appealing characters. A full-screen transfer, 2.0 Dolby stereo soundtrack, and a sing-along bonus round out a pleasing holiday disc. (Available Dec. 5)

Also New on DVD

LITTLE ATHENS (2006, 105 mins., R; ThinkFilm): Small-town teens get wrapped up with drugs and all kinds of other dirty deeds in this gritty little indie, aided immeasurably by solid performances from an ensemble cast including familiar faces Jorge Garcia (“Lost”’s lovable Hurley), Sean Hatosy, Michael Pena and John Patrick Amedori as the young man whose life spirals out of control. ThinkFilm’s DVD includes commentary by director Tom Zuber, a Starz featurette and trailer gallery. Visually, the 16:9 widescreen presentation is perfectly acceptable, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: New Criterions and TV on DVD! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above

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