Sunday, June 19, 2016

JAWS 2: Blu-ray (Universal 1978) Universal Home Video

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the (theater)…”  It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine a time when summer blockbusters did not rule the roost in Hollywood. But prior to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the industry had pretty much parceled out its winners, along with its losers, in a fairly non-discriminate and evenly timed spread throughout the year, hoping against hope every picture they made would turn a handsome profit to keep them afloat. The 1970’s were generally a time of great uncertainty for anyone working in the movies. The venerable MGM – the biggest, brightest and most powerful studio in the biz had fallen to Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian, who wasted no time pillaging its vast warehouses, bulldozing its back lots and effectively dismantling its production facilities. 2oth Century-Fox experienced several seismic shifts in its boardroom, effectively ousting both Darryl F. and Richard Zanuck from their coveted perches; Fox, no more the pop n’ son run studio. Most of the big empires of yesteryear were taken over by companies whose executive brain trust possessed neither the wherewithal nor the interest to ‘run’ a movie studio (except, maybe into the ground), though very much interested in the ‘real estate’ that went along with it; thus, Gulf + Western acquired Paramount – ever-threatening to shudder its facilities for good (a fate narrowly averted by an impassioned plea and string of successful pictures put into production by newly appointed V.P. Robert Evans). Warner Bros. was acquired by Kinney – a mortuary conglomerate! Some would argue this latter acquisition rather fitting, given the perilous state of the movie-making business then, already collectively put on life support and in very real danger of expiring before the decade was through. Pundits in Variety – the showbiz Bible - began to eulogize the end of an era. ‘Movies’ so it was foretold, would be a fondly recalled pastime in the American experience, like riding in a horse and buggy or having fresh milk daily delivered to the front stoop. Ah, but the industry was far from dead and about to experience one of its most miraculous reprieves.
In this era before ‘clever’ market research took over (and frankly, utterly decimated the chances for originality to proliferate in the marketplace) Hollywood in general – and Universal Studios in particular, judged movies on a picture-by-picture basis. Franchises were a rarity. Even so, the truly epic grosses on Spielberg’s Jaws (it made a whopping $470 million on a $9m budget) necessitated a follow-up, if for no other reason, than to see if ‘the fluke’ could be duplicated, and later, turned into a hat trick. Alas, Spielberg wanted absolutely no part of it, adding, “making a sequel to anything is just a cheap carny trick.” Given Spielberg’s later about-face on the prospect, perhaps he had merely been rash in recalling the hellacious setbacks befallen him while hand-crafting his masterpiece (constant studio interference, daily threats to cancel the shoot, a mechanical shark that would not behave as designed, inclement weather, and chronic bouts of sea sickness, etc. et al). Besides, Spielberg was still in the ‘creation’ phase of his career, with bigger, brighter and decidedly better stories yet to tell. Thus, even the word ‘sequel’ seemed hateful and, decidedly, not in his lexicon. Yet, if a sequel ‘had’ to be made, then executive producers, David Brown and Richard Zanuck were unwilling to allowing anyone else to do it. And so, came director, Jeannot Szwarc’s Jaws 2 (1978) like the proverbial ‘fish out of water’, schlepping all the way back to Amity, U.S.A. (or rather, Martha’s Vineyard and Navarre Beach in Florida, with a few underwater inserts shot along the coral reefs near Catalina Island).
Almost immediately Brown and Zanuck were faced with a series of stalemates that threatened to cancel the sequel for good. Their original choice of director after Spielberg refused to partake, John D. Hancock, had been enticed to the project by a thin outline, later fleshed out by Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 celebrity); a narrative meant to explore a mysterious object implanted at the bottom of the sea, providing artificial intelligence to the great white sharks, and, drawing on the speech given by Robert Shaw in the original movie, about the sinking of the Indianapolis and subsequent ordeal of its survivors at sea – a thousand men, picked off to three hundred by repeated and ravenous shark attacks.  Shaw’s monologue may have been one of the most memorable moments in Jaws, but it seemed poor fodder for a sequel – at least to Brown and Zanuck, electing to take their audiences back to more familiar territory. Hence, Jaws 2 would return to the fictional town of Amity and more familiar faces: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton among them. Ironically, it was this paralleling of events first explored in the original movie that began to weigh on Scheider, who frequently clashed with third choice of director, Jeannot Szwarc on the set; the screenplay by Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler not so much of a continuation as a retread. Nevertheless, the informality proved a comfort to audiences in between those otherwise nail-biting moments of tension Szwarc managed to create in the vein and style of Spielberg’s classic.
The best that can be said of Szwarc’s direction is that it convincingly apes Spielberg’s finessed nuances in the original Jaws; capturing his cadence if not entirely his flair, but equally providing an overriding arc of visual continuity between both movies. It is, in fact, quite possible to watch Jaws and Jaws 2 back to back and feel as if never having left the beach; Roy Scheider, looking as though he has only just come from the water, having survived the previous confrontation with the great white; still Amity’s amiable sheriff, Martin Brody, still married to the ever-devoted Ellen (Gary), still hamstrung by Mayor Larry Vaughn’s (Hamilton) blind ignorance of the overwhelming facts and micromanagement of the pending tourist season; Vaughn’s thirst for the all-mighty buck preceding any and all common sense until, of course, it’s too late.  Jaws 2 has enough of the original elemental jabs of pleasure – and terror – stolen from its predecessor to overcome and/or mask any major misgivings in its artistic ennui; the central performances solid and appealing, backed by some convincing cameos. Yes, the picture relies a tad too heavily on the infusion of ‘teen culture’ to appeal to the ‘youth market’; Brody’s boysMike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) sufficiently aged, placed in imminent peril along with a host of other taut young flesh, some surviving the carnage; others, not so lucky.  And yes, the likes of a Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus are sorely missed – the latter, having survived in Jaws but, like Spielberg, refusing to return to the scene, replaced by the only so-so Collin Wilcox Paxton in a pitilessly brief cameo as Dr. Lureen Elkins.  On the whole, Jaws 2 is not as lethally leaden or turgid as many critics then and now continue to suggest.
After original director, John D. Hancock’s aforementioned concept for Jaws 2 was rejected by Universal President Sidney Sheinberg, the newly revised screenplay began with a return to Amity, now something of a ghost-town; the tourist trade killed off by the events established in the first movie. Developer, Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo) and Mayor Vaughn are desperate to see their new joint venture into condo and resort development succeed, partly to revitalize the local economy, but moreover, because their investments have come from mob money they are, as yet, unable to pay back. Depending on the source, Hancock was either fired for this darker introduction to the picture, his proposed plans to shoot a sequence where Ellen Brody goes out in a boat to rescue her children, for ongoing malfunctions with the mechanical shark – resulting in costly delays – or, for his firing of another actress in a minor role who also turned out to be the girlfriend of one of Universal’s more prominent executives.  It took eighteen months for Universal to tire of Hancock. In the interim, Spielberg was rumored to have had a change of heart regarding ‘sequels’; in fact, having ironed out the details of a screenplay based on Quint’s Indianapolis speech, submitted to Universal for further consideration. Whether or not Universal ever entertained either this script or recalling Spielberg back into the fold is moot, since his commitments on Close Encounters of the Third Kind would have delayed production on Jaws 2 by more than a year – a span of time the studio could not afford to squander waiting around for anybody.  Instead, they brought back Carl Gottlieb to revise Hancock’s script, lightening the mood and trimming down the violence to ensure a PG rating. It was Gottlieb who brought back Brody’s ineffectual Deputy Sheriff (Jeffrey Kramer); a superb comic foil. Gottlieb also added carefully placed pithy one liners, elevating the sarcasm to better compliment the tension, rather than defuse it. When all was said and done, Gottlieb could be proud of his efforts on Jaws 2. But it is rumored his stipend for these rewrites cost Universal more than if they had simply hired him to write the screenplay from scratch.
The still rudderless project was then pitched to Universal to be co-directed by Production Designer Joe Alves (later to helm Jaws 3-D) and Verna Fields (recently promoted to VP); a proposal shot down by the Directors Guild of America. With time critical to meet the release date, Universal offered the captain’s wheel to Jeannot Szwarc, a director of limited film and TV experience, brought in haste, who elected to stage the complex water-skiing sequences first, thus giving Gottlieb more time to massage out the dramatic kinks in the rest of the story. Szwarc was adamant Jaws 2 give audiences what they had come to see – the shark. In the original film, Spielberg delayed this ‘big reveal’ out of necessity – the mechanical shark designed for Jaws never working to his satisfaction. Hence, Spielberg used his imagination to convey its menace; relying heavily on John Williams’ score to heighten its foreboding. This would not do for a sequel, however, the audience already primed by what they had seen in the first movie. Thus, while Szwarc busied himself off the coast of Florida cooking up new ways to show just enough of the shark to keep audiences sweaty-palmed in their seats, SFX Mechanical Supervisors, Robert Mattey and Roy Arbogast set about building three new sharks for Jaws 2; adding a scar across its rubberized right cheek, presumably a wound incurred by a boat explosion. The pair was also responsible for designing Cable Junction; the fictional power station built as a rescue port for the movie’s climactic showdown. In reality, Cable Junction was little more than a floating barge covered in fiberglass rocks.
As before, shooting Jaws 2 off coastal waters proved a trial by fire; cast and crew repeatedly tested by restlessly shifting tides and winds, also by jellyfish, real sharks, waterspouts and several hurricane warnings. Szwarc was to discover to his chagrin the salt water corroded the metal mechanical workings of his sharks, causing their complicated hydraulics to repeatedly seize. One evening, the director was also notified Cable Junction had broken loose from its moorings and was already drifting, heading toward Cuba. Patience was further strained by Roy Scheider’s absolute contempt for Szwarc. At one point a physical altercation broke out between the two, resulting in David Brown and Verna Field having to intervene to restore the peace. Scheider had, in fact, resisted partaking of this exercise, cajoled by Sidney Sheinberg who promised to absolve the actor from his prior 3-picture commitment to Universal if he agreed to do Jaws 2.  To further sweeten the deal, Sheinberg quadrupled Scheider’s base salary, adding a percentage of the profits to their agreement. Reportedly, Scheider collected a cool $500,000 for a mere 12 weeks work, plus $35,000 for each additional week of overruns. Estimates differ, but costly delays and minor mishaps aside, Szwarc and his crew would continue to patronize local businesses for constant repairs to the tune of $400,000. By some accounts, over $80,000 per day was spent in Florida; the picture’s final budget topping out at a then staggering $30 million; three times what it had cost to make the original movie and making Jaws 2 the most expensive movie ever produced by Universal to date. Arguably, the results were worth it; Jaws 2 grossing somewhere between $187 and 209 million at the box office – a colossal hit and the highest grossing sequel of all time up to that point.   
Our story begins at the bottom of the waters just off Amity Island; two non-descript novice scuba divers in search of the infamous wreck of the Orca. They find the sunken ship and prepare to take several photographs with their underwater camera. Alas, the sudden appearance of a great white startles both men, each almost immediately devoured as the automatic shutter on their camera continues to snap photos of the bloody carnage taking place. We surface top-side; Chief Martin Brody hurrying by ferry to Amity Island; late for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate Len Peterson’s new seaside resort. Ellen Brody is doing Len’s publicity. While Mayor Vaughn delivers a speech with his usual flair for pontification, Martin quietly observes as his wife is somewhat manhandled by her boss. This doesn’t sit well with Martin, although he is big enough to realize Ellen can fight her own battles without his intervention. The couple’s two sons, Mike and Sean are islanders with a passion for sailing; particularly Mike, whose teen entourage of friends would much rather wallow away their afternoons than get part-time jobs; something Martin wants Mike to do this year to start saving money for college. Meanwhile the great white strikes a second time, devouring Terri (Christine Freeman), a water skier being dragged behind a speed boat driven by her mother, Diane (Jean Coulter). At first Diane does not realize her daughter has slipped beneath the waves. However, as she circles back in search of Terri, Diane’s boat is nearly capsized by the shark. In fear for her life, Diane attempts to douse it in gasoline, spilling more on herself in the process and, in full panic mode, firing a flare gun to repel the attack. The flammable liquid ignites and the boat is incinerated in a hellish explosion, witnessed by two of Mike’s friends, Tina Wilcox (Ann Dusenberry) and Eddie Marchand (Gary Dubin), who are making out on the beach, and, an old woman (Susan French), who telephones the incident in to Brody’s office.
The explosion has severely scarred the great white, though hardly deterred it from pursuing an ambitious campaign of terror. A day later, Tina and her friends stumble upon the rotting remains of a killer whale washed ashore near a lighthouse. The mammal has several prominent bite marks. Suspecting the worse, Brody alerts Mayor Vaughn they may have another shark problem on their hands; a hypothesis concurred by Dr. Elkins who has measured the bite radius. Vaughn is, as before, extremely apprehensive about revealing these findings to the community at large. After all, he has the welfare of the community – also, his own pocket book – to consider. Besides, he is quite willing to chalk up the explosion as a ‘boating accident’ and nothing more, despite the fact Brody has managed to recover Diane’s grotesquely charred remains from the surf, still clinging to a piece of driftwood from the wreck. Brody is mildly disgusted by Vaughn’s callousness, electing to act as a lookout with a pair of binoculars atop the beach’s observation deck. Vaughn is very nervous, especially since he and Len have brought a bevy of reporters to the beach that very afternoon to announce ‘Phase Two’ of their development project – upscale condos. Too bad for everyone, Brody becomes distracted by a school of bluefish fast approaching the shore, Mistaking them for a great white about to turn the afternoon bathers into a feeding frenzy, Brody begins shouting orders in a panic from his perch, hurrying to ground level, pistols drawn as both Sean and Michael look on. The crowd is terrorized, but more so by Brody’s erratic behavior; the scene witnessed by the reporters too, who suspect someone in Amity is not telling the whole truth. Enraged by this display, Vaughn calls an emergency town council meeting and, with the other members, votes Brody out of a job, appointing his ineffectual Deputy, Hendricks the new purveyor of the law.
Martin returns home to find Ellen comforting as ever. She can see how the events he suffered through a few years ago are still ever-present even now. Nevertheless, Martin is self-deprecating. He gets properly pissed to drown his sorrows. However, before this, he permanently grounds Mike. No sailing from now on. This, however, puts a definite crimp in Mike’s plans to woo Jackie Peters (Donna Wilkes) the new girl in town. So, while Martin is sleeping off his hangover, Mike elects to steal the keys to his truck. The getaway is thwarted by Sean, who forces Mike to take him along.  At the docks, one of Mike’s friends, Marge (Martha Swatek) agrees to take custody of Sean, who just seems to be getting in Mike’s way. The sailing entourage is rounded out by Jackie, Eddie, Tina, Timmy (G. Thomas Dunlop), Brooke Peters (Gigi Vorgan), Bob (Billy Van Zandt) and Doug Fetterman (Keith Gordon). En route to their prearranged destination, the small collection of catamarans pass a team of divers, led by instructor, Tom Andrews (Barry Coe). But today, their deep sea expedition will prove anything but routine; Tom narrowly escaping his own encounter with the great white. Panicking, he rises to the surface too quickly and suffers an embolism as a result. 
Meanwhile Eddie and Tina elect to remain a ‘safe’ distance behind the rest of the group; Eddie, hoping to initiate a little romance on the side. Regrettably, love is not in the air. Without warning or provocation, their small boat is broadsided by the shark, causing Eddie to be tossed overboard. The great white drags the boat with Tina still inside it some thirty feet ahead before setting it adrift. Now, the shark circles back for Eddie, unable to swim for it before he is dragged under and devoured. Perhaps to add a bit of verisimilitude to this moment, actor Gary Dubin could not swim a stroke; his look of complete fear during this sequence genuinely felt, despite being surrounded by skilled divers just below the water’s surface. Tina is left shell-shocked and very much isolated in the middle of nowhere. Back on the mainland, Brody suspects Tom’s fear was hastened by an encounter with a shark. When the pictures from the recovered diver’s camera are developed they reveal a blurry image of the great white. Still, Len, Mayor Vaughn and others, sitting on town council fail to acknowledge it as such. Frustrated, Brody now learns Mike has disobeyed his direct orders. With Deputy Hendricks’ complicity, Brody and Ellen sail the police coast guard boat toward open waters, eventually happening upon Eddie’s boat, seemingly deserted. Mercifully, Brody discovers Tina huddled at the bow and wracked with fear. Her slurred declarations of “sh…shark!” tells Brody all he needs to know. Leaving, Tina in Ellen and Hendricks’ care, Martin now makes for the open waters alone.
Alas, Brody is too late to prevent the shark from cold-bloodedly attacking the teens. At one point, Mike is knocked unconscious and thrown into the water; narrowly pulled to safety by his friends. Marge is not so lucky. In attempting to rescue Sean, she is swallowed whole by the great white as the others look on. Experiencing a brief lull between attacks, Jackie leads everyone in a solemn prayer; a sequence directly inspired by Théodore Géricault’s famous French painting, Le Radeau de la Méduse (a.k.a. The Wreck of the Medusa 1818–1819). As the beleaguered troop float towards Cable Junction, they are spotted by a Coast Guard marine helicopter. The pilot (Jerry M. Baxter) successfully lands the copter on its pontoons, offering to toss the kids a towline. But then the shark emerges, as bloodthirsty as ever, sinking its teeth into one of the pontoons and dragging the entire craft beneath the surface of the ocean; the spinning blades suddenly flung from the centrifuge, the projectile remnants decapitating the catamarans’ sails. The teens are now left to drift, presumably out to sea or until the shark returns to finish them off.  Mike directs his father to Cable Junction where Brody is reunited with the rest of his son’s friends, understandably grateful to see him. However, before Brody can toss them a towline, the great white attacks. In the resulting chaos, the teens abandon their makeshift rafts to swim for the island; Brody enticing the shark to attack his vessel instead. His towline has snagged a heavy underwater electrical cable. To put an end to this man-eating leviathan once and for all, Brody uses himself as bait, goading the shark into its final approach with the electric cable held in front of him. The great white leaps out of the water and bites down hard on the cable, electrocuting itself in a fiery short circuit as everyone look on in horror, then elation. Their ordeal at an end, Brody collects the survivors into the Coast Guard boat and prepares to turn around for home.
In hindsight, Jaws 2 is an affecting and effective sequel in ways far too many sequels in any genre fail to fully realize. Director, Jeannot Szwarc really does not get enough love or respect for his sophistication in telling – or rather, retelling - this rather straight-forward ‘shark eats man’ horror movie; his last-minute inventiveness, salvaging the picture from going even more over budget than it ultimately did, but also, grounding its more fantastic elements and danger in a solidly handcrafted mélange that not only finds its peaks to scare, shock and revile, but gradually builds upon an exceptional tautness, whipped into a veritable – almost western genre-inspired showdown for the movie’s climax. Despite innumerable setbacks that might have caused another director to simply move on and finish the damn thing half-heartedly, Szwarc is giving us the very best he has to offer; his ingenuity on display in virtually every shot; finding new and highly intelligent visualizations to cover a lot of the same narrative territory. It is still a ‘shark eats man’ story – remember? But Szwarc comes up with some truly efficient moments that work both as homage to the original movie, but more importantly, as sheer thrills to excite anew this second time around. Jaws 2 is a standalone piece. It doffs its cap to Spielberg’s masterpiece, but does not fall all that short of becoming one in its own right. Critics of the day did not agree. But hey, what do the critics know anyway?!? 
Just when you thought it was safe to start buying Universal Blu-rays again, the studio has fallen back on providing us with substandard examples of how ‘not to’ master any movie, much less a deep catalog classic in hi-def. Honestly, folks; at this late stage in the game none of us should be shopping for Blu-rays that barely offer any improvement over the transfer quality we already own on DVD! Jaws 2 on Blu-ray is not quite the disaster Jaws 3 in 3D is; but more on this another time and in another review. Still, it will decidedly not win any awards for best mastered disc of the year. Universal cannot even work up a lather to spend the necessary funds to restore their own studio credit that precedes this movie; the vintage ‘spinning globe’ logo with advancing ‘Universal’ lettering utterly riddled in age-related dirt and debris, also hints of edge enhancement that continues to crop up sporadically throughout the rest of this 1080p presentation. Mercifully, the rest of the image is considerably cleaner than the logo; a few white specks floating around, and the occasional scratch. This begs the question, if so little more was required to make this Blu-ray perfect, why couldn’t Universal simply suck up the difference and do right by one of the crown jewels in their canon?
Jaws 2’s visuals are occasionally sharp. But more often they fall into a mid-register of less than film-like softness, suffering from an inexplicable haze. Colors are generally vibrant. A few of the underwater sequences are stunning, and most of the exterior shots exhibit warm, bright hues with sufficient contrast. Things become murky – something very murky indeed. We lose a lot of fine detail in dimly lit interiors and night scenes; the image not only softly focused but suffering from less than perfect contrast. Again, not a travesty, but hardly great – on occasion – not even ‘good’. Also, the new DTS 5.1 has its issues; bass levels during John Williams’ opening theme obscenely distorted at normal listening levels. Lowering the bass on a receiver or TV corrects this issue, but it also deprives us of virtually all low end frequencies thereafter. Universal has ported over all of the extras it afforded its DVD release; featurettes on the making of, John Williams’ score, and reflections provided by Keith Gordon, plus deleted scenes, stills gallery and a badly worn trailer. Virtually NONE of these extras have been remastered in 1080p, exhibiting heavy edge effects and other video-based noise and distortions. Honestly, I don’t know what I expected from Universal’s release of Jaws 2. I only know this disc did not live up to my expectations. The image quality for the movie is only a marginal improvement over the old DVD release. Judge and buy accordingly. But do not expect perfection or anything even close to it.  Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

David M. said...

It's too bad about the quality of the Blu-Ray, but what you've written here about "Jaws 2" is the best analysis of that highly underrated movie I've ever seen anywhere.