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After the success of “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge,” the time was seemingly right for Andrew Lloyd Webber to finally get the movie version of his “Phantom of the Opera” off the ground. Of course, it was also time that put the kibosh on retaining original stage stars Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford for the film adaptation of Webber’s smash London/Broadway musical, leading to years of speculation over who would be starring in the movie and when -- if ever -- it would be made.

Though it’s always easy to look back in hindsight and say the “Phantom” film should have been made 10 or 20 years ago, with the case of Joel Schumacher’s ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER’S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (***, 141 mins., PG-13; Warner Home Video), it seems as if the past would have been the ideal time to produce the picture. Having Crawford and Brightman in the film would have been a huge benefit to the material, instead of the non-marquee cast that Schumacher and Webber ultimately assembled for their film, which was released last Christmas to only moderate box-office returns.

However, the movie’s lukewarm reception shouldn’t have been a huge surprise: Gerald Butler as The Phantom? Emily Rossum (who at least can sing, unlike her male counterpart) as Christine? When Minnie Driver is the big name in the cast (and whose career has been on a downward trend since the mid ‘90s), and you’re making a film in the mostly-moribund musical genre, you’re just asking for trouble. (Lloyd Webber and the studio should have upped the ante for the likes of Antonio Banderas or John Travolta, both of whom were rumored at various points to play the Phantom. Either would have substantially increased the film’s financial receipts and brought a “star” aspect to the film that it completely lacks).

At any rate, while fans will forever wonder “what could have been?”, all we can do is look at the film that WAS made and, truth be told, it’s not half-bad. The flawed but generally satisfying “Phantom: The Movie” is a glossy, enjoyable, “don’t make ‘em like they used to” that could have used a bit less “old school” MTV video gloss, and bit more gothic styling, but nevertheless manages to entertain despite its drawbacks.

Certainly one of them is Butler’s Phantom, Gaston Leroux’s romantic villain who stalks/tutors young diva Christine (the fetching Rossum) in the Paris Opera House of the 1870's. Perhaps if the movie wasn’t a musical -- more along the lines of Robert Englund’s “Phantom” than Lloyd Webber’s -- Butler’s less-than-frightening anti-hero would have been sufficient. Here, though, Butler’s dramatic “singing” leaves you cold, failing to match even an ounce of the passion and larger-than-life aspects of Crawford’s original stage Phantom.

Rossum, fortunately, fares better with her lovely performance and strong vocal work as Christine, while Schumacher’s direction is a mixed bag. Some of the individual song sequences (such as Rossum’s performance of “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”) are beautifully filmed, while others seem too soft -- the propulsive title track, with the Phantom taking Christine down into the Parisian catacombs, looks like it was shot in an over-lit rendition of Disney World’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. There’s also a completely unnecessary prologue and epilogue that seems more inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” than anything in Leroux’s novel or the original show.

Despite all the flaws, though -- and the constant, nagging feeling I felt that the movie should have been better -- Schumacher’s “Phantom” still works because the central material it’s based on remains one of the modern masterworks of musical theater. Lloyd Webber’s score is one of his finest, making it a perfect match for the romantic aspects of Leroux’s novel, and the fact that the script doesn’t substantially deviate from its source makes for an overall faithful adaptation that should please -- if not enthrall -- its fans worldwide.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is available next week, offering a splendid 2.35 widescreen transfer. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound does an exceptional job rendering the film’s superbly-mounted soundtrack, sporting excellent arrangements of the songs, though nothing can cover for Butler’s questionable vocal skills. The theatrical trailer is the only extra.

Fans should note that there’s also a 2-disc Special Edition of the movie that’s just a few pennies more than the standard Widescreen edition I received, though it's not supposed to contain a DTS soundtrack. Various international versions feature more in the way of supplements, with an Asian (Region 3) Limited Edition set sporting a full-bit rate DTS track and deluxe packaging. Check your favorite overseas dealer for more info!

Also New This Week on DVD

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS: Widescreen Collector’s Edition (**½, 2004). DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Director Brad Silberling, Commentary by Silberling and “Lemony Snicket” (aka Daniel Handler); Deleted Scenes, Making Of Featurettes, Outtakes; Extensive Documentary Featurettes on Disc 2; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

An elaborately filmed, albeit somewhat morbid, children’s fantasy adapted from several books by “Lemony Snicket,” which basically play out as a cross between Charles Addams and Harry Potter.

Liam Aiken and Emily Browning play the Baudelaire orphans, who along with their young toddler sister (one who speaks with subtitles attached), end up in the care of the shady Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) following the death of their parents. Olaf, a struggling actor and impersonator, ends up trying to get rid of the children so he can absorb their inheritance, which forces the Baudelaires to use their wits and all available resources to fend off Olaf’s motives. Along the way, they end up meeting a handful of other mysterious relatives, from Billy Connolly’s snake handler to Meryl Streep’s dotty aunt, all of whom meet the same “unfortunate” ends.

The aesthetic design of “Lemony Snicket” is spellbinding. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki and production design by Rick Heinrichs (two of Tim Burton’s collaborators), plus the evocative score by Thomas Newman, all help to convey a storybook world that seems to be teetering on the edge of the Twilight Zone, the work of Burton, and the cartoons of Addams. It’s a first-rate production team that also includes costume designer Colleen Atwood and editor Michael Kahn, not to mention the visual effects animation provided by ILM.

Lemony Snicket’s books have been published to big sales worldwide and so far have generated 11 separate titles. For director Brad Silberling’s cinematic adaptation, screenwriter Robert Gordon used the plots of three books by Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), resulting in an occasionally witty, intermittently moving, but far too episodic and ultimately redundant film.

The movie’s structure becomes so repetitious (the orphans meet Olaf, they escape into the arms of another relative that doesn’t work out, they meet Olaf, they escape to another...) that not even the movie’s effectively constructed “world” can hold an older viewer’s attention. Thus, the movie feels prolonged to its 107-minute length (it’s actually over just over the 90 minute mark but is padded by substantial end credits), and some of Carrey’s endless mugging grows tiresome as a result.

I also felt somewhat uncomfortable with the entire premise of the film. Granted, Grimm’s fairly tales were usually anything but lightweight, but there’s just something icky about Olaf as a supposedly comical character, and a late plot element with Olaf trying to marry the young Browning comes across as incestuous and just a bit unnecessary.

For those unfamiliar with the books (which I assume is the larger percentage of the population over 16 years old), “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a great-looking but rather empty film that may provide an intriguing viewing experience for cinephiles due to its first-class production. Otherwise, the picture will be of primary appeal for young audiences who enjoyed the books on which it’s based.

Paramount’s 2-disc Special Edition DVD set, available this week, is absolutely spectacular. The 1.85, reference-quality transfer on the movie is one of the best you’ll ever see, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is layered with an intoxicating sound design, beautifully topped off with Newman’s strong score.

Extras on the first disc include two commentaries: one by director Silberling solo, the other with Silberling and “Lemony Snicket” in character, which fans might enjoy. Extras include several “Orphaned Scenes” including Dustin Hoffman’s excised cameo, outtakes, and Making Of featurettes.

The second supplementary disc (only available in the Collector’s Edition) is jammed with extensive featurettes chronicling the production, from sound effects and storyboards to costumes, visual FX, galleries, and even a lengthy look at the score by Thomas Newman. Silberling is interviewed along with key members of the production team at every turn, making for a compelling experience for viewers of all ages. Outstanding!

BLADE: TRINITY (**, 2004). 123 mins. (Unrated), 112 mins. (R-rated), New Line. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Unrated Extended Version and Theatrical Version; 2 Commentary Tracks; 90-minute Documentary; Alternate Ending; Bloopers; Trailers; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital EX and 6.1 DTS sound.

A marginal improvement on the excessive second installment, David S. Goyer’s directorial debut in the “Blade” series illustrates all too well that even though a screenwriter may know his characters more than anyone else, he may not know the audience as well as a more seasoned director once he takes the reigns behind the camera.

Subsequently, this oddly-paced, tired sequel never seems to get off the ground, despite a few well-choreographed action sequences and the addition of fresh characters played by Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel.

Here, Blade (Wesley Snipes, in a sleepy, contractual-obligation-fulfilling performance) and Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) are back, on the run from the feds as they do their day-to-day thing hunting vampires. This time out, the vampire cartel -- led by a wasted Parker Posey -- opt to resurrect Dracula himself (Dominic Purcell) in an effort to eradicate the human race altogether. After being captured, Blade is freed by the “Nightcrawlers” duo of Hannibal King (Reynolds) and Abigail Whistler (Biel), the daughter of his once-again-dead partner, and the trio team up to fight for humanity one more (final?) time.

With a supposedly apocalyptic premise and the addition of Dracula himself as the bad guy, one would have expected some dramatic fireworks from “Blade: Trinity.” Unfortunately, Goyer’s film plays like a flat line from start to finish -- there’s no mounting tension, not enough exposition of what’s going on, and barely any development of the villains. Purcell’s Dracula/Drake is so bland that he makes Stephen Dorff’s engagingly nutty bad guy from the original seem like one of the cinema’s great antagonists. Posey, too, comes off poorly in a thinly-drawn role that seems to exist solely to bear the brunt of Reynolds’ occasionally amusing one-liners.

Meanwhile, there are so many “set up” scenes that you keep waiting for the movie to finally catch fire. Alas, it never really does, with Snipes’ Blade often sitting on the sidelines with nothing really to do, and Reynolds and Biel trying to keep the energy up as a pair of supernatural hunters who seem more Joss Whedon-esque with their “hip” banter than anything in the previous “Blade” films. Visually, at least, Goyer’s film thankfully reprises the wide, scope visuals of Stephen Norrington’s original (and not the claustrophobic design of Guillermo Del Toro’s sequel), and the FX and corresponding action scenes are well-staged.

Still, I couldn’t help but think another, veteran director would have better exploited the film’s story and gotten more mileage out of the performances. “Blade: Trinity” provides passable comic-book escapism for genre fans but is little more than a shadow of the original film.

New Line’s 2-disc DVD offers a plethora of special features, starting off with an extended Unrated version of the movie as well as its original theatrical cut. This is one of those instances where the additional footage isn’t any help, as it needlessly prolongs several sequences and adds an unsatisfying alternative ending that seems to question what kind of creature Blade actually is. Stick with the original theatrical cut, which is, by comparison, more briskly paced.

Supplements include a pair of commentary tracks (both on the extended version), one by Goyer with Biel and Reynolds, the other with the production team; a separate, truly alternate ending focusing on the Nightcrawlers that might have been more fun than what was used in the theatrical cut; a superb, well-rounded 90-minute plus Making Of documentary looking at all aspects of the production; teasers, trailers, and a blooper reel.

Visually the 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital EX soundtracks both effectively packed with throbbing bass, explosions, and other surround effects.

Recently Released On DVD

STEPHEN KING’S RIDING THE BULLET (**, 2004). 98 mins., R, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary, cast/director commentary; Making Of featurettes, storyboards, trailer; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Stephen King’s internet novella was adapted by his frequent collaborator Mick Garris (“The Shining,” “The Stand”) for the screen, yet “Riding the Bullet” appears to have been one tale that might have been better left on the printed page.

Set in the late ‘60s, this typical King brew of horror, broken relationships and social commentary is entered on a University of Maine student (Jonathan Jackson) who decides to hitchhike his way to Lewiston in order to see his mother (Barbara Hershey), being kept in the hospital after suffering a stroke. Along the way, Jackson’s Alan runs into a gamut of wild characters and crazy hallucinations, meant to probe his upbringing, relationship with his mom, his suicidal tendencies and the girlfriend (Erika Christensen) he left on campus.

“Riding The Bullet” was adapted, produced and directed by Garris, who’s had a hit-or-miss track record with the author’s material (“Sleepwalkers” and “Kingdom Hospital” being two of the larger disappointments), yet has helmed so many King projects that he truly has developed a strong, cinematic sense for the writer’s prose.

Here, the problem doesn’t seem to be so much Garris’ adaptation of King’s story, but rather the flamboyant, episodic nature of the material itself. The movie never falls into a comfortable rhythm, with black comedy and ‘60s references interspersed with a familiar tale of a mother-son relationship. At the same time, the horrific elements of the story (mainly involving David Arquette’s devilish, Cadillac-riding apparition) don’t quite come off, and the movie’s sappy ending -- a “Wonder Years”-like commentary on the fading hippie era and what the ‘60s meant to its generation -- feels like it’s out of another movie altogether. “Riding the Bullet” may have made for a compelling read, but on the screen, it’s a rambling wreck that never gels into a cohesive film.

Though produced independently, Garris notes in his audio commentary how disappointed the filmmakers were that “Riding the Bullet” wasn’t picked up by a major studio. Contractual obligations and other factors forced the producers to release the film themselves, which they did to a handful of markets -- and non-existent box-office returns -- last October. Still, it’s easy to see why a major studio would have turned the movie down, since only die-hard King fans (and likely aficionados of the story itself) will find “Riding the Bullet” of interest.

Lions Gate’s Special Edition DVD includes a superb commentary track with Garris, who discusses the challenges of shooting the film and the subsequent problems they had with its distribution (he also points out that it’s possible the film wouldn’t have found an audience regardless of who distributed it). An additional commentary is on-hand with Jackson, Arquette and Garris, along with a handful of short “Making Of” featurettes, storyboards, and the original trailer. The 1.85 widescreen transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound offers an atmospheric score from Nicholas Pike.

DARKNESS (*, 2002). 100 mins., Unrated, Dimension/Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette; International Teaser, Domestic Trailer; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE NAMELESS (*, 1999). 92 mins., R, Dimension/Miramax. DVD FEATURES: Original Spanish and English dubbed 5.1 soundtracks; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

I’m not sure what’s in the water over in Spain, but these two tedious, repellent thrillers from director Jaume Balaguero aren’t likely to curry favor with international genre fans.
After somewhat making a name for himself with the overpraised thriller “The Nameless” in 1999 (a rip-off of “Seven” and other serial killer flicks, albeit with a particularly vile ending), Balaguero made his English-language debut with the quasi-haunted-house “psychological thrilller” DARKNESS in 2002.

The movie gathered dust on the Miramax shelf for two years before the studio released a cut version to theaters last December. Dimension’s DVD release runs nearly 13 minutes longer than its toned down, PG-13 rated theatrical version, yet seeing more of this endless, badly acted and poorly-written “horror” movie only makes it that much of a chore to sit through.

And a chore it is, as Anna Paquin plays the daughter of fun couple Lena Olin and Iain Glen, a pair of Americans (okay, I’ll buy it for the purposes of reviewing the film, though no comment on Giancarlo Giannini as Grandpa) who move to Spain with their youngest son in tow. No sooner do they move in than weird noises abound, Glen has flashbacks, Paquin hears things, they uncover a mystery of several missing kids, everyone yells at one another (and wildly overacts)....seriously, if you’re not itching to hit fast-forward after about 15 minutes of “Darkness,” you’ve got a much higher threshold for tedium than I do.

Almost nothing happens in the movie. The film is derivative but so slowly paced and clumsily scripted by Balaguero that it’s a wonder Miramax gave “Darkness” a theatrical release in the first place. For a movie that’s all about building tension, there’s strikingly little atmosphere, nothing really interesting to look at it from a visceral standpoint (Paquin excepted), and the ending makes little sense -- though there’s a brief monster shot (seen in the trailer) that tries unsuccessfully to jazz up the languid pace in the absurd conclusion.

Balaguero’s THE NAMELESS (from three years prior) is a notch better, though the script is likewise a messy pastiche of cliches, this time from the well-worn slasher/serial killer genre. Though Spaniards may not have seen it all before, everyone else has -- though seldom with the particularly unpleasant, brutal treatment of children both movies contain.

Miramax/Dimension offers both films this week on DVD. “Darkness” has a good-looking 2.40 widescreen transfer with an active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The print occasionally looks a bit rough but the composition and framing is satisfying throughout. Extras include a brief Making Of featurette (if Balaguero doesn’t speak English it might explain his haphazard script) and a pair of trailers. “The Nameless” offers a strong 1.85 transfer with the original 5.1 Spanish language track, plus a hysterically awful English dubbed track also in 5.1 (for laughs check out the film’s ending with its American dubbing).

Capsule Round Up

BEACHES: Special Edition (***, 1988, 123 mins., PG-13; Touchstone/Buena Vista): Garry Marshall’s hit tearjerker finally gets the Special Edition treatment courtesy of Buena Vista. Marshall provides a commentary for his 1988 film about a pair of childhood friends (Bette Midler, Barbara Hershey) and their ever-changing relationship throughout the years. Midler sings a few songs, the ending isn’t overly maudlin, and Georges Delerue contributes a lyrical score whenever “The Wing Beneath My Wings” isn’t playing for the millionth time. Other extras on the new DVD include a blooper reel, the original trailer, music video for that chart-topping song (not one of my favorites), Hershey’s screen test with Midler, and actress Mayim Bialik (aka “Blossom”) recalling her work as the young Bette in the movie. The 1.85 transfer looks a bit aged but the Dolby Digital surround fares better.

THE WINNING SEASON (**½, 2004, 91 mins., PG; Paramount): Sincerely filmed, made-for-cable fantasy nearly hits a home run. A young boy in 1985 Pittsburgh finds a baseball card that sends him back in time to 1909, where he meets the great Pirates player Honus Wagner (Matthew Modine), his fiancee (Kristin Davis), and becomes involved with the ‘09 World Series! Writer Steve Bloom adapted Dan Gutman’s novel, which boasts some warm, genuine scenes involving the young boy (perfectly played by Mark Rendall) and his “present day” family, yet loses some steam when Rendall is replaced (for no discernable reason) by older Shawn Hatosy in the 1909 scenes and the movie tries to develop a half-hearted romance involving Modine and Davis. Still, a fine family film worth catching for its elements that do work, courtesy of director John Kent Harrison. Paramount’s no-frills and inexpensive ($15 and under) DVD boasts a perfect full-screen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Surround audio.

A REASON TO BELIEVE (***, 1995, 109 mins., R; Lions Gate): Well-acted and sharply written film stars Allison Smith (“Kate & Allie”) as a popular college girl who is raped by an acquaintance (Jay Underwood) while her boyfriend is out of town. Douglas Triola’s film may not play out as anything more substantial than a good “Afterschool Special,” yet this worthwhile drama boasts many strong scenes and solid performances across the board. Now available on DVD from Lions Gate, this indie film boasts a decent full-screen transfer with Dolby Digital sound, plus commentrary from Triola and even several Making Of featurettes. The movie wasn’t shot on a large budget so this is as good as the film will look, and it’s a little-seen piece more than deserving of a fresh chance on DVD.

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