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Reviews: June 3

3 Jun, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider
Street 6/12
Sony Pictures, Action, B.O. $115.8 million, $28.95 DVD, $24.95 two-DVD extended cut, $38.96 Blu-ray, $28.95 UMD. ‘PG-13' for horror violence and disturbing images.
Stars Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Donal Logue, Peter Fonda, Sam Elliott.

As far as movies about bikers with flaming skulls go, Ghost Rider more or less does what it is supposed to. Critics hated it, but they aren't exactly the core audience here. Fans of the Ghost Rider comic book will probably be entertained, and isn't that what's most important?

Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (who was responsible for Daredevil) set out to make a fusion of a Western and a monster flick (a “gothic Western,” so to speak). In that regard, he largely succeeded, aided by the perfect casting of Fonda (“the biker movie icon”) and Elliott (“the Western icon”).

Unfortunately, the plot and action are overwhelmed by special effects, but at least it's an impressive light show. For those interested in that sort of thing, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes featurettes on the DVD.

The film tells the story of motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze (Cage, giving his best Elvis impersonation), who as a teenager made a pact with the demon Mephisto (Fonda) to cure his father of cancer. Years later, Mephisto claims Johnny's soul, transforming him into the bounty hunter Ghost Rider for the purposes of tracking Mephisto's rebellious son Blackheart (Bentley), who wants the power of 1,000 lost souls that are bound to a contract that was hidden by an earlier Rider.

Fans will want to pick up the extended cut, which adds 13 minutes back into the film, mostly character bits that add to Blaze's redemption arc. Most noteworthy is an alternate scene of the confrontation between Mephisto and Blackheart. The theatrical version of this showdown is more dynamic visually, but the alternate scene features better acting and dialogue. John Latchem

Prebook 6/5; Street 7/3
Universal/Screen Media, Western, B.O. $0.005 million, $24.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for violence and some thematic elements.
Stars Kris Kristofferson, Genevi?ve Bujold.

Whiskey makes folks do strange things, but strange goes the extra mile in Disappearances.

The story, based on a popular novel, is riddled with magic realism and mysticism, but is still grounded as an old-school action-adventure.

Kristofferson stars as Quebec Bill, a crusty Vermont rancher who seeks to save his animals from the lingering cold by resorting to an old family tradition, bootlegging whiskey. The quest takes Bill and his young son, Wild Bill, into the Canadian backwoods, where they outsmart villains, befriend the local native population and try to steer clear of the law — no easy feat in the days of prohibition.

More than an illegal romp, the trip is a reminder of the family's long association with the mystical, and plenty of semi-haunted events take Disappearances into another realm.

Many of the sidebar characters speak in a sort of spooky poetry, borrowing heavily from the spiritually oriented novel. And we can tell early on there is more intended here than a caper film.

Disappearances is a coming-of-age story reflecting new ways of looking at life for both a young boy and old man. Steeped in French-Canadian folklore and the lessons of the past, it's a spiritual film with a gun-totin' edge, likely to intrigue fans of both genres.

The behind-the-scenes documentary “Act of Faith” seeks to shed light on the many layers. — Dan Bennett

Puccini for Beginners
Prebook 6/14; Street 7/3
Strand, Comedy, B.O. $0.09 million, $27.99 DVD, Unrated.
Stars Elizabeth Reaser, Justin Kirk, Gretchen Mol, Julianne Nicholson.

Woody Allen meets Kissing Jessica Stein in this witty, urbane, romantic comedy that traces the complicated love life of one bohemian, free-spirited New Yorker.

Reaser is Allegra, a recently single lesbian who is searching for love in all the wrong places. Predictably, she finds it with all the wrong people. First, she hooks up with a straight woman who is having trouble with her boyfriend. Next, she becomes involved with a man who is dissatisfied with his love life.

Puccini for Beginners is, at its heart, a frothy little romantic comedy — albeit one that turns on unconventional gender roles — and it turns out that Allegra's new lovers are, unbeknownst to either, involved with each other as well.

Both Mol and Kirk are effervescent as the straight couple who are each taking a walk on the semi-wild side. And Nicholson is quickly becoming the new Parker Posey, giving quirky, nuanced performances in buzz-worthy indie film after buzz-worthy indie film.

Reaser turns a character that might have seemed selfish and self-involved in other hands, into a free-spirited and vibrant nonconformist with a very healthy libido.

Puccini for Beginners is a bubbly, playful and flirty film that will charm audiences tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Because there are non-explicit romantic scenes that include both men and women and women and women, overly conservative viewers should be duly warned. — Anne Sherber

The Abandoned
Street 6/19
Lionsgate, Horror, B.O. $1.3 million, $28.98 DVD, ‘R' for violence/gore, some disturbing images, nudity and language.
Stars Anastasia Hille, Karel Roden, Valentin Ganev, Carlos Reig-Plaza.

Like the other films in the After Dark Horror Fest Collection (all released earlier this year), The Abandoned is definitely worth watching.

This metaphysical film from Spanish director Nacho Cerda takes place in a Russian forest surrounded by a river. The film focuses on a haunted mansion and tells the horrific tale of a 40-year-old murder.

Marie (Hille), a Hollywood producer, is summoned to Russia to take care of paperwork involving property her parents left her. The film's eerie mood is established from the moment you see the creepy mansion. This huge dwelling is not the kind of place you want to be in daylight, let alone in the middle of the night with only a flashlight. Cinematographer Xavier Gim?nez (The Machinist) knows how to play with light to create a gloomy setting. Flashlights are used to tell some of the backstory, as the beam transitions the setting between 1966 and the present.

While the pacing of the film is slow and meticulous, Cerda does introduce ghosts early on. He also introduces Marie's brother, Nicolai (Roden), who has been summoned to the home. The twins were abandoned when they were infants and don't meet until they're both inside the haunted house at night.

The mood is creepy throughout, but the film lacks the jump-out-of-your-seat moments that horror films usually deliver. Instead, the film tells a character-driven story that unfolds under extreme conditions. Marie and Nicolai are trapped and try to escape, but they always end up back in the mansion.

The ending of the film is definitely far from what Hollywood horror filmgoers are used to. And in this case, that's a good thing. — John Gaudiosi

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Prebook 5/29; Street 6/26
Starz/Anchor Bay, Horror, B.O. $0.07 million, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for horror violence, language, some sexual content and brief drug use.
Stars Nathan Baesel, Robert Englund, Angela Goethals, Zelda Rubinstein, Scott Wilson.

While creatively brain dead most of the time, the slasher genre will never die because there are legions of fans and filmmakers desperate to breathe new life into the category.

Psycho essentially created the genre, Halloween established the classic formula, Friday the 13th encouraged the commercial explosion and Scream rejuvenated it with a post-modern spin. Behind the Mask attempts to raise the bar, push the envelope and expand the horizons of the slasher film for the 21st century.

Combining elements of the classics and, in fact, frequently making direct references to Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, Behind the Mask is nothing if not a marvel of tongue-in-cheek, self-reflexive filmmaking.

Combining genre expectations with the hand-held horror cam of The Blair Witch Project, the mockumentary wit of This Is Spinal Tap and the films of Christopher Guest, the film is satirical and often very funny as it depicts the exploits of a film-school student who has been invited to document the origins of the newest psychotic mass murderer of horny teenagers, Leslie Vernon.

Fans of the genre will delight in the unprecedented behind-the-scenes look into the world of a slasher movie villain (Baesel, sinking his teeth into a terrific role) working out, preparing the scene of the crime, choosing his victims and consulting with his mentor, a retired old-school serial killer, while explaining the ins and outs of the profession to the crew.

Midway through, the film begins to flip back and forth between the documentary-style footage and a high-end slasher film production, and eventually abandons the hand-held cinematography of the film students as they suddenly find themselves to be more involved with Leslie Vernon's plans than they could have ever expected. — David Greenberg

Ever Since the World Ended
Prebook 6/12; Street 7/10
BFS, Sci-Fi, $24.98 DVD, NR.

One of the fundamental axioms of independent filmmaking is its tendency to resort to stories and narrative gimmicks that make an asset of its technical and financial limitations. The best ones are those that make you forget their makers are working on a budget.

One of the more recent and fairly ingenious examples of this kind of cost-effective premising is found in Ever Since the World Ended. The highly serviceable conceit is that the picture is an amateur documentary made by two of the 186 residents of a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. It's what you might call lo-fi sci-fi.

Fictional directors Cal and Josh have jointly concluded that, in spite of (or maybe because of) their precarious times, a film about the surviving humans' post-plague existence is in order. What this entails is a string of willy-nilly interviews with all of the approachable — some have resorted to quasi-barbarism — denizens of the city.

Life, for the most part, has resumed, but in a provisional way: Government and public services are gone, virtually all forms of industry are caput, and survivors have by and large formed tribal units that survive off the remains of the old civilization.

What works best about Ever Since the World Ended is its matter-of-factness. This fictional world is startlingly seamless despite its obvious challenges in terms of plausibility. Rather than focus too much on the mechanics of the new world, as it were, Cal and Josh (also the names of the actual directors, Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle) have wisely focused more on the philosophical bent of its inhabitants.

This enables them to sidestep a lot of the more fundamental questions their premise raises, and instead concentrate on the performances, which are all first rate.

Not just a marvel of storytelling on the cheap, Ever Since the World Ended is possibly the most raw and inventive reconfiguration of the sci-fi genre to appear in years. — Eddie Mullins

The Bridge
Street 6/12
Koch Lorber, Documentary, B.O. $0.2 million, $26.98 DVD, NR.

There is no getting around the fact that Eric Steel's documentary The Bridge is predicated on a very morbid conceit, despite its strenuous efforts to undercut, soften and attenuate it.

More people commit suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge than in any other public space in the world, and Steel spent a year training multiple cameras on the eponymous monument in the hopes of catching some of them in the act. He did.

In 2002, 24 people jumped to their deaths, and Steel got a handful of their respective final moments on film. Whether or not this enterprise was ethical — one can't help but raise an eyebrow as the camera actually tilts to follow a suicide jumper's trajectory — is a murky question that Steel never directly addresses, but he does go to great lengths to make The Bridge seem like something other than a snuff film.

Whenever possible, the filmmaker tracked down the friends and relatives of the deceased and interviewed them. What emerges from these sessions, which comprise the bulk of the film, is a kind of discursive meditation on suicide in general: why people do it, to what degree their loved ones could see it coming, etc.

It is at once moving and, at the same time, mostly irrelevant. That all of the jumpers were, for lack of a better word, troubled in various ways is obvious, and requires no explanation.

What one hopes to find (even if the answer is just a shrugging “who knows?”) is an answer to the question: What is it about this bridge that makes it such a consistent magnet for suicides? There is little exploration of this subject, in which Steel seems only casually interested, leaving the picture as little more than a morbid curiosity piece.

The Bridge has been popular on the festival circuit and was named best documentary of 2006 by MTV. — Eddie Mullins

The Prisoner, or: How I planned to Kill Tony Blair
Street 6/5
Magnolia, Documentary, B.O. $0.002 million, $26.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some strong language and mature thematic elements.

In 2003, a freelance Iraqi journalist named Yunis Khatayer Abbas was arrested and accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair. He subsequently spent nine months at Abu Ghraib prison, where, according to this documentary, authorities didn't even have a record of why he was there.

The Prisoner was filmed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, who first encountered Abbas when they were filming Gunner Palace. They combine footage of Abbas' arrest with new interviews and comic-book-style graphics that illustrate how surreal the situation must have been.

Also interviewed are American soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib and recount the frequency of insurgent attacks on the prison.

Abbas previously had been imprisoned and tortured by the Hussein regime, and to hear him tell it he doesn't see the Americans as much different. His story is an eye-opening account of a quagmire not many are ready to fully comprehend.

The film gets its point across in a scant 72 minutes, but even that feels like a stretch, given the number of graphical interludes used to fill the gaps between chapters. John Latchem

You're Gonna Miss Me
Prebook 6/12; Street 7/10
Palm, Documentary, $24.98 DVD, NR.

A harrowing look at the life of peripheral 1960s rocker Roky Erickson, You're Gonna Miss Me examines one of the darker tales of the period.

Perhaps driven to insanity by overuse of heavy drugs or by the shock therapy he was forced to endure at a maximum-security mental institution after a drug-related arrest, Erickson in later life resembles the mental patients one might associate with fiction. He obsesses over incoming mail, sending letters to everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Publisher's Clearing House, and finds a peaceful sleep only to the cacophonic sound of numerous televisions, guitar amps, radios and police scanners.

Resembling the superior documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about the well-known mentally ill outsider musician Johnston, You're Gonna Miss Me has far less of the early personal footage that made the former such a powerful film.

Rather than witnessing Erickson in his heyday, before drug addiction and mental illness wrecked his mind, we are largely trapped with him in his current state.

While this makes for a powerful examination of his present life — in the care of his extremely religious, doctor-eschewing mother — it provides little insight into the man he once was. This leaves viewers with a moving film, but one somewhat lacking in the inspiring passion at the heart of Erickson's early music. — J.R. Wick

Quick Take: Carson Redux

Anyone interested in some of the classic programming from Johnny Carson's stint on “The Tonight Show,” but who may have been turned away by the larger boxed sets released before, has a golden chance to pick up some of the more-memorable bits with two new “The Best of Johnny Carson” DVDs out June 5 from R2 Entertainment.

Stand-Up Comedians offers great performances from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey and Garry Shandling. King of Late Night presents some of the most popular previously released material, including the hilarious “Return to Studio One” from 1969. Each two-DVD set is $24.99. John Latchem

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