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Chris Hicks: DVD pleases 'Passionada' director

The advent of home video has opened up all kinds of possibilities for filmmakers whose movies don't quite get the theatrical distribution they hope for. In fact, some films — even those that do get some theatrical release — have happily found a much bigger audience on video.

That removes some . . . but not all . . . of the sting when movies initially have trouble finding an audience.

Take director Dan Ireland. With his latest film, "Passionada," having been released on DVD last week, he's gratified that it's getting out there on a major label (Columbia/TriStar). But he regrets the lack of support the film received during its brief theatrical run last year by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

"It's frustrating, angering," Ireland said by phone from Los Angeles. "It's a Catch-22. You're at the hands of the distributor, and all you can do is try to encourage them, be supportive, maybe try another approach."

He said the ad campaign for "Passionada" "was all wrong. It's not the beautiful poster you see on the (DVD) box. The movie might have performed differently with the right campaign."

"Passionada," about two opposites falling in love — a strong-willed Portuguese singer and an itinerant British gambler who can't tell the truth — is meant to be "a celebration of romantic comedies of the '60s. If I'd been old enough at the time and made 'Passionada' in 1960, it would have starred Sophia Loren and Cary Grant."

And he said the film received strong national reviews from "some of the toughest critics."

Of course, Ireland doesn't seem frustrated or angry now. In fact, he's quite the cheerful conversationalist as he expresses confidence that "Passionada" will find its audience among DVD renters looking for a feel-good date picture. "I'm hoping word of mouth will get out, because this is a really sweet movie for anyone in the mood for something about life, love, family and relationships."

DVDs also allow filmmakers to reveal their mistakes, such as the original ending of "Passionada." The film's ending now is quite satisfying, but when it was initially shown in test screenings with what is described on the DVD as an "alternate ending," it took a surprisingly dark and violent turn. "We started testing it," Ireland said, "and people were loving ('Passionada') right up until the end, so (the producer) said, 'Let's change it.'

"I wasn't going to put the alternate ending (on the DVD), but it was such an interesting thing, we decided to do it."

Upon discovering that the interviewer was in Salt Lake City, Ireland said he has a special affection for the state since his first film, "The Whole Wide World," made its debut here during the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. "World" is an excellent romantic drama based on a true story, and starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Rene Zellweger before he hit it big on TV ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent") and she became an Oscar-winning superstar.

And several years earlier, Ireland produced a film in Moab, a weird cult favorite, the vampire satire "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat." "That was for Vestron Pictures," Ireland said. "I did some rather peculiar movies at Vestron. And that's a strange little film, but it's one I have some affection for."

Later, he says again, "But hey, my first movie had its premiere in Salt Lake City!"

"Passionada" (Columbia/TriStar, 2003, PG-13, $24.96) is a nice, light romantic drama about two mismatched people who fall in love but must overcome movie-contrived obstacles. It's as formulaic as it sounds, but it also gets a real boost from an attractive cast, especially from its focus on the Portuguese community of New Bedford, Mass.

Sofia Milos (TV's "CSI: Miami") stars as a New Bedford widow who can't let go of her late husband. She lives with her independent 17-year-old daughter (Emmy Rossum) and next-door to her meddling (in a good way) mother-in-law (Lupe Ontiveros).

Then, into their lives, via Hollywood-style contrivances, comes an Englishman (Jason Isaacs), who also happens to be a professional gambler and sometime scam artist. He falls for Sofia but keeps lying about who he is, with help from his retired-grifter pals (Theresa Russell, Seymour Cassel).

You can see where this is headed, but under Ireland's gentle direction, the film rises above its mundane roots when it concentrates on the Portuguese characters . . . although, in reality, Milos is Greek/Italian, Rossum is New York Jewish and Ontiveros is Mexican! And especially when Milos' character sings in a local restaurant (dubbed in by Portuguese singer Misia). (The film's soundtrack CD is also available).

"Passionada" is imperfect and often implausible, but it also quite charming.

Extras: Widescreen, audio commentaries, alternate ending, deleted scene, trailers, etc.