“You know, the smallest thing can change your life. In the blink of an eye, something happens by chance, when you least expect it, sets you on a course that you never planned into a future you never imagined. Where will it take you? That’s the journey of our lives. Our search for the light… “
The same thing can be said for movies. They are a journey that we willingly take. Often they lead us to unexpected places. And if we’re very lucky, if the film is very good, there’ll be the slightest bit of change in ourselves because of the experience.
It’s that time of year when everyone’s thoughts turn to romance. It’s a good night for eating out someplace special. It’s also a good night for movies. This is one time, guys, we have to grin and bear it a little bit and see what we liked to refer to as the “chick flick”. And no, this has nothing to do with pornography and Colonel Sanders. In Hollywood, the romance film is in full swing, particularly around Valentine’s Day. Few writers have left their mark on the romance film like Nicholas Sparks. His novels have been made into some of the most endearing and enduring romance films in the last 15 or so years.
His films almost always involve one of his characters seeking to redefine themselves. It often requires a journey both in space and inside their own hearts. These journeys usually lead to wonderful coastlines, often Carolina. There an unlikely couple begin to fall in love. Hollywood has certainly embraced his formula, and there have been several box office hits with his material, enough that they continue to drink from the Nicholas Sparks well.
Now Warner Brothers has gathered together seven of Sparks’ romance films in one box set. These DVD’s make a great Valentine gift for your own hopelessly romantic sweetheart. The good news for you is that you can watch these films in the comfort of your own home. It’s a win/win. All of the films are presented in their original aspect ratios, and all of the original DVD bonus content remains. These are not bare bones editions of the films included just for the set.
Here’s what you get:
The Lucky One (2012)
“… But sometimes finding the light means you must pass through the deepest darkness, at least that’s how it was for me.”
That deepest darkness is war. Logan (no, not that Logan) (Efron) is in the firefight of his life while serving his third tour in Iraq. He survives while most around him do not. The morning after the fight he discovers a woman’s photo in the mud. He picks it up only to have his delay save his life. If he’d continued walking he would have ended up toast in an explosion. He decides he must find this woman and thank her for saving his life.
Once back home he begins the search for her. He walks from Colorado to Louisiana in search of her. He finally finds her. Her name is Beth (Schilling), and she runs a dog training and kennel service with her mother (Danner) in a small town. She’s been divorced and has custody of her young son. Her ex Keith (Ferguson) is the local sheriff and a jealous man.
When Logan shows up, he can’t find the words to tell her why he is here. The photo belonged to her brother, and they were very close. They begin to fall for each other, which causes both some trouble from Keith. Of course, Beth finds out, and it leads to the expected turmoil. Will they be able to get their romance back on track? It will take a tragedy in a raging storm (a common Sparks technique) to get to the answer.
Efron plays the role in one of the most subtle romance leads I’ve ever seen. It’s actually quite a welcome change from the usual style. There’s no loud and crazy protestation of love here. He seldom speaks, and when he does, it’s barely a whisper. When he’s threatened, he doesn’t jump to the call. He stands his ground without having to demonstrate his ability to fight. It’s a refreshing take and was a bit of a surprise coming from Zac Efron. His character suffers from PTSD and survivor’s guilt, but it is more internal than external. Credit Efron for being able to demonstrate all of this while remaining on a certain even keel throughout the film.
Taylor Schilling holds her own as a strong single mom who is grieving for her brother and trying to gain her independence from the domineering Keith. She shares good chemistry with Efron that doesn’t require a romp in the sack every five minutes to display. I’m not really much of a romantic, but this one plays out the drama enough that I did not feel overwhelmed.
Safe Haven (2013)
by John Ceballos
Katie (Julianne Hough) is a woman on the run. When we first meet her, she’s covered in blood and deliriously clutching a knife. After barely escaping the clutches of an overzealous Boston P.D. detective (David Lyons), she winds up in sleepy Southport, N.C. Katie is still haunted by her past trauma, but she gradually finds the relaxed pace of small-town life attractive. You know what else she finds attractive: the hunky single dad (Josh Duhamel) who runs the local convenience store with plenty of help from his impossibly cute daughter (scene-stealer Mimi Kirkland) and zero assistance from his annoyingly grumpy son (Noah Lomax).
Eventually, Katie’s past catches up with her; unfortunately, the past takes it sweet time to get there. Simply put, the first hour of Safe Haven is pretty brutal. After the urgency of the opening scene, we get only glimpses of what made Katie go on the run. (A lot of the tension is inherently sapped because it quickly becomes obvious Katie is no homicidal maniac.) That means not a heck of a lot happens for the first half of the movie as we watch single dad Alex romance Katie very tentatively — we learn through a clumsy bit of exposition that his wife died of cancer years earlier — and Katie adjusts to life in Southport (with an assist from a curiously nosy neighbor played by Cobie Smulders).
Director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) has an eye for picturesque romances — everyone in Southport is practically bathed in rim light — and even proved his Nicholas Sparks bona fides by adapting 2010’s Dear John. I know I’ve poked fun at a lot of the conventions in the author’s work, but I’m definitely not immune to its charms. (I’ve watched The Notebook more times than I care to admit, and my, um, allergies mysteriously started acting up during the final act of A Walk to Remember.) So maybe the fact that a lot of the plot machinations in Safe Haven have become a joke has less to do with the material itself and more to do with the notion that we’ve seen all this before. (Thinking) Nah! Hallstrom — along with screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens — should’ve found a way to punch up the film’s first act or add some shade and dimension to these characters.
Dear John (2010)
Dear John centers around a soldier, John Tyree (Channing Tatum) who falls in love with a college student, Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) while he is back home on leave. This film is adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name and directed by the melodramatic romance aficionado Lasse Hallstrom. If you are looking for a romance tale that offers very little surprise, look no further.
Hallstrom and Sparks seems to be a match made in heaven. For the better part of a decade, Hallstrom has entirely dedicated himself to romantic films: Chocolat, The Shipping News and Casanova. These films do not really demonstrate a form of versatility. Usually, I am fascinated with directors or writers who stay in their proverbial lane. They are not interested in writing or directing anything other than the genre that has garnered them any form of success. Sparks churns out the same romance novels because there is an appetite for them. Hallstrom provides the same service with romance films. Therefore, from a studio’s perspective, why wouldn’t you want to make a film with these two?
I will say that I was very surprised with the subtle performance by Richard Jenkins. For the most part, Jenkins has made a career off being a crony of the Farrelly brothers. In recent years, he has demonstrated some acting chops. Also, it’s nice to see Henry Thomas in a minor role, since playing Elliot in ET has otherwise plagued his career. On to the difficult part; the two leads are problematic. I did not feel the chemistry between Seyfried and Tatum. It would be nice to see Tatum play something more than the lantern-jawed tough guy with a haunted past. Seyfried demonstrated some comfort and ease on the screen. I feel like in romantic films the two leads need to be smoldering when they share the frame. Unfortunately, I did not get that feeling, and the film struggles because of it.
The Notebook (2004)
by David Annandale
In the present, in a nursing home, we meet two residents: James Garner and Gena Rowlands.She is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and cannot remember her past. He reads to her from a notebook, telling the tale (which is their story) of two young people (Ryan Gosling and RacelMcAdams) who meet, fall in love, but are driven apart by class prejudice (she’s upper class, he’s working class). He never gives up on her, and the story charts more heartbreaking reunions and travails.
Good as old pros Garner and Rowlands are, they’re up against it with the plot’s sentimental approach to Alzheimer’s disease, which is not the pretty fogginess that sometimes clears on display here. (Then again, attractive cancer deaths used to be the norm in tearjerkers, so perhaps I’m needlessly picky.) To Rowlands’ credit, she sometimes manages to convey something of the cruelty and terror of the disease in spite of the script. The plot is all too familiar and isn’t in league with such classic weepies as Now, Voyager. The cinematography is spectacular, but is too consciously so: the CGI water birds in the opening sunset sequence are simply too much to bear. And this nostalgic vision of the south is even worse.
A Walk To Remember (2002)
by David Annandale
After a prank goes horribly wrong, almost resulting in the death of another student, high school bad boy Landon (Shane West, doing his best impression of Christian Slater channeling Charlie Sheen), is condemned not to jail, or to community service, but to act in the school play. In this new environment, he becomes more and more acutely aware of self-assured preacher’s daughter Jamie (Mandy Moore). Opposites attract, hard lessons are learned, and redemption is handed out all around. Call it Anti-Heathers. Also starring in what is essentially a slickly photographed after-school special (with neon-bright moral lessons) is Daryl Hannah as Landon’s mom, almost unrecognizable as a brunette.
Competently put together, but thoroughly devoid of surprise. Strictly for fans of the book.
Nights In Rodanthe (2008)
Adrienne (Lane) is recently divorced with two young children. They are about to have an extended visit with their father Jack (Meloni) who has asked to come back. Adrienne agrees to think about it with no promises. She expects to have the time. She’s filling in for her friend Jean (Davis) who owns a seaside bed and breakfast. It’s the off season, and there’s only one guest. That guest is Doctor Paul Flanner (Gere). Paul is going through his own crises. He’s there to talk to the husband of a woman who died on his table. He’s also on his way to see his son who has set up a small clinic in a central American country.
There is also a hurricane raging out in the ocean and bears down on the Carolina barrier island community. The two survive a violent night and, as you might expect, find each other.
Nights doesn’t follow the typical romance formula, at least not all of it. The ending does offer a “happily ever after” but not in the way you’ll expect. The story takes a rather brave turn that allows the movie to stand out from the crowd.
Director George C. Wolfe makes incredible use of the Carolina locations and environments. It’s a typical theme with Sparks, but Wolfe goes above and beyond in delivering some of the most beautiful sea vistas imaginable. The storm is intense and is effective in every way. The sound and production design here is a cut above what you might expect in a romance movie.
Richard Gere is no stranger to romance on film. From Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride, he’s long established himself as a leading lady for the women in the audience to swoon for. Here he’s able to deliver a more mature character who doesn’t need the manic activities of an Edward Lewis to display his emotions. He is far more thoughtful here and has pretty solid chemistry with Diane Lane.
Of course, Diane Lane is no newcomer, either. She recently played Superman’s mom. You can’t beat that. The supporting cast delivers even in very minor roles. Viola Davis shines as Jean, the owner of the bed and breakfast. Scott Glenn is emotional as the grieving widower, and James Franco has a few small but crucial moments as Mark, Paul’s son.
Message In A Bottle (1999)
“If some lives form a perfect circle, others take shape in ways we cannot predict or always understand. Loss has been a part of my journey. But it has also shown me what is precious. So has a love for which I can only be grateful.”
Theresa (Wright) is struggling to redefine her life. Her ex-husband has her son for a visit, and he’s moved on with a new wife and baby of his own. She wanders the shoreline trying to figure it all out when she discovers a bottle with a message inside. The letter is a love letter addressed to “Catherine”, and Theresa is enthralled by the words.
She returns to Chicago, where she is a researcher for columnist Charlie Toschi (Coltrane). He prints the letter, which originally upsets Theresa. Of course, the words touch the readers, and the event takes on a life of its own. Two other letters surface, and now she’s driven to find this man. She uses her research skills to track down the paper and the glass on the bottle. Finally she knows where to look and travels to Carolina to meet Garrett Blake (Costner).
Of course, she doesn’t level with him when she meets him. He’s not at all what she expects. He’s rather rough around the edges and not the poetic romantic she was looking for. Still, the results are predictable. They do fall in love. Eventually, they must part. She needs to return to Chicago for her job and son. But she makes the “mistake” of inviting him to come see her, where he discovers the real story.
The formula romance film is uplifted with a pretty nice supporting cast. I don’t really buy Wright and Costner as much as I need to. These two don’t really have that “they belong together” thing going on. It’s the supporting cast that carries the real weight around here. It all starts with Paul Newman, who deserves far more screen time. Costner’s not an emotional actor unless he’s playing a G-man. Newman gives him some acting lessons here that never quite take. The film is miscast, and I’d believe Newman in the role over Costner every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Instead of in love, Costner looks constipated and needs a bottle of prune juice more than he needs a woman. Robbie Coltrane and John Savage are two more underused actors that make some moments of this one bearable.
It should be noted that this was the first of Sparks’ novels to be adapted to the screen. All of his elements are there, but I don’t think Hollywood quite understood them yet. Instead Message In A Bottle attempts to push this movie into something it is not. That’s unfair to everyone, particularly the audience. This one would best benefit from a redo.
This is a solid romance collection that can be enjoyed for Valentine’s Days to come. I’ve never been accused of being a hopeless romantic; my wife likely just thinks I’m hopeless. That probably describes most of you guys out there. So pick up this set for them and make them think twice about your romance quotient. Chances are you’ve thought about this kind of Valentine’s gift. “If you’re reading this, then it must be true.”