Welcome to the wonderful world of high definition, where you'll find the picture crystal clear. I wish I could say the same about the plot of this movie. Although the new HD-DVD transfer clarifies the image, it cannot do anything to help clarify the story. But it's in an HD-DVD and DVD Combo format, so you can play it wherever you are and in whatever machine you like.
"The Lake House" begins with a young woman packing up and leaving a mostly glass lake house on stilts and heading for the city. Shortly thereafter, she begins corresponding with a man who grew up in the house and subsequently lived there. In the course of their correspondence, they fall in love. All well and good, except for one little matter: the woman is living in 2006 and the man is living in 2004. They exchange letters through some kind of magical mailbox.
If the movie seems at all familiar to you, there are probably at least three good reasons: 1) Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti ("Valentin," "A Less Bad World," "A Night With Sabrina Love") remade "The Lake House" in 2006 from the Korean motion picture "Siworae" ("Il Mare") of six years earlier; so, perhaps you've seen the original. More to the point for U.S. audiences, (2) "The Lake House" is a time-travel romance starring two big-name actors, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, whom you'll remember being so good together in "Speed." But "Speed" had more than the two leads. It had thrills galore and a really creepy, over-the-top villain in Dennis Hopper. Besides those things, (3) it's only been a few years since we had another time-travel romance starring two big-name actors, "Kate & Leopold" with Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, which had the advantage of being a light comedy, too.
"The Lake House" plays it straight, which is fine if the science fiction involved could hold up under the strain of credibility. In fact, "The Lake House" wants none of the thrills, the comedy, or the sci-fi of its predecessors. It wants, instead, simply to be an old-fashioned romance, and I applaud it for that. So, why, I have to ask, throw in the corny and implausible time-travel business at all, except as a gimmick that doesn't work?
Anyway, the plot has the two leads living in different time dimensions but communicating through an enchanted mailbox. Did anybody making the movie notice that the long-distance romance that ensues is a lot like the one in "Sleepless in Seattle," in that the two participants are almost never on the screen together?
And did anybody notice that "Sleepless in Seattle" made sense? In "The Lake House," the two characters, architect Alex Wyler (Reeves) and doctor Kate Forster (Bullock), are in essentially the same place but live in two different time dimensions. Now, here's the big question: If she lived as an intern two years earlier in the same area, why couldn't Alex look her up then, in his own time? She wouldn't know him yet, but he could begin the romance. Then, the next time they communicated by letter, he could ask her about the new guy she just met, and he could tell her it was he. Am I missing something here? However, Kate tells us the one man she loves she can never meet. Why? Indeed, early on in the film they do meet! Then they both sort of forget about it. Again why? She even goes so far as to think of Alex as an illusion, calling him a "fantasy." But he is alive, isn't he? Or is he? Maybe he really is a figment of her imagination, which, unfortunately, would not account for the film's ending. Then more plot revelations occur that make no sense, either. If Kate lives two years in Alex's future, in 2006, why doesn't she live in his present in 2004 also? Apparently, according to the movie, she does, but the characters make nothing of it.
Time travel is always a distracting premise to build a story on. It's an especially difficult subject in films, and unless you are dealing with straightforward science fiction or light comedy, where the audience can easily suspend its disbelief, the time-travel motif is going to get in the way. I mean, do we all exist in all time zones at all times? In real science, this is known as the "many worlds" theory, where everyone and everything exist at every second in gazillions of multiple universes. Could we go back and talk to ourselves in one of these past time slices? Such paradoxes make time travel a doubtful possibility for most scientists.
Here are some other questions: If you knew somebody who lived in the not-so-distant future, wouldn't you be tempted to ask him or her some questions about the future? Wouldn't you be tempted to clean up in the stock market, for example, or save a few lives if you could? Which brings me to the question of whether by going back in time a person could change the future, and whether the "butterfly effect" would come into play. Also, if Kate really could communicate with someone from the past and Alex could really communicate with someone from the future, it would be one of the most miraculous, metaphysical phenomena in the history of Mankind. Wouldn't they want to share it with a scientist or a sociologist or a religious leader? Instead, they sort of shrug it off. Is the whole story meant to be a metaphor, after all, or is it best to look at "The Lake House" purely as a romance?
I would liked to have seen how the power of love could transcend even the boundaries of time, and I think that's what the filmmakers were aiming for. It's just that they handle the idea so clumsily, the story comes out seeming more than a little preposterous. I also didn't buy into the whole Lake House notion. It's a house made of glass, designed by Alex's father (played by Christopher Plummer in much too brief and wasted a role), where Alex grew up. It's supposed to look very beautiful, romantic, and idyllic and all, but I thought it simply looked bizarre, out of place in so lovely a location. Alex tells us, "Dad knew how to build a house but not a home." The house is supposedly all about the father, his need for control and containment. Does this mean that the house is some kind of symbol for all of us, a symbol that went completely by me? Does the old saying "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" have anything to do with the story line? If the filmmakers intended the business of the house to be in some way emblematic, it was all too nebulous for me to grasp.
Also, composer Rachel Port's rather slow, melancholic soundtrack music failed to move me, and I didn't care overmuch for the selection of songs by the Clientele, Eels, Paul McCartney, and Nick Drake that accompanied much of the action. It was only the old Carole King song "It's Too Late" that worked for me, and that, like Plummer's part, went by much too quickly and, I thought, at the wrong moment.
OK, moving on to more positive things, because the film is anything but awful, I did like Reeves and Bullock. Maybe it was because they were apart most of the time that I never felt any weakness in their acting or emotions. I also liked director Agresti's filmmaking style, his romantic images showing up nicely in the widescreen process, the screen filled evocatively with trees, snow, flowers, lakes, and what have you. The director has a keen eye for light and shadow as well. Just look at almost any scene and note the composition; you'll see that he constructs everything for maximum romantic import, even if he sometimes gets carried away with a swirling camera or two.
To be fair, the time-difference angle is acceptably clever and romantic, if only it wasn't such a frustratingly improbable gimmick. And being the old softie that I am, I did enjoy the film's ending, if only the filmmakers hadn't caved in instead of sticking by the power of their convictions. So, it's "If only, if only, if only...." Yes, there was a lot of potential here.
The standard-definition version of the movie on side two does not display the best video quality I've seen, despite WB's best efforts to transfer the film at a high bit rate in anamorphic widescreen. They have maintained most of the movie's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio in dimensions that stretch to about 2.20:1 across my screen. But I found the picture a tad blurry, with faces occasionally too dark for reality. Well, this is not a film about reality, so maybe what I'm seeing is the way the filmmakers meant for the image to look, the colors overly intense for some kind of romantic effect. Still, the detailing and definition are a mite ragged sometimes, and I'm not sure why.
In direct comparison between the standard-definition version and the HD-DVD (I had the advantage of having two discs playing in two machines side by side), the high definition helps quite a lot in a number of instances. It's true that parts of the HD picture, like some long shots and few medium shots, don't look appreciably better than the standard definition picture, but there are other sections of the film, close-ups especially and closely spaced horizontal and vertical lines, that are excellent, more sharply detailed and more clearly nuanced in HD than in SD. On direct comparison the HD colors are deeper and more realistic, while the SD picture looks slightly faded and soft.
Although the regular Dolby Digital 5.1 audio comes up better than the video in standard definition, we get perceptibly better sound from the HD-DVD's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Again on direct, side-by-side comparison, the DD+ is fuller, with a warmer upper bass and lower midrange; more important, the DD+ opens up the stage width further, with less center-channel prominence and a greater sense of surround ambience. I found as much of an improvement in the DD+ audio as I found in the HD video, making the film easier to enjoy all the way around.
Not much in the way of extras on either side of the disc, I'm afraid. Unless you count the fact that the disc contains two video formats for the movie, the extras are the same on both sides. There are five additional scenes and outtakes, in non-anamorphic widescreen, totalling about three-and-a-half minutes; and there is a theatrical trailer that is in anamorphic widescreen. Beyond those two items, there are twenty-one scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and on the HD-DVD side, English captions for the hearing impaired.
The HD-DVD movie played perfectly from beginning to end. Obviously, Toshiba and the studios have perfected the technology, so there are no issues there. As always with WB's HD-DVDs, the HD side of the disc comes with pop-up menus, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.
Maybe I'm just overly romantic or sentimental or just plain naive, but I probably liked "The Lake House" more than I should have. This second time through I found my eyes watering up at the end. What are you going to do?
Still, the film has so many problems with its time-travel theme that its sheer goofiness continually distracted me from the main story, the developing love between the two main characters, who in and of themselves I found quite appealing. "The Lake House" is a wonderful attempt to rethink and reshape an essentially old-fashioned love story. That it falters under the weight of its own shaky premise is an unfortunate by-product. In HD-DVD, at least it looks and sounds nicer than ever