It's funny, but in real life sometimes things happen out of the blue. Writer Raymond Carver used to say "The phone is ringing. Somebody's world will change," and things happen just so suddenly. I myself received three such jarring phone calls in my life that came as a total surprise and changed my life dramatically . . . and traumatically. But in fiction we expect there to be clues, or else it's something that comes out of left field, and how can anything that lends itself to a sports analogy be artistic?
What I'm getting at, of course, is that there's a moment in "The Last Song" when we get such a surprising turn of events. If it came closer to the ending, it would be one of those O. Henry trick endings that makes people turn up their noses disdainfully.
In retrospect, there were subtle clues that would have prepared me for any of those life-changing phone calls. I just didn't see them. So maybe it is a justifiable complaint that "The Last Song" really doesn't do a proper-enough set-up--although, as my wife joked, when you see Nicholas Sparks as the author and "The Last Song" as the title, you know that somebody's going to die. Sparks is a writer who deliberately goes for the literary equivalent of melodrama, manipulating readers' emotions in order to give them a bittersweet love story followed by a good cry and a final uplift. If he were born a decade earlier than he was (he's 44), Sparks would have written something like Love Story. As it is, he's written 16 books, six of which have now been made into films: "Message in a Bottle" (1999), "A Walk to Remember" (2002), "The Notebook" (2004), "Nights in Rodanthe" (2008), "Dear John" (2010) and "The Last Song" (2010).
If "The Notebook" has received the most acclaim, "The Last Song" has probably gotten the most scrutiny, and not because it's the first theatrical feature directed by TV veteran Julie Anne Robinson ("Grey's Anatomy," "Weeds"). No, it's because of Miley Cyrus, who has polarized viewers so much that she's like the Hillary Clinton of actresses. Case in point: her performance in "Hannah Montana: The Movie" earned a nomination for Breakthrough Performance Female at the MTV Awards, but also snagged a Razzie nomination. Some swear she has no talent and wouldn't acknowledge her fine performances even if she won the Gracie Allen Award for Outstanding Female Lead in a Children's/Adolescent's Comedy Series for "Hannah Montana." Some people react negatively to the whole idea of packaging, of Cyrus being Hannah Montana. They want her to be Kate Winslet instead, but the reality is that Cyrus got her start as a Disney commodity. And you can ask Hayley Mills how long it takes to break that indentured bond.
As a comedian, Cyrus is amazing. In "Hanna Montana" she's Lucille Ball reincarnate, with the same gifts of physical comedy, timing, and reaction capability that made "I Love Lucy" such a fan favorite. As a dramatic actress she's so far decent, but unspectacular. You believe her much of the time, though Miley Cyrus is so big that it's like trying to watch Henry Winkler play anyone else when Fonzie and "Happy Days" were riding high. Cyrus plays a stand-offish teenage girl from New York named Ronnie who, along with her eight-year-old brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman), is taken by Mom (Kelly Preston) to spend the summer with their father (Greg Kinnear), a composer who also dabbles in stained glass. The boy is happy about it, especially since Dad lives right on the ocean in a cool beach house, but Ronnie is openly disdainful. Does she blame Dad for the break-up? Did she really get in so much trouble back in New York (she stole something) that she's truly a bad girl? Did she leave friends or a boyfriend behind? Does she have a bug up her ass?
We don't know at the outset. All we know is that this script from Sparks and co-screenwriter Jeff Van Wie gives us the quickest turnaround for a delinquent since we saw tough guys dancing in "West Side Story." Ronnie reads Tolstoy, she goes out of her way to protect a nest of sea turtle eggs from marauding raccoons, and while she goes out with bad teens late at night, she doesn't drink and she fights off a guy's advances. She counsels a girl in a bad relationship, and in this movie she does everything but help little old ladies across the street. The performance is fine, actually, but the screenplay would have us believe that this kid is somehow bad news, when we can barely recognize a New Yorker in her.
Another problem is the rich boy (Sparks likes to throw together would-be lovers from different sides of the tracks) she meets. So is Will a scammer who will say and do anything to get a girl for the summer, or does he have principles and standards? Or is he a bad boy reformed? And what about the relationship he has with his parents? One minute they're looking down on him and his poor girl, and the next minute they turn up in a show of unexplained support. There are other logic barriers as well. We're told that this kid Will is a mechanic, but he's also a volunteer with the Aquarium. Well, excuse me, but aquariums aren't the ones responsible for protecting turtle nesting areas, and while we're at it, I'm guessing most aquariums would have a policy against having their volunteers get into wet suits with their dates and bringing them to the big shark tank for a swim. The one attempt at mystery (Who burned down the church, and who was dragged from it in the opening?) seems tacked-on. Likewise, anyone who knows that whale sharks can only be found in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and knows that geographically it's around 150 miles from the Atlantic coast, which would make it one heck of a commute.
But the target audience--teenage girls--ought to go for this film, precisely because it does give them that expected bittersweet love affair and good cry over two relationship storylines that intersect. And frankly, Cyrus and Kinnear have a nice father-daughter chemistry going, while Hemsworth and Cyrus aren't bad together either. The acting and the gorgeous Tybee Island, Georgia location filming make this film marginally entertaining for people outside the target audience as well. That is, if you don't mind having your emotions manipulated.
"The Last Song" comes to Blu-ray with a gorgeous AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc, and I noticed no artifacts and no image manipulation. The exterior scenes especially are a joy to behold, with a nice amount of detail, solid black levels, and picture-perfect colors. The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and "enhanced" for 16x9 television monitors. This is a two-disc combo pack, and so a DVD is included as well.
The audio is a fairly dynamic English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) that delivers respectable bass levels and enough ambient sound to make the seaside come alive without the wind wiping out the dialogue. There's a French language track as well, along with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. On the featured soundtrack there's a nice tonal purity that rivals the picture in overall quality.
Fans of the film will probably enjoy the never-before-seen alternate opening (I won't give anything away here), as well as five deleted scenes which develop relationships a bit more. Cyrus fans get a music video ("When I Look at You") and a behind-the-scenes look at making the music video that includes b-roll from the set, interviews with Cyrus and the crew, and clips from the video. If you're into such things there's also a "Set Tour with Bobby Coleman" in which the eight year old takes fans on a seashell scavenger hunt and shows them life on the set, including an intro to Cyrus's security team. Finally, there's a full-length commentary with director Robinson and her co-producer, Jennifer Gibgot, that covers all of the expected bases.
"The Last Song" is a melodrama that's aimed at teen girls, but the cinematography and performances make it palatable for others as well--if you don't mind someone toying with your emotions.