Note: In the following joint DVD review, both John and Eddie provide their opinions of the films, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.

Whadaya mean, Who’s Nicholas Sparks?

Reviewed by John J. Puccio

Maybe it just seems like best-selling author Nicholas Sparks is the only person writing romance novels anymore because Hollywood turns to him whenever they need another old-fashioned, three-hankie weeper. So far, they’ve made “Message in a Bottle” (1999), “A Walk to Remember” (2002), “The Notebook” (2004), and “Nights in Rodanthe” (2008). The only reason they haven’t made any more (as of this writing) appears to be that Sparks can’t crank them out fast enough. (But not to worry; I understand he’s got two more projects underway.)

In any case, Warner Bros. gave each of the films in this box top-notch treatment with the finest possible casts and the highest production values. Each film has already appeared separately on disc, and now the studio is offering them in the four-movie box set reviewed here. Let’s start with “Message in a Bottle.”

As you might expect, it begins with the finding of a message in a bottle. A divorced mom, Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), finds it washed ashore while she is vacationing by the sea. The message is from a man addressed to his lost love, and Theresa, being a research journalist for a big Chicago newspaper, brings it home and shows it to her friends, who instantly fall in love with the man’s eloquent and passionate prose. Her boss (Robbie Coltrane) even publishes it, and he persuades Theresa to find out more about who wrote it. So, Theresa sets about tracking the fellow down for a human-interest story.

Naturally, the man, a shipbuilder living in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is handsome, shy, and reserved, and his wife has died a couple of years before. Kevin Costner plays the man, Garret Blake, in his usual low-key, self-effacing style, and Robin Wright Penn is lovely and charming, so they make the ideal couple. That both of them are single, lonely, attractive, and around the same age could only happen in the movies. For good measure, Paul Newman plays Garret’s father, Dodge Blake, as a typically colorful, crotchety old-timer. What would we do without Hollywood. (Costner gets first billing, by the way, because he was a bigger star than Penn, even though the movie is clearly centered on Penn’s character. Again, only in the movies.)

Theresa and Garret meet, and soon the wind is in their sails and the romance is on. They’re two heartbroken people who find one another, need one another, and fall in love with one another. Moreover, as with the other Sparks novels adapted for the screen, this one looks beautiful, photographed largely on location in Chicago, Maine, and North Carolina through misty sea breezes.

Now, if only it had ended there. But like Sparks’s other stories, this one goes on and on, the movie lasting well over two hours and beginning to drag much too early on. If it had just quit while it was ahead….

Instead, about halfway through the movie we find three new conflicts developing: Can Garret give up his memories of the past, forget the love of his dead wife, and take up a new life with Theresa? Can Theresa tell Garret that she originally looked him up for a newspaper story? And how will they be able to handle their relationship living half a continent apart? As Garret’s father says, It’s a choice “between yesterday and tomorrow.”

Worse than the story never knowing when to end, however, is the actual conclusion. Sparks can’t seem to help himself and tags on a now-patented Sparks hack finish. It’s shoddy, manipulative, pointless, and depressing, meant only as a cheap trick to tug at our heartstrings. What should have been a touching, uplifting love story leaves one angry. But who am I to criticize? It’s Sparks with the ton of money in the bank.

John’s film rating for “Message in a Bottle”: 5/10

Reviewed by Yunda Eddie Feng

The front cover art for the “A Walk to Remember” DVD quotes Mark S. Allen of UPN, who proclaims that “Mandy Moore is awesome.” Indeed, Miss Moore recently collected a tub of gold popcorn at the MTV Movie Awards for Best Breakthrough Female. Yes, the MTV Movie Awards is a joke-y event, but Miss Moore can actually act, exhibiting an emotional range not usually on display in her parallel career as a pop singer. Shane West, the film’s other lead, matches Miss Moore’s talent and actually carries most of the story by himself.

In “A Walk to Remember” (based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks), Landon Carter (West, TV’s “Once and Again”) and his friends take a town newbie to a factory one night in order to initiate him into their group. The young boy becomes paralyzed, but Landon is the only one caught in the act. As punishment, he must help the high school janitors clean the school after classes, work as a tutor on Saturdays, and participate in the drama club’s spring play. Jamie Sullivan (Moore, “The Princess Diaries”) also tutors students and acts, so Landon asks her for help in learning his lines. Jamie agrees to assist Landon, but his ill-treatment of her in public hurts her. She doesn’t want anything to do with a two-faced jerk who doesn’t respect truth and honesty.

Thus begins Landon’s odyssey to win Jamie’s trust and friendship. He’s not a bad boy after all, just someone who has strayed from the right track. Jamie’s father, the local preacher (Peter Coyote), observes Landon with a wary eye, but he is open to hearing what the young boy has to say about his feelings for Jamie. After all, in his efforts to prove to Jamie that he can be a good, hard worker, Landon actually discovers the intrinsic satisfaction of being a moral man.

To people of a certain age, Mandy Moore and Shane West are idols. However, despite the fact that the movie focuses on the love story of a pair of teenagers, “A Walk to Remember” isn’t really a teen movie. The film touches on issues of trust, faith (religious and secular), loss, and gain that most viewers may find a bit “cheesy” given our cynical era. Personally, I don’t think that the movie is overly sentimental since the filmmakers and the actors bring genuine conviction to the project, but it does not spend enough time on developing its themes.

The movie is simply too short to be completely effective. Shane West manages to make Landon’s character arc believable, but Landon and Jamie fall in love so quickly that their romance feels rushed. The script sketches the supporting characters in broad, incomplete strokes, so Landon and Jamie inhabit a world of types, not individuals. The vast majority of movies are too long, but this one should have been given room to breathe and to grow. I recommend the movie to those of you who are interested in seeing two young actors on the verge of stardom, but there are many other movie romances (“Casablanca”) and teen flicks (“Bring It On”) that resonate more deeply than “A Walk to Remember.”

Eddie’s film rating for “A Walk to Remember”: 6/10

Reviewed by John J. Puccio

The Wife-O-Meter had never seen the film before, but she had read the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks and said it made her cry. Right there you’ve got a built-in fan base, particularly among female readers. However, with a script adapted by Jan Sardi, a screenplay by Jeremy Leven, and direction by Nick Cassavetes, “The Notebook” worked for this male viewer as well. It is definitely, as I say, an unabashed weeper for anyone but those with the most stoney of hearts.

Jim Garner plays an older gentleman living in a nursing home, where he reads the film’s story aloud to a fellow patient, played by Gena Rowlands. Her character is suffering from dementia, an impairment of her mental capacities leaving her with a loss of memory. Her doctor says her condition is irreversible, but Garner’s character doesn’t buy it. He feels he can jog her mind if he reads to her each day.

The story he reads concerns a pair of young people, Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams), who in 1940, while in their late teens, fall madly in love. But love ain’t easy, as all of us who have experienced it can testify. She is from a rich Southern family; he works in a lumber yard and lives with his widowed father (Sam Shepard). It’s a typical Romeo and Juliet tale, with Allie’s mother (Joan Allen) especially against the young couple’s plans to run off together. Can anything stop true love? The mother, behaving like the Wicked Witch of the West, certainly does her best to shut things down.

After pressure from Allie’s parents, Noah and Allie’s summer fling ends, and the two young people reluctantly go their separate ways. Seven years pass, and Allie has fallen in love again, this time with Lon Hammond, Jr., “handsome, smart, sophisticated, and charming”; the fact that he is also “fabulously wealthy” impresses Allie’s mother no end, and Allie and Lon become engaged. Meanwhile, Noah has bought a crumbling old plantation mansion, the scene of his first tryst with Allie, with the intent to renovate it. Somehow, he feels that if he restores the old house, Allie will come back to him.

We get two sets of narratives in the movie: the flashback to the youngsters and their romance and the account of the oldsters and their relationship to one another. Both sets of events are poignant, but it is the actions of the older people that eventually win over our hearts and minds.

The movie makes its intentions clear from the outset. It wants you to go with its emotional romanticism, starting with Aaron Zigman’s soft, warmhearted musical score and cinematographer Robert Fraisse’s lushly atmospheric photography. To the cynic it will all seem mushy. If you go with it, which I admit I resisted for a while, it will hook you.

Yes, the characters are stereotypes, and the story is predictable in most ways. Yet, it’s the movie’s saving grace that the characters always remain real, fleshed-out human beings. Even the seemingly one-sided mother and the fiancée turn out to be more dimensional than they first appear. More important, there’s a genuine chemistry between Gosling and McAdams, and Garner and Rowlands have never been better.

Straight-out romance movies are rare these days. In the past decade or so, Hollywood has given us precious few, with ones like “The Painted Veil,” “Atonement,” and “The Bridges of Madison County” among my own personal favorites. Add “The Notebook.”

I have the feeling that movie critics who didn’t like “The Notebook” are ones who saw the story as simply manipulative and overly sentimental. But that’s what romance is about. Love does manipulate people, and love is damned sentimental. What’s more, love is the best thing people have going for them. We need more “Notebooks.”

I hadn’t read the book nor seen the movie before watching “The Notebook” for the first time on disc. After reading what my good friend Tim Raynor had said about it, I prepared myself for a tearjerker; what I didn’t prepare for was an outright gusher. When an older Allie looks out at a river and says “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” Noah responds, looking directly at her, “Neither have I.” From that point on, I had to pause the movie every few minutes to wipe my eyes. And who’da thunk that Jimmy Durante could add such sentiment to the tale. It’s a lovely film.

John’s film rating for “The Notebook”: 7/10

Reviewed by John J. Puccio

Diane Lane and Richard Gere worked so well together in 2002’s “Unfaithful” that Warner Bros. decided to pair them up in 2008’s “Nights in Rodanthe.” The actors once again work well together, but they should have quit when they were ahead. This time out they haven’t got the script to go with their talents.

Director George C. Wolfe made his big-screen directorial debut with “Nights in Rodanthe” after success as a Broadway producer-director and doing several television productions. Screenwriters Ann Peacock and John Romano based their screenplay for the movie on Sparks’s novel. Lane plays a divorced woman, Adrienne Willis, with a teenaged daughter and a ten-year-old son. Her ex-husband, Jack (Christopher Meloni), wants to get back together with her, but Adrienne cannot forgive his infidelity. She has devoted her life to her husband and children and now feels betrayed by his unfaithfulness. To compound matters, her daughter hates her for not allowing the father to return to the fold, and the son finds himself bewildered by it all.

Gere plays Dr. Paul Flanner, a divorced surgeon who has even more problems than Adrienne. He always put his career ahead of his family, one of his female patients accidentally died in a surgery he was performing on her, he’s being sued by the woman’s husband (Scott Glenn), his wife has left him, and his grown son (James Franco), also a doctor, hates him. Whew!

Coincidentally, both Adrienne and Paul wind up in the same isolated inn together in Rodanthe, a small town on the North Carolina coast. She is taking care of the inn for a friend (Viola Davis), and at the moment Paul is the only guest.

Misery loves comfort, I suppose, because Adrienne and Paul quickly find they have a lot in common in terms of personal issues and just as quickly fall into one another’s arms.

Frankly, that’s about it, except for the ending, which I’ll get to in a moment. The story moves along like a two-person filmed stage play. Lane and Gere are in practically every scene together after the initial exposition, and there is only so much a viewer can stand of their empty talk. This is Nicholas Sparks, after all, not Eugene O’Neill, and it’s “Nights in Rodanthe,” not “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” So we can see what’s coming at least two hankies ahead of time.

Yes, it’s good to see a straight romantic movie that involves mature people for a change instead of endless, witless romantic comedies about twenty-year-olds. But a good romance has to have substance, too, or there’s not a lot of reason for it beyond fulfilling some basic need for potboilers. Here, we get a man who loves Dinah Washington songs, a woman with an old phonograph and even older LPs, and a fairy-tale inn that looks like something out of “Lemony Snicket.” It’s that kind of movie.

To punctuate the couple’s dilemmas, the author throws in a hurricane, which seems severe enough to have blown the whole house down but doesn’t. From there, the story gets increasingly passionate, melodramatic, and, finally, maudlin.

The “finally” is the ending, which makes you go “Ah, come on!” It is as unlikely an event as you’ll ever come across, and the author clearly intended it only as another of his usual manipulative plot devices. If the rest of the film simply bores you, the ending will infuriate you. Clearly, Sparks knows what has already sold about a gazillion books for him, so he figures there’s no reason to change the formula now.

Up until its conclusion, “Nights in Rodanthe” is a reasonably romantic story that just happens to make for a mediocre film. It resembles a soap opera more and more as it goes along, and then it does something unforgivable at the close.

We’ve all come to expect a considerable amount of sentimentality in a love story; it comes with the territory. It’s just that “Nights in Rodanthe” lays it on so thick, you’d think the author had written it for folks who had never read or seen another romance before. If you like the actors, you’ll probably like the movie for Lane and Gere; otherwise, it’s a chore. Loved “The Notebook”; could have done without “Nights.”

John’s film rating for “Nights in Rodanthe”: 4/10

All four films come in their native aspect ratios of 2.40:1, transferred to disc in anamorphic widescreen. They all have a somewhat dreamy quality about them, sort of soft and misty to complement the romantic nature of the movies. Definition is fairly good, though, despite the inherent softness of the prints, with a small degree of edge enhancement noticeable on occasion.

I can’t say the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is all that great, and these are obviously not the kinds of films meant to show off one’s surround-sound system. The movies are mostly dialogue driven, after all. Still, you’ll hear the speakers opening up during musical background swells, along with moments of wind, rain, thunder, waves, and other environmental noises. And when bass is needed, you’ll hear the subwoofer rattling the walls, too.

The extras vary from disc to disc, but in general they contain audio commentaries, short featurettes, deleted scenes, filmographies, music videos, cast biographies and film highlights, scene selections, and theatrical trailers. You’ll find English on all of them, of course, plus French and Spanish on others, with English subtitles, and sometimes French and/or Spanish.

On “Message in a Bottle,” for instance, you get an audio commentary with the director, Luis Mandoki, and the producer, Denise Di Novi; five brief featurettes with extra behind-the-scenes footage; six minutes of deleted and extended scenes; a widescreen trailer; cast and crew filmographies; thirty-five scene selections; and English for the spoken language and subtitles.

Parting Shots:
Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks has now provided Hollywood with “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember,” “The Notebook,” and “Nights in Rodanthe.” One has to wonder if anyone besides Sparks is still writing romance novels anymore or if Hollywood is looking to any other author for romantic material. Of these four films, “The Notebook” is far and away the best choice, but for anyone who likes sudsy melodramas, all four films provide the goods, even though they follow formula to the letter.