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Entries in Nicholas Sparks (5)

Friday
Jun062014

The Fault in Our Stars

It’s easy to roll your eyes when a film’s central theme is cancer. While such an affliction is inarguably sad, its handling in the movies is typically heavy-handed. The natural drama from the disease never seems to be enough for some filmmakers, who use manipulative tactics in a lame attempt to get the audience to cry, likely to hide the fact that their movie just simply isn’t very good. A good example of such a film is 2002’s Nicholas Sparks schlock-fest, “A Walk to Remember.” But whereas that film got nearly everything wrong, “The Fault in Our Stars” gets nearly everything right. Despite a moment or two of phony dramatics, this is an achingly real movie, one that explores the struggles of trying to live an everyday life with cancer and forming relationships that others take for granted. If the audience at my screening is any indication, both tears of joy and immense sadness will be shed by most who watch. Rarely have I ever had to fight so hard to hold back from sobbing uncontrollably in a theater as I did with “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Based on the 2012 book by John Green, the film follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenage cancer patient who hauls around a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes so she can breathe. At the behest of her mother (Laura Dern), she attends a support group for young cancer patients where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has been in remission for some time, despite having to lose a leg to get to that point. She immediately finds him charming and he, unintimidated by the breathing apparatus she’s forced to use, thinks she’s beautiful. They strike up a friendship, which quickly evolves into something more.

The story is told from Hazel’s point of view and she lets us know through some early narration that what we’re about to see isn’t always going to be pleasant. She says she enjoys a fairy tale Hollywood romance just as much as the next person, but life with cancer isn’t that simple, apologizing at the end for the potential sadness we’re about to feel. You see, Hazel isn’t an entirely happy person, and why should she be? She’s suffering from a debilitating sickness that is likely to take her life sooner rather than later and every moment leading up to that inevitable conclusion is going to be filled with hardship and pain. When she finally speaks up in that aforementioned support group, she doesn’t offer words of encouragement as her fellow teenage cancer patients do; she instead comments on how everyone is going to die, that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after and nobody will be around to remember anyone else. Essentially, life is meaningless, a stark contrast to the religious setting surrounding her.

But Gus changes her. It may go without saying, but she finally starts living. She starts getting excited about the future, despite the knowledge of her impending death in the back of her mind. Before meeting Gus, the only relationships she had were with her parents and doctors, but he opens doors she never thought she’d get to pass through. In her mind, she’s an undesirable, a sickly girl forced to breathe through a tube in her nose, but Gus sees her real beauty. Gus, being the selfless person he is, uses his still redeemable “final wish” to make her happy, taking Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author (since she wasted hers on Disneyland at age 13, “a terrible wish,” he says). Gus, as portrayed by relative newcomer Ansel Elgort, is charismatic, funny, optimistic and all around likable. Coupled with the radiant Woodley, they make one of the best onscreen couples in recent memory.

It’s their talent and chemistry that makes the movie as good as it is. It’s not perfect, however, and hits a lull when they finally meet up with that author, played by Willem Dafoe. He’s such a cruel, overly standoffish character that the drama that emerges from their interaction feels forced. Although his character serves a purpose later in the movie, the way his initial introduction is handled is sloppy and over-the-top. Every movie needs a good conflict—that’s storytelling 101—but the presence of cancer and all of its complications is enough here, these scenes merely an unnecessary detour in an otherwise smooth ride.

“Depression isn’t a side effect of cancer; it’s a side effect of dying,” Hazel says cynically in the beginning narration. It’s an interesting quote, but after meeting Gus, she comes to realize that she was wrong because even on their worst days, the two felt an unexplainable happiness they had never felt before. All that mattered was that they were together and, with the knowledge that tomorrow, in a very real sense, may not come, they needed to make each moment count. Nearly every scene has something to love and every moment Gus and Hazel spend together is special because you, just like them, don’t know how long it’s going to last. The movie is an excellent reminder that we should cherish our time on Earth and be thankful for the relationships we have because nothing lasts forever.

It may not be a big budget action blockbuster, but the tremendously powerful “The Fault in Our Stars” is nevertheless one of the summer’s best.

The Fault in Our Stars receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Feb142013

Safe Haven

There was a great article on Cracked.com a couple years back called “How to Write a Nicholas Sparks Movie.” After a quick critique of the marketing for his movies and his approach to telling his stories, it breaks down the facts:

1) Nicholas Sparks is an author who churns out about one romance novel a year.

2) All of these books are almost immediately made into movies.

3) All of these books are the same book.

Truer words have never been spoken and because of this, Nicholas Sparks stories always come with a large degree of predictability. If a film critic going to his latest book-turned-movie adaptation were to write his or her entire review before seeing the film, roughly 90% of it would be accurate. For years, Sparks has been telling the exact same story, repackaging them with a new disease or tragedy and puking them out to the public. Such monotony means that his movies are largely dependent on the strength of the main characters and the chemistry they create onscreen.

More often than not, the leads aren’t up to the task, but Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough in this week’s Safe Haven are different. Their relationship rings true and actually works, despite the cheese they’re forced to work with. Katie (Hough) is on the run from a police officer that is hot on her trail for unknown reasons. She eventually lands in a small town in North Carolina where she meets widower Alex (Duhamel). She’s initially reluctant to pursue his advances, but his charm eventually wins her over and they begin seeing each other.

For the first time, at least as far as his movie adaptations go, Sparks switches it up. Safe Haven isn’t a straight forward romance, though it of course features all of the Sparks gooeyness we’ve come to expect. It’s actually somewhat of a romantic thriller and is amped up with a mystery. Kudos must be given to him for mixing his all-too-familiar formula up a bit, but unfortunately, the film suffers from terrible timing. In any other circumstance, such a change would be welcome, but because the leads are so good together here, the movie, ironically enough, works best as an aforementioned straight forward romance. It’s in the thriller elements that the film ultimately fails.

Just as Katie is adjusting happily to her new life, that cop tracks her down and the chase is on. What follows is a twist of Lifetime movie proportions, where the man’s role of keeper-of-the-peace turns to something more sinister. At this point, the dialogue gets hammier, the music gets more manipulative and the scenarios become more clichéd. It gets so ludicrous, it begins to feel like the film has somehow transitioned to a daytime soap opera. This feeling is only enhanced once another, final twist rears its ugly head. Although obvious in retrospect due to its none-too-subtle foreshadowing, it’s handled so clumsily and fits the context of the story so poorly that it’s difficult to predict. Frankly, Sparks is such a simplistic writer, even the most discernible viewer will refuse to give him enough credit to pull such a silly, out-of-left-field move.

It’s a conflicting feeling as a film critic who has sat through each and every Sparks movie. I’ve begged for Sparks to do something different for years and now that he finally has, the result is shoddy at best. Josh Duhamel is one of the few leading romance men who is charming and, despite his looks, can come off as vulnerable and Julianne Hough compliments him perfectly with her own beauty and vulnerability (the latter of which is brought out more by her above average performance than the writing that gives her character that trait). Dumping them in an inane thriller was the wrong way to go. What Safe Haven proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is that thrillers aren’t Nicholas Sparks’ strong suit. Then again, neither are romances. With any luck, he’ll stop writing both and we won’t have to sit through any more of these movies.

Safe Haven receives 2/5

Friday
Apr202012

The Lucky One

I’ve never read a Nicholas Sparks novel, so I can’t speak for their quality. For all I know, they’re wonderfully written sweeping romances that even the most jaded lover would embrace. His prose could be beautiful, describing in perfect detail the characters in his stories, their settings and the events they go through. I honestly don’t know, but as a simple storyteller, Sparks lacks creativity. Having seen every one of his book-to-film adaptations, from 1999’s Message in a Bottle to this week’s The Lucky One, I can say without a doubt the man doesn’t know how to craft a story. All he does is take the same basic formula, repackage it with a new traumatic event or life ending illness and crap it out onto the page, or in this case, the screen, for public consumption. He had some luck with the solid (yet still overrated) romance, The Notebook, but when you’re seven movies in and only one can legitimately be called good, it’s time to stop.

The Lucky One follows Logan (Zac Efron), a US Marine who has served three tours in Iraq. While on his last tour of duty, he spots a picture of a beautiful woman named Beth (Taylor Schilling) on the ground a few feet away from where he’s standing. His intrigue gets the best of him, so he walks over to pick it up. Just as he reaches the picture, a missile detonates behind him. The picture saved his life. When he gets back to the states, he decides to seek the girl in the photo out. He finds her in North Carolina, but doesn’t know how to explain to her what happened and why he has traveled so far from his home state of Colorado to see her. So instead, he takes a job she and her grandmother Ellie (Blythe Danner) are offering training dogs. Eventually, a romance sparks, but his secret can’t be kept hidden forever and it will threaten their happiness, especially if Beth’s ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), can do anything about it.

Nicholas Sparks is not a romance writer. He’s a schmaltz writer, a hack hiding behind the guise of a hopeless romantic. His stories rarely earn their tears through good writing and interesting characters, but rather through manipulation. Sparks has an affinity for putting his characters through the wringer so his easily seduced literary and movie going demographic will feel something other than ambivalence. It’s not enough for the characters to have terrible things happen to them within the current setting of the story; he has to give them tragic pasts as well. When Beth says at one point that both her parents died in a car crash when she was young, the thought that comes to mind isn’t of sympathy or sadness, but rather of cynicism: “Of course they did.”

If you’ve seen the other movies based on Sparks’ books, this should come as no surprise, nor should the predictably overblown ending. Anyone can take someone else’s material, change a few things around and call it an original concept, but Sparks does it to himself. He’s a lazy storyteller without an original thought in his head, but that’s only offensive in the figurative sense. His recent trend of trivializing important world events and issues to fit his romantic upchucks is far worse. Similar to how Dear John used the tragedy of 9/11, The Lucky One uses the Iraq war and the post traumatic stress disorder many of our soldiers are diagnosed with after returning home to segue into fluffy romantic nonsense. At certain points in the movie, you see Logan jump in fear as he hears a loud bang or gunfire coming from the television as some kids play some video games. Later, his nephew wakes him from his slumber and he immediately slams the kid down on the bed and begins to choke him. What happens to many of those who return from war is a serious matter and is worthy of serious dramatic consideration, but using it as a means to sucker in easily emotionalized viewers is not only clumsy storytelling, but also disrespectful to the reality of such a thing.

The rest of The Lucky One fares about as one might expect: forced dramatic scenarios brought on by heightened caricatures, numerous montages set to the backdrop of a sappy sweet melody and lots of distant staring, one person emotionally longing for the other. In just about every way possible, The Lucky One is redundant, both of Sparks’ other stories and of the romance genre in general. It brings nothing new to the table, instead relying on the same contrived narrative procedures that fans of this tripe inexplicably eat up. If you’re one of those people, The Lucky One will do its job, but all others should steer clear.

The Lucky One receives 1/5

Thursday
Apr012010

The Last Song

If you're like me, a lot of movies have lost their zest to you. After seeing and writing about hundreds of films on this website, I've gotten to the point where the majority of films are so predictable I could tell you what happens in them scene by scene based soley off the trailer. They all follow a formula set by the dozens and dozens of precedents before them. Nicholas Sparks book adaptations are perhaps the easiest to decipher. If you've seen The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe or the recent Dear John, you're familiar with the endings. As I watched his latest, Miley Cyrus helmed feature, The Last Song, I couldn't help but continually ask myself: who's going to die in this one?

Cyrus plays Ronnie Miller, a rebellious teen on her way down south to live with her father, Steve, played by Greg Kinnear, for the summer. She's a hardened person, already convicted of shoplifting, and she has a "down with authority" attitude. You can tell because she has a nose stud and wears leather boots. Watch out Lindsay Lohan! You may have some competition.

Ronnie has a little brother named Jonah, played by Bobby Coleman, who is accompanying her on her stay. While he is excited to see his father, a person he has spent little time with since the divorce, she can't wait to go home. She hates her dad because he left her, but while there she meets a strapping young lad named Will Blakelee, played by Liam Hemsworth, who starts to turn her world around. Through him, she becomes happier and starts to reconnect with her father, but with only the summer to spend there, will she be able to find true happiness?

If you take the time to really think about what happens at the end of these movies, you'll realize that all of them, with the exception of The Notebook, end without the relationship lasting. It almost seems like Sparks is a jaded lover, pessimistic from bad experiences brought on by past flings.

Without saying how, The Last Song ends in a decidedly different way, not closing the book on the story for good, but rather implying future events. While it may not reach the height of The Notebook (and is barely recommendable by any standard of quality filmmaking), it's a sweet story with an ending that really works, sans the cheese.

The biggest problem with Sparks' book-to-movie adaptations is that they never know when to quit. Instead of letting the emotion pour through naturally, they shove it in your face and try to force you to feel sadness. This is no deviation. I cared about all of these characters. Their performances were good and their chemistry was excellent. Cyrus and Hemsworth seem like naturals together (as they should since they are dating in actuality) and the father/son relationship between Greg Kinnear and little Bobby Coleman is as precious as can be. When tragedy struck (as was inevitable), I cared. I didn't want the events to play out this way. The movie had done its job. It had me in its grasp, so why so maudlin? Why take the emotion you've just spent the last hour and a half building and crush it under the weight of schlocky sentimentality?

What started as a somewhat uneven, but still solid little tearjerker went the way of Nights in Rodanthe and A Walk to Remember. At the end, when I was supposed to be sad, I was fighting back laughter solely so I wouldn't ruin the experience for any of my movie going patrons who may have been tricked by its overemotional gushing.

As the credits rolled and the lights came back up, however, I still found myself content with giving it my stamp of approval. It's funny, it's sweet, it's meaningful and it goes to show that you must learn to forgive those who have hurt you before the chance passes. It's nothing special, but there's something in The Last Song that keeps its heart beating despite its problems.

The Last Song receives 2.5/5

Friday
Feb052010

Dear John

When you walk into a theater to see a film based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, you know exactly what you're getting. Much like his previous adaptations, Nights in Rodanthe, A Walk to Remember and The Notebook, Dear John attempts to tug at the heartstrings. Unfortunately, it's so derivative of other romances, not to mention his previous big screen counterparts, that it comes off as hokey, a cloyingly sentimental exercise in derivativeness. You know that old cliché in these types of movies where somebody receives a letter and the writer of the letter is heard reading it through voice-over? Dear John is an hour and 40 minutes of that.

Channing Tatum plays John Tyree, a soldier in the US Army who is on leave for a couple of weeks and back visiting his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. After pretty girl Savannah, played by Amanda Seyfried, stupidly places her purse on the railing of a pier overtop the beach water causing it to fall off, she meets John who jumps in and grabs it for her. She invites him to a party she's throwing that night and sparks fly. Although John has another 12 months to serve, Savannah promises to wait for him. However, during this time, the attacks on September 11th occur which causes him to re-enlist. This means he will be gone for another two years while back home Savannah and his autistic father, played by Richard Jenkins, wait for him. To keep in touch, John and Savannah promise to write each other as often as they can and detail everything they do. This way, they will be with each other all the time even when they aren't at all.

Here's the thing about Dear John. The title obviously reflects back on what occurs in the movie, but a more accurate one would have simply been Montage. Dear John features the largest number of montages in any film in the last 20 years, perhaps ever. If it wasn't a montage that occurred over the aforementioned letter readings, it was while Savannah and John were together kissing and laughing like one of those couples you hate seeing in public. You know the ones; those gooey, mushy pairs who waltz around downtown like they're the only people there, unaware that you don't want to see them shove their tongues down each other's throats.

The thing about this film that irritated me the most though wasn't the annoying excess of montages, or even the manipulative attempt to make me cry. It was that I simply didn't care. It never gave me a reason to. Truth be told, nothing too tragic really occurs. That's not to say what does isn't sad, but considering the alternate possibilities, things could have been a whole lot worse. It went a different route than expected, which I appreciated, but in doing so it took away that emotional punch to the gut that this romance story so desperately needed.

If I'm being honest, Dear John isn't all that bad. It has problems, but it also has some high points. The way the film dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 was smart and focused. It didn't show the panic on a national scale. It showed how it affected a certain number of people in a seemingly small community and how it affected the soldiers, especially the ones already enlisted before the attacks, who found a renewed patriotism within themselves to stay and fight despite a waiting family back home.

The chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried was also surprisingly authentic. I bought their relationship, at least when they were together, though for much of the movie they were not. Their emotions ran the gamut during different situations and it was nice to see some flexibility in their acting, though Tatum is still not convincing during the more intense scenes.

All of that is handled with poise, but it's another one of those movies you watch and ask yourself when it's over: what's the point? There's nothing new about Dear John and its incessant use of cheesy montages will dissuade many from taking a liking to it. It's better than A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe, but doesn't come close to the effectiveness of The Notebook. Dear John rests squarely in the middle of those two extremes.

Dear John receives 2/5