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Notebook: Limited Edition Gift Set, The

New Line // PG-13 // January 20, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 28, 2009 | E-mail the Author

The Film:

The Notebook has this little distinction in many circles as the flick that turns even the staunchest of men into sniveling crybabies. Now, I'll steer clear of nailing myself down as staunch, but I'll certainly man up to being one hooked by the tearjerker of all quixotic tearjerkers. There's a reason for it: despite being served as a romantic locomotive of a chick flick, Nick Cassavetes' adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' first novel is surprisingly good.

Take all of the sappy conventions -- from the choice performances from then-newcomers Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling as starry-eyed lovers, to the epitomic portrayal of imperfect love within class difference -- and picture them handled with delicacy, grace, and brevity, and you've got a good idea of why it outclasses any of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan date flicks or Romeo and Juliet knockoffs. The Notebook is oftentimes singular-minded and out for emotional blood, but the sheer earnestness behind the performances and their beautifully-photographed South Carolina backdrop make it an exercise in romantic drama that's a step well above the other shovel ware.

It all starts with an elderly man named Duke (James Garner, assorted flavors of Maverick) reading aloud to an older woman (Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence) to pass the time at their nursing home. He spins the story -- taking both of them back to the '40s -- of Noah (Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson), a dusty sawmill worker from the other side of the tracks trying to court Allie (Rachel McAdams, Red Eye), a debonair yet artistic girl with fire in her spirit. They fight, kiss, make-up, and repeat over the course of a sleepy Carolina summer, falling more madly in love with each fracture that they mend in their relationship. But the strong arms of Allie's well-to-do mother and father would separate the two track-crossing lovebirds, resulting in a situation where the two would drift apart in times of war, prolonged separation, others lovers, and ultimately acceptance of their misaligned lives. Love letters would fly and the kids would grow up, but would this crazy universe throw Noah and Allie back in the thick of it again?

Under more haphazard direction, adaptations of Nicholas Sparks' brand of novel-esque romance can be heavy on the emotive and light on the substance -- with nothing on their mind but soaking tissues underneath tear ducts. This, however, is to Nick Cassavetes' gain, as he finds a way to infuse honesty and tact into The Notebook's storybook stature in a framework of one-dimensional fluff pieces. He conducts Noah and Allie's relationship into a grand symphonic romance full of flamboyant ebbs and flows, but with a rhythm structured specifically to dodge the genre's potential at alienating more reality-bound filmgoers. It still throws every single cliché in the spectrum of romantic cinema at you in a picturesque whirlwind -- the awkward courting, the foreboding parents, and, lest we forget the earth-shattering kiss accompanied by bold lines of idyllic sweetness -- but it all comes together into a meet-cute that actually sells the sentiment from the first moments that Duke cracks open the book.

The key to The Notebook's signature stature rests in the hands of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams's chemistry. Before working with Cassavetes, now Academy-award nominated Gosling's repertoire consisted of appearances in some television work alongside smaller roles in Remember the Titans and The United States of Leland, while McAdams had only popped on the radar after appearing in the better-than-it-should-be high school satire Mean Girls. In short, they were relatively faceless when they were plopped in their roles as Noah and Allie, though that wouldn't last long once the buzz about their chemistry started to circulate around The Notebook's release time.

What makes them both right for their parts -- as well as being characters that we can actually identify with -- comes in their ability to portray their two stereotypical characters in a way that convincingly reveals undercurrent layers to their personalities, from Noah's vein of unbridled love beneath his simple exterior to Allie's desire for independence. Somehow, through character predictability, they etch out two legitimately affectionate and earnest entities that hit on every note that similar roles to theirs have hit, only they do it with a certain kind of gusto and solemnity that reaches back to old Hollywood for their passionate essence.

There's an overzealous, dream-like quality to The Notebook's heartfelt billowing, but it finds justification to be as such by existing as the whimsical memories of a classic romance -- all told through sensory invigoration within two elderly people as they gingerly walk the grounds of their retirement home. Older individuals used as storyteller framing devices have deflated many a story in my eyes, excluding Saving Private Ryan, but James Garner and Gena Rowlands sell the encapsulation well. Sparks' story only contains a mild amount of mystery behind its churning plot, which becomes the central item fueling Garner and Rowlands' performances. With their seasoned acting chops, they're able to gracefully reveal the answer to the story's sole question with a combination of delicate line delivery and facial gestures that embodies the spirit of reminiscence.

Combined with stellar photography from Seven Years in Tibet and Hotel Rwanda cinematographer Robert Fraisse, watching The Notebook come to its heart-wrenching and poetic close becomes a surprisingly ample experience for a romantic drama. All the beauty within its sumptuous South Carolina cinematography -- from the foreshadowing scene with Noah and Allie dancing in the street, to their magical boat ride through the geese-laden wetland -- expresses some form of cyclical meaning and modest symbolism that enriches its paint-by-numbers formula. Is The Notebook a sprawling, thematic love story to the caliber of Casablanca or Brief Encounter? No, and it doesn't try to be. It's more akin to a surrealist romance: a thirty-second fable told with embellishment and magic over its two-hour span, all in a way that helps it to blossom into a bold and maudlin wedge of modern-era romance. Duke phrases it best himself in Cassavetes' film: it's not known for great accomplishments or monuments in its name, but it loves deeply and truly. To its audience, that's enough.

The Blu-ray:

Guys should prepare to emasculate their Blu-ray collection just a hair or two if they plan on purchasing The Notebook: Limited Edition Gift Set. Along with a scrapbook that holds the Blu-ray disc itself in a digipack plastic tray on the inner back cover, this package also includes the following: two attractively-designed bookmarks, stickers that read "True Love" and "Smile" and the like, picture-holding corner stickers, and a stationary set -- all themed with the Notebook font and marketing materials. It all comes encased in a sturdy book-style cardboard box with a matte finish, none of which carries the Blu-ray logo anywhere. Be forewarned: the packaging is rather large, roughly a bit taller than a DVD-sized case and about as thick as say four or five Blu-ray cases.

Note: Screenshots in this review captured from the 2005 New Line Platinum Series DVD, which do not represent Blu-ray disc quality.

Video and Audio:

The Notebook debuted in 2005 with a pleasantly radiant standard-definition transfer that showcased the film's photography to an apt degree. However, it's one of those sumptuous visual experiences where the scenery and set design really help to tell the story, thus being a choice chunk of film to give 1080p screens a colorful, richly-detailed workout. New Line have presented Cassavetes' film in its original 2.35:1 framing (though listed at 2.4:1 on the packaging), served in a rich VC-1 encode that deftly presents its original visual design with a strongly similar color scheme. The big difference in palette adjustment can be seen in the livelier skin tones, which display ample competence in skin texture and flesh tones. Darker scenes display ample levels of contrast proficiency, giving darker scenes gorgeous depth and dimensionality.

Film grain can clearly be seen as well, giving the source material a strong cinematic feel to the image's texture. When following character and object motion, the pixel and grain structure follow along splendidly without distortion. Though present, this grain doesn't overshadow many of the film's other richly-detailed sequences -- from the textures on the traditional '40s clothing and wood grains to the sheer level of detail presented against classic cars (very slight aliasing visible in one grille), decorative flowers, textures in streets, and the scenic South Carolina nature photography. Minor bits of enhancement can be spotted against a few bodily contours and edges during crowded scenes, yet the volume of impressive sequences without edge enhancement vastly outnumbers them. It's a largely clean print -- only sporting one or two white blips and hairline flickers -- that presents The Notebook in a shiny, colorfully rich high-definition transfer that delivers.

To accompany this 1080p transfer, they've paired it with a bumped-up Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. It preserves the film's front-heavy nature, only stretching to the rear channels for musical accompaniment and environmental ambiance. Clarity, however, is absolutely top-shelf here, never rendering a voice, sputtering car exhaust, or smattering of rain inaudible. It shows off very subtle LFE work, stretching to the middle-range bass extremities for light thumps against the floor and punches against wooden paneling. There are a few moments where the sound gets a little on the hollow side, but just by a small amount. Overall, it's a strong TrueHD accompaniment that gives welcome breadth to the soundstage. A standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track has also been included, along with German and Russian 5.1 tracks -- all available with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, Russian, and German languages.

Special Features:

Quick answer: everything from the 2005 Special Edition of The Notebook has found its way over to this Blu-ray edition, with nothing earmarked aside from a higher resolution presentation for the Deleted Scenes. Though they're all encoded in VC-1, most of them are direct transfers from the DVD to the Blu-ray.

Commentary from Nick Cassavetes:
Son of independent filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes, Nick certainly knows his craft -- and how to compose a commentary track; keeping an energetic disposition throughout the entire track, he clearly shows his knowledge and passion for film with each scene. He gets into Film School 101 type of material -- talking about his position during scenes, second unit locations, and actor motivations -- but he also remains vibrant and entertaining during the earnest parts of his track.

Commentary from Novelist Nicholas Sparks:
Taking a more docile approach, Nicholas Sparks leans more towards a two-hour recording of the history behind both the film and the book instead of scene-specific eommentary -- which is well and good, considering Cassavetes does the opposite in his track. He reveals some of the changes made to the novel, his feeling on the actors playing int he film, as well as the lengthy time it took to adapt The Notebook to the big screen.

All in the Family: Nick Cassavetes (11:39)
Focusing on the experience working with Cassavetes on the film, this featurette goes into a few of his methods and choices during the filming process. It highlights his relationship to his father John and mother Gena Rowlands, blending interview time with the rest of the cast and crew to place emphasis on his directorial style -- one that differs great from his father's (try watching Faces after this). It's heavy with giddy celebration for the director, but still includes some nice behind-the-scenes footage and interview time that makes it worth the watch.

Nicholas Sparks: A Simple Story, Well Told (6:37):
Like the featurette focusing on Cassavetes, this one closes in on author Nicholas Sparks. It covers the story of how he wrote The Notebook -- his first novel -- as well as his response to the critical acclaim it's received. Short, fairly to-the-point backslapping at its finest.

Southern Exposure: Locating The Notebook (11:33):
As my favorite feature from the assortment, this lengthy featurette covers the different shooting locations used int he film. Cast and crew get together to discuss how they integrated art design, South Carolina locations, and script points to give the film its beautiful look. Focus also falls on the movie theater used in the film, the American, which is still used today as a premiere corporate venue. The flow of this featurette feels like the others in speed and haughtiness, but the content is worth the struggle.

Casting Rachel and Ryan (4:07):
At only four (4) minutes in length, it's understandable that this little featurette stays fairly surface-level. It mixes footage from the film, interviews, and behind-the-scenes shots to tell the story of how the two were cast.

Also included are roughly twenty-nine (29) minutes of Deleted Scenes with optional commentary with editor Alan Heim, a Rachel McAdams Screen Test that focuses on a highly emotional moment late in the film, and a warm Theatrical Trailer presented in a low-definition image.

Final Thoughts:

The Notebook breathes in every ounce of romantic genre convention, then blows it all out into an epitomized, attentive yarn of love between classes. It doesn't deviate from the traditional romance formula -- boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy rows his rowboat and remodels a house in a drunken stupor -- but the way that Nick Cassavetes directs lead actors Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling transforms it into a grandiose love story brimming with honesty and audience-conscious tenderness. Cassavetes' film knows how to convey its feelings without pushing the envelope, and it comes together into an enjoyable blubberfest.

New Line's Blu-ray is up to the challenge in making this modern romance classic a visually sumptuous affair, as its given a strong VC-1 transfer that focuses on lush color and detail through natural film grain to enchant its audience. Matched with a strong Dolby TrueHD track that aligns well with the film's mannerisms, The Notebook offers a strong high-definition viewing experience that comes with a high recommendation. Though it makes certain to carry over all of the special features from the fairly-comprehensive 2005 Special Edition, the lack of any additional pieces (outside of heightened resolution for the deleted material) and the higher price tag ($40) for this lavish set take it down to being a strongly Recommended purchase. Still, fans of the film will greatly enjoy the extra goodies and the packaging if they decide to invest for this set.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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