Dear John

(2010) ** Pg-13
102 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Director: Lasse Hallstrom. Cast: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, D.J. Cotrona.

/content/films/3757/2.jpgA coastline, two lovers, illness, death, and a kissing scene in the rain? This can only be another romantic drama based on the work of Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook). Sparks' novel Dear John attracted slightly tonier talent than usual in director Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape), but the director and cast clearly lack the inspiration to do more than prettily punch the clock.

Punching coins is the metaphor that frames the film, with Army Special Forces soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) describing himself as "punched out of sheet metal," a dutiful servant of country. That loyalty becomes tested when, on leave in North Carolina, he falls for college student Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), who's on spring break. Before you can say, "Two weeks together, that's all it took, two weeks for me to fall for you," two weeks have passed and John has fallen for Savannah. Oh, I see how that works. Anyway, then terrorists fly a plane into the World Trade Center, and John's plans to end his service go awry. That can only mean one thing: love letters! I'm guessing that worked better on the page than it does on the screen.

Luckily, there are other homefront characters to keep the story active: most notably, John's emotionally remote, apparently autistic, coin-collecting father Bill (Richard Jenkins of The Visitor); unlikeable preppy Randy (Scott Porter), who has designs on Savannah; and Savannah's single-father neighbor Tim (Henry Thomas), who just happens to have an autistic son (Luke Benward). Savannah and John trade letters for a while, and there's a weekend leave that allows him to return home to see her and his father. But after some time, she sends a John a letter saying "Dear John" and meaning it, if you know what I mean. Will this be the end of a great romance? Is Savannah really going to marry some other guy? If so, which guy? And we just know at least one person's gonna die, so who's that gonna be? These and other burning questions will either have you reaching for facial tissue or checking your watch.

Dear John isn't a total loss. There's one moment in which the film pulls a nice bait-and-switch, upending our expectations about how to contextualize an intimate letter. But it's only a neat trick, manipulation being Sparks' stock-in-trade. Love stories are admittedly hard to dramatize, but a good start is not to race toward the sappy and the gauzy and the clichéd, and a fine next step would be to employ some distractions from your narrative deficiencies. Like all Sparks movies, Dear John primarily relies on its shoreline, nice houses and pretty leads as distractions, but the movie ends up like a couple of hours of channel-surfing among the Travel Channel, the History Channel and Discovery Health.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/28/2010

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony brings Dear John to Blu-ray in a special edition distinguished by strong A/V credentials. The luxuriant, clean and sharp image here is pretty close to perfection: beautiful color, deep blacks, crystal-clear detail and lifelike textures amount to an ideal viewing experience for this film. The picture is matched with a simple but effective DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that must be considered definitive.

Special features kick off with twelve "Deleted & Alternate Scenes" (10:13, SD), an "Alternate Ending" (3:41, HD), and "Outtakes" (2:24, SD).

"A Conversation with Channing, Amanda, and Lasse" (5:24, HD) turns out to be three separate interviews with Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried and Lasse Hallström intercut into one featurette.

"Transforming Charleston" (14:52, HD) finds producer Marty Bowen, director of photography Terry Stacey, production designer Tara Lindstrom, Hallström, and US Army Lt. Col. Gregory Bishop discussing the impressive use of Charleston, SC for all of the film's settings.

"Military in Movies: Dear John's Military Advisors" (11:03, HD) incorporates comments from Bishop, Tatum, Capt. Gavin McCulley, and Nicholas Sparks.

"Mr. Tyree, The Mule, and Benny Dietz" (4:53, HD) includes comments by picture car coordinator C. Benny Dietz and Richard Jenkins.

"The Story of Braeden Reed" (24:33, HD) is an inspirational documentary about the autistic boy who appears in the film. Participants include Sparks, Henry Thomas, Bowen, Tatum, Seyfried, Hallström, executive producer Jeremiah Samuels, autism technical consultant Phil Blevins, mother Adrienne Reed, father Kevin Reed, first grade teacher Maura Ondo, and livestock coordinator Daniel E. Hydrick, who turns out to be a big softie (and good for him)!

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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