The Films of Nick Cassavetes
Unhook the Stars
She's So Lovely
The Notebook (November 29/08)
An unabashedly old-fashioned romance, The Notebook primarily revolves around the unlikely relationship that ensues between rich city girl Allie (Rachel McAdams) and poor country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) over the course of one particularly eventful summer. The movie also features a wrap-around story in which an aging Allie (Gena Rowlands), now a shell of her former self due to Alzheimer's, is regaled with tales of said romance by a kindly fellow resident (James Garner's Duke), though it does become clear that Duke's feelings towards Allie are more than just friendly. Director Nick Cassavetes - working from Jan Sardi and Jeremy Leven's adaptation of Nicolas Sparks' novel - has infused The Notebook with an irresistibly romantic atmosphere that's elevated by the palpable chemistry between Gosling and McAdams, with the stars' stellar, almost hypnotic work effectively allowing the viewer to overlook some of the film's more egregiously sentimental elements. It's also worth noting that the Rowlands/Garner stuff is generally just as engaging, though the decision to focus entirely on their exploits in the film's closing minutes dilutes the power of the flashbacks' admittedly affecting resolution. And while the relentlessly syrupy vibe might be a bit too much for certain viewers to handle, The Notebook - for those who buy into its ultra-idealized modus operandi - ultimately comes off as one of contemporary cinema's most compelling and flat-out indelible love stories.
Alpha Dog (January 10/07)
Sporadically intriguing but ultimately ineffective, Alpha Dog - based on the true story of notorious fugitive Jesse James Hollywood - follows a group of wealthy thugs (led by Emile Hirsch's Johnny Truelove) as they inadvertently find themselves caught up in a kidnapping scheme. Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, the movie proceeds at a snail's pace for much of its opening hour - a problem that's exacerbated by the filmmaker's reluctance to offer up compelling (or even likable) characters. This is despite the inclusion of several unexpectedly effective performances, with Ben Foster and Justin Timberlake (!) certainly two of the most obvious examples of this. But Cassavetes' decision to initially place the emphasis on the hard-partying exploits of his characters prevents the viewer from connecting with the storyline, although - admittedly - this does start to change once the whole kidnapping angle kicks in. Yet there's no denying that - as a whole - Alpha Dog just never quite takes off; that Hirsch is unable to convincingly step into Truelove's shoes doesn't help matters (he's a good actor, certainly, but there's little doubt that he's woefully out of his league in this role). Cassavetes' various attempts to infuse the proceedings with an edgy vibe fall flat, while the overlong running time and needlessly protracted conclusion dulls the impact of the film's surprisingly effective midsection. Alpha Dog's failure to rise above its inherently dull premise ensures that most viewers will be left scratching their heads at the inclusion of so many familiar faces among the film's cast, although - if nothing else - the movie does prove that Timberlake isn't even remotely as objectionable an actor as one might've expected.
My Sister's Keeper
Shamelessly manipulative and relentlessly sentimental, My Sister's Keeper nevertheless establishes itself as a solid, consistently compelling tearjerker that's anchored by several Oscar-caliber performances. The movie, based on Jodi Picoult's novel, follows 11-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) as she hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin's Campbell Alexander) and launches a lawsuit against her parents (Cameron Diaz's Sara and Jason Patric's Brian) for control of her own body, after spending years effectively keeping her leukemia-stricken sister (Sofia Vassilieva's Kate) alive with donations of various bodily fluids and materials. Director and co-writer Nick Cassavetes generally does an effective job of streamlining Picoult's engrossing yet overstuffed narrative, with his decision to jettison a few of the book's more overtly superfluous elements (ie a supporting character's pyromania, Campbell's rekindled relationship with an old girlfriend, etc) playing an instrumental role in the film's success. The inherently engaging storyline admittedly does feel as though it'd be right at home within the confines of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, yet there's little doubt that My Sister's Keeper consistently manages to rise above its similarly-themed, undeniably low-rent brethren (including another recent adaptation of Picoult's work, The Tenth Circle) - with Caleb Deschanel's lush cinematography and, especially, the performances ensuring that the film is ultimately able to transcend its melodramatic origins. And while Diaz's turn as Anna's frantic mother occasionally borders on the histrionic, the movie otherwise boasts some seriously impressive acting from a cast that also includes David Thornton, Joan Cusack, and Thomas Dekker - although it's Vassilieva's hypnotic, downright revelatory work that stands as My Sister's Keeper's most indelible (and flat-out affecting) attribute. The end result is a stirring drama that comes off as a perfect antidote to the over-the-top summer fare currently dominating multiplexes, with its unapologetically old-fashioned sensibilities effortlessly setting it apart from its low-key competition.