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The Ultimate Gift DVD Review

The Ultimate Gift movie poster The Ultimate Gift

Theatrical Release: March 9, 2007 / Running Time: 117 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Michael O. Sajbel

Cast: Drew Fuller (Jason Stevens), Bill Cobbs (Mr. Theophilus Hamilton), Abigail Breslin (Emily Rose), Ali Hillis (Alexia Rose), Mircea Monroe (Caitlin), Brett Rice (Bill Stevens), Lee Meriwether (Miss Hastings), Brian Dennehy (Gus), James Garner (Howard "Red "Stevens), Donna Cherry (Sarah Stevens), D. David Morin (Jack Stevens)

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By Albert Gutierrez

Every so often, a movie comes along that makes viewers re-evaluate their lives and wonder "What have I done and what else can I do to improve someone else's life?" The Ultimate Gift not only answers that latter question, but it does so through a compelling story that successfully blends endearing family drama with an intimate, personal journey to redemption.
Based on Jim Stovall's bestselling novel, the movie tells the tale of twentysomething Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), who has only two things on his mind: having fun and having money. He's distant from his family, lives off his trust fund, and has a shameless disregard for those less fortunate than himself.

Upon the death of wealthy magnate Red Stevens (James Garner), his entire family comes together for the reading of the will, only to find that Red's large estate is left to them in small pieces, and not within their own greedy control. Red, however, has set aside a series of gifts for grandson Jason, leading to what he calls "The Ultimate Gift." Initially believing it will lead him to a lot more money, Jason begrudgingly decides to accept the gifts, only to find himself in Texas working for rancher Gus (Brian Dennehy), an old friend of his grandfather. From manual labor to a month of poverty to being kidnapped by drug lords, Jason's perspective on life slowly changes as he realizes that there is indeed more to life than his own petty problems.

Drew Fuller (of "Charmed") plays self-centered Jason Stevens, the protagonist to-be-changed in "The Ultimate Gift." Red (James Garner) speaks to his grandson from beyond the grave in an elaborate series of instructive messages, filmed in glorious widescreen.

In assuming the tasks assigned to him, Jason discovers more about his grandfather, as well as the truth behind Jason's father's tragic death. At his side, somewhat accidentally, are single mother Alexia (Ali Hillis) and her leukemia-stricken daughter Emily (Abigail Breslin). Jason uses them to fulfill a "true friends" requirement to get to the next level of gifts, but he grows to love and care for them, more than he can for his own family. Eventually, Jason does inherit a large sum of money, and through the lessons he has learned from the previous gifts, discovers that he has indeed also received "The Ultimate Gift."

Taken at face value, some of the characters can be unabashedly ridiculous. Jason goes from cold and selfish to emotionally drained and repentant, then somehow ends up a dandy ole businessman who has redeemed himself. If not for his stubborn endurance at completing his tasks, I would have written him off in the first five minutes. Also, the portrayal of his family as a group of stereotypical and dysfunctional rich folk almost screams "Dynasty", or better yet "Dallas", complete with Southern drawls and overlapping arguments. While young Emily comes off as wise beyond her years, I found her to be one of the few realistic characters as her attitude and personality was reminiscent of Mattie Stepanek, the author of the Heartsongs book series and poster child of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Mr. Hamilton (Bill Cobbs) and Miss Hastings ('60s Catwoman and 1955 Miss America Lee Meriwether) are the company employees who deal directly with Jason on his path towards the Ultimate Gift. Rancher Gus (Brian Dennehy) is part of the first character-building challenge: manual labor in Texas.

Usually a movie can be saved from its poorly-developed characters if the story is told properly, and that is where The Ultimate Gift exceeds expectations. We're not meant to believe that these characters are realistic in any sense of the word, it's the story that draws us in.
Inspirational and heartwarming are the best ways to describe Jason's journey, and viewers can easily identify with the "gifts" he receives. Another area where the film succeeds is in its cast as it blends seasoned pros like James Garner, Bill Cobbs, and Brian Dennehy with promising young stars like Drew Fuller and Abigail Breslin. The performances are subtle and reserved across the board, showcasing the actors' strengths while keeping their characters worth watching. The talented cast is guided by a capable director in Christian filmmaker Michael O. Sajbel (One Night with the King).

It's easy to see just why The Ultimate Gift works. It's not trying to be the cinematic masterpiece of our time. It's the rare movie that does its job of entertaining the audience while offering a chance for them to really think about what matters most in life. The touching story isn't restricted to movie-of-the-week sentimentality, offering a pensive and wistful examination of the true value of life.

Buy The Ultimate Gift on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English),
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (Narration for the Visually Impaired)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 21, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98 (Reduced from $27.98)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Filmed and presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, 16x9-enhanced The Ultimate Gift looks like a cross between Lifetime original movie and a conventional theatrical film. The location shoots in Ecuador (or a great outdoors that can pass for it) provide a nice and lush contrast to the typical cityscapes and sets of the rest of the movie. Colors and sharpness are not as polished or pristine as I'd like, but then, I received a screener disc. Naturally, the final retail version will benefit from a higher bitrate, and even so, the video on my copy is still acceptable, despite the occasional 20th Century Fox logo.

As usual, there's a fairly standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track in English. The mix has its ups and downs, literally, as dialogue comes out strong, but occasionally the music will slightly overpower it (thank goodness for captions!). However, we get a nice surprise in the inclusion of a narration track for visually impaired viewers, with helpful descriptions such as "Jason glances back at Hamilton, sitting calmly in another chair" and "She pulls him closer, they stare into each others' eyes".

Ali Hillis is among those happy to discuss the film in "Behind the Scenes of 'The Ultimate Gift'." The music video for Ed Goggin's "Legacy" goes through the various gifts of the movie, as do the film's end credits. The simple Main Menu opts for the horizontal bar motif of the film's theatrical posters.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

There aren't many bonus features on this disc,
and most are more promotional than informative. To save readers time, let me just say now that if you are interested in buying or renting The Ultimate Gift, do so for the movie and not for the extras, which will likely disappoint you. First up is a minute-long introduction by author Jim Stovall, who promotes the promotions we'll find in the Special Features section.

The lone movie-specific featurette is "Behind the Scenes of The Ultimate Gift", a 12-minute talking-head piece comprised mainly of the director and the cast congratulating themselves on making the movie and working with each other. There's little substance to the remarks, but it's still nice to hear them enjoy talking about the close friendships they developed in filming as well as how adorable and cute Abigail Breslin and Drew Fuller are.

Next up are two short promotional pieces that walk the fine line between informative and infomercial. "Leave a Legacy" (2:59) features Bill Cobbs dishing out the wonders of being charitable while citing a series of rich people who gave their money away. "Live the Ultimate Gift" (3:02) is a promotion for the "Ultimate Gift Experience Kit", which to me sounds like Family Time in a Box. Apparently this kit will allow people to truly connect with their family and realize just how much everyone really loves each other. I wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry, or roll my eyes at the concept of blatantly commercializing family time.

A couple of music videos are provided, utilizing songs from the movie. Sara Groves sings "Something Changed" (3:56) whilst being interrupted by movie clips galore, and "Legacy" (4:37) by Ed Goggin is a montage of the gift scenes during the credits. If you're not inclined to watch the movie a second time, "Legacy" is a nice CliffNotes version.

The deceptive theatrical trailer is provided, as it presents the movie as some "hard knock life" story before shifting to cute family dramedy. Also included is a sneak peak for The Redemption of Sarah Cain and trailers for "Christy": The Complete Series, Love's Abiding Joy, and One Night with the King. When the disc loads, trailers also play for Fox Faith films and Amazing Grace. Finally, the menus are as basic and static as one can get, not even offering a loop of music or animation.

Oscar-nominated 11-year-old Abigail Breslin doles out wisdom as the church-praying leukemic girl with a heart of gold. All you need is love: Jason and Alexia share a Christmastime embrace.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

After watching The Ultimate Gift and jotting down some initial thoughts, I elected to read a few other reviews to see what others thought of the film. I was somewhat but not totally surprised to see a number of negative reactions. Some stemmed from a cynical viewpoint that the movie's sentimentality was used as a selling point for self-improvement merchandise (read: Jim Stovall's book and that wonderful "Ultimate Gift Experience Kit"), and others focused more on the shortcomings of the movie in the conventional storytelling sense.

I can agree with a few dissenting sentiments, namely those pertaining to the weak characters and the absurdity absurd story aspects (seriously, kidnapped by drug lords?), but I would disagree with those advising to skip the movie. I personally feel that The Ultimate Gift is worth watching, regardless if it's a blind buy, a rental, or a catch-on-cable-when-nothing-else-is-on. The message and the life lessons are uplifting and clear, and while some may deem that trait a storytelling fault, I consider it a strength. After all, sometimes we need a predictable feel-good movie to remind us how precious and valuable life truly is.

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Reviewed August 23, 2007.



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