13 October 2017

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (starring Thomas Horn)

I don’t remember how we acquired the DVD of ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’. It has been in our to-watch drawer for many months, perhaps a year or more. I had read some mixed reviews, and the premise, somehow, didn’t seem all that appealing.

However, we recently decided to watch it… and were captivated from the start. It’s a sad, tense opening as we meet young pre-teen Oskar (Thomas Horn) grieving the loss of his father. We soon learn that he died in the Twin Towers attack in September 2001. Oskar is a highly sensitive child, evidently on the autistic spectrum although, as he tells someone later, tests for Asperger’s Syndrome were inconclusive. He struggles to deal with loud noises and finds it difficult to understand strong emotion.

The early part of the film is confusing chronologically; we see Oskar’s memories with his father (Tom Hanks), interspersed with the day everything changed, and his day-to-day life. His father and he do ‘quests’ or ‘challenges’ together, often based on unlikely stories, but giving Oskar a chance to communicate with strangers.

Oskar and his mother (Sandra Bullock) have a difficult relationship, made all the worse by their bereavement, and their reluctance to talk about it. But, a year after what Oskar calls ‘The Worst Day’, he goes into his father’s closet - unchanged, in a year - and by chance discovers a key. This leads him to what he believes is another vital ‘quest’, one that he hopes might help him make sense of what happened.

Much of the film is taken up with Oskar’s travels and interviews, which he records in detail in a scrapbook. It’s the story not just of the quest but of Oskar’s own growth in confidence, and his relationships with several other people, particularly family members. It’s beautifully done. Despite a cast featuring famous names, young Thomas Horn is the real star of this film. We wondered why he was not better known. Apparently he had never acted before, and was chosen after a stunning performance on a TV quiz show. He is a natural for this role, showing emotion and fear in his expressions, and with excellent timing. His rapport with other characters is excellent, particularly with ‘The Renter’ (Max von Sydow) whose real relationship with Oskar is immediately apparent to the viewer.

Despite an unusual and essentially tragic plot, the film is mesmerising. The pace is perfect. The viewer sees Oskar’s confusion and need for some kind of closure, rooting for him to find it. The ending is perhaps a tad sudden, but I’m not sure how else it could have been done.

The rating is 12 in the UK, PG-13 in the US. I was a little surprised at this; there are no intimate or nude scenes, no overt violence, and bad language is only hinted at. I assume the rating is due to the overall emotion and the traumatic content of the start of the film, and I certainly wouldn’t want an over-sensitive child to see it. But I would have expected the censors to rate it PG.

The only ‘extra’, other than language options, is one about finding Oskar. It has brief interviews with the director and some of the other actors, explaining how they worked with him as he knew nothing about films or acting beforehand.

Very highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's DVD Reviews

02 October 2017

Cheaper by the Dozen (starring Steve Martin)

I don’t remember where or even when we acquired this film. Perhaps it was at a charity shop, or a bazaar of some kind. Instead of going into our ‘not-yet-watched’ drawer of DVDs, it was put away with our main collection of DVDs. I’d forgotten it was there until, wanting something light (and not too long) to watch last night, I spotted it.

Steve Martin stars as Tom, the father of twelve children, aged twenty-three down to twins of about four years old. They live a boisterous, rather crowded lifestyle in a small town in Indiana, where they mostly get along well. Kate, the mother (Bonnie Hunt) has been writing a book about the family, and hopes to get it published.

Then, out of the blue, Tom is offered his dream job as an American football coach… in Illinois. None of the family want to move, but after much discussion, Kate decides to support him in this. He will be earning far more, and they’ll have a huge house and plenty of money; they’ll also be closer to their oldest daughter Norah, who lives with her boyfriend not far from their new house.

The plot revolves around their adjustments - or not - and their interactions with new neighbours, and school staff; there’s an underlying message about the importance of family life and interests, and the stresses that can be caused by high-profile jobs, even if they do earn a lot of money. There’s some humour; mostly of a slapstick nature, but very well choreographed and executed; it’s the kind of thing Steve Martin does exceptionally well.

I was most impressed, however, by the children. A day later I don’t remember all of them, nor the names of the four-year-old twins. But Mark (Forest Landis), the geeky, outsider of the family who is passionate about frogs, stands out as an exceptional actor; he can’t have been more than about eight or nine. The other child star was Sarah (Alyson Stoner), third of the girls. She is precocious, with excellent comic timing, and wonderful expressions. She’s the brains behind some of the children’s organised - and not-so-organised - ventures and tricks, and yet comes across as delightful too.

There are quite a few deleted scenes and ‘making of’ episodes, which we watched afterwards; they were well done too, and added to the interest. Moreover, I was surprised to learn that in parts of the United States a bouncy castle is known as a ‘moon bounce’.

I gather there was a 1950s film of the same name, based on the story of a real family with twelve children. This one, I’m told, doesn’t bear much resemblance to it. It’s not just that the situations and lifestyles are updated by fifty years; even the names are changed, and the only thing in common is a large family who move house. However, since I haven’t read the original book nor seen the earlier film, I have nothing to compare this negatively too - and enjoyed it very much.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's DVD Reviews

20 August 2017

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (starring Gene Wilder)

The 2005 film ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, starring Johnny Depp, is well-known. It’s based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, and is a little scary in places. When I first saw it, I skimmed the book and realised that Depp’s bizarre Wonka was really quite true to Dahl’s creation.

I had vague memories of a much older film of the same book, which I must have seen on television at some point. So when I spotted ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ at a school bazaar, I decided to buy it. It sat on the children’s DVD shelf for a while, until - wanting something for my three-year-old grandson to watch on a very hot afternoon - he opted for it. I sat down with him, and watched it too.

I was a little surprised that it was made in 1971 as I had somehow thought it was a 1950s film. The style of speech does feel rather older, and the slower pace of the film made it ideal for my grandson, who watches almost no TV, although it would probably be considered dull by older children who are used to rapid changes of scene and fast action.

Gene Wilder stars as Willy Wonka, and he’s a rather nicer one than Johnny Depp’s portrayal, although he has some strange quirks that are more in line with Dahl’s original than I remembered. Charlie (Peter Ostrum) is likeable, if a little too good to be true, and Jack Albertson is excellent as Grandpa Joe.

The story is well-known: five children win golden tickets, and are taken on a tour of Wonka’s factory. Four of them are obnoxious in different ways: one is a spoiled brat, one a TV addict, one a compulsive gum-chewer, and one a glutton. Wonka gives clear instructions, and one by one the children disobey him, including, at one point, Charlie and his grandfather. The children felt rather too caricatured, but perhaps that was intentional.

While there’s a lot of story in the 2005 version (some of it added to the original) and some excellent special effects, this 1971 version seemed to be more about machinery and scenes showing different kinds of chocolate. There are some good songs, particularly the one sung by the Oompa-Loompas, small people who work hard in the factory to keep everything going, and my grandson seemed to enjoy it.

It’s not a bad film for the era, but I now understand why a new version was made. This can still be found on Amazon in both DVD and blu-ray form, and is rated U (G in the US). It may be of interest for parents with young or sensitive children who might find the modern version (rated PG) a bit too overwhelming.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's DVD Reviews

03 July 2017

Nanny McPhee (starring Emma Thompson)

It’s over ten years since I was given the DVD of ‘Nanny McPhee’. It made excellent post-Christmas viewing, and over the past few years it’s been watched a handful of times by some young visiting friends. However I didn’t have any particular desire to see it again myself.

But our three-year-old grandson is staying, and during some very hot weather recently, his parents thought it would be a good idea for him to have some quiet time in the air conditioning, watching a DVD. We don’t have anything intended for children this age, but the cover appealed to him and I couldn’t think of any reason why it might not be suitable. Indeed, I thought he might find it quite amusing since I remembered that it featured some very naughty children…

I ended up watching with my daughter-in-law and grandson. I remembered the storyline - a widowed father (Colin Firth) has seven children who are running riot in his household, scaring away a succession of nannies from the agency. The children are all excellent in this film, working together as a team, with excellent comic timing.

Then the mysterious wart-covered Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson looking most unlike herself) arrives, and takes over….

There’s more than a hint of magic in the story; Nanny McPhee’s staff has some strange properties, which can keep children immobilised, or even reverse damage. The children don’t like her at all at first, and want to get rid of her. But gradually they realise that she’s on their side, and that they’re stressed and lonely. She says she is going to teach them some ‘lessons’ (such as getting out of bed in the mornings when called) but their father also has to learn to relate better to them.

Alongside this main storyline we learn that the family is supported by a strict great-aunt, as the father’s job cannot pay the bills and provide food for so many children. The great-aunt wants the father to remarry….

I was a little anxious at first, since my grandson is quite sensitive, and I’d forgotten just how loud and badly-behaved the children were at the start. I was also concerned that he might find Nanny McPhee rather frightening when she first appears. The fact that the father works as an undertaker seems rather inappropriate for a children’s film, but that went right over my grandson’s head, as did the fact that the children’s mother died after the baby was born.

It took him a while to get into the story, but towards the end he started laughing at a slapstick (and very messy) scene involving cake. He also loved the magical snow-covered Cinderella type ending.

Really more suitable for children of about six or seven upwards. The rating is U in the UK; the US rating of PG is, in my opinion, more appropriate. There are a couple of mild ‘bad’ words, though not noticeable by a three-year-old. There’s also a scene full of innuendoes, though nothing explicit. There’s a fair amount of mock violence too, more than I’d remembered, though mostly intended to be humorous.

But overall this is a very enjoyable film and I’m delighted that I had the opportunity to watch it again!

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's DVD Reviews

03 May 2017

Catch and Release (starring Jennifer Garner)

I’m not sure how this film ended up on my wish-list last year. Probably Amazon recommended it to me, based on the genre of film I like; I don’t think I’d come across any of the cast before, although I don’t always remember the names of actors and actresses.

I was given ‘Catch and Release’ for Christmas last year, and we decided to watch it last night. We knew the theme would be sad, at least initially; the blurb on the back told us that it was about a young woman whose fiancé had just died.

The story starts at the funeral itself, and we see Gray (Jennifer Garner) struggling to hold everything together as she deals with her own grief alongside that of her fiancé’s family and close friends. We learn that he died in some kind of accident while on a men’s weekend away, and that they had parted in anger. Gray escapes from the crowds to hide in the bathroom, only to overhear a very embarrassing incident with one of her former fiancé’s close friends, Fritz (Timothy Olyphant).

The rest of the film is about Gray and her interactions with the three close friends. Dennis (Sam Jaeger) is eager to do anything he can to help. Sam (Kevin Smith) is an irritating and overweight joker, although he too is grieving. Fritz appears not to care at all.

Unsurprisingly, and a little clichéd, Gray uncovers several secrets in her fiancé’s past which both shock and anger her. She starts to wonder if she had ever really known him at all… and gradually gets to know his friends better.

It’s a character-based story, and I liked the pace although it was a bit hard to tell the time-frame. Gray appears to recover rather rapidly, with the shocks she uncovers making her decide to live life to the full rather than becoming miserable.

Other a couple of others who were rather caricatured, we thought the people very believable. The three friends form a good contrast with each other. Every time Sam appears he’s eating very loudly, or talking with his mouth full, and I had to block my ears and close my eyes. It seemed unnecessary to make him so gross, although perhaps it was supposed to be amusing. Far from it with anyone who has misophonia, or who finds bad manners irritating.

I was particularly impressed with Fiona Shaw, who played the mother of Gray’s late fiancé. Her dignity and deep misery were shown perfectly, and we appreciated her gradual softening in the face of other people’s suffering.

Overall the story was really rather sad; Gray, inevitably, moves on although we felt it far too rapid and rather shallow. But the themes, in addition to the main depressing one are about unrequited love, betrayal and lies. It’s a testament to the director and writers that they made a very watchable and (in places) moving film.

Rated 12 (PG-13 in the US), which seems about right. The bedroom scenes are implied rather than explicit, and there’s no violence. Some bad language, mostly profanity.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's DVD Reviews