20 February 2018

September (starring Jacqueline Bisset)

For last night’s weekly DVD, my husband decided on ‘September’, the made-for-TV film based on Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel of the same name. We first watched the film back in 2006 and I recalled that it was a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book. My husband did not remember it at all, until he saw the opening and rather morbid shots of a body being removed from a lake…

I’m glad I re-read the book fairly recently, as ‘September’ has quite a large cast of characters, and several interleaved subplots. The main focus of the book is a planned party - a huge one with marquees and Scottish country dancing and a disco. But the storylines involve people who are invited rather than the party-givers themselves.

Vi (Virginia McKenna) is, to my mind, the linchpin of the story. She is in her late seventies, but lively and active in the community. Her son Edmund (Michael York) is quite stubborn. He also works extremely hard and has made a lot of money in his business. He has a daughter, Alexa (Emily Hamilton), from his first marriage, who lives in London. Edmund also has a young son, Henry (Thomas Szekeres), by his second wife Virginia (Mariel Hemingway). Virginia is younger than Edmund, and from the United States, and they have very different ideas about raising children.

Then there are Archie (Edward Fox) and Isobel (Jenny Agutter), impoverished gentry who take in American visitors to supplement their income. Archie was injured in military service and lost a leg; he suffers from nightmares and terrible self-esteem. A recurring theme of the film is the way that Scots tend to button up their emotions and struggle on. There’s a mystery surrounding Archie’s sister Pandora, who ran away twenty years earlier, and this is gradually revealed during the film.

I thought Archie and Isobel very believable with excellent on-screen chemistry. I was less entranced with Edmund and Virginia. Both play their parts well, but it was hard to see any chemistry between them. And while … who played Henry did so extremely well, he isn’t the sensitive, highly intelligent Henry of the novels. I liked Alexa, but was a tad confused that her boyfriend’s name has been changed from Noel to Neil, and didn’t find him particularly realistic.

One of the most underrated but powerful people in the movie is Lottie (Angela Pleasence), sister of Edie (Anna Cropper) who works for Vi. Lottie has some kind of mental condition, but it’s not alzheimer’s; she is not at all forgetful. Instead she is the antithesis of the buttoned-up Scots. She watches everyone and everything, often stealing around gardens after dark, or listening at doors, and then reports on what she considers to be immoral or ‘wicked’ ways. She has a lot of strange mannerisms and Henry is, justifiably, rather scared of her. And it’s Lottie’s ‘chinwags’ with different people that brings some hidden truths to light.

Then there’s Pandora (Jacqueline Bisset), breezing into the movie in time for the party, shocking and/or delighting everyone. She is outspoken and generous, yet also unpredictable and self-centred. The novel is inevitably cut significantly, and in the film we don't meet Pandora until this point. Her back-story is somewhat changed as well, perhaps to keep it simpler and more dramatic.

There’s not a great deal of plot as such, despite so many subplots. This is a film (like the book) of relationships and character development. The ending is bittersweet, and I thought extremely well done. I was a little shocked to realise that the film was nearly three hours long; it was long past my bedtime when it finished, yet I had been gripped, caught up in the lives of the people in the story.

There’s some lovely scenery, though I gather the film was shot in Ireland rather than Scotland. The rating is PG which reflects the lack of any strong language, violence or scenes of intimacy. But the beginning and end scenes are somewhat traumatic. I don’t feel that this film would be appropriate for children under the age of about 12; in addition to the loch-dredging, there are several references to off-stage bedroom scenes, or images showing the morning after, and there’s a fair amount of mild bad language.

Overall I enjoyed this film very much, and would recommend it to anyone who likes Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels, or this kind of poignant character-based drama.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

13 February 2018

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (starring Daniel Radcliffe)

A week ago we finally watched part 1 of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’. It was very well done, but I felt there was too much fast action filled with special effects, and too little of the storyline. However, having seen it, we decided to watch part 2 last night.

The action is less rapid in this film, and I only had to close my eyes a couple of times. Most of the story takes place in or near Hogwarts, where Harry is certain one of the final horcruxes must be hidden. He has little clue what it might be, what it is, or how he will destroy it.

Moreover, the school is now in the charge of Professor Snape, with new and harsh regimes. Dementors and death-eaters patrol outside, and the students must toe the line or be punished harshly. The students who support Harry are thrilled to see him Harry when he arrives with his friends Ron and Hermione. But he has no plan.

Events move towards the climax in dramatic ways, with a lot of magical violence, as well as some new revelations and discoveries. Other students play their part, some losing their lives as a result. But Harry alone has to face Voldemort in an encounter which has been inevitable since he started to discover his destiny in the first book.

This film was more thoughtful than the first, and I was almost mesmerised for much of it. There are some very moving scenes, and one or two surprises for those who have not read the book. The theme of good vs evil comes through very clearly, but this is no clich├ęd story. The series was meticulously plotted and written, with all the threads drawing together in this final part of the story.

I remembered much of the ending from the book - a magnificent ending, in my view - but had forgotten the details. I don’t know how true the film was to the novel, but I don’t recall any major omissions. The epilogue at the end gives the audience a chance to relax and see into the future, tying up some loose ends. It felt a tad out of place in the book, and similarly in the movie. Yet I’m glad it was there, providing closure as this incredible series comes to its end.

The acting is excellent, the pace exactly right, in my view. There are even one or two humorous moments, providing momentary relief in the tension of the story. This is a superb film to end the series, and while it doesn’t stand alone, I would recommend it highly to anyone who has seen the others, but has not yet seen this one.

The rating, as with part 1, is 12 (PG-13 in the US). I assume this is due to the magical and indeed physical violence, which is extreme. While the shots of violence are fairly brief and rapid, there are a lot of bodies, and a great deal of destruction and disaster. The point is made that this happens when evil holds sway, but it’s not appropriate for young children. There’s some minor bad language, too, but it’s almost unnoticeable alongside the wholesale destruction and violence.

(Note: While the links to Amazon are for part 2 only, it is often better value to buy both parts of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' together; some versions come with extras.)

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

06 February 2018

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 (starring Daniel Radcliffe)

Over the past few years we have watched the first six Harry Potter films, interspersed with many others. I only saw the first two at the cinema; they’re quite tense and I don’t like anything at all scary or fast-moving, so I much prefer seeing them at home. We’ve had the final two - the two-part Deathly Hallows - for nearly five years, since I was given them for my birthday in 2013. But until last night had not unwrapped them.

We were going to wait until we had seen all the others… but it’s nearly a year since we watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Then we were going to watch them with our younger son… but he said there was no need. And we kept delaying the moment. But at last, we sat down to watch part 1.

It’s over ten years since I read the book ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’. I loved the book, but my memory of the plot is inevitably somewhat vague after over a decade. That’s not a bad thing when watching a film adaptation, as there are bound to be changes which can be annoying if favourite parts of a book are left out. However, I was glad that I had remembered at least the bare bones of the story. I find it difficult to follow the plots of films unless they’re fairly clear, and this one, intended for a teenage audience, is fast-paced and complex.

The basic story is that the evil ‘dark lord’ Voldemort is back, and the only way to defeat him is by finding all the horcruxes - pieces of his soul that have been hidden away. They were somewhat explained in the previous book, but I’m not sure it matters exactly. So, instead of returning to Hogwarts, Harry and his two close friends Ron and Hermione set out on their own, with little idea where they’re heading, to attempt to find and destroy horcruxes. Along the way they learn about ‘deathly hallows’, but those will probably be explored in greater depth in the second film, which we hope to watch next week.

The first film alternated scenes of the three on their own with fast-paced battles with enemies of various shapes and sizes. When alone, we see them discussing what to do, arguing about how to do it best, and recovering from battles. There’s quite a powerful scene where Ron hallucinates, convinced Hermione likes Harry better than she likes him. And there’s a very moving, poignant scene near the end.

However, there are also a lot of rapid-action scenes, not gunfights but the equivalent with wizarding wands. I am unable to watch this kind of thing; fast action on screen makes me dizzy, and I never have the faintest idea what’s going on. So I shut my eyes, and listen for any words. In the brief seconds I saw, there were dramatic special effects and high drama - but I can’t comment on any more, as it all happened too rapidly. I don’t think I missed anything much; it was always fairly clear what happened from the discussions afterwards.

This really isn’t a film that stands alone, as so much has gone before. Nor is it one I’d necessarily want to see again, although I am now quite keen to re-read the book. But I’m glad we’ve seen it at last. The book was absorbing and made a magnificent ending to the series. There were battles, but on paper they’re so much easier to deal with. The book was filled with Christian symbolism in a way that didn’t really come across in the film, but perhaps that’s not surprising.

The actors playing three main characters have grown with their roles, and I felt were as believable in this, at seventeen, as they were in the first book, aged just eleven.

All in all, I would recommend this, although the 12 rating is worth noting. There’s nothing too ‘adult’ - a little kissing and cuddling, and one implied sexual scene, but no total overt nudity and few innuendoes. There is little bad language, but nothing major. However there's a great deal of magical violence, evident even with my eyes closed, and also some sad losses which could upset a sensitive child.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

30 January 2018

The Terminal (starring Tom Hanks)

In the past few years, we have managed to watch a DVD about once or twice a month at most. Since we are often given new ones for birthdays and Christmas, our drawer of to-be-watched films has stayed fairly well replenished. However this year we have allocated Monday evenings, whenever possible, to watch a DVD together. So as our new supply was beginning to run low, I found the ones we watched and liked at least ten years ago, deciding I could deal with seeing them again. Last night my husband’s selection was ‘The Terminal’.

We first saw this film on Christmas Day 2006. The day is seared in my mind as a rather depressing one. Our older son had left home and was working on a ship the other side of the world. The friends with whom we had shared Christmas for the previous few years had gone back to live in the United States. Other friends, whom we had invited for lunch, were unavailable. So just three of us sat down to a traditional Christmas meal, feeling far from festive. After lunch we decided to watch this film, which our older son had recommended highly.

Eleven years later, all we could remember of ‘The Terminal’ was that Tom Hanks spent a long time living at an airport, due to political circumstances. We recalled liking the film, and one or two cameo moments. We also remembered having watched the ‘extras’, so we know that the airport terminal, in which most of the film takes place, was custom-designed and built in an old hangar, specifically for the filming.

The story opens with a general impression of an airport in New York - customs, passport control, and so on. Then we meet Viktor (Tom Hanks), a man from a small Eastern European country which apparently started a civil war while he was in the air. His passport had become invalid, as the US no longer recognised his country. So he could neither go out of the airport into New York, nor return to his home country. It doesn’t help that he has almost no English, relying on a phrase book to attempt to communicate. So he doesn’t understand what’s going on until he sees some news reports of violence and recognises his country…

Steven Spielberg directed this, and it’s a wonderful film: character-based, almost entirely, rather than having much plot as such. There’s a lot of low-key humour as Viktor teaches himself English, figures out ways to earn money so that he can eat, and makes himself a place to sleep in the airport. He is watched on security cameras by the airport customs staff, particularly the head (Stanley Tucci) who has no idea how to handle him…

Tom Hanks is excellent in this role, as a confused but likeable man who makes the most of his circumstances at every point. He is treated with suspicion at first by airport staff, but gradually breaks down their barriers. There’s also a low-key and bittersweet love interest featuring an air hostess (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who knows that she’s bad news, yet likes him despite herself.

We were mesmerised for an hour and a half. We had completely forgotten how it ended, and why Viktor was so keen to go to New York. We had not remembered any of the other characters, either, nor any of the interactions that work so well. We hadn’t remembered the mild slapstick humour that happens a few times on a slippery floor; it made us wince somewhat, but was so well choreographed that we smiled at times too.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes character-driven dramas with low-key humour and a feel-good ending. The rating is 12A (PG-13 in the US) and I think that’s about right. There’s some bad language, though nothing too ‘strong’, and some innuendoes, though nothing explicit. Violence on screen could be disturbing, however, as could some shouting and threatening that happens in an incident towards the end. I very much doubt if anyone under the age of about fourteen would find it of interest anyway as there’s not much action or story, and all the characters are adults.

The extras are well worth watching too, in my opinion, particularly those about the building of the set.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

23 January 2018

Penelope (starring Christina Ricci)

I have no idea why Amazon recommended this particular DVD to me, unless it was that I had previously bought something featuring Reese Witherspoon. Not that she is a main character in ‘Penelope’. Whatever the reason, I liked the sound of the blurb and the reviews were good, so it went on my wishlist and I was given it for Christmas. We decided to watch it last night.

The opening scenes make it clear that this is a modern fairy-tale. The film was made in 2006, and the story was contemporary to that time. However it started some generations back, when an upper class 'blue-blooded' man fell in love with a serving maid, but his family did not allow her to marry him. The maid’s mother, who was a witch, cursed the family: the first daughter born to them would have the face of a pig. The curse would only be broken when someone ‘of her kind’ loved her for herself. It felt as if it should have been made in the UK, where 'old blood' and this kind of class snobbery is (or was) more common than the US, where it is set.

No daughters were born to the family over many decades, until Penelope (Christina Ricci) arrived. Her parents brought her up in a very isolated way, presumably educated at home but with every advantage which money could bring. We meet her when she is in her late teens, and her mother has started trying to attract suitors. She wants her daughter to get married as soon as possible, to someone who will presumably break the curse.

Since Penelope does not go out, young man ‘of her kind’ are invited to the mansion, where they speak to her without seeing her, at first. Unfortunately, when they finally see her face, they are so shocked that they escape as fast as they can, signing a nondisclosure agreement so that nobody else knows what the problem is.

It’s quite a fast-moving film, with some humour in places, and a great deal of action. There are journalists, and a suitor who makes friends with Penelope before seeing her, and isn’t repulsed by her face, but still insists he cannot marry her. Eventually, covering her face with a scarf, she runs away from home…

There’s a love story running through the latter part of the film, but it’s very low-key. The story is really about finding acceptance; about personality being far more important than looks. Essentially it’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in reverse. I was totally caught up in the storyline and worried for a while that Penelope might marry the wrong man. I wasn’t expecting some of the ending but it all worked well, and was a very satisfactory film overall.

The casting is excellent, with appropriate amounts of melodrama and over-acting from Penelope's mother and a few other caricatured people. Reese Witherspoon doesn't actually appear until about half-way through the film, and portrays rather a different character from her normal types.

The rating is U (G in the US) and I think that’s appropriate. Other than a mildly tense scene at the beginning, and an innuendo that would go over most young children’s heads, it’s free of anything that might upset or offend anyone. Very little bad language, as far as I recall; no scenes of intimacy; no violence - other than a few broken windows. It’s a film I’m going to recommend to three young friends of mine, aged between twelve and seven.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting a light, somewhat surreal but undemanding and enjoyable evening's viewing.

There's a short 'extra' on the DVD with a few brief interviews, and explanation of how Penelope's pig face was made.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews