30 December 2013

Doctor Who, the complete series 6 (starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill)

It has taken us four months to watch the sixth season of the 21st century Doctor Who. Matt Smith is well established as the 11th incarnation of the Doctor, and Karen Gillan returns as his companion, Amy, now married to Rory (Arthur Darvill) who has a brilliantly comic touch at times, adding some welcome lightness, but who also shows amazing depth and loyalty.

The opening episode, ‘A Christmas Carol’, was shown in December 2010. It features a Scrooge-like character, who refuses to let Amy and Rory’s honeymoon spaceship arrive. The Doctor works some Dickens-like magic, and there’s a bittersweet ending; it’s nicely done, if a little twee.

Then the sixth season began properly in April 2011, with a very dramatic episode where the Doctor is shot by a lakeside, watched by Amy, Rory, and the mysterious River Song. Then they meet a younger version of the Doctor, who has no idea what’s going to happen…

It’s a confusing series in some ways, and I almost feel as if I should start watching it over again with the benefit of hindsight. While most episodes are complete in themselves, the idea of a ‘crack in the universe’ continues, as do the mysterious ‘Silence’ aliens, who disappear from memory as soon as someone stops looking at them. Amy announces that she is pregnant, then insists that she is not.. and the Doctor runs scans which are oddly inconclusive.

Other than the Silence, here are not so many evil aliens in this series; the Daleks and Weeping Angels make only brief appearances, as do the Cybermen. On the other hand, there’s a pirate ship complete with singing Sirens, an episode where Hitler appears, and some doppelgangers who impersonate their human counterparts. It was difficult trying to work out what parts of each episode were significant, and I often found my head buzzing… there’s a lot of fast action and tension, neither of which really appeal to me.

Yet Doctor Who is very engaging. Matt Smith has a lot of energy and projects a kind of alien feel to the show. The human - and human-alien - interactions are often revealing, sometimes moving. The heavier, darker episodes are interspersed with lighter ones; I particularly enjoyed the penultimate ‘Closing Time’, where the Doctor pops in to see his friend ‘Craig’, who featured in Season Five, and gets caught up with some very strange things going on in his neighbourhood.

The last episode sees time and eternity bizarrely mixed up, with the clocks and calendars stuck, all history happening at the same time. A paradox has been created, which the Doctor wants to break out of… we see flashbacks to the first episode of the season, and a dramatic finale.

There are plenty of short extras in this season, with prequels and mini-episodes as supplements, although it’s not necessary to watch them.

All in all, a season well worth owning and watching for anyone who is a fan of this long-running series. In the US it may be cheaper to buy in two parts, but note that the much less expensive UK release will only work with region two (or region-free) DVD players.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

28 December 2013

Quartet (starring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins)

Amazon probably recommended this to me because I have enjoyed so many films with Maggie Smith in them. Or, perhaps, because I liked 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'. Not that the two films have anything at all in common, other than featuring mainly older, retired people.

I found 'Quartet' mesmerising. I wasn't entirely sure what was happening in the first few minutes, but it didn't matter. The whole thing takes place in a retirement home for musicians, so inevitably there's a lot of music, mostly classical - and, indeed, several of the cast members are in fact retired musicians rather than actors. The story itself is quite slow-moving; Maggie Smith does not even appear until about half an hour into the film, but she's brilliant as ever, playing a former diva who causes huge upheaval in the life of another resident, to whom she was (briefly) married many years earlier.

There's some humour, some sadness, and a little romance, interwoven and beautifully done. Dustin Hoffman, apparently, was the director. There are a few instances of bad language although in context they are not unreasonable or excessive. There's innuendo too, mostly from Wilf (Billy Connolly) and bittersweet incidents involving Sissy (Pauline Collins) whose memory is becoming decidedly faulty. The rating is 12 in the UK, PG-13 in the US, and that seems very reasonable. I doubt if this film would be of any interest to a child, or indeed a young teenager.

To be honest, it would not appeal to everyone, whatever their age. There really is a LOT of music, including opera, and the main plot line revolves around plans for a fund-raising concert. There's no fast action, no real excitement, and only cameo roles for young people. However I like the trend for films featuring over-50s, and enjoyed the music; overall I thought it excellent.

Extras include the typical director's commentary, behind the scenes features, interviews, outtakes and so on. The only available subtitles are English for the hard of hearing. In DVD and Blu-ray format.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

17 December 2013

Cutting Edge (starring Moira Kelly and DB Sweeney)

Doug is an ice hockey champion, skating in the winter Olympics, when a nasty accident leaves him unable to see well enough to play seriously again. His brother owns a bar, and expects Doug to work with him.

Kate is a rather spoiled figure skating champion, also skating in the winter Olympics, who has an unexpected fall which she blames on her partner. She is very demanding and has a hot temper, and it becomes increasingly difficult for her trainer to find anyone willing to skate with her. Yet her father wants her to win a medal at the next Olympics.

Anton, Kate's coach, is almost in despair when he thinks of suggesting that Doug re-train as a figure skater. Sparks fly when they meet, and Kate is very disparaging of this working class ice hockey player. However he takes her disdain as a challenge, and gradually becomes very proficient indeed...

It's all rather predictable, rom-com style, with the amusing moments being the spars between the two main protagonists, and the romantic element quite low-key. Naturally Kate and Doug are going to fall for each other in the end - the chemistry between them on ice is incredible! - but neither wants to admit it, as they spar like siblings.

The rating is PG on both sides of the Atlantic, which accurately reflects that there is minimal violence, no bad language, and no nudity. However there are undoubtedly innuendoes and a couple of bedroom scenes (albeit covered up with nothing happening on screen) and the storyline is unlikely to appeal to anyone under the age of about 12 anyway.

There's some great skating and some mild tension as they head towards the competitions, and I thought it was an enjoyable film, in a low-key kind of way. I'm not entirely sure why Amazon recommended this to me, but am glad it did. My husband and our twenty-something son enjoyed it too.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

28 October 2013

Life of Pi (starring Suraj Sharma)

The book ‘The Life of Pi’ was a literary hit in 2001. Billed as a kind of philosophical fantasy adventure, featuring a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger, it really didn’t appeal to me. So I never got around to reading it, and the fact that a film of the book was made last year passed me by completely. Apparently it won several Oscars.

Visiting relatives recently, we watched the film, which they had been given. I wasn’t expecting much, but found it quite mesmerising in places. I particularly enjoyed the opening section, where the adult Pi explains to a visiting journalist how he got his nickname; there are flashbacks to his schooldays, and we get a good glimpse of his background as the son of a zoo-keeper.

Then the family - and animals - board a large ship bound for Canada. A terrible storm erupts, and there’s high action (much of which I didn’t really follow) ending with Pi as the only human on a lifeboat, with several animals. One of them is a Bengal tiger whose name (due to a clerical error) is Richard Parker.

Then follows several days at sea, with inevitable unpleasantness and an attempt by Pi to befriend the tiger. I didn’t much enjoy this part, and, indeed, I found the ending puzzling rather than satisfying. However, it was excellently produced and I’m not surprised that the director and others won Oscars for it. I was slightly surprised that Suraj Sharma, who played Pi in the high action part of the film, did not also win one.

However, the deeper message of the film, which other people have observed and discussed, went rather over my head. The adult Pi mentions that he had an experience that made him certain God exists, but although as a child he tried to follow three religions at once, there’s very little mention of God or anything spiritual. At the end we’re left suddenly in doubt as to whether his story was (from a fictional point of view) true or metaphorical, which I found confusing.

We watched the ‘making of Life of Pi’ extra on the DVD, and that was well worth seeing - I was astounded at the lengths to which the crew and cast went to produce this film, and very impressed to learn that the animals were all produced by computer graphics; while I assumed that some scenes must have been done that way, the results were highly realistic. Both visual effects and cinematography were awarded Oscars, which I felt were well-deserved.

I’m glad I watched this film, which was very different from anything I had previously seen, right outside my usual comfort zone. It’s even inspired me to get hold of the book, to see if I understand the philosophy better when I read it. It’s not something I want to see again, so I was quite surprised when my husband decided to buy a copy, and declared it one of the best movies he had seen in a long time.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

12 August 2013

Doctor Who, complete fifth series (starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan)

Having watched our way through the first four seasons of ‘new’ Doctor Who, followed by the 2009 ‘specials’, we had become huge fans of the brilliant David Tennant. We had rather more mixed feelings about his various assistants, but he was, we felt, the ‘true’ Doctor of the 21st century. How could he possibly be replaced by Matt Smith, someone we had barely heard of before his role as the Doctor, and who was apparently only in his 20s. Could a 900-year-old Time Lord really be portrayed by someone barely older than our sons...?

Our sons assured us that we would soon find ourselves accepting the 11th incarnation of the Doctor, even comparing him favourably with Tennant. So I put the fifth series on my wishlist and was given it for my birthday, and we started watching it a couple of months ago.

The first episode is quite dramatic, and introduces nine-year-old Amelia Pond. A delightful actress (Caitlin Blackwood) portrays a confident child who seems to look after herself - but who is becoming quite disturbed by a strange crack in her bedroom wall, and the voices she can hear behind it. She prays for help, and is not surprised when the tardis lands in her garden and the Doctor steps out. He takes her very seriously, then has to leave... promising to return in a few minutes.

Unfortunately the tardis’ time-keeping isn’t great, and he returns twelve years later, when he finds Amelia grown up (played by Karen Gillan), now known as Amy, and her boyfriend Rory (Arthur Darvill). An exciting adventure ensues...

Rather than each episode being totally complete in itself, the storyline featuring the cracks in the universe is a theme across this whole series, culminating in an exciting two-part finale where the young Amelia Pond re-appears, and the universe is threatened with total extinction.

This series marks more changes than just that of the main cast. The production team also changes, being led now by Stephen Moffatt, one of the writers. About half of the episodes on this DVD set are written by him, and reflect a rather more complicated underlying story than some of the earlier ones did: after we had finished watching the finale, my head was spinning. The following day I tried to make sense of it all - why was the universe imploding? How could someone be erased from memory? Why was the tardis so significant?

The ‘wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff’ is quite complicated throughout this series, with various cracks appearing in apparently random places, and scenes from past and future impinging on the present with mind-boggling results. I very much enjoyed the two episodes which featured, respectively, Winston Churchill (brilliantly portrayed by Ian McNeice) and Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran). Some of the Doctor’s old enemies appear - in particular the daleks - and there’s a two-parter where the ultra-creepy ‘Weeping Angels’ introduced in an earlier series make their reappearance. But on the whole these episodes are more about people, with the aliens or other enemies taking far less significant roles.

There’s certainly plenty of tension - although we know that, one way or another, the Doctor and his companion will come through - and there’s some humour too. I particularly enjoyed the light-hearted episode ‘The Lodger’ in which the Doctor attempts to be an ordinary person for a while, something which he finds remarkably hard to do...

Fans of the series will probably have seen these episodes already when they were broadcast in 2010, but they’re well worth re-visiting in this excellent box set. I’m not one to re-watch films regularly, nor TV shows but by the end - when things were becoming clearer in some respects, if more confused in others - I felt that I would quite like to see this season again from the start, so as to make more sense of the overall story arc about the cracks in the universe. Series 4 seemed to have rather too many aliens for my tastes, and was rather dark in places. Long drawn out battles and heavy scenes of violence (albeit non-explicit) do nothing for me, so I liked the more thought-provoking approach of this series.

As for Matt Smith... he’s not David Tennant, and doesn’t attempt to be like him, which was probably wise. He leaps into action in the first episode and shows his ability to think fast and move at speed, with plenty of rapid conversation (something which Stephen Moffat seems to excel in) and a light-hearted touch which I appreciated.

 It’s fairly typical, I gather, for people to be suspicious about each new incarnation of the Doctor, to compare him unfavourably with the previous one at the start of the series, and then to consider him the ‘best ever’ by around the time he announces his retirement. I’m not sure I shall do that; we loved David Tennant in the role by the time he was half way through the first episode, and I’m not sure he will ever be equalled. But still, Matt Smith makes an engaging Doctor, even if I didn’t quite manage to believe in him as aged time lord.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

28 July 2013

The Holiday (starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz)

According to the IMDb site, there are several films with this unremarkable title. The one which Amazon recommended to me a while ago, and which we recently enjoyed very much, is the 2006 film ‘The Holiday’, with quite a high profile cast.

Kate Winslet stars as Iris, a somewhat shy newspaper columnist in the UK who has a tremendous crush on one of her colleagues. He knows this, but plays around with her emotions until making a dramatic announcement that he is getting engaged to another of their colleagues shortly before Christmas.

Cameron Diaz also stars, as Amanda: an outgoing and highly emotional movie-trailer maker in Los Angeles. She has a huge fight with her boyfriend and throws him out of her luxurious mansion, then decides to take a complete break somewhere quiet. She discovers Iris’s cottage on a house-sharing website, and proposes a swap...

So the scene is set, and the two young women fly across the Atlantic to each other’s homes. Iris is overwhelmed by Amanda’s amazing home, while Amanda is decidedly underwhelmed by the cosiness of Iris’s cottage, and the extreme chilliness of a British winter. Amanda is on the verge of giving up and flying home when she meets Iris’s brother Graham (Jude Law), and they find themselves strongly attracted to each other... although it seems that Graham has several women in his life already.

Meanwhile Iris gets to know her 90-year-old neighbour Arthur (Eli Wallach) who is feeling rather useless despite having had an amazing career in the past. He helps her move beyond her loneliness and she helps him see that he still has a great deal to give. Iris also meets Miles (Jack Black) and they become good friends before - inevitably - deciding that they, too, are falling in love.

It’s typical rom-com, of course with some amusing moments and a predictable, somewhat slushy feel-good ending. There are some quite emotional scenes, too. My only slight niggle is that Cameron Diaz’s character is very over-acted and caricatured - perhaps it makes sense in the initial Hollywood scenes, but she seems to have little of substance or intelligence, and it’s hard to reconcile her with the quiet, loyal and very likeable Graham.

Still, overall we thought this was wonderful stuff, just what I like for a cosy evening in, even if it happens to be the end of July rather than the middle of Winter.

Rated 12 in the UK, PG-13 in the US, I think that’s about right. There are one or two instances of bad language and some significant talk about intimacies. It’s not the sort of film that would appeal to younger children anyway.

Definitely recommended for adults and older teens.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

02 July 2013

Nativity! (starring Martin Freeman, Marc Wootten and Jason Watkins)

Yes, it’s July.

But our son gets fed up of Christmas films and songs in December, so we decided to watch this highly rated movie last night. Perhaps, we thought, it might detract a little from the heat and humidity that plagued us...

It’s the story of a struggling Catholic school where Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) is a frustrated and often irritable teacher of small children. Once upon a time he went through a drama course, appearing on stage as an elf, and in a serious relationship with the beautiful Jennifer (Ashley Jensen). But then she went to the US in the hope of becoming a Hollywood producer, and so Paul decided to become a teacher. He also determined that he would never enjoy Christmas again.

So he’s not at all happy when his school Head (Pam Ferris) decides that he will be in charge of the school Nativity play that term. To make it worse, Paul’s old college friend Gordon (Jason Watkins) is a teacher at a local private school, where he gets rave reviews each year for his Nativity plays. And while Gordon isn’t exactly a villain, he’s rather snooty about Paul’s school and his chances. So Paul, thoroughly provoked, pretends that Jennifer will be bringing a Hollywood crew to see his school play. he doesn’t mention that he lost touch with Jennifer some years previously.

He doesn’t really suppose that Gordon will believe him, or that anything will come of his remarks, but unfortunately they’re overheard by Mr Poppy (Marc Wootten) who is Paul’s new classroom assistant. Not a normal quiet helper, he’s like a big kid himself, joining in with the children with great enthusiasm, and trusting everything he’s told. So he passes on the ‘news’ to the school Head (his aunt)... and the press get involved... and the silly lie gets more and more out of hand.

Most of the play is about Paul’s attempts to produce a Nativity play - or, rather, a musical - using children with little or no experience. And it works remarkably well. I don’t mean that he eventually produces a wonderful extravaganza - that’s pretty much taken as read, with a family Christmas film. But the children themselves are an absolute delight. We wondered how stage schools managed to produce such natural kiddies - and learned, when we watched one of the ‘extras’, that these were not stage school children, but ordinary ones, since the director wanted them to be natural. And that’s exactly what they are, although apparently the audition process took many months.

The film - as we also learned from the extras - was not closely scripted. Much of it was improvised, which probably explains why it really does feel like a typical British primary school, with a bunch of very ordinary children who, when gently pushed, do some fairly extraordinary things.

There are humorous scenes, one or two moving scenes, and a wonderfully schmaltzy ending which we had pretty much foreseen, although not entirely so. The whole is rated U (or G in the US), meaning that it’s entirely suitable for young children; certainly there’s no violence or bad language, and the romance, such as it is, consists of a few kisses and a little sliding about in snow.

There are some great performances by the children - they are all stars, and I hope that at least some of them have continued with their drama careers. The adults all play their parts well, with caricatures, admittedly - Paul Maddens is really very irritable, and Desmond Poppy so very boisterous - but it all works, and makes for a totally captivating hour and a half. Even if we did see it in July!

The extras - deleted scenes, interviews and ‘making of’ - are well worth seeing too.

Wonderful stuff. Don’t expect any depth of plot (although the point about a small lie growing out of control is well made) or character, or even any great surprises. Watch with your children or grandchildren, or perhaps your grandparents... and have a good clean laugh, and the satisfaction of a fairytale ending.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

19 June 2013

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Dev Patel)

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from this, but it came highly recommended by various people - and since it featured both Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, as well as some other top names, we thought it would be worth seeing. All I knew was that several people set off for a retirement home in India, and found that it wasn’t quite what they were expecting...

The start of the film introduces us to the seven people who all end up travelling to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Judi Dench plays Evelyn, who has recently been widowed and really doesn’t know what to do with her life, or how she can afford to keep going. Maggie Smith plays Muriel, a woman who urgently needs a hip transplant, but does not want to have to wait several months for the NHS. She is very bigoted, so is not at all impressed with the idea of travelling to India for a quicker operation, but reluctantly agrees to it.

Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play Douglas and Jean, a married couple who are just retired, and really don’t know what they want. Jean is discontented, not wanting to settle down in a small flat, but not remotely interested in anything in India either. Douglas seems endlessly patient, but gets frustrated by her constant negativity.

More forgettable are Madge (Celia Imrie), Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Graham (Tom Wilkinson). Madge wants a wealthy husband, Norman wants a woman - any woman, but probably not Madge - and Graham is returning to India to catch up with his past; he lived there for a while as a young man.

We get to know each of these characters briefly in their homes and work environments; each of them finds the advert for the hotel, purporting to be a new and wonderful retirement home. Not all their travel arrangements go smoothly, but they eventually arrive... to find a young and cheerful host called Sonny (brilliantly played by Dev Patel) who somehow finds a reason - or excuse - for every one of the hotel’s deficiencies. And there are many... it needs major renovation and upgrading, and is a far remove from the wonderful, up-to-date residence that was advertised...

There’s a lot of humour in this film, and also some very moving moments. One or two parts are unexpectedly poignant, and much is thought-provoking. Criticisms have been made that the story is demeaning to India... yet the country is displayed in its colourful, chaotic glory; it’s the stuck-in-a-rut lifestyles and expectations of the Brits that are more caricatured.

There wasn’t a great deal of plot, but we enjoyed it very much. Not that one necessarily wants to think about retirement or growing old, but somehow that wasn’t the main focus. Some of the hotel’s residents gained a new lease of life as they discovered something - or someone - new.

Judi Dench is excellent, as always, but in my view Maggie Smith is the real star, transforming from an irritable old lady to someone observing everything that goes on, eventually taking on a very important role and looking twenty years younger. Dev Patel is also superb - and the whole was a great family movie.

Rated 12, probably because of a few instances of minor bad language and the racist inferences made in the early part of the film. Unlikely to be of much interest to anyone under the age of about 12 anyway.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

26 May 2013

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials (starring David Tennant)

It was not until we reached the end of Doctor Who Series 4 (starring David Tennant) a few months ago that I realised that Series 5 opened with Matt Smith established as the famous time lord. We had expected him to regenerate at the end of Series 4, but he didn’t. Research led me to the revelation that series 4 was mostly broadcast in 2008; series 5 not until 2010.  In the intervening year, there was no full series; instead, fans were treated to five longer ‘special’ episodes, as found in this box set.

The first episode, 'The Next Doctor', is a ‘Christmas Special’ broadcast in December 2008. The Doctor is in England in the middle of the 19th century, and meets someone else claiming to the ‘the Doctor’.  He has a sonic screwdriver - of sorts - and even a tardis, though it looks a little different from the usual police box... Meanwhile, the Cybermen are kidnapping children, and the two Doctors - naturally - sort this out.

The second episode, ‘Planet of the Dead’, was shown as an Easter Special in 2009.  There’s a rather cool upper class jewel thief, Lady Christina, who joins the Doctor on a bus as it travels through a wormhole to a strangely deserted planet. They have to figure out what’s going on, while experts back on earth try to work out how to get the bus back again without killing all the passengers.

The third ‘special’, 'The Waters of Mars', is more violent than the earlier two, and has some rather scary implications. The Doctor finds himself on Mars, meeting people he knows about from archive news stories.  He also knows that something terrible is going to happen, but - he claims - cannot do anything to change the course of history. In the meantime, something terrifying is happening to members of the crew...

The ‘specials’ end with a two-part episode, 'The End of Time', in which we finally have to say goodbye to David Tenant. It’s fast-paced and exciting, with the background of a prophecy by the Ood (from a previous series), and the regeneration of the evil time lord known as The Master, in a scene oddly reminiscent of Lord Voldemort’s regeneration in 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'. While it was undoubtedly thrilling in places, and quite moving in others, I felt that this double episode was a bit over-long, and could probably have been condensed into just one episode.

David Tennant is excellent in this entire series, evidently determined to go out as one of the most memorable Doctors. His acting ability shines through, to the extent that the character even becomes a little scary at times with a tendency towards playing God which was a little at odds with the previous series.

In addition to the main episodes, each of the five DVDs in this box set comes with a ‘Doctor Who Confidential’, a documentary about the making of the episode; one that we very much enjoyed was about ‘Planet of the Dead’. It explained how the production team managed to transport a double decker London bus to a desert in Dubai... and the problems that hit unexpectedly! Well worth seeing.

Definitely recommended if you like Doctor Who (or, indeed, David Tennant), but I wouldn't necessarily suggest this box set as an introduction to the series if you are unfamiliar with it. It's quite expensive for what it is in the UK - only a couple of pounds cheaper than the full 13-episode series box sets - and decidedly over-priced in the US (at the time of writing).

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

08 March 2013

From Time to Time (starring Alex Etel and Maggie Smith)

The main character in this film is Tolly, a thirteen-year-old boy, played by Alex Etel. The story is set in 1944, at the end of World War II. Tolly’s father is ‘missing in action’, so his mother has gone to London to see if she can find out more information. The only place she can think of sending Tolly for the school holidays is to his grandmother, Mrs GreenKnowe (Maggie Smith). Unfortunately there has been a rift in the family, so Tolly is a stranger both to his Granny, and to the house.

Mrs Greenknowe starts telling Tolly about previous inhabitants of the house, partly prompted by his interest in some of the portraits and other artefacts he spots. Her housekeeper and gardener also tell him snippets of history, about family members and also about a terrible fire that burned down an entire wing.

Then Tolly starts to see ghosts. At first terrified, he is reassured by his grandmother’s calm acknowledgement that the spirits of the former family members do appear - and then finds himself appearing to them. As he asks more questions, he is taken more often into the past ,where he gets caught up in racism, intolerance, and the unpleasantness of one of his ancestors as a young man.

This is actually a film for older children, an adaptation of a book called ‘The Chimneys of Green Knowe’. It is one of a series of books by Lucy M Boston based in the middle of the 20th century, featuring an old house with both current and past inhabitants.

I thought the film was cleverly done; with no preconceptions, and not having read the books, I was able to follow the story easily enough - not always a given for me! Tolly was a likeable boy, at first rather awkward and defensive, knowing that his grandmother did not approve of his parents’ marriage. Maggie Smith, of course, is brilliant. Gradually Tolly and his grandmother learn to respect and even love each other, and there are some positive themes about family ties and loyalty that shine through.

We watched this with an adult friend, and found it quite tense in places, moving in others. There are some moments of light humour too, particularly in the initial interactions between Tolly and his grandmother. Their slow acceptance of each other is done very well, as is the gradual unfolding of two stories alongside each other, both present and past.

There are, of course, plot holes from the time travel point of view. It would be difficult to avoid them. One such ‘problem’ is raised directly by Tolly, and cleverly answered by his grandmother in the sense of having to accept that something apparently illogical happened.  The ending of the film was perhaps a bit abrupt, and yet it worked well without leaving too many questions open.

Apparently the setting and much of the story deviates quite sharply from the book, which naturally annoys those who are purists about such things. But this is explained in the one and only ‘Extra’ - a conversation with Julian Fellowes, who directed the film. He talks about wanting to make it for many years, and the way he had to make changes, based on the limitations of the media, and the need for images and drama that make a movie always somewhat different from a book.

All in all, we thought it well done and worth watching.  The rating is PG in both the US and UK, which seems about right; some of the action is quite tense and even a little scary, and I doubt if it would be of much interest to anyone under the age of about ten or eleven.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

04 March 2013

Doctor Who, the complete Fourth series (starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate)

Long before we reached the end of Doctor Who series Three, I had put Series Four on my wishlist, and was given it for my birthday last year. So we were able to start watching Series Four almost immediately - although it has taken us about six months to complete it.

Season Four is the last full season with David Tennant as the Doctor. There is a great first episode featuring Kylie Minogue, of all people, as a waitress called Astrid. She would have made a good companion to the Doctor - they got along extremely well - but alas, it was not to be.

Donna - Catherine Tate - appears in episode Two (out of fourteen in all), a quirky and somewhat amusing one featuring some weight loss pills, and the cute aliens known as adipose (which can now be bought as plush toys!) Donna had appeared briefly in the Christmas Special at the start of Series Three, but had been absent from the show since then.

I didn't much like Donna at first. She seemed a bit feeble and not particularly intelligent. However, her lack of romantic interest in the Doctor was quite refreshing, after Rose and Martha, and she grew in confidence as the series progressed. By the last few episodes she had become - as another companion put it - the most important person in creation. By the final exciting two-part episodes Donna had shown herself to be a loyal and brilliant companion... which made her eventual departure from the show, in the last episode, really rather sad in the way that it happened.

There are threads running through this whole series which make it more complicated than the old ones I used to watch from behind the sofa. Yet there are still quite a mixture - from the cuddly Adipose to the terrifying Vashta Nerada, not to mention the ancient daleks with their battle cry 'exterminate', which still makes me shudder and want to hide, like I did as a child.

Lots of companions re-appear in this series, including one from the Doctor's future (should that be 'pre-appear?') in a spooky episode involving a vast library, some terrifyingly tiny aliens, and a small girl. Then there's a delightfully light-weight episode featuring Agatha Christie (at a house-party hosted by a society lady played by Felicity Kendall) and a script which includes a large number of titles of Agatha Christie's books. There's a giant wasp, too, which could have been terrifying but somehow didn't ever feel quite real.

David Tennant is brilliant throughout. It's hard to imagine how he can ever be bettered.

The final DVD - out of six - contains a wonderful documentary, seeing into the lives of those involved in the show, with script-reading, filming and post-production.

All in all, this is great stuff and we are now complete fans of Doctor Who. I just wish I had known sooner that there are some extra episode from 2009 which are chronologically between Series Four and Series Five. I was given Series Five for Christmas, but we need to get hold of these specials before we can move on to see Matt Smith as Doctor...

Definitely recommended. Rated 12, which seems about right, as the storylines are complex and some of the ideas are scary, even if the violence is relatively mild compared to much of what passes as entertainment these days. No nudity or sex, unsurprisingly, and only a few instances of minor bad language.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

02 March 2013

Her Majesty Mrs Brown (starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly)

I picked this DVD up at a charity shop. While we have enjoyed several historical dramas, including an excellent one involving a true story about royalty (The King's Speech) this is not really our preferred genre. However, when I noticed that the two main characters are Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly (better known as a stand-up comic) I thought it would be worth watching!

It sat on our shelves for some months, however, until visiting friends opted to see it. At 103 minutes this is not a long film, and we were all mesmerised.

Judi Dench, as ever, is excellent. She plays a very upright, rather controlling Queen Victoria, who is initially portrayed as still in deep mourning, three years after the death of her beloved husband Albert. The public - and parliament - are trying to persuade her to return to public duties but she refuses, insisting that she is Queen and can decide what she will and won't do.

John Brown (Billy Connolly) who was one of her husband's servants and confidants is sent for. He is not entirely happy about this, but has a long and loyal admiration for the Queen. This is not at first obvious, because he speaks his mind, and does not kowtow to his 'superiors'. Before long he starts to take the Queen out for rides, and with his sometimes brash, always honest approach begins to bring her out of her depression, something in which the rest of her staff failed dismally.

The Queen and John become very good friends despite their vast difference in status. She sees something of everyday life, and learns to relax a little in his company. Apparently historians cannot decide what exactly the relationship was, and whether there was anything more to it than friendship. This film does not in fact suggest anything more - there is not the smallest hint of impropriety, despite the title. But the amount of time te two spend together still gives rise to more gossip.

There is some lovely photography, with gorgeous scenery in Scotland when the Queen and company go to stay in Balmoral. The two main characters are excellent and entirely believable; Victoria in particular ages gracefully and perfectly, as the story progresses.

There isn't really much plot to this film, but we didn't notice that while watching. It's almost entirely character-driven, and that works extremely well. While far from gripping, it was very watchable by four of us with rather different tastes in general. There is some deep emotion, and also a few moments of light humour to lift the mood.

I'm not sure I would want to see this again, but it was certainly eye-opening in introducing a story I knew little about, and also seeing a rather different side of Billy Connolly.

(At the time of writing, the UK Amazon price is showing as almost £25 new - I would not buy any DVD at this price, and certainly not this one! But at a few pounds from a charity shop, I think it is worth having).

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

15 February 2013

The Prince and Me (starring Julia Stiles and Luke Mably)

I’m not quite sure how this ended up on my wishlist, since I had not heard of any of the cast of this film. Perhaps it was my liking for other ‘rom coms’, or perhaps someone recommended it to me. In any case, I was pleased to be given it for Christmas, and, in the aftermath of a protracted cold and cough, it promised some lighthearted viewing that would not tax my brain cells too much.

‘The Prince and Me’ has been called a modern Cinderella story, but in my view, that’s far from the case. Paige (Julia Stiles) might be a commoner, but she’s party of a contented farming family, with parents who welcome her and any random friends she might bring home. She’s studying to be a doctor in Wisconsin, and is highly focused on her work, slightly to the annoyance of her friends who are rather more into having fun. Paige works in the evening as a waitress, presumably to fund her studies - but she’s no geek; she likes hanging out with friends, and although she doesn’t want romance (having no time free) she’s a very likeable, believable young woman.

Eddie (Luke Mably) is the Crown Prince of Denmark. But, at the start of the film, he has hardly been a Prince Charming. He likes nothing more than fast cars and fast women... and is also utterly bored. His parents are almost in despair.

Then Eddie sees a TV show in which university students in Wisconsin remove their tops on request, and decided that this would be a much better place for him than stuffy old Denmark. Naturally he tells his parents that he wants to study in the US and turn his life around - and that he does not even want them to fund him. They insist that his minder Soren (Ben Miller) should accompany him, and Eddie decides to be incognito, determined to throw himself entirely into student life.

There are plenty of amusing moments as Eddie and Soren learn to deal with the squalid nature of student accommodation, the demands of university classes, and the fact that the girls are nothing like the TV show. Eddie and Paige find themselves unwilling lab partners, and - unsurprisingly - their initial hostility develops into a real friendship...

Oh, it’s predictable, of course. At least, the ending is. But there’s a lot in this film, which is much more intelligent than the DVD cover would suggest. We get quite an insight into royal life, at least, from the vantage point of Hollywood. I doubt if it’s realistic, but there are some rather stunning sets and costumes. There’s also a very funny interlude at Paige’s home town, where Eddie takes part in a traditional lawnmower race at a country fair - and when watching the extra later, we learned that this is based on a real event, and that members of the lawnmower racing association were involved in this part of the movie.

It’s Julia Stiles who really carries this film, as far as I’m concerned. She has just the right blend of indignation, inspiration and imagination. I thought that her character made an excellent 21st century role model; I did have some concern towards the end, that she might deny all her principles... but then was very impressed with the way it was all resolved.

There were several places where we laughed - yes, my husband enjoyed this as much as I did - and several where we were completely engrossed in the action. Expecting a bit of silliness, we enjoyed this film very much.

We watched the extras afterwards - just the standard deleted scenes, a few bloopers, and some commentary. The bloopers were mildly amusing, the deleted scenes interesting (there were a couple which we felt should have been included in the movie). The commentary was fascinating, describing the way the film was made, interviewing the person who produced the amazing costumes for the royalty, and giving some insights into how the film was achieved.

Definitely recommended.

(I understand that there are several sequels, which are considered inferior and not worth watching, partly because Paige is played by a different actress)

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

04 February 2013

My House in Umbria (starring Maggie Smith)

From time to time, Amazon recommends various films to me based on others I have rated. I can only assume that it suggested 'My House in Umbria' because I have liked other films featuring Dame Maggie Smith. It sounded like an interesting film so I put it on my wishlist, and was given it for Christmas.

Maggie Smith is, indeed, brilliant as the romantic novelist Emily Delahunty. It's only gradually that we learn that she has a very sordid past; I'm not sure that it really adds anything to the plot, other than to show the contrast with her current wealthy and altruistic lifestyle.

On her way to Rome by train, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing four passengers, injuring others - including Emily - and orphaning a child.

I assume this film, which was originally made for TV, is set in about the 1950s, based on the cars, old-fashioned record players and general props. It moves at that kind of pace, and is primarily a character-based story: As the survivors recover, Emily invites them - including the orphaned Aimee - to stay at her house in Umbria. There they all begin to find some measure of healing... at least, until Aimee's rather cold uncle arrives.

Gorgeous scenery, and wonderful acting by Dame Maggie, who must have been about 70 when this was made in 2003, but could easily pass for 60.  I was also very impressed with Ronnie Barker, playing an elderly general who lost his daughter in the explosion. It's a far cry from his usual humorous roles.  Emmy Clark as Aimee is a bit flat, but then her character is clearly suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.  She and Emily strike up an odd friendship, based perhaps on their mutual neediness.

There are one or two moments of humour amidst the slightly dark plot, and a wonderful inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) who is determined to get to the bottom of the explosion. I wasn't sure that I entirely understood the political ramifications, but it didn't much matter.

I suppose my only slight niggle is that Emily's character becomes rather strange towards the end, forcing confidences and drinking too heavily - something that seems unconnected to her earlier character. Still, the story flows well, and we found ourselves caught up entirely with the diverse people as they gradually blended into a little family.  The ending, if a little unlikely, is very satisfying -  we liked the film very much.

'My House in Umbria' is rated 12 in the UK, which seems about right to me, given the flashbacks of past abuse in Emily's life. I doubt if it would be of much interest to anyone under the age of about 14 or 15 anyway.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

29 January 2013

Back to the Future (starring Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd)

'Back to the Future' is one of the few films I saw at the cinema, shortly before my first son was born. Science fiction and time travel are not exactly my chosen genre, but this film was extremely popular and highly recommended... and I enjoyed it very much.  About twelve years ago I discovered a DVD set on special offer, featuring not just this, the original film, but the two sequels. We watched them with our sons - teenagers by then - and I was pleased to find that it was well worth seeing again.

Now we're introducing some teenage friends to suitable items in our DVD collection, and suggested this to them.

The story is probably well known. Marty (Michael J Fox) is a teenager, the surprisingly sane product of a wimpish father and a controlling mother.  His brother is unemployed, his sister whiny. As the film opens, Marty's father is being verbally abused by 'Biff', his bullying boss, who has just managed to wreck their car but is blaming Marty's dad. And Marty is very unhappy about this because he was hoping to drive his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) into the mountains the following day...

Marty is friendly with the eccentric 'Doc' Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and is thrilled to be asked to film his time travel experiment: sending his dog a minute back in time in a Delorian. (It was years before I realised that a Delorian is a regular brand of car in some countries. I assumed, back in 1985, that it was invented specifically for this film).

Then, due to some political activists, Marty finds himself going back in time by thirty years in the same car. He meets his parents just before they have their first date, and a younger Biff - the school bully.  Unfortunately he doesn't observe the rules of time travel, becoming involved in people's lives, and thus  is in danger of changing history in a way that endangers his own existence...

There are plot holes, of course. But it doesn't matter. It's amusing, fast-paced, and very well done - particularly given the era when computer graphics for special effects were rather basic. The reconstruction of Marty's home town in 1955 works brilliantly, and the story is quite gripping, once it gets going..  There's great excitement at the climax - even though I remembered the majority of the plot - and an ending which I had not completely recalled.

'Back to the Future' is rated PG in both the US and UK, which seems about right. There are some minor instances of swearing, and one or two incidents of minor violence and sexual implications.  I don't think it would be of much interest to anyone under the age of about nine or ten anyway.

Our teenage friends (a girl of 15 and boy of 13) thought this a great film, and are hoping to see the sequel at some point.

Highly recommended for teens and adults.

(Note that the Amazon links are to the single DVD versions of this, but in both the US and UK it can be bought as part of the trilogy of Back to the Future films).

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

14 January 2013

Music of the Heart (starring Meryl Streep)

It's nearly four years since we first saw the film 'Music of the Heart', which we liked very much indeed. So when some friends said they would like to watch it, we were more than happy to see it again.

Meryl Streep stars in this very moving film as Roberta, a newly separated mother of two. Needing to support her sons Nick and Lexi, and also needing something to live for, se applies for a job teaching violin at an inner city school.

This film is based on a true story, as is briefly explained in an epilogue. Much of the film follows Roberta's early attempts to help impoverished, struggling students to care about music, to work at their playing, and often to achieve something beyond their wildest dreams. She has an abrasive style which offends some parents, but which the students find refreshing and oddly helpful. She comes across prejudice, aggression, and sometimes laziness; at first she finds it difficult to adjust to the very different lifestyle and families that she meets. But gradually, over the years, many students find her classes inspirational and fulfilling.

Ten years after Roberta is first accepted as a substitute teacher, a blow falls: her music class no longer has funding. In the exciting final part of the story, Roberta - aided by many devoted friends - decides to fight this decision and raise funds herself. It's a mesmerising story, extremely well done (no surprise there, with Meryl Streep starring, but the whole cast is brilliant), and really quite moving in places. Even knowing what was coming, I enjoyed it very much indeed.

PG rated in both the US and UK, due to a little bad language, and some sexual implications, although nothing explicit is shown. Probably not very interesting to anyone under the age of about 10 or 11 unless they happen to be interested in violins.

Highly recommended.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

02 January 2013

Father of the Bride II (starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton)

We enjoyed watching Father of the Bride in the summer, so when I learned that there was a sequel which was mostly recommended, I put it on my wishlist and was delighted to receive it for Christmas. Wanting a light and undemanding film on New Year's Day, while convalescing from various bugs, we decided that 'Father of the Bride II' would be a good choice.

One again, Steve Martin plays the slightly hapless middle-aged George Banks and Diane Keaton is brilliant as his long-suffering wife Nina. In this story, their recently married daughter Annie makes an announcement which is no surprise to anyone other than George... but gradually he gets used to the idea, and even quite excited about it.

Then Nina finds herself feeling unwell. Unfortunately I had read the blurb on the back of the DVD which told me what was going to happen, but it didn't matter over-much, although it slightly spoiled what could have been a surprise.

Meanwhile, they are both feeling rather depressed about their huge house with only their son Mattie (superbly played by Kieran Culkin) and decide to downsize.  Nina doesn't really think it's going to happen, but then out of the blue George manages to sell the family home to a wealthy Arab, with a cash bonus for a quick move... only to realise that it's not, after all, going to be used as a happy family home.

Oh, and 'Franck' (Martin Short), the extraverted and extremely bizarre wedding planner, appears again in this film with new ideas and designs; he seems more human this time, and as he gradually starts to grow on George, I found myself liking him rather more than I did in the first movie.

There's a fair amount of humour, some of which verges on slapstick at times, but it's interspersed with some quite poignant moments which made this less frivolous than I had expected. Towards the end there is a somewhat tense climax, followed all too quickly by a bittersweet ending which we, as empty nesters, could relate to all too strongly.

Theoretically this film could stand alone, but it would be a bit strange to see it without having seen the original 'Father of the Bride', as so many of the characters recur, and themes continue. So I would definitely recommend seeing that first. If you don't like that, you won't like this one either.

The rating is PG in both the UK and US, which seems reasonable; there's no violence and not much bad language; there are inevitably some sexual innuendoes, but nothing overt. I don't think the film would be of the slightest interest to anyone under the age of 11 or 12, and probably not even then as the subject matter is really only appropriate to parents, or at least people who appreciate the importance of parenthood.

Note that while the links to Amazon are to this film alone, it may be better value to buy the two-part DVD set which contains both 'Father of the Bride' movies.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews