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