26 December 2014

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger (starring David Tennant)

We very much enjoyed the film ‘Nativity’ (starring Martin Freeman) about eighteen months ago. It’s schmalzy, and quite silly in places, but it's quite amusing, the children are great, and it has a wonderful feel-good ending. We thought it would make excellent seasonal family viewing.

When I saw that the sequel, ‘Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger’ starred David Tennant, it was the work of a moment to add it to my wishlist, despite a very mixed bunch of reviews on Amazon. I received it for Christmas and we watched it with our adult sons and daughter-in-law...

Unfortunately, it was nowhere near as good as the first film. In the original, the harassed class teacher has to come up with a Christmas concert. The school pulls together, the Head is behind him, and the slapstick is mostly caused by his rivalry with a snooty private school nearby. There's a plot, there's development, there's a happy (if schmalzy) ending.

In this film Tennant plays Mr Peterson, the new class teacher. The plot is much more unlikely - and, at times, decidedly worrying. Mr Poppy (Mark Wootton), the irritatingly juvenile classroom assistant, is still around, and this time has been urging the children to audition for a national singing competition in Wales. The school Head has vetoed it, but this does not stop him from egging the children on, and writing a song for them. However there's no real reason for anything, no tension, no story as such. And far too much of Mr Poppy, who only has his job because he's the Head's nephew.

The story then gets sillier (and more worrying still, from a child protection point of view) when the class, unauthorised by the Head, and unknown to their parents, set off for the competition in an extremely odd bus driven by Mr Poppy. Mr Peterson is kidnapped as he tries to stop them, and panics about his wife, who might give birth at any moment...

We were getting annoyed and irritated by the first hour or so of this film, which was not humorous and made little sense. Then we become rather confused when the scene kept switching from the competition - already getting started, in the evening - to the class, staggering across rough ground, up steep hills, down ropes, accompanied by a baby and a donkey… in broad daylight. Without any food or drink, as far as we could see, wearing their costumes, but not getting dirty.

But we kept watching. I'm not entirely sure why. But finally we were rewarded: the last half hour was a great deal better. We very much enjoyed David Tennant playing a dual role superbly; we also quite liked the other choirs singing and dancing (although some of the implications of lyrics were not 'U' rated in my view). It made no sense that the starring school, despite their traumatic journey, and apparently no real rehearsals, absolutely stole the show. But then, we knew that was going to happen - and they did it very well, on the whole.

We also liked the unexpectedly warm (if schmalzy and clichéd) ending that brought the real meaning of Christmas back into focus, albeit briefly.

But I'd rather have re-watched the original; this one is a poor imitation and I wouldn't really recommend it.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

26 November 2014

Once (starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová)

Amazon recommended this film to me; the blurb and most of the reviews suggested that it was a gentle, touching love story about two lonely people who discovered each other through a shared love of music. So I put it on my wishlist and was given it for my birthday earlier in the year.

We saw that it was rated ‘15’, so were prepared for a certain amount of ‘adult content’; what we did not expect was that the film would open with a string of profanities. We saw a street musician (Glen Hansard) strumming his guitar, and swearing at the passers by if they seemed in any way to threaten him. At least that’s what we assume; the accents were strongly Irish, and the ‘f’ word was, unfortunately, the only thing we could make out.

The busker - we never learn his name - is thrown ten cents by a Czech girl played by Markéta Irglová (we don’t learn the girl's name either, although these two are the main characters throughout). They strike up a conversation in which he reveals that his main job is fixing vacuum cleaners, and she asks if he will mend hers. She returns a day later, vacuum cleaner in tow (literally) and they visit a music shop where she shows her talent on the piano.

Then they decide to make a recording together, haggling for the price of a recording session at a local studio, and pulling in various other random buskers to help…

It’s a nice idea; these two lonely people become friendly, talking together about their past and difficult relationships that they still regret, interspersed with the busker’s style of music to help them explore their feelings. I can see why it was so popular and highly rated by many; the two are talented musicians, and some of the songs won international awards. It’s billed in one of the extras as a modern day musical; perhaps that’s what it is, although it doesn’t function in any way like musicals of the past. The songs are good but not catchy; there’s nobody leaping into choreographed routines, and while there are some visual sequences during some of the songs, they’re rather hit-and-miss, and somewhat confusing.

Perhaps the worst thing about this was that the camera was continually shaky. It looked at first like an error, but continued throughout; my husband felt queasy at times, and I had to close my eyes when it got particularly bad. I realise that this is a popular ‘technique’ with some young people but it’s highly disturbing to others.

The ‘extra’ documentary explained that this was done on a very low budget, filmed from a distance, and mostly ad libbed. Neither of the two main cast are actors: it was thought more important to use good musicians. This explains why much of the dialogue seemed unnecessary, not taking the story anywhere. I did like the chemistry between the two characters, but apparently they are good friends in real life.

It was oddly appealing and we kept watching, although the songs were too similar for my taste, and went on too long, and there really wasn’t much plot. It could have gone one of two ways (they get together or they don’t…) and it went the way I wasn’t expecting, but worked quite well, though it was a bit abrupt.

At one stage I’d have given this two stars, but I think three is probably fairer; it’s an interesting and thought-provoking story, and the music parts are well done. But the bad language - which recurred through the film, though only that one word, over and over - was extremely irritating and entirely unnecessary; I assume it was put in so as to raise the rating from PG to 15 (R in the US) as there is nothing else that could warrant even a 12 rating. In addition, the constantly wobbly camera was highly disturbing.

But by all means watch it once if you can deal with the bad language and wobbly camera; it's unusual, and oddly haunting.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

29 October 2014

Evening (starring Vanessa Redgrave, Clare Danes and Mamie Gummer)

I assume that Amazon recommended this DVD to me because it features Meryl Streep, whom I consider one of the greatest living actresses; I have enjoyed many of her films, and the reviews of this were generally good, so I put it on my wishlist.

‘Evening’ was something I received for my birthday earlier in the year and which we watched last night. The blurb didn’t say much, other than that it was a heart-rending tear-jerker, but the cover looked appealing. We weren’t too sure what to expect, and wondered if it was going to be rather morbid at first, since the main character, brilliantly portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave, is an elderly woman called Ann who is evidently at the last stage of a serious illness. She has two daughters who seem to spend their time arguing; one is a traditional family woman with a career, the other has floated around between different jobs and boyfriends, and admits to being phobic about commitment.

Ann’s mind is evidently wandering somewhat, and when she mentions the name ‘Harris’ as a great mistake of her youth, her daughters wonder if she’s becoming delirious. But we’re then transported back to the 1950s, with Ann as a young woman (Clare Danes) going to her best friend’s wedding. Her friend Lila (Mamie Gummer) lives in a huge house, and is quite conventional; but her brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy) is convinced that she’s about to make a terrible mistake in marrying the upright (and dull) Karl.

Buddy then introduces Ann to Harris, a doctor who is the son of the former family housekeeper. Everybody, it seems, is in love with Harris - and Ann quickly falls under his spell.

To say much more would be to give spoilers of a film that owes more to characterisation and scenery than plot. The action (such as it is) switches between the present and the past almost at random, as we gradually see events unfold during the weekend of Lila’s wedding, culminating in a tragedy which is not unexpected (since present-day Ann has mentioned it) but still shocking.

It was quite mesmerising at times, though neither of us found it heart-rending or even tear-jerking. However it was certainly thought-provoking and somewhat moving, although the tearful scenes were just a touch too melodramatic. Themes were about love, and choices; whether or not a life was wasted or fulfilled; the value of friendship, the dangers of jealousy. It was cleverly put together although towards the end there were some decidedly surreal scenes that were amusing rather than poignant, as it became clear that Ann had one foot in the next world already.

Meryl Streep’s cameo role did not appear until near the end, when she played the part of the now elderly Lila; perfectly cast, as the young Lila was played by her daughter. Indeed, most of the acting was very good, although I never quite believed in the drunken, confused Buddy, and I found Ann’s daughters’ bickering to be unrealistic and inappropriate on the whole.

It could perhaps have been cut from 112 minutes to 90 without any real loss, but I didn’t find it dull at all despite being somewhat slow-moving; the ending was less morbid and more upbeat than we had feared and overall I enjoyed it.

The rating is 12 which I think is about right; there’s no real violence, just a few instances of bad language, implied intimacy but no details. The subject matter is unlikely to be of interest to anyone under the age of about 15 in any case.

Recommended if you don’t mind a bit of melodrama, and enjoy meandering character-based thematic dramas.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

19 October 2014

Doctor Who, Series 7 (starring Matt Smith)

It’s taken us a long time - more than ten months - to watch Doctor Who, series 7. Partly this was because we were travelling for quite a part of the summer; partly because we knew this was the last series available on DVD. Series 8 started broadcasting in the UK as we were watching the last few episodes of series 7, but won’t be available as a DVD set for some months.

This is the last season starring Matt Smith as the Doctor, and the first with Clara (Jenna Coleman) as the Doctor’s companion. Each episode is complete in itself - there are no cliffhanging multi-parters - but there’s an overriding story arc about who exactly Clara is; this begins quite early in the season with some interesting and confusing scenarios, and is not resolved until the final episode.

The first part of this season - five episodes - were broadcast towards the end of 2012; the rest were in 2013. They followed on from the Christmas 2011 special, ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’, which ends with the Doctor making a brief visit to Amy and Rory, the Doctor’s married companions from the previous series. They then accompany him in the first few episodes of this series, overlapping with the time when Clara’s mysterious presence begins to make itself known.

There are daleks, aliens, cybermen, weeping angels and dinosaurs in this series, as in previous ones. In a sense it’s more of the same kind of story: aliens threaten, the Doctor saves the world (or, for variation, the Universe). But then, that’s what Doctor Who fans want. I find it astounding that the team continue producing such good scripts with variations on the theme when there’s really only one basic plot.

Matt Smith isn’t as talented an actor as his predecessor, David Tennant. That doesn’t always matter; there’s an ‘otherworldly’ and somewhat scatty appeal to him which I was finally getting used to as the series came to a close. But in the penultimate episode when The Doctor is playing chess with himself as two distinct personalities, we felt that Tennant could have done this so much more convincingly.

While some of the scenes here and there were over-fast and too tense for my tastes (sometimes I shut my eyes if there was too much suspense), I enjoyed the dynamic between the Doctor and Clara, and I thought the final episode was particularly good. The mysterious story about her origins is very clever indeed; it kept me intrigued and had a very clever explanation in the end.

We learn quite a bit about the Doctor during this series, including the fact that his ‘real name’ is not just a secret but has immense power. River Song (Alex Kingston) makes a couple of brief appearances - I gave up even trying to understand the ‘wibbly wobbly timey-wimey’ dimensions - and all in all, we thought this another excellent series.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

14 October 2014

Miss Potter (starring Renée Zellweger)

I forget who recommended this movie to me; but recently I’ve found that I very much enjoy film versions of biographies, often (though it pains me to admit it) more so than the print versions. ‘Miss Potter’ was given to me as a gift some months ago and we decided to watch it last night.

I have known of Beatrix Potter since my early childhood, of course; the delightful tales of Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Squirrel Nutkin and so many more are part of my heritage and culture. I had several of the books as a child, and read them to my own children years later. The pictures are beautifully drawn by the author, and the stories quirky and light, yet without the condescending controlled vocabulary that hampers so many children’s books these days.

Nevertheless, I knew almost nothing about the author. I had not thought at all about the problems she would have faced as a female author in Victorian times, writing for what was not a well-developed market. These difficulties were clearly presented in the movie: we see Beatrix Potter as a young and highly intelligent woman who lives much of her life in a fantasy world with her animals and stories. She cares nothing for fashion, nor for the upper-class young men presented to her. Instead she is determined to earn her living; to enter what was a man’s world, and get her stories published.

Fortunately for her - and for millions of children subsequently - one publisher decided to accept her first book, 'Peter Rabbit', assuming that it would probably be a flop but with his own reasons. The young man Norman (Ewan McGregor) who worked with Beatrix was, however, as passionate about the book as she was. He treated her as an intelligent equal rather than a fluffy female, and together they produced the books that were to become so famous around the world.

Unsurprisingly there’s a gentle - and sad - love affair; there’s also a lifelong friendship. Underpinning it all is the story of Beatrix’s eventual emancipation from her rather overbearing and controlling mother (Barbara Flynn). There are some lovely cameos of family life that provide, if not humour, at least a lighter side to the story.

Renée Zellweger plays a believable Miss Potter, with a more than passable upper-middle class English accent. She is portrayed as uncertain and awkward in so many ways, yet supremely gifted in her art and storytelling. The other characters mattered less, yet most the cast felt real, and overall we were captivated by this true story.

This DVD is rated PG which seems about right to me; there’s nothing shocking, no violence or nudity, and just one instance of relatively mild language. However some of the subject matter could be a bit disturbing to a sensitive child - and it’s unlikely to be of interest to anyone under the age of about eight or nine.

There’s a ‘Making of...’ documentary as an extra on the DVD, but we found it a bit tedious; it didn’t add anything much to the story.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

28 September 2014

The Invention of Lying (starring Ricky Gervais)

I doubt if I would have considered watching this film, as the reviews are very mixed. However our twenty-something son had bought a second-hand blu-ray after seeing it somewhere else, and suggested we watch it as a family. He said it was ‘interesting’ and ‘different’, and he wanted to know what we would think.

‘The Invention of Lying’ is set in a world where everybody tells the truth. All the time. Some genetic quirk means that nobody is capable of telling a lie - thus everybody is entirely trustworthy. An interesting premise, and one that leads to some mildly amusing scenarios as people greet each other in ways that seem quite rude, yet nobody takes offence. There’s a bit of a fine line between blurting out everything as one sees it, and keeping quiet about some truth, which is not really explored, but the point was well made.

Ricky Gervais plays the main part, that of the screenwriter Mark. He’s a bit short and dumpy, and takes himself rather too seriously. Screenwriting in this world, of course, simply consists of the re-telling of history - fiction, like lying, is an unknown concept. And Mark has been allocated such a dull period of history that he ends up losing his job.

Unsurprisingly there is also a romance; Mark is attracted to Anna (Jennifer Garner) who agrees to go out on a date with him for a friend’s sake. She lets him know that she is not interested in him but then finds that she quite enjoys her evening.

Then, when Mark is at rock bottom, about to be evicted from his flat, something dramatic goes on in his mind - we see the cogs whirring - and he tells the first lie. And gets away with it, because nobody else can even imagine that he might not be telling the truth. After the first time he finds that he can make things up and mislead people as much as he wishes; the only thing he can’t convinced anyone about is that he’s saying things that ‘aren’t’. There’s no word in this world for lies, or even for truth.

All of which is light-hearted fun, and quite thought-provoking, then suddenly the movie alters to be propaganda for atheism. It’s cleverly done, subtly but with the same kind of satirical humour, but is rather a sneaky way of expressing one’s message in what is supposed to be entertainment.

It’s nicely done; the characters are rather exaggerated, but that doesn’t matter much. We were a bit shocked to learn that the rating is only 12A or PG-13; while there’s no violence, and only a few instances of bad language, there are several sexual references - some very direct - which should surely have made this at least a 15.

I doubt if it would be of any interest to younger teenagers, but parents should be aware of the content - the IMDB site has a good parental advisory - if watching it with children around.

Note that the links above are to the DVD versions of this film; blu-rays are also available, but rather more expensive.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

07 September 2014

Morning Glory (starring Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford)

Always on the lookout for a new DVD to watch, I browsed through Amazon’s recommendations some months ago, and liked the look of this one. I put it on my wishlist, and was given it for a recent birthday. I watched it with my husband and one of our adult sons, and we all enjoyed it very much.

Rachel McAdams stars as the energetic Becky, who works too many hours for a morning television show in the US. Her workaholic tendencies are clear, and her colleagues are convinced that she will be promoted. It thus comes as a huge shock when she learns that she has actually been fired. Desperate for a job - any job - she leaps at the chance of directing another morning show called Daybreak with another TV station. It's a show which has been struggling in the ratings and may well be axed.

Becky certainly provides a breath of fresh air as she attempts to sort out the many problems and questions that the staff of Daybreak are having, and decides as one of her first actions to fire one particularly obnoxious news anchor. This means that she’s left with just one anchor - Diane Keaton is brilliant as the loyal but cynical Colleen - so she decides to recruit an experienced (but obnoxious) former newsreader. Harrison Ford is a wonderfully grumpy curmudgeon playing a part very different from his usual roles.

It’s all slightly predictable, I suppose; Becky naturally falls in love but makes a hash of it at first; she tries some experiments which have mixed results, and the grumpy anchor finds himself thawing against his better judgement. These are not spoilers as they are pretty much inevitable. There are some humorous situations although I would not call this a ‘comedy’ as such; the busy newsroom filled with equipment went right over my head, but appealed to my husband who has worked in similar situations.

The romance, too is not a huge part of the plot despite it being billed as a rom-com. I do wish the couple hadn’t been seen going to bed together; it seems to be a requirement for modern movies, although it was tastefully done with no nudity and nothing particularly explicit. There’s some bad language, too, which really wasn't necessary; I would have rated this as 15 myself but the censors chose a more liberal 12. I recommend that parents check the advisories at the iMDB website before watching this with young teens, although many will, no doubt, have seen far worse.

That aside, we thought this film was extremely well done, and it made an enjoyable evening’s entertainment for us all. The characters are nicely eccentric, and it’s a 'feel-good' kind of story overall. Definitely recommended to adults and older teens who like this kind of thing, particularly to anyone who has worked in the television industry.

The movie length is 103 minutes, and there are subtitles available in a few European languages. No extras, although there’s the option to turn on a commentary (in English).

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

02 September 2014

The Vow (starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum)

Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) are a young married couple who are still very much in love. Leo runs a recording studio, Paige is a talented sculptress. Then a horrible accident at the end of the first scene leaves Paige with the past five years of her memory completely missing; she does not recognise her husband, and is surprised to find that she is no longer engaged to someone else.

With several flashbacks, we see what Leo and Paige’s life has been like - how they first met, what happened when they got married - and these intersperse with her physical recovery from the accident with her parents getting more and more involved.

It’s an intriguing premise, one which I would have thought was a bit unrealistic, but for the fact that this story is quite closely based on a real incident. The brain, as the doctors mention, is unpredictable - so apparently this kind of thing might potentially happen. It could have been rather maudlin but this was well made, paced exactly right in our opinion, with excellent acting from the main characters and a little humour to lighten the underlying plot. Paige’s parents were perhaps caricatured to some extent, but that didn’t matter; most of the other people involved had minor roles and I didn't even try to keep track of them.

Leo is determined to help Paige regain her memory; the film looks at the question of whether, under different circumstances, people would fall in love all over again if they had the opportunity. The vows they wrote and made at their wedding are mentioned more than once, and Leo's unselfish unconditional love for his wife is extremely moving. We found the film quite emotionally draining, perhaps because we knew that it was a true story (but did not know how it would end).

The rating is 12A or PG-13, and that seemed about right to me; I doubt if anyone younger than about 15 would be interested in this film, but it’s not inappropriate for slightly younger children. The accident at the start is quite shocking although there's nothing gory shown. Other than that, there’s occasional swearing, mostly minor, and only one (rear) nude shot.

Definitely recommended, to men as well as women.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

24 August 2014

Hope Springs (starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones)

Browsing through Amazon, as I do from time to time, I was given several recommendations for films starring Meryl Streep. I very much enjoy her versatility as an actress, and the blurb for this sounded good: a lighthearted rom-com about a middle-aged couple who want to put a bit of sparkle back in their relationship. So it went on my wishlist, and I was given it for my birthday a few months ago.

It starts well: Kay (Meryl Streep) is getting fed up with her structured but humdrum life, waiting hand and foot on her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). They sleep in separate bedrooms, and their physical contact consists of a quick peck on the cheek when he leaves for the office each morning, after being served a perfectly timed cooked breakfast.

Kay finds a book about marriage, and decides to sign up for a week of intensive counselling for couples - a brave move, since Arnold does not think they have any problems, and considers Kay is just being hormonally emotional...

There are some amusing asides amidst the bittersweet start to this film, and some great one-liners scattered (albeit sparsely) throughout. The characters of Arnold and Kay seemed all too realistic; one of the extras stated that probably every long-married couple can relate to at least some parts of their relationship, and I suspect that’s partly why some people find this uncomfortable viewing.

What did surprise me were the frequent references to intimacy, not just in general terms (clearly important) but in specifics, which I would have expected to give this at least a 15 rating. Even more so once Arnold and Kay start doing the ‘exercises’ they are set by Dr Feld (Steve Carell); while there’s no nudity, very little bad language and nothing overtly explicit, there’s a great deal that’s implied, which I would not want a 12-year-old seeing.

Having said that, we did like the film very much; Meryl Streep is brilliant as a repressed, bored middle-aged woman, as different from her other roles as ever. Tommy Lee Jones has just the right amount of curmudgeonly grumpiness to make him realistic, and while at first we see him as the cause of the marriage problems, it becomes clear in the counselling sessions that their difficulties have crept up on them slowly with both bearing some responsibility.

There are several extras, mostly variations on the making of the film, including some different takes that were not used, one amusing deleted scene, and a lot of commentary.

I’d recommend this, in a guarded way, to couples who have been together for a while, whether or not they have any problems; it’s a thought-provoking script and a very different kind of film. However I would not really recommend it to anyone under the age of about 30, as I suspect younger people would find it unbelievable, perhaps even a bit gross.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

06 July 2014

Saving Mr Banks (starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks)

We had no idea what to expect from this DVD when relatives suggested we watch it with them. I’d seen it on Amazon and thought about adding it to my wishlist, but never in fact did so. I wasn’t even sure I would manage to stay awake for what, I learned, was essentially a true-life drama about the making of the film ‘Mary Poppins’.

How wrong I was! 'Saving Mr Banks' is a very well-made story, with Emma Thompson starring as the abrupt and somewhat bad-tempered PJ Travers, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Set mainly in the 1960s, there are also flashbacks to PJ Travers’ childhood, with a happy-go-lucky impoverished father and a hard-working mother who struggles to make ends meet.

There are some tear-jerking moments along with some humour, and wonderful characterisation from the two main characters. Some of their interactions would have seemed unbelievable, had they not been based on what actually happened, as recorded for posterity on tape.

This movie gives a great insight into the way films were made in that era, as well as showing how songs were composed and also the way that an author clearly had a tremendous input into the script and general production of a film based on a book. I don’t know how true to life PJ Travers’ eventual capitulation was (that’s not a spoiler; we know perfectly well that a film of Mary Poppins WAS made, and was a tremendous success, despite the author’s reservations) but it was exceedingly well done.

The UK rating of 12 seems about right to me. While there's nothing indecent, or any mention of intimacies, and only the mildest of bad language, there are some scenes that could be quite disturbing to young children. I'm a little surprised that the US rating is only PG.

Definitely recommended to any adults and teens who have enjoyed the classic film … even though I found that the song ‘Let’s go fly a kite’ got stuck in my brain for the next 48 hours after watching 'Saving Mr Banks'!

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

08 May 2014

The Jane Austen Book Club (starring Mario Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace and Hugh Dancy)

This is one of a handful of films which I have to admit that I enjoyed MORE than the book on which it was based.

A few years ago I picked up 'The Jane Austen Book Club', having read a few positive reviews about it. It was a confusing novel about six people who met monthly to discuss Jane Austen's books. I found it hard to keep track of who was whom, and didn't really track the parallels with Austen's books and the lives of those discussing them.

However I had heard that the movie was very well done, so I added it to my wishlist, and was given it recently. We - my husband, young adult son and I - watched it last night, and very much enjoyed it. The plot is essentially that of the book, but the cast were much easier to distinguish; there were no famous names amongst them, but each played their part superbly.

The oldest of the women has been married several times and thinks she might again one day. Sylvia, for whom the club is initially started, has just been divorced. Sylvia's daughter Allegra, who is gay, is betrayed by a lover. Prudie is a young rigid - but emotional - French teacher whose husband appears to care more about football than about her. Sylvia's close friend Jocelyn is a born match-maker... and then there's Grigg, the token male, who has never before read anything by Jane Austen.

Each of the main characters reflects some aspect of Austen's books in their personalities or their lives; not so overtly as to be predictable, but running through the whole story. And because we see them in action rather than getting flashbacks and conversation, I enjoyed this very much indeed.

It's not necessary to be an Austen fan to like and understand this film - my husband has never read any of her books, although he's seen a few film adaptations. But it helps, to appreciate the ironies.

The rating is 12 (12A in the US) which we thought about right. There are a few instances of bad language, but not a huge amount. There are hints and beginnings of intimate scene, but nothing overt. And, thankfully, no violence at all.

The only 'extras' are a few deleted scenes, and some intereting interviews with the actors and production team.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

03 May 2014

One Fine Day (starring Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney)

This is another film I had not heard of until Amazon recommended it to me. I read a few reviews and added it to my wishlist, and was given it for a recent birthday.

The broad plot is the classic strife-ridden romantic scenario: dislike at first sight, several conflicts, and an eventual realisation of falling in love. However, there's a twist in that the action happens with accompanying small children. The main protagonists Jack (George Clooney) and Melanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) are divorcees whose children, due to confusion and mix-ups, manage to miss a school field trip. Both adults have important days at work, and limited childcare options...

The pace of the film works well, and the humour is understated but made us chuckle aloud a couple of times. Several of the several humorous moments are due to the cleverly choreographed actions of young Sammy (Alex D Linz), who almost entirely stole the show, as far as I was concerned. But there's also great chemistry between the two adults, each of whom assumes the other is like their ex-spouse. And there's a nice turning of the tables where the controlling Melanie manages to be clumsy and irresponsible, while the supposedly irresponsible Jack manages to deal with the children well, and (unlikely though it seems) uncovers a mafia-style plot in passing.

There's nothing deep or particularly thought-provoking, but it was well done and made an enjoyable evening's viewing. The refreshing lack of violence, bedroom scenes or bad language means that this is entirely suitable for children; the PG rating makes sense, since I doubt if it would be of much interest to anyone under the age of about 12.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

19 April 2014

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews)

It's five years since we watched (and very much enjoyed) the original Princess Diaries film. So when I saw the sequel in a charity shop, it was an easy decision to buy it. It took us a few months to get around to watching it.

'Princess Diaries 2', subtitled 'Royal Engagement', continues where the first film ended. Princess Mia (Anne Hathaway) is living in Genovia with her grandmother the Queen (Julie Andrews), after deciding that she will accept her inheritance, and become Queen when her grandmother abdicates. Except that it's not as straightforward as it seems. The Prime Minister reminds parliament that there is a law requiring a Queen to be married. He also mentions another contender for the throne...

So Mia, after ranting about the unfairness of it all, decides to choose an eligible young man and embark on an arranged marriage.

It's light and silly, undoubtedly. But also amusing in places, with great rapport between Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, who still looks elegant and considerably younger than 70. Mia’s awkwardness, despite her princess lessons, shines through in some cleverly choreographed moments, and there are some interesting scenes about the balance between duty and love.

All in all, we thought this made a worthy sequel and enjoyed it.

There is only the mildest of bad language and innuendoes; the rating U (or G) is about right, but this is unlikely to be of much interest to anyone under the age of about nine or ten.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's DVD Reviews

16 April 2014

Marley and Me (starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston)

We saw this film in a charity shop for a couple of pounds, and thought it looked worth buying; we decided to watch it last night, wanting something light and undemanding.

'Marley and Me' is exactly that. There's no great plot in this film; essentially it's the story of a young couple (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) who adopt puppy, who quickly turns into a rumbunctuous dog. Meanwhile, they go through some stressful times in their marriage as their family grows and they have to make important decisions about their careers.

And yet it's a very engaging story that captivated us from the start. The chemistry between the two main actors is strong, and the dog Marley an absolute delight. We're not 'dog people' - and even less inclined to be so after watching this! - but there are some very funny moments as well as some sad scenes, which are beautifully done. Had we been dog owners, we would probably have cried at the end; I admit only to feeling a tear or two pricking my eyelids.

Overall, I appreciated a story featuring a family who genuinely care for each other, who have good rapport and who stick together despite often difficult circumstances. Marley undoubtedly provided most of the humour (and some of the tension between his family) but it was essentially a story of growing love and loyalty between all the family members.

There's almost no bad language and no on-screen violence; however, there's one violent off-stage scene, several innuendoes and the beginnings of bedroom scenes. There is also more than one scene showing the dog 'humping' someone or something. There's nothing overt and no obvious nudity, but parents should take note of the "PG" rating - if you don't want a small child asking awkward questions, it might be worth avoiding. although under-12s would probably find it a bit dull, other than the Marley scenes. A sensitive dog-loving child could find the ending very traumatic.

There are lots of extras, which we thought well worth seeing. They include some great deleted scenes, some dog-training demonstrations, and much more.

Recommended if you want a light film that promotes positive family values.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

31 March 2014

Dad's Army: The Movie (starring Arthur Lowe, John le Mesurier and Clive Dunn)

I watched the BBC TV series 'Dad's Army' off and on in my teenage years, and have seen random repeats from time to time. But it's many years since I watched the official film, made in 1971 as a spin-off for the cinema. Teenage friends wanted a recommendation of something light but interesting, so we recommended this, and all enjoyed it.

The story is well-known, set in World War II and involving the formation of the local 'home guard'. Arthur Lowe is brilliant as the bossy bank manager Mr Mainwaring, who decides to take control of the local home guard, with his assistant Wilson as second-in-command. They gather together a rag-tag collection of mostly elderly men, plus Pike, a mollycoddled young man whose mother likes to look after him all the time.

The group who form the Warmington-on-Sea home guard are essentially incompetent but willing; they clash with the Vicar (Frank Williams) and the air raid warden Hodges (Bill Pertwee), as happened regularly in the TV series, but they also clash with a visiting Major-General...

The humour is mostly low-key, with some slapstick and some situations that are so ridiculous they become amusing. But what makes this film - and indeed the series - work is the chemistry between the main actors, and the superb timing. I love the ending, too, when the platoon finally succeed in something constructive.

Critics complain that this is really cobbled together from about three of the TV episodes rather than being a new idea or plot, and that may be the case; but as an introduction to Dad's Army, and indeed a caricatured overview of how the home guard functioned in the war, this is hard to beat.

I had forgotten the majority of the story, and enjoyed it very much.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

03 March 2014

Raising Helen (starring Kate Hudson and John Corbett)

Browsing films a couple of years ago I saw 'Raising Helen' recommended to me by Amazon. The reviews mostly seemed positive, and although I wasn't really familiar with any of the cast. So it went on my wishlist and I forgot about it; so I was pleased to receive it for Christmas last year. Our 25-year-old son had not seen it, so with a spare evening a few days ago we sat down as a family to watch it.

Three grown-up sisters, celebrating a birthday. Two fairly laid-back, one quite stressed and rigid in her views. Two with families, one - the youngest - a glamorous career-girl. Tragedy strikes, and Helen (Kate Hudson) suddenly finds herself trying to house and raise three children: a moody teenage girl, a depressed pre-teen boy, and a smaller girl...

For a romantic comedy, this film starts in rather a dramatic way and has a thread of tragedy running through it, yet I thought it was very well handled. The three children are entirely believable, dealing with their grief in their different ways. We don't see scenes of trauma, just snapshots that felt poignantly real. Overall it's an encouraging story with quite a message of hope about working terrible situations.

It's also about the difficulties of balancing a career with parenthood, and as such might well upset some; yet, once again, the way it's handled seems quite realistic. As a parent myself (though never a glamorous wedded-to-career person) I could empathise quite strongly with Helen's difficulties.

It's not laugh-aloud funny, although there are plenty of light-hearted moments. Inevitably there's a growing romance, but it's not a passionate one - instead, it grows out of a low-key developing friendship. Unusually, and much to our relief, nobody was shown leaping into bed after the first kiss. The language is clean, too. There's plenty of love and understanding, and while there's a caricatured Asian neighbour (Sakina Jaffrey) who introduces a bit of slapstick, there's a likeable and believable pastor (John Corbett) who is neither elderly nor a dork.

I wouldn't rate this amongst my absolute favourites, but overall, we all enjoyed it very much. More thought-provoking than many films of this genre, and nicely done.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

16 February 2014

The Railway Children (starring Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren)

When we started collecting DVDs, I included several classic children's films, many of them excellent value. These have turned out to be useful, as we sometimes entertain young friends. Last night we were babysitting four of them, aged 11 down to three-and-a-half, and decided to watch 1970 version of 'The Railway Children' with them. It's a good story, adapted from the classic children's book of the same name (by E Nesbit), and unlikely to give nightmares. The older three had watched it about a year ago.

The story is well-known. Roberta, usually called Bobby, narrates to start with, explaining how they used to be well-off and fortunate in many respects, but were never really aware of how happy they were. They had a large house, a wealthy and loving father, and a caring mother who - unusually for the era (very early 20th century) - spent a lot of time playing with them.

Then one day, shortly after Christmas, two men come to visit their father and he goes away with them. Their mother is distraught, and things start to change rapidly in the household, until they move to a much smaller house in the countryside, where they explore the local railway lines, and start to befriend some of their new neighbours...

All the children who watched with us were entranced, with barely a wriggle for the full 109 minutes. We enjoyed it ourselves, too. Made in 1970, this adaptation of 'The Railway Children' is a little slow-moving in places, but faithful - on the whole - to the original story.

The children's voices are perhaps a bit over upper-class English... but then that's probably not unrealistic for the society they moved in, and the era . Lovely costumes, attractive scenery, believable people, and a few humorous moments to lighten the (slight) tension.

Totally suitable for the entire family. Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys classic children's films. Apparently there was a re-make in 2000, but I don't see any need for an update, as this is just about perfect.

Note that the above links are to the DVD  containing just this film, but there are sometimes double-film DVDs, such as the one we have, which contains another classic film in addition.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

03 February 2014

Oliver! (starring Mark Lester)

‘Oliver’ is the classic musical production based on Charles Dickens’ book ‘Oliver Twist’. The plot is well-known, as are many of the songs - such as ‘Food, Glorious Food’ or the catchy ‘Oom-pah-pah’. First produced in film format in 1968, this is a lengthy DVD, over two-and-a-half hours in length. It follows the typical style of musical films in that the plot is interrupted regularly by well-choreographed and beautifully sung pieces, which (at least in the case of this one) lighten the mood.

I had only the vaguest memories of this film, but we had it on DVD; it’s rated U so I rather naively assumed it would be a good one for some young friends (aged 3 up to 11) to watch. Thankfully they didn’t opt for it, and instead I saw it - or most of it - in the company of two teenage friends who already knew the story. One of them had read the Dickens book.

The story, set in the mid 19th century, starts in the workhouse. Oliver, who has lived there all his life, draws the short straw and makes the infamous request for more gruel. He is sold to a local undertaker, and escapes, only to find himself part of a gang of juvenile pickpockets. It takes him a while to work out what’s going on, by which time he is ensnared by the greedy Fagin, and the evil Bill Sykes. Bill’s wife Nancy, however, develops quite a soft spot for Oliver who is quite tender-hearted despite his upbringing.

It’s very well done. The young Mark Lester makes a very believable Oliver with an amazing singing voice, and Jack Wild was perfectly cast as the Artful Dodger, Oliver’s new friend and lead amongst the young pickpockets. The songs go on, perhaps, a bit too long for today’s youngsters, and some of the general shots of scenes in London were rather slow; an editor today would, I’m sure, reduce the length by at least half an hour with no loss of plot or dialogue. But those are minor quibbles; it’s a classic film, and this kind of thing is to be expected.

What surprised me more was the level of violence in the film, something which, I feel, should have lifted the rating to at least PG, preferably 12. There are two very unpleasant deaths at the end; one is off-stage, but it’s still clear what went on, and the other, while less gruesome than that in the book, could still give nightmares to a sensitive child. Earlier in the film there is a great deal of violence - or threatened violence - to the boys, in ways that would today be considered seriously abusive.

While there is no overt bad language, nudity or intimacy, there are some clear innuendoes, and quite a bit of drinking - not inappropriate for the characters and era concerned, but equally not something I would want a young child to see. I will no longer offer it to my younger friends as a possibility!

Still, for teens and adults, it’s worth seeing at least once, if only to learn where the songs come from, and to appreciate the grandeur and complexity of such a major production in the late 1960s.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

02 February 2014

Never been Kissed (starring Drew Barrymore)

As so often happens, I don't recall why this DVD ended up on my wishlist. Perhaps it was because of the genre; perhaps it was recommending Drew Barrymore films. In any case, I was given it for Christmas - at the end of 2012! It sat on the ever-increasing to-be-watched shelf, and we finally saw it last night.

'Never been kissed' is firmly in the rom-com genre, produced in 1999. Romantic comedies were somehow lighter and cleaner in the 1990s, although it didn't feel that way at the time. Drew Barrymore was in her 20s when she starred in this, as Josie, a pedantic copy writer who longs to be a journalist. She is finally given an undercover assignment to find a story at a local high school. So she has to behave as if she were 17, and enroll as a student, something that brings some quite painful flashbacks of her own rather nerdy high school days.

The story, it has to be said, is somewhat unlikely. The script a bit tired; while it was undoubtedly light, there weren't any laugh-aloud moments, and although the climax was a bit unexpected, the ending was (happily) predictable, if unlikely. Nevertheless, this is a nicely done film, with some good acting, and some rather shocking insights into American high schools, albeit (I assume) rather caricatured. At the point where Josie talks about how high school really hasn't changed, I can imagine some teens in this situation feeling quite challenged.

The 'love interest' is underplayed; not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and the scenes in the newspaper office seemed exaggerated, even silly at times. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Josie's brother Rob, ably portrayed by David Arquette.

Still, despite its flawed, we enjoyed this film. I would recommend it for anyone who likes this genre, and wants a fluffy hour and a half that's a bit different from the average rom-com. Rated 12, which I think is about right - there's no violence, no nudity, no intimacy, and I didn't even notice any bad language. However, there are many discussions about sex, including one mildly humorous scene in the classroom... to say more would be a spoiler. I doubt if this would be of any interest to anyone under the age of about 14 in any case.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

20 January 2014

The Italian Job (starring Michael Caine)

I first saw this film over twenty years ago, when - a little ironically - we were living in the US for a couple of years. Some friends invited us over to see the video, assuming we would like it because it was 'so British'. Never good at understanding fast-moving action, I found it very confusing in the early sections, mildly amusing in the middle, frustrating at the end. I wasn't very impressed, although my husband thoroughly enjoyed it.

As I learned later, the 1969 version of 'The Italian Job' is considered a classic. So when it came out on DVD we thought our teenage sons should see it... my husband watched with them, but I decided against it. However, last night some teenage friends asked to watch it, and I though I'd see if time had mellowed my opinion.

The basic plot involves some crooks, ably headed by Michael Caine, who plan - in minute detail - a major robbery in Italy. To do this includes hacking into the traffic control computers to cause a traffic jam. So we have the introduction to this (essentially another crook failing in the attempt), and a lot of discussion about it, and some preparation, and then the actual day. There's a lot of fast action, some of it very cleverly choreographed, and some mildly amusing sections although they mostly involve some kind of slapstick violence.

So it's an action film involving cars, which is fine; not my taste, as there's little room for character development, but suitable for most viewers... I had a hard time understanding what was going on in the early sections, but the essential plot was pretty clear. But what surprised me was the number of fluffy girls involved in the first part. Everything that happened was clearly behind closed doors with no detail, but still the implied activities of the hero were sleazy, and totally unnecessary as they didn't add anything at all. Indeed, they were very demeaning to the girls in question. The UK rating for 'The Italian Job' is PG, which seems about right, although I would probably have said 12 myself, given that there are a few mild swear words, a great deal of violence (albeit non-gory) and some implied sex.

What did surprise me was to learn that the US censors, usually more prudish than the UK ones, rated this as G - suitable for all.

On the whole I thought the film was quite watchable, given the genre. I had forgotten almost everything in it other than the ending, and that wasn't as frustrating as it was the first time since I knew what was coming. Our young friends were shocked when the titles rolled at the end, leaving the film (literally) on a cliff-hanger... but overall they enjoyed it very much.

We then watched the classic 'deleted scene' with a band playing the Blue Danube while cars 'danced' ... that alone made it worthwhile, in my view!

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

15 January 2014

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe: Doctor Who 2011 Christmas Special (starring Matt Smith, Claire Skinner, Holly Earl and Maurice Cole)

Watching our way through the 'new season' Doctor Who DVDs, we reached the end of Series 6 at the end of last year. Aware that this was likely to happen, I had already placed Series 7 on my wishlist - and, in researching whether there were any extra 'specials', I discovered that this particular episode, the Christmas Special from 2011, was not included in the main DVDs. So I put it on my wishlist too, and was delighted to receive them all for Christmas.

Sometimes, it seems to me, the Doctor Who Christmas specials are rather bittersweet, or over-heavy for the festive season. If I'm sitting down to watch television after a large amount of food and a busy day, I want something light, preferably mildly amusing, and with a happy ending. Although we only just watched the 2011 special, 'The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe' in the middle of January, as far as I'm concerned this is exactly what a Christmas special should be like. There's a Christmas surprise, some amazing visual effects, and a large nod to CS Lewis and Narnia (not just a snow-covered planet but a line quoted from the book). There's some humour, there are some unusual aliens, and, best of all there's a wonderful climax and a great ending.

Matt Smith is superb as the Doctor in the guise of a slightly weird caretaker. Maurice Cole and Holly Earl are excellent as the geeky child Cyril and his teenage sister Lily (who looked very like the Narnian Lucy at times) - and Claire Skinner was absolutely fabulous as their mother.

Admittedly it's not standard Doctor Who, and probably won't appeal to hard-line fans. It's only rated PG, and there's only mild suspense; there's a lot that's silly and the whole is somewhat twee. Credulity is always suspended in this series, but perhaps even more so in this. And I loved it. The episode stands alone - so for those who dislike this kind of thing, it can easily be ignored.

Sadly the only 'extras' on the DVD are various compilations of 'best of' moments in the previous series, presumably intended to inspire viewers to buy more DVDs. And it's currently very highly priced on Amazon, given that it's just an hour-long episode.

But still. Great stuff.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

10 January 2014

Gambit (starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman)

This is not my usual kind of film, but at some point Amazon recommended it to me, probably based on one or other of the stars. It looked interesting so I added it to my wishlist. Having received it for Christmas, we wanted something light and undemanding to watch as a family, and this seemed to fit the bill.

I had no idea what to expect; the blurb talked about a comedy involving an art forgery. And, indeed, that's pretty much what it's about. The opening title sequence is somewhat reminiscent of the old 'Pink Panther' farces, presumably deliberately; the whole thing bore something of a resemblance to them, as far as my memory goes, with a significant amount of both clichéd and slapstick humour. However the timing was impeccable and expressions so perfect that this was lifted out of what could have been simply silly or embarrassing.

Alan Rickman is excellent as the dour multi-millionaire, even if the character felt, at times, a little too similar to Professor Snape; Colin Firth is perfectly cast as the klutzy art critic with the dubious morals, a far cry from Pride and Prejudice, or The King's Speech! As for Cameron Diaz, I don't know how accurate her accent is, but she is brilliant as the Texan cowgirl who's a lot brighter than she seems...

The film is rated 12 (12A in the US), presumably due to some quite significant innuendoes - there's a wonderful conversation in a hotel foyer, entirely innocent but totally misinterpreted by the staff - but there's nothing explicit, no violence, and only a couple of brief scenes showing partial or rear view nudity, intended to be amusing rather than suggestive.

Yes, the humour is primarily that of schadenfreude - laughing at other people's misfortunes or clumsiness. But it's so cleverly executed (and exaggerated) that I did smile several times, and even laughed a couple of times. Don't expect anything deep or thought-provoking in this movie, or even any romance... but for a light evening's viewing, we thought, overall, that it was great.

There are subtitles in Englsh for the hard-of-hearing, though none in other languages on this DVD; the only extra is a 'making of' documentary.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

02 January 2014

The Family Stone (starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney and Diane Keaton)

I picked this up in a charity shop in the UK a couple of months ago. The cover showed an all-star cast (not that I recognised anyone other than Diane Keaton) and the blurb on the back sounded appealing. Three of us watched it last night…

Sarah Jessica Parker stars as Meredith, a smart, but rather uptight and socially awkward executive. She is in a relationship with Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) and he’s planning to propose over Christmas. He invites her to stay with his rather bohemian family, which makes her very nervous, as she is convinced that they will all hate her.

Diane Keaton is wonderful as the laid-back mother in a long and happy marriage which has produced five children, now all adults. Dermot has two brothers - the rather slobby (but likeable) Ben, and Thad, who is profoundly deaf, and also gay. There are two sisters as well: Susanna is married and has a small and precocious daughter, and Amy is not currently in a relationship. I found the two girls a bit simiilar at first but over the course of the 98 minute film, I felt as if I got to know them all, to the extent that I could recall all their names the following day.

The plot revolves around Meredith’s increasingly dreadful attempts at making the family like her, not aided at all by Amy, who makes every effort to make her look even worse than she is. So Meredith invites her glamorous sister Lisa to stay, and Everett finds himself liking her very much…

I found the strong American accents slightly hard to get used to at first, but soon my ears attuned and it wasn't a problem. I very much liked the way that the family all used sign language naturally when communicating with Thad, at the same time as speaking. The acting, in general, is believable if (inevitably) stereotyped There’s some slapstick in the kitchen, which is quite well done, even if it mostly made me wince rather than laugh; there are one or two amusing moments, and also some surprisingly heart-wrenching subplots which I was not expecting.

It was appropriate to watch at this time of year as the theme is Christmas; some secular Christmas songs are included, as is a great deal of snow and general festive decorating. While it wasn’t the greatest film I’ve seen, it makes a good addition to our collection, and is a little different from the average ‘rom-com’.

The rating is 12 in the UK, which seems about right; there’s no violence or anything overtly sexual, nor any seriously bad language, but there are plenty of innuendoes and sexual references. I am slightly surprised to find that the usually more prudish US censors have awarded this a PG rating. However, I very much doubt if anyone under the age of about 15 would be interested in this anyway.

The usual special feature are included - commentary, deleted scenes, and more.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews