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