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