30 April 2015

A Good Woman (starring Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson)

This is another DVD which I had not heard of, but which Amazon recommended to me. Possibly this is because I like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’; I didn’t really know anything about the actors in it. I was given it for my recent birthday, and had forgotten, until I glanced at the back, that it’s based on one of Oscar Wilde’s books, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’.

The start of ‘A Good Woman’, which is set in 1930, is a bit confusing. The elegant Mrs Erlynne (Helen Hunt) escapes New York after running up a series of debts; it’s clear from the comments around her that she’s had a series of affairs with married men. She decides to go to the Amalfi coast. Lord and Lady Windermere, a young and devoted married couple (Scarlett Johanssen and Mark Umbers) are there too for the season, and another young man, the charming Lord Darlington (Stephen Cambpell Moore) flirts with Lady Windermere.

All set in upper-class society, with everyone speaking in the same accent and dressing the same kind of way, it was rather hard to tell who was whom at times. I did find myself wondering whether it was going to be worth watching, but gradually it started to make more sense.

Mrs Erlynne seems to be attracted to young Lord Windermere, and he starts visiting her house, much to the consternation - and delight - of the locals, who are convinced they are having an affair. Lady Windermere has no idea at first, until she discovers that he’s been writing some rather large cheques…

It’s something of a comedy of errors, with lots of asides and implications, secret assignations and hints that are not explained until the end. It’s quite a clever plot, and although I’d heard of the Wilde play, I didn’t know the story. The fan - a generous gift from Lady Windermere’s husband - plays a significant part in the story, leading to near disaster towards the end.

It’s light and a bit fluffy, amusing in places, poignant in a few. The scenery is good, the acting sound, the pace about right. We had wanted to watch something that didn’t require too much thought, and which wouldn’t leave us drained with emotion, and ‘A Good Woman’ fit the bill nicely; it was quite uplifting in the end.

The PG rating is reasonable enough; there’s no bad language, no violence and no bedroom scenes. However the storyline is about the affairs of the upper classes and there are plenty of implications; still, I can’t imagine anyone under the age of about fourteen being interested in this.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

25 April 2015

Proof (starring Gwyneth Paltrow)

I’m not sure how I came across this particular film; perhaps it was recommended to me by Amazon, as I’ve enjoyed others by Gwyneth Paltrow. Or perhaps - as I suspect - I read a review of it which made me convinced we would enjoy it. Whatever the reason, I added it to my wish-list many months ago and was delighted to receive it for a recent birthday.

We watched ‘Proof’ with our twenty-something son, and all found ourselves captivated from the start. Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Catherine, the daughter of a once brilliant mathematician (Anthony Hopkins). We meet them at the start of the story having a slight surreal chat in the kitchen, only to learn that Catherine’s father recently died.

She’s bereft, and is unimpressed that a student, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) is spending many hours in her father’s study, working his way through his recent notebooks in the hope of finding something worth keeping amidst the ramblings that were the result of some kind of mental illness that bugged him for many years.

Catherine has looked after her father, giving up her own mathematical research programme but ensuring that he could remain in his own home rather than being institutionalised. Her sister Claire (Hope Davis) is much more conventional; armed with checklists and plans, she decides to sell the house and move Catherine back to the city...

If that weren’t enough, Hal is clearly smitten with Catherine, and she is convinced that she is hovering on the brink of insanity, sometimes wondering if she’s already crossed it. The film uses flashback extensively, so we see Catherine with her father some years previously, and gradually build up a picture of her life and just what she’s given up.

And then there’s a notebook found with a brilliant mathematical proof in it, one that will astound the academic world...and, cleverly interwoven, is the necessity to prove authorship and ownership of the proof itself.

It sounds rather dry, perhaps, and a bit off-putting for those who struggle with even high school maths. But there’s no need at all to understand the academics of this movie: the story is about relationships, and trust, and also about women’s portrayal in academic mathematical circles. I wasn’t sure what the outcome was going to be until near the end; the story is very cleverly written, brilliantly directed, and flawlessly acted.

At times it’s quite harrowing; our emotions were engaged, our heartstrings pulled. Yet there are lighter moments to ease the tension too. Once or twice we laughed aloud. The ending is entirely satisfactory, yet as it drew to an end we all felt drained.

The rating is 12, which we thought about right. There’s no violence (although there’s a threat in one place), no nudity, but one ‘bedroom’ scene. There’s some bad language, appropriate to the situations, but we didn’t think it too excessive. The film would probably not be of interest to anyone under the age of about 12 or 13 anyway.

No fast action, no sweet romance, but a very different plot that’s extremely well executed. Made in 2005 but still available on both sides of the Atlantic ten years later.

Extras comprise a few deleted scenes (one entirely unnecessary) and a commentary from the actors.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

18 April 2015

The Magic of Belle Isle (starring Morgan Freeman)

I assume that Amazon recommended this to me because I’ve enjoyed other films starring Morgan Freeman. I put it on my wishlist a long time ago and was pleased to be given it for Christmas, although a little startled to see that - other than the title - the DVD case is all in German.

However, English is listed as a language at the back, and thankfully it was easy to set the film to be in its original language when we decided to watch this with our twenty-something son at the weekend. We had no idea what to expect, but hoped for something lightweight, mildly amusing, and, if possible, uplifting.

We were not disappointed.

Freeman stars as the cranky Monty, a widowed writer who spends his life in a wheelchair and drinks too much. His nephew brings him to a small house where he’s going to stay during the summer, in the hope of persuading him to start writing again. Monty isn’t particularly keen, particularly when he learns that a large dog called Ringo goes with the house, but he doesn’t have much choice.

Next door lives Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) who is a recently divorced mother with three daughters. They have come to the area for the summer; perhaps for good. The oldest daughter Willow (Madline Carroll) is a moody teenager who would rather be with her father. The youngest, Flora (Nicolette Pierini) who also misses her father very much, is only seven. And there’s nine-year-old Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann) who is thoughtful, imaginative, and would really like to be a writer…

The story, such as it is, follows the interactions between these people over the next few weeks. As the children gradually realise that their father is not reliable, and isn’t going to come and see them, they come to rely more on Monty - and we find that his crankiness is mostly a mask, with a soft-hearted and gentle man inside, embittered by circumstances and grieving his beloved wife.

Belle Isle works its magic, both on the people in the story and on its audience - it was an absolutely delightful story. There was some humour, even some laugh-aloud moments when Monty converses with the not terribly intelligent dog. There are some deeply poignant moments, too, and there’s some maturing for the teenage Willow, as she starts to see other people’s points of view rather than just her own.

I found myself totally caught up in the story, the only slight jar coming from the rather slow and ‘odd’ Carl (Ash Christian) who is probably meant to be amusing, but made me feel rather sad, at least until Monty starts treating him with respect.

Overall, though, we were utterly captivated. Not a film for those who like a lot of plot or fast action; this is slow-moving and character-based. It was absolutely what we wanted to see, and one that I will undoubtedly watch again. Highly recommended.

Note that this has been re-released in the UK with the rather less memorable title of ‘Once More’.

Rated PG. There’s some minor bad language, and a great deal of drinking, but then it’s not the kind of film to appeal to anyone younger than about twelve anyway.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

13 April 2015

A Song for Marion (starring Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave)

Terence Stamp is delightfully believable as the curmudgeonly Arthur but his life is shadowed by the fact that his wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) is terminally ill. That’s not immediately obvious, although she’s wheelchair bound, and he has to take her everywhere.

Her social activities include a choir of elderly folk, meeting in a church hall, directed by the cheerful Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) who was very realistic as a bouncy choir mistress, determined to make her mixed bunch of singers into a great choir. Her choice of music is sometimes quite amusing, as are some of the choir members and their reactions to her.

Arthur and Marion have a son, James, and I spent a long time during the film trying to remember who he was. I knew that face, but out of context could not place him. It was not until the end that I realised - duh! - he was Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor. I thought he was far better cast in this film, as an adult son who’s very fond of his mother but mostly estranged from his father. He works as a mechanic and is divorced, with a likeable nine-year-old daughter Jennifer (Orla Hill) who is very fond of her grandparents.

The first part of the film felt quite morose as it was clear that Marion was not going to survive much longer. My husband almost turned it off after about half an hour, he was feeling so miserable. But we kept watching... and the story did get better, if a little predictable. The choir go on to a festival, and that leads to some quite amusing scenes and high drama, as well as some poignancy.

Unfortunately some of the singing, which is important to the storyline, isn’t that great, and this irritated my husband so much that he couldn’t enjoy it, despite agreeing that it was - in the end - a positive story, and a nicely made film with some great characters.

I liked the story and would have given it four stars; it was well-made, and the storyline a little different, even if it was fairly obvious from the start what would happen. I got quite caught up in the story. But my husband’s reaction was so negative that I don’t really think I can give it more than three - he’s quite eclectic in his tastes and will happily watch most films intended for women. But he really didn’t like this one.

The rating is PG in the UK, PG-13 in the US; I suppose this reflects the lack of horror, violence or nudity; on the other hand there are a LOT of references to sex. I wouldn’t suggest anyone under the age of about thirteen or fourteen watch this, as there are some quite heavy emotional scenes, and the storyline wouldn’t be of interest to children.

Apparently this film is known as 'Unfinished Song' in the US.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

04 April 2015

The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (starring Judi Dench)

This is another movie that was recommended to me on Amazon, probably because I have enjoyed films featuring Dame Judi Dench in the past. I had never heard of it before, perhaps because it was originally made for television, back in 2000. The title wasn’t particularly appealing, but the reviews were good so I put it on my wish-list some time ago and forgot about it; so I was pleased to be given it last Christmas.

The story opens with a funeral. Judi Dench’s character Elizabeth has just lost her husband of many years. She misses him, but is determined that life should continue, and be interesting, despite her rather stuffy adult children who feel that she should move into some kind of care home. She starts playing her saxophone again, something she had abandoned for many years although - as she explains to her granddaughter Joanna - she was once well-known as a musician, in a wartime band called ‘The Blonde Bombshells’.

Elizabeth bumps into Patrick (Ian Holme) who was the drummer for the band, and they decide to contact other past members, to see if they can have a reunion concert. They don’t do very well at first: one member has died, one is suffering from dementia, one has joined the Salvation Army and doesn’t play ‘that kind of music’ any more… but then, gradually, much to Elizabeth’s family’s dismay, the band starts to re-form.

There are flashbacks to the wartime band interspersed with the narrative, and it makes for a compelling and interesting story that’s unusual and quite poignant. Judi Dench is excellent; her acerbic witty style fits the aging but bohemian Elizabeth. She’s not the only well-known actress involved: even I had heard of Olympia Dukakis, Cleo Laine, Joan Sims and June Whitfield, all of whom play different members of the reunion band.

The music is excellent and fits perfectly with the storyline, the pace is good, and we enjoyed this film very much indeed. There are no extras, and it lasts just under an hour and a half.

The rating is 15, which is presumably because of a few instances of ‘strong’ language. I would have thought that 12 would have been more appropriate.

Definitely recommended, although it’s currently showing on DVD in the UK at a vast price; I hope it will be re-released at a rather more reasonable cost. I wouldn't suggest paying more than £10 for it at the most.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews