31 July 2015

Monte Carlo (starring Selena Gomez)

This isn’t the kind of film I would naturally have thought of seeing; however, it was in a double-pack with another film I was interested in, and I found it inexpensively second-hand. Wanting something light and fluffy to watch last night, we decided to see what it was like.

The story is about three young women in the United States. Grace, who has just graduated from high school, has been working as a waitress and saving up for a long time to go on the trip of a lifetime to Paris. Her close friend Emma, who also works as a waitress, is going too; Emma is a few years older, but quite flighty and potentially irresponsible. So at the last minute, Grace’s stepfather announces that his daughter Meg, who is a contemporary of Emma’s will be accompanying them.

Grace and Meg don’t much like each other, and when they arrive in Paris they discover that the tour they booked is not at all what they expected. Their accommodation is dingy and uncomfortable, the tour guide rushes everyone from place to place with no time to pause or enjoy the landmarks.

Nor does the bus wait when the three are a couple of minutes late… and by a series of unlikely events, they find themselves in Monte Carlo, in a luxurious suite, with Grace being mistaken for a snooty celebrity called Cordelia who is booked for a charity ball and auction.

It’s not surprising that Grace is considered a look-alike of Cordelia’s, since both are played by Selena Gomez. She manages both in a believable way, although I found Meg (Leighton Meister) more believable and natural. Emily (Katie Cassidy) is mostly caricatured, although her character develops in the middle of the film, and she becomes more likeable.

Monte Carlo is probably intended for a young teenage audience, but on the whole we liked it. We particularly appreciated the cameo role played by Catherine Tate, as Cordelia’s wealthy aunt; having only seen Tate in her role as a Doctor Who assistant, we appreciated her very much in this part.

The story is light-hearted - frankly silly at times - and relies on a too many coincidences, particularly related to a young man who takes a liking to Meg. We didn’t laugh aloud, but there were places that were somewhat amusing, and it didn’t require any deep thought. I don’t know that it was uplifting, exactly, but the ending was entirely satisfactory, if rather predictable (and dogged by yet another coincidence).

The rating is PG, which we felt was entirely appropriate. There are lots of short skirts, but no nudity (unless we count a very brief appearance of someone up to his neck in soap). There’s a fair amount of kissing, but nothing more: we thought this quite refreshing in a film of this kind. There’s some mild profanity, but it would be easy to miss; nothing major, and nothing gratuitous. I doubt if anyone under the age of about 12 would be interested in this anyway.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

27 July 2015

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (starring Daniel Radcliffe)

I decided, after the first two Harry Potter films, that I was not going to watch any more at the cinema. However, since I enjoy the books and the films are well-made, I determined that I would - eventually - acquire and see them on DVD. Slowly we’ve been working our way through the series, which I’m currently re-reading too. However, it’s been some years since I read ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, so I had forgotten many of the details when we finally sat down to watch the film last night.

The film starts, as the book does, with a hot summer in England; Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is teased almost to breaking point by his unpleasant cousin Dudley (Harry Melling), and then a freak storm arises. They run to take shelter in a tunnel, only to be attacked by dementors, the life-sucking guards of the wizarding prison of Azkaban. Without pausing to think, Harry uses his wand to produce his ‘patronus’ to ward off the dementor who is about to destroy him, and then saves his cousin’s life too.

The Ministry of Magic then send Harry a letter letting him know that he’s been expelled from Hogwarts School due to use of underage magic. He is devastated, with no idea what he will do… but, unsurprisingly, is rescued by some of his friends and taken to the secret headquarters of a group dedicated to fighting against the return of the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry attends a trial, from which he is acquitted, so is able to go back to school after all.

However, school is no longer the haven it used to be. Harry’s suffering from a lot of anger that’s more than mere teenage angst, and most of the students in the school don’t believe that Voldemort is returning, or indeed anything that Harry tells them. It’s going to be a lonely year… made almost infinitely worse by the sadistic new teacher Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).

The film, in my view, is extremely well done. I’m sure a great deal was missed out - the book is very long, and the film only about two hours - but the storyline holds together with the important facets included. It’s perhaps as well that I haven’t read the book for so long, as I was able to enjoy the film on its own merits. The settings and most of the characters are familiar from the earlier films, of course, even if everyone is a little older, and for the first time there’s a bit of light romance.

It’s an exciting story, ending - as ever - with a fierce battle of good vs evil. I found the fast action in this section to be too confusing, so hid my eyes, listening for more conversation. The special effects that I saw were stunning, but I don’t enjoy that kind of thing, and thought it was perhaps too long a sequence - but necessary for the resolution of the story. My only other slight gripe is that some of the dialogue is rather too fast and not very clear above other sound. However, I don't think we really missed anything.

Other than that it was gripping. Umbrage doesn’t look quite as close to a toad as she’s supposed to, but she’s very well played as an apparently gushing middle-aged woman who represents the ministry, until she is crossed. At that point she becomes immovable and cruel. JK Rowling was evidently pointing an exaggerated finger at educational rules and regulations, and school inspectors when she created Umbridge; she’s certainly not a comic figure, but demonstrates a different kind of implacable evil from that of Voldemort.

The story is an important one in the Harry Potter sequence, showing the start of the reign of terror that will come to a climax in the final book. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as a film, knowing what was coming, both with Umbrage and the loss of someone dear to Harry - and yet, it was gripping, powerful, and, in places, moving.

Although each book stands alone, the films rather build on the previous storylines; there’s no room for back story when they are so abridged. So if you haven’t read the books, and don’t plan to, I would recommend watching the earlier movies before seeing this, particularly ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, which contains events referred to in this film.

Despite the fact that I prefer the book, I liked this very much and would recommend it highly.

Our DVD is a single disc edition, so there are no extras. There are several editions of this film still available, including Widescreen editions, Blu-Rays, and a double disc special with several extras.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

17 July 2015

Summer in February (starring Dominic Cooper and Emily Browning)

We came across this film when in the UK; it was on the special offers shelves at a local supermarket. Described as a powerful love story set in Cornwall, we thought it would make a good addition to our collection, although we had not heard of it before, nor of any of the actors.

We watched it last night with our twenty-something son.

‘Summer in February’, as we discovered after watching it, is a true story set in the early part of the 20th century. It features a group of artists who live, work and socialise in Cornwall. Early scenes set in a pub are probably realistic, but very confusing; even as Brits we had a hard time understanding some of the accents. I should think they would be impossible for anyone from outside the UK.

Moreover, there are so many people in the pub scenes that it was difficult to work out who were the main characters. I nearly gave up watching after fifteen minutes; perhaps I should have done so, as it turned out to be a very depressing film.

The love story angle isn’t, in my view, particularly well played; AJ, the main protagonist (Dominic Cooper), comes across as both cruel and shallow, while Florence, a hopeful young artist (Emily Browning), is naive and selfish. There isn’t much chemistry between them at all. Gilbert (Dan Stevens) is the only reasonable character in the film, and he gets a pretty bad deal.

Apparently the real AJ - also known as Alfred - Cummings was a talented painter of horses; this comes across in the film, but if his private life was half as unpleasant as portrayed, I wouldn’t want one of his paintings, no matter how good it was. I hadn’t previously heard of him or any of the artists shown.

Other characters - Florence’s brother, and another couple - seem almost irrelevant to the story. Presumably they were in the film because they were part of her life, but the plot seems disjointed, and nothing much gets resolved. Perhaps it’s meant to reflect reality too closely.

Still, the scenery is stunning, the settings believable, and I had a good feel for the place and the colony of artists who (apparently) existed there, giving Cornwall its name, later in the century, as a haven for art.

The UK rating is 15, which is appropriate given the subject matter. For some reason there's no US rating. Bad language is not too much of a problem; there are some uses of ‘strong’ words but in the context they were not too disturbing.

The violence is minimal, the intimate love scenes not shown directly. There was, however, some gratuitous nudity which didn’t do anything for the film, and made us even less inclined to like it.

As is probably clear, we didn’t enjoy ‘Summer in February’ and I wouldn’t recommend it. But someone who likes true-story films with gorgeous scenery, and who doesn’t mind a tragic and depressing ending might like this better than we did.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

14 July 2015

Relative Values (starring Julie Andrews and Sophie Thompson)

This film was recommended to me by Amazon - probably because I have enjoyed films with both Colin Firth and Julie Andrews, though not, I think, together - and also by some family members. So when I saw it inexpensively in a UK charity shop, it was not a difficult decision to buy it.

‘Relative Values’ is based on a play of the same name by Noel Coward, but we didn’t realise that until after we’d watched it. It was made in 2000 though set in the 1950s, based in the stately home of the Marshwood family. The young Earl, Nigel (Edward Atterson), has announced his engagement to an American actress called Miranda (Jeanne Triplehorn) who, until recently, was in a relationship with another movie star (William Baldwin).

His mother (Julie Andrews) is determined to be egalitarian and to accept a commoner, so long as she’s truly in love with Nigel. However she’s worn down by snide comments from friends, and is also disturbed by the increasing anxiety of her personal maid Moxie (Sophie Thompson)....

It’s rather an all-star cast; Stephen Fry is typecast as the butler Crestwell who has to hold together a fluttery star-struck set of housemaids, while attempting to calm down Moxie who feels that she has no choice but to leave. Colin Firth is brilliant, too, as Nigel’s cousin Peter, who keeps his aunt company and provides some wonderfully satirical asides. I was perhaps a little disappointed in Julie Andrews, whose character seemed to be almost identical to the Queen of Genovia in ‘The Princess Diaries’, but she played it admirably.

However, we thought that the most amusing and versatile character was Moxie, who has an unexpected secret, and is then expected to act a part for which she is totally unsuited. I didn’t realise that Emma Thompson had a sister who was also an actress; I shall look out for more with Sophie Thompson in future, as she was excellent in this role. She was transformed into an extremely dowdy maid for most of the film, but also manages to appear as a twittery and very nervous family friend, putting on an upper-class accent and wearing unaccustomed finery.

While we didn’t find it ‘outstandingly funny’, as the front of the DVD describes this, there are some amusing moments, and one brief scene - an American/British language difference, where Colin Firth puts Julie Andrews right - which was delivered with such perfect timing that we laughed out loud and kept chuckling for a while afterwards.

The whole thing is caricatured, of course, as is typical for plays of this era, with a deeper theme exploring the prejudices that were - and maybe still are - held against foreigners and commoners, by even the most enlightened of the upper classes.

Rated PG, it’s free of bad language and anything ‘adult’, although - for those who are concerned about such things - there are plenty of scenes of drinking, including some rather tipsy behaviour, and some cigarettes. However, I don't think it's the kind of film that is likely to appeal to anyone under the age of about 14 or 15 in any case.

Definitely recommended as a light-hearted and amusing satirical film.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews