28 November 2015

Shadows in the Sun (starring Joshua Jackson and Harvey Keitel)

I don’t remember how I first came across this film. Perhaps I read a great review of it somewhere; or perhaps Amazon recommended it to me. For some reason, though, I put it on my wishlist and received it for Christmas last year. It’s sat in our to-be-watched drawer for nearly a year but last night our adult son decided it would be a good one to watch as a family.(Note that there is another film with the same title, made in 2009 with different actors).

I had entirely forgotten the reviews I read, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect; the warm colours of the cover suggest an almost documentary style of film, perhaps one exploring the further reaches of a country via exploration. The blurb on the back describes a young book editor going in search of one of his childhood favourite authors and persuading him to write again. We were set for something quite serious, perhaps thoughtful and with attractive scenery.

What we did not expect was to be absolutely mesmerised. The story is beautifully told. Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) is a highly structured American living in London. He sleeps in a pristine flat, dresses in a suit, slicks back his hair with gel, and works in an office with an overpowering boss. He knows no other life until he’s informed that he must travel to Italy and dig out Weldon Parish (Harvey Keitel) who hasn’t written anything in twenty years.

Weldon lives with his three young adult daughters, drinks heavily, and has lost any motivation to write. He insists he’s happy. Jeremy is persistent, but gradually it becomes clear that this is his story as much as Weldon’s. Jeremy’s transformation is considerably more dramatic than Weldon’s, including his predictably falling in love with the glamorous Isabella.

All the acting is good, but Weldon’s part is outstanding. I hadn’t come across Harvey Keitel before, but he played the part to perfection. I was absolutely gripped. The pace is perfect, the direction smooth, the dialogue believable, the photography gorgeous.

An added bonus, which we were not expecting, was some humour. There are some clever lines that made us chuckle, and some amusing dance sequences. There’s also some comic violence to cars and people which didn’t make us laugh but still lightened the more serious nature of the story as a whole.

Admittedly the ending is a bit schmalzy, and the lessons taught are a little obvious… but that doesn’t matter when a film is as well-made and thought-provoking as this one.

In fact my only real niggle was that Weldon’s three daughters all spoke with distinct Italian accents. I’ve known enough bilingual/cross-cultural children to realise that this wouldn’t happen. Given that their father was supposed to be American, they should have spoken English with his accent, since though they grew up in Italy with an Italian mother.

But it’s a pedantic complaint, and one that didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the film. The rating is 12 and we thought that about right. Although there’s plenty of smoking and drinking, and one intimate scene shown (without obvious detail), there’s a very refreshing lack of profanity. I can’t imagine it would be of interest to anyone under the age of about 18 anyway.

There are some extras: we watched the documentary about the making of the film, which was nicely done, though we didn’t see the interviews with the main characters.

Highly recommended if you want a thoughtful and inspiring film; there’s no fast action and the comedy isn’t slapstick or continual, but overall we thought it excellent.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

20 November 2015

Ella Enchanted (starring Anne Hathaway)

I always like variations on traditional stories, and someone recommended this to me a year or two back. It went on my wishlist and I was given it for Christmas nearly two years ago. It’s taken this long to watch it, but we decided on something light and undemanding for a free evening - and ‘Ella Enchanted’ certainly fit those requirements.

It’s loosely based on the story of Cinderella, with the added twist, Snow White style, of a gift bestowed at birth by a fairy on baby Ella. Lucinda (Vivica A Fox) isn’t exactly a bad fairy, but her gifts are renowned for being rather problematic. And Ella is given the gift of obedience. This isn’t such a bad thing when her only family are loving parents, and a rather bumbling house fairy (Minnie Driver), although she sometimes finds it tedious. But then her mother dies and her father remarries, and her step-sisters soon discover that Ella always does what she’s told to do….

The early part of the story is fairly brief, and Anne Hathaway plays the teenage/young adult Ella. She’s outspoken, and also thinks for herself in a way that’s not expected from young women in this pseudo-Mediaeval era. I say pseudo because although the castles and most of the scenery are from this era, there’s also modern pop music and some far more up-to-date touches which were mostly quite amusing. For instance, the Prince (Hugh Dancy), is plagued with a screaming fan club headed by Ella’s step-sisters.

Since it’s a fairytale setting, other characters include elves, giants and ogres, all of whom (we learn) used to live peacefully alongside the humans; but recently the Prince’s uncle (Cary Elwes) has taken power from his deceased brother, and new rules have been drawn up. The giants are treated as slave labour, the elves required to sing and dance on demand. Life is terrible for an elf wanting a more academic career.

So there’s a lot more than the simple story of Cinders and the Prince. Ella isn’t treated like a servant, at least not in the traditional sense, and she’s far from enamoured of the Prince when she first bumps into him. Her main aim, from her teenage years, is to find Fairy Lucinda and ask her to withdraw her gift - only when that happens does Ella believe she will be free.

We thought it very well-made, on the whole. The elf scenes are a bit silly at times, and the outside scenery not entirely believable; but the ogres are wonderfully nasty and the giants mostly amusing in their love of partying and entertainment. The inevitable romance between the Prince and Ella is fraught with difficulties, even more so when her secret is discovered. There’s some tension and low-key violence and suspense but nothing gory or frightening; the rating is PG and we thought that probably right.

There are a few extras: we watched a documentary about the making of the film, which was quite interesting: it showed how the ogres were made up, and why Anne Hathaway was chosen as Ella. There’s a game of sorts, too, accessible via the remote control - but either we didn’t understand how it worked, or it was remarkably difficult. We didn’t persevere.

All in all, a pleasant evening’s viewing which would be appropriate for the whole family.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

09 November 2015

The Go-Between (starring Julie Christie and Dominic Guard)

Some years ago, one of the Sunday newspapers was giving away free DVDs. A relative collected several, and then passed them on to us. Most of them have sat in our drawer, although we found a few gems. Last night we decided to watch a 1971 production called ‘The Go-Between’. It’s based on a novel which neither of us has read, and apparently the BBC recently made a TV version which is also now available on DVD.

The story is mostly set in Edwardian England, in an upper class stately home. Twelve-year-old Leo (Dominic Guard) goes to stay with his school friend Marcus (Richard Gibson), and is at first a little overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of the house, and the formality of meals and events. He’s very much taken with Leo’s older sister Marian (Julie Christie), who’s considered beautiful, and who is also kind and generous to her brother’s friend.

In gratitude for Marian’s kindness, Leo agrees to take a note to a farmer called Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), and becomes the ‘postman’ for what are evidently love letters. Leo himself is quite naive, asking questions about pregnancies and what goes in in marital life, in a way that feels quite awkward; perhaps it was realistic for the era in which the film was portrayed.

The scenery is very attractive, the photography nicely done, the costumes lavish, the settings believable.

However, there’s really not much story. And while Julie Christie does a great job as Marion, and Alan Bates as Ted, the other characters feel stilted and two-dimensional. Leo himself has flashes of being believable, but in other places he simply seems to be delivering dialogue; and much of the dialogue is dull. Harold Pinter was apparently involved in the screenplay, so we’d expected something a bit more scintillating.

We kept watching, wondering if anything unexpected would happen, or any real resolution, but the story meandered on. Perhaps if we had been prepared for something so slow-moving we would have enjoyed it more, but although we’ve enjoyed some films from this era, we thought it could have done with significant editing. Some scenes are simply too long; our attention wandered, and I nearly dropped off to sleep a couple of times.

It’s not a bad film at all; part of me is intrigued to read the book or see the modern adaptation to see if they are more interesting. But I suspect it’s simply not my kind of thing. I would give two-and-a-half stars if I that were possible, but have no desire to see this one again.

Nonetheless, it’s highly rated by many; if you enjoy films about Edwardian England, and don’t mind the lack of much plot and the slow pace, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. It’s rated PG but I feel a 12 rating would have been more appropriate, given the content, even though there’s no violence or strong language.

Still available on both sides of the Atlantic, despite having been given away free by a Sunday paper a few years ago.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews