Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

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Released 17-Aug-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Introduction
Menu Animation & Audio
Dolby Digital Trailer
Featurette-Art Forum
Featurette-College Then And Now
Featurette-What Women Wanted: 1953
Music Video-Elton John's "The Heart Of Every Girl"
Filmographies-Cast & Crew
Theatrical Trailer
Trailer-Big Fish, Little Women, Maid In Manhattan, Radio
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 114:27
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (70:06) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Mike Newell
Studio
Distributor

Sony Pictures Home Entertain
Starring Julia Roberts
Kirsten Dunst
Julia Stiles
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Ginnifer Goodwin
Dominic West
Juliet Stevenson
Marcia Gay Harden
John Slattery
Marian Seldes
Donna Mitchell
Terence Rigby
Laura Allen
Case ?
RPI $24.95 Music Elton John
Rachel Portman


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Czech Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Spanish
Czech
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

"I thought I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives."

    It would be easy to say "here we go again" with this film, because Mona Lisa Smile follows much of a plot we have all seen many times before. It is yet another take on the "good-hearted yet radical and initially misunderstood teacher making a difference to the lives of troubled students while battling the stiff-upper lips of the conservative school establishment" story. Heard it all before haven't you? It's The Emperor's Club at a pinch and Dead Poets Society without a doubt, but with one major difference. This time it's girls in the main roles of teacher and students. A sort of "Dead Poets for chicks" if you like. It's even set in the 1950s New England area of America in an ultra-conservative and extremely well-to-do college, so the parallels with the Peter Weir classic of 1989 are uncanny. A pretty decent ensemble cast has been gathered for this film with the likes of Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Harden all playing major roles, while directing duties are handled by Mike Newell, the bloke responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco among others.

    Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Watson. She has just arrived at the elitist Wellesley College in Massachusetts to teach art history to the bevy of wealthy young ladies who attend the college. Katherine is in her early 30s, is single, and hails from California. She carries with her a slightly new-age way of looking at things. This is probably the most implausible aspect of the film since her character seems more like a late 60s model of woman rather than the 1953 version. Anyway, she lands at the famous college for young ladies to teach the history of art, and from day one realises she is in for more than she initially expected.

    The girls enrolled in her first class are all completely versed in practically everything she tries to teach them in the first lesson. It seems they have learnt their textbooks by rote and are simply looking for an easy pass in this most boring of subjects. It doesn't take long before Katherine realises with some angst that most of the girls attending the college are merely biding their time before they get married to some eligible young beau, most probably from neighbouring Harvard University. Wellesley is merely a finishing school disguised as a college, she laments. This theory is reinforced when she learns there are even lessons for the girls on such subjects as grooming and deportment, manners, and incredibly, how to stage a dinner party properly. But Katherine wants to fight these archaic traditions and so tries to open the girls' minds to some alternative ways of looking at things (such as modern art), and also raises the possibility of them pursuing other things after they leave the college - such as going to law school. It is this latter point that she presses home with the incredibly bright Joan (Julia Stiles), who is intelligent enough to pursue a law career, but has not looked past the fact that she will hopefully be married and caring for her new husband when she leaves college. At the same time Katherine manages to exact the venom of another student and editor of the school newspaper, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst). Betty is about to be married and cannot possibly imagine why Miss Watson would be campaigning for her students to be thinking of anything other than a home, a husband and a family. Her vitriolic attacks in the paper attract the attention of the faculty, and worse, the alumni, which includes Betty's mother and seems all-powerful at making staffing decisions for the school. Katherine is also feeling the wrath of the faculty when she starts to become romantically involved with the Italian professor, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West) which is just one of a fair handful of romantic liaisons that form the basis of this story. Can Katherine make the girls see the error of their way and convince them to see past a life tied to the kitchen and vacuum cleaner? And can she do this before she gets the boot from the conservative and staid school establishment? Well you'll just have to watch to find out.

    There isn't much original about this story at all - we've seen it all before and truth be told in a much better way. I remember walking out of the cinema after seeing this and wondering just how do scriptwriters get away with lifting so much material and inspiration from another film. It is really quite obvious that Dead Poets Society has formed the core of this script idea, but for some reason all the really good bits of that film, the pure agony of being a teenager and living with parental expectations - the emotional centre if you like - has been removed. What we are left with is a rather pedestrian, by-the-numbers film that will entertain, but will hardly make anyone think too hard. My wife loved it, even the second time around. So maybe the "Dead Poets for chicks" tag is quite accurate.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    This is a very nice transfer that is filled with moderate and slightly restrained splashes of colour. It is presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and is naturally enough 16x9 enhanced.

    The transfer is detailed, sharp, and clear, with a little edge enhancement noticeable early on and in a few of the dimmer scenes inside the college rooms. There are no problems with shadow detail and only the barest amounts of grain on some of the interior walls in the background. There is no low level noise.

    The colours are very nice indeed, though not quite as vibrant as I might have expected. The exquisitely manicured gardens and exteriors of Wellesley College scrub up extremely well. Black levels are a little variable and are probably the weakest aspect of the transfer. Skin tones perfectly natural.

    No compression artefacts were observed and there is no annoying shimmer or aliasing on any surface. Film artefacts are also mostly absent.

    Sampling the English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles found them to be quite accurate and nicely presented.

    This is a dual layered disc which is formatted RSDL. The layer change occurs at 70:06. It's not bad placement, but is still quite obvious.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are three audio soundtracks on this disc. All are Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in a choice of English, Spanish or Czech.

    While the soundtrack overall is solid, full and quite engaging, it is still a fairly conservative surround mix, with most of the action anchored to the centre channel. When the score and the songs performed during the wedding reception crank up, the front soundstage opens up dramatically.

    The dialogue is easily understood, clear and in sync at all times.

    The score is credited to Rachel Portman and while fairly typical of the genre is suitably restrained. There are also a few 1950s style songs throughout such as Nat King Cole's Mona Lisa. There is also a new song by Elton John, The Heart Of Every Girl performed over the end credits (and available by itself as an extra).

    There is not a significant amount of surround channel activity which is hardly surprising given the sort of film this is. They are mostly utilised for the various noises that emanate from the corridors or the lovely gardens of Wellesley College.

    The subwoofer is also fairly quiet, but it is really not missed.



Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    The extra material on this disc is a little light and breezy which is a bit disappointing. The main omission is the lack of an audio commentary track.

Main Menu Introduction

Menu Animation & Audio

Dolby Digital Trailer

Featurette - Art Forum

    A fairly pointless 6:33 featurette that has the stars explaining their thoughts on art and the art used in the film. This could have quite as easily been included in the following featurette.

Featurette - College Then and Now

    This is more of a making-of featurette than any of the others, but is still fairly light-on for behind-the-scenes action or any substantial insights. Some facts and figures about women and college in 1950 and today are presented, all while the stars all ramble on about how wonderful the project was and what a statement it is for women to be now able to do what they want in terms of a profession. Runs for 14:40.

Featurette - What Women Wanted: 1953

    More of the same with the stars again discussing the difficulty they had in assuming the role of a 1950s woman, while the producers discuss some of the aspects of production design and costuming used to create as authentic a look as possible. Runs for 10:43 and is probably the most informative of the extras.

Music Video

    This is the music video for the Elton John song The Heart Of Every Girl which is performed over the closing credits. Runs for 3:56.

Filmographies-Cast & Crew

    Selected filmographies only for the director, writers, and main cast.

Theatrical Trailer

    A nicely presented trailer (proper 1.85:1 aspect with 16x9 enhancement and full Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack), that makes the film seem even more like Dead Poet's Society than it actually is. Runs for 2.:21.

Trailer

    Bonus trailers for other Columbia Tristar releases. We have Big Fish, Little Women, Maid In Manhattan, and Radio.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The major differences between the Region 1 and Region 4 discs is in the area of soundtracks.

    The Region 4 disc misses out on;

    The Region 1 disc misses out on;

    The only other differences (apart from running time caused by PAL speedup) is a different set of bonus trailers. So while there is no compelling reason to favour one over the other, I'll stick with the local product which is just a little bit better specified.

Summary

    Mona Lisa Smile could easily be dismissed as Dead Poets Society for chicks - and it is, but there are still elements to please both sexes. My wife loved it at the cinema and it again brought a tear to her eye at home, so it must be doing something right, even if every line of dialogue and personality of the main characters is just about as formulaic as they can get and some of the plot is a little implausible. For the guys, there are worse ways to spend an evening than looking at Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, even if the ladies don't always look quite comfortable pretending they are in the conservative 1950s.

    The video quality is excellent without stretching quite to reference quality.

    The audio is solid, but fairly unremarkable. Given the nature of the film this is not surprising.

    The extras are a little lightweight.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Darren Walters (It's . . . just the vibe . . . of my bio)
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDLoewe Xemix 5106DO, using RGB output
DisplayLoewe Calida (84cm). Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL).
AmplificationHarmon/Kardon AVR7000.
SpeakersFront - B&W 602S2, Centre - B&W CC6S2, Rear - B&W 601S2, Sub - Energy E:xl S10

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