Category Archives: ★★★

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019, Richard Phelan and Will Becher)

Farmageddon has so many sci-fi TV and movie references it’s hard to keep track. The whole thing feels like an homage to E.T. as far as the story—an alien (“voiced” by Amalia Vitale; voicing means making noises in Farmageddon, there’s no dialogue) gets stranded on Earth and makes friends with a local who helps them try to get home. In this case, that local is Shaun. The Sheep. He and the alien bond over pizza, which is a totally natural thing for a British sheep and a space alien to bond over, especially since the pizza allows for a lot of sight gags.

Since there’s no dialogue and since the noises the characters make rarely imply exposition—there are occasional newspaper headlines to get across the most impactful events (the nearby town, having sighted the alien spacecraft, is going alien-happy)—the film’s got to do everything visually. Yes, they get away with a lot of infographics. The opening has Shaun and the other sheep running afoul of their sheep dog, Bitzer, who has to put up signs forbidding their various modes of play. They can’t frisbee, they can’t suction cup bow and arrow, they can’t shoot each other out of cannons—Bitzer’s really pushing for no nonsense and it provides the film with its most antagonistic relationship—Bitzer is getting a little tired of Shaun.

Of course, Shaun could care less and thank goodness, because if he were worried about getting in trouble he and the alien wouldn’t set out on an odyssey to find the missing spacecraft and then the movie would be a lot less entertaining. Though, who knows. It’s entirely possible directors Phelan and Becher—and screenwriters Mark Burton and Jon Brown—could come up with enough fun around the farm, but then we wouldn’t get to go to the alien hunters’ secret base. With the exception of the boss, all of the (presumably) government alien hunters are in their yellow hazmat suits, which makes them entirely indistinguishable from one another and perfect for anonymous physical comedy. If it weren’t moving so briskly, one could slow and marvel at the artistry on display in Farmageddon’s stop-motion, but also how the filmmakers are able to so deftly toggle between popular sci-fi references and the physicality of the characters. The story itself is fairly simple. Once Shaun and the alien leave the farm, they’re simultaneously in danger from Bitzer—who’s in a middle of new mission of the Farmer (Farmer runs the farm, Bitzer is the good dog who manages the sheep, Shaun is one of the sheep, there I explained it) when he discovers his escaped charge in the wild—and the alien hunters. Only thanks to the Farmer’s scheme, which involves turning the farm into an amusement park with an alien theme (“Farmageddon,” they’re able to get away with the title because the Farmer obviously wouldn’t give it a good name), Bitzer’s in a spacesuit outfit and the alien hunters go after him too.

Burton and Brown introduce the eventual resolution about midway through the second act and keep reminding the audience. Farmageddon’s a family film without ever pandering to the kids or getting too dumb for the adults—they take such deep dives on the sci-fi references, it’s hard to imagine anyone, child or adult, getting all the references at first glance—it’s a simple narrative, smartly executed. The second act, which takes the heroes back to the alien hunters’ lair, does drag a little. The first act is all about entertaining, the third act is all about entertaining. The second act, which puts Shaun and the alien through various physical and emotional hardships—not to mention the alien hunter boss has got a very affecting origin story and one of the film’s bigger missteps is not addressing its treatment of her better. It does a little work at it, which, sure, can be enough, but there are definite missed opportunities and making the film’s only truly malevolent villain a career-minded woman has some optics to it.

Alien hunter boss has this little robot assistant who’s almost a significant supporting player then isn’t. It’s just a frequently utilized sight gag, though it does eventually serve to lighten the boss a little, which is good.

Farmageddon is always good. Even taking the difficult to describe with a pithy adjective second act and the alien hunter boss into account, it’s never like it’s not good. It’s always inventive, always imaginative. Seeing how they integrate digital effects with the stop-motion is cool; Sim Evan-Jones’s editing and Charles Copping’s photography are exquisite. They need to be to work with the stop-motion. Excellent direction.

The soundtrack could be better. It’s… too pragmatic. Likable but never charming and Shaun is nothing if not charming.

It’s a delight. Not a “insert well-chosen superlative” delight here, but a delight nonetheless. How can it not be. It’s Shaun the Sheep on an adventure with someone who cannot bleat (actually, the alien can; its mimicry power is constantly amusing), doesn’t miss a trick, doesn’t miss a beat.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher; screenplay by Mark Burton and Jon Brown, based on an idea by Richard Starzak and the character created by Nick Park; director of photography, Charles Copping; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; music by Tom Howe; production designer, Matt Perry; produced by Paul Kewley; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun), John Sparkes (Bitzer), Amalia Vitale (Lu-La) and John Sparkes (The Farmer).


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

During To Kill a Mockingbird’s exceptional opening titles, I wondered how it was possible the film was going to look so amazing yet had no reputation for being some exquisitely, precisely directed piece of cinema. Then up came Stephen Frankfurt’s credit for title design, which kind of dulled my excitement for a moment. Could Mulligan maintain what Frankfurt set up—along with composer Elmer Bernstein, who’s score is essential to the film–with these opening titles?

Short answer, yes. The first hour of Mockingbird is, while obviously not as fastidiously executed as the opening titles (which examine the various contents of a child’s mementos box), is exquisite. Mulligan, Bernstein, cinematographer Russell Harlan–Mockingbird is a gorgeous black and white—screenwriter Horton Foote, and actors Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna create this bewitching window into a memory of childhood. An uncredited Kim Stanley narrates from—presumably—the present; she’s grown-up Badham, who’s just about to start school (South in the early thirties, guessing first grade versus kinder); Alford’s her older brother, Megna’s the new kid on the block, an out-of-town visitor. Her dad’s a widower, respected lawyer Gregory Peck. They’re not rich but they’re respected. They’ve got a Black housekeeper (Estelle Evans), who Peck treats with as much respect as if she were his white housekeeper slash babysitter. It’s a progressive block. They’re not country white trash. The first hour has a little about race, but a lot of it is about how tomboy Badham learns about class differences and societal norms.

The first hour is this lovely, mostly lyrical look into Badham and Alford’s childhood. Running through the distant background is Peck’s subplot about defending a Black man accused of rape. The kids aren’t allowed in the courthouse (by Dad Peck); Foote and Mulligan gradually introduce the subplot. And the idea of Peck as the lead. Until the second hour, it’s from Badham and Alford’s perspective. A little bit too much from Alford’s given Badham’s literally the narrator but thanks to Mulligan’s gentle, deliberate direction of the kids’ perceptions of events, Harlan’s great photography (which is even better at night), and Bernstein’s music, it gets a pass; narrative-wise. The film’s got enough going for it, you can give it slack for not sticking close enough to Badham.

In fact, the film’s got so much going for it, you want to give it that slack even after it becomes obvious it’s never looping around to Badham again. Even with further narration breaks, once the film starts straying from Badham’s perspective, it never comes back. It goes to Alford, then Peck—albeit for the continuous second act courtroom sequence—then back to Alford in an almost peculiar way (the film avoids Badham during the court scenes), then to Peck for the finale because he’s got top-billing. Though not in a significant way. Even though he’s top-billed, even though he’s got the lengthy court scene mostly to himself, Peck always feels like a special guest star. “And Gregory Peck as Atticus (Dad).”

Whenever Peck comes into the film in the first act, the kids bring him in somehow. Either they call him into the scene or go find him or call him into the scene… but it starts with the kids. Foote and Mulligan keep that perspective in the second act, just before the trial starts, when the kids go and stand by Peck as he’s standing off against a white trash lynch mob. It’s a good segue to the courtroom and Peck taking over the narrative. It makes sense; his subplot’s been building and the trial is occupying the children’s minds too.

So during the trial—Brock Peters plays the accused, not actually appearing onscreen until his day in court—the kids (Badham, Alford, and Megna) watch from the second floor balcony, where a kindly Black minister (Bill Walker) they know gets room for them. The trial seems to take less than a day. 1930s South. Every once in a while as Peck tries to convince his fellow white people Black people are people too and you can’t frame them for rape just because you’re an asshole, the film cuts up to Alford watching his dad crusade, presumably inspiring him. Megna gets some reaction shots too, which makes it seem like as long as Southern Whites aren’t white trash they won’t be racist but… I don’t know, aspirational 1962 film. The film’s got a few moments of bald-faced white saviorism but since it’s 1962, it’s not like the Black characters appear enough to be shown in specific suffering. It’s a weird way to get a pass but… it works.

But no shots of Badham. Not even after the end of the trial. Not right away. And they’re way overdue. We don’t get any idea how Badham experiences the trial, other than she’s tired when it’s over. It’s all about Alford. And not from Badham’s perspective.

The third act epilogue, which resolves everything and ends in a nice narration bow from Stanley and very deliberate, effective direction from Mulligan, somehow centers on Badham but, again, not her experience of it. Mulligan and Foote commit to one way of doing a big scene, maybe the only way they could do it in 1962, and it’s a well-executed scene with some great filmmaking… but it doesn’t do anything for Badham or give her much to do. Then it tries to wrap it up with Peck and it’s… awkward. Not even because of the narration.

Lots of great performances but the kids are where it’s at. Badham and Alford are phenomenal. Megna’s really good too but he’s more functional. The film takes its time with Badham and Alford’s character development, showcasing it, which just makes downgrading them in the second half even worse. Evans is good (there’s a film in her perspective of the events), Peters is excellent, Frank Overton’s good as the police chief. James Anderson’s terrifying though a little thinly written, which is weird given how the film goes out of its way to empathize with “redeemably racist” white men, as the victim’s father. Collin Wilcox Paxton is okay as the victim. If the film ended strong for Badham, she’d get a pass… but she’s another example of how Foote and Mulligan try to avoid giving the female characters too much focus.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent film. But there are some asterisks after that positive adjective.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Mary Badham (Scout), Phillip Alford (Jem), Gregory Peck (Atticus), Estelle Evans (Calpurnia), John Megna (Dill Harris), Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Frank Overton (Sheriff Heck Tate), Rosemary Murphy (Maudie Atkinson), Collin Wilcox Paxton (Mayella Violet Ewell), James Anderson (Bob Ewell), Ruth White (Mrs. Dubose), Robert Duvall (Arthur Radley), Richard Hale (Nathan Radley), Steve Condit (Walter Cunningham Jr.), Crahan Denton (Walter Cunningham Sr.), Bill Walker (Reverend Sykes), and Paul Fix (Judge Taylor); narrated by Mary Stanley.


Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.

The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.

But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.

The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.

Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.

Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.

James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.

The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.

Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).


Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).