StudioCanal

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).


The Program (2015, Stephen Frears)

The Program does not tell a particularly filmic story. It doesn’t have a rewarding dramatic arc. Telling the story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, with Ben Foster in the role–and as the film’s main character–does not offer many moments of joy. Foster’s spellbinding. He humanizes the sociopath enough to make him understandable in his cruelty. The Program is not a mystery, it starts with Foster figuring out how to cheat. At no moment is he playing the hero, not even when he does something heroic. It’s nearly a biopic, albeit an inspiring one, but it’s also a condemnation of character.

Rightly so too. But it does mean having an “anti-hero” in the lead position of the film and that situation holds The Program back. There’s a lot of historical footage used for the bike racing. While director Frears and cinematographer Danny Cohen do shoot some excellent cycling sequences, this film isn’t about the sport. It’s not about the thrill of it. It’s not even about the cost of fraud, if only because the subject isn’t capable of feeling guilt. Foster’s performance is phenomenal in the third act, when things come crashing down, because he’s got to collapse silently. It’s a tour de force performance (no pun) without a great defining scene. He never faces off with the people he’s tried to ruin. He’s a snake. He has a lawyer do it. And Foster’s perfect at it.

In the antagonist positions are Chris O’Dowd as the reporter who tries to figure out why Armstrong has to brake while going uphill. For a while, O’Dowd has a lot to do. Then he disappears. He’s excellent, but the film just doesn’t have enough for him to do. The same goes for Jesse Plemons as one of Foster’s teammates. He’s great, he has a complex arc (sort of), but he doesn’t have a lot to do. Again, history fails to provide the necessary melodrama.

Once things get legal, Cohen and Frears employ some odd spherical lenses to create claustrophobia in the Panavision frame. It’s not successful, but Frears is more about his actors, more about the way the film conveys its narrative than its visual sense. In many ways, The Program is just watching to see what Foster is going to do next, just like the viewer.

Good support from Guillaume Canet and Denis Ménochet. Cohen’s photography, spherical choices aside, is strong. The same goes for Valerio Bonelli’s editing. Except the historical footage. It might have made sense if it were a metaphor for O’Dowd waxing poetic about cycling turned into a fraud, but it isn’t. It’s mostly an expository shortcut, a budget requirement.

The film starts strong, but it’s obviously relying on its actors and on John Hodge’s sturdy, methodical, somewhat thankless script. Frears takes the time to set up expectations, then lets Foster surpass them all. The Program doesn’t want to answer all the questions its raises, it’s happy to just come up with some good questions. It might limit the film’s overall potential, but Foster, O’Dowd, Plemons, Cohen and Frears all do excellent work here.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; screenplay by John Hodge, based on a book by David Walsh; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Valerio Bonelli; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Alan MacDonald; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seward and Kate Solomon; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Medecin Michele Ferrari), Denis Ménochet (Johan Bruyneel), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu) and Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman).


Olga’s Chignon (2002, Jérôme Bonnell)

I think this film is the one of the best films Woody Allen never made.

I don’t talk about it much, or ever, since I watched all of Allen’s films long before The Stop Button, but there are some distinct Allen formats and he never seems to mix them. Olga’s Chignon mixes them a little–it’s never as depressing as Allen’s depressing films–and it’s never as playful as his most playful entries get.

Except for the end, which sort of stops, leaving a number of characters unresolved simply because the third act concentrated on two of the four main characters. The conclusion is well-handled enough, however, that I can forgive some of it. It’s just when you introduce your thesis at the last minute, it makes a lot of the previous story setting instead of important.

Bonnell’s young, twenty-eight, and Olga’s Chignon is an impressive debut for someone that age. As much as he concentrates on the writing, his directing is the most important part of the film. He holds scenes a few seconds longer than you except, giving the viewer time to reflect on what he or she has just seen. It’s a literary equivalent to ‘white space’ in short stories, expect ‘white space’ is sometimes used to display change in time, and fade outs are the traditional film device. Except fade outs don’t let you reflect. The only other film I can think of that does this is Horse Thief.

Olga’s Chignon is also my first French family drama and it’s set an incredible standard. Bonnell’s got a new film this year, but Olga never made it to the US (thankfully Nicheflix has it), so I’ll have to track that down somehow. Based on this film, of course, getting slaughtered with a UK exchange rate would likely be worth it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell; director of photography, Pascal Lagriffoul; edited by Benoît Bechet; produced by Arnaud De Battice, Joël Farges, Sylvain Goldberg and Elise Jalladeau; released by Studio Canal.

Starring Hubert Benhamdine (Julien), Nathalie Boutefeu (Alice), Florence Loiret (Emma), Serge Riaboukine (Gilles), Marc Citti (Pascal), Antoine Goldet (Basile), Valérie Stroh (Nicole), Clotilde Hesme (Marion) and Jean-Michel Portal (Grégoire).


Speaking of Sex (2001, John McNaughton)

Let me annotate the opening cast crawl with my thoughts at the time….

James Spader–great, love him on “Boston Legal.”

Melora Walters–from Magnolia, love her, she’s in nothing.

Jay Mohr–liked him in Picture Perfect when I saw it, now can’t believe I liked it…

Catherine O’Hara, Bill Murray… solid people.

So what happened? It’s actually not all John McNaughton’s fault, which is a big thing to say. I mean, I loved McNaughton when I was sixteen. He did Mad Dog and Glory and that film is a great “adult” film to appreciate when you’re sixteen. Especially if you love Richard Price. Then he did Normal Life, back when having Ashley Judd in a film meant good things, and I waited years to see it. It premiered on video and it sucked. It was terrible.

McNaughton’s direction is fine, though it’s the modern “comedy” directing that comes from commercials. The script is awful and the performances are awful. Spader is playing his character from Mannequin or something. Walters is awful and it pains me to say that. Mohr was fine.

Lara Flynn Boyle shows up and a lot of the weight of the first eight minutes is put on her. She can handle weight for about… no, I’m wrong. She can’t handle any weight.

I rented Speaking of Sex from Nicheflix and it’s probably the first film from there I’ve turned off. It’s never gotten a US or UK release and the DVD is from Germany. The Germans appear to have no taste in cinema, which is painfully obvious. I’m not sure Germany has produced a decent film since Das Boot. That’s twenty-two years.

And it was a TV mini-series.

So, all that excitement I had for the first three minutes, all that promise Speaking of Sex got from its cast, it’s all disappeared and I’m reminded of those fond days when I wanted to hide my head under a rock for ever saying nice things about McNaughton.

Sometimes, you find a jewel in a film that’s unappreciated in its country of origin. Sometimes you find a beautifully cast turd. And Speaking of Sex is a big turd.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McNaughton; written by Gary Tieche; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Elena Maganini; music by George S. Clinton; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Alain Sarde and Rob Scheidlinger; released by Studio Canal.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Roger Klink), Melora Walters (Melinda), Jay Mohr (Dan), Nathaniel Arcand (Calvin), Megan Mullally (Jennifer Klink), Lara Flynn Boyle (Dr. Emily Paige), Catherine O’Hara (Connie Barker) and Bill Murray (Ezri Stovall).


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