Film Review: THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (USA 2018) ***1/2

The Biggest Little Farm Poster

Documentarian John Chester and his wife Molly work to develop a sustainable farm on 200 acres outside of Los Angeles.


John Chester

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM traces the difficult life of a couple as they leave city life to establish a farm that are and grew.

As the song in the famous TV series goes: “Green Acres is the place to be; farm living is the life for me; land spread out so far and wide; Goodbye Manhattan just give me that countryside.”  

These are the words pretty much in the minds of the couple, John and Molly.  They attribute the change from city to farm life to their barking black dog who cannot keep quiet when left alone.  The only option, besides putting it down is to move to a farm.  They settle on one an hour north of Lo Angeles, which they fondly name Apricot Farm.

John the subject is also an Emmy Award winning director.  In the doc, they establish 

that like the comedy Green Acres, everything can also go wrong from the wild California fires to drought and flooding but they always somehow get back on their feet.  One must give the couple  top credit for perseverance.

The film preaches the natural order of things – how the eco-cycle should not be broken.  There is a sad scene of a coyote being shot at one point in the film with John’s voiceover lamenting the deed.  John is sad at what he had done.  He had sworn it would never have come to any sort of killing.  But John reveals eventually how nature performs her miracles.  The ducks devour the snails that were destroying the crop; the coyotes eat up the gophers that were eating the face crops and at one point, the coyote population was diminished due to lack of food, thus increasing the gopher population (poor cute creatures) that were again taken down by snakes,

The film turns too preachy at the end even telling the audience to go to the website to continue their story.  But at least the message is worthy enough that the preachiness be overlooked. 

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM is a crowd pleasing documentary. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival.  It had its second screening at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was named second runner-up for the People’s Choice Award: Documentaries.



Film Review: PETERLOO (UK 2018) ***** Top 10

Peterloo Poster

The story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester.


Mike Leigh


Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh’s PETERLOO (named after the Battle of Waterloo as this other massacre took place at Peter’s Field) is described in the press notes as a historical drama that portrays the epic events surrounding the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester turned bloody.  British government forces charged into a crowd of over 60,000 that had gathered to demand political reform and protest against rising poverty.  Many protestors were killed and hundreds more injured, sparking a nationwide outcry.

The outcry was made known by the Guardian newspaper thus re-defining a moment in British democracy.

It is a 150 minute film which builds up to the last 30 minutes when the bloodshed begins.  The audience is aware of what will happen, but it is a climax of the film the audience dreads.  The build up is nothing short of brilliant, resulting in an expected brilliant from an equally brilliant writer/director who has delivered great films in the past – both of historical epics (MR. TURNER) and personal dramas (VERA DRAKE, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, SECRTS AND LIES).

  The film is bookended with the presence of a young, handsome soldier dressed in red coat, who at the start of the film is seen surviving from the Battle of Waterloo.  This is Joseph (David Moorst) who returns to his loving but poor family in Manchester.  In contrast, the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, is rewarded with a staggering £750,000 from Parliament.  Joseph cannot find a job, his mother trades pies for eggs, and the rest of his family works in the cotton mill for pittance.  With no voting privileges, bad harvests and a restriction on corn imports, the labouring classes of Northern England are in a bad way.

Finally the poor and oppressed decide to make their say and plot out a plan for change.

They enlist an initially reluctant but charismatic orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) from
London to speak at a big rally in St. Peter’s Field.  Dressed in their Sunday best, thousands of men, women and children come to hear what Hunt has to say.  Joseph and his family are among them. 

There many reasons to see this historical epic.  The most important one is to listen (and hence appreciate) the well written and spoken oratorical dialogue delivered by the actors in glorious English that is seldom heard in films.  Hearing the speeches reminds one of the oratorical debates that used to take place in ones schools.

PETERLOO encompasses both the historical epic with the tragedies of personal drama.  The film is full of scenes wth crowds of the poor, with dingy clothes and bad teeth, often dirty and unwashed but then putting other Sunday best for the St Peter’s gathering.

  Cinematography is by Dick Pope (10 Leigh films), who creates a film resembling an Old Master painting.  The film is written and directed by Mike Leigh, who grew up in Greater Manchester, just a short walk from St. Peter’s Field. 


Film Review: TOLKIEN (USA 2019)

Tolkien Poster

Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.


Dome Karukoski

J. R. R. Tolkien (pronounced tol-keen, as Tolkien’s professor’s pronunciation is corrected), the LORD OF THE RINGS / HOBBIT famous author whose books have been made even more famous by the Peter Jackson films is the subject of the new bio-pic of the same name.  The film traces the story of the author’s life and includes the influences on the books.  Those familiar with the books will find the film more fascinating than others, who might treat the exercise as another period piece bio-pic.  TOKIEN is a handsomely mounted period piece production though be it a dull one at that, the film often trudging through the narrative just Tolkien the soldier makes through the mud of the trenches on the western front during World War I.

The film’s core has Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) sick with trench fever fighting in World War I at the Battle the Somme.  Tolkien holds the rank of lieutenant.  With the aid of a faithful soldier, a diminutive Sam (Craig Roberts) who helps him search for a friend of his TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society)  club fellowship.  The film cuts to Tolkien’s life from childhood, living and playing the lush green English countryside (in the Midlands) to his schooling and friendship with four others fellow artists that they swear ‘to change the world through art’ together. Tolkien also falls in love with Edith Brett (Lily Collins), but is prevented from seeing her by his Guardian, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney).  It is a choice of education over romance that the Father decides for Tolkien but the couple’s bond of romance remains strong.

While Tolkein’s life unfolds, director Karukowski constantly reminds the audiences of the influences on his writing.  These includes his war experiences, his brotherhood (hence ‘The Brotherhood of the Rings’), Sam, Tolkien’s friend in the trenches is like Grodo’s best buddy in the books and the beauty of the countryside akin to the beauty of the shire where the Hobbits live.  But the film is a slow march, the film often lingering at the landscape, scenery and sets tab on the emotions of the characters.  The film’s war segments which transforms into fire as breathed out from the mouth of dragons s in the Lord of the Rings stories look a desperate attempt at connecting the author’s experiences to his writing.  Tolkien’s aptness at the creation of his own unique language takes enables him to complete his Oxford studies under Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) is yet another influence,

Finnish director Dome Karukowski, one of the most famous directors of his country has been chosen to do this bio, as he has done bios before, most notably TOM OF FINLAND his previous film that was Finland’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award though it did not make the short list.  It was not a very good film, short of passion and inspiration which the director has ensured does not happen again in TOLKIEN.  Still, Karukoski fails to engage his audience, due primary from the uncomfortable intercutting of the world War scenes with the rest of his story.  Just when the audience is drawn into the story, the film shifts to the trenches.

Irish actor Colm Meaney (who usually plays comedy) delivers a solid and serious portrayal of Father Francis Morgan who restricts Tolkien’s freedom.  His character is reminiscent of one of directors Karukowski’s previous character in THE GRUMP, one of his other films that made North American distribution.

The film is ultimately properly concluded with titles that summarize what director Karukoski had been attempted to do with his film.  Too bad all that all these should have been made clear without the titles.


Film Review: THE HUSTLE (USA 2019)

The Hustle Poster

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson star as female scam artists, one low rent and the other high class, who team up to take down the men who have wronged them.


Chris Addison


Stanley Shapiro (screenplay by), Paul Henning (screenplay by) | 5 more credits »

THE HUSTLE (original title NASTY WOMEN)is a remake of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (Michale Caine and Steve martin) which is a remake of  the sophisticated comedy, BEDTIME STORY (Marlon Brando and David Niven)  One can see the casting of Anne Hathaway who looks posh and refined playing the suave con-artist in opposition to the Rebel Wilson’s con-artist.

The film is set in one of the smaller Riviera towns in the south of France.  The town is not big enough for two con artists.  The posh one, Josephine (Hathaway) plans to get the crass one, Lonnie (Wilson who also produced the film) out of the town so she can do all the cons herself.  But Amy, crass as she is still succeeds in her crooked endeavours.

Though the film can hardly be described as good, one must give credit to both Hathaway and Wilson for trying hard.  Wilson tries the hardest, putting her figure often to ridicule to get a few extra laughs while Hathaway uses her posh exterior to inject any class into the movie.  If Wilson is the sort of comedienne that annoys you, best stay away from THE HUSTLE as they are lots and lots of her comedy.  

The basic premise of the original films is kept in THE HUSTLE while a few updating touches are made.  The target is also tech savvy and has acquired his wealth from owning a lot of stock from his own company.  The enmity between the two con-artists is still present as the wager of a sum of money that will be won based who gets to bed the prized catch.  The lead con-artists have been switched from male to female for the main reason as to update political correctness with more female oriented films.  The reason given in the film is that females make better con artists than their male counterparts is that females are smarter and can prey on man’s weakness for the opposite sex.  As such the male prize in the story looks rather unattractive as a male specimen, looking nerdish and immature.  In real fact, the two female con artists do not do anything really smart either.  The main plot takes a while before settling in, allowing Wilson (this is clearly her vehicle) to do her own thing and her own comedy. 

Whether based on the two previous films or not, the story comes off as entirely predictable, right up to the very end.  When the credits finally roll – what a relief, what transpires is yet another tired and unnecessary make of the the 2 films that could be re-watched instead of this blatant and dull affair.  The only ones that turn up hustled are the audience that pay good money to see what has been advertised as a comedy.


Film Review: SHADOW (China 2018) ***

Shadow Poster

Life and intrigue in an ancient Chinese court.


Yimou Zhang


Wei Li (screenplay), Yimou Zhang (screenplay)

Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made beautiful period films like RAISE THE RED LANTERN and JU DO, my two personal favourites.  But often the beauty of the films take over the narrative resulting in pretty empty pieces like his foray into martial art epics.  Martial art epics should be excited with fast and furious executed action segments, not moving in slow motion showing the choreography of the moves.  Films like HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS end up like empty pretty vessels.  Yimou’s SHADOW again is a beautifully shot period pieces set in ancient China, but thankfully has a stronger plot with little martial arts.

The story concerns a king and his commander, the commander’s wife and the king’s sister.  It is a four-handler set in a period epic.  In an empire ruled by thus wild and dangerous young king (Zheng Kai), the court is a hive of politicking and treachery.   The monarch’s brave military commander (Deng Chao) has cultivated a secret weapon to aid his survival: a “shadow,” (and hence the film title) a lookalike who can fool both his enemies and the king himself as the commander prepares for a dangerous final assault against the forces of a rival kingdom.   There is no real villain in the film.  The Yangs of the rival Kingdom could also be the good guys and the Pei Kingdom the bad guys – interchangeable.

One wonders about the soundtrack and score.  If at first to denote tension, the soundtrack works.  Overuse of the same in repetition in this case in the film renders the soundtrack really annoying after a while.

Most of the actors are unrecognizable in North America but are all quite the good lookers, both male and female.  The production sets particularly the Pei Palace and the costumes are also a feast for the eyes.  The young actors are not very good, overacting or looking as if they are trying too hard half the time.  What the film is lacks is an effective dramatic content that connects the audience with the plot.

The film is quite male oriented that might defend the other gender.  The sister mistreated as second class, offered as a concubine.  The commander’s wife has little say in things and has to suppress her romantic emotions.

For a fight film, the action sequences do not make up the majority of the film nor are they particularly exciting.  Do not expect an action packed film from this director.  A few action sequences though not that many, are still executed in slow motion. But the fight segments that include special effects, especially fo the steel umbrellas and their blades are impressive.

Yimou had been the Chinese director to watch when he first came on the scene with his muse Gong Li.  His newer works including SHADOW have never reached the heights of films like JU DOU, RED SORGHUM, RAISE THE RED LANTERN or even the lesser THE STORY OF QIU JU. 

The film has a limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and should be seen onto big screen.


Film Review: THE WHITE CROW (UK 2018) ****

The White Crow Poster

The story of Rudolf Nureyev‘s defection to the West.


Ralph Fiennes


David Hare (screenplay), Julie Kavanagh (Inspired by her book: “Rudolf Nureyev: The Life”)

The term white crow refers to a person who is both extraordinary and an outsider, a term that clearly applies to the famous Russian ballet dancer defector Rudolph Nureyev.  Ralph Fiennes directs from a screenplay by theatre playwright and director (who has also directed a few films) David Hare from the biography Rudolph Nureyev: The life by Julie Kavanagh.  It is the first part of his life, apparently the less volatile portion of it.  This begs for a sequel to this first look at Nureyev’s younger days.

The film begins with the dancer with his Russian troupe arriving in Paris for a performance for the first time.  The year is 1961.  As the route steps on to the bus that takes them around the streets of Paris, it is clear that the amount of logistics that have gone into this period piece.  The troupe are decked in the 60’s wardrobe with 60’s make-up and hair.  The steps on the bus are made of aluminium as they were often made in those days.  And the street is filled with 60’s vintage cars.  The Parisienne period atmosphere created is stunning as it is and well worth the price of the admission ticket regardless of how Fiennes’ film turns out.  His attention to detail, including his speaking of Russian, playing  Nureyev’s ballet teacher is to be commended.

The film flashbacks to the year 1938 on a train in the Soviet Union.  A woman is in delivery, which the audience assume (correctly) that it is Nureyev being born.  The audience sees that the ballet protege was born in poverty but rises to the top not only by talent and hard work but by sheer will of determination, often getting his way by awkward means.

As a biopic, Nureyev’s life story contains sufficient events to make it extremely absorbing if not entertaining.  Nureyev is told at the very beginning by a Russian official.   Ballet is all about rules and obedience.  Nureyev is a rebel.  Nureyev is brilliantly portrayed by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko who displays great dance performances as well as a model body to die for.  He has sex with both sexes, but the audience is spared the sex scenes.

The film’s shooting locations include the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) and the Louvre in Paris.  The important painting ‘the raft’ is shown, displaying how beauty can emerge from ugliness.

For a two hour plus film, director Fiennes paces his film well, with hardly a dull moment.  He ends the film with an extremely suspenseful segment that turns out very satisfying for two reason.  Firstly, it is a truly well executed nail biter, with shades of TORN CURTAIN, that even Hitchcock would be proud of.   Fiennes also takes the risk (that pays of), of intercutting the segment with Nureyev’s mother offering him the crucial words “You do this alone,” while he makes the crucial important decision of whether to defect or go back to Russia.  The conclusion is also the termination of Nureyev’s dream for freedom to do the things he wishes, without restriction.  

I was in London a month ago when two opening films were hogging the news.  THE WHITE CROW (the other film was US) was one of them.


Film Review: THE SKIN OF THE TEETH (USA 2018)

The Skin of the Teeth Poster
After his date takes a shocking turn, a man is plunged into a surreal interrogation of just who and what he is.


Matthew Wollin

THE SKIN OF THE TEETH is an ambitious LGBT psychological drama written and directed by Matthew Wollin that plays in select North American cities come May the 10th.  It held its world premiere at the Twin Cities Film Festival and went on to have a healthy festival life, including the prestigious Newfest and Outfest.  It has been described as a cross between GRINDR and GET OUT.

For non gay audiences unfamiliar with they hook up scene, GRINDR is a gay hookup app that many a gay people use to get no-strings attached sex.  A profile is created and once on, one can see all gay people with their profiles in the near vicinity.   Hook ups are so simple.  The film has a meet up between a white and black man in which identities are questioned.

THE SKIN OF THE TEETH is a two act film.  The first act is the meet up.  The second is the detective’s questioning of the black man, which is taken a step further.  The first act is the more interesting one, which results in a let down by the film’s end.

When Josef King (Pascal Arquimedes) arrives at John Burstner’s (Donal Brophy) apartment for a date, their prickly energy slowly gives way to an unusual and genuine chemistry. But after Josef takes a pill with unclear effects, the night takes a shocking turn, and he is plunged into a surreal interrogation of just who and what he is.  The interrogation is headed by Detective Locarno (Tom Rizzuto) and Detective Matthews (Chuja Seo) who are as weird as they come.

The first act is the more interesting as writer/director Wollin plays with the two characters introduced to the audience who are never sure who the weird one is.  Is John the one going to turn on Josef or the other way around?  Wollin creates an amazing build-up, so intriguing that the aftermath is a let-down.  It turns out that Josef turns weird but only because he consumed some unknown drug he found in John’s bedroom.

This is where the film goes down hill.  For one, who in their right mind would pop down a pill one is unsure of.  Josef ends up behaving really strangely.  As no mdma (‘Molly’) or ecstasy pill or other recreational drug gives the effects experienced by Josef (but maybe LSD), the drug is described by John as an experimental drug.  Josef ends up killing John, ending up being interrogated by the detectives.  Or is all this a hallucination?

The trouble is that Wollin fails to connect the audience his characters.  It is difficult to feel sympathetic and to care to what happens to a care-free sex crazed gay couple who take drugs.  And when everything could be a dream – one would care even less as to what happens.  The interrogating detectives are too weird to anchor the second act.

We get it.  Reality is ambiguous and we have to decide if what occurs on screen in real or a hallucination.

Despite an excellent build up and a few good moments, THE SKIN OF THE TEETH though well made on a limited budget disappoints leading nowhere.