Although Katie Taylor has never been a household name, her interviews for this film convey a clear sense of the life she ultimately gave up for the Film School Africa program. Taylor’s credits range from award-winning dramas (The Descendants, Milk) to blockbusters (Spider-Man 3), a testament to the pure love of film she espouses whenever she isn’t talking about her students. In fact, we are told early on that the idea Film School Africa was conceived during her visit to the poor township of Kayamandi in 2008. Here, Taylor met a young man who said he was born to be a filmmaker despite having no knowledge, money, or equipment to realise this goal. After returning to Kayamandi with cameras, laptops and a modest lesson plan, she discovered other residents who shared this passion.
I imagine anyone reading this would likely agree on the power and value of cinema. This is what makes FILM SCHOOL AFRICA’s documentary format such a smart idea, as the audience is unambiguously shown and told the impact Taylor’s classes have on her students. For instance, one student casts his parents in an autobiographical short depicting an argument between the pair from his childhood. The experience allows his mother to realise not only how vividly her son had remembered this event, but its impact. Given Taylor largely focused on adapting students’ stories into traditional narratives, the interview-heavy approach adopted by Pfaff here is not the most obvious choice. Yet ironically, the history of the program feels so much like something out of a film that I might not have believed it were true otherwise.
The program grows following Taylor’s permanent relocation to South Africa, eventually hiring additional staff and offering classes at three locations. Subsequently, Pfaff spends most of FILM SCHOOL AFRICA’s second half focused on a single group of students: Sihle, Repro, TK and Juan. This cohort coincidentally represents four different cultural heritages, giving the viewer an insight into the dynamics and contrasts between communities. Most interestingly, Juan, an Afrikaner, has never been to a township and is visibly nervous when going to Kayamandi to shoot. Meanwhile, Sihle and Repro grew up in similarly impoverished areas; thankfully, this merely leads to some teasing and suggests that the youth of South Africa will be able to overcome any lingering divisions from the apartheid era.
Nevertheless, my enjoyment at seeing the four students successfully premiere their films to family and friends was slightly diminished by the relative lack of attention paid to most of Film School Africa’s early adopters. An especially glaring example of this is Molathise, a young man who is not properly introduced until after his tragic death. I think this is largely a structural issue given the ‘main’ quartet are absent for so much of the film’s first half, but other stories do feel strangely unfinished. In fact, Gasthon, one of Pfaff’s first interview subjects, went on to become a staff member and launched the program in his own community. This would’ve been a perfect (if once again, almost too good to be true) epilogue, but isn’t in the film. I looked up Film School Africa’s website and discovered it for myself.
FILM SCHOOL AFRICA effortlessly keeps the audience invested in its subjects and will have you feeling optimistic about our ability to tell our own stories. My (very minor) issues aside, it’s a charming debut from Nathan Pfaff which is perfect for anyone looking to explore South African history and cultures and enjoy every minute of it.
Sadly, BOMBSHELL is a bit of a bloodless affair. Despite assembling a powerhouse cast led by Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly with Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil, the film seems to skate over the surface of the story and never really gets down and dirty in what is a truly reprehensible down and dirty tale. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Carlson (who’s the one with all the dirt on Ailes – she recorded his lewd and lascivious overtures) signed a non-disclosure agreement at the end of the legal process that means she’s prevented from revealing what she really knows. (that’s not a spoiler... it’s history). Carlson has been quoted as saying she regrets the muzzle that NDA puts on her in terms of the real story being able to come out but, despite that, feels that Roach’s film version doesn’t quite get as close to the mark as the small screen version does.
But needing to tap-dance around the facts of Carlson’s story is just one of BOMBSHELL's problems. The real trouble seems to be in how the story is realised under Jay Roach’s direction. After a string of comedy successes including the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, Roach had a tilt at more serious subject matter with Trumbo (2015) which, in my view, suffers from a similar bloodlessness. Unlike the director, Adam McKay, who took a similar path from silly comedies to serious social and political stories, Roach doesn’t seem to be able to communicate as well with the serious stuff as he does with the silly stuff. McKay really excelled in the serious stuff of The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018). In McKay’s movies, there’s an anger and outrage that courses through the veins of his storytelling that is only sharpened by the razor wit of their comedic devices. Roach seems like he’s reaching for something akin to this but, in the end, settles for just joining the dots of the story. The reason for drawing this analogy isn’t just because of the similar paths taken by the two directors. BOMBSHELL is written by Charles Randolph who also wrote the great screenplay for McKay’s The Big Short, so he knows how to tell a complex, political story and he knows how to do it with a witty and acerbic style. But not so much here. Whether the fault lies in the screenplay (I haven’t read it) or in the way the screenplay is brought to the screen, BOMBSHELL has none of the masterful storytelling technique that Randolph’s other screenplay is drenched in. True, there are fleeting moments of this style with a bit of quirk here and there and the occasional direct address to the camera, but these flashed aren’t followed through to the rest of the film and only serve to remind us what we’re missing out on.
The most authentic moment on screen is the vox-poppy appearance of a series of real women who have real stories to tell about sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s a neat way of getting around the fact that Carlson can’t ‘testify’ and is the sequence that, for me at least, reaches the audience more powerfully than anything else in the film.
This is not to say that the performances aren’t terrific. All three women bring a power to the screen that would have been so much more effective if the film had let them off the leash; if they could just go to town on the story. John Lithgow is suitably creepy and oily as Ailes although Crowe on the small screen trumps him for capturing a true horror of chauvinism and despotism that lies not very far beneath the surface of his skin. It’s so disappointing that Bombshell wasn’t able to rise to the opportunity it had within its grasp. It’s an important story and a timely parable for the way we need to shine a light on the terrible things that some men have got away with for too long. In the end, what Bombshell did was prompt me to re-assess my feelings about The Loudest Voice. Perhaps it was a better screen experience than I gave it credit for.
In this second outing the Farmer’s dog Bitzer is in his usual adversarial relationship with Shaun, his young cousin Timmy and all the other sheep who live at Mossy Bottom Farm. But then a new character drops in – literally. Lu-La is a glowing blue alien whose spaceship lands in a field not far from the farm, much to the horror of Farmer John and his dog Bingo who are enjoying a walk and some takeaways. Fleeing the alien invasion, Farmer John drops his bag of chips which is promptly consumed by Lu-La who becomes an immediate fan of junk food. Her search for more treats leads her to a pizza delivery guy who’s taking pizzas to Mossy Bottom Farm and, so, in a scene reminiscent of Eliot and ET, Shaun and Lu-La meet and bond over a handful of pizza crusts. And like ET, Lu-La just wants to go home... and like Eliot, Shaun is determined to help her get there.
Meanwhile, the whole town of Mossington has UFO fever and while the Farmer hatches a plan to cash in on that fever by building a UFO theme-park (called Farmageddon), the incompetent, hazmat-suited agents of the Ministry of Alien Detection (its acronym is no accident) is investigating the sighting led by Agent Red and her trusty sidekick, a robot that bears a striking resemblance to Wall-E. But there’s more to Agent Red than we first suspect, as becomes clear later in the movie.
The genius of this movie is the simplicity with which it communicates its ideas, its narrative and the relationships between the characters. To all intents and purposes, it’s a silent movie, using strong visual imagery, vocal sounds, music and clever juxtaposition to get its ideas across. In fact, in recognition of its silent movie DNA it portrays the MAD Agents in the style of Mack Senate’s Keystone Cops (1912-1917) and makes a cute reference to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
But these aren’t the only movie references that await the film-savvy viewer. Beyond its very obvious parallels with ET: The Extraterrestrial, the whole film is littered with echoes of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or ‘furred’ kind as the poster suggests), 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Great Escape, Jaws, James Bond, Doctor Who, The X-Files and more. Plus there are more Easter-eggs than the eagle-eyed viewer could poke a stick at: the local Garage is called H.G.Wheels, the brand of the Farmer’s jam is Roswell, and so much more. And if all this sounds like it’s likely to go well above the heads of a four to seven-year-old audience, then that’s exactly the point. This is not a kid’s film to be tolerated by adults; it’s a film made for kids and adults alike and it succeeds in this admirably.
As is generally the case with an Aardman movie, the stop-motion animation is excellent as are the visuals and in addition to a sweeping old-school movie score by Tom Howe, the soundtrack features a host of toe-tapping songs including its theme song LAZY written by Howe and performed by Kylie Minogue and the Vaccines. (and if you stick around for the end credits, you’ll be rewarded by a final musical gag).
As a franchise, A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon succeeds where many others might fail. Not only did the first Shaun The Sheep film successfully make the transition from seven-minute episodes to a feature length story, this sequel (it’s more second story than a sequel) doesn’t lose any of the momentum established by the first one, nor does it feel like it’s cashing in on that film’s box office success. As derivative as the humour needs to be in terms of its many references to other films and pop culture, the screenplay by Jon Brown and Mark Burton is original enough to feel fresh and engaging and, within the bounds of a film for little kids, manages to touch on some strong thematic ideas especially through the character of Agent Red whose backstory and character arc is all about sticking to what you know to be true even if everyone else is laughing at you.
My one quibble is that the idea that Lu-La becomes almost immediately addicted to junk food is a very topical and one that relates so importantly to the kids who see it and yet, even though the idea is continued throughout the film for laughs, it’s potential health impact is never really addressed. Not that I’m looking for a didactic message here, but it seemed like this idea was ripe for a deeper resonance with the lives of its audience. It’s one missed moment within a film that is made up of so many moments that are bang on target.
It's easy to point to Pixar when we want to find examples of leading-edge animation and exceptional storytelling with incisive, clever humour and sophisticated depth of emotion. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon consolidates Aardman’s place right up there with Pixar at the top of the pile of some good but many mediocre children’s animations. It’s reassuring to see both Pixar and Aardman continuing to treat the younger filmgoer with respect by making great films that acknowledge their ability to deal with intelligent and complex themes and ideas which recognise that they deserve rich and exceptional film-going experiences just as much as the adults who accompany them.
The film begins in the jungle where Ahkeeba (Treva Etienne) a procurer of ancient artefacts is hightailing it away from a primitive tribe with a large stone ‘black egg’ that he’s liberated from the tribes ancient ceremony of worship and sacrifice to a spider-like deity. A bit later, as he delivers the black egg to the rural home of Walter Clark (Bruce Davidson) an invalid collector of mostly stolen treasures, there is a disagreement over their deal and Ahkeeba smashes the egg unwittingly releasing a giant spider with venomous intent (that doesn’t end well for him).
Meanwhile, Kara Spencer (Elizabeth Roberts) has arrived from New York to work as a carer for Walter, taking up residence in the house next door with her two kids Jesse (Arman Darbo) and Cambria (Chloe Perrin). Kara is not in a good way, haunted by the death of her other son Stevie in a car crash that was her fault and addicted to pain killers as she tries to deal with her guilt and her grief.
These two stories come together, uneasily, as Kara tries to care for Walter whilst Jesse begins to form a relationship with him presumably as a kind of surrogate father. And as Walter tells Jesse the story of the spider worshipping tribe, the giant spider itself is making itself at home in Kara’s house next door.
What jars with this story is that the elements of the narrative don’t fit well together and ultimately don’t serve the horror that the spider is intended to create. For a start, the title obviously comes from the children’s nursery rhyme about the spider who climbs the spout but gets washed down by the rain. But, even though there’s a little girl who’s afraid of spiders, there’s really nothing in this story that suits the nursery rhyme reference (despite there being spooky voices singing the rhyme in the trailer, which doesn’t happen in the movie).
Secondly, the idea of a white western man procuring sacred artefacts from primitive tribes is a great starting point for a horror story if it delved into the propriety of such acts and, classically, used the spider trope as way of the collector getting his comeuppance. That almost happens here – there’s a nice scene between Jesse and Walter when Jesse returns an object he’s stolen, and Walter calls him a thief. Jesse comes straight back at the old man pointing out that his ‘collecting’ is no different. But that’s about as far as this idea goes before it gets swamped by the final story element which, of course, is Kara’s drug addiction and guilt over her dead child. As a set up for a mother who must ultimately face the giant spider, this backstory and character flaw gets in the way of the horror story and fails to fuel its suspense.
It's a shame that these elements don’t form a more cohesive narrative spine, because many of the other aspects of the film work quite well. It’s nicely shot by Marcos Durian and the special effects overseen by Dan Rebert provide some nicely icky and gooey spider secretions and the spider itself is pleasingly non-CGI (even if the creature work is at times a bit stilted). There are some good scary moments that work fine but would be all the more terrifying if they were better embedded in the narrative.
The performances are solid and the presence of more experienced actors like Bruce Davidson (X-Men, Apt Pupil, Willard) and Denise Crosby (Ray Donovan, Deep Impact, Star Trek: Next Generation) add some gravitas to the cast and Gallo’s direction keeps things moving at a good pace.
Itsy Bitsy may not be the most satisfying flick in the cannon of spider-horror, but it does offer an entertaining and occasionally scary night in front of the screen.
Itsy Bitsy will be available on home-entertainment through Eagle Entertaimnet in March 2020.