The Biggest Little Farm


Farmer, farmer’s best friend and beautiful farm.

(2018) Documentary (NEONJohn Chester, Molly Chester, Alan York, Beauden Chester. Directed by John Chester

If you are someone who watches a lot of documentaries about farming and food production, you’ll be aware that small family farms are essentially endangered species, being pushed to the brink of extinction by factory farms that loads up their crops with pesticides and growth hormones and practices inhumane (to say the least) practices in regards to the livestock.

John Chester is a cinematographer who started out doing nature documentaries. His wife Molly is a chef, food blogger, cookbook author and advocate for healthy farm-to-table cuisine. The two lived in a cramped Santa Monica apartment but dreamed of farm life. They adopted a rescue dog, a big black Labrador-like guy named Todd. When the two would leave the apartment to go to work, the dog suffered from acute separation anxiety, barking non-stop to the point where the landlord finally asked them to get rid of the dog. Instead, the couple opted to get rid of apartment life. They decided to live their dream instead of just discussing it.

They purchased 200 acres near Moorpark, California – about an hour North of downtown L.A. in Ventura County. Not knowing much about farming, they took the sage advice of Alan York who preached the gospel of biodiversity, raising as many crops as possible instead of just a single one and relying on pesticides. The Chesters wanted to integrate flora and fauna, and York had the know-how to make it work.

The film – largely shot by Chester and directed by him – is a chronicle of the first seven years of their journey into Green Acres territory and all the challenges they faced, from predators such as coyotes and mountain lions attacking their chicken population, or pests like snails and various bugs eating the fruits of their labors (literally). In all instances the Chesters tried solutions that incorporated natural elements, like getting ladybugs for the insect pests and so on.

There are obstacles that don’t necessarily have easy and natural solutions, like a drought that has been proclaimed the worst in 1,200 years, or the destructive wildfires that have beset California the past couple of years. The fact that the climate is changing doesn’t seem to deter the very persistent Chester family; however, it must be said that farms like theirs is part of the solution to climate change.

One wouldn’t think that a farm would be an ideal location for nature photography but Chester certainly has an eye for it and some of the images are absolutely stunning. In fact, they are almost too stunning; sometimes we get so caught up in the beautiful images for the underlying message of biodiversity and ecological responsibility to register. What will certainly register is the personality of the various farm animals, starting with Todd the Rescue Dog on down to Millie the pig, Greasy the rooster and onward.

The farm does offer tours (we see one near the end of the film) and there is a URL at the end of the film for which you can follow the Farm where, as they say, the story continues. Those who don’t want to wait to see the film to check out the farm and their activities out can go here.

Watching this simple yet heartwarming film is going to get some viewers to long for a simpler life. Maybe you too will be motivated to start a farm of your own although watching this might convince you that the very prospect is nothing short of crazy. This was a big hit at the recent Florida Film Festival and will be making a run at the Enzian in the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for it; this is truly chicken soup for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is absolutely extraordinary. Nature photography on the farm – also extraordinary. Makes one long for a simpler life. Very sweet and inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes the message is lost in the beautiful pictures
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of animal peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Charlie Says

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Darling Companion


Woman's best friend isn't necessarily a diamond.

Woman’s best friend isn’t necessarily a diamond.

(2012) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard, Lindsay Sloane, Jay Ali, Robert Bear, Casey, Paul Kiernan, Jericho Watson, Yolanda Wood, D.L. Walker, Dina Goldman, Ruben Barboza, Mark Robinette, Craig Miner, Anne Cullimore Decker, Aline Andrade. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Dog lovers are, if you’ll forgive me, a unique breed. Being one myself, I know whereof I speak. Da Queen will tell you that I’m borderline obsessive and if you pressed, she’d probably even admit that I left the rational border behind years ago. That’s okay. Guilty as charged. From time to time in movies I have to witness bad things happening to dogs. Da Queen will also tell you that there’s no surer way to turn this rational, logical critic into a slobbering mess than seeing harm come to a dog. It’s not just my dogs I love but all dogs.

I tell you this because I was a bit concerned when I heard what the premise for this movie was. When Beth (Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Moss) find an abandoned dog at the side of a Colorado highway, Beth immediately takes to her four-legged friend. Naming the dog Freeway, she adopts the critter when nobody steps in to claim it.

Her husband Joseph (Kline), a back surgeon who invests much more into his career than he does into his marriage although he is to his own mind completely devoted to his family, is a bit annoyed by the presence of the dog but when his wife insists, he capitulates grudgingly. What he doesn’t get is that he spends a lot of time away from the home while she raised her daughters. With Grace getting married at their Rocky Mountain vacation home in the fall, her nest will be officially empty. She needs something to fill it and a dog is an excellent choice.

Beth grows very fond of Freeway and the two are virtually inseparable but things get kind of crazy as the wedding approaches and of course Joseph is of little help. As Beth is helping Grace with the final details at the vacation house, Joseph – about as useful as a cell phone on top of Mt. Everest – is given the task of walking the dog. He does so, forgetting to put Freeway on a leash and so busy talking into his cell phone he barely notices when Freeway runs off after a deer.

When Joseph returns home sans dog, Beth is understandably distraught and unleashes her wrath on Joseph who doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. “It’s not like it’s a person,” he complains, “it’s just a dog” to which Beth retorts “Love is love. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a dog.” She has a point but then again I am somewhat unreliable  when it comes to objectivity in this regard.

Of course, Joseph is in the literal dog house but he searches for the dog without success. Beth, frantic, enlists Joseph’s sister Penny (Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Jenkins) as well as Penny’s son Bryan (Duplass). Neither Joseph nor Bryan trust Russell whom they think has ulterior motives when it comes to Penny but Penny appears happy enough.

For Bryan’s part, he takes a shine to Carmen (Zurer), the housemaid who claims to have psychic powers who is certain that Freeway is still alive. This only furthers Beth’s determination and as the adults travel the beautiful countryside of the Rockies in the fall, they are forced to deal with each other one on one – for the first time in a very long time in some cases.

Some may recall Kasdan as the director of Silverado and The Big Chill as well as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He co-wrote this with his wife Meg so we do get both sides of the equation in most of the relationships without being overly committed to one point of view or the other. Kasdan has the wisdom to know that there are always more than one in any relationship and the case is generally that no one person is always right or always wrong.

However, you can never be wrong when you cast Kevin Kline and nobody knows that better than Kasdan who gave the actor his big break in The Big Chill. Kline is an everyman who can play just about any role and make it believable. He’s also so damn likable that even when he’s playing a character who is a bit of a dick we still end up relating to him which is quite the gift. I think that likability is why we so rarely see Kline in a villain’s role, although he can play those with aplomb as well (see A Fish Called Wanda).

His chemistry with Keaton is genuine and unforced. Keaton who sometimes can overdo the neurotic thing at least doesn’t make her character a complete ditz. She does have some legitimate grievances and while the way things work out is a bit contrived (but what Hollywood film is not?) the character itself isn’t. The acting in fact is terrific all around – the movie in fact suffers from an embarrassment of riches with so many great actors in the movie that you wish some of them got a little more screen time and you tend to leave that kind of film feeling a little cheated – and yet if they’d made the film longer it would have been too long. Catch-22 lives.

While the movie ends up using the dog as a uniting force and the search for him/her as a metaphor as our own search for love and acceptance, it gets to its destination after a few too many convenient coincidences. Other than that though this is a beautifully shot movie – you also can’t go wrong setting a movie in the Rockies in the autumn, although it is Utah subbing for Colorado here. It leaves one with the warm fuzzies which isn’t a bad thing and although a lot of critics grouse about it, this isn’t a dog movie in the same sense as Marley and Me nor is it a dog of a movie in the sense of a whole lot of forgettable exercises in cinema but it is a movie that might just stick with you like a loyal, loving dog and who doesn’t love that?

WHY RENT THIS: Because, you know, dogs. I’ll see Kline in anything, even when he plays a bit of a jerk.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many contrivances. Too many great actors, not enough time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual content as well as a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Kasdan’s first time in the director chair since 2003’s Dreamcatcher.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with footage of the New York premiere there’s also a featurette on the casting of the dog Freeway.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $793,815 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Red Baron