• Nate Adams

Sundance Review Day 2: 'On The Count of Three,' Cryptozoo,' 'John and the Hole' and more


Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

BELOW is our DAY 2 coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.


HOMEROOM

A moving time capsule that documents the first person experience of high school seniors in Oakland, California, Peter Nick’s “Homeroom” - which premiered in the US Docs section of the Sundance Film Festival - tackles everything from COVID-19 to the social and political unrest that rocked the country.


When Nick started this doc, planning to be a fly on the wall for the 2019-2020 school year, there’s no way he could have imagined what was in store. “Homeroom” begins in those early fall months, following student body leaders Denison Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl both of whom come from diverse backgrounds. It’s their senior year and the Oakland Unified School District is facing calls from the community to dismantle a dedicated police force that patrols daily. They argue it fosters a school to prison attitude while triggering African-American students. It also costs the district $2.5 million dollars, and with the budget getting tighter, the school board suggests cuts elsewhere. This of course before the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor changed the perspective.


Nick, along with editors Rebecca Adorno and Kristina Motwani, are given unmitigated access to the Oakland school system, capturing raw and unaltered footage of these bright young students slowly making impacts not only in their school district but Oakland too. Not until the film’s final 40 minutes do things become unstable with the, what felt like, last second inclusion of COVID-19 which considering how impactful it was on these students, was surprisingly light in the overall scope of “Homeroom.” Although hindsight runs amok when you hear COVID misinformation spreading in the classroom, like one kid saying: “If you have your flu shot then you’re fine.”


Still, the subjects are engaging to watch, specifically Garibo who always seems to walk around with a smile on his face, eager to help those in need. Like another Sundance doc “Boys State,” we’re reminded about the power of youth and it makes you sleep a little easier knowing these students are going to shape our future for the better.


Grade: B


HOMEROOM premiered in the US Documentary section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


CRYPTOZOO

Premiering in Sundance’s NEXT section, Dash Shaw’s hand drawn animated flick “Cryptozoo” is too strange and outlandish for its own good. Though some might applaud the visual technique, at times it felt like watching unfinished storyboards. “Cryptozoo” has assembled a decent voice ensemble: Michael Cera, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare, Jason Schwartzman, and yet doesn’t utilize their full range of talents.


The pic follows army brat Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) who is obsessed with “Cryptids,” defined as hidden or strange beats like a Pegasus, unicorns, or the rare Baku which can rid the body of nightmares. Lauren rescues endangered Cryptids - as they’re often sought after by the US government for their own agenda - and houses them in her Cryptozoo, which is planning a grand opening. Her latest trek, full Pokémon Go style, lands in Orlando where she’s trying to locate the elusive and exceedingly rare Baku. But enemies get in the way and the film's environmentalist message about nature’s sustainability takes a back seat to predictable storytelling mechanics.


Though comparisons to Wes Anderson are certainly in store for Shaw’s efforts and his animation department creates some neat visuals, there’s such a disconnect with the narrative and the grainy art texture (plus a laggy, borderline unwatchable frame rate) that my heart was never invested. They say the NEXT section of the festival gives audiences stuff they’ve never seen before, to which I guarantee “Cryptozoo” is of its own beast. Original music by John Carroll Kirby is a highlight in a film that otherwise left this viewer stranded.


Grade: D+


CRYPTOZOO premiered in the NEXT section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


JOHN AND THE HOLE

Next up, premiering in the US Dramatic competition, is Pascual Sisto’s adolescent drama “John and the Hole,” an ambitious (and odd) debut feature, written by Oscar winner Nicolas Giacobone, that address a wide array of themes from classism, child isolation, and depravity. Charlie Shotwell (“Captain Fantastic”) plays the titular John who seems like an average, inquisitive 13-year-old with an appetite for video games, tennis, and sleeping until he decides to toss his parents (Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) into a 30 foot deep abandoned World World II bunker in their backyard.


Presented in a 4:33:1 matted aspect ratio to heightened the film's claustrophobic tension, “John and the Hole” follows John navigating his decision. He tells the neighbors family are visiting relatives in the hospital, and mimic’s his mother’s voice to fire the gardener. Sure enough he tends to his family, giving them enough supplies to survive their time “in the hole” and it’s there where Sisto tackles his most ardent theme of welfare. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually been hungry,” the dad says at one point, meanwhile the day prior he scoffed at eating in the hole as if it was beneath him. But the irony is that even in captivity, this family still has more than most.


“John and the Hole” doesn’t always gel and a more focused lane would’ve yielded stronger results but Shotwell brings a fascinating edge to his John, and his need to compartmentalize trauma. He enjoys pretending to drown, and is eager to hold a conversation with anyone that’ll listen, offering money because that’s what his parents did whenever they needed something. There’s plenty to unearth and tons of questions left on the table, but Sisto expertly toys with the confines of ambiguity to deliver something worth digging into.


Grade: B


JOHN AND THE HOLE premiered in the US Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


ON THE COUNT OF THREE

Jerrod Carmichael’s solid directorial debut, “On The Count of Three” tows a fine line with subject matter, but the camaraderie among both Carmichael and Christopher Abbott is more than enough to soothe the rough, undeveloped patches. “On The Count of Three” - premiering in the US Dramatic competition of the Sundance Film Festival - opens with two best friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Abbott) pointing loaded pistols at each other ready to pull the trigger on the count of three.


Rewind a few hours earlier and we find out the two made a suicide pact, but they have some unfinished business that needs to be done first; to which “On the Count of Three'' morphs into a study on friendship and celebrating the minor things in life. Abbott goes full tilt as the slightly off though egomaniacal Kevin, whose troubled, convoluted, past sets up the film's third act sizzler. He also rocks out to Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” and reminds Val how undervalued Black people are. For someone who doesn’t dabble in comedy, it would seem Abbott was made for the medium.


Meanwhile, Carmichael - pulling double duties - makes good use of Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch’s screenplay, though “On the Count of Three” does have structural issues. Namely the trivialization of both mental awareness and suicide. Some of the jokes had me laughing against my better judgement, but the tone sparks an ire of inconsistencies that took some unexpected turns for the worse. Satirizing - to an extent - mental illness is always going to spark controversy, and if not Abbott and Carmichael’s earnest chemistry, “On the Count of Three'' would be a bust. But as it stands, the film marks a solid buddy comedy that tackles thematic issues with an ounce of heart and several doses of sarcasm.


Grade: B+


ON THE COUNT OF THREE premiered in the US Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


IN THE EARTH

If “Annihilation,” “Wolf Creek,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and “The Happening” all had a child, it would look like Ben Wheatley’s gnarly and totally bonkers “In The Earth,” a twisted science fiction romp that isn’t afraid to let its freak flag fly. Shot last summer during the pandemic for 15 days in a forest between London and Oxford, this is Wheatley’s best film in years.


This micro-budget horror movie is rooted in traditional, “don’t wander into the woods” values. Joel Fry plays Dr. Martin Lower, a scientist who just arrived at the remote Gantalow Lodge in route to link up with his mentor to continue their comprehensive studies of the mycorrhizal network of trees and fungi, or Mother Nature’s nervous system. With Alma (Ellora Torchia) - Martin’s chain smoking guide - the two wander aimlessly into the great beyond searching for Olivia and supplies, and before you lose your toes, let’s just say blood will be shed.


The two awaken after being ransacked and ambushed only to stumble into the clutches of Zack (Reece Shearsmith - turning in a gleefully deranged performance) who drugs and photographs them for an ancient ritual that will bring peace to the sacred forest. Poor Martin, the dude can’t catch a break throughout “In The Earth,” as his character is constantly thrown in peril and the brunt of many gruesome, eye gouging set pieces. (You’ll think twice about getting stitches after enduring this movie).


Amplified by Clint Mansell’s synthesizing score that almost puts Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow to shame, “In The Earth” is survivalist horror with a twist so edgy, M. Night Shyamalan might try to knock it off. Sure, the first thirty minutes takes its sweet time to get the momentum going, but once the arrows start flying and the trees start singing, all bets are off.


Grade: B+


IN THE EARTH premiered in the NEXT section of the Sundance Film Festival and NEON will release it in the US later this year.


KNOCKING

Another day, another slow burn and moody thriller that doesn’t stimulate the audience. So goes Frida Kempff’s swedish horror flick “Knocking,” a premiere in Sundance’s Midnight section. Cecilia Milocco plays Molly who’s recovering from a tragic event, has relocated to a new apartment building, and is eager to get back on her feet. But at night, when she’s left alone to her thoughts, a soft thumping can be heard from afar. What could it be? Morse Code? The answer is more psychological than you might expect and worse, an uninteresting drab.


Running a tight 78 minutes, Kempff keeps things moving and the first person camera angles get mileage out of Milocco’s tragic performance, but “Knocking” overstays its welcome, barely amounting to much outside the last five minutes where the film attempts to circumvent what came before. By the time that happens, you’ll already be checked out and ready to go home.


Grade: C-


KNOCKING premiered in the Midnight Section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.


All the above photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute.