A selection of some other films from days two and three of the Sundance Film Festival 2021.
The first-time director of John and the Hole (Pascual Sisto/ USA/ 2021/ 103 mins) is known for his visual art installations. This comes across a little too strongly in this gnomic psychodrama that is all concept. The only depth to be found is in the hole into which young teenager John (Charlie Shotwell) bundles his family (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga). Our young sociopath, played with Sphynx-like blankness by Shotwell, appears to want his family out the way in order to act how he imagines adults do, ie; however he wants. Cue a spending spree, driving the family car, having a friend round to gorge on junk food and video games. Every so often, Sisto cuts to a mother (Georgia Lyman) telling her daughter (Samantha LeBretton) the story of ‘John and the Hole’.
As hooks to pull in the viewer, it’s a doozy. However, once John’s family are in the hole, it appears Sisto has no more idea how to proceed than his antagonist. John’s antics are banal, not helped by there being no real attempt to explain his actions. If we can’t understand, we can’t empathise. By focussing the majority of the time on an ambulatory black hole, Sisto simply wastes the considerable talents of his supporting cast. The lack of characterisation all-round further hinders any attempt to engage with this celluloid tumbleweed. Some have called it Home Alone if made by Yorgos Lanthimos. At least then it would have had the benefit of some deadpan humour to enliven things. A sad waste of a great idea. 2/5.
The opening minutes of Eight for Silver (Sean Ellis/ USA, France/ 2020/ 115 mins) are just about worth the near two-hour runtime on their own. We’re plunged into the utter hell of the trenches of the Somme. We witness a fatal mustard gas attack and then a makeshift field hospital filled with blood, screams, and buckets of limbs. One unfortunate soul loses his life as a bullet is pulled out of him. Weirdly, it isn’t a German one. The story then cuts to the late 19th century and begins in earnest, spinning an interesting but muddled spin on the werewolf movie full of spite and vengeance and viscera, but one which almost unforgivably relies on the old ‘gypsy curse’ trope.
Eight for Silver has the opposite problem as John and the Hole in that there is just too much going on. It also suffers from a bland protagonist in Boyd Holbrook, and wastes interesting actresses like Kelly Reilly and Roxane Duran. There are some great ideas, like the cursed dentures fashioned from the 30 pieces of silver given to Judas Iscariot, but it’s all too rushed and chaotic. There are, however, some superb gory set-pieces, superb production design, and a horrifying but strangely hypnotic reverse transformation from wolf to human which has to be seen to be believed. Eight for Silver can’t come highly recommended, but can’t be faulted for ambition. An interesting addition to Sean Ellis’ varied filmography. 3/5.
At the Ready (Maisie Crow/ USA/ 2020/ 96 mins) is another of the many fine documentaries at Sundance ’21. Following three Mexican-American students as they take part in a law enforcement training programme at Horizon High School in El Paso, one of 900 such extra-curricular courses in Texas. Cesar, Christina, and Mason (who came out as transgender post production and is known as Kassy in the film) go into the course wide-eyed, seduced by one of the few opportunities to earn a decent wage right of school, and that evergreen myth of ‘making a difference’.
Maisie Crow’s style is one of absolute non-intervention, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions, just like her subjects. And the quandaries for the trio are knotty as hell. For Mason, how do you reconcile being an ardent believer in Black Lives Matter, when your teacher has a Blue Lives Matter flag on the wall? For Cesar, how can you strive to join the very organisation that was instrumental in the deportation of your own father? For Christina, can you deal with working for the border patrol when it will mean that you will be seen as the enemy by a large swathe of your own community? The narrative stance is never forced, but when you see the disturbing sight of students armed with replica guns crashing through school corridors, the separation of immigrant families by the Trump administration, and the Ted Cruz vs Beto O’Rourke Senate Election in 2018, it’s not head to glean where Crow’s sympathies lie. Fascinating, vaguely terrifying, and often moving, At the Ready is a documentary of rare craft and acuity. 4/5.
All screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021