Day two of our Sundance 2021 coverage includes review for I Was a Simple Man, John and the Hole and In the Earth. Keep checking throughout the week for more reviews.

I Was a Simple Man

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Masao (Steve Iwamoto) is an aging widower dying of cancer in Hawaii. Losing all sense of reality — he is regularly visited by the ghost of his dead wife (Constance Wu) — and barely speaking, his estranged children come to take care of him as he approaches closer to the end. As Masao reminisces about his life, we witness time and space begin to intertwine in this luscious and and intimate mediation on death and the deepest regrets we bury within. 

Director Christopher Makoto Yogi crafts this spiritual odyssey steeped in a stark sense of melancholy that lingers from the opening frame until long past the end credits. Yogi and cinematographer Eunsoo Cho evoke a sense of place and being that becomes practically entrancing. There’s a mysticism to the romanticized photography of Hawaii and the warm, inviting environments, calling to mind the work of Luca Guadagnino. The emphasis on the longing for basic human interaction swoons like Wong Kar-Wai and the deft mix of personal character drama and elements of the supernatural echo Pedro Almodovar or Olivier Assayas. Don’t get it twisted, however, this is a singular vision of an artist only dipping his toe into his abilities. The delicate, subdued performance of its star Steve Iwamoto brings the aching heart at the center of this film to life, as does Constance Wu whose graceful presence adds an ethereal touch to the picture. I Was a Simple Man occasionally finds itself caught up within its own unique presentation, but I’ll be damned if the presentation is anything less than profound.

John and the Hole

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

de facto film reviews 1.5 stars

John (Charlie Shotwell) is an unusual 13 year-old kid. He is intrusive, curious to a fault and, when stumbling upon an abandoned bunker, randomly decides to drug his family (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, Taissa Farmiga) and drop them in the hole, so he can live a worry-free life. Director Pascual Sisto takes an initially intriguing premise, ripe with endless genre possibilities, and deflates interesting ideas in a droning Lanthimos/Haneke knockoff struggling for reason.

Adequately shot utilizing a 4×3 aspect ratio, Sisto wants the audience to feel a sense of claustrophobia, and while the initial sequences of John’s family waking up and beginning to rationalize their predicament do just that, afterwards, the film loses all momentum or sense of pacing. The plot itself, a reasonable compelling metaphor for adolescence, never materializes into anything more than what’s on screen. Initial attempts at wry, dark humor do come and go, and there are fleeting moments of unsettling predicaments, but Sisto struggles to find a consistent tonal balance. For a film about a kid putting his family in a hole, John and the Hole is pretty surface level.

In the Earth

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

de facto film reviews 3 stars

Conceived and produced amid the pandemic, writer/director Ben Wheatley’s latest, an ecological-focused horror film, attempts to ground itself within our newly formed reality, but unlike Songbird, In the Earth doesn’t rely on cheap provocations to tell it’s reality-inspired story. Ben Wheatley, using a barebones production crew, strict safety guidelines and a limited cast, puts together a fairly typical (for the filmmaker, that is) slow burn full of brooding atmosphere that later explodes into an experimental, assault-on-your-senses mindfuck that not only earns points for its tasteful real-life inspirations, but for how daring it ends up becoming.

As we follow a doctor (Joel Fry) and a park scout (Ellora Torchia) sent on a mission to reach a test site deep into the forest that quickly turns deadly, Wheatley mounts an ever-so-present level of tension that ratchets to near unbearable levels throughout the films second half. While the first hour features some dodgy pacing, Wheatley eventually lets loose with gnarly sequences of gore — a scene involving a makeshift foot surgery is beyond grotesque — that turns into what can only be described as a psychedelic journey through scientific hell. Clint Mansell’s entrancing score further adds to the face-melting climax that is among his most impressive pieces of work in recent years. Ben Wheatley is asking some necessary questions amidst a global pandemic, managing to sneak in some sly commentary about conspiracy theories and how people are always driven by a narrative, often trying to rationalize things beyond reason, and although there may not be many answers, the (acid) trip to search for them is well worth taking.