BY PIERS MARCHANT
Best Film of the Day(s): Cryptozoo
Playing With Sharks: Valerie Taylor and her late husband Ron were pioneering shark conservationists for the last four decades, paving the way for protected marine parks in Australia and helping to create a different perception of sharks. As Sally Aitken’s doc on Valerie’s life and times suggests, however, the Taylors were also paying something of a penance: First, for all the spearfishing they had done in their teens and 20s (Ron was a world champion); later, for playing a significant role in helping Jaws achieve some of its underwater shark scenes. As a result of that film’s supernova success, sharks became one of the most egregiously hunted species in the world for decades (one conservationist in the film explains that after 100 million sharks were killed for twenty years — a result of macho big game hunting, yes, but far much more for their lucrative fins, which go on to make the soup considered a delicacy in China — only 10% of the world shark population still exists), leaving the Taylor’s favorite filming subject in dire peril. Aitken’s film, loaded with wondrous footage — a benefit of Valerie’s being in the public eye, and working as marine oceanographers for most of their lives — charts the evolution of Valerie’s relationship with the animals in the sea, and displays her fearless brand of adventuring along the way (Ron dubbed her “Give it a Go Valerie” for her willingness to put her life on the line). Now 85, we also watch her travel to Fiji for a dive amongst a newly replenished population of bull sharks, aided greatly by her, and other conservationist organizations, working to end the shark genocide. For this Jaws aficionado — an animal advocate myself, like the Taylors, I have to acknowledge the harm the film did to marine ecology in my devotion — watching the couple film their notable live shark scenes in Spielberg’s monster movie opus was a thrill, but watching the couple’s dedication to their cause in subsequent years is far more significant.
On the Count of Three: It seems like a great idea to start a film with a pair of best friends holding up guns to each other’s heads in a suicide pact, only to go into extended flashback and retrace what led to this moment right before they pull the trigger, but that’s precisely where things begin to go awry for screenwriters Ryan Welch and Ari Katcher. In comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s feature debut, the two friends, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), and Val (Carmichael) have a long history of helping each other through their respective childhood traumas — Kevin was abused by one of his therapists; Val had a physically abusive father — so they mean to come to this moment in a sort of full-circle act of final friendship, but then various sillinesses intervene to extend the day into a series of escalating incidents until finally things go too far to simply go back as they were. A cross between an unrealized dark comedy (much humor is derived from Kevin’s “horrible” taste in music, including a far too on-the-nose track from Papa Roach concerning actual suicide), and unbelievable drama (driving around in a bright yellow jeep, with Kevin wearing practically a technicolor dreamcoat, it’s impossible that the pair wouldn’t have been arrested almost immediately), the film gets decent mileage out of its pair of leads, who share a solid rapport, but never seems to find its footing enough to make much of an impact otherwise.
Cryptozoo: In his zoom video intro to the film, writer/director Dash Shaw appears through a kaleidoscope filter, a fitting visual enhancement for the trippy animated film he’s created. Painstakingly hand-drawing the cells, which gives the film a much less fluid but appreciably personalized appearance, he’s crafted an engaging story about cryptids — mythical creatures, from gorgons, manticores, and chimeras, to unicorns, pegasuses, and a baku — being kept by a kindly woman (voice of Grace Zabriske) in a secret park in order to keep them safe from outside forces. Tracking down the creatures from opposing sides are Lauren (Lake Bell), a fiercely determined woman, whose childhood was saved by a nightmare-eating baku when she was a child; and an evil-minded capitalist (voice of Jason Schwartzman), who has a mind to sell the creatures to the military. Trippy it most certainly is, but the story remains solidly coherent — imagine a kind of Jurassic Park but with a kraken, and a lot more peculiar nudity — which keeps it beguilingly grounded, despite its fantastical imagery and thematics. As an analogy for how it is mankind has lost all instinct and contact with the magical realm — well, beyond the MCU, and LOTR, and all the movie series that have made billions of dollars on the idea — but, also, a treatise on what happens when even our best intentions turn out to be misguided.
Eight For Silver: Sean Ellis’ werewolf movie tarts itself up a bit with 19th century gothic imagery and a steady atmospheric gloom, but the script, which Ellis also wrote, can’t escape most of the worst cliches of the genre, and its earnestness alone can’t keep it from being pretty insipid. Alistair Petrie plays a wealthy landowner named Seamus Laurent. When a group of Roma come to settle on his land, which they (rightfully, it turns out) claim as their own, he and the other nearby landowners pay a posse of mercenaries to eviscerate them as cruelly as possible. As a result, Seamus and his family, wife, Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), daughter, Charlotte (Amelia Crouch), and son, Edward (Max Mackintosh) are put under an ancient curse. Many predictable things happen from there involving a pair of silver, canine-like teeth, innocent people being gored by some mysterious creature, and lots of arterial sprays of blood (Ellis seems to have a penchant for them, as well as for severed limbs — I lost count of how many hands and feet were forcibly removed from their trunks). When a pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) comes to investigate, he puts all the pieces together, but not enough of the landed gentry listen to him in time to save themselves from their appointed maulings. Shot in the French countryside, the film has a grand palette with which to work, but too much time is spent establishing things that seem perfectly obvious, and the script is riddled with peculiar anachronisms (“Me, neither,” one character says in response to someone being unable to sleep) that keep throwing off its calculations. It’s trying hard, but simply isn’t made carefully enough, or with enough originality, to have it rise above its B-movie sort of station.
Sundance goes mostly virtual for this year’s edition, sparing filmgoers the altitude, long waits, standing lines, and panicked eating binges — but also, these things and more that make the festival so damn endearing. In any event, Sundance via living room is still a hell of a lot better than no Sundance. A daily report.