Sundance 2017: Climate Change and Cussing Nuns Kick of 33rd Film Festival

As in the past few years, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival kicked off with a sampling of six movies from the different sections, but the movie that probably had the most interest right off the bat was the premiere of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

Ten years after Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was blowing minds about global warming from its 2006 Sundance premiere to winning the Oscar, he’s back with an update that offers at least some hope for the future of the earth, but tempered with a warning that the United States could end up backtracking under the leadership of a vocal denier of climate change.

The previous movie was essentially Gore’s slide show presentation of graphs and charts showing how the build-up of carbon gases in the atmosphere has created unstable climate and weather, being responsible for the increase in the deadliest typhoons and hurricanes. At first, the sequel—directed by Jon Shenk (The Island President) and Bonnie Cohen (Audrey and Daisy)–essentially shows the former Vice President giving training sessions to some of his loyal followers from around the world whom will continue his message, as he travels to places like Greenland and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to see some of the effects firsthand.

The movie really starts to get interesting as Gore heads to Paris for the 2015 climate change conference, and we see behind the scenes of him negotiating deals with India to try to get them on board with using alternate forms of energy than coal and fuel. As may be expected, the last bit of the movie takes place after the 2016 Presidential election where we see Gore going to Trump Tower to talk with the President-Elect–a conversation/meeting that isn’t filmed that’s being kept confidential. Essentially, the film acts as a journalistic update of Gore’s efforts and it’s fascinating to see that even he has frustrations and disappointments about his progress.

Returning to Sundance after last year’s Joshy and 2013’s Life After Beth, Jeff Baena took a very different approach with his latest comedy The Little Hours, which was the Sundance opener in the Midnight section.

It takes place a long time ago in a remote European town where three nuns at an abbey, played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Kate Micucci, but these aren’t your typical nuns, for sure.

The basic plot is that the three nuns spend their time berating the abbey’s garden hand, so the priest who heads the abbey—John C. Reilly in another very funny role—brings a traveller he encounters on the road, played by Dave Franco, back to the convent, saying he’s a deaf/mute to avoid any contact with the nuns. And yet, the nuns see the sexy newcomer as a chance to go a little crazy.

From the opening scene, you half expect something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of zany historical comedy, and in some ways, you’d be right because of the period, but Baena has his characters talking as if they’re in a modern-day R-rated comedy, which gives his film a unique tone and feel.

We already known Plaza can be funny, especially when she’s at her brattiest. Same with Brie, but the real breakout ends up being Kate Micucci, whose character really goes all out in terms of her craziness and physical humor. Just as things couldn’t get any crazier, Fred Armisen shows up as the Bishop and he’s not at all pleased with what’s going on.

The problem with The Little Hours is that it never really goes far enough in terms of the edginess, which is probably why the film ultimately falters, especially as a Midnight selection, where audiences would probably want something far raunchier. (Oddly, this isn’t the only movie at this year’s Sundance about nuns as Maggie Betts’ Novitiate premiering here involves young nuns in training.)

Another filmmaker that can be considered a “Sundance mainstay” by now is Jim Strouse—his previous film People Places Things premiering there as well as last year’s The Hollars (for which Strouse wrote the script).  His latest film, the rom-com The Incredible Jessica James, this year’s Closing Night film, finds the filmmaker hitting his stride with a movie that doesn’t come from a man’s perspective. Instead, it stars Jessica Williams (from The Daily Show) as the title, a failed playwright who is still pining for her ex Damon(Lakeith Stanfield) although she’s doing her best to move on.

When we meet her, she’s on a really awkward Tinder date in hopes that she’ll run into Damon; she does but he also has brought a date. After that disaster, Jessica’s best friend (Noel Wells) sets her up with a divorced man (Chris O’Dowd) and while at first, their date doesn’t go much better, but Jessica gives him a chance and things go from there.

For the most part, The Incredible Jessica James follows normal rom-com tropes, but what makes it different and unique is the amazing voice and personality Williams brings to the role. Kudos to Strouse, who cast Williams in a small role in People Places Things, for writing something that plays up to Williams’ strengths, and she’s just fantastic, really making the film so enjoyable. It’s especially fun seeing her interact with the kids she teaches in her screenwriting class, something that also makes it different from other rom-coms.

From watching Dustin Guy Defa‘s Person to Person–which premiered in Sundance’s NEXT section–you would assume the filmmaker is a fan of PT Anderson’s Magnolia, even having Philip Baker Hall in one of the main roles. It’s an ensemble piece where we follow a disparate group of characters, including record-collector Benny (Bene Coopersmith) who is trying to get his hands on a rare Charlie Parker vinyl

The main storyline, sort of, is one involving rookie crime reporter Claire (Abbi Jacobson from Broad City) being shown the ropes by a quirky vet, played by Michael Cera, as they try to get clues to solve a murder. Despite decent performances, the film’s tone is somewhat hard to get through, because it’s not a straight comedy though there are plenty of funny moments, particularly Cera’s scenes. Ultimately, it’s a strange film that may require a bit of time to absorb what Defa was trying to achieve.

As my last film on Day 2, it may have been a bad idea to catch Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick the same day as Jessica James. At first, it seemed like another similar indie rom-com—sweet but corny—but then it evolved into something very different. 

Directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris), the movie is based on the real-life relationship between Kumail and his wife and the film’s co-writer, Emily Gordon. They meet during one of Kumail’s stand-up acts and the relationship was going well until Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) finds out that Kumail’s family’s demands he marries a girl from Pakistan. The rift in their relationship seems final until Kumail is called to Emily’s side when she falls ill. She ends up being put into a medically-induced coma due to a lung infection, and Kumail endsup spending time with her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, until she’s revived.

Like Jessica James, this comedy produced by Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, is very accessible and marketable, and not surprising based on the reaction at the premiere, the film was bought for $12 million for Amazon Studios. It very much lays out its story in a similar way as Apatow and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. At first, Nanjiani doesn’t seem particularly well suited as a romantic lead, but as the film progresses, his charm and personality goes a long way to you really begin to underestand his mindset.  Oddly, the film only gets funnier once Kumail’s girlfriend is in a coma, forcing him to interact with his parents, and both Hunter and Romano really kill, nearly stealing the movie from its star.

The film (which is probably 15 minutes too long) goes though a number of tonal shifts, some which are less awkward than others, and Nanjiani does a fantastic job breaking away from the usual comedies about stand-up. Although the scenes with his Pakistani family do seem to follow along similar themes as other ethnic family comedies, by the second half, we’ve witnessed some truly touching moments. You start to realize how personal a film this is, and the mix of comedy genres goes a long way to the film eventually winning you over.

Look for our next update from the Sundance Film Festival in a day or two. 

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