A title card announces the year as 1347 as a young woman in a nun’s habit leads a donkey across an idyllic countryside. She passes through one verdant glen after another on her way back to a small convent, and when she and her sister nuns eventually speak, it is in a pitched contemporary upspeak. Contemporary to now, not then.
Writer-director Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” is making its world premiere Thursday as part of the Midnight section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Adapted from stories drawn from Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval book “The Decameron,” the film draws humor from the tension between its setting and the way the characters speak and interact as a story unfolds about a fugitive servant (Dave Franco) who pretends to be a deaf-mute to be taken in by a convent that includes three young nuns (Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci), each dealing with personal crises of their own.
The film has quite a cast, as it also includes John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Paul Reiser, Lauren Weedman, Jemima Kirk and Paul Weitz.
Many people watched the George Zimmerman trial in 2013 and felt outrage. Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood experienced that too — and saw an opportunity.
The couple and creative collaborators — known for their work independently as well as on shared efforts like the romantic drama "Beyond The Lights" — decided to take out their laptops and do something about it.
"We watched the Zimmerman verdict [in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin] with our son, and when he was found not guilty our form of consoling our son was showing him an Emmett Till documentary," said Rock Bythewood. "Then we said: 'As artists it's also our responsibility to hold up a mirror to our society.'"
"Is your coat wool?” Alfre Woodard asked as she sat at a long, flower-filled table draped with purple paisley Italian linen. “I’m allergic to wool. I can never wear anything nice.”
Under the cavernous, vaulted ceiling of a mountain mansion, where the driveway was heated, an indoor stream trickled and a string of faux llamas stood guard on the stone staircase, Woodard sipped a spoonful of vegan cream of vegetable soup served by celebrity chef Cat Cora. Nearby, Marti Noxon, one of the creators of the Lifetime series "Unreal," talked about her feature film debut, “To the Bone,” which would sell the next day to Netflix for a reported $8 million.
Here at the home of ChefDance CEO and founder Mimi Kim, Woodard, Shirley MacLaine, Elle Fanning and Jill Soloway were just part of a formidable group gathered during the Sundance Festival for a lunch to celebrate women in film.
By the time the Sundance Film Festival came to a close Saturday night, it was clear that there had been no 2017 equivalent of “The Birth of a Nation” at the festival this year — no cinematic sensation that swooped in from nowhere to dominate the prizes, score the biggest acquisition deal and promise the industry a badly needed diversity makeover. (Happily, this year’s Academy Award nominations have spared us a three-quel to #OscarsSoWhite.)
If anything, a certain amount of caution could be detected on the part of distributors, journalists and even filmmakers, as though everyone in attendance were trying to avoid the trap of self-importance in a year when real-world matters — from President Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march to reports of a cyber attack on the festival — provided more than their fair share of off-screen drama.
Which is not to suggest that the films unveiled over 10 days in Park City, Utah, were somehow disappointing, or not up to the challenge of speaking to our politically fraught moment. Far from it. There were, as usual, movies about fractious racial divisions, including “Mudbound,” Dee Rees’ symphonic, superbly acted drama about two Mississippi families — one white, one black — struggling to survive in the shadow of World War II.
Last year’s Sundance Film Festival saw two of the priciest deals in the history of this gathering: Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking $17.5 million for “The Birth of a Nation” and Amazon/Roadside’s not quite as Brinks-busting $10 million for “Manchester by the Sea.”
Those films wound up with two, well, very different commercial fates. As much as dollars can be an indicator of a film’s value, they’re hardly an ironclad guarantee of success. Too many other factors can enter the picture between the January frenzy in the mountains and the fall derby into which many of these films will enter.
Judging by the totals in Park City this year, buyers are feeling optimistic. Very optimistic. Whether it’s traditional players like Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, newer movers-and-shakers such as Amazon and Netflix or even upstarts like Neon and FilmRise, wallets have been opening up over the last week at Sundance. As of Friday, a whopping eight movies have gone for at least $5 million as the quantity of buyers (and, depending on whom you ask, the quality of movies) has sent dollar amounts skyward.
A Sundance Film Festival that was colored, gripped and sometimes overshadowed by the early days of the Donald Trump administration saw a slew of feminist films win big at the gathering's awards. Multiple female filmmakers nabbed top prizes, while a tale of a woman reasserting control over her life scored the festival's highest honor.
Macon Blair's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," in which Melanie Lynskey plays an ordinary woman who becomes empowered as a detective-avenger after she is robbed, won the U.S. grand jury prize in the dramatic category. To its fans, the genre-tinged film, which Netflix will release next month, serves as a tonic to the perceived anti-female policies of the Trump administration.
And Eliza Hittman's gay coming-of-age story "Beach Rats" won the directing award for the U.S. dramatic section -- ensuring that a gathering that began with a march down this city's Main Street championing feminist values closed out with the same motif.