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January 24, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | | January 24, 2008 |

Dustin: We started our first full day at Sundance with a movie we’ve collectively been enthused about for about three years now. Indeed, my expectations for Rawson Marshall Thurber’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh were nearly unattainable. The script, which Seth and I had a chance to read last year, was as perfect as you could get for source material that had already gained a reputation for being difficult to adapt. I think Thurber chose wisely to eschew a literal adaptation and, instead, capture the essence of Mysteries, which he did with considerable success. And while the execution of Thurber’s script wasn’t flawless, he nevertheless managed to create a strong, moving film and one that looked almost exactly as I pictured it (the Cloud Factory is exactly as Chabon described it). I wasn’t too keen on the casting of Jon Foster (Ben’s little brother) as Art Bechstein — he was decent, but, if you’ll excuse the crudeness, he had an almost impossible task: To be convincing enough play to Peter Sargaard’s bottom and Siena Miller’s top in their little love triangle - there are few actors who could’ve pulled it off, and given the challenge, Foster didn’t embarrass himself. I loved the cinematography, which somehow brought out the beauty of “Shittsburg” (as Miller called it), and Sarsgaard was pitch perfect as the low-level mobster, Cleveland. And no matter what the tabloids might say about her personally, Sienna Miller is radiant, the perfect Jane (but for some uneven dialect). And that, in my opinion, may have been the biggest problem with the casting of Foster — he didn’t quite have the presence to stand level next to Sarsgaard and Miller. Still and all, it was a great film that does complete justice to Michael Chabon’s brilliant novel.

Ted: This was the one film I had to see coming into the festival, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. Despite the quite liberal adaptation, Thurber captured the dark-sweet and wistful tone of the novel. And yes, Sienna really showed me something in this role; actually she showed a lot, if you know what I’m saying (Note: I’m saying “she got naked”), which was great, but her acting chops are substantially better than I expected (with the exception of the uneven accent, as noted above). Sarsgaard was simply amazing — the legend grows. In regards to “pitch-perfect,” let’s not leave out Nick Nolte as the gangster father whose mob connections lead to tragedy. Mysteries was my first Sundance experience, and it was fantastic, especially the Q & A with Thurber afterward. I’m hooked, this is so fucking fun.

Seth: Not much to add on what’s already been said. I wasn’t down on Foster as much as Dustin — while not great, I thought he caused no harm to the role and managed it just fine. I do agree that Sienna was quite the surprise as, despite the already mentioned accent issues, she delivered a very strong performance. And Sarsgaard - well, let’s just say I get why Foster’s Art would let Sarsgaard’s Cleveland turn him to the homosexual side (although, sorry Peter, but I won’t be your bottom — I’m a pitcher only!). As Dustin said, this flick did an excellent job of capturing the tone and essence of the fantastic book, and that may be the biggest surprise of all, considering Thurber’s previous film was the dick-and-fart joke laden Dodgeball. So far, this is the second best flick I’ve seen at Sundance.

The best flick I’ve seen so far, and the one that is likely to retain that title for the rest of this trip, is The Wackness, which is the sophomore effort from filmmaker Jonathan Levine (his first flick was a small horror film, the name of which escapes me — and this column is being written in a diner with no online access, so you can look it up yourself if you care). Like Mysteries, The Wackness is about that one last summer, although here it’s the summer before college (while Mysteries was about the post-college, pre-real world summer). While the film is a relatively fresh and absolutely hilarious tale of first loves, decaying marriage and the surprising friendship between a dope slinger and his therapist (who exchanges his services for quarter bags), it’s also a poetic ode to Manhattan in the 90s. The sharp script is well acted by Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley (who uses his knack for eccentric characters to excellent ends) and Olivia Thirlby (who Dustin has an almost unhealthy crush on, to the point that I worried for her safety when we saw her in person at a later screening). Just a fun, funny flick, and I can’t think how to end this paragraph, so I’ll turn it back over to the Dawg.

Dustin: I wouldn’t say “unhealthy,” Seth. She has a very sweet, heart-melting smile, that’s all I’m saying. And she was amazing in The Wackness, which was also my favorite of the festival so far, and I suspect it won’t be surpassed. I mean: Ben Kingsley as a dope-smoking shrink going through a middle-aged crisis of epic proportions? And Josh Peck - who looks like a young David Krumholtz if Krumholtz were better looking and a better actor - killed, as the pot-dealing virgin delivering 90s slang (dope, mad, word) convincingly and unselfconsciously. I’m a sucker for coming of age films as it is, but this one - which captured NYC in the 90s, replete with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and — of course - Biz Markee — was a transcendently smart, heart-rending film that just makes your fucking heart ache.

Ted: How dare you insult Mr. Universe? Thirlby was breaking my heart with the way she smacked that boy around — just a fantastic film and what I perceived that this festival would be all about. I’ve been lucky so far, as three out of the four films I saw yesterday were at least above average, including Frozen River, which I saw by my lonesome while Dustin and Seth went off to trade wedgies over sitting closest to Thirlby. Melissa Leo picks up where she left off in 21 Grams, as a poverty-stricken mother in upstate New York, barely holding her family together, who finds herself earning extra cash by helping a Native American woman smuggle illegal immigrants across an iced-over river that runs through the Mohawk reservation. This is a tiny indie film with a huge heart; a grim, micro-budgeted parable about the desperate strength of motherhood and of two mothers’ unlikely regard for each other. How delighted I was this morning to learn that someone bought the rights yesterday for $1 million. Frozen River is the antidote for Hollywood nonsense.

Seth: …Sigh. I should’ve gone to see Frozen River. Instead, I sat through the world premiere of Assassination of a High School President, a movie that thinks it funnier and smarter than it actually is. It’s basically a comedy version of Brick, a noirish flick set in high school. To be fair, there were a few good laughs in the film, mostly early on, in particular from Bruce Willis as the high school principal who’s a bit too wrapped up in the time he spent in-country during Desert Storm (think Seymore Skinner with his ‘Nam flashbacks). Willis’ “shtick” can get tiring sometimes, but here, he and the role served each other well. The other performances were fine enough, except for Mischa Barton, of course. I so wanted to ask her, during the post film Q&A, how she feels about the fact that so early in her film career she has already resorted to flashing her tits (and with that comment, I realize those of you who like pretty, too-thin girls are already lining up to buy their tickets). While it was also well-shot, the problem was the script. Most of the comedy is easy, crass humor. And while I love crass humor just fine, I’m not a fan of the obvious variety, which is what most of this was. And the premise of high school noir had a few nice ideas that just weren’t played out that well and, with Brick as a constant source of comparison, Assassination just fails on that front.

By the way, nobody has mentioned this yet, but it’s fucking cold here in Utah. Balls-in-my-chest cold. Just thought I’d share that.

Dustin: It’s not that cold — my … er … testicles haven’t risen above my waistline yet, but it’s snowing now, which lends itself to the Park City experience. But, yeah: Seth is right about Assassination. I will say, however, that no one could’ve played the part of the high school dork’s version of Sam Spade better than Daniel Reece Thompson, stutter-boy from last year’s brilliant Rocket Science. And while there were a few great lines (Willis’ principal to a student interrupting a lecture: “I don’t come to the strip bar where you work and slap the dick out of your mouth, do I?”) and a very decent vibe to Assassination, it failed to capture anything remotely resembling the high-school experience. Of course, since Assassination was only a middling effort (and the most mainstream of what we’ve seen), it’ll likely do decent business at the box office. Actually, if that gets Daniel Reece Thompson some recognition, I’m all for it.

I’ve also learned that the difference between attending Sundance with Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate, who was three-months pregnant last year, and attending with Seth and Ted, is that there’s considerably more alcohol involved (Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate kisses better, however). So, I had the distinct honor at last night’s midnight screening of Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden to fall asleep while the director was in attendance. So, I’ll let Ted talk substantively about Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World of Osama Bin Laden?, but I will say that - through the fog of Knob Creek bourbon (thanks Ted!) — the half of the film that I did see failed to impress.

Ted: Ah, yes, it is cold-cold, and that requires drinky-drinking. As I was waiting for Dustin and Seth last night, I sat in the downstairs bar at Cicero’s on Main Street, listening to a woman from the Sundance entry Song Sung Blue do karaoke to Neil Diamond and Abba. And it was delightful - bourbon, Stella, bourbon, Stella, and that shit finally started to sound good.

Osama was, I’m sorry to say, facile and disappointing, and I get the distinct sense that Morgan Spurlock fancies himself a bit of a Michael Moore. Maybe it’s the “Daily Show” culture we live in, but I was not surprised to learn that Pakistanis and Egyptians dislike the U.S. government but not our people per se, nor was it at all news that poverty and disenfranchisement are the West’s real enemies and not Osama bin Laden. Having just reviewed Lawrence of Arabia, I was ready for some down-and-dirty commentary on the dirty underbelly of the U.S.’s relationship with the various countries of the Middle East, but Spurlock’s glib one-liners and self-satisfied smirks, along with some silly video game graphics as chapter marks and wayyy too much footage of his wife’s water-birthing session, left me cold. Congrats, Spurlock, your wife has an enormous rack; oh, was that not the point of filming her naked? There is a sequence near the beginning that is almost worth the price of admission by itself, however: a chorus line of animated Osamas dancing to, I think, “Superfreak” (?). It was 1 a.m., and I was well in my cups, not to mention a little, um, smoky, so I’m guessing there.

Never Fall In Love with a Woman Who Doesn't Smoke Pot or Like Dylan

Sundance Dispatches / Dustin Rowles, Seth Freilich, and Ted Boynton

January 24, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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