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7 Interesting films from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival

Updated on November 23, 2016

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Budget:   NA

Domestic: 80,238
Foreign:  NA­­
Total:    80,238

Rotten Tomatoes Score 12%

The main role is played by a relatively unknown actor named Jon Foster. Sienna Miller, Peter Sarsgaard, Nick Nolte and Mena Survari round out the cast. Rawson Marshall Thunder wrote the screenplay, directed and produced the film. The movie is based on the book by the same name by author Michael Chabon. I have not read the book, but after seeing the movie I would like to for comparison’s sake.

It takes place around the 1980’s in Pittsburgh. That alone was intriguing to me. You don't see many movies that take place in Pittsburgh. Plus it was set in the 80’s without beating you over the head to let you know that. A year after this release, the movie Adventureland came out and it seemed like 80s movies set in Pittsburgh were taking off. Just kidding. It was nice to see two movies that take place in the 80’s without the stupid 80’s clichés. How many times do we have to watch a movie chronicling the 80’s that include the spiked mohawk and cheesy 80’s music.

Art Bechstein (Foster) is a college graduate who is spinning his wheels trying to figure out what to do next. His father is Joe Bechstein (Nolte) a mobster who hides in plain sight as a businessman. Joe is annoyed at Art’s choices and wants him to become a stockbroker. Like many mobsters in movies, he wants his son to do something legitimate and not fall into the same path as he did. Art is working at a bookstore and dating one of the managers Phlox Lombardi (Survari). Phlox is really into Art but he's just using her to passing time. He meets an attractive blonde named Jane (Miller) at a party and is intrigued by her. She has a boyfriend named Cleveland (Sarsgaard). Art begins to blow off his responsibilities to hang out with Jane and Cleveland. Art begins to develop feelings for Jane and Cleveland. It's a movie about sexual discovery. Art's father Joe finds out he's been hanging out with Cleveland. Cleveland is involved in with thugs that run in the same circles as Joe. Joe warns Art to stay away from Cleveland. Art spends the majority of the movie figuring out what he wants from life while experiencing adventures with Jane and Cleveland. For the most part I found the movie to be dull. I'm sure the book is a lot better but after seeing the movie I don't feel inclined to find out. I know that contradicts my early statement about the book. I still feel I should read the book, but the movie really soured me on the story. In time I think I will attempt to read the book.

This a film that you should pass on. I’d grade this movie out as a D.

Choke

Sundance Special Jury Prize: Dramatic, Work by an Ensemble Cast

Budget:   3,400,000

Domestic: 2,926,565
Foreign:  1,055,894
Total: 	  3,982,459

Rotten Tomatoes Score 54%

Choke is a film starring Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Houston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Gillian Jacobs, Clark Gregg and Bijou Phillips. It is based on the book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. Clark Gregg wrote the screenplay, directed and played Lord High Charlie in the movie.

Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a sex addict and a con man who intentionally chokes on food at restaurants to get people to pay for his meal and eventually send him money. After someone saves his life, he sends them letters thanking them and saying that he's fallen on hard times. After reading these phony heartfelt letters, people send him money out of sympathy. How can you not be intrigued by that? He uses the money to pay for medical bills for his hospitalized mother. Anjelica Houston plays his mother, Ida Mancini. Ida has Alzheimer's and believes Victor is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Victor attends sex addicts anonymous to pick up women. He attends the meetings with his friend Denny (Brad William Henke), who tries to really control his urges. Denny is a compulsive masturbator. Victor and Denny both work as reenactors of life in Colonial America. They are not allowed to use modern slang or language. Their boss is Lord High Charlie (Clark Gregg), who constantly reprimands Victor and Denny for breaking policies.

While visiting his mom at the hospital, Victor meets a Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), who convinces him to believe his mom's story of him being the Second Coming. She tells him about an experimental procedure of harvesting stem cells from an umbilical chord of a baby with Victor's genes. She has taken a special interest in Ida and wants to do all she can to improve her condition. She feels the experimental treatment is the only chance to improve her condition. She convinces Victor to have sex with her so she can have a child to save his mom. Victor and Dr. Marshall try to have sex on many occasions, but Victor is unable to perform. Victor is disturbed by the event, considering he’s a sex addict and has only had this problem with Dr. Marshall. After talking to Denny and Victor realizes that he has feelings for Dr. Marshall and that's what’s standing in his way. Sex has always been a meaningless urge for him. Victor spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out the truth about his mother and his birth story, while balancing his feelings for Dr. Marshall and trying to be a better person.

I think they did a great job in casting Sam Rockwell as Victor Mancini. He definitely brought the character to life, but I felt like the movie fell flat after truly enjoying the book.

I thoroughly loved this book. I was uber excited when they decided to make it into a movie. I suggest that you read the book before watching the movie. Palahniuk's book is an excellent read. He's the same guy who wrote the book Fight Club. Fight club was also turned into a movie. I never read Fight Club but the movie was amazing. Fight Club is on my must read book list. The love of the Fight Club film led me to read Choke when it came out. Choke however, didn't translate well to the big screen. It wasn't bad but after reading the book it didn't live up to my expectations. I give the book an A but the movie receives a grade of C.

What Just Happened?

Budget:   25,000,000

Domestic: 1,090,947
Foreign:  5,619,941
Total:    6,710,888

Rotten Tomatoes Score 51%

The film stars Robert Deniro, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci and Robin Wright (then known as Robin Wright Penn). Sean Penn and Bruce Willis are playing exaggerated versions of themselves. It was directed by Barry Levinson.

This movie appeals to me because it gives you a glimpse inside the film making process. Of course it is meant to be a satirical look. I don’t think people care as much how the movie is made, but what the final content is. Don’t you ever wonder why a movie with big stars falls apart? How did that can’t miss movie with that huge star completely bomb? To me, that’s so intriguing. This film shows you how stressful it can be to get it a movie made and the struggles between the actors, directors, producers and the studios. Everyone wants their way without compromise.

Robert Deniro plays Ben, a Hollywood producer who is trying to get his latest film finished for Cannes film festival. The film is testing poorly. In the final scene his main character Sean Penn and his dog get killed. The test screeners are upset that scene is too graphic and distraught that they show the dog getting shot in the head. Catherine Keener plays studio executive Lou Tarnow and threatens to pull the movie from Cannes if the director doesn’t remove dog’s death from the movie. The director angrily refuses to change the movie. Lou then threatens to take over the editing if he doesn’t comply. This throws the director into a rage, because he feels like his artistic integrity is being compromised. Ben is stuck in the middle of trying to make a great film and keeping the studio happy. He tries to convince the director to fix the ending without losing his edge. He reaches out to the star of the movie Sean Penn. Ben hopes Penn can talk some sense into the director. Penn wants to keep the scene in the movie, which only complicates Ben’s problems.

While all this business drama is unfolding, Ben is caught up in feelings for his ex wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). They are going to couples therapy. His ex wife is sleeping with the writer of another one of his movies and their daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart), is going through her own problems. The other movie Ben’s producing stars Bruce Willis. Bruce’s attitude adds to his list of problems. Ben’s trying to manage the Sean Penn movie, his ex wife and now problems with a Bruce Willis movie. Willis shows up on set with a large, thick beard and refuses to shave it. The studio threatens to cancel the film if he doesn’t. Ben is forced to show up on set. He has to plead with Willis to get rid of the beard. Willis refuses and Ben’s career as a producer is greatly threatened by the potential failure of two films.

It’s just really interesting to watch this producer weave throw all these problems. From the outside, we look at this industry with so much intrigue and excitement. There is so much work to get these films off the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, movie fans don’t like seeing behind the curtain. This one, however, loves taking a peek even if it’s exaggerated. They always say that there is some truth in jest.

I’d give this movie a B, because I just like hustle of getting a movie made. It has a solid cast, but no one has a particular noteworthy performance. I think this is a movie that will only appeal to people who like the business of making movies.

Sunshine Cleaning

Budget:   5,000,000

Domestic: 12,062,558
Foreign:  4,517,692
Total:    16,580,250

Rotten Tomatoes Score 72%

The movie stars Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr. and Steve Zahn. It is directed by Christine Jeffs. The screenplay was written by Megan Holley.

Amy Adams plays Rose Lorkowski a single mom who works as a maid. She is informed that her son is expelled from school, needs to be put on medication and enrolled in private school. She is frustrated and distraught over how she is going to come up with the money for the things her son needs. Rose is having an affair with her married ex boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn). Mac is a police officer and tells Rose she should get into the lucrative crime scene cleanup business. Emily Blunt plays Norah, Rose’s underachieving sister. Norah is the typical younger sibling with no direction and lives at home with their father Joe (Alan Arkin). Norah gets fired from her waitress job and joins Rose in the crime scene cleanup business. Mac uses his police connections to get the sisters in the crime scene cleanup business. Rose and Norah are not prepared for the challenges of of their new endeavor. They don’t properly dispose of the materials after their first job. They place the waste and materials into a dumpster instead of taking them to an incinerator. After speaking to the owner of the shop where they buy their materials, Rose learns the proper disposal techniques and gets up to speed on effective solutions for their business.

The sisters start to make progress in the crime scene clean up field. They name their company Sunshine Cleaning. They don’t just clean up crime scenes, they go the extra mile of trying to comfort their clients. They offer a personal and caring touch that starts to set them apart from their competitors. The sisters start to bond and become closer while running their business. They both seem to find a purpose in life.

While running their business Joe looks after Rose’s son. Joe is in the middle of starting his own get rich quick business. He wants to start selling shrimp to local businesses. He takes Rose’s son along with him while trying to teach him life lessons.

This movie at times can be awkward, endearing and sad. You’ll find yourself rooting for the main characters while feeling their pain. I think this is the movie most people would like from my list. I think it seems to have more of a mainstream appeal. It’s a story that I feel a lot people can identify with. I’d give this movie a grade of a B+.

The Wackness

Sundance Audience Award: Dramatic

Budget:   NA

Domestic: 2,077,116
Foreign:  1,098,353
Total:    3,175.469

Rotten Tomatoes Score 69%

The Wackness stars Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby and Mary Kate Olsen. The film was written and directed by Jonathan Levine. The Wackness is loosely based on some of Levine’s life experiences.

The title of this movie threw me at first. I’m willing to bet I’m not the first. It’s a goofy name for a movie. I took a chance on this movie because I’m a fan of Famke Janssen. That leap of faith paid off. The only down side is that Famke has a small role in the movie. The film takes place in New York during the 90’s. The opening scene is one of my favorites. Josh Peck, who plays Luke Shapiro is on the train and is daydreaming about girls dancing to The World is Yours by Nas. I knew then I’d like this movie. Luke is a drug dealer that keeps his drugs in an Italian ice cart. He uses the cart to make transactions in plain sight. Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Jeffery Squires and is Luke’s psychiatrist. Dr. Squires treats Luke in exchange for marijuana. They have a very unusual arraignment that leads to a friendship. Luke starts to date Dr. Squire’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) against his wishes, more so because he is concerned for Luke. He tries to warn him that she will break his heart and that he should spend his summer chasing as many girls as possible. Luke’s having problems at home, his father is having money problems and they are on verge of getting evicted.

Luke takes a chance and starts hanging out with Stephanie. Stephanie starts to like Luke after spending time with him. She invites him to her family’s beach home for a weekend. The two get close and Luke develops strong feelings for Stephanie, unfortunately she doesn’t feel the same way. While this is going on Dr. Squire is on a second honeymoon with his wife Kristen (Famke Janssen), trying to save their marriage. Dr. Squire returns home a broken man after the unsuccessful honeymoon and fearing his marriage is over. From there, Luke and Dr. Squires start to hang out and bond over their heartbreaks.

It’s a solid coming of age movie. Don’t be scared by the title it is a really good movie. It’s definitely my favorite of the 7 films I watched on this list. I think Frozen River and Transiberrian are better movies, but I found The Wackness to be more entertaining. It has earned a grade of an A- from me.

Transsiberian

Budget:   NA

Domestic: 2,206,405
Foreign:  3,720,005
Total:    5,926,410

Rotten Tomatoes Score 91%

The movie stars Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley and Kate Mara. It was directed by Brad Anderson. The screenplay was written by Brad Anderson and Will Conroy. This is the second Ben Kingsley film from the 2008 Sundance film festival that I viewed.

Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are an American couple on a missionary trip. They have just finished in China and are taking a train to Moscow for a fun exploration. Roy is an overly nice guy who sparks up friendly conversation with cabin mates on the train. The cabin mates are Carlos a Spanish man and his American girlfriend Abby (Mara). Jessie is reluctant to warm up to the strangers the way Roy does. Abby seems to be just as reserved and suspicious of Roy and Jessie as well. Roy and Carlos seem content with small talk to help pass the time on the trip. Carlos seems to take a liking to Jessie and shows her these souvenir matyroshka dolls he’s carrying in his suitcase. As time passes Jessie seems intrigued by Carlos and is fascinated by the beauty of the rare dolls.

The train makes a stop in Irkutsk and Roy goes out to explore. Roy is a fan of trains and loses track of time when studying one and misses boarding his train. Jessie is frantic and worried about Roy when the train takes off and he’s not on. Jessie gets off at the next stop hoping for Roy to arrive on the next train. Carlos and Abby get off with her to keep her company. They check into a hotel. The three venture to a restaurant where Jessie points out identical dolls that Carlos showed her. Abby seems visibly upset that Jessie knows about the dolls and leaves to go to bed.

The next day Carlos shows up at Jessie’s door asking to use her shower. He tells her that theirs is broken. Carlos attempts to seduce Jessie by leaving the door open so she can see in. Jessie tries to fight her wild child past, but is intrigued by Carlos. Jessie resists her urges. She is still intrigued until she receives a call from the front desk and leaves Carlos alone in her room. She receives a call letting her know Roy will be arriving on the next train to her location. To pass the time, Carlos convinces Jessie to take a sightseeing trip with him. While on the sightseeing trip the story takes a series of twists and turns. The rest of the movie is a thrill ride of suspense and drama.

I think this is the most exciting of the movies I’ve watched on this list. It has a strong cast and they deliver. I’d give this movie a grade of an A. It’s the most thrilling of the 7 movies and the one I think most people would like overall.

Frozen River

Sundance Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic

Academy Award Nominations

Best Actress: Melissa Leo

Original Screenplay: Courtney Hunt

Budget:   1,000,000

Domestic: 2,511,476
Foreign:  2,902,807 
Total:    5,414,283

Rotten Tomatoes Score 87%

Frozen River is a drama that stars Melissa Leo. Her performance earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The film was written and directed by Courtney Hunt. Hunt received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Pretty amazing feat for her first film. It was made on a small budget of about a million dollars. It also features Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr. and Michael O’Keefe. The film takes place in upstate New York near the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which is known by its Mohawk name, Akwesasne. The reservation ranges from upstate New York to southern Quebec and eastern Ontario. The entire community is considered to be one unit by The Mohawk people.

Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy a wife and mother of two boys. They live in upstate New York and are struggling to get by. They are living in an old trailer and are having a new double wide delivered. Unfortunately, they will not be able to pay the remaining amount of the delivery. Ray had the money saved but her husband decided to steal it and go gambling. She tries to negotiate more time to get the money back to pay for the home. The drivers are furious and leave with the double wide and give her a deadline to pay or lose the existing deposit. She starts a frantic search for her husband. While driving by a Mohawk bingo parlor, she sees her husbands car and pulls in to look for him. He is not there, but she sees a Mohawk woman take the car. Ray follows the woman hoping to find her husband. She follows her to a small isolated trailer in the woods. The Mohawk woman runs inside and locks the door. Ray bangs on the door thinking her husband is inside. The woman explains that she found the car and offers her money for it. Ray refuses and then the woman offers her money to traffic illegal immigrants into the U.S. The woman entices her to take the offer by saying that they will stay on the reservation and cross the frozen St Lawerence River free from the jurisdiction. Ray is stuck in a dead end job with low pay. She has a missing husband and two hungry sons. She needs the money or she’ll lose the deposit on the double wide. With all that pressure and her back in a corner, she considers the offer. From there you watch a mother in a desperate situation turn to crime as a last resort. Her love for her family outweighs the risk and consequences of her actions. She encounters various roadblocks and dangers on her missions. Melissa Leo does an excellent job of playing a desperate mother on the brink. It’s a strong depressing movie that is worth watching.

This movie slightly edged out Transsiberian as the best of the 7 movies I watched. I think this movie is the best of the 7 based on content and Melissa Leo’s performance. I highly recommend viewing this film. It is definitely an A+ film.

Those are my reviews of the 7 movies I’ve viewed from the 2008 Sundance Festival. Let me know if you have seen any of these movies and what order you think they should rank. All comments will be appreciated.

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