Our review of Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season, published September 15th, 2004, is also available.
When you're 17, every day is war.
I've never seen Project Greenlight, the HBO television series that chronicles the making of a film by an aspiring auteur selected by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The production of The Battle of Shaker Heights was the subject of the show's second season, and I have no clue whether I'm at an advantage or disadvantage reviewing the film without ever having seen the TV show, but I'm going to pretend I'm at an advantage. After all, when I sat down to watch the movie, I took it in as I would any other movie, without any of the taint of ego and behind-the-camera ugliness that presumably made the film's production worthy of being the subject of a reality TV program.
The film itself is an innocuous teen dramedy that follows the life of precocious high schooler Kelly Ernswiler (Shia LaBeouf, Holes), whose hobby is participating in World War II battle reenactments. While on the battlefield, Kelly befriends a prep school rich kid (Elden Henson, Cast Away, O), then falls in love with his older, way-out-of-Kelly's-league sister, Tabby (Amy Smart, The Butterfly Effect). The teen dramedy formula dictates that there be a mousy, age-appropriate girl who works at the local Shop-Ease grocery store with Kelly and has a secret crush on him, and so there is (Shiri Appleby, Roswell). In addition to the love-triangle, Kelly navigates hardships with a bully, as well as unresolved anger over his own father's (William Adler, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) former drug addiction, the source of the boy's mildly anti-authoritarian behavior.
Directors Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin try hard to deliver absurdist humor and quirky characters in the vein of Wes Anderson's Rushmore, or even the 1980s John Cusack classic, Better Off Dead—the battle reenactments are rife with Hollywood war film clichés; Kelly's mom (Kathleen Quinlan Event Horizon), a semi-professional artist, has a gaggle of Asian students who follow her around like baby ducks, while his dad allows vagrant junkies to crash on their couch; and Tabby's dad (Ray Wise, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) is obsessive about his collection of Russian nesting dolls—but the results are disjointed. Rather than defining the characters, these idiosyncrasies seem designed to hide that they're cookie-cutter types. Instead of a fully-integrated theater of the absurd, the humor fights for attention with the film's pathos. Part of the problem is the ultra-brief running time. At 79 minutes, the movie can't handle everything Potelle and Rankin are trying to do, and their biggest artistic concession is having the characters explain their own psychologies in spurts of editorial dialogue that undermine the screenplay's otherwise ample wit. One particular moment, in which it becomes clear Kelly is fully aware of the psychological roots of his anger, severely weakens both the character and film. The character's motivations are pat to begin with; that the filmmakers felt the need to express them so explicitly only emphasizes that fact.
Whatever its failings, the picture boasts fine performances from the entire cast, some of whom are experienced actors who'd have likely been out of the reach of such a small production without Affleck and Damon playing Svengali. Quinlan, in particular, seems to have turned in no more than a day or two on the production, but has one scene where she gets to work her acting chops, and work them she does. Both Adler and Wise turn in the sort of rock-solid character performances that have made them industry staples. Elden Henson, as prep schooler Bart Bowland, continues to cement his reputation as a character actor for the new generation, and Amy Smart evokes sympathy in a role that might have been an unlikable spoiled beauty in lesser hands. The task of carrying the film, however, rests on the shoulders of Shia LaBeouf, and he does so with much aplomb. LaBeouf plays Kelly with a grounded realism, innate intelligence, and an easy charm reminiscent of early John Cusack.
Miramax has delivered The Battle of Shaker Heights on DVD in a fine 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image is sharp, clean, and sports natural, fully-saturated colors. It's an exemplary presentation for a film with a $1 million budget. Audio—5.1 surround—is a perfect rendering of the source, even if that source isn't particularly dynamic. The film is mostly dialogue, giving the track little opportunity to work out your system, but even explosions during the combat reenactments lack much punch. Still, it sounds great considering the project's low budget. There are no proper subtitles, but the disc does offer Closed Captions.
The only supplements (if you want to call them that) are sneak peeks of Miramax films Stolen Summer (Project Greenlight's first season feature) and Spy Kids 3D, as well as a "Miramax Golden Age" trailer that lauds the Weinstein brothers' movie achievements. There's nada in the way of extras that illuminate either the feature itself or the reality show about its making. I'm guessing you'll have to shell out big bucks for the inevitable Project Greenlight: Season 2 DVD box set, if you want extras.
In the end, The Battle of Shaker Heights is a mildly entertaining, mediocre teen comedy elevated by the quality of its actors. A quick survey of Internet vendors reveals an average price of $20 to $25 for the DVD, which is steep for any mediocrity. The fact this one comes with no extras only seals the deal. If you're curious, rent but don't buy.
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