"Over my bent over body!"
Reality TV. I like it. To me, there's just something inherently captivating in getting to see people, sometimes famous, unscripted, natural, and occasionally raw. I've happily watched Survivor from day one, I anxiously await the premiere of the second season of The Osbournes, but don't ask me to watch American Idol or The Anna Nicole Smith Show. Barf! I like to think that I do have some limits in what I'll watch, but it is entirely possible that if I had watched an episode of either of these two shows that I could have been hooked on them too. Take away the rehearsals, the scripts, the polish, and you get an intriguing look at what life is like for others. It's fascinating to see other perspectives, as life here in the Midwest is usually not all that interesting.
I missed the whole Project Greenlight thing when it came around last year, and I'm not sure how that happened; I'm usually pretty good on knowing when another slice of reality is going to hit the airwaves. I vaguely recall stumbling across the HBO series but opted not to watch it since I hadn't seen it from the beginning. Receiving this hefty package in the mail gave me hours of viewing pleasure.
Facts of the Case
It was just an intense pressure cooker.
Project Greenlight is an idea that sprouted from the brains of Maffleck—that would be Matt Damon and Ben Affleck—and Chris Moore (producer extraordinaire of such gems as Good Will Hunting, Reindeer Games, American Pie 1 & 2, Joy Ride). The two—oops, three—were able to convince Miramax to back a contest to find someone outside of Hollywood to write and direct a movie. Not just any movie, but their own movie! That individual would be given a $1 million budget to create their movie, which would then be distributed by Miramax. The website projectgreenlight.com was created and 10,000 people submitted their screenplays for consideration. From that large pile of scripts, 250 were chosen to proceed to the next round and were then asked to submit a three and a half minute video about themselves and why their story should be made. Creativity was in abundance in this round, but only ten could be selected for the next cut. Here, the final ten were given a camera, computer, and editing software and were told to produce a three-minute scene from their script. These ten were then flown out to Hollywood for a special screening of their submitted scenes. Immediately after the screening, three were chosen for the final interview elimination round. In the end, Pete Jones' script Stolen Summer was chosen as the winner of Project Greenlight.
In addition to filming and distributing Stolen Summer, Miramax decided to document the entire Project Greenlight experience. This became Project Greenlight, a twelve-part HBO series that began with the selection process and followed Pete Jones during all phases of production on his film. Project Greenlight began airing in December 2001, then Stolen Summer premiered at Sundance in January 2002, and the film was finally released to theaters in March 2002. With little fanfare and support from Miramax, Stolen Summer ran for about two weeks in thirteen theaters and wasn't able to recoup even ten percent of its production costs. Presented in this four-disc Collector's Edition, you get the final release of Stolen Summer, the entire HBO series, and a healthy crop of additional bonus materials.
As there will be three "Petes" from this point forward in this review, let me take a moment to give you a quick reference on who is who and how they will be differentiated in this discussion:
• Pete Jones, writer and director of Stolen Summer, will
be referred to as "Pete." Most of the time when you see
"Pete," I am referring to Mr. Jones.
Stolen Summer is set in 1976 Chicago where we're introduced to the O'Malley clan. They're a large Irish Catholic family with firefighter Joe (Aidan Quinn, Practical Magic, Michael Collins) serving as the patriarch and Margaret (Bonnie Hunt, The Green Mile, Jerry Maguire) being the overworked housewife. Among the many children is Pete, the second youngest of the group, who has been recently convinced by one of the nuns at his school that his ebullient ways have damned him to Hell. It's summer break and Pete is disquieted by the fact that he won't make it into Heaven. Stemming from a conversation with one of his older brothers, Pete believes that his hope for eternal salvation comes from the Biblical story of the Jews being converted to Catholicism. Pete believes that Jews aren't allowed into Heaven, so it will be his mission to convert a Jew to Catholicism thus allowing them to enter Heaven. By ensuring the Jewish person's eternal salvation in Heaven, Pete too will save himself from his damnation.
How will Pete accomplish his quest? He begins with a visit to a local synagogue where he introduces himself to Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak, The Santa Clause 2, A Few Good Men). The two strike up a conversation and Pete asks for the Rabbi's permission to put a lemonade stand in front of his house of worship. The Rabbi is immediately charmed by the young boy and allows Pete to set up shop as requested. Much to Pete's dismay, no one stops at his stand, "Free Lemonade. Free Trip to Heaven," making his quest far more difficult than he had imagined. Rabbi Jacobsen has taken a liking to Pete and visits and encourages him, even though there are some disgruntled rumblings from his congregation.
A few days later, a fire erupts at Rabbi Jacobsen's home and Joe O'Malley races into the house and saves the Rabbi's son, Danny, but is unable to save a dear family friend who perishes in the conflagration. It's at this point that the lives of the two families become enmeshed as Pete befriends the younger Danny. Pete believes he's finally found the Jew whom he will be able to convert to Christianity, but then realizes he has no idea of how to actually convert someone. For some help, he goes to his church and has a chat with Father Kelly (Brian Dennehy, Cocoon, Tommy Boy) about faith. It is a very informative and insightful conversation for Pete, who is then able to construct a decathlon for Danny to complete to earn his "medal" for entrance into Heaven.
Joe O'Malley is having a lot of difficulty with the religious events unfolding around him. He's a true Irish Catholic who holds some bigoted beliefs about Jews and doesn't like his son hanging around the synagogue. A few days after the fire, he receives a visit at his firehouse from the Rabbi, who wants to thank him again for saving his son from the fire. He has brought Danny along, who immediately takes a liking to all the neat fire equipment around. The two talk and the Rabbi tells Joe that things are getting a bit difficult at his home as well, for Danny has picked up a few Catholic mannerisms from Pete, which aren't exactly appreciated in the Jacobsen home. Joe promises to intervene, but the Rabbi asks Joe to be somewhat tolerant of the boy's actions. After an offhand comment by Joe about how nice and short Danny's hair is, compared to some of his more rebellious kids, Joe learns that Danny has leukemia and is undergoing chemotherapy. Danny's prognosis is good, and he's currently in remission.
After learning that, Joe immediately forbids Pete from trying to convert Danny to Christianity. But Pete ignores his father and continues on with the decathlon, in which Danny has only one event left to pass. Unfortunately, before he can finish and earn his medal, Danny becomes very sick and is admitted into the hospital. What will happen to Danny? What will become of Pete's quest? Will Joe's bigoted ideas be softened? Will the O'Malley's and Jacobsen's become friends?
Project Greenlight, The HBO Series
I'm not sure why I did it this way, but I decided that I would watch the HBO series in full before getting around to watching the actual movie. Being the inquisitive, nosy guy that I am, I wanted to know what they would show about the movie before I saw the finished product. (That in and of itself is a very odd personality quirk, as I absolutely abhor spoilers for movies I haven't seen.) After I popped in the disc, I was immediately sucked into all the mayhem of the production process. From what I would surmise, everything that went wrong in the process went into the series. Because of that, you're surprised to discover that Stolen Summer isn't the biggest folly since Glitter. Here's a brief rundown in what you'll find on each of the twelve episodes:
Episode 1: It all begins with the online contest and how 10,000 people
submitted their scripts for consideration. You watch as Maffleck, Chris Moore,
and other "important" VPs from Miramax debate who will make it to the
final three. It may not sound exciting, but you immediately get some great
behind-the-scenes skinny on what goes into something like this. Lots of candid
talk and Matt Damon being firmly against the eventual winner is quite fun to
For this judgment of the Project Greenlight box set, I am utilizing Stolen Summer for determination of the scales of justice and am considering the HBO series to be part of the bonus materials.
As I mentioned earlier, after watching the Project Greenlight series and seeing just about everything go wrong, it is surprising to discover that Stolen Summer turned out to be a charming, sweet, and enjoyable film. Following a variation of the "if it bleeds, it leads" motto, it was obviously determined that none of the good days from the shoot would make it to the TV series. So, you're mildly amazed when you view the film and see the solid acting, adequate direction, and decent cinematography. Obviously not worthy of the most powerful adjectives, Stolen Summer deserved better treatment than what Miramax gave it, especially after all the hoopla. It's a pleasant film with potential for repeat viewings that definitely could have found a niche audience if given a bigger chance.
Let's start off with the lowdown on the transfers. On the video side, you get an anamorphic widescreen transfer that is just slightly above average; I guess a "million dollar" budget just doesn't buy you the best film stock or transfers these days. The primary weakness is that the film is filled with a light grain throughout the entire presentation causing mild distraction. In addition, the film does exhibit occasional specks of dirt and is soft with a muted palette, but does have solid definition without any major transfer errors. The audio portion of the presentation is either a 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby Digital transfer. Neither shows any hiss or distortion with the dialogue being cleanly presented through the center channel. As it is a dialogue heavy film, there is little use for the other channels yet a few scenes do utilize the surrounds and the subwoofer. It's not an action film, so the dynamics are at an obvious minimum.
In this case, it's one of the rare instances when the transfers are not necessarily the most important aspect of this DVD package. Fortunately, the transfers are adequate and do not detract from the presentation, so we can focus on the entire Project Greenlight experience. We'll start off by analyzing this first effort by Pete Jones. Pete is obviously a rookie director and his style needs quite a bit of work. If he gets additional films to work on (which looks a bit dubious at this time), he'll be able to refine his style and develop the polish he needs to produce an exceptional film. His overall inexperience in filmmaking allowed many things to spiral out of control thus causing many problems to crop up throughout the film. Couple that with his high level of obstinace, and the film truly could have been a complete disaster—though many would consider a total box office of $120,000 to be just one definition for that word.
While Pete has some solid ideas of how to direct a film, he seems not to have any idea of how to run the supporting film crew. Pete's major error is his over-reliance on the crew. Now, after watching all this, I'm not really sure what a director is supposed to do, but I do believe that a director is quite dependent on his crew, as he cannot understand every facet of the process. But, it's Pete's lack of understanding of the industry that doesn't allow him to realize how much his crew was taking advantage of him. His line producer was backstabbing the co-producer, but even worse was his director of photography completely manipulating him. In watching the film, you'll see several unsteady shots and many instances of bad framing. Add to that the wasted time and almost missing a key action shot (as detailed in the series), and Biagi nearly ruined Pete's movie.
But Pete didn't do everything wrong, even with Miramax hounding his every move (albeit with a newbie spy herself). Foremost, Pete did write a very good script that was polished up pretty well during pre-production; yet, unfortunately, Pete's numerous "not over my dead body" threats allowed him to bully his way past those who knew better thus allowing some decidedly poor dialogue to remain. Chief is the fact that the two young kids speak far too intelligently and cogently. Pete believes that children don't get enough credit for their intelligence, but I believe that he truly overestimates what they know and how they would express such things. Seven-year-old kids should not be speaking like little adults. Luckily Pete had an excellent casting director, and aside from letting Marg Helgenberger (C.S.I., Species) slip away, put together a surprisingly talented cast for this film. How does a newbie director get quality talent like Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, and Brian Dennehy to star in his film? I'm thoroughly impressed with the high caliber of acting in this film, even the small supporting role of Patrick O'Malley by Eddie Kay Thomas (American Pie 1 & 2). The only weak point in the acting is from the two children. While certainly not as frightening as Jake Lloyd's work in The Phantom Menace, they certainly aren't up to Haley Joel Osment level either. I probably would be more forgiving if I wasn't aware of the behind-the-scenes trouble as spotlighted during the series.
There are literally hours upon hours of bonus features to support the film, and I am going to start off with all of the small stuff and work up to the really juicy and fun items:
Specific Stolen Summer bonus features (disc one):
Theatrical Trailer: Can't get any smaller than this, and it's probably one
of the worst trailers I've ever seen. Not only does it not tell you about the
movie, it also gives you a wrong impression of the movie.
Specific Project Greenlight bonus features (disc four):
These features give additional background into what went into the whole Project Greenlight event. While a bit dry, occasionally dull, and sometimes too long, you again get that inside look at what happens to make a feature film possible. When all is said and done, you just have to wonder how they saw the potential in any of the final ten contestants. These features are listed in three broad categories: The Contest, The Project Greenlight Experience, and…
The Contest: (120 minutes) This section mostly concentrates on the various
submissions by the contestants in Project Greenlight, and is broken down into
And, lest you think I simply forgot to list the third section earlier on, the final bonus feature of this mammoth set is…
Project Redlight (11 minutes): This is an often-hilarious spoof at Project Greenlight. It spot-on slams Pete Jones, Chris Moore, Ben Affleck, Jeff Balis, Peter Biagi, and others. Even better is that it accurately and quickly derides the entire process by lambasting the budget, the people, the production, and Miramax. The best part about this spoof is that Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys, Stand by Me) plays the heavy.
And now we move on to The Big, Juicy Items:
Scene specific audio commentary on Stolen Summer with Pete Jones,
Chris Moore, and Jeff Balis (90 minutes): This is an excellent commentary track.
Not only do the three all talk (with nary any dead air) and give a ton of
insightful information beyond what you've already seen in Project
Greenlight, but the guys are also self-effacing and just have a lot of fun.
One second they're seriously talking about the scene and the next they're
slamming each other. It was great to see how they all realized what had happened
and were able to relate it back to the movie. They point out their strengths and
numerous weaknesses and truly create an engrossing conversation. I also enjoyed
the fact that they also tied in details shown in Project Greenlight to
how it ultimately impacted the final cut of the film.
If you've made it this far, I applaud your tenacity. I've rambled on for thousands of words now, but I'm not quite finished. At this point, I need to mention just a few more odds and ends and create a couple more bullet points in this review:
There is just one thing in Stolen Summer that I did not like, slightly irritates me, and surprises me that no one mentioned it at any time in any feature: young Pete's error on Judaism. Without trying to get into the theological specifics on the differences in the two religions, it really isn't the fact that Pete doesn't understand the differentiation between Catholicism and Judaism (which can be exceedingly complex) that bothers me; it's the fact that at no point did his father or the Rabbi try to clarify things for him. I'm not even sure what the correct answer is, but there should have been room for a brief discussion from the Rabbi stating their views on the afterlife. To my thinking, it's a glaring oversight that needed at least a few moments' discussion.
Matt Damon, though he has limited screen time here, is the biggest pill when it comes to Pete Jones and Stolen Summer. He's one of the big three in this deal and at every turn he's fighting against Pete and his movie. Time after time he says negative things and pushes for other scripts to be made. It's great to see his dissenting opinion, but it's even more fascinating to see him supporting Pete in the postproduction process. Thought not a fan of Matt, his stock went up a tick in my book when I saw him putting his true feelings aside for the betterment of the project.
Pete Jones is an impressive man. He comes from nowhere to win this contest and immediately is able to grasp a lot of the intricacies of the moviemaking process. From day one, he realizes some of what he has to do and gets on it. I think I would have been completely lost and crapping my pants with the burden of a million dollar production on my shoulders. (Wonder if that would have made great film?) However, as inherently good as Pete may be, he is still a newbie and it shows all too often. While saddled with a mixture of competent and incompetent individuals, Pete often bucked against the best advice of others and expressed far too flippant an attitude for someone in his position. He really wasn't smart enough to exude such an attitude, and it probably would have served him and his film a lot more if he had turned that and his obstinacy down a few notches.
Postproduction was practically ignored in this set, and that is a terrific shame. After watching Project Greenlight and then Stolen Summer, you quickly learn that the finished product truly came together in postproduction. Those talented individuals deserved a lot more time to display their genius in turning an amalgamation of footage into a charming little film.
There's a great debate relating to the "infamous" baseball scene. Pete likes to say it was a 51/49 percent decision on whether it stayed in or got cut out. In this instance, he fortunately listened to other people. He was too close to the film to see that it didn't work. His insistence on the scene is one of the low points during the twenty-five day shoot, and hopefully he'll have learned a valuable lesson from just this one traumatic scene.
Something that I think would have been helpful during some of the Project Greenlight episodes was a better sense of the time span in the episodes. While some are self evident, during some episodes (namely four and five) you have no idea how much time has passed, thereby losing some of the intimacy of the moment.
On a very tiny note, I've tried to count how many minutes are in this set and each time I keeping coming out with a different number. The best part is that every website has a different running time as well. So, just know the basics: an hour and a half movie, another hour and a half on the commentary, six hours of the HBO Series, and three hours of bonus footage on disc four. Toss in a couple more features on disc one, and you have at least twelve hours of viewing fun!
The Rebuttal Witness
What is the point of this set? Simple. It's Miramax's attempt to recoup a couple dollars from its foolhardy attempt to let an unknown direct his own film. Obviously it was a stupid idea since it was in and out of the theaters faster than The Adventures of Pluto Nash, but leave it to the studios to try and squeeze a few bucks out of anything in its vaults. It's a dull, plodding collection that never rises above dreary and excites the viewer. And, who honesty gives a flying fig about all the backstabbing and cat fighting that these prima donnas in Hollywood go through to earn a couple million dollars? Oh, their life is so hard! The catering truck didn't show up; they have to work twelve-hour days for a few weeks so they can buy another mansion on a private island. Boo hoo! Take these spoiled, rich, conceited "actors" and keep their secrets in California. Don't try to milk me for any sympathy because they have no idea of what it's like in the real world. They think they have problems? They think we care about their "problems"? Please! I'll save my money and do something productive with it like buy a book.
I truly did enjoy Stolen Summer. It's not a movie that I would typically be drawn to, yet it does possess some combination of elements that make it thoroughly appealing. But what truly makes this set work for me is the appeal of the "truth" from behind-the-scenes. As you should know by now, I find it gripping when I have an opportunity to be an unseen spectator and learn things that I wouldn't normally be privy to. All the haggling, debating, tussling, fighting, backstabbing, bickering, and rigmarole is utterly captivating for an individual who probably will never be fortunate to experience it first hand. If this doesn't interest you, then The Project Greenlight Collector's Edition isn't for you. You'll probably be bored by the hours of additional footage, and you'll lose the edge when it comes to watching the finished product. In my opinion, the package is rounded out by a film that is simple yet compelling and is a tribute to all of the hard work by the individuals involved. I wholeheartedly recommended this package for anyone who enjoys what I've detailed here, and I know you won't be bored by all of the antics.
Pete Jones is hereby sentenced to forty hours of community service for his unprofessional display of flippancy during pre-production. Chris Moore is hereby sentenced to forty hours of anger management counseling for his untoward attacks against his assistant. Jeff Balis is hereby sentenced to a minimum forty hours of Basic Training in any branch of the Armed Forces in hopes of developing some backbone and gumption for this Howdy Doody wannabe. Peter Biagi is hereby sentenced to thirty days for his continued abuse of his authority and for his self-centered approach to filmmaking. Miramax, although responsible for the lack of promotion on this film, is hereby acquitted of all charges for releasing a superb DVD on this semi-failed concept.
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Scales of Justice
• Stolen Summer Screen Specific Audio Commentary with Pete Jones, Chris Moore, and Jeff Balis
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