Judge Patrick Bromley digs this HBO reality series. He also digs sharing information about his personal body art that you'd probably rather not know.
Our review of The Battle Of Shaker Heights, published February 25th, 2004, is also available.
The Charge: Project Greenlight
"There's two options: one is that they're just naïve, the other is that they're passive-aggressive manipulative f***s."—producer Chris Moore, on Project Greenlight Season Two winners Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle
Opening Statement: Project Greenlight
HBO's "win a contest, make a movie" reality series, Project Greenlight, comes back for its second season. This time, Season One-winner Pete Jones's aw-shucks cluelessness has been eschewed in favor of even greater drama, courtesy of two weaselly guys from out East. Can these filmmakers (and Project Greenlight's brain trust—Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, and Miramax) avoid repeating the disappointing results of the first season's finished product, Stolen Summer?
Miramax releases Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season as a two-disc, 13-episode set. Also included is a brand-new special edition of the second season's finished film, The Battle of Shaker Heights.
The Evidence: Project Greenlight
I don't watch a lot of television, and despite the fact that I've championed a few series (The Simpsons and Mr. Show among them) regularly in my writings at the Verdict, there's hardly a show on that I make a point of watching these days. I should also point out that, like so many others caught up in the ongoing backlash, I don't much care for reality television. While I've never seen so much as a single episode of Survivor or Big Brother, I've seen enough of their countless offspring to know that it's really not for me. Sure, they can be compelling or fun in a gossipy way, but there's no real skill involved in creating them outside of the packaging. It's fast-food TV—all sizzle and no steak.
Having said all of this, I will now confess that when it's in its seasonal run, HBO's Project Greenlight is my favorite show on TV. This is not to say that it's the best show—one of HBO's other series probably deserves that prize—but it's the one from which I derive the most enjoyment; I don't so much watch it as I am addicted to it. That may be because it's really the only series on the air that's about movies (at least, until IFC's Ultimate Film Fanatic, which is a huge disappointment anyway), or it may be that it's actually skillfully done. Leave it to HBO to create the only decent reality series on TV.
The second season of Project Greenlight is a departure from the first, in that Season One's search was for a single writer/director, whereas in Season Two the call was put out for separate screenwriters and directors. The idea seems to have been to marry the right director to the right material, but I'm not convinced that's ultimately what they did. Chosen to direct Erica Beeney's winning script, The Battle of Shaker Heights, is the East Coast wannabe-professional directing team of Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle, who receive a million-dollar budget and the chance to make a film for Miramax (though nowhere is a theatrical release guaranteed, a fact that comes into play later in the season).
Re-watching those early episodes of Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season in which the contestants' audition films are shown, it becomes even more apparent that Affleck, Damon and Co. made the wrong choice in Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. Hearing the way the producers talked about writer Erica Beeney's Salingeresque script for The Battle of Shaker Heights, it sounded pretty emotionally complex and tonally dense—more Igby Goes Down or Rushmore than the somewhat typical teen-movie fare it devolved into. There is nothing in either their application or audition submission to suggest that Rankin and Potelle are the right directors for this material. They show talent and promise as directors, but their sensibilities are better suited to another movie—they should have been directing Rebound Guy (another contestant's submission).
There was a theory when the season first aired that Rankin and Potelle were picked to create drama. After all, having two directors instead of one lends itself to conflict in and of itself, and when you factor in the personalities and working methods of Rankin and Potelle, there is a formidable recipe for some creative controversy. Whether or not it's what the show's producers had in mind when making their choice of directors, they got more than they bargained for with Kyle and Efram—the directing team comes off as (in the words of producer Chris Moore) passive-aggressive, conniving, manipulative, and ham-fisted (three-way hug, anyone?). It's a bad omen when even during the hiring of the crew—not a foot of film has been shot yet—Rankin and Potelle are trying to control every aspect of production, including trying to get out of hiring a production designer and muscling their way into the editing room. They're far too insular—it's the two of them versus all.
By the end of the season, however, our sympathies begin to swing. We find ourselves on Kyle and Efram's side (as well as that of writer Beeney and producer Jeff Balis, joining together as a unit for the first time in the production), inasmuch as they seem to be the only ones still pushing for the film's artistic merits over its commercial viability. It's in these final episodes, which make up about a fourth of the overall season, that we catch an alternately fascinating and depressing (but all-too-realistic) glimpse into how studio films—even low-budget, would-be "independent" ones like this—end up drastically altered through the process of test marketing. Here, a movie never conceived of or shot as a pure teen comedy is forcibly reshaped into one at the request of the studio. The Battle of Shaker Heights becomes art as a vote—it's filmmaking by committee—and as Rankin and Potelle see their film slip away into a series of arbitrary numbers, it's hard not to pull for them to take it back.
I'll admit right now that I developed something of a crush on screenwriter Erica Beeney through the course of the series. Perhaps it's because she shares a name (though not a spelling) with a certain beautiful girl I recently married, or because she has the same ridiculous tattoo in the same exact location that I do—she even has the same lofty explanation for getting it. But that's not it. No, it's because in Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season, my heart went out to Erica Beeney. We experience the show through her; without meaning to, she becomes the vessel for viewer identification. She's the one normal person in adrift in a sea of larger-than-life characters, and her excitement, nervousness, frustration, and exhaustion coincide exactly with how we feel as we watch the show progress.
So, why is it that Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season is such an enjoyable six and one-half hours of television? Is it just because, as I suggested earlier, it's one of the only television series with filmmaking as its focus? Possibly, though I suppose that kind of bias is expected from a movie reviewer. I think it has more to do with the fact that, unlike other reality shows, there are no "physical challenges" or "eliminations"; it's just people trying to do a job, and to produce the best film they possibly can. Because that particular job is the making of art, requiring creativity and subjectivity, the inherent drama within the show is all the more involving—it's more than just the standard "he said/she said" stuff of standard reality shows. The show's focus is on the process, though, and not necessarily the product—it's the best and most extensive behind-the-scenes documentary there is.
The thirteen episodes (which run just about a half-hour apiece) that make up Miramax's release of Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season are presented in their original full frame aspect ratio. The video image is sharp, though there is an occasional image stutter on hard cuts. The Dolby Digital surround audio track does a good job of presenting the dialogue (after all, the show is nothing but people talking), but is fairly limited in its scope. The overall technical merits of the set are quite passable, especially considering the content of the discs.
Located on the second disc of Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season is a host of excellent bonus features, all of which expand the entertainment and educational value of the set. There are approximately 30 minutes of deleted scenes, all of which (save for one very uncomfortable sequence in which former Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon pays a visit to the set) provide more of the same—for those of us who can't get enough of the show, they're a welcome inclusion. Also included are ten of the original filmmaker and screenwriter application submissions, including those from Rankin and Potelle and Erica Beeney. These are a nice addition, too—especially for those interested in entering future Project Greenlight contests, as they can see which videos draw the most attention and work the best overall. The videos themselves run the gambit from forthright and sincere (Beeney) to gimmicky and broadly stylized (Rankin and Potelle). The final special feature on the set—and it's the best one—is a collection of scenes shot by the show's finalists, in which they were given a page of deliberately vague, nonsensical dialogue and expected to create a cohesive scene from it. Though the results are mixed, it does provide a brilliant example of the importance of interpretation and the wonder of creative possibility. The scenes also demonstrate that there are some truly gifted filmmakers just waiting to be discovered, while elsewhere in the world Howard Deutch continues to make movies. How is that justice?
And now, my Verdict on Rankin and Potelle's finished film, The Battle of Shaker Heights, included in this package in a Special Edition not available elsewhere.
The Charge: The Battle of Shaker Heights
When you're seventeen, every day is war.
The Evidence: The Battle of Shaker Heights
The Battle of Shaker Heights is one of the best bad movies I've seen in a long time. It's not bad in the way that, say, Johnny Mnemonic is bad—that's a film that starts out bad and becomes good according to your tolerance for camp. No, Shaker Heights is a movie that starts from a good place but doesn't ultimately work; the pieces are all there, but it never completely comes together.
Having watched Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season, it's unclear where the fault lies. Was the film doomed from the creation stage, too tonally complicated for first-time directors to get hold of? Or was it the relentless tinkering that had to be done to shape the film into a teen comedy—a square hole that this round film didn't want to fit into? That would at least help to explain the film's choppiness; the editing is too abrupt at times, squeezing in shots and dialogue that don't belong—the movie's heavy reliance on ADR is a good sign that it's been cut-and-pasted one too many times. And with a running time of only 78 minutes, everything seems rushed—characters and relationships, which the film depends upon to succeed, aren't given any room to breathe. As a result, there's a lot that doesn't make sense.
The film centers on Kelly (Shia LaBeouf, Holes), a rebellious 17-year-old with a quick, sarcastic wit and a mouth that continues to get him into trouble. He's angry with his recovering-addict father, his enabling mother, teachers who don't know what to do with him, and a bully who won't leave him alone. As an escape, Kelly reenacts battles from World War II; it's on the battlefield that he meets Bart (Elden Henson, Idle Hands), a rich kid from the local prep school. As the two become fast friends, Kelly finds himself falling in love with Bart's older sister Tabby (Amy Smart, Starsky and Hutch (2004)), an artist engaged to be married in a few weeks, and finds out that love is unlike any battle he's ever fought.
There are enough good elements to The Battle of Shaker Heights that it's a shame it doesn't totally work. Erica Beeney's script provides some fantastically witty dialogue for Kelly, and directors Rankin and Potelle know how to stage a scene for maximum comedic impact—once again leading me to believe that it's the teen-movie-overhaul, not the directing duo, that fails the film. There are some good performances by William Sadler (The Shawshank Redemption) as Kelly's father, a former addict looking to atone for sins in the eyes of his son, and by Shiri Appleby (Roswell) as the quiet girl who secretly sees something in Kelly that no one else can. By the same token, though, there is a great deal in the film that's incredibly clumsy; Bart's family is drawn way too broadly, and the bully-revenge subplot is so out of place it belongs on another planet. Ultimately, the film is a bit of a mess, albeit a mess with good intentions and more than a few bright spots—the brightest of which being the central performance by Shia LeBeouf.
Thank goodness for Shia LaBeouf. As seen on Project Greenlight, LaBeouf was not the directors' first choice, and as such came into the production fairly late in the game. It's eventually acknowledged by everyone involved that it's a damn good thing he did—his work alone makes the movie worth seeing. The film only works as well as it does because of LaBeouf's performance as Kelly; in a film forever uncertain of its tone, LaBeouf doesn't hit a false note—he holds the whole thing together. Sure, he's appeared in other films, but his work in The Battle of Shaker Heights is something of a revelation. Up until this point, he's been the cute Disney kid (Holes) or the goofy sidekick (Dumb and Dumberer, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle)—no director has known how to harness his goofy comic timing or serious dramatic chops. Though The Battle of Shaker Heights may quickly be forgotten, it will someday be recognized as the one that launched Shia LaBeouf's career, announcing him as one of the best young actors working today. Mark my words.
Though Miramax has already released a barebones edition of The Battle of Shaker Heights, the Special Edition of the film included with the Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season set is available only here. The disc features an anamorphic transfer of the film, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It's an excellent transfer, with solid detail and rich colors throughout—not bad for such a low-budget effort. A Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track has been included, too, and while it's passable, it tends to keep most of the activity in the front, rarely utilizing the rear channels.
There are a few bonus features included that are specific to this edition, though only a few are worthwhile. The best addition is the "Jump to a Scene" feature, which allows the viewer a branching option that will play the corresponding "making of" sequence from Project Greenlight. If you've already watched the entire season, there is nothing new here, though it is valuable to be able to see the show within the context of the film.
Also included on the Special Edition is a gag reel, which is of limited value unless you find Shia LaBeouf as funny as I do. There's also a collection of deleted scenes which help round out some of the film's choppier moments, and which would have reinstated some of the much-maligned drama (including the infamous three-way hug scene in its entirety). It's unfortunate that there is no function that allows the viewer to watch the film with these scenes intact; I have a feeling it would play better. The final feature is a feature-length commentary by directors Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin. Their talk is a huge disappointment; they really only provide some behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but we've already seen as much of the making of the film as possible—their information is redundant. Also disappointing is that neither director really references the show much (maybe two or three times on the entire track); that they choose not to acknowledge the impact of the series—or even explain/defend themselves—makes the track a missed opportunity.
I don't know what I would recommend: watching the film first, so that you can form your own opinion of it free of back story or bias, or watching the series first, so that you can see the film as a finished product in comparison to what was being made on the show. I would lean toward the second option, if only because the opportunity to see the making of a film from beginning to end is so rare that it would be a shame not to capitalize on it.
Since the airing of its second season, Project Greenlight has been cancelled by HBO and picked up by cable television's Bravo network. The show's producers have also altered the guidelines in the interest of drumming up box office; for the third season, applicants were asked to submit only genre films, in the hope that at least having a built-in niche market will turn the resulting film into a modest hit. The series, then, is no longer about simply making the best film (which I'm not arguing they've done yet), but about making the film that's the most commercially viable. In that case, Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season may be your last chance to see the show when it still had its innocence, providing a document as to when the show made the transition from independent spirit to studio machination.
Rankin and Potelle are to be put on behavioral probation and are expected to clean up their act—that is, if they plan on directing another film someday. Otherwise, Project Greenlight: The Complete Second Season and The Battle of Shaker Heights are free to go.
That's a wrap.
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