" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Ben Affleck and Matt Damon started a screenplay contest in which the prize would be a million dollar budget and studio support for making a movie. In return, Miramax gets an award-winning script, a cheap movie, lots of publicity, and a 12-part reality-TV show called Project Greenlight.

Stolen Summer, the film that came out of this project, only played in selected cities. And since not everyone has HBO, it was easy to miss both the movie and the TV program. Now Miramax is releasing both in a single, 4-disc set called Project Greenlight.

Project Greenlight on TV

Project Greenlight has four DVDs, three of which are greatThe HBO/Miramax TV show called Project Greenlight is packed with emotion, probably more so than the finished film to which it gave birth. The first episodes show the thrill of victory (for Pete Jones, who won the contest), and the agony of defeat, including one hopeful who said “if I don’t make the top three I’ll be absolutely destroyed.” She didn’t make the top three.

Each 30-minute episode is organized around a dramatic theme. One episode shows the pool of contestants getting narrowed down. Another shows fights over the budget. Still another shows the first day of shooting, and another, the worst day of shooting.

Project Greenlight is also a fascinating documentary of the process of making a movie. The show’s cameras capture the weeks of preproduction planning, and they spend countless days on the set of Pete Jones’ movie. They capture all the tension, all the politics, all the backstabbing that goes on, as well as the more mundane, day-by-day processes of making a movie.

In fact, one of the best things about this series is that it familiarizes you with moviemaking. It de-glamorizes the process, making it seem much more human and attainable. It’s inspiring to watch Project Greenlight and say “oh, I could do that.”

Because each show is only 30 minutes, it’s a great DVD to leave in the player, to flip on when you don’t have time for a movie or when there’s nothing good on TV. The only problem is that it becomes addictive, and you may get sucked into watching two or three episodes at a time.

Stolen Summer

Stolen Summer is the finished product, and it gets its own disc in this set. It tells the story of Pete (Adi Stein), a young Catholic boy growing up in Chicago in the mid 1970s. He becomes concerned — obsessed — with making sure as many people get into Heaven as possible, including all the poor Jews of the world who will be condemned to Hell.

He sets up a Peanuts-esque lemonade stand outside a Jewish temple, giving away free trips to Heaven with the refreshments. The Rabbi (Kevin Pollack) becomes friends with Pete and eventually introduces him to his own son Danny (Mike Weinberg).

Danny is dying of leukemia, so it becomes even more important to Pete to save his soul before he dies. Danny is a willing participant in Pete’s grand plan. The only problem is that neither knows for sure what it takes to get into Heaven. In typical childish fashion, they set up their own trials, a decathlon of childhood activities, like riding bikes, running, jumping, and swimming. If Danny does well in the decathlon, they decide God’s gotta be pleased enough to let him into Heaven.

Having seen Project Greenlight first, it is easy to spot the flaws in Stolen Summer, particularly in some awkward scenes that feel first-film amateur. The child actors, for example, leave a lot to be desired. But the strong script always manages to come through, and the movie ends up an emotional success because of the good writing and a few key standout performances by Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt as Petes’s parents.

Picture and Sound

The sound on Project Greenlight is surprisingly good. The events captured for the TV show are unrehearsed, and the players are not always forthright about speaking in front of the camera. Nevertheless, we get to hear all the back-room dealings, and when necessary, the show provides us with subtitles, just to make sure we hear what’s going on behind closed doors.

There is an odd problem with the disc, however, that causes the content to start playing without sound, and with subtitles on. I’d have thought it was just a problem with my player, except the same thing happened on my computer’s DVD drive as well. A little fiddling with the controls eventually got the disc working right, but I suspect it’s more than coincidence that it failed in both my players.

The visuals in Stolen Summer are very good. Cinematographer Pete Biagi comes across as a cocky newbie in the TV show, but his efforts all paid off. As for Project Greenlight, the series was shot on high quality videotape (probably digital), and there is never anything to complain about in the picture.

DVD Extras

In addition to the full 12 episodes and the complete feature-length movie, there is an audio commentary by the director and producers, as well as a “jump to scene” gimmick that takes you from the movie to the relevant Project Greenlight episode. The disc also features deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.

There is also an entire disc devoted to extra features such as footage from the Sundance premiere, goofy good-natured parodies of producer Chris Moore, and lots of short videos sent in by hopeful contestants, which are included more to guarantee sales to the friends and families of contestants than to entertain the average DVD viewer.

Conclusion

The idea of a four-disc set that includes a feature length film and an entire TV series is pretty intimidating. Just watching the main content will take eight hours, and watching all of the extras might double that time.

But Project Greenlight is worth it. The movie is worth seeing because of how it was made (it fares alright on its own merits too). The TV series is much more than a cynical attempt at reality TV; it’s a straight look at the process of making movies. Anyone interested in making movies who doesn’t have any experience, should not miss this four-disc set.

  • Cherie: The film was uneven. The boys and their friendship was spot on. Natural as could be. The ending was too PC. Leave it hanging when you don't know. Let love and hope come through as well as doubt. But those two boys Adi and Mark were great! February 24, 2008 reply