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Stolen Summer

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  • Noel Vera
    Soddenly, last summer Noel Vera Pete Jones Stolen Summer seems like any other American indie film but it s not: it s the end result of a long process
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 21, 2002
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      Soddenly, last summer

      Noel Vera

      Pete Jones' "Stolen Summer" seems like any other American indie film
      but it's not: it's the end result of a long process documented
      by "Project Greenlight," the HBO series about the making of an indie
      film initiated by wunderkind partners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck,
      after a nationwide scriptwriting contest involving ten thousand
      entries and a grand prize of one million dollars for production
      budget.

      Story's modest enough: young Irish-Catholic schoolboy Pete O'Malley
      (Adiel Stein), worried he won't go to Heaven, stakes the synagogue
      for converts; he befriends Rabbi Jacobson (Kevin Pollack) and the
      rabbi's son Danny (Mike Weinberg, who's dying of leukemia), and gets
      into all kinds of trouble for his efforts. By film's end we get a
      little tragedy, several little scenes of reconciliation, a few
      nuggets of wisdom, and generous spoonfuls of human warmth.

      To the film's credit there are a number of good performances: Kevin
      Pollack as the rabbi underplays admirably and gives his child co-star
      much-needed support. Bonnie Hunt and Aidan Quinn as the boy's
      parents have the easygoing chemistry of a long-married couple, and
      Quinn as the Irish fireman dad doesn't allow his character to soften--
      not too much, anyway, and not for most of the film. There are scenes
      (an early one of the family riding the family car) that capture the
      chaos of large families, and scenes (Pollack suddenly and silently
      grieving over his dying son) that are intensely moving.

      That said, it isn't much of a film. The director doesn't have a
      filmmaking style, much less a distinguishable storytelling
      sensibility (the film is supposedly set in the '70s, but the only
      period detail that really stands out is the "The Fantastic Four"
      comic with its distinctly '70s ads at the back). We get plenty of
      sweetness and pathos (precocious Pete and his dying Jewish friend)
      but not much irony or grit, though there are suggestions, or
      possibilities that are never really explored: Quinn's character, for
      one, is often seen with a can of beer--is he an alcoholic? He argues
      with his eldest son over college (the son wants to go, the dad
      doesn't want him to go), but could the real issue be the son's
      homosexuality (no sign of a girlfriend), of which the dad doesn't
      want to hear about? Pollack sometimes looks as if he badly wants to
      slap the smart-alecky Catholic brat chattering before him, but
      nothing comes out of that (could Pollack be inserting those looks,
      just to make the character more interesting? And to keep himself
      entertained?). Brian Dennehy as the parish priest looks puzzled,
      like he's wondering what he's doing there in the first place--if the
      film actually did something with his character (have him put his hand
      on the child's knee, or something) you feel he would look a lot
      happier.

      The picture is preceded by a trailer sketching the rough story of how
      the movie got made, using footage from the "Greenlight" documentary.
      Big mistake: those five minutes of TV footage contained more comedy,
      confrontation and sheer drama than the finished film ever did. It's
      tempting to conclude that maybe producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
      weren't so interested in making a good film as they were in picking
      some hapless dupe, giving him a million dollars, then training the
      cameras on him as water closed in over his head.

      "Stolen Summer" is a small, inoffensive picture, the possible butt of
      a large, somewhat offensive joke. But what really rankles is that
      two Hollywood princes had nothing better to do than to play cruel
      pranks while there's talent to be found elsewhere. Ten thousand
      scripts, and this won? How bad were the other nine thousand nine
      hundred and ninety nine?

      Back in 1998 Lily Monteverde had made a deal to create a tremendous
      number of films for the cable TV market. Her studio, Regal Films,
      didn't have the resources to make them on a standard production
      budget (roughly, fifteen million pesos, or almost four hundred
      thousand dollars each), so with the help of Good Harvest producer
      Joey Gosengfiao she conceived of the "pito-pito" films--good movies
      for a low, low price. To attract talent Gosengfiao approached a
      number of veteran filmmakers with the come-on that they can do their
      long-cherished projects with no interference whatsoever; to ambitious
      wannabe directors he said: this is your big chance. It was a
      generous offer but with one catch: they would operate under a
      ridiculously small budget (two and a half million pesos, or roughly
      $62,500 dollars at that time) on an insanely tight shooting schedule
      (ten shooting days, fifteen calendar days).

      Five fresh talents and two veterans took the bait. The result were
      ten films, of which four are notable: Jeffrey Jeturian's "Sana Pag-
      Ibig Na" (Enter Love); Lav Diaz's "Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion" (The
      Criminal of Barrio Concepcion); and Mario O'Hara "Babae sa Bubungang
      Lata" (Woman on a Tin Roof) and "Sisa."

      Jeturian's debut film was a modest little effort, similar in scale
      to "Stolen" but better written (by Armando Lao, one of the industry's
      most underrated writers). Diaz's debut was a far more ambitious
      affair--a story of kidnapping, murder, guilt and redemption that
      recalled the soul-searching intensity of Dostoevsky and featured a
      great lead performance (by Raymond Bagatsing, as the criminal of the
      film's title). O'Hara's "Bubungang Lata" was a panoramic view of the
      Philippine film industry, not from the privileged point of view of
      the filmmaker or lead actor, but from the sidelines--the stuntmen,
      aspiring writers, character actors, and billboard painters. It's
      both a touching tribute to the glory that was once Philippine cinema,
      and a harsh condemnation of the business it has since become.
      His "Sisa" is, if anything, better, possibly great--an imaginative re-
      interpretation of the life of Jose Rizal, the country's most
      significant historical figure, mixed with sorcery and magic realism.

      By their fruits you shall know them, it's said. Monteverde's "pito-
      pito" pictures resulted in one solid film, one ambitious debut, one
      instant classic, and one wildly (perhaps insanely) imaginative near-
      great--not bad, considering she spent twenty-five million pesos (over
      six hundred thousand dollars) on the whole thing; "Greenlight", on
      the other hand, resulted in a million-dollar Hallmark Channel movie.
      You decide which is the more effective approach.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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