- Soddenly, last summer
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
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
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@...)