Back to School #61: The Battle of Shaker Heights (dir by Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin)


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“When you’re 17, every day is war.” — Tagline of The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

Anyone here remember Project Greenlight?  It’s a show that used to be on HBO and Bravo, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would arrange for a director and screenwriter to get a chance to make their low budget feature film debuts.  The catch, of course, is that a camera crew would then follow the director as he (and all of the Greenlight “winners” were male) struggled to get the film made.  Mistakes would be made.  Money would be wasted.  Producer Chris Moore would randomly show up on set and start yelling.  In short, it was typical reality show drama with the catch being that the film itself would then be released in a theater or two.

Well, after being consigned to footnote status for the past nine years. Project Greenlight is coming back for a fourth season and a lot of people are pretty excited about it.  And why not?  I own the first two seasons of Project Greenlight on DVD and I’ve watched the third season on YouTube.  It’s a lot of fun, mostly because all of the directors, with the exception of season 3 winner John Gulager, turned out to be so incredibly inept.  (Gulager is one of the few Project Greenlight success stories — not only did his movie, Feast, come across as being made by a professional but he’s actually had a career post-Greenlight.)  It all makes for good televised drama.

However, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie.

Case in point: 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights.

The Battle of Shaker Heights is about a creepy 17 year-old named Kelly (played by the reliably creepy Shia LaBeouf).  His mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is an artist.  His father (William Sadler) is a former drug addict who, despite having been clean for 6 years, still has to deal with his son’s constant resentment.  Kelly is a high school outcast who spends all of his spare time thinking and talking about war.  Every weekend, he takes part in war reenactments.  At night, he works in a 24-hour grocery store where he doesn’t realize that he’s the object of Sarah’s (Shiri Appleby) affection.

(Why Sarah has so much affection for Kelly is a good question.  Maybe it’s the scene where he throws cans of cat food at her…)

At a reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge, Kelly meets and befriends Bart (Elden Hansen), which leads to him meeting Bart’s older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart).  Tabby is an artist, because the film isn’t imaginative enough to make her anything else.  (We’re also told that she’s a talented artist and it’s a good thing that we’re told this because otherwise, we might notice that her paintings are the type of uninspired stuff that you can buy at any county art fair.)  Kelly decides that he’s in love with Tabby but — uh oh! — Tabby’s getting married.  Naturally, she’s marrying a guy named Minor (Anson Mount).  Imagine how the film would have been different if his name had been Major.

As a film, the Battle of Shaker Heights is a bit of a mess.  It never establishes a consistent tone, the dialogue and the direction are all way too heavy-handed and on the nose, and Shia LaBeouf … well, he remains Shia LaBeouf.  In some ways, Shia is actually pretty well cast in this film.  He’s an off-putting actor playing an off-putting characters but the end of result is an off-putting film.

Of course, if you’ve seen the second season of Project Greenlight, then you know that The Battle of Shaker Heights had an incredibly troubled production.  Neither one of the film’s two directors were particularly comfortable with dealing with the more low-key human aspects of the story.  Screenwriter Erica Beeney was not happy with who was selected to direct her script and basically spent the entire production whining about it to anyone who would listen.  (Sorry, Erica — your script was one of the film’s biggest problems.  When you actually give a character a name like Minor Webber, it means you’re not trying hard enough.)  Finally, Miramax took the completed film away from the directors and re-edited it, removing all of the dramatic scenes and basically leaving a 79-minute comedic cartoon.

So, in the end, Battle of Shaker Heights is not a very good film.  But season two of Project Greenlight is a lot of fun!

Back to School #60: Crazy/Beautiful (dir by John Stockwell)


Oh, memories!

I don’t know if I can describe how much my girlfriends and I loved Crazy/Beautiful when it first came out in 2001.  We saw it in the theaters, we rewatched it when it came on cable, and after I bought it on DVD, we watched it at my house.  We loved the movie because we all dreamed of having a sensitive, hot boyfriend like Carlos Nunez (played by Jay Hernandez), who would love us no matter how obnoxious or bratty we may have been.  Even if we sometimes got annoyed with her, we still all related to out-of-control Nicole (Kirsten Dunst), who everyone in the world had given up on but who ultimately just wanted her father to pay as much attention to her as he did to his new wife and his new baby.  We liked the film because we wanted to be both crazy and beautiful.

And, of course, there was all the sex, all of it filmed in beautiful soft-focus with the camera always suggesting that it was showing more than it actually was.  Crazy/Beautiful was one of those films that made you feel grown up while still being very careful not to lose its PG-13 rating.

Yes, back in the day, I loved Crazy/Beautiful.

And you know what?

It may just be the nostalgia talking but I still love it.  I recently rewatched Crazy/Beautiful and, despite the fact that I was now watching as a “critic” as opposed to a 15 year-old with issues, I quickly fell under the film’s spell.  There’s just something about Crazy/Beautiful that I simply cannot resist.

It’s a beautiful film.  Director John Stockwell has made a career out of making movies about pretty people hanging out on pretty beaches and Crazy/Beautiful has a lot of both.  When Carlos, a responsible high school senior who lives in East Los Angeles and who is hoping to attend the U.S. Navy Academy, first meets Nicole, she’s doing community service by picking up trash on the beach.  What Carlos doesn’t find out until later is that Nicole is the daughter of U.S. Rep. Tom Oakley (played, somewhat inevitably, by Bruce Davison).  Nicole is haunted by her mother’s death and feels that her well-meaning but ineffectual father has abandoned her.  At first, her relationship with Carlos seems to be yet another part of her rebellion but soon, both she and Carlos are madly in love.

Can Carlos save Nicole from herself?  Can Nicole love Carlos without leading him down the path of self-destruction?  Will Nicole and her father ever reconnect?  Will … oh, who cares?  You already know the answers.  Crazy/Beautiful is less about the story and more about how the story is told.  Stockwell keeps the story moving along and fills the screen with colorful and romantic images that make Crazy/Beautiful into the perfect teenage daydream.  He also makes perfect use of the undeniable chemistry between Jay Hernandez and Kirsten Dunst.  Both of the stars give such good performances that you really do come to care about the characters that they are playing and hope that things work out for them.  Kirsten Dunst, in particular, gives a brave performance and doesn’t shy away from playing up Nicole’s abrasiveness.  It takes courage to play a character who can be unlikable.  It takes talent to make that unlikable character sympathetic and, fortunately, Kirsten Dunst shows a lot of both in Crazy/Beautiful.

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