Sundance Premieres Project Greenlight Movie

Will & Grace and Matt, Project Greenlight  | Gerry  | Better Luck Tomorrow and Paradox Lake

Will & Grace and Matt; Plus Sundance Premieres Project Greenlight Movie

Sundance got the real celeb star treatment Saturday as Jennifer Aniston came to town with her new movie — The Good Girl — and her newish husband Brad Pitt. Their entry into the Eccles Theatre, with Robert Redford in tow, made for quite a crush of people and paparazzi. Lots of bulbs flashing and everyone getting completely out of whack. More tomorrow on The Good Girl

Meanwhile, it was an all-Affleck, all-Damon afternoon Saturday at Sundance as Miramax premiered Stolen Summer, the movie that came out of Project Greenlight.

It was also the day that no one will forget: Gus Van Sant showed his incomprehensible new movie Gerry to 1,200 unwitting victims.

First Summer: Pete Jones won the HBO/Miramax contest that resulted in an HBO cinema verité series about the making of a first-time feature. The soap-opera quality of the series, the squabbling, etc., made everyone expect that Stolen Summer would be a train wreck worthy of notable gloating. It was produced by Good Will Hunting's Chris Moore, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as part of a way to find new movie makers.

So the big news is that Stolen Summer is O.K.  In fact, it's better than O.K. — it’s quite good.

Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt star as working-class Catholic parents in Chicago circa 1973. They have eight kids. The oldest wants to go to college and become a doctor; the youngest is 7 — named Pete — and asks a lot of annoying questions about God. He decides that he's going to try to convert some Jewish neighbors to Catholicism so he can get to heaven one day.

Enter into this Kevin Pollak as the rabbi at the local synagogue whose own 7-year-old son is dying of leukemia. Pete sets up a lemonade-and-free-ticket-to-heaven stand at the foot of the synagogue steps, and gradually the lives of these two families become intertwined.

Stolen Summer telegraphs a lot of its story, and you can guess most of what's coming a mile away, but that doesn't matter. Its charms lie in its simplicity, its tone, and the acting, which is superb.

Quinn almost comes off as an Archie Bunker type, but winds up giving enough texture and nuance that it might be the best performance of his underrated career. Hunt adds a lot of necessary humor, and Pollak, also highly underrated, really invests the rabbi with wisdom and warmth that do not seem clichéd or maudlin in the least. He makes the piece work.

Of course the most ironic part is that Catholic converter Pete is played in real life by an Orthodox Jewish boy named Adi Stein who had to be served kosher meals and couldn't work on Saturdays. Stein and Mike Weinberg, who plays destined-to-die Danny, are two precocious child actors with a lot of talent. They are ingratiating instead of grating, and the whole thing works.

Stolen Summer gets a theatrical release this winter, and it will be a solid hit for family audiences. From then on, expect to see it endlessly on cable, as kids will be watching this movie for years to come.

After the premiere, Damon, Affleck, et al. crowded into a small party space on Main Street to celebrate actually having made this this thing and Project Greenlight.

Damon told me he's excited about his upcoming appearance on TV's Will & Grace.

"I play a straight guy who pretends to be gay so he can sing in Jack's gay men's chorus," he said. "When I start getting all his solos, Jack 'ins' me. And I wind up flirting with Grace, of course."

Damon, who's in town with his girlfriend Odessa, is making the rare TV appearance because of a long friendship with Sean Hayes [Jack] from their salad days over five years ago.

Gerry Rigged Van Sant Disaster

I did not ask Damon about his role in Gus Van Sant's Gerry, which premiered at the larger Eccles Theater earlier in the day. Damon co-stars with Casey Affleck, Ben's brother, in what is most certainly the most boring and self-indulgent film since Yoko Ono's The Fly.

Twelve hundred people jammed themselves into the Eccles for the 100-minute feature and then sat agape as Damon and Affleck the Younger spoke nearly no dialogue and traipsed through an unidentified desert location, lost, until they arrived at death's door.

What was this explanation for this annoying, irritating nonsense? Seems that Van Sant, whose last movie was the saccharine, awful, Finding Forrester, wanted to make an homage to existential French films of 30 years ago. Or some kind of spin like that. Needless to say, you will never ever see Gerry unless you are being tortured, and even then you can close your eyes.

This is what I and several colleagues learned during Gerry: there are 14 panels on the walls on either side of the Eccles Theatre. Some had sconces on them. We did not count the beams in the ceiling, but I did notice for the first time that the podium on the stage is in the shape of a cello.

Better Luck, Paradox Make Good Impressions

While the big buzz right now is about Gary Winick's comedy called Tadpole (the bidding is in a frenzy among various studios with Miramax and Fine Line said to be in competition), two other films from yesterday's schedule were worth mentioning.

Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, about Asian-American high-school students in California, was a pleasant surprise and deserves a good distributor. This movie plays as if the kids from American Pie watched Risky Business and decided to become Jackie Chan in Goodfellas. They start their own gang, but it's a straight-A gang of kids who are bored and need money, so they turn to crime gradually.

The largely unknown cast is perfect, and there's a surprise appearance by Jerry Mathers — The Beaver! — as one of their teachers. The writing is knowing, funny and witty. It's never as vulgar as in some teen movies. There's violence, though, à la Heathers, which could make Better Luck Tomorrow a victim of post-Columbine political correctness.

I hope not, though. I think high-school kids will really connect with this film no matter how it's distributed. And it was great to see this whole world of Asian-American students, a significant part of the rainbow of kids in public schools who never seem to make it into mainstream — and much less interesting — comedies. Bravo.

Paradox Lake, about autistic kids at a summer camp, looks like it was made for two cents. Its director — Przemyslaw Shemie Reut — has made an affecting and impressive debut, though, and should be coming back for future Sundances.

As for Paradox Lake, although it would be a perfect showcase for PBS or Bravo, it is most certainly too small and poorly made for theatrical release. Still, everyone involved should be commended. I wound up liking it more and more as it went on. The documentary style worked, and the little bit of storyline was enough to get through the movie.