Tuesday
May252010

Script to Screen Review // Chloe

BY ERIC CORSON 

writer bio

Chloe is an excellent example of how great performers can enhance a script and how expert editing can keep it from stalling. However, it is not a good showcase of how to build and explore characters and relationships.

The story is simple. Catherine (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged gynecologist, suspects that her husband David (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her. She hires Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a young and irresistible escort, to tempt David to sleep with her, thus proving that he is unfaithful. This plan, of course, backfires and it is Catherine who in the end is accused of having an affair.

Director Atom Egoyan, whose career seems exclusively comprised of sexually obsessed psychological thrillers, shoots Chloe in a calm style, leaving it to the leading ladies' fearless performances to carry the movie over the finish line. If they don't succeed in doing so, it is because the writing lacks substance.

Yet, writer Erin Cressida Wilson wanted to make sure that every emotional beat in the script (this version dated 7/31/08) was fully clear and understandable. There are a lot of reaction shots and obvious metaphors. However, most of these metaphors have been dropped from the movie.

There is one brief scene that exemplifies how the rock solid performances simplify the sometimes heavy-handed script. Chloe tells Catherine that she gave David a hand job in the park. Catherine, of course, thinks this has gone way too far and storms off. But her car won't start. Chloe zips by on her bike at the exact moment that a car door opens; crashing into it, Chloe falls to the ground. Catherine, being a doctor, treats the wound on Chloe's leg. Get the metaphor?

What takes up three paragraphs in the script is quite a little moment on screen. Catherine sits in her car, storm clouds over her head, while Chloe drives by on her bike. She slips on the ice on the ground and falls down. This may seem insignificant, but there are a lot of examples like this in the script. With Moore and Seyfried, a few looks are enough to convey emotions. We don't need all this obvious physical action.

But with Egoyan in control, even a little scene like that has to be sexy. In the script, Catherine rips open Chloe's pantyhose where the wound is so she can bandage it. In the film, Chloe takes it off altogether. Catherine gets aroused.

All in all, the film's editing streamlines the story. But it doesn't solve the real problem with this script. The characters are shallow and Wilson has a really hard time handling the relationships. The script starts with Catherine and David as a typical alienated couple. As soon as Chloe steps into the picture, the story morphs into a sexually laden power-play between Catherine and Chloe. David gets totally sidelined and conveniently only reappears in the third act to add a twist to the story we had been seeing coming all along.

There is also an awkward romance between Chloe and Catherine's son, Michael. From the moment Chloe sees him for the first time we know exactly what is going to happen (she seduces him to get back at Catherine) and Wilson doesn't even try to hide the fact that this is merely a writer's device to artificially raise up the stakes and make the act three climax more shocking.

Chloe is ultimately disappointing because at its core, the script is painfully shallow. We never tap into truly dangerous territory with Catherine's and Chloe's relationship. It’s a shame that David's character virtually disappears 30 minutes into the film. It would have been interesting to see the changes in Catherine and David's married life as perceptions shift.

In the end, it's all a mind game. A clever one, but still nothing of substance. So which one is better. Script or film? Watch the movie. Egoyan is a very capable director and the story feels less forced.

(Chloe (2010) Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. 7/31/08 Polish submit. Currently playing at AMC Empire 25.)

Tuesday
May112010

Script to Screen Review: Greenberg

BY ERIC CORSON

writer bio

It is very enlightening to listen to writer-director Noah Baumbach talking about the writing process of his new movie Greenberg. Here are three excerpts taken from the March/April edition of Creative Screenwriting Magazine with a few comments:

"I wanted to write about someone who couldn't get out of his way. The early drafts were about trying to figure out the character and what the basic situation he was going to be in (…) early drafts are just experimenting with characters and scenarios."

Fair enough. That's what early drafts are for. The only problem is the finished film still feels like a writing exercise. Baumbach still hasn't found the movie's voice, its theme, its journey. There are quite a few golden screenwriting rules Baumbach ignores with his script about 42-year old Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), who house sits for his brother and awkwardly engages in an on-off relationship with his brother's assistant Florence (the wonderful Greta Gerwig). Scripts like these usually don't make it very far in today's studio system because every single Hollywood producer has read Syd Field's "Screenplay" and looks for the inciting incident on page 12, the act one break on page 25 and the midpoint on page 55. Greenberg certainly doesn't have any of these.

But unfortunately, the script feels more unfocused than creative. We meet Roger Greenberg at a point in his life when he is trying "to do nothing right now". Trying to reconnect with old friends, he discovers that he either alienated all of them or simply can not relate to them. All his interactions with other people are awkward and uncomfortable to witness, and the script stretches it to an extent where you're constantly debating whether or not you should just put it aside and read something more enjoyable. At the end of the script, Greenberg just comes across as a dick, as a man-child of proportions even Judd Apatow would be unable to conceive. He is self-absorbed, unable to acknowledge other people's feelings, and is constantly talking to Florence about her abilities at giving blowjobs. Not exactly the kind of guy you want to spend two hours with.

But, in what can only be described as an unexpected turn of events, Ben Stiller somehow manages to deliver a sincere and fairly endearing performance. Greenberg's cumbersome behavior is a lot more tolerable on screen, and that has nothing to do with Baumbach's writing or direction but has everything to do with Stiller's work in front of the camera. The first time Florence brings Greenberg to her apartment, he asks her for a drink but all she has to offer is a Corona light and some bad Tequila. The way Stiller then delivers the line "shall we split the Corona?" pretty much seals the deal and we are more or less willing to endure an endless amount of scenes in which Greenberg complains about aging and wasting his life.

So if the movie seems to have found some sort of focus on the screen, it is entirely thanks to the performances of Stiller and Gerwig. The script is still a mess.

"I had an idea of who [Florence] was and I wanted to include her in the story. So while I'm writing scenes with Greenberg, I would bring her in and see how they communicate. The script used to begin with Greenberg, but in a later draft I realized that starting with Florence accomplishes so many things this movie needed."

In the script, Greenberg doesn't appear until page 10, which is not a problem per se. But as stated above, Baumbach simply didn't know where he was going with his script, and at a certain point, this becomes a problem. Spending the first 10 minutes with Florence accomplishes very little for the story. We don't learn much about her, there is no build-up to her first confrontation with Greenberg, there is no theme established. And even Greta Gerwig can only do so much with 10 minutes of grocery shopping.

Also, the scenes between Greenberg and Florence very often feel like a mere writing exercise as opposed to advancement of the story. There is one scene that is very telling about this. It's Greenberg's birthday and he and his only friend Ivan sit at a diner and have a meaningless conversation that goes on for five pages. When Baumbach runs out of steam with that set-up, he makes Greenberg call Florence who appears shortly after. But since he doesn't seem to have anything specific in mind, the moment she turns up, Greenberg stands up and calls Beth, an old crush of his. There is no center to this scene, no point. It's just Baumbach experimenting and playing around with characters, which is fine for his own sake but simply doesn't cut it for a movie audience.

"I was having trouble finding the movie. (…) Greenberg was something I picked at for years. I feel it's something I could still be working on. It just kept changing, but when the movie came together - it just felt like, 'Let's do it, let's make this movie'

And that pretty much sums it up. Baumbach crafted a messy script at best, scraped together the funds to make this movie and assembled a pretty strong cast. But the result doesn't feel like the achievement of an auteur who needed to say something with this work. Greenberg simply is what it is because at some point Baumbach stopped writing and started shooting, which is very far from being enough.

People who, like me, left the theater thinking that Greenberg was a confused movie should think it over. What they saw was a simple writing exercise that Baumbach got to turn into a movie. This is either incredibly narcissistic on his part, or very ballsy on the part of the producers. Or foolish. I tend to think it's the latter.

So which one is better, script or film? Definitely the movie. At least in the theater, you don't have the urge to be constantly throwing things at the screen whenever Greenberg is on.

(Greenberg (2010) Written by Noah Baumbach. Story by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach)

Monday
May102010

Cherry

Directed by Jeffrey Fine

2010. USA.  

BY ALEX CIRILLO

writer bio

How do you recreate an Ivy League university and shoot a beautiful film for a mid-six-figure budget?  Shoot in the Mid West and take full advantage of tax incentives!

Cherry, directed by Jeffrey Fine, was filmed in both Kalamazoo and Chicago but you’d never know it wasn’t New England’s Brown University.  The film shot for just under one million dollars and they managed to get back nearly a third of the budget through tax credits!  Seriously!  It’s quite impressive that the production team with Executive Producer Paul Kurta, who built his career working on big budget projects, was able to adapt to a small budget and still create a stunning product. 

Shot on both the RED and the Sony EX3, Fine made bold and clever choices; I mistook several scenes for being shot on film.  He skillfully used the EX3 as the principal camera in all of the night scenes.  DP Marvin V. Rush wisely used deep shadows and was able to control any depth of field issues he would have run into filming with a more expensive and sensitive camera.  Through avoiding intercutting between the two cameras I could hardly tell the difference between them, though I’m sure a more finely tuned eye could. 

Aside from being visually stimulating, the story also kept me engaged, albeit mostly because the genre is consistently inconsistent.  Based on the first few scenes I was expecting a goofy college movie.  To be fair, the opening scenes are striking and the exposition is more intelligent than your average cheesy movie about a freshman virgin, but the roommate with the double popped collars and neon framed sunglasses really got my mind going in the wrong direction. 

Aaron (Kyle Gallner), said freshman virgin, has very clear goals from the start: don’t make the same (unknown) mistake that his father made; break free from his mother’s regime; design a machine that will allow him to walk on water for his engineering class; and, of course, lose his virginity.  You’ve seen this premise before (minus the whole walk on water Jesus thing), but Aaron achieves his goals in a much smarter and more compelling way than most films with a similar set up.  

The film fluctuates from comedy, to drama, to action, all peppered with a dash of made-for-TV women’s fiction.  There’s a little something for everyone: luaus in dorm bathrooms, car chases, love triangles and corny lines about floating away with a handful of “get well soon” balloons.  But c’est la vie when you’re an unseasoned 17-year-old in love with a confused 34-year-old woman whose precocious 14-year-old daughter has a fiery crush on you.  Through a tumultuous year of hairy women (played by David Mamet’s daughter, Zosia), ass beatings, and minor acts of statutory rape, Aaron grows wiser and is no longer fooled by women who claim to tie cherry stems with their tongues.