Friday, November 15, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: FRANCES HA (2013) and I DECLARE WAR (2013)

(Brazil/US - 2013)

Since his acclaimed 1995 debut KICKING AND SCREAMING, writer/director Noah Baumbach has made a name for himself in indie circles but is probably still best known for his two screenwriting collaborations with friend Wes Anderson on the latter's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004) and FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009).  I've always found Baumbach the more interesting filmmaker, often coming off like the dark side of Anderson, though I realize I'm in the minority by not buying much of what Anderson is selling.  Baumbach got a lot of attention for his devastating THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), but his next film, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007) proved too caustically abrasive for most audiences to handle, and though it features a career-best Nicole Kidman performance, it's almost unbearably uncomfortable at times, which is why it might be Baumbach's masterpiece.  2010's GREENBERG followed along those same lines, though the uncharacteristically dark Ben Stiller vehicle was stolen by co-star Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig, generally considered the face of the indie "mumblecore"  movement, brought out a more uplifting side to Baumbach's filmmaking that really resonates in the director's latest film, FRANCES HA, which Baumbach co-wrote with the actress.

Drawing inspiration from the French New Wave and Woody Allen, the black & white FRANCES HA is also a sort-of mumblecore ANNIE HALL, though comparisons to the HBO series GIRLS would probably be appropriate (Gerwig isn't the provocateur that Lena Dunham is).  Frances (Gerwig) is a 27-year-old college graduate and aspiring dancer in NYC who can't seem to get her act together.  Her shaky semblance of stability falls apart when she can't commit to moving in with her boyfriend, which ends the relationship, and then her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter) decides to move to Tribeca, an area Frances can't afford.  Unable to pay the rent on her own, Frances jumps from one temporary living arrangement to another, starting with two platonic male friends, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), who share a $4000/month loft with apparent help from a parental allowance (unemployed Benji spends his days penning unsolicited scripts for SNL and a third GREMLINS movie), and moving on to a dance academy acquaintance (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep's lookalike daughter).  Frances often behaves erratically and seems emotionally stunted, and especially can't handle Sophie getting serious with boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), since she always felt the two of them were like "an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore."  Sophie is ready for adulthood and Frances is not (one of Lev's friends tells Frances "You look a lot older than Sophie, but you act a lot younger").  Unlike past Baumbach protagonists, Frances seems to have his sympathy and even when she's frustrating and obnoxious, which is a lot of the time, Gerwig makes you like this character.  She's struggling to find her place and like many of her friends, she's been coddled her entire life.  Very few of these people have jobs that can support their lifestyles (for a far more bitterly misanthropic look at this very NYC phenomenon, check out the Williamsburg hipster/trust-fund-kid-eviscerating THE COMEDY).  Perpetually irresponsible Frances impulsively flies off to Paris for two days--spending the bulk of it sleeping off the jetlag--simply because she got a new credit card in the mail.  But she means well.  Gerwig brings out the sweet side of Baumbach, never one to shy away from depicting people at their ugliest.  She's an actress who can be off-putting when you first experience her style, but she's very good at balancing the charming and grating elements of a character's personality, and she does it without being "quirky."  There's a lot of funny lines--Frances complaining about being poor and Benji telling her "You calling yourself poor is an insult to poor people," and Frances, allowed to smoke in Lev's apartment, quipping "This makes me feel like a bad mother in 1987"--but FRANCES HA (the title doesn't make sense until the very last shot) is perhaps a bit on the overrated side.  It's a good film, but I'm just not sold on it being a great one.  I'm not sure it's worthy of already being a Criterion Collection release, though that could be Baumbach's association with Criterion darling Anderson.  (R, 86 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

(Canada - 2013)

Mixing elements of STAND BY ME with LORD OF THE FLIES and the 1994 cult film WAR OF THE BUTTONS, the Canadian indie I DECLARE WAR offers an inventive concept and some disturbingly subversive imagery but eventually belabors its point into heavy-handedness.  It's an interesting film, but I'm just not sure there's enough there to carry it to feature-length.  Directed by Jason Lepeyre and Robert Wilson, and scripted by Lepeyre, I DECLARE WAR has a group of kids playing Capture the Flag in a wooded area.  As if putting the viewer in the mindset of the kids, the directors show them firing guns and blowing each other away, but they're alive again after they count to ten.  We know they're just playing with sticks and branches, but in their heads, they're using weaponry.  Lepeyre's script also has them using war-movie jargon that's intermittently broken up by things like "Wanna come over after War?"  One side is represented by the strategy-obsessed P.K. (Gage Munroe), a military history fanatic whose side has never lost.  His opponent is Quinn (Aiden Gouveia), who's overthrown and "killed" (with a red water balloon "grenade") in a coup engineered by the angry Skinner (Michael Friend).  Skinner takes P.K.'s best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) as a prisoner of war to lure P.K. to their base.  Skinner uses "enhanced interrogation" on Kwon and clearly has a personal beef with both Kwon and P.K. and uses this day's game of Capture the Flag to exact his vengeance.

I DECLARE WAR showcases some fine young actors, all of whom are excellent, even if a major subplot about the one tomboyish female participant, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), is a bit hazy and not very fleshed-out (she has a crush on Quinn, imagining herself spending the afternoon with him as he appears as a "ghost" to her because he's "dead"--he actually just went home after Skinner "killed" him).  But even when the script stumbles, the cast have a natural screen presence that's often quite remarkable.  While they may not always succeed with their story, Lepeyre and Wilson did an outstanding job of picking their actors (Munroe is excellent as P.K., the kind of kid who bores all of his friends by making them watch PATTON when they come over to his house).  There's a lot of strengths to I DECLARE WAR, but it's an allegorical story that would probably play much better as a short story than as a 90-minute film where, once the central conceit is established and you're over the shock of seeing kids mowing one another down in a "game," it just starts to feel overly contrived and keeps spinning its wheels to a certain degree.  (Unrated, 94 mins)


  1. I'm sorry you didn't love FRANCES HA as much as I did. Hell I saw it in theaters five times! But did want to correct you on one thing: almost every time Patch's name is mentioned, someone makes fun of him.

  2. You know, you're right. I went back and watched a few of the Patch scenes. I'm not sure how I missed it. Well, I didn't miss Frances complaining about him, but yeah, it's not just her. I guess I was focusing on other things and they flew right by me. I swear I didn't watch this Rex Reed-style!