frances-ha-posterDirector Noah Baumbach is one of the most honest filmmakers working today. Often quixotically summed up as misanthropic or angst-ridden, Baumbach’s films actually feature an astute sense of humor that is not afraid to explore the deep emotional wounds we incur while growing up. It’s a difficult thing to turn humorous, and he has always handled it with masterful finesse.

Baumbach has directed films starring Ben Stiller (Greenberg, see my original review: Greenberg: The Great Projector) and Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding). His screenplays stand out as offering refreshing new challenges to stars like Stiller and Kidman, who sink their teeth into these titular characters with heavy, damaged personalities to sometimes disturbing lows while offering a mordant sense of humor. It’s a fine line to walk as far as entertainment, but it’s a testament to his craft that he can attract such figures to his work despite the rather dark humor.

With Frances Ha, Baumbach finally seems to reveal a lighter touch. The film follows a young woman (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script) learning to let go of her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) frances-ha-still-3while figuring out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. The film is a testament to the oft-neglected stage of growing up in one’s later years, sometimes referred to as the quarter-life crisis. It’s not far off the mark from what makes the current buzzy HBO series “Girls” so popular, but Frances Ha is much more tidy and heartfelt. It has a charm influenced beyond concerns of the current generation usurping interest in current media. Both French New Wave and early Woody Allen are more relevant as influences than Gen Y malaise.

Maybe it’s the luminous black and white cinematography and setting, but a comparison to Allen’s Manhattan would not fall far from the mark. However, it’s how Baumbach has channeled French film— from Nouvelle Vague influences to a contemporary master— that will appeal to most cinephiles. Over all, 87the film has a tone recalling the bright but resonant personal dramedies of François Truffaut. Then there are specific scenes that pay conscious tribute to the wardrobe of Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard and the more contemporary Leos Carax, involving the hit David Bowie song “Modern Love” and Frances running in the street, a la Mauvais sang.

More subtly, Baumbach employees a smart soundtrack featuring music by Georges Delerue, whose scores accompanied many films of the French New Wave. Witty cues and flourishes pepper the closing of many scenes in distinct homage. However, beyond the black and white cinematography and the music, the nostalgia ends there. In fact, it’s representative of the titular character’s condition who has found herself in a rut because she cannot seem to let go of her own past. Her inner child still seems to claw its way out from inside her despite put downs from a friend who blithely calls her “undatable” and a boss who has grown tired of stringing her along for some permanent position in a dance company Frances seems only half-invested in.

Gerwig dives into the character physically and facially. With her forced smile, raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, she plays Frances with an awkward charm that buoys her throughout the film’s many dramas. frances-ha-580Frances is so desperate for relevance, as her friends seemingly glide through life, be they “artists” with indulgent parents or lucky career climbers, she decides to charge a weekend trip to Paris, so she might “grow” a bit. Succumbing to jet lag and a friend who won’t answer her phone calls, the highlight of her trip may have been catching Puss in Boots in a movie theater off the Champs-Élysées.

As with any Baumbach film, the director knows how to pile on the witty, if sometimes sardonic, scenes at a break-neck pace. But the reason the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, feels so smart is not that these are jokes looking for easy laughs. They provide a charming avenue to develop Frances’ character while also making her relatable. The audience is not meant to look down at her state of arrested development but sympathize with it. The film has a wonderful way of piling on the moments of fleshing out the character without feeling redundant and still upping the stakes of the drama as her career becomes on the line, and her friendships drift away. It’s a valid fear everyone knows.

The brilliance of the film is how it can take a character in such a state and make it not only entertaining but also earn a sense of hope in the end. As much as she loves having friends and cannot seem to let go of her appreciation for animated movies (She says, “Animals have to talk or be at war for a movie to be interesting,”) or play fighting in the park, any growth ultimately has to come from within. You can give as much affection to your friends as you want but never neglect the friend you should be to yourself.

Hans Morgenstern

Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It opens today, May 24, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach for its South Florida premiere run (IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review). It also appears in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray and Cinemark Palace. Miami will see AMC Sunset Place adding the film to their line-up on May 31, also. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. Update: “Miami New Times” has published my interview with the star of this film here (that’s a hot link; more on this to come). Update 2: Frances Ha will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday, July 5. Update 3: Frances Ha finally arrives in Broward County thanks to the Cinema Paradiso starting Friday, July 12. Update 4: Frances Ha has also made its way to O Cinema beginning Thursday, July 4.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Yesterday, the “Miami New Times” arts and culture blog “Cultist” published an interview I performed with actor Brady Corbet. He is at the Miami International Film Festival to introduce Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar in 35mm during a one-night only screening this Friday (buy tickets).

For that article we spoke about the merits of this 1966 film, its importance in the world of cinema and his own personal experience with the movie. You can read that article here:

cultist banner

We spent the other half of the interview discussing the merits of watching and making movies in 35mm. Based on other posts written on this blog, a reader will notice a concern and interest I have in the format (here are two particular in-depth posts about it: ‘Side By Side’ presents close examination of digital’s quiet conquest over filmTo accept the death of celluloid). Brady CorbetCorbet revealed an equal, if not deeper concern than I about the state of 35mm, and I found it wonderful to know a filmmaker as young as he (24) not only shows concern about it, but is also taking steps to keep the format alive.

When the leaders at MIFF asked him to host a screening, he agreed to do so only if it were a 35mm film print. “I said, ‘Well, here’s ten films I’d be happy to screen, but I want to make sure that it’s a print. I don’t want to screen a DCP [Digital Cinema Package],’” he recalls and explains:  “First of all, DCPs are very unreliable. They’re fussy, and there’s frequently drop outs. There’s all sorts of problems with them, and second of all, there’s a majesty about celluloid that at this point is impossible to replicate.”

He considers the idea to replace film cameras with digital rather premature, noting that the image capable with the highest quality digital camera has yet to match what can be achieved with 35mm. “I saw Leos Carax speak after a screening of Holy Motors this year, and he said this very funny thing in regards to the digital movement. Denis Lavant in 'Holy Motors.' Still Image courtesy of Indomina ReleasingHe said, ‘I feel like we were prescribed an antidote or a medicine for something that we weren’t sick for yet,’ and so for me, unfortunately, I think that eventually, maybe in five years or 10 years, I don’t know, it will be impossible to tell the difference, but right now you still can.”

Corbet will not go as far as calling all digital filmmaking inferior to 35mm. He says there are certain master filmmakers who understand the various capabilities of either format and some that know how to work in either one when the occasion calls for it. For instance, he gives passes to both Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke (whose movies he has acted in) because they know what it is like to work on film.I think those two guys have been making some of the best movies of our generation, clearly. But it’s an interesting thing. for them it’s probably very exciting because when they started their careers, Lars got to make his first five or six projects on film, and then I understand how freeing and exciting it must have been for him to shoot Breaking the Waves digitally.breaking-41 I’m sure it sort of re-invigorated his interest in the medium. So, as far as they’re concerned, I think they can do whatever the hell they want.”

However, when it comes to a current generation beginning to craft work with digital translation, a lot of the creative process gets lost, as many mechanics are taken for granted. “I think it’s a strange thing for this next generation of filmmakers to grow up on digital without having to learn the analog, for lack of a better word. I feel like you should have the experience of working with something tangible first and understand that deeply and then make a choice.”

Corbet knows firsthand what it’s like to shoot a film on 35mm. His first short film, which played at the Miami International Film Festival in 2008, was shot and projected in 35. He is disappointed that most people will now only have a chance to see it online:

Protect You + Me from Paul Rubinfeld on Vimeo.

“The transfers that have existed online, there’s a lot of problems,” he notes. “They’re either too bright or too contrasty. When you get into the process of exporting it or the output or whatever, when the contrast goes that black, then suddenly you don’t get that milkiness or that nuance that 35mm has naturally. So it’s kinda hard to tell on a computer, but you could tell when it was projected. And Darius Khondji shot that film, so it’s very striking visually. I mean, I was 18 or 19 years old when I made it, so it’s sort of like looking at baby pictures now. But there’s still something to it I think. I haven’t seen it in a while.”

Corbet has also shot in digital, most recently regarding a much-liked music video for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes. “I always knew people will be watching the video on computers,” he says. “It’s a very modern video, so we shot that on the Alexa, and I’m very happy with the look of it. It’s very appropriate for the content, very suitable. That was shot by Jody Lee Lipes who shot Martha Marcy May Marlene and other things that we worked on together. I basically wish—my hope for 35mm is that simply it remains an option.”

Corbet does recognize that digital technology has unique aspects in certain lighting environs that makes 35mm obsolete. He brings up Simon Killer, a film he co-wrote with its director Antonio Campos and which he plays the titular role. “I think there are plenty of occasions when digital technology is more appropriate,” he says. “For example, a film we have coming out in a couple of months, called Simon Killer was shot on the Alexa, and we couldn’t have really shot the movie on any other format because the Alexa and its sensitivity to light sees more than human eyes see. You can shoot in really negative lighting circumstances and you still have a viewable image. That film we shot without any film lights. We shot it with augmented practicals and available light, so we could have never made that movie for the price we made it for and made it look as good as it looks without that technology.”


It’s an uphill battle for 35, and Corbet recognizes this. When producers and studio heads or even your own collaborators on the films, like actors and actresses, want to see that day’s takes before the end of the day, it cannot be done with 35. “The problem is also that it’s an issue of immediacy too,” he notes. “They want to see dailies shot all day, and they want to review it at 7 p.m., as soon as you’ve wrapped up photography for the day … People are just getting less and less patient.”

He notes that impatience has a detrimental effect on the creative process. “I believe that sometimes affects the content in a really negative way because you’re rushing things and sometimes it’s nice to sit with something for a little while, and imperfections are a nice thing too. They give an image life.”

Going back to the screening tomorrow night, Corbet has hopes that the film print will look quite nice. “I have a feeling that the print that we have of Au Hasard Balthazar is probably going to look pretty pristine because I imagine it’s a print that Rialto did of the last release of it, so I think that they’re new prints.”

Hans Morgenstern

Au Hasard Balthazar will screen Friday, March 8, at 7:15 p.m. with an introduction by actor/director Brady Corbet as part of the Miami International Film Festival (buy tickets to the event here; this is a hyperlink).

Note: This was to be a post on Day 6 of the Miami International Film Festival and Dark Blood, but a meeting at the “Miami New Times” dragged long into the night, and I missed the screening. Day 7 it’s back to an intimate venue: O Cinema for a film with less hype following it than Dark Blood but much critical acclaim: Post Tenebras Lux (click here for tickets).


(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

How appropriate that I had dreamt of seeing Holy Motors before I even saw it. I rarely ever dream of movies. Movies are dreams made manifest, and as Holy Motors proves, filmmaker Leos Carax knows this, so why bother? In my dream, I had arrived late to a preview screening for the film. I tried to sneak in behind the columns laid out throughout the dark theater, after the film had begun. However, Carax knew of my sacrilege, as he was in the theater. After the film had ended he confronted me and said I had not seen his movie at all as I showed up late, and how could I pose as a film critic when I dare think missing the beginning of a film was an acceptable practice. He was pissed, and I was devastated that he did not know the pains I go through to make sure I always see films from beginning to end, especially if I plan to write about them.

Of course this is my subconscious telling me something, not the real Carax, who has not made a feature film in 13 years. As some of my former students of a Hollywood Film and US Culture class I once taught at Barry University can attest (if you showed up late to screening day, you would find the class door locked), I am the true film fascist in this scenario. Just as dreams are loaded with one’s own experiences, Holy Motors will bring more pleasure to those who want something more from a movie-going experience than the usual Hollywood fare. If Holy Motors is not made for deep— dare I say— masochistic lovers of pure cinema, I do not know what movie would be. The film’s references to cinema are both pure and obscure. Carax celebrates the medium by emphasizing what is missing as much as what is present. Yes, the film has a surreal quality, but that is only because cinema by its nature has a surreal quality.

We do not live life jumping from one scenario to another in reality. Jumping through time and space is impossible. Yet, how often do film viewers forget about true realism when they comment “that wasn’t realistic enough” or “that defied logic”? Film can never be logical. Blame that on the film splice, the one single, distinctive characteristic of the cinematic art form, as Stanley Kubrick once noted. Within film splices, as far as storytelling, anything is possible. That is why it becomes a losing battle to try to watch Inception with undivided attention thinking one will find where the dream in the film begins and ends. Spoiler alert: It’s all a dream.

From the very beginning, Holy Motors embraces a self-awareness that it is a film and that the medium shares characteristics of a dream. Indeed, as prophesied by my dream, missing the opening credits will take away from the experience of this movie. As plain, Ariel block letters present the opening credits, interspersed among them are images that pre-date cinema. Silent images of a naked athlete by the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey pass by in an almost subliminal flash. Then the cinema screen declares its mirror-like quality by presenting a full, darkened theater. All the faces in the packed house are darkened and still as dramatic sound effects and a scream blast out of the soundtrack from some unseen film.

Holy Motors follows a man (Denis Lavant) who we appropriately first meet lying in bed alone (dreaming?). An aura of darkness surrounds the bed. There are doors and hallways until M. Oscar heads off from his home, seemingly situated in a clearing with a forest. Reality enters the dream-like state as a child tells him to work hard and bring home money. Over the course of the film, we will learn this man is an actor working in a world where the camera has disappeared, and he has nine assignments lined up for the day. The actress of Eyes Without a Face, Edith Scob plays Céline who drives M. Oscar to these jobs in a stretch limo, inside which he applies his own makeup between scenarios.

An early job has him working in motion capture. It’s a scene that references an early serial in France’s film infancy, Les Vampires, often celebrated and referenced in French cinema, while tying it to the future of cinema. Wearing a black cat suit with strategically placed dots, M. Oscar must perform ninja-like moves to an invisible adversary. Then, a cold, disembodied voice orders him to pick up a sub-machine gun and get on a treadmill in the massive, black-walled room. With a dizzying array of geometric shapes scrolling past in the background, Carax references his own 1986 film Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), and the miraculously choreographed sequence to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” performed by Lavant, which you can watch here. Though possibly more dynamic in Holy Motors, the new version of this scene is cheapened as a digital effect and M. Oscar’s seemingly random firing of the sub-machine gun. By the end of this scenario, Carax seems to subvert the digital FX world of today’s cinema, as it leaves M. Oscar worn out, despite his giving it his acrobatic all, including a love scene with a contortionist (Zlata). Yet, in the end, the man is only donating motion for an end product, which proves to be (literally) a gruesome, monstrous affair.

Movie Monsters are a big part of Holy Motors. “Shit” M. Oscar declares after he has returned to the back of the limo and opens a metal box labeled “wild” for his next assignment. Inside: the mask of M. Merde who Lavant played in Carax’ short film in the Tokyo! omnibus from 2008. A spectacular creature, M. Merde is a barefooted beast of a being with crazed red hair, a dead eye and claws for nails. He lives in the sewers to rampage around the city streets in broad daylight eating flowers, chain-smoking and pushing or walking over anyone who might stand in his way. The tune used to score this assault on society is taken from the first Godzilla movie. M. Merde even captures a damsel (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot to later share a cuddle with, back in his subterranean hovel.

Though there are several, often-cinematic referencing, vignettes throughout the film, they all keep the viewer guessing whether something is going wrong by the rules of this unreal world (one catches on via the action and rarely exposition). Holy Motors is all about breaking down the fourth wall of cinema but then making you question it. It heightens mystery to another level of the viewer’s own perception. It recalls David Lynch in its indulgence of the unknown and an intention to never provide concrete answers. It also recalls Federico Fellini. Beyond the reference to “9,” from his film about filmmaking, 8 ½, Holy Motors is a celebration of the art of film with a wry sense of humor but also with an eye to transcendence and the sublime encounter with the unknown.

The acting jobs M. Oscar takes vary from such bombastic affairs as those described above, to tender moments like a scene from a death bed or a cruel chat with an insecure teenage daughter. Through the talented Lavant, Holy Motors reveals M. Oscar is a master actor tiring of what has come of his craft. During an encounter with a fellow actress, Jean (Kylie Minogue), the two steal away together to reminisce. They walk off into the ruins of the Samaritaine, a once celebrated French department store near Notre Dame left to decay. Jean breaks into a song of how “who were we when we were/back then?” The lyrics of the song seem to mourn a time when the suspension of disbelief in movies was more real or moving than today’s visual arts. Sometimes I wonder if it’s my age and my lack of naiveté and if knowing so much about cinema spoils movie-going. But maybe it is the plague of this effort of things like “found footage” genre films, the unspoken falseness of reality TV and digital characters designed to blend in with human actors in blockbuster movies that have all become too tough to swallow in an over-reach for “reality.” For all its seeming craziness, Holy Motors actually asks a very down-to-earth question: Can’t a movie just be a movie?

Hans Morgenstern

Watch the trailer:

Holy Motors is not rated (but those 17 and under will need some life and cinema experience to appreciate it), has a runtime of 115 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. Nationwide screenings dates can be found hereIt December, it continues to expand in South Florida, making its premiere on Miami Beach on Dec. 7 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

It opened Nov. 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for its South Florida premiere run (the theater provided a preview screener DVD for the purpose of this review). Holy Motors then appeared in Broward County on Fri. Nov. 23, at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.

Update: Miami will have another chance to see this film on the big screen at O-Cinema beginning Thursday, Jan. 17 (more dates available here). The news arrives just as Holy Motors was recently announced as the number 1 movie of the year via an exhaustive survey by “Film Comment.” It was close to reaching number 1 on my personal best-of in 2012… very close.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)