New York Film Festival: Frances Ha Ha, or Frances Weird?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about the 50th New York Film Festival, based on press screenings and films seen during the actual festival (September 28-March 14). In addition to the 33 main slate films, this year’s festival features many interesting sidebars, including a rich selection of episodes from the French TV series “Cinéastes de notre temps.” There are also gala tributes to Nicole Kidman (accompanied by the premiere of her new film “The Paperboy”) and to Richard Pena, who is leaving after 25 years as the head of the festival.

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Noah Baumbach’s exhilarating new film Frances Ha, co-written with and starring Greta Gerwig, is stylistically a love letter to the cinema of early Truffaut and Godard and even ‘70s Woody Allen. The story is ultimately about a deep friendship between two women (played by Gerwig and Mickey Sumner) in their late twenties —actually a rare subject for an American film— as Gerwig pointed out herself during the Q&A immediately following a recent press screening. Gerwig plays the titular character Frances (you don’t learn why it’s called “Frances Ha” until the end), a 27-year-old dancer in New York whose financially poor, but emotionally rich life is turned upside down when her best friend and roommate Sophie (Sumner) moves out of their apartment and in with her yuppie boyfriend. A search for work and cheaper lodging follows; she moves in with two hipster guys (one played by Adam Driver, best known as Lena Dunham’s inattentive lover in “Girls”), flies home for a Christmas trip to Sacramento (Gerwig’s real birthplace), takes a ruinously spontaneous two-day trip to Paris, and endures a stint as a dorm counselor at Barnard College. Read more

HERMAN’S HOUSE directed by Angad Singh Ballah

Anyone who cares about social justice surely knows about the sad story of the Angola Three. A new documentary, “Herman’s House“, which is having its New York premiere Wednesday night at the Harlem International Film Festival, powerfully states the case against prolonged solitary confinement and how one activist made a huge difference in the life of Herman Wallace. Wallace has been in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison for 40 years, longer than anyone ever has been in the U.S. There are doubts about his guilt–the widow of the guard he is charged with murdering even has her doubts. And one can’t help but suspect that his involvement in the Black Panther chapter at the prison is why he still remains in solitary, rather than being in the general prison population.

“Herman’s House,” directed by Angad Ballah, tells the story of New York artist Jackie Summell’s unique artistic response to Herman’s fate. She began writing and phoning Wallace and asked him to imagine the type of house he would like to live in instead of the six-by-nine-foot cell he has been in since 1972. This communication was the basis of an art installation she built, which included a life-sized model of his prison cell, plans and models of the dream house he imagined, and a timeline of his life. (You can see more documentation of the show at her website.) “The best activism,” Jackie says, “is equal parts love and equal parts anger.” Her outrage is matched by her rich friendship with Herman and her devotion to his cause extended after the installation (which she put on twelve times in various countries); she moved to New Orleans and began working to realize Herman’s dream of a house built to help troubled children. Read more

GREEN Directed by Sophia Takal

In the opening scene of filmmaker Sophia Takal’s fascinating debut feature “Green” some young New York hipster types have a ponderous discussion about author Philip Roth. Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine) insists that “even as a technician the guy’s amazing.” He teases his girlfriend Genevieve’s (Kate Lyn Sheil) ability to evaluate a Roth novel of which she’s only read thirty pages. No, she corrects him, she’s read all of it. The remainder of this short film (it times in at 72 minutes) concerns the emotional and intellectual dynamics of this couple, yet everything we will learn —or need to know— about their characters is revealed in this one brief exchange. Sebastian is very opinionated but he’s not a snob; he doesn’t take himself too seriously nor is he shy or hesitant in the way Genevieve is. She’s less outspoken but she’s as competitive as he is in her own way. They laugh and smile tenderly at each other during the hipster gab and trade shorthand looks and gestures; they’re obviously in love and comfortable with each other.

The next scene is a wide shot of the couple arriving at a house in the country. The location is never identified but with some observation one notes that all the cars have Pennsylvania plates. Takal employs these long exterior wide shots several times in a similar, mysterious fashion: we have to scan the frame–”where’s Waldo” style–for the origin of the voices we hear. The sound design by Weston Fonger is supple and rich. Nature and ambient sounds are combined with Ernesto Carcamo‘s spooky, almost sci-fi soundtrack (think of the soundscapes Giovanni Fusco created for Antonioni). Partnered with the lush, sylvan exteriors the film almost feels at times like a trippy, environmental installation. Read more