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Frances Ha: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Frances Ha (2013) movie poster Frances Ha

Theatrical Release: May 17, 2013 / Running Time: 86 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Noah Baumbach / Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig

Cast: Greta Gerwig (Frances Halladay), Mickey Sumner (Sophie Levy), Charlotte D'Amboise (Colleen), Adam Driver (Lev Shapiro), Hannah Dunne ("Ask Me" Girl), Michael Esper (Dan), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Josh Hamilton (Andy), Patrick Heusinger (Reade "Patch" Krause), Cindy Katz (Congresswoman), Maya Kazan (Caroline), Justine Lupe (Nessa), Britta Phillips (Nadia), Juliet Rylance (Janelle), Dean Wareham (Spencer), Michael Zegen (Benji), Christine Gerwig (Mom), Gordon Gerwig (Dad)
Frances Ha is one of DVDizzy.com's Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).Frances Ha ranks 65th in our list of the Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).

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Noah Baumbach has been writing and directing films for nearly twenty years now, but you couldn't really say he's in show business. That's because Baumbach is strictly in this profession for art, not money. His six theatrically released features as director have grossed a grand total of $18.7 million at the domestic box office,
which is probably around what Thor: The Dark World grossed before the sun set on its opening day. His commercial impact as writer looks a lot more impressive, but largely on account of the fact that he inexplicably co-wrote Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted in addition to a couple of wide release Wes Anderson films.

Baumbach's interest in cinema is as a medium for personal storytelling. Though they have featured movie stars as big as Ben Stiller and Nicole Kidman, his low-budget dramedies have been driven by characters and dialogue, not celebrity or public tastes or anything resembling action or visual effects. Baumbach's grounded human priorities have made him a filmmaker of greater interest to critics than moviegoers and have largely relegated his work to art house designation, with limited releases that slowly roll out to 100 or so metropolitan theaters.

Baumbach's latest, Frances Ha, expanded to over 200 theaters in June, a record among his directorial efforts. It also earned him some of the best reviews of his career, with aggregate scores matching those of his Original Screenplay Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale and Anderson's stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. It ended up earning a little over $4 million domestically and another $4 M and change overseas. That might not sound like much, but it's a decent haul for a black and white independent film whose biggest name is Greta Gerwig.

Roommates and best friends Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances (Greta Gerwig) are inseparable, until Sophie moves out. New roommate Benji (Michael Zegen) tries to lift Frances' (Greta Gerwig) spirits with a song she doesn't much like.

Gerwig, who got her start in the oft-cited, rarely-celebrated "Mumblecore" movement that gave rise to the likes of Lynn Shelton and the Duplass Brothers, served as Stiller's leading lady in Baumbach's critically exalted, publically unloved Greenberg and proceeded to land roles in the mainstream comedies No Strings Attached and the Russell Brand remake Arthur. Her talent is put to far better use in Frances, whose screenplay is credited to both Baumbach and her (her fifth and most significant writing credit to date).

Gerwig holds the lead role of Frances Halladay (the truncated title becomes clear in the film's closing shot), a 27-year-old who's struggling to stay afloat in New York City. She's a modern dancer who is underemployed at a studio that doesn't think enough of her to upgrade her from apprentice. She shares a Brooklyn studio apartment with her longtime bestie and former college roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), a publisher. So close is their friendship that Frances turns down an invitation to move in with her boyfriend because she doesn't want to leave Sophie stuck with the lease. She also just doesn't want to leave Sophie. Their platonic love is strong and, in fact, the strongest force in Frances' life.

Thus, Frances is pained to learn of Sophie's plan to move in with an acquaintance to a neighborhood she prefers. Frances ends up falling into a place in Washington Heights which she shares with sculptor/playboy Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), an aspiring screenwriter who's working on a Gremlins 3 sample script while hoping to land a spot on the "Saturday Night Live" staff. There, Frances misses the intimacy of her old home and the company; she's seeing less and less of Sophie as she gets serious with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger). When the dance studio reveals they won't need her for the Christmas show as planned, Frances has no way of paying her $1,200 share of monthly rent or even the $950 reduced rate Lev and Benji start her on.

With her life seemingly falling apart, Frances returns home to Sacramento to spend Christmas with her warm, middle class parents and family. Then, back to New York to crash with a fellow dancer (Grace Gummer) with whom she doesn't really click. Then, it's off to Paris for a spontaneous two-day trip she puts on a newly-opened credit card. With Sophie and her boyfriend moving to Japan for his work, Frances takes an RA position at her alma mater, Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, which sees her unable to dance as she shadows major donors and keeps their glasses full.

Unable to cut it in New York City, Frances (Greta Gerwig) returns to her alma mater for menial work. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is distraught to just have missed her best friend's exit from her dorm.

Synopsis must make Frances Ha sound meandering and uneventful. Perhaps it is, in the same way that a few months in most lives are. But Baumbach and Gerwig have created a substantial, original, and highly enjoyable film. Baumbach cites the French New Wave as an influence and you're more likely to recognize this
as a descendant of Woody Allen's Manhattan. The film requires no knowledge or appreciation for either, though, as it stands tall on its own with an appealing comic voice.

Gerwig evidently shares Baumbach's ear for sharp, realistic dialogue that includes awkward interactions and misunderstood wit. Frances Ha is full of organic little moments that add personality and charm while enhancing our understanding of its characters. The script is loaded with detail and nuance that you just never get in big, polished comedies. One assumes that Gerwig, who recently turned 30, is drawing from her own experiences as a young woman, which thus enables the 44-year-old Baumbach to write a protagonist different in age, outlook and gender than himself. The two, who earlier this year acknowledged they are also a real-life couple, have complimentary talents that gel perfectly here. Gerwig's genuineness and intelligence, gifts not especially suited for an Ashton Kutcher sex buddies comedy, is on wondrous display in the hands of Baumbach, a master in tactfully conveying relatable emotion.

Though Baumbach has been praised and acknowledged foremost for his writing, his directing prowess is integral to his film's achievements. Here, draining the color from digital video, he provides an old-fashioned presentation of modern living without the pretension that implies. Baumbach and his cinematographer Sam Levy find the joy and beauty in a gray New York, Paris, Sacramento, and Poughkeepsie.

There's whimsy, as when Frances run-dances through Chinatown to the opening of David Bowie's "Modern Love." There's irony, as when Frances takes an hilariously unromantic Paris adventure she mostly sleeps through (bizarrely punctuated by Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner"). There's snark, in pitch-perfect jabs at Jay Leno and "SNL." But through it all, there's cleverness, heart, and just an earnest feel-good vibe that somehow isn't far from the misanthropic tone of Greenberg that many couldn't appreciate.

We never lose interest in Frances, a messy busy, clumsy girl who's not always aware when she's imposing upon others, speaking out of turn, or letting her pride stand in the way of growing up. The film feels like a romantic comedy of worth without the traditional romance. You might think that just means it's a comedy, but it somehow possesses a joie de vivre that should be but rarely is felt in such films. Part of it may be in the film's powerful portrait of the dissolution and evolution of a best friendship. Part of it may be in Frances' refusal to give up or change herself.

No matter what you choose to take from it, Frances Ha has an extraordinary amount to give and in just 86 minutes of your time. Its striking value and indie distribution made it a no-brainer choice to make its home video debut through The Criterion Collection. Baumbach's second film as director and third as a writer (with a fourth just announced) admitted into "the continuing series of important classic and contemporary films", Frances hit disc last week exclusively in the boutique label's preferred new Dual-Format mold, holding both a DVD and a Blu-ray with the casing and pricing of the latter format.

Frances Ha: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: November 12, 2013
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video


Visually, Frances Ha takes some getting used to. It's not just the black and white, which somehow serves the material without a hint of film student experimentation or snobbery, but that combined with the use of inexpensive digital video. The limitations of the medium are evident and thus the 1.85:1 imagery is grainier than and not as sharp or defined as most modern films. You'd think someone as well-versed as Baumbach would have shot on film, as he usually does. But you adjust to this uncommon combination in about 15 minutes and come to appreciate it. While this unique presentation isn't as obviously dazzling as most contemporaries, it's a treat in its own way and one the Blu-ray presents as well as it can.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio does a nice job of showcasing the all-licensed music, aptly bursting to life on the big high points. Dialogue is crisp throughout, although you may need to check the occasional line in the easily read English subtitles. While it would seem the movie could look a little better, I've seen enough of Criterion's output to believe that this is as good as Frances Ha will get in 1080p.

Writer, producer, and director Noah Baumbach discusses his latest film with Peter Bogdanovich. Actor-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley shows admiration for the film in her interview of Greta Gerwig.


In terms of bonus features, Criterion opts for quality over quantity and we're all the better for it. On both Blu-ray and DVD, Frances Ha is joined by three 2013 conversations and a trailer (all of it in HD on the Blu-ray). That's right; Criterion combo packs will be produced with customer satisfaction in mind, so that both formats continue to get the same bonus features,
even if it means authoring two DVDs to accompany the more spacious Blu-ray. In this case, though, the extras fit on the same disc as the film, rendering this a 2-disc set instead of the 3-disc ones we'll more commonly be seeing in this age of Dual-Format Editions.

First up, "Peter Bogdanovich and Noah Baumbach on Frances Ha" (15:21) has this film's director, co-writer and producer talk with the legendary Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show filmmaker. Baumbach acknowledges his worldly influences (Truffaut, Cassavetes), collaborating with Gerwig primarily by e-mail, working in black & white and digital for the first time (and what the contradiction of those two meant by shooting in color but always looking at it in black & white), and the music (from French New Wave score selections to David Bowie). Fitting film clips are suitably woven into this great and substantial chat between two filmmakers with evident admiration for one another.

"Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig" (17:00) takes a similar approach as the Canadian actress turned writer, director, and documentarian talks with Frances Ha's leading lady and co-writer. It's another articulate discussion, which has Gerwig open up about both writing and acting in the film. She recalls enduring 35 takes of a brief shot, relating to David Thewlis in Naked, the lack of derivation, heavily trimming down the Sacramento portion that features her real parents, and how what's sad on page doesn't play as such in the film.

Even in the camera test phase before Sophie was cast, the film was shot in color and then adjusted to black and white. Frances' run-dance through Chinatown to "Modern Love" gives the set its cover art and menu image on both DVD and Blu-ray.

"Interpreting Reality" (18:19) has Baumbach talk with director of photography Sam Levy and colorist Pascal Dangin about achieving the look desired. They share footage from various camera tests shot before the script was even completed and the input of Harris Savides, the late cinematographer to whom the film is dedicated. This piece, which seems deliberately grainy and filmic, is a little technical for public consumption,
but their passion and attention to detail is obviously well-placed.

Finally, we get Frances Ha's theatrical trailer (1:56), a great preview that makes extensive use of "Modern Love."

The plain menu attaches some of the film's borrowed New Wave score to a static image of Frances' prance. The DVD does the same, and, rather than overlays, adds different artwork for the other menu pages it has. As always, the Blu-ray is kindly authored to support bookmarks and smoothly resume playback.

In what has been among the bigger points of contention for Criterion collectors reluctant to adopt Blu-ray, Frances Ha is packaged like one of the line's Blu-rays in a clear keepcase of Blu-ray case height. The two cases get separate hubs on the inside back of a case featuring double-sided artwork. They're joined, of course, by the obligatory booklet. In between the usual chapter titles, film credits, acknowledgements, and transfer information, we find "The Green Girl", an essay by playwright Annie Baker. It enjoyably makes note of the film's rich contrasts, responsible New Wave influences, and fascinating details.

Back home in Sacramento for Christmas, Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) enjoys a bike ride around the old neighborhood in "Frances Ha."


Frances Ha is certainly one of the most distinctive and satisfying films of 2013. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have pooled their strengths to craft a sharp and substantial comedy that's full of artful expression and palpable experiences.

One of Criterion's first combo packs, Blu-ray collectors will find this release adds a fully-loaded DVD at no additional cost. Those who were still pleased with DVD will find themselves paying a few dollars more than usual but also getting a Blu-ray they'll inevitably appreciate some day or can pass on to someone who might enjoy it now. The set's near-hour of extras is different and better than more conventional bonus features. While the movie would be recommended either way, it's nice to be able to do so in a worthy and comprehensive package.

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach: Greenberg The Squid and the Whale Margot at the Wedding
Greta Gerwig: To Rome with Love Arthur (2011) No Strings Attached | Mickey Sumner: Girl Most Likely
Co-Written by Noah Baumbach: Fantastic Mr. Fox Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
New: And While We Were There Before Midnight Oliver! Cinerama Holiday Paradise Violet & Daisy
Michael Zegen: Adventureland | Josh Hamilton: Margaret Away We Go
Black Swan Annie Hall Happy-Go-Lucky Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Slacker 3 Women The Apartment Ed Wood

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Reviewed November 20, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 IFC Films, RT Features, Pine District Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, and The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.