A Pair of Mumblecore Vets Find New Possibilities in 'Frances Ha' and 'Computer Chess'

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Most films save the daffy, high-spirited hijinks montage till midway through, once you’ve established enough of a connection to the characters to care whether or not they’re happy. Frances Ha (Criterion DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) opens with two young women cavorting carefree through the streets of New York in art-house black and white. It’s a little bit sick-making, to be honest, a sugary demi-glace of Wes Anderson twee and Girls-style solipsistic privilege. But soon Sophie (Mickey Sumner) casually blindsides her roommate/ostensible BFF Frances (Greta Gerwig) by telling her that she’s moving in with another woman—a relative stranger. In a nicer neighborhood. And at that point director/co-writer Noah Baumbach’s magic starts to work.

At this late date, a platonic romcom crossed with a coming-of-age tale shouldn’t have Frances Ha’s freshness, its sparkle, its gimlet-eyed shrewdness about character, its genuine emotional wallop. Much of the fact that it does comes down to Gerwig. She jumped off the screen in the so-called mumblecore productions in which she got her start, but got no significant traction in the small roles in more polished productions she landed thereafter. But she and Baumbach, her romantic and creative partner, co-created this bespoke project, which features her in every frame and yet displays little vanity and no apparent guile.

Early in the film, you notice Frances’ mannish trudge as she clomps around New York looking for a new cheap place to crash, post-Sophie. Later in the film, her friends make fun of her mannish trudge. It’s just one small way in which the depth of Gerwig’s characterization and the patience of the film’s progress not only allow you to feel like you know her, you feel like you know people who know her, and you all know plenty of people like her: Though still young, she’s getting a little old for shiftless couch surfing. Returning home to stay with her parents offers less solace than in past, Her youthful dreams of performing as a professional dancer are growing dimmer with each missed opportunity. And as she reels from what amounts to a break-up (Sophie is “the same person with different hair,” Frances quips with increasing desperation), Gerwig telegraphs both the good soul and the cluelessness that led to her character’s heartbreak, and which inform her struggle to finally figure out who she is by herself. And if that sounds cliché, then you’ll be ever more pleasantly floored by the deeply funny and sweet film Gerwig and Baumbach deliver here.

Writer/director Andrew Bujalski also arose from the mumblecore scene (see also Funny Ha Ha), and while we’re making much of coincidence here, he also shot his new film in black and white. Most significant of all, Computer Chess (Kino Lorber DVD and streaming) also holds a strong hand in character-based humor, though in a far less straightforward way than Frances Ha, for good and for ill.

Bujalski filmed his latest on a vintage Sony AVC-3260 camera, the cinematographic equivalent of one of those huge coke-dealer cell phones from the ’80s. The ghostly vaporousness of the early videotape look will prove a madeleine for those old enough to remember when you needed a handcart to lug a “personal computer.” Indeed, Computer Chess purports to be footage of an annual gathering of early programmers who come together in a suburban Californian motel conference room to pit their chess programs against each other. Between the vintage look, the vintage electronics, the vintage wardrobes, the fluent geekspeak, and the hippie-carryover singer/songwriter score by Collie Ryan, it’s a retro nerdgasm. (Among other things, Computer Chess serves as a reminder that the early ’80s were far closer to the ’60s than makes sense now.)

Fledgling computer-scientist Peter (Patrick Reister) serves as de facto protagonist, but the motel is crowded with an ensemble of characters, including his uptight teammate Martin (Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins, utterly unrecognizable) and his distracted professor and team leader Tom (Gordon Kindlmann); a couple (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams) taking part in a cultish “encounter weekend” at the hotel; a dork-hot “lady” computer scientist (Robin Schwartz); and Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), a hilarious cross between Steve Jobs and Chevy Chase who stalks the hotel conference rooms and corridors in a three-piece suit and an Art Garfunkel ’fro. Complications ensue.

The period-perfect everything is a hoot, as is the slow-burn character comedy. (The contrast between the buttoned-down programmers and the libertine encounter-ers is measured out beautifully.) But Bujalski clearly has more on his mind than mere laughs, here and there turning different threads of the story to the complications of connecting and the divide between the thinking brain and the messy rest of us. Not everything scans, or works (for example, a late-in-the-going break into color puzzles more than seems worth it), but if nothing else Computer Chess dazzles with the host of new imaginative possibilities it presents for telling stories onscreen, even in an era when people are starting to make movies on their phones.

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