The Edge of Seventeen (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Edgy, witty, and heartfelt

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Edgy, witty, and heartfelt, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a genuine coming-of-age story about that tumultuous life period called adolescence. While it often throws some funny moments of incisive humor via its spunky heroine who tries to deal with her bumpy adolescent life, it never takes a condescending attitude to its heroine while showing a lot of care to not only her but also the other characters surrounding her, and the result is one of the better teenager films coming out during recent years.

The movie begins with its heroine hurriedly coming to her high school teacher for spewing out whatever is churning inside her heart, and then we are told about how she has been awkward and insecure ever since she was very young. While her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) has always been a popular kid in the neighbourhood, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has mostly been a loner in contrast, and she knows too well that her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is more partial to her brother than her.

At least, Nadine has Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who has been her only and best friend. Since Nadine’s father, who was quite dear to his daughter, passed away suddenly several years ago, Krista has accordingly become more important in Nadine’s life, but then there comes an unexpected happening which shakes their supposedly solid friendship. When Nadine and Krista have their small private drinking party in Nadine’s home while Nadine’s mother is absent, Darian also has his own party with his friends at the swimming pool outside the house, and he and Krista somehow come to have a very intimate physical encounter in the next morning.

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When Nadine happens to discover what is going on between her brother and her best friend, she is understandably upset about this, and then she becomes mad when Krista and Darian decide to be more serious about their accidental relationship. Maybe she should be happy about this as wishing the best for them, but she instead finds herself being further agitated with anger and jealousy, and she does not know what to do about this complicated circumstance while continuing to be angry and bitter toward Krista and Darian.

Meanwhile, she is eager to approach to some hunky boy in her school, but she keeps hesitating to show her feelings directly to him. When she finally gets a chance to approach to him in private, she only finds herself being clumsy and inarticulate in front of him, and we later get a hilarious moment involved with her indiscreet text message inadvertently sent to him.

When Erwin (Hayden Szeto, who is, believe or not, 31 at present), an Asian American boy who is in the same class with Nadine, approaches to her, Nadine does not have much interest in him at first, but then she lets him try to get closer to her, and he invites her to his house. Both of them naturally feel awkward as being alone together, but they gradually become a little more relaxed and comfortable with each other, and we get a sweet, tender moment between them as they simply hang around with each other in a big, posh swimming pool.

While Nadine continues to bounce around here and there as driven by her hormone-charged feelings, the screenplay by the first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig alternatively amuses and touches us via its deft balance between comedy and drama. Although she is not exactly likable, Nadine is a smart, witty girl with growing independent spirit, and her dynamic emotional struggle is depicted with a lot of sensitivity and empathy. We observe how unwise and foolish she can be while being occasionally self-absorbed just like any other adolescents around her age, but we can also understand her pain and confusion, and we come to cheer for her as she eventually learns some valuable life lessons through her difficult circumstance.

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It surely helps that the movie is supported well by the wonderful performance from its lead performer. Hailee Steinfeld, who drew our attention for the first time through her Oscar-nominated turn in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” (2010), shows here that she is indeed a very talented actress to watch; besides effortlessly conveying to us her character’s conflicted feelings, she delightfully wields her character’s witty side at times, and what she achieves here is as enjoyable as Ellen Page in “Juno” (2007) or Emma Stone in “Easy A” (2010).

The supporting performers around Steinfeld are equally engaging in their colorful performances imbued with personality and humanity. As Nadine’s best friend, Haley Lu Richardson is believable in her casual rapport with Steinfeld, and that is why their several key scenes in the film work on emotional levels. While her character may feel broad at first, Kyra Sedgwick brings considerable human depth to her character, and Blake Jenner, who was the amiable center of Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016), has a wonderful moment when his character reveals deep feelings he has kept behind his seemingly confident appearance. Constantly looking unflappable throughout the film, Woody Harrelson gives a droll supporting performance as Nadine’s high school teacher, and he is both funny and caring as his character tactfully handles his problematic student with understanding and patience.

Overall, “The Edge of Seventeen” distinguishes itself well via its smart, humorous, and thoughtful handling of story and characters, and its many good moments will probably remind you again of how difficult it is to grow up during adolescent years. It is indeed hard and painful for her, but she grows up in the end – like many of us did.

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Miss Sloane (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): By Any Means Necessary

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It is always entertaining to watch smart people doing their job well, and the heroine of “Miss Sloane” is one of such good cases. While we are amazed or horrified by how far she is willing to go for getting her job done, she is a fascinating human character to observe nonetheless, and the movie is firmly anchored by the top-notch lead performance at its center. We do not exactly like her, but we cannot help but wonder how she will deal with her increasingly difficult circumstance, and the movie provides enough thrill and suspense to compensate for its rather conventional plot.

Jessica Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, one of the most prominent lobbyists working in Washington D.C. After the opening sequence which gives us a glimpse of what will possibly happen to her in the end, the movie moves back to when she was supervising her latest lobbying job several months ago. As she relentlessly pushes herself and others around her, it is clear to us that she is the smartest person in the room, and Chastain exudes intense intelligence and authority as her character holds the attention of everyone else in the room.

While that lobbying job is about to be successfully finished, Sloane’s boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston) arranges a meeting between her and Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata), a representative from some powerful gun manufacturing association (the movie never mentions its name although we can clearly see that it is a fictional version of National Rifle Association). Sanford wants to block a recently proposed gun-control bill that would expand background checks on gun purchases, and he wants Sloane to handle the opposing campaign against that gun-control bill because of Sloane’s impeccable success record.

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However, Sloane flatly rejects Sanford’s request because she is not against gun-control, and then she goes farther than that when she is later approached by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the CEO of a modest lobbying firm who is preparing for the campaign for that gun-control bill. After having a brief conversation with Schmidt, she leaves her firm on the very next day for moving to Schmidt’s firm, and some of the people working under her are persuaded to go along with her although her chance of win is slim to say the least. Besides their enormous financial source, Dupont and Sanford can pull many strings around numerous politicians in Washington D.C., and there are also Jane Molloy (Alison Pill) and Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), Sloane’s former co-workers who know Sloane enough to be her match.

Because of these formidable opponents of hers, Sloane is ready to use any tactic deemed to be necessary in her view, and this makes Schmidt and others in his firm quite uncomfortable. At one point, Sloane successfully finds a spy in Schmidt’s firm, but Schmidt is deeply upset by her clandestine method, and then there comes a crucial moment when Sloane deliberately pushes one of her new co-workers into media spotlight just for gaining more strategic advantage.

As Sloane keeps going further by any means necessary, the screenplay by Jonathan Perera never makes any excuse for its heroine, and neither does Chastain, who has been one of the most interesting actresses of our time since her sudden breakthrough in 2011 via several movies including “The Tree of Life” (2011), “The Help” (2011), and “Take Shelter” (2011). Filled with fierce, steely determination which reminds me of her Oscar-nominated performance in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), Chastain goes all the way as embodying her character’s strong and weak points, and she never loses the edgy, abrasive sides of her character while subtly conveying her character’s humanity to us. There is an eventual moment as Sloane faces the consequence from deceiving and manipulating her opponents as well as people working with her, but she knows she must go on while never looking back, and Chastain is simply captivating as her character steadily maintains her firm façade in spite of accumulating pressure on her.

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Under the director John Madden’s competent direction, the movie smoothly goes from one narrative point to another, and I enjoyed it on the whole even though I could clearly see through the plot from the very beginning. I think the finale is a little too neat, but Chastain makes it work despite that minor flaw, and I will not deny that I found myself more involved in her character’s situation than expected.

The movie is basically Chastain’s show, and the notable supporting performers around Chastain fill their roles as required. Mark Strong and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are Sloane’s less jaded colleagues, and Mbatha-Raw is particularly good when her character comes to feel far wearier of Sloane than before. Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Chuck Shamata, Christine Baranski, Jake Lacy, Dylan Baker, and Sam Waterston are also effective in their respective roles, and the special mention goes to John Lithgow, who is solid as a senator prepared to ruin Sloane’s career once for all as demanded.

Compared to many other recent political thriller films and TV series “House of Cards”, “Miss Sloane” does not bring anything new to its genre except its strong female protagonist, but it is still an entertaining film mainly thanks to Chastain’s terrific performance. Again, she does not disappoint us at all, and she surely gives us a piece of work to watch.

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Lost in Paris (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A whimsical slapstick comedy set in Paris

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French film “Lost in Paris” is a whimsical comedy mainly driven by various amusing moments of slapstick comedy. It surely has its own offbeat charm and the audiences around me frequently giggled during the screening I attended, but the movie was not that funny for me as I constantly noticed its many artificial aspects, which were, to be frank with you, a little too much for me to ignore.

Right from the opening scene set in a remote town located somewhere in the arctic area of Canada, I knew I should not expect anything realistic from the movie. When the town is shown from the distance during this scene, you can clearly see that it is a model set, and it goes without saying that the two performers playing a young girl and her aunt are in front of a snowy CGI background.

Many years have passed, and that girl, named Fiona (Fiona Gordon), now becomes your typical spindly spinster. She works at a local library, and the place looks so modest with a small quantity of books that I did not know at all that it was a library before reading a review by Todd McCarthy later. The weather is cold, snowy, and windy in the town as before, and we accordingly get a silly moment when Fiona and others in the library barely hold themselves against the mighty wind coming into the library along with a mailwoman.

The mailwoman delivers a letter to Fiona, and it is from her aunt Marta (Emmanuelle Riva, who died two months before the movie was released in France), who left the town and then went to Paris many years ago. As being over 80, Aunt Marta may be sent to a facility for old people, but that is the last thing wanted by this plucky old lady still enjoying her joie de vivre, so she sent a letter to her niece for help, though its delivery was considerably delayed due to a hilarious reason I will not reveal here.

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After reading her aunt’s letter, Fiona immediately flies to Paris, but she only finds herself stranded in Paris due to a series of bad lucks as well as her woefully unprepared status. While not changing her plain attire much, she just carries a red backpack with a Canadian flag on the top of it, and she gets herself into several slapstick situations thanks to her clumsiness. There is a sort of pratfall moment when she steps back a bit too far while trying to get a photograph of herself on one of those bridges on the Seine river, and, though this is not one of those outrageous selfie accidents, I think she should never be allowed to try a selfie for the rest of her life.

Because of that unfortunate accident, she loses her backpack containing her money and passport, and she is further frustrated when she finally comes to an apartment building where her aunt lives. She cannot enter her aunt’s apartment because her aunt is absent for some reason, so she has no place where she can stay and sleep, and we subsequently get a deadpan moment unfolded at a nearby laundromat.

Meanwhile, a vagrant guy name Dom (Dominique Abel) comes into the picture via sheer coincidence. As he spends another his ‘usual’ day around the Seine river, he happens to find Fiona’s lost backpack, and he does not hesitate to use the money and other things in the backpack. Thanks to Fiona’s money, he is allowed to have a dinner at a fancy restaurant on the river, and then we are served with a comic sequence reminiscent of the works of Jacques Tati.

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And that is when Dom comes across Fiona. Right from when he sees her, Dom becomes attracted to Fiona, and he tries to charm her while dancing with her at the restaurant, but then she belatedly realizes that he is using her money and other things. Not long after they become separated via another slapstick moment, Dom approaches to Fiona again, and she reluctantly lets him accompany her when she goes to a certain place for seeing her aunt.

Of course, these two different characters are destined to get closer to each other as they bounce together from one comic situation to another, and the co-directors/co-writers Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon skillfully handle many of their physical comedy scenes with distinctive comic sensibility. Although I only saw a few scenes from their previous film “Rumba” (2008) via its trailer, I could instinctively sense their own whimsical touches during my viewing of “Lost in Paris”, and Abel and Gordon, who worked together for a long time even before their debut feature film “L’iceberg” (2005), click together well on the screen like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with a touch of silent comedy movie stars such as Buster Keaton.

And there is Emmanuelle Riva, who feels quite different from her heartbreaking Oscar-nominated performance in “Amour” (2012). Like Gordon and Abel, she is willing to go for fun and laugh, and she and Pierre Richard have a charming scene when their characters try to relive their good old time while sitting on a bench together. I wondered whether Gordon and Abel used stand-ins while shooting this scene, but it is presented with the quirky sense of fun to amuse and delight us, so I enjoyed it as feeling a little sad about Riva’s passing, which happened early in this year.

I liked “Lost in Paris” to some degrees, but it did not particularly hold my attention well due to its contrived plot and thin characterization, and I think it could be more hysterical or eccentric for more genuine laughs. The movie was not a waste of time, but I would rather recommend you the works of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton first.

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Baldwin Remembers

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First, let me confess that I am not that familiar with James Baldwin, a renowned African American writer who was one of the notable figures in the Civil Rights Movement in US during the 1960s. Although I came to know a bit about him through a brief scene in “Capote” (2005) (“Jimmy. Your book is about a Negro homosexual who’s in love with a Jew. Wouldn’t you call that a problem?”) and then learned a little more about him during recent years, I have never tried to explore his books, which have been one of numerous blind spots in my knowledge in fact.

Considering that it mainly focuses on Baldwin’s ideas and philosophy instead of providing a wider view of his life and career, I may not be an ideal audience for Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro”, but the documentary still engaged me thanks to its compelling collage of words and images, and I came to reflect more on his sharp, eloquent observation on the inconvenient sides of the American society. While there have been some progresses in the American society indeed, race is still a troubling issue there as shown from many recent incidents, and his words accordingly feel relevant as before.

In 1979 June, Baldwin planned a personal book project focusing the Civil Rights Movement era via the life and death of three legendary activists who were also his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As reflected by his letter to his agent Jay Acton, he was eager to proceed with what could have been his magnum opus, but his project was ultimately left unfinished only with a 30-page manuscript, and he passed away several years later.

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The excerpts from that unfinished manuscript, read by Samuel L. Jackson on a rare understated mode, are accompanied with a deft mix of various archival footage, photographs, news clippings, and documents, and the result is a vivid glimpse into that violent, tumultuous time in US during the 1960s. As the Civil Rights Movement was continued against segregation, racism showed its ugly face throughout the country in response, and there are a number of sobering moments as the documentary shows several archival footage clips and photographs of white people being openly racist in public.

Even when he was a young boy growing up on Harlem Streets, Baldwin was keenly aware of the racism prevalent in the American society. Watching John Wayne movies, he recognized their racist aspects, and he found himself more identifying with Indian characters rather than John Wayne. He also noticed that many black characters in those old Hollywood films are caricatures far from real black people he knew, and he certainly felt anger and contempt about that.

Baldwin eventually moved to Paris in 1948, and he could have just stayed there as wanted, but then there came a turning point when he saw the harrowing photographs of Dorothy Counts, a young black girl in North Carolina who had to endure several humiliating days for attending a high school attended by white students. Although he did not miss his country much (“I have never been lovesick for anything American.”), he saw that he had to observe and participate in the Civil Rights Movement, and that was how he came to meet Medgar Evers, who guided Baldwin in the South for Baldwin’s subsequent article “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.

He also met Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and we get an amusing episode on how nervous Baldwin was when he found Malcolm X sitting right in the very first front row before beginning his public speech in front of many audiences. As observing how much Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were different from each other in many aspects, Baldwin also points out that they eventually converged on common areas, and we can only wonder how much these two towering figures would have achieved more together if they had not died so early.

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Baldwin’s words vividly describe to us those sad, despairing moments caused by the deaths of his three friends. Not long after he said goodbye to Evers, he heard the news about Evers’ death while he was in Puerto Rico, and that bright tropical day felt far less sunny to his eyes. When he was in London a few years later, he heard from his sister about the assassination of Malcolm X, and that was another devastating blow to him. While he was working on the screenplay for a Malcolm X biopic film in LA during 1968, there came the news of King’s death, and the situation continued to look less optimistic than before while that biopic film in question never got made (he wanted Billy Dee Williams to play Malcolm X, by the way).

As trying to be optimistic with reserved hope, Baldwin also showed his deep worry and despair as alarmed by how the American society kept letting itself deluded as before. During one archival footage clip from the Dick Cavett show, he clearly and passionately made his points in front of Cavett and a smug white intellectual guest, and his argument uncomfortably resonates with the present of the American society. As he shrewdly discerned, the American society is mired in virulent denial and moral apathy without never fully facing its race problems and their origin for many years, and, as many of you know, it surely excels itself during the recent Presidential election.

Although it is sometime a little too heavy-handed in its juxtaposition of the past and present of the American society, “I Am Not Your Negro” is impressive as a meditative observation on James Baldwin as a writer and observer, and I particularly enjoyed his pointed observation on Sidney Poitier’s several classic films such as “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). Overall, this is one of the better documentaries coming out during last year, and it can be a good introductory guide to you if you are unfamiliar with Baldwin and his works like me.

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Get Out (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Guess who’s coming for weekend…

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Reminiscent of those sinister paranoid thriller films made during the 1970s, “Get Out” is willing to unnerve us as providing a fair share of suspense as well as the biting sense of black humor. During my viewing, I could not help but amused and thrilled as enjoying how it pushes its premise to generate several nice twisted moments coupled with thought-provoking aspects, so now I advise you not to read the following paragraphs although I will try as much as I can for avoiding any potential spoiler.

After the prologue scene which effectively sets the overall tone of the film, we meet Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, who will appear as one of the supporting characters in upcoming film “Black Panther” (2018)), a young promising photographer who has been in the relationship with a girl named Rose (Allison Williams) for a while. He and Rose are soon going to pay a weekend visit to Rose’s parents, and Chris is a bit nervous because of an apparent reason; He is black and she is white.

Although Rose assures him that her white parents are your average open-minded liberals who would vote for Barack Obama more than twice, Chris cannot entirely suppress his anxiety. Yes, it has been 50 years since “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) came out, but interracial relationship is still a matter which instantly draws our attention even though it is more widely accepted at present, and Chris’ close friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) makes a jolly fun of Chris’ uneasy circumstance during their phone conversation.

As a matter of fact, there is an acerbic moment when Chris and Rose talk with a local white cop due to an unfortunate incident on the road. Although Rose is the one driving their car, the cop demands Chris to show his driver’s license card, and Chris knows the reason too well. While watching this uncomfortable moment of unfairness, you may be reminded of how thousands of young American black males are frequently targeted by police officers just because of their race – and the tragic ramifications of this troubling tendency.

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Anyway, Rose and Chris eventually arrive in the house of Rose’s parents, which is located in the middle of some remote rural area. Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) seem to have no problem with their dear daughter being with a black guy, but Chris cannot help but notice how Dean and Missy try a little too hard in front of him, and that awkward feeling is further increased when Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives at the house. During the dinner, Jeremy throws some blatant questions about Chris’ physicality, and that certainly makes everyone else at the table a bit uncomfortable.

In addition, there is something very strange about two black people employees, who, according to Dean, were hired when Dean’s diseased parents were alive. They all say they are fine with working for their white employers, but they look quite strained to Chris at times. Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who works as a housekeeper, looks mild and courteous at first, but she often looks cold and distant, and then there comes a weird moment when she seems to be on the verge of a sort of mental breakdown right in front of Chris. In case of Walter (Marcus Henderson), who works a groundkeeper, he seems to disapprove of Chris’ relationship with Rose while never saying that loud and clear, and he also has a rather bizarre habit as shown during one moment.

The situation becomes all the more unsettling as a special weekend party is held for a bunch of Dean and Missy’s friends, who are mostly, yes, affluent white people. They are all invariably nice to Chris, but Chris keeps noticing more strange things. When he happens to see a black guy who is apparently one of the party guests, he approaches to that guy out of curiosity, but he soon finds that guy is as odd as Walter and Georgiana, and we get a creepy moment as it turns out that, for some unknown reason, the guests are far more interested in Chris than they seem on the surface.

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The movie steadily dials up the level of tension with a number of tense moments shrouded in subtle menace. One crucial scene involved with a certain character’s professional skill is an exemplary case of how to spring a good surprise for the audiences, and I also like a mute but increasingly insidious scene where the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a major detail for suggesting what is really going on among a group of characters.

It surely helps that the performers in the film are convincing as required. While Daniel Kaluuya holds the center as we come to worry more about his character, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener have lots of fun with their roles as keeping their appearance straight all the time, and Allison Williams is also believable as a girl who stands by her man as much as she can. Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, and Lakeith Stanfield are effectively disturbing in their respective supporting roles, and Lil Rel Howery provides a few relieving moments of laughs as functioning as a minor comic relief in the movie.

I must point out that “Get Out” starts to lose its narrative momentum around its third act like many thriller films, but the director/writer Jordan Peele, who has mainly been known for his partnership with Keegan-Michael Key in their sketch comedy TV series “Key & Peele”, did a competent job of mixing genre elements and social issues which are all the more relevant these days, and I think the movie will be frequently mentioned along with a number of recent notable American black films in the future. This is a darkly entertaining genre piece made with considerable skill and intelligence, and I hope that my review does not spoil your fun yet.

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20th Century Women (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Three interesting women in his adolescent life

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“20th Century Women” is a warm, sensitive, and humorous film about one adolescent boy who grows up with several colorful people around him during a notable social/cultural transition point in the 20th century American society. Now it sounds like your average quirky Sundance film, but its story and characters are imbued with the genuine sense of life and personality, and we are instantly drawn to their human matters as getting to know more about them.

The story is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, and the movie opens with one sudden absurd accident which happens to a car belonging to Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning). Brimming with her own gentle but strong personality, Dorothea is quite an open-minded woman who has surely had an interesting life as reflected by a montage sequence on her life. We learn that she went through the Depression era during her early years, and that hard time was probably the basis of her exceptional personality. While she went through a good number of men after her divorce, she does not feel the need of marrying again, and she also has no problem with raising her teenager son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone for years.

She lives with her son in a boarding house, where they live with their two tenants. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a young, independent photographer who is recently diagnosed that she has cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup) is a nice dude who once had a carefree time during the 1960s and now works as a carpenter/potter/mechanic without much thought on what will be the next step for his life. Added to this odd mix is Julie (Elle Fanning), a teenager girl who has been a close friend to Jamie since they were very young. As shown and told to us via her montage sequence, she is not so happy at her home, and that is the reason why she frequently comes into Jamie’s bedroom at night. Like any other boy around his age, Jamie becomes interested in going further than merely sleeping with her on his bed, but Julie does not allow that although she has already experienced several sexual encounters. She simply wants to remain as a friend to him, and this certainly confuses and frustrates Jamie.

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As Jamie grows up day by day, it seems to Dorothea that her son needs more than her love and care for becoming a man, especially after one serious incident caused by a seemingly harmless prank among him and his friends. Maybe he needs a male role model, but William is not exactly qualified for that, so Dorothea suggests that Abbie and Julie should lead and teach him, though neither they nor Dorothea knows what exactly Jamie needs in this transition period of his.

Anyway, Abbie and Julie try as much as they can. Besides showing more of her current illness to Jamie, Abbie teaches him feminism via several books, and that leads to one of the most humorous moments in the film when Jamie explains to his mother how he got himself into a fight with some other boy. While still keeping the distance between Jamie and her, Julie comes to have more frank moments with him than before, and we get an amusing moment involved with her pregnancy test kit, which requires far more time than the ones in our era.

Meanwhile, Dorothea comes to feel more of the ongoing social/cultural change happening around her. The change is indeed coming as the 1970s is about to be ended, and that is reflected particularly well by the scene featuring the resigned speech of Jimmy Carter on TV, which feels like a sort of prelude to the approaching era of Ronald Reagan. At one point, she goes to a local nightclub along with William and Abbie, and she becomes more aware of the widening gap between her and her son during one reflective moment.

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Rather than being driven by plot, the screenplay by the director Mike Mills, who received a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for his film early in this year, takes its time as carefully establishing its period background and characters via small individual moments. With modest but authentic period details which never draw our attention too much, its characters come to us as real human beings interesting enough to observe, and Mills also adds a nice recurring visual touch to accentuate the drifting sense of time around his characters.

Mills draws terrific performances from his main cast members. Annette Bening is warm and radiant in one of her best acting turns during recent years, and Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are equally wonderful in their respective nuanced performances. While Billy Crudup also gives a solid supporting performance on the fringe, young performer Lucas Jade Zumann holds his own place well among his co-performers. These talented performers are constantly engaging as flawlessly interacting with each other on the screen, and that is exemplified well by one particular scene unfolded on a dinner table. The mood suddenly becomes awkward as one of the characters in the scene blurts out something rather inappropriate, and the scene becomes increasingly nervous with more awkwardness, but we cannot help but amused thanks to the good comic timing of the main cast members.

Overall, “20th Century Women” is an intimate, observant character drama to admire, and it is as enjoyable as Mills’ previous work “Beginners” (2011), which can be regarded as the companion piece of “20th Century Women” considering that both of them are partially inspired by Mills’ relationship with his parents in real life. The loose narrative structure of the movie may require some patience, but it is worthwhile to watch thanks to its smart, thoughtful storytelling as well as a bunch of well-rounded performances to appreciate, and the result is delightful and heartfelt to say the least.

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Embrace of the Serpent (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two parallel journeys into Amazonian jungle

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Sometimes I come across movies which both baffle and fascinate me, and Columbian film “Embrace of the Serpent”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in last year, is one of such cases. Although I watched it twice, I am not sure about whether I understand everything in the movie, and now I wonder whether I should learn more of its background knowledge, but I do not think I will forget easily what I observed from the film with a certain degree of fascination and enchantment.

Loosely based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Shultes, the movie alternates between two fictional main storylines. In 1909, a German ethnologist named Theo von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) happens to contract some serious tropical disease during his expedition in Columbian Amazon area, and Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), Theo’s local expedition partner who was freed from a rubber plantation by Theo, takes Theo to a shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres). As a man who has been angry and bitter about how his people and their way of life was eradicated by the colonization process initiated by Europeans, Karamakate shows hostility toward Theo as well as Manduca at first, but he eventually joins them, and that is the beginning of their search for a rare plant which can cure Theo’s illness and save his life.

The other part of the movie is set in around 30 years later, and the first scene of this part shows Old Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) drawing a vast chalky mural on the rock. While he is occupied with his mural, an American botanist named Evan (Brionne Davis) approaches to him, and Evan tells Old Karamakate that he is looking for that rare plant Theo and Karamakate searched for. Although it seems he does not remember many things in the past now, Old Karamakate comes to accompany Evans in the end, and they start to follow a route which was once trodden by Theo and his two accompanying figures.

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As going back and forth between these two parallel storylines, the movie flows from one interesting scene from another. At one point, Theo and his two accompanists drop by a small tribal community, and the mood becomes jolly and cordial as they get along well with its chief and community members, but then there comes an uncomfortable moment in the next morning when Theo tries to retrieve a compass taken from him. He simply does not want to disrupt these people’s way of life with a modern object, but, as Karamakate sharply points out, he does not look much different from other white men as being harsh and unkind to the people who openly welcomed him.

As the journey continues along the river, the movie often shows us several gloomy sights reflecting the ongoing exploitation involved with rubber business, and the most harrowing scene in the film comes from when Theo and his accompanists come upon a small rubber plantation. Apparently upset due to his painful past reflected by the scars on his back, Manduca kicks off several buckets of rubber, but then there comes a wretched worker devastated by Manduca’s action, and he even pleads Manduca to kill him for saving him from more misery to come.

In case of a shabby mission which was originally a rubber plantation, a bunch of indigene orphans are protected by an old priest, but, not so surprisingly, this place turns out to have its own darkness, and it turns into something far worse when Evan and Old Karamakate happens to pass by the place later. Now it is occupied by a bunch of cultists led by an apparently unhinged guy who rules the place as their messiah, and we soon get a loony ceremony scene which looks more nightmarish as the ceremony is driven into more madness.

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Now some of you may be reminded of similar films such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) or “Apocalypse Now” (1979), but “Embrace of the Serpent” has its own distinctive aspects. The director Ciro Guerra, who wrote the screenplay with Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, and his cinematographer David Gallego shot their film in 35mm black and white film, and the movie is imbued with the qualities of lucid dreams as constantly impressing us with visually striking shots to be appreciated. While the plot is a little too opaque and languid at times, the movie keeps engaging us via its visual prowess, and we become more immersed in its alien but undeniably mesmerizing world and then somehow come to accept the mythic aspect of its story. Not long after the meaning of the title of the movie is explained through Old Karamakate later in the story, there comes a hallucinogenic moment which somehow took me back to that climax sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and I am still musing on the subsequent scene which ends with an ambivalent tone.

Most of performers in the film are non-professional performers, and they certainly bring considerable authenticity to their roles with their various indigene languages, which may be faded into the past within decades because of the continuing wave of modernization. While they never appear together on the screen, Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar are effortlessly linked to each other in their natural performance, and Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis are competent as the counterpoint figures in the movie, and Yauenkü Migue is also fine as another substantial character in the story.

Since it won the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, “Embrace of the Serpent” has received heaps of acclaim. I must say that I am not as enthusiastic about it as many other critics, but I admire its style and mood even though I felt impatient from time to time, and I am willing to recommend it to you if you are looking for something unique and different.

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