Jane (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Elusive happiness in her harsh, despairing world

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South Korean film “Jane” begins with one story and then proceeds with another story to tell. While these two stories feel different from each other, they are gradually connected with each other as the movie observes the harsh, despairing world surrounding its wretched heroine, and the emotional resonance between these two stories induces our empathy toward her even though she turns out to be very unreliable as the narrator of her stories.

The first part of the movie revolves around the accidental relationship between So-hyeon (Lee Min-ji) and Jane (Koo Gyo-hwan). So-hyeon, a young runaway girl who was recently left alone by a lad with whom she had lived in a motel room, tries to kill herself, but then there comes Jane, a transgender nightclub hostess who was close to that lad. After stopping So-hyeon’s suicide attempt, Jane takes So-hyeon to her small but cozy residence where she lives with three other young runaways not so different from So-hyeon, and we see how Jane functions as a sort of mother to So-hyeon and other young runaways in her residence. Never demanding anything to them, Jane is always nice and kind to them, and So-hyeon and her fellow runaways are happy to be under her care while also being grateful to her in return.

However, it turns out there is the deep unhappiness inside Jane. As reflected by one brief scene, her body is not that healthy, and we gather that her mind has struggled with depression. As a sexual minority on the fringe of South Korean society, she must have lots of pain and sadness inside her, but she keeps going on with her life while not losing the capability of kindness and compassion, and there is a poignant moment when she casually admits to So-hyeon and others that life is usually pretty lousy but also emphasizes why one should live for little happiness despite that.

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For So-hyeon, Jane surely represents the little happiness coming into her gloomy life, and she often spends time along with Jane, but this happiness does not last long due to a sad, tragic incident which is followed by the second part of the movie. In this part, So-hyeon is in a much harsher condition; she happens to live in a small place along with other young runaways, and we soon meet the leader of the group, who is usually called ‘Daddy’ (Lee Seok-hyoung). ‘Daddy’ is not very nice to So-hyeon just because she does not get along very well with others, and there is an emotionally brutal scene where he and others corner helpless So-hyeon as accusing of something she did not commit. When Su-hyeon and other girls have to earn money for supporting the group, the movie only implies what they are demanded to do, but that is more than enough for us to sense and understand their grim reality.

The situation becomes grimmer as the group is shaken by an incident involved with one of the girls in the group who has been quietly trying to get away from the group. I will not go into details, but I can tell you instead that the movie is often gut-wrenching as showing how unforgiving the world inhabited by So-hyeon and other runaways can be. Whenever anyone happens to cross the line in their world, punishment inevitably and mercilessly follows, and we get a very tense moment later in the movie when So-hyeon faces the dire consequence of her unwise choice.

As the second part of the movie makes a striking contrast with the first part, a number of common story elements between them begin to draw our attention, and we also notice that several characters in the first part appear differently in the second part. The more we look back on the first part, the more it becomes possible that the first part is So-hyeon’s imagined story reflecting her reality in the second part, but then we are caught off guard by a rather unreal moment around the end of the second part, and we come to wonder what exactly happens at that point.

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While it is baffling at times, the movie keeps holding our attention as anchored by its emotional narrative, which is steadily held by its lead actress’ stellar performance. Lee Min-ji, who previously drew my attention via her breakthrough turn in small independent film “End of Animal” (2010), ably conveys her passive character’s vulnerability in her low-key appearance, and she is quite effective especially during the last few minutes of the film. While she does not say anything at that point, her expressive face fully expresses her character’s emotional state to us, and that is why that moment is quite touching

The supporting performers of the movie are equally good in their respective roles. Koo Gyo-hwan is simply flawless in his colorful performance reminiscent of Cillian Murphy in “Breakfast on Pluto” (2005), and that is why we can feel his character’s presence hovering around the movie even when she does not appear on the screen. Lee Joo-young, who previously appeared in Zhang Lu’s “A Quiet Dream” (2016), is also fabulous as another crucial supporting character in the movie, and Lee Seok-hyoung and several other main cast members of the movie are convincing as the young runaway characters in the film.

“Jane” is the first feature film by director/writer Cho Hyun-hoon, and his movie is a haunting piece of work which distinguishes itself with its unforgettable mix of dry realism and poetic beauty while also being thoughtful on its social subjects. This is indeed a tough stuff to watch, but I can assure you that the movie is one of the best South Korean films in this year.

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Wonder Woman (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Here comes Wonder Woman!

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Besides being more exciting and exhilarating than expected, “Wonder Woman” finally gives what its genre has desperately needed during recent years: strong, independent female superhero character. While this is another quintessential origin story, the movie is refreshing mainly thanks to its recognizable feministic touches, and it is also boosted by a number of galvanizing action sequences to enjoy. In short, this is an enthralling piece of entertainment a lot better than the tepid glumness of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016).

The early part of the movie tells us how Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) grew up as the princess of a remote hidden island called Themyscira, and we get to know a bit about her immortal female tribe living in that island. Since the ancient battle between Zeus and Ares ended with the former’s costly victory a long time ago, Amazons have trained themselves as mighty warriors for several thousand years because they must be always ready for the return of Ares, and we see how much young Diana wants to grow up to be a warrior just like her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and other Amazons. While her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) is willing to teach young Diana, Hippolyta, who got her dear daughter via a non-reproductive way as explained during one scene, is reluctant in contrast like any caring mother would, but then she eventually accepts that nothing can stop Diana and her destiny.

Around the time Diana begins to be aware of something which distinguishes herself from other Amazons, there comes an unexpected moment of invasion. A World War I fighter plane crashes into the sea around the island, and Themyscira is soon invaded by a bunch of German soldiers, who are pursuing the pilot of the fighter plane in question. He is an American pilot named Steven Trevor (Chris Pine), and it is revealed that he is with a piece of top secret information which can seriously affect the course of the ongoing war. It is 1918 and Germany is losing the war, but an ambitious German general is secretly planning to unleash a new chemical weapon on the front line, and Trevor must notify this imminent danger to his superiors in London as soon as possible.

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After hearing about the war from Trevor, Diana comes to believe that her time to go outside the island for confronting Ares has come. Despite her mother’s objection, she prepares herself with a number of weapons including the Lasso of Truth and the bracelets of infinite resilience, and she soon sails away from Themyscira along with Trevor.

When she and Trevor finally arrive in London, she is amazed and intrigued by many things in the human world, and the movie has lots of fun with how Diana’s irrepressible naïveté and forthright attitude often clash with the British society in the 1910s. There is a humorous scene where she tries many different outfits as assisted by Trevor’s good-humored secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), and then we get a sly moment when she comes into a conference room full of men and accordingly draws the attention of everyone in the room including Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis).

Through Sir Morgan’s unofficial support, Trevor and Diana go to the front line as she has wanted, and they are accompanied with three other guys: Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). While each of these guys is your average stock war movie character, they are depicted with each own colorful personality, and they also may remind you of those old war movies such as “The Dirty Dozen” (1967).

As Diana and her male comrades arrive at the front line in Belgium, the movie shifts itself into a grittier mode, and the director Patti Jenkins, who previously directed “Monster” (2003), surprises us with her deft handling of action sequences. I like how one certain action sequence unexpectedly starts and then goes all the way along with our unstoppable heroine, and I particularly appreciate how the movie never loses its sense of direction and physicality while swiftly moving from one action moment to another during this superlative sequence. Although the climax sequence during its third act is a little too bombastic for me as decorated with lots of CGIs, it thankfully remains driven by story and characters, and we accordingly come to care about the outcome even though we know well how it will end.

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While she already showed her considerable potential in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, this is the first time we see Gal Gadot on a full-fledged mode, and she does not disappoint us at all as giving a sincere performance packed with grace, bravery, innocence, confidence, compassion and a little sense of fun and humor. While I did not get much fun from Superman and Batman in their recent films by Zach Snyder (the screenplay of “Wonder Woman”, written by Allan Heinberg, is based on the story he wrote with Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, by the way), I was constantly amused thanks to the joy of performance palpably felt from Gadot’s acting, and the movie surely leaps high along with her whenever that is required.

The supporting performers in the film dutifully help Galdot leap higher. Balancing his performance well between jaded no-nonsense attitude and earnest idealism, Chris Pine clicks well with Gadot during their several key scenes, and Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, David Thewlis, and Danny Huston fill their respective spots as much as demanded. While Lucy Davis and Elena Anaya have their own small juicy moments, Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen look commanding right from their first appearance, and Nielsen is especially poignant during her bittersweet scene with Gadot.

Like “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), “Wonder Woman” is sincere and compassionate while also being fun and entertaining, and I enjoyed some of its striking visual moments as touched by the occasional poignancy observed from Wonder Woman and some other characters around her. The movie does sometimes feel like another summer blockbuster product of this year due to several weak points including its obligatory connection with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” (2017), but nobody will say that it does not have a big heart, and I am willing to wait for Wonder Woman’s next adventure.

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Our President (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): We miss you, President Roh

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South Korean documentary film “Our President” comes to its main audiences at a point which cannot possibly be more appropriate. As the country went through two lousy presidents during last 9 years and then managed to get some possibility of hope and change early in this year, I and many South Korean people came to miss President Roh Moo-hyun more than ever, and the documentary reminds us again that he was a good president who did not deserve his tragic ending at all. He strenuously and diligently fought for us as well as democracy for many years, but many of us did not treat him well especially after his presidency, and I still feel guilty whenever I think about a mean, crude remark on him I made in 2004.

The documentary mainly focuses on President Roh’s remarkable political rise during 2002. In the beginning, he was merely a lawyer who had been known mostly for his human rights activities during the 1980s, and the record of his political career during the 1990s was not so stellar to say the least. He went through several failed election campaign before finally becoming a congressman representing a district of Seoul, and then he experienced another defeat when he boldly ran for a congressional seat in a district of Busan, which was not exactly his party’s home ground but looked like a worthwhile challenge to him at that time. He simply wanted to bring changes into the local political system as an outsider, but the system turned out to be too solid to be cracked, and we get a painful moment showing his campaign people quite depressed by the election result despite his sincere words of consolation.

Nevertheless, this failed campaign drew considerable public attention, and then there came a turning point for Roh when his party tried a popular election system for the first time in deciding its candidate for the 2002 presidential election. This allowed a considerable number of common party supporters to participate in the process which had been exclusive to a group of core party members, and Roh and his people saw the slim but undeniable possibility of getting enough votes to make him the presidential candidate of his party.

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Although his approval rate was initially no more than 2%, Roh soon became a dark horse candidate as he won in several key regions of South Korea to the surprise of many people, and this certainly alarmed his main competitor Lee In-je, who was deemed to be the leading candidate before the election. Several archival footage clips in the documentary show how Lee gradually looked uncomfortable as Roh continued to advance while other major candidates left the race one by one, and I heard some chuckles from the audiences around me during these rather amusing moments.

Not so surprisingly, Lee attempted vicious accusations against Roh as the race became more volatile than before. He openly accused Roh of being a communist, and he even tried to smear the reputation of Roh’s wife just because she was the daughter of a left-wing partisan member. In addition, the opposing conservative party joined this despicable political attack mainly because Lee was deemed to be a less threatening presidential candidate than Roh, and several notable conservative newspapers also went along with that as throwing lots of sensational headlines aimed at Roh.

Nonetheless, Roh endured and prevailed, and he eventually won not only his party election but also the following presidential election. While he did stumble many times during his presidency, he was honest and reliable as the leader of our country, and that aspect was something I came to value more as infuriated and horrified by the greedy hypocrisy of President Lee Myung-bak and the sheer incompetence of President Park Geun-hye.

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Besides vividly presenting the high and low points of that dramatic year, the director Lee Chang-jae shows us various people who knew or worked with President Roh, and their interview clips tell us a bit about President Roh’s human sides. While they often point out Roh’s personal flaws including short temper and stubbornness, they all fondly remember him with respect and admiration, and one of the most poignant moments in the documentary comes from a former government agent who monitored Rho during the 1980s but then somehow came to befriend him. As they helped each other from time to time, they got closer to each other, and this odd friendship of theirs was continued until Roh’s death on May 23rd, 2009.

Every interviewee in the documentary cannot help but be emotional as talking about how they felt about his death, and that takes me back to when I heard the news on that sad day. After I got on a taxi for going to a movie theater, the taxi driver told me that President Roh killed himself, and I was shocked and angry while thinking about how much he had been humiliated by President Lee and his cronies. They unjustly grilled him during his last months just because of bribery allegations, and they virtually drove him to death in the end.

Although it does not show me anything new about its subject, “Our President” works as an earnest tribute to President Roh. During the screening I attended on last Sunday afternoon, many audiences around me showed audible emotional reactions at times, and they were probably touched a lot by the archival footage clip shown at the end of the documentary. No matter how hard and difficult it was for him, he always tried for changing our society, and I hope many people in South Korean keep remembering his hope and ideal.

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Paterson (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A bus driver poet in Paterson

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Several days ago, I went to the Iksan campus of Chonbuk National University for meeting several colleagues of my previous workplace. After meeting them and then having a little chat with them, I waited outside for a bus to the main campus in Jeonju for a few minutes, and that was during that brief time when I happened to notice something interesting. It was merely a plain campus field in broad daylight, but I could not help but spot the centrical composition glimpsed from that sight, so I instantly photographed it. While the photograph looks less magical now, I still remember what I felt during that time, and I will probably cherish that experience for years from now.

When I watched Jim Jarmusch’s latest film “Paterson”, I was quite delighted to find that the movie contains such small but memorable moments like that. Looking around the seemingly plain daily life of its sensitive, introverted hero, the movie effortlessly presents a good number of poetic scenes accompanied with dry humor and heartfelt beauty, and it is engrossing to watch how these beautiful moments lead to sublime artistic creation in one way or another.

The movie begins with its hero and his wife beginning another week of their simple daily life. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a young man working as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, and he lives with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bulldog in their cozy house. After waking up early and having a bowl of cereal for breakfast, he walks to a bus garage, and we see him driving a bus around the downtown areas of the city. After his working hour is over, he walks back to his house, and then, after having a dinner with Laura, he goes outside with their bulldog for walk. During the walk, he drops by a local bar run by a middle-aged black guy named Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and he always drinks no more than one glass of beer. Observing this routine of his repeated over the following weekdays, we gather that he has stuck to it for years and has no problem with that.

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Whenever he is not working, Paterson usually focuses on his poems, which are often inspired by small and big things he comes across during his daily routine. While driving his bus, he sometimes listens to the conversations of passengers sitting near him. At his workplace, his co-worker frequently tells him how he feels miserable as before due to his numerous family problems. During his solitary lunch time, he eats his lunch at the Great Falls of the Passaic River and appreciates its beauty alone for a while. At Doc’s bar, he and Doc spend time together as talking about many things including Lou Costello, who is incidentally one of famous figures from the City of Paterson.

Paterson has kept all of his poems in his private notebook, and he has not shown them to anyone except Laura. Laura thinks he should publish his poems someday, but he is reluctant about that. He is simply content with writing poems for himself and, sometimes, Laura as usual, and it is interesting to see how he and Laura complement each other in terms of personality and attitude. More extroverted than him in comparison, Laura openly shows her artistic sensibility through her lovely black and white interior design of their house, and this unpretentiously sweet woman is also willing to try something new and different unlike her husband. For instance, she gladly makes heaps of her special chocolate cupcakes for a local bazaar, and she also tries to be a guitar player at one point just because, well, she feels compelled to do that.

Steadily maintaining its leisurely narrative pace, the movie slips some notable changes into Paterson’s daily routine. At one point, he encounters a young girl who is as passionate about poetry as him, and we get a small touching moment when she shows him a poem she is currently working on. When his bus is suddenly stalled on the road for an unspecified problem, he calmly handles the situation, but, to our amusement, he experiences little inconvenience because of his detachment toward modern technology. Later in the movie, he decides to go outside along with his wife for a change, but that results in an unexpected incident which can be regarded as the sole dramatic happening in the film.

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The movie is basically in the realm of fantasy considering Paterson and Laura’s comfortably insular environment, but Jarmusch and his cinematographer Frederick Elmes fill the background of the film with the vivid, realistic sense of place and people. While the locations in the movie look mundane on the screen at first, we come to appreciate their humble beauty, and we can really sense what inspires Paterson in addition to the works of his favorite poet William Carlos Williams and other poets. Although I am usually pretty oblivious to the beauty of poetry, I can say that Peterson’s poems in the film, which are written by still-loving poet Ron Padgett, are pretty good in their plain, direct words, and I was actually impressed by their aesthetic quality (my favorite poem is the one inspired by some fancy match brand, by the way).

As the heart and soul of the movie, Adam Driver, who has been a performer to watch since he drew my attention for the first time through his breakout turn in HBO TV series “Girls”, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, which masterfully conveys his character’s glimmering artistic spirit to us without any excessive touch. While he and his co-star Golshifteh Farahani have nice understated chemistry between them, several notable supporting performers including Barry Shabaka Henley, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Method Man have their own moments around Driver, and the special mention must go to that adorable bulldog in the movie, which deservedly won the Palm Dog Award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year.

Although I was initially not so enthusiastic about Jarmusch’s films, I have admired his notable works including “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999), “Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003), “Broken Flowers” (2005) and “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013). Maybe because I have come to accept and enjoy his own style and wit, I was entertained by “Paterson” far more than expected, and I belatedly agree with others that this is indeed one of the best films in 2016.

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Neruda (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): An unconventional biopic inspired by Pablo Neruda

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“Neruda” is not a conventional biopic at all. While mainly focusing on one crucial point in Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s life, the movie freely mixes fact and fiction for giving us a wider view on not only the poet himself but also how art, politics, and life can be overlapped and influence each other. I must admit that I am not so sure about whether I absorbed and understood everything presented in the movie, and I also have some doubt on whether its last act works as well as intended, but this is still an admirable biopic with interesting aspects to notice and talk about.

The first act of the movie shows and tells us how Neruda, played by Luis Gnecco, became a wanted man in his country in 1948. Not long after being elected in 1946, President Gabriel González Videla changed his political position to anti-communism, and that certainly infuriated many left-wing politicians including Neruda, who in fact supported President Videla during his presidential election campaign. As shown during the opening scene, he is very outspoken about his opposition to President Videla and other right-wing politicians, and he soon gets himself impeached after he openly criticizes President Videla in the National Congress. This is promptly followed by a warrant of arrest for Neruda, and he has no choice but to go underground along with his Argentine wife Delia (Mercedes Morán).

The progress of Neruda’s plight is accompanied with the words from a cynical narrator who apparently dislikes everything Neruda stands for, and that creates an interesting narrative tension especially when the narrator sarcastically points out many contradictions in Neruda’s life. As an elite leftist quite comfortable with his bourgeois sides, Neruda certainly prefers having little bits of freedom in his hiding places to letting himself incarcerated for his political belief, and he surely lives better than many poor people in his country even though the situation has become far less luxurious for him than before.

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We soon meet the narrator in question, and we come to learn a bit about this fictional character as he begins his pursuit of Neruda. He is a detective named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), and he believes that he is an illegitimate son of a legendary police chief although his prostitute mother never told him who his father really was. For him, Neruda is a big opportunity to boost his social status, and he is ready to follow any trace which may lead him to Neruda.

However, he only finds himself always one or two steps behind his target. At one point, he almost catches Neruda at a bordello, but Neruda manages to evade Oscar and other policemen in a rather clever way coupled with some luck, and he continues to move from one place to another no matter how close Oscar is to arresting him.

And it looks like Neruda is well aware of his pursuer, because he frequently leaves behind pulpy detective novels for him. The movie has a wry self-conscious fun with establishing old-fashioned noir atmosphere around Oscar; his sulky narration is in fact as amusingly dry as your average hardboiled fiction, and we notice the tacky rear projection in the background whenever the characters in the movie are driving vehicles. The cinematographer Sergio Armstrong did a good job of evoking the texture of film noir through the striking use of shadows and lights during several scenes, and the score by Federico Jusid is effectively mixed with the classical works by Edvard Grieg, Charles Ives, and Krzysztof Penderecki to generate the moody ambience around the characters in the film.

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When Oscar meets Delia not long after she is separated from Neruda, the screenplay by the director Pablo Larraín and his co-writer Guillermo Calderón goes further with its interplay between fact and fiction, and the line between fact and fiction is blurred more than before as everything eventually culminates to the climatic sequence involved with Neruda’s escape attempt via a snowy path in the Andes Mountains. I still feel confused to some degrees about what Larraín tries to achieve here, but I can say at least that this sequence feels somehow profound when his two opposing characters’ paths finally converge on a certain point together.

The main performers are engaging to watch in each own way. Luis Gnecco initially looks plain but steadily holds the center even when he is not on the screen, and I appreciate how willingly he and the movie present Neruda’s flawed human aspects without any excuse. While he is indeed one of the greatest poets during the 20th century, Neruda in the movie is shown as a vain, egoistic womanizer who is far different from a gentler and kinder fictional version of Neruda in “Il Postino” (1994), and there is a small amusing scene which makes a little fun of his bald, overweight appearance, which is somehow compensated by his charm and poetry enough to draw many different women. On the opposite, Gael García Bernal, who previously collaborated with Larraín in “No” (2012), is suitably glum and brooding, and Mercedes Morán holds her place well between her two co-stars as a woman who has to put up with many things as standing by a man she loves.

Like Larraín’s recent other film “Jackie” (2016), “Neruda”, which was the official submission of Chile for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is a fascinating biopic told via unconventional approach, and I admire that even though it is a little too sprawling at times. I felt impatient during my viewing, but I enjoyed its mood and performance while reflecting on its cerebral themes later, so I recommend it to you with some reservation.

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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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