Day 4 Review – TCFF 2015 Gala Screening: Brooklyn

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Three of my most highly-anticipated films at TCFF premiered on Saturday. Two of them are studio features, Youth & Brooklyn and one is a small indie drama The Dust Storm, which I have reviewed here along with my interview w/ one of the director and cast members.

It was quite a whirlwind day starting with the Future of Film panel at 1pm with Rob Nelson from National Society of Film Critics, Ryland Aldrich from Twitchfilm.com and Emma Griffiths, Emma Griffiths PR. It’s great getting insights from film experts on the changing landscape of film promotion/distribution and various film trends. I also got to meet director Samuel Hathaway before his red carpet (check out my interview w/ him on The Old, Old Story), as well as David Spaltro whom I met a couple of years ago at TCFF. Great to see him back in town for his psychological horror film In The Dark (review & interview post coming next week!)


So here’s one of the reviews from Day 4:

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Brooklyn

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I’ve been waiting to see this film since it premiered at Sundance and so imagine how thrilled I was when I saw it on TCFF lineup!! I’ve been a fan of Irish thespian Saoirse Ronan since Atonement, Hanna and How I Live Now, which also premiered at TCFF two years ago. Suffice to say her casting was the main draw for me to see this and she did NOT disappoint.

As an immigrant myself, naturally the story of a young Irish immigrant moving to the United States resonated with me. Of course our circumstances are very different, but I identify with the feeling of homesickness and the challenges of navigating a whole new environment. Brooklyn is set in the 1950s. It opens with Eilis Lacey, the youngest of two Irish sisters living in a small town in County Wexford, Ireland. She’s offered a chance to move to New York City by a priest, for a chance of a new life. Her older sister Rose strongly supports that idea, even if that means she’d have to be the only one looking after their mother.

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The journey on the boat is quite excruciating for Eilis, but somewhere along the way she always ended up finding a friend to help her through it. The same way when she arrived in Brooklyn to stay in a Mrs. Kehoe’s Catholic boarding house along with four other girls. I LOVE Julie Walters here, she’s definitely the comic relief with her comments like ‘no talking about the Lord’s complexion at dinner!’ or ‘giddyness is the eighth deadly sins!’ She’s strict but not without a sense of humor. The always reliable Jim Broadbent provides an excellent supporting turn as the compassionate priest Father Flood who arranged for Eilis’ immigration.

Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will make you feel wretched, then will move on to somebody else…

I love the quote above from Father Flood to Eilis, and sure enough, soon Eilis’ able to overcome her homesickness as soon as she finds romance with an Italian boy Tony (Emory Cohen) who’s handsome and effortlessly charming. There’s a James Dean-esque vibe in his performance and perhaps that’s intentional. Soon he invites Eilis home to meet his very Italian family. I love the cultural aspects of the film, showcasing the different lives of American immigrants from different countries. There are amusing scenes such as when Eilis’ fellow boarding house friends teach her how NOT to splash spaghetti all over her blouse during dinner, and Iarla O’Lionaird as Tony’s smart-aleck-y 8-year-old brother Frankie was definitely a scene stealer!

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Life doesn’t always go according to plan however, and Eilis’ life changed abruptly that compels her to return back to Ireland. Life if full of tough choices, and that’s what happens with Eilis when she finds herself back in her home town. Suddenly there’s a decent life waiting for her in Ireland that she didn’t find before she moved to Brooklyn. A tentative romance also develops with a friend from her high school Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) that complicates matters. There’s nothing like two romantic prospects on both sides of the Atlantic that would get any girl torn, but there’s also more to it than that.
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I love how the seemingly-simple story of an immigrant girl can be so deeply poignant and moving. I remember liking John Crowley‘s British indie Boy A with Andrew Garfield, and he’s certainly has a way for capturing the anguish and torment of young people. The same with screenwriter Nick Hornby who penned About A Boy in crafting a heartfelt character-driven piece.

It’s definitely Saoirse Ronan‘s best work amongst her already illustrious career. At twenty, she’s the right age to portray Eilis, and she infused such gravitas into her role. She’s able to convey internal battle within her with just her eyes or a subtle smile, as there’s a great deal of economy of dialog in this film but everything has a purpose. Visually, the set design of 50s Brooklyn and Ireland are believable, captured beautifully by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But to me, it’s the story that I will remember most of all. Lest Hollywood forget, well-written story is the greatest special effects of all.

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Have you seen BROOKLYN? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: WILD (2014)

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Based on a memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a Minnesota native, it’s no surprise the TCFF screening last month was packed and there were a long line at the RUSH line trying to get tickets to the sold-out showing. As someone who haven’t read the book, I was intrigued by the female-driven story and was expecting to be entertained as well as enlightened. Alas, I got neither.

This movie is like Eat, Pray, Love 2.0 where a white woman in the midst of a life crisis decided to go on a journey of self-discovery. Now, instead of traveling the globe, in the mid 90s Cheryl hiked the 2,663 mi (4,286 km) long trail of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), all by herself. So the first act was quite amusing as we watched the petite Reese Witherspoon struggling to even carry her ginormous backpack twice her size and struggling to figure out how to put up a tent, cook a meal and so on. The film tells us in flashbacks who Cheryl is and how she ended up taking up such an extreme adventure. She went on such an arduous trek without much preparation, I mean the PCT is such a challenging terrain even for most experienced hikers. It seems that Cheryl went through life in a similar reckless manner, prompted by the death of her mother, played by the always affable Laura Dern.

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Though her family was poor, Cheryl’s mother was always there for her and she had such a sunny outlook on life even in the most dire circumstances. Her mother’s death from lung cancer wrecked the already-fragile Cheryl and her life went on a downward spiral. She drank, did drugs and slept with any willing man, even in a dirty alleyway. It’s no surprise her humiliated husband divorced her and even she didn’t fault him for doing so. In fact, her last name ‘Strayed’ was made up by Cheryl herself after the divorce, perhaps to signify her lost and philandering ways?

Witherspoon pulled all the stops in portraying Cheryl’s ‘warts and all’ persona, which includes posing nude, swearing up a storm, and pretty much anything we don’t expect from *America’s sweetheart.* But that’s the thing, I felt like the actress tried too hard to shed her ‘good girl’ image here, yet I feel she didn’t quite go far enough. For one I think she still looks too beautiful even sans makeup, never once did I believe her as a desperate person reaching her wit’s end. Some have said it’s a bravura and transformative performance but to me it looks superficial and bait-y, because she didn’t immerse us or make us empathize with the character.

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Perhaps an actress with a better range (like Cate Blanchett or even Emily Blunt) might’ve suited this role better. Other than Witherspoon and Dern, there are no other performances worth talking about. I only noticed Michiel Huisman as a guy she hooked up on her journey as I recognized him from some Game of Thrones stills, but he wasn’t given much to do than looking hunky.

The film itself also tried too hard to tug at my heartstrings that it felt manipulative. That is if you weren’t overwhelmed by the repetitive and at times jarring flashbacks to the point of ad nauseam. It’s worth noting that this is Jean Marc Valèe‘s follow-up film after the critically-acclaimed Dallas Buyer’s Club which was nominated for an Oscar, and the script was done by acclaimed writer Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education). Great pedigree to be sure, if only I had been more impressed by the result.

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The cinematography by Yves Bélanger of the PCT is perhaps the only thing I admire about this film, I mean it could double as an advertisement for the scenic trail (oh and for REI too, with its blatant product placement). Though the running time was under 2-hours, I felt like it went on for ages and I never felt more relieved to see end credits appearing on screen! I don’t mean to be so down on this movie, I suppose the themes of self-empowerment and perseverance are quite inspiring, but in the end, Cheryl Strayed remains emotionally distant to me.

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Have you seen WILD? I’m curious to hear what you think!