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TIFF: Sea Fever

The ocean depths hold many secrets. Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) has devoted her young career to studying the patterns of ocean life in an effort to take the mystery out of the sea. Little does she know that a sea creature awaits her, beyond the scope of anything she has ever studied or could ever know.

Siobhán joins a fishing trawler manned by married couple Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott). Fisherman are incredibly superstitious and Siobhán’s red hair is a sign that they’re in for some bad luck. Also on the vessel are a trio of fisherman Sudi (Eli Bouakaze), Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Ciara (Olwen Fouere) as well as fellow scientist Omid (Ardalan Esmaili). Siobhán is quiet, serious and anti-social and the spirited Johnny starts to bring her out of her shell. The bad luck rears its ugly head when a luminous creature that spews a blue slime, latches its tentacles onto the boat. Siobhán, the only one on board equipped for scuba diving, meets the creature face to face. The shipmates soon learn that the creature has wiped out the crew of another trawler and they’re next. One by one the creature exposes its blue slime into open wounds, laying its eggs that explode out of its victims. Will the crew be able to escape in time before the creature infects them all?

Sea Fever feels both classic and brand new. It’s in the same vein of those classic sci-fi thrillers where the creature serves a vessel to help tell a very human story. Writer and director Neasa Hardiman offers a slick and emotionally devastating story. There are so many themes that come bubbling up to the surface. Man versus nature, fear of the unknown, the importance of social bonds, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

There are no stereotypes. Everyone is their own character, true to themselves and not a pawn for the sake of the story. Siobhán is a fascinating protagonist and Hermione Corfield does her justice. Studious, smart and emotionally distant, we see her grow over time as she becomes the film’s hero. It’s great to see what a woman director/writer can do with a science fiction story featuring a strong female lead. Sea Fever had me enthralled. I usually don’t go for this genre but I’m glad I took a chance on this film. It’s thrilling in a quiet way. It’s not splashy, doesn’t depend on elaborate action sequences or fancy special effects (although the special effects it does have are pretty slick). Instead it latches on to its characters and won’t let go.

Sea Fever had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.

Rafiki

Ever since I missed the opportunity to watch Rafiki at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve been meaning to rectify that mistake. The good folks at Film Movement recently released Rafiki on DVD, giving me an opportunity to watch this beautiful film.

Directed by Wanuri Kahiu, Rafiki follows the story of two Kenyan girls, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). One day Kena spots the stunning Ziki. She stands out with her brightly colored long hair. The pair lock eyes and are instantly smitten. Kena and Ziki come from two different worlds albeit in the same community. Tensions between Kena’s divorced parents heighten when Kena and her mom find out that her dad’s new girlfriend is expecting. Ziki and Kena start dating and soon begin to fall in love. The risk of being caught comes with potentially severe consequences. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and looked down upon in the community. Not only that, Kena and Ziki’s fathers are political rivals and in a small town with an election on the horizon, rumors fly and the two must face the possibility of being found out.

Rafiki is a gorgeously haunting film that is equal parts heart-breaking and hopeful. The two stars Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva shine and I hope to see much more from them. The actors alternate between Swahili and English and Kena and Ziki mostly speak English to each other. The film has a strong sense of place and beautiful color palette. It’s vibrant and full of life. It’s simple yet bold.

 

The story lingers on Kena and Ziki’s relationship giving the audience an opportunity to spend a lot of time in their world. We develop an appreciation for their attraction to each other on a physical and emotional level which makes their separation all that more painful. Don’t worry. This film will not destroy you. It will fill you with hope for Kena and Ziki and for the future. Rafiki was banned in Kenya and soon became a darling on the festival circuit. We need to keep championing this film. Watch it. Love it. Share it far and wide.

Film Movement’s DVD includes a beautiful presentation of the film and includes subtitles. A bonus short film, Hudson directed by Shae Xu is included. That film tells the story of a divorced mom who struggles to introduce her teenage son to her new girlfriend.

Rafiki is available to purchase on DVD on the Film Movement website.

Thank you to Film Movement for sending me Rafiki to review. 

The Spy Behind Home Plate

“He was a man apart… different from the others.”

Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.

Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German. 

A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.

The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.

The Fever and the Fret

High school student Eleanor Mendoza (Adelina Amosco) is tormented by her peers. Why? Because of large birthmarks on her face. They taunt her, harass her, spread rumors about her and physically abuse her. One student in particular, Carly (Vanessa Carmona), really has it out for Eleanor. As a result Eleanor has become incredibly withdrawn and barely speaks to her peers. Ms. Gutierrez (Kathleen Changho) reaches out to Eleanor but can’t help her to the fullest extent because of Eleanor’s lack of communication. To escape the torment, Eleanor finds solace working on her art at home where she lives with her grandmother (Shirley Cuyagan O’Brien) and in her affair with an older man, Alex (Rod Rodriquez) who runs the restaurant where Eleanor works part-time. As things escalate, Eleanor is overwhelmed by the pain and enters an altered state. In this alternate world, she imagines herself in a desolate and beautiful natural space. She’s essentially alone but is joined by an imaginary child who represents her younger self in various stages of development. When a confrontation with Carly turns ugly, Eleanor world starts to fall apart. Will she be able to find her voice again and stand up for herself? Can she find any semblance of happiness in the real world?

Directed and written by Cath Gulick, The Fever and the Fret is a powerful anti-bullying tale that isn’t afraid to dive into the pain and the torment victims suffer and the feeling of helplessness as those who hold social power continue to victimize them. Adelina Amosco delivers a powerful yet subdued performance as Eleanor. The camera spends much time on Eleanor’s face which is marked also her countenance carries a map of the world. We see the inner turmoil through her eyes, through her tears and through her silence. Every minute of this film is powerful. For anyone whose been the victim of bullying, myself included, you’ll be able to relate to Eleanor even if your situation wasn’t as dire as hers. 

The film’s villain Carly is played by Vanessa Carmona who delivers a seamless performance as the privileged bully who expects to get away with her bullying because Eleanor is “weird.” Her lies eventually catch up to her and I found that resolution so emotionally gratifying. 

Gulick imagined her 76 minute low-budget indie film as a fairy story where realism meets dark magic. She say “I imagined a girl who was tormented during the day but who could travel to another dimension at night… The story of a young girl who is discounted by other people in the ordinary world, but has her own secret reality is something that has always resonated with me.” 

Eleanor’s world is black and white yet when she escapes to this alternate world the film switches to color. To me The Fever and the Fret was more realism than magical realism. Eleanor’s escape into the altered state felt less like fantasy and more like self-preservation.

The Fever and the Fret has a diverse cast and crew. It’s directed, written, edited and produced by women, features mostly Asian-American actors. One of the producers, Victoria Negri is one of my favorite up-and-coming filmmakers. She wrote, directed and starred in one of my favorite indie films, Gold Star.

The Fever and the Fret is available to watch on Amazon Prime. It’s screened at the Queens World Film Festival, LA Asian Pacific Film Festival and Lighthouse International Film Festival and has received jury prizes and honorable mentions. Visit the official website for more information.

Albatross Soup

Can you solve this riddle?

‘A man walks off a boat. He walks into a restaurant and orders the albatross soup. He takes one bite, pulls out a gun and kills himself. Why did he kill himself?’

This is not your average riddle. It’s a thought experiment that encourages participants to develop their own tale, build on the riddle’s bare bones, fill in the gaps, create a backstory for its main character and to use their creativity solve the mystery in their own way.

Director Winnie Cheung’s Albatross Soup is an animated short film that visualizes the process of solving the riddle. An omniscient voice, who holds all the answers, is grilled by participants with a variety of questions and gives yes or no answers. Their voices narrate the film and the animated scenes play out the different possible scenarios until they come to the final conclusion.

Albatross Soup is a documentary layered on top of a surreal animated fantasy. It’s filled with bright, bold colors and shape-shifting scenes. It doesn’t ask the viewer to participate. Instead we’re just along for the ride. If you’re burning to solve the riddle yourself, do so beforehand then enjoy the psychedelic journey.

Over 50 participants were recorded for the short film and the audio was edited by New York Times audio producer Alexandra Young. The visual elements consist of hand drawn illustrations by Fiona Smyth and animation by Masayoshi Nakamura. Albatross Soup was screened at various festivals including Sundance, Fantastic Fest and the Fantasia International Film Festival. 

Albatross Soup recently premiered on Vimeo as a Staff Pick. You can watch the film in its entirety here.

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