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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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TIFF 2019: Sea Fever, Clifton Hill

One of the things I love about coming to TIFF is finding new genre movies that weren’t even on anyone’s radar before the fest began. I’ll never forget seeing Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s “Spring” or Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy” or Oz Perkins' “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” One of those out-of-nowhere stunners has already premiered in Neasa Hardiman’s excellent “Sea Fever,” a movie that’s not in the Midnight Madness portion of this year’s fest but easily could be (and might be the best film in that program if it were). It will be compared to “The Thing” and even “Alien,” but it also feels like it has its own voice, anchored by a wonderfully grounded performance at its core and a phenomenal use of space and setting.

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I was sitting with my son on a beach last month and asked him if he ever thinks about how much of the deep water on this Earth has been unseen by human eyes and likely never will be. That kind of conversation could have been the starting point of “Sea Fever,” a movie that merges the beauty of open water with a more traditional monster movie, and then throws in some wonderful paranoia to really push its characters in the direction of tragedy. It is a wildly entertaining piece of work, one that transports us to its remote location in a way that increases the tension scene by scene.

Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) is a bit of a shy young lady who ends up on a trawler as a part of her marine biology studies. The trawler is run by a couple (Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen) and contains several personalities more outgoing than hers. Let’s just say she’s not quite like everyone else around her, on land or sea. And then the trawler stops moving. It’s run into something, and a glowing liquid starts to seep through the hull. There’s something strange in the water, and it’s about to make life aboard this ordinary ship very dangerous.

Hardiman never succumbs to jump scares or traditionally cheap horror movie tactics, using more old-fashioned filmmaking skills like sound design and claustrophobic spaces. "Sea Fever" is constantly surprising you and becomes very reminiscent of “The Thing” when it's clear that whatever is in the water may not be staying there. It’s a great genre pic that I really hope finds an audience outside of Toronto.

Sadly, my hopes for a great genre pic weren't quite as answered in Albert Shin’s convoluted and flat “Clifton Hill,” a thriller that never really thrilled me. The shame is that the setting and set-up are effective. A girl wanders off from her family near Niagara Falls and witnesses something insane – an injured boy is in the woods, but he is then violently grabbed by two adults and taken away. Did she witness a kidnapping? Years later, the adult version of the girl (Tuppence Middleton) returns home and becomes obsessed with trying to solve the crime she’s not really 100% sure she even saw.

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One of the problems is that the girl, Abby, is a bit of a pathological liar and a con artist. So her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) isn’t inclined to believe her. While dealing with the sale of the motel owned by her recently-deceased mother, Abby digs deeper into the case of a boy who died right around the time she witnessed what happened in the woods, and, of course, starts to put it all together, sometimes even with the help of a local history expert and podcaster played by David Cronenberg, believe it or not.

“Clifton Hill” feels like a beach novel mystery with its many twists and turns and emphasis on local legends and flavor. To call it convoluted would be an understatement, and it became less and less likely to believe. It’s also disappointingly flat in filmmaking terms, both in the lackluster design and dull performances, with the exception of Cronenberg, who I would love to actually start a podcast. That could be the best thing to come out of this movie. 

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