Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Short time in the Brattle's virtual screening room: Son of the White Mare and Dead

Both of these movies will be leaving The Brattle and its virtual screening room after Thursday (8 October 2020), so if you want to see them while kicking some money their way, do it now. They will be available elsewhere soon enough - Dead is already on Prime despite just coming out in New Zealand a few weeks ago and White Mare will almost certainly get a nice Blu-ray - but keep some money local, right?

Anyway, fun movies in very different ways, and it was neat to see Michael Hurst in something again, if briefly, with what I assume is something closer to his actual accent than the "somewhere over the Pacific" one he did on Hercules and Xena back in the day, and was even more tickled to discover while poking around on IMDB afterwards that his wife on-screen is played by his real-life wife of 30+ years, Jennifer Ward-Lealand. She also appeared on those Sam Raimi-produced shows, and I almost want to dig in and see if it was cute pairings with Iolaus or just using every actor in New Zealand who could do a neutral (to Americans) accent.

Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (restoration reissue, Vimeo via Roku)

Son of the White Mare is folklore, which means that it's wild and often nonsensical, even if there's also something underneath that seems to resonate. It's also animation, where you have absolute freedom to go anywhere your mythology-fueled imagination can take you so long as you're willing to do the disciplined, painstaking work necessary. It's a cult classic because the one half of that seldom seems to interfere with the other, making something memorably, impressively surreal.

It opens with a gravid white mare fleeing something that looks like a fire, although the setting is trippy and metaphorical enough that it could be something else before she seemingly races through a portal to another world (or holes up in the hollow of a tree). She gives birth, and the foal transforms into a boy. A forest spirit tells him to have his mother nurse him for seven years (and then seven years more), before leaving to go on a quest to the underworld. "Treeshaker" soon discovers he has two brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, and they soon find a hut, a gnome, and three castles with dragons and princesses.

The story doesn't particularly make sense - the mare fills Stonecrumbler in on how they wound up in that tree, but if this leads him to be seeking justice or revenge or liberation, that's not really where the brothers' quest takes them. Truth be told, Stonecutter drains his mother dry and barely looks back without it exactly being her sacrificing herself to avenge him, so the motivation is kind of wobbly throughout. On top of that, Treeshaker is kind of the most boring sort of mythological hero, too outrageously strong to ever face any sort of challenge, so confident and assured in most cases that his brothers' shortcomings highlight how he's got relatively little personality. Director Marcell Jankovics and co-writer László György commit to the rule of three to an almost absurd extent, making for a potentially very repetitive movie.

It never quite becomes that, though; the repeated elements may not vary that much, but they tend not to be drawn out; Jankovics, the editors, and the music department let it feel like ramping up and building momentum, letting Treeshaker's feats grow more superhuman but not having him pull a new trick out for every fight, and making him possibly feel out of control near the end, when he's spent the whole movie ramping up and may not be able to slow down for a misunderstanding. The simplicity of it heightens the feel of a world still forming, and the way this simple repetition will often give way to extended mind-bending visuals makes it more of a time of unsettled legend.

It's the sort of capable underpinning that enables one to brush a lot away by saying to just look at the pictures, because the film is visually amazing, probably looking as good as it has since its original 1981 release thanks to a back-to-the-negative 4K restoration. It is full of full-screen metamorphoses, geometric compositions in which a viewer can lose themselves at home (this must really be something on a big screen), and character animation that never particularly strives for realism but also avoids being childish or self-consciously envelope-pushing. It's not necessarily appropriate for children, though they'll probably only catch the seductive topless princess and dragon with the stone testes rather than the vaginal and phallic imagery throughout. The character design is especially clever, from how there's a lot of kinship between the brothers and sisters despite them being clearly identifiable, while the dragons are wonderfully anachronistic and symbolic of more pervasive violence and dehumanization. They're almost too creative to slay.

Of course, dig too deep into the symbolism and you get to benevolent god-kings ruling through some vague divine right, which isn't great, but it's the sort of movie whose abstraction is so extreme that viewers almost can't help but be hyper-aware of it even as the imagery is washing over them as just gorgeous. Here's hoping that when the sort of small theater that would show an animated movie from 1981 Hungary is re-opened, they'll have room for some late shows of this, because there's not much like it that's done nearly so well.

Also at eFilmCritic


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (first/limited-run, Vimeo via Roku)

Not a lot of movies simultaneously get right into things and immediately establish a fun, laid-back feel the way that Dead does, especially among the sort of supernatural comedies that most desperately want to pull that off. That confidence lets it dive into its goofy premise quickly enough to have time to explore and expand as well as fit in a bunch of gags despite running just 90 minutes. The group doesn't always make it look easy, but they give the audience a pretty entertaining film on the main.

Dave "Marbles" Malwich (Thomas Sainsbury) is an Auckland stoner who has, of late, discovered that by blending his weed with his late father's neurological meds, he can make something that, when injected, allows him to communicate with ghosts. Jason Tagg (Hayden J. Weal) is a young and enthusiastic uniformed cop who has been trying to find a serial killer for the past two years, but got too close and now is pretty lucky that he remembered Marbles saying something about his weird formulation the last time he detained the guy for possession. Marbles isn't interested at first - it sounds dangerous and he mostly just tries to help people move on before their spirits decay into ghouls- but his mother (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) is planning to sell the family farm unless Marbles can buy it in a couple of days, and Tagg has life insurance that could cover it, if they find his missing corpse and get his foster sister Yana (Tomai Ihala) to sign off. Which might not be as hard as one thinks; she's an ex-lawyer with her own money and has been helping Tagg track the killer, as best she can with a GPS unit on her ankle after her fourth DWI.

Viewers have a pretty good idea of who Marbles and Tagg are from the first time they show up, and a large part of what makes them fun is that both are energetic and well-meaning in ways that make it absolutely believable when they get on each other's nerves without actually becoming nasty toward one another. Co-stars Thomas Sainsbury and Hayden J. Weal also write with Weal directing, and they've got a good handle all around on what they can bring to a certain kind of story, and despite the cheery seeming-obliviousness that Sainsbury gives Marbles to complement how Weal delivers the sort of dumber-than-he-realizes intensity that makes his playing almost the entire movie sans trousers work, they both handle the fact that these characters are in large part defined by their losses well, giving the pair a little weight without losing who they are. Tomai Ihala plays Yana as a bit more pointed as a contrast, and both she and Weal do a nice job of selling the sibling dynamic even when they can't directly interact for much of the film.

There are a lot of amusing bits, both from the quick looks at Marbles helping various people with their ghost problems and as they try to figure out where to start solving Tagg's murder, to make for a fine episodic comedy, including one of the more cheerful "straight guy in a gay bar" sequences. The filmmakers never take the weird part for granted, though, finding a natural way to put a time limit on the case and to switch things up later on. Even with all that going on, the film is still comedy first; there are mystery and horror elements to it, but the filmmakers seldom lose sight of what this particular film is built on in order to get lost going down a particular genre's path.

Things do eventually get kind of tight, because this is the sort of small independent film that can't really afford to waste characters on just one thing or have too many locations. As a result, there's sometimes a bit of a push and pull toward the end where the logic of two similar things being related bumps up against it making for an awfully small world, especially when Marbles's ex-girlfriend Henna (Jess Sayer) shows up after being mentioned in dialogue before but never quite fits once all is said and done, despite being kind of necessary to what's going on.

It's a fun little movie which may have a little trouble getting traction outside of New Zealand - it's all local talent and its North American release seems to be virtual bookings with individual theaters - but folks who dig this sort of thing could do worse than check it out. Weal, Sainsbury, and company have their eye on the supernatural-mystery-comedy ball and seldom stumble.

Also at eFilmCritic

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