White God (2014)

aka Fehér Isten

2016 #11
Kornél Mundruczó | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hungary, Germany & Sweden / Hungarian | 15 / R

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen are forced to temporarily live with her father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), because her mother is going on holiday with her new partner. Dániel doesn’t like Hagen anyway, but when the dog’s behaviour causes problems for him, he sets Hagen loose on the streets. Already angry with her father and his attitude, a devastated Lili sets out to find her beloved dog, who is busy discovering the darker side of mankind and our treatment of animals.

If White God sounds a bit bleak then, well, it can be. It’s a European arthouse drama, really, and so you get the attendant choices with pacing and storytelling style, as well as a commitment to realism — until the third act, at least, which I’ll come to in a moment. Hagen ends up in some very dark places, and co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó doesn’t shy away from showing their brutality. Conversely, real dogs were used throughout filming, and the film doesn’t have a Hollywood budget for prosthetics or CGI, so we’re spared some of the imagery a less fiscally inhibited director might’ve forced upon us. Mundruczó insisted that all the dogs in the film were real animals trained to perform (and none were harmed, of course), which must’ve been limiting at times, but makes everything we see that much more effective.

For all the toughness of the journey, where it leads is triumphant; not entirely so, I must add, but enough. The film’s third act can pithily be described as Rise of the Planet of the Dogs: having seen the abuses of humans, an impounded Hagen leads a canine uprising that seeks to… well, they don’t speak (they’re dogs, remember, and this isn’t Disney), so who knows what their precise aims are? “Revenge” would be too cruel, but they definitely seeking some retribution. The film’s sadness doesn’t disappear (hence why not entirely triumphant), but some wrongs are righted.

The comparison to certain films about apes goes further than just the theme of an animal revolution, however: just like the last two Apes movies, White God drags a little when it leaves the animals for the humans. I’d love to see an edit which just followed Hagen’s story — you’d certainly keep all the film’s interesting and memorable bits, and lose very little. Not that the human bits are bad, per se, but they don’t go anywhere particularly new. Ooh, a teenager striking out, going to clubs (gasp!), and then realising that her parent isn’t such a monster after all (twist!) The performances are good — young Psotta is very naturalistic, and Zsótér makes you understand the humanity of someone who could’ve been a straightforward villain — but the dogs are where the real interest is at.

Some will find the middle of the film a slog, I suspect, both emotionally and with its occasionally lagging pace. However, the bookends seek to justify it. There’s catharsis in the finale, as described, but even better is the film’s opening. It has to be seen to be properly understood, but it’s operatically scored, shot, and edited, and involves hundreds (literally) of trained dogs en masse. It’s spectacular, unforgettable moviemaking; perhaps even one of the best openings to a film ever. And I don’t say that just as a “dog person”.

White God could benefit from tightening in some places, and less focus on the by-the-motions human subplots wouldn’t be a bad thing, but as a kind of magical realist drama, almost an arthouse take on certain Hollywood blockbuster narratives, it’s a compelling and sometimes awe-inspiring movie.

4 out of 5

In Your Eyes (2014)

2014 #42
Brin Hill | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

In Your EyesPerhaps most discussed for the way it was released — at the same time as the film’s festival premiere, writer-producer Joss Whedon made it available to rent online — In Your Eyes is worthy of note on its own merits as a movie, too.

A romance with a fantasy spin, it sees minor criminal Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) and bored well-to-do housewife Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) discover they can see through each other’s eyes and hear each other’s voice. They live very different lives far apart in the US, but nonetheless are both disaffected and lonely, and through their weird connection strike up a firm bond. Of course, something has to go wrong…

Anyone expecting a heavy fantasy flick from the creator of Buffy and the director of The Avengers will be sorely disappointed by what they find here. Rather than being the film’s subject, the fantasy element is an unusual way in to a relationship, as well as a setup for some amusing ‘set pieces’ (for want of a better word). I don’t believe the phenomenon that connects the two leads is ever explained, or even investigated. The focus instead lies on the effects it has on the characters.

Those are twofold: one, it’s about their burgeoning relationship. That clearly has romantic connotations, though she’s already married, to a high-flying (but controlling) doctor. In her eyesSecondly, their emotional connection means they begin to spend a lot of time in each other’s heads, distancing themselves from the world and, when they begin to be overheard talking to each other — or, as everyone else sees it, talking to themselves — people begin to get suspicious. And when you’ve got a controlling doctor for a husband, who knows about your history of mental health issues… well…

At times In Your Eyes is quite gentle. It’s primarily a series of conversations, wherein two people come to know and like each other. It does offer slices of humour, excitement and emotion, particularly in the aforementioned ‘set pieces’, but these are sprinkled or built up to, rather than barraged at you with an incessant need for your attention. Some won’t warm to this gradual unfurling of character and events, but if you’re prepared for that then I think there’s much to like. The leads are attractively played, quickly becoming people you want to spend time with and care about. The affection that’s carefully grown for them during the film pays dividends when it reaches the Big Climax.

Talking of climaxes, there’s also one of the more uncommon ‘sex’ scenes you’re ever likely to see. Not that anyone after titillation should be seeking it out, but Whedon is ever-excellent at carrying a concept through to its various logical conclusions.

In his eyesA character-driven romance that will likely bore some, In Your Eyes weaved a spell on me. It’s beautifully, simply directed by Brin Hill, the focus lying heavily on the characters and performances of Stahl-David and Kazan. If you warm to them — and I think many will — then they’re a pleasure to spend time with, and you become invested in where events will take them. More magical realist than hard fantasy, this isn’t one for serious genre fans. Romantics, however, may fall in love.

5 out of 5

In Your Eyes is still available to rent and buy digitally from Vimeo.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.