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Dead
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by Jay Seaver

"Charming, goofy supernatural comedy mystery."
4 stars

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.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33808&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/08/20 00:56:33
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  02-Oct-2020

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