Brutal (Morgan Benoit, Jeff Hatch, Renata Green-Gaber, dir. Donald Lawrence Flaherty) Credit goes to this odd sci-fi thriller for combining MMA-style cage fighting and alien abduction, two things that most people probably would not have thought to connect. And it gets credit also for creating a semi-convincing alien prison on what is obviously an incredibly tiny budget, with just some low-tech computer effects and minimalist set design. Unfortunately, the writing and especially the acting are not up to the standards of the strange premise and the production craftsmanship. Benoit and Hatch play two men abducted and imprisoned by aliens and forced to fight each other over and over again in cage matches that are, yes, brutal and seemingly endless (the movie only runs 85 minutes, and the first eight are taken up by an interminable fight scene with no dialogue). Gradually they learn more about each other and figure out how to escape their predicament, while the movie periodically cuts to their loved ones left behind. The more that the two characters speak, though, the clumsier the movie becomes, and the performances are universally awful. The fight scenes are repetitive, the glimpses at the main characters' grieving relatives are pointless (and even more poorly acted), and the philosophical questions that writer-director Flaherty attempts to raise are confusingly framed and even more confusingly resolved. The movie's ambition far outstrips its makers' artistic talents. Available on Amazon.
Burn Burn Burn (Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing, dir. Chanya Button) This charming British road comedy follows best friends Seph (Carmichael, aka Lady Edith on Downton Abbey) and Alex (Pirrie) as they travel across the U.K. scattering the ashes of their recently deceased friend Dan (Farthing), who shows up via video messages he made before his death. Predictably, they learn some important life lessons from their late friend, they grow as people, they strengthen their friendship (after nearly breaking it apart), etc. Even though the dynamic is familiar, the movie mostly works thanks to the very appealing lead performances, the well-observed details of the relationships, the picturesque scenery and the warm humor. The various supporting characters are mostly entertaining and distinctive, although the movie takes a maudlin turn in the last 15-20 minutes when Seph and Alex pick up an older woman hitchhiking and help her reunite with her son. The generally balanced movie ends up a bit heavy-handed, but it still closes on a sweet grace note. Available on Netflix.
Meat (Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner, Hugo Metsers, dir. Victor Nieuwenhuijs and Maartje Seyferth) After making the festival rounds and getting a limited European release, this 2010 Dutch movie is available now commercially for the first time in the U.S. It's not hard to see why it took so long to find distribution -- it's a deliberately obtuse, avant-garde murder mystery of sorts, featuring lots of explicit sex, sudden violence and close-ups of raw meat (that's not a euphemism). Muizelaar plays dual roles as a butcher and the police inspector investigating his murder, both of whom get involved with Benner's potential femme fatale Roxy. What starts out as a sort of gritty, sparse drama turns completely surreal in the final act, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and between Muizelaar's two characters. It reminded me of David Lynch's Lost Highway, only not nearly as evocative or visually impressive. The directors favor the grotesque, especially in the many lingering shots of meat being sliced, and even the sex scenes are grimy and nasty (at one point Roxy gives a golden shower to what may be a corpse). I appreciate the boundary-pushing, but it just amounts to ugliness for its own sake when it doesn't go anywhere. Available on Vimeo.