Tuesday, September 27, 2016

VODepths: 'Brutal,' 'Burn Burn Burn,' 'Meat'

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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Cameras' (2015)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Originally titled Slumlord, 13 Cameras has ended up with a less evocative title for its home video release, although the nastiness promised by the original title turns out to be in short supply. The movie opens with some ominous statistics about the use of surveillance cameras in the United States, with a mosaic of images of unsuspecting people having their private moments caught on camera. But it's not really a cautionary tale about technology invading people's privacy; the use of surveillance cameras is just a generic plot device to facilitate the stalking of boring young couple Ryan (PJ McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief) by their creepy landlord Gerald (Neville Archambault).

Gerald also isn't a slumlord -- the house he rents to Ryan and Claire is a perfectly lovely suburban home, aside from its many (almost certainly more than 13) hidden surveillance cameras, which he uses to spy on them from an unspecified remote location. Gerald is so cartoonishly creepy that it's hard to take him seriously as a threat, even when he eventually kidnaps Ryan's mistress Hannah (Sarah Baldwin) and holds her captive in the house's secret basement, as Ryan and Claire obliviously go about their business. That business makes up the bulk of the movie, which is more of a tedious relationship drama than a suspenseful thriller.

Ryan and Claire fight about little things while Ryan sneaks off to sleep with Hannah (his secretary) and Claire complains to her mom and her best friend. Claire is pregnant, and the couple has moved into this nice house in the suburbs to start a family, but there's no sense of connection or affection between them, even if it's been lost. They seem to barely even know each other, which makes it really difficult to get involved in their constant bickering. Neither one is particularly sympathetic -- Ryan is having an affair with another woman he also doesn't seem to have any passion for, and Claire is a stereotype of the whiny, needy wife. Also, Gerald is constantly lurking in the background, and Archambault and writer-director Victor Zarcoff make him such a distinctively repulsive character that he completely overshadows the boring, self-absorbed protagonists.

Finally, around 15 minutes before the end of the movie, Gerald and the couple confront each other, and Zarcoff builds some decent suspense out of what is a sort of home-invasion thriller in which the invader owns and is intimately familiar with the home. But all the effort to make the audience care about Ryan and Claire's boring marital problems is completely wasted with a nihilistic ending in which none of it matters anyway. Gerald isn't an interesting character, either, and Zarcoff never bothers to reveal his motivations or background or even what he does when he's not watching Ryan and Claire. He has a great look, and Archambault really commits to his unpleasantness, but he isn't an effective villain because he's a complete cipher. Like too much about this movie, Gerald gets an intriguing setup that amounts to very little.