OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
The Immaculate Room
In premise alone, new relationship drama The Immaculate Room feels like a throwback to the likes of Indecent Proposal, its utterly preposterous storyline inspiring dinner party and water cooler conversations of, “What would you do?” as opposed to cogent thoughts on the film itself. The setup is simple: couple Mikey (Emile Hirsch) and Kate (Kate Bosworth) have been granted the opportunity to participate in a world-famous study known as The Immaculate Room, in which they must spend 50 days together in a stark white room that contains one bed, one seating bench, and a single bathroom. They will have no access to the outside world, and they will be watched by a brilliant and infamous psychologist whose last study resulted in the destruction of an entire family. If successful, they will receive five million dollars; if one of them leaves and the other stays for the remaining time, that individual will get one million dollars. The big question: can they do it? More precisely, could you?
Such fodder seems tailor-made for the likes of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, where 45 minutes is all that is necessary to make its central thorny conundrum dramatically thrilling. At 90 minutes, the movie feels as if it is unspooling in real time, as writer-director Mukunda Michael Dewil does nothing either visually or thematically interesting with the material at hand. The characterization is beyond rote, with Mikey a loud and abrasive “artist” who desperately wants to attain independence from his wealthy and controlling father, while Kate is more calm and controlled but cutting in her remarks in ways that are borderline cruel. Both suffer from some sort of unnamed childhood trauma that the room will eventually prey upon and use against them, as well as the fact that Mikey and Kate have recently gotten back together after a split and stupidly see this opportunity as a way to renew their bonds of love. Yes, The Immaculate Room is yet another entry in the suddenly ubiquitous subgenre of forced relationship counseling, no doubt inspired by the early days of Covid-induced quarantine, where hell was forced quality time with loved ones. Dewil rushes through initial events, setting up rules and routines then skipping ahead to day 23, as if it wouldn’t be far more interesting to get to know these individuals and witness the psychological fallout they endure as they desperately try to acclimate to their current situation. Instead, we get a montage of Mikey running, Kate meditating, and both of them eating meals that consist of nothing more than a carton of liquid nutrients. Mikey is the first to lose his shit, befriending a bug and questioning his resiliency as a human. Kate keeps things bottled up, a powder keg conceivably ready to go off at any given moment, but Bosworth underplays the role to such a ridiculous degree that she seems more likely to fall into a coma at any given moment.
Dewil goes out of his way to attempt to bring some spice to the proceedings, failing to realize that the real drama is inherent in the premise itself, thus proving the filmmaker’s utter lack of faith in his own material. Introducing both Chekov’s gun and Ashley Greene Khouri’s naked breasts seems a bit desperate, and robs the movie of any sort of realism it so desperately wants to achieve. That’s not to say the film isn’t topical, as it delves into the insidious ways that both money and capitalism hold sway over us both as a society and as individuals simply trying to stay afloat within it. Money is nice, but is it worth one’s humanity? “This isn’t a room, it’s a mirror, “ Mikey helpfully explains at one point, because this film never met a talking point it couldn’t bludgeon to death. Although in all honesty, what else do these ciphers have to talk about? Had Dewil displayed any sort of technical chops, it would make the proceedings far more involving, but he opts for a lot of static shots that rob the film of the claustrophobic atmosphere that should be inherent within its very premise. Meanwhile, Hirsch overacts to a grating degree, and one is left to ponder how this man, who was convicted of assault against a female studio executive, can still get work. It’s certainly a more compelling ponderance than the one at the heart of The Immaculate Room, which refuses to dig beneath its pearly white surface. Turns out, money is indeed the root of all evil. Viewers, make sure to pick your jaw up off the floor on your way out.
Writer: Steven Warner
These days, animation is basically synonymous with the glossy phantasms churned out by the likes of Disney and Pixar, where every strand of hair or drop of water is plumped, firmed, and rendered realer-than-real, like digital botox. But it wasn’t always this way. In the ’60s and ’70s, a pioneering artist named Will Vinton developed a cult following for his specific brand of strange, psychedelic animation using plasticine clay. He called the distinctly textured, highly tactile medium “claymation” and went on to open a well-respected animation studio that dabbled in TV, short films, and advertising. Who can soon forget the improbable but wildly popular R&B quartet the California Raisins Band, with their Emmy-winning TV special?
In his comprehensive new documentary ClayDream, writer and director Marq Evans offers viewers classic biographic fare as well as mesmerizing clips of Vinton’s early claymation shorts. With their dreamlike imaginative flourishes and stunning fluidity, these clips showcase Vinton’s artistic vision more accurately than anything a talking head could possibly put into words. Vinton, who harbored artistic (and commercial) aspirations to become the next Walt Disney, was based in Portland, Oregon, and the city’s long history of iconoclasm was a clear spiritual match for his wacky sensibilities.
Portland was also home to another artistically minded but significantly more cutthroat entrepreneur: Phil Knight, the founder of Nike and an early investor in Will Vinton Studios. ClayDream opens with footage of Vinton and Knight squaring off at a deposition, then takes a chronological view of Vinton’s career before focusing on the disastrous mismanagement that ultimately led to the studio’s demise, and a pathetic $50,000 payout to Vinton himself.
Along the way, Vinton experienced his fair share of success, including an Oscar for his early short film, Closed Mondays. But his artistic highs were shadowed by numerous personal and professional lows. His early artistic partner, Bob Gardner, felt sidelined by Vinton’s success and later committed suicide after many years of manic behavior, while his long-cherished dream of releasing a claymation feature film resulted in the misunderstood and critically panned The Adventures of Mark Twain. Evans makes clear — and Vinton is the first to admit — that his business acumen never kept up with his artistic aspirations. In one wince-inducing interview, Vinton reveals that he passed on an opportunity to sell his studio to the then-nascent Pixar. He also lost out on hugely lucrative licensing rights for the California Raisins, and his attempts at creating his own suite of licensable characters resulted in the underwhelming Wilshire Pig. Needless to say, plans for a theme park were scrapped.
But it was the debacle with Knight that ultimately sounded the death knell for Will Vinton Studios. As claymation saturated the market and business dried up, Knight acquired a majority stake in the company. Before long, Vinton was pushed out of the studio that was the sole source of his entire net worth and artistic legacy. There was also the presence of Knight’s son Travis, a wannabe rapper whose employment at the studio was written into the buyout contract. It all reeks of nepotism, though various interviewees are quick to point out that Travis had a genuine talent for animation. Incidentally, he became the studio’s next president — and (way to bury the lede!) renamed it Laika, the Oscar-nominated company behind Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. Neither Knight was interviewed for this documentary, though Travis’ own career certainly withstands scrutiny, despite its somewhat unsavory origins.
By all accounts, Vinton’s incredible optimism was both his downfall and his salvation. It allowed him to build a pioneering studio from scratch and weather the blows of critical failure and near-bankruptcy, even though his own lack of foresight was often the culprit. And eventually, he was able to find peace once the studio changed hands for good. By the time of his death in 2018 of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, he had moved on to numerous other artistic pursuits. No longer an emotionally distant workaholic, he’d transformed into a loving and present father who realized that a legacy can take many forms.
Writer: Selina Lee
On its surface, new thriller Wifelike looks like yet another derivative slice of sci-fi filled with coma-inducing philosophical ramblings about the state of humanity in the 21st century and beyond. Here, A.I. has become an everyday part of life, with the titular technology company producing a high-tech robot that can take the place of those pesky females who have such gnarly human defects as emotions and agency. But writer-director James Bird has a few thematic surprises up his sleeve, even as the overall execution proves more than a tad problematic.
In some unspecified future, William (Jonathan Rhys Myers) is a seasoned police detective who specializes in capturing rogue A.I., because Bird is nothing if not a clear Blade Runner stan. It seems there’s a violent contingency that opposes the work of the Wifelike Corporation, who view the company’s creations as sex slaves and indentured servants who deserve both autonomy and basic human rights. Yet, therein lies the rub: are these not mere machines, created by man? You know, what does it mean to be human? Also, if all of these robots are banding together and staging violent uprisings, why is most of the world population on their side? Is this not just another form of Skynet all over again? Alas, all such details are glossed over for the most part, seemingly because Bird is instead prioritizing showing lots of sexy time with his female A.I.
William owns his own Wifelike companion, modeled after his deceased beloved, Meredith (Elena Kampouris). As the film opens, William is bringing home yet another upgraded version, one whose memory has recently been erased for reasons unclear. Indeed, the first 15 minutes of Wifelike are devoted to William adjusting Meredith’s various settings, which Bird clearly believes establishes some kind of authenticity but which merely inspires distraction. Before long, William and Meredith are screwing like rabbits, with the central plot going AWOL for long stretches, because watching Kampouris parade around in barely-there lingerie while sticking out both her chest and her ass seems to be of the utmost artistic importance.
But it’s at the midway point that Wifelike takes a curious twist. Instead of sexy shenanigans or any ethical questioning of A.I., the film shifts its focus to the ruling one percent, both to the individuals who created these advancements and those who prosper from them. On this count, Bird certainly gets one thing correct: such technology would only be available to those with fantastically deep pockets, and who are prone to leverage their power in rather nefarious ways. In essence, the film questions the humanity not of its robotic creations, but of those who deem them such a necessary part of life. That’s not to say that similar films of varying intelligence and quality, like Ex Machina and Chappie, have fail to address such themes, but that this particular topic has simply never been centered in this way, only left as a cursory footnote in one robot’s journey to self-discovery. Meredith certainly discovers her agency, but the film would much rather focus on William’s motivations, or the messiah-like CEO of the Wifelike Corporation, who is only seen in hologram. “You know why the self-driving car failed?” he asks at one point. “Because men like to be in control. The robotic soldier failed because men like to kill, and Wifelike is successful because men like to fuck.” Hardly enlightening stuff, but such a narrative wrinkle is welcome in a subgenre that has become as stale as this particular one.
Unfortunately, Wifelike is too sleazy by half, especially in its first hour, which feels more like one of those late night Skinemax flicks from the late ‘90s than a thoughtful bit of science fiction. As the film’s focus ultimately shifts into view, one begins to ponder if all that gratuitous sex and nudity was some sort of meta-commentary on men’s baser instincts. Then the film ends with a violent bout of vengeance and a ridiculous setup for a sequel that will surely never come to fruition, and it becomes clear that Bird is more concerned with genre thrills than anything resembling actual enlightenment. It doesn’t help that Rhys Meyers delivers a truly awful lead performance, somehow even more robotic than that of his co-star, each line delivery a low growl of machismo that could be regarded as satirical in another film, especially when paired with a wardrobe that looks like his character raided Diane Keaton’s closet, but nothing about it comes off as knowing. Kampouris, meanwhile, who was the best thing about such embarrassing duds as Men, Women and Children and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, learns the hard way that advancement in the lower echelons of Hollywood still means having to take your top off in every other scene, and that’s certainly asked of her here in spades. At the end of the day, Wifelike is the type of movie with just enough thematic novelty to compel the viewer, but not enough to actually make for a satisfying experience. Bird proves he is a more than competent filmmaker; let’s hope he can take that talent and actually do something of legitimate substance with it next time out.
Writer: Steven Warner
The new dystopian sci-fi feature Tin Can appears at first blush to be a perfect example of a Covid production — a small cast that spends much of the time isolated from one another; sparse, minimal location work, and a general lo-fi approach to costume design and special effects. So it’s somewhat surprising to discover that the film was completed and played festivals in 2020; it’s accidentally prescient, very much of this specific, peculiar moment, with fear and distrust and confusion commingling into a potent stew of extremely bad vibes. Co-writer/director Seth A. Smith has pulled off the remarkable feat of turning a low budget and limited means into a virtue rather than a hindrance, allowing his characters’ disorientation to seep in to and infect the film’s very structure. It’s a DIY mindfuck by way of Cronenberg and Tsukamoto.
After a brief prologue, in which we hear a man bidding farewell to his partner via voiceover narration as a local news report describes an ongoing plague referred to only as “coral,” we are introduced to a scientist named Fret (Anna Hopkins). She’s made some kind of breakthrough while studying this virus, something about keeping it from bonding with a host, and is excited to share her discovery. This could be the key to a cure, or at least a treatment. But before she can tell anyone about her findings, she’s attacked by an off-screen assailant and the screen goes black. A title card appears, and suddenly Fret wakes up alone inside a dark, tiny, self-enclosed pod. It’s a jolting pivot, the camera suddenly pinned inside these intensely cramped quarters and capturing only fragments of Felt’s POV. Smith takes great pains to emphasize every aspect of Fret’s agonizing ordeal; her first course of action is regaining consciousness and figuring out where exactly she is. Like a bio-mechanical nightmare, every part of her is connected to some sort of automated device; a squirm-inducing sequence finds her removing a catheter, feeding tubes, IVs, and the like. This section of the film moves deliberately, almost in real time, as Felt contemplates each step she must take while trying not to lose her mind. She’s surrounded by blinking lights and electronics and tries frantically to scream for help.
Eventually, she hears a voice, and the plot thickens, as they say. Somehow, Fret’s ex-husband, John (Simon Mutabazi) is in the next tube over. He’s not only infected with “coral,” but knows exactly where they are, and why. He talks Fret through removing a particular panel that allows her to see through a vent, giving her (and the camera) limited access to the area outside of the pod. This is not a film where a character is in one enclosed space for the entire runtime. Instead, slowly but surely, Smith expands Fret’s sensory input, adding additional characters into the mix. They are only voices at first, but a series of flashbacks gradually fill in some of the details about what exactly is happening. There’s an insane old man (Tim Dunn) with a rictus grin who whistles and who thinks this ordeal is transformation to another plane of existence. There’s a business executive (Michael Ironside) who is, like John, in the pod willingly. Truly, there’s enough nimble narrative maneuvering that one is reluctant to reveal too much of the plot, not so much because of spoilers but because part of the film’s pleasure is experiencing the slow and steady drip of revelations alongside the characters.
Suffice it to say that all of the above synopsis transpires in the film’s first half, which ends with Fret escaping the pod. Another cut to black is followed by a second chapter heading, and things get really weird. Smith and cinematographer Kevin A. Fraser have created a nightmare world of claustrophobia and post-industrial collapse, full of mysterious and confusing contraptions that seem designed entirely to distort or otherwise mutate the human body. The eventual reveal of what exactly “coral” does to a person is grotesque, and sure to please horror fans. The film’s slow, measured pace makes moments of violence all the more impactful, as traditional narrative takes a backseat to cryptic motivations and increasingly strange visuals. Tin Can is the best kind of sci-fi, an equal mix of weirdo ideas and careful world-building that leads viewers to a genuinely unsettling conclusion. It demands patience, and raises as many questions as it answers, but achieves something more rare and difficult — leaving the audience wanting more.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The glut of shark-themed films airing on the SyFy Channel on a weekly basis has taken a bit of air out of the once-thrilling subgenre as a whole. Gone are the days of the likes of Jaws, where skilled craftsmen were able to create unrelenting tension simply through a bit of sturdy camerawork that obscured more than it showed. Sure, we get a few half-decent throwbacks every now and then — Open Water and The Shallows stand out — but even recent blockbuster The Meg took a page out of the basic cable handbook and planted tongue firmly in cheek, although perhaps not to the degree that allowed the creation of honest-to-God features like Sharknado, Ghost Shark, and Six-Headed Shark Attack, where slapdash filmmaking and godawful CGI prove the ultimate uniting force.
All of which is to say that it is rather refreshing that something like the new shark attack feature Maneater takes its proceedings so seriously, nary a moment of levity to be found in its brief 86-minute runtime. That this also proves its biggest detriment is as ironic as it is obvious, with writer-director Justin Lee lacking the skills and the wherewithal to create anything remotely thrilling or entertaining. In fact, Lee has an incredible six films under his belt within the course of two years, a detail that should clue viewers in that this is not an artist concerned with details, but rather the ability to simply get a project in on time and on a tight budget. It would be nice to report that Lee at least knows where to point a camera and keep it in focus, but there are times where simple static shots of characters sitting on the beach are blurred for no discernible reason. Then there is the matter of how this might be one of the first movies in history to completely forget to include any reverse shots, as if Lee doesn’t understand screen geography or the materials needed to cut together scenes that actually make visual sense. And the shark attack scenes themselves happen so quickly that it makes it virtually impossible to create any sort of sustained tension, as if Lee included them only out of some sort of obligation, even though he was the one who wrote the damn screenplay about a killer shark.
The plot, what little of one exists, concerns a group of friends who travel to Hawaii in an effort to cheer up their recently dumped friend, Jessie (Nicky Whelan), whose vacation coincides with a series of shark attacks that has left dead the daughter of a local fisherman, Harlan (Trace Adkins). Realizing that the authorities will do little to stop the slaughter, Harlan sets out on his own to kill the massive Great White, which has somehow made it to warm waters because, as a local college professor (Jeff Fahey) explains, “There’s so much about Great Whites we don’t know.” Meanwhile, Jessie and her friends get stranded on a remote island after their boat is attacked, and they stupidly keep finding ways to get into the water so that a giant gray CGI blob can chomp on them. Most of the shark action takes place underwater, which allows Lee to somewhat obscure the truly awful special effects: people are bitten in the murky water, a red filter is applied, and we quickly move on. There’s also an actual, man-made shark model used for precisely two shots, and while practical effects are usually to be applauded — the gruesome results of a particularly nasty attack are indeed the only highlight to be found here — it’s used for a couple of meaningless close-ups that add literally nothing to the proceedings, and one is left to ponder why the contraption was used in the first place.
The group of actors brought in to portray the central friend group — including former heartthrob Shane West, of all people — are uniformly bad, with Whelan delivering a performance of such stunning awfulness that it leads one to question if she was narcotized for the entirety of the shoot, her line readings barely registering above a whisper, and seeming as if she was reading them off cue cards for the first time that day. And these actors, all of whom are approaching middle age, are supposed to be playing recent college graduates, which is just one of a hundred inconsistencies, including the fact that key cast members are just outright missing for whole scenes. Adkins — the De Niro to Lee’s Scorsese, having appeared in a handful of his features — gets to drive a boat around and let his flowing locks blow in the breeze, so clearly he gives the most nuanced performance of the film, although the fact that the movie ends with him giving a variation on the famous “We’re going to need a bigger boat” Jaws quote makes him just as culpable as his co-stars, as does giving him a speech where he claims that good company and good food are more effective than therapy when dealing with death of loved ones. It would be easy to label such hectoring as offensive, but that would require the viewer to be stimulated by anything going on in Maneater. Watch out, boy, she’ll put you to sleep.
Writer: Steven Warner