This Is a Movie Review: Steven Soderbergh Captures Claire Foy Possibly Losing Her Mind in His Latest ‘Unsane’ Experiment

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CREDIT: Fingerprint Releasing/Bleecker Street

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Claire Foy, Jay Pharoah, Joshua Leonard, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving, Juno Temple, Polly McKie

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: R for Pill-Induced Distortion, Unsanitary Use of a Tampon, and a Violent Spree

Release Date: March 23, 2018

Steven Soderbergh has made a career out of messing around with the standard bounds of cinema, often in ways that could come off as a gimmick in the hands of a less assured director. His latest, Unsane, sets itself apart with its iPhone 7 Plus 4K cinematography (credited to Soderbergh himself). Smartphone photography is certainly advanced enough to make a feature film look as professional as it ought to, so for those who are capable, the smartphone option simply deserves to be added to the docket of available cameras. Thematically, an iPhone fits Unsane’s story of a woman committed to a mental institution against her will, as it compresses the depth of field and lends a dull sheen that lingers in the uncanny valley between intimate and detached.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a businesswoman rising up the corporate ladder, but she is haunted by a troubled past and feelings of loneliness in a new city. The nature of her job is never fully specified (kind of hilariously), but it appears to have something to do with customer service, and she also appears to have power to hire and fire. She has been dealing with occasionally crippling anxiety caused by a stalker . After one particularly bad episode, she drops by for a therapy session, which leads to her signing some forms, which somehow results in her being committed to a mental facility and unable to leave, as she has been declared a danger to herself and to others.

Sawyer’s circumstances quickly become too sinister for this to be a simple mistake or an innocent misdiagnosis, suggesting that a conspiracy is afoot. A staff member (Joshua Leonard) appears to be her stalker in disguise – has he orchestrated the whole thing? Or is the truth to be found from the most well-adjusted resident (Jay Pharoah), who divulges to Sawyer that she is the victim of an insurance scam in which the institution forces people to be committed for as long as their coverage will pay for it? Or is it some combination of forces, working together, or simultaneously coincidentally all ganging up on Sawyer? Of course, there is also the possibility that this could all be in her head, as everything unspools from her point of view the whole time.

This could be a formula for devastatingly unsettling ambiguity, but Soderbergh is not especially concerned about questioning the nature of reality. This is more just a setup for him to explore his particular tastes in psychological and claustrophobic thrills. In many respects, Unsane is satisfying simply on a lurid and pulpy level. Soderbergh does definitely dig deeper than that, presenting in stark terms how both institutional and corporate life can be dehumanizing, their loss of morals too easily justified with a sweep under the rug. Those moments of carelessness and lack of empathy do not usually result in ordeals as dangerous as Sawyer’s, but the opportunities for abuse are there for those who want to take advantage of them.

Unsane is Recommended If You Like: Side Effects, Shutter Island, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Gone Girl

Grade: 4 out of 5 Medical Forms

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Wonder Wheel’? More Like ‘Woody Allen Spinning His Wheels’

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CREDIT: Jessica Miglio/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi

Director: Woody Allen

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Angry Scotch Drinking and Off-Screen Whack Jobs

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)

Knee-jerk rejection of voiceover narration because it explains things too straightforwardly earns my ire as one of the worst habits in criticism. But in fact there are times when some filmmakers use the technique as crutch, and perhaps none as frequently as Woody Allen. At least in the case of his latest, Wonder Wheel, he attempts a more poetic form of narration, or so he would like us to believe. Scratch that. It’s not just poetic. It’s also dramatic. You see, because the narrator, Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), isn’t just a lifeguard, he’s also a poet and a dramatist. One would think that there is enough drama inherent in a film that its narrator would not need to spell it out so directly, but Wonder Wheel puts that theory to the test.

Mickey would like you to know that he is also a player in the story that he is telling. Perhaps his presence is meant to spice up this tale with extra passion, but that does not appear to be the case in any discernible fashion. The setting is 1950s Coney Island, and most of the action is set in or around the beach or boardwalk. As far as I can tell, the endless amusement of this area is irrelevant to the people who live there. Mickey is having an affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet), a frustrated waitress married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who is a decent protector but also a bit of a brute. The most interesting thing about him is his name – is it a nickname? Is it short for something? Could it actually be his given name? Meanwhile, Humpty’s adult daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up unexpectedly, after having run off and married a gangster years earlier. She tries to lay low and get through night school, but naturally some of her husband’s associates come looking for her because she knows too much.

Ultimately, nobody gets a happy ending, which is hardly surprising. But it would have been nice if there had been some sense, any sense, of finality. One of the worst possible outcomes happens, and then Wonder Wheel just stops. Then we just move on out the theater and get on with our lives, with nary a memorable impression to show for it. Maybe the stagy, stilted, sporadically compelling acting style will stick with me a bit, but otherwise, it must be said: Woody, you don’t have to stick to your one-film-per-year routine. It is okay to wait until you find inspiration.

Wonder Wheel is Recommended If You Like: The Jim Belushi-aissance, Stage-style acting on film, Narration that is too wispy to even be pretentious

Grade: 2 out of 5 Humptys