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Front Page - Friday, March 30, 2018

‘Unsane’ iPhone experiment in need of an upgrade

Film is an experimental medium. Beyond its basic rules lies all the room moviemakers need for innovation. Unfortunately, experiments sometimes fail. Case in point: director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological thriller “Unsane,” a ghastly, awful film that will waste the time and money of everyone who sees it.

The idea is intriguing: Soderbergh wanted to see if he could shoot a feature film using an iPhone 7. In an interview on IndieWire, he explained how he was impressed with the iPhone’s 4K capabilities and saw no reason to continue lugging around trailers full of cumbersome equipment.

Stinging a bit from the financial failure of “Logan Lucky” last year, Soderbergh also wanted to see if he could come up with a filmmaking model that made more financial sense. Read: he wanted to see how cheaply he could make a movie and still get it in theaters.

But there’s a disconnect between Soderbergh’s statements about the technology he used to make the movie and the quality of the images on the screen. Soderbergh said he’d seen “Unsane” on a 40-foot tall screen and that it looked like velvet. Maybe he needs to upgrade the prescription for his glasses. What I saw still looked like video and had nothing in common with woven, tufted fabrics.

In a nutshell, “Unsane” lacks the warmth and richness of film. It also doesn’t measure up to the best-looking movies made using high-end digital cameras.

Maybe the mediocre quality of the video had more to do with the way Soderbergh shot “Unsane” than the capabilities of the iPhone. Set mostly inside dingy, poorly lit buildings, the movie just lies there on the screen, looking sullen. In many scenes, shadows cover the actors’ faces, making me wonder if Soderbergh shot the film using only natural light.

There’s no denying the potential of the video technology that comes bundled with today’s smartphones. The possibilities for the development of talent and artistic expression are endless. But because of its poor application, “Unsane” will not be remembered for being the vehicle that opened the door to widespread use of this potentially game-changing tool.

In terms of its story, “Unsane” reminded me of the movies that run in endless succession on Lifetime. You know the kind – a woman is drawn into the abusive snare of a psychotic male and must use her wits and previously untapped physical strength to overcome her captor.

“Unsane” follows Sawyer, a young businesswoman who’s being stalked by the son of a former hospice patient. When she signs up for a support group, she finds herself involuntarily placed in a mental institution with strict rules and is allowed no contact with anyone on the outside.

I hate when that happens. So does Sawyer. No one will listen to her pleas for release, and when she becomes frustrated, the orderlies pump her full of drugs and strap her to her bed.

Eventually, the stalker shows up as an employee at the institution. You can imagine Sawyer’s surprise when she steps up to receive her daily dose of pills and there he stands, smiling manically, like a reject from a bad 1980’s direct-to-video thriller. Soon after, people begin to disappear.

The best low-budget films are compelling enough that viewers never notice the lack of money on the screen. The first “Paranormal Activity” cost a mere $10,000 to make and turned its frugal approach (using security camera footage) into a clever storytelling device.

“Unsane” cost $1.2 million to make but looks cheaper than “Paranormal Activity” because evidence of its limited budget is all over the screen. The film looks like it was shot inside an old office building instead of a mental institution. For example, the large room in which the patients sleep laughably looks like a gutted break room or cubicle jungle.

I’m guessing the scenes at the “police station” – a cramped room furnished with desks, file cabinets and a pair of uniformed cops – were filmed down the hall.

There is one bright spot in “Unsane” – the performance of Claire Foy as Sawyer. Foy is the award-winning actress who appeared as the young Queen Elizabeth during the first two seasons of the Netflix series, “The Crown.” She gives “Unsane” the same level of commitment. Perhaps someone can use an iPhone to lift her out of the movie and put her in a better one.

I was hoping this experiment was going to be a detour for Soderbergh rather than a new direction, but in the IndieWire interview, he suggests the experience of making “Unsane” was liberating enough to convince him to continue down this path.

If Soderbergh follows through on his decree, I hope he’ll first take a hard look at what worked and didn’t work with “Unsane” and make significant improvements with his next movie. Not doing so would be insane.