Steven Soderbergh is a restlessly experimental filmmaker who enjoys adopting new technology to tell familiar stories. Unsane was shot entirely on an iPhone (7s, if you must know) but I’ll never know the reason other than to see if it could be done. Otherwise, Unsane is Soderbergh’s woman-in-peril Lifetime movie of the week. Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown) plays a harried woman on the edge that accidentally commits herself to an in-patient mental hospital. That’s the best part of the movie, the first twenty minutes, as she diligently tries to convince everyone she is not crazy and there has been some sort of mistake. From there she begins seeing images of her stalker (Joshua Leonard) from another city. Is she really crazy? Is he really there? Has he followed her and gotten a job at a mental hospital and been waiting his time anticipating she would commit herself to this exact facility? The film answers this question ridiculously early and finds the most boring yet also preposterous route to go with its pedantic thrills. There’s a good concept here with the idea of a person trying to navigate the Byzantine, bureaucratic system to prove their sanity from behind bars, but it’s so poorly developed as to feel like a promising TV episode stretched thin. There simply are not enough twists and turns to keep an audience consistently engaged. Soderbergh has played in the trashy B-movie realm before with 2013’s Side Effects to much better effect. There aren’t enough credible characters to grapple onto. Foy is enjoyably incensed and erratic and keeps your attention, though I think she studied at the Kate Winslet School of American Accents. Gorgeous looking movies have been shot on cell phones, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine. This movie looks like it was shot on someone’s phone while it was dying. It looks so ugly on the big screen, flat and over-saturated in lighting, and just unappealing. It’s deeply un-cinematic and Soderbergh has the skills to do better. Unsane is un-good.
Nate’s Grade: C-
There’s a definite squeamishness out there when it comes to the idea of men expressing intimacy. Brokeback Mountain proved even liberal Hollywood wasn’t ready to anoint a movie about two gay dudes secretly getting it on. There will be large portions of people that will refuse to give a movie like Humpday a chance simply because of its premise: two guys plotting to have sex. It’s not a dirty movie by any means, nor does it get graphic with details or conversations. But the movie exactingly explores the uncomfortable relationships men have with expressions of romance. Humpday is also extremely funny in that pained, awkward sensibility, and I challenge the squeamish to give this charming indie a shot at love. If it makes it any easier for people to take (SPOILER ALERT) they don’t actually go through with it.
Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a comfortable existence with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). Then one day his old friend from college, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), unexpectedly visits. Andrew has lived a Kerouac-like existence on the road as an aspiring artist. The two guys catch up on old times and Andrew invites Ben over to a party. He ditches his wife, and her pork chops, for the party, which turns out to be hosted by a group of free-love artists. The alcohol-fueled conversation lands on Humpfest, the annual amateur pornography festival held in Seattle. Ben and Andrew come up with their own entry idea: two straight guys that will have sex. “That’s beyond gay,” somebody says. Both men refuse to back down. Ben books a hotel room. The only thing he has to do now is tell his wife about Andrew’s “art project.”
Humpday explodes male sexual insecurities better than any film since 1997?s Chasing Amy. Each man refuses to back out of having gay sex because they don’t want to be seen as less masculine. It’s masculinity brinksmanship, willing to go all the way to prove superior heterosexuality through a homosexual act, and it?s nothing short of brilliant. Neither Ben nor Andrew wants to “puss out” on their big moment. But neither of them really wants to go through with it either, which leads toward tremendous amounts of awkward comedy. Writer/director Lynn Shelton has fashioned a scenario that is hilarious but also subtlety heartfelt; many films deal with the bromance of heterosexual love, but Shelton pushes it to the limit. These two guys do care about each other, and you can see their camaraderie as they recount old stories and open up to one another, and in the end they might be willing to go to the extremes for their friendship, whatever the consequences may be.
Both Ben and Andrew have deep-seated insecurities about their personal lives; Andrew wants to live a free-spirited artistic lifestyle but is really too scared to fully commit, and too “square” for abandoning all sexual inhibitions like some of his casual artsy pals; Ben has a house, a job, a wife, and feels defensive about his life choices, particularly the idea that he’s settled down and giving up. Both men are also insecure by sexually adept women, so it may be natural that they seek the company of each other for solace and mutual understanding. The final act, where the two friends meet in a hotel room for their big night, is a slice of awkward comedy heaven. They haven’t worked out any logistics, locations, warm-ups, anything, and watching them verbally hatch a game plan is hilarious and oddly touching in equal doses. They really don’t know what they’re doing and why they’re there.
The actors have a naturalistic feel because, as I’ve found, the dialogue was almost entirely improvised. They shot in chronological order so to build from conversation to conversation, and you can feel the character dynamics strengthen and deepen. Duplass (The Puffy Chair) has a great, wide fake smile that hides a lot of anger and dissatisfaction. He’s sort of a schlubby everyman that we can empathize with even as he moves forward with his participation in the “art film.” Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), and his scraggly beard, effectively conveys a man weary about where his rugged life has led him. He is also hiding behind a guise, the guise of being a nonconformist that chooses to have no earthly ties, but bit-by-bit you see that Andrew is tired of disposable human connections. Leonard and Duplass feel like life-long friends. Then there’s Delmore, who really is the wary, incredulous voice of the audience. She too comes across as realistic under the circumstances, and her reaction when she discovers the true purpose of the “art project” is volatile, yes, but also surprisingly reflective. The three leads never feel like actors; the illusion that these are real people is never broken even given the peculiar circumstances of the premise.
What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story. Given these characters and the amiable direction they follow, Humpday is believable. I suppose it might be easy to dismiss it as another entry in the fly-on-the-wall “mumblecore” film series gaining traction in independent cinema, but Humpday is really more an observational character study that examines male relationships and the sexual politics of being a “man’s man” in today’s world of sexual liberation. There is a nuanced perspective on human sexuality here that I may be erroneously crediting to Shelton simply because she is a woman. It helps to have a more mature, open-minded perspective about the complexities of human behavior for this story to succeed, and I think a female presence behind the camera affords that luxury. There is commentary below the surface; however, Humpday can be entirely enjoyed as a surface-level comedy of an awkward heterosexual showdown.
I find it interesting that the original theatrical poster only featured the two shirtless guys eyeing each other, and with a pink background no less. The DVD cover has inserted Anna between the two guys and gone with the more boy-friendly blue background cover. I think this tiny detail is another reflection of just how uncomfortable the subject matter is for many people. Humpday is an insightful, perceptive little character study that feels real and honest, while at the same time the movie doesn’t allow sexual politics to become the headline. The movie remembers to be funny, often, and any discomfort is worth it.
Nate’s Grade: A
Who’s afraid of the big bad witch? Well apparently a nation of audiences and studio heads. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories from people lying in the corners of theaters until the movie was over, to people running out screaming, to the distribution of barf bags by theaters (of course it might be due to the hand held camera and motion sickness). Well after all the hype I finally ventured out to see it after some failed attempts at evening shows that managed to be sold out. I’ll say right now that I was never very afraid. Of course there may have been some effect being that I saw it around three in the afternoon.
But I did come away with a great appreciation for what these kids have done. They themselves with a mere $100,000 budget have practically reinvented horror and given it a complete turn from where the Kevin Williamson post-irony pseudo hip teen slasher films were leading us. And I for one couldn’t be happier. The anticipation of the unknown is far more frightening than being slowly chased by a man in a rain slicker. That’s exactly what Blair Witch offers. It’s no typical horror flick. It lets you create the fear in your head and let you drive yourself mad with it. The tension is slowly building and building as the trio get even more lost, paranoid, and frightened. It really is a truly innovative effort and done so realistically that people still swear to their hearts it’s all true. I think more credit should go to the actors then the directors for how effectively real the movie was. When they’re not yelling profanity all the time they do manage to come off as very believable and we see how they are all slowly breaking down internally like a case study. Just remember people, money doesn’t equal scares.
Nate’s Grade: B