Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

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The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary  where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army

Escape Plan


AARP action movie stars.

AARP action movie stars.

(2013) Action (Summit) Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Matt Gerald, 50 Cent, Caitriona Balfe, David Joseph Martinez, Alec Rayme, Christian Stokes, Graham Beckel, Rodney Feaster, David Leitch, Eric R. Salas, Brian Oerly, Jeff Chase, Lydia Hull. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

There is a certain comfort in movies that recollect past eras. The action films of the 80s were one such. It can be said justifiably that the 80s were the golden age of the action film as stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, van Damme and a fairly large contingent from Hong Kong plied their trade in multiplexes across the country. Most of these actors are largely in their 60s now and while guys like Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson have picked up the slack, they haven’t equaled the popularity of those other men in their prime.

Ray Breslin (Stallone) breaks out of prisons for a living. He is a security specialist, finding the weak points in institutional security and pointing them out to their clients so that those weak points can be shored up. It’s a fairly lucrative business with Ray being the brains and his partner Lester Clark (D’Onofrio) the money man.

They get an unusual request from a representative from the CIA to see if a new Supermax facility, one which will hold people the government wants to see go away and never be found again – terrorists, domestic and foreign, that sort of thing. While Ray’s computer genius Hush (50 Cent) and his handler Abigail (Ryan) have misgivings, Ray thinks that the unusually high payday is worth the risk.

Then he is kidnapped off the streets of New Orleans and taken to a strange facility with glass cells and a massive central hub known as Babylon – all of which is clearly indoors but Ray has no idea where. He quickly realizes that things are awry when his contact doesn’t seem to exist and his evacuation code doesn’t work. Instead, he has the soft-spoken Warden Hobbes (Caviezel), a sadistic sort whose right hand man Drake (Jones) has plenty of muscle to enforce Hobbes’ wishes.

Ray gets an ally inside the prison in Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) who appears to be the middle man for a financial terrorist who targets corporations. Hobbes wants to know where the terrorist is in the worst way and Emil so far isn’t talking. Ray realizes that he’s been set up and betrayed and he is not supposed to escape – ever. What happens when you have a prison that’s truly escape proof? Do you settle in and accept your fate or die trying to get your freedom?

This definitely harkens back to the golden age of action films I referred to earlier in tone and layout. The plot and writing aren’t going to be confused with Henrik Ibsen nor are Schwarzenegger and Stallone going to be confused with Barrymore and Olivier. However, both of the former have become iconic screen personalities and they don’t really need to act. They just need to show up and react.

This is definitely Stallone’s movie with Schwarzenegger playing little more than comic relief, although he gets his testosterone moment when he lifts a huge machine gun out of a helicopter and opens fire on the baddies. It’s as preposterous as any moment in the film yet one of the most gratifying. In fact, all those who grew up with the movies of the heyday of these two men will find this comfort food of the highest order, cinematically speaking.

The sets of the massive prison are pretty impressive, as are the black-masked prison guards. While Arnold and Sly do what they do so well, Caviezel – generally the Eastwood-ian hero of Person of Interest on CBS and quite possibly the softest-spoken actor in Hollywood – makes his character silky smooth and with all the delicious evil of a serpent. He makes for an excellent antagonist and given the Bond-like set and soldiers, might make for a Blofeld-like bad guy for the venerable British spy series if they’re looking for a villain to go up against Daniel Craig in the next movie.

While the leads labor through some of their action sequences (after all, they are both well past AARP age) and remind us that their prime has come and gone, they nonetheless have the experience and wisdom to simply rely on the images they’ve both carefully crafted over the years and use them to help push them over the top. Sure, there’s nothing here that is going to essentially stand out above other action movies in the year of our lord 2013 but this isn’t a disgrace either. It’s fine, mindless entertainment for a nation that desperately needs the same. Still though, you’d be better off renting Predator, Rambo, The Running Man and Cobra if you want to see the best work of these gentlemen.

REASONS TO GO: Nice set design and pacing. Caviezel makes an intimidating villain.

REASONS TO STAY: No surprises. The stars show just how long in the tooth they have become.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stallone’s eldest son Sage passed away during filming, causing a brief break in shooting while he attended to family matters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Escape From Alcatraz

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Counselor