Unknown SoldierReviewed By David Hollands
Posted 10/03/04 04:40:37
Unknown Soldier, shot in what appears to be ultra-cheap MiniDV cameras, certainly looks incredible. The DV photography by Luis Armada and Steve Carrillo, although making the film appear very home movie-ish, is amazingly stylized. It almost makes the film appear as if it's breathing, pulsating to a particular beat that the frequent dissolves to black only accentuate. It's amazing work that speaks volumes about what talented individuals can accomplish with limited means.But no, the story isn't perfect.
It centres around Ellison, a young man who must live on the streets when his father passes away. He encounters many hardships along the way, including his girlfriend leaving him, his chronic asthma denying him entry in the U.S. Army, and basically everyone who seemed to be his friend turning their back on him. It would seem that he can only make a living by becoming a hustler for the neighbourhood crime lord.
Ferenc Tóth, who wrote and directed this film, has a fantastic visual sense, yet is unfortunately unable to fashion a very good story. I'm not complaining about the "it's been done" storyline of life on the streets, I'm complaining about the execution of that storyline. Basically, Tóth unwisely lays out all his cards on the table throughout the entire film. His script has little to no mercy for its main character, as every time it would seem like something good could occur to Ellison, something bad always does instead. Not only is that incredibly contrived, but it also becomes very boring. Constantly throwing non-stop obstacles that bury your main character's life in heavier mounds of sh*t, and not letting up on that even once throughout your film makes it become predictable. As an audience, we know that whenever something good could come Ellison's way, that something will always barge in to ruin that for him.
Seriously, just take a look at some of the situations Tóth has thought up here. His girlfriend's parents don't let him stay at their place; when staying at a friend's, a family member returns from a trip and he has to vacate the empty room; he has to leave a homeless shelter because someone keeps trying to rob him; he isn't accepted by his friend's gang; he can't join the army due to chronic asthma; finally, he has to work illegally to make end's meat. This may be realistic to real life, but when these conveniently awful things keep occurring, we can almost see the visuals morphing into a script page.
The film is also too short. Certain aspects of the story really needed to be fleshed out more. The entire "Ellison working for the crime lord" storyline makes up the final ten minutes of the movie, hardly enough time to display both the pros and cons of such a lifestyle in any kind of interesting way. All we get are a few scenes of his girlfriend shouting at him that it's the wrong lifestyle, and some contrived contemplative moments. There is a situation in which Ellison is almost killed when driving the crime lord to a hit, but that's yet another melodramatic situation in which he will be forced to leave his current residence. Speaking of melodrama, he not only ends up exactly where he started by the film's conclusion, but he also helps a woman with a baby carriage down into the subway with a huge smile on his face. Awwww....
Tóth's direction though, is really amazing. Even when limited by the look of the MiniDV cameras, he still composes shots as if he were making a big-budget feature film. There are striking images to be found here. Tóth composes shots using the locations; structures become as important for the framing as the characters. It really is fantastic work, especially so when one realises that this, in fact, is Tóth's first film. Definitely could have fooled me.
However, there are still drawbacks to his direction. Tóth has an annoying tendency to fall back on visual clichés. Most of the time, he frames Ellison so he is isolated in the shot with lots of empty space on either side of him. This isn't done subtly or even creatively; it's just thrust upon you as if it were a blunt object trying to make contact with your head. Other visuals come to mind as well, such as Ellison stopping to stare at a homeless man eating for a few seconds before continuing on. The whole visual is obviously supposed to indicate that Ellison is heading down that particular path, yet the obstacles piled against him throughout the film were already a clear indication of this. It's as if Tóth felt his audience was too stupid to realise this after fifty minutes of watching the film.
Speaking of stupid, it's never explained why, when it is revealed that Ellison graduated the top third of his class, thoughts of going to university or college never entered his head, especially when his girlfriend had applied as well. The top third of one's class is very impressive, and he could have easily applied for a scholarship. However, he still remains where he is, and Tóth never even gives us a smidgen of a reason why this never crossed his mind, especially when he would be able to possibly be with the one he loves should he apply to the same college as she. Also, for a top third class graduate, Ellison is quite the stupid smart person. When sleeping on street corners, in gutters or homeless shelters, he leaves his stuff out in the open for anybody to take, sometimes even leaving his things lying about while he heads elsewhere. He never even thinks to bring a d*mn bucket with him, meaning he has to relieve himself behind buildings and in dark alleys. Geez, it's kind of hard to feel sympathy for this guy when it seems as if he brought on most of his hardships.
Although I realise that this is a low budget production, some things definitely needed to be done to fix certain glaring errors. We hear the camera shaking when its movements become frenetic, we see visible Digital Video lines appear in the image on occasion when the camera is bumped, Ellison appears to accidentally hit the boom mic at one point, and sometimes the whole soundtrack cuts out for about a second. Add this to sound design with sound that appears to change strangely whenever the shot cuts to a different one, frequently in the same scene. Post-production was either very rushed or unbelievably lazy, resulting in a soundtrack that distracts more than it enhances. Heck, even the editing by Sam Neave and Frank Reynolds, while pretty good, has a few frames in which there appears to be a flash of another image before cutting to the next scene. Very distracting indeed.
Peter Calandra wrote the musical score for the film, and it is definitely pretty good. Calandra is able to transport us into Ellison's contrived world with grace and assuredness. His score never tries to tell us how to feel, but instead attempts to accentuate the scene unfolding before us. And that's definitely quite the achievement, as he appears to only be using the same repeating notes and rhythms, something I only realised when during the end credits. That's definitely a testament to Calandra's work here. I also like that his score is only in a scene exactly when it needs to be, helping it to not seem forced in the least. In the scene in which Ellison finds that his father has died of a heart attack, there is no music until the end of the scene. Each element of that scene is perfect, and it delivers a real emotional impact, something the rest of the film pretty much fails to do.
The performances are average, each ranging from sleepwalking to fine. As Ellison, Carl Louis is quite good. He plays his role with a non-showiness that really allows us to believe that we are watching his character rather than him. He also shows quite a bit of depth in a few scenes, particularly the one where he stares at the crime lord practically begging for help without a single word. However, he can also be a bit bland in other scenes, and he has a habit of staring blankly into his co-stars' eyes on occasion. Still, it's definitely pretty good work for a first-timer. The supporting players are just going through the motions though, and its obvious that they don't really care about the quality of their performances. Still, since Louis is given most of the attention in the flick, one can just barely overlook this.Unknown Soldier is like the person everyone knows who talks a lot and yet says nothing. It's visuals are its talk, and its story is what says nothing. The direction is incredible, the acting so-so, the sound design lacking, and the score really good. It's a package which unfortunately contains a rather sub-par film, as directorial quality, although definitely helping, can usually never overcome the shortcomings of a story.
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