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Unknown Soldier
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by Jack Sommersby

"Stylistic Triumph, Contextual Disaster"
2 stars

The tale of an urban teen's plight in Harlem as seen through the eyes of a master film stylist and the pen of an unctuous screenwriter.

Winner of the top prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year, Unknown Soldier is one of the most dazzling-looking films I've ever seen. The cinematographers, Luis Armada and Steve Carrillo, haven't allowed the production's ultra-low budget to hinder them; they light both the exteriors and interiors of Harlem with such colorful tactility that practically every shot looks like a painting viewed through a lava lamp illuminated by a thousand-watt bulb. Whether it's the inside of a pet store (where fish boasting bright primary colors swim about) or an apartment-building stoop (where the characters in the foreground are bathed in lime green and the background in crimson), each scene possesses a visual virtuosity reminiscent of Sacha Vierny's breathtaking work in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. The overall look of the film is both lurid and mesmerizing, and also near-psychedelic, and the debuting director, Ferenc Toth, contributes his fair share to it with one stunningly-framed shot after another -- his sense of composition has a bravura to it indicative of a born filmmaker who knows what to look at and how to look at it. Also, his astute pacing propels us along with a seductive rhythm and narrative pull that makes the mere seventy-eight-minute running time go by like a flash, yet it's not of the hurried, harried variety that reeks of uncouthness, just of iron-clad assuredness. Toth and his technicians (and that includes Sam Neave and Frank Reynolds, whose editing is razor-sharp) are blessed with extraordinary talent, but, unfortunately, they're at the service of a pathetically contrived and direly lackluster screenplay that, even more unfortunately, was written by Toth, whose first filmed screenplay this is.

Once again we have one of those teen-trying-to-make-it-on-the-streets melodramas set in a rough urban city, with the lead character, eighteen-year-old Ellison "L" Jones (played by Carl Louis), forced to make ends meet after his hard-working father suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. Evicted from his sublet apartment due to rent-payment delinquency, and having only a few dollars from a couple of low-paying, part-time jobs to his credit, L first tries crashing at his college-bound girlfriend's place before being forced to leave by her family, and right after he manages to secure a temporary spot at a friend's, a family member shows up to move in, and L's back on the streets. From here, he tries sleeping at various other places -- ranging from a rooftop to a homeless shelter to outside an apartment building -- yet is continually being displaced. His days aren't much better. Working crummy jobs for crummy pay fails at building an adequate nest egg to secure a place of his own, and even when making what he perceives to be a mature decision of enlisting in the Army, he's rebuffed due to a chronic-asthma condition. Feeling just about at the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder, he reluctantly agrees to serve as a driver/assistant for the young neighborhood crime kingpin; he feels morally degraded and disgust for himself because he knows his father wouldn't have approved. Soon, he's wearing slick clothes and driving a slick ride, yet even when he tries burying his conscience it winds up getting unearthed when a good-hearted neighborhood woman asks "You look good, but do you feel good?" (groan), and when his boss' criminal activity turns especially violent (gee, who would've expected such a thing?). What the film eventually comes down to is whether L will make the decision to shuck easy money for immediate rewards or acquiesce to his own moral code by eking out a living through honest work.

Twenty minutes into Unknown Soldier, you have a pretty good idea where it's headed, and though the familiarity of the basic story concept isn't necessarily detrimental, the jerry-building of it is. L has been conceived less as a character and more as a concept to embody human suffering; the deck has been stacked against him from start to finish in such an obsequious attempt to engage and sustain audience sympathy that you feel if he ever caught a smidgen of a genuine break the film would collapse inside of two seconds. There's nothing wrong with unfortunate happenstances being bestowed on a protagonist, but when it's heaped on and heaped on with fevered frequency and sledgehammer subtlety it's nothing short of shameful beguilement on the part of the filmmaker; Toth is quintessentially obsessed with piling on the negatives and shortchanging on the positives, and in doing so serves up cheap cynicism and then ventures into outright offensiveness with his contempt for the audience's suspension-of-disbelief threshold. When we find out L recently graduated in the top third of his high-school class, we're baffled as to why he hasn't taken steps to attend college with the girlfriend he loves, either through a scholarship or loans and grants. When his father dies -- who was a man who preached financial responsibility, had a good-paying job as a car mechanic, and had no one but himself and his son to support -- one doesn't assume a vault-filled nest egg was left behind but at least something put away for his only child. And surely someone as nominally intelligent as L would know to keep a plastic bag and bottle on the rooftop for bathroom purposes, yet Toth would rather him sprint down a staircase in the middle of the night with a case of the runs and defecate in an alley just to let us know (in case we obtusely didn't already) that the kid's having a tough time of it as of late. (At least Toth retains some dignity in having L at least equip himself with toilet paper. What a mensch.)

The more you watch of Unknown Soldier the less tolerant you are of it, because you're all too aware of the number it's trying to do on you. When Toth isn't piling on the ostentatiously obvious, like in having L look long and hard at a bum (what foreshadowing!), he's trotting out banal metaphors, like the film's title letting us know L is fighting a battle on American streets to survive, several introductions to a scene with him running to a particular location to let us know he wants to escape his oppressive surroundings, and the insistent use of fade-outs to suggest L's decaying situation. It's a shame L's father isn't around longer, because Carl Garrison contributes an excellent performance and gets a real relationship going with the audience in his limited screen time (revel in the way he carries off the line, "They'll leave their husband before they leave their mechanic."); he's as vivid and appealing and funny as Robin Harris was as the wise-cracking, take-no-guff Pop in House Party. (Carl Louis is adequate as L, nothing more.) It's also a shame that, for all its fantastic location shooting in Harlem, the film lacks the palpable grit and visceral intensity that Matty Rich brought to Straight Out of Brooklyn (the best of the '90s "'hood" pictures) and, due to Toth's stunted dramatic sense, the rich emotional life Steve Anderson endowed South Central (the second-best of this sub-genre) with. Unknown Soldier tries to dress up a tired script with artiness, but only so much technical razzle-dazzle can glide over moments like L helping a mother with a baby carriage up some stairs and beaming with pride thereafter so we know he's regained his heart. What it comes down to is I'd be simply ecstatic over the prospect of someone like Ferenc Toth overseeing the decoration of my new dream home but neurasthenically aghast over his being responsible for the foundation and structure of it as well.

Yeah, it won the top award at a film festival. But so did the insidious "Wild at Heart," ya know.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9002&reviewer=327
originally posted: 08/29/04 19:20:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Boston Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Boston Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/24/04 Barb Barden Great Movie! 5 stars
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  30-Jan-2004 (NR)



Directed by
  Ferenc Toth

Written by
  Ferenc Toth

  Carl Louis
  Randy Clark
  Postell Pringle
  Layla Edwards

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