March 2007

Saul Goodman

Saul Goodman I have to admit that I found the animation style used in Saul Goodman a little misleading initially. It has a very strong video game aesthetic which, initially, led me to expect the rest of the film to retain the usual computer game trappings. Whether this piece of misdirection is intentional or accidental I don’t know, but it certainly sets the tone for what is to follow.

Saul Goodman is the story of a conversation. An elderly man and a student both miss a train out of Boston and find themselves stranded on a deserted station. As they wait for the next train, a conversation starts to develop – initially around the crossword the older man is trying to solve but progressing easily into a more general discussion.

It emerges that the older man is - or was, or claims to be – a political fixer for a presidential campaign and he has a few stories to tell. These stories sound increasingly implausible but, as the old man fleshes out his anecdotes – each of which is challenged, debunked or flatly disbelieved by the younger man - a larger conspiracy slowly starts to emerge.

The story structure of Saul Goodman is established quite quickly, with the older man’s tales told in flashback, and this is where the use of animation really comes into its own. Writer/director Jim Connell is able to effectively employ the sort of set design and special effects that would otherwise be impossible in any film that doesn’t come with a multi-million dollar price tag.

But there is also a more subtle use of the animation going on here as well. As I’ve already mentioned, the older guy’s anecdotes are, individually, less than convincing – all the little details that you would normally expect are either missing or vague and this is very nicely underscored visually.

But by this time, of course, my interest in the nature and style of animation had become very much secondary to the story, which becomes increasingly gripping as you find yourself slowly being drawn into the older man’s world and trying to fill in the blanks that are constantly being hinted at.

The characterisation is worth mentioning here. Saul Goodman is essentially a two-hander between two strangers and the fact that the conversation flows so smoothly and believably is a testament to both the scripting and the voice acting of John Cammarata and Eric Scheiner, both of whom manage to bring some real humanity to their roles.

Ultimately, Saul Goodman is a strongly written, creatively original and well made political thriller which finishes with a very effective twist. This is also a film that improves on repeated viewings and one that demonstrates that, regardless of the budget, a good story well told is always engrossing.

Collision

One of the nice things about running a site such as this is that every now and the I come across a film that is well written, well acted, well directed – in short, an unquestionably good film. Sharyn Chen’s Collision is just such a film.

The film revolves around 15-year-old Malia (Tracy Perez) who, following an argument with her boyfriend, finds herself with nowhere to live but unwilling to admit to herself just how dire are the straits she’s in.

As she picks up her possessions she collides with Elias (Tom Monahan), a mentally ill homeless man who takes a liking to her bright orange school folder. Given that the rest of Malia’s few belongings are scattered on the street around her it’s not really surprising that she doesn’t have enough fight in her for the moment to rescue a folder that she doesn’t expect to need again any time soon.

The third character in this film is Zeke (Franklin Ojeda Smith), an elderly homeless man trying to straighten himself out and effect a reconciliation with his estranged daughter.

The film proceeds as a series of vignettes involving these three characters, their struggles to survive and their encounters with each other and the population of the city at large. These vignettes link together to explore the way in which we are all affected by our random interactions with friends and strangers and the way in which we all come to depend on the social solidarity of the people around us whether we are aware of it or not.

And this is where the good writing comes in. For a film that is largely dependent on a series of coincidences to keep it moving forward, Collision feels wonderfully unforced. The gentle pace of the film probably helps here, as does the fact that the setting is a relatively small part of New York, but the main element is that the characters are so well conceived and so rounded that the randomness and coincidence feels like an inevitable part of their lives.

The acting is superb throughout and all three of the main cast members do an incredible job of drawing you into their characters’ worlds, engaging your interest and ensuring that you really do find yourself caring about what happens to these people.

Collision is a superb film in which the script, the characterisation, the acting and the direction all come together wonderfully and which delivers an ending which is both understated and powerful.

The Realm of Never: Moratorium

The Realm of Never: Moratorium Moratorium is an episode of The Realm of Never – a science-fiction drama series that plays on US cable access. The series attempts to blend the feel of 1950s television theatre with the science-fiction and fantasy overtones of The Twilight Zone. And, as part of this, the series is filmed live.

Myles Goddard (Darren OHare), a Senate intern, has been exposed to the Liresept virus, a biological weapon that has been unleashed, leading to a severe clampdown on the rights and liberties of the public.

When the film opens, he’s been removed to confinement in a military hospital, under the care of Dr. Beverly Mathias (Jacqueline Muro) who is waiting for him to come around so that she can make a diagnosis as to whether he has been infected with the treatable general strain of the virus or the far more lethal Strain 51. The brain imaging points to the virus being Strain 51, but for the final diagnosis, Dr. Mathias and her assistant, Wyndham (Jason Murphy) need to hear what Goddard has to say.

Live filming does, inevitably, place restrictions on what can and can’t be done and the resulting film is far more theatrical than cinematic. And I have to admit that, not being familiar with American TV theatre, the very static sets and exposition heavy dialogue threw me a bit. Indeed, there is so little movement here that the film could even work as a radio play.

However, when Myles Goddard wakes up the film really comes into its own.

Goddard has indeed been infected by Strain 51 and is told that he needs immediate treatment. But he rejects this because the side-effect of the virus is omniscience.

The bulk of the film is taken up with the debate between Goddard and Dr. Mathias and, while the premise is deliberately cheesy, the film is vindicated by a superb performance from Darren O’Hare who manages to nail both the social paranoia expressed by so many 1950s science-fiction films and the insight/paranoia of his character in this film.

But Moratorium is more than just homage to the past. By inserting some all too contemporary references to trading freedoms for security and an omnipresent and ever-watchful government, writer/director Christopher Del Gaudio effectively demonstrates the way in which well written and intelligent science-fiction can be used to talk about where we are, as a society, and where we are going.

Moratorium is a bit of an oddity and it’s deliberately dated look did take a bit of getting used to – for me at least. But once you get past that, what you have is a well scripted, superbly acted slice of science-fiction that really does achieve Del Gaudio’s aim of proving that even with the most limited of resources there is still plenty of room for creativity and innovation.

Beyond the Gates

Based on real events and shot entirely on location, Beyond the Gates (released in the UK as Shooting Dogs) is a film of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

In 1994, after 30 years of persecution of the minority Tutsi people by the majority Hutu government and, under pressure from the West, the Hutu president had reluctantly agreed to share power with the Tutsis. The UN has deployed a small force around Kigali, the capital, to monitor the fragile peace.

The film itself is set in the Ecole Technique Officielle where Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy) is working as a teacher. Also based at the school is a contingent of Belgian UN troops and Father Christopher (John Hurt), a Catholic priest who runs the school and who has been here for long enough to become an established part of the community.

It all starts idealistically enough. Connor feels he’s fitting in and making a difference and he’s enjoying the cheerful chaos of Kigali and the random pace of life around him.

There are hints that all is not right, however, and foreshadowing’s of the impending disaster, but neither Father Christopher nor Joe Connor are able to fully comprehend the scale of the ethnic divide. Nor are they able to understand quite what is being planned.

And then the Rwandan President is killed.

In the ensuing confusion, people start arriving at the gates of the school, seeking the protection of the UN. And it’s now that the European characters find themselves face to face with the unfolding horror as Hutu militias turn on their Tutsis neighbours, and just how little the UN troops’ mandate allows them to do.

The film is packed with genuinely painful moments, all of which serve to bring home the atrocious state of affairs, but it is the understated nature of the script that really brings home the enormity of the events. Not grandstanding, and by focussing on a few characters and how they are affected by the events, as the film moves to its appalling yet inevitable climax, gives the film a real punch.

When the film was released in the UK, there were some criticisms of the fact that the main characters in this film about Rwanda are all white. However, in this case, I think that writer, David Wolstencroft was right to tell the story through this prism, if only because it allows him to tell the story through characters that are as clueless as the rest of us.

Joe Connor – the young idealist, completely out of his depth - is clearly the character with which we, as an audience, are expected to identify. But what really holds it all together is John Hurt’s superbly ambiguous performance as a conflicted priest confronting the horror unfolding around him as best he is able. He really does provide a real soul to this unusually thoughtful film.

Beyond the Gates is a film about Rwanda, but it’s also about the way in which the international community stood back and let the massacres happen. It’s a film about the way in which the UN weaselled out of acknowledging that a genocide was happening in order to avoid having to take any action, and tying the hands of their troops on the ground in the process.

It’s one of the most powerfully moving and emotionally draining films I’ve seen in a very long time. If you see nothing else this year, watch this film.