Sunday, May 20, 2007

JFF 2007: Saturday, May 19th

An afternoon movie and a midnight screening for yesterday. The rest of my time was occupied with a short film contest (Which I won. Yea!) and necessary activities such as eating. On to the shows:

The Great World of Sound - Description from the JFF website: "Martin (Pat Healy) applies for a job at a company training prospective music producers. During training he pairs up with another new employee, Clarence (Kene Holliday), a middle aged man trying to change his career path. As record producers, the two travel to towns where the company has placed newspaper ads to find undiscovered musicians. They are seeking talent for the record label - signing new artists and giving them a chance to let their music be heard for a small fee. It’s going great at first, but soon Martin and Clarence begin to question whether the company is as virtuous as it promises to be in its promise to give people their dream."

Most of the musical acts that the two lead characters interact with are real people who responded to a newspaper ad put out by the filmmakers. They really think that this might be their one shot. Of course, they were told later about the film and signed off on the filmmakers using the footage, but the moments we see are genuine people with fragile dreams. Which makes it hard to watch when you know those dreams will be dashed. In reality, their dreams are dashed when the filmmakers walk out from behind the camera. In the film, their dreams are dashed when the checks are cashed. It's a technique that is both potent and disturbing.

Of course, there was part of me that wondered how these people could fall for such a ramshackle operation as two guys talking you up in a cheap hotel room. I suppose I've watched too many films about cons long and short, but this particular one seems very flimsy to me. Even if I hadn't read the film synopsis or seen the brief footage at the start of the film showing "gold" records being created (with spray paint), I think alarm bells would have gone off for me when listening to the business owners and looking at their flimsy set-up. Of course, as Mrs. Mosley pointed out to me, people fall for Nigerian Emails too. So I guess money and fame can be a very powerful lure sometimes.

The character of Martin must be one of the blandest white guys I have ever seen in a leading role, and I'm still undecided on whether this works to the film's benefit or not. He is the man we're supposed to identify with and connect to. His growing scepticism about the company and the work they do solidifies that bond and our sympathies for his situation. But he can be so blank in some scenes as to be almost catatonic. It's hard to believe his boss when he says that Martin and Clarence are their best salesmen when Martin can be so awkward and ill-at-ease. It's clear that Clarence is doing most of the work for the two of them.

Now Clarence is a different case all together. He's older than Martin and has clearly been through some rough times, to the point where he has an it-could-be-a-lot-worse optimism about their work (he practically gushes about a cell phone the boss gives him to use on the road). But his ease of working becomes disturbing when he comes to the same realizations as Martin, but soldiers on anyway. And he's willing to play plenty of cards to get the sale (his use of Christianity when dealing with fellow African Americans as a bonding point will make your skin crawl). Late in the film, he gives Martin a speech about the fairness of what they do and how it doesn't matter worth a damn if it keeps you off the street. It's a cynical view, yes, but Kene Holliday sells it, and we sympathize with Clarance's plight (and life) as well.

This may have a good deal of laughs in it, but this is not a happy film in the end. I'm glad I saw it and encourage others who are intrigued by the description to see it too. It will remind you of the people out there that want to swindle you, and it will make you sympathize with them as well.

Exiled - Description from the JFF website: "When a group of close-knit mobsters defy a powerful boss, the stage is set for a series of jaw-dropping, bullets-blazing action sequences in director Johnny To's homage to spaghetti westerns. The time is 1998. The setting is Macau. Every living soul jumps at every chance to make quick money before the Portuguese colony ushers in a new era under the Chinese rule. For the jaded hit men, they wonder where this journey will end. Against this background of fin-de-si cle malaise come two hit men from Hong Kong sent to take out a renegade member trying to turn over a new leaf with his wife and newborn baby. They soon find themselves in the throes of a dilemma when two of their former associates also show up, intent on thwarting them at every cost."

It's been 18 years since John Woo created his masterpiece The Killer which became famous to movie fans here in the States who saw it on video. Since then, Hong Kong and brilliant gunplay has gone hand in hand. I don't claim to be an expert on the genre, but it does take someone special not to blend in with all the others considering the volume that comes out of the region. I'd say Johnny To is definitely one of them.

He makes the five heroes distinctive enough to have different personalities, but we don't dwell too much on character history past their joined history together. They're a likable lot, particularly Anthony Wong who has that wonderful stoic hitman thing going on, complete with glasses. All four have plenty of screentime between gun battles to engage in some entertaining camaraderie that really shows their friendship.

As is to be expected, the most impressive aspect of the film is the set pieces where the action scenes unfold. One is two story building with a big open space in the middle where you can peer into all the rooms on the first floor, which have no ceilings. This makes for some nice camera angles. Another is a loft apartment where an underground surgeon works. When the bad guys show up shortly after the heroes, they immediately hide behind bookcases and hanging tarps. When they come out to fight, the choreography is magnificent.

There are some goofier aspects to the film. The first gunfight where no one gets hurt looks unreal (pretty, but unreal). The running gag of the cop who refuses to notice anything close to retirement gets old, though I suspect that the actor's presence is some sort of Hong Kong in-joke since he is specially credited at the beginning of the film. Also, as befalls many action films, they put a little too much stock in bullet proof vests and their protective qualities. And this complaint isn't even counting a scene near the end where a man is said to be saved by one from six shots to the chest ... yet clearly has a bare chest that can be seen behind his open shirt!

But ignore all that. This is Hong Kong action at it's finest. Those who love it know who you are, so go and see it if it makes it out to your neck of the woods. You won't be disappointed.

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