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VIFF 2017 Review: PROTOTYPE

Prototype

PROTOTYPE is a film by Blake Williams about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. It’s to be his depiction and his thoughts and images of the event.

The film begins with images of the aftermath if the Galveston hurricane of 1900: a disaster where 8000 people died. The film progresses into images depicting what happened during the storm, like waves in the water, various images of people and television screens, various images of color, all featured against disjointed music in the background. The film then focuses on what happens three weeks later with even further images of people, television screens, lucid colors and even computer images of automobiles. The film ends with images of Galveston today where natural images of the city and of the Gulf of Mexico are shown along with blended-in images.

When I first came to this film, I was told this would be a documentary. I was also understanding abut this since hurricanes have been big news in 2017 with two or three big-name hurricanes hitting North America. The film is less of a documentary and more of an experimental film. There’s no narrator and we get disjointed music as the score for the film. I will have to say that I admit that when I first came for this film, I didn’t know what to expect. When the film talked about the Galveston Hurricane, I had my own expectations about what this ‘documentary’ would be and it didn’t turn out that way. I was disappointed in this for a long time.

The biggest reason why I was disappointed was because this film didn’t make much sense. Sure, I know there are a lot of films that try to be experimental–this is an experimental 3D film– but its use of various film images in relating them to the Galveston hurricane didn’t make a lot of sense. Like I wondered what the computer graphics of an SUV had to do with what happened three weeks after a hurricane in 1900. I could understand pictures of strong waves shown at the beginning and the end of each film segment because of the Gulf Of Mexico. However other images like that of computer screens or of all these lucid colors did not make sense at all to why they’re in a film about this disaster in 1900.

We should not forget that here at the Vancouver Film Festival, we will be having a lot of experimental films. There will be a lot of films that will try to be different and eccentric for the sake of stretching the boundaries of artistry. It becomes evident that director Blake Williams is trying to stretch artistry or use artistic expression for his own detailing of this event. I have no objection to that; I’m welcoming to that. However I’m welcoming to  it as long as it’s done in a way that would make sense. I’m sure Blake would give his explanations for why all these images and why they relate to the events of that disaster, but most of it would not be made apparent to the audience.

I think at best, this film is a film that’s meant more for those who welcome different approaches to film and welcome all types of artistic eccentricities. Especially in art galleries where there are all sorts of films with all sorts of elements and imagery. However I don’t like things that give the impression that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. I’m sure it does know, but it doesn’t make it obvious enough. It gives the impression only Blake Williams knows what it is.

PROTOTYPE first appears to be a 3D documentary, but is actually more of an experimental film. This appears to be a film that would belong more in an art gallery.

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Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: American Sniper

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it's a lot more.

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it’s a lot more.

If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.

It’s easy to dismiss American Sniper as a pro-war movie at first. Especially when you see the attitude of its protagonist. However if you watch it from beginning to end you will see that it’s a lot more than a tale of a sharpshooter and may not be as pro-war as you think.

The film begins in 2003 during the Iraq war where US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle sees a civilian woman pass a huge grenade to her 8 year-old son and is about to shoot. Before he pulls the trigger, we flash back to an 11 year-old Chris who impresses his father with his ability to shoot a deer from long range. His father teaches him about the three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Chris decides to be a sheepdog, especially to his lamb-like younger brother. In his early 20’s, Chris decides to be a rodeo cowboy until a bullriding accident leaves him with injuries he can’t recover from.

While sidelined, he witnesses on the TV news an incident that will change his life: the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda. It’s then he decides to become a Navy SEAL. At first they were reluctant to accept him but agreed upon being impressed with his shooting skills. During his training he bumps into Taya Renee at a bar. Taya is not interested because her sister dated a Navy SEAL and he ended up being a complete asshole. Nevertheless he impresses Taya to the point she dates him. Soon after, 9/11 happens. Chris marries Taya soon after and is deployed as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq during the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s there where it really begins.

At the beginning of his first mission comes the mother and son as seen at the beginning. Kyle shoots the son first only to see the mother take the grenade and carry on. He has to shoot her, causing her to throw the grenade while shot causing an explosion. The experience of shooting the two leaves Chris upset to the point of tears but he has to continue his duty. Kill after kill earns him the nickname ‘The Legend’ by his US comrades. It also makes himself a target of al-Qaeda’s where they offer for $80,000 for anyone who kills him. Al-Qaeda even have a top sniper of their own in Iraq after him and he uses and SVD. During his first mission, he is given the mission to hunt for an al-Qaeda leader named al-Zarqawi and hunts house after house for information leading to him or his second-in-command nicknamed ‘the Butcher.’ A father and son give helpful information but plans go chaotic as The Butcher locates the father and son and drills into their heads leaving them for dead. Chris was unable to defend because of sniper fire, overheard by a pregnant Taya during a phone call, preventing him from performing any action of rescue.

Chris returns to Taya in time for the birth of his son Colton. Chris tries to be a family man at home but Taya notices he’s distraught by the memories and even watching bootleg videos of marines shot in battle. Taya tells him she wants him to commit to his family. But Chris feels he has to serve again where he’s now promoted to Chief Petty Officer. This time he’s involved in a battle with The Butcher. After killing him, Chris returns home to Taya, Colton and his newborn daughter. However it’s obvious the war has affected Chris with his hostile reaction in the maternity ward when her daughter’s crying. Chris becomes increasingly distant with his family. He leaves for a third mission and his brother Jeff is also part of it too. However Chris is hugely affected by the injuries sustained by one of his US comrades part of the unit. The mission continues but Chris witnesses his fellow SEAL shot to death in the gunfire.

Chris returns home but not to his wife and family. He returns for the funeral of his fallen SEAL. Much to the heartbreak of his wife, Chris feels he has to return again in his fellow SEAL’s honor and complete the mission. During the fourth mission, the team learns the alias of the al-Qaeda sniper after them and Chris: Mustafa. Chris is assigned to take him out and is placed on the roof of a building in enemy territory. It’s very risky since killing Mustafa could put Chris and his comrades in enemy firestorm. Nevertheless Chris must do it, especially since a sandstorm is sensed from miles away. Chris spots Mustafa from almost two kilometers away and shoots. It’s a hit: the eighth-longest sniper kill of all-time ever recorded. But the enemy gunfire occurs just as the sandstorm approaches and while Chris is talking to Taya. Right during the sandstorm, Chris struggles to jump on the jeep but succeeds in time and tells Taya: “I’m coming home.”

Chris’ mission is completed. His military efforts of 255 kills, 160 confirmed, Kyle is officially the deadliest American marksman in US military history. He returns home trying to adjust to home life but it’s apparent the war is still affecting him mentally. Even Taya lets him know that. Upon the advice through psychiatric help, he volunteers his time to help veterans return to home life and overcome their own post-traumatic stress syndrome. After five years, Chris is well-adjusted and has successfully become a family man to his wife and children. The movie closes to the last morning of Chris’ life where he leaves for his volunteering with veterans. He would be killed by a veteran he was helping that day. The movie ends with footage of his funeral.

From beginning to end I had to watch it with a very observant eye. I wanted to see what types of messages it would be sending and if it was a pro-war stance or anti-war. I personally cannot see it as a pro-war movie. Sure, you see Chris’ attitude about patriotism and his determination to think that those he shot were soldiers, not people. Even seeing video footage of the funeral of the real Chris Kyle with those saluting his coffin as he went by, funeral held in a stadium and his casket covered with medals would cause some to impulsively think the film is trying to make Chris a hero. But oddly enough I don’t think it’s trying to make Chris a hero. Instead I think it showed Chris’ weaknesses as well as his strengths. We see how Chris was taught the values he held by his father including being told to be a ‘sheepdog,’ we see how he becomes hostile as he sees his newborn daughter crying in the maternity ward, we see how the death of a comrade only prompts Chris to extend his ‘duty’ despite how much his wife can’t take it, we also see it as Chris is about to punch a dog at a birthday party.

Recently I came across a quote from Clint Eastwood: “The biggest anti-war statement any film can make is to show the fact of what it does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.” I feel that American Sniper does just that because I sensed right from the start, this movie actually looks at war and Chris Kyle’s hero status through a cynical eye. I felt that as the film first shows a young Chris being taught about: ‘lambs, wolves and sheepdogs.’ Then again as Chris goes to war with the Bible he stole from church and admits he never opened it. Other scenes that added to the suspected cynicism were his hostile acts at home and even that scene as he sees a therapist and says his guilt is not at all because of the people he killed but because of his fallen fellow soldiers he failed to save. That scene had me wondering if Chris really did feel that way or if it’s because he felt that’s the way he’s supposed to think, especially upon remembering he was in tears after he shot that little boy at the very beginning. Even that ending scene where they show video footage of Chris’ funeral with people lining the streets waving the American flag as his hearse passes him, the stadium where his funeral was held filled, and his casket covered with military medals made me think Clint was putting Chris’ hero status and a common belief in the United States that ‘soldier = patriot’ on the hot seat. I really sense that.

As for what it does for the family, you can bet there’s a lot of focus on that in the film, especially in scenes involving Taya. The first scene that has to send that message has to be when she’s on a phone conversation with Chris but a shootout ensues. Chris drops his phone on the street as the shootout happens with Taya listening on the other ends. Taya’s distraught crying as she’s hearing the bullet fire on the other end has to be the scene that sends that message. Even in conversation with Chris, Taya is the one reminding him how stressful and hurtful it is to her every time he goes back off. She even reminds him about how he’s not the same ever since his fighting: “You’re my husband, you’re the father of my children. Even when you’re here, you’re not here. I see you, I feel you, but you’re not here.” Even outside of Chris and Taya, we get this message at the funeral of the soldier shot during Chris’s first mission. That scene where the officer gives the mother the folded flag from his casket and the tears in her eyes also sends that message. It doesn’t matter if it’s World War II, the Vietnam War or Operation Iraqi Freedom, a lost child is a lost child and the family will hurt for a long time about it, if not for the rest of their lives.

Even if it isn’t about war and how it hurts the soldiers and their families, it also gives a cynical look at the war itself. We see it in Kyle first ever shooting during the war. A woman that looks like a civilian with her son passes him a big grenade. As terrible as it was to see them shot, Chris knew both had to be shot. That scene sends the message that this war is not your typical war. This is a war that can take everyday civilians and turn them into players. Even that scene where a young boy picks up a grenade launcher and appears to fire shows that even children are not immune. We should also remember this is a war where soldiers will either disguise themselves as civilians or even use them as human shields. This is a war where people from the ‘enemy’ side will torture people who give secrets away. That scene where an ‘enemy’ soldier drills into the heads of both the father and young son shows just how ugly and brutal this war is. Sure, it may not have the same total number of fatalities as Vietnam but it’s ugly enough and unpredictable enough.

Clint Eastwood does it again. If you notice one thing about his movies over the past two decades, it’s that he approaches his stories by putting certain subjects on the hot seats. We see it again here where he puts the labels of ‘man’ or ‘patriot’ associated with a soldier in war. This comes especially remembering what Clint’s character in Gran Torino, a dying Korean war vet, said: “You wanna know what it’s like to kill a man? Well, it’s goddamn awful, that’s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal… for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that’s all. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, and you don’t want that on your soul.” Clint’s directing of the story was dead on and will get you thinking. A lot of people talk about the violence in the movie. I feel what’s said and done outside the warfare says way more. Kudos to Jason Hall for adapting Kyle’s memoirs. I believe Jason too sensed something about Kyle through reading his memoirs and adapted into what he thinks is really the situation and through an equally cynical eye.

As much as it is the product of Clint and Jason, I give high praise to Bradley Cooper for making Chris into the three-dimensional depiction they intended. He delivered an excellent performance and also appeared like he had ideas of his own about what Chris Kyle was like. The only other role in the movie that was of major significance was that of Taya Kyle but Sienna Miller did a great job of portraying the wife caught in the middle. She made Taya the one who could best settle the score with Chris. She was the one who was best at getting him back down to Earth. She was also very good at epitomizing what most ‘war wives’ go through with their husbands in battle. Right at the wedding, Taya appeared happy to be married to a Navy SEAL like Chris. It’s during the war and after she found out exactly what she had to deal with. I feel Miller’s performance was one of the most underacclaimed performances of the year. The other supporting actors were also very good, even though there were many roles that could have been developed better. Also I feel it was a smart decision to have the movie with as little musical score as possible. It adds to the realistic depiction of the war throughout the movie. Even that scene of the bullet that kills Mustafa wasn’t too much of a distraction to the story.

American Sniper is not your typical war movie. It goes above and beyond your expectations and shows you an outlook on both Chris Kyle and the war you might not have thought of before. Whether you consider Chris a hero, villain or victim is all up to your own judgment.

Movie Review: Boyhood

Boyhood is a movie of the growing years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) shot over a period of twelve years.

Boyhood is a movie of the growing years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) and was shot over a period of twelve years.

I know there have been a lot of people who liked my World Cup blogs but there are still some who feel like saying: “Jon, when’s your next movie review?” For those wondering about that, yes I have been watching movies over the summer and I have a few reviews to share. To start with, I’ll do Boyhood: a good choice for those who want something different.

The movie starts with six year-old Mason Evans Jr., a boy growing up in a small Texas town who’s more interested in nature and collecting arrowheads than playing football. He lives with his slightly older sister Samantha, single mother Olivia and her boyfriend. Things are not the best as Mason has to share a bedroom with his sister and that causes typical brother-sister issues. Then it changes one day after an argument with Olivia and her boyfriend which she claims she has no free time. She moves to Houston with the children. This causes concern for mason wondering if he’ll ever see his father again.

Life in Houston starts to work out fine for Mason and the family. Olivia is able to attend classes at the University of Houston while Mason and Samantha attend school. They’re able to meet up with their father Mason Sr. but it’s not so frequent. Even as Mason Sr. drops the kids off, friction between him and Olivia come back. In the meantime, Olivia meets up with Professor Bill Welbrock. He appears to be a good man with a head on his shoulders and even takes a liking to Mason, willing to introduce him to his own son Randy who’s a similar like. The two marry and his children Mindy and Randy move in together. The family appears close knit as the stepsiblings have fun together and Bill appears to be the ideal husband. However things turn for the worse as Bill develops a drinking problem he first tries to keep secret only to have it exposed as he becomes abusive to Olivia and the children, even forcing Mason Jr. to get his head shaved. Olivia immediately leaves the household taking Mason and Sam with her.

The three find a new life in a town close to Austin. Olivia becomes a psychology teacher and falls in love with one of her students Jim who’s a former Afghanistan War veteran whom she eventually marries. Mason Sr. has married and has become a father to a newborn. In the meantime, Samantha and Mason Jr begin social interaction of their own as they make friend and start dating. However Mason’s drinking and earrings have gotten on the nerve of a visibly drunken Jim. Not surprisingly Olivia divorces him.

In the meantime Mason has a girlfriend named Sheena, works part-time at a seafood restaurant and has developed a passion for photography. His work in taking pictures and developing in the darkroom inspires him to be an artistic photographer. However it doesn’t sit well with his teacher because he knows how competitive of a field photography is and how gimmicks are easier moneymakers than art. The teacher then makes Mason photographer for the football team.

Grade 12 is a life changing year for Mason Jr. Sam has moved onto college but she does allow Mason and Sheena to ‘visit.’ Sheena soon breaks up with Mason for a boy on the high school lacrosse team. Mason also wins second prize in a photography contest and receives scholarship money. His graduation is celebrated with family and others close in his life like his teacher and his boss at the restaurant. Going to college is the next chapter in Mason’s life. However it’s not without heartache as his mother finds it hard both her children have moved out and wonders of her own life. The film ends with Mason attending college, becoming friends with his roommate and being introduced to his roommate’s girlfriend’s best friend who shares a lot of common interests and common dreams with Mason.

Now this is something. Director Richard Linklater tells a story of Mason Jr. over the years and the people around him. He uses all the same actors, no replacements. This was very chancy because a lot can change over a period of twelve years. It’s possible Ellar could have gotten tired of acting and wanted nothing to do with it anymore within that time. It’s even possible one of the actors in one of the main roles could have died. Any one of them. But it worked. And it wasn’t just simply the technical bits. It was also a story about a boy whose life over the years catches our intrigue. We’re astonished to see Mason Jr. (or should I say Ellar?) grow over a twelve year span. We also see the lives of his mother, father and Sam pave their way too. All those who were part of the film and its ‘aging process’ contributed significantly. Also as it progresses over the time, Linklater doesn’t leave anything out as far as aging goes. He doesn’t get the adult actors to hide their facial aging. He doesn’t replace the child actors if any one of them go through the ‘awkward stage’ or get braces. He keeps it all as is. That’s another quality.

The thing is the film doesn’t really tell the typical story that has a beginning, middle and end. Rather it tries to paint a portrait of Mason Jr. growing up over the years and of the boy he was and would grow up to be. It’s not too thick on a plot but rather lets time unravel itself and tell the story as it goes along. Almost like childhood through Mason Jr’s eyes. It’s common with Richard Linklater’s movies that they’re not too heavy on the plot and give more of an atmosphere. Another thing this film can do is remind audience members of their own childhood growing up. It may tell a story of a boy who’s not into sports and more of a dreamer but I’m sure there are some parts of Mason’s childhood that will remind them of their own.

Another additional element that adds to the film are the surrounding scenes that add to the atmosphere. Linklater has done that in past films where he would show elements in the film that would actually add to it. We see it here too with Sam’s like of popular culture from Britney Spears to High School Musical to Lady Gaga. We see it in the computer technology as the cast go from Apple computers with big box screens to iPhones. We see it in Mason Jr. growing up in highly conservative Texas and the values the state tries to instill with the people and through the schools. We also see it in how it with Mason Sr. being a liberal Democrat in a state that has a lot of staunch conservatives. We also see it with scenes with other artistically-minded people in the film. It all adds to it.

This film also adds to a common theme of Richard Linklater’s movies. Linklater has never been one to dwell into the typical Hollywood fanfare. He’s always been one to do his movies his way. His movies have featured people pursue their passion and even dream out loud. He often focuses on the visionaries and the inspired ones and he presents them as the ones to be admired. I think that’s why he has such a following with Generation X. We can see that in Mason Jr. He falls in love with photography and wants it to be his life passion. The problem is those around him don’t think highly of his choice. The teachers question it and whether it’s a career choice that will allow for a decent living. His father wonders why he doesn’t pursue something that ‘wins chicks.’ His girlfriend drops him for a jock because it doesn’t make him look cool enough. And his friends razz him about it. But it’s his passion. I think that’s what Linklater is showing. About how passion is what matters. Especially for a boy like Mason.

Without a doubt, this is an accomplishment from Linklater. It was a unique idea from him that was creative but risky and it paid off very well. However this is also an accomplishment from actor Ellar Coltrane. It was not an easy job to play the same role over twelve years of filming. Nevertheless he did an excellent job in the role. It wasn’t so much a role filled with emotional range or drama but rather a role that required the actor to grow along with the role and have the personality of the dreamer Linklater intended to have as the central protagonist. Much of it was natural personality but a lot of it was maturity over age. And Ellar did it. Very excellent.

Patricia Arquette was also very good as the mother almost to the point it appeared she stole the movie. The movie was also about the mother over the years improving her life, raising her two children and falling into two marriages that appeared right at the time but would soon make a turn for the worse. Her struggles added to the story not just to add to Mason Jr’s story but to also mix it in as her own story too. Ethan Hawke was also good as the father who makes the annual visit. He too shows maturity over the years but his overall role was not as challenging as his past roles. Lorelei Linklater was also very good. She may have been cast as Sam simply because she’s Richard Linklater’s daughter–much the same way Ethan was cast because of working in his Before Sunrise series– but she wasn’t just simply there. She was given a role too that involved her to grow along with Ellar and also portray Sam as this sister who was liked pop culture, had her own individual style, had ambitions of her own and was a typical older sister in both the fun times and the bad times with Mason.

One thing to note as well. It has been noticed in the last few years the lack of buzz alternative or independent cinema has had over the years. There hasn’t as big of a phenomenon from Sundance or any other film festival promoting independent film in the last while. I don’t know if Boyhood would qualify as a phenomenon but it is one film that has gotten bigger notice over time and has grown with the buzz. It currently has made $22 million in the US and $37 million worldwide. It has also received a lot of critical admiration and a lot of praise for its uniqueness. Definitely a big boost for independent cinema this year.

Boyhood is one of those summer movies one who wants to get off the beaten path of your typical summer movie fanfare would want to see. It’s definitely worth it.