Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Movie Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: Jean-Christophe Castelli based on the novel by Ben Fountain.
Starring: Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn), Kristen Stewart (Kathryn Lynn), Chris Tucker (Albert), Garrett Hedlund (Sgt. David Dime), Vin Diesel (Shroom), Steve Martin (Norm Oglesby), Ismael Cruz Cordova (Sgt. Holliday), Arturo Castro ("Mango" Montoya), Ben Platt (Josh), Deirdre Lovejoy (Denise Lynn), Tim Blake Nelson (Wayne Foster), Makenzie Leigh (Faison Zorn), Beau Knapp (Crack), Barney Harris (Sykes), Allen Daniel (Major Mac).
Ang Lee is a filmmaker I cannot help but admire, even when I don’t much like the film he has made. His version of Hulk (2003) may not have been a great film – but had it succeeded, perhaps we would have seen a series of more personal, individual superhero movies instead of the ones that come off the assembly line now (Hulk isn’t a particularly good movie – but it is undeniably an Ang Lee movie). Life of Pi (2012) is one of the few live action film that really does justify the 3-D it uses – it was such a stunning film to look at, and experience on the big screen, you kind of forget that the story never quite connects like it should. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee has decided to shoot his movie at 120 frames per second – far more than the normal 24 frames per second of traditional film and even the 48 frames per second that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films were shot in. It’s an odd thing for Lee to do for many reasons – for one, no one much like the look of The Hobbit films, saying that it made the film look like an over lit soap opera, and more importantly, the vast majority of people who will ever watch Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, will not see it projected as Lee wants it to be – since theaters are not equipped with the projectors capable of doing it. This is how I saw the film, projected by my local multiplex, and I have to say the whole thing felt like a distraction more than anything else – you can sense that Lee is trying to make the most of this format, in some of the slow pans around the stadium where most of the action takes place, or in the strange close-ups through the film (trying to put us, in the audience, into the eyes of the title character) – but the effect doesn’t really work. All this is really a shame, because Ben Fountain’s novel, which the film is based on, is one of the best written about the Iraq war – and it deserves a real movie made out of it, not just a director, as brilliant as Lee is, playing around with a camera.
The movie takes place over the course of a day – although it does have flashbacks – as Bravo Company are the guests of honor at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys football game. It’s 2004, and they’ve been home for two weeks, on a morale boosting tour (for America, not the Bravos), as Billy’s heroism – as he tried to jump in and save the life of one of his fellow soldiers, Shroom Vin Diesel), was captured on film and became an internet sensation. The Dallas Cowboys game will be the last stop on this tour before they are sent back to Iraq – with the halftime show, when they will be on the field with Destiny’s Child, being the highlight. Throughout, the movie will flashback to Billy’s time in Iraq – his friendship with the fallen Shroom, and a few scenes of his short visit home to his family – where his big sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) tries to talk him out of going back to Iraq.
The football game material is supposed to be surreal and satirical. The men on Bravo company are stuck in Texas, where everyone comes up to shake their hands, wish them well, tell them how they support the troops – when in reality they are not doing much of anything. The trappings of the football game – and in particular the halftime show – put a façade of militaristic patriotism on things, but it’s hollow and false. People keeping saying military type commands to the men, who think it’s a joke – they’re talking about meeting cheerleaders here, not war. They meet the team’s owner – Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) – a billionaire with a phony Texas drawl, who only cares about them when it doesn’t cost him anything – and allows him to put them on display to show everyone how much he cares. The Bravos have an agent (Chris Tucker), with a cellphone glued to his ear, trying to make them a deal to make them rich by selling their story to Hollywood. Hilary Swank is apparently very interested.
The problem with the film is that Lee doesn’t seem all that interested in what is going on in front of the camera in terms of the story or characters. The cast is full of talented people- but aside from Kristen Stewart, showing once again she’s incapable of hitting a false note right now, the rest of the cast has moments that fall flat, or where they simply look silly. Vin Diesel in particular was the wrong choice to play the philosophy spouting Shroom – but even he could have done better than he does here, where more often than not he simply looks silly. Much of the heavy lifting is given to newcomer Joe Alowyn as the title character – and he’s fine, I guess, but far from great. The film is full of distractions – including the ridiculous way Lee gets around shooting a Destiny’s Child concert when they obviously said no to appearing in the film.
But it is the way the film is shot that really, truly sinks it. The visual style of the movie is distracting and at times dizzying in a bad way. Even if what was happening in front of the camera was better executed on a script or performance level, you cannot concentrate on it because you fear you’re getting motion sickness.
I will say this for Ang Lee – someone was bound to try this eventually, and now that a director of his caliber has, and failed, it may be a while before someone tries again. Lee is trying to do something here – trying to push cinema in another direction, using technology as a tool. I can admire the intent – even if, on this occasion, it results in a failure.

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