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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a. This Generation’s “Bwana Devil”"
2 stars

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the latest film from Ang Lee, arrives in theaters amidst an avalanche of hoopla proclaiming it to be a great evolutionary leap forward in the way that movies are presented to audiences. In theory, that sounds enticing but there are two tiny little problems with that. For one, while the history of cinema includes many films that have promised similar technological revolutions over the years, most of them turned out to be fairly substandard works that are notable today only because of those advances and not because of their intrinsic artistic qualities. (“The Jazz Singer” may be considered a landmark work in screen history for being the first talking feature film but have any of you actually tried watching the damn thing lately?) In this particular case, the innovations on display are so forward-thinking that there are literally only two theaters in the U.S. that are capable of presenting it exactly as intended. This means that most audiences will not actually get to experience all the mind-blowing technological advances for themselves and will have to judge the film solely on its own artistic merits. In this case, that is not a good thing because stripped of all its visual splendors (which is how I saw it), what remains is a absurdly over-scaled and wildly implausible drama that misses the mark so often that most people will likely come out of it not so much entranced by the future of cinema as befuddled as they desperately try to understand what the point of the whole endeavor was in the first place.

First, a word about the technology that has been deployed here. Remember a few years ago when Peter Jackson shot the first of the “Hobbit” movies both in 3-D and at a rate of 48 frames per second (24 being the norm), resulting in the kind of immediate, ultra-clear image that looked more like a live TV presentation than what one normally sees in a movie. Although Jackson was proud of what he had accomplishment, audiences were largely put off by the weird look of the final product and the way that its razor-sharp imagery jibed uneasily with the fantasy world he was trying to present and while he had talked of presenting all three films in the trilogy in the same manner, the two subsequent films were released in 3-D and in a normal frame rate. With his film, Lee has upped the stakes by presenting it in 3-D with 4K resolution and a frame rate of 120 fps, five times that of a normal film, resulting in a film with so much visual clarity on display, so I hear, that the experience of watching it is practically immersive. Of course, having only seen it in 2-D and at a normal frame rate, I cannot say for certain what it looks like but even in the greatly reduced variation that is how most will experience it, it nevertheless has a highly distinct feel to it, though not necessarily in a good way.

Based on a 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, the film takes place over the course of Thanksgiving Day, 2004 (with plenty of flashbacks to other times scattered throughout) and is centered around Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a boyish-looking soldier fighting in Iraq who becomes a media sensation when he is caught on camera rushing into enemy fire in order to rescue his grievously wounded sergeant, Shroom (Vin Diesel), even engaging in hand-to-hand combat with an enemy soldier. With Billy the new face of America’s involvement in Iraq, he and his platoon, Bravo Squad, have been sent home for a two-week publicity tour that will culminate with them appearing at a nationally televised Turkey Day football game in Dallas as the guests of the team’s smarmy owner (Steve Martin) and, as they only gradually discover, taking part in a garish halftime show alongside Destiny’s Child (not, it should be stressed, played by any actual member of the group). While all of this is going on, a motormouth agent (Chris Tucker) is cynically trying to package the Bravo Squad story into a feature film that promises to earn them all a lot of money, even if the resulting film might wind up somehow starring Hillary Swank.

Although the tour and game are meant to be a sort of reward before he and the rest of Bravo Squad ships back out for another tour of duty, Billy is feeling increasingly disconnected from everything. Although a simple and sweet country boy at heart, he is nevertheless fully aware that the incident that he is being celebrated for was actually a horrible event that has been cynically repackaged by the military and the media in order to gain public favor for the unpopular war. His older sister (Kristen Stewart), who feels guilty for being indirectly responsible for him enlisting in the Army in the first place, senses his disenchantment during a tense visit home and urges him to seek an honorable discharge and to see a doctor about the possibility that he is suffering from PTSD. On a brighter side, he catches the eye (and possibly other things) of one of the team’s cheerleaders (Makenzie Leigh) and falls instantly in love for maybe the first time in his life, though her attraction seems to be less about him than in having a guy who is fighting overseas. As the game goes on, Billy is increasingly overwhelmed by both the sensorial overload of the day as well as the memories of the experiences he is being celebrated for while trying to decide whether to stay home and take care of himself or return to Iraq to take care of his fellow soldiers.

As I said, I was not able to view “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in its full strength presentation so I am not sure how I would have reacted to seeing it in that manner. (That said, early reviews from those who did have not been encouraging, suggesting that it looks like trying to watch a movie on an HDTV screen where someone forgot to turn off the motion smoothing setting.) However, considering how remarkably ugly the 2-D version is from a visual standpoint, I can’t see how the extra bells and whistles could possibly improve things. The film was shot by John Toll, who is one of the best cinematographers around but you would hardly be able to tell that judging from his work here. Too many scene feature looming close-ups of the faces of the actor that are so close up that they practically obscure everything else going on and the film holds on them for so long that they become absurd. When the film isn’t lingering on the topography of Steve Martin’s face, for example, what we do see just looks kind of off in a weird way and not the good kind of weird. The only sequence that actually demonstrates any real visual skill is the entire halftime sequence, where Toll properly captures the combination of tackiness and bombast that is part and parcel with such ceremonies. (My guess is that it was this sequence that drove Lee to shoot in such an odd format since nothing else about it seems to really lend itself to the subject matter at hand.)

However, even if one is able to somehow overlook the film’s dubious technical achievements, they are still left with a film that is equally unsuccessful on a dramatic scale as well. I haven’t read Fountain’s original novel but I presume that one of the key points of the story was to show through Billy’s eyes how the lines between contemporary American combat and entertainment have blurred—both now require equal measures of bombast and easily defined heroes, villains and mission objectives in order to succeed with the public. That aspect never really comes across, however, because the combat stuff is never particularly convincing and the showbiz satire involving the Tucker and Martin characters is exceptionally heavy-handed. The only scenes that really work are the ones featuring Kristen Stewart—they are as clumsily written as everything else but she cuts through both the artifice of the screenplay and the overblown visual style with a directness that is genuinely affecting and serves as a reminder that she really is one of the most interesting young American actresses working today.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” marks the second film in a row in which Ang Lee has brought a novel to the screen with an extreme cinematic style that wound up dominating the entire project. In that previous case, “The Life of Pi,” the end result was a largely terrible movie but the groundbreaking 3-D visuals were so legitimately trippy that one could admire it on that level and ignore how stupid it was in all the other areas. This time around, Lee has applied a questionable technical miracle to an equally questionable narrative and the result never comes together in a satisfying way. Will the ultra-high-resolution process employed here ever catch on in a big way? My guess is no but if it does somehow beat the odds of most cinematic gimmicks and becomes an industry standard, then this film will go on to be a part of movie history. Believe me, that will be the only reason.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28869&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/17/16 12:23:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 New York Film Festival For more in the 2016 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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  11-Nov-2016 (R)
  DVD: 14-Feb-2017


  DVD: 14-Feb-2017

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