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‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ (review)

billy_lynns_long_halftime_walk_xlg-656x1024Produced by Simon Cornwell,
Stephenson Cornwell,
Marc Platt,
Tom Rothman, Rhodri Thomas, Ang Lee

Screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli
Based on the book by Ben Fountain
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker,
Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin

Ang Lee’s newest film is locked in a battle with reality.

You’re going to hear a lot about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in the next month.

The modestly budgeted drama is a technological advancement in cinema that might have you shopping for 4K televisions at the nearest Best Buy after seeing it.

At least that’s what distributor Sony hopes.

Based on the award winning novel by Ben Fountain, the movie follows the honoring of a special Army squad at a Dallas football game.

19 year old Billy Lynn (newcomer-to-watch Joe Alwyn) is the central hero of the back-story, brought to the attention of the American public by a caught-on-camera act of courage during a 2004 Iraq battle.

Lynn’s act of courage opens the film in the manner most of us experience war—its context set by news reporter narration, its content grainy and blurred. The image begins to fill the screen until we’re completely pushed in on nothing but a collection reds, greens and blues.

Then you’re thrusted into reality.

At least you will be if you see the film in its intended 120fps, 4K, 3D presentation, which theaters need to be specially equipped to pull off. It’s this year’s Hateful Eight, but in reverse. Rather than the classic throwback of Ultra Panavision 70, Billy Lynn’s a purely digital endeavor.

And so begins the battle of the real. The picture is sharper than anything you’ve ever seen in a theater. The 3D actually works, with practically no blur. The color feels natural, and the contrast deep. From the smallest passing bug or bird to the largest pyrotechnic or explosion, you are there.

It’s a process that’s successful visually during quieter, dramatic exchanges of characters and way more successful in the titular “walk” sequence.

As for the film itself, it’s understandable why Ang Lee would take a gamble here. The new format serves as a metaphor for the personal impact of war and America’s perception of it from their living room couch. “I can’t imagine what you boys went through over there,” is just one of the script’s throwaway lines given to an array of talented actors, including Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, and Garrett Hedlund.

There’s a hell of a lot of cinematic cliché that saddles the film, which I still can’t truly figure out if it’s intended as satire or simply schmaltz. If satire, there’s a subplot in which our heroes await the possible verdict that their story will be turned into a movie, resulting in a large payout. If schmaltz, there’s the doe-eyed cheerleader that falls for Billy by halftime and conflicts with his plans to go back to battle.

The soldiers are a rowdy, but ultimately loveable motley gang. Martin plays a villainous billionaire who battles deals when not overseeing the failing efforts of the football team he owns. Tucker also goes for non-comedic gusto playing a Hollywood agent desperate to put the movie deal together. Stewart is, surprise, a dark and brooding sister that threatens to kill herself if Billy doesn’t stay home after the game.

Everyone contemplates the meaning of life, the pointlessness of violence and the uncertainty of destiny. All of which you’ve seen this before in a hundred other war dramas, some of which were a hundred times more real and compelling than Billy Lynn’s.

As instantly-aware you were that HD television doesn’t do any favors to your favorite aging stars, the very un-film looking 120 frame-rate only heightens your awareness of bad line delivery, strange blocking, confusing editing and the occasional strange color-correction. Even the most talented director, and Ang Lee is certainly one of the top, may have to relearn everything they knew about filmmaking.

I get that Lee is playing with the overall themes of the story.

Through the eyes of the characters we see a post-traumatic reality of the present and flash to the horrific remembrance of reality’s past. Occasionally actors speak directly to the camera, putting you in Lynn’s POV. It’s immersive and achieves reality. But the more traditional shots, not to mention first time screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli’s routine script, brings you right back to the cinema.

It’s a shame that the film’s heightened, or really hijacked, by its flaws. But the boldness of the project is something to admire, and it represents a giant leap for movie-kind.

Cinema is dependent on persistence of motion, which is an optical illusion. The more real the process becomes, the more we expect actual reality. 120 fps might not be well-suited for dramatic storytelling at all, at least until the rules can be rewritten for filmmakers.

Not unlike Sony’s recent entry into VR with Playstation, all initial content designed for this brand-new tech is a guinea pig. Or is it a gimmick?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opens nationwide November 11th.
Check local listings for RealD 3D presentations.

 

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