Skip to main content

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.


The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq (you can tell from period texting). Or more particularly Billy’s, in going to the aid of his stricken sergeant during a firefight. It just happened to be caught on camera, enabling a ready-made piece of rah-rah propaganda. Naturally, their feelings on this, and Billy’s in particularly, are somewhat more ambivalent than the “hail the conquering heroes” reception, and throughout the running time, which unfolds in and around a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving home game, we experience his explanatory flashbacks to war and home life.


Such a structural model is familiar yet solid enough, if used to engineer character or story revelations. Lee’s film does neither, though, charting an entirely predictable course and fuelled by a half-hearted tension over whether Billy will stick with his unit or, encouraged by his less-than-flag-waving sister (Kristin Stewart, who really does seem to have been dropped in from a Nam protest movie), make a dash for it under the legitimate claim of PTSD. Because the audience would see him as a coward, presumably, he sticks with them, which says as much about the kind of movie this is as anything (it’s all about brotherhood, and responsibility, it seems).


Very little lands resoundingly. Chris Tucker shows up in a motor-mouth promoter role, and if he looks like the kind of guy enjoying knowing he doesn’t need to work (all those Rush Hour profit share percentages), he hits an appealing note when the screenplay doesn’t feed him dumb things to enable the squad to relate their experiences (the same thing happens when the football team ask about guns and Tim Blake Nelson delivers a monologue on fracking).


Steve Martin’s the slippery, garrulous owner of the football team, basically there to be put in his place when they refuse his insultingly meagre offer for their movie rights. There’s a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) for Billy to fall head over heels for because what would a movie be without a little romance, right? The events at the stadium unfold in a manner that occasionally diverts due to insulting manner in which they’re pushed into being puppets on a string (one wonders they all didn’t point blank refuse when it came to requested as stage props for Destiny’s Child – of which, did Lee really not think it wouldn’t be immensely distracting to do the old “they’re really here, but you aren’t going to see their faces because they aren’t actually” manoeuvre?), but mostly the devices grate, including predictable fights and the triggering of PTSD symptoms when there are sudden loud noises.


There might have been a way to make this material travel, but not with the script as is and Lee’s chosen approach, which highlights every hackneyed plot device. Billy himself is too good to be true, and it doesn’t help that Alwyn’s clearly been chosen because he has the face of an angel. An early sign is that, if he were given $100k, he’d pay his sister’s medical bills. Later, his incredibly indulgently parental superiors cut short his punishment detail to listen to his confessional of why he totalled one of their vehicles (it still doesn’t make much sense, other than that vehicles were involved in both incidents). He’s excruciatingly sincere, which makes him difficult to empathise with, which only goes to accentuate, with Lee angling to get up close and personal with every pore, how the whole becomes a failed endeavour. During interviews with Bravo Squad, Lee uses a device of Billy imagining his squad’s honest views contrasted with the approved response, but given how PG-13 his naughtiest thoughts are, it ends up looking faintly risible.


That’s the other thing about the movie; there’s never a sense of verisimilitude to this unit, other than that they all look like kids. The trauma of their experiences fails to translate in a claustrophobic or oppressive manner, and there’s too little combat to fill in the blanks. Vin Diesel is the sergeant who doesn’t make it back to the US alive, and he’s a ridiculous creation, as if Fountain and Castelli decided to weed out anything remotely realistic from the already decidedly symbolic and heightened Willem Dafoe character in Platoon. Diesel’s Shroom is a zen warrior, to the extent he quotes sage texts, tells each of his men he loves them before they go into the thick of it, and drops such nuggets as “If a bullet’s going to get you, it’s already been fired” and “Embrace your fear and let your training be your guide”.


The crucial incident in which Billy goes to Shroom’s aid and ends up fighting for his life against an insurgent, even reduced from its original 120 fps form, looks like it was shot on cheap video, like a home-made dramatisation badly edited and promptly posted on YouTube. Lee wants immediacy but he only succeeds in making the sequence appear amateur.


Hedlund’s pretty good as the Staff Sergeant Dime, though, surprisingly well cast in the mentor role and convincing as their leader and peer, but he’s better than the material. Alwyn’s clearly giving it his all, so it’s mainly Lee’s doing that he doesn’t come out of it with much credit. It’s particular vexing that Lee’s movie has the temerity to make us feel Billy’s doing the right thing by going back with his squad, over and above any other thought process (such as: none of them are doing the right thing).


Other Lee movies have managed to turn unlikely fare into big successes (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) and his previous experiments with technology have been at least impressive, whatever you thought of the finished product (Hulk, The Life of Pi). Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is simply a dud, even without the jiggery-pokery frame rate to decry. After both Peter Jackson and Ang Lee crashing and burning with this new big thing, what are the chances Jimbo Cameron can come good? To be honest, even if the portents are against the Avatars, I wouldn’t bet against him.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat.