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

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

Yes, exactly so. I’m a humbug.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (SPOILERS) There are undoubtedly some bullet-proof movies, such is their lauded reputation. The Wizard of Oz will remain a classic no matter how many people – and I’m sure they are legion – aren’t really all that fussed by it. I’m one of their number. I hadn’t given it my time in forty or more years – barring the odd clip – but with all the things I’ve heard suggested since, from MKUltra allusions to Pink Floyd timing The Dark Side of the Moon to it, to the Mandela Effect, I decided it was ripe for a reappraisal. Unfortunately, the experience proved less than revelatory in any way, shape or form. Although, it does suggest Sam Raimi might have been advised to add a few songs, a spot of camp and a scare or two, had he seriously wished to stand a chance of treading in venerated L Frank Baum cinematic territory with Oz the Great and Powerful.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blake follows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.