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'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' stumbles

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Film's technical innovations can't overcome weak narrative

The advancement of cinematic technology comes in fits and starts. Transitioning to new ways of filmmaking is never a smooth process. Heck, just look at 3D tech, which went through a number of phases before landing on its current fairly popular (yet still imperfect) incarnation.

Ang Lee has been doing groundbreaking things behind the camera for much of his career. He's pushed the envelope with diverse offerings like 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Life of Pi' and 'Brokeback Mountain' and even 'The Hulk.' He's unafraid to take stylistic chances and more often than not, he's rewarded for his risk.

His latest 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' is another leap forward in terms of movie tech. Lee becomes the first director to shoot an entire film at a rate of 120 frames per second. For comparison's sake, the standard is 24 fps. He also shot in 4K resolution. The result is apparently a degree of visual clarity far beyond the norm.

You know, if you happen to see the film in one of the handful of theaters actually equipped to screen the film in that format. If not, you're likely left wondering if the technical tricks would have been enough to salvage the experience, because the unfortunate truth is that on its own merits, the film falls flat.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn in his feature debut) is a decorated war hero; his action to save his sergeant from a firefight in Iraq was inadvertently captured by an abandoned camera and broadcast to the world. He and the rest of his squad have been brought home for a brief publicity tour to serve as the new face of the military a tour that culminates with an appearance in the halftime show (along with Destiny's Child remember, this is the mid-00s) at a pro football game in Dallas at the invitation of team owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin, 'Home').

Billy and his squad are known in the media simply as 'Bravo' - they're quite a motley crew, led by the brash and brusque Staff Sergeant Dime (Garret Hedlund, 'Pan'). They're accompanied throughout by Albert (Chris Tucker, 'Silver Linings Playbook'), an agent who is looking to sell a movie studio on optioning the rights to Bravo's story.

Amidst the many preparations for the show, Billy periodically flashes back. He remembers his time in Iraq, serving under Dime and the warrior-philosophy-spouting sergeant known as Shroom (Vin Diesel, 'The Last Witch Hunter'), looking at not just the fateful day, but the span of his wartime experience. He also remembers his all-too-brief homecoming; specifically, he has the chance to reconnect with his vehemently anti-war sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart, 'Caf Society').

Billy is forced to confront the harsh realities of his situation, both in terms of why he is where he is now and why he has to do what comes next. And while there are plenty of people clamoring for a piece of him, Billy Lynn knows exactly who truly matters to him.

Since I wasn't one of those able to see 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' in Ang Lee's intended format, I can't speak to the relative value of the advanced frame rate and other technological innovations. This leaves me to judge the film solely on more standard criteria and it struggles to stand up on its own merit.

There's a general coldness to the proceedings likely a result of filming choices influenced by the technical side of things that causes a fair degree of remove from the general narrative. There's a distinct sense of separation. Whether we're at the stadium or in the desert or in a small Texas home, there's a vast disconnect; even when people are close together, they're far apart.

There's just not a lot here. The constant flashing back and forth makes the entire film feel jangled and lacking in cohesion. Neither the present-day flash of the stadium nor the remembered wartime experiences connect on any sort of meaningful level. The lack of emotional engagement is a constant presence, with very little empathy being generated.

It doesn't seem to be the fault of the performances, though they tend more toward the workmanlike than truly exceptional. Tasking a rookie like Alwyn with bearing the load of a movie like this is a little unfair; the kid is doing his best, but he spends a lot of time being swallowed up by his surroundings. There are some decent efforts on the supporting side Billy's fellow squad members do their best, but for the most part, they feel largely undefined (Hedlund is an exception; he's quite good). Meanwhile, pros like Martin, Stewart and Tucker are decent in undercooked roles.

'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' might well mark a significant step forward in the evolution of filmmaking. Cinema history might regard it as an important movie. However, important is not necessarily the same as good and this movie, despite its best intentions, is ultimately just not very good.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:23

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