Monday, November 21, 2016

Movie Review: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (And High Frame Rate Technology)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the latest film from acclaimed director Ang Lee. This film is an adaptation of the Ben Fountain novel of the same name and is getting a lot of buzz in the film news world for Lee’s choice to shoot the film in 4K digital 3D at a high frame rate (HFR) of 120 frames per second (fps). The film chronicles a group of active service Army soldiers who are being honored at a Thanksgiving Day football halftime show for their valiant efforts caught on camera in the Iraq War. The film stars newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn, alongside a cast including Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, and Kristen Stewart. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is largely a weak and unsuccessful as a film.

There are a couple things this film does really well. First, it sets up and weaves you into a somewhat realistic story. Second, the highly-experienced actors all delivered great performances. I was struck throughout this film but the sense of familiar realness to it. It shows a lot of characters who are just regular people and the way they relate to one another and navigate this kind of weird situation is believable and gets you more invested in the story. There are also small moments (like a soldier having a PTSD reaction to a pyrotechnic) that felt extremely genuine. I can’t personally say whether that would be a genuine move, but in my civilian mind I could imagine it being a genuine reaction and my import of my thoughts onto the film made it feel more real and got me more invested. Steve Martin and Kristen Stewart also shone in this film. The two of them are talented actors and in a format that shows every little thing in your performance they took the opportunity and shone by being so believable and doing all the small things extremely well that looked jarringly bad on the less experienced members of the cast.

This kind of ties into the negatives. The film doesn’t give any of its less experienced actors any breaks and they all looked fairly atrocious. Alwyn, in particular, as the focus character gets many really tight shots on him and you can see everything he’s trying to do to look believable but, because you know it’s acting, it just feels false and made me not care about him or what was going on in the film. This film also shows the work of a lot of truly terrible extras which was frequently cringe-inducing.

In addition to poor acting, this film does not tell a very good, or interesting, story. The film has a pretty thinly veiled and uninteresting anti-war message, as well as a message against a particular group of people who supports proposals to “support the troops” while not sacrificing anything from their own bottom line. It is fine to have this kind of message in a film, of course. The problem I had with it was that it had nothing new to say from what we’ve seen before. Lee also inserts scenes to emphasize this message constantly throughout the film and after the first few it honestly felt like the film was beating a dead horse. The message isn’t complicated but it was emphasized as if it was and it didn’t land as a result.

Having discussed the elements of the film itself, I want to take some time to discuss the technology and how this film “looked.” As I mentioned in the introduction, Lee shot this film in 4K high definition digital 3D at 120 fps. This is a format that has never been used in a major motion picture before, and even flat (2D) this has twice the framerate of the next closest major release (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48 fps). Only five cities in the world have a theater with the capability of playing the 120 fps film in 4K 3D with one additional that can do 120 fps 3D at the 2K resolution. I do not live in one of these cities and didn’t get the full brunt of the experience. I did have the pleasure (?) of seeing this in 4K at 120 fps flat. Just as with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the HFR didn’t bother my eyes like it does with others. Every instant of this film comes through with brilliant clarity in this format and it felt much more real than like a traditional film.

The question I ended up asking myself about the 120 fps was: did this help the film and would I want more films done this way? For the most part, I think I would say no. For one thing, camera movements in this format were very abrupt and really called attention to themselves and made it difficult for me to appreciate the filmmaking and cinematography. It also showed everything which really hurt the performances of the inexperienced actors because any imperfections that might have been covered by the 24 fps veneer were brutally apparent here. When some of the more frenetic circumstances are occurring in this film, however, the 120 fps really made them feel more wild and crazy in a good way and got you pumped with an immense amount of adrenaline. Overall, I think Lee’s experience here was fairly unsuccessful but it wasn’t a total failure and I can see paths forward although I still think that I would personally prefer the 24 fps visual styling from traditional filmmaking.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is more of a technological experimental piece than anything else. That emphasis showed in the film and it was easy to see how many of the performances and the story suffered as a result. By the end I didn’t care about anything going on in the film. Positively, this film is more forgettable than bad, but with a story like this that is fairly disappointing.

Ryan’s Score: 4.5/10

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