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David Poland

By David Poland

First Blush Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (spoiler-free)

It is too easy – lazy even – to dismiss Ang Lee’s latest out of hand. It is not your standard issue failure.

All the actors do well with what they are asked to do, especially Kristen Stewart (I’d have liked to have seen the movie about that character) and newcomer Joe Alwyn, who is really asked to carry the whole movie.

I can’t really blame the screenplay because it’s secondary to the visual event.

But the look eats the movie whole. And keep in mind that I have been completely open to digital filmmaking from the start.

Ang Lee said something before the film that turned out to be significant. He talked about the increased frame rate and how faces really tell stories… so (I extrapolated), this new format would let him leave more to faces.

In one scene, particularly, he changes styles to test this idea in a very tight close-up of Steve Martin’s head. And my interest was stirred.

But most of the movie feels like it was shot with the visual style we are used to from Mr. Lee, but with giant technical hurdles added.

Essentially, he made the absolute cutting edge version of a “Playhouse 90″ episode with some extra bells and whistles, and color.

There were some great Playhouse 90 episodes, made by some great directors. And I will return to Billy Lynn with no expectations of the new format and try to see it that simply.

Did it look beautiful in many ways? Yes. Big colors are stunning in this format. The film’s ingenue, Makenzie Leigh, wore a top with the center cut out and her breasts glued in to the premiere. Her faux Dallas Cowboy cheerlanders outfit, in this format, popped a million times harder with its vivid colors and show little, tease everything style.

Every time it felt like Lee was about to bust out a visual extravaganza… he just didn’t. Clearly a choice. Very Ang Lee. It it felt like a 2 hour tease.

I would be happy to see some serious directors try this format and find a unique language for it. Including Ang Lee. It’s like he was trying so hard to manage the new format that he wasn’t fully inspired to take advantage of the new format.

As for awards, except for tech awards, forget it. None of the supporting players have enough to do and the lead, however handsome, is at the start of a career, not at a pinnacle.

There’s no reason that someone couldn’t make a great film that feel like video/TV I. The future. But if the format is important to that greatness it will be be ause rhe filmmaker found a new language for film. Steven Spielberg didn’t find one. Peter Jackson didn’t find one. Ang Lee hasn’t found one.


One Response to “First Blush Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (spoiler-free)”

  1. Dr Wally Rises says:

    Thanks for the review. The early negative reactions to this movie have actually made more intrigued to see it in a way. There’s a particular strain of mainstream movie that I love, which is the glorious honourable failure. You know, those money losers that don’t quite work but have wonderful moments in them and you can sense the passion and effort that went into making it. Heaven’s Gate. 1941. Gangs of New York. Superman Returns. Tomorrowland. Sounds like we have a new member. And I loved the book.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin