BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)

November 17, 2016

billy-lynn Greetings again from the darkness. “Thank you for your service.” For those of us who have never served in the military, we say the words because we don’t know how else to show our appreciation. Do the words ring hollow to those in uniform? Maybe. Probably. But how else can we honor these brave souls? What if we have them share a stage with a pop singing group during halftime of a football game? It’s this line between honor and propaganda that takes up much of the new movie from two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain).

The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, and revolves around soldier Billy Lynn’s and his fellow “Bravo” squad members as they make the rounds back home (in 2004) for publicity after their intense battle sequence is caught on camera. There is much at play here: how the soldiers interact with each other, how they are treated by the general public, how they are used by the team’s owner and the Army for self-serving reasons, and how Billy juggles the stress of war, the spotlight of heroism, and the demands from his family.

Director Lee opted to experiment with the ultra-realism of the new 120 frames per second in 4k 3D, rather than the standard 24 fps. Though this may seem like a minor detail that shouldn’t be addressed in a review of the movie, it’s impossible to ignore this impact. Technical advancements in film and digital have resulted in some exciting new effects for movies, but this high speed approach creates a soap opera look and feel that will likely be disorienting to many viewers. Although the full effect will only be available in New York and Los Angeles (due to shortage of projectors), the clarity on the close-ups is distracting, while leaving the background quite fuzzy and out of focus. Many will find this new look to be “not right” for a movie, and prefer the traditional look. Others may embrace the heightened sense of reality … of being right there with the characters. Of course, this is Ang Lee’s film, so there is no shortage of stunning visuals and expert shots.

Beyond the technical aspects, this movie is simply a bit clunky to watch, not very well written (screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli), not very well acted, and has an overall awkward and unfinished feel to it. Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s sister, and her limited screen time is the best part of the movie. Newcomer Joe Alwyn makes a decent reluctant (and lucky) hero in playing Billy, but he doesn’t have the chops to overcome the script weakness and the burden of carrying so many scenes. This is especially obvious in his unrealistic bonding scenes with cheerleader Faison (played by Makenzie Leigh). Their scenes together are nearly unwatchable.

Supporting work comes from Vin Diesel as Billy’s philosophical officer in recurring flashbacks to the war, Garrett Hedlund as the current squad leader, a miscast Steve Martin as team owner Norm Oglesby (a Jerry Jones type), and Chris Tucker as the incessantly yammering agent/producer trying to put a movie deal together for the soldiers. Other minor contributors include Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McKinnon (in horrible make-up), Ismael Cruz Cordova, Deidre Lovejoy, and a couple of All-Pro players in Richard Sherman and JJ Watt.

Since there are some interesting and important elements to the story, the assumption here is that most effort went towards the experimental technical aspects. More attention to scene detail could have more effectively contrasted the soldier’s take on war versus the never-ending inclination of Americans to turn most anything into more and bigger entertainment … even Destiny’s Child isn’t enough. The questionable filmmaking decisions leave us with the shell of a good story, and too many sappy close-ups of actors emoting directly to the camera lens. The soldier vs hero debate deserves better, and the propaganda aspect deserves a more critical eye.

watch the trailer:

 

 


HOME (animated, 2015)

March 26, 2015

home Greetings again from the darkness. Depending upon your expectations for animated films, you will either find this latest from DreamWorks to be nice entertainment for kids, or a bit too simplistic for adults. Twenty years ago Pixar ushered in a golden age of animation with the first Toy Story, and the grading curve was forever changed. If you can accept that not every animated film need be an instant classic, the odds are good that kids will find this to be a very enjoyable hour and a half.

Oh (yes, that’s his name) is the friendliest and most energetic of all the Boovs, a society of technologically advanced aliens who change color based on emotions (similar to a mood ring). The Boovs also excel at running from adversity – especially when their enemy Gorg is chasing. When Captain Smek decides his Boovs will take over earth, he orders the banishment of all humans to Australia (kind of funny when you think about the history of that continent). Left behind is one youngster named Tip (short for Gratuity Tucci, one of the oddest ever screen names for a kid) and her pet, Pig the Cat. It turns out both Oh and Tip are misfits in their own world, and are forced to team up so that Oh can redeem himself and Tip can be reunited with her mother.

The main (and obvious) themes are: stay true to yourself, accept others for what they are (even if they are different from you), and family is important and worth fighting for. Tip is kind of a confusing character because she knows how to drive a car, but admits to being a 7th grader originally from Barbados. Oh has no Boov friends because he is so darned personable and he is always making mistakes – usually due to his desire to connect with others. Captain Smek’s false confidence catapults him into a leadership position, based mostly on his ability to retreat from the difficult decisions. Even the villain Gorg (who looks/dresses like Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) is simply misunderstood.

As you would expect, there is humor throughout … most of it at a level that those under age 11 will appreciate (that’s not a bad thing). These laughs come courtesy of bubble wrap, a cookbook, awkward dancing, and a hover car that runs on fast food staples like Nacho Mama, Busta Lime frozen drinks, and Burrito Torpedoes. There is a recurring gag showing clumps of earthly items deemed unnecessary by the Boovs, and this gives adults in the audience something to track.

Crucial to the film’s success is the voice acting. Oh is voiced by Jim Parsons as an E.T. version of Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”. His twisted version of the English language (“sad-mad”) is good for a few chuckles, but mostly his eagerness and openness make Oh a character kids will care about. Rihanna voices Tip, and has at least 3 songs on the soundtrack. She does well in capturing the strength and vulnerability of this character who is on a mission to find her mother. Also fun is hearing Matt Jones as Kyle, the ‘is he or is he not’ friend of Oh. Fans of “Breaking Bad” will recognize Mr. Jones as Badger from that series. Not quite as effective are Jennifer Lopez as Tip’s mother and Steve Martin as Captain Smek. Mr. Martin especially could have brought more spark and color to his role.

Director Tim Johnson (Over the Hedge, Antz) took the source material from Adam Rex’s book “The True Meaning of Smekday” and delivered an animated film with a refreshing approach – it doesn’t feature violence, inappropriate humor or a smart-ass kid that disrespects adults. It’s a shame that the unique color palette is quashed by the 3-D technology … and what’s up with the awful title? … but overall, this is one the kids can enjoy (especially if they are struggling to fit in).

watch the trailer:

 

 


IT’S COMPLICATED (2009)

January 3, 2010

 (1-1-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Making Romantic Comedies that women love and men can tolerate is very difficult. Writer/director Nancy Myers has become the most successful female director in Hollywood for this genre. Unfortunately her films’ appeal always lean toward the female perspective and rank high on the cringe factor for men. Examples include Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday and What Women Want. Compare this work to that of Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail and, Julie and Julia. Actually there is little comparison. Ephron understands how adults think and Myers is focused on women’s fantasies.

Still, Myers has tapped into the female psyche and delivers what they want. Here the great and beautiful and highly successful Meryl Streep is pursued and coveted by both Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Oh yeah, Baldwin is a successful lawyer and Martin a successful architect. Wouldn’t quite fulfill the fantasy if one of the pursuers worked at a bowling alley, eh?

Comedy ensues when adultery, lying and alcohol and drugs become involved. Nothing funnier than the topics that destroy people’s lives. I tend to give viewers a bit more credit. Most already understand that people don’t shrivel up when they get divorced or turn 55. Life goes on and continues to blossom, if you work at it – just like when you are 25.

On the bright side, Streep and Baldwin are very good in their roles. There are some very well written scenes and Streep is such a master that she makes EVERY one of her scenes a bit better than it otherwise would be. Steve Martin is given little to do other than a stupid skit in the car with a self-help disc on getting over a divorce (2 years later) and a failed bit with web cam where Streep helps him clean out his wardrobe.

Supporting work from John Krasinski (The Office), Lake Bell and an over the top Rita Wilson add the elements you would expect. There is even an homage paid to The Graduate – possibly an admission by Ms. Myers that her movie on adultery is far less than the gold standard.