Review of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

In 2004, Army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his unit are caught in a vicious firefight in an Iraqi village. Part of that battle was captured by a news crew’s abandoned camera. It shows Lynn going to the aid of his sergeant who goes by the nickname Shroom (Vin Diesel) after he is hit by insurgent gunfire. Despite Lynn’s efforts, Shroom dies. Lynn and the other members of his unit are considered heroes for their actions and Lynn is awarded the Silver Star. The Army sends the unit on a publicity tour around the US to build civilian morale and put a face to the soldiers serving in Iraq. Lynn and the rest of the squad are hoping to sell their story to be made into a movie and are accompanied by an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker) who is constantly on his cell phone trying to get Hollywood interested in making a deal. The last stop on the publicity tour is an appearance at the annual Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, Texas, where the unit will be on the field at halftime with Destiny’s Child. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) welcomes the soldiers and puts out a lavish buffet for them and his other VIP guests. Lynn catches the eye of a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh) and the two find an instant connection in their limited time together. Lynn and a couple other soldiers in the unit have symptoms of PTSD and Lynn’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) believes he could get an honorable discharge if he will see a doctor she knows. With the loss of his beloved sergeant, all the pressure from the tour, the feeling like everyone is just trying to use the soldiers for their own gain and his feelings for Faison, Lynn is beginning to question whether staying with his fellow soldiers is worth continuing to put his life on hold.

The plight of American soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dealing with PTSD and a less than helpful Veterans Affairs Administration has been documented in the news media and even was an issue in the recent presidential campaign. While politicians make speeches and promises about supporting the troops and fixing the problems in the VA nothing much seems to get done. While other movies have been made about war and the toll it takes on those sent to fight it, none has been done on quite the scale or with a well-respected director like Ang Lee as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Unfortunately this film seems more concerned with how interestingly the story is told and the movie and message suffers for it.

Ang Lee made the film using a very high frame rate and 3D. The version I saw was digital 4K and 2D so I cannot speak to how some critics found the bells and whistles to be distracting and unnecessary considering the subject matter of the film; however, there are choices Lee made in shooting the actors and how they delivered their lines that reduce the impact of the story.

For instance, the actors speak directly at the camera instead of being in a shot with the other character or looking just off camera as is the norm. Sometimes it is effective but more often I felt like I was a child being talked down to. It gets annoying after a while as character after character delivers a speech to the camera. Some are impassioned while others are deadpan responses to questions. It grates on the nerves after a few times and begins to feel intrusive as if you were involved in a conversation you desperately wanted to end.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters come across more like caricatures. An example is a brief appearance by a Texas oil man played by Tim Blake Nelson. He comes to the table where the unit is eating and begins with the usual platitudes then starts a sales pitch for his company that uses frakking to extract oil from shale. The speech makes no sense in the context of the story (this is one of many that don’t) and it feels like an attempt to shoehorn in a message of some sort. The sad part is, I’m not sure what the message is supposed to be. The scene quickly becomes uncomfortable as the unit’s commanding officer Sgt. Dime, played by Garrett Hedlund, starts a speech of his own. This may have been an attempt at humor and a message of a different type. It is mildly funny but once again the message is lost in the delivery.

If anything, the moral of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is everyone is out to get something from you. Whether it is to bask in your glory, to make money from you or to gain prestige merely from being in your presence, everyone is interested in you only to get what they can then they are gone once the well dries up. Whether it was meant to be that way or not it’s a cynical message that sucks the life out of the movie. It would be different if many of the characters weren’t so transparent in their obvious desire to profit from the soldiers but they are all about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

Despite my feelings about the story, there are some very good performances in the film. First-time star Joe Alwyn gives a subtle and moving performance as Billy Lynn. Alwyn does a good job wrangling a passable Texas accent even though he’s from England. While he has done theatre, this is his first movie and it is an impressive job. Billy sometimes comes across as a little dumb but he’s actually merely assessing the situation and determining his response. It is a quiet bit of acting that would have been better showcased without the trickery of the production.

Steve Martin is deceptively slimy as the billionaire football team owner Norm Oglesby. While the script may show his hand a bit too soon, Martin manages to keep you guessing about Oglesby’s true motives towards the soldiers until late in the film. It almost made me sad that Martin was playing a bad guy in the movie as I can’t help but see him in my mind as that wild and crazy guy from back in his standup days or from his characters in films like “The Jerk” and “All of Me.” Of course, Martin has proven his acting chops over the years and it’s good to see him on screen again.

In a limited role, Vin Diesel surprises as the philosophy and religion quoting Shroom. It is a surprisingly calm and laid-back performance that actually made me want to see more of the character. He is the father figure to the men in his unit and he takes that role seriously. Shroom’s death is the catalyst that opens the eyes of some members of the unit as to how fleeting and delicate life is. I just wish the events that followed and the way they were portrayed had been more respectful.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is rated R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use. The battle in Iraq is pretty intense with a brief scene of hand-to-hand combat that leads to a bloody death. We also see various people shot. There are a couple of fist fights that are brief. The sexual content is Billy having a fantasy about Faison. There is no nudity but we get a brief view of a sex act. A couple of characters are shown smoking pot. Foul language is fairly common.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” could have been a very heartfelt and powerful movie; however, the weird way the film is shot and somewhat ham fisted storytelling effort makes the film often painful to watch. I wanted to like it but the movie gets in its own way too much to be an enjoyable experience.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” gets two guitars out of five.

Four new movies open up this holiday week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:


Bad Santa 2—


Rules Don’t Apply—

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Review of “Pan”

Left on the doorstep of an orphanage not long after his birth, Peter (Levi Miller) is raised under the harsh care of nuns. Peter and his buddy Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) noticed some of their fellow orphans have disappeared recently. The nuns tell them the other boys have been adopted but Peter and Nibs don’t believe it. They hide one night after everyone has gone to bed to see what’s going on but don’t notice anything and decide to go to bed. Just after they lay down, men on ropes drop through the ceiling grab boys and pull them through the roof. Peter and Nibs are also grabbed by the men who are pirates in a flying ship. Nibs is able to escape but Peter is afraid of heights and won’t jump off the ship onto the roof. The ship has to evade British fighter planes as World War II is going on and eventually ends up in what looks like a giant hole in the ground. Peter learns he is in a place called Neverland and is a prisoner of a pirate named Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). The hole is a mine where thousands of boys and men are digging for fairy dust, also called pixum. Peter talks with another miner named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) about what’s going on; but Hook doesn’t want to be anyone’s friend. Peter finds a piece of pixum that is immediately stolen by an adult. When a mine manager intervenes, Peter is accused of making a false accusation about the adult and is scheduled to be judged and punished. Blackbeard lets the crowd decide and they choose for Peter to die. Blackbeard pushes Peter off a plank and he falls hundreds of feet but stops just before hitting the ground and floats for a few seconds before landing. Blackbeard tells Peter about a Neverland legend of a boy that can fly and will lead a rebellion against him. Landing in prison, Peter is soon joined by Hook in the next cell. Hook has snuck in a blasting cap and breaks them both out of prison. Getting help from another mine manager named Sam Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar), the three commandeer a ship and fly into the forest where they are found by the natives lead by Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). Learning that Peter is possibly the fulfillment of the prophecy, Tiger Lily’s people agree to help Peter if he can prove he can fly in the next three days.

“Pan” is obviously the first film of a franchise. The story arc seems to be establishing the friendship between Peter and Hook in the first film that is strained in the second film and is completely shattered in the third when Hook loses his hand to the crocodile and blames Peter for it. It seems like an attempt to wring more money from a story that has been told in various ways since the debut of the J.M. Berrie play in 1904. Unless foreign markets fall in love with the movie the other two films won’t be made as “Pan” is tanking at the box office. Perhaps if they had made a better movie Warner Brothers wouldn’t be looking at taking a huge loss and there would be a couple more fantasy films on the horizon.

The creators of “Pan” make some odd choices in building the world of Neverland. First, while Hugh Jackman is working hard through lots of makeup and flowery dialog, he spends a great deal of time on screen accomplishing nothing. In his early appearances, Blackbeard is leading a giant singalong of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is certainly weird enough considering the film is set in the early 1940’s, and giving a pep talk that is almost immediately contradicted by his actions, yet he seems to have the undying approval and support of everyone in the mine. Nothing in the early parts of the film set in Neverland makes a great deal of sense and it doesn’t get much better as the film goes along.

While the movie is visually stunning (even in the 2D version I saw) “Pan” stumbles anytime any character speaks. Garrett Hedlund’s James Hook sounds and looks much more like a cowboy than a future pirate. Rooney Mara was apparently told to play Tiger Lily as bland and vacant as possible. During her fighting scenes Mara appears to be on autopilot. Even young Levi Miller, who gives a perfectly fine performance, is hamstrung at times with odd emotional responses and a lack of clear direction of his character’s evolution.

“Pan” should have some big emotional moments as the core of the story is about an abandoned little boy searching a strange land for his long-missing mother. Instead of heart and feeling, “Pan” is stuffed full of special effects and big action set pieces designed to keep our attention away from the story’s shortcomings and attempt to dazzle the audience into forgiving all the scripts faults. It doesn’t work. There are at least two moments when I should have shed some tears for this poor little boy. Instead, I got flying pirate ships, bouncing warriors, bony birds, huge crocodiles and massive crystal caves. All of these visual treats are appreciated but they should have been surrounded by a story that made me feel something…anything. Instead, all I felt when the credits started rolling was relief.

“Pan” is rated PG for language, fantasy action violence and some thematic material. There are numerous battle sequences and fights. Some characters are shown being shot and bursting in a cloud of brightly colored powder. The idea of parental abandonment and child abduction might trouble younger viewers. There is also a death that is handled in a fantasy setting that could be troubling as well. Language is very mild.

It could have kicked off a very lucrative film series; but “Pan” will likely go down as a giant money pit. If the studio had taken as much care with the script as they did with the visual effects, they might have succeeded in creating a film both beautiful to look at and meaningful to watch. As it is, they got it about half right. The script is such a mess it even contradicts itself involving a major portion of the plot. It boggles my mind that so many people can work so hard on a movie, all with the intension of creating something good, yet manage to screw it up so royally. While not a catastrophe on the scale of Fox Studio’s “Fantastic Four,” “Pan” is certainly an opportunity missed by a wide margin.

“Pan” gets three stars, solely for the visuals, out of five.

It’s a big week with four new releases. I’ll see and review at least one of them.

Bridge of Spies—

Crimson Peak—



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