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:

Allied—

Bad Santa 2—

Moana—

Rules Don’t Apply—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

 

Review of “American Ultra”

“To thine own self be true.” A character in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” says this to his son just before the young man boards a ship bound for Paris. Couched in flowery language, the father is telling his son to take care of himself in such a way that if the need arises he can take care of others; but what if you do not know who exactly you are. Is it possible to be true to yourself if you question your own existence? Some question their sexuality, their belief system, their choice in a mate, their career and many other aspects of life but in the film “American Ultra” the main character faces the kind of existential crisis the puts his entire life history into question. Adding to his stress during the predicament, he must also face down over a dozen trained assassins.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a simple life with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in Liman, West Virginia. Mike works at a small grocery store, passing the slow times drawing comic book-like stories about a space travelling ape and getting stoned. Mike loves Phoebe and wants to ask her to marry him during a romantic trip to Hawaii. Sadly, Mike suffers from paralyzing anxiety whenever he tries to leave Liman and they must cancel their trip. Mike’s attempt to leave Liman triggered various alarms at the CIA as Mike was part of a secret operation to create super spies with exceptional training and combat skills. Called the Ultra program, it was led by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) who shut it down when it didn’t produce significant results and it appears Mike has had memories of the program blocked. Lasseter gets an anonymous phone call telling her Mike is about to be killed. Lasseter confronts her supervisor, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), and he tells her he is purging what’s left of Ultra and there’s nothing she can do about it. Lasseter travels to Liman and says a phrase to Mike that should activate him but he doesn’t respond. Later, Mike finds two men messing with his car in the store parking lot. When he confronts them, they attack him. Armed only with a cup of ramen noodle soup and a spoon, Mike is able to disarm and kill both men. Panicked, Mike calls Phoebe. Yates is furious when he hears Mike killed the men he sent to Liman and figures out Lasseter activated him. Yates then calls in a full mobilization of troops and special agents to shut down Liman, find Mike and Lasseter and kill them both.

“American Ultra” is a good mix of action and humor. The movie never takes itself too seriously and makes fun of characters within it that do. It has the kind of irreverent tone one might expect from writer Max Landis, the creative mind behind the script for “Chronicle” and several other films coming out this year. Landis is an entertaining follow on Twitter as he has very little in the way of a filter. If a thought crosses his mind it will find an outlet within 140 characters. That reckless disregard for authority and the powers that be are on full display within the story and characters in “American Ultra.” It may be the most dangerous summer movie of the season that isn’t about rap music.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart make a believable slacker couple. They have a grungy chemistry together that works despite Stewart’s reputation as having only about one and a half emotions in any of her movies. She actually displays a fair range of feelings as Phoebe and manages to pull off the biggest shocker of the film with a twist about half way through. It isn’t telegraphed or made obvious in any way and actually surprised me when it was revealed.

There are several good performances in the film aside from the two leads. Topher Grace makes a terrifically obnoxious and power-mad bureaucrat as CIA mucky muck Adrian Yates. He also manages to be funny despite his odious character and his willingness to violate the constitutional rights of just about everyone he meets. Connie Britton’s Victoria Lasseter is the motherly figure Mike needs as things get dark near the story’s end. Britton is able to pull off the hard-edged agent as well as the caring and concerned parental symbol to this very confused stoner. The only other major character is Tony Hale as Lasseter’s assistant Petey Douglas. Hale is able to make Petey both a friendly and efficient agent but also I man with a conscience that struggles when given an order that contradicts his beliefs. One scene shows that struggle in such a way that I was gripping my theatre seat arms as his life and death decision needed to be made. From a story point of view, his decision could only go one way but Hale shows the frustration and anguish his character is going through in such a visceral way that it put his final choice in doubt for me. While he doesn’t have much in the way of screen time Hale puts every second to good use.

There is one other major player I left out that had me kind of scratching my head. John Leguizamo plays a character named Rose. Rose is a drug dealer and friend of Mike’s that seems to have been pulled from a completely different movie. Rose is a character I might expect to see in a major city or one of its suburbs. The film is set in what looks like a fairly small town (that also has a fairly large airport). Rose deals all kinds of drugs as well as illegal fireworks and has two guys working for him as what appears to be bodyguards. None of this makes sense within the small town setting of this movie. Leguizamo plays Rose like someone from the gritty streets of New York City. He refers to both Mike and his two African-American bodyguards as the “N-word.” His presence is probably an effort to throw an unusual character into the mix to stir up some humor and add a little color into what is a very white movie. I have no problem with creating roles for people of color even if they are a little stereotypical; however, this doesn’t really work within the whole universe of this movie. Perhaps if there had been some kind of explanation for Rose being in that town that tied in to Mike and his past then it would have been a somewhat better fit. Leguiazmo gives an energetic and entertaining performance that still had me a bit baffled as to what it was doing in this movie.

“American Ultra” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content. There are some brutal fights in the film. Several people are shot at point blank range and there is a great deal of blood splash from these wounds. There are also some sound effects that imply necks being broken during some fights. Mike smokes weed through practically the entire film. Others are also shown using various kinds of drugs. The sexual content is brief with no nudity shown. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Despite having a character that seems to come from a 1980’s B-movie, “American Ultra” is a fun and exciting film. It starts the meat of the story quickly and keeps the momentum going right up until the end. Eisenberg, Stewart and crew all give winning performances and manage to pull off some pretty good stunt work as well. It isn’t finding an audience in its opening weekend but it deserves one. It may not sound like the kind of flick that appeals to you for some reason but I encourage you to give it a try as it may be one of the most interesting film I’ve seen this year.

“American Ultra” gets five stars.

Two new movies open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of them. Watch the trailers below.

No Escape—

We Are Your Friends—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.