Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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In 2004, when soldiers from Bravo company return to the States as part of a victorious tour, private and public perceptions about what the war and true heroism really means, collide head on. Ben Fountain’s superb source novel did an excellent job of piercing the heart of the hypocrisy and condescension that sees prominent businessmen and political figures lining up to besiege the soldiers with plaudits and commendations of heroism. And yet they do so without ever truly comprehending the psychological impact of the soldiers’ existence in a place where danger can be lying in wait, quite literally, around every corner.

Despite some occasional stilted dialogue, director Ang Lee generally does a fine job of both staying true to Fountain’s story and interweaving the time strands with the transition from the present day’s hectic schedule at n NFL match in Dallas often dissolving into flashbacks from the company’s time in Iraq. Lynn’s story, in particular, is placed under the microscope. Footage of his defining, courageous act of close combat whilst attempting to save the life of superior officer, Shroom (Vin Diesel), has gone viral, giving the nation of point of focus for its nationalistic fervour.

The other side of the coin is the lack of respect given these men who are placed on a pedestal and idealised, very briefly, to sustain momentary blasts of patriotism but will soon be yesterday’s news. We get an especially telling insight into these fickle attitudes when the choreography of a show stopping spectacle needs to be rigidly adhered to. In the mayhem of the pre-show the soldiers become just a minuscule part of the ‘event’, in which crassness, ratings and celebrity power are what provide the real currency for a society sick on its force-fed idealisations of the kind of greatness they should truly aspire to.

Mostly from Billy’s eyes we see how manipulated Bravo become, their status as heroic figures quickly diminishing. Visions of Iraq and the loss of Shroom pouring through Billy’s haunted eyes provide a powerful juxtaposition against the mechanical, forgettable role they’re asked to play. The immersion of Bravo into this elaborate schematic fluff is almost painful to watch.

First time performer Alwyn is a revelation, surrounding to the need to make Billy an inward-gazing young man doesn’t deny him an inherent goodness and craving for the binding safety of family. His most important relationship however is with sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), still healing from a car crash and yearning for his return to re-centre her own life and that of their family. It’s the increasingly impressive Garrett Hedlund who steals the show however as Bravo’s forthright, vocal leader.

Important to the film is the real sense of camaraderie created between the men of Bravo. They act like fools at times and are blissfully ignorant about how to act in participating in this charade, but their sense of humour humanises them and as the film draws to a close with Billy teetering on the verge of an important decision, we feel the bond he feels with both the men and the duty he wishes to uphold. It’s complicated stuff, a torturous state of emotional turmoil that sees him weighing the pros and cons of staying home to tend to his family’s pain or fulfilling the expectations of his brothers and by extension, an entire nation – as ignorant and clueless as they may be. Adding further complication is the cheerleader he’s fallen for, Faison (Mackenzie Leigh), and the allure of another alternative life that she represents if he’s brave enough to take a wild, impulsive chance.

The final scenes, despite a couple of unconvincing moments, generally feel credible and right somehow, and not a betrayal of everything we wish for Billy as his revelatory day is reduced to its most crucial moment. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), despite its flaws, is a restrained, humanistic portrayal of the terrible burden placed on young men tossed into the cauldron of a battleground on foreign soil. I admired it for an ambition that never strangles the film with expectation and yet allows Lee to find interesting ways to impart this important, gently moving story without it ever requiring empty spectacle to contextualise it.

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Morgan

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Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

Arrival

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An atypical sci-fi drama, eschewing awe and wonder for a far more cerebral angle, Arrival is the latest impressive film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. When a dozen identical alien spacecraft appear in scattered locations around the globe, an accomplished linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by military head Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a lead a team entering the craft in Montana in an attempt, against seemingly impossible odds, to unravel the aliens’ means of communication by breaking down the strange alien text into constituent, translatable parts. Banks is paired with somebody seen as having complementary skills in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016) is unique amongst alien-upon-Earth films in that the expected ‘invasion’ never actually eventuates. In fact, combat between interplanetary forces never comes enters the equation other than in military positing. Instead this is an intelligent, empathetic, deliberately paced but never less than riveting science puzzle of the film. Though the dogmatic approach and methodology used by the participants is beyond simple comprehension, there’s still an inclusive feel to how the drama plays out and draws us into its web of intrigue. We’re effectively enabled to feel the frustration and then the tantalising glimpses of elation as they boffins strike closer to some kind of breakthrough and remarkable clarity.

At the heart of this immersive is the cleverly manipulation Villeneuve uses to take advantage of its central mystery. The motivations of the aliens remain unclear until the final act when the pieces of the puzzle are finally laid out. Make no mistake, there’ll be plenty of talking points as the credits roll too with a couple of clever twists providing a surprising reinterpretation of events. Within the sci-fi context there are even powerful allusions to highly relevant themes like the misdirection of authority in the way ambiguities in language and translation are misappropriated to foster fear and distrust of people unlike us.

Arrival proves to be a far better showcase for Adams, one of American cinema’s finest current crop of actresses, than her concurrent appearance in Tom Ford’s limp Nocturnal Animals (2016). Here, she carries the burden of being both the film’s emotional and cerebral epicentre whilst bringing an impressive complexity to the role. Glimpses of an alternate existence in the very first scenes offer an intriguing introduction to Banks before being dispensed into the slipstream of the narrative in which no strand can be assumed to have taken on a linear form.

Renner’s Donnelly is a good match for Adams in what might be his most decent role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). It’s certainly the best film he’s been a part of since then. Even if the internal lives of Banks and Donnelly, beyond the struggle to decipher the language of the aliens, are referenced only in passing, there’s reason enough for the omission. All becomes clearer in the final moments. Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully probing dark score has eerie, atonal, almost alien qualities itself, whilst Villeneuve otherwise employs a couple of effective, tender Max Richter pieces to bookend the film.

Following his remarkable trio of English language films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and last year’s superb Sicario (2015), Villeneuve continues to affirm his status as one of the most promising directors around. His last French-Canadian film, Incendies (2010), may still be his masterpiece but he is an impressive talent who is yet to make a false step. His sense of pacing is spot on, whilst his liquid visual skills reflect a cinematic instinctiveness that’s pretty damn rare. As a lifelong disciple of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’ve long cringed at the thought of a sequel being entrusted to anyone. However, Villenueve, recently given the nod to helm Blade Runner 2049, is one of the few directors around who actually fills me with something other than dread at the prospect.

Nocturnal Animals

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An austere, bleak meditation on revenge and the blurred boundaries where fictional and non-fictional lives intersect, Tom Ford’s long-gestating second feature, Nocturnal Animals (2016) comes with high expectations after the excellent Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man (2009). But the promise created by an interesting premise and a fine cast is gradually eroded as the film’s complexities are revealed to be skin deep, whilst narrative holes flower up like fresh wounds, exposing a paucity of credibility and leading to a wilting anti-climax.

Based on a novel by Austin Wright, Ford’s film quickly establishes the apathy and ennui of gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who has emotionally disengaged, not only from her work, but also her relationship to husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). Then she receives a manuscript from her novelist ex-partner Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has dedicated his latest work to her and named it ‘Nocturnal Animals’, a term he often used to describe Susan during their time together. The film then effectively transforms to a story within the story as she dives into the book; the disturbing story described within forms the basis of much of the film.

A man, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal,) is driving through a rural landscape at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fischer) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) when they’re almost run off the road by a couple of cars. Soon they’re hounded to a stop in the middle of nowhere and being physically and verbally threatened by a group of rednecks led by the recklessly dangerous Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Even worse is to come when Laura and India are abducted before Tony can escape and struggle to freedom where his case, through the course of time, is investigated by cancer-riddled detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

There’s a sense of aloofness established early on that distances us from these people, especially in the present world of Susan, their coldness permeating every verbal and physical inflection. Beyond these glimpses, the world of the novel brings the nightmarish existence of a single man into ever sharper focus as his torment grows exponentially. In some way, is this same striving for recompense also taking shape in the real world, with Edward using the novel as a way to ingratiate his way back into the Susan’s consciousness for some possibly sinister purpose?

The illusion of the fictional story prevents us from emotionally engaging with what we see on screen, as horrible as these events playing out are. The presentation of this story ‘within’ is also highly problematic in the most fundamental way with the ‘investigation’ becoming more ludicrous as it progresses. Unorthodoxy on the behalf of Bobby might be semi-credible but the method he undertakes is difficult to reconcile with any kind of believable notion of the measures and actions a police officer would take to solve a crime of this magnitude. Bearing witness to Bobby’s reluctant participation in Bobby’s displaced vendetta is both uncomfortable and grating for its blatant absurdity

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be a crushing disappointment, squandering talent in every aspect of the production. Composer Abel Korzeniowski, a rising star and shining light of film music in recent years, provides another classy, elegant score. The performances too are uniformly excellent with Gyllenhaal adding to his remarkable recent body of work, with another dark, powerful portrayal of a man driven to extremes. Adams has never given anything less than a great performance and she does her best work here in flashbacks which show the first blossoming of her relationship with Edward before external forces are set in motion, dooming their perfect love. But the drama fizzles out, the final scene a perfect encapsulation of sharply focused expectations tainted by an enveloping absence that pervades both narrative strands.

 

The Light Between Oceans

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From picturesque period romance to morose melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s very fine latest film is suffused with melancholy, regret, and torment as it depicts the ethical dilemma of a couple transformed by love. Beginning in 1918, returning soldier, war-scarred loner Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), is happy to fill the breach when a lighthouse keeper position becomes available off the Western Australian coast. Nursing psychological scars from his time abroad, he yearns for a kind of therapeutic isolation. The methodical approach needed to perform his daily duties on Janus also has its attractions. In the closest town, where his arrangements are made, he’s drawn to the daughter, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), of a prominent local, Bill Graysmark (Garry McDonald). Before ever admitting to their feelings face to face, the pair exchange correspondence of the course of many months. Eventually, on one of his breaks from the lighthouse, Tom summons the courage to ask Isabel’s hand in marriage.

Initially their life on Janus is idyllic with location work at Cape Campbell in Marlborough, New Zealand providing a stunning, wind-blown backdrop. In time Isabel becomes pregnant. Their existence, though a secluded one, couldn’t be more filled with optimism. Naturally, though, a cruel twist of fate will irrevocably alter their lives when Isabel experiences difficulty at the end of her pregnancy and, isolated from Tom in the lighthouse during a massive storm, can’t get the help she needs to save her unborn child.

Based on Australian author M.L. Steadman’s novel, The Light Between Oceans (2016) is beautifully produced, beginning like a classic romantic epic before the bells of impending doom begin to sound. It’s at the midpoint that this key plot contrivance serves to completely alter the tone of the film. There’s no doubt that it’s a blatantly ludicrous event, but Cianfrance’s involving, earnest adaptation has already dragged us deep enough into its soulful clutches that audiences will likely overlook and forgive this unlikeliest of occurrences.

As he displayed with his last two features, firstly his anatomy-of-a-relationship-breakdown, Blue Valentine (2010) and then the ambitious but deeply flawed The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Cianfrance’s visual style is always noteworthy. With the aid of another brilliant Australian artist, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, they often use gritty, handheld work, regularly shooting the actors in telling close-up, an emphatic style leavened by non-artificial light. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox but striking approach to her Wuthering Heights (2011) adaptation, though not nearly as experimental. This intense scrutiny also accentuates Tom and Isabel’s harmonious but precarious relationship with their surroundings against which perspective can change quickly, putting a vastly different slant on the enormity of the natural world and the power it unconsciously wields.

Fassbender, especially, proves remarkable again for his ability to extract a deep well of emotional detail out of a few words or a glance. His presence is magnetic but never distractingly or overpoweringly so. At times there’s a picturesque emptiness to Vikander whose clearly lacks her co-star’s range but is still a believable embodiment of Isabel who undergoes quite a few emotionally- transformations. The introduction of the third main character, Hannah Roennfeldt, played typically with class and conviction by Rachel Weisz, is another positive.

Working in a realm in which he thrives and is now much sought after, composer Alexandre Desplat provides another classy score. It’s melodically sumptuous and yet a model of restraint, never allowing the emotional latitude of the narrative to inflect his themes with obvious, manipulative intent. Though there, is to some extent, a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, Cianfrance still has the ability to wring a few genuine emotional tugs of the heart out of us. In some ways The Light Between Oceans feels like a natural progression for him and perhaps his most mature work to date.

Hell or High Water

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Bringing an astute outsider’s perspective to the barren expanses of the impoverished Texan Badlands, British director David Mackenzie’s new film is a near-flawless crime gem. Hell or High Water (2016) is the second produced screenplay of actor turned writer Taylor Sheridan who retains his strike rate after Sicario (2015) his multi-layered drug cartel drama so brilliantly brought to life by Denis Villeneuve last year.

The narrative is split into two strands, the first featuring brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) who go on a small-town bank-robbing spree in the west of the state, ostensibly to save their family farm. They pick up slim pickings in the first two before Tanner decides on an impromptu raid later in the day after lunch in a diner across the road when he decides they need to top up their funds. On the case is a battle-wearied veteran officer Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who, with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are handed what seems like a straight-forward case.

Every facet of this production is first-class, with the quartet of lead performances all exceptional. Foster is no stranger to playing men liable to lose their heads under some kind of psychological duress. Tanner is a loose cannon but he and Toby, despite their propensity for criminal behaviour, are never portrayed as potentially evil. For Toby, child-support issues are also a factor in motivating a desire for quick cash. Both actors ensure that we retain an essential empathy for the brothers; we can’t even despise them when they do, on rare occasion, resort to violence. They’re flawed anti-heroes of sorts, with Toby’s admission of his qualities never to be emulated and shortcomings to his son one of the film’s most sobering moments.

On the other side of the coin, Bridges gives a superb performance as the undeterred, easy-going Hamilton. Though jaded and on the verge of retirement he presents a calm, collected, easy confidence from having encountered every quirk attributable his fellow human beings, especially those with a distinctly West Texas flavour. He shares an easy camaraderie and witty self-effacement with Alberto whose mixed cultural background is a source of just some of the amusing repartee between the two.

Though it counts down to an inevitable confrontation, it’s the finer details that make Hell or High Water great, with Sheridan’s exceptional screenplay jam-packed with observational dialogue and subtle detailing that provides the film with texture, connecting both the people to the land and to one another as credibly portrayed human beings. Mackenzie’s direction is superb, deploying minimalism to allow richly-grained transitional scenes to move and expand at their own pace, whilst shaping other ‘bigger’ scenes with dazzling skill, in a way that never draws attention to them as showy set-pieces. Mackenzie’s last film, the claustrophobic prison drama Starred Up (2013) was an incredibly intense, impressively authentic piece of cinema. Though a world away from that, Hell or High Water is every bit as impressive and almost certainly his finest film to date.

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.