Amid the many cinematic studies of war, William Wyler’s 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives” stands out. Winner of seven Academy Awards, Wyler’s film is a powerful portrayal of veterans of war struggling to reintegrate into civilian society.
Much the same can be said for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel. Lee’s film does for U.S. veterans of the Iraq War what Wyler’s film did for veterans of World War II.
What both have in common is the split that often occurs between civilians and America’s military. That split involves the discord that commonly afflicts individuals – particularly veterans of wartime service – who, upon returning home, are encouraged both to relive their experiences and yet ignore – better yet, forget – the pain, buoyed by grief and regret, they might feel. Thank you for your service indeed.
Lee – best known for such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Life of Pi,” for which he won a Best Director Oscar – is faithful to Fountain’s novel. Set in 2004, the film follows the eight members of Bravo Squad. Thanks to their having survived an intense firefight – much of which was captured on video – the soldiers, but particularly 19-year-old Silver Star winner Billy Lynn, have become American heroes.
As such, they find themselves being feted by the owner of a Texas NFL franchise (though fictional, the team is a clone of the Dallas Cowboys). While the men of Bravo wait to see if a movie producer can deliver on a promised film deal, they find themselves cast as heroes – a situation that causes them all, but especially Billy, to feel like phonies. By the time they get to the actual halftime show, in which they are made to act as props in support of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, things have become surreal. When the fireworks start, the exploitation of Bravo is near complete.
While many of Lee’s artistic decisions work well, a few seem strange. His use of a high-frame shooting format (120 frames per second versus the standard 24) is certainly groundbreaking; but since few theaters have the equipment to show films in that format, it makes little difference to the average moviegoer.
Also, the casting of Chris Tucker as the producer and Steve Martin as the NFL owner makes little sense at all. Actors with better range – or any range at all – are equipped to give line readings that add actual meaning to Fountain’s words.
As for what does work, Lee’s blending of Billy’s flashbacks – from his return home to the actual firefight itself – flows mostly effortlessly. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is convincing as the title character, especially during his tender moments with the cheerleader played by Makenzie Leigh. Meanwhile, the movie’s best moments belong to Garrett Hedlund as Bravo’s sergeant and Kristen Stewart as Billy’s guilt-ridden sister.
Their talents add poignancy to a movie that explores, nearly as well as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the gap that divides actual warriors from those who merely wave flags in their honor.
We're getting close to the time of year where two holiday traditions coincide: a celebration of the coming Christmas and an honoring of Spokane icon Bing Crosby.
The 11th Annual Bing Crosby Film Festival will be held on Friday, Dec. 3, at (naturally) the Bing Crosby Theater. The all-day event begins at 10:30 a.m. with a screening of the 1953 classic film "White Christmas" and ends with a second screening of the film at 7:30 p.m.
2. An additional film is being added to those already listed:
"Loving": The year is 1958, and a marriage between a white man (Joel Edgerton) and a black woman (Ruth Negga) is ruled illegal in the state of Virginia. The case ends up being decided in a 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia. (Good thing, too, because how else would Kanye West and Kim Kardashian been able to get married?)
That's the list. So go, see a movie. Eat some turkey. And enjoy.
Note: This post has been updated to reflect different opening dates and an additional opening.
While many (if not most) of us will be scarfing down turkey on Thursday, others of us will be making our way to movie theaters for this week of holiday offerings. According to IMDB.com, the week's nationally scheduled openings are as follows:
"Bad Santa 2": This sequel to the 2003 dark comedy brings back the principal characters, including Billy Bob Thornton as a mean drunk with a heart of … well, certainly not gold.
"Rules Don't Apply": Featuring the return of Warren Beatty, who directed, wrote and stars in this study of an eccentric billionaire and the aspiring starlet and ambitious driver who work for him. (Can you say Howard Hughes?)
"Allied": A throwback to the 1940s, this World War II romance/thriller stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as spies caught in a web of intrigue and likely betrayal. Imagine Bogart and Bacall …
"Moana": Dwayne Johnson voices the title character, a cocksure demigod who is recruited by a young girl () to help save her people. Two words: Disney animation.
I'll update as the local theaters post their final schedules.
"Arrival" isn't likely to break box-office records, which is too bad. Then again, how much money a film makes is only one measure of quality — and, honestly, not a particularly good one. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I explain why Denis Villeneuve's film is so worth seeing:
Ted Chiang is one of those writers that science fiction fans adore. His short stories have won a cluster of awards – Hugos, Nebulas and more.
Now one of his most famous stories – titled simply “Story of Your Life” – has been adapted into a movie. Based on a screenplay by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival” is an example of hard science fiction that doubles as a meditation on time and relativity and that explores contrasting perceptions of existence.
Anyone who has paid attention to “Arrival’s” trailers, or even just the stand-alone ads, should be familiar with the film’s presumed set-up, if not the actual plotline.
The trailers make Villeneuve’s film seem like another version of either “War of the Worlds” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The stand-alone ads usually just show the character played by Amy Adams, mulling over some inner conflict as a some sort of UFO hovers in the background.
As effective as both campaigns might be, they give a wrong impression about what Heisserer and Villeneuve – much less Chiang – want to achieve. In short, “Arrival” is not about an alien invasion. It’s about, succinctly enough, how language affects the way we appreciate reality.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist recruited by the government – in the person of an Army officer played by Forest Whitaker – to help communicate with one of 12 alien spacecraft, and the so-called Heptapods inhabiting them, that one day suddenly emerge from space.
The government – as governments tend to do – wants to know what the aliens are after. To be specific, are they a threat? Banks, though, is after something more pure: She simply wants to decipher a complex language that has about as much in common with standard English as simple arithmetic does with advanced calculus.
In a departure from Chiang’s story, Heisserer – who reportedly wrote a hundred or so drafts of his screenplay – adds in a complicating factor: Afraid because of an early translated message that seems to indicate the Heptapods are offering use of, or threatening the use of, an unnamed “weapon,” the world’s governments – including factions in the U.S. itself – announce their intentions to attack the alien ships.
So Banks and her physicist colleague, played by Jeremy Renner, are tasked with doing an impossible job in an inordinately short amount of time.
This invented plot element, which might cause Chiang purists to roll their eyes, could have ruined an otherwise fascinating film. But in the hands of the talented Villeneuve, that doesn’t happen. Just as he skillfully used the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins to film last year’s “Sicario,” Villeneuve gives Bradford Young leeway to create a series of haunting visuals that perfectly complement both the movie’s patient pacing and Adams’ poignant, bravura performance as a woman emerging from a waking dream.
The result is a wondrous achievement, one that combines mystery and meaning in a way so rarely found in mainstream movies. It’s a tribute to the work of Ted Chiang. And it’s one of the best films of 2016.
The theater is scheduled to reopen on Thursday, Dec. 1, with a 5:30 p.m. special showing of a an as-yet unnamed film.
According to a press release from Katy Sheehan, the director of the Community Building — which is the overall complex that includes the theater — the Lantern is reopening following "a resounding response from the community after the theater closed in August."
"The Magic Lantern Theatre is a vital connection point for arts and culture in our city," Sheehan's message said. "The theatre is a place for independent movies that make your head think and your heart grow and we are excited to continue this tradition."
Regular screenings of the Swedish film "A Man Called Ove" will commence on Dec. 2. (For a review of "A Man Called Ove," click here.) Other movies expected to be screened in future include "The Eagles Huntress," "Loving" and "Jackie."
Refreshments will be served during the Dec. 1 reopening event.
Big week for movies, what with seven scheduled to open. In addition to the ones listed below — "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Bleed for This," "The Edge of This" and, yes, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' — the others are as follows:
"Certain Women": Three women (Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams) live, love and learn in small-town America. Shot in and around Livingston, Mont. No cracks about sheep warranted.
"Moonlight": Two young men grow up struggling to discover what love is in a tough Miami neighborhood. No beach flick this.
"The Take": A former CIA agent (Idris Elba) recruits a young pickpocket to help him foil a terrorist plot. No chance against Luther.
Ready for a little J.K. Rowling? The "Harry Potter" author returns this week with the first of a new series of wizardry, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." All of Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:
"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them": Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a wizard visiting New York some 70 years before Harry Potter was even born. Author Rowling tries again, this time with a more adult view.
"Bleed for This": Miles Teller stars as real-life boxer Vinny Pazienza, whose near-fatal accident proved only to be inspiration for his amazing comeback. He couldn't pronounce no más.
"The Edge of Seventeen": Hailee Seinfeld stars as a teen whose life gets difficult when her best friend begins dating her older brother. Talk about mean girls.
There's a chance that "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" will open, too. I'll have all the updates when the local theaters send out their final listings.
For the past seven decades, Hollywood has produced one film after the next that focused on World War II. The latest to hit local theaters was "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson's telling of a true story.
Since it's Veterans Day, it seemed only fitting that I would review it. Following is a transcription of the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
The biblical Commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill set up one of the great philosophical conflicts of human history. Taken strictly, it means exactly that: Do Not Kill. Yet most societies allow for exemptions, such as self defense, protecting those we love, and going to war.
The demands of war in particular have proven problematic. One astute statement about war came from the pen of the French free-thinker Voltaire, who wrote, “It is forbidden to kill, therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
The sound of those trumpets – especially when blown in support of a cause of presumed righteousness – can rouse an array of emotions, all of which serve as fuel both for acts of self-sacrifice and for wholesale slaughter … often both at once.
Desmond Doss, a devout young man from Lynchburg, Virginia, was among those of his generation who answered what he considered a call to duty during World War II. He wanted to serve, even though he could have sought a deferment because of his job at a shipyard.
When he was drafted, though, Doss faced the eternal clash between military service and his own conscience: Because of his religious convictions, he had sworn never to touch a weapon. His intent as a self-proclaimed “conscientious cooperator” was to serve as a combat medic, attempting to save lives, not take them.
Yet his stance was questioned, by his platoon sergeant, by his commanding officer, by his fellow soldiers and, in the end, by the Army itself. During his training he was marginalized, harassed and threatened with summary dismissal unless he agreed to carry a rifle. But he remained true to his convictions and, ultimately, won his case.
“Hacksaw Ridge,” which was directed by veteran actor/director Mel Gibson, portrays all of this over the first full half of its 131-minute running time – though, like most depictions of actual history, the script does take various liberties with the truth.
And if anything, the movie’s second half underplays Doss’ heroism. His own commanding officer, formerly one of Doss’ biggest critics, ended up crediting him for having saved 100 of his fellow soldiers during the battle portrayed in Gibson’s movie. The official record, meanwhile, listed his saving only 75.
Acted by a largely Australian cast, including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a worthy honoring of the real-life Doss – portrayed by the British-raised Andrew Garfield – even if it does feel, at times, as traditionally melodramatic as your standard 1950s MGM big-screen release.
The difference is the violence. Gibson is known for depicting scenes of savagery graphically in such films as “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.” Filled with lushly filmed scenes of fire, flame and dismembered corpses, Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” is as much a study in barbarity as it is a celebration of steadfast principle.
It’s almost as if by creating such beautifully rendered tableaus of horror, Gibson is sounding his own trumpet, one that prizes the nobility of suffering itself over a single man’s courage.
Not that I place any real credence in trailers or critical previews, but one film that is opening on Friday is receiving high marks for both.
I don't trust trailers because they so often don't end up reflecting what the final film is all about. Too many times they either give the whole film away or they give a mistaken impression of the respective film's tone.
I remember thinking that Joe Wright's 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" was just another of your average stuffy Masterpiece Theatre productions. How wrong I was. "Atonement" turned out to be as poignant and passionate a study of love and loss as I've ever seen.
And critics? Even the best of them can make some outlandish pronouncements (though hardly among the best, I will plead guilty to having done the same). So, yes, I'm careful.
Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: "Arrival is at once majestic and melancholy. It's a grand endeavor, and (Amy) Adams, at the center of it all, brings pluck and smarts and a deep-seated sorrow to her role. This is her movie, no doubt."
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "So sure is the stride of the narrative, and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath."
Mara Reinstein, US Weekly: "The sci-fi thriller not only subverts expectations in brilliant ways, it explores deeply felt themes of life, loss and love. In other words, it's light-years away from 'Independence Day 3.' "
Tony Hicks, San Jose Mercury News: "Arrival arrives at a good time, as something of a salve for the ugly discourse going on and a reminder to us that thinking big is really worthwhile."
So I'm excited. Let's hope my enthusiasm isn't, as often happens, misplaced.
Once we get past today — assuming we do get past today — we're all going to need a break from the political campaigning that has been thrown at us for the past year or more. And you'll find no better break than the movies.
One annual movie event that attracts crowds to downtown Spokane is the Banff Mountain Film Festival. An array of short films, one that claims to offer "The World's Best Mountain Films," is the traveling version of the festival that is held each year in Banff, Alberta, Canada (this year Oct. 29-Nov. 6).
It's already November, which means that the holiday movie season is approaching. Which also means that the chances of good movies coming our way are increasing. Finally. And Friday just may be the start.
Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk": Ang Lee directed this adaptation of Ben Fountain's novel about a 19-year-old war veteran who, following a harrowing combat experience, finds himself caught up in a patriotic celebration he finds as strange as it is surreal. Kind of an everyday experience at a Dallas Cowboys game.
"Almost Christmas": Writer-director David E. Talbert explores an extended family's attempts to enjoy the first Thanksgiving following their matriarch's death. Do they eat turkey, or is that just the movie itself?
"Arrival": Amy Adams stars as a linguist whom the army recruits to communicate with extraterrestrials. ET may just want to phone home.
"Shut In": Naomi Watts stars as child psychologist, living a lonely life in New England, who thinks she is being haunted by the ghost of a little boy. No, she doesn't live on Elm Sreet. (Or does she?)
That's the available lineup. I'll update when the local theaters finalize what they plan to screen.
Like all art, movies tend to reflect the cultures from which they spring. In theme, at least. In the case of Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's novel "Inferno," though, the very style of the film seems to reflect the turbulence that has afflicted the U.S. for the past year or so.
That, at least, is a point I try to argue in a review of "Inferno" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
In the current political sphere, which is mercifully nearing the end of what we’ve comically been referring to as a presidential campaign, a kind of debate strategy has been perfected.
Debate, at least to those of us who learned about the practice in high school, involves taking a specific stand on a given topic. From there you’re obliged to offer logical arguments in support of that stance, to rebut the arguments put forth by the opposition, and then issue a concise summation aimed at convincing those listening that you have constructed the more convincing analysis and conclusion.
Sounds quaint, right? Such polite discourse possesses little, if anything, in common with what goes on in today’s version of political exchange. Instead of traditional debate, what you tend to hear, even from those who are supposed to represent both sides, is denial, obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies.
Now, this is supposed to be a movie review and not a political rant. So, how does all this pertain to the product that Hollywood fills the nation’s movie screens with on a weekly basis? Specifically, how does it apply to “Inferno,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller of the same name?
Well, with a third, and more pointed, question: To wit, if you had been hired to tell a tall tale of high implausibility, one filled both with enough red herrings to feed a borough of Beijing and more absurdities than a Samuel Beckett stage play, what style would you adopt? If you were Ron Howard, that style might involve varying blends of, say, denial, obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies.
“Inferno” gives us a familiar Brown protagonist, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious inconography and – better consult your dictionary here – symbology. Playing Langdon for the third time, Tom Hanks gives his standard everyman performance – though this time he is forced mostly to reel from frame to frame, both because of several blows to Langdon’s head and – not to give too much away – other mind-altering means.
The resulting confusion he experiences is only fitting, since this reflects the filmmaking style that Howard has chosen for, I suspect, a couple of reasons.
One, Howard, who is now 62, may think – mistakenly – that a continually moving camera will make him seem more contemporary. Two, he also apparently thinks that the best way to cover up the deficits of a weak storyline is to immerse Langdon in a crazy mystery that Sherlock Holmes would have trouble figuring out.
That mystery involves, among other things, Dante’s vision of Hell, the plague of overpopulation, a crazed billionaire and his shadowy minions, a virus that threatens to decimate the human race and clues to a puzzle situated in some of the world’s great architectural treasures – Florence’s famous Duomo and Istanbul’s grand museum, the Hagia Sophia.
Howard’s decision to show us these majestic sights is the single treat that his “Inferno” offers. Otherwise, as Shakespeare might say, the film feels like an attempt to dazzle the audience with the kind of sound and fury that, ultimately, signifies nothing.