Thursday, November 24, 2016

Look at This: The Love Witch & Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Sunday afternoon, going to be on a plane come Monday morning, what moviegoing do you cram in? The two that would probably benefit the most from theatrical exhibition, even if you know they probably aren't the best ones playing at the moment, or even the best ones on short time.

The funny thing: Despite being at best lukewarm on both, I kind of wish both of them had been presented somewhat closer to how they were intended. The Love Witch was shot on 35mm and there is apparently a print bouncing around, making me wonder if maybe it will play that way at the Brattle or Coolidge later, and Billy Lynn didn't even play in 3D outside of NYC/LA, let alone the super-high frame rate which apparently only a handful of screens in the world are equipped for. I don't know whether either would have made a better impression that way, but it's something worth pondering.

The Love Witch

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

Poke around this site a little bit, and you'll find my review of Anna Biller's previous feature, Viva, as well as some comments about how, because I didn't much like it,I clearly didn't "get" it for finding it all impressively-recreated pastiche but often dull and empty. The good news about The Love Witch is that it's a better movie, with something interesting underneath its incredibly detailed surface; the bad news is that Biller still seems to have trouble separating the wheat from the chaff when she's worked so hard on every frame.

She introduces us to Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch moving from San Francisco to a smaller town after things ended badly with her last lover, and she intends to use all that she knows about love and sex magics to make it happen. For a somewhat sleepy town, there are plenty of targets, from a libertine university professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) to the recently-promoted police officer who stopped her on the way in (Gian Keys) to the husband (Robert Seeley) of her new neighbor (Laura Waddell). Of course, these spells do tend to backfire.

The story itself doesn't matter for a little while, or at least the audience might be inclined to be patient, because the movie looks so good. Biller and cinematographer M. David Mullen shot on 35mm to better capture the bright, 1970s-inspired colors that she uses as her palette; though not actually a period piece, she draws a great deal of inspiration from that time, with hairstyles, wardrobe, and set decoration, much of it handmade by Biller herself, making for a tremendously lush, sensual visual experience.

Full review on EFC.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2016 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, high frame rate DCP)

There's a paradox to Ang Lee's decision to shoot (and, ideally, exhibit) Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 120fps 3D - while these technologies are intended to present an image on-screen that better reflects reality, the actual effect is to make everything seem a little off, because even in 2D at, I'm guessing, 48fps, it looks different enough from what a viewer is used to for the whole thing to seem kind of surreal. And, don't get me wrong, this absolutely works for the movie Lee is making, where both the war in Iraq and the return for a publicity tour are kind of unreal in their own ways. Which raises the question - if this tech did become common, would a good part of its effect be lost?

That would probably be a more relevant question for a better movie; this one is serviceable enough, dotted with clever and well-observed moments, but often seeming to fall just a bit short of its potential. It's got ideas, though none that seem particularly radical when viewed twelve years after the story's fictional events, but it struggles with making them personal for the audience. There are competing narratives around Billy - how he was not a patriotic volunteer but coerced into service for being a screw-up, how he ironically found his niche, how he is being exploited to feed the war machine (and would be exploited to oppose it) - but they don't quite coalesce. There's a real mess here that deserves examination, but this is a movie mostly content to look at the mess, not poke around in it.

A shame, because I like newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy, capturing just how crazy young most of the people sent off to war are, stumbling toward some amount of wisdom. His scenes with Kristen Stewart as the older sister who feels responsible for him being over there and has come to hate the war both independently and as a result of it are great, especially as even those inclined to agree with her might become uncomfortable with how she's using him. There are bunches of surprising supporting performances, from a toned-down Chris Tucker to an unctuous Steve Martin, and the inappropriate weirdness of the halftime show is kind of impressive.

This movie probably isn't going to age well, especially removed from its natural theatrical environment. It's a fairly honest, well-intentioned one that tries some interesting things, at least, and that deserves a bit of praise.

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