Fully Immersed: ‘Billy Lynn’ ends New York Film Fest with landmark spectacle

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The big reveal of the just-ended 54th installment of the New York Film Festival (NYFF) at Lincoln Center appropriately landed at the end, but what follows is no spoiler. This was the Fest’s “Special Event” presentation of Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a 19-year-old Army soldier (Joe Alwyn in a remarkable debut) briefly returned home to Texas in 2004 from a brutal battle in Iraq to be honored with his squad at a big Texas football halftime event.

The reveal we speak of was Lee’s breakthrough technology package of magnificent visuals and sound by way of 3D (RealD), 4K resolution and 120 fps presentation via Christie Mirage laser projectors, wrapped in Dolby Atmos sound. Many will agree that the degree of immersion afforded is unsurpassed on the big screen. At least to one set of eyes and ears, the film turned redundant the notions of virtual reality soon making headway into the feature realm. The presentation did trigger thoughts that this new capture and presentation technology has great potential as it matures and theatre infrastructure accommodates (wider, curved screens, etc.). This was enhanced, immersive reality with ease and comfort; cumbersome headgear can be left at the door.

Not that Billy Lynn was the only bright light at the NYFF (and bright it was in 3D on the AMC Lincoln Square screen). Nor was it the only evidence that the more things change, the more they sometimes really do.

That the cherished New York event was bookended by opening-night and closing-night world-premiere selections that left the Hollywood studios out of the equation was also notable, as was the fact that a documentary was among them. They were, respectively, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a disturbing documentary about the lamentable treatment of blacks in the U.S. and the country’s “crime” of their mass incarceration, and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, about early 20th-century British explorer Percy Fawcett and his obsessive search for a lost Amazon settlement.

Both presentations came from new media powerhouses born on the Web (13th is a Netflix original doc and Lost City was picked up by Amazon) that have stepped in where traditional studios have stepped away. (And, no, this handsome period drama which largely takes place in the Amazon was not a coup of product placement.) The film provides solid if familiar entertainment of the kind that PBS/Masterpiece have long offered but would have benefited from an opening title informing that its story is fact-based.

In his post-screening Q&A, Gray, sounding like Woody Allen in both accent and shtick (a big contrast to the elegant, ultra-Brit epic he delivered) made funny in response to a question about how he felt about Amazon handling the film. Feigning serious, he responded that he had a long history with Amazon, going back years to when he needed paper towels and Amazon came through. Going serious, Gray, evoking Truffaut’s notion of films as either truth or spectacle, noted the situation today as studios have abandoned many serious films for their tentpoles. This state of affairs has sent smaller films looking for their equity and distributors elsewhere (Brad Pitt’s Plan B was a backer of Lost City) as new companies like Amazon and Netflix have stepped in.

Gray, who has always shot on 35mm, also came out swinging against digital (his film is 35mm), saying he “hates” digital but did a blind test of 35mm vs. digital cameras (the Red, Alexa, Sony’s new one) and 35mm won. Clearly loving to pontificate, he certainly provided ammo to pro-35mm apostles like Christopher Nolan manning the celluloid bridgeheads.

But whatever the format or whoever delivers, it’s the films themselves that matter. Again, the NYFF offered many that are theatre-worthy and, in this era of breaking windows, several have already reached those theatres or are about to even as they land on small screens.

The strongest among these include many that are awards bait for the coming season. Kenneth Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, starring a remarkable Dave Johns as an elderly London laborer battling both failing health and government’s failing social-services bureaucracy, will remind some viewers of Vincent Lindon’s laid-off French worker in the unforgettable The Measure of a Man, where he’s another man at war with crippling attitudes and tangled red tape.

Music Box’s A Quiet Passion is a gem from Terence Davies about the reclusive 19th-century Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson (yes, that immortalized Belle of Amherst) and her quiet anti-establishment rebellion and agnostic doubts. Cynthia Nixon in the lead role and Davies’ witty and touching script are among the film’s many assets.

Julieta, an engrossing family drama, is an unexpected Pedro Almodóvar at his peak. His emphatic sense of visuals, playful structure and love of reds and close-ups are all put to perfect use here.

Amazon’s Manchester By the Sea, a contemporary working-class family drama about dealing with the past, accepting the present and bravely facing the future, already has filmmaker/writer Kenneth Lonergan and star Casey Affleck sailing first class into awards season.

A24’s Barry Jenkins triumph, Moonlight, in its three-chapter tale of a gay Miami ghetto kid’s journey from a drug-riddled family and neighborhood to adulthood and a measure of peace, is both a triumph of great performances and unforgettable visual storytelling.

And the gentle, charming Paterson, about a Paterson, New Jersey husband/poet/bus driver who performs admirably on all these fronts, is Jim Jarmusch’s most impressive cinematic pleasure to date.

Among the other worthy NYFF entries that come from afar and are making (or about to make) some noise in theatres (and/or join the traffic online) include Maren Ade’s truly droll, startling German oddity Toni Erdmann, about an outlandish father so troubled by his daughter’s transformation into soulless corporate conformity that he goes into extreme rescue mode to save her. But daughter has a bigger surprise in store for viewers.

Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers were at NYFF with yet another engrossing, slow-boiling, beautifully acted drama, Sundance Selects’ The Unknown GirlAdèle Haenel stars as a young doctor in working-class Liège who, after refusing to let an unknown woman into her building late one night, becomes embroiled in her murder and a search for her identity. The Dardennes, who specialize in uncovering emerging young talent, are masters of realism and perceptive casting, again bringing some familiar older faces, including that of Olivier Gourmet, into lesser roles.

Matters of politics and corruption aren’t often left behind in Eastern European films, and corruption goes to the head of the class in Cristian Mungiu’s (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) remarkable, morally complex family drama Graduation. Here he delves into the extremes a devoted, anxious Romanian father and doctor will go to insure that his daughter passes her tests to move on to a British university. The major outbreak confronting this decent man is an epidemic of corruption that has infected so much of society and threatens him.

As the fest’s documentaries reminded, docs generally are just getting better and better (it helps that the world’s troubles, controversies and colorful personalities never go away). While often embracing dark subjects, HBO Documentary Films’ Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds lives up to its promise of delicious entertainment that old Hollywood is known for. The film is a close-up of the famous mother and daughter, their relationship, their storied pasts and their not always easy present, as Debbie confronts age and Carrie her own eccentricities. Both women are camera-friendly pros who share often hilarious, sometimes shocking moments in their lives past and present. Carrie’s brother Todd Fisher is another welcome presence. That Carries shares—with pal Griffin Dunne sitting on her bed—that he was the one to take her virginity (a minor nugget) is but one example of the doc’s many surprises. Bigger ones lurk.

In addition to the HBO airings, the doc, so whispers go, is bound for theatre screens (and appropriately so considering the star subjects, the many nostalgic clips of Debbie’s performances, and flashbacks with Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, who starred in the showbiz scandals that were part of Carrie and Debbie’s backstories).

Dawson City: Frozen Time, a candidate also for big-screen treatment, surprises as a doc that is much more than another Klondike territory gold-rush story. As the film’s rich archival and stills reveal, remote Dawson City was also an early moviegoing town where a trove of silent films lay buried before their discovery decades ago. This haunting doc, sometimes going in experimental directions, mixes history of the gold-diggers’ plight and the birth of these frontier towns with the history of silents and early exhibition—in both Dawson and Hollywood. Viewers who pay close attention might catch a fleeting reference to Donald Trump’s grandfather Fred as a Dawson City brothel owner.

On the political front, The Settlers, with its mass of rich archival material, covers the history and growth of Jewish settlements on former Palestinian lands and the current state of affairs in the disputed, occupied West Bank as the settlements grow more aggressive. Unsettling is the arrogance of these settlers and the degree to which Israel sanctions an ongoing occupation that precludes any form of solution to the decades old, violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to 13th, Civil Rights and the treatment of blacks in the U.S. were the subjects of two other important NYFF docs. I Am Not Your Negro features Samuel Jackson as the voice of the late author James Baldwin in readings and the inspiring presence, through archival clips, of Baldwin, whose eloquent, clear-headed, passionate observations addressed the white oppression of blacks in both subtle and brutal ways throughout U.S. history. And Two Trains Runnin’ is a fascinating look at the collision of two parallel but related events of the Civil Rights period—the movement itself and the search on the part of a trio of young white country-blues fans from the North who head south into racially torn Mississippi in search of their legendary music heroes.

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail is an exposé, thrilling and maddening as it unfolds, of another kind of injustice, in this case the (literal) trials and tribulations endured by a decent New York Chinese-American banking family at the hands of the New York County district attorney and his eager-beaver tiger of a litigating assistant. This look at the hell created by single-minded lawyers hungry for the kill in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis deserves a narrative feature remake; crises may come and go, but not this breed of lawyer.

The NYFF has a special affection for French films and this year was no exception. The biggest treat for Francophile cinephiles was undoubtedly Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema, in which the celebrated French filmmaker goes personal and passionate about the films, actors and directors he grew to love beginning in the mid-’40s when he was just “a child of the Liberation.” So many clips and so many personalities (Jacques Becker, Jean Renoir, Jean Gabin, Simone Signoret and on and on) are presented with Tavernier’s wise insights into why they matter and will continue to.

The Death of Louis XIV, with Truffaut find Jean-Pierre Léaud starring, is a mesmerizing, meticulous account of the Sun King’s final days. Léaud gives an unforgettable performance, but the film also benefits from its muted yet regal production design that befits a king and a claustrophobic intimacy that befits his slow fade into immortality in his sleeping chamber. While monarchs are usually less than warm characters, Léaud’s Louis, though clearly coming to his end, emanates a dignity and decency that stir respect and even compassion. Gossip, intrigue and imminent death do their part and well-chosen classical music assures the solemn tone. Léaud himself showed up at the press conference, and while no longer the cute kid of The 400 Blows, his acting chops, as this and his many subsequent films have shown, defy age.

Two very different French films gave us the indefatigable Isabelle Huppert, with well over 100 films and counting to her credit. She was used to full advantage in Mia Hansen-Løve’s addictive, moody family drama Things to Come, which follows a revered Paris high-school philosophy teacher’s run of bad luck as her crazy mother becomes increasingly ill and dependent, her husband leaves her for another woman, and the prized former student she has mentored grows more radical and alienated. Books and references to many philosophers abound in the film, but it’s the lessons of love, family and just-get-on-with-it courage that have meaning here.

Moving 180 degrees in the opposite direction is the inscrutable if not ridiculous and repellent Elle, which has Huppert as a producer of violent videogames and victim of multiple violent rapes by the same masked creep who breaks into her apartment five or six times (you lose count). Guessing who this perp might be provides some twisted suspense until Huppert’s character (and viewers) find out. But the real mysteries are why the heroine never reports the assaults to the cops and continues on friendly terms with him after she learns his identity. Lesser mysteries include what the many religious references mean and why the filmmakers opted for this mash-up of genres (unbelievably, the story has elements of deliberate comedy). The film makes no sense, nor does the fact that the usually competent and smart Dutch director Paul Verhoeven took it on.

Another French oddity but not nearly as offensive was Eugène Green’s Son of Joseph, a formally structured contemporary reboot of some biblical lore that is blessed to some degree (but not redeemed) by the participation of French star Matthieu Amalric.

Overall, the NYFF package this year was another gift of cinematic truth and spectacle. Going further, Billy Lynn reminded that entertainment is also a critical component. Even if Ang Lee’s film isn’t a breakthrough akin to Louis Lumière’s 1890s film of exiting Lyon factory workers, at least it establishes a benchmark of sorts whose place in cinema history is yet to be written.