Cinema reviews: American Sniper's contemporary relevance
American Sniper Cert 15 A
Reviewed this week are American Sniper, Wild, A Most Violent Year, Apples of the Golan.
Coming so soon after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the release of a film like American Sniper assumes a contemporary relevance that it might have otherwise lacked. Opinions may be divided over the factors that gave life to the Frankenstein monster that is global jihad but this compelling piece, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, delivers a dramatic insight into the qualities of sacrifice and heroism that are destined to be required if this Nazi-like death-cult is to be defeated.
A bulked-up Bradley Cooper stars as Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the man who came to be known as "The Legend" by his fellow servicemen, courtesy of his proficiency as a sniper during four harrowing tours of duty in the Iraq War. By the time the credits roll, it's fair to say we know why.
The postcard from the apocalypse that was 9/11 is shown as the event that inspired Kyle to enlist. Newly married to Taya (an unrecognisable Sienna Miller), Kyle was posted to Iraq and the rest is US army history. The movie charts the various encounters Kyle had with the Iraq insurgency, and in Eastwood's capable hands the results are often jaw-dropping in their intensity.
Gung-ho without being jingoistic, American Sniper remains a stirring experience that fans of quality movie-making won't want to miss. Cooper excels in the central role while Eastwood succeeds in the difficult task of delivering a war movie that focuses more on the personal sacrifice made by soldiers than it does on politics. It's all the better for it.
Editor's pick: Wild
So much for it being good to talk. On the evidence of Reese Witherspoon's latest drama, Wild, it just might be better to walk. It certainly proves to be the case for Cheryl Strayed (Oscar-nominated Witherspoon, right) the woman at the centre of this extended homage to the restorative powers of the great outdoors. Strayed was in the throes of a painful downward spiral when she decided to make a solo attempt on the hiking route known as the Pacific Crest Trail. It can take up to three months to complete, stretches from southern California to the border with Canada and meanders through terrains that include snow-capped mountains and unforgiving deserts.
Strayed undertook the trek as an attempt to escape her demons, and while she didn't succeed, she certainly can be said to have had a better understanding of them by the time she completed her journey. The unexpected death of a beloved mother, Bobbi (a striking Laura Dern) is shown as the catalyst that stoked Strayed's appetite for self-destruction. A heroin habit and a messy divorce were just some of the items of excess emotional baggage she took to the PCT's starting point in southern California. Under Jean Marc Vallee's accomplished direction, the story of her life is merged seamlessly with the various experiences and characters she meets along the trail.
So are hiking boots the new Harley Davidsons? That remains to be seen, but this captivating piece is sure to strike a chord with any watching born-to-be-wild wannabes. Witherspoon is, dare I say it, foot-perfect in the central role while the exceptional cinematography effortlessly reflects the epic beauty of the American wilderness.
A Most Violent Year
Well, they do say it's hard to be a saint in the city. Those who know their Springsteen will recognise that classic tune from an early album, and while the city referred to may be a few miles south of the milieu depicted in director JC Chador's Big-Apple-based thriller, A Most Violent Year, the era and the sentiments expressed perfectly sum up the dilemma facing the central protagonist in this accomplished anti-gangster, gangster flick.
Played convincingly by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Abel Morales is a Latino business man struggling to maintain a virtuous worldview in the morality vacuum that is early 1980s New York. His success as the owner of a small home-heating-oil company has given him the trophy wife, (an eye-catching Jessica Chastain), and the trophy home but metaphorical storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.
The success of his operation has resulted in his competitors resorting to nefarious means to thwart his ambitions, with random hijackings of his trucks having put the viability of his business in jeopardy. There's also the small matter of his company's dodgy accounting practices. Faster than you can say move over Lady Macbeth, his wife is encouraging him to fight fire with fire, or at least avail of her family ties to the Mafia. Abel, however, is anxious to persist with his philosophy of seeking out "the path that is most right."
Authentic foot-chases and gripping car-chases accentuate the successfully established retro feel to the spectacle, while both Isaac and Chastain embellish their rising-star status.
Though possibly lacking a little bang bang for your buck, A Most Violent Year represents an absorbing, thoughtful and successful attempt to subvert the usual grisly gangster-chic stereotypes.
Release Jan 23rd
Apples of the Golan
There is an ideal that states that documentary film-making should observe rigorous journalistic integrity with its subject, yet this is clearly not always the case. An uneasy feeling creeps over the first half of this Irish-made piece about one of the last Arab villages to survive in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Surely this can't be just another exercise in Israel-bashing through a post-colonial Hibernian lense?
You realise though that directors Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth (who operate under "Twopair Films") have a decade of fine documentary- making behind them, and although a tad late in arriving to the table, they introduce objectivity and balance with stealthy precision.
The pair spent five years filming in Majdal Shams in the former Syrian territory with a tiny crew. There, they spoke to a wide range of locals from that side of the airtight border. The fruit of the title is the lifeblood of the region, acres and acres of apple orchards that hum away in the background, bringing jobs and livelihoods amid the social injustices and practical trials of these restricted existences.
Questions barely nodded at gain momentum - is the struggle to maintain identity at the loss of something else, how love trumps dogma and what side has worse monsters?
Now Apples Of The Golan opens up into the type of thought-provoking polemic that cinema can be excellent for. There is ample vigour, with the colour, music and vitality of youth pressed alongside the stubbornness - for better or worse - of the elders.
And then there are shots - a young couple salsa dancing in the apple groves of a kibbutz, locals sending wishes to newlyweds across the mines and barbed wire - that have to be seen to be understood.
IFI and selected cinemas
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