Review – American Sniper

The dehumanising effects of combat come to the fore in Clint Eastwood’s visually powerful, but ultimately conventional examination of one man’s war.

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target

Eastwood made his name playing masculine, violent men and since turning his hand to directing has largely stuck to his guns, to varying degrees of success.

His undisputed masterpiece, 1992’s Unforgiven, was a slow ride to hell as it laid bare the sickening emotional consequences killing someone might actually have on its assorted gunslingers, while his celebrated Gran Torino (2008) found its Dirty Harry protagonist forced to face both his own mortality and the changing face of his country.

The 'most lethal' Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

The ‘most lethal’ Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

In his latest, Eastwood’s stoical leading man is Chris Kyle, a “legend” among his brothers in arms for having chalked up 160 confirmed kills in Iraq and on whose self-explanatory book American Sniper: The Autobiography Of The Most Lethal Sniper In US Military History the film is based.

We are introduced to Kyle (Bradley Cooper) on just another day in Iraq, with a woman and child in his sights. They may be carrying an explosive device or they may not; it’s up to Kyle to make the judgement in order to keep his fellow marines safe.

Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) nemesis in American Sniper

Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) nemesis in American Sniper

The film flashes back to varying, defining points in his life, from a childhood hunting trip with his father in which he is taught to be a sheep dog to protect the sheep from the wolves, through to his decision to enlist as a US Navy Seal following the 1998 US embassy bombings. The red, white and blue-blooded all-American gets his chance to put his training into practice in the aftermath of 9/11 and the allied invasion of Iraq.

As Kyle racks up kill after kill – men, women and children – over the course of four tours, the cracks begin to show, both on his psyche and his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), while his notoriety leads to a bounty being placed on his head by the enemy.

A rare moment of happiness for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in American Sniper

A rare moment of happiness for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in American Sniper

Whilst visually arresting and bolstered by a central performance of considerable nuance and intensity by Cooper, American Sniper isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Kyle’s back story feels rushed, as if Eastwood is conscious of cutting to the action, while the Iraqis are either faceless enemies, cardboard cutout villains or fodder for Kyle’s sniper rifle.

The most promising character we see from the ‘enemy’ side is a Syrian sniper who incurs Kyle’s wrathful vengeance after shooting one of his friends. Steven Spielberg, who was on board to direct before walking away from the project, wanted to beef up the character and escalate the psychological warfare between the two shooters. It’s a premise that Eastwood, for good or ill, has chosen not to focus on.

The consequences of being a soldier in Iraq takes its toll for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

The consequences of being a soldier in Iraq takes its toll for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

Aside from a couple of unnecessary slow motion set pieces and a special effects shot of a bullet flying through the air that belongs in a cheaper movie, the various scenes of sharpshooting are disturbing in the matter-of-fact way they are portrayed. The rifle’s sights add an air of detachment from the death we are witnessing, with the exception of a horribly uncomfortable moment when a distressed Kyle has in his sights a young boy undecided whether to fire at an American convoy.

A particularly evocative sequence comes late on when Kyle and his buddies are engaged in a firefight during a sandstorm. It’s a potent image, loaded with hellish intent.

Miller is excellent, but is hamstrung by unoriginal dialogue (“Even when you’re here, you’re not here!”) and little screen time which undermines the scenes she and Cooper share back home. The director tries to emphasise Kyle’s worsening psychological scarring through these moments, but doesn’t give them the time to breathe.

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target.

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Review – Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe lives up to its name in this star-spanning space opera that puts the fun back into a genre that had disappeared up its black hole.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well known space opera

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of that other well-known space opera

The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is drawing so many comparisons to Star Wars is not only a testament to the high esteem it’s being held in by so many critics, but also to the fact that it’s so refreshing to watch a film of this ilk that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Too often, sci-fi filmmakers get bogged down in blindsiding their audience with Midi-chlorians, flibbertigibbets and unnecessary solemnity at the expense of an intriguing narrative and engaging characters. Although Guardians… isn’t averse to a spot of Basil Exposition (understandable considering it’s the first in what will undoubtedly become another Marvel franchise), it does so with a light and breezy air that avoids spoon-feeding the audience.

The A Team - Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The A Team – Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Abducted from Earth as a young boy following the death of his mother, intergalactic thief Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, (Chris Pratt) incurs the wrath of the super-evil Ronan (Lee Pace) when he steals a mysterious orb. With Ronan’s henchmen, and women, hot on the trail of the orb, including his lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter forms an uneasy accord with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), genetically engineered racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel) and warrior Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista).

When the extent of the orb’s power becomes clear, and Ronan’s diabolical plan reveals itself, Peter must turn his ragtag associates into a full-on fighting force to save the galaxy from destruction.

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Marvel’s policy of trusting its multi-million dollar products to leftfield directors (Edgar Wright’s departure from 2015’s Ant Man notwithstanding) once again pays off. The edgy comic touch of James Gunn’s previous flicks Slither (2006) and Super (2010) is a perfect fit for Guardians‘ tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The film takes great pleasure in sending up the clichés of the genre, such as the team’s slow motion walk towards the camera in which Gamora can be seen yawning. Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s meta script goes off on tangents, some funny, others less so, and concentrates on the relationships between the lead characters. This is a bunch of misfits we can believe in and the bond they gradually form is convincingly handled by the cast.

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

One of the more successful elements of Guardians… is its soundtrack of 70s and 80s classics, ingeniously crowbarred into the film as they form part of Peter’s beloved mix tape from his mother. Setting aside the fact that his Walkman wouldn’t probably survive 26 years and that AA batteries would likely be a little hard to come by in outer space, the music serves as a reminder that Peter, like Buck Rogers and John Carter, is a human in an alien environment and our way into this universe.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Despite trying a bit too hard at times to be Han Solo’s slightly less cool brother, Pratt is a good fit for Peter and proves a likeable lead. Saldana may look like a character from Star Trek, but she kicks ass and is proving a formidable presence in the world of big budget sci-fi, what with the Trek and Avatar franchises already in place. Cooper’s energetic, fast-talking voice work for Rocket is nicely played, while Diesel manages to give a new meaning to each new utterance of his singular phrase “I am Groot” and even non-actor Bautista does some solid work as meathead Drax.

Elsewhere, Gillan is impressively alien as Nebula, while Gunn makes sure to give his other supporting cast members something to do, especially Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned alien Yondu and John C Reilly’s corpsman Rhomann Dey.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well-known space opera.

Review – The Place Beyond The Pines

The gospel according to Philip Larkin espouses that, whether they mean to or not, your parents will always f**k you up and “add some extra, just for you”.

The Place Beyond The Pines marks Derek Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there

The Place Beyond The Pines marks Derek Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there

Larkin’s most famous and acerbic poem, This Be The Verse, could well have been the operating manual for director Derek Cianfrance’s absorbing and operatic second feature, The Place Beyond The Pines.

The sins of the father weigh heavily on the young sons of lawless, directionless Luke (Ryan Gosling) and rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose lives intersect in harrowing fashion and send out shock waves that reverberate years later.

Intense motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) in The Place Beyond The Pines

Intense motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) in The Place Beyond The Pines

Cianfrance chronicled a relationship’s happy beginnings and painful collapse in his previous feature, the acclaimed Blue Valentine, and that film’s exploration of how bad choices made with ‘good’ intentions can come back to haunt you finds a parallel in this more ambitious and superior follow-up.

The Place Beyond The Pines also sees a reunion between Cianfrance and Gosling, whose star wattage has brightened significantly since Blue Valentine, most notably as a result of 2011’s fantastic Drive. In that film Gosling played an intense stunt performer moonlighting as a getaway driver; here he plays an intense motorcycle stuntman who discovers he has a son with ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes).

Rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) must learn to live with a split-second decision in The Place Beyond The Pines

Rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) must learn to live with a split-second decision in The Place Beyond The Pines

Determined not to follow his father’s example Luke vows to provide for young Jason and does so by robbing a bank, but as he gets carried away he’s warned by his friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn): “If you’re going to ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.”

Avery, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of a split-second decision made in the line of duty that gradually eats away at him. Wracked with guilt, he becomes distant from his infant son AJ and wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and starts listening to his district attorney father, who believes Avery should utilise the hero status he gained after that fateful decision by turning his back on the police force and entering politics.

AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) in The Place Beyond The Pines

AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) in The Place Beyond The Pines

The film’s title derives from the loose English translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, a city in upstate New York where the picture events are set. The city itself plays as big a part as its characters, who are all anchored to their surroundings and the pits they have dug for themselves.

Gosling is electrifying as the charismatic, but foolish Luke, equal parts Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. His method has been criticised in the past for being overly showy and inauthentic, but many of his critics were won over by his magnetic performance in Drive and here proves it wasn’t a one-off. Gosling does much of his acting with his piercing blue eyes, which can convey shame, self-hatred and sociopathy in the space of a single blink.

Romina (Eva Mendes) and Luke (Ryan Gosling) in a rare happy moment in The Place Beyond The Pines

Romina (Eva Mendes) and Luke (Ryan Gosling) in a rare happy moment in The Place Beyond The Pines

Cooper gives a career-best turn as the conflicted and guilt-ridden Avery. It’s good to see Cooper stretching himself well beyond the smug and arrogant efforts he put into The Hangover franchise and The A-Team. He proved he had chops in Silver Linings Playbook, but here gives a more rounded and reined in performance.

The superb supporting cast include Mendes, who is beautifully naturalistic as the stability-seeking Romina, the terrific Mendelsohn as deadbeat Robin and a snake-like Ray Liotta doing what he does best as corrupt cop Deluca.

A moment nicely echoed later in The Place Beyond The Pines

A moment nicely echoed later in The Place Beyond The Pines

Much of the criticism of The Place Beyond The Pines has centred on Cianfrance’s decision to include what amounts to an extended coda set 15 years after the film’s earlier events in which the now teenage sons of Luke and Avery cross paths to devastating effect. Some have found fault with the neat way in which Cianfrance ties a bow on what until then had been a freeform narrative, while others have questioned why it’s there in the first place.

I for one feel the film is enriched by the scenes involving AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) as they provide a deeper context and nicely echo moments that have gone before. When Jason rides his bike down a country road, for instance, it brings to mind the momentary freedom Luke feels on his motorcycle. We don’t need to know what happened in those intervening 15 years, Cianfrance gives us enough to work it out for ourselves.

If Blue Valentine was an impressive calling card, The Place Beyond the Pines marks Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there.

Review – Silver Linings Playbook

A quick glance at the plot for Silver Linings Playbook and you’d be forgiven for expecting yet another excruciating Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston seem to find themselves in.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – “smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age”

What should make this film even worse is that its central figure Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, which normally results in the sort of turned-up-to-11  manic performance that cries out for an Academy Award.

The fact that Silver Linings Playbook manages to avoid the trap doors and skirts around the clichés is largely down to the mercurial David O. Russell, who adapts and directs this smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age from Matthew Quick’s short story.

Pat is diagnosed after attacking his wife’s lover in the shower and, after eight months in a psychiatric institution is released into the care of his OCD-afflicted, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and long-suffering mother Dolores (Australian actress Jacki Weaver). Without a job or a wife, Pat is determined to rebuild his life, believing that if he gets fit and stays positive he can save his marriage.

At a friend’s dinner party he meets the self-destructive Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has tried to overcome her grief at the death of her husband by sleeping around. Tiffany offers Pat a deal – she’ll help him reconnect with his wife as long as he becomes his dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Russell knows the rom-com tropes – Pat and Tiffany are clearly made for each other – but in the best tradition of those classic screwball comedies, all the fun comes in how these two broken souls finally realise what the audience have known all along.

Crucially, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is fantastic. They fizz off each other like a pair of firecrackers, from the amusing dinner party when they swap anti-depressant stories like Christmas cards to the sultry dance sequences.

The two are equally tactless, whether it be Pat asking Tiffany how many people she slept with in her office before being fired, or Tiffany saving Pat the bother of reading Lord of the Flies by summarising it for him and throwing the book away, annoyed he’s only reading it because it’s on the high school syllabus his estranged wife is teaching (reflecting an earlier scene when Pat throws a copy of A Farewell to Arms through the window because he’s disgusted with the pessimistic ending).

"Go Eagles!" Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

“Go Eagles!” Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

This is no smooth ride to love of course; Tiffany attacks Pat for being “afraid to be alive” and feels increasingly used by her dance partner as nothing more than a tool in which to win back his spouse. Pat feels guilty for getting closer to Tiffany and suffers a number of violent bipolar episodes, including one in the reception of his therapist Dr Patel (Bollywood favourite Anupam Kher).

Pat Snr, meanwhile, faces his own struggles. In one moving scene, beautifully played by De Niro, he has a moment of guilty realisation that father and son are perhaps more alike than he thought and tries to find some common ground over their shared love of the Eagles.

Cooper has never been better, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot as his output, until now, has hardly been stellar. He isn’t afraid to make Pat unlikeable and restrains himself from falling back on the pretty-boy mugging he’s been guilty of in the past.

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

After years of picking up the pay cheque, it’s great to see De Niro back on form. For once, he looks fully engaged and appears to enjoy playing opposite Cooper again (following the patchy Limitless).

In lesser hands, the role of Tiffany could have become unbearably kooky or flaky. Apparently Russell originally had Zooey Deschanel in mind for the part, so one can only imagine how painful that would have been to watch.

Instead, Lawrence forgoes the crazy and brings a vulnerability to the role that’s refreshing to see. Instead of relying on a pout or a flailing of the limbs, she does a lot of her work with her eyes, expressing confidence, defensiveness or pain in a single look.

The exaggerated family dynamic and pent up emotions bring to mind Russell’s previous film The Fighter, but while that film somewhat lost its way, here he maintains a sharp focus and sweeps you along so persuasively that come the final dance contest you’ll be willing them on along with the rest.