Reviews – New movies opening January 16th 2015

We review this week’s new cinema releases, including WHIPLASH, WILD and AMERICAN SNIPER…

WHIPLASH (USA/15A/107mins)
Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Long, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton.
THE PLOT: Like all drummers, Andrew (Teller) is soulful, sexy and sensitive, and he’s keen to show off his jazz drumming skills at New York’s Shaffer Conservatory. Mainly to impress the school’s notoriously brutal band conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who leads an elite band in a training programme where only the very, very good, and the very, very strong-willed, survive. Invited to attend the band’s morning practice, Andrew initially takes the role of substitute drummer, turning the pages for the band’s regular drummer. In front of a teacher who believes in lots and lots of pain for little or no gain, all it takes is one slipped beat for Andrew to be given the chance to undermine his better. When that chance comes, Andrew impresses enough to become drummer no.1 at an out-of-town concert, but an accident along the way results in a late, bloodied and quickly fired star pupil. Having sacrificed everything for the band – including a budding romance with cinema attendant Nicole (Benoist), when Andrew is given a shot at revenge, he takes it…
THE VERDICT: Fittingly marching to its own particularly beat, Whiplash is wonderfully perverse in its portrayal of the madness that comes with too much rhythm method. It’s BLACK SWAN for drummers, Buddy Rich’s FIGHT CLUB, BLOOD ON THE STICKS, or THE KARATE KID if Miyagi was sadistic & overbearing. And it’s wonderful. Despite all those crappy but genius puns.
Developed by young American filmmaker Damien Chazelle from his eponymous 2013 finance-courting, Sundance-winning short (which also starred Simmons but not Teller), WHIPLASH is far more ERASERHEAD than FOOTLOOSE when it comes to getting lost in music. The pretty-much-always-wonderful Simmons (who picked up a Golden Globe for this last Sunday) has rarely been better, or better cast, as the perfectionist-verging-on-nazi band leader who believes a compliment should come right before a crushing putdown, whilst relative newcomer Miles Teller brings the perfect balance of vulnerability and seething anger to the role of the more-than-willing pupil.
The dark, brooding, bonkers horse of the awards season, WHIPLASH dares to be difficult, and defiantly, devilishly, deliriously dogged. Enjoy!
Review by Paul Byrne

WILD (USA/15A/115mins)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Keene McRae.
THE PLOT: Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail after the breakup of her marriage. Along the way she realises truths about herself, makes peace with her past and, for the first time, sees a way to move forward in her life.
THE VERDICT: WILD is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed a woman who, presumably, was inspired to undertake the trek across America when she felt like her life was out of control. There are similarities between WILD and last year’s TRACKS, but huge differences when it comes to the women that undertook the journeys.
Reese Witherspoon is on rare form as Cheryl Strayed. Witherspoon not only makes Strayed a relatable character – she struggles with the task she has undertaken, and the intense solitude and quiet mean that she is suddenly bombarded with parts of her life that she has not yet come to terms with. Witherspoon’s performance does not open the audience up to judging the character, instead making sure that we accept Cheryl for the struggle she has gone through and the mission she finds herself on to come out the other side.
The rest of the cast is made up of Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother Bobbi, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Kevin Rankin and Leigh Parker. All do well with their roles, but this is really and truly the Reese Witherspoon show, so the film lives and dies with her.
The screenplay, adapted from Strayed’s book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Nick Hornby, allows the audience to go on the journey with Strayed. There are times where the entire thing feels a little convenient – woman sets out on massive hike, has realisations along the way – but this is the tale we are being told. If Strayed had simply walked from one end of the US to the other, without ever really learning or growing, there would not be much of a story to tell. There are also times where it could be said that the film is a little indulgent, but while this may be the case, this never overwhelms the journey with sentimentality. The dialogue feels natural, as do Strayed’s realisations about her grief and her feelings toward her mother.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée carefully weaves past and present together, so the audience is allowed to go on the journey with Strayed, and learn more about her without tons of expository dialogue. The flashbacks work well here, and it feels as though we are stepping into Strayed’s memory as she works through the problems in her life.
In all, WILD is a powerful, moving and engaging look at one woman trying to come to terms with her life. Reese Witherspoon is at the top of her game as the sweet and honest Cheryl Strayed. Although there are times where it could be said that the film is self-indulgent, it is never sentimental, and feels honest all the way through. Killer soundtrack too.
Review by Brogen Hayes 

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes, Navid Negahban, Keir O’Donnell, Eric Close, Sam Jaeger.
Raised by a father to be a fine deer hunter and a firm bully-basher, Texan Chris Kyle (Cooper) was clearly destined to fight for his country. Whether there was a war on or not. When 9/11 struck in the thick of his Navy SEAL boot camp training (FULL METAL JACKET with smiles) and the wooing of future wife Kaya (a remarkably likeable Miller), Kyle was more than ready to rumble. Once in Fallujah, it didn’t take long for his sharp shooting to gain Kyle legendary status, some Wildean wit coming up with the nickname Legend. Over his four tours in Iraq, Kyle’s kill list grew and grew, so much so, the insurgent forces put a €180,000 bounty on his head. Finding it hard to decompress (or, it seems, blink), Kyle’s homelife suffered, the bloody battlefront becoming more and more like home…
Putting the word American alongside another has a strangely powerful effect – AMERICAN BEAUTY, AMERICAN GRAFFITI AMERICAN PIE, AMERICAN PSYCHO, AMERICAN IDIOT – and for this adaptation of record-breaking Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s autobiography, it’s a relief that noted Republican Clint Eastwood didn’t opt for American Hero here. Then again, it’s all down to how you say it. And the politics behind it.
It would be easy to view AMERICAN SNIPER as a flag-waving, gun-toting, Oscar-chasing film, but Eastwood gives us something far more complex. There’s something deeply mournful beneath all the bravado here. America’s love affair with the gun, and its dick-hardening powers, are to the fore here, the long-term effect apparent in this increasingly troubled and withdrawn poster boy. In Cooper, Eastwood has given us a thoroughly likeable actor playing a man the more non-bloodthirsty would find thoroughly unlikeable. Which helps clandestinely push AMERICAN SNIPER into troubled waters.
Was Chris Kyle merely a product of his upbringing, of his times, of the Bush years? Or is it all simply down to that part of the American dream where the declaration about the right to bear arms is instantly greeted with a throaty “F**k, yeah!”?
Eastwood leaves it up to us to decide. Nice shooting, Tex, indeed.
Review by Paul Byrne

APPLES OF THE GOLAN (Ireland/Club/82mins)
Directed by Keith Walsh, Jill Beardsworth. Starring Adeep Hassan Sabbagh, Afiff Mahmoud, Layla Safadi, Ibrahim Safadi, Assam Mahmoud Abd Wili, Mohana Sabbagh, Alex Goodish.
Israel having captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, in the ensuing years, the 139 Arab villages there have dwindled down to just five, and a population of 22,000 – 130,000 people having been displaced. Those Syrians still living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights tell their stories here, from the fiercely patriotic Adeep Hassan Sabbagh (“There should be no other flag waving in the Golan”) to Layla Safadi, separated from her family by marriage, and tearfully longing for the day her mother knocks on the door. There’s the prisoner who spent 73 days, 24 hours a day, in a cell measuring 70cm by 1.8m, with no blanket or mattress. There’s freed prisoner Assam Mahmoud Abd Wili, just released after a 27-year sentence for planting landmines against the Israeli army, returning to a hero’s welcome in the heaving, carousing town square. These and many other stories paint a picture of life during wartime, the one ray of hope being the trade agreement forged by the Red Cross in 2005, allowing the trade of Golan apples to Syria…
Having debuted at the 2012 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, it’s taken some time for Irish directors Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh’s documentary to get a cinema release here. Then again, this one isn’t exactly all about the box-office.
With a punched up opening and closing credits, accounting for the three years since APPLES OF THE GOLAN first aired, the sad story at this film’s core remains tragically unchanged. Actually, it’s gotten worse for the 22,000 Syrians living under Israeli occupation, no doubt adding a further sense of hopelessness for these everyday people struggling not to fade away. It’s all heartbreaking stuff, Beardsworth and Walsh letting the people themselves, and, of course, the edit, do all the talking. The one Jewish settler who appears, a happy, hippy young chap who arrived 49 years ago from Argentina, at the age of 1, is well aware of his displaced neighbours and how they might feel, but states, “I know the history, but we are looking to the future”.
RATING: 3/5 
Review by Paul Byrne

Directed by James Kent. Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Sominic West, Emilt Watson, Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson.
Based on the WWI memoir of Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth follows Brittain (Alicia Vikander) as she goes from young girl in search of knowledge and a place at Oxford, as she grows and changes as she lives through the war and loses those closest to her.
THE VERDICT: Released just after the centenary of WWI, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH looks at the war through the eyes of a young, educated woman as she tries to come to terms with the effect that death and destruction has on her, and what she can do to support her family, and feel as though she is contributing to the war effort. Alicia Vikander, as Vera Brittain, is the heart and soul of the film. She allows Brittain to change slowly throughout the course of the film, and her performance – with its gleeful highs and devastating lows – feels utterly believable and complex.
Kit Harington plays Roland Leighton, and his performance underlines the effect that the conflict had on the men at the Front. As well as Harington, the cast is filled with recognisable faces, including Dominic West, Emily Watson, Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson. Each give strong performances in their roles, no matter how small, and add to the rich and vibrant landscape of the film.
If there were to be a complaint about TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, it would be this; there are times when the film feels a little rudderless. The performances, directed by James Kent, remain strong throughout, but the story often wanders and meanders, since it is trying to tell the story of war from far behind the front lines. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi seems to have been so intent on keeping the important moments from the memoir in the film, that the film often feels as though it is a collection of beautifully shot and lyrical scenes put together, without much of a story – other than this being true – to hold it together.
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is a beautifully shot film, anchored by Alicia Vikander’s incredibly layered and detailed performance. Part romance, part melodrama, part survival tale, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is an examination of love and loss, which could have done with a stronger through line in order for it to work to its full potential.
Review by Brogen Hayes