New films: American Sniper, Whiplash and Testament of Youth

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper

Bradley Cooper plays a deadly marksman in Clint Eastwood’s biopic American Sniper.

AMERICAN SNIPER (15)

Heroes come in many shapes and sizes.

Born and raised in Odessa, Texas, Chris Kyle became a professional rodeo rider until injury forced him to reassess his priorities.

He enlisted with the military and his keen eye – nurtured by his father who taught him to hunt at an early age – set Kyle apart as a sniper.

During four tours of duty in Iraq, he gained the reputation as the most lethal sniper in American military history, with 160 confirmed kills to his name.

Such was his notoriety, the enemy nicknamed him “The Devil Of Ramadi” and put a sizeable bounty on his head.

When Kyle eventually returned home, deeply scarred by clashes with insurgents and the deaths of his brothers in arms, he gradually regained his humanity and reconnected with his family by working with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a bitter twist, having survived Iraq, Kyle was killed by one of those traumatised veterans on a Texas shooting range.

His achievements are celebrated in Clint Eastwood’s impeccably crafted biopic, which opens on a rooftop in Iraq with Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) staring down a telescopic sight as a woman and her young son emerge from a building.

Tensions steadily cranks up as Kyle places his finger on the trigger.

“They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” warns his compatriot Goat-Winston (Kyle Gallner).

We rewind initially to Chris’ childhood, where he learns how to handle a gun with his father Wayne (Ben Reed).

“You’re going to make a fine hunter some day,” says the old man tenderly.

When dreams of bull-riding turn sour, Chris enlists and he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar.

They marry and she raises their family alone while Chris fights overseas and attempts to outwit an elusive rival sniper called Mustafa (Sammy Sheik).

With each successive tour, Chris returns home unable to communicate effectively with his loved ones.

“I need you to be human again,” pleads Taya. “I need you to be here.”

American Sniper unfolds from Kyle’s fervently patriotic perspective and the lack of narrative balance might trouble some audiences.

Eastwood is more interested here in the psychology of a father and husband than wading through the murky politics and morality of modern warfare.

Battle sequences are choreographed with meticulous precision and Cooper, who bulked up for the role, affects a drawl to perfection as he conveys the demons that haunt Kyle and drive him further from the people who love him the most.

Miller is solid in a meaty supporting role, reminding Chris of his responsibilities to his family as well as his country.

“I’m making memories by myself. I have no one to share them with,” sobs Taya.

Kyle’s memory is polished to a lustre by Eastwood’s film.

RATING: 7/10

WHIPLASH (15)

The fresh paint of 2015 has barely dried and already we have a strong contender for the film of the year.

Inspired by writer-director Damien Chazelle’s experiences in a fiercely competitive high school jazz band, Whiplash is an electrifying tale of a 19-year-old drummer’s bruising battle of wits with his monstrous college tutor.

As the title intimates, pain is acute in Chazelle’s lean script that pulls no punches in its depiction of the pursuit of musical excellence, which propels the self-destructive student to the brink of a mental and physical breakdown.

Drumming sequences are edited at a frenetic pace, spattered with the real sweat of lead actor Miles Teller, who performs all of the energy-sapping solos as if his life depended on it.

It’s a bravura performance complemented by JK Simmons’ jaw-dropping portrayal of the foul-mouthed, bullying conductor, who verbally abuses students who fall short of his impossible demands for metronomic and percussive perfection.

Staring at his terrified charges, Simmons’ musician-turned-mentor preys upon teenage fears and insecurities, kindling intense rivalry between band members for his own sadistic pleasure.

Early in the film, he picks on one nervous trombonist’s weight and snarls, “I will not let you cost us a competition because your mind’s on a Happy Meal and not on pitch.”

He’s just getting warmed up.

Nineteen-year-old Andrew Neiman (Teller) is determined to excel at his Manhattan music conservatory and avoid the regrets which haunt his writer father (Paul Reiser).

So he practises night and day and catches the eye of the school’s most revered teacher, Terence Fletcher (Simmons).

Soon after, Andrew transfers to Fletcher’s class and becomes the alternate drummer in the band behind lead player Carl (Nate Lang).

When the opportunity arises for Andrew to impress, he rises to the occasion but alienates himself from the rest of the band.

A fledgling romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who works at Andrew’s local cinema, is sacrificed in a cold, cruel fashion that would have Fletcher smacking his lips with glee.

The game of one-upmanship between teacher and pupil spirals out of control as Andrew struggles to meet the lofty expectations of his maniacal mentor and earn the right to play at a concert in the rarefied surroundings of Carnegie Hall.

Whiplash delivers one emotional wallop after another as Andrew practises until his hands bleed and Simmons belittles those herculean efforts by growling, “Is that the fastest you can go? It is no wonder Mommy ran out on you!”

We root for the beleaguered 19-year-old with every display of frenzied stick-work, urging Andrew to wipe the smug grin off Fletcher’s face.

Our investment in the characters is immense and Chazelle rewards us with an astounding denouement that saps every ounce of energy from our bodies.

We’re delirious, euphoric and physically spent.

RATING: 9.5/10

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (12A)

Published in 1933, Testament Of Youth was the first instalment of memoirs by feminist writer and pacifist Vera Mary Brittain covering the years 1900-1925.

In those pages, Brittain relived her harrowing personal experiences of the First World War in the wider context of the shifting political landscape, and gave a voice to other women, who had watched loved ones head off to fight and never return.

In 1979, the BBC produced a six-part mini-series based on the book, casting a fresh-faced Cheryl Campbell as the fiercely independent heroine.

It’s fitting that BBC Films should be one of the creative forces behind this handsomely mounted big screen adaptation.

Testament Of Youth is almost the right film in the right place at the right time, coinciding with centenary commemorations of the First World War, which included last year’s spectacular installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower Of London.

James Kent’s film is suitably respectful and sombre, and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is a revelation in her first leading role in an English-language production, capturing the spirit, defiance and brittleness of a young woman who holds firm to her convictions at a time when women were preferably seen but not heard.

Spirited and resourceful Vera (Vikander) is poised to head to Oxford University to study under waspish Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson).

Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his pals Roland (Kit Harington) and Victor (Colin Morgan) intend to enlist but Vera’s parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) are resistant.

“I know a little more about war than you young lady and it’s never short and it’s never fast,” Mr Brittain tells his daughter sternly when Vera argues her sibling’s case.

They eventually relent and Vera heads to the dreaming spires of Oxford.

Romance blossoms between Vera and Roland, and Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan) acts as a chaperone for the young couple on their dates to ensure their conduct doesn’t overstep the bounds of public decency.

Against the advice of her parents, Vera postpones her higher education to volunteer as a nurse and treat soldiers, who have been physically and emotionally scarred by their experiences.

Friendships and family ties are strained as Vera and her loved ones search for glimmers of hope amid the devastation.

Testament Of Youth is a visually arresting portrait of those tumultuous years of blood-stained European history and director Kent demonstrates moments of brio.

However, for all its physical splendour and Max Richter’s elegiac orchestral score, the film doesn’t stir the heart, even with Vikander wringing herself emotionally dry as Vera’s dearest friends become casualties of the conflict.

At 130 minutes, the ambitious running time sags noticeably in the middle act, but thankfully regains momentum and composure as Vera’s cosy existence is steadily reduced to rubble.

RATING: 6/10