Reviews of “Inherent Vice” and “American Sniper”

Two very different movies about two very different subjects left me with two very different opinions. Let’s start with a film based on a Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is not your usual private detective. His office is located in a walk-in medical clinic and Doc spends more time stoned than working on any case. Arriving at his home unannounced is his former live-in girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She is concerned her boyfriend, millionaire real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is the target of a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to put the businessman in a mental institution and take all his money. Doc tells Shasta he will look into it and she leaves. At the office the next day, a former prison inmate Tariq Kahlil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to find a former cellmate named Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson) that owes him some money. Kahlil tells Doc Charlock works as a bodyguard for Micky Wolfmann. Doc heads out to a new residential development being built by Wolfmann called Channel View Estates where he finds nothing but desert and the beginnings of a strip mall containing only one business: A massage parlor that is actually a brothel. Doc asks Jade (Hong Chau), the receptionist, if she knows Charlock and she says yes, that he comes around with the rest of his Aryan Brotherhood biker gang when they are protecting Wolfmann. Doc looks around the business briefly but is knock unconscious. He wakes up lying next to the dead body of Glen Charlock in front of the strip mall and is surrounded by police. Doc is taken downtown to talk with Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a no-nonsense, beat-the-truth-out-of-you cop who also aspires to be an actor. Bigfoot tells Doc he is his prime suspect in the murder of Charlock and the recent disappearance of Mickey Wolfmann but the interview ends when Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benicio Del Toro), Doc’s attorney, arrives and stops the interrogation. Bigfoot doesn’t have enough to charge Doc so he lets him go. Soon after, Shasta also goes missing putting Doc into a panic as he hasn’t fully gotten over his feelings for her. During his investigation, Doc encounters drug smuggling dentists, back-from-the-dead musicians, political shenanigans and memories of Shasta, all of which make his job that much harder.

Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, “Inherent Vice” is another of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s microscopic looks at a tiny segment of American culture and how greed, lust and power tend to be corrupting aspects in the lives of his characters. Anderson has done similar examinations in his films “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights.” While those films had fascinating characters and riveting stories, “Inherent Vice” is stuffed with dozens of often bizarre characters and a story that is so dense and complicated I had a hard time keeping up with who was who and how they were connected. Despite there being a resolution that directly or indirectly ties all the characters together, it is a thoroughly unentertaining two hours plus to arrive at the finish line.

The best part of “Inherent Vice” is Joaquin Phoenix. His performance is that of a man on the edge of mental and physical collapse, living on pizza, beer, cigarettes and weed. He approaches his work as a PI as nonchalantly as you and I toss away a used paper towel. Doc always has a cover story ready as he talks to people on the down low during his investigations. He will put on his one good suit and top it off with an obviously phony toupee should the need arise. Still, he is never so on the job that he would turn down a drink, or a joint, or a roll in the hay should it be offered. Doc is of such loose moral character he seems like the last person who would be hired to investigate…anything. Phoenix is so loosey goosey in his performance he makes it impossible not to watch him.

Sadly, Phoenix was the only thing I found enjoyable in the film as it moves at a rather leaden pace and so many conversations are hushed and whispered it makes hearing all dialog nearly impossible. Not that it would matter if you clearly heard every word as the story is so complicated as to require the audience to keep notes just to maintain some degree of order. I don’t mind a film that challenges the audience to pay attention but “Inherent Vice” acts like it gets bonus pay for every audience member that leaves confused. The movie isn’t really about what the audience is led to believe in the opening minutes. Exactly what it’s about is still something of a mystery to me.

“Inherent Vice” is rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence. Numerous drugs are shown being smoked, snorted and shot up. There is one sex scene that is far from sexy. One woman is seen fully nude. There is another scene where two women are suggested to be having sex. There are also numerous depictions of nude women in art, advertising and neckties. There is some scattered violence including one man beating another man with the lid from a toilet tank. There’s also a shooting. Foul language is common.

I guess “Inherent Vice” is beyond me and I’m not smart enough to get it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t like the movie other than Joaquin Phoenix performance. It’s like swimming in wet concrete: If you work really, really hard, you’ll get somewhere with it but it isn’t worth the effort.

“Inherent Vice” gets one star out of five.

American Sniper

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy in Texas when he sees news coverage of the US Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. Kyle joins the Navy and enters the SEAL program, enduring rigorous and brutal physical and mental training. One night at a bar after training, Kyle meets Taya (Sienna Miller) and the pair begins a relationship that leads to marriage. At their reception, Kyle gets word he and his unit will be shipping out to Iraq where he will provide security for Marine patrols by being a sniper. Kyle is very good at his work and over the course of four tours of Iraq tallies 160 verified kills and possibly another hundred more. Also during his tours, his reputation led to a bounty being put on his head by the insurgents. An Olympic gold medal winning sharpshooter who is called Mustafa takes on the challenge and nearly succeeds. Mustafa is also responsible for the deaths of many US soldiers and he becomes as big a target for Kyle as Kyle is for Mustafa. The violence and stress causes Kyle to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and he becomes distant from Taya and his two kids and unable to relax and settle back into a normal life.

“American Sniper,” based on the book of the same name by Chris Kyle, has been adapted by director Clint Eastwood into a thrilling, tense and painful movie to watch. The battle sequences are very tense and often caused my chest to tighten with anxiety and my hands to grasp the armrests until my knuckles were sore. Even when Kyle and another soldier are sitting on a roof overlooking a patrol with nothing happening, the atmosphere is rich with dread and possible disaster. Eastwood is also able to show Kyle in his home with his wife and their painfully domestic life in such a way that it becomes more understandable why some soldiers have such a difficult time transitioning back to normal civilian life. The film shows us how Kyle slowly sinks into depression when he’s home and how he comes to life again when he goes on another tour. It seems counterintuitive but the movie explains Kyle had a deep feeling of responsibility to his fellow soldiers. Kyle is asked by a VA doctor if he felt guilt for anything he did and Kyle replies he only feels guilt for those soldiers he couldn’t save with his talents. That may make Kyle sound like some kind of saint but he is portrayed throughout the film like just a normal man who had an extraordinary gift when it came to shooting a rifle.

What makes “American Sniper” painful is knowing how the story ends. Kyle was shot to death at a gun range by another soldier who was suffering from PTSD. Kyle had received help from the VA in getting back to himself and volunteered to help other soldiers by getting them out of the hospital or their homes and taking them out to shoot target practice. In the film, Kyle is shown as both a patient teacher and a loving father. It’s this seemingly decent man who we know will die at the hands of a fellow soldier that causes pain despite his successes on the battlefield.

Bradley Cooper, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, portrays Kyle as rarely getting very demonstrative for any reason. He is shown as the emotional rock of his family and of his fellow soldiers. Cooper is fantastic in the role and deserves the nomination. His Texas drawl and laid back manner exudes an air of confidence and security. Cooper as Kyle is the kind of man with whom other men want to hang around and knock back a few beers, go hunting and fishing and watch the game on Sunday. He is the quintessential Texan about whom we have all heard but weren’t sure still existed. Cooper’s performance looks effortless and he appears to occupy the skin of Kyle with ease. A couple of reviews ago I said Benedict Cumberbatch was my favorite for the Best Actor Oscar. Now I’m not as sure.

“American Sniper” is rated R for some sexual references, language throughout and strong disturbing war violence. The sexual references are scattered. The violence is consistent with many bloody head and chest shots shown. There is a scene where Kyle is watching video that shows a soldier shot in the lower leg and then the chest. That may be the most graphic of the shootings. Foul language is common.

The book “American Sniper” is based on has been the subject of a fair bit of controversy involving some of Kyle’s stories of what happened both in Iraq and here in the US. One of those stories is the subject of an on-going lawsuit involving former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura who was himself a SEAL specializing in underwater demolition. There are other stories that have drawn some scrutiny for either their accuracy or their veracity. It appears Chris Kyle liked to stretch the truth from time to time; however, what can’t be questioned is his dedication to his mission of protecting his fellow soldiers during his four tours in Iraq. “American Sniper” is both a thrilling and heartbreaking look at a warrior who had his human weaknesses just like the rest of us and should be remembered as a hero.

“American Sniper” gets five stars.

This week, three new movies with decidedly lighter subject matter hope you decide to drop some coin at the box office (and concession stand). I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Boy Next Door—

Mordecai—

Strange Magic—

Send email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net and follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

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