A Quickie With Lisa Marie: True Grit (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)


True Grit is probably the most straight-forward film that has ever come from the irony-laced imaginations of Joel and Ethan Coen.  Perhaps that’s appropriate since the movie is essentially an homage to that most All-American of all movie genres, the western.

Taking place in 1878, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old girl (Hailee Stienfeld) whose father is killed by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Tom flees into Oklahoma so Mattie goes to Ft. Smith, Arkansas and hires alcoholic, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down.  Cogburn agrees and teams up with a Texas ranger named LeBouef (Matt Damon) who is also looking to capture Chaney for an unrelated crime (and to pick an equally unrelated reward).  The three of them form an unlikely and uneasy alliance as they search the harsh wilderness for Chaney, who has hooked up with outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).  Along the way, reality proves itself to be far less prosaic and ideal and justice turns out to be far less straight forward than Mattie had originally assumed.

As you might expect from a Coen Brothers film, there’s a lot of moral ambiguity on display.  Cogburn is a former outlaw who is mainly motivated by his own greed while LeBouef is an arrogant blowhard.  Meanwhile, the nominal villains often show more humanity than our “heroes.”  Even Tom Chaney appears to be more overwhelmed than evil.  This is a western where the “good guys” ambush their enemies and shoot them in the back.  Throughout the film, the Coens contrast the beautiful cinematography of Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell’s traditional score with the brutality and violence on-screen.

True Grit is a remake of a 1969 film and Jeff Bridges is getting a lot of attention for taking on a role that was originally played by John Wayne.  I haven’t seen the original film so I can’t say if Bridges gives a better performance than Wayne.  However, to be honest, Bridges probably gives the least interesting performance in the entire film.  I know that a lot of people are raving about his work here but I think those raves are more about the actor and less about the performance itself.  When people look back on this movie, they won’t remember Rooster Cogburn as much as they’ll remember Jeff Bridges wearing an eyepatch and slurring his words like your alcoholic cousin on the 4th of July.  Bridges gives a good enough performance but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done just as well (or better) by either Tommy Lee Jones or Joe Don Baker.

If anything, the movie belongs to Steinfeld who gives a wonderfully focused performance as Mattie and who serves as the perfect audience surrogate.  As the two main villains, Brolin and Pepper both give excellent performances and the fact that both of them are almost likable only serves to make them all the more effective as “bad” guys.

True Grit is a good movie because the Coen Brothers aren’t capable of doing any less.  Technically, it’s probably one of the best films of 2010.  Still, the movie left me vaguely disappointed.  For what it is — a straight genre piece — it’s a superior work of craftsmanship.  However, from the Coens, I’ve come to expect a bit more. 

 

Film Review: The Fighter (directed by David O. Russell)


I’m usually pretty cynical when it comes to “inspiring” movies, especially when they’re 1) based on a true story and 2) centered around some sort of professional sport.  Usually, these films turn out to be not so much inspiring as just insipid and predictable.  However, there is always an exception to any rule and this year, that exception is David O. Russell’s touching and exciting boxing film, The Fighter.

To put it mildly, professional athletics are not my thing.  I get bored with football and the squeaky shoes of basketball annoy me.  I did briefly get caught up in the world series this year but then the Rangers lost to the Giants and I pretty much swore never to allow my heart to be broken again.  Tennis would be tolerable if not for all the grunting.  I will occasionally watch a minute or two of golf but that’s just because I think golf courses are pretty.  However, boxing does hold a certain primal fascination for me.    Maybe it’s because I’ve seen far too many guys do the whole “Who you calling a bitch, bitch?” routine without ever throwing a punch (I swear, guys remind me of cats when they try to verbally spar, with all the hissing and staring) that it’s just undeniably exciting (in so many ways) to actually see two men actually punching each other until one is undeniably the winner.  However, boxing — as a sport — is still largely a mystery to me.  I don’t know who the current champion is nor do I know how or why he got to be the champion.  I can name a few boxers — Muhammad Ali (because everyone knows him), Mike Tyson (ditto), George Foreman (because we own one of his grills), Oscar De La Hoya (because he’s cute), and Lennox Lewis (because he was on the first season of The Celebrity Apprentice).

And now, thanks to The Fighter, I know of “Irish” Mickey Ward and his half-brother Dicky Eklund.

In the film, Mickey Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) is portrayed as being a well-meaning, blue-collar guy who lives in Lowell, Massachusetts (home of Jack Kerouac) and who makes a living as a “stepping stone,” a below-average boxer who is used by better boxers as just a “stepping stone” on their way to a bigger fight.  He is managed by his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) and is trained by his half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale).  Dicky used to be a pro-boxer himself but, as the film begins, he  is more interested in smoking crack than throwing punches.  Still, Dicky remains a local hero and his mother’s favorite and Mickey lives in his shadow.

After one final humiliating defeat in the ring, Ward decides to stop boxing and instead devotes his time to his new girlfriend, a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams).  Dicky, meanwhile, ends up getting sent to prison.  With Dicky locked away, Mickey starts to come into his own as a person and a boxer and he eventually reenters the ring.  Eventually, he gets his chance at a championship fight.  However, at the same time, Dicky is released from prison and trying desperately to reenter Mickey’s life despite Charlene’s insistence that Mickey stay away from his loving but self-destructive family. 

By the film’s conclusion, the story has become less about Mickey Ward’s fights in the boxing ring and more about his own battle to find the confidence necessary to stop being dominated by the people around him and to live and take responsibility for his own life and his own future.  As undeniably exciting as all of the boxing is, it’s the film’s portrait of Mickey Ward as an essentially nice guy struggling to be independent that makes The Fighter such a moving film.

If you’ve read Sharon Waxman’s Rebels in the Backlot, then you might feel that know a bit about director David O. Russell.  Of the six directors profiled in that book, Russell came across the most negatively, a temperamental prima donna who was portrayed as being the type to accidentally make a great film.  Well, I don’t know if that portrait is an accurate one but The Fighter is no accident.  Russell directs this film with an energy and an attention to detail that puts so-called “nice guy” directors like Ed Zwick to shame.  For me, Russell is at his best in the film’s opening scenes where Mickey and Dicky strut through the streets of Lowell while Heavy’s How You Like Me Now plays in the background.  Not much happens in these scenes.  For the most part, Dicky just BSes with the locals while Mickey shyly watches.  But, in just a matter of minutes, Russell manages to tell us everything that we need to know about Mickey Ward, Dicky Eklund, and Lowell, Massachusetts.

Russell also gets four excellent performances from his lead actors.  Everyone already knows that Christian Bale is amazing in the role of Dicky.  Let’s be honest — we all know he would be even before this film opened.  He’s Christian Bale and Dicky Eklund is a great role.  So instead of repeating what you already know, I’m going to take some time to praise Bale’s co-stars, all three of whom give excellent performances.

As Mickey Ward, Mark Wahlberg once again proves that he’s one of the few leading men working today who can actually bring an air of authenticity to a blue-collar role.  At first, it seems like Wahlberg is going to be overshadowed by both Bale and Melissa Leo (much as Mickey was initially overshadowed by Dicky and his mother).  However, once Dicky has been sent to jail and the movie focuses on Mickey’s relationship with Charlene, you suddenly realize that Wahlberg really is the movie’s heart and soul.  It helps that he has a very real chemistry with Amy Adams.  There’s very few actors who can convince you that they’re falling in love on-screen but Wahlberg proves, in this film, that he’s one of them.

Playing Mickey’s mother and manager, Melissa Leo is alternatively touching and horrifying.  Whether she’s scolding Dicky for continually choosing drugs over family or accusing Charlene of being an “MTV girl,” Leo dominates every scene she’s in.  With this film, Welcome to the Riley’s, and Frozen River, Melissa Leo has quickly become one of my favorite actresses.

Finally, in the role of Charlene, Amy Adams is finally given a chance to show what she’s actually capable of when given an actual character to play.  I’ve always liked Amy Adams because she’s always come across as so genuinely sweet in almost every role she’s played.  Plus, we’re both redheads, we both wanted to be ballerinas, and we both briefly worked at the Gap when we were 18 (though not at the same time, obviously.  And not at the same Gap either).    Furthermore, before breaking into acting, Amy Adams was a Hooters girl and I once applied for a job at Hooters though my mom made me go back and withdraw my application an hour later.  Plus, Amy was born in Italy which is where I would have been born in an ideal world.  And, in an ideal world, I would have her nose as opposed to the one I got stuck with.  (Sorry, I love being a fourth Italian but I still have issues with my big, Italian nose…)

So, yes, Amy Adams is one of my favorite actresses which is why it pained me to see her give such an annoying performance in Julie and Julia last year.  I was worried that maybe all the sweetness had finally given way to self-parody.  However, much as the Fighter is about characters searching for redemption, the movie is also a redemption of sorts for Amy Adams.  Yes, Charlene is another sweet-and-nurturing-girlfriend role for Adams but she brings an unexpected edginess and a very genuine anger to her role.  Charlene may be a nurturer but she’s no doormat and, for me, there’s something very refreshing about seeing a strong, independent woman in a movie who is also still very feminine, nurturing, and unapologetically sexual.  As I previously stated, Wahlberg and Adams have a very real, very definite chemistry in this film and, as a result, this film about a very violent sport is one of the most genuinely romantic that I’ve seen in a long time.

One final note: On a personal level, this movie almost made me want to go out and find a boxer to date.  Why?  So I’ll have an excuse to get dressed up all sexy-like whenever he has a fight.  Seriously, I want that black dress that Charlene wears to all of Mickey’s fights.  It’s to die for.

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops


The Bottom Line

We’ve left World War II behind, but we’re still a long way from what you might have come to expect from Modern Warfare.

Unfocused Ramblings

It wasn’t a love of Wold War II or shooters or tactical game-play or basically anything else that forced me to indulge in the Call of Duty franchise. It was the multi-player, and the necessity of playing with friends that initially sucked me in. Much like Halo, it seemed like I was on the outside looking in if I refused to play whatever the latest “hot” shooter was. As a person who is primarily interested in partaking of these games with friends, the particulars from shooter to shooter often don’t matter. I imagine there’s more than a few people reading this review who feel the same way.

Well, if the particulars of your shooter aren’t as important as playing the latest title with your friends then fear not; Call of Duty: Black Ops is a shooter. It’s more or less what you’ve come to expect, and your friends are going to play it anyway.

If you’re curious as to whether you’ll truly love this shooter, however, feel free to read on. It presents a significantly different experience than you are used to from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Some people are going to love the changes presented by Call of Duty: Black Ops, and some people are going to hate it. I earnestly suspect that few people will feel lukewarm about it.

The big differences? Well, Black Ops does its best to eliminate the practice of “quick scoping”, and reduces both the power and accessibility of kill streak rewards. Combined with faster access to the best weapons, and Black Ops basically wants its players to have the best of everything quicker, more easily, and to less ultimate effect than its predecessor. If you enjoyed the advantage of quick-scoping with your sniper rifle, or the fact that some of the strongest weapons were not available from the start, then you may have trouble adjusting to the new environment in Black Ops. Your sniper rifles aren’t going to be as strong, and your run-and-gun types are going to fare better. Submachineguns are going to be stronger than ever.

Interested yet? If so, buy the game, play with your friends, and love the fact that your franchise is going to churn out a game every year. Not everyone has that luxury!

The Big Question

Tell me how often we can re-play the same shooter before we get bored. I, personally, am tired of Halo. Is this inevitable for Call of Duty as well? The weapons are different, and the feel is earnestly different from Modern Warfare 2, but these games share so many themes that it’s inevitable that we ultimately tap this resource out. How do we proceed from here, and in what direction? Do the players prefer the Modern Wafare feel where the killstreaks actually diminish player importance (even as they make you feel like a badass) and low-profile sniping wins the day? Or do people prefer running and gunning with aging machine guns, destroying a host of foes on the move, while killstreak rewards, while powerful, are not always going to be game-changers?

Overall Game-Play: 8.5

Well, the control scheme for shooters has been established. We know that we have to learn what guns we’re best with, and what strategies counter dangerous weapons well. In other words, the formula for shooter controls is well-defined, and it’s not particularly wise to branch out. Maybe we differ on what button B and button X should control, but I think we’re going to agree on the function of the sticks.

Call of Duty: Black Ops is eminently predictable in terms of its control scheme, and you’ll have to work hard to convince me that’s a con. Why deviate from a scheme that has produced so many hours of pleasure?

Story 6.5

You won’t be astonished by the single-player campaign. Of course there are twists and turns in the story. Of course, it’s competently told. But if you’re looking for innovation in level design or game-play, then you are definitely looking in the wrong place. The game-play is tight, and the story is fine, but I can’t necessarily recommend Black Ops if you’re not intending to partake of the multiplayer modes.

The single player campaign follows the adventures of Alex Mason, a CIA Black Ops guy from the 1960s, and begins in no place other than Soviet-allied Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion. From there, you’ll battle through the typical assortment of urban and exotic environments while battling with a variety of (mostly) similar opponents. The game does throw a few curve balls in terms of the enemy selection, which is nice, but I doubt that you’ll be blown away by the foes you’re battling.

The story hook is, to my mind, significantly better than for some of the previous installments of Call of Duty, and it does use at least one significant character from World at War whom fans will remember. I have already heard rumblings that the game plays more like a rail shooter than a truly interactive experience. If you’re looking for an open-ended style of gameplay, then games like Far Cry 2 or Mass Effect (or even Battlefield: Bad Company) may suit you better. Call of Duty is a basically linear game where you’ll spend most of your time on foot or in vehicles following the lead of other characters, shooting a number of baddies before moving up to the next checkpoint. The major differences come in the fine details of these sequences, including the weapons at your disposal.

Graphics 8.0

The graphics are smooth and fluid, and the loading times extremely bearable. In a game that is perennially most anticipated for its multi-player mode, there’s not much else to ask. I compliment the level design in both the single and multi-player modes. Still, fans of the series (and, particularly,  Modern Wafare 2) are unlikely to be blown away by the graphics. They show the expected improvement on the same platform (in this case, the tangible differences are few), and not much in the way of unexpected innovation.

Sound 5.0

The score is as forgettable as the previous title in the series. But that’s not why the sound receives such an underwhelming score. The voice acting leaves much to be desired. Predictably, the lines are well-acted, and the accents are convincing, but whether by design or no, the game features far too few lines to comment on game-play. This is most notable in multi-player modes, where the game’s announcer fails to reveal critical information about game objectives anytime that it is even slightly inconvenient to do so. I can assure the developers at Treyarch that every single player in multiplayer modes would prefer to hear repetitive lines every few seconds if it meant an auditory acknowledgment that game objectives were in jeopardy. Considering that the voice actors obviously have lines recorded for any game-play situation, it seems like a debilitating oversight to simply [i]fail[/i] to play acknowledgments in key situations.

Multiplayer 9.0

Well, the game is built to be a multi-player juggernaut. From this vantage point, there’s not much to complain about. Did the match-making initially suffer serious problems? Yes. Could the game use a few more maps; particularly those geared toward one objective type or another? Absolutely. But we’re a few patches in by now, and most of the technical bugs in the match-making system seem to have been resolved. Still, since multi-player is one of the biggest points of contention on this title, let’s break things down, shall we?

Pros?

– The level design is tight and features few discernible bugs or exploits. Although we always hunger for more maps, the ones the game ships with provide a reasonable variety of terrain and encounter types.

– A new multiplayer feature, Contracts, provide yet another way to show your skills without interfering with level, prestige, or challenges. Completing contracts affords the player more in-game cash to spend on the latest equipment as well as aesthetics like emblems.

– Treyarch seems relatively responsive to potentially destructive multi-player issues so far.

– The kill-streaks, although noticeably less game-changing than in Modern Warfare 2, still manage to feel powerful and useful to the player.

– The performance of most kill-streak rewards shows some improvements. The attack helicopter is noticeably more lethal than before, the napalm strike provides an interesting and mostly-reliable option for map control, and the SR-71 (the natural evolution of the Spy Plane / UAV) is one of the most powerful kill-streak rewards we’ve seen yet, even if it lacks flash.

– Although the kill-streaks are powerful – and period specific – they lack the raw potency of the Modern Warfare 2 equivalents. There is no equivalent to the Tactical Nuke in Black Ops. In the main, I feel this is a positive step for the franchise. I always felt that the overwhelming power of the Modern Warfare 2 kill-streaks encouraged boosting and camping to a degree that diminished my enjoyment of the game. If you loved those aspects of Modern Warfare 2, then you will likely be unhappy with the high-end killstreaks available in Black Ops.

– The customisable emblems provide an endless opportunity to express yourself. This can sometimes be a con as well. 🙂

Cons?

Long-range combat is, for the most part, a thing of the past. The weapons, perks, styles, and maps all lend themselves toward a closer range of combat as compared to the Modern Warfare games.

Although the kill-streaks remain powerful, they definitely lack the allure and “badass quotient” of the kill-streak rewards available in Modern Warfare 2.

– While some players will relish the closer and more intimate combat, the game lacks quick-scoping and long-range weapons that define the modern firearm age.

– Despite some improvements, the multiplayer spawn system is still unacceptably flawed. Some of the spawn locations (particularly in objective-based games) are poorly chosen, and the spawn timing will sometimes have enemies spawning right behind you with no rhyme or reason.

– As mentioned before, the in-game announcer is mailing it in this time around. You should pay careful attention to the situation, because you can’t always rely on the audio to warn you about game developments.

What Lisa Watched Last Night: Wall of Secrets (dir. by Francios Gingras)


Around 2 in the morning, I found myself watching Wall of Secrets, yet another cheap Canadian “thriller” that has apparently found a second life on the Lifetime Movie Network. 

Why Was I Watching It?

My sister (and housemate) Erin was in Arlington babysitting our niece and Jeff’s going to be in Baltimore until New Year’s Eve (I miss him sooooo0000 much!) so I was alone and, as often happens when I’m alone, I couldn’t sleep.  Insomnia’s a bitch and so am I after I haven’t been able to sleep more than eight hours in four days.  I figured that maybe Wall of Secrets would put me to sleep so I started recording it on DVR (so I could see the rest of it after I woke up — I am the Queen of Wishful Thinking) and then I set up my little bed on the couch and I got as comfy as I could and then I closed my eyes and attempted to allow the sounds of the film lull me into sleep.  No, it didn’t work.  I ended up just watching the stupid movie instead.

What’s It About?

It’s the one about the newlyweds (Nicole Eggert and Dean “Mr. Tori Spelling” McDermott) who move into this huge, luxurious apartment in Seattle that they shouldn’t be able to afford.  However, it seems that all of the previous tenants of the apartment have either died mysteriously or disappeared.  As a result, they’re able to get a good deal on the rent. 

(I attempted to do the same thing when Erin and I decided on the house we wanted to move into.  I insisted to the owner that all of the previous tenants had been murdered and as such, he should really just give the house away.  Unfortunately, I did not take into consideration that he was the only previous tenant.)

Anyway, McDermott is career-obsessed which gives Eggert a lot of time to hang out around the apartment, talk to the crazy old woman who lives down the hall, and get attacked by masked strangers.  Eventually, she discovers that there’s actually all sorts of survellance equipment hidden in the walls and that someone has been watching her.  But who?

What Worked?

Let’s see — there’s a cab driver who is in the film for 5 seconds and gets to say, “Give him Hell, lady!”  That made me smile.

Voyeurs hiding in the walls?  Its as if someone decided to film my sexual fantasies and then invited the whole world to come to watch!

What Didn’t Work?

My sexual fantasies usually feature better dialogue.  And acting.

“Oh My God!  Just Like Me!’ Moment

At one point, Eggert wanders around her apartment in just a towel and then realizes that she’s left the blinds wide open.  “Oh my God!” I shouted, “That’s just like me!”

Lessons Learned

Always be sure to wear pretty underwear because you never know who might be filming you as you undress.