Saturday, February 23, 2013

This “Flight” Is A Trip Worth Taking

Director Robert Zemeckis (Contact, Forrest Gump) has spent much of the last decade working on performance capture films like The Polar Express (2004), but he’s finally returned to live action with the excellent 2012 drama Flight. Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot who reports for work stoned & drunk after a night of partying. The flight encounters bad weather, and suffers from serious mechanical problems. Whip pulls off a once in a lifetime maneuver, and manages to crash land the plane with minimal loss of life. As the investigation into the incident moves forward, it becomes apparent that Whitaker wasn’t sober during the crisis. Does his heroic & amazing act excuse the fact that he’s essentially a functioning alcoholic? And who’s to blame for the tragedy?

As the media circles in, and the airline’s lawyers try to focus the blame elsewhere, Whitaker hides out and tries to make peace with his demons. But dealing with them doesn’t necessarily mean exorcising them, or even admitting they exist. He befriends Nicole, a recovering drug addict that he meets during his hospital stay. They begin a tentative relationship, but she sees that he’s deluding himself, and can’t admit to the depth of his addictions. Over the years, he’s lost his family and the respect of his colleagues because of his addictions. The only friend he has left enables his bad behavior, and is basically a fellow partier.

The excellent script by John Gatins (Real Steel, Dreamer: Inspired By a True Story) doesn’t pull any punches, or provide any easy answers. This is a dark, compelling drama that isn’t a “feel good” story. At first, Whip denies that he even has issues; he can still do his job, so what’s the problem? He even tries to convince other members of the crew to lie for him, as the date of the NTSB hearing on the incident gets closer. It’s only when he finally realizes just how far he is willing to go to avoid responsibility for his actions that Whip finally has a moment of clarity. But even then it’s only the beginning of a long road to recovery. There isn't a happy ending here; but there is a realistic one, with a touch of hope for the future.

Zemeckis and his crew do an amazing job with the look of the film. The crash sequence is amazing and utterly convincing. But the movie really shines in smaller moments, such as a hospital scene between Whip, Nicole and another patient; it’s a conversation about life & death in a stairwell while they’re all sneaking a cigarette. It’s one of the best moments in the film. The entire cast is superb; Washington is excellent as Whitaker, a person who’s in a downward spiral and can’t seem to pull out of it. But he also lets us see the charm & charisma that still exists within this man. There’s also stellar work from Kelly Reilly as Nicole, Don Cheadle (Crash), Bruce Greenwood (Double Jeopardy) and Goodman (Argo) as Whip’s buddy & dealer.

This is Zemeckis’ best film since Cast Away (2000), and its Oscar nominations (Best Actor for Washington, Best Original Screenplay for Gatins) are well deserved. This is an intimate, powerful drama that deserved more success at the box office than it enjoyed during its initial release. Hopefully, it will gain more viewers & fans now that it’s available on video and for digital download & streaming. The Blu-Ray edition features some interesting featurettes about the genesis of the screenplay & the filming of the movie. Flight is a powerful story about one man’s journey back from the depths of his own despair; it’s one of 2012’s best films.

Here’s a link to the trailer for the film:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Life & Music of Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen has always spoken from his heart & soul through his music. Fans have remained very loyal to him through the years, and his legendary live shows are often compared to religious experiences which showcase the transformative power of rock & roll. While previous books have been published about him, there hasn’t been a biography that featured the artist’s input & cooperation; until now. Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce (2012) is an in-depth look into the life & music of the man known as “The Boss.” Carlin, who’s also written books on Brian Wilson & Paul McCartney, was given full access to Springsteen, his family & his fellow musicians, in order to tell a more comprehensive version of Bruce’s story.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of Bruce, from his humble beginnings in Freehold, New Jersey to the heights of his 80s superstardom and beyond. Some of the most intriguing parts of the book concern Bruce’s childhood, his family & his formative years. Springsteen has always told stories about growing up in his lyrics and song introductions while playing live, but here you get to read about it in tales from Bruce & the people who knew him. There’s also a detailed account of his rise to the top, as he knocks around in several Jersey based bands, playing up & down the East Coast, before the group that later became known as The E Street Band comes together.

Carlin does an excellent job showing us how Bruce’s creative process works, and the artist’s own self doubts about his musical output. The sections detailing the production of some of the albums we now regard as classics are fascinating reading. From the interviews & stories the author has compiled, it’s obvious that just about everyone who worked with Bruce during the early years knew he was going to be a star, it was just a matter of showcasing his talents properly. It’s a great version of the classic rags to riches saga, although there are a lot of bumps on the road along the way. The first half of the book is full of behind the scenes stories & names that will be familiar to Springsteen fans & music aficionados.

What’s also different about the book is that it paints a truly well rounded portrait of its subject. Reportedly, once he was given access to Springsteen & his inner circle, all Bruce asked of the author was that he be honest in his portrayal. Carlin doesn’t shy away from the more prickly sides of his subject, either professionally or personally. In the second half of the book, covering the “superstar” years to the present day, band members are completely forthright about their hurt feelings when Bruce disbanded the E Street Band in 1989, in order to move in a different musical direction. And yet, the band joined together again in 1999, and have been recording & touring ever since. The bond between the group is truly amazing; the losses of Danny Federici in 2008 & Clarence Clemons in 2011 and their toll on the E Street family are touchingly portrayed by Carlin.

Another interesting facet of the story is the development of Bruce's political side, which came along a bit later than most people realize. While he did support causes like help for Vietnam Veterans & the 1979 “No Nukes” concerts, it took a while for him to fully speak out politically & publicly support candidates. There’s also some detail about Bruce’s love life, up to & including his marriage to Patti Scialfa. One wishes there was more coverage regarding Bruce’s output with other artists (such as his work on the Gary U.S. Bonds comeback albums in the early 80s) but this is about as complete a portrait of the artist, his life & music as we’re likely to see. With detailed coverage of his journey to the top, and incisive looks at classic records like 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town and solo projects like 1982’s Nebraska, if you’re a casual Springsteen fan or one of the faithful, Bruce is a rewarding reading experience.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Covers Gallery, Volume VI

Here's yet another set of covers for your listening pleasure:

1. Why Not Your Baby? – Velvet Crush covers the melancholy Dillard & Clark classic; it’s on their 1994 album Teenage Symphonies to God.

2. Guns Of Brixton – Jimmy Cliff brings out the reggae soul of this classic, originally recorded by The Clash. From 2012's Rebirth.

3. Return of The Grievous Angel - Counting Crows does a nice job with this Gram Parsons country rock number, from their 2012 collection of covers, Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation).

4. Keep on Growing - Sheryl Crow redoes the Derek & The Dominoes tune; it's from the soundtrack album to the 1995 film, Boys on the Side.

5. Never Dreamed You'd Leave Me In Summer - Phil Collins released an album of Motown covers called Going Back in 2010; this is his version of Steve Wonder's beautiful 1971 ballad.

6. Third Stone From The Sun\If You Love Me Like You Say - Gary Clark, Jr. - two covers for the price of one: the blues guitarist burns thru these songs by Jimi Hendrix & Little Johnnie Taylor. This amazing track can be found on the 2012 release, Black & Blu.

7. Femme Fatale - R.E.M. meets The Velvet Underground on this track from Dead Letter Office (1987), a collection of outtakes & rarities.

8. (They Long To Be) Close To You - The Cranberries - The alt rockers do a light, whispery version of The Carpenters hit, from the 1994 tribute album, If I Were A Carpenter, featuring mostly alternative rockers covering songs by the band.

9. Superstar\Until You Come Back To Me - Luther Vandross - The late soul singer covers the Delaney & Bonnie song (made famous by The Carpenters version) and combines it with the Stevie Wonder penned "Until You Come Back To Me," a hit for Aretha Franklin. The tender, emotional reading of these two classic hits can be found on his 1983 album, Busy Body.

10. Two Of Us - Aimee Mann & Michael Penn - The husband & wife duo perform a charming cover of The Beatles song from Let It Be; it's on the soundtrack album to the 2001 film, I Am Sam, which features Beatles covers by a variety of artists.

11. Think About Me - The New Pornographers manage to be faithful to this Fleetwood Mac track, while still giving it a bit of their own spin. From the 2012 Fleetwood Mac tribute, Just Tell Me What You Want: A Tribute To Fleetwood Mac.

12. Nothing Else Matters - Illinois folk rocker Lissie does an excellent version of the Metallica song on her 2011 EP Covered Up With Flowers.

Bonus track:
You Got Lucky - The Gaslight Anthem cover the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers hit; from the 2012 release, Handwritten.