January 27, 2009

A Last Chance Power Drive

"Searchin' for a little bit of God's mercy,
I found living proof."
-Bruce Springsteen

I don't remember the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen, and I don't remember when I started to love him. I know that, after downloading Napster, "Born to Run" was one of the first songs I downloaded. But so was the Green Day song from Godzilla.

Somewhere along the line, though, I got caught up in The Boss. I went from owning nothing more than his Greatest Hits to Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and all his other obvious masterpieces. Then it was Disc 3 of the Essential Bruce Springsteen, which features such hidden gems as "Trapped" and "None But the Brave." Then it was all of his remarkable live work, and then it was Tracks, four discs of outtakes that are infinitely better than 99% of the world's published, marketed music.

And at that point, there was no going back. Bruce and the E Street Band had long since reunited, he was on a tour for Devils & Dust, and my girlfriend at the time had gotten me tickets to my first live Springsteen show in Providence. It remains the greatest gift I've ever received, one I discussed in detail on my old website. His solo performance of "For You" on piano was the first time I ever cried during a piece of music; the passion of his lyrics was so evident when all the bells and whistles were stripped from the recorded full-band version.

From there, it was a Camden show on the Seeger Sessions tour (an underrated show, possibly the most fun I've had at one of his concerts) and, of course, three shows with Bruce in the USA, America's finest Springsteen tribute band. There are many arguments you can make to support seeing Bruce in the USA (trust me, I've made them all, mainly in a glowing review written by yours truly in BU's Daily Free Press) but the one that holds the most water with me is "I want to see people playing Bruce's music who love it as much as I do." Either those guys are tremendous fakers, or they really love going out there 100 nights a year playing 30-year old songs written by someone else. Either way, it's the next best thing you'll get to The Boss himself.

But that won't be an issue this year, thanks to the quick release of his new album, Working on a Dream. This album seems like it might be both a blessing and a curse -- a curse because, on my first listen, it seems like a subpar (or at least polarizing) outing, a blessing because a 2009 tour is already confirmed. I saw Bruce Springsteen four times in 2008 - the tour opener in Hartford, a practically front-row outing in Washington D.C., Danny Federici's last full show with the band in Boston and their Boston stadium show at Gillette. It was a wonderful quartet of rock, but, like any good Bruce fan will tell you, there's no limit on how many times you can see this man perform.

And this tour could mean more than any. While Bruce himself seems almost immortal, the E Street Band has already lost one member, and age seems to finally be catching up with them. Clarence Clemons has been reported in somewhat-ill health on numerous occasions, and the scarcity of his movements at shows offers support to that hypothesis. Meanwhile, Max Weinberg will soon be the band leader on The Tonight Show, and frankly, if Conan is to make it at that level, he needs all his cylinders firing. He'll need Max.

Basically, the days of the E Street Band could be numbered, so I certainly advise you all to get as much of them in as you can. I'll be doing just that, with intentions to go to at least four shows, possibly five if a Hartford show is announced. The rumors that Bruce will be playing whole albums at certain shows is titillating, as is the fact that, while Working on a Dream appears to have flaws, "My Lucky Day" is arguably the best song he's put out this whole decade. It's the perfect live tune, and I look forward to hearing it at the Super Bowl halftime show and throughout this wonderful tour season.

People who don't understand my love for Bruce Springsteen ask why I need to pay so much to go to all these shows, how I can support a hundred-millionaire old man who is no longer remotely like what he once sang about. What these people don't seem to grasp, though, is that there is no reason that 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen should resemble 62-year-old Bruce Springsteen. In fact, it would be sad if he did. He has become something more, something truly special, and I feel bad for those who cannot see that.

Bruce Springsteen is an old man, an aging rocker, sure, but he has also released at least three truly wonderful albums in the 2000's. He plays "Born to Run" every night, but Magic and The Rising showed a truly perceptive, spot-on mind that no longer looks into itself but instead gazes deeply into the world around it. He has an unbelievably loyal army of both band members and fans who would follow him into the depths of hell; they believe that everything he does is right because, for the most part, it is.

For a man whose fame became overwhelming a long time ago, Bruce Springsteen has held onto the core of himself as well as a human being can. His withdrawals from the public eye have been limited at best; rarely has an extended period of time gone by since 1972 without a new offering of his truly memorable music. Listening to his body of work from beginning to end is a remarkable look at the maturation of a musician, and at the same time, watching him live in 1972 and in 2008, you see the same bar band out there giving their all night after night. He is everything a true fan of rock would want; as Jon Landau predicted a long time ago, Bruce Springsteen was the future of rock and roll, and he has also become its present and its past.

Steven Van Zandt said in this month's Rolling Stone that each unreleased song that ended up on Tracks was a personal battle for him; he bemoaned the fact that songs like "Loose Ends" and "Restless Nights" (read: classics) weren't on an official album. He sounded pleased that Bruce released Working on a Dream without specifically commenting on the music itself; perhaps Van Zandt has always felt the way the fans do, that Bruce is a genius, and that the more we get, the better. Maybe it took until Bruce was 62 years old, and maybe the end result is not his finest outing, but for a man whose 37-year career is among the best in rock 'n' roll history, getting him on stage and in the public eye again and again before it's too late is the real reward.

January 8, 2009

The Top 10 Movies of 2008

Many people have said that 2008 was a down year for movies; I would argue that it was instead a down year for masterpieces. The probable five Best Picture nominees (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Dark Knight) are four movies that won't be remembered three years from now and one comic book movie (albeit it an excellent one). Two of them didn't even make my top 10.

But if you look a little deeper, you'll find a year rich with small, powerful films and hilarious comedies. Pineapple Express, Step Brothers and Tropic Thunder were all well worth the price of admission, and The Counterfeiters and JCVD were foreign-based features that got limited releases but rave reviews. And then there were my top 10 (listed alphabetically), all of which stand as proof that there are a few diamonds in any movie "rough":

The Dark Knight

Did it live up to the hype? To the untrained eye, yes. As a continuation of Batman Begins, to a die-hard fan who attended a midnight showing? No. Heath Ledger's Joker is possibly the most mesmerizing character in recent cinema history, and Christopher Nolan paints the dreary, crime-ridden streets of Gotham City with a kind of depressing beauty. However, after repeat viewings, I can't help noticing numerous faults. The story is overly complicated and somehow, it goes on for too long while also packing way too much in. The saga of Two-Face could and should have been a movie in and of itself; tacking it onto the last hour doesn't do the character justice. Meanwhile, the Joker's rigged-boat scheme, followed by the anti-climactic hostage/skyscraper sequence, are a huge letdown after the edge-of-your-seat goings-on we've just sat anxiously through.

However, even after all that, it still ends up being one of the best comic book movies of all time. Carried by one of the greatest, creepiest performances you'll ever see, The Dark Knight is a truly impressive (and successful) attempt to take a genre film and make it accessible to both the masses and critics. Even if Batman Begins is better.

Frost/Nixon

Much like Good Night, and Good Luck. in 2005, I expected to enjoy this story of journalistic integrity and courage immensely (because, you know, I'm a "journalist"). And although it wasn't as captivating as Edward R. Murrow's battles with Joe McCarthy (my favorite movie of 2005), director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan have succeeded in carrying Morgan's play over to the silver screen.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are both captivating as Richard Nixon and David Frost, respectively, and Oscar nominations should be in both of their futures. Langella, specifically, does a wonderful job of transforming into our 37th President, especially since he doesn't exactly resemble the man at first glance. However, his hunched-over posture, the power and intelligence that radiates off his very being, and even the desperate sadness in his voice near the movie's conclusion all exemplify this historical man in one of his darkest, most interesting hours. For an actor who has portrayed characters like Skeletor in the He-Man movie and "the owner of the Knicks who hires Whoopi Goldberg" in Eddie, kudos to Langella for flexing his chops as he reaches his golden years.

Gran Torino

Gran Torino is Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is Gran Torino. The movie could not exist without the man; not only is he brilliant as the racist veteran Walt Kowalski, but in the hands of a lesser actor/director, the movie would be seriously flawed.

Actually, even with Clint, it still has issues. Eastwood arguably goes overboard with the racial slurs, practically begging the PC crowd to get up in arms, and every actor that isn't either Clint Eastwood or Drew Carey's TV transvestite brother (stealing his two scenes as the friendly neighborhood barber) is interestingly terrible. But through it all, Clint makes it work; his constant grumbling, his menacing stare, even his impressive 78-year-old physique remind us of the man with no name, the man with the gun, the actor who was often the same yet always tremendous. He turns shlock into gold with Gran Torino; he shares a message of redemption and understanding that surprisingly comes off, by the end, as very realistic. If this is the final movie Clint Eastwood ever acts in, he is going out on top.

Iron Man

If Ledger's The Joker is the ultimate comic book movie antagonist, then Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is its finest protagonist. In a bit of casting genius, the smooth-talking playboy Stark is embodied fully by Downey Jr., a motormouth in his own right who has been itching for a big Hollywood break for God knows how long. I've been a Downey Jr. fan since forever, so in a way, his work in this role meant as much to me as any performance this year. The man is a genius, consistently hilarious and able to really connect with an audience, and if Marvel Studios has any sense, they'll milk their good luck for all its worth and keep Downey Jr. reprising Stark as much as possible. His work, as much as the great special effects and the truly awesome look of the Iron Man armor, is what made this movie beloved by almost everyone.

Also, let's not ignore Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane, a fairly lackluster villain who nevertheless has one of the coolest looks in a film this year. His bald head/bushy beard style should be adopted by anyone with the guts (and facial hair) to pull it off; if The Dude can do it, so can you.

Milk

It's a shame that Heath Ledger is an absolute lock for Best Supporting Actor, because Josh Brolin's turn in Milk is another in a tremendous string of criminally ignored performances for the 41-year-old actor. In fact, almost every actor in Milk is terrific, whether they're portraying an outlandish homosexual or a repressed, murderous civil servant. It's rich material from Dustin Lance Black, a fairly unknown screenwriter, and to paraphrase a recent review of the film, it allows gays to "have fun" on screen. Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia - neither one paints being gay as a bad thing, but they do emphasize a bit much on some of the hardships that homosexuality in America can result in. However, Milk reminds everyone that if you and some gay friends get together, especially in San Francisco, you can have a great time! And be elected to public office!

But there are bigots out there, and in the end, Milk is a reminder that we need more people like Harvey Milk out there to make the world a better, and fairer, place.

Rachel Getting Married

The little movie that couldn't. Even though the kids dig Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries and the teens dig her in The Devil Wears Prada, the adults did not dig her in this. And that's a shame, because she turns in a performance that most people, myself included, didn't think she had in her.

I'm still blown away by the lack of awards recognition this is receiving. Even though dysfunctional, quirky family-based dramas have barely been recognized (The Royal Tenebaums, The Squid and the Whale) come awards time, I thought having Jonathan Demme at the helm would give it a bit more credibility. Too bad, too, because Debra Winger and Bill Irwin (he won't get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but short of Brolin and Ledger, no one was better) were terrific, Hathaway was amazing, and the newscaster from The Ten gets to put in a few solid minutes as a drug addict love interest for Hathaway.The forgotten gem, for the most part, of 2008.

The Visitor

I loved The Station Agent, and I loved this. I'm always a sucker for an indy movie that gives a career character actor a chance to shine; most people probably know Richard Jenkins as the dead father from "Six Feet Under" or the gym manager in Burn After Reading, but given his first real shot at carrying a movie, he shines.

The scene when he blows up in the immigration office - the movie builds up to it, you know that it's coming, but he still shocks you with his anger. It's a movie cliche to have the stuffy old man learn how to open his heart, and writer/director Tom McCarthy deserves kudos heaped upon kudos for turning it into a modern tale of the differences and similarities between races and cultures. A Best Supporting Actor nomination would be deserving for Haaz Sleiman, the illegal immigrant who draws Jenkins' character out of his shell.

Wall-E

Pixar has made some great movies (The Incredibles, Toy Story), but nothing like this. As a huge fan of the "show, don't tell" style (again, my journalistic upbringing), I couldn't have loved the speechless first 30 minutes any more than I did. Not only did it perfectly introduce audiences to Wall-E's quirky mannerisms and noises, but it forced a focus on the visual aspects of the movie, allowing the accompanying sight gigs to have their full effect. Wall-E having trouble deciding whether a spork belongs in the fork or the spoon bin was one of the funniest things on screen in 2008.

It's hard to put a finger on what gives Pixar the ability to make movies that are beloved by kids and adults; the genuine message behind this film worked side by side perfectly with all the cute moments. It's quite a skill to preach entertainingly without being preachy, and it's something Pixar needs to milk for as long as they have it. Capped off with a surprisingly catchy Peter Gabriel song in the end credits, Wall-E deserves all the Best Picture praise its received this year.

The Wrestler

The best movie of 2008. I've already offered my two cents on The Wrestler elsewhere on this blog, but the recent 3.5-star review in the Philadelphia Inquirer inspired me to throw a few more words out there. Critic Steven Rea offers that it is not a "perfect movie," but not in a negative fashion, and I'm tempted to agree with him. As I said before, The Wrestler was not designed in a Rocky-esque fashion, to show an underdog triumphing over adversity. Randy "The Ram" Robinson isn't exactly doomed from the start, but he does exist in a sort of perpetual state of disarray, of sadness, and of failure.

Even as director Darren Aronofsky allows you to side with "The Ram," to root for him and cry with him as he stands perched on the top rope, you can't help but feel other emotions. Pity, and a bit of bewilderment, and maybe even disgust. He has accepted the fact that his family is not as important as his time in the ring, and this is not the typical demeanor of a cinema protagonist. But then again, Robinson isn't perfect, and neither is this movie. It is a movie of struggle, a struggle to understand, a struggle to accept where life has taken us and where we'll go from there. It's not the kind of movie that typically wins Oscars or enchants audiences, but it is the kind of movie that speaks to those out there who want the cinema to be a truer reflection of life. As Bruce Springsteen sings in the title song, "The Ram" is a one-legged man, someone perpetually handicapped but who can make you smile "when the blood, it hits the floor." The beauty of the movie is in the struggle, and no movie in recent memory has captured this struggle so eloquently, or so movingly.

Young@Heart

And finally, the best documentary, and by far the most heart-warming movie of the year. Whether Stan is singing the high-pitched "AAAAANGEELLLL" part of David Bowie's "Golden Years," Joe is learning Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" or Fred is crooning an absolutely beautiful version of Coldplay's "Fix You," the members of the Young@Heart senior citizen chorus will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

It's so refreshing to see a group of older people with an unmistakable zest for life, enjoying themselves and painting a wonderful picture of what the elderly can accomplish. It's also absolutely crushing as you learn that several of them died during the course of the movie, and a few soon after. Still, the movie reminds us that life is fleeting, and the chorus helps them get the most out of it.

When Fred reads his email to the camera at the end, thanking the chorus for allowing him to "attempt to sing at the same level as them" (his performance is, without question, the best of the movie), it's impossible not to cry. If you have a heart, you will love Young@Heart.

Honorable Mention

Role Models was a picture-perfect leap for David Wain into relatively mainstream comedy. Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderful little movie that is a little over-hyped but still very entertaining. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a hilarious breakout vehicle for Jason Segel. Man on Wire is an unbelievable documentary about the man who tightrope walked between the two World Trade Centers in the 1970s. Burn After Reading showed the world that even a Best Picture Oscar won't bring the Coen brothers too far from quirky. Finally, although the movie was a bit long and a bit lacking, it's a crime that Josh Brolin won't get a Best Actor nomination for his work as George W. Bush in W. Whatever your politics are, his unexpected capturing of our current (but not for long) President was one of the true delights of 2008, from (I know I'm heaping it on) one of our generation's emerging actors.

January 6, 2009

Free J.C.

"Either baseball believes Romero cheated and allowed him to compete in the World Series, or it believes he made an innocent mistake and is suspending him 50 games anyway.

Which one is worse?"
-Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Inquirer

A fair question and, hopefully, one that people other than sports reporters will ask.

In my opinion, though, an irrelevant one. There is no fine line that baseball is walking, no justification for what they've done. After reading up on the information put out by everyone that matters (Sheridan, who put together a marvelous piece, and Peter Gammons of ESPN.com), I think it is obvious that J.C. Romero is being railroaded by Major League Baseball.

He won Games 3 and 5 of the 2008 World Series only a few days after an arbitration hearing to determine his punishment for testing positive for a banned substance in August. He was offered a 25-game suspension if he would admit his guilt in the situation, a deal he refused. He was then banned for 50 games, at a cost of $1.25 million in withheld salary, for "negligence" in dealing with said supplement.

For baseball, these are curious actions at best, and shortsighted blunders at worst. They reek of an entity that invents rules as it goes along, that flails away without logic or rationality when dealing with a serious issue, that does not understand how to work with people, whether they are the public, the press or its own players.

Note that J.C. Romero was not suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs. Even baseball was smart enough to make that clear in its press release. In fact, the supplement J.C. Romero took was listed by Major League Baseball as banned in a letter sent out in November -- several months after Romero discovered this product on a GNC shelf in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with no warning label.

J.C. Romero ran the supplement by the Phillies' strength coach, Dong Lien, and got a second opinion from a nutritionist. They OKed it, although Lien did caution Romero. He also sent the supplement to Major League Baseball for testing; it came up as a risky substance, although Romero was never informed of this test by Lien, the Phillies or Major League Baseball.

Yes, J.C. Romero was negligent, in that taking any unknown substance from a fitness store could have damaging results down the line. If possible, the best thing to do is ignore anything questionable, and unfortunately, this mistake is going to cost Romero a lot of money and the Phillies, a third of a season from a very good reliever.

However, the documentation surrounding this whole situation suggests that this was the only fault J.C. Romero made. He informed the proper channels of his curiosity about the product, and considering that the eventual discovery of the improper ingredient was "the first time a banned substance was found in an FDA-regulated, over-the-counter supplement," according to Sheridan, how can this harsh penalty be justified?

And there's more. Why was Romero offered the lighter suspension, and then slapped with an extremely harsh one when he declined? Why was this information kept quiet until 2009? Why does Major League Baseball continue to handle any and all difficult situations in a bumbling, Three Stooges-esque fashion?

J.C. Romero is speaking his mind because he knows the truth, and he will not allow his name to be sullied by Major League Baseball. He will not allow himself to be another name on a press release flaunting the marvelous steroid-related policing of baseball in the new millennium, and he won't allow his successes or the successes of his team to be invalidated due to a minor mistake that has become a major story.

J.C. Romero, a player who pulled himself off the scrap heap to become one of the best situational left-handed relievers in baseball, deserves better. He deserves fair treatment, and if Major League Baseball denies him that, he deserves to have his story heard. For now, sadly, innocence in the forum of public opinion is probably the most realistic goal to shoot for, but he should know that the people of Philadelphia, and anyone with the ability to read and a brain in their head, know and believe in the honesty and integrity of J.C. Romero.