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book of the month : SULLY (aka)Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

sully cover


In the midst of my recent house move I mislaid my Kindle and only managed to throw a few paperbacks in a box. One of these was Sully. I had won it in a table quiz two years ago along with some Guardians of the Galaxy keyrings I think.

Anyway, Sully( Chelsey Sullenberger) as you may nor may not know was the pilot responsible for the successful landing of an airbus jet on the Hudson in 2009. The book outlines his career up to that point and how his formative years shaped the kind of character who was able to hold his nerve in such trying circumstances.

The story goes back and forth with occasional glimpses of the fateful day of the incident itself, whilst maintaining a steady timeline from childhood through his life as a father and husband. Having not seen the Clint Eastwood film of the same name, I can only hope that they went for a similar approach. The crash lasted approximately four minutes which would challenge the creativity of most film directors. With all that said I couldn’t help but picture Tom Hanks all the way through.

We learn that Sullenberger came from a very modest family home in Texas. His father was prone to mood swings which would later be diagnosed as depression. He instilled in his family a strong work ethic however, with all of the unit charged with assisting in the construction of the house they lived in. Everything from the floorboards to the furniture was made by them.

Sullenberger gets his urge to fly from seeing fighter jets at a nearby airbase and takes lessons in his mid teens. Again he is eager to illustrate the sacrifices his family made to make this possible. Learning to be a pilot has never been cheap. We follow his career into the airforce, where he explains his cautious philosophy of flying in comparison to some of his peers. How he was keeping one eye on his future now that America was no longer at war at this stage and his decision to go into commercial airline work rather than staying in the military.

His recollections are key to creating an easy visual of the time he lived in. In the late 1960s right through the 70s there was still a great glamour to air travel. Passengers used to dress up just to get on the plane.

As cost cutting measures become the norm in the 1990s he is forced to cut his own cloth to measure. His anecdotes about packing his own lunch for flights are very telling. As are his attempts to get free flights for his family and his young daughter calling him out for being a cheapskate.

The book is a fine easy reading account of not only the career of this man but perhaps a subtle commentary on middle class America. For most of his adult life right into his fifties( I think he was 57 when the Hudson incident occurred) Sullenberger is constantly worried about money. He even maintains a second job as a health and safety contractor. Remarkable to think that a pilot would have to do this.

All in all I think this is well worth a read. Sully comes across as a very knowledgeable professional and the now deceased co-author ( journalist Jeffrey Zazlow) really helps him find his voice.




Film of the week: Traffic



Recently I have been spending a few nights re-acquainting myself with some of the most popular films from the first decade of this century. This is in part due to my lack of broadband in the house and also my apathy in maintaining the newness of my DVD collection. So I’m stuck with a big case of ten to fifteen year old films. But that’s okay.
Traffic is a Steven Soderbergh film which gained both audience appreciation and a shedload of awards. It charts the movement of drugs across the Mexican and US border and the efforts of both administration’s efforts to halt said movement. In between the two plus hours of the film the documentary style cinematography is broken up with a melodramatic subplot or two which endeavors to show the human cost of drug taking.
At the time Traffic looked like very little else. We were in the midst of the uncomfortable crossover of textbook 1990s filmmaking being taken over by the digital age. Soderbergh himself had plans to rework the Ocean’s Eleven crime caper, a vacuous but entertaining exercise in 3D camerawork, lighting and cgi. Here he displays his passion for cinema verite, differentiating the changes in location by generously grading each one with either yellow tints for Mexico and blue for Washington. I later learned that he operated the camera himself a large number of the handheld shots. Bet the unions didn’t like that.
Traffic is a template for almost everything which has followed since in terms of raw indie filmmaking. Shaky cameras, jump cuts, the aforementioned grading. This could mean that you feel some kind of anger towards the film merely for the imitation it has spawned. But that would do Soderbergh little credit.
It is a sweeping epic kind of quality. In a similar vein to maybe Heat or indeed the TV series Miami Vice though with a far different aesthetic. The script while often verging on the side of lecture is informative and gives a good grounding in the basics of drug warfare in the US.
Really though the film might be best remembered as an exercise in having Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones in a film together, though in separate strands. Douglas plays a middle aged judge who gets promoted to DC to take on the tricky assignment of winning the war on drugs. He soon is to find out that he is part of an never ending industry and the war is keeping a lot of people in high paying jobs. He also learns first hand the effects of drugs on his family, as his private schooled daughter becomes beholden to crack.
For her part Jones is the heavily pregnant wife of a drug lord who is arrested and almost certain to face a lengthy jail term. As she pursued by the buddy cop team of Soderbergh regulars Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman, we see her trying to unravel the spools of her husband’s enterprise and how she is going to survive without him.
Of course the film is anchored by Benecio Del Toro, a hugely popular actor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the unbreakable Mexican cop. He is in fine form here, understated and proud with few ambitions beyond installing lights at the local baseball park so kids have something to do at night.
It is a fine film. The multiple strands of story move the action on at a good pace, wisely not dwelling too much on any character’s arc, instead giving them just about enough shade that we can make out their m.o. Many of the scenes too seem to be improvised which certainly add a sense of authenticity to the proceedings.
Ultimately though many will say it’s safe, a project designed to make some mainly white Hollywood A-listers feel good about themselves, all the while exploiting the rich and fertile ground of crime that Mexico always seems to provide in movieland.
But I still like it.




film of the week: Unstoppable



I always had a bit of a liking for trains. A certain nobility about a big engine traversing the land, carrying cargo, people or both. It has also been a great provider of employment down the years, or at least it used to be. In this, Tony Scott’s last feature film, we are treated to a high-octane but plausible critique on the state of freight train commerce in recession-hit America. Once again it’s a dark day for the white collar shills.

Denzel Washington plays Frank, a widowed locomotive driver coming up on nearly thirty years of duty, soon to be made redundant as a new company merger forces out older staff. His sidekick here, conductor Will Coulson played by Chris Pine is a more recent recruit, having joined an ailing company at the wrong time, hoping that he can make a good impression and survive the cull.

The setting is in Pennsylvania, by way of Scranton and other cities that keep the engine room of America glowing.

In a well-flagged move, a burly dope by the name of Dewey takes his eye off his linesman duties and a train carrying a large payload of toxic fuel gets away from him and his bumbling partner. They are unable to rectify their error and the train gets away on full power. We now have the title of the film.

As it gathers speed, the man in the editing suite tries to keep pace, jumping manically from engine room to operations room, to boardroom. There are multiple local news channels documenting the event as helicopters fly just above the train, none of which are able to offer any assistance but are still well able to photograph the impending tragedy. Such is life.

There is a chief welder, Ned Oldham who pops in the B-team role. He and his ill-advised ponytail will eventually make a vital intervention but in the interim, we are treated to some classic male bonding between Washington and Pine as they lament lost women and soon to be lost jobs. They are occasionally interrupted by Rosario Dawson, who plays the earnest, open-minded yardmaster. She is never too far away to remind them of how close they are getting to catching the runaway train, offering words of encouragement without sounding totally helpless.

This all could fall on its ass rather easily in the wrong hands, or indeed with a budget normally associated with True Movies type fare. Here, however, we are well covered, there is an impressive scope to the entire production. Notably too, Tony Scott, he of Top Gun, he of Crimson Tide, knows exactly how to draft an action movie graph. All the peaks are in the right place.

It is very sad that he is no longer with us. Rumours persisted for a while about his death. In time, brother Ridley disclosed that his sibling had been fighting a long and frustrating battle with cancer and wanted to go out on his own terms.

What he left behind, apart of course from a broken hearted family, was a body of work that is hugely impressive in retrospect. Compared again to his brother, he might easily be dismissed as a reliable but uninspired filmmaker. Top Gun was undoubtedly the big one. Among others, we had Days of Thunder, True Romance, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Domino, Deja Vu. Very few of his films were disappointments. So perhaps the reliable tag is fair.

With this film, the last one released before his death( others followed posthumously) I believe he went out on a high. Definitely recommended.


Film of the week: Edge of Darkness


I always approach remakes of iconic TV series’ with caution. Even the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as good as the film was, had to make a lot of concessions to suit the film format. Here with Edge of Darkness, the challenge of conveying the tension and drama of the central character’s quest for his daughter’s justice has to be condensed. Does it work? Well, we’ll get to that.

I suppose the big question at the time was the casting of that central character. After a few false starts and scheduling conflicts, it fell into the lap of Mel Gibson. Even the most occasional of film fans will appreciate that Gibson’s stock isn’t what it was. Unlike many of his peers who simply succumbed to old age, Mel expedited his downfall with an arrest for spousal abuse and subsequent controversy over his thoughts on the Jewish community. For director Martin Campbell, this was a big risk.

Aside from that, how does Gibson fair? I never thought of him as one of the all-time greats. His early promise shown in the likes of Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously and even to a certain extent the first Lethal Weapon film was, during the 1990s gradually watered down to a collection of facial gestures and grandstanding. The subtle was all but gone.

In this film, he is faced with the challenge of fitting an enormous amount of backstory into the first twenty-five minutes of the film. Those who remember the television series will recall how well this played out over the episodes, as Tom Craven’s daughter offers him helpful clues and inspiration in his quest. In both series and film, Craven is an experienced policeman. However while in the original, we have a determined but grounded Yorkshire bobby, this time around the action has been moved to Boston.

Whether this was to serve the plot or a device to provide the script with a typical stock macho American protagonist, for me, it just about gets away with it. Gibson is a believable senior policeman, with a respectable gravelly Mass accent. Unfortunately neither Gibson or any other actor could convey what needs to be conveyed here so we are often treated to default Gibson; quick-witted verbal put downs, nerveless accuracy with a weapon and of course silly, ‘he’s almost dead but not quite’ walks.

Really the performance is intertwined with a story that has far too much ground to cover in a short space of time. Ray Winstone also shows up early enough in the proceedings as a high level fixer. How an Englishman has risen to the ranks of American national security to reach this vaunted position is anyone’s guess but he likes cigars and expensive brandy so maybe that’s enough. In any case, he decides to channel F Scott Fitzgerald and do nothing for a while, until he decides who’s in the right. It’s not an ideal character to have in an already very busy story.

Danny Huston plays the evil megalomaniac would be nuclear arms dealer who happily flouts the laws of megalomania by wantonly looking for trouble and bringing far too much to his own front door. It is a bizarrely written character.

As well as these issues, there is, of course, the change in setting and time. While easy comparisons can be made between the unpopularity of American nuclear policy and Thatcher’s new Britain of the 1980s, there is little here to persuade me that the new location for this story is any better.

For all that however I didn’t hate it. I was reasonably engaged and it was good to see Gibson and his shtick do its thing for a few hours. There is a sense of him second guessing himself at times but that might be just me.

Martin Campbell, who also directed the original series and is in held in very high regard by 007 fans, never seems to get the credit due to him. Here he makes the best of the situation by pushing things along at a steady pace. I imagine that there would have been a great deal of mutual respect between both him and Gibson, himself an indisputably successful director.

But if all the film does is to remind or inform audiences of the excellent original BBC series then it just about justifies its existence.