Film

Ladder 49 (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Sentimental and surprisingly uncomplicated, Ladder 49 seems a disservice to the very folks it wants to extol.


Ladder 49

Director: Jay Russell
Cast: John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick, Balthazar Getty, Jay Hernandez
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Touchstone
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-10-01

Firefighters are heroes. And if anyone had forgotten this, the massive post-9/11 pop-cult love has made the point repeatedly. Esteemed in Third Watch, complicated in Rescue Me, exploited by the Bush Campaign, and sold as action figures, firefighters embody all that is good and valiant and admirable. Now comes Ladder 49, Jay Russell's overwrought paean to the noble camaraderie of this remarkable breed of men (and they are all men here). From frame one, the film focuses on the ways they support and look after one another, their shared values and (for the most part) backgrounds, and their altogether remarkable capacity to focus when necessary.

Well-intentioned though it surely is, Ladder 49 is also undermined by a pile-on of clichés, from pretentious soundtrack to predictable plot events to sentimental characterizations. Structured as a series of flashbacks occasioned by an accident on the job, the film traces the career of young Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), as he lies damaged and endangered in a burning building. His arrival at the firehouse ("The busiest and most disciplined company in the city," that is, Baltimore) includes the usual razzing, filtered through the usual fact that "most of the guys" are Catholic.

Startled by what looks like slackness of Chief Kennedy (John Travolta, lumbering through yet another role without much commitment), Jack is soothed by the good humor exhibited by the rest of the crew, including a couple of piquant veterans: Irish guy Lenny (Robert Patrick) and black guy Tommy (Morris Chestnut). It's not long before, a couple of flashbacks later, he's running through the same initiation routine with the next newbie, Keith (Jay Hernandez). These guys, such a bunch of kidders.

Painfully earnest, Jack says he's joined up to save lives, a desire he proclaims with naïve, commendable gusto. When at last he's ready to "break his cherry," again the guys fortify his sense of self, applauding the very gravity that makes him simultaneously laudable and dull (this may have something to do with Phoenix's typically low-key affect, as he has precious little energy to bounce off here). In an apparent effort to lighten him up, the film delivers Jack a girlfriend, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), a lovely young jewelry designer whom he picks up in a supermarket and impresses with -- you guessed it -- his earnestness.

As their relationship pokes along perfunctorily from courtship to marriage to raising children to arguing over his risky job, Linda's function might have been to grant Jack a life outside of work. But, given that the film persistently underlines the inextricability of firehouse and family, she's really only the standard "feminine" force -- sometimes supportive, sexy, and game (as when she beats one of Jack's comrades in a drinking contest), sometimes "civilizing" in that venerable John Ford Western-ish way (reminding him of his responsibilities to his children, not only to the rest of the population in need of rescue), and sometimes just frustrating, as when she pouts, not appreciating the rituals of male bonding as Jack does.

As he lies vulnerable and remarkably reflective in the burning building, Jack anchors the flashbacks, so his story -- noble and bold, corny and overwrought -- becomes more representative than individual. Again and again, the film cuts back to Jack, unable to get himself out of that burning building, while the guys outside work furiously to check floor plans and knock through walls, unable to determine quite where he is, only that the floor beneath him has collapsed and so, he's dropped several stories. Then, some crisis arises, Jack wakes and sputters amid the rubble, and he remembers a series of predictably significant occasions: his wedding day (when his buddies get drunk and sing "Fire"), a fire, his discovery that Linda is pregnant (at an Irish bar, again with the guys), a fire, his daughter's birthday, a fire. By the time Jack's cute, courageous young son is worrying that daddy might "get hurt" like his friend, who's just had half his face boiled off by a steam-blast (in another fire), the pattern is more than clear: each domestic event is followed by a dramatic, costly fire, suggesting that (nearly) every call leads to someone's death or disfigurement.

While this structure underlines the danger of the job and also supports the film's most obvious theme -- that work, mission, and family are intertwined for these firefighters -- it also becomes repetitive and melodramatic. As reality, it is thrilling and frightening; as a movie, it's conventional. Sentimental and surprisingly uncomplicated, especially given the well-known difficulties of this particular career, Ladder 49 seems a disservice to the very folks it wants to extol.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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