Sunday, May 31, 2009

'Up,' Up, and Away …

When Pixar Animation Studios burst onto the scene in 1995 with “Toy Story,” the company’s claim to fame was producing the first feature-length film animated entirely via computer. What made the studio the gold standard in Hollywood, however, was not its sublime technical skill, but its storytelling. Subsequent films such as “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo” were meant for kids, certainly, but their exemplary craftsmanship appealed to adults through just the right amounts of wit, charm, and, most important, heart.

Over the past several years, however, Pixar has been inverting that relationship. Starting with 2004’s masterpiece “The Incredibles,” and then following in each successive film—2006’s “Cars,” 2007’s “Ratatouille,” and 2008’s “WALL*E”—the company’s outings have become increasingly adult-oriented, containing still enough thrills and laughs to hook the kids.

With “Up,” Pixar completes the transition. It may be an animated movie, but this latest gem skews decidedly older, and I guess the children can just deal with it and look at the pretty balloons, floating house, and talking dogs (yes, talking dogs). There may have been a lot of kids in my showing Sunday afternoon, but this certainly isn't for them.

But not for the typical reasons—there's no sex, drugs, extreme violence, etc.—just the simple maturity of its content. Ed Asner gives voice to its main character, Carl Fredricksen, an elderly, cantankerous widower who simply wants to be left alone in the house where he and his dearly departed Ellie shared so many cherished memories. If only the well-meaning little boy scout Russell would allow him to do that.

To give away more of the ingenious and inventive plot would be a disservice to anyone who has yet to experience this wonderful film, which deals with themes of growing old in a rapidly changing world, dreams lost and dreams rekindled, the dangers of obsession, and the pain and joy families provide. And all this set against the seemingly nonsensical backdrop of a cranky old man who ties a bunch of balloons to his house and floats away Wizard of Oz-style. Rest assured, Pixar delivers the visual goods, too, if a bit more subtle than previous outings; the animation here is exquisite and features heavy doses of the studio’s trademark sweeping vistas and “wow” moments.

To say “Up” is a great movie is like saying the sky Mr. Fredricksen's house floats through is blue. The only possible debate about this film is how great it is when compared to the rest of the Pixar canon. I’m not ready to answer that yet, but my guess is it floats pretty close to the top.

Grade: A

Side note: Interesting (astounding?) that two of the best movies I’ve seen this year both feature crotchety, gray-haired men and deal with almost the exact same premise: “Up” and “Gran Torino.” The academic paper I’ll never write would compare how these two masterworks deal with similar themes in such vastly divergent methods and mediums. I get the impression Mr. Fredricksen and Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski would get along just fine.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

‘Some Rest for These Tired Working Fingers’: The Gaslight Anthem Live in Towson, 5.7.09

Nearing the end of their biggest headlining tour to date, I’ll forgive The Gaslight Anthem for being a bit tired and punchy.

Thursday night’s show at the Recher Theatre in Towson, Maryland, showed a little of the wear and tear of life on the road. The performance was good and fun, but not great, lacking that certain hunger and fire I’ve seen from them before.

Much of it had to do with frontman Brian Fallon, whose voice was certainly not in tip-top shape. It usually takes a few songs for his cords to warm up, but Thursday night they stayed in neutral. For the entire 75-minute show, he rarely ventured into his upper register, taking the high notes on songs like “High Lonesome” and “Old White Lincoln” down, instead. Those highs are pure energy to the crowd, so when Fallon can’t hit them, the momentum suffers.

Fallon’s treatment of the songs was a bit sloppy, too: He sorta wandered through the lines, rather than hitting them crisply, which also added to the general ramshackle sense of the evening. He was in a playful mood, which is good in its own right, but I always prefer serious and intense to jokey and loose.

The tour ends this weekend with shows Friday and Saturday nights at the legendary Stone Pony in Gaslight’s New Jersey home, so I understand how maybe Towson was treated with a more workmanlike attitude. After seeing them six weeks ago in Philly at the beginning of this cross-country tour, to me they just looked a little worn out and ready to be going home.

So those are the complaints of an admittedly spoiled Gaslight Anthem fan who maybe suffered himself simply from seeing the same band three times in six months. All that nitpicking notwithstanding, the show was still a ton of fun. Like a select few of my other favorite live bands (Pearl Jam, namely), any Gaslight show is still better than most other bands you’ll find, period. If it had been the first time seeing them, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a thing—but when you know a band is capable of transcendence, being merely good suffers a little by comparison. The songs are so great, though, they carry the band even when it might be feeling off. Look at the set below and try to find a weak spot in that run. Let me save you the time: There isn’t one.

A few things particularly stuck out Thursday night: The intro to “Film Noir” is really extended now, almost like its own song. Very good to see them building room to breathe inside songs they’ve been playing over and over for nearly a year now. The same was true for “Navesink Banks” (cool heavier outro), “The Backseat,” and “Angry Johnny” (and probably a few other spots I can’t remember now).

“Left of the Dial,” a Replacements cover, was cool and fun, but I was dying for TGA’s killer version of Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust.” Ah well, I’ll settle for “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”, one of the band’s best songs which I unfortunately hadn’t heard in person yet. The two other tracks from the “Senor and the Queen” EP were highlights, too, particularly “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts,” which is a bit more forceful in concert than on the CD. For a while they were closing the shows with “Say I Won’t,” but I like “Angry Johnny” even better; the bridge allows Fallon to vamp “Daughter”-style (Thursday night it was The Clash’s “Straight to Hell”), and that last minute is just ferocious, sending everyone out on a huge high.

So thus concludes my six-month, three-show mini-Gaslight Anthem tour. I’m so glad I went to all of them, because each had a completely different vibe. It’ll probably be awhile before I get to see them again, and much will probably change between now and then. This summer they’re hitting the festival circuit, then most likely will be in the studio this fall to prep the next album for early 2010. The next record could very well be the determining factor if The Gaslight Anthem take the next step toward rock stardom, or will forever be playing 700-person little places like Recher to a devoted and adoring fanbase. I don’t know which way I want that coin to fall, but I know for certain I’ll look back on this time—when one of my now all-time favorite bands was touring on one of my now all-time favorite albums in tiny venues—with deep fondness.

Regardless, a new batch of tracks will definitely be good for The Gaslight Anthem, allowing for more variety at the shows to keep things interesting for both the band and its audience during those long summer nights. We always love the sad, sad songs, so as long as Fallon & Co. keep ’em coming, I’ll be happy.

The Gaslight Anthem
Recher Theatre
Towson, MD
Show Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Great Expectations
High Lonesome
Old White Lincoln
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
We Came to Dance
The ’59 Sound
Film Noir
Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?
Miles Davis and the Cool
The Navesink Banks
Left of the Dial (Replacements cover)
Say I Won’t (Recognize)
Here’s Looking at You, Kid
The Backseat

Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts
Casanova, Baby!
Angry Johnny and the Radio/Straight to Hell (snippet—Clash cover)