Apr 29, 2015


'As hedonistic a picture about a life of crime as has ever been committed to film, it is not about guilt, or male angst, or Catholicism — or any of the themes that cross-hatched his work in the seventies. It doesn't tell us that crime doesn't pay, or that it is morally wrong. Instead, it tells us what gangster pictures had been trying to tell us since the days of Cagney but didn’t quite have the guts to spell out. “Goodfellas” tells us that crime is fun—enormous, outsized, XXL-fur-coat, spending-spree-with-a-cherry-on-top-style fun. The fun doesn’t last forever—as addicts like to say, first it’s fun, then its fun with problems, then it’s just problems—but who said fun would last forever? That’s precisely what makes it fun. The disastrous original test screening in Orange county, from which 70 people walked out, feels like a report from another country, or even planet: Orange County is blue-rinse central. These days, “Goodfellas” plays more like a much-loved comedy or musical. The audience at the Beacon theatre   cheered Hill’s opening monologue  (“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster….”), roared at certain musical cues like Sound of Music enthusiasts, and applauded Joe Pesci’s head-spinning series of fake-outs at the Copacabana (“Funny how?”), murmuring his lines along with him, as if repeating Abbott and Costello’s “who’s on first” routine.   Goodfellas” may not be Scorsese’s greatest film—that title still belongs to one or other of Scorsese’s two great deep-bore character studies with de Niro, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bill”—but it is his most enjoyable, and marks his most ebullient performance as a director, a full polyphonic work out for all the stylistic felicities he had enjoyed as a documentary filmmaker and student of the New Wave — multiple narrators, virtuoso tracking shots, freeze-frames. He’s showing off, to be sure, but that’s what the film is about: sprezzatura, peacock display, plumage.' 
— from my piece about Goodfellas 25th anniversary for Intelligent Life

Apr 22, 2015

PREVIEW: Nils Frahm on tour

'Encylopedias regular hmm and haw over whether the piano is a string instrument or a percussion instrument. In the hands of classical German pianist Nils Frahm, it is both. In 2011 Frahm made an important discovery. Recording late at night and trying to do his neighbours a favor, he damped  the sound of his piano with a thick layer of felt and placed his microphones so deep inside as to be almost touching the strings. The results were quite literally breathtaking: on the subsequent recordings, released on his 2011 album Felt, you can hear not only Frahm’s breathing but the creak of floorboards beneath his feet, together with the delicate rustle and scrape of ivory against wood, wood against felt, felt against steel  — the secret sonic life of the piano revealed. Frahm is not the first to experiment with mic placement; in his recordings for Blue Note, engineer Rudy Van Gedler took such care with his mics that listeners today could be mistaken for thinking Thelonius Monk in their living room. But Frahm is the first to pursue mic placement to so intimate an end, seeming to place your living room inside his piano, like Pinocchio inside the whale. You seem to be listening to it from somewhere deep inside it’s ribcage, hearing not just the note but the complex relay of levers, hinges, rails, flanges, pins and hammers responsible for sounding it, thus bringing to light a secret kinship between the piano and instruments like the guitar or harp in which fingers come into direct contact with strings. The human touch loses any sense of metaphor; shed of some of it’s concert hall formality, the piano suddenly seems thrillingly intimate, modern.' — from my piece on Frahm for Intelligent Life

How I Killed the Movies

'It’s hard not to fall in love with the Superman of the thirties, but then what’s not to love about Depression-era America? The Depression itself, I suppose, but if that goes into the debit column, to too does Tin Pan Alley and screwball comedy, Cole Porter and Cary Grant, and all the other all the other popculture born of that era’s unbeatable mix of wish-fulfillment, pluck and grift. As Gerard Jones makes clear in his zippy history Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic-book, superhero comics were largely the creation of Jewish ghetto kids from Manhattan’s lower East Side — scrawny, near-sighted, sci-fi-loving nebbishes who could sketch but not speak to the beauties they saw at school, and who lapped up the deeds of Tarzan, Charles Atlas and Douglas Fairbanks, before fashioning their own amalgams of rippling musculature and idealism to “smack down the bullies of the world,” as one of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel put it. These days, I look at the abundance of merchandise and movies aimed at kids like me with the wonder and confusion of Hiep Thi Le wandering through the vastness of an American supermarket for the first time in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth. A form tilted towards underdogs has become the plaything of bullies — soft-power workouts for the coach-potato Dauphins of the world’s single remaining military colossus. Today’s comic books movies are dreams of power with their roots in weakling wish-fulfillment all but eliminated: the civilian alter-egos of the Avengers and the X-Men barely get a look-in, these days, while the mortals with whom they once enjoyed romantic dalliances  are banished from the summer’s high-impact smasheroos and demolition derbies. The form has entered it’s decadent phase of superhero-on-superhero violence and synergistic mash-up: these guys only mix with other superheroes, like A-list celebrities, or Royals.' — from my Intelligent Life column

Apr 12, 2015

QUOTE of the DAY: Gopnik on Sinatra

'There are, to be sure, at least two Sinatras—the swinging Sinatra and the sad Sinatra—and if one is hostile to the personality (or to the man), then one might insist that they represent the two sides, so to speak, of the Tony Sopranos of the world, the violent and the maudlin. There is no special virtue, in other words, in having access to vulnerability, as Sinatra’s admirers like to say, when it’s simply a kind of self-pity alongside the exercise of violence. What’s fascinating, though, is that both accounts of Sinatra are true: he is the id of the Tony Sopranos of the world, defining their most basic drives (dominance and self-pity), and he is the super-ego of the American male psyche, defining its two most attractive traits: the charm of self-confidence and the melancholy of self-reflection (the same traits we love in Scott Fitzgerald). Sinatra is the American singer; he is the American song.' — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Apr 5, 2015

Best Albums of 2015 So Far

1. Carrie and Lowell — Sufjan Stevens
2. Solo — Nils Framm
3. If I Was — The Staves
4. Kintsugi — Deathcab for Cutie
5. Vestiges and Claws – Jose Gonzalez

Apr 2, 2015

On my iPod: April 2nd 2015

1. Should Have Known Better — Sufjan Stevens
2. America — First Aid Kit
3. Sleepers Beat Theme — Ben Lukas Boysen
4. Ballad of the Mighty — Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
5. Waking the Jetstream — The Go! Team
6. Right Here, Right Now — Kylie Minogue & Georgia Moroder
7. Summer Breaking — Mark Ronson
8. With the Ink of a Ghost — Jose Gonzalez
9. Elevator Operator — Courtney Barrett
10. Beryl — Mark Knopfler

ReRELEASE: Blade Runner (dir. Scott)

'If Blade Runner demands to be seen on the big screen today it is as much for its evocation of film’s past as it’s future — it’s achievement is firmly analogue, pre-digital. Here is the vanished world of sets and miniatures, lovingly crafted and photographed through anamorphic lenses which sculpt the space, using all those smog and rain effects, into a series of distinct planes, each with their own depth cues, with none of that over-crammed, slightly flat feeling that the digital paint-box brings: Scott’s city is dense but deep, his sense of space as airy and vaulted as Milton’s. If Blade Runner has a sense of humanity, or any warmth, it is here, I think, in its evocation of the urban sublime. His Los Anegles is to die for. Released just two years after Michael Cimino’s Heavens Gate, and four years after Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven — two titles destined for an afterlife if ever there was one — Blade Runner belongs as firmly with them, as it does The Matrix or Se7en, or any of the dark, rain-drenched dystopias to come. Like the Malick and Cimino films, it tells of an Eden spoiled, paradise lost, just as something very similar was happening to the movies themselves.'  
— from my piece for Intelligent Life


From my piece about Robert Altman for the New Statesman:—
'Here is the Altman way of doing things. First, you get a script,  preferably by a first-timer you’ve drafted into the job, and who is therefore still brimful of curiosity about the world and less likely to complain when you change their script, like Joan Tewkesbury, the script supervisor he dispatched to Tennessee with the words “Go to Nashville and keep a diary.” She returned with a “poem” with 18 speaking parts, which Altman soon bumped up to 24.  “He didn't really cast actors so much as he cast people” said Tewkesbury.   The words “And Introducing” in the credits of M.A.S.H are followed by 20 names, most of them cast after a trip to see an experimental theatre troupe in San Francisco. Movie stars were to be avoided if humanly possible, and if not, then treated like extras. The extras, meanwhile, were treated like stars. “Why can you be more like him?” Altman told Eliott Gould during the shooting of M.A.S.H, pointing to Corey fisher, who played Captain Bandini, meaning: minimal and quirky. Gould flew into a rage and later, along with Donald Sutherland tried to get Altman fired although he later came around to Altman’s way of working. Sutherland never returned... Direct your movie. Actually that’s wrong — “direct” sounds like something school-teachers do to children to get them in a straight line. Step back and let your movie happen, like a sixties art event, or a dinner party, or a conga line. Your actors are your guests. Mike everyone up, using a specially built 8-track recording system, so nobody knows when the camera is on them, dolly and zoom between foreground and background until nobody can tell the difference, then invite everyone to view dailies. Fellini once told Altman they were the true art form — where you got see reality in the rough. “It was like a happening every night” said cinematographer Vilmos Zigmond of the dailies for McCabe, featuring copious amounts of grass, booze, even cats and dogs, animals being a key player in the Altman’s satirical bestiary, like Swift and Rabelais before him: his true quarry, the poor bare forked human animal standing buck-naked in the shower. (See also:— Altman and Nudity). Stop shooting. At some point, someone will tug you gently on the sleeve and tell you you’ve run out of money. Do not panic. Invite your lead actor into your office. Roll a joint. Devise an ending while high as a kite. That was how he and Tim Robbins came up with the ending of The Player, in which Robbins’s executive pitches the movie we have just seen. Strictly speaking it was Robbins’s idea, but Altman told him,  “I’m never giving you credit for that” and quite right too: it was the ending of M.A.S.H. recycled.   Voila! Your very own Robert Altman movie.'