Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Craig Ferguson will be missed

I remember the exact moment I became a Craig Ferguson nut. It was an episode from February 2007, in which the host of the Late Late Show said at the top of his monologue: "I'm going to do something a little bit different tonight." In the language of late night, this sort of statement is often just a set-up for a joke, and when Craig mentions Britney Spears — who'd recently been in the news for shaving her head — you can hear the audience titter in anticipation. What follows is extraordinary. Craig proceeds to recount, over the course of nine minutes, his own protracted troubles with alcohol. The best line is when he's explaining how he came close to committing suicide, but was saved when someone offered him a glass of sherry. "One thing led to another, and I forgot to kill myself that day," he says ruefully.

Before this episode, I knew Craig as the creepy English boss from The Drew Carey Show and from his stand-up. He must have seemed an unlikely choice for an American late night show host when he started in 2005 — a Scotsman with a pronounced accent, and very far from a household name. And some of those early shows (which can be seen on YouTube) do look stiff and rehearsed, with Craig seemingly trying to fit some popular idea of what a talk show host should be like. I suspect that something clicked inside him in 2008, when he started to tear up, in full view of the camera, the question cards that his staff would leave for him. This freedom to go off-script loosened him up, and he began to introduce a series of outlandish tropes — offering his guests the choice between a big cash prize and an awkward pause — many of which would become part of the show's DNA.

The Late Late Show, which airs at 11.35 p.m. and 12.35 a.m. on the two American coasts, is the hip, broke younger brother of the shows in earlier time slots, the ones with Leno, Letterman, Conan. This has its obvious drawbacks — there's no announcer, no band, less money for fancy gags, and a lower profile of guests. Craig's masterstroke lay in calling attention to these limitations and turning them into a series of good-hearted jabs. Once, when scheduled guest Sean William Scott got stuck in traffic, he interviewed the coordinator in charge of that segment. There's little that's gone wrong on the show that Craig hasn't called attention to — a leak in the roof, non-functioning lights. Many of the barbs are aimed at the long-suffering producer, Michael Naidus, whose beatific resignation just makes Craig's fake indignation funnier.

In 2010, after five years without a sidekick that CBS couldn't afford, Craig introduced Geoff Peterson, a "gay robot skeleton". Geoff (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson) bantered with Craig like Andy Richter with Conan or Paul Shaffer with Letterman, but more importantly, he gave Craig a chance to poke fun at one of the most sacred of late night gimmicks — that of the straight man. That he began to be treated, over time, as a regular sidekick, was an intriguing commentary on talk show formulae and the audience's need for familiar tropes. (The layers of meta-narrative increased when Larry King voiced Geoff in one episode and told Craig, "You didn't want a robot who thinks, you didn't want someone who creates of his own mind...")

The best episodes were the ones where things seemed to spin rapidly out of control. Few TV hosts laugh as much as Ferguson does onscreen, or with such abandon. Anything can trigger off these episodes — a particularly dirty wisecrack by Geoff, or a bad piece of writing by his own staff (Johnny Carson would also riff on jokes that flopped, but his would invariably be a reaction to the audience reacting). And when Craig really starts to laugh, he can't stop. In one episode, Geoff reveals that he has homes in New Orleans, Edinburgh and New Hampshire, and invites Craig to come over and "throw beads". It's hardly a joke at all, but something about a blue-eyed robot saying all this tickles Craig. Soon, he's doubled over, clutching his face and thumping the desk.

The high point of absurdist comedy on the show is almost certainly the Icarus episode. It all began when Josh, who was indulging in a spot of self-promotion, was tweeted at with the words, "Careful, Icarus". Craig and Geoff spend the entire show riffing on Icarus (who flew too close to the sun), his father Daedalus and a hapless audience member who happened to have a chin beard ("I love that upside-down head look"). Off-kilter material like this, which suits Craig so well, would likely have defeated most other late night hosts. Letterman would have given a dry chuckle and returned to his regular monologue. Leno would probably have made fun of the sender for referencing Greek legends and trying to be superior. Fallon, Kimmel, Myers — they'd just reject it out of hand.

Perhaps because Craig is such a high-energy host, the episodes in which he dials it down are especially memorable. His 2009 interview of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu won him a Peabody and, by his own admission, "freed him up" as a host. There were long, moving epitaphs for his father and his mother. And there was the "no audience" episode in which he and Stephen Fry sat in an empty studio and talked about Fry's bipolar disorder and the history of late night. To steal a phrase Kenneth Tynan used in his terrific 1978 New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, this was Craig doing the "salto mortale" — acrobat-speak for a somersault performed on a tightrope.

Craig, like all his contemporaries, regards Carson as something of a god. In a way, his own career has been built on huffing and puffing at the house that Johnny built. Yet, his deconstruction of the genre is never without affection; unlike Jack Paar, he tempers his edginess with self-deprecation. It would be nice to say that his daring and boundless invention was appreciated, that it changed late night TV in some visible way, but the sad truth is that the scene is still hide-bound and formulaic; the domain of middle-aged white men, as Ferguson often reminded his audience. If a Scotsman with a talking robot and a fake horse called Secretariat couldn't shake things up, it might be time for a more symbolic gesture, like having a woman or an African-American host one of the late night shows. (Executives would do well to remember that until three years ago, daytime talk TV was ruled by an African-American woman.) But in the meanwhile, tune in on 19 December for one last jig with Secretariat and one final awkward pause with Craig Ferguson.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boyhood: Review

Getting an actor to age convincingly on film is a tricky business. Something always gets in the way – imperfect makeup, or a too-perfect performance. Some directors have tried to tackle the problem by revisiting the same characters over the course of several films — Francois Truffaut in his Antoine Doinel series, or Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries. But as far as showing the passage of time over the course of a single film is concerned, there's never been anything like Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

You have to wonder what kind of crystal-ball-gazing Linklater was doing in the summer of 2002. He was still a year away from the box-office smash of School of Rock, and two years from the first time-jump sequel to Before Sunrise. His last three releases were The Newton Boys, Waking Life and Tape — films that many Linklater fans haven't seen. Yet, somehow he had the vision (and the nerve) to pitch a project to IFC: a film that would be shot over 12 years with the same actors. Amazingly, they agreed, and gave him an annual budget of $200,000. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were cast as the boy's parents, and Ellar Coltrane as the protagonist, Mason Evans.

We first see Mason as a six-year-old, lying on the grass and looking up at the blue sky. His reverie is interrupted by his mother, but it's an early clue as to the dreamy, detached attitude he'll carry into his teens. It's through his largely passive eyes that we see his parent's separation (which takes place before the movie begins), his mother's relationships with — as he later puts it — a "parade of drunken assholes", and multiple changes of homestead and hometown. We see him bicker with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). We watch them fight with their mother, lose their puppy fat, grow their hair short and long. More imperceptibly, we watch as they develop personalities. They're different every time we see them, yet they're the same people. It's like watching a family album come to life.

With this film and 2013's Before Midnight, it feels like Linklater's gravitating towards a kind of spiky naturalism (as opposed to the more easygoing naturalism of his earlier films). Yet, Boyhood also serves as a summation of the director's stellar career. You have the continuing preoccupation with time and memory that's at the heart of most of his films, but especially the Before trilogy and Waking Life; and the long conversation scenes that have been such an integral of his directorial style since his 1991 debut Slackers. A decade after School of Rock, it's a reminder of how comfortable this director is working with kids. But the film Boyhood most fondly (though obliquely) references is his 1993 breakthrough feature Dazed and Confused, also about schoolkids in Texas. Both films feature a cameo by David Blackwell as a kindly convenience store clerk, and both have scenes in which the protagonist's mother asks him if he's been drinking.

There's very little I can tell you about the plot of Boyhood that'll convince you to see this film. In fact, for the first 45 minutes or so, you might wonder why a film this normal need have been made at all. But the thing to remember is that these are young kids: giving them sparkling, snappy lines would be a betrayal of what Linklater has set out to achieve. As they inch their way towards a rough eloquence, so does the film. I don't know if you'll be as moved as I was by the faintest hint of the six-year-old Mason's face in that of the young man going off to college. But even if you aren't, I hope we can agree that this — and not some Dylan Thomas-quoting space opera — is what true cinematic ambition looks like.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rang Rasiya: Review

When it works at all, the Indian Censor Board works in mysterious ways. Just last week, I was left gritting my teeth when two absolutely crucial scenes in Gone Girl were altered beyond recognition because they contained a little nudity. Then, just to mess with everyone's minds, they let a nude scene slip through — in a Hindi film! It's alarming that this is something that merits reporting, let alone celebration. After all, it's barely five seconds of skin (presented quite matter-of-factly) in a two-hour film. But just like Omakara and Ishqiya pushed the door open for swearing in commercial Hindi cinema, maybe Rang Rasiya will usher in other censorship policies that belong to this century.

There's another reason why I started this review by talking of this briefest of nude scenes. It is, sadly, the most interesting thing about Ketan Mehta's film. Not the scene itself, mind you, but the fact that the censors let it go through after five years. Rang Rasiya, about the great 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma, was actually made in 2008, but was stayed by the censors. Over the years, it acquired a reputation as a suppressed masterpiece. I'm glad it's finally in theatres, untarnished. Rang Rasiya deserves to be rejected on its own terms.

The movie is constructed as a series of nested flashbacks — which sounds more interesting than it actually is. We start off in the present, with a violent mob protesting an auction of Varma's paintings, several featuring Hindu mythological figures in various stages of undress. We're then taken back in time and shown Varma's journey, from a precocious child in 1850s Kerala to the brash young genius who fused Indian and European art traditions. Later, at a temple in Bombay, he meets the woman who'll become his muse. Her name is Sugandha, and even though the film treats it like a big reveal, it's no surprise when she turns out be a prostitute (the irony of devotional portraits being modelled on a veshya is too much for even an old hand like Mehta to turn down).

Varma had a singularly interesting life: he travelled the country in an age when few Indians did that, started a printing press, and was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind medal by Lord Curzon. The film does try to include a lot of these little details; I was reminded, for instance, that Dadasaheb Phalke worked with Varma in his press before embarking on his pioneering career in cinema. But unlike Harishchandrachi Factory, the 2009 film on Phalke's life, this one never establishes its period setting satisfactorily. Most of the dialogue sounds like it's out of a Bollywood film — did girls in the 1870s really threaten to hit strangers with their chappals?

As Varma, Randeep Hooda is an intriguing mix of stubbornness and charm, ambition and naiveté. Often, he seems to be fighting against the film's silliness, lending it a dignity it desperately needs. The women he's paired with, though, are uniformly awkward — Tripta Parashar as Varma's wife, Feryna Wazheir as a Parsi woman who helps him out in Bombay, and Nandana Sen as Sugandha. Sen is onscreen the most after Hooda, and though she's obviously trying hard, her Tweety Bird voice and perpetual wide-eyed expression make her difficult to take seriously. Only Gaurav Dwivedi, in his scenes as Varma's harried younger brother, suggests a character intriguing enough to merit his own sub-plot.

Is Mehta turning into another Dev Anand — unable to distinguish between a halfway decent lyric and "Tere tan mandir mein mera man khoya"? He's no stranger to bad moviemaking — try as I might, I can't un-watch Maya Memsaab or Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India! Yet, this is also the person who made Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, films in which he displayed, at the very least, a unique visual sensibility. Perhaps his next, Manjhi: The Mountain Man, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, will be a return to form. In Rang Rasiya's case, however, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

This review appeared in the Sunday Guardian.

Gone Girl: Review

I'd hate to be inside David Fincher's mind. I picture a waiting room done in blacks and greys, surfaces gleaming. Piped music that sounds like cats being electrocuted. A couple of books stacked in a corner: Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, Observations on Bloodletting, A Clockwork Orange. "L'enfer, c'est les autres", the sign over the door reads. "Hell is other people."

Has there ever been a director who has subjected his characters and audience to as much misery as Fincher has? Gwyneth Paltrow's head was handed to Brad Pitt in Se7en, Edward Norton beat himself to a pulp in Fight Club and Rooney Mara had a miserable time as the heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And that's just a top tier of malcontents and misanthropes who've wandered through his films. So it's hardly surprising that his latest, Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her 2012 novel, has these words right at the start: "When I think of my wife, I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains."

The skull in question belongs to Amy — Amazing Amy to fans of her parents' children's books. Her husband, Nick, is also a writer, rendered jobless by the recession. It's their fifth wedding anniversary, but Nick's hiding out in a bar. When he does reach home, he finds a broken table and no sign of his wife. Decades of TV procedurals have taught us what happens next: traces of blood, search parties, vigils, press conferences. Then, with no answers forthcoming, people start to wonder why Nick is acting so normal.

At first, there seems to be some justice in Nick finding himself the object of suspicion for his wife's murder. We learn, through flashbacks narrated by Amy, how he became distant and unloving; how he pushed her violently; how he had an affair with a student. Yet, the more we learn about Amy, the more we're reminded that in Fincher's world nobody's nice, everyone's out to get theirs and the sun never shines. Characters are introduced — a pair of stolid detectives, a couple of old boyfriends, one with a history of mental instability — but the focus remains on Nick and his girl, now presumed gone from this world.

It's only when it switches from a straight-ahead mystery to an indictment of 21st century media culture that Gone Girl becomes truly riveting — and surprisingly funny. Once Nick realises that his stoicism is hurting his chances, he begins to perform for the cameras. "First they like me, then they dislike me, then they hate me, and now they love me," he says, half-unbelieving, to his twin sister, the only person who still believes he might be innocent.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike may not have been obvious choices for the leads, but the more the film progresses, the better Fincher's instincts seem. Affleck has always held back as an actor, a tendency that makes Nick seem all the more guilty. Pike, on the other hand, alternates between bottling up her resentment and letting it explode, her deep black eyes burning holes in the scenery. Carrie Coon is terrific as Nick's straight-talking sister, though Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's psycho ex feels a little like stunt casting. The score, like the previous two Fincher films, is by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. It might be their best yet: romantic and warped, chilly and enveloping.

And, of course, there's the man pulling the strings. It's been 22 years since Alien 3, and you have to give the man credit for not softening his worldview after all this time. Like a more commercial Michael Haneke, Fincher uses his formidable skills to turn sadism into art. And in Flynn, he seems to have found his misanthropic ideal: the novelist is set to write a season of the upcoming HBO show Utopia, which he'll direct. "All  we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain," Nick says at one point. "That's marriage," Amy replies. That's Fincher.

This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers are often referred to as a supergroup, but that’s pretty generous. Sure, Neko Case has a tidy solo career going, and Dan Bejar is very important in Pitchfork-verse. But who outside of Canada has heard of Zumpano, Limblifter or Maow, some of the bands the Pornographers were in previously? And how many have heard of Carl Newman and Kurt Dahle, or John Collins or Blaine Thurier?

There’s little that’s path-breaking about the Pornographers’ sound. Unlike, say, Arcade Fire, they’re perfectly happy to craft their perfect pop songs, album after album. I use the term “pop” not as a description of their sound – they’re unequivocally a rock ‘n roll band – but because the best Pornographers tracks convey the same sense of joy and wit that early Beatles and Motown singles did.   

The title of their sixth studio album, Brill Bruisers, is a reference to the New York building where songwriters like Goffin-King and Liber-Stoller wrote hits in the early ‘60s. It’s a fitting analogy: the New Pornographers construct their music as intricately any of those early pop hits. Lyrically, Brill Bruisers may be more upbeat than their last, 2012’s Together, but it wouldn’t be fair to say it represents any major change of approach. Put another way, if you already like their sound – bright, driving, crunchy pop-rock, like a wilder Fleetwood Mac – this is more of the same.

Fans of harmony – a particular strength of the Pornographers – will have much to delight in here. Many of the songs employ two-part leads and three- or four-part backing harmonies: “Hi-Rise” is built out of interlocking vocals, while “Champions of Red Wine” has overlapping voices of the kind that R.E.M used to use. With Newman singing in a falsetto a lot of the time, it’s fun to try and figure out whether it’s him, Case or Calder adding “la-la-las” in the background. Dan Bejar takes the lead on “War on the East Coast” and “Spidyr”, and his low-key vocals and the nervy lyrics are a welcome change from the day-glo propulsion of the rest of the album.

Newman is the closest thing this group has to a guiding vision – he’s written 10 of the 13 songs on Brill Bruisers, and sung a majority of them too. Newman is just fine, but I could’ve done with a little more of Neko Case in full cry, one of the signal pleasures of modern rock. Still, this album is a strong addition to the Pornographers’ remarkable consistent discography. “You tell me where to be, I'll be there,” they all chorus on the closing track, “You tell me”. It’s this willingness to please, while sticking to their unique sound, that’s endeared this band to so many.

A truncated version of this piece was carried in The Sunday Guardian.