Tag Archives: humanity

Mock the Week Reborn


 Certain programmes on television are compulsive viewing. Over the years the number of these programmes has decreased considerably, for me at least. With the advent of BBC iPlayer and other catch-up services (although I only really make regular use of iPlayer, with the exception of the occasional trip to 4OD) I rarely submit to the schedules for something I like to watch. But the odd show, live or not, will tempt me to watch at the scheduled time like an obedient puppy.

One of these programmes, as “regular readers” may know, is Doctor Who. I get ridiculously excited as that time comes round every Saturday and then I’m practically clapping my hands with glee as the theme music plays. I employ nurses to mop the saliva from the sofa as I sit there drooling. I hire security staff to hold me down should someone make a noise akin to a whisper, as I am liable to absentmindedly throw sharp objects at the offender or simply laser their soul with killer evils.

Mock the Week used to sit atop the comedy pile on my shelf of sacred TV treasures. Literally nothing could beat it for a good rib tickling chortle. It was easily king of the panel shows. Consider its rivals. QI is quite interesting, quite funny at times but it hardly goes for the comedy jugular. Have I Got News For You is hilarious but largely dependent on the guest host doing alright or being a good enough target for Merton and Hislop. Never Mind the Buzzcocks has lost its two best assets; Simon Amstell and Bill Bailey and was always about music, which somehow just ain’t as funny as everything else in the news.

I could keep listing inferior panel shows but essentially Mock the Week was the best. And why was it the best? Because it grouped together the best surgeons of hilarity in the land (commonly called comedians) and simply let them compete for comedy points by cracking gags about the news. The fact that it was topical was funny, the rivalry and chemistry was funny but it basically boiled down to sticking good comedians in one place.

The best of the comedians became regulars on the show, with Frankie Boyle, Russell Howard, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons joining jolly accented Irish host Dara O’Briain, every single week. I was glued no matter what was going on in my insignificant life. When balaclava wearing burglars stole all my worldly possessions, petrol tankers exploded outside my bedroom window and piss accidentally seeped out, I was oblivious. So hungry was I for the feast of LOLs.

Then something strange happened. The magic began to fade. I found myself watching on iPlayer, then only the occasional episode on iPlayer. I wondered whether this was just another phase of my viewing habits, passing by like Postman Pat, Loose Women and the others. How was it possible that I wasn’t dying in pain from my spasm-ing muscles when Frankie Boyle made a joke?

The rivalry was killing the show. The fierce competition for jokes that made it into the half hour final cut of the programme was spilling over to such a degree that it was noticeable, in a detrimental way, after the edit. Frankie’s superpower, the ability to creatively and imaginatively shock the laughs from you, became obsolete. His unpredictability became predictable. He dominated and stifled the talents of the others.

And so he left. But this didn’t tempt me back to watch every week. As much as I loved Russell Howard, I wasn’t a big Andy Parsons fan. Dara was limited by hosting duties and the guests could be good but were often disappointing.

Then, whilst at a recording of Russell Howard’s Good News by the Thames earlier this year, he answered an audience question with a bombshell. He wouldn’t be doing anymore Mock the Week. And he has moved on I suppose, with a successful BBC3 show that really suited him. He had a far more enduring quality than Frankie Boyle; genuine humanity. Boyle’s act was just that, a put on sham of offensiveness. His Channel 4 sketch show caused a brief stir and passed into the shadows. I don’t remember what it was called, just that he crossed a line of decency at some point. And I didn’t watch it.

So with perhaps my favourite comedian left on Mock the Week leaving it, you’d think I would have given up on the show for good. But I decided to give the first episode of this series a watch on iPlayer. I thought that maybe some new blood would be good. And I was right.

Chris Addison is turning into something of a new regular but he’s not set in stone; he doesn’t have his own seat. He is very funny mostly, despite his tendency to wear loose shirts that show off his thin chest and glimpses of hair. Seann Walsh, who I’ve seen live at Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow in Bristol, sat between Greg Davies from The Inbetweeners and Andy Parsons. Walsh was terrific, really confident what I think is his first appearance, or at least he hasn’t had many. An impression of Michael McIntyre during “Scenes we’d like to See” had me in stitches. Davies is not afraid to be silly to get laughs.

Talking of daft the final guest, another one turning into a new regular, was Milton Jones. Wearing a loud shirt he produced his usual volley of surreal one liners but each time I see him on Mock the Week his weird, snappy humour seems to make more and more use of topical material.

I will be watching the episodes of this series, whether it be via iPlayer or more old fashioned methods. The show seems to have re-found its mojo by finding the best comedy performers and stand-ups around. Its lost much of its bitter competition, with all the competitors regularly laughing at Milton’s odd jokes. The key to success seems to be avoiding absolute regulars and bringing back a mixture of different talent of week. Keep the guests fresh, like the topical material.

I laughed. A lot. Watch it.

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A note on a BBC iPlayer double bill: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and Wall-E


 I can’t work out whether or not I’m a massive fan of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace yet. It’s been recommended to me by several people and I finally watched episode 2, about the illusion of self-regulating ecosystems, and a lot more. On the one hand it’s clearly very different, ambitious and bold, and should be applauded for a rare example of demanding and ideas driven television. But then it also seems simplistic and forced at times, especially when trying to bring the focus of its enormous scope back to its core theme of the influence of machines.

There’s definitely a strong chance that I simply did not fully understand the programme. I am still digesting the theories in my head and the central thrust of its weaving argument. I think my only reservations about it stem from the fact that All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace relies on being an impartial, enlightening and myth busting statement. Clearly though it has its own agenda and world view.

Whilst most of the analysis and arguments are sound, indeed I agree with most of it, I was slightly annoyed at times that a programme attacking deceit was playing its own tricks on the audience. Now and then the tone veered across a line from informative and intelligent to preachy and patronising.

However I will be watching more of the series. Undoubtedly I enjoyed it. Indeed whilst I moan about the programme’s own agenda, it was refreshing that this was something with a worthwhile point to get across. Somehow it encompassed vital but mostly overlooked elements of formative 20th century history, scientific theory, cultural shifts, communes and topical stories like the Arab Spring and even the Big Society.

I’m not going to delve into the depths of the arguments here because even though I have my opinions they will be convoluted and poorly expressed. For the most part though, rest assured, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace talks valuable sense. It is clever. But don’t be intimidated as it’s no bad thing to question the weaknesses of its points either, as there are clearly holes in such an admirably ambitious undertaking.

Aside from the substance, the style is a delight. Weird and wonderful archive footage is mashed together to give a vivid sense of the times, as well as the spooling complexities of some of the theories. The narration is mostly engaging but sometimes repetitive and, as I’ve said, patronisingly simplistic. However one of the good points to take from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is that in the past solutions have tended to be unnecessarily complex in pursuit of unrealistic ideals.

Enough vague waffling about something that, basically, you should watch to judge for yourself. And onto Wall-E, one of just a handful of Pixar pictures I hadn’t seen. Last night, at a silly early morning hour, I decided to finally meet the lovable waste management unit on iPlayer.

Wall-E has everything you expect from Pixar, and more. Not only is it touching, funny and heart warming, with a particularly poignant and understated love story, but it makes political points too. This certainly isn’t the complex, deep level of commentary on offer in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, but rather symbols highlighting contemporary and sometimes controversial problems.

Some themes certainly do overlap with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, mainly to do with mankind’s dependency on technology. In Wall-E the point is predictable and hardly subtle, with robots scurrying round to cater to our every need and humans literally not having to leave their hover chairs. But for children’s animation this is still a film with some brains as well as that required Pixar heart.

The key point Wall-E has to make is about over consumption, with Earth so littered with waste that humans have had to take an extended space cruise. But this 90 minute romp also touches on the power of corporations, advertising, global warming and junk food. We get so fat we can’t stand and so pampered and manipulated that we can’t think.  

The real magic is that all of this is seamlessly stitched into a charming and compelling story though. Wall-E stands out from other Pixar creations because it’s given space and all its sci-fi trappings with which to visually dazzle, and also because the protagonist barely speaks. Much of Wall-E is without dialogue and the wonder of silent movies is recaptured, especially when he’s making use of his extensive collection of human memorabilia and music. Stripping away everything else allows the best of Pixar to shine.

So if you’ve got time on your hands head over to BBC iPlayer for a thrilling and touching journey with Wall-E through outer space, and an intelligent and inspiring tour of our recent past with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Blooded


You are a mega-bucks banker, a liberated twenty-something, a first class slut. You’re a whistling milkman, a tearaway toddler, a grieving widow. You’re a freedom fighter utterly consumed by ideological struggle. You’re a madman, a gunman, a best man. You’re an axe wielding gamekeeper in deep, sensuous love with your ladylike employer. You’re a sophisticated stalker, leering like an aristocratic butcher at young girls you view as goddesses; cheap meaty chunks of divine beauty. You’re a prisoner that’s only ever known the reality of four bare walls. You are human.

You’re barely clothed, stripped of decency and alone in the wilderness. You’re unreasonably frightened; terrified merely by nature’s regular and natural breathing. You feel an irrepressible sense of panicky foreboding deep in the truth of your gut. The cold bites greedily at your bare skin, sinking you deep into inescapable agony. You’ve never known anything like it; the never-ending needles of pain, the relentless rattle of your rib cage, the fear. The pain and fear of the hunted as you run for your life. As you run like an animal.

As you read this in the comforting light of your computer screen, chances are you are none of these things. And yet we can all imagine, however slightly, what the existence of a freedom fighter or a widow might be like. We can never truly know until we have lived it, and even then no two individuals will share identical emotions. But as human beings empathy remains one of the handful of characteristics that truly sets us apart from animals and beasts. There’s nothing quite like the sadness of feeling someone else’s loss as if it were your own or the failure of someone close to you to understand your own melancholy. Some may argue in favour of other traits and skills, like language and pure intelligence. In many ways though, empathy is the foundation to all art, the essence and gateway to all storytelling.

Empathy is at the heart of the intriguing central premise to Blooded, a British debut film out on the 1st of April. The release date of April Fool’s Day is fitting given that Blooded is part of the modern phenomenon of “is it truth or is it fiction?” storytelling. It makes use of a documentary/reconstruction format to tell the tale of the kidnapping of a group of pro fox hunting campaigners by an extremist animal rights group in the picturesque, but barren, Highlands of Scotland. Empathy becomes crucial to the story when the mysterious kidnappers release their captives across the wilderness in their underwear, before pursuing them with guns to make them experience the horror of being hunted.  Presumably the horror the foxes feel seconds away from a mauling by the hounds.

It’s certainly a distinctive and controversial concept for a film. The narrative is presented in unfamiliar layers compared to your average feature. We’re introduced firstly to the idea that a group of pro-hunters were filmed by a group of anti-hunters in the Highlands and that the resulting video became an internet sensation. We then meet the “real” pro-hunter personalities that lived through the event in classic documentary interview style. These interviews continue throughout the film through both voiceovers and close-ups. We also have the majority of the action shown to us via a reconstruction of the “actual” events, with different actors than those playing the “real” people. All of this is confusing and disorientating at first. But not in a bad way.

Just because Blooded has an unusual structure and deals with politically sensitive issues, does not mean it’s destined to fail. In fact last year I loved Catfish, a film in a similar truth/fiction style that dealt with current and also potentially dull and alienating topics. The cocktail of unconventional storytelling and thought provoking subject matter can prove a potent and satisfying one indeed. It has the potential to really set a film apart as an original success. Sadly though it’s a difficult balance to strike and Blooded doesn’t quite find it.

It’s a critical cliché to say that a film has an “identity crisis”. But there is no better way of explaining why Blooded’s bold ideas and execution don’t quite come together. The film opens with a character talking about extremism and how it essentially boils down to two sides trying to outshout the other. Watching it initially I couldn’t decide if this speech was meant to have humorous undertones or comment seriously on the issue. This becomes Blooded’s main pitfall.

As the opening of the film developed, I began to think of Blooded as an incredibly subtle mockumentary. The selection of hunting as the central issue seemed to be a swipe at all the modern day life and death disagreements about ultimately trivial things. The self-important tone of the music in the background, coupled with the overly sincere acting at times and some sweeping shots of grand Highland scenery for the titles seemed to say, gently, “look at this sad bunch of tossers who got mixed up in such an odd ordeal over something as pompous as hunting as if it were life’s defining feature”.

The film walked the line so finely between a tone of mocking and seriousness that I thought Blooded had the makings of a truly brilliant comedy spoof during its steady opening segment. Even beautiful cinematography of the stunning Highlands shrouded in mist and fog and sunshine seemed hilarious when viewed in the right jokey light at times. There were some good funny moments which utilised both the reconstruction and interview format to excellent effect. Most notably, when an American girlfriend of the group has shot her first stag, the experienced hunter takes some blood from the creature and wipes it on her face. He assures us she didn’t seem to mind this “Blooding” ritual, only for her to immediately respond in her interview “I resented that immediately”.

As the film progresses however the laughs are increasingly unintentional, as the story morphs into some sort of horror/political comment hybrid. The problem is that the hazy humour hovers over the rest of the film so that none of the “scares” are shocking. The animal rights activists, whilst extreme and clearly nutty to pull off such a stunt, just have too much of a conscience to be truly horrific foes.

Far too much emphasis is placed on the political issue. After watching Blooded, I delved through production notes from the filmmakers about their intentions and witnessed the “is it real?” marketing campaign online drumming up substantial interest. The filmmakers insist Blooded has no political agenda. It’s a thriller in documentary form and is not intended as a mockumentary. Blooded is meant simply as a thought provoking thriller, shot in a distinctive way, with some vague allusions to modern extremism.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers and director Ed Boase, Blooded fails as a thriller. I think it could have worked as very clever and subtle humour, had there been some more obvious signposts. Blooded ends up being controversial for the sake of it. It’s not enough to be simply thought provoking, especially when the entertainment is feeble and vague. The filmmakers must at least have an idea as to what sort of thoughts they want their audience to be thinking.

Watching Blooded with a friend of mine, neither of us could make sense of it. He said that the ending was “weak” as the film petered out and I agreed with him. As with so many films, Blooded tries to be several things at once, with the result that it does none of them well. My instinct on the one hand is to applaud Blooded for trying something different, but a much stronger voice of reason on the other is saying that the filmmakers needed to think harder about what it was they were trying to do.

A History of Violence


(some spoilers)

I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.

 The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner.  The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.

Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.

The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.

The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.

But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.

At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.

With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.

The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.

And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.