What did Maisie know? Parents are idiots

Popped along to the local ‘World of My Front Room’ to watch ‘What Maisie Knew’, courtesy of Curzon’s terrific Home Cinema on demand service. While not the same as a full on theatrical experience, this intimate drama worked superbly well on the small screen.

As Maisie’s hopeless parents, Julianne Moore is fabulous as fading rock chick Susanna, while Steve Coogan moves effortlessly from a Partridge in Norwich to the vain, and rather pathetic Beale in New York. Alexander Skarsgård  and Joanna Vanderham are also on point as Lincoln and Margo, the surrogates upon whom Maisie’s parents rely. In the centre of the emotional maelstrom of a family life disintegrating is the utterly captivating Onata Aprile as Maisie, through whose eyes and around whom we see events unfold. Hers is an emotionally charged but completely natural performance that thankfully betrays not a trace of Hollywood schmaltz. I am staggered that a child so young can deliver such a fearsome piece of work; she really is breathtakingly good. I had high hopes for ‘What Maisie Knew’ and I was not disappointed. This is independent film making of the highest quality that rewards infinitely more than much of the major box office release fodder.

Sightseers…don’t share a field in England with this pair!

Have you ever fancied caravanning? No, me neither and after watching Ben Wheatley’s superb third feature, Sightseers, I know why! Sightseers tells the ‘sweet and affecting’ story of Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe), two nerdy love birds who embark on their first holiday together. Chris is a keen caravanner and a man who enjoys a holiday schedule to such English delights as Crich Tramway Village and the Keswick Pencil Museum. From the outset there is a sense of foreboding about this pair and things start to come apart at the seams after Chris witnesses a spot of casual littering by a fellow holidaymaker.

What follows is a blackly satirical take on the English staycation and the world of the caravan holidaymaker, laced with gallows humour and a rapidly increasing bodycount. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Mike Leigh’s ‘Nuts in May’, Sightseers proves once again that Ben Wheatley is probably the most exciting British independent filmmaker of the moment. He gets superb performances from Oram and Lowe, who also wrote the script (with some additional material from Wheatley’s wife and long time collaborator Amy Jump), the supporting cast (particularly Richard Glover as Cara-pod designer Martin) and as always, the cinematography and score are spot on. If you haven’t already taken the plunge into Wheatley’s twisted vision of the great British holiday, then you really should. Sightseers will do for caravanning what Titanic did for cruising in the icebergs of the North Atlantic – and that cannot be a bad thing!

Avast, there be pirates! A muse on the future of film distribution

In response to Mark Kermode’s Uncut blog, I posted the following thoughts on the future of film distribution:

I would draw comparison with the software industry. Having been brought up in the ZX81/ ZX Spectrum generation of home computers, I know first hand that piracy of media will continue, irrespective of how you tackle it. But there is no doubt that one of the biggest drivers is lack of availability. In the early days of home computing, very few people had access to legitimate computer software as it simply was not readily available; hence people copied the software tapes and either gave them to their mates or sold them at school. Wider access to legitimate software did away with much of this casual piracy, but then other factors took hold (such as high prices), which re-invigorated the piracy. The software industry has tried many different techniques since to protect their IP and profits, pretty much all of which have been defeated by the hackers and pirates. The one distribution platform that has really taken hold though is secure global digital distribution direct from developers (Valve’s Steam platform being the foremost), at reasonable prices. While there will always be pirates, most folks are prepared to pay a modest amount for a legitimate product that is available when and where they want it. The system is not yet perfect but it is the best available and a giant leap from where software distribution was only a few years ago. I see film distribution no differently – get rid of region coding on DVDs and Blu-Rays, and make films available on multiple platforms at the same time. I doubt any major studio would lose money on a big ticket release, as there will still be plenty of people who will want to pay to enjoy a cinematic performance, or for the Blu-Ray and DVD with a bunch of extras, or indeed the digital download for their PC, tablet or smartphone. Those that don’t want to pay can watch it on free-to-air but they may not have paid to see the movie anyway, so you aren’t losing much if anything. In fact, you may encourage those folks to pay to watch the movie a second (and/or subsequent) time, either in the cinema, or on disc (with extras). Publish widely I say and those who wish to make money from piracy will soon find their market has shrunk considerably, or been eliminated altogether

You can find Mark’s blog at the following link:


Mushrooms, Magic and Mayhem in A Field in England

Having enjoyed and endured (in almost equally pleasurable measure) Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, I had very high hopes for A Field in England (or Dude, Where’s My Alehouse?). With the premise of a magic mushroom-fuelled nightmare ride through the margins of the English Civil War, this was clearly not going to be standard multiplex fare. The plot, what there is of one, keeps you off balance, as does the cinematography. Michael Smiley is terrific as the bonkers and rather frightening O’Neill, but Reece Shearsmith is the real star of AFIE. In particular, the slo-mo start to the ‘divining sequence’ is a truly grotesque and macabre piece of cinema that will live long in the memory. Two days after that first viewing I’m still not sure what I made of it all, and I need to watch it again, not in a ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ kind of way but rather a ‘What the heck?’ kind of way. Maybe I just need more mushrooms.

Here’s the trailer for the uninitiated:

Update 22 July 13: So I watched AFIE a second time and I am happy to report that this is a film which gets better with every viewing. In fact, I’m prepared to give it ‘potential future classic’ status.

Alec Baldwin

One of the briefest, yet most memorable and incendiary performances in cinema history in my opinion. This scene does not feature in David Mamet’s original stage play and was written specifically for Alec Baldwin, who delivers it flawlessly. Incredible writing brought to life by a superb individual performance. Riveting, profane, brilliant.

Compliance – how far would you go to obey?

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, conducted a series of experiments to test human responses to authority. Inspired in part by the trial of Nazi war criminal and Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann, Milgram wanted to understand what made seemingly ‘normal’ people carry out horrifying and barbaric acts. What, Milgram wondered, was the effect of authority on human behaviour. Milgram’s most famous, and most shocking (although not literally), study was known as Experiment 18: a peer administers shocks. The set up went thusly…

Milgram sought 40 participants from the general public to take part in a piece of scientific research. The participants were told that the experiment was about teachers and students. The supposed test subject, the student, was actually a stooge or confederate in the experiment, while the participant, in the role of teacher, was the actual subject of the experiment. The participant was required to wire the ‘student’ to a set of electrodes, and then move to an adjacent room from where they would ask the student to match pairs of words.

Wiring up. From L-R above: Participant (test subject), stooge, Milgram

For each incorrect response, the teacher was required to administer a steadily increasing voltage of electric shocks. Whenever the teacher hesitated from administering the shock, Milgram, as the authority figure, would direct them to continue using one of four verbal commands, on an increasing scale of authority:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

In reality, Milgram’s ‘shock generator’ was nothing more than an empty box with some switches and a scale of increasing ‘voltage’, from 15 volts, all the way up to 450 volts, which was worryingly labelled XXX:

The Shock Box and scale

How far would the participants go in administering ‘shocks’? Incredibly, 65% of the participants went all the way, administering the full 450 volt shock. They couldn’t see the reaction of the student stooge – he was of course perfectly fine – but he did provide a set of verbal responses to the shocks from simple grunts, all the way up to a thud followed by silence. Perhaps even more worryingly, none of the participants who refused to administer the final shocks insisted that the experiment itself be terminated, nor left the room to check the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave. In fact, of the 40 participants, only 2 refused to administer any shocks at all: one was a qualified electrician, the other was a Holocaust survivor.


Craig Zobel’s new film Compliance is Milgram’s experiment writ large. In a perfectly ordinary town in Midwest America, on a perfectly ordinary day, at a perfectly ordinary fast food restaurant, manager Sandra is having a bad day. Somebody left the freezer open the previous night and $1400 of stock has been spoiled. Not what you need when you know business is going to be brisk, her young serving and catering staff are not wholly reliable and, if the rumours are to be believed, a secret shopper is coming to visit. And then Sandra receives a telephone call from a police officer claiming that one of her staff, 19-year old Becky, is suspected of theft from a customers purse. The officer has the restaurant under surveillance as part of a wider investigation and he needs Sandra’s help to investigate the alleged crime. What subsequently transpires is a shocking and utterly compelling study into the human tendency to obey authority. This is by no means an easy film to watch, indeed it is one of the most uncomfortable cinema experiences I have ever had, and it would be wrong to describe it as entertainment. Nevertheless, Compliance is a compelling and important film, one that I have no hesitation in recommending, which stands as a salutary lesson that we should always be prepared to challenge authority, lest we lose that which makes us compassionate human beings.

Make no mistake, Compliance is not a documentary, it is a dramatisation of actual events. But it is all the more powerful than a documentary film would have been in my opinion. Consider also that nothing portrayed on screen has been exaggerated – it really did happen. Maybe not in that particular midwestern town, maybe not to Becky and maybe not to Sandra. But it happened nonetheless.

Would you comply? Who knows what we each might do in similar situations, but Milgram’s experiments have been reproduced since in various forms, both in the lab, but also in the real world (try Google-ing the Stanford Prison Experiment for another example of obedience to authority in a total situation). Sometimes people are simply rotten apples. However, perhaps more often, people are actually perfectly good apples, they just happen to be in a rotten barrel. That is the lesson we should take from Compliance.

Entranced by Trance

Given Danny Boyle’s recent Olympics success and his elevation to status of national treasure, his return to the silver screen is a timely reminder that he is first and foremost a quality filmmaker. Trance is the latest entry in the Boyle canon, and stars James MacAvoy as Simon, the inside man in a fine art auction heist which soon spirals out of control when he receives a significant bump on the bonce and a subsequent amnesia as to the location of the stolen goods. What follows is a literal head trip as Simon’s criminal boss (Vincent Cassel) engages the services of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to try and retrieve the lost booty. The film plays out through a mash up of trances and reality as we delve deeper into Simon’s fractured mind to discover what has really been going on. Suffice to say, there are twists aplenty and Boyle expects his audience to keep up. There are similarities to movies such as Inception and even Life of Pi, but what most readily springs to mind is Chris Nolan’s superb Memento. Although Trance is not quite up there with Memento, it is terrifically enjoyable and Boyle extracts great performances from the three leads, all of whom are well cast – indeed MacAvoy is more of a natural fit in this role than in his recent outing in Welcome to the Punch. The star of the piece is actually Rosario Dawson who really shimmers throughout, in the same way she did in 25th Hour (alongside Edward Norton). Overall, this is a fine thriller that will keep you guessing all the way to the end. Nice one Danny.

The art of feelings, and capturing human emotion on the page

If you love literature, I urge you to get hold of a copy of the Art of Fielding.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This is a sublime debut from Chad Harbach, beautifully written with characters who pop into being off the page. Like the very best books, you don’t want it to end, you want those characters to continue existing and living out their lives, and to be able to share in their experiences, their triumphs and disasters, their loves, their hates, their sacrifices and their losses. This isn’t just a hard act to follow for Chad Harbach, this is going to be a hard act to follow for the author of the next book I read. The Art of Fielding is going to live long in the memory. For those who might worry that this a just a book about baseball, don’t. This is a book which has baseball in it, poetically-described baseball at that, but the story is about the fragility and ferocity of the human spirit, and if it doesn’t touch you emotionally, then you might actually be paralysed from the neck up. Buy, it, borrow it, read it, love it.

Today is a good Friday

It feels great to be on holiday, despite the continuing wintry weather. This morning’s 6 mile run felt superb, beginning this holiday period in the right vein. For some, the Easter break is a deeply religious occasion. For me as a confirmed atheist, it is a simply a chance to spend quality time with the family and recharge the batteries. But there are also a bunch of things to look forward to, not least a wedding tomorrow and visitors next weekend. Doubtless there are plenty of runs, good food, a few drinks and trips out over the next week and a half before the spectre of work rears its unavoidable, bill-paying head, but in the meantime, let’s make the most of holidays.