Movie reviews: Making the Grade, Custody, Western, Ghost Stories
- Making the Grade (G, 86mins) - 4 stars
- Custody (15A, 94mins) - 4 stars
- Western (No Cert, IFI, 100mins) - 4 stars
- Ghost Stories (16, 98mins) - 4 stars
Documentary maker Ken Wardrop has developed a winningly distinctive style in recent years, using straight-to-camera interviews with thematically connected individuals to build quietly compelling microcosms of human life. In His & Hers, the women of Offaly bared their souls about the men in their lives; in Mom & Me, burly Oklahoman men wept while expressing their devotion to mammy, and Wardrop's latest film uses the seemingly innocuous subject of piano lessons as the platform for an equally absorbing human journey.
As Making the Grade slowly gathers pace, we watch children and adults of varying ability engage with their music teachers. Some are prodigies, kids as young as 10 bashing out Rachmaninov, others have more love for music than talent: one particular middle-aged lady makes jokes about her tone-deafness which almost makes her devotion all the more impressive. Some teachers are stern, others clench their teeth kindly as children play as though wearing boxing gloves. But all seem to share a bond of affection that will surely survive any crime against music.
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One of the standout movies at the Dublin Film Festival, Xavier Legrand's mercilessly efficient psychological thriller Custody lifts the lid on a decidedly bitter separation. Antoine (Denis Menochet) and Miriam (Lea Drucker) are in the process of divorcing, but are bitterly debating custody of their two children. Miriam wants sole custody and lets the presiding judge know she suspects her ex of having physically hurt their daughter. But with no evidence to back this claim up, the judge grants Antoine access.
Legrand's film, which is shot tight and gives you no room to breathe or look away, initially keeps you guessing about who you ought to be siding with. Is Miriam the cold and calculating control freak she appears to be, is Antoine's ever-clenching jaw a sign of suppressed rage, and why is his 12-year-old son so wary of him? All will be explosively revealed in this gritty, unflinching, superbly acted film.
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Valeska Grisebach's Western is a more stately, sombre, slow-moving affair, which upends the tropes of the western genre by removing them to a novel setting - southern Bulgaria, to be precise, where a group of migrant German workers are constructing a hydroelectric plant. They're an arrogant bunch, unashamed that the last group of Teutons to arrive en masse around here were the Wehrmacht. They even have the bad manners to raise a German flag outside their camp, which enrages the locals.
One of the Germans, though, has a different attitude. Meinhard (the excellent Meinhard Neumann) is a gaunt, weather-beaten, soulful fellow, who tames a horse and rides it into the local village, where he befriends a powerful local businessman called Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).
Tensions, meanwhile, are brewing between the Germans and the natives, and Meinhard seems like the kind of man who will play a crucial role in any battle that comes. For a time he reminds you of John Wayne, or Alan Ladd in Shane, but Meinhard is a resolutely opaque character and may not be all he seems. It's a fine film.
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And finally, a brief word about Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's nicely atmospheric chiller which evokes the great traditions of British horror.
Nyman plays Philip Goodman, a furiously rational atheist who spends his time debunking supposed paranormal experiences. But when he's contacted out of the blue by a dying psychic sceptic, Goodman is set the challenge of investigating three particularly troubling cases.
Those stories are revealed to us in episodes and Paul Whitehouse and Martin Freeman are excellent, playing victims of paranormal events that seem anything but fake. It's creepy stuff, fiendishly clever.