CUSTODY (Jusqu’à la garde)

Three and a half Star Rating

“…an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.” – Wayward Wolf.

Custody is, for want of a better term, bleak. Unrelentingly so for that matter.

Right from the off we are dropped into an arduous legal meeting between the two parents, their lawyers and an overseeing judge, in which each side outlines their personal wishes with regard to the guardianship of their youngest son, Julien. It’s a tedious, drawn-out affair which more than anything feels like a pre-determined i-dotting/ T-crossing exercise for all concerned.

Such extended, scarcely edited scenes are a dominant feature of Xavier Legrand‘s direction. He also elects to dispense with the need for any kind of incidental music score, bar one or two key scenes; a tactic which by and large is very effective.

Legrand’s approach hints at this film being something of a slow burner, which it very much is. Indeed, though there is an underlying sense of unease that lingers throughout, it really is only once we reach the final act that all of the tension that’s built up finally boils over giving way to an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.

Whilst one could perhaps spot similarities between Legrand’s film and, most notably, Robert Benton’s 1979 classic Kramer vs Kramer – but also with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s unbearably bleak Loveless, and Joachim Lafosse’s After Love Custody approaches this harrowing subject matter from a slightly different angle.

It’s clear from the start that this is not just a troubled marriage but one that is irredeemably broken to the point of virtual loathing. Though, as so often can be the case, such a sentiment is not necessarily equally shared on both sides.

It is very clear however that both Miriam (Léa Drucker) and her two children, Julien (Thomas Gioria), and Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), are all sick of the site of their husband and father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Each wishes dearly for him to play no further part in their lives citing as yet unsubstantiated accusations of Antoine’s physical violence against them as their primary motivating factor behind this decision. 

Despite clearly being persona non grata, Antoine has not however given up the fantasy of reuniting the family unit once again. But with no-one else buying into his vision and with his delusions being repeatedly crushed at every turn, this proud man is slowly but surely pushed to the very brink.

Custody is a film that never offers so much as the smallest island of respite from the pervading black cloud that hovers over the film’s protagonists. Even Josephine’s birthday celebration, despite the flowing alcohol and apparently jovial guests, has a suspenseful feel to it. It’s as though Miriam and her family unit is somehow on borrowed time, anticipating with dread the unwelcome yet almost inevitable spectre of Antoine to make a sudden appearance.

Legrand’s casting is strong with performances that are powerful yet nicely understated throughout. And there is a truly exceptional performance from young Thomas Giora, who displays huge emotional depth in his portrayal of Julien; one that defies his tender years.

Custody takes us to a dark, anxiety-inducing and at times troubling place. To some degree at least, it’s a film that can be deemed to be pretty hard work. Bear with it though, and the rewards for patience and an inquisitive mind are both ample and thoroughly worthwhile.

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THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY

Four Star Rating

“…it’s Katherine Parkinson’s comical yet wonderfully vulnerable and bitter-sweet portrayal of the gin-distilling lonely heart, Isola Pribby, that is possibly the film’s most surprising delight.” – Wayward Wolf.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society (and you can forget about it if you think I’m reeling that off repeatedly over the next few paragraphs! Let’s call it T-GLAPPPS from hereon in), is a film whose historic setting is the aftermath of the German occupation of the channel island of Guernsey – an island, like neighbouring Jersey, that suffered badly at the hands of the German army during the Second World War.

Incidentally, as a slight aside – the Military Museum – housed in an old German bunker on the island of Jersey – is a really excellent must-see not only for World Ward II aficionados, but for those that would benefit from gaining a more in-depth background to these troubled years of war time occupation.

But I digress…

The bizarrely named Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society was formed as something of an off-the-cuff cover story out of necessity during a routine German stop-and-search of a group of local friends who had been caught out at night after curfew. They’d been making their way home following a gathering at a friend’s house in which they’d all feasted hungrily upon roasted pork, a food source that was now strictly forbidden under the German rule.

Having come up with and duly registered their peculiarly-named society in order to fool their captors, they now had no choice but to continue with the charade, and thus, once a week, initially under the short-lived supervision of a bored German, the group would assemble to read and discuss literature with one another.

A few years on, and with Guernsey once again liberated, a letter sent by one of the society’s members, Dawsey (Michiel Huisman), to a London-based journalist and author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), leads to a rather intimate pen-friendship developing between the two. Juliet’s interest in this remarkable society is suitably piqued and soon enough she finds herself aboard a boat en route to Guernsey, temporarily abandoning her fiancee in the process, but determined to finally write an article of true substance and worth.

But as Juliet will soon discover, this society, though amusingly-titled and formed through an act of rebellious deception, in fact hides tragic and painful secrets for its members.

Whilst using the German occupation as an historical setting and a frequent reference point, Director Mike Newell’s film is in fact much less a gritty depiction of the horrors of war, and far more a conventional love story. The age old tale of the girl who apparently had it all, yet deep down realised that what she had did not provide her with sufficient emotional fulfilment.

With this point understood and acknowledged, Newell’s film can be considered as something of a charming triumph. Certainly it’s a career best performance from Lily James, whose nuanced depiction of the enthusiastic and head-strong Juliet, is full of warmth and sparkle.

There are predictably solid performances from the likes of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Milton, but it’s Katherine Parkinson’s comical yet wonderfully vulnerable and bitter-sweet portrayal of the gin-distilling lonely heart, Isola Pribby, that is possibly the film’s most surprising delight.

Indeed, the casting is well judged throughout with an array of well-formed characters in whom one can truly emotionally invest. This is perhaps not surprising considering that T-GLAPPPS benefits from the directorial involvement of the man behind everybody’s? perennial favourite, Four Weddings and a Funeral – a film whose feel and sense of formula is fairly evident here.

It’s true that there are one or two inconsistencies here and there and elements of the narrative at times feel a little ‘token’ in nature and might have benefited from some further exploration. But these are more suggestions than faults. What is undeniable here is that this is British film making done well and crucially, done with considerable commercial appeal, and not at the expense of its artistic integrity.

T-GLAPPPS is a film that’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in. A film that knows exactly what it’s doing as it sucks you in with its considerable well engineered charm. But above all, T-GLAPPPS is a film that’s almost impossible not to like.

FUNNY COW

Four Star Rating

Truth be told, this is probably not one for the easily offended or keen advocates of a more modern Sofie Hagen-esque safe-space type of comedy.” – Wayward Wolf.

“It’s always been too much for me… life… and not enough. All at the same time…”

Funny Cow is the tale of fictional female comic, Funny Cow (FC). It’s a piece whose narrative is loosely anchored around occasional footage of FC delivering some sort of ‘For TV’ career retrospective monologue in which she reflects upon her life and times to date. Going by this particular TV performance’s high production values, it would seem that this is at a point in her life when she’s clearly ‘made it’. Whatever that may really mean.

There’s a pervading air of melancholy about it all, something that is very much prevalent in this Adrian Shergold film which traces FC’s life from its poverty-stricken beginnings, through the frustrations of an abusive marriage, to her eventual breakthrough success (and beyond) as a female comedian.

The child of an alcoholic mother and abusive father, comedy had always been the perfect outlet for FC, but it’s only ultimately through a combination of perseverance and a bitter-sweet twist of fate that she finally gets a chance to prove her worth.

Though the backstory of Shergold’s film is to some extent one of developing the courage to shoot for the stars, Funny Cow is just as concerned with the concept of female empowerment, and examining life’s myriad struggles and the ties that so often bind us, whether we would choose them to or not.

“Confucius say: He who drop watch down toilet have shitty time…”

The 1970’s northern working class setting and brash sense of old fashioned humour lends Funny Cow something of a gritty backdrop, and whether it be racial stereotypes or ‘in-bad-taste’ one-liners, considering that we live today in such a timid and easily-offended nanny state, it’s actually rather surprising –  and refreshing – that so much of a nationally-released film’s shall we say, ‘questionable’ language and terminology has not been airbrushed from history. Undoubtedly this lends the piece a real sense of authenticity which could so easily have been stripped away, much to the film’s detriment.

That said, though the more controversial content is at most fleeting, truth be told, this is probably not one for the easily offended or keen advocates of a more modern Sofie Hagen-esque safe-space type of comedy. But that probably goes without saying.

Paddy Considine’s awkwardly circumspect portrayal of Angus, the arts-loving, book shop owner and FC’s woefully mismatched other half for a period of time, is reassuringly solid and understated. Lindsey Coulson’s performance as FC’s mother in later life, though not an extended role, is nonetheless arresting for its depth, range and conviction, whilst Alun Armstrong’s turn as the tragic, long-in-the-tooth jobbing morose comic, Lenny, is a highly impressive if excruciatingly mournful performance.

And then of course there’s Maxine Peake whose performance as FC wonderfully encapsulates the actions and emotions of a woman who is first to acknowledge that she has never really fitted in, and whose struggles and persistence – not to mention a thicker than average skin – have eventually paid off professionally-speaking.

Although there is evidently a part of her that remains unfulfilled and more than a little world-weary, the over-riding impression here is that FC is one life’s great survivors, who, having been through so much in her life is consequently an emboldened woman, steadfastly refusing to ever even entertain the notion of being considered a victim.

Aided by Richard Hawley’s sympathetic soundtrack, Adrian Shergold expertly straddles the line between good and bad taste, between tragedy and triumph, and between tears and substantial laughter, to produce not only a film that is genuinely funny, but one which is thoughtful and emotionally engaging too.

ISLE OF DOGS

Three and a half Star Rating

“…Anderson unsurprisingly adopts Hollywood’s de rigueur left-wing narrative, examining many of the issues that have become so highly relevant to the times in which we live…”  – Wayward Wolf.

Given that I live locally to it, viewing Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs on London’s own Isle of Dogs, E14, seemed like something of a ‘must do’. Unsurprisingly London’s purpose-built financial district overspill has notably fewer stray mutts running about, and its city-scape, whilst to some extent being overwhelmingly vulgar in its 1980’s faux-grandiose misadvised styling, is admittedly a lot more pleasing on the eye than the island wasteland setting of Anderson’s new stop-motion animated feature film.

An aesthetically-pleasing backdrop Anderson’s film may well lack in places, but there is something of an inherent beauty about this pain-stakingly detailed animation. Indeed, visually there is a huge amount to admire here.

Built upon a back story that tells of much historic conflict between cat and dog lovers, the city of Nagasaki is, according to its pro-cat leader, Mayor Ayasabi, now completely over-run with diseased dogs to such an extent that there is no other solution than to annex them all to a neighbouring waste island.

With this in mind the Mayor embarks upon a major mutt-move, and with it, what he hopes will be the complete eradication of the lingering threat of mutated human strains of both Dog Flu and Snout Fever.

As something of a symbolic gesture, Ayasabi decrees that the first dog to be re-located will be Spots, a handsome confident canine who just so happens to be the appointed guard dog of the Mayor’s own adopted son, Atari.

This, needless to say, does not go down too well with Atari who proceeds to somehow bravely fly a small one-seater plane across from the mainland to the waste island in a bid to rescue his beloved mutt.

Here he encounters one of the ragtag packs of hounds with whom he develops a strong and trusting bond, and together they set about attempting to locate Atari’s faithful best friend.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the pro-dog movement is painfully close to formulating an effective serum to combat these perilous doggy diseases, with a view to re-introducing the annexed dogs back into society. Yet it seems that the Mayor and his allies, with sinister motivations, will stop at nothing to shut them down.

But the Mayor hadn’t banked upon a small and very vocal minority of young Social Justice Warriors relentlessly pursuing him, determined to expose his crooked ways by lifting the blindfolds from the eyes of the hoodwinked masses and snapping them out of their docile subservience.

No matter which way you dress it up, Isle of Dogs, is a heavily political piece providing many layers of additional depth to this, literally, shaggy dog story.

And given that this is mainstream cinema, Anderson unsurprisingly adopts Hollywood’s de rigueur left-wing narrative, examining many of the issues that have become so highly relevant to the times in which we live.

Racial integration, environmental concerns, the prevalence of corruption within regimes, the blinkered dumbed-down nature of society, the growing political power and influence of the youth – particularly through technology, the championing of both the disadvantaged and minority groups, and through the film’s tightly-bound assortment of canine and human compadres, there is also a considerable tip of the hat towards the power of the collective, as they stand strong together against waves of unjust tyranny.

It’s all here.

There can perhaps be loose comparisons made – in tone at least – with Martin Rosen’s wonderful, oft-overlooked animated adaptation of the Richard Adams novel, Plague DogsVisually and stylistically-speaking, however, there are more obvious parallels to be made with Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman‘s more recent offering, Anomalisa

Anderson’s film, enhanced substantially by Alexandre Desplat’s strategically sympathetic score, positively oozes charm. And it’s thanks in no small part to an extremely fine set of vocal castings, with the likes of Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum – to name but a few – all breathing substantial life and vigour into this impressive animation. I really do lose count of the number of animated feature films that, for me at least, seem to fall so flat in this department.

A little morally and politically preachy Isle of Dogs may well be at times, but in fairness to the director, he never really labours the point, nor does he disappear in a cloud of self-generated ideological pretension.

Instead Anderson allows the film’s biggest assets – its considerable heart, comical interludes and jaw-dropping delicate beauty – to really shine through and be the star of the show.

An animated gem.

JOURNEYMAN

Three and a half Star Rating

“Without doubt, Journeyman’s most impressive ingredient is Considine’s awe-inspiring portrayal of a man whose life has been absolutely obliterated virtually over night.” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s probably fair to say that boxing in film has been done. At least, to the extent that we’ve all seen Rocky and Raging Bull, and umpteen all-too-often pale imitations since. One can only therefore conclude that if such a genre is ever to be tackled, it needs to be done so from an altogether original and innovative angle.

Paddy Considine’s long awaited directorial follow-up to the powerful Tyrannosaur, is arguably such a film. Journeyman is the tale of world champion boxer, Matty Burton (Considine), for whom one last fight – the culmination of a hugely successful career – proves to be anything but.

Though it proves to be a successful defence of his belt, it’s a hollow victory that comes at a considerable price. Just a few short hours later, Burton collapses at his home with a crippling headache, a symptom of something far more serious, and by the time that his wife has returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea, Burton is sprawled out over the coffee table.

Life as he knew it will never be the same again.

Though we are indulged with a brief fight montage and passing reference to a hospital stay, Journeyman is surprisingly quick in cutting to the chase. The real flesh on the bones of this story, is its aftermath. The real fight if you like. Matty Burton, now considerably brain damaged, must attempt to somehow readjust to life once again.

Of course, this is not solely Burton’s struggle. This is an equally devastating and truly testing time for those who know him, in particular his doting wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker), who remains life-affirmingly resolute in her support for her now disabled husband.

But with Burton suddenly becoming violent, in fear for both her own and their baby daughter’s safety, Emma makes the incredibly difficult decision to abandon Matty and move out.

Matty Burton may well have won the fight inside the ring, but now he’s fighting for his life… Or some other such hackneyed observation, presumably delivered in suitably gravelly tones. Just where is the Carlsberg trailer man when you need him?

In all seriousness though, hackneyed it may well be, but the fact that Considine unashamedly follows this most familiar of narrative paths yet the film remains eminently watchable and above all inspiring, is quite an achievement. Great credit therefore to the Director.

Without doubt, Journeyman‘s most impressive ingredient is Considine’s awe-inspiring portrayal of a man whose life has been absolutely obliterated virtually over night. Complete with vacant stare, his movements are very much those that would be associated with a Parkinson’s patient. Shuffling about awkwardly in his huge contemporary mansion, barely able to manage the simplest of tasks, he pauses occasionally to tap away absent mindedly at a punch bag, though he has little idea why, as muscle memory takes over.

It makes for a sorry spectacle and one which is brought to a head in the most heart-wrenchingly tragic scene in which Emma (a fine performance by Jodie Whittaker), finally gets back in touch by phone, and Matty tries desperately to recall everything that he and his speech therapist had rehearsed for this very scenario.

“Errrm, what else?” he mutters to himself, over and over again, desparately trying to recall the one thing he most wishes to tell his wife. Yet repeatedly, much to his increasing frustration, it evades him.

Emma, is the love of his life.

Though initially paralysed by their indecision and feelings of helplessness, there is a nice sense of symmetry in the fact that Matty’s corner team are ultimately once again the guys who will rally around their friend in his time of need and set him back on the way to some level of meaningful recovery by way of a patient but intensive training programme.

Journeyman is certainly a gritty film which pulls no punches in examining painful hardships, deep depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s therefore in some ways surprising that Considine’s film is quite as optimistic and uplifting as it ultimately proves to be. In its wider context, this is undoubtedly a good thing, but in the context of Journeyman‘s narrative, I’m still fairly undecided.

Additionally, although it’s addressed to an extent late on, it would have been interesting and perhaps might have provided a different angle and a little more depth to the story, to have known a bit more about the psychological impact felt by Burton’s final fight opponent.

On balance though, bearing in mind just how difficult it can prove to be to create anything truly meaningful or original within the sporting film genre, Journeyman is as impressive an attempt to do so as I can remember for quite some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

READY PLAYER ONE

Three and a half Star Rating

“…Ready Player One is a full-on, in-your-face, memory trip, white knuckle ride of a movie…” – Wayward Wolf.

It seems that there’s a growing sentiment amongst many people bemoaning the fact that the internet is no longer a place for pioneers, dreamers, and those who wished to share and exchange frank and uncensored thoughts and observations with like-minded (or not) others.

With increased corporate control, excessive government nannying and general intrudance from the far too easily offended, it has now become, in only a relatively short space of time, the biggest and most policed surveillance society the world has ever known. Albeit an essentially illusory, intangible one.

Such dark overtones are given at least a cursory nod or two throughout Steven Spielberg‘s latest, larger-than-life thrill-ride, Ready Player One.

Part real, part virtual and drawing upon cultural influences far too numerous to mention taken from here, there and abso-bloody-lutely everywhere, Ready Player One is a full-on, in-your-face, memory trip, white knuckle ride of a movie, with scarcely a moment taken to draw breath.

The opening race scene is in fact such a madcap maelstrom of activity that it could quite easily induce a mass sensory overload meltdown in the overly excitable.

Fortunately – for my own spinning brain – Spielberg gradually settles things down a little and the characters are permitted a tad more space to breathe and grow, and a coherent narrative slowly develops.

An Ohio existence in the year 2045 is a grim one, so much so that kids are all too eager to escape from it, plugging themselves instead into a Virtual Reality world called The Oasis. Its now deceased creator has challenged all players to complete this virtual world’s umpteen challenges, and in doing so, inherit his bequeathed fortune and ultimate control of The Oasis.

Cue untold carnage as players galore go head-to-head in the myriad challenges, and that’s before the big corporations have even begun poking their meddling unwanted noses into proceedings; the catalyst for a latter-day David and Goliath scenario to develop.

It all makes for an at times breath-taking spectacle, although such is my general disinterest in video games and fantasy worlds, I suspect that in any other director’s hands, I may well have abandoned Ready Player One in its relatively early stages.

Of course, it’s all subjective, but as ever, huge credit is probably due to the master of story telling himself, Steven Spielberg, whose direction once again seems to strike the perfect balance.

Ultimately the ‘take-home’ message seems to be that in these days of iPhone-wielding phone zombies and the very real issue of video game addiction, we all need to make extra effort to strike a healthy balance between the embracing of technology and the continuation of real human interaction and relationships.

That’s all well and good in theory, but I suspect that given the hugely immersive and overwhelmingly impressive virtual reality world conjured up in the likes of Ready Player One, reality is going to have to pull out some serious stops in the very near future, just to compete.

UNSANE

Three and a half Star Rating

“Shooting a major motion picture using an iPhone may not be an entirely original concept… but rarely has it been done so effectively as this…” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s certainly unnerving to consider that a mental health clinic could be quite so morally bankrupt as to forcibly admit a patient on the strength of their rather ill-informed consent, and a legal loophole, only to insist that they must then remain effectively incarcerated there until their insurance company agrees to cough up.

At which point the patient is, needless to say, free to leave.

Such shady goings-on form the rather unethical crux of one particular clinic’s operating practices, and serve as the ominous backdrop for Steven Soderbergh’s latest uber tense stalker-thriller, Unsane.

Based upon the writing of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, it tells the tale of young professional, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a girl who has been plagued by an obsessive stalker, David Strine, for many long, harrowing years.

Consequently her life has become highly transient; one never ending logistical headache as she finds herself forever upping sticks and re-inventing her identity.

In yet another new job in yet another new town – a mildly lecherous boss-aside – Sawyer’s life for once seems to be mercifully settled and uneventful. But be it real or simply a figment of her tortured imagination, she once again glimpses what she believes to be the tell-tale beard and glasses ‘combination’ of her relentlessly obsessive stalker, and with nerves a-jangling, she reluctantly decides that enough is enough, and sets about seeking the help of mental health specialists.

Whilst being a good idea in theory, a combination of her chosen clinic’s unscrupulous working practices and the fact that unbelievably, yet perhaps not surprisingly, David Strine – employed here under yet another pseudonym – is going to be administering the patients’ daily suppressants.

And thus yet another round of painful torment begins.

Shooting a major motion picture using an iPhone may not be an entirely original concept – Sean Baker’s 2015 film, Tangerine, immediately springs to mind – but rarely has it been done so effectively as this, both from a technical and a psychological point of view.

The very fact that we witness the action unfold through what could very easily be imagined to be the lens of an iPhone-wielding stalker, adds an underlying sense of menace to Soderbergh’s film, not to mention a rawness to the footage that occasionally lends the piece a sort of 1970’s B-movie feel.

And that is meant in a genuinely complimentary way.

From the 4:3 screen aspect ratio to the occasional pronounced barrelling at either side of the screen, Unsane‘s look represents something of a departure from what one would expect from a standard motion picture, which will inevitably have relied upon far more cutting-edge technology to realise its final vision.

Whilst Unsane, on balance, is a very effective piece of film-making, it is however necessary for the viewer to make some pretty sizeable leaps of the imagination, almost as sizeable, I should add, as the films rather unlikely premise and numerous plot holes.

That said, there’s lots to like about Soderbergh’s psychological thriller. There’s a tremendous over-riding sense of helplessness and injustice that is well sustained throughout, and Sawyer’s own sense of psychological deterioration and despair is genuinely tangible.

Claire Foy is on top form as the feisty beleaguered ‘stalkee’. Joshua Leonard is well cast as Sawyer’s softly spoken yet ominously creepy stalker, whilst Juno Temple – almost unrecognisable in this instance – puts in a delightfully deranged turn as one of Foy’s hyper-antagonistic room mates.

One can perhaps, to a point, draw some parallels with the sinister autocratic overtones of Milos Forman’s enduring 1975 masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though these are largely peripheral in the grand scheme of Soderbergh’s film’s narrative.

Though I’m not entirely convinced that the piece plays out quite as effectively as it might have done, and that the film’s mildly cathartic Misery-esque conclusion is perhaps a little clumsy, these are but minor quibbles.

Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a proper ‘what if’ thriller. Highly effective and utterly affecting.

THE SQUARE

Three and a half Star Rating

“…The Square subtly lampoons and pricks the pomposity of the world of contemporary arts.” – Wayward Wolf.

Having lived in Sweden for a certain period of time I fully recognise the quietly unassuming nature of its humble, confrontation-shy people, for whom crowing about personal achievement is considered somewhat uncouth and unnecessary.

And having attended a college of the arts over-run with wannabe Marxists, I feel that I’m also relatively well placed to recognise insufferable bullshit too.

I have attended modules in which we have been encouraged to consider ways of talking about talking about the arts. And I have shuffled in bemused confusion around blue cotton sheets – strewn randomly in cow-filled Devonshire fields – each of which having been covered with bric-a-brac and obscure objects. And I have mused over said objects and their placement on said sheet, as I have been asked to do.

And I have thus questioned my sanity and what the flying fekk I am actually doing there in the first place, and how indeed it all came to this?

Not a million miles removed from this, Ruben Östlund’s satirical send-up of the art world, The Square, is a deviously comical film that makes a lot of societal assumptions, yet one that asks a lot of questions of its viewers too.

Christian (Claes Bang), is the chief curator of the X-Royal Contemporary Art Museum, preparing for the launch of its latest exhibit, The Square; an illuminated ‘safe space’ designed to represent an area in which our human rights, freedom of thought, speech and action are all absolutely sacrosanct.

Having had his mobile phone stolen one day in the streets of Stockholm, Christian traces the phone to a high rise building in something of a suspect neighbourhood. Here, he and a colleague gingerly distribute a number of stern worded leaflets to each and every apartment demanding the return of his mobile device, believing this ‘catch-all’ method to be the most effective one if he is to have any hope of its safe return.

Christian feels emboldened by his actions, but unfortunately for him, this will prove to be just one of a catalogue of poor decisions he will make, ultimately triggering a personal multi-layered existential crisis from which there is little hope of escape, especially given the innate Swedish guilt complex with which he – and the softly spoken Swedes in general – seem to be terminally afflicted.

Östlund’s film focuses on some of the current moral and ethical issues and dilemmas affecting the peoples of Europe, particularly in relation to European attitudes towards the integration and subsequent treatment of minorities, as well as examining the impact of sensationalism within the so often truly vacuous industry of marketing, and its widespread affect upon the psyche and herd mentality of populations.

All the while, The Square subtly and brilliantly lampoons and pricks the pomposity of the world of contemporary arts.

Be it Christian attempting to dismiss as unimportant a well-intentioned cleaner having accidentally hoovered up part of a new exhibit of piles of gravel strategically positioned around a room, or the reaction to a man imitating a chimpanzee causing untold carnage in the process as he jumps from table to table at a black tie ‘performance’ event, The Square is at times wickedly funny, pushing numerous boundaries and frequently bordering on the wholly inappropriate.

There are an awful lot of positives to focus upon. Indeed there’s an awful lot – full stop – to take from Östlund’s film. Arguably – in the name of clarity – perhaps a bit too much, in fact. But as entertaining and thought-provoking as The Square undoubtedly is, to the hyper critical, there’s also a bit of a sense of a lack of cohesion about the film’s numerous constituent acts and themes.

Regardless, it’s a fine piece, make no mistake about that, and a more than worthy follow up to Östlund’s indisputably wonderful, Force Majeure.

The Square provokes, challenges and entertains, much in the way good art – pretentious or otherwise – always really should.

GHOST STORIES

Three and a half Star Rating

“…it’s only once the third tale reaches it’s climactic ‘conclusion’ that events really start to take a peculiar twist, and Ghost Stories slips into an even more intriguing dimension altogether…” – Wayward Wolf.

Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories focuses on a certain Professor Goodman (portrayed by Andy Nyman himself), a man who has found some level of career fame in exposing and debunking the work of fraudulent so-called psychics. 

The arrival of a mysterious package one day from a famous TV psychic investigator from Goodman’s own childhood era, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) – a man thought to be long dead and whose own disappearance years before had been shrouded in mystery – soon changes the course of Goodman’s future work, dramatically.

It transpires that there are three ghostly mysteries that Cameron himself had wrestled with throughout his life, yet they remain unresolved to this day. It is Cameron’s wish, in his old age, that Goodman should now investigate them and bring some much needed resolution to proceedings.

Armed with each of the case files, Goodman sets about tracking down the three key proponents, upon whose testimony these apparent other-worldly happenings are based.

Though somewhat shaken by his findings, Goodman’s own innate scepticism leads him to believe that each of these cases can easily be explained away through the simple application of science and logic.

But sometimes it’s the psychological uncertainties of our own minds that can provide the biggest clues when we seek to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable.

Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories works effectively for much of its duration as an apparently straight forward, slightly hammed-up spook-fest, though there is little by way of conclusions that can be garnered on face value from any of the three tales.

But alarm bells should begin to ring for the viewer when one considers that the first two tales are told from the perspective of a couple of characters who, despite ultimately finding themselves cornered by forces of evil and in apparently terminally hopeless predicaments, both still somehow manage to live to tell the tale. And it’s only once the third tale reaches it’s climactic ‘conclusion’ that events really start to take a peculiar twist, and Ghost Stories slips into an even more intriguing dimension altogether; one whose narrative slips and slides between apparently random events of varied illogic, yet one which ultimately helps to tie the film’s pieces neatly and cleverly together.

There are a few passing parallels with landmark horror films of yesteryear. Elements of Poltergeist and The Blair Witch Project are apparent in places, but curiously it’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek, ‘hammer house’ atmosphere that is most prevalent here. And although admittedly bearing little resemblance, content-wise, Roy Ward Baker’s 1981 ghoulish and very British, twist-in-the-tale offering, The Monster Club, with its own lightly comical regaling of three haunting tales – is for me, somehow the film that I am most reminded of.

Certainly, within their own film, Dyson and Nyman are unafraid to administer generous doses of gallows humour in just the right places, and the casting of two chiefly comic actors in Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse – both of whom are excellent here – in two of the film’s key roles, certainly helps with regard to this, whilst Nyman’s own rather more straight portrayal of a man with an emotionally-scarred past, is equally impressive.

Whether it’s to be considered a mysterious cognitive thriller or simply a ghostly shocker, either way, Ghost Stories is highly effective, lingering on in the memory the way all good cerebrally-challenging psychological horrors should.