Archive for the ‘Thriller’ Category

The_Imitation_Game_poster

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Graham Moore

Country: UK/USA

Runtime: 114 minutes

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Alan Leech, Rory Kinnear

Man or machine? Alan Turing’s story finally gets a big-screen telling in this gripping thriller

Now recognised as one of the key figures in the Allied victory in World War Two because of his role in breaking German codes, as well as being the father of modern computing, Alan Turing was a relatively obscure figure for many years. His profile gradually increased from the mid-1980’s onwards, when a West End play Breaking the Code was staged about his life, culminating in 2013 with a Queen’s pardon for the charge of gross indecency that ultimately led to his suicide. Now Turing’s story has finally hit the big screen in this scintillating thriller directed by Morton Tyldum.

Graham Moore’s beautifully-paced and gripping screenplay for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma”. Rather than take us in a a linear fashion from Turing’s wartime work to his tragic demise, Moore cleverly interweaves three periods in his subject’s life in such a way that we are left not just with a sense of tragedy, but also of Turing’s great triumph. The bulk of the story concerns the war years at Bletchley Park, but we also see Turing during his school years and in the 1950s during the period when he was investigated by the police, arrested, and subsequently found dead at home.

The concept of the ‘imitation game’ is explained to a police officer by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), whilst being interviewed after his arrest. Taken from a 1950 scientific article by Turing (not actually called ‘The Imitation Game’, contrary to what the film states), the game imagines an interrogator trying to distinguish between a thinking machine and a person, both unseen, on the basis of typed responses to questions. In order for the machine to bamboozle the interrogator its best strategy is to try and imitate a person. The central conceit of the film is to portray Turing as a machine. Remarkably intelligent, even as a schoolboy, Turing doesn’t really know how to interact with others. He takes other people’s spoken utterances entirely at face value, failing to appreciate the intended meanings and not comprehending jokes at all.

Although initially a subordinate in MI6’s secret team of codebreakers, Turing is frustrated that he cannot get the others to appreciate his ideas. After appealing directly to Churchill, Turing is put in charge but then is faced with the challenge of leading and motivating others whilst lacking any noticeable social skills. Gradually, Turing learns some of the aspects of normal interaction, especially in his chaste romance with the team’s only female, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). But does Turing really understand and feel any of this, or is he just imitating normal human behaviour? Surprisingly, several scenes are extremely funny. Turing’s portrayal here will surely spark a flash of recognition in readers of the British adult comic Viz, as Turing’s behaviour bears a striking resemblance to that of Mr Logic (it has, in fact, been suggested that Turing may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, though retrospective diagnoses are notoriously difficult and we can’t say for sure that this was the case).

After working for months without success, and with the whole project under threat, a chance remark in a bar leads Turing to realise how the German codes can be broken (this scene is reminiscent of the one in A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe’s John Nash explains – wrongly, unfortunately – the concept of the Nash Equilibrium). However, once the team discover they are able to decode German messages Turing reveals a terrible truth: the British military and intelligence services cannot use this knowledge to prevent all the German attacks they know are being planned.

An activity as complex and mathematical as codebreaking is not one that lends itself naturally to drama, but Graham Moore’s first-class script and Morten Tyldum’s direction do a terrific job of ramping up the tension and making the story exciting. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Turing, but the real revelation for me was Keira Knightley. She gives a passionate and stirring performance as Joan Clarke, a proto-feminist figure of blazing intelligence, who herself had to engage in an imitation game – pretending to be something she wasn’t – in order to satisfy her parents’ more traditional expectations for their daughter. Finally, a word must go to Oscar Faura’s cinematography, which I thought was outstanding.

Although principally a biographical drama, I would say that The Imitation Game also deserves to be considered alongside more action-oriented movies as one of the great war films.

Rating: 10/10

Previewed at the British Film Institute, 9th November

Nightcrawlerfilm

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Country: USA

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Joe Paxton

Jake Gyllenhaal excels as a psychopathic news cameraman working his way up the ladder of power

Dan Gilroy’s superb first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, is the gripping story of a ruthless nobody-turned-freelance-cameraman who works his way up the ladder by taking risks and transgressing moral boundaries. But really, Nightcrawler is more than this. It is a dark satire on the kind of Randian objectivist philosophy, which champions the pursuit of individual self-interest within a system of laissez-faire capitalism. Gilroy shows how this kind of world corrupts everybody who comes into contact with it.

The film begins with a gaunt, straggly-haired, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to scrape a living by stealing copper wire and other metallic items in order to sell to a scrap yard. But Bloom is not just an ordinary guy ducking-and-diving to make his way through hard times. He is a psychopath. In the opening scene, whilst Bloom is trespassing in order to cut a section of wire fence, he is challenged by a security guard. Bloom attacks the guard and steals the chunky watch he is wearing. As later events transpire Bloom’s character never changes. The only sense in which he learns is by digesting information from the internet that he then uses to his advantage in his interactions with others. It is the people around Gyllenhaal who change, becoming more compromised and corrupted as he manipulates them (although the news environment itself is already the ideal environment for such manipulation to occur).

Bloom discovers a way to escape from his world of petty crime when, whilst driving down the Los Angeles freeway, he encounters a news crew filming a bloody crash scene. Buttonholing one of the cameramen, Joe (Joe Paxton), he learns that they are a freelance outfit selling to whichever station pays the most.  Bloom steals a bicycle and takes it to a used goods store, where he swaps it for a camcorder and a police band radio. From this point onwards he starts muscling in at accident and crime scenes, racing to beat other crews to get the first pictures.

After selling some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the head of a local newsroom, she gives him advice about the kind of footage they are seeking, which is predominantly white victims in the suburbs being hurt at the hands of the poor or ethnic minorities. She sums up the spirit of what they air as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”.

Bloom recruits a homeless Asian guy, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as a low-paid intern, whose job is “to listen to the emergency radio, learn the police codes, help navigate and watch the car”. Like a ghoulish version of his namesake in Ulysses, Bloom stalks the city streets with Rick seeking death and injury. With an eye as to what makes a good shot, he begins to rearrange crime and accident scenes for his own benefit, and to intrude on private property. His relationships with others are entirely economic transactions. One moment Bloom is threatening Rick with the sack for spilling petrol on the paintwork of his car, but the next moment he is dishing out praise and the prospect of promotion in order to overcome Rick’s moral qualms about their actions. Bloom starts a relationship with Nina, but this is entirely premised on the value of the footage he is able to collect and the possibility he might take it to another station.

It is a tribute to the screen presence and acting skills of Gyllenhaal, as well as to Gilroy’s excellent screenplay, that the audience (this viewer, at least) is able to maintain interest in a character as unsympathetic as Bloom. One of the characteristics of psychopaths, of course, is that they are often charming. Gyllenhaal captures this in the exchanges where, with a half-smile on his face and burning intensity in his eyes, he lavishes praise and flattery on others. I would not be surprised to see Gyllenhaal in the shortlist for the Oscars. Rene Russo (married to writer/director Dan Gilroy) also turns in a good performance as Nina, who by turns seems repelled and attracted by Bloom’s usurping of her power in both their personal and professional relationships. Riz Ahmed does a splendid job of portraying the plight of Rick, who has been taken off the streets by Bloom, but who could end up back there at any moment. He knows that what they are doing is wrong, but is desperate not to be homeless again. Rick is more dependent on Bloom than anyone else, but he is also the only person to show any moral qualms. Despite the various bullshit motivational speeches that Bloom makes, Rick’s liquid eyes constantly alternate between hope and fear. I wouldn’t mind betting that Ahmed could find himself in the Oscar stakes for best supporting actor.

In one sense, Dan Gilroy is treading similar ground to films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. However, whereas those films placed considerable emphasis on the lifestyle excess that accompanies professional success, Nightcrawler is a much more ascetic affair. Bloom is a loner, who continues to live in a modest apartment even as his success spirals. His sole motivation is to be good at what he does and to climb the ladders of power. Other people are there to be used in whatever way will help achieve his goals. Unlike, say, the character of Bud Fox in Wall Street, there is absolutely no capacity for empathy or redemption. The consequences of this behaviour are shown to chilling effect.

I was also impressed by the musical soundtrack to the film. This is very unobtrusive, but all the more effective for it in a less-is-more kind of way. There are many sequences where there is no background music, but then when it appears it comes in fairly quietly and then builds, so that an atmosphere is created almost without you noticing the music.

Rating: 10/10

Correction: In an earlier version I wrote “aesthetic”, when I meant to say “ascetic”.

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

Country: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, UK

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussain Salameh, Jack Fox

An outstanding desert survival drama from a talented first-time director

It is 1916. A group of Bedouin sit around a nighttime campfire in the Arabian desert. A stranger approaches on a camel. He is a British Army officer (Jack Fox), trying to catch up with his regiment. The Bedouin welcome him into their group and the next day two of them set out to accompany the soldier across the desert. However, young Theeb (meaning “wolf”) refuses to be left behind by his older brother (both of them are orphans) and chases after the group on his donkey. The older Arabs are reluctant to take Theeb (Jacir Eid) along with them, but it is a long way back to their camp and the boy is persistent. They all travel together, but eventually tragedy strikes when they are attacked by other Arabs.

As the story develops it becomes more than just a tale of a small group trying to survive a journey in the desert (although it is very much about this too). It is about how encroaching modernity, exemplified by the Ottoman’s desert railway, threatens the survival of nomadic peoples.  The Bedouin in the film are all non-professional actors, drawn from the last remaining Bedouin tribe in Jordan. They turn in quite exceptional performances. Unfortunately, as neither the London Film Festival programme, nor iMDB, connect the actors’ names to the characters I don’t know who to praise for his portrayal of a black-clad Arab bandit that Theeb encounters. By turns desperate, angry, trusting and friendly, this is a performance that dominates the film. For a first-time feature-film director to obtain such performances from non-professionals is really quite something special.

An obvious point of comparison for Theeb is Lawrence of Arabia, especially in relation to the blond-haired English officer seeking assistance from the native Bedouin. Writing in Sight & Sound magazine, Nick James wrote that he saw Theeb as “an antidote to the imperial swagger of Lawrence of Arabia”. However, whilst it is difficult not to make the comparison, in reality these are two entirely different movies. I don’t even consider that Lawrence has “imperial swagger”, which strikes me as a fundamental misreading of that great film, whose protagonist sought to champion the autonomy of the Arab peoples. In fact, to the extent that the two films have any connection it is the way they invite the audience to side, or at least sympathise, with the Arabs rather than the British or the Turks. In conversation after the film, Director Naji Abu Nowar explicitly stated that he did not consider his film to be an “antidote” to Lawrence, and went on to express his great regard for David Lean and that movie.

The opening segments of Theeb lull the audience into a false sense of security. For about fifteen minutes or so the film moves along quietly at a fairly sedate pace, showing hospitable Bedouin conversing with each other, looking after their English visitor, drinking from wells, and also depicting the slow careful pacing of camels through the desert. Then, just as you have convinced yourself that Theeb is going to be some sort of arty meditation on desert living, there is a shock that had many of the people around me cry out and raise their hands to their faces (OK, I admit it, I did this too). A few minutes later there is another shock that will most likely make you jump up in your seat. At one point the woman in the seat next to me was covering her eyes with her hands, like a child watching the Daleks circa 1973. From hereon in the film becomes a gripping drama.

Theeb is one of the most memorable pieces of dramatic cinema that I have watched this year and has deservedly won plaudits for director Naji Abu Nowar, including director prize at the Venice Film Festival Horizons section and Arab Filmmaker of the Year prize from Variety at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Rating: 9/10

Director: Robert Flores

Writers: Paul Jarrico & Allen Vincent (from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell)

Country: USA

Runtime: 69 mins

A tour de force of acting from Peter Lorre as a tragic immigrant whose life is changed by a fire

According to the British Film Institute’s programme notes, Peter Lorre didn’t think much of the script for The Face Behind the Mask. He would often be the worse for the drink in the afternoon, leading director Robert Flores to get as many as possible of his scenes shot in the morning. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Lorre gives an utterly sublime performance, ranging from happy and innocent through to mean and ruthless, and ultimately loving and tragic.

Adapted from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell, the story concerns Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre), a newly-arrived Hungarian immigrant in New York. Happy and optimistic, he makes the acquaintance of police Lieutenant James ‘Jim’ O’Hara (Don Beddoe), who helps him find accommodation. But disaster strikes: there is a fire in the hotel and Janos’s face is badly disfigured. Unable to find work because of the way he looks, Janos finds himself helped and befriended by Dinky (George Stone), a crook with gang connections. Janos doesn’t want to become involved with the gang, but when Dinky is too ill take take part in a job Janos takes his place out of loyalty. Through his earnings from crime Janos is able to purchase a fairly lifelike mask so that people can bear to look at him. However, surgery to repair his face his still beyond his means.

A watchmaker, Janos turns out to have technical skills that are valuable to the gang. By dint of his intelligence and ability he leads the gang on more jobs and rises to become the leader, deposing the former boss Harry (Stanley Brown). However, money can’t buy everything and the doctors tell him his face is effectively beyond repair. But then Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), who is blind, and the two fall in love. Janos decides to put the world of crime behind him, but his past catches up with him when Harry gets the idea that Janos has betrayed them.

The one weakness of the film is right at the start. The events leading up to Janos’s disfigurement are a little too pat and rather rushed. However, once these scenes are out of the way the pacing improves and the story settles down. The relationships between Jarnos and Dinky, and between Jarnos and Helen, are deftly handled and convincing. But more than anything else, it is impossible not to be impressed by Peter Lorre’s performance. It is hard to think of another actor who, in the space of a single movie, could move so convincingly between comically naive innocence and frightening menace. The end of the film, when it comes, is truly touching.

Rating: 8/10.

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI Southbank, London, in September 2014.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2)

Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

Writers: Nikolaj Arcei (from the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen)

Country: Denmark / Germany / Sweden

Runtime: 97 mins

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Ernst Boye

A taut, efficient police thriller, but hardly original

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a rather curious film. It is enjoyable enough (though not for the squeamish), but doesn’t really offer anything more than you would expect from television dramas such as Wallander or Waking The Dead. Based on the first of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s “Department Q” detective series, the key characters are an odd-couple pair of cops who are the sole operatives in a cold case unit (whose status is indicated by its location in a dusty basement).

Nikolaj Lie Kaas plays Carl Mørck, a taciturn former homicide cop who no-one will work with, following a disastrous operation. He finds himself relegated to Department Q, where he is expected to do no more than shuffle through cold case files and to close three of them every week. Mørck’s partner is Assad (Fares Fares), a big friendly Muslim of middle-Eastern origin (in the book he is a Syrian refugee). Aspects of these men’s lives are hinted at but not developed, presumably allowing scope for treatment in any sequels. For example, Mørck has the obligatory family problems (separated from wife; a wayward stepson), and we never discover what misdemeanour has led Assad to be assigned to Department Q. 

Rather than simply closing the files as directed, Mørck begins investigating a case that he is familiar with. This concerns the disappearance, believed to be suicide, of politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter). However, Mørck’s boss is far from happy to discover that his officers are going round upsetting people with their questions, not to mention exceeding their meagre budget. Thus, drawing on another familiar trope of cop movies, our men are suspended but carry on anyway, before the ultimate redemption. 

The one pleasingly novel element in The Keeper of Lost Causes is the inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim character (as opposed to the usual crazed villains of Hollywood movies). On the negative side, however, is the lack of any significant female characters other than the victim (Wallander and Waking The Dead managed to create significant parts for women).

Presumably this is meant to be the first of a series of Department Q book adaptations, but really this is television rather than cinematic material.

Rating: 6/10

TipTop (1)

Countries: Luxembourg, France, Belgium 2013

Director: Serge Bozon

Writers: Odie Barski / Serge Bozon / Axelle Ropert

Runtime: 106 mins

 

A police procedural-as-farce that entertains but doesn’t fire on all cylinders

At one point in Tip Top a detective reports to a senior officer on the sexual peccadilloes of two female Internal Affairs officers. “One likes to hit”, he says, “The other one peeps”. “What do you think the police are doing, then?” is the reply. Emphasising the point, we see a policeman staring in through the window, whereupon a passing copper slaps the back of his head. It is a funny moment in a film that gently amuses, but needs more such moments to really succeed.

The story revolves around the murder of Farid Benamar, a former Algerian policeman-come-refugee, who was the president of a French-Algerian friendship association – possibly engaged in shady activities – and an informant for the French police. To investigate whether the local force could have handled matters better two Internal Affairs officers are sent in. They are Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain). The latter has been demoted because of “private behaviour incompatible with police ethics” which, we discover, refers to her compulsive Peeping Tom behaviour. Esther Lafarge, on the other hand, gets her kicks from hitting, and being hit by, her violinist boyfriend Gérald (Samy Naceri).

In one early scene we see the two women in their adjoining hotel rooms. Marinelli is gently pleasuring herself as she stares at a half-naked man in an apartment across the way. Lafarge is doing likewise as she stares at images of handcuffs, hammers, and other implements of violence, sent to her mobile phone by Gérald. Meanwhile, local detective Robert Mendès (François Damiens) is trying to peek through their keyholes in order to get some information on these women who are investigating his department. This scene sums up the basic conceit of the film: everybody is watching everyone else. When a seedy reporter starts poking around Mendès accuses him of being a Peeping Tom. But when the story breaks in the media, we realise that the general public are also hanging on every salacious detail of the case.

Such sexual territory is nothing new for Isabelle Huppert, whose character in The Piano Teacher spied on lovers in parked cars. Here, though, the subject matter is played for laughs and Huppert deadpans beautifully in her role, especially as her own character’s behaviour starts to teeter out of control. Kiberlain also effortlessly conveys the gawky awkwardness of Sally Marinelli, and François Damiens amuses as a detective whose faltering attempts to speak Arabic recall Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

Unfortunately, the film’s comic potential is undermined by a weak internal logic and poor pacing. In the case of Marinelli’s character, it is not clear why anyone’s private behaviour would be worthy of police attention, let alone demotion within the force. We are also told early on that Lafarge is a highly respected officer, yet later on her own position comes into question because of her own sexual activities, which leads us to wonder how she has got so far without anyone noticing her proclivities before. Tip Top also commits the cinematic sin of placing the best scene at the very start of the film (in which a man – who is actually a police officer – storms into a bar frequented by Algerians and starts shouting racist insults). After this promising opening the rhythm of the film barely changes, apart from one scene where we see Lafarge and Gerald getting their sadomasochistic kicks.

Bearing in mind these shortcomings, I probably enjoyed this film more than it deserved, in large part because of the good performances and, especially, the magnetic screen presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Rating: 6/10

Tip Top was shown at the 2014 East End Film Festival www.eastendfilmfestival.com

Locke_poster

In a series of phone calls whilst on a motorway journey a man’s life falls apart

USA/UK 2013

Director: Steven Knight

Writer: Steven Knight

Runtime: 85 minutes

There must be something in the air. These last few months have given us several films (Gravity, All is Lost, Tracks) in which  a lone or nearly-alone protagonist has to negotiate a difficult situation. For the filmmaker, too, such movies – lacking the usual levels of human interaction – also create a difficult situation, namely the challenge of creating the tension that drives the story along. In Locke, Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) delivers us another lone protagonist in the figure of Welshman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a building site manager who we first meet clocking off and heading down the motorway towards London. For the rest of the film we stay with Locke on his journey through the night, during the course of which a series of hands-free mobile phone calls chart the unravelling of his life. The only other human figures we ever see are a few other men leaving the site at the start of the film and some motorway maintenance workers.

A night-time drive along a motorway may not sound like a promising idea for a movie, but the conversations that transpire during Ivan Locke’s journey are a masterclass in the creation of dramatic tension. Initially, Locke seems like a man in control, deftly scrolling between the contacts on his phone list and making arrangements. But it quickly becomes apparent that something is not right. Locke tells Donal (Andrew Scott), a deputy at the building site, that he will not be turning up for work tomorrow, a crucially important day when huge quantities of concrete are being delivered to lay the foundations for a new tall building. The reason for Locke’s absence is an unenviable personal drama, and Locke finds himself juggling phone calls with colleagues and family, every one of whom is having a drama of their own as the result of Locke’s behaviour.

Through all the turmoil Locke is a man trying to do the right thing by everybody, although sometimes you feel that he is possibly slightly delusional about his ability to put everything right. Locke is trying to be a responsible person, unlike the dead father whom – when not on the phone – he curses and berates. Whenever Locke launches into one of these tirades he stares into the rear view mirror, a symbolic representation of the past where perhaps he expects to see his father’s shade. Outside Locke’s vehicle, headlights and neon lights flash by. Occasionally, police cars, sirens wailing, remind us that there are other dramas going on beyond the one happening before us.

Tom Hardy’s performance as Ivan Locke is quite dazzling. The gentle lilting Welsh accent with which he speaks perfectly suits the outward display of calm with which he meets the various challenges facing him, but it also makes it seem all the more disturbing when emotions burst through to the surface. One suspects that Locke could work as a radio play, as ultimately it is a triumph of writing and performance.

Rating: 10/10

Hungerford (1)

UK / Canada 2014

Director: Drew Casson

Writers: Drew Casson & Jess Cleverly

Runtime: 79 mins

When Hungerford was introduced to the audience at Sci-Fi-London, the festival organiser Louis Savy joked that there was a lot of love in the room for this film but a lot of hate outside; the reason being that other directors would be sick at the attention being garnered for a first time feature by a 19 year old director who has not been to film school.

Hungerford is a low budget feature, produced by start-up film funders Wildseed Studios, but by any standards it is a hugely enjoyable and accomplished film. It pulls off the neat trick of being considerably more than the sum of its parts. Firstly, it is a found footage movie, which is a technique you might have thought had run out of steam. Secondly, whether consciously or unconsciously the writers would appear to have been heavily influenced by Shaun of the Dead (with maybe a pinch of Hot Fuzz and 28 Days Later added for good measure). Third, this is more or less a zombie film, which is itself a genre that has rather been done to, er, death, in recent years.

Plotwise, the story is straight out of Shaun of the Dead: A young man without much direction in his life has to rally his only semi-responsible friends when the people in their town become zombies (actually possessed by alien entities). This includes making a trip to rescue the girl with whom he has a rather on-off relationship and who takes a rather dim view of his own friends. What makes this so much more than a merely derivative film, however, is the sheer verve with which the story is told, the convincing performances of the actors and especially the excellent chemistry between them.

The film begins with young Cowen speaking to camera, having just woken up with a hangover, and explaining how this is the first day of the video diary he is making for his BTEC media course. He stumbles around the house introducing us to his friends – eager-to-please Philippa (Georgia Bradley), nerdy Kipper (Sam Carter), and the slightly dodgy Adam (Tom Scarlett). Adam is the kind of blokey bloke who might be fun to have around until the point where he fails to spot the borderline between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Adam is on probation, for what reason we don’t know, and when Cowen wakes him from his slumber he rolls over to reveal a black eye.

As Cowen is filming his diary the town is rocked by an almighty explosion. Comical copper Terry (Nigel Morgan) arrives on the scene to explain that a factory on the outskirts has been struck by lightning. However, following this dramatic event the townfolk start to behave strangely, and in due course we have a full-on zombie onslaught – although they are not zombies in the strictest sense; rather, people are being possessed by alien creatures that resemble giant cockroaches.

Hungerford is exciting and funny in all the right places, but whereas Shaun of the Dead finished on a joke that tied up its bromance theme director Drew Casson leaves us with a rather more serious ending that provides the scope for a possible sequel. I just hope that Cowen passed his BTEC.

Rating: 9/10

Bunker 6 (1)

Bunker 6 is a brilliant Canadian low-budget (about £70,000) movie set in an alternate future. Shot in an actual nuclear fallout shelter in Nova Scotia, it tells the story of a small group of people living below ground after a nuclear strike in 1962 (the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the cold war threatened to go hot). Although billed as science fiction, in many ways it is closer to a gothic horror where the nuclear bunker substitutes for the country house.

The central character is Grace (Andrea Lee Norwood), who – in 1962 – is still a young girl living with her parents. Her father is a senior military figure, so when the bomb goes off they are all piling into the shelter. However, Grace’s parents get caught in the blast before they can get through the entrance door. Several years later, Grace survives below ground with two men and two women, led by ruthless young Alice (Molly Dunsworth). Communications with the outside world and other bunkers have been lost. However, noone can leave until the red light above the strong metal door turns green. Grace regularly monitors the colour of this light. She also has engineering responsibilities, ensuring the the power keeps running in their subterranean prison.

But the problems of engineering are nothing compared to the challenge of simply staying sane, and we learn that an earlier inhabitant went crazy, killing his wife and then himself. Then, when one of their number is found dead the struggle for survival becomes even more intense. Should they remain in the bunker or should they risk going back into the outside world? However, if the external environment is still deadly then opening the blast doors will kill all of them, and so Alice will not allow anybody to leave.

There are assured performances from all concerned, especially Andrea Lee Norwood. I thought the initial set-up – Grace as a child and the beginning of war – was a little rushed, but beyond this Greg Jackson’s script and direction builds the tension effectively. The use of a real nuclear bunker gives the whole thing a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere.

Shown at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Rating: 8/10

Desolate is a 77 minute film made on a shoestring budget by director Rob Grant, using a single DSLR camera and some borrowed sound equipment. It is also surprisingly good, though needless to say you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it to appear at your nearest multiplex. I saw this film at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, and I daresay the festival circuit may well be your best chance to catch up with it if you are a sci-fi fan.

The story concerns Chad (Jez Bonham), who has recently broken up with his girlfriend Annie (Teagan Vincze). Consequently, he has hit the bottle, believing that Annie is having an affair with his best friend, Devon (Justin Sproule). Whilst Chad and Devon are arguing about this up in the hills, there is a huge explosion in the town below. Chad returns to his apartment where the rolling news coverage reveals that the devastation may have been a UFO crashing, and that witnesses have reported seeing “creatures”. Creatures there turn out to be, and they don’t want to make friends.

Given the lack of budget, director Grant cleverly relies on the viewer’s own imagination to create an atmosphere of fear.  It’s a horror movie technique as old as the hills to use the sight of a door to make us afraid of what might be on the other side, but it works with great effect here. I was genuinely gripped throughout. Of course, given the limitations that Grant is working within, there are lots of shaky camera shots deployed, with people and objects going in and out of focus. Although these techniques are fairly obvious to the viewer, Grant at least does not attempt to pad the film out, and I thought the film was just about the right length. It kept my attention until the rather Shakespearean ending.

Perhaps the weakest aspect was that the central character of Chad was not especially likeable. He starts out as rather self-pitying and selfish, and I can’t say that he seemed much different at the end. On the other hand, he isn’t a bad character, so I was still able to root for him against the monsters – I don’t know if all viewers would be as tolerant as me in this regard!

Rating: 6/10