'You've crossed the line. You're on their side now.'

Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carre’s 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man is an engaging, refreshingly real look at the post-9/11 state of German and American intelligence services as they desperately scramble to make the world ‘a safer place.’ The plot is lacking in urgency, no doubt due to the dilutive effect of condensing a complex novel for screen, but an outstanding final performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman draws you in to the narrative and demands your attention with a subtle brutality.

Hamburg 2008, Gunter Bachmann is struggling against the restrictive influence of the Americans to follow his instincts and bring down a key financier of Islamic terror forces. When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) turns up in Hamberg with a claim to his father’s multi-million inheritance, it falls to Bachmann’s team alongside idealistic human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to determine whether Karpov is a jihadist and a threat to the state, or merely a wealthy refugee seeking asylum and a new life.

What permeates this film is the pressure, suspicion and fear that was affecting the state post-9/11. The uncertainty of the German intelligence services is clear as they cling to the Americans for reassurance and direction, with only Bachmann seeing the truth of their manipulation and underhand tactics. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood film that is essentially about Muslim terrorism, in which the only clear ‘bad guys’ are the Americans.

In aesthetic terms Corbijn has created a world that is entirely realistic – there are no grand sets, futuristic gadgets or stylised shot compositions. The colour palette is washed out and dreary, bringing the intrigue into the realms of the possible. But the problem is that the realist, slow-burning complexity of le Carre’s thriller doesn’t quite translate into a two-hour slot. Without the supporting reams of information and back-story about each character and the intricacies of each relationship, Corbijn can’t get away with keeping it so simple. It ends up coming across tepid and slightly passionless.

Hoffman is every bit the washed-up spy. Chain-smoking, whisky guzzling and self-consciously unkempt – Hoffman’s solitary, loveless loner who lives for his work is an archetypal character that he manages to reinvent. With an ominously stoic façade, well-timed outbursts of animalistic emotion and a steady drip-feed of surprising character nuances, Hoffman is an undeniable presence on screen that you’re desperate to decipher. The only problem is that he eclipses everyone else. In his shadow, a rather limp Rachel McAdams and the rest of the cast are utterly forgettable.

Watch this for Hoffman’s dilapidated authority if nothing else. Corbijn’s cool directing style gives Hoffman the space to deliver a punching character performance. His exasperation and self-destructive resilience is tangible, and his whole being rings with an undertone of sad resignation about the failures of humanity.   

OUT OF TEN: SEVEN

'It's like there's someone in there…'

Director Oliver Frampton described his low-budget chiller, The Forgotten, as ‘Fish Tank meets The Shining’ and he’s got it bang on. This gritty, urban horror seamlessly merges an almost Ken Loachian social commentary with genuine suspense, made all the more frightening by the sense of realism that pervades the narrative and gives weight to the supernatural elements of the plot.

Tommy (Clem Tibber) and his dad, Mark (Shaun Dingwall) are forced to squat in an abandoned council estate, a stunningly ominous location that would be best avoided in any situation, but with the added element of desertedness – the estate takes on a life of its own. With Tommy’s dad working all hours to try to dig his family out of this dire situation, Tommy is left alone. Strange noises from the flat next door suggest that the estate might not be as deserted as it first appears…

The clever thing with The Forgotten is that real life is presented as almost as scary as ghosts and demons in the dark. The state of the rotting flats, Tommy and Mark’s survival without running water, Mark’s desperate attempts to earn a living stealing copper, struggles with debt and mental illness – Frampton manages to depict just how easy it is for people to slip below the radar of society. This film is merely a glimpse into the hundreds of people who live in poverty in Britain, on the fringes and in the shadows – these people are the forgotten.

It is the relationships and characterisations that really make this film. Tibber and Dingwall put in fantastic performances as father and son. Dingwall’s struggle between selfishness and doing right by his family is prevalent throughout – he’s painted as the bad guy, with the underlying hint that their current situation is down to his ineptitude, but Dingwall allows just enough compassion and warmth to shine through to hint at the true nature of his charcter.

The beautiful Elarica Gallagher plays Tommy’s street-wise, no-nonsense friend, unfazed by anything. Their relationship is completely non-romantic, and it is refreshing to see a platonic relationship between a young male/female combo on screen. The pair are funny, believable and endearing as they find a bond through their struggles to grow up in a less-than-nurturing environment.

The weakest element of the film is actually the supernatural stuff – it’s just less interesting than the rich, complicated family relationships and social structures developing through the narrative. But I’m glad the scary elements are there – it’s what makes this film different to Fish Tank, and this sense of realism helps to put a fresh spin on the horror genre and avoid the usual trap of clichés and obvious scares. 

I watched this film alone, which was a mistake. It will definitely freak you out. But it is the clever writing and strong performances that really draw you in.

OUT OF TEN: SEVEN POINT FIVE

'Ignorance brings chaos, not knowledge.'

Luc Besson’s Lucy is a showy, futuristic, action thriller that, whilst attempting to display the incomprehensible potential of the human brain, actually creates a story devoid of any human emotion or empathy… not to mention logic. Besson has bungled an opportunity to establish a seriously kick-ass female protagonist, and the gaping holes in the plot overshadow a concept that has real potential. 

I am all for the suspension of belief – as long as the story itself makes sense within its own constructs. Lucy didn’t. Besson is relying heavily on the fact that his audience is only using 15% of their brain capacity, so anything we don’t understand should be attributed to our feeble, little monkey brains – but I don’t buy it. The plot is confusing and the glaring contradictions only prove that Besson has, if anything, slightly lower brain capacity than his audience.

I’m being harsh. The film wasn’t a complete waste of time. Morgan Freeman was, as ever, a vigorous presence of wisdom and serenity, and the film’s concept was inarguably intriguing. I was excited to see the hypothesis coming alive and seeing the heights Lucy could reach as she unlocked more and more of her brain potential. But Johansson’s stilted monotone and blank doe eyes were grating – I wanted her to be the strong, female hero that Hollywood is so often lacking. Instead, she was sexualised, uninteresting and robbed of any sort of history or motive that would allow an audience to engage and empathise with her plight.

Before watching Lucy I read an article attacking the fact that Hollywood’s depiction of the ‘perfect’ human is a blue-eyed, blonde-haired American. I would have to agree. The film’s marginalisation of non-white races is a bit ridiculous. I’m not even sure which country the film was predominantly set, China, Taiwan and Korea were all mentioned, but the subtext may as well have read ‘Insert Generic Asian Country Here’. Almost all Asian characters were archetypal gangsters with one or two lines. Their almost comical attempts at martial arts as Lucy brushes them aside with her mind may have been intended as an homage to the great samurai movies – but just comes off as mildly offensive.

Besson doesn’t seem to be clear on the genre of his film. Initially we cut between present day and funny flashbacks; Lucy taking shots in a bar, a montage of animals reproducing – but that light-hearted tone seems to be forgotten about half way through and strangely the plot turns more solemn as the action becomes more ludicrous. It felt as though the story was being rushed to a forced conclusion. The film is only 1hr 27mins long – nowhere near enough time to tackle this enormous concept. I wanted an Inception-esque epic with mind-boggling twists, deep characters and an underlying feeling that this could be true – but Besson misses the mark.

OUT OF TEN: FOUR

'It's like a zombie apocalypse out here.'

There have been some truly terrible reviews for Stephen Quale’s Into The Storm. But the simple fact is… they’re wrong. Into The Storm is action/disaster at it’s best. Stunning effects, fast pacing, a good balance of sincerity and comic relief all make for a genuinely entertaining thriller. And if critics could leave their pretentions at the door they might have found the same. It certainly sucked me in. (Warning: there will be more tornado puns to follow). 

The special effects team need to be applauded. We are whipped into the eye of the world’s biggest storm with terrifying velocity that leaves your palms sweating and makes you flinch more than 3D movies ever could. Seeing this film on an Imax screen would be unforgettable. Visual effects producer Randall Starr has thrown everything at the aesthetics of this film and used his sizeable budget to fantastic effect. With everything from a tornado that has been set alight by petrol, to an inescapable two-mile wide twister – Starr manages to do justice to the deadly potential of nature.

I have to concede that the plot isn’t spectacular. Far from it. A small town called Silverdale is hit by an intense string of deadly tornadoes that destroy everything in its path. Most people desperately seek shelter, but a young family and a group of dedicated storm chasers find themselves heading towards the eye of the storm. The characters are nothing to write home about, and there is a distinct lack of backstory. There was even a point (about 70 minutes into the film) where our main character screams ‘come on Lucas! Get in the van!’ – I had literally no idea who Lucas was, or if he’d even been mentioned before this point.

But inconsistencies and somewhat-flimsy-plot aside – it can’t be denied that this is a genuinely entertaining film. The storms themselves have a kind of persona that pervade the film with their ominous colouring and erratic destruction. Quale certainly succeeds in depicting the majestic power of the earth and the relative insignificance of human beings on the face of the planet. The way people, cars and buildings are tossed aside as though they’re nothing has an unnerving effect and shines a light on the insubstantiality of the civilisation that we have constructed. When weather nerd Alison casually suggests that the storms could even hit London as they continue to build in places they’ve never been seen before, there was a palpable swell of panic in the cinema as we looked around and considered our own fragility.

I have to admit at this point that my guilty pleasure is disaster movies. But I don’t blindly applaud all natural disasters that grace the big screen regardless of merit – and this film has the elements to appeal to anyone who’s a fan of suspense and thrilling destruction. Don’t expect to be overawed by the acting or captivated by the plot… but the visuals will blow you away. (Sorry. I did warn you.)

OUT OF TEN: SEVEN

'Apes do not want war!'

Building on the prequel franchise, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a tender, tense and complex blockbuster that very nearly strikes the perfect balance between entertainment and intelligence.

Ten years on from Rise, we re-join Caesar after an outbreak of Simian Flu has wiped out almost the entire human population. Those who remain are living in a post-apocalyptic state of disorder. Having rebuilt some semblance of their former lives, the humans feel their progression slipping through their fingers as they begin to run out of fuel. Caesar’s tribe of apes happen to live atop a damn that would be the humans’ salvation if they can manage to work together without war breaking out.

The visual effects are stunning. Andy [Gollum] Serkis delivers a fantastic performance as Caesar and the visual team bring him to life with incomparable realism. The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, with intricate settings – from the lush, vivid forest home of the apes to the dilapidated city where the humans live – all washed with an evocatively dark colour palette and lighting that maintains a perpetual twilight. But at times the aesthetics outdo the quality of the actual narrative.

The film offers up some interesting comments about the innate nature of humanity. The comparisons between the apes and the humans are inescapable. What makes us human – the ability to speak? The ability to reason? Reeves makes it clear that when you strip away the façade of civilisation, the electricity and the hierarchies – we’re no better than apes ourselves. But it’s laid on a little thick in places. As the line between human behaviour and animalistic behaviour becomes increasingly blurred, Reeves makes the comparison just a little too obvious and expositional. I would have preferred to reach these conclusions organically through the events of the narrative rather than have the key themes served up on a plate.

Despite a stellar human cast (Gary Oldman shone in his role as Dreyfus, the appointed leader of the remaining humans) they were still outperformed by the apes. I could have happily watched 90 minutes about the complex relationships, rivalries and deceptions in the ape hierarchies without the need for human involvement. The slow degeneration of Caesar’s tribe, as they become more humanised, provides a clearer allegory of human behaviour and the destructive nature of humanity than the comparison between apes and humans that Reeves uses. 

Aside from the clichéd Lion King moment where Caesar dangles his nemesis from a death plunge, debating whether to let him fall or not, Dawn is quite a refreshing blockbuster with some clever moments of originality and plenty to keep you entertained for two hours. The flawless design steals the show and will keep you entranced, even if you’re not fully convinced by Reeves’ sweeping take on the intrinsic flaws of human nature.

OUT OF TEN: SEVEN