The Raid (2011)

Sometimes a little film comes along that’s so uniquely affecting, unapologetically brutal, and fearlessly executed that it can’t help but take the world by storm, no matter how humble its beginnings. The Raid is one of those films. An Indonesian actioner written and directed by Welshman Gareth Evans, it’s already blazed through the festival circuit (it premiered in Toronto in September 2011, where it won the Midnight Madness award), and is so bruising an experience it’ll leave you in need of a good lie down.

The titular raid takes up the bulk of the running time as an elite police team break into a derelict Jakarta apartment block. This hive-like warren of grungy corridors is home to a dangerous drug lord and his crew of pushers/protectors, all of whom are prepared for anything the police might throw at them. Among the cops is rookie SWAT Rama (Iko Uwais). He’s got his own ulterior motive for taking part in the raid – somebody he knows is living in the high rise, and he’s determined to rescue them, or die trying.

As our underdog hero, Uwais is both likable and easy on the eye. He’s also more than up to Evans’ rigorous demands. The director dreamt The Raid up as a gnarly showcase for martial art form Pencak Silat, and his film succeeds as an exhausting sequence of innovative fights that will have you variously twisting yourself into knots, screaming with delight and laughing your head off. That’s in no small part thanks to Uwais, who smashes his way enigmatically through more fights than Mohammad Ali. The Raid is raw, dangerous and exhilarating. This won’t be the last you’ll hear of it, either. An Indonesian sequel and a Hollywood remake are already on the way. Don’t miss out on the madness. 3/5

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Damsels In Distress (2011)

Sporadically laugh-out-loud funny and offering the occasional polished pearl of wisdom, Damsels In Distress is a whimsical breeze that never ruffles too many feathers. It’s the fourth film from director Whit Stillman, a filmmaker infatuated with upper-class US WASPs – a breed of person coined in his 1990 film Metropolitan as the ‘urban haute bourgeoisie’.

Stillman doesn’t stray far from familiar terrain with Damsels, a frothy comedy set on the Seven Oaks college campus. Here, new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) falls in with a trio of uber-groomed girls who are single-handedly attempting to save the campus from dumb jocks and suicidal thoughts. Leading them is the buttoned-up Violet (Greta Gerwig), who is armed with her own singular world views. Together, this unusual quartet charters matters of the heart (and head) in their search for love and enlightenment.

Films like Legally Blonde have explored similar college-based comedy before, but Damsels is more interested in Woody Allen-style witticisms than frisky female empowerment. It’s an odd experiment in off-kilter characters and relaxed plotting. At first irritating – Gerwig talks in a monotone drawl that sometimes has one searching for subtitles, while pal Megalyn Echikunwoke trips over a truly horrendous British accent – Stillman’s film is a jumbled confectionary that will turn some off within minutes.

Get past the kooky performances, though and the super-dry screenplay packs in some sardonic nod-winks. Echikunwoke’s awful accent is, in the end, revealed as a joke, while Violet’s increasingly crackpot schemes to spread the love culminate in a gigglesome encounter with a bar of soap. Nothing’s off limits here, with a running gag about anal sex getting the biggest laughs, and a closing musical number that’s pure sunshine. A deadpan curio, then, Damsels exists in its own little bubble of weirdness – much like its lead quartet. 3/5

This Means War (2012)

Don’t be fooled by the title – This Means War is not an action movie. With its A-list love triangle and dreamy meet-cutes, it’s romcom to its back teeth, even if it does contain the odd expensive-looking explosion.

The premise is simple. Undercover agents Foster (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are ‘grounded’ after a disastrous mission gets the attention of the national media. Desk-bound and bored, they take it upon themselves to fight (quite literally) over bubblegum bombshell Reese Witherspoon, whose job is to unwittingly choose a victor. Meanwhile, a terrorist B-plot – which is barely even worth mentioning for all the weight it carries – plays second fiddle to the romantic shenanigans, and merely functions to provide intermittent pyrotechnics.

The real fireworks, though, are to be found between Hardy and Pine, who share a sizzling chemistry that borders on the homoerotic. No surprise that This Means War was co-scripted by Simon Kinberg, who also penned Robert Downey Jr.’s first Sherlock Holmes outing. The same bubbly bromantic banter is evident in War, and is the film’s main strong point.

What is surprising is how flat the action scenes are. Director McG previously helmed both Charlie’s Angels films and Terminator Salvation, which means he knows a thing or two about action flicks. Still, the handful of combat sequences are War’s limpest – in particular the opening high-rise segment, which feels like a deleted scene from a really bad Bond film.

Happily, McG keeps the fisticuffs to a minimum, allowing the spotlight to shine firmly on Pine and Hardy. With these two firing off razor-sharp one-liners, This Means War takes a sitcom premise – what if Bond and Bourne were dating the same girl? – that can barely muster more than one note, and turns it into a buffet of blokey one-upmanship. 2/5

Mother & Child (2009)

Anchored by a trio of plucky performances, Mother And Child is a rousing Hollywood rarity – a film that focuses almost entirely on female relationships without ever succumbing to romcom slushiness. In fact, quite the opposite is true of this commanding drama. The three women at the centre of the film’s narrative are occasionally volatile, often prickly, sometimes hard to relate to, but never anything less than wholly engaging.

When she was a teenager, Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her newborn daughter for adoption. It’s a decision that has haunted her ever since. Now working as a nurse, she’s unaware that her grown-up child, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), is still living in the same city she was born in, and is now a successful attorney. Meanwhile, Lucy (Kerry Washington) has been unable to bear a child with her partner, and is investigating the possibility of adoption.

The lives of these three women form the crux of Mother And Child. Each has been affected by adoption, each has reacted differently. Karen is a woman lost in her past, prone to emotional outbursts and dreamy musings on her daughter’s possible life. Elizabeth, meanwhile, has no interest in her past, and has become a hardened manipulator entirely untouched by sentimentality.

To brand this nothing more than an ‘adoption’ movie, though, would be unreasonable. Mother And Child excels in its exploration of these three very different women and, more than anything, exists as a showcase for some truly fantastic performances. Though Bening is magnificent as the bristly Karen, it’s Watts who most impresses. At first an ice cold bitch reminiscent of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Elizabeth slowly becomes someone we can empathise with.

In a market where good films solely about women are few and far between, Mother And Child is a poignant exception to the rule. 3/5

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Not a shark in sight here, unless you count Tom Hiddleston’s unpredictable Royal Air Force pilot, a gorgeous, fine-tailored specimen whose manicured exterior doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t bite on the odd occasion. No, director Terence Davies’ tender love story has nothing to do with the same-named watery horror from 1999. Instead, it’s something of a spiritual sequel to Brief Encounter, the 1945 classic in which a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband with a man she’s met at a train station.

In The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz’s Hester has already succumbed to that desire, having left her husband (Simon Russell Beale) for dashing young pilot Freddie (Hiddleston). It’s the 1950s, and such scandal is not to be taken lightly – not least as Britain attempts to rebuild itself after the war. Hester doesn’t care, though, readily making a nest with Freddie, even as the passion that burns between the couple threatens to destroy them.

Beginning with a suicide attempt, and ending in an explosion of emotion, The Deep Blue Sea is a period piece that’s as refined as it is surprisingly raw. Though much of the plot takes place in a mere handful of locations – Freddie’s flat, the pub, Hester’s mother-in-law’s – it’s the internal action that really drives proceedings. Having graduated from being chased by mummies, Weisz delivers a fraught and moving performance, while Hiddleston is nothing short of remarkable as a thrill-seeker who’s gotten more than he bargained for.

After helming Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988, Davies is comfortable working in a war-torn setting. His recreation of a ‘50s England is beautifully handled – replete with a jolly pub sing-along and a poignant segment set in the underground – while his film sagely deliberates the pros and cons of pure unbridled passion. There will be tissues. 4/5

Weekend (2011)

There are certain things that pretty much all gay men agree on. Cher used to rock. The metrosexual male is a confusing creature. And coming out is one of the defining moments of your life. That last topic is broached early on in director Andrew Haigh’s sexy, agreeably gritty romance, though Weekend isn’t content with simply retreading the same beaten path as so many ‘gay movies’ – it’s a film packed with emotion and honesty.

Mostly it’s about love. Can two people fall in love in just two days? Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) meet in a bar on a Friday night, and end up spending the entire weekend together. They’re fundamentally different – Russell’s a damaged realist who hasn’t fully accepted his sexuality; Glen’s a fiery dreamer, actively controversial and championing gay equality – but that’s exactly what draws them together.

“You want everyone to think independently, but you want them all to agree with you,” Russell challenges Glen at one point. It’s just one of numerous stand-out moments in a film that never rests on its laurels. Weekend is constantly searching; exploring what it means to be gay in the modern world, and demonstrating how two people who are often (derogatively) reduced to a single adjective – queer – can be so utterly different, and so utterly perfect for one another.

Shining an intense light on Cullen and New’s relationship, Weekend’s shabby-chic aesthetic keeps it from devolving into a glossy gay romcom. And despite its themes, to call Haigh’s film a romcom would do it a disservice. With its naturalistic leads, frank sexual encounters and candid discussions, Weekend achieves that most important of filmic ambitions – relatability. In that way, it echoes My Beautiful Laundrette, centring its love story in a recognisable present where gay identity is ever evolving. If only all films about gay men were this good. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Tomboy (2011)

“You’re not like other boys,” notes 10-year-old Mikael’s potential new girlfriend in this featherlight drama. She’s not wrong – Mikael is actually a 10-year-old girl called Laure (Zoé Héran), who pretends she’s a boy when she moves with her family to a new neighbourhood. She’s not bad at it either, convincing as a football-loving lad who’s just as gung-ho and mischievous as her comrades. The charade can’t last forever, though, and things get complicated when Laure’s younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) gets wind of what her sibling’s been up to.

Proving that even the most issues-oriented films don’t have to get bogged down by their weighty ideas, director Céline Sciamma handles Tomboy with the same lightness of touch as her feature debut Water Lilies. The French director’s delicate fingerprints are all over her sophomore feature film – Sciamma keeps the focus tight on Laure right from Tomboy’s opening shot, exploring notions of gender and identity from a child’s-eye-view and effectively putting a fresh spin on cross-dressing comedies (this ain’t no White Chicks).

Thanks to Sciamma’s thoughtful approach, it’s almost impossible to refer to Tomboy without using the words ‘sweet’ and ‘sensitive’. While we’re at it, we might as well throw ‘funny’ into the mix as well. Laure comes up with a playdough solution when she’s invited to go swimming, while Lévana almost eclipses Héran as the scene-stealing little sister who prances around in a ballerina costume (while Laure practices spitting in the bathroom sink) and makes the kind of hilarious observations that only a child could (“Mummy doesn’t work because she’s fat and ‘pre-nant’”).

There’s tough stuff going on too – not least when Laure’s mother discovers what her daughter has been up to. In its naturalistic framing and captivating young leads, Tomboy is nothing short of enchanting. 4/5

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The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodóvar has built a successful career out of making films about complex female characters, positioning them at the centre of colourfully eccentric movies that are often as outrageous as they are opulent. The Skin I Live In is no different.

Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, an accomplished surgeon who’s escaping his troubled past by experimenting on cultivating a tougher kind of skin. Helping him in this venture is the mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya), who Ledgard has locked in his home for reasons that gradually become clear.

Many of Almodóvar’s favourite elements are present and correct – sex, music, violence, sly humour and vivid colours. But any comparisons with his earlier work only skim the surface of a film that reveals itself layer by layer. As the mystery unfolds, there’s little of the screaming melodrama you expect of Almodóvar. Instead, he uses a lush musical score and a steady pace to deliver a story steeped in melancholy.

Most of all, this is a genuinely unsettling treaty on revenge, gender and grief. Almodóvar’s always nudged the boundaries of gender representation, and here he snaps the restraints entirely. The film’s central nuclear bomb of a twist will divide audiences, but Almodóvar handles the story with such care that it delivers as a sensitive and sad rumination on identity and loss. He also does for Banderas what he did for Penelope Cruz with Volver, gifting him a fascinating role in his native Spanish, over 20 years after the pair last worked together. Inscrutable, cruel and obsessive, Banderas hasn’t been this ‘on’ in ages.

The Skin I Live In is never easy viewing and its subject matter is tricky at best, almost too extreme at worst. But it’s never anything less than 100% involving – a fearless stab at brain-busting storytelling. 4/5

Melancholia (2011)

Danish director Lars Von Trier courted scandal at this year’s Cannes Film Festival when he coughed up Nazi soundbites (“I understand Hitler”) during a calamitous press conference. But it’s to Trier’s credit that the film he was over there promoting didn’t get lost in the ensuing, raging squall – Melancholia’s lead lady, Kirsten Dunst, pocketed the festival’s Best Actress award, ensuring the great Dane’s genre-blending oddity stayed defiantly on the event’s radar.

Controversy is clearly Von Trier’s bread and butter (anybody who saw his last film, Antichrist, can attest to that), but if anything, Melancholia is the filmmaker’s most accessible and mainstream movie yet. For a start, it has a linear plot – a mammoth planet, dubbed ‘Melancholia’, has appeared in our solar system, and is fast approaching Earth. But will it collide with us, or drift quietly by? Facing that quandary are sisters Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The former’s getting married (to Alexander Skarsgård’s Michael), but her growing apathy regarding the ceremony has Claire becoming increasingly irate. And that’s before the invading planet disrupts their lives.

Poignant and punchy, Melancholia has all of Von Trier’s trademarks dialled up to 11 – stark imagery, raw emotion, violent sexuality. Most impressive is the film’s opening 10 minutes, an arresting montage of painterly shots that echoes Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It sets a suitably operative tone, and the following intertwining of dark humour with a creeping sense of dread gives Melancholia a purposeful prowess.

Other plus points include Dunst’s joyful abandonment of her usual teen comedy perkiness to deliver something truly dark and interesting, and one heck of a finale that reverberates right through the film’s closing credits. Melancholia is opulent melodrama at its most memorable. 4/5

Friends With Benefits (2011)

When is a romcom that thinks it’s not a romcom really just a romcom? Uh, when it’s Friends With Benefits. A glossy, super-soundtracked puff of candy floss, Friends With Benefits wants to be more than just another generic romantic comedy (the film’s press notes continually and demonstrably use the word “pointed”), but in the end it’s nothing more than a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

That’s despite some snappy chemistry between leads Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. He’s Dylan, a high-flying Los Angeles art director. She’s Jamie, a New York recruiter. When Dylan’s head-hunted by Jamie and lands a job in the Big Apple, the two bemoan their inability to commit to relationships. The solution? Have strings-free sex without the messy feelings. Who are they trying to fool?

If the concept sounds familiar, it’s because a similar premise was cooked up for this year’s woeful Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher vehicle No Strings Attached. With its edgier leads and Easy A’s Will Gluck in the director’s chair, FWB already has a head start on the competition, and for a while it skates along nicely. Snarky and sarky, FWB opens by confidently lampooning romcom tropes (“Damn you Katherine Heigl!” Kunis screams at one point) while establishing likably eccentric characters.

It’s not long, though, before FWB loses its swagger. While promising a realistic romance, it can’t escape those clutching romcom clichés – picture perfect locations, boring, bed sheet-swamped sex scenes and sympathy-straining family plots mean it’s sterile and boringly predictable. Thank God for Woody Harrelsen, whose straight-talking gay co-worker frequently pops in to save us from the sop with a well-timed crack or a sentiment-free nugget of wacky wisdom. In the end, Friends With Benefits may think it’s better than most romantic comedies, but it isn’t fooling anyone. 2/5