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

In A Better World (2010)

It’s been six months since this involving Danish drama swung by the Oscars on its way to our shores, stopping to whisk away the Best Foreign Language statuette. On its journey it also nabbed a new English title – preferring In A Better World over the original translated Revenge – and scooped further accolades across the globe. So what’s all the fuss about?

Directed by Susanne Bier (whose Brothers was remade with Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2009), A Better World follows Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who travels between Denmark – where his ex-wife and two sons live – and a Sudanese refugee camp where he treats the victims of a demented war lord. Meanwhile, Anton’s 12-year-old son Elias (Markus Rygaard) befriends Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen). Christian’s recently lost his mother to cancer, and ends up being a destructive, dangerous new force in Elias’ life.

Unflinchingly direct, A Better World wrestles expansive themes in a typically Scandinavian way – by confidently striking right at the heart of the matter. Certain things will always be lost in translation. English-speaking viewers, for example, will miss out on the fact that Anton only ever speaks Swedish while in Denmark, which only serves to maximise his dislocation from the condemning Danes around him.

However, A Better World remains heartbreakingly affecting because it grapples with universal themes that transcend language. What is it to be a man? A father? A worker? Bier dodges right and wrong in favour of searching questions – questions that Persbrandt tackles head on with a rough and ready performance. At times the director’s philosophical posturing leans a little too close to melodrama, but with its refusal of easy answers, A Better World remains a daringly robust drama. The kudos is well earned. 4/5

Via Out In The City.

Velour vixen

The main thing that people yell at Kim Cattrall in the street? “I’m you! I love you! I wanna be you!” laughs the actress. “I’m like, you don’t want to be me, you want to be her.” The ‘her’ in question is Samantha Jones, the sultry, man-eating PR star of TV show Sex And The City. Cattrall played Ms Jones for six seasons and two movies, but sitting cross-legged in a swish London hotel on a breezy June morning, she’s a million miles away from her New York counterpart. Softly spoken, quick to laugh, friendly, she’s both businesswoman sophisticated and pleasantly approachable. She’s also breaking away from her most famous role with new film Meet Monica Velour, an indie that has Cattrall swapping posh frocks for porn as a washed out, washed up adult star. “I finally got a great part!” she jests…

Do you find many gay guys have an affinity with you and your Sex And The City character?
What do you think? Absolutely! The gay and lesbian community have been so supportive, even before Sex And The City. I just got a GLAAD award, which is an amazing organisation that I support, so I’m very grateful for the support that I get from the gay community.

What was the most exciting part of playing ex-porn star Monica Velour?
The most exciting and difficult thing was to keep her dignity. Once I found that everything else came. I rehearsed this like I did a play. It’s a great part for a woman – who writes a part for a woman in her fifties? Nobody, especially a first time director. This was such a departure, I had to go away and rehearse it.

Did you find that amount of prep hard?
It was devastatingly hard. I saw the [behind the scenes video] about six months ago, and I was never out of character – I was Monica. I was doing and saying things that I would never do. Having a couple of drinks after work, I would never do that. That whole thing with kissing the biker, that’s not written and that’s a real biker. [pulls a face] And I thought, ‘How did I do that?!’

Would you say you’re quite fearless in the projects you’re taking on after the show?
When I read the script for Monica Velour, my agent said, ‘You’re not going to want to do this, because it’s about sex again.’ I don’t think it’s really about sex. This is about sexualisation and marginalisation. That really got me going, and it terrified me more than many of the roles I’ve taken on because I wasn’t going to look sexy and pretty.

Was it quite liberating to take off all the gloss?
It was fantastic, it really was. I have a huge appetite and my body type is heavier than I am right now, so to be that 20 pounds extra was heaven! I loved eating and putting it on, I savoured every bit of it with crap meals and McDonalds, whatever I wanted!

The film parodies the porn industry and the cheesy knock offs they create of mainstream movies…
There’s one of Sex And The City! You have to watch a little bit of it…

Did you find the strip scene difficult with all the male extras booing you?
It was the last scene that was shot, when I was the heaviest. I gained 15 pounds before we started shooting, and another five over the course of shooting. I made a choice that she wasn’t in her body [during that scene], which protected me through the different angles we had to do, but after a while it did affect me. I went into the dressing room afterward and had a good cry. But hearing that age rage, I’m not made of stone and it does have an effect, but that’s what the film is about.

Do you feel it’s a pressure to look a certain way?
In some ways it is, but I’m a child of the Jane Fonda generation, so I’ve been on a diet since 1974! So it’s business as usual, really. And I don’t sleep well, so if I exercise I sleep better. I like to look fit, I’m single, I’m dating, I want to be attractive, but at the same time there’ll be a time when I say, ‘I’m tired, I just want a hamburger and fries!’

Do you feel lucky you’re not in the same position as Monica?
Oh my God, yes. I don’t want to live in a freakin’ trailer park. I have choices, I have a voice, I have a platform. I can’t compare myself to her situation in any way, it breaks my heart. The similarity in it is survival. It’s a really fucking hard lonely job in a lot of ways, there are the great highs, the lows. And sometimes you’re just a person in a hotel room who can’t go out.

Have you ever had your own 17-year-old stalker?
Yes, I’ve gone through restraining orders and court cases, but I keep it very private because to make noise about it is to create more instances of it. I was doing a play once in California and in the interval the artistic director said, ‘We’ve had a death threat.’ It was terrifying. I mean, I’m an actor, why should I have to put up with that insanity? But that’s part of it.

Meet Monica Velour is out on DVD now.

The Guard (2011)

Crass, belligerent and tart, the hero in this delightfully vinegary Irish black comedy really puts the ass in asinine. Not exactly your typical law enforcer, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is the titular guard, going about his business with world-weary indifference, interfering with crime scenes and hiring prostitutes for hotel-based fun. When a cocaine ring appears to be doing business out of Galway, though, Boyle is teamed up with straight-laced FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to round up the dealers.

More than just a case of good-cop-bad-cop, The Guard is a refreshingly witty chuckler that throws irony-laced jibes at its audience like hot potatoes. Gleeson (best known to mainstream cinema-goers as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise) is a hoot, clearly revelling in playing up Irish clichés (“I thought black men couldn’t swim?” he deadpans) with all the pokerfaced delivery of a seasoned card player. He’s more than just a stroppy baboon, though, sharing heart-warming moments with on-screen mum Fionnula Flanagan, who’s fighting a losing battle with cancer.

And Gleeson’s not the only one having fun. Cheadle’s uptight American is the straight man to Gleeson’s clown, but grabs just as many guffaws. Meanwhile, Mark Strong – ever the Brit baddie – gets some great lines as a drug dealer frustrated with the ineptitude of the Irish cops he’s in league with.

Shot almost entirely in the countrified surrounds of Galway, The Guard has a grubby aesthetic that lends it a cool, understated vibe, while its iconic, blow-out climax is pure cinema gold. Though nowhere near as hardcore or deliriously hedonistic as Nicolas Cage’s 2009 Bad Lieutenant, it offers the same guilty pleasure in watching an authority figure so blatantly playing with fire – and mostly getting away with it. 4/5

Via Out In The City

The Princess Of Montpensier (2011)

Welcome to 16th century France, scene of bloody battles and even bloodier love affairs. As religious war tears the country apart, Marie de Mezières (Mélanie Thierry) sacrifices love for status as she’s forced into an affection-free marriage with Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Her heart still beats for dashing cousin Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), though, and it’s only a matter of time before she can resist him no more.

While its battle scenes wobble at times (look out for one spectacularly hilarious case of sword-under-arm death acting), Princess is saved by lush panoramas and a lively musical score that adds depth and scale where the budget clearly couldn’t. What’s most important, though, is the dramatic love triangle, which at times warps into a square – and then a pentagon – courtesy of dodgy prehistoric nuptial politics and a web of unrequited love.

Of which there is plenty. Replete with heaving bosoms and clandestine caresses, Princess delivers its breathless romanticism with a distinct French eloquence. It’s obviously striving for Dangerous Liaisons-style tragedy (Thierry even bears a striking resemblance to that film’s Michelle Pfeiffer), but Princess never quite gets there. That might be because the leads are all cast so young (in order to match the tender ages of the characters), which occasionally makes proceedings feel like am dram with posh frocks.

Not that the younglings aren’t up to the task. Leprince-Ringuet in particular cuts an impressive figure as the jealous husband who married for his love, but not hers. Meanwhile, Thierry is a beauty it’s easy to believe so many men are fighting over. The pair’s fussy fumbles do, however, hoist Lambert Wilson’s more intriguing story of questioning loyalty and battle-weary defiance into the background. All’s fair in love and war? Hardly, but it all makes for enjoyable entertainment all the same. 3/5

Via Out In The City

Meet Monica Velour (2010)

We’ve had retired assassins (Red), retired adventurers (Up) and retired pugilists (The Wrestler), why not a retired porn star? Meet Monica Velour offers one such wonder in the form of a chain-smoking, alcoholic Kim Cattrall, who scrapes off the Sex And The City gloss for a brave and brazen turn as the titular has-been.

She’s the insatiable crush-object of porn-mad teen Tobe (Dustin Ingram), who’s collected all of Velour’s racy ’80s memorabilia, and leaps at the chance to meet her at a seedy strip show. Driving there in his hot dog van (don’t ask), Tobe finds Velour now a miserable creature with fading looks, desperate for a second chance. Deciding to help her, Tobe discovers that Velour’s being stalked by her bully ex-husband, with whom she’s locked in a custody battle over their young daughter.

Attempting to fuse quirky Indie peculiarities (the sweary grandpa, the hapless, geeky teenager) with a grown-up drama about wilting beauty and human struggle, director Keith Bearden’s feature debut is a bit of a mixed bag. To its credit, that blend works better than it should. There are subtle notes being tinkled throughout (including an interesting though empty suggestion that Tobe’s obsession with the older Velour stems from the fact that he misses his dead mother), while Cattrall’s jaded victim is clearly deserving of her own movie.

It’s almost a shame that Velour’s gritty B-plot relies so heavily on Tobe’s rom-com A-plot. Tobe’s cheesy quest for confidence might speak to a few Peter Pan syndrome sufferers, but it’s Velour’s sad, down-trodden existence that has the most universal appeal, echoing the plight of Marisa Tomei’s down on her luck stripper in The Wrestler. This is far from perfect, then, but as a brilliantly bold departure for Cattrall alone, it’s worth giving a chance. 3/5

Via Out In The City

Last Night (2010)

“This is a really bad connection,” says Joanna (Keira Knightley). “I know,” responds husband Michael (Sam Worthington). They’re talking about a phone link, but the exchange also nods to the sticky subtext of their rocky marriage, which is put to the test in this absorbing, slow-drip deep-thinker that’s obsessed with that most infuriating of questions, ‘What if?’

During a night out at a work party, Jo meets Michael’s attractive co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes) and suspects there’s something going on between them. Then, when Michael’s out of town on business with Laura, Jo bumps into old flame Alex (Guillaume Canet), and finds herself seriously tempted.

Ebbing with an affecting melancholy, Last Night offers Knightley her most grown-up role to date, the actress’ recent forays into theatre evident in her impressively layered performance. Mendes, meanwhile, is nothing short of mesmeric – when she’s in a room alone with crush-object Worthington, Last Night becomes electric with tension. As inactivity sashays ever-closer to devastating activity, writer Massy Tadjedin’s directorial debut takes on a quiet power that will speak to anybody who’s been tempted while in a relationship. True, Last Night’s dreamy pacing may prove too languorous for some, but as an intimate, thoughtful examination of relationships, it’s hauntingly effective. 3/5

Via Out In The City.

Kaboom (2010)

If you’re a fan of whiplash-inducing dialogue, healthy doses of rampant nudity, pretty young things being pretty and films with an ardent sense of the absurd, Kaboom could just be your new favourite movie. Written and directed by Greg Araki of The Doom Generation, it’s a bright, head-spinning ode to youthful frivolity that barely pauses for breath as it screeches from one zany set-up to the next.

Acting as our anchor in an orgy of ideas is the pleasingly bestubbled Smith (Thomas Dekker). A sexually “undeclared” college student, he’s got a crush on his frequently naked surfer roomie Thor (Chris Zylka) and is doing the nasty with nutty British bird London (Juno Temple). Things take a turn for the strange, though, when Smith encounters a group of animal-mask-wearing weirdos one night who may or may not have just killed a fellow student.

A blizzard of post-modern activity keeps Kaboom dashing along at a heck of a lick. Championing whipsmart dialogue and a pleasingly glossy sheen, it’s clear that Araki’s having fun toying with us, chucking in OTT supernatural happenings and sexy daydreams to keep us on our toes. Even the film’s central mystery appears to be one big joke.

Which is sort of where Kaboom comes unstuck. Okay, so nobody stays clothed for more than five minutes. But Kaboom exists in a limbo where few actions have discernable consequences, meaning there’s little to grab a hold of. Even the film’s mystery becomes a farce, with the histrionic climax submitting to knowingly cheesy direlogue and a wilfully silly twist.

Still, to those who’ve been raised on a diet of talky, wise-cracking Diablo Cody movies (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), this will be a welcome distraction. For everybody else, Kaboom could merely lead to a good deal of head scratching and the feeling that maybe you’re a bit too old for all this. 3/5

The Veteran (2011)

England is teeming with terrorists, druggies and violent council estates where evil is seated on a throne fashioned out of sports hoodies. If recent British cinema has taught us anything (see Harry Brown and Heartless among many others), it’s that nowhere is safe. With The Veteran, we can add Post-Traumatic Stress-suffering war vets to that list of dangerous British ill-doers.

Set in a recognisably mucked-up, breeze-block crammed London, The Veteran follows Robert Miller (Toby Kebbell), a young soldier who returns from Afghanistan and soon realises that it won’t be as simple as all that to ease back into his old life. The battered council estate where he lives is infested with druggie yoofs, and before long Miller’s been contracted by Brian Cox’s mysterious government figure to monitor suspected terrorists. But could nation-straddling fellow operative Alayna (Adi Bielski) have turned into a terrorist sympathiser?

Cautionary tale, social commentary, bleak character study; The Veteran has its gun barrel aimed at all kinds of red letter targets, but it never quite hits the bull’s eye. The same can even be said for magnetic lead man Kebbell, whose Miller is an interesting character desperately searching for a plot. Kebbell (RockNRolla, Prince Of Persi) is undeniably enigmatic, a man’s man with soulful eyes, but his episodic encounters with dealers, victims and shady government types lack much discernable tension, and are crying out for a more urgent sense of direction.

Veteran’s final 10 minutes are the ones that will cause a stir in the headlines (we won’t spoil them here, though the Daily Mail are going to have a field day), but considering the whole film not-so-subtly builds up to them, their power is decidedly muted. Kebbell’s a young actor going places, for sure. Unfortunately this home-grown cautionary-character-commentary just isn’t ballsy enough to take him all the way. 2/5

Via Out In The City

Win Win (2011)

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s sport. And if there’s one thing Americans love more than sport, it’s sport movies. Rocky, Jerry Maguire, and Gene Hackman’s genre-defining Hoosiers all kept cinemas as crammed as basketball stadiums over the years. Which brings us to new high school wrestling drama Win Win, a film that sticks close to the tropes of tried and true big-hitters (i.e. battered hero ‘finds’ himself again thanks to association with extracurricular activity) but never quite makes it into the premiere league of sporting classics.

Of course, Win Win is more than just a sports movie – it’s also a Paul Giamatti movie. With the Sideways actor having effectively cornered the market in down-on-their-luck depressed middle-agers, Win Win finds Giamatti playing New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty. Struggling to support his wife and two kids, Mike’s on a one way road to Nowhereville. Until teen runaway Kyle (Alex Shaffer) tumbles into his life. Having fled his alcoholic mother, Kyle ends up bunking at the Flaherty’s, and when he enrols in the local high school where Mike’s a wrestling coach, Mike discovers that Kyle’s abilities on the wrestling mat far outshine those of his own team.

Directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also helmed exceptional middle-age drama The Visitor, Win Win is both cosy and charming. Amy Ryan in particular delivers a fantastic, no-bullshit turn as Giamatti’s long-suffering wife, while McCarthy keeps the domestic drama nicely in balance with the quirky comedy. But while the pacing rarely lags, Win Win’s feather light approach to drama feels more like a friendly local kick-about than a powerhouse Man U vs Liverpool clash. Which is no doubt McCarthy’s intention, his film having more in common with low-key indies than certain grandstanding boxing epics. In short: a winning drama that never punches above its weight. 4/5

Via Out In The City