Review: Albert Nobbs (2011)

Director: Rodrigo Garcia

***

From the start, Albert Nobbs presents us with a challenge. Rodrigo Garcia’s film wants us to believe that someone as glamorous and gorgeous as Glenn Close can convincingly portray a man (or, at least, a woman posing as a man). Close is clearly very invested but her make-up job, like the film, only just manages to convince.

The title character of Albert Nobbs is a waiter in a crummy hotel in late 19th-century Dublin. Nobbs is one of the camaraderie of staff, a full cohort of fine Irish talent wasted on bit parts. The likes of Maria Doyle Kennedy, Antonia-Campbell Hughes and everyone’s favourite onscreen Irishman Brendan Gleeson whizz by adding little beyond whimsy. The plot focuses on Albert and his attempts to make his dreams come true, namely to start his own business and find a wife. This runs parallel to the story of hotel waitress Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Theirs is a tumultuous relationship and, as time passes, desperation leads them to exploit Albert’s newfound interest in Helen. It’s all very dour and drab, as the script (co-written by Close, Gabriella Prekop and John Banville) and Garcia’s direction takes a potentially probing tale of hidden identity and gender roles and, for lack of a better word, castrates it with melodrama and self-importance. A grim backstory is told but, bar Close’s interpretation of the role, we never truly get under Albert’s skin.

Wasikowska struggles with the accent, though Johnson’s is passable, but their relationship is far from the most interesting aspect of the film. That would have to be the relationship between Albert and Hubert Page. In the role of Page, a painter-decorator who is also concealing a secret, Janet McTeer is absolutely mesmerising, blending humour, pathos and strength in a performance worthy of awards. The scenes between Albert and Hubert provide some of the dignity that the rest of the film struggles against itself to find. A scene in which the two try on dresses could have been either mawkish or played for laughs, but Close and McTeer have far too much invested in these roles to make the scene any less than joyous.

Close’s passion for this project is palpable; she first played the role off-Broadway over 30 years ago, and besides co-writing and starring in it, she co-produced it and penned the lyrics for the Sinéad O’Connor ditty that plays over the end credits. Unfortunately, it’s a passion that seems to have passed by so many of those working alongside her in Albert Nobbs. She leads a film that doesn’t seem sure what to make of old Nobbs. Is Albert tragic, foolhardy or delusional? We never get a satisfactory answer. Close and McTeer make Albert Nobbs worth your while, but it tries too hard to be lovingly weepy and thus denies itself the confrontational grit that could make it truly stand out. Like its title character, Albert Nobbs works too hard at blending into the crowd.

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Review: Avengers Assemble (2012)

Director: Joss Whedon

****

On their first meeting in Avengers Assemble,  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), in his Iron Man guise, looks at Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) costume and asks in his trademark sardonic tones, “What is this, Shakespeare in the Park? Dost thy mother know thou wearest her drapes?” This can either be a neat nod to Kenneth Branagh, director of Thor, or just one of the many examples of one-liners and put-downs that distinguishes Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble as the funniest of all superhero movies, and a gloriously entertaining start to the summer season.

Between them, the movies that set up Avengers Assemble (that is to say, Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) have earned almost $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office. To say expectations are high for Avengers Assemble is an understatement. But is there a risk that all these capes and weapons jostling for screentime could be a case of too many cooks? It would be if we didn’t know them already. Even though the preceding movies were just introductions and setups for these guys, it does help to have all the backstory out of the way (Watching those films is optional, but most of the Avengers’ audience will have seen at least some of them anyway). Writer/director Whedon keeps the narrative relatively lean as to keep the set-pieces and massive KABOOMS coming. Shallow? Not when it’s this much fun!

The basic plot follows on from the ending of Thor. Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seeks revenge on Thor for his banishment from their otherworldly home of Asgard, and decides to bring an extra-terrestrial army to conquer Earth so he may rule the planet. If you’re not braced for how silly that sounds, Avengers Assemble is just not for you. Then again, you probably knew that already. When the scope of Loki’s threat becomes apparent, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is forced to bring together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and master assassins Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). When they are together, the sparks fly. Whedon applies both his sparky wit and in-depth fanboy knowledge to the dialogue, which is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. As our heroes bitch and snipe, they have to remember to compose themselves when vast amounts of inter-dimensional proverbial hits the fan. Indeed, the banter is emphasized by DP Seamus McGarvey, whose work on more dialogue-heavy films (Atonement, We Need To Talk About Kevin) lends itself to capturing Whedon’s ripostes and double-edged barbs.

As for the guys delivering the funnies everyone, from Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson to Johannson’s previously underused Black Widow to Captain America, gets their chance to shine. However, the most memorable performance is Ruffalo’s, as we finally get a definitive take on the less-than-Jolly Green Giant as he smashes through buildings, enemies and even some of his teammates. His appearance is the crowning glory on a MASSIVE third act rout as Loki brings his minions into New York to scare mankind into surrender. The newly-christened Avengers zip through the city chasing and being chased by all manner of otherworldly creatures. The action is cleaner and more memorable than any of Michael Bay’s Transformers, as our heroes are never lost amongst the barrage of CGI monsters and collapsing buildings. Avengers Assemble barely pauses for breath; you’ll either be on the edge of your seat or chuckling away contentedly.

If you’re looking for great emotionality or social commentary from your superheroes, you’re best to wait for The Dark Knight Rises. If you like your superhero movies to be frantic and fun, your flying battleship has come in (Seriously, there’s a flying battleship in this thing!). Marvel’s best film since X2 is simply, supremely, ridiculously entertaining.

Review: The Cabin In The Woods (2011)

Director: Drew Goddard

****

The Cabin In The Woods is not a subversive homage to horror à la Scream. It’s a full-tilt middle finger to horror. Granted, horror is a genre that’s easy to mock, but TCITW rips the almighty heck out of it until it lapses into ridiculously entertaining giddiness. Every conceivable horror trope and subgenre is referenced here in some way; rictus grins at the ready, gorehounds! It’s like the biggest, bloodiest game of road bingo imaginable: spot the film and tick it off your mental list.

Even well before release, The Cabin In The Woods has gained notoriety as being so twisty and tricky as to be near-impossible to review without being spoiled. However, even the trailer could be interpreted as giving away too much (in retrospect), and it’s already known to be an attempted subversion of horror, so aren’t twists to be expected anyway? Well, yes, but TCITW just goes to extremes (and not necessarily in the gory, full-blooded sense) that you would not expect. The initial plot sees five friends (Chris Hemsworth’s jock, slutty Anna Hutchison, nerdy Jesse Williams, stoner Fran Kranz and the virginal Kristen Connolly) travel to a cabin in the woods for the weekend. Now, we know that’s the plot of Evil Dead right there, and the cabin comes complete with scary basement, dark wooded surrounds and an eerie wolf’s head mounted on the wall. To say much more would be to deprive prospective viewers of some off-kilter delights. This much can be said plot-wise: the story starts treading familiar ground, and then the initial suggestions that all is not what it seems are fully realized with delirious abandon.

Writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon make two things clear from the beginning: they love horror, and they’re not happy with the repetitive tropes that have come to define it. Whedon toyed with these ideas in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but TCITW is the opportunity to break horror down to its very foundations. Why do we always end up with cardboard cutout characters acting stupidly (“Let’s split up to cover more ground!”) and inevitably getting garroted? The answer is teased in the opening, as two white-collar guys (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, both clearly having fun here) discuss the day’s work ahead of them, before one of the biggest jumps in the film appears out of nowhere (Despite reading this, it’ll still get ya!). What do these guys have to do with the teens in the cabin? Finding out is just half the fun!

As the film continues on, and some characters succumb to gory fates, the answer draws closer in a tidal wave of self-referentiality that treads the line between giddy and plain silly. The audience is laughing both at AND with The Cabin In The Woods. In any other genre, that’s be a criticism, but horror is just too daft to be taken seriously in the first place; surrendering to the chaos is a must when watching TCITW. A lack of subtlety does deny TCITW the scalpel-sharp satirical edge of Scream, but then this isn’t dissection; this is destruction with a wrecking ball, and Whedon and Goddard are having a blast swinging that ball about without a care in the world.

The first two-thirds, full of Evil Dead-alike mania and mystery, segues into a final 30 minutes of referential frenzy that will have most any horror fan in a tizzy, jammed as it is with wry asides, winks and cameos. Any film that can reference J-horror, Hellraiser and Michael Haneke in the name of parody is clearly doing something right. Though Scre4m may have got the jump on TCITW in highlighting some ideas on recent horror, TCITW lets the scares and the clichés speak for themselves, never overwhelming them with either snarky smarts or over-sincerity. The Cabin In The Woods is naturally self-aware, but comes armed with a healthy disdain for what has come before and a dark sense of humour. The best word for it is Groovy!

Review: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (2012)

Directors: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt

**

Pirate comedies are quite a niche subgenre (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies don’t count; any comedy is due to Mr. Depp). It’s also a rather poor subgenre, the last notable entry being Roman Polanski’s horrid Pirates. So, Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (or Bunch Of Misfits if you’re a rabid right-wing Kentuckian) won’t have to put in too much effort to become top of the heap. Unfortunately, it tries too hard; myriad gags come and go in unmemorable bursts, with few hitting their target. Only a few elements save The Pirates! from being sent to Davy Jones’ locker.

Our hearty band of ne’er-do-wells for the evening are comprised of characters whose names are actually descriptions of their most notable traits. Memo to the screenwriter: that’s not funny.

*checks screenwriter bio on IMDb*

Hamish McColl (adapting Gideon Defoe’s book) also wrote the scripts for Mr. Bean’s Holiday and Johnny English Reborn. This ship may be scuppered before we even set sail.

Anyway, under the command of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) are Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson, likeable), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey, irritating), Pirate With Scarf, (Martin Freeman, bland) and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen, forced joke). In any other pirate movie, these guys would be after some legitimate booty or be in a tussle with the crown over stolen doubloons. Instead, the Pirate Captain wants to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award. It’s a silly idea which is primed for a kids’ movie, but Aardman’s previous work has always appealed to both children and adults, and The Pirates! never manages to keep both audiences pleased. For the most part, both will be bored by scenes which purport to be filled with funny banter, but raise nary a giggle. Some giggles do come occassionally, but the belly laughs of Chicken Run simply aren’t here. A cameo from the Elephant Man is about the only joke that lingers in this critic’s memory.

The Pirate Captain finds he has to plunder a lot more booty to win the prize. On his quest to do so, he encounters a wimpy Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who befriends the Captain in order to present the Captain’s pet dodo Polly to a scientific convention. Polly is one of The Pirates!’ saving graces. She’s one of two cute animal sidekicks (the other being a monkey butler named Mr. Bobo) who frequently steal scenes with the slightest sound or look. They make more impact than Salma Hayek or Jeremy Piven (as Pirate Captain’s rivals Cutlass Liz and Black Bellamy); their screentime amounts to pittance.

Another saving grace is Hugh Grant. Why did nobody think of getting him in a recording booth before?! The Pirate Captain is a charming old cad, with a beard-smothered stiff upper lip and a desperate desire to be taken seriously. He’s certainly more interesting than his nominal foe, the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). With a weak bad-guy plot and a one-dimensional character, she’s no Mrs. Tweedy.

The animation is typically top-notch, though CGI is employed extensively (if barely noticeably) for backgrounds. The richness of the models offsets the lack of depth in the script and the characters, but the pretty scenery can only do so much before we’re mired once more in a plot that is both unnecessarily busy and driven by unmemorable characters and gags. Investing in the plots around Wallace and Gromit or Ginger the chicken meant making us care about the characters first. Compared to Curse of The Were-Rabbit or Chicken Run, The Pirates in an Adventure With Scientists! feels disappointingly slight. A few good gags and a charming lead save it from having to walk the plank, but it’s so limp that it’ll have to be thrown in the brig alongside Jack Sparrow’s over-exposed drunken debauchery.