BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY (USA/ Light House/88mins)
Directed by Constance Marks. Starring Kevin Clash, Kermit Love, Frank Oz, Jim Henson, Whoopi Goldberg, Carroll Spinney, Bill Barretta.
THE PLOT: Charting the rise from Brooklyn teen puppet fan to the man right behind Elmo, we follow Clash from his early years just outside Baltimore, where he was a rabid fan of a different kind of wire. Ridiculed early on for his homemade puppets, a stint on local cable TV led him to meet the man who built many of Jim Henson's Sesame Street creations, Kermit Love. Love soon becomes Clash's mentor, and as the young puppeteer's career rises, he finally gets to work with his idols, first on Labyrinth and later on Sesame Street. Elmo - who first appeared on Sesame Street in 1972 as Baby Monster - literally fell onto Clash's lap in 1984 when Sesame Street veteran Richard Hunt threw the little red Muppet across, having not found the character's voice over the last 3 years. Having been told by Frank Oz to find one overriding characteristic for every puppet - with Fozzy Bear, it's vaudeville; with Miss Piggy, said Oz, it's a truck driver who wishes he was a woman - Clash decided Elmo was about unconditional love...
THE VERDICT: A largely happy felt-to-riches tale, Constance Marks' documentary throws up a lot of hugs and smiles as Kevin Clash recalls the steps that led him to the all-conquering Elmo. The only rain on this parade is the neglect of Clash's daughter, Shannon, who, at one point, sends her jet-setting father an email, stating that she's about to head to college in three years time, and she'd like to get to know him before then. There's no mention here of the Sesame Street dedicated who feel Elmo's enormous popularity has all-but squeezed out old favourites such as Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird, or how the little red love bundle is referred to by some of the Sesame Street traditionalists as Little Red Menace. It would have been nice too to know how Clash felt about Elmo being the first non-human or puppet to testify before the U.S. Congress in April 2002, urging support for increased funding for music education. Still, perhaps it's fitting that this doc is warm and fuzzy. RATING: 3/5
AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (USA/12A/142mins)
Directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders.
THE PLOT: After a quick ambush at S.H.I.E.L.D HQ, seminal little brother Loki (Hiddleston) has gained control of the tesseract, a large, luminescent Oxo cube that not only has untold powers but can also open a portal to outer space. Where an army awaits. And so it is finally time for S.H.I.E.L.D. master Nick Fury (Jackson) to pull together the aborted Avengers programme. Because, who knows, this band of superhero misfits - including Iron Man (Downey), Thor (Hemsworth), Captain America (Evans), Hawkeye (Johansson) and the Hulk (Ruffalo) - might just be able to save the day...
THE VERDICT: Finally, a Marvel film that's a bona fide marvel. Somehow, the great Joss Whedon has managed to pull off what many people thought impossible on screen, banding together a shipload of superheroes who would normally command the full 142 minutes running time to themselves, and getting them all to work together, as one. Beautifully. Majestically. Hilariously. The result is the year's first truly kick-ass blockbuster, with a third act that delivers a ridiculous amount of spills and thrills, and slapstick. It's the humour that really makes this film special, riddled as it is with plenty of those Indiana Jones just-shoot-the-guy moments and the sort of self-deprecating cool that made The Incredibles so damn near perfect. Finally with a blockbuster hit to his name, Whedon has set the comic-book blockbuster bar incredibly high here. RATING: 5/5
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (USA/15A/99mins)
Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Ryan Metcalf.
THE PLOT: At a small Ivy League college, Violet (Gerwig) leads her trio of wide-eyed, perfectly poised girls in their mission to cheer up depressives - mainly through tap dancing at their Suicide Prevention Center - and to scrub up all those nasty, smelly philistines who are no doubt dying to kiss them. Into this little nest of prep steps transfer student Lily (Tipton, so good as the lovestruck babysitter in Crazy Stupid Love), our Alice through this quirky, stuffy wonderland. After Violet discovers her boyfriend (Metcalf) with another girl, she goes AWOL only to return convinced that scented soap is the way forward ("The scent and the soap is what gives me hope"). And that she has a new dance craze on her hands, the Sambola.
THE VERDICT: It's been 13 years since New Yorker Whit Stillman has made a movie, having broken through with Metropolitan in 1990 before promptly vanishing off the screen after 1998's The Last Days Of Disco. Like Woody Allen with a college education and his funny bone removed, Stillman specializes in arch comedies set amongst New York's privileged young. And his latest plays like Heathers without the headers, Clueless without a clue, like Mean Girls without any of that delicious meanness. Try to imagine Animal House as written and directed by Miranda July - it's that irritating. This is a smug film, and one that's not even half as funny as it plainly thinks it is. RATING: 2/5
ALBERT NOBBS (UK/Ireland/15A/113mins)
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McAteer, Pauline Collins, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark Williams, Phyllida Law, Michael McElhatton.
THE PLOT: Dublin, the late 19th century, and well-regarded hotel waiter Albert Nobbs (Close) is really a woman in disguise. It's a secret that's almost rumbled when Albert is forced to share a room with a Mr. Page (McAteer) - who, as luck would have it, turns out to be a woman in disguise too. Realising Mr. Page has a wife at home, Albert sets out to find a woman too, settling on young maid Helen (Wasikowska) - whose rough boyfriend Joe (Johnson) advices her to milk her elderly suited for every penny she's got. A happy ending seems unlikely...
THE VERDICT: With Close receiving an Oscar nomination for this long-gestating labour of love, this reverse-Tootsie, Dublin-shot period curiosity, based on George Moore's 1927 novella, has a real shot at commercial success. Because it's not difficult to see why the major studios turned Close down again and again over the last 30 years. It was a 1982 stage production that first convinced leading lady Close that Albert Nobbs would make a great film, but this muted adaptation seems as muzzled, melancholic and messed-up as its highly repressed protagonist. RATING: 2/5
Reviews by Paul Byrne