Film reviews: Damsels in Distress | Albert Nobbs | Outside Bet | The Monk | African Cats

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Alistair Harkness on the rest of this week’s new releases...

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (15)

Directed by: WHIT STILLMAN

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton

**

AFTER the prophetically titled Last Days of Disco, pithy indie auteur Whit Stillman demonstrates how thoroughly he’s lost his groove by returning to filmmaking after a 14-year absence with this insufferable slice of superannuated silliness. Set on a preppy East Coast US college campus – one that seems to have been time-warped in from the 1950s and populated by monstrous retro-hipsters negotiating their ironically conceived lives with faux urbane courtliness – it revolves around a trio of sorority girls (led by Greta Gerwig) who take it upon themselves to rescue their fellow students from hedonism-fuelled depression.

That, sadly, is it for the story. Stillman uses this set-up to skip from one excruciatingly smug comic vignette to the next, introducing us along the way to tap-dancing suicide prevention counsellors, colourblind frat boys and – and this is perhaps apt considering how up itself and painful to endure the film is – a student society dedicated to promoting the dubious delights of sodomy. The end result doesn’t so much reflect a filmmaker dancing to the kooky beat of his own drum, but one capriciously flailing around because he’s used up all his best moves.

ALBERT NOBBS (15)

Directed by: RODRIGO GARCIA

Starring: Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia WasIKowska, Aaron Johnson

**

THE last of this year’s films to feature an Academy Award nominated performance for best actress finally makes its way into UK cinemas. Alas, the belated release of Albert Nobbs only confirms what seasoned observers of the Oscars probably already suspected: that Glenn Close was nominated more for what her character represents than her actual acting accomplishments.

Yes, yes, in playing a timid 19th-century Irish butler living in permanent fear that he’ll be found out as a woman posing as a man, she approaches the gender confusion of the role with great sensitivity and grace. But aside from being caked in Oscar-baiting prosthetics, it’s hardly a bravura turn, and certainly not one that deserved to keep Charlize Theron off the Oscar shortlist for Young Adult.

It doesn’t help that Rodrigo Garcia’s direction that’s tasteful to the point of soporific ensures the relatively predictable story fails to catch fire (from the moment you see Albert carefully squirreling away his meagre pay you know any chance of happiness is doomed).

It’s left to the also Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer – playing a woman in a similar predicament to Albert but much more comfortable with her position in life – to supply what few eye-opening revelations the film can muster.

OUTSIDE BET (12A)

Directed by: SACHA BENNETT

Starring: Bob Hoskins, Calum McNab, Phil Davis, Adam Deacon

*

MORE a soggy Rich Tea biscuit than Seabiscuit, this plucky Brit pic about a supposedly loveable bunch of working-class geezers buying a racehorse is one for the knackers’ yard. Yet another misguided attempt to replicate the success of The Full Monty – attention British filmmakers: it was 15 years ago; there’s no magic formula; no film has replicated its success; move on! – this one uses the Wapping print strikes of the mid-1980s as the tokenistic political backdrop for its skull-crushingly boring tale of beaten-down men regaining a sense of pride by embarking on an idiotic folly.

Such an ambition-free story is depressing enough, but Outside Bet makes it worse by being so incompetent. Characters suddenly appear in the film with no explanation as to who they are, lame visual gags are further ruined by sloppy editing, and when it comes to women, director and co-writer Sacha Bennett deploys a sort of seen-and-not-heard policy (as one of the long-suffering wives, Linda Robson doesn’t get a line of dialogue until the final ten minutes).

Saddled with one-note, charmless characters, the cast of veteran Brits and young up-and-comers are thoroughly handicapped from the outset, ensuring the naff title provides the film with an unintentionally accurate assessment on its odds for success.

THE MONK (15)

Directed by: DOMINIK MOLL

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Japy, Geraldine Chaplin

**

ONE might expect a gothic thriller starring Vincent Cassel as a sexually alluring 17th-century monk carrying the mark of the devil to have a bit of a kick to it. Unfortunately, in bringing MG Lewis’s salacious and bloody 1796 novel to the big screen, French writer/director Dominik Moll (Lemmings) seems determined to strip any potentially garish fun out of the story, even though his framing, script and plotting hint at the potentially camp overload inherent in it.

As the pious title character (who was dumped as a baby on steps of a Spanish monastery and raised by the brotherhood within), Cassel is almost too restrained, as if he’s treating the film as a serious exploration of the nature of faith rather than playing a man wrestling with his perceptive yet naïve understanding of the world as women conspire to corrupt his character.

Low on genuine horror (a few ravens, rats and bugs here and there don’t really cut it), Moll’s film fails to compensate with a commensurate level of tension or even atmosphere. When the devil does finally show up, the film treats his arrival with a shrug rather than a shock.

AFRICAN CATS (U)

Directed by: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey

**

NOW that 40-inch-plus plasma screens and high-definition broadcasting is commonplace in the home, the need for cinematic nature documentaries has kind of gone the way of much of the natural world it’s designed to showcase. That may be why Disney’s latest attempt to revive the format it helped pioneer in the 1950s and 1960s tells such a simplistic anthropomorphised tale: it’s more concerned with wowing us with spectacle than breaking new narrative ground to deepen our understanding of nature.

Not that the stunning cinematography capturing the magnificent lions and cheetahs prowling the planes of the Masai Mara Nature reserve in Kenya doesn’t provide a few eye-popping moments. The magisterial sight of these wild cats shot against lush greenery and skies filled with purple stormclouds is certainly dramatic in and of itself.

But in trying to shoehorn the activities of a pride of lions staking out its territory and a cheetah protecting its young into relatable narratives about the difficulties of making a home and being a single parent, the film (narrated by Patrick Stewart) comes across as banal and corny. Frankly, the harsh circle-of-life message in The Lion King was more sophisticated than this.