It’s the end of the year, which means I’m cramming in a whole bunch of movies at once. Therefore, instead of doing my usual long-ass reviews of each one, I’m chucking several into one post with capsule reviews. Laziness – huzzah!

Albert Nobbs

It pains me to say that Albert Nobbs is anything less than good because it’s a true passion project for Glenn Close, whom I like very much, but unfortunately, Albert Nobbs is not good. It’s not horrible, not even bad, really, it’s just not good. The acting is fine, the production values are excellent, and Close in particular commits to her character in a way that makes watching her fun. But overall, the story is flat and swings between too predictable and completely unbelievable. Close stars as Albert Nobbs, a hotel butler in 19th century Ireland who stashes money under the floorboards and dreams of opening a tobacco shop. But Nobbs has a secret—he’s really a woman who has been living in drag for years in order to have an independent life.

This is rich material for sure, dealing with issues of gender, class, and the alluring but maybe not possible “American dream” from the dreamer’s perspective. While Nobbs wants to own his own business and be independent, Joe (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) is trying to get to America for his better chance. Caught between them is Helen (Caremia Wasikolligan—I’ve realized that Carey Mulligan and Mia Wasikowska are the same person), a maid at the hotel that has caught Nobbs’ eye and Joe’s fancy. Added into the mix for good measure is Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds), a painter hired by the hotel who turns out to share the same secret as Nobbs.

The central problem with Albert Nobbs is that neither Close nor McTeer is especially convincing as a man. Close tries really hard but it’s just so odd that it’s hard to believe Nobbs has successfully hoodwinked all these people for so long. Secondly, Nobbs’ romance with Helen is flat and uninteresting. There’s no chemistry—which is starkly highlighted by Joe, who generates heat with his suspenders he’s so sexy—and there’s no real reason that Nobbs wants Helen. He doesn’t particularly need her nor does he seem to really desire her as anything other than a prop. Which is largely the problem. Everything, even the gender-bending, feels like a prop. For such a ripe story, Albert Nobbs is weirdly un-engaging and lacks any real urgency, which is mostly the director’s fault—his pacing is horrible—but a little blame has to go to Close and co-writer John Banville (The Last September).

That said, I will always be grateful to Albert Nobbs for giving us this:

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

It’s silly, yes. And it’s kind of stupid, if you think about it for more than three seconds. And the technology is ludicrous and doesn’t exist. And Ethan Hunt would have for sure died after the first time he smashed his head into an immovable object, let alone the third and fourth times. But goddammit, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is good. It’s fun. It—despite many instances beyond the suspension of disbelief—works. This is largely down to director Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles), an animation man taking his first stab at live action. And holy hell, what a stab he takes. Bird can direct the shit out of an action sequence, which is enormously helpful as MI4 is largely just action sequences linked loosely by the skimpiest of plots, but he also has a real knack for comic timing, which serves to relieve the action sequences of their burden and also keep the story clicking along at a nice pace. And his IMAX photography is well worth the ticket up-charge. This is one worth seeing in IMAX for the Burj Khalifa sequence alone.

Tom Cruise is still believable as super agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt, though there is something darling about the scene where he takes his shirt off and shows us his muscles. Look how hard he’s sucking in! It’s almost cute. In contrast, new-to-the-franchise Jeremy Renner (The Town, The Hurt Locker) never takes his clothes off yet manages to showcase a much more appealing physique—look at his cute butt! Less than a decade separates Renner and Cruise—neither spring chickens—yet Renner manages to come off as less desperate and doesn’t make me nearly as sad as Cruise does. Tommy, please stop taking your shirt off and asking me to be attracted to you. That’s never going to happen. Especially with Jeremy Renner’s cute butt around.

Joining Renner and Cruise this time around are Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Hot Fuzz) and Paula Patton (Precious), and Michael Nyqvist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who is doomed to forever play bad guys thanks to his accent. Pegg is particularly effective as comic relief—as he always is—and he has good chemistry with Cruise that should ensure his presence in future MI movies. Patton, while shockingly gorgeous, is slightly off to me. She has no chemistry with anyone. And I don’t mean romantic chemistry, I mean she hits a consistently flat note throughout the movie. Her best scene is when she confronts an assassin and isn’t dealing with anyone else on the team. It’s nothing Patton is doing wrong—she’s a fine actress and a believable physical presence—she’s just miscast within this ensemble. Still, MI4 is easily my pick for “crowd pleasingest holiday movie”.

My Week with Marilyn

Like Albert Nobbs, My Week with Marilyn showcases some stellar acting and strong production values, but the movie overall doesn’t quite live up to the sum of its best parts. Michelle Williams is really terrific as Marilyn Monroe, though for my money, it was Kenneth Branagh’s work as Laurence Olivier that made it for me. He had the best lines and delivered them in an accent that slid from the crustiest of upper-crust to something considerably rougher and lower-class. The way he said “mo-see-un pic-toor” killed me. Week traces the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, which was directed by Olivier and was supposed to be the movie that showed that Monroe was a real actress. Instead, it’s best remembered for its behind the scenes fireworks between Olivier and Monroe, who was already sinking into the drug abuse that would eventually kill her. The story is taken from the published diaries of Colin Clark, the third assistant director on the film, who claims he was responsible for “managing” Monroe and that he and she had a brief romance after her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, returned to the US.

As Colin, Eddie Redmayne (Tony Award winner for Red) acquits himself nicely though his role consists of little more than mooning after Marilyn. Similarly, Dougray Scott (oh my god, remember Ever After?!) is effective as Miller and Dominic Cooper (Tamara Drewe) is good as Monroe’s manager. Julia Ormond and Judi Dench have small parts as Vivien Leigh and Dame Sybil Thorndike, respectively, and Emma Watson has a glorified cameo as a wardrobe assistant on the film. Consistently, the acting is solid throughout but Williams and Branagh make everything worth watching. Also, Williams sings a couple songs and unlike Carey Mulligan, who can’t carry a tune, she’s actually good.

The movie has a glossy, slick look and takes advantage of real locations like Pinewood Studios, Eton College (where Redmayne was a classmate of Prince William), and the Clark family’s home, Saltwood Castle. Unfortunately, there’s a big black mark for the wig department since Williams’ wig line is clearly visible throughout the movie, which is distracting and disappointing for a performance of this caliber. Williams doesn’t exude the effortless sexiness that was Monroe’s trademark, it’s true, but she nails the emotional fragility and mercurial moods perfectly. She’s especially effective in the scenes where Monroe is out of her mind on prescription drugs, which works well as an understated harbinger of doom. We don’t need to see Marilyn shoving pills down her throat since Williams does such a good job of capturing her drugged out state. Conversely, she’s equally effective when portraying the “on” Marilyn Monroe, all bubbly laugh and smiles. The voice isn’t a carbon copy of the real Marilyn Monroe, but it’s a near approximation that actually did not annoy me.

If you’re into Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Williams, or Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn is worth it just for Branagh and Williams, but the movie itself isn’t must-see cinema. It drags at points and the scenes of Colin and Marilyn enjoying a date day are actually the least interesting of the whole movie. Week works best when Monroe and Olivier are setting each other off with Colin caught in the middle, trying to placate a bunch of moody actors who need constant handholding and emotional support. One thing Week does get completely right is how exhausting it is to handle actors. Given the film’s time frame—1956—we’re able to leave Marilyn Monroe years before her life took a really sad turn, but Williams puts enough into her performance to forewarn of the coming tragedy, which makes for a bittersweet conclusion.

Young Adult

Now here’s a movie where the total effort wholly lives up to the powerhouse performance at the center of the film. Charlize Theron comes back from her sabbatical as Mavis Gary, a young adult ghost writer and all around awful person. As written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Mavis is hard to like. As played by Theron, she’s nigh on impossible to care for. This is as emotionally ugly a performance as you’ll find this year—and one of the most willfully unflattering performances in recent memory—and Theron absolutely shines as the ultimate Queen B. Still, Theron does mine some complicated issues with Mavis, namely alcoholism and what happens to little girls who don’t live out their Prince Charming fantasies. Mavis Gary is a prime example of why raising a daughter to believe marrying Mr. Right is the goal can be a dangerous endgame. Theron deserves every ounce of notice she’s getting for the performance.

Yet for all that Theron throws down, it’s comedian Patton Oswalt who holds up the film. Oswalt is a scathing, tremendous comedian with almost no compare. That he’s capable of real acting, too, is almost unfair. As Matt Freehauf, Oswalt is the emotional core of the film and he delivers on his end of the bargain. From the very beginning he is Mavis’s moral conscience—or he tries to be. The victim of a vicious high school beating—huge props to Cody for not overplaying this but there is subtle inference that Mavis was perhaps partially responsible for inciting hate against Matt—he is left leaning on a crutch, permanently disabled and embittered. When Mavis accuses him of using his injury as a reason to hide from life, she’s not wrong, but Matt is equally right when he lays into her for not really understanding or acknowledging what happened to him. Oswalt infuses Matt with a rich inner life—this is a guy who probably could’ve gotten out of town and made something of himself if he hadn’t been beaten to a pulp and left for dead. As it is, he brews bourbon in his garage and makes mutant action figures as a hobby while living with his sister. Oswalt’s performance is every bit as worthy as Theron’s and their scenes together are some of the most satisfying of the year.

I had a lot of issues with Juno, most relating to Cody’s intolerable and precious use of slang, and I’m happy to report that Young Adult does not suffer from the same affliction. This is a considerably more grown up movie and Cody shows a lot of maturity as a writer. I still want to yell at her for using cutesy names you wouldn’t hear in the real world—show me a baby or an old lady named Mavis and I’d buy it but not a thirty-something—but she abandons the tweepulsive tendencies that sank Juno. As directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), Young Adult zips along Mavis’s determined path of self destruction—the staging of her climactic confrontation with the wife of her high school love (Elizabeth Reaser, The Twilight Saga) is painful and hard to watch and it perfectly captures why I think pity is the worst thing you can feel for a person. This is not uplifting holiday fare, but Young Adult is absolutely worth a trip to the theater.