Lists: Top 25 Performances and Top 10 Song Usages from 2012 Film

After this, all that’s left is my Top 30 Films of the Year. Now, to pay homage to the acting and use of music in this year’s films. As far as songs go, the criteria are that use of instrumental score composed for the film does not count nor do songs from musicals. Otherwise Anna and Vronsky’s dance scene from Anna Karenina and “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables would have made it.

As for the performances, 10-25 are listed alphabetically and the top 10 are listed alphabetically. It feels even weirder to outright rank performances than it does films, so I figure putting them in two broad groupings gives some semblance of structure.

There’s nothing better than the inspired application of a song . Here are the ten, in order, that stayed with me most this year.

Top 10 Song Usages

Honorable Mentions: “Ghost Rider” – Suicide – Attenberg, any number of songs in Django Unchained, “Strokin” – Clarence Carter – Killer Joe, “Let It Out” – Girl Talk – Girl Walk//All Day, anything from Shut Up and Play the Hits, Heroes – David Bowie – Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc.

Okay, 11. “Come On Eileen” – Dexy’s Midnight Runners – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Charlie comes out of his shell to one of the best New Wave songs of all as Patrick and Sam spread their infectious dance-crazed flamboyance.

rust and bone

10. “Firework” – Katy Perry – Rust and Bone
Who knew? A turning point for the character of Stephanie, reclaiming her life as she confronts her former place of employment.


9. “Skyfall” – Adele – Skyfall
Adele channels Shirley Bassey with her momentous throwback Bond song. Her powerful yet calm delivery backed by surrounding strings and brass gives chills.


8.“I Got a Name” – Jim Croce – Django Unchained
Folk floats on in as the budding bounty-hunting friendship between Django and Schultz gets a perfect landscape-filled montage.


7. “Le Temps de l’Amour” – Francoise Hardy – Moonrise Kingdom
Jared Gilman’s flailing inelegance paired with the concentrated smooth of Kara Hayward and Anderson’s slightly hovering straight-on take make this scene an instant classic.

EDIT: Inserting “Revivre” by Gerard Manset in Holy Motors after the fact. Having seen it again reminded me of this scene and how I forgot it for this list is beyond me. Probably still too swept up in “Let My Baby Ride”.


6. “Popcorn” – Hot Butter – Alps
In a final scene that bookends the first, the Gymnast is finally ready for pop music.


5. “Take This Waltz” – Leonard Cohen and “Video Killed the Radiostar – The Buggles’ – Take This Waltz
Technically three usages in one spot as the latter is used twice. Burning desire finally gets released as time passes and cyclical yearning reigns in these two wondrous scenes.

4. “Stand on the Word” – Keedz – Polisse
The employees of the Child Protection Unit let loose  with French rapper Joeystarr as Fred leading everyone in a dance. You can feel the momentary relief of the experience run through as you watch beaming.


3. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” – Johnny Cash – The ImposterA haunting and kitschy end to a film that provides unnerving suggestions about a story with no clear conclusion.

master, the_philip_seymour_hoffman

2. “On a Slow Boat to China” – Frank Loesser (sung by P.S Hoffman) The Master
Transfixing and ever-ambiguous. One of the most beguiling scenes from this year. I could not find a picture from this scene, tried though I did. Instead I chose this frame I’m in love with from an unrelated scene. Loving the color on that suit.


1. “Let My Baby Ride” – R.L Burnside – Holy Motors
“Trois! Douze! Merde!”

Top 25 Performances:

Honorable Mention: Anne Hathaway – Fantine – Les Miserables

25-10 (in alphabetical order)


Marion Cotillard – Stephanie – Rust and Bone
Shattered. Defiant. Physical.

Leonardo DiCaprio – Calvin Candie – Django Unchained
Hammy. Savage. Refreshing.

Thomas Doret – Cyril – The Kid with a Bike
Scrappy. Stubborn. Hurt.

Ann Dowd – Sandra – Compliance
Earnest. Misguided. Astray.


Michael Fassbender – David – Prometheus
Precise. Inquisitive. Blond.

Philip Seymour Hoffman – Lancaster Dodd – The Master
Cloying. Defensive.  Sincere.

Nina Hoss – Barbara – Barbara
Guarded. Austere. Compassionate.

Ezra Miller – Patrick – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Boisterous. Assured. Wounded.


Aggeliki Papoulia – The Nurse –  Alps
Desperate. Stilted. Cipher.

Michael Rogers – Barry Nyle – Beyond the Black Rainbow
Nightmarish. Unstable. Seething.

Lea Seydoux – Agathe Sidonie-Laborde – Farewell, My Queen
Enigmatic. Loyal. Observant.

Channing Tatum – Jenko – 21 Jump Street
Goofy. Atypical. Dependable.


Christopher Walken – Hans – Seven Psychopaths
Collected. Grieved. Soulful.

Dreama Walker – Becky – Compliance
Vulnerable. Simple. Credulous.

Rachel Weisz – Hester – The Deep Blue Sea
Luminous. Fretful. Smoky.

The Top 10 (alphabetical order):


Denis Lavant – Monsieur Oscar and about nine other roles – Holy Motors
Grotesque. Chameleon. Encompassing.

Logan Lerman – Charlie – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Authentic. Sheepish. Damaged.

Daniel Day-Lewis – Abraham Lincoln – Lincoln
Timeless. Wise. Reedy.

Anders Danielsen Lie – Anders – Oslo, August 31st
Haunted. Splintered. Contemplative.

Matthew McConaughey – Joe – Killer Joe
Virile. Smooth. Penetrating.

Sara Paxton – Claire – The Innkeepers
Naturalistic. Singular. Spry.

Joaquin Phoenix – Freddie Quell – The Master
Feral. Externalized. Obscene.

Emmanuelle Riva – Anne – Amour
Lost. Fragile. Deteriorating.

Matthias Schoenaerts – Jacky – Bullhead
Brute. Meaty. Blockaded.

Michelle Williams – Margot – Take This Waltz
Childish. Wistful. Idiosyncratic.


Review: Detachment (2012, Kaye)

Synopsis: A substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom finds a connection to the students and teachers during his latest assignment.

In Detachment, eccentric director Tony Kaye’s examination of the everyday minutiae of an urban high school, picked his form of attack–full-scale assault—and decided that was enough. He crams so much horror and extremity into every scenario he presents that the film has no room to breathe. There is a train-wreck quality that keeps this consistently watchable but not for the reasons Kaye wants. A ‘what will he throw at us next’ pull resides. He uses the guise of the school education system as a cipher for a no holds barred sustained shrill that is always pitched at 11, and unfortunately cares only about being pitched at 11.

Now this is Tony Kaye we are talking about. Clearly subtlety was never in the cards. Instead of exploring what lies behind the risible mulch we are subjected to, he focuses on the endless existential crisis of Adrian Brody’s Henry Barthes. Barthes floats from school to school, careful not to stay in any one place for too long. Seething anger lingers underneath his exterior, but he is able to present a serene demeanor in the classroom that is purposely difficult to penetrate.

Henry keeps everyone at arm’s length. Why is he so ‘detached’? Besides the fact that he witnesses everyday atrocities of all kinds, grainy flashbacks, at every opportunity, clue us into Henry’s past. The repetition of it never further illuminates; like the rest of the film, it is a trussed-up sledgehammer. And so we watch him wander through life, wondering where it all went so wrong. Otherwise he spends his time staving off desperately unhappy teenage girls who cast him in the role of savior. Woe is him.

Brody is effective here, making the most of having something to work with, a luxury none of the other actors can claim to having. The centrality of Brody’s character suggests the actor’s complicity (he boasts an exec producer credit too) in aiding Kaye’s self-indulgence. The director and star leave everyone else out to dry in what amounts to a bunch of interchangeable glorified, and at times embarrassing, cameos. Surely there was more material with an ensemble roster this strong, but their roles are collectively whittled down to nothing. Somehow all of the performances outside of Brody from the veterans to the ingénues are distractingly gaudy. All of the acting fits into one of two possible molds; a stilted table read or some kind of amateur theater exercise where the goal is to scream oneself into a state of hysteria.

I can appreciate the tangible wrath fueling every frame of Detachment. In its way, it is a refreshing antidote to the arms-length caramel gooeyness that plagues other plight-of-educators films. One thing going for it is that it is a never dull assault you will not quickly forget. The undeniably high IMDB rating suggests it is having an impact on many who see it, a good thing for sure. Normally I would never name-drop an IMDB rating in a review, but 7.7 with 13,000 votes? That is high. But Kaye’s unparalleled miserablist wankfest favors hyper-stylized rage over any kind of story, idea or purpose.

2012 in Film: Year-So-Far Poll #1 – Most Disappointing

Hello all! I truly apologize that it has been a bit of a dead zone here lately. I go through spurts of being motivated to write a lot and vice versa. This is one of those vice versa times.  But I’m going to try and get some modicum of consistency going again. The fall prestige season is here and I’d like to write reviews for several films from the upcoming slate as well as several from films from this year I’m catching up on. My number of 2012 films seen is at 56 and I’d like it to be much higher by the time the year is finished so, among other reasons, I feel qualified to give decently well-rounded year-end lists. But for now, let’s kick things off with the first in a series of poll installment posts for all you movie lovers out there. It does not matter how many 2012 films you have seen; everyone can answer. Hopefully this will get you reflecting a bit about the year so far:

What I like about asking which film(s) were you most disappointed by this year is that it reflects greatly on what the individual moviegoer was looking forward to. There are plenty of films to be underwhelmed by, but the ones that truly disappoint are films that we had been highly anticipating for one reason or another. It is always clear what the consensus was underwhelmed or even vehement about and those films will certainly pop up here as well. However, it is the wide array of choices I am looking forward to seeing; a selection that goes past only representation of Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises.

When I asked those who follow me on twitter today to tell me what they were most disappointed by this year, I hardly got any repeats. The selection ranged from The Master to Cosmopolis to Lockout to Lawless to Keyhole and even Samsara.

I favored wider releases for the poll choices, but please don’t take that as an accurate representation of film this year. There was a ton I left out.

MY ANSWER: I’d have to go with Whit Stillman’s long-awaited return with Damsels in Distress. This had been one of the films I was most anxious to see (#4 on my Films to See in January-April). Sorry Mr. Stillman, but I found your latest effort to be whimsically empty, the worst kind of froth and with characters who are too self-satisfied to even remotely register as anything but.

I’d love to hear your reasons in the comments section!


Review: The Raid: Redemption (2012, Evans)

A future goal of mine that I will try to intermittently work on over the year is being able to write reviews that are a bit shorter and more concise. The two reasons for this are that I would be able to get a slightly higher quantity of reviews up and it is a skill I have yet to attain that I feel I should. This is not because I have oh-so-much to say, because I rarely do; it is just a skill I have never been able to master. If I can write one short review a week I will be satisfied.

IMDB Summary: A SWAT team becomes trapped in a tenement run by a ruthless mobster and his army of killers and thugs.

The value of standout choreography (whether that be hand-to-hand combat or choreography of a car chase or giant set-piece) in an action film cannot be overstated. It is the make-it-or-break-it element of this genre. A critical synergy must be reached between how the scene is conceptualized, what is shot, and what is shown through the editing process. If any one of these is subpar in execution, which happens in most cases with editing, the scene collapses.

Then a film like The Raid comes along and pulls the rug out from under us, soaring above a primarily low precedent. When action choreography is this spectacular, it has the power to ruthlessly trample over any glitches the film may have had going against it. This is applicable to The Raid.

Let me make this clear; there was no point when I truly cared about anything plot-related going on here. Welsh director/writer/editor Gareth Evans tries to give us reasons to care but they don’t gel. Star and martial arts expert Iko Uwais has an undeniably empathetic quality to him which he maintains even when obliterating everyone around him. But that only goes so far. The film stays on one wavelength throughout its entirety and the story is so simple it is barely worth mentioning.

But the action scenes featuring hand-to-hand combat are, in a word, awesome. Evans features the Indonesian martial art called Pencak Silat, with stars Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (to say Ruhian is a force of nature is an understatement) largely responsible for choreography. All of this gives The Raid a leg up. Audiences get to see a type of fighting unfamiliar to them which is immediately refreshing. Having experts like Uwais and Ruhian acting allows for the circumvention of stunt doubles. Consequently, Evans’ main editorial priority is not splicing together stunt doubles and actor footage, but figuring out how to best showcase Pencak Silat and the stellar choreography on display. The edits Evans makes are frequent but logistical and energizing; miraculously not an ounce of visual translation is lost in post-production.

This is the reason to see The Raid. It drowned me in brutal and extremely grisly violence and managed to place a big appreciative beaming smile on my face. It may be all the film has to offer, but the rarity of these exhaustive and thrilling action scenes is more than enough. It deservedly has a lifetime of cult followings and midnight showings in its future.

Review: 21 Jump Street (2012, Lord and Miller)

IMDB Summary: A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

“21 Jump Street” is a gaping hole in my pop-culture knowledge. I knew of its existence and that it had something to do with cops. I knew it launched Johnny Depp’s career and that it featured Richard Grieco who remained a stagnant fixture in the 80’s. But that is it. I have never seen an episode and was unfamiliar of even its basic concept. When the news of its reboot came about, my reaction was likely that of many: yet another shrug-and-eyeroll combo with a reiteration of the oh-so-original thought that Hollywood has run out of ideas. From my limited understanding, not even the basic genre, tone or characters are kept here. It is a reboot mostly in name only.

Yet, lo and behold; 21 Jump Street is a mostly fantastic film. Save for a third act that comparatively falls apart at the seams, this is an engagingly uproarious and surprisingly sincere comedy that is taken to the next level by the pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The first half is almost shockingly good. The pacing is razor-sharp and it clicks along with an at-times remarkable speed. Take the first five minutes which manage to accomplish what some films fail to do in their entire runtime. It establishes Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) in their respective high-school personas. Schmidt was a 2005 unpopular Eminem wannabe whereas Jenko was your typical douchebag jock. This sets up a really refreshing role-reversal that will take place later on when they return to high school as undercover cops. Years later, they encounter each other when they train at the academy. Jenko is dim and needs help with the exams while Schmidt cannot power through the physical training. They begin to help each other out; through montage we see the roots of a clearly meaningful friendship which has a genuine immediacy that carries throughout. All of this resonates within the first five minutes, making everything that comes after all the more absorbing.

21 Jump Street contains a manic energy akin to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (screenwriter Michael Bacall had a hand in both screenplays) without the kinetic comic-book visuals. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller of the perplexingly well-received Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, quickly establish a gleeful fluid mania that permeates through everything. Early on they show how they will use the camera and music to present something in a more subjective fashion, only to pull back and show the amusing reality. It works every time.

Two sequences that do this perfectly are arguably the films two funniest sequences. The first is the pair’s first attempted arrest. The second is the pair’s drug-addled excursion during school hours. The latter switches back and forth from a first-person perspective, showing how they experience the various effects of the drug (whose supplier they have been assigned to track down), to a third-person perspective which displays just how ridiculous they really look. I can honestly say I do not know the last time I laughed this hard as this played out.

There is something about the experience of high school that is captured here, inducting it into the pantheon of memorable high school films. It helps that Jenko and Schmidt graduated high school in 2005, the same year as me, giving it an added dose of personal resonance. It presents high school as a toxic environment where peer approval not only reigns above all, but legitimately defines you as a person. Going back to high school terrifies Schmidt whereas Jenko is thrilled with the assignment. But the tables have turned. The high school experience has changed enough in seven years allowing Jenko to be unpopular and allowing Schmidt a place in the school’s top clique.

High school is its own universe and 21 Jump Street gets this. It capitalizes on the idea that going back after a number of years would be somewhat surreal. It is surprising just how much we feel when Schmidt, in his newly acquired popularity, distances himself from Jenko, who is looked down on by the popular crowd for his low intelligence level. This role-reversal allows for both the story and performances to go in some nicely unexpected directions.

As far as the two lead performances go, the brilliance of the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum, pairing cannot be overstated. In the end, they make this film the success it is. They raise the bar for onscreen comedic pairings in our modern times. These are no exaggerations. Together that not only possess perfect comedic timing, but their ‘bromance’ (hate the term, but if it applies anywhere, it applies here) feels completely authentic and is respectfully played straight. When Tatum says he would take a bullet for Hill, it isn’t played for laughs.

To think of Hill in Moneyball and then in 21 Jump Street is a bit jarring. It is evident at this point that he can filter himself into a variety of different characters. Here, his character is equal parts insecure and misguided; but he’s also very intelligent. He isn’t really playing a ‘type’ here; Schmidt is a well-rounded character navigating through the confusing times of high school for the second time. It is very easy to overlook Hill’s considerable talents, but we shouldn’t. And here is hoping we do not start taking him for granted any time soon.

As far as Channing Tatum goes, his work here has single-handedly made me a fan. Saying he is revelatory may be an overstatement, and yet to simply say he shines would be an understatement. There is no straight man between the Hill/Tatum pairing. Not only does Tatum go for broke with the comedy, but the majority of the humanistic elements fall on him. The vulnerability on display is flat-out moving and he sells the hell out of all the facets of his character. This role represents a turning point in his career.

The last third of the film does not destroy everything that came before, but it certainly threatens to. There are still laughs and earnest storytelling to be had, but an unskillfully apparent chaos comes into play. The controlled tightness unravels and an unappealing messiness takes over.

The action scenes are somewhat incoherent. In concept there is a lot of potential, but the execution fails to translate what could have been exciting and vibrant set pieces. It does not help that distractingly subpar post-production work both in effects and sound somewhat take away from the experience. And while the crisp editing works in non-action scenes, it weakens the majority of the chase and fight scenes. This is a great comedy that also happens to be a weak action film.

21 Jump Street remains self-aware throughout, acknowledging its own lack of originality. But it never allows that one-joke gimmick to define the film; far from it. This is a mostly great comedy (and how few comedies can even be defined as ‘mostly great’ these days?) that thrives on being hilarious and sincere in equal measure. The rocky road the central friendship takes is clearly just as important to the filmmakers and actors as the laughs. Only time will tell, but I predict that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum will go down as one of the best onscreen pairings of our time. Yep. I said it.

Review: Gerhard Richter Painting (2012, Belz)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast February 19th, 2012

Watching Gerhard Richter paint is an experience damn near revelatory. I went into this film knowing nothing about modern art, and admittedly, having my own baggage of hesitancy towards its more extreme sides of abstraction. I was also shamefully unaware of just who Gerhard Richter is, and why he is such a long-standing and significant figure. This outstandingly insightful observational documentary is not just about Richter, but about all aspects of the creative process, an artist’s relationship to their own art, other art, and to the outside world.

Corinna Belz’s ponderous pace equably matches her subject. Gerhard Richter is thoughtful and articulate but very internal. He easily retreats into himself and seems more comfortable doing so. But the film is less about the man and more about his methods and artistry. Filmed over the course of several years, we see gallery openings, archival footage, and Richter being questioned by historians, the press and Belz herself. Yet the film always comes back to its most central element, which could not be made any more explicit by the title, and that is Gerhard Richter painting.

Through an intermittent series of tracking shots that follow miniature exhibition models of Richter’s works, the sense of his seemingly infinite breadth of styles and phases is immediate. It effectively displays, without needing to be said, just how much ground Richter has covered throughout the decades. When he paints in Belz’s film, he is captured indulging in his current favored modes and styles of creation. These include abstract pieces that start with sweeping brush strokes and are continually modified with a giant squeegee that takes all one’s strength to manipulate.

Richter never truly knows what the final product of his creations will be. As he describes, he does not start with a concept. The canvas guides and speaks to him just as much as he to it, and he creates with a kind of semi-calculated intuition. After a time, he stops and steps back, inquisitive from various angles and reflects on what he has done. Richter painting is  an indeterminate series of revisions and reflections. When he feels it is done, it is done.

Watching Richter, a man who knows his craft like the back of his hand, is a singular experience for several reasons. The abstract and somewhat improvisatory nature of his paintings instills a sequentially organic development, almost as if following a narrative’s progression, not knowing where it may end. Even the creator himself does not know when his piece will be finished or what it will look like, aligning Richter the artist, we the consumer, and Belz the filmmaker.

Sometimes he assesses in his head, other times he lets Belz know what he is thinking. His pieces go through many revisions and tweaks before he decides they are complete. At any stage of creation, Richter’s pieces could potentially be done. The difference between what looks like a finished abstract painting to the audience, and what feels unfinished for the artist is something Belz makes a point to distinguish. Belz allows us the freedom to observe and respond to Richter’s canvases as we would in a museum. The difference here is that the artist simultaneously takes part in the assessment, and the audience’s observations are of partially done works. Seeing and taking part in all of this, even as a bystander after the fact, is startlingly involving. Periodically, Belz will show the evolution of paintings using a series of dissolves, to illustrate the markedly transformative changes Richter, and artists in general, make to their creations over time.

Gerhard Richter Painting is also about the subject’s struggle with cameras, the media and the public. Being forced to elucidate on his work with explanatory expectations and the application of artistic theory and movements is daunting for him. Richter is articulate, but at the same time is unable to really express his process. In his eyes, painting cannot be described with words. So we see him deal with stress and frustration when asked to contextualize his own process and work in the same ways those who analyze and contextualize do.

Richter’s discomfort with the camera’s presence brings up a lot of stimulating broader questions about the documentary form. The fly-on-the-wall approach becomes compromised amidst the distraction that the camera brings for the subject. Belz is trying to create at the same time as Richter, and the collision of attempted creation across two mediums proves to be understandably difficult for Richter. He is always aware that he is being watched, and it halts his ability to paint with the internal mindset and somewhat spiritual sense of intuition needed to exert a satisfying creative output.

The compromise does not reflect a negative outcome here. It cakes on an additional layer with its inherent questions about observational filmmaking. It makes clear that capturing a naturalistic reality is on some level impossible when cameras enter a room. The acknowledgment and time spent (by Richter speaking of it, and Belz’s purposeful inclusion of the footage) on said interference makes it yet another thought-provoking element of Gerhard Richter Painting, instead of it being unintentionally implicit, and thus problematic.

Gerhard Richter Painting explores the universality of creation and the individualistic relationships between artists and their visions, process and products. It confirms that these individualistic relationships belong only to the artist. As gratifying as the insight that Belz gets and gives us is, neither a witnessing camera, nor words from the creator himself can truly represent the process of creating. What Belz and her marvelous film assert is that it makes being a bystander to the process is no less meaningful, and that our own individual relationships and responses to any work of art are no less essential.

Review: The Woman in Black (2012, Watkins)

There is an ornate decaying delicacy that comes with the period haunted house film. The Woman in Black is a classic back-to-basics Gothic tale that boasts an impressively patient and confident execution of familiar tropes, successfully piling on spook after spook. This may be all the film has to offer, but it garners enough satisfaction to ward off disappointment.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widowed lawyer with a son. He is given an assignment (which his job hinges on) in a secluded English village where he is to sort through the estate of a deceased woman named Alice Drablow. The villagers are troubled by Arthur’s arrival. He gradually learns that many of the villagers have children who have died, including two hospitable citizens’ played by Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer.  It is only when Arthur is alone, in the entirely isolated and haunted estate of Eel Marsh, that he is able to put the pieces together amidst a ghost who means harm.

The vast majority of ghost stories are all essentially the same. There is a ghost. This ghost has been somehow wronged in their former life. The ghost wants to invoke suffering to others because of what they were forced to endure in life. This suffering could be targeted at nobody in particular, at a specific type of person, or at the ghost’s perceived wrong-doers.

With this in mind, it is imminently clear what is going on in The Woman in Black after about thirty minutes. The trick is to have this not matter. It does matter here, and in that case, the story needs to be stronger. To be an effective ghost story, the basis may be obvious (because at this point they almost certainly will be), but the particulars should be more vague, and at least as intriguing as what can be easily ascertained. The Woman in Black lacks the mysteriousness in story that it puts forth as having.

The story’s shortcomings are largely made up for by the macabre atmosphere and revivified use of tropes that go far in filling the void.  The scares themselves are not unfamiliar, but they work because of the impressively sustained ambiance that figures in far beyond the ‘jump’ moments themselves. James Watkins makes the entire journey one long successfully sustained spook.

Gothic tropes are heartily embraced with an appreciation for creaky doors and hallways, madwomen, shadows and fog, and a grandiose and decaying house that reign supreme over any character or story element to be had. Watkins wrings out a lot with a little; without him and an impressive technical crew (the production design here is stellar), this would have been entirely forgettable as opposed to the somewhat satisfying film that it is. A special kudos to those responsible for the props, who conjure up what is easily the most unsettling collection of antique wind-up dolls one is likely to ever see.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Potter role and I am one of those, being the Radcliffe fan myself. Sadly, there is nothing much asked of him, and it is hard not to ponder if an actor who can make something out of nothing (there are not many that can) might have been able to lend some much-needed gravitas. For one, Radcliffe is oddly callow here as a lawyer with a four-year old son. He spends his time mainly reacting to creepy goings-on within the broadly defined quietness of his character. It does not help that the characterization of Arthur Kipps hinges entirely on the continuous lamenting over the death of his wife, and the constant reminder that he loves his son and wishes he could spend more time with him. This is all he is given to do and he is serviceable.

The problematic end, which I will not explicitly spoil, is impossible to overlook for its painful mawkishness. This kind of ending has always been a personal pet peeve, for the pitiful strain it reveals in insuring that the audience is sent off with a modicum of the ‘happy ending’, no matter what the contradicting circumstances. It is corny, evasive and cowardly.

The Woman in Black is in some sense following the type of film that nobody watches for plot or characterization. There are plenty of horror films, indeed many, that offer nothing in story and are heralded for their aura alone (many Hammer Films included). I was tempted to stride towards the ‘but it wasn’t meant to’ line of reasoning. But The Woman in Black seems to want to simultaneously intrigue with its story. The film neither backs up its plot-oriented ambitions nor goes forward with a bold proclamation of plot scarcity. The result is a potentially involving tale lost as well as a residue of intention that leaves an unfulfilled mark. But its primary reason for being, the resurrection of Gothic atmosphere and tropes used effectively is something The Woman in Black has in spades, and this is almost enough.

Review: Haywire (2012, Soderbergh)

Haywire is a moderately empty exercise in formalism that lights up only when the physical, rigorous skills of retired mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano (receiving the Sasha Grey treatment) get the spotlight. Thankfully, Carano’s physicality is not only called into action plenty, but looms over the film’s entirety.

Steven Soderbergh’s strongest directorial contribution (along with his use of sound as throughout) takes place during the fight scenes, with his decision to cut out all non-diegetic sound, and shoot with a clean distance. Every single one is a livewire delight. He allows these scenes to be entirely Carano’s show, and with his use and non-use of filmic devices says ‘pay attention folks; this is why I spent and time, money and effort to make this’. They are worthy and exhaustively fierce set-pieces.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is on the run; but why? Told largely in flashbacks, we learn that Kane works for a private contractor and is hired for covert secret operations but is soon quitting and taking with her a lot of clientele who rely specifically on her abilities. After a mission to rescue a Chinese journalist in Barcelona goes according to plan, Kane is double-crossed whilst on a last-minute assignment in Dublin. On-the-run, Kane needs to figure out who double-crossed her and why, as well as connect it all back to the Barcelona mission where the attempted frame-up against her began.

Soderbergh and returning screenwriter Lem Dobbs make sure not to give Carano more than she can handle acting-wise. To answer the question ‘can she act’, the answer is not really, but the camera sure does love her. Some have found her demeanor of seemingly one-note indifference distracting, but for me her smoky no-nonsense presence is actually far more engaging than any other actor here. The goal here was never to turn Carano into an actress; it was to give her a chance to showcase her physical prowess. And this she does with aplomb, with the added bonus of her alluring je ne sais quoi throughout.

Aside from Carano and her action sequences, there is not much good to say. Haywire is too clean, too barebones without intrigue or consistency to support it. Its transparency is progressively evident and it is this, and not Carano, that becomes distracting. It feels like Dobbs struggled to stretch this to a full-length running time. Since its existence is to showcase Carano, the many scenes meant to fill in the blanks come off as expositional chores and tiresome meaningless table-setting.

At a certain point it becomes clear that Carano is all Soderbergh has to offer, and so the viewing experience becomes a waiting process in the hopes of arriving at the next action scene. The supporting characters played by Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Antonio Banderas all fail to register in the slightest, and I say this having gone in with the very low expectations set for supporting character development in action-thrillers. Only Bill Paxton is able to make something with his screentime.

Nothing falls into place the way it should. For one thing, no stakes whatsoever can be felt. Even if said stakes never really feel up for grabs they should still be remotely palpable, or at the very least, there to begin with. Sure, the double cross is elaborate but in a spinning its wheels kind of way. The screenplay by Dobbs wins the award for efficiency, but the rickety framing device is beyond weak, aligning the audience with a teenage non-character (the sadly thankless Michael Anagrano) who is present to repeat names of important people and places for us.

Soderbergh uses his skills to show off here with his typical precision and flair for shooting sequences in fairly off-kilter ways as he attempts to evoke a 70’s B-movie sensibility (this includes the purposefully simplistic plot). With the half-baked and unengaging story backing the formalist presentation, the final product emits an air of false superior ‘cool’ that is unearned. Hanna pulled off this sort of schtick a hell of a lot better. Taken as a whole, Haywire is surprisingly dull, and Soderbergh’s various aesthetic decorative touches read as empty self-consciousness. In the end, there are two impossibly strong reasons to seek it out (and please do if only for these elements) despite its indifferent nature; the mesmeric presence of Gina Carano and the cleanly shot action scenes that come with her.