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The Equalizer was a pleasant surprise in 2014. An exploitation film that made a virtue of the simplicity of an ex-special forces soldier in Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) becoming a DIY avenger. The attention to social detail, especially in respect to race and class, constructed an interesting site of resistance. In addition, the genuinely nasty violence showed a commitment to the brutality of the depicted organised crime and the potential of a hardware store, while star Washington elevated the material to something more engaging than it might have been otherwise. Sadly, 2018’s sequel fails to deliver on almost all these aspects. Foregoing the stripped down simplicity of the original, EQ2 suffers from an overly elaborate plot, or rather plots that lack connective tissue. Character relationships muddy the waters rather than adding dramatic weight, whether they involve McCall’s mentee Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders), former comrade Dave York (Pedro Pascal) or Holocaust survivor Sam Rubenstein (Orson Bean). These sub-plots are frustratingly peripheral, screenwriter Richard Wenk failing to link together McCall’s central pursuit with the different lives he touches. Director Antoine Fuqua brings little stylistic flair to the proceedings, except in one bravura sequence that reminds the viewer of the importance of seatbelts. Meanwhile, a steadily approaching hurricane fails to increase tension, and much of the violence is obscured which makes the film appear neutered. The end result feels turgid and sluggish, and makes the viewer wish for something more efficient. Only Washington emerges unscathed, his charisma and star power lending the work some dignity. But great actors do not always equal great films, and The Equalizer 2 is a prime example of how much more is needed to equalize the quality of other fare.
The day before the Oscars, I saw the last of the Best Picture nominees, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a haunting and soulful portrayal of a man coming to grips with his sexuality and identity. Nominated for eight awards, including Best Picture and Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, Moonlight has been described as the alternative to the likely Best Picture winner, La La Land. It is easy to see why and, while I enjoyed La La Land, I find Moonlight a more impressive piece of work overall. This is because Jenkins utilises a wide variety of cinematic elements to deliver a film that operates on a number of levels, rather than La La Land’s straightforward feelgood charm. Moonlight’s aesthetic varies from long takes, such as the opening sequence that is included in a single roving shot, to handheld shaky-cam footage and swift cuts as well as point of view subjective shots during conversation scenes. The array of performances in the film range from the cool yet comforting Juan (Mahershala Ali) to the grandstanding of Naomie Harris as drug-addicted mother Paula to the subtlety of Janelle Monáe as Juan’s girlfriend Teresa who takes pity on Paula’s unfortunate son, Chiron, the central character of the film. Played by three actors over the course of three chapters of his life – Alex Hibbert as the young Little, Ashton Sanders as teenager Chiron and Trevante Rhodes as adult Black – Chiron’s life is presented in subtle but never unclear terms. His dismay over his mother’s addiction and his attachment to Juan and Teresa is understandable, while his troubled relationship with schoolmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is at times heartbreaking, while the sequences of high school bullying may ring true for many a viewer. When necessary, Jenkins keeps his camera still while the characters express themselves through halting dialogue and nominal body language, minimalist communication steeped in the cultural background that the film brings to such vivid life. Sex is underplayed in the film and yet sexuality, both nascent and repressed, imbues much of the cinematic texture, at all times handled with the utmost delicacy and restraint. Whether it picks up awards or not, Moonlight deserves to be remembered as an extraordinary film, a beautiful and exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.