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Widows

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Upon watching Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Linda LaPlante’s crime series, I was disappointed that it was not set in Boston. As noted in previous posts, Boston has a peculiar effect on filmmakers, and many of the features I saw in Widows also appeared in The Departed, Black Mass and The Equalizer. However, despite the Chicago location, Widows provided the necessary features for a gripping sociological crime thriller. Like the films mentioned above, as well as the LA set Heat and Crash, Widows features multiple characters whose lives interconnect through deals and betrayals. The domestic and the criminal intersect throughout, as an exhilarating heist sequence is intercut both with the preceding events and the aftermath. In these ripple events, we meet the titular widows, including Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon). The film then utilises the conventions of the heist thriller as Veronica brings these women together to solve their shared problems, while also following the fortunes of rival political candidates Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), both of whom have malevolent backers. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn’s interweaving of the social, the domestic, the criminal and the political lends the film a rich texture, the lives of all these characters detailed and nuanced. Subtexts involving race and gender receive attention as an organic part of the drama, much like McQueen’s previous work that explored sexuality, political prisoners and slavery. Where Widows fumbles slightly is that McQueen’s searing focus, exquisitely captured by regular DOP Sean Bobbitt, ideally suited to intense character studies like Shame and Hunger, is sometimes at odds with the multi-stranded narrative of Widows. The director’s trademark long takes allow for absorption into the cinematic milieu, and at times this is highly effective such as during the opening car chase. At other times, however, abrupt cuts throw the viewer out of the drama, which would be fine if at other times there was less absorption. Ultimately though, this is a minor issue, as Widows is consistently gripping, frequently distressing and thoroughly compelling.

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The Equalizer 2

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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 Magnificent Seven

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Let it never be said that I (only) do what is obvious, as there is far more to say of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven than how it compares to John Sturges’ 1960 film or indeed Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Fuqua’s film warrants close examination in relation to its genre and period, rather than in terms of how it compares to what came before. Most obviously, Fuqua’s film can be read as a declaration of diversity, as the titular gang includes white, black, Mexican, Asian and Comanche members. Pleasingly, Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto ensure that race and ethnicity are not simply there for declarative purposes but as organic parts of the story. Django Unchained may have made a point of racial revenge, but here little is made of Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) being black, while Native American characters in the film are varied with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) contrasted with Denali (Jonathan Joss) on the side of vicious land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). There is also a decent line in gender relations, as Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is as integral and capable as the men around her. This ensemble of characters are well-rounded, including the PTSD of sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his touching relationship with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), as well as a developing warmth between the seven and the townsfolk of Rose Creek who hire them. Narratively, the film is clear and detailed. So why the long face?

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The problem with the film is its lack of scale. Fuqua is associated with urban thrillers such as Training Day and The Equaliser, in which his sharp, punchy style is effective because it creates a milieu of fast mouths and faster violence. During the action sequences of The Magnificent Seven, including the genuinely impressive sustained set piece that comprises the final act of the film, this style works, as it conveys suddenness, abrupt changes and viscerally draws the viewer in. But in the earlier part of the film, which introduces the characters and, critically, the setting, the pace of the editing is too fast. As a result, the environment, so crucial to the western, is not established and the film fails to place its characters and indeed viewer within the landscape. This undercuts the power of the finale, as there is little sense of stylistic progression towards this climax. As a result, we end up with a Seven that may be Magnificent, but a film that is only moderate.

Top Films of 2014

It is that time of the year when critics decide which films they enjoyed the most and pompously declare that these were therefore the best. In keeping with tradition, I have compiled a list of my top twelve films of 2014, as well as a ranking of every new release this year (with links to my earlier reviews). As always, I missed films that I know I should see, and I will manage some as they come out for home release. But at the end of 2014, here are my top twelve, presented in suitably musical order:

On the twelfth day of Christmas,

The movies gave to me

12 Wanted Men

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11 Interstellar trips

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10 tanking Furies

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9 Turing tests

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8 alien Skins

Skin

7 Gone Girls

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I am Groot

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God-zill-a

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4 Apey Dawns

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3 Wall Street Wolves

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2×6 Slave Years

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And the Pride of miners and gays.

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Here is a more detailed view.

Top 12 of 2014

  1. Pride

A joyous, moving, tear-jerking tale of life-affirming courage and socialist unity.

  1. 12 Years a Slave

A searing story of socio-historical importance that cannot be ignored.

  1. The Wolf of Wall Street

A relentless and laugh-out-loud rush of hedonism and debauchery.

  1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

An unflinching portrayal of the demise of peace.

  1. Godzilla

A compelling reinvention of a classic figure.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy

A hilarious, rip-roaring rollercoaster of weirdoes in weird places.

  1. Gone Girl

A dark tale of contemporary relationships and trial by media.

  1. Under The Skin

A haunting and mesmerising portrayal of embodiment and otherness.

  1. The Imitation Game

A subtle drama of wars both intimate and global.

  1. Fury

A visceral trip through the hell and camaraderie of war.

  1. Interstellar

A staggering journey into wonder.

  1. A Most Wanted Man

A grim tale of world-weary espionage.

Honourable Mentions 

Dallas Buyers Club

An inspiring story of courage and redemption with a strong political message.

Edge of Tomorrow

Laugh, grimace, gasp. Repeat. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Thrills, spills and surprising tears.

Noah

A spectacularly deranged rendering of a timeless tale.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Superhero thrills encased in a conspiracy narrative.

The Keeper of Lost Causes

A grim, gritty tale of determination and obsession.

Divergent

A powerful dystopia that applies a teenage angst metaphor to all ages.

A Story of Children and Film

A brilliant collage of resonant images, narratives and lives.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

A relentless dystopic escalation.

Exodus: Gods and Men

A surprisingly intimate tale of faith and politics.

Mr. Turner

A beautiful warts-and-all portrait of artistic obsession.

The Fault in Our Stars

A mournful weepie that deftly avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness and excessive sentimentality.

The Raid 2

A brash, bold, blistering action thriller.

Transcendence

A mournful tale of love and grieving.

The Wind Rises

A beautiful tale of dreams, flight and love.

Perfectly Fine

The Equalizer

A creative vigilante thriller with surprisingly progressive politics.

Lucy

A fun if flimsy action adventure.

Salome & Wilde Salome

A fascinating exploration of obsession and mystery.

In Order of Disappearance

Darkly humorous if slightly repetitive revenge thriller.

Disappointing

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The weakest chapter of the Middle Earth saga. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

An imbalance of tone makes for dissatisfying and inconsistent time-travel paradoxes.

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

More of the same and lacking in innovation.

American Hustle

Hollow tale of ultimately tedious double-crossing.

How To Train Your Dragon 2

Sweeping visuals that fail to make up for retrograde gender politics.

Turkey of the Year

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Please. Make. It. Stop. esaelP. ekaM. tI. potS. .potS .tI .ekaM .esaelP aMek. aePles. ptSo. tI.

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These transforming words are more fun than the film.

So that was 2014! Who knows what cinematic delights will be along in 2015? The Shadow knows… wait, that was what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Silly me! Anyway, bring it on, 2015, do us proud!

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The Equalizer

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Who you gonna call when wealthy white men own everything or pay the authorities to look the other way? According to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer, you need to call a middle-aged, working-class black man, who turns to a retired woman when he needs assistance. Demographics are the most interesting aspect of this adaptation of the 1980s TV series about a former special forces operative who takes up the cause for those oppressed by organised crime and corrupt authorities. As a result, it succeeds in being far more engaging than similar vigilante thrillers such as Taken (and several other Liam Neeson vehicles such as Non-Stop and A Walk Amongst the Tombstones) and Man On Fire (which also starred Denzel Washington).

Dramatically, The Equalizer suffers when it is too much – at least two sub-plots could have been excised to make it more streamlined and towards the finale, there is unnecessary use of slo-mo to make the action more dramatic, when it would have benefitted from being more succinct. Politically, the film expresses faith in systems of law, order and justice, but claims that greed and power lead to these being corrupted (hardly original) and it is the task of the proletariat to challenge abuse and corruption. Perhaps less progressively, this challenge is violent and destructive as Robert McCall (Washington) easily murders multiple Russian gangsters, batters dirty cops to a pulp and uses any number of improvised weapons to equalise the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless. The film is generically simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil – the bad guys are so bad that they clearly deserve the grisly deaths they meet and all their victims are innocent and downtrodden, while McCall is carefully constructed to ensure normally that we support him. He is helpful and generous to those around him, especially his co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) whom he helps with a job application, as well as abused prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). His employment at a hardware store and use of everyday tools like hammers, corkscrews, nail guns and barb wire further establish his proletariat credentials, in contrast to the sophisticated weaponry of the gangsters he confronts. But while the violence in The Equalizer is presented as necessary and justified, it is not (for the most part) glorified or presented as redemptive.

McCall

Key to the film’s treatment of violence is Washington’s performance. Whereas other powerful performers such as Liam Neeson and Robert De Niro can be accused of coasting, Washington is never less than an utterly magnetic screen presence. His previous collaboration with Fuqua, Training Day, won him a Best Actor Oscar, largely thanks to David Ayer’s acerbic script (for other instances, see the similarly themed Ayer-written-and-directed Harsh Times and End of Watch). Richard Wenk’s script is more simplistic and less concerned with sociological and sub-cultural detail (for an intimate presentation of Russian gangsters, see Eastern Promises), but Washington demonstrates, as he has throughout his career, how much he brings to even a simplistic character. In scenes with Teri and Ralphie, McCall is jovial and amiable, but in the scenes of violence, he becomes cold, implacable and almost inhuman. This aspect of the performance prevents the violence from being glorified – instead it is mechanical and functional, a necessary response to the (gleeful) violence of the Russian gangsters and dirty cops, McCall like an antibody attacking an infection. Washington’s performance is understated, avoiding the guilt-ridden histrionics of Man On Fire and the grandstanding of Training Day and American Gangster. He hints at a great deal but clarifies little behind his hooded eyes other than his ability to assess and deal with threats (reminiscent of scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). This mystery makes him a cypher, a representative of the downtrodden, including black people, Latinos, women and the working class. While The Equalizer suffers from narrative and stylistic excess, when it focuses on its central figure, what he does and what he represents, it makes interesting claims about sites of resistance.