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On Chesil Beach

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Adapted from his own novella by Ian McEwan, this is the subtle but cumulatively powerful story of a relationship between two young people in the (mostly rural) England of 1962. The time and place could not be more significant: a rigid and repressed society perched on the edge of liberation. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) has recently graduated with a first in History; Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) has done the same in Music. She’s passionate about the classical stuff, he likes Chuck Berry and the blues, and while Edward is from the country Florence is something of an urban toff, albeit with socialist and pacifist leanings. But this is much, much more than a study in contrasts and archetypes: at its best it has the claustrophobic personal intimacy of an Ingmar Bergman tragedy.

There are memorable and affecting scenes here, both in the film’s ‘present day’ and in its frequent flashbacks. But Mum should be the word about anything specific there, particularly as some of the impact derives from unexpectedness.

On Chesil Beach is not without flaws, its main weakness being an ending that feels too contrived and pat by half. But that’s a minor flaw when set against the crackerjack script, and performances from the two leads which amount to a master class in great acting. The abiding effect is of discomfort and disquiet, so that in the more excruciatingly awkward scenes we feel more like intruders than mere viewers. The story may be set 56 years ago, but – given the galvanic changes there have been in sexual mores and class interaction – it might as well be a thousand.

 
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The Equalizer 2

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Following the success of their 2014 TV-to-movie reboot, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and star Denzel Washington (c’mon, you know him) re-team for another tilt at the further adventures of CIA badass turned friendly neighbourhood vigilante, Robert McCall. The results, as they say are mixed.

The Equalizer 2 sees our man McCall working as a Lyft driver in-between using his capacity for staggering violence to deliver a little girl from her kidnapper father, or help a Holocaust survivor track down a missing painting. His routine of community-minded chaos is interrupted when his oldest friend and colleague, CIA agent Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo, whom Fuqua last brutalised in 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen) is murdered, seemingly in a robbery gone wrong. Of course that isn’t the case, of course there’s a conspiracy, and of course McCall vows to find those responsible and wreak bloody vengeance upon them.

The thing is, the plot doesn’t matter – which is a good thing, seeing as The Equalizer 2 is one of the most sloppily plotted films to come down the pike in a good long while. No, the plot only exists as a kind of narrative trellis to support scenes of two kinds: ones where Denzel is dispensing harsh, stoic wisdom, and ones where he is dispensing harsh, brutal justice. The film gets around the murky, troubling questions that dogged the recent Death Wish reboot simply by having Washington be the off-the-books hand of vengeance; not only does that remove the irksome racial issues around vigilantism, the man has such an air of moral authority that as an audience we’re more or less charmed by his sheer force of personality into siding with him. These things are the right things to do because Denzel is doing them.

It helps, if that is the right word, that the universe of The Equalizer movies is a pretty horrible one, where truly despicable people terrorise the innocent on the reg. If that’s the world outside your window, who wouldn’t want a kindly, book-loving former black ops commando quietly breaking the fingers of rapists? The problem is that Fuqua and his screenwriter, Richard Wenk, demonstrate how fallen the world is by depicting an awful lot of violence against women, doubling down on what was already an uncomfortable element in the first film. Of course, we want our bad guys to be bad, but after a while you start to wonder if this continued pattern (one woman is shot in the head, one is stabbed to death, one is gang raped) hints at uglier motivations.

It does, I guess, give Denzel full license to completely dismantle the bad guys when the time comes, and at 63 the acclaimed actor remains a convincing action hero, even if the action borders on slasher movie slaying. When he’s completely off the leash, McCall is basically “what if Michael Myers, but on our side?”, slicing villains to shreds with swift savage knife work, including one kill that might be the most horrifying to feature in a mainstream motion picture since… well, The Equalizer.

But these well staged, cleverly conceived and shockingly graphic action sequences don’t distract from the fact that when you get right down to it, The Equalizer 2 is pretty dumb, beyond even the normal generous allowances made for the action genre. The plot runs on coincidence and happenstance, but often drags just to allow McCall to hang out tossing nuggets of wisdom at whoever hoves by, mainly a troubled teen in danger of being sucked into the drug milieu (Ashton Sanders). The conspiracy is perfunctory and the aims of the antagonists (whose identities remain mysterious right up until you give it a second’s thought) have no real world stakes. Even on a basic staging level, the film falters – all other considerations aside, the climactic battle takes place in seaside town in the middle of a hurricane that somehow leaves the combatants, who are running and gunning through gale force winds, completely dry.

Which is not to say there aren’t pleasures to be gleaned from The Equalizer 2, but they’re pretty basic ones. Essentially, if your idea of a good night out is watching Denzel Washington hang tough and destroy deserving scumbags, there’s something for you here. Any expectations beyond that will go sadly unmet.

 
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Equalizer 2

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Between the monopoly of Marvel Studios and the ever-present bro meme that is the Fast & Furious franchise, bombast is the name of the game for most action flicks nowadays. The bigger, the more populated, the more patently ludicrous, the better. Of course, as is with any defined standard in the industry, there exist productions that take a decidedly different direction to the norm. Antoine Fuqua’s 2014 effort The Equalizer is one of them, and thankfully, this continuation follows suit.

The production operates in a similar fashion to the titular character: It’s methodical and knows when to take its time. Through Denzel’s incredibly stoic performance, the character of former CIA operative Robert McCall tends to make serious connections with those around him. Through very natural and hearty conversation courtesy of writer Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), Bob interacts with some interesting faces. The street artist surrounded by crime, played charmingly by Ashton Sanders; the Holocaust survivor trying to reclaim a piece of his pre-war life, played endearingly by Orson Bean; even Bob’s former brother-in-arms Dave, brought roaring to life on screen through Pedro Pascal’s delivery. Through each encounter, we see Bob driven by a definite moral compass to try and improve the lives of those around him. He isn’t directed by any exterior forces, but rather his own sense of right and wrong. If you do wrong, he’ll give you a chance to make it right… and if you know what’s good for you, you better take it.

Because of this, the compacted and highly visceral action beats make an even grander impression. Fuqua’s brand of thrills is one built on maximising damage while minimising flashiness, and when things get feisty, it can be incredibly graphic at times. Blood sprays, improvised weaponry (Bob effectively cuts someone down to size using only a credit card at one point), intestines hanging out of a perp’s stomach; hope you have a good stomach for gore, because you will certainly get it. And yet, it never feels exploitative or that blood and guts are the only reason we’re here. Instead, through Denzel’s efficient performance and the writing that surrounds him, it serves more as a means to depict Bob’s set of morals. He not only has true conviction in his own sense of morality, he is more than willing to exact his own brand of righteousness on those who do wrong. And before anyone thinks that the brutality of his methods and the absolutism of his morals are at odds with each other, the film covers that as well to make for a surprisingly nuanced take on human morality.

The Equalizer 2 builds on the low-flash action chops of the original to bring us more of the good stuff, adding more layers and textures to this story’s form of natural justice to give it a reason to exist and thrive. A storm’s approaching, and it’s carrying Proust in one hand and a harpoon gun in the other.

 
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See You Up There

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Personal and political, macabre and mesmerising, cynical and hopeful… prolific actor and director Albert Dupontel’s See You Up There is a difficult film to pin down. An acerbic satire of war-profiteering set chiefly in post-World War One France, it’s shot through with a sense of the fantastical that echoes the works of Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro and – perhaps more appropriately – fellow French filmos Jean-Pierre Jenet and Marc Caro (you could pair this one with Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement for a note-perfect double feature).

The plot, somewhat simplified from the source novel by Pierre Lemaitre (released in English as The Great Swindle), sprawls. Surviving a suicide mission forced upon them by their glory-hound commanding officer, Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte, all but twirling his mustache), two French infantrymen stick together after they are discharged from duty following the war’s end. One, Albert Maillard (Dupontel), is a middle aged man of modest means, used to getting the short end of the stick. His friend Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart, also see in BPM), is a gifted artist from a wealthy family – one he refuses to return to, as his face has been horribly mutilated in that final, savage action.

Returning to Paris, the pair, believed killed in action, struggle to keep themselves fed – and to feed Pericourt’s morphine addiction. Maillard trudges through menial jobs and runs petty scams until Pericourt, mad or inspired, hits upon a scam: they, living veterans of the Great War, will feed on their nation’s obsession with honouring the dead by designing elaborate war memorials for every town and village they can get to cough up an advance – and then scarper with the money.

That’s the central irony at work here – while actual returned soldiers starve, France will spend thousands to honour those already fallen. That’s a grim bit of business, but in the role of director, Dupontel refuses to wallow, instead imbuing his film with brio, energy, and a touch of magical realism. This is a lavish production, and even when its depicting the carnage of the battlefield, it’s just so pretty.

That’s a running theme here – a comment on the way the ’20s roared after the horrors of the war; holed up in their shared garret, Pericoult devises elaborate masks to conceal the ruin of his face, just like France (and the rest of the world, let’s not dissemble) quickly draws the bright blanket of the Jazz Age over any lingering reminders of the conflict.

Things get complicated when Pradelle circles back into their lives, now a decorated hero who is running his own post-war profiteering scam. Worse, he’s worked his way into the embrace of Pericoult’s family, impressing his banker father (Niels Arestrup) and romancing his sister, Madeleine (Émilie Dequenne). That’s quite the coincidence, really, and not the only one to crop up in the storyline –  perhaps a necessary shortcut resulting from trying to boil down 600 pages of dense prose into a couple of hours worth of cinema. Still, it sets the stage for the back end of the film, driving our odd couple heroes towards dealing with their past before they can escape to whatever future awaits them.

If there’s a key issue with See You Up There it’s that it never lets up – incident upon incident, character upon character, and scheme upon scheme are all piled onto us at such a clip that at times it threatens to become exhausting, even as Vincent Mathias’ sumptuous, carefully composed, colourful yet slightly sepia widescreen photography teeters on the edge of overwhelming the senses. There’s so much in here, and so many moving parts that the film almost never takes the time to breathe – even its quieter moments seem determined to dazzle.

It’s almost too much of a good thing – but it’s still a good thing. For all its technical and artistic flourishes, what really carries the day is the relationship between Maillard and Pericoult. The performances by Dupontel and Biscayart, the former bringing all the hangdog expressive pathos of a great silent comedian, the latter delivering an impressively expansive performance that marries physical exuberance with subtlety to project his character’s inner life through and beyond his exquisite headpieces.

A beautiful, ambitious, thematically complex crime epic, See You Up There attempts to encompass so much that it was almost bound to miss a couple of the targets it was aiming for, but for sheer, gutsy, shoot-for-the-stars artistry and verve, there’s nothing quite like it out there at the moment.

 

 
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Herstory

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Asian cinema continues to captivate with latest drama Herstory, hailing from South Korean director Kyu-dong Min.

Based on a real-life story of three comfort women and seven other victims during the ‘Gwanbu Trial’ which took place in Shimonoseki, Japan, 1992, the film and its varied characters represent an ongoing struggle for comfort women who were dragged away from their homes or schools and taken to Japanese labour camps where they were forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s imperial army before and during World War II.

Set in Busan, South Korea, the story follows a hot-headed entrepreneur Jung-sook Moon (Hee-ae Kim), whose Busan-based tour agency was found to be procuring prostitution that violates the Prevention of Prostitution Act, which in turn forces Moon’s business to be suspended for three months. During the time her business is suspended, ironically, Moon establishes a hotline in her office for sex slavery victims. Vowing to run the hotline for only three months, Moon has a sudden change of heart when she uncovers her long-time housekeeper, Jeong-gil Bae (Hae-sook Kim), was one of the victims.

Moon encourages the plaintiffs to speak out regarding their devastating experiences and demand an apology along with compensation from the Japanese government. Her obsession with winning the legal battle causes the case to run over the course of six years, and 23 arduous trials later, only to be concluded with a half-victory, with $3,000 compensation to each of the plaintiffs, but no apology. Unfortunately, the rare win for the plaintiffs which made history among trials related to “comfort women”, was later overturned by the higher courts.

Inside the courtroom, the film genuinely tugs at your heart-strings as the plaintiffs share their painful life experiences. From the retelling of tragic events that took place during their time at the Japanese female labour camps, to exposing old scars from when the Japanese soldiers mutilated their bodies and tattooed them with degrading labels.

Surprisingly, the film is not all doom and gloom. CEO Shin (Sun-young Kim) who plays Moon’s close friend, provides playful humour throughout. As do Soon-nyeo Park, Gwi-soon Seo and Ok-joo Lee, who play three of the 10 victims. Their jovial personalities present a warm-hearted coming-of-age story for the elderly women.

An unexpected plot-twist caps things off nicely.

 
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The Wife

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In every couple there is the potential for an imbalance of power, partly because of the fact that one partner (the woman) belongs to a group that has been, as it were, hidden from history. Things have changed in the last hundred years or so, but it may not feel like that on the ground. In Bjorn Runge’s finely-crafted The Wife this essentially feminist territory becomes fertile ground for an examination of a marriage. It should be noted that, although the film has a male director, the screenplay is by a woman (Jane Anderson) adapted from a novel by a woman (Meg Wolitzer). And what a script it is too. It smoulders and crackles and every now and then, when required, it blazes.

Joe Castleman (the evergreen Jonathan Pryce) is a world-renowned author who has finally been awarded the Nobel Prize that everyone thinks he deserves. We join the story just as Joe and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) are heading to Norway to receive the iconic prize. The couple’s relationship is perfectly sketched in. We get the sense of how these two have come to their various accommodations, but, more than that, we also get what works for them in their marriage; the little jokes and the small familiar comforts of a lifelong partnership. Only at the very edges do we sense what might be the chafing points.

Given the great script, it is not surprising that the leads jumped at this. Pryce is an actor’s actor from way back and he is completely believable as the clever-but-stupid Joe who arrogantly takes his success for granted whilst pretending not to. Close is the revelation. Although she was tipped for greatness in the 1980s, she has often had underwhelming material to work with. Here, she is both subtle and deceptively intense. Acting awards will follow. An honourable mention for Christian Slater. He is often a slightly off-key kind of presence, but he makes a great contribution this time as the creepy journalist who wants to dig too deeply into the couple’s marriage.

All in all, it is a small film but one of considerable power. The ending is telescoped but the slow unravelling before it is both believable and gripping.

 
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Funny Cow

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Funny Cow is billed as a ‘rise to stardom’ tale about a female comedian working in Northern England in the 1970s and ‘80s. Although this is the bones of the film, this premise (and the poster) might have you expecting a light-hearted, conventional and uplifting film. And this just isn’t the case. The film does use comedy and glimpses of comedic success as a vehicle to explore the main character’s troubled childhood (and resultantly turbulent adulthood), but the comedy isn’t the main feature.

 

You might have noticed that we haven’t given the central character a name – and that’s because we never learn it. She is referred to as fat cow, stupid cow and, ultimately, Funny Cow, which she adopts as her stage name. The titular role is played by British TV vet Maxine Peake, with Tony Pitts, Paddy Considine, Stephen Graham and Alun Armstrong in strong support, and the ensemble also includes cameos from comedians John Bishop and Jim Moir, Dexy’s frontman Kevin Rowland, singer Corinne Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley, who also composed the soundtrack for the film.

Funny Cow is somewhat melodramatic, but truthful, and the core relationships, themes and emotions that run through the film are wholly universal.

The film spans four decades (early ‘50s to late ‘80s) and jumps around in a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness fashion that is told almost entirely from Funny Cow’s perspective. Although this disjointed and somewhat objective structure is unique and entertaining, at times it makes connecting with the story and its characters a little difficult. It also means that the film asks more questions than it answers, and this might be frustrating for some viewers.

Funny Cow is an interesting, belligerent, relatable and amusing character. Having embraced her outsider status as a child, she now only really feels at home on stage, where she makes sense of her life through comedy. “I’ve got no choice,” she says. “I can’t do what everybody else does, I can’t be a civilian, I’ve no backbone. I got a funny bone instead.” Although we do get glimpses of Funny Cow’s on-stage comedy, we wish the film had incorporated a little more.

Certain characters (e.g. the typical abusive father, the violent husband and the intellectual middle-class lover) came across as one-dimensional, and although intentional (to highlight Funny Cow’s uniqueness), it leaves you wanting to see more of their complexity as human beings. One of the most heartbreaking and ‘whole’ characters in the film (aside from Funny Cow) is the mother – played fantastically by Christine Bottomley (younger) and Lindsey Coulson (older). The relationship between Funny Cow and her increasingly-lonely mother is the most powerful in the film, and it’s where love and reconciliation can be found.

Despite its premise and title, Funny Cow is not very funny. There are moments of humour, but there’s not quite enough to balance out the overall bleakness of Funny Cow’s early life or the depressing portrayal of Northern England at the time. One thing is for sure – this film will make you damn grateful that you didn’t grow up as a woman in ‘70s Rotherham.

A unique drama and an intimate portrayal of a person coming to terms with their past and slowly becoming the person they want to be; this is a journey we can all relate to, just don’t see it if you’re in the mood for a lighthearted rags-to-riches comedy.