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Friday reviews: 1 September 2023
The Equalizer 3, Haunted Mansion, Past Lives and Scrapper are all in cinemas now
Not normally a franchise kind of guy, in The Equalizer 3 Denzel Washington returns to the character of Robert McCall, who he first portrayed nearly ten years ago (and then again in 2018). He also reunites with stylish journeyman director Antoine Fuqua, a collaboration that won Washington an Oscar for Training Day in 2002.
McCall is ex-CIA, a killing machine with a hyper-alert sense of justice but maybe his best days are behind him. In a moment of weakness, after a successful mission equalising things in a Sicilian vineyard, he’s injured and can only make it as far as the picturesque seaside town of Altamontewhere the local doctor decides his bullet wounds are the kind a good man gets and brings him back to health.
During his recuperation, McCall falls for the pretty little town and its salt-of-the-earth inhabitants but is alarmed to discover that it is under the thumb of the brutal local Camorra (or ‘Mafia’ as the doctor insists on explaining to us).
So, we have a classic Western scenario where the ageing gunslinger who just wants a quiet life, is forced out retirement to deal with the bad guys one last time.
If you are expecting wall-to-wall action, this film will disappoint. It spends a good deal of time on McCall’s recovery and the slow build up to the inevitable final one-sided confrontation. I preferred it this way. It gives us plenty of Washington’s charisma and makes it really clear what he now has to lose.
Unlike, say Eastwood in Unforgiven, Washington’s McCall is not tormented by all the killing, in fact the film makes clear that the bad guys in this film are very bad indeed, leaving no room for any moral quandaries. He’s just tired of the physical exertion required and would prefer to be left in peace with his new friends.
The action, when it comes, is very bloody and extremely visceral. A graphic Equalizer, if you will.
Like Washington in The Equalizer 3, LaKeith Stanfield does such good work in Haunted Mansion that he looks like he belongs in a different, better, film.
He plays Ben, an astrophysicist who has developed a camera that is able to see dark matter but who has fallen into depression and alcohol abuse following the death of his wife.
He is approached by mysterious priest Owen Wilson to use that technology to capture spectral images that will help him rid an old house of the ghosts that are making life miserable for new owners Rosario Dawson and her son Chase Dillon (from The Underground Railroad).
Inspired by the Disneyland Haunted Mansion ride (opened in 1969), like all Disney intellectual property it has to meet corporate objectives above all else. Thus, fans of the ride (and the spinoffs in Florida, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong) will get to see favourite spooky moments recreated in service of a story about the ghost of a serial killer (Jared Leto) looking for one more soul to take his tally to 1,000.
While all of this is going on around him, Stanfield continues to perform in a proper film all by himself, giving it some emotional weight not supported by the script or by his fellow performers.
Directed by the creator of Dear White People, Justin Simien, it looks as if at one point there might have been an opportunity to be a little more than just Disney nostalgia but whatever edges there might once have been are long since smoothed over.
Wilson, in particular, gives a performance so small that somebody must have had to invent a special camera to capture any of it.
Straight back from the New Zealand International Film Festival, Past Lives is a strong contender for the most romantic film of the year, although I wasn’t devastated by it the way many audiences have been.
Na Young and Jung Hae Sung are 12-year-old best friends in Seoul, South Korea. Na Young’s parents are migrating to Canada and the two young people are devastated by the loss of their friendship though powerless to do anything about it.
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12 years later, Na Young is now Nora (Greta Lee) and forging a career as a playwright in New York. Hae Sung (Teo Loo) is an engineering student, emotionally unanchored, reaching out across the new social media channels to reconnect with his old friend.
Reconnect they do, but these long Skype calls are unsatisfactory and a distraction for both of them from what they think is their main priority – their careers – so they take a break.
During that break, Nora meets another writer Arthur, played by John Magaro, and they start a relationship and marry (for her Green Card).
Another 12 years pass, and Hae Sung comes to New York for a visit.
Will their bond – across time and space – prove to be stronger than the day-to-day realities of life in one’s mid-thirties? Or will the choices already made be impossible to overcome? (Like Denzel in The Equalizer, will they realise that ‘this is where I am meant to be’?)
Directed with delicacy by Celine Song, there is a lot to think about in Past Lives, not least the questions of identity that come up when someone moves countries and cultures. I emigrated to New Zealand when I was 18 and chose to try and reinvent myself at that moment because I knew it might be my only chance. If you move when you are younger – like Nora – those choices can be far less conscious but just as real.
Finally, we travel to Brexit Britain where little Georgie (Lola Campbell) is scraping an independent living following the death of her mother. Faking a caregiver to keep the social welfare people off her trail, and stealing and selling bikes to pay the rent, on the surface this is an idyllic summer of freedom but despite the self-confidence she is barely coping.
Over the garden fence comes Jason (Harris Dickinson) who says he’s her dad. Will Georgie submit to a strange new parent and is Jason even equipped for a role he’s been avoiding his entire adult life.
In the 80s a film like this would have had grit and rage against the systemic injustices of Thatcher’s Britain but there doesn’t appear to be enough energy in the country any more for that kind of resistance. Now we have whimsy and a child’s imagination, and the failures of the system are played for comedy.
Scrapper eases its way slowly into the world of grief for this lonely little girl and it’s the performances from the two leads that hold the thing together. Talking spiders? Not so much.
Not the town’s real name. It’s actually a combination of settlements on the Amalfi coast and I know this because I spent several days earlier this year solving a jigsaw puzzle of this with my mother-in-law Pam. When the first aerial view of the village appeared I thought to myself, I know every window of this place, every terrace, every piazza.