The Equalizer ***

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Approach this film version of the iconic 1980s TV series as a reboot ­– not a 2014 remake, and you won’t be disappointed. The fact that popular US actor Denzel Washington is in the lead role formerly brought to life by Brit Edward Woodward should pre-empt this too. There are still similarities in concept for fans – such as the aging anti-hero on a rough justice spree (minus the trademark mac though) – but the rest is in the hands of Training Day director Anton Fuqua who teams up with Washington again on this. The Equalizer may take time to brew then come to the boil, but Washington shows he’s not done with action roles yet either.

McCall (Washington) is a hardware store worker who quietly goes about his day job then comes home to an empty and orderly apartment at night. In the early hours he takes a teabag in a folded napkin with a book to read in the local café. He befriends a young girl called Terri (Chloë Grace Moretz) who dreams of being a singer but is a high-class escort under the control of Russian pimps. One night Terri never shows up, setting McCall in motion to find out why. He crosses paths with a Russian crime gang, triggering his former ‘secret’ past existence, in order to bring justice to those who are vulnerable.

With an action director like Fuqua on the project, you would be forgiven for thinking this would be a rapid display of one action-packed scene following another. However, it’s as though the director wants us to properly experience McCall’s controlled and deliberately slow pace of life as we are subjected to a whole lot of McCall/Washington contemplation. McCall’s OCD-like seconds-counting is equally important to show McCall’s inner restraint – while blatantly toying with our own patience. But we do need the calm before the storm so we can be suitably shocked by the violence that suddenly erupts.

Indeed, when the action does ignite, the director makes sure things are snappy and equally bloody/brutal, making Washington seem in the prime of his youth through clever editing. The best revenge part is at the end when all the baddies descend on McCall’s place of work. There’s immense satisfaction to be had watching McCall/Washington dispense with the Baltic evil using an array of handy tools – as silly as the slow-mo titillation gets, it IS pure thrills. In fact the appetite to see someone ‘get things done’ in an unstable real-life world is part of that gratification perhaps. Washington has also earned the persona of a person we can trust too.

The baddies are all out of the ‘Russian gangster handbook’ though. Interestingly, the middle ‘mad man’, Teddy, played by Marton Csokas (Covert Affairs, Sin City) – strikingly like some Hungarian Kevin Spacey in menacing mode – is McCall/Washington’s main nemesis here, making an intriguing opponent, however caricature-like with the obligatory Russian prison tattoos. As McCall gets to the top of the rotten apple tree, however, to confront the big boss (whose name ironically bears a resemblance to the Russian president), things come to, too abrupt a conclusion.

Added to which, Fuqua is guilty of padding out the plot when it’s not really necessary with superfluous characters, like the overly long stay at the Plummers’ grand residence (she a former Secret Service head, played by Melissa Leo, and Bill Pullman as hubby). Although interesting to witness McCall in his former working environment, they serve little else in terms of a plot driver that couldn’t have been nicely nipped and tucked to propel us onto the really gritty parts.

Still, Washington is so highly watchable in this beautifully-shot reload, and as the finale might suggest, could secure him an action sequel, the likes of which Liam Neeson probably hoped for with Taken (2008). That’s not a bad thing given Washington’s screen appeal and affability; The Equalizer is a sure thing at the box office. It’s not perfect, but neither is any vigilante and let’s face it, we’re in dire need of a hero to rely on and cheer for in the current global reality.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Magic In The Moonlight ***

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There is an uncertain magic that keeps things playfully charming for Woody Allen and his new comedy/mystery, Magic In The Moonlight. It may well be the appeal of 1920s’ French Riviera – the perfect setting for the naughtiness and intrigue – having a significant role here, but the cast of Colin Firth and Emma Stone is a curious coupling in itself. Both play to typecast strengths – his conceited Englishman, hers sassy American cutesy, keeping things buoyant and fluffy enough. That aside there seems to be something ‘wanting’ with this particular Allen caper – like we’ve just been party to one episode of a three-part series.

English stage magician and debunker of the supernatural Stanley Crawford (Firth) is invited by a colleague to the south of France to help unmask a possible psychic fraud, young celebrated American spiritualist Sophie (Stone) who is staying with her mother as long-term guests at a wealthy widow’s house. Sophie has captured the heart of serenading love fool Brice (Hamish Linklater), the widow’s son and heir who wants to marry her.

However, as Crawford spends more time with Sophie, he starts believing she does have some sort of special powers to communicate with the spirits, or worse, he is falling in love with her, against all commonsense and logic.

Firth becomes Darcy once more – a little brasher and more sarcastic than the Austen hero, but nevertheless, suitably pompous and obnoxious for 1920s wealthy society. In fact the very beginning of Crawford and Sophie’s meeting holds the real gems of laughter and makes for riotous affair. It toys with the standard idea of Americans and Englishmen’s miscommunication and subsequent jibes that all can gleefully equate to. Add the high society bubble the characters live in, and it’s a microcosm of unregulated banter in a time before political correctness existed.

Now Darcy and Elizabeth were in the same league; it does take a huge stretch of the imagination to believe that Crawford and Sophie could somehow bond, let alone unite – but the setting again is both forgiving and magical. Firth and Stone are an utter delight, with the latter moving from insufferable intellectual snob one minute to soppy, loved-up pup the next with dashing aplomb. Stone musters up all her brisk retorts into one delicious role here, but without forgetting to ease beautifully into vulnerability at the right moment. A standout performance that keeps all the others grounded is that of Eileen Atkins as Crawford’s impassable Aunt Vanessa who is an absolute tonic to enjoy in response to Crawford’s moments of haughtiness and self-pity.

Allen’s films are all about magic, only in this one, he tries to question where real magic lies. Less philosophical and more light-hearted in nature – which opens it up to greater comparison and criticism, Magic In The Moonlight is by its very nature a piece of trickery; it captivates you in setting and performance and pulls the wool over any inquisitive eyes as to finding any greater depth. It’s about the magic of love, pure and simple, and is nothing short of a consumable and affable piece of humorist filmmaking along the lines of P.G. Wodehouse and those enchanting movies of the Forties. It’s only Allen aficionados who may take umbrage with the ‘light writing’ style.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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A Walk Among The Tombstones ***

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It’s Liam Neeson in his vigilante element again – for those who like him that way, tasked with saving the day and bringing rough justice to those who deserve it. Only this time, the lines of good and bad are very hazy indeed, designed to question our moral high ground. It’s a twisty, turny plot – possibly overdone – by Minority Report and The Wolverine writer Frank Scott who pens and directs here, based on a Lawrence Block novel of the same name.

Neeson is PI Matthew Scudder, a former NYPD cop since retired after a fatal shooting. Reluctantly, he is hired by drug kingpin Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) to find out who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife. Scudder uncovers the culprits, as the two sides of the law blur unrecognisably.

It’s another Taken, basically, with Neeson the hired gun with a dubious past – something we are party to at the start, shot in a gritty 80s’ TV cop show style. However, just whom he has to align with to get justice for the innocent in this makes A Walk Among The Tombstones a little different from the shoot-em-up norm. It’s this that gives the film its unsettling feeling throughout. Indeed, our faith in Neeson in such a role gives us a little bit of an anchor and reassurance, as we know that whatever ugliness his character is exposed to, he’s not for changing. Neeson can do no wrong in such a role either, and as long as we never tired of him doing so, Tombstones ticks all the boxes.

However, it’s Downton Abbey’s Stevens who is quite captivating in their scenes together, initially because of the absence of an upper-class English twang (he’s American in this) and his steely, blue-eyed stare as the wounded drug lord. The actor totally plays against-type – even if you have seen the recent The Guest – which will surprise and excite fans of the actor’s full potential. The fact that this story goes a little bonkers at the end still doesn’t distract from a moody, menacing Stevens. It’s like watching the stiffness evaporate and a new actor being reborn. His performance is the only unique thing about Tombstones, though the rest is watchable enough with a decent amount of tension brewing at all times.

A Walk Among The Tombstones offers an intriguing, slow-burning crime mystery with a solid actor at the helm. Far darker in spirit that Neeson’s recent action roles, mindless violence is only used to enhance the nastiness of a situation – usually the serial killing moments. A good deal of the time, Neeson does his trademark, poker-faced pondering, with Scott devoting a little too much time to this when a slicker film could have been trimmed. Still, the film adequately plays with your mind and manages to keep your curiosity on track to deliver the final outcome.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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A Dangerous Game ****

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The first thought that pops into the mind watching filmmaker Anthony Baxter’s follow-on film to You’ve Been Trumped (2011), A Dangerous Game is, can there really be that many people needing to play golf on Planet Earth? The rest is a powerful expose of the usual greed, arrogance and miscommunication that such documentaries are so apt at stoking. This second film is no exception, with the filmmakers getting right under the international skin while tussling Donald Trump’s quiff once more. It’s as thrilling at getting the wealthy’s back up as it is educational and genuinely concerning.

In A Dangerous Game – doubling up as a nickname for ‘golf’ here, Baxter and team (writer Richard Phinney) go up against other corporate ‘villains’, picking up where the previous film/investigation left off, including revisiting at the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. They also delve into the effects a proposed luxury golf course development ­– complete with swanky ‘Grand Design-styled’ housing – will have on the surrounding hilly and drought-stricken terrain above Dubrovnik in Croatia.

This is not meant to be a ‘rich bashing’ exercise of haves verses have-nots, but there is a real sense of that; let’s face it, if you had the chance to put a hole in one in lush green surroundings and then retire of an evening to a poolside house just off the course, wouldn’t you at least entertain the idea, before responsibility and reality kicked back in? Baxter and co are not trying to be righteous here rather point out the facts. They do a great job of filling in those who haven’t seen the 2011 film, as well as presenting the scientific and social consequences of developing the land – the science always convinces.

What is highly topical with the Scottish Independence vote around the corner is the Menie Estate is in the First Minister Alex Salmond’s constituency – he who decided not to comment for this film. Ironically, it’s like a Unionist’s dream documentary without consciously meaning to be. But the real anger is still directed at Trump, the folk devil of corporate malaise. It’s also what fans of the first have been waiting for – the sequel of Trump v Baxter. And it’s worth waiting for, Baxter’s contained dignity at Trump’s arrogance. What’s more fascinating to observe this time around is a paranoid Trump as Baxter has grown into “a much more important person” (patronising and daft indeed).

Without revealing more, in brief, A Dangerous Game explores the widening gap between the rich and the poor – using golf developments as its example. It does so in an incriminating fashion, without sensationalising (considering there is a lot of shocking political manoeuvring to be found this time). Baxter’s second film is a satisfactory sequel to what the filmmaker began. However, it’s not him but the above fundamental issue that’s “much more important” as we are made aware of not being complacent about the power of the little person. Things can be changed in a David and Goliath battle.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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They Came Together **

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This is a film for all those cutesy New York rom-com haters – especially those whose idea of watching You’ve Got Mail (starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) is like someone running fingernails down a blackboard. Ironically, in spoofing Hollywood’s treaclely genre, you have to go through all the exact same clichés again that cause such an adverse reaction. Writer-director David Wain tries to keep our interest throughout 80+ minutes by sending these up but strangely, the opposite happens – you start longing for the real thing.

When Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) meet, it’s hate at first sight: his big Corporate Candy Company threatens to shut down her quirky indie sweetie shop. Plus, Joel is hung up on his sexy ex. But amazingly, they fall in love, until they break up about two thirds of the way through [Lionsgate UK].

Rudd and Poehler are well matched and suited to assault the rom-com. Having worked with Wain before on Wet Hot American Summer (2001), they’re perfectly cast to deliver the skillful jabs. However, their effect is only as good as the writing that starts wearing thin on gag material. Wain is clever to pick up on any possible audience ‘flagging’, having Joel and Molly’s wisecracking best friends (played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) also become bored in Joel and Molly’s relationship story told over dinner out. The trouble is this doesn’t then rejuvenate our interest.

There are a few half decent laughs in They Came Together, as well as some that fall as flat as a pancake. The danger of mocking the rom-com that can be flimsy in substance is the satirist looks even more superficial, defeating the purpose altogether – unless you go to the ultra-silly, slapstick extreme of the Airplane! Saga. They Came Together is watchable but will make a better date DVD/Blu-ray when it gets its home entertainment release.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Sex Tape *

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The only thing that Sex Tape can be commended on is how trim its leads have got for their parts – well, Cameron Diaz just looks even fitter. In fact, like all ‘cuddly’ comedians who lose weight, you spend the first ten minutes trying to get over how different Jason Segel looks, by which stage, engaging in the trigger-fire of dialogue between the screen married couple gets more difficult that you ultimately revert back to pondering over how trim Segel looks. It’s all pert bots, really, until a tame The Hangover reveal at the end.

Annie (Diaz) and Jay (Segel) are married with two kids and have a great, comfortable lifestyle. The trouble is, things have got too comfortable and hectic that the couple rarely have time to do ‘the deed’. Finally, getting a night off together with the kids around Grandma’s, they decide to get physical – like the olden days – and re-enact the Karma Sutra positions to camera (after a tipple too many). To their horror – and the power of today’s Cloud technology, they discover their ‘tape’ has been uploaded for all to see, prompting a desperate nightlong recovery of said video and hardware.

Diaz and Segel have already proven they have a natural comedic rift after Bad Teacher (2011), so this isn’t what’s the problem ere. There are even some odd funny moments of recognition for time-strapped parents to snigger over too. However, the general smugness of the screen family’s situation followed by the one running joke – ‘we’re going to be exposed, literally’ – soon wears a little thin. Added to which, there are scenes straight out of other successful comedies, like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride facing off some wealthy in-laws’ canine (Segel’s turn in this).

Perhaps the biggest (unintentional) snigger – followed by some eye rolling – is the blatant Apple (iPad) plugs throughout. Now this could be Sony poking fun, as some of the delivery is way too cringe-worthy to be taken seriously? Indeed, when they may or may not be being cynical we are later treated to a patronising lecture by YouPorn king and family man (played by Jack Black) about relationship matters. If this is tongue in cheek, it’s not obvious, but we can only hope it is.

Perhaps stay at home and take a leaf out of Annie and Jay’s book by making the most of your time together – but keep the technology at bay if the drinks are flowing – Sex Tape is a perfect example of ‘the oldies’ not fully understanding the dangers of new technology that kids seem to take for granted. Just don’t expect ‘bang for your buck’ if you go see this at the cinema; it lacks salacious flesh and sordid humour for someone classed R-rated!

1/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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