Skip to main content

Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.

Fences
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Well, that was a play. I’m not suggesting for a moment that all movies need to be sweepingly cinematic to resonate, but I do think some semblance of screen parlance tends to be appropriate, to recognize that the mediums are two different beasts, if you’re to translate one to the other effectively. Fences may well be a great play, but it’s a far from superlative movie.


What may be most interesting about it is how this echoes into the Best Actor Oscar win, and to a lesser extent the Best Supporting Actor one. Most odds put the race between Denzel and Casey, and both films are admittedly very much character pieces. But, while Manchester by the Sea isn’t a film you’d exactly label as virtuoso in terms of cinematic language, it is very definitely cinema, and the performances are very much the product of actors rooted in cinema. Everything about Denzel’s adaptation of Fences is rooted in treading the boards, and the extent of the bone it throws to leaving the theatre is pretty much shooting in an actual Pennsylvania backyard.


Is this a bad thing? Well, if you love theatre, probably not. On the other hand, if you love theatre, you’d probably watch the stage production rather than the movie, given half a chance. James Foley did a fantastic job transforming Glengarry Glen Ross into a film, but even there, there are times you feel the tug of its original form robbing it of the quality of a complete film. Part of that is the Mamet method, but part of it is broader still; it’s simply the way theatre is often written, and Fences is written in a hugely theatrical way. Amadeus is also, and there’s theatre in the performances, but it’s a hugely cinematic film, so there’s no mutual exclusivity at play here.


And so, back to the performances. Was Affleck better than Washington? He gave a more filmic performance, which is to say that an interior performance is likely to be more persuasive on the big screen than one designed for a theatre audience. By the same token, I Michelle Williams impact – a moment or scene often being the way movies exert their strongest influence – in that scene in Manchester by the Sea is more powerful than Davis’ more sustained work here. That said, Davis allows for the cinematic influence in her performance much more than her lead/director.


The themes of Fences, of regret translating to self-denial and hurting those closest, are old ones, and August Wilson, in his slow-burn approach (I don’t know how long the play is, but it doesn’t feel like much was cut), enables an effective revolving of Washington’s Troy Maxson’s nearest and sometimes dearest as he interacts through his wife, sons, brother and best friend (Stephen Henderson – also in Manchester by the Sea). But – and I say this as a philistine who doesn’t take in a lot of theatre – I was very rarely not in mind of how this reminded me of other works, not least Death of a Salesman, and how it even ended on a note of the kind of half-baked “This is how plays end” borderline parody we saw the Coen brothers so acutely satirise in Barton Fink.


Troy’s day-to-day existence revolves around how he perceives the race barrier held back his baseball career (Rose suggests he was too old to ever seriously have a chance of making it), and any aspiration anyone else has that threatens to put his trudge of a life in the shade – as a garbage man – reveals his overbearing, diminishing demeanour. That much isn’t such scintillating, but sporadically Fences proves engrossing, particular when it comes to Troy’s relationship with younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo, great in The Leftovers and surely bound for a bright future; he has star written all over him) as he sabotages his son’s dreams, makes excuses for his cynical treatment of his brain-damaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) – it’s not such a clangingly unsubtle coincidence that Troy’s tall tales are about dealing with the devil while Gabe’s confabulations are about calling all to the pearly gates with St Peter – and refuses to see his musician elder son, Russell Hornsby’s Lyons, play (lest it remind him of his own failures).


Davis’ might be the best written part here, except when – as the (screen)play is frequently prone to do – it delivers exposition in the place of exploring character through interaction (the number of times we stop and hear a story or backstory). Rose’s dutiful repression by one harping on about their own repression creates a double bind, and so the revelation of his infidelity, and her taking the only course available – turning to the church (the same church responsible for the language Troy uses to justify his behaviours, in terms of duty and the place of the wife) – is entirely believable.


It might be that Washington was too close to the material, too respectful to Wilson (who died in 2005) to turn the picture into something more suitable to its medium. But hey, a sizeable enough audience has responded to Fences to justify his decision, and it’s always good to see the actor get his teeth into something meaty, as he too often rests easy on the laurels of playing iconically-bankable types.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.