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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

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 mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…