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…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

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 should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.