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

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.