Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Ashton Sanders, Jaden Piner, Janelle Monae, Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Patrick Decile, Trevante Rhodes
Released: February 17th, 2017
Moonlight is one of those films that anytime your mind tends to float back to it inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come with it. It is a film that both simply and oh so complexly transcends all barriers of politics and beliefs and presents a bare bones human story that just so happens to deal with being black and being gay. It’s always been clear, especially from the outside looking in, that the culture that forms young black men is one of the most high-pressure environments for one to be tough, hard, or essentially show little to no feeling at all. “Toxic masculinity” as it has been labeled in recent writings. There has long existed the stigma that to be hard or worthy of being a man one must be largely indifferent to those things that naturally give us weaknesses in the world. By tackling this idea and how it affects the growth and development of one underprivileged youth is at one time to present exactly what it promises while at another-painting a much broader picture of this toxicity that has been constructed by society for which many young men are led to believe there are certain actions that have to be taken or certain attitudes that must be adopted in order to make them worthy of being a man. This doesn’t have to necessarily deal with sexuality, but more this condition is about those stereotypes of men-emotionless, dominant, violent-that society has relayed to determine certain levels of masculinity. That Moonlight addresses such expectations and the baggage, the torture, and the living hell such expectations can carry when not met in the judgmental environments of the projects or of high school or even of one’s mother who knows the essence of her son, but isn’t strong enough herself to stand up to such stigma’s thus leaving that child for the wolves of the world is powerful enough. That Moonlight is able to explore these largely ignored aspects of manhood in such poetic and provocative ways as through the lens of a young man growing up black, poor, and gay only makes these points that much more enlightening and subsequently-that much more powerful. Moonlight is a film that, anytime you think about, are reminded of, or even consider the ground it covers and the essence of what it embodies not only in its ideas and themes, but in its nearly flawless execution inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come as well. More than anything, writer/director Barry Jenkins understands the human element at the core of these issues and by parlaying as much through the single perspective of Chiron at three different stages of his life we are delivered a fleshed out portrait of the true internal tendencies versus the ideals we’re taught we should become.
Adapted from the unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by MacArthur Fellow (a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to between 20 and 40 individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work” in any field) Tarell Alvin McCraney Moonlight takes us through three stages of the life of Chiron. Chiron was born into near poverty in South Florida and recognizes there is something different about himself from all the other boys very early on. In the first sequence of the film dubbed “Little” we are introduced to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) at the age of nine as he is chased through the streets by a gang of bullies and fellow classmates who hurl the word “faggot” at him in condescending ways only for young Chiron to find refuge in what we assume is an abandoned crack house off the beaten path. Left to be alone by his peers Chiron is discovered to be hiding by drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan takes Chiron into his surprisingly pleasant existence whose work doesn’t seem to interfere or even make an appearance in conversation when it comes to his home life with girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Teresa takes in Chiron as if he were one of her and Juan’s own giving him a hot meal, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and the kind of reassurance his real mother can hardly provide. As things come to be discovered it seems Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug-addled junkie who finds her supply in the dealers Juan oversees on the streets. In essence, the cushy lifestyle of Juan and Teresa that Chiron comes to find solace in is fueled by the addiction of people like his own mother. Chiron feels betrayed by the man who he’d come to see as something of his savior. We are then flash-forwarded six or so years into the future where Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is in high school and is more or less living in that aforementioned living hell where he is teased incessantly only to find a glimmer of hope and of something to potentially look forward to in a moment that develops with classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It is only after the two share an intimate moment though, that Chiron once again feels betrayed by someone he thought he could trust. This development pushes the third sequence of the film to depict a nearly thirty year-old Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) who has repressed everything that once made him who he was and who has instead embraced the thug stereotype of black culture as Chiron is now virtually mirroring the existence of his one-time mentor, Juan.
To make this world of South Florida that begins in what seems to be the early to mid-nineties come to life in vivid and believable ways Jenkins not only employs the use of time-stamped clothing styles and technology, but more he builds the aura of this era through the way he decides to visually display such markers of the era. There is an intentional brightness to the “Little” section that radiates the supposed and inherent wonder of childhood that should always be allowed to be expressed mixed with the heat of the summer sun to the point one can almost feel the relief of the heat when a character steps indoors. In the second section of the film, dubbed simply “Chiron”, the brightly lit aesthetic is still intact, but Jenkins seems to remain more focused on the characters in terms of close-ups rather than exploring the atmosphere that helps define the nurturing aspect of Chiron’s development in the first act. All of these strict aesthetic choices indeed feel wholly calculated and precise in a manner that certain scenes have an almost staged quality to them in order to make the overall artistic ambition of the film’s message that much clearer. To paint a truly distinctive portrait of who Chiron is at these certain points in his life. The performances of Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are beyond great and do this on a level all their own, but Jenkins’ visual prowess only stands to add reinforcement to each of these three distinct periods. That isn’t to say Moonlight is a film that speaks down to its audience by painting too obvious a picture of what it is attempting to convey-it is exactly the opposite if anything at all, but that Jenkins doesn’t shy away from his stylistic choices and that they stand out to be as stunning as the revelations that come forth concerning masculinity is a match that perfectly encapsulates the yearning and the repression. This becomes even more of a prevalent factor when such imagery is paired with Nicholas Britell’s score. As equally haunting as it is subtle the string-heavy music underpins the emotions expressed on the faces of the three actors playing Chiron that they may not speak of, but that we can see in their expressions and that are pulled out even further by the certain themes assigned to each stage of Chiron’s growth. Jenkins is also able to reinforce the multiple aspects of his major themes by lending the style a fearsome and unrelenting tone of anxiety. Whereas the first two sections of the film are brightly lit and take place mostly during the day the third act of Moonlight, labeled “Black”, is marked by nights and Chiron’s dark wardrobe. Turning the feelings of animosity and terror that lurked at every turn of the first two acts into that of a life conquered by a fear of emasculation through the facade necessary to preserve what most consider masculine.
Saying that Moonlight accomplishes so much of what makes it great through the direction and vision of Jenkins would surely be true, but without the right actors in place to pull of this difficult triptych storyline it’s hard to imagine Moonlight having the same impact or resonating as much as it does in those aforementioned recollections. Within this tale of three time periods exists several solid performances and not just within the main character and the comparison of how well each stage compliments the next, though that achievement is not to be taken away from. Each of the three actors portraying Chiron give this character a calmness and quietness that resonates throughout the film. There is much for the movie to be angry about in light of the treatment its main character receives and yet Moonlight never feels harsh or aggressive, but rather it basks in the fact it’s not trying to solve its subjects problems-it is simply observing them and allowing the viewer to take away from it what they will. Despite the fact none of the three actors playing Chiron met one another while shooting there is a clear and very vivid interpretation of the character that comes through in each of the performances in those moments when Chiron allows himself to drop his guard. The same could be said for André Holland who plays the older version of Kevin and who somehow, despite also never meeting Jerome during shooting, matches the temperament and speech pattern of the earlier portrayal of the character in the small, but necessarily delicate ways. Holland is especially effective in the final act of the film as the tension at the sight of his and Chiron’s reunion and what might happen is cut before the big speech is ever made. Rather, as is the theme in Moonlight-only enough is said to where its point can be understood. There isn’t a large amount of dialogue and when there is it is generally to make aware a very pointed idea or observation. In this way, such conversations remain striking and easy to remember when those inevitable recollections again beg for your empathy. The truth is though, Moonlight doesn’t have to beg for either empathy or sympathy for by the time the film comes to its quietly powerful and immensely moving conclusion you’re more than willing to hand over such understandings. Harris and Ali will be rightly praised for their performances that form the basis of who the central character becomes and Rhodes and Holland will garner much attention for their show-stopping performances based solely around conversation and looks in the final sequence of the film, but Moonlight is a film made as impactful as it is by the sum of its parts-a barrier breaking piece of work that makes a statement by being wholly vulnerable or, in other words, the exact opposite of what societal standards tell men they need to be in order to be worthy of anything.
Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Janelle Monae, Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson
Released: February 17th, 2017
Hidden Figures could have easily been one of those films that plays things right down the middle. Mainstream to the max. A standard structure with a likeable cast delivering an uplifting and equally heartwarming story that inspires us all to live our lives in something of a better fashion and to many ends-it is exactly that. That may sound as if I’m coming out the gate reducing the film to cliché via expectation, but it is how Hidden Figures both uses such identifiers to its advantage without reducing itself to those overused thoughts that make it charming while still routine. Exciting while ultimately a little obvious. It is a film with just the right amount of sass and just the right amount of authenticity to meet somewhere in the middle between a made for TV movie and that of a larger budget biopic, but this time with three central characters rather than just one formerly famous person. What Hidden Figures does so deftly is suggest how well-known its three protagonists should be rather than playing off how well known they clearly aren’t. That their accomplishments are far greater than anything any musician or actor might be able to contribute to society, but due to the fact their profession is much less attractive (and their circumstances even less so) than performing on stage they seem fated to go down in history with little to no recognition. As these things tend to go though, Hollywood can’t ignore a good underdog story, but when this is true in terms of something as large as the legacy of both the three individuals whose lives this film chronicles as well as all the women and women of color that these three stand to represent, such Hollywood reliabilities aren’t always such a bad thing. From the director of the safe, but pleasing St. Vincent comes another competently made piece of cinema that exercises its big heart and sentimental streak in ways that are familiar, but that are executed so well and with such strong characters that it’s impossible not to find yourself drawn to the satisfying journey Hidden Figures takes us on. Juggling three individual arcs with multiple facets within each and a scope that deals in the space race of the 1960’s Hidden Figures is certainly a much more ambitious project than that of director Theodore Melfi’s previous film, but one that he handles with assured grace as in only his second feature Melfi has proven he has the rare talent of crafting movies that are unabashedly feel-good while not allowing the saccharine aspects to overstep their boundaries forcing the story and the characters that craft that story to be as authentic as the beats are familiar.
In many ways, Hidden Figures opens as expected showing us the early beginnings of one Katherine Johnson in West Virginia in 1926. We are more or less told outright that Katherine is a mathematical savant of sorts and that her parents are encouraged to do whatever it takes to get her the best opportunities they can grant her at this time considering she is a black female. Fast forward to 1961 where Katherine has grown up to look like Taraji P. Henson and we get the answer to the question of “seeing what she became.” We are now in Hampton, Virginia as Katherine sits in a car with her books, her friend Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) works on their broken car and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) leans against the back touching up her make-up. These three women, as we are first introduced to each of their rather distinct personalities, form the basis of the film and its driving force despite the whole of the narrative centering on a task beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race. Hidden Figures is very much about the United States racing against Russia to put a man in space and the seemingly insurmountable odds that had to be overcome in order to do such, but obviously the hook here is how NASA found talent in places that most wouldn’t have thought to look given the context of the time. Building toward the orbit around the earth taken by John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell) the film integrates the roles both played and afforded the likes of Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy and how each of their contributions not only allowed the program to feel safe in moving forward with the launch, but in aiding in the decision of whether or not they would be given the “go” at all. Katherine becomes a human computer for the Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner); essentially a group of engineers tasked with managing America’s manned spaceflight programs. Each of the three protagonists here worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of the Langley Research Center, but Dorothy had more or less become the supervisor and was looking for a promotion whereas Jackson would become what NASA would call the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field during the 1950’s.
There is clearly a lot going on in Hidden Figures and much to balance, but it never feels as if the movie is having to juggle numerous plotlines or characters when in the midst of actually experiencing it. Rather, Melfi is able to create this atmosphere of ease despite the challenges the characters face and despite the inherent tension that is born out of the time period and the color of our group of protagonists’ skin. Meaning, Hidden Figures is a film that one can sink down with and never feel the urge or need to get overly involved with as it more or less spells out the lessons it cares to discuss, maintains a solid entertainment factor, and satisfies on all levels we expect from the cinema. Of course, this lack of a feeling to sit up and want to participate when your film is chronicling something as socially relevant today as discrimination in reference to gender and racial profiling is undoubtedly what gives the film a more conventional artistry rather than the more ambitious type you’ll see from superior films. That isn’t to say Hidden Figures falls short as it does what it wants to do in fine form and there is plenty of things to compliment. The few shortcomings may ultimately lend the film a less “important” vibe than it deserves, but by virtue of the fact of whose story it’s telling it automatically garners a portion of that “importance” factor and rightfully so. All of this is to say that Melfi handles himself well and conveys this inherently moving story with a broad appeal that won’t exclude certain audiences because of its particular artistic ambitions, but rather and as stated before, Hidden Figures plays things right down the middle in “after school special” fashion while using its many contributing factors to allow it to be several levels more credible. Weaving its tale from Johnson and her dealings with her new office mates that are all white and mostly male in with the small, but critical details that make her day to day all the more strenuous on top of having to figure out calculations that the launch of Glenn depends to her personal life where she has been widowed and left to raise her daughters alone despite being courted by Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) and onto the butting of heads between Vaughn and her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) as well as Monáe’s quest to get approved to take classes at an all-white college so that she might garner that title of engineer are each communicated in a smooth fashion allowing the product as a whole to feel largely just as flawless.
The most major of those contributing factors that allows for the film to feel like more than just a step by step tour through an acknowledgment of the actions of these women are the performances from our three leads. As Johnson, Henson takes on the role of the main character in which writer Allison Schroeder (Mean Girls 2) gives the most time to which makes sense given she is the most direct link to the cause and effect of why the launching of the first man into space may or may not happen, but in a funny twist of fate is also the most reserved of the three main characters. This only makes watching Henson as Johnson come out of her shell as she finds her footing in her new environment and the confidence to stand up to her superiors all the more satisfying given we know from the short prologue featuring Johnson as a child that she is likely smarter than anyone else in the room. Costner, it should be noted, is also superbly effective as a man who could care less about who’s getting him the answers just as long as someone is getting him what he needs in order to make his assignment happen. A running bit with Johnson having to sprint nearly a mile across the NASA campus to use the only “colored” bathroom culminates with a strong if not overly dramatic piece from Costner that he plays so perfectly it allows the viewer to gloss over the fact this was likely only added for said dramatic effect. Both the subtle and sometimes not so subtle prejudice Johnson has to face among her new co-workers is personified mostly in lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who it’s easy to see views Johnson as a threat, but thankfully never devolves into the stereotype we all expect him to that might have derailed the movie down a path it never needed to travel. Rather, the narrative stays honed in on Johnson and the flowering of her abilities within this setting that would prefer nothing other than to see her fail and Henson encapsulates these small wins both through her small gestures and meaningful expressions. And though Monáe’s Jackson and Spencer’s Vaughn could have certainly warranted movies of their own it is easy to see why their bigger personalities were left to radiate the portions in between and in support of Johnson’s tale. Monáe is a scene-stealer and can deliver a rousing speech like nobody’s business whereas Spencer proves as compelling as usual bringing all the heart and soul one could hope for to a movie that without it might have simply played as informational rather than with the touches of poignancy it consistently provides.
Stars: Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt
Released: 9th December 2016 (UK)
Reviewer: Martin White (@Film_Bookworm)
It was the end of last year where I completely feared all had been lost that I’ve ever felt good about in my overpowering bond with cinema. For the last two years, I felt like I disappeared right off the grid when it came to my relationship with movies, becoming less knowledgeable and starting to forget what made me love this medium in the first place. It was hard for me to find that one film to help remind myself why I enjoyed this industry in the first place and reignite my love for all things cinema again. Life, Animated is one such film that has managed to reconnect with me intellectually, emotionally and personally.
Why it struck a chord and resonated within me so deeply was for the sheer simple reason of undergoing (and enduring) the same personal life experiences that Owen Suskind goes through for the first time, in which this lovely and remarkable documentary does so well and manages to focus on in the most charming and heartfelt of ways.
Owen was born into such a loving and caring family consisting of his parents and older brother, Walter. Living the early and carefree life of such a normal and healthy child, everything suddenly changed for Owen by the time he turned the age of 3. Both his speech and communication came to an abrupt stop and sleeping at night was no longer a factor for him anymore. The world just became a confusing mess, translating any and all words that anyone ever said to him as nothing more than complete gibberish. After being taken to see speech therapists and such, Owen was diagnosed with autism. As this was back in the early 90s, hearing such a diagnosis being treated on their son was a rather difficult pill for any parent to swallow at that time; especially when autism wasn’t the kind of mental condition that was fully understood or commonly known back then as it is widely aware of now. You had to feel a great sense of sadness for the parents, having to process through their minds and come to the realisation how badly this condition will affect the family unit as a whole but still putting every effort into doing their best they can under such difficult circumstances.
As Owen had become completely shut off from the world for what felt like an indefinite time for the unforeseeable future, both his parents feared the worst – that they may have lost him forever. Its only upon the discovery of Owen finding absolute solace in Disney movies, that his father quickly learned how Owen was able to memorise any number of lines of dialogue from every Disney film ever made, as well as entire opening credits – which helped Owen to self- teach himself to read. He uses Disney as his only link to communicating again with other people and really just making sense with the rest of the outside world. Director Roger Ross Williams has managed to really tackle autism by getting deep into the mental psyche of Owen, how the inner clogs of his mind work and beautifully bringing this story to life based on the book written by none other than Owen’s father, visualised through drawn animation segments and snippets of some of the most beloved scenes from the Mouse House that has richly stood the test of time by having been embedded deeply into our own popular culture.
Owen also uses Disney to educate himself in the ways of the world that really are able to work for him in a way that he can easily understand and able to educate others with the life lessons he’s already learnt. He does this by creating his own Disney club with like-minded others with the same condition as him. He screens films such as Dumbo, The Lion King and Aladdin, and then goes into deep discussion with the rest of his group of what they think makes these films so good and how it makes them feel. This is evidenced as his first step into the real world of being able to live a healthy and independent life. At 23 years old, he makes the big move to study at University, living on his own as a proper responsible grown up, experiencing his first heartbreak in life splitting up with his girlfriend and getting his first job at a local cinema. Owen Suskind will soon realise that life isn’t like the movies and according to his father will fail and fail again before finally starting to succeed in life. In becoming more of an adult, Owen is able to prove a lot more reassurance and a sense of ease to his parents that there’s the affirmation he’ll be able to take care of himself when they get too old to no longer care for him. In addition to this documentary being a really enlightening one, its also sprinkled with some of the most humorous moments I’ve seen featured in one too. The biggest comical highlight being Walter struggling to explain to Owen the meaning of french kissing and sexual intercourse, and all the awkwardness that comes with that; resulting in maybe suggesting to his younger brother that introducing him to Disney porn will give him all the knowledge he will need when it comes to sexual education. This documentary is an instant must-watch because not only does it teach you invaluable lessons in life while growing up but it also offers a truly uplifting and honest way of how family and love can help you perceive the world in terms of better overcoming some insurmountable life obstacles that the world can hit you with.
Going back to what I mentioned earlier of experiencing similar situations to Owen, films have helped me in more ways than one in really staying positive and giving me such great purpose in this world. I too have learning difficulties combined with several types of mental OCD, whilst having dealt with trouble at home in my upsetting and destructive relationship with my father, not to mention the massive amounts of bullying I was subjected to since primary school all the way right up to University. Watching films was my one way ticket of transporting myself to so many other magical and exciting worlds that are in no way as depressing as my own. Its movies like this one that helped me to open my eyes and realise that its okay to be a bit different from everyone else and feel less alienated. I’ve had to tell myself from time to time that I’m not weird or crazy, I’m just unique. Movies have changed and transformed my life in ways I could never imagined and despite having some people tell me that I’ve been living in a dream world all this time, I know these are the kind of people who can never grasp the understanding of the power of cinema and how it can restore faith to one’s self and everyone and anything else that has ever mattered.
Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Denzel Washington
Stars: Denzel Washington, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Stephen Henderson, Viola Davis
Released: February 10th, 2017
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) really just wants to matter. He wants to hold influence in an area that means something to him-that matters to him-and as he feels cheated out of such significance when it comes to professional baseball it seems his only way to relieve this need is to fence in all that is his domain and rule over it with an iron fist. Of course, what Troy doesn’t realize or simply doesn’t care to acknowledge is that he is poisoning that of which he draws his biggest sources of admiration. Whether it be in Rose (Viola Davis), his loyal wife, or their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who only aspires to impress and be like his father, but whom Troy cannot help but to hold back. Troy is a deeply flawed man; one who epitomizes passing the sins of the father to those of the following generations. What Troy experiences are more the effects of the sins of the father-some of which Troy couldn’t help, original sin if you will, as he is simply a victim of circumstance who can’t forgive the world for as much. One might say it was just as much Troy’s choices within these circumstances that set him on the path in which he ends up, but there is certainly a right to some of his anger and resentment. It’s where he unfolds that anger and resentment that we see his flaws. It is in the unraveling of who Maxson is and how the dynamics of his relationships with each member of his family inform this portrait of black culture in the 1950’s that takes up much of the substance in Washington’s third directorial effort. Adapted from a stage play by August Wilson, who also wrote the screenplay before his death in 2005, in which both Washington and co-star Davis starred in a revival of not five years ago Fences, the movie, in many ways feels like something of a safe bet for Washington to try his hand at next. It certainly meets the credentials of an awards contender and the material alone has already proven critic-proof and so what is there to do with such a property that might inspire new audiences to discover? Turns out Washington doesn’t seem to feel the need to change or adapt too much at all as this feature version of Wilson’s most popular play still very much feels like a play. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the fact Washington’s directing still feels timid more so than it doesn’t serve the material well. The dialogue can certainly stand on its own and when it has actors such as our two aforementioned leads delivering it it’s hard to go wrong, but just because something is obviously of a high quality doesn’t also automatically render it infinitely effective either.
It is important to understand that Fences is a cultural story that means to break down the barriers of culture. Meaning that by painting a portrait of middle to lower class African-American life in the fifties Wilson could inexplicably fill his story with details and caveats particular to black culture while displaying in the broad strokes that we all deal with many of the same issues and struggles in our everyday lives. Granted, life for black people in the fifties was obviously much more difficult and much more challenging than it was for white people, but the point remains the same and still resonates today. At the onset of the narrative we are introduced to Maxson and friend/co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) who work together as garbage men; loading the trucks despite both men being older than the Caucasian driving the truck. Maxson has already created a stir, petitioning to get the promotion to driver himself through his union though that will seemingly still pale in comparison when his original dreams consisted of playing major league baseball. Of course, Troy’s days of playing baseball came long before the days of Jackie Robinson when there was little to no hope his talent would ever pay off. This is the reason Maxson consistently denies Cory any acceptance or leniency when it comes to his aspiring football career. There might be a real shot for Cory considering a scout is coming to watch him play and wants to meet his mother and father, but even in the face of the changing world Maxson can’t accept that he simply came along too early. This idea, this extension of being born into unjust circumstance rears its head in any scenario Maxson seems to encounter and he uses it as such-so much so that it becomes more of an excuse than an unavoidable fact. Davis’ Rose is and seems to have always been all that a wife should be and yet their marriage has reached a point in which Rose more tolerates her husband than enjoys his company while Maxson feels the need to inform Bono on a regular basis that he attracts the attention of much younger women down at their drinking spot. All of this in an effort to convince himself that he matters more than he actually ever will. It’s not that Maxson isn’t aware of his actions or how they inevitably make him a more feared than respected figure, but he has to talk a big game in order to continue to exude that confidence despite he and everyone around him being aware of the fact it is just that: talk.
Speaking of talking, there is a lot of it in Fences and if you aren’t ready to sit in attention and field both a large amount of baseball metaphors and/or philosophical meanderings then alter your expectations. As stated, Fences comes from a stage play and though this is indeed a more cinematic version of that same story the source format is still very evident in Washington’s film. While the world of 1950’s Pittsburgh is more fleshed out here than it could ever be on stage due simply to the practical limitations of theater it is in terms of interpreting the dialogue for film that Washington plays it safe. Rather than necessarily taking advantage of what can be accomplished on film that is impossible on stage this film version plays it right down the middle. On stage, everything must be stated-emotions that might otherwise be conveyed with a look or expression have to be put into words and rather than seeming to substitute some of the mountains of dialogue for these advantages the camera can offer Washington keeps the actors rather stationary and the action remaining mostly in the back yard of the Maxson’s house where Troy is both literally and figuratively building a fence around what he can claim as his own. Of course, Washington has always been something of a practical director as his two previous efforts behind the camera, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, are both stories dealing in race relations in ways that certain events lead to bigger discussions whereas Fences takes a more direct approach in that it’s the constant discussions that lead to and determine how events play out. It isn’t that Maxson is conflicted about being over fifty and only able to put a roof over his and his family’s heads due to the fact his younger brother, Gabriel (Forrest Gump‘s Mykelti Williamson in a solid turn), was shot in the head during the war, had to have a metal plate put on his skull, and hasn’t been the same since resulting in a payment from the government that allowed Maxson to afford that roof, but more that Maxson isn’t able to own that responsibility he owes his family despite the fact he’s been working hard enough to do so for eighteen plus years. This responsibility that Maxson knows he owes to Rose, to Cory, to Gabriel, and to older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is something that is harped upon by our leading anti-hero time and time again, but rather than illustrate this through actions Washington simply keeps the camera trained on himself and his co-stars as they spout monologues that admittedly illustrate such ideas with a certain level of effectiveness. Given what a more intuitive hand behind the camera might have done with this material Fences, the movie, simply doesn’t feel as moving or compelling as it could have.
In the end though, it becomes harder and harder to feel any type of sympathy for Troy Maxson as he ultimately isn’t even a big enough man to honor the most respectable aspect of his life. That, of course, being Rose who after more than eighteen years of marriage and an unflinching loyalty is told everything she’s given her husband still wasn’t good enough. Holding a higher standard for others than he does himself Maxson doesn’t even seem to realize others have wants and needs of their own. He is so wrapped up in his own failures that he doesn’t realize Rose has been building a resentment for years as she’s been stuck right along with him. Of course, as any rational person might have done under such circumstances-meaning in those times Rose didn’t have much of a choice-she invested those wants and needs in her husband leading Maxson to not only disappoint himself, but all those that were willing and strong enough to love him. It is this sometimes befuddling, but always present bond between Troy and Rose that gives way to Fences most affecting moments. Watching the likes of Washington and Davis act the shit out of this material is reason enough to buy a ticket even if the culmination of their insightful and intelligently written dialogue doesn’t leave us as shaken as Wilson might have imagined. Washington, as one might expect, is as commanding a presence as ever and he exudes this effort by Troy to project such a big presence that he leaves little room for anyone else and certainly not their ambitions or desires to be a part of his world. On the other side of the partnership Davis delivers lines with such impeccable timing and phrasing that the pain behind her eyes feels physically cutting. She embodies this regret that fills the entirety of her frame when learning that this man who has forced her to bend her life completely in favor of his has had the nerve to betray her. The performances across the board are generally great as this is a movie full of them-Adepo obviously standing out among the supporters given he holds his own when going toe to toe with Washington. In terms of movie making though, Fences boils tensions and anxieties for nearly an hour and a half before the whistle finally sounds and we get a respite from the onslaught of dialogue. Time passes, strides are made, but wounds don’t necessarily heal and with an hour left to go it seems Fences is destined to kind of fizzle out, but in its final half hour Washington’s third directorial effort proves it can finish as strong as it began with the inherently powerful material being enough to overcome the otherwise standard execution.
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