Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fences


Alternate Title:  Death of a Garbageman
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  A retired baseball player, retired and working as a Pittsburgh garbageman, struggles with his wife and sons as he tries to justify his life.


Things Havoc liked: In 1983, Mixed-race American playwright August Wilson wrote Fences, the third element of what would become his ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle", exploring black identity, racial politics, and urban life throughout the 20th century. The play debuted on Broadway four years later, winning multiple Tony awards and a Pulizer prize, and starred legendary stage and screen actors James Earl Jones and Mary Alice. Ever since then, attempts had been made to bring Fences to the screen, stymied, according to reports, by Wilson's insistence that the project could only be undertaken by a black director (which, given the subject matter, is only reasonable). For this and other reasons, the project languished, even after Wilson's death in 2010. It finally took Denzel Washington, who won a Tony award himself in the stage revival of Fences, stepping in to both star in and direct the film to get it off the ground, and it now stands as the final film of the 2016 season that we have before us.

Though he has certainly been in his share of shitty movies, Denzel is a superb actor, as anyone who's been near a movie theater in the last three decades could tell you. And if this role is inside his comfort zone of "loquacious, outgoing asshole who badgers people", then so be it. He plays Troy Maxson, a middle-aged garbageman and ex-baseball player (and felon), who played in the Negro leagues in the 30s and 40s, and resents bitterly the fact that he was kept from the Major leagues because of his color (though others in the play suggest there were other factors involved). Now a man bedeviled by failure, trying to justify a life of poor decisions to himself and others, Denzel plays the character the way he has so many others in the past, from Private Trip in Glory to Alonzo Harris in Training Day, a man bedeviled by rage and narcissism who masks it all under a cloak of affability and amiable charm. It's not a terribly large departure for Denzel, to say nothing of the fact that he's played the role on Broadway for years, but it's one he's tremendously good at, and his performance here is just as nuanced, just as expertly-phrased, as any of his finer works throughout the years.

That said, however good Denzel may be, he's not the best one in the film. That honor belongs to Viola Davis, who we ran into earlier in the execrable Suicide Squad, and who here seems to be working overtime to make up for that disaster. Davis plays Rose Lee Maxson, Troy's long-suffering wife, who tolerates each blow life deals her with an iron core of outraged propriety and with the support of her local church, and while there's isn't much to that description, Davis herself, playing a character she too portrayed on stage during the 2010 revival, is on an entirely other level here, turning in a deep, painful, nuanced performance of breathtaking stature, an Oscar-grade role if ever I have seen one, blowing everyone else, including her illustrious co-star, completely off the screen. It's not that the film is full of sturm-und-drang (save for a couple of standout scenes), but that Davis inhabits the character with an effortless ease, imbuing it with all of the well-worn life-touches that one might expect to see from a drama aiming at award accolades. For Davis' performance alone, to say nothing of Washington's, Fences is a movie that deserves to be seen, and I expect that snippets of it will be making appearances on various award shows all throughout this coming spring.


Things Havoc disliked: And it's a good thing too, that Davis and Washington are so damn good here, because there's really nothing else to recommend this film at all.

I admit, this is not the sort of movie I lean towards, not because it's centered around black people, but because it's a quotidian, Tennessee-Williams-style family drama, and those sorts of films are typically not my cup of tea, whatever the ethnicity of their participants. 2013's August: Osage County did not get much praise from me for the same reason, despite the services of several of the finest actors in the world (and also of Julia Roberts). And while Fences is anchored around a pair of performances that truly shine, even in Oscar season, its direction and staging are indisputably clunky, partly because of Denzel Washington's rather uninspired direction (Denzel is a great actor, but his previous two directorial attempts, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters are not exactly highlights), and partly because the film is unable to escape the fact that it began life as a play, and as a classic-American-style play at that. Characters repeat themselves constantly in that typically-theatrical style (the one that always makes the film sound like a David Mamet production), something required in a play, wherein one may not be certain that the audience has heard you correctly, but that in a film, with audio balancing and sound editors, just makes your movie stilted and awkward. All of the action takes place around the same two locations, save for a handful of scenes clearly shoehorned into the movie just to break up the monotony, despite the fact that the dialogue does not permit the characters to acknowledge their new surroundings in any way. Maybe hardcore fans of the theater will mind this sort of thing less than I did, I don't know, but the social contract prevalent on the stage is different than that working in film, and filmmakers forget that at their peril.

There's also the question of all the other characters in the movie, who range from passable to... not... passable. The former category includes veteran stage actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, playing Troy's best friend Jim, and who does a perfectly fine job despite his dialogue consisting of 90% exposition sequences and repetition. Mykelti Williamson, a character actor I'm a great fan of thanks to his roles in Forest Gump (Bubba), Heat, and Con Air, has a much more thankless job, playing Troy's brain damaged older brother, whose role is to burst onto the scene periodically and recite dialogue that is oh-so-innocently full of portents or commentary on the prevailing scene. He manages all right, which is about the best you can expect with a role like this. Neither Russell Hornsby nor newcomer Jovan Adepo so-manages, in their respective roles as Troy's older and younger sons. Adepo in particular looks downright wooden through most of his scenes, though that may be a facet of acting opposite Davis and Washington, a task that resembles, in a way, trying to appear to be a skilled swimmer while sharing a pool with Michael Phelps.


Final thoughts:   Fences is a hard movie to review, as its good qualities are so good and its bad ones so forgettable, that one struggles to find a score point for it, but ultimately, any film that contains a pair of performances as great as the ones contained in Fences cannot be a bad one, whatever they happen to be surrounded by. I fully expect that Fences will score a number of Oscar nods this March, and in the case of Washington and especially Davis, I wish them the best of luck in gathering them. After the lily-white Oscar ceremony of 2015, it would come as all the more timely.

As to the film itself, those interested in checking the it out are encouraged to do so, but they should be aware that they are not going to see a movie, so much as they are going to see two superb performances which have been haphazardly dressed up in the typical garnishes of a mediocre movie. But then again, such is often the nature of Oscar Season.

Final Score:  7/10


Next Time:  Time to wrap up 2016 once and for all, with the best and worst that the year had to offer.

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