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Fences Review

FENCES Review 01/10/2017

In my review of La La Land, among my many compliments, I noted that fans of musical theater will especially love it.  I bring this up because, two days later I saw Fences and my immediate thought was, fans of stage dramas will love this.  Before Denzel Washington brought it to the screen, he and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival of August Wilson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning chapter of his "Pittsburgh Cycle" of plays.  Washington serves as director and lead role in this gripping family drama of the African-American experience in 1950s Pittsburgh.  It truly seems like a play brought to the screen.  With the exception of a few establishing shots of the neighborhood with steel mill smokestacks in the background, most scenes play out in and around a home in the Hill District.  The small cast and minimalist score accentuate the intimacy of the film, effectively focusing our attention on the details therein, from dynamic interactions to nuances of expression and foreshadowing.

As the story opens, Troy Maxson (Washington), a 53-year old garbageman, is on his way home from work with Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), his long-time Sancho Panza, who feeds Troy's ego while trying to keep him grounded in reality.  The men settle in Troy's backyard and crack open a pint of gin, soon to be joined by Troy's sober and stoic wife Rose (Davis).  This setting and set-up become a refrain throughout the film: Troy holds court, beginning his homilies with humorous and boastful memories from his days as a star in the Negro baseball league.  Soon, though, his superficial good nature turns bittersweet and eventually resentful of the treatment of Black athletes by White power brokers.  Each subsequent set of recollections reveals more of Troy's difficult history and provides a window into his current behaviors, including his battle to become the first Black driver for the Pittsburgh DPW; his reluctance to sign a letter allowing his and Rose's son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), a football scholarship; his refusal to see Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his 34-year old son from a previous marriage and aspiring musician, play blues at a local club; and his relationship with his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson in a touching turn), who suffered brain damage during WWII.  Through it all, Rose is his rock; she tries to bring Troy closer to those he loves, even as he seems to want to push them away.  In the end, we learn that some people build fences to keep people in, and some build fences to push the devil-world out.

Like the marvelous Doubt (2008), which won the same awards as a play, Fences features powerful performances (coincidentally, with Davis in both) and mercilessly intense writing.  August Wilson's adaptation of his play is honest, and the big screen amplifies the power of this film and its performances.  Denzel Washington has never been better, but he is oddly taken for granted in his best roles (and off-handedly awarded an Oscar for his lesser, bombastic lead in Training Day).  He has many dazzling peaks, but his best scene is a quiet recollection. Troy's bombast needs a counterpoint, and Viola Davis's subtle, stoic Rose is pitch-perfect.  It is reminiscent of Sally Hawkins portrayal, as Cate Blanchett's sister in Blue Jasmine, but where Hawkins's performance got lost in the hype surrounding Lupita Nyong'o, no such injustice will occur this year.  Davis ensures that in one heart-wrenching scene where pent up frustrations brought on by years of unrewarded acceptance and patience burst forth from Rose, and it is this scene, within this performance, that makes Viola Davis an absolute lock for the Supporting Actress Oscar. 

8.5 out of 10

FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher 

Here is a good article giving background of August Wilson and Fences:

La La Land Review

LA LA LAND Review   01/08/2017

Two years ago, Damien Chazelle struck silver as writer-director of the highly regarded Whiplash; this year the 31-year old Auteur hopes to mine gold with his festival darling La La Land.  Whiplash was a heavy drama set in a jazz conservatory, centering on the abusive relationship between an instructor and a callow student drummer. There was music, yes, but one couldn't call Whiplash a musical. For La La Land, Chazelle goes all out on his dream production, enlisting his collaborator, Justin Hurwitz, to compose the score for a full-blown musical.  Yes folks your appreciation of La La Land will hinge on your level of love/tolerance for musical theater, but Chazelle builds in several fail-safes: the ever-charming Emma Stone's natural sweet optimism matches the tone the director aspires to, and former Disney-kid Ryan Gosling has found a role that's right in his wheelhouse.  Chazelle makes another wise choice: instead of having his characters suddenly break out in tunes that seem tacked onto their performances like rococo sconces, the music in La La Land builds organically out of the dialogue and the natural behavior of the characters. 

Few romantic stories begin with a young woman flipping off a young man who is passing her in anger in a Los Angeles traffic jam.  That's the first of several chance meetings between Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Gosling), a jazz pianist who hopes to own a jazz club one day.  Each subsequent encounter reveals more of their personalities to each other, deepening their mutual attraction; two people drawn to each other personally but whose careers, should one or both meet success, threaten to pull them apart.  As their relationship blooms along with a series of increasingly romantic song and dance duets, culminating in a (figuratively) heavenly number at Mt. Palomar Observatory, there doesn't seem to be any fear that professional success will pull them apart.  Despite their mutual affirmation, Mia meets rejection at every audition, and Sebastian is too much of a jazz traditionalist to evolve into a marketable style.  Well, we know where things go from here, don't we?

The plot of La La Land isn't terribly original, but it's very entertaining.  The music is wonderful--modern without being trendy, jazzy but accessible.  Linus Sandgren's cinematography, along with the set and art designs bring bright hues and excitement and infuses the modern era with Golden Age Hollywood style.  So we buy into it when one is about to perform and the other has promised to come but is held up and might not make it; we don't roll our eyes when one of them gets frustrated and wants to chuck it all and go home or when one one intends to sell out for success.  We buy it because it feels fresh, because the dialogue, the actors, the music, the approach, the vivid hues elicit young love and dreams that are not faded or jaded, because Chazelle has realized his dream and invited us in.

9 out of 10

FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher  

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