Fences reviews

dws1982
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Re: Fences reviews

Postby dws1982 » Tue Dec 27, 2016 11:57 pm

Probably could've been decent enough 95-minute movie but it's dragged on to nearly two-and-a-half unbearable hours. It feels like there's an almost slavish devotion to the source material here--characters don't converse here as much as they just speak to each other in long monologues--and to be honest, it never varies far beyond being a long rant by an angry bitter asshole. Washington performs it like he's still in the Cort Theatre, but Henderson and Davis are both very solid. Unfortunately Davis's big scene is somewhat undone by Washington's frankly poor direction--he frames her in a very close shot and then at one point has her shake her head really fast, which was really hard on my eyes. Some of his other conceits are really awful too, such as that scene where Washington opens his bedroom window in a rainstorm and launches into a monologue against death. Same for a scene after he gets into a final argument with his son; it just feels like the work of someone who has very little aptitude for filmmaking. I liked the design of the house and backyard though. Other than for Oscar completists, I found this very skippable.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby Sabin » Thu Dec 15, 2016 2:34 am

It's a play. I haven't yet experienced August Wilson as a playwright, so the bulk of my pleasure from the film was absorbing Troy's' history and contradictory worldview. For the first half or so, I felt considerable momentum building simply by virtue of it being structured like a play with long scenes, but the second half not being without incident, it didn't hold me. I'm struggling to see how it could've worked better on-stage. And my goodness, those final five minutes are the stuff of Hallmark. It's TV Playhouse for sure and Denzel Washington is not a skilled visual filmmaker. Again: the first half or so felt more inspired but as the film went on, more and more it just felt like coverage. Some shots are truly ungainly.

But again what worked for me was simply the life of Troy Maxson. It's an immersion into a complicated man's life and slowly one layer after another is peeled away. But once the film is done peeling about halfway through, it loses its power.

It's very well-acted with one glaring exception: Mykelti Williamson. He is a talented actor. Everybody in this film is talented. And they are all down to give their theatrical all to varying effect. Washington and Davis are by far the most skilled. Everyone else is fine but it's clearly stage acting. Williamson is bad in a way that only an actor who totally commits to a terrible part can be bad. I don't know how you make Troy's mentally-handicapped brother work on-stage, but Mykelti Williamson has not figured it out for the screen.
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Re: Fences reviews

Postby CalWilliam » Mon Dec 05, 2016 6:07 am

Please, could you elaborate something on Davis' category placement? I know it's not as interesting as discussing August Wilson, but I really think this is another sign of the death of the supporting actress category, which is sad.
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Re: Fences reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Sun Dec 04, 2016 4:15 pm

To throw in my journey with August Wilson:

I saw the original Broadway production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. I thought it had impressive monologues, but practically no narrative structure -- to the point where Charles Dutton's character had a very long, powerful rant that ended with something along the lines of "And that's why I say (whatever)"...as if the audience needed to be reminded why he even started to tell the story. Because of the strength of his language, I felt Wilson's writing showed promise, but my opinion was weak tea next to Frank Rich's. Rich was the Times critic at the time, and, as far as he was concerned, Wilson had emerged as full-blown genius. The two people most responsible for Wilson's career were Lloyd Richards -- who discovered him at the O'Neill Center -- and Rich, who supported him tirelessly. Ma Rainey won the Drama Critics Award -- an award he more or less accessorized over the next decade and a half.

Rich was in broad company with Fences, which opened in 1987 to as strong a set of raves as any play that decade; I remember local critic Dennis Cunningham proclaiming "Broadway is Broadway again". I went eagerly to see it, along with my wife, brother and sister-in-law -- all theatregoers of long standing. And we were unanimous in finding the play hopelessly stale -- second-rate Arthur Miller. There was some structure this time, but it was of the most mechanical sort -- that "Strike one/strike two" thing was what you'd expect from a beginning playwriting class. (SPOILERS:) There were also things that seemed designed for effect but made no logical sense. When Rose told Troy his mistress had had a child, she followed it up, belatedly, with "Oh, yeah -- and your mistress died". Isn't that burying the lede? I also found it pretty hackneyed that Rose declared "From now on, you're a womanless man" -- as if the fact that he'd go without sex was such a great punishment, it didn't matter that she would, too. This was among many things in the play that made it feel like a work from an earlier era...which may be what the critics of the time so liked about it.

Having been so disappointed by something so widely acclaimed, I took Wilson off my automatic list. But I got a free ticket to The Piano Lesson a few years later, and I'd rate that effort as the best of his work by far. It still wasn't fully in my wheelhouse -- I find a lot of the old superstitious stuff hard to take (this is true in all his work) -- but it felt like a more realized piece.

Still, I wasn't impelled to see any of his other work. Years later, again because it was free, I got to King Hedley II, which enabled me to see Viola Davis before much of the world. But I found the play much the same as his other plays -- interesting language and some ideas, but very weak storylines. Perhaps, for some, plotting isn't an essential element of theatre, but I find it pretty important. Anyway, that's the last of his plays I attended.

Wilson is certainly a formidable figure by critical reputation, and he's launched the careers of some of the best African-American actors -- Davis, obviously, but also Charles Dutton, Courtney Vance, S. Epatha Merkerson, Delroy Lindo, on and on. But he just doesn't write the kind of stuff to which I most respond. So, to me he's a curiosity: someone the world reveres at a level way beyond where I'd place him.
Last edited by Mister Tee on Mon Dec 05, 2016 8:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Sun Dec 04, 2016 3:53 pm

And certainly I don't dispute Wilson's importance in the 20th century theater canon, just that my personal experiences so far have left me with a few reservations about how much his plays connect to me personally.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby Okri » Sun Dec 04, 2016 3:15 pm

Cool. Honestly, I'd give The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running a shot but in a "lower your expectations" way. I consider him, along with Tony Kushner, as the most important American dramatists post-Edward Albee, but I do think that you've seen two fairly representative works (three with Fences).

Your reaction would be exacerbated with the rest, truth be told. I really respond to that aspect of his plays - the language and poetry, his vivid characterizations, but narrative drive isn't his forte.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Sun Dec 04, 2016 2:30 pm

Okri wrote:BJ, what Wilson plays are you familiar with?


I've seen productions of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby Okri » Sun Dec 04, 2016 2:25 pm

BJ, what Wilson plays are you familiar with?

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby CalWilliam » Sun Dec 04, 2016 9:40 am

Reza wrote:
The Original BJ wrote:And my god, can anyone cry like Viola Davis? She's got one scene that's a total home run, one of the most impressive moments of screen acting of the year, and the force with which she explodes with sadness and anger......


A "Beatrice Straight" moment.....leading up to the inevitable Oscar for Davis.


Would you say Davis is as blatant a lead as, say, Patty Duke, Tatum O'Neal or Alicia Vikander? If so, two years in a row of this tendency (three if we consider Arquette a lead) is long enough to say goodbye to the best supporting actress category and welcome ''best chaperone actress''.
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Re: Fences reviews

Postby Reza » Sat Dec 03, 2016 5:41 am

The Original BJ wrote:And my god, can anyone cry like Viola Davis? She's got one scene that's a total home run, one of the most impressive moments of screen acting of the year, and the force with which she explodes with sadness and anger......


A "Beatrice Straight" moment.....leading up to the inevitable Oscar for Davis.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Sat Dec 03, 2016 2:17 am

I was always a bit skeptical of the reaction from that first public screening of Fences -- it was for an audience of SAG voters, at which Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were present. OF COURSE that response was going to be rapturous!

My response to the movie was much more in line with what I anticipated all along, which is that the performances would be praiseworthy, the filmmaking less so.

To address the latter first, this is a filmed stage play, through and through. It's certainly not much opened up for the screen, but even within its limited number of sets, there isn't much in the way of directorial vision at any point. The movie's style is mostly televisual -- shoot the performances, get generic coverage, call it a day. I know that some have expressed some disappointment that a film like Manchester by the Sea isn't a visually dazzling experience, but for me, the editing rhythms, the staging of scenes, and the scope of that film marked it clearly as cinema, even if the writing/performances were the movie's key elements. Here, so much of the filmmaking just felt rudimentary.

I wasn't familiar with Fences before seeing this movie, but I've seen a couple of other August Wilson plays, and I have to just be honest and acknowledge that, so far at least, I haven't found his work to be quite in my wheelhouse. It's very possible this is just due to the specific plays I'm familiar with -- I'd love to hear from those who are greater scholars of his work than I am which ones they like the best. Because my general reaction has been this: I always think there are clearly moments of great emotional power, I can appreciate the obviously strong language from scene to scene, but I always end up concluding that the overall storyline just feels a bit ho-hum. And for me, Fences felt pretty much in line with that usual response.

At the very least, I have to acknowledge the quality of the performances. Washington has a great part, and he's commanding throughout, rattling off Wilson's verbose dialogue seemingly effortlessly, and anchoring the movie through one emotional exchange after another. I wouldn't say this role showed me a different side of the actor -- probably what I'd have needed to see to want him to win a third Oscar -- but it's certainly one of his strongest performances. And my god, can anyone cry like Viola Davis? She's got one scene that's a total home run, one of the most impressive moments of screen acting of the year, and the force with which she explodes with sadness and anger makes the movie feel, for a brief sequence, like the event the film likely wishes it were throughout its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.

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Re: Fences reviews

Postby Sabin » Tue Nov 22, 2016 7:34 pm

Owen Gleiberman.

Film Review: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in ‘Fences’

Denzel Washington directs and stars in a towering screen version of August Wilson's play about a flawed inner-city patriarch. It's compelling, but also top-heavy with importance.

“Fences,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by August Wilson, was written in 1983 and had its premiere on Broadway in 1987. But the play is set 30 years before that, in a lower-middle-class black section of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, and when you watch it now, in the towering and impassioned screen version directed by its star, Denzel Washington, it feels like you’re seeing a work from a distant time, like “A Raisin in the Sun” crossed with “Death of a Salesman.” For long stretches, that slight period remove works for the movie: “Fences” is an anguished family drama forged out of an exotically old-fashioned sense of destiny. Yet if Wilson’s play is on some level timeless, only rarely does “Fences,” as a movie, hit you in the solar plexus with its relevance. It’s more like a long day’s journey into something weighty and epic and prestigious.

The central character, Troy Maxson, is a bedraggled patriarch with a backbone of pride that rules and defines him. Troy works as a trash collector, and when we first see him, finishing his Friday shift and coming home to greet the weekend the way he always does, by sharing a pint of gin with his grizzled co-worker, Bono (Stephen Henderson), he seems an ebullient and centered man. He’s devoted to Rose (Viola Davis), his wife of 18 years, and the sauciness of their back-and-forth teasing lets you know that the feeling is mutual. Troy is so thrifty he claims he can’t afford a TV set, but he has carved out a secure life for his family rooted in their modest brick house. He’s a man shrewd enough to keep his head down and feisty enough to have just asked his supervisor why Pittsburgh has no black sanitation drivers (a chancy question that winds up netting him a promotion to be the city’s first).

Much of “Fences” is set in the Maxsons’ small, cramped patch of backyard, but the film doesn’t feel stagy, because Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography gives it a crystal-clear flow, and Washington, as both actor and director, gets the conversation humming with a speed and alacrity that keeps the audience jazzed. Wilson’s dialogue is a marvel — soulful, naturalistic, and profane, at moments downright musical in the snap of its cadences. And Washington tears through it with a joyful ferocity, like a man possessed. Which, as we learn, is just what Troy is.

He was once a professional baseball player, a star of the Negro Leagues, but it was Troy’s bitter fate to come along a generation before Jackie Robinson. He never found fortune or fame from baseball, and he can’t accept that the game is now opening up for others. When he dismisses the new black players — and Robinson himself — with a righteous harrumph, claiming that he’s better than all of them, his gripe is rooted in an honest perception of the racist past, but it’s also rooted in the bigheaded wrath of his own ego. Troy doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the success he was denied, and that includes his teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who has an interview scheduled with a college football recruiter. It’s a doorway to opportunity, but Troy closes it as systematically as Laura’s mother crushes her down in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Troy thinks society will never change for the black man, so he turns that belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Of course, it’s also fused with his jealousy.) He comes on like an honorable fellow, and in certain ways he is, but he’s also an unreasonable hard-ass, like the Great Santini with a touch of King Lear. Washington’s performance keeps both sides of Troy in beautiful balance, so that he never seems more humane than when the full extent of his demons is revealed.

“Fences” has passages of fierce and moving power, but on screen the play comes off as episodic and more than a bit unwieldy. As other characters show up, each sheds a ray of light on the real nature of Troy. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his grown son from a previous relationship, is an easygoing musician who wants more out of life than working a job of grungy drudgery like his father’s, and when he asks Troy for $10, Troy refuses him. His parsimoniousness is a point of pride, and to some degree a valid one, but it’s also rigid and didactic. Then there’s Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who returned from World War II with a metal plate in his head and without all his marbles. Troy took Gabe’s $3,000 disability payout and purchased the house with it, and the energy he pours into justifying that action is a clear sign of how much guilt there is eating away at him. Williamson does a lyrical piece of acting as Gabe, whose mind is half-gone but whose radar picks up on things he isn’t aware of.

The acting is all superb. At the moment Troy’s selfishness is fully revealed, Viola Davis delivers a monologue of tearful, scalding, nose-running agony that shows you one woman’s entire reality breaking down. For a few shattering moments, when she talks about her family of half-brothers and half-sisters, it drags the fallout from America’s racist past right into the glaring light of the present. Yet a drama like this one should build in power, and after a while it begins to dissipate. There’s a resonance to Washington’s performance as a man who has tried to stand up to a daily hurricane of injustice, only to end up betraying his family and himself. But the film has a top-heaviness as well: the gravity of “importance” that can weigh down an awards-season contender. As you watch “Fences,” there’s never a doubt that these lives matter, and that’s a good and noble thing, but you’re also aware (maybe too aware) of how much the movie itself wants to matter.
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