[Screen It]


(2016) (Denzel Washington, Viola Davis) (PG-13)

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Drama: A 1950s era trash man must contend with the decisions he makes in his life regarding his wife and teenage son.
It's the mid-1950s and Troy (DENZEL WASHINGTON) is a former baseball player who now works as a trash man in Detroit alongside his good friend, Bono (STEPHEN HENDERSON). After work, the two enjoy sharing a bottle in Troy's backyard while his wife of eighteen years, Rose (VIOLA DAVIS), enjoys listening to their banter. Less enamored of that is their teenage son, Cory (JOVAN ADEPO), who's lived most of his life in fear of his stern father, and he isn't pleased that his dad is threatening to squash his dreams of playing college football. Cory isn't Troy's only child, though, as Lyons (RUSSELL HORNSBY) is a 30-something son from a previous relationship. He's a guitarist who doesn't want a regular job to interfere with his dreams and thus often stops by to ask his dad for money.

Despite being frugal, Troy has some cash, what with having received a $3,000 settlement from the government as guardian of his adult brother, Gabriel (MYKELTI WILLIAMSON), who suffered brain damage during the war and hasn't been the same since. Troy feels some guilt over using that money to buy his and Rose's house, and wishes he could do more for his sibling who's friendly to all, but whose actions sometimes get him in trouble with the law.

Troy gets into some trouble of his own when it's revealed he's been having an affair and will soon be a father again. Things become more complicated when they become the guardians of that child who eventually grows up into young Raynell (SANIYYA SIDNEY). But before then, Troy and Rose must contend with his infidelity and its impact on their marriage, all while friction and tension continue to increase between Troy and Cory.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Just like novels and movies share similarities but also striking differences in how they use their features to tell stories and engage those who plunk down cash to enter the worlds they create, the same holds true for movies and stage plays.

While films can and do go well beyond the old saying of "the sky's the limit," plays, by their very nature, are limited to the confines of whatever stage they happen to be set within. Yes, the writer, director, performers, and tech crew can get us to imagine we've escaped such physical boundaries and sometimes even forget they're there.

But those limitations are present, as is the need to balance playing both to the person in the front row and those in the very back of the uppermost balcony. At the same time, however, the stage presents a live, you are there intimacy that film can never capture, no matter how tight the close-ups might be.

Considering he's appeared in both forms, I'm guessing a lot of that went through Denzel Washington's mind as he prepped to shoot a cinematic adaptation of playwright August Wilson's revered stage play, "Fences." And that's not only due to him going behind the camera for just his third time, but also because he was going to reprise his stage performance (from 2010) as the lead in front of it as well.

Aside from a few minor nitpicky things, this adaptation is excellent, with tremendous performances from Washington and co-star Viola Davis (also reprising her stage appearance) as the leads (although the studio has decided to put her in the supporting actress category). There's also strong work from those in the supporting parts (especially Mykelti Williamson as the protagonist's war-damaged brother); great dialogue; solid direction; and good work from a tech credits standpoint all around.

The story revolves around Troy Maxon (Washington) a1950s era middle-class trash collector in Pittsburg who talks a big game, especially while drinking after his shift with his coworker and good friend (Stephen Henderson). They mostly hang out at in Troy's small backyard while Troy's wife (Davis) listens on to the bravado and occasionally interjects only in the way a loving wife of eighteen years can.

While Troy enjoys such banter (and taunting death on more than one occasion), he's also a realist when it comes to being a black male in America of that era. That ranges from not being able to segue from baseball's Negro League over into the Majors and his brother getting a fairly small payment from the government for his war wounds and the metal plate in his head that have left him brain damaged.

Thus, he isn't happy when his thirty-something son (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship would rather be a poor musician (and one who often asks for "loans" from his father) than work a regular job like him. And it explains why he doesn't want his teenage son (Jovan Adepo) to place any dreams of college and maybe further football success anywhere near the front burner, what with realizing how the world works.

That, of course, creates tension between the father and son, as well as between Troy and Rose, something exacerbated by a later development (and one that gives Davis her big Oscar speech and moment in the spotlight -- something she nails with utmost precision and heartfelt emotion).

As director, Washington capitalizes on such moments but -- save for a few scenes here and there -- never really opens up the proceedings in as much of a cinematic way as other filmmakers might have tried. It's not a huge fault by any means, as it does allow for closer views of the actors at work, which is the film's strength (along with the dialogue), but it does leave the offering with a bit of a stagey feel.

And while the dialogue is superb, the story itself never ends up expanding as much as I would have expected or preferred, at least from a basic throughput aspect as things sort of end up feeling a bit repetitive. Having never seen the stage play, I can't say if that's a carryover from the theatrical work, but with the film clocking in at just under 140 minutes, things started to drag just a little bit for me after we crossed the two-hour mark.

My last nitpick stems from the fact that for all of the bragging by the main character that he's ready to take on death, when the Grim Reaper does eventually come knocking (I won't go into whether he leaves with Troy or not), all of that occurs off-screen.

I suppose that's the way it happens in real life, and maybe that's the point of it all -- that all of the bragging and bravado ultimately don't mean anything. But it sort of left this viewer feeling a bit shortchanged, akin to lots of buildup to a heavyweight boxing clash only to have that never appear on the screen. I wasn't necessarily expecting a repeat of Washington's character's demise in "Training Day," but it would have been interesting to watch the actor play the character as mortality knocks on the door, especially in light of what's said in relation to just that earlier in the film.

That said and those quibbles aside, if you want to watch some powerhouse performances in a well-told film about masculinity and family dynamics from a bygone era, "Fences" is for you. The movie rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2016 / Posted December 25, 2016

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