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Fences - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews — LiveJournal
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Fences takes a while to get used to, because director Denzel Washington doesn't bother with a whole lot of the adapting part of adapting a play to a movie. Instead, we get something more akin to a theatrical release of a recording of a play. It must be noted that these are two very different mediums, and storytelling conventions of one do not necessarily work as well in the other. If you don't like movies in which people talk to much, steer clear of this one. Fences is all talk, talk, talkity-talk-talk talk. Okay, sometimes screaming and crying.

Amazingly, the script, by playwright August Wilson, is filled with such incredibly compelling dialogue, the content ultimately takes over and the awkwardness of shoehorning the stage into the silver screen is easily forgotten. Nearly every scene is an unnaturally long period of two or more people in one confined space -- the back porch; the kitchen; the living room -- and they're just having conversations. The fact that we're basically watching a play in a movie theatre rolls in and out of consciousness as the viewer, as does the writing, which is too brilliant to be realistic for characters at this socioeconomic level, yet appropriate for this form of entertainment.

But this distractingly staged story is something to overcome at first. Even by the end of it, rather than feeling like you just saw an amazing movie, Fences the movie makes you wish you could have seen what was clearly an amazing live stage play. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis play the leads, for which they won Tony Awards after playing the roles in a Broadway revival of the play in 2010. Apparently Denzel up and decided, "I want to make this into a movie!" but then he didn't bother to change much of the stage direction. He adds some very few moments added semi-action, such as the beginning as we are introduced to his Troy Maxson as a 1950s rubbish collector with his sights on becoming a driver of one of the trucks -- indeed the first black one. One of the many subtle ironies in this story is the fact that Troy obstinately denies that the world ever allows for black people to get ahead, which is his repeated justification for denying his son (Jovan Adepo) the opportunity to pursue football ambitions, and yet Troy manages to become the first black driver of any of the city's garbage trucks. It's a small victory that he barely seems to recognize, but it's something.

Cory, by the way, is a teenager still in high school; Troy and Viola Davis's Rose have another son, the 34-year-old Lyons (Russell Hornsby). We do learn that Troy is 53, which indicates he was 19 when Lyons was born. Troy and Rose talk multiple times about having been together 19 years, but that was after Troy spent several years in prison, which would explain the 17 years between the birth of the two children. After doing a bit of online research (and math) while writing this very paragraph, I figured out that Lyons was apparently a son from a previous relationship, which explains why he's always calling Rose by her name instead of calling her "Mom." So I guess this is the backstory timeline: Troy's son Lyons is born when Troy is 19; Troy meets Rose but she waits for him while he serves 13 years in prison; he gets out and they get married and have Cory when Troy (and Rose too, if she is the same age) is 34. Lyons and Cory are born 17 years apart and it is now another 17 years after that. Did you catch all that? Whatever, as someone who never saw the play, I sure would have liked to have had that information clear going in.

And there are yet more family mutations to come! But I won't spoil that, because therein lies the key element where the content of Fences takes over completely and makes you forget how much you feel like you're watching a play. The story takes a turn, the drama is taken up a pretty major notch, and the performances are nothing short of mesmerizing. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are far from locks to win, but are almost certain to get Academy Award nominations; Davis reportedly made the choice herself to go for Supporting Actress rather than Best Actress in an effort to boost her chances -- and she does have more of a chance there. (Although my vote still goes to Naomie Harris in Moonlight, the year's best movie -- but whatever, that movie will have to consider its several inevitable nominations wins in their own right.)

Anyway, Fences is written so expertly, and performed so skillfully (including everyone in the supporting cast, including Troy's best friend Bono, played by an especially subtle Stephen Henderson), that you find yourself turning on characters you thought you were rooting for, and then retaining empathy for them in spite of their shit bag behaviors. This is the mark of expert storytelling -- or writing, at least. Fences hits on all fronts except for the translation from stage to screen, and for that reason alone it won't be for everybody. But still, any fan of Broadway, or of Denzel Washington, or of Viola Davis, or of August Wilson, would certainly not regret seeing this movie.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Broadway roles as Troy and Rose Maxson in FENCES. photo by David Lee, Paramount Pictures

Overall: B+
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