For Your New Year’s Fare: A Vigorous Drama, A Throwback Musical, and a Rewarding True Story

At the Movies

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Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose in “Fences.” Photo: Paramount Pictures

‘Fences’
August Wilson was one of America’s most prominent playwrights. He produced a cycle of 10 plays, all depicting working-class African-Americans in his home town of Pittsburgh, each taking place in a different decade. Perhaps because the plays were seen as too talky, too full of monologues rather than action, they have not been adapted into films. But Wilson himself did write one screenplay for his most successful work, the 1983 drama “Fences,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize for drama. After Wilson’s death in 2005, “Fences” got a worthy reprise in a 2010 Broadway production wherein the leads, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both earned Tony awards. The two actors now star in the long-awaited film version of “Fences,” and let it be known that they wholly inhabit their roles. (Opening on Christmas Day, the film is rated PG-13 and runs 138 minutes.)

Denzel Washington not only plays Troy Maxson, the protagonist of “Fences,” but he also directs and displays a fine hand for the material. It’s the 1950s in Pittsburgh’s black enclave, where Troy is a one-time Negro League baseball star now employed as a trash man with his buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Pugnacious and ambitious but embittered, he is a voluble force demanding of other people, especially his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and frustrated by a pedestrian life where once he was a star. Aiming to appear principled, Troy eventually reveals a secret that crushes his wife Rose (Davis) and undercuts his personal and parental authority.

Washington, who must feel this role in his bones, shines as Maxson, a man claiming to be upright but who cannot conceal his flaws. It is a searing portrait of a black man at mid-century, a figure who had a touch of glory but who could never extend that renown into later life; a thwarted man who thinks he can exert his sense of manhood through sheer will. The role is richer than Washington’s more conventional work, and maybe his most complex performance since “Malcolm X” (1992).

Davis, though a more modest character, rises to match Washington, especially in a heart-breaking scene when she confronts Troy about an affair. Her tearful, uncomprehending challenge to her husband reveals her emotions to their core – and ours. Also good are Adepo, a young British actor, as Cory, a skeptical adolescent trying to fend off his father’s demands. Very moving is Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Troy’s childlike brother, mentally damaged from the war and barely able to comprehend the life around him. His scenes are poignancy made flesh.

“Fences” is, of course, a filmed play, with most shots in and around the Maxson house, especially the unkempt backyard where Troy is fitfully building a longed-for fence. Wilson, however, used the screenplay to open up his story, and director Washington adds verisimilitude with scenes shot in Pittsburgh locations, most convincingly coated in a 1950s sheen. But the reason to see “Fences” is the acting of performers at their peak in a landmark American drama.

‘La La Land’
The Christmas season witnesses a re-booting of the classic Hollywood musical. “La La Land” is a revisiting of the Astaire/Rogers/Kelly/Garland era through the lives and loves of two aspiring performer/creators, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in contemporary Los Angeles as an actress and a jazz entrepreneur, respectively. The production, the players, the locations – all are winsome. But there is something lacking in the most crucial elements: expert song and dance.

In his second feature, filmmaker Damien Chazelle (who helmed the tense, drum-driven “Whiplash”) guides his leads in singing and dancing across a magical – at times fantastical – LA landscape, virtually another character in the picture. Chazelle here is unabashedly playing homage to the classic musicals, testing to see whether today’s audiences will buy their conventions. (The film is rated PG-13 and runs 128 minutes.)

For this reviewer, the fundamental questions are two: whether non-musicians Stone and Gosling are capable of warbling and waltzing, and whether the wholly original music and lyrics by Justin Hurwitz are apt and memorable. Here, young Chazelle is bucking a long-term trend and, I am afraid to say, he doesn’t quite pull it off.

Perhaps it’s because your reviewer, of a certain age, grew up with the classic musicals Chazelle reveres, and finds this homage simply cannot match the earlier models, which are part of my cinematic DNA. As lovely as LA looks, beautifully filmed by Linus Sandgren, and as attractive as the leads are, two of Hollywood’s hottest stars, the musical fails in the most important way: musically.

It may not be fair to compare Stone-Gosling to Hollywood greats, but they have put themselves out front and should be considered on their merits. Both are given touchstone songs to sing. Stone is very exposed musically in her big solo, “Audition,” and Gosling on a nocturnal dock sings “City of Stars” (which Hurwirz signals as the movie’s theme). While touching, neither performance dazzles because the voices are not trained and reveal a forced delivery. The comparison may not be fair, but the old timers just put over a song better. My guess is that no one will be humming Hurwitz’s tunes in 2017.

With their terpsichorean efforts, both actors try hard to put on some smooth dance moves, especially during a lavish production number high above LA. The choreography and the movement within it are dutiful – not stunning, only decent – and not electric. Maybe I’m just asking too much.

Not to say that Chazelle hasn’t shown some real class. The film opens brilliantly with a bevy of singers and dancers all stalled in a massive LA traffic jam in “Another Day of Sun.” The number resonates even more because such an incident, which would normally have locals red with rage, shows them blithely singing and dancing up a storm. It’s a fine metaphor for the positive tenor the picture wants to create. It’s just too bad the principal figures are not quite up to standard.

‘Hidden Figures’
There will be few more heartening films this season than “Hidden Figures,” based on an inspiring true story of how a group of “colored” women – mathematicians and coders – were able to contribute toward the launch of the Mercury flight of John Glenn in 1962. Against great odds and the prevailing racism of the day, the three black wonder workers proved themselves as scientists and women of doggedness and courage. (The film is rated PG and runs 126 minutes.)

Directed by Theodore Melfi, the film focuses on three of these singular women, played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, friends and colleagues who work in the late 1950s in the “Colored Coding Room” at NASA’s Langley Research Center (Hampton, Va.). Shy Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a math wonder who eventually is sprung from her segregated section to work with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group. Commanding Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) is able to show her skills as an organizer by transforming a complex IBM computer unit, and the sprightly Mary Jackson (Monae) also is recognized and excels.

The three leads are shown in domestic and quiet moments, engaging with family and as friends and finding love (Katherine is wooed by a dashing army officer played sweetly by Mahersala Ali), but the core of their story is their struggle to validate their brains and their work.

You could do worse then take your kids, particularly your daughters, to see a film of such tenacity and hope.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.