REVIEW: “Fences”

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I love many things about movies, but perhaps nothing more than watching great actors and actresses ply their trade. And when top-tier performers are given meaty, robust material to work with, the results are often spellbinding. A prime example – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the riveting family drama “Fences”.

The film is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. The play was revived on Broadway in 2010 starring both Washington and Davis. Both would win Tony Awards for their performances. Although Wilson had penned a screenplay, his insistence on an African-American director left a film adaptation in limbo. Washington’s stage experience with the story inspired him to star in and direct the film version (his third time in the director’s chair).

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“Fences” begins in 1957 Pittsburgh and tells the story of the Maxson family. Troy (Washington) works on a garbage truck with his life-long friend Bono (played by Stephen Henderson who, along with many other cast members, also starred in the Broadway revival). Troy is a particularly prickly character. He’s a man bruised by his past and bitter from racial inequalities both realistic and imagined. His wife Rose (Davis) is the anchor of their relationship. She’s a soothing presence, a voice of reason, and often times a peacemaker between Troy and their teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo).

Washington doesn’t shy away from the story’s stage roots. The film feels very much like a play. It’s thick with dialogue and the vast majority of it takes place at the Maxson’s home. That may push away those hungry for something more traditional, but Washington knows the richness of his material. He doesn’t force any kind of cinematic gimmickry. Instead the performers (Washington included) take the ball and run which is the only way this story should be told.

We the audience get most of our information by listening in on the many lengthy conversations between characters – conversations filled with feelings, observations, or reflection. It’s here we see the many complex sides of Troy. Whether he’s playfully spinning a wild tale about wrestling with the Grim Reaper or reminiscing about his days playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. Other times it’s Troy, the strict, tough-minded father more interested in “doing right” by his children than loving them. As wordy as they sometimes are, every conversation is rich with meaning and substance. They are always shedding another layer to these characters.

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The further the story goes the more darker and painful it becomes. In one particularly tragic scene, Troy’s consuming bitterness and stubbornness drive him to exclaim “I can’t give nothing else.” At the same time there is a level of sympathy as Troy is a scarred product of his past. At one point he laments to his wife “You’re the only decent thing that’s ever happened to me.” And the story subtly looks at the cyclical nature of life. The question is will Troy be the one to finally break the cycle?

“Fences” is lively and vibrant yet aching and tragic. The cast’s rapport carries over beautifully from stage to screen and their handling of August Wilson’s characters comes from an understanding far deeper that simple familiarity. Washington and Davis let it rip and should be getting a call from Oscar, but the supporting cast is just as vital. Henderson, Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson – all essential pieces to the telling of Wilson’s story. In the end, it’s this rhythmic force of dialogue and performance that makes “Fences” such a powerful and soul-piercing experience.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

“Flight” – 3 STARS

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If you watch the trailers for “Flight” you come away expecting this to be a movie about a doomed flight and the heroic pilot who tries to save it. But as with so many trailers whose lone goal is to sell a product, this isn’t the case at all. It’s the story of a self-destructive man whose many vices are brought out into the spotlight by one heroic deed. It marks Robert Zemeckis’ return to live action movies, this being his first since “Cast Away” in 2000.

“Flight” stars Denzel Washington so automatically there’s one thing you know for sure – the lead performance is going to be strong. Here he plays an airline pilot named William “Whip” Whitaker. After a mostly sleepless night of booze, drugs, and sex with one of his flight attendants, Whip heads out to pilot a commercial airliner from Orlando to Atlanta. I don’t think this will be scheduled as an in-flight movie anytime soon. Right off the bat the film introduces us to Whip’s raging alcoholism. Before the flight even takes off, he slips two travel bottles of vodka into his orange juice before heading into the cockpit. Washington handles this subject matter like an old pro. Scene after scene we see him in his self-inflicted hell and as despicable as his actions are, he causes us to feel sympathy for this character.

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After taking a questionable risk to get through some turbulence after takeoff, Whip falls asleep while copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) flies the plane. But he’s jarred awake after the plane goes into a nose dive while approaching Atlanta. Whip takes control of the situation and pulls off an incredible series of maneuvers before landing the plane in a field. Watching this was an incredibly intense visual experience and its one of the best movie moments from last year. The impact knocks him unconscious and he later wakes up in an Atlanta hospital. He learns from pilot union head and old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) that his heroics saved 96 people of the 102 on board.

This creates one of the most interesting dynamics in the entire film. As Whip says, “No one else could have landed that plane” and his heroics seem unquestionable. But due to the loss of life, mandatory investigations have to take place which uncover his drunkenness during the time of the crash. As I mentioned above, his one amazing deed which saved many lives turns out to reveal his darkest secrets. A team is put together to try and cover up his intoxication. Charlie brings in attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) who believes he has all the pieces to keep things under wraps. But it turns out that Lang is not just fighting the evidence. He’s fighting the uncontrollable alcoholism of his client.

“Flight” does good when it stays on course and focuses on Whip’s problems and the potential trouble he faces due to the crash. Washington is amazing to watch and I also really liked Greenwood and Cheadle. But there’s also a side story where Whip gets together with a recovering heroin addict (Kelly Reilly). This really didn’t work for me at all other than to show the depths of Whip’s fall via a handful of scenes. The two seem to connect through their desperation but as a whole I just didn’t buy into or care about their relationship. Unfortunately this takes up a big hunk of the middle part of the picture and I can think of other ways I wish they would’ve spent that time.

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I also didn’t care for what I feel was Zemeckis’ gratuitous use of some of his content. The opening features a nude scene which goes on and on and (as is often the case) adds nothing to the film. Zemeckis pulls his camera back and for seemingly no other reason than to have nudity in his picture, he keeps it going while Nadine Velazquez parades around while on display. I had similar feelings about John Goodman’s character. No, thankfully he doesn’t walk around in the buff, but his character’s foul mouth seems so forced. I know he’s a dope dealer but his dialogue is at times terrible and it seems like it’s straining to include profanity. I’m not trying to get on a soapbox about movie content, but both of these instances in “Flight” really pushed me away.

Unfortunately these gripes of mine played a big role in my overall experience with “Flight”. There’s a really great movie somewhere in what we get but you have to cull the wasted moments to get to it. Washington is wonderful as always and through his performance we see a fascinating study on addiction and personal destruction. I only wish the movie could have stayed focused on it and that Zemeckis didn’t lose control of his mesmerizing central story. With a little pruning and a tighter vision, I think this could’ve been an even better film than it was.

Want more Denzel? Check out my reviews of “Safe House” and “The Taking of Pelham 123”.

“THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123” (2009) – 2 1/2 STARS

I bet these guys didn’t expect their day to go like this? That seems to be a reoccurring question in Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123”, a stylish but sometimes preposterous remake of the 1974 film. At its core this is a pretty formulaic, run-of-the-mill action thriller that takes no chances but also never wastes a moment. It moves at a quick and fluid pace which makes overlooking it’s shortcomings a little easier but not impossible.

“The Taking of Pelham 123” has all the bells and whistles of a Tony Scott production. The quick camera jerks, clever angles, and showy pyrotechnics work well to create an intense environment. In fact often times his camera adds more tension than the screenplay can muster. Scott has a recognizable style and can sometimes be called self-indulgent. He flirts with that label here but as a whole his high-tech machinations work just fine. It often times overcomes the story which is pretty basic material.

The movie starts with four heavily armed men walking into a New York subway station and taking control the Pelham 123 train. The film won’t do anything to enhance your view of post-911 security. There’s no elaborate well executed plan at work. The hijackers simply walk in and take the passenger-filled train. The leader is a man we come to know as “Ryder” played by John Travolta. Sporting a crew cut and fake neck tattoo, Travolta is clearly having fun with the role even though he goes a little over the top sometimes. “Ryder” soon contacts the Subway Control Center and connects with dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a middle-aged husband and father of two who ends up completely out of his element. Washington has played some rough and tough roles but he also has a wonderful knack for playing these “everyday man” characters. Here he’s subtle yet expressive and I loved watching how he handles the role. John Turturro is good as a head hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini is fine as the mayor even though his character is pretty poorly written.

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While the story is fast paced and it does have its moments of tension, sometimes it’s just plain silly. For example we get a key scene involving an accidental sniper rifle discharge due to a rat bite and there’s a head-scratching sequence involving the cops transporting ransom money through the city. It’s beautifully filmed but utterly ridiculous. The story is also fairly conventionally and predictable. But the movie is also let down by a really flat and lifeless ending. It seems hurried and it packs absolutely no punch whatsoever.

In spite of the movie’s flaws, Tony Scott manages to pack some entertainment into this linear, straightforward action thriller. Washington and Travolta’s CB radio chemistry is compelling even if they aren’t saying much and Scott’s cinematic style gives the story energy and drives the tension in the scenes that do work. But the sub par material is too much to overcome. I especially hate to see such a strong Denzel performance go to waste but in reality there just isn’t enough here to make this anything more than an average movie.

“SAFE HOUSE” – 3.5 STARS

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The 2012 movie year has offered several pleasant surprises at the local cineplex. “Safe House” is a high-octane action picture that keeps this trend going. While I can’t say there is anything particularly fresh or profound about “Safe House”, what it does it does well. It offers plenty of gunfire, car chases, and fist fights while employing several familiar elements into its story. But it never goes beyond it’s intentions and for my money “Safe House” entertains.

Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost and ex-CIA operative who is now wanted by several international organizations including the CIA and MI6. After being leaked secret documents from an MI6 agent in South Africa, Frost finds himself on the run from a group of heavily armed contract killers. He flees to the American Embassy, a last resort, and is immediately taken into custody. He’s moved to a local safe house ran by a disgruntled Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Weston has seen no action and has petitioned for a transfer from his boring position. As you can guess, that changes once Frost is brought into his facility. The mercenaries arrive instantly leaving Weston to take Frost and run.

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Most of the film focuses on the pair as they try to escape their pursuers while also toying with the question of “Is Frost a good guy or is he a bad guy”? As usual Washington nails his character and often times carries some of the scenes that would have otherwise fell flat. He also relays his character’s moral gray area with the perfect amount of ambiguity. He’s hard to read and I loved watching him and his story unfold. Washington never shortchanges his character whether it be Frost’s grit or his personal affections. Reynolds is also quite good and shows again that he is capable of handling better material (sorry Green Lantern). He lays it all out during the action sequences and He and Washington have a good chemistry. There is also a fantastic supporting cast including Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, and Brendan Gleeson.

“Safe House” uses a grainy, gritty visual style throughout the movie and while it did take me a minute to get used to it, I found it really worked. The film features a lot of herky jerky camera work and is frantically edited which I’m sure is meant to capture the chaos and intensity of the action sequences. This works more often times than not but I can see where it may be a bit disorienting for some. There are a few instances where it tries to get too clever with the camera but not enough to hurt the movie. Overall it’s visually impressive and the sound design is stellar.

“Safe House” could be considered your standard action/chase picture and there is a good argument there. But I found myself interested in the international aspect as well as the “who can you trust” question that shows itself as the story unfolds. Washington has been consistently good in his career and he delivers a strong performance here as well. He can carry films like this but here he doesn’t have to. Reynolds holds his own and the strong supporting work helps make up for when the plot may not be as sharp. But I had a great time with “Safe House” and I don’t penalize it for aiming at a specific mark and hitting it. Sometimes a straightforward action picture is all I need.