Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Colin Firth, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 141 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


The general attitude for making a sequel is “more” and Kingsman: The Golden Circle follows that straight to its demise. There’s more action, more style, more CGI, more characters, and it all drowns whatever this movie could have been, turning it into a barely tolerable assault on the senses that’s all confection and nothing more. The first Kingsman movie was a breath of fresh air, bringing a subversive tongue in cheek edge to the current glut of franchise movies that are so tired and repetitive, with each one feeling like an imitation of everything else. Of course, making a sequel to such a film creates the dilemma of how you can keep things consistent while still bringing that level of creativity to the table. Matthew Vaughn and company clearly weren’t up to the task, and their solution was apparently just to overwhelm this beast (running almost two and a half hours for god knows why) by throwing as much at the screen as they possibly could.

To be fair, The Golden Circle isn’t all bad. As far as the style and sense of humor goes, it does still feel unique among the rest of the pack of franchises out here, even if it can’t achieve the level of success in either of those departments that the first film did, particularly in the case of the comedy as a lot of the jokes in this one fall very flat. The action is still incredibly fun and inventive, although again they definitely do overdo it and nothing can compare to the incredible church fight in the film’s predecessor. Perhaps its finest asset though is the charm of leading man Taron Egerton. As is the case with the other compliments I can give the film, this does come with a caveat. A large part of the appeal of the first film was watching Egerton’s Eggsy on his Pygmalion arc from street thug to super spy, and inevitably we don’t get to enjoy any of that this time around since he starts the film off already established as a Kingsman. At the same time, it allows us to enjoy the charm of Egerton fully embracing that role from start to finish, and there’s plenty of fun there.

The counter point to that, unfortunately, is the incredibly misguided decision to bring back Colin Firth’s Harry. I won’t spoil how they justify this return in the context of the film, suffice it to say that the direction/explanation they take with it is unbelievably disappointing and retroactively damages one of the things that made the first film so great. It’s just one example of how messy and awkwardly written The Golden Circle is. Julianne Moore’s villain is completely isolated, removed from the action, and doesn’t have any interaction with the main cast until the very end for an incredibly brief period of time. It’s such a shame when you compare it to how great the first film handled Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable villain. It wouldn’t be hard to forget that Moore was even in this, and she’s the big baddie!
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Review: Mother!

Director: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Fountain, Noah, Black Swan)
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Producers: Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 121 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


If you love your very on-the-nose religious allegories aggressively shoved down your throat for an excruciating two hours, then Mother! is the movie for you! Darren Aronofsky’s latest is a big ol’ parable that’s pretty impossible to miss since instead of wrapping its deeper ideas inside of anything resembling a plot of its own he instead throws it right there on the surface with giant sign posts indicating every little thing that anyone needs for even the most basic viewer to “get it”. Of course it’s also just the kind of obnoxiously “ambitious”, “auteur-driven”, “provocative” feature that will ignite a heavily divisive response with its lovers insisting that the detractors somehow “didn’t get it” even though there’s literally nothing else to it. That’s a big part of the problem. Aronofsky just drowns this beast in his giant allegory (which, yes, could also be an interpretation of the creative process, but isn’t that essentially the same thing? And really there’s too much religion here for it not to be that more than anything), leaving no room for anything else.

Certainly not for even the slightest modicum of character development or dimension, as a talented cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem is criminally underserved by a script that treats their characters as props rather than actual people with inner lives who the audience are supposed to care for. And yet as the deliriously, infuriatingly chaotic final act rages on there’s this odd pull that the movie suddenly wants us to have an investment in these people, but it did absolutely zero groundwork to get us to that point. Ultimately it did zero work to establish practically anything. It’s well and good to work an allegory like this into something, but you have to actually have something there in the first place to work it into and Aronofsky missed the boat on that one. Even more than that he missed the concept of having it all actually mean anything on a grander scheme. Sure, it’s all about religion, but for what purpose? Why does this movie exist? Beats me.

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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki, Bandidas)
Writer: Jeff Nathanson
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, Paul McCartney
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 129 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Remember 14 years ago when there was a movie coming out based on the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride and everyone thought it was going to be terrible and then it ended up being pretty darn good? And now all these years later the fifth one has been released and everyone assumed it would be terrible and it really, really is? Funny how that works. There are so many reasons why Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of the worst movies of the year, and the absolute nadir of this franchise that has milked the goodwill of its one good entry to death and very far beyond. There’s the diminishing returns of seeing the exact same procedure of some new mythical MacGuffin that suddenly every pirate on the seas is determined to get. The equally diminishing returns of the endless parade of over-elaborate and drastically over-long action sequences that start dumb and end maddeningly dull.

Of course there’s also the bitter taste of watching professional scumbag Johnny Depp sleepwalking his way through another bland performance on his way to reclaiming his title as the most overpaid actor in Hollywood. The unfortunate pain of seeing Javier Bardem continue to squander his talents on roles that turn him into a joke in movies that sully his filmography. The cruelty of Golshifteh Farahani following up her delightful role in one of the best movies of last year (watch Paterson if you haven’t) with a wasted part in one of the worst movies of this one. The hilarious realization that in casting the son of Orlando Bloom’s character, the makers of this movie somehow managed to find an actor even more boring than Orlando Bloom (in ten years everyone will have trouble remembering who Brenton Thwaites was). The hilariously dumb and ridiculously convenient reveal that could only be considered surprising by taking into account the fact that the audience would surely never think that this movie would pull something so random and silly out of its ass, and then they double down by immediately trying to milk it for maximum sentimental value (it doesn’t work).

Dead Men Tell No Tales is a movie with no shortage of flaws, and really no existence of positive qualities, but the biggest offense of all is the way that they cheaply teased the audience with the promise that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley would be returning in this movie. After the sour reception to the fourth movie raised a black cloud above the franchise, they knew they needed a reach like bringing back the fan adored lovebirds to build some goodwill here. The return of the two was hyped up plenty, and even featured in the marketing. Which makes it an egregious insult when you watch the movie and discover that Bloom only appears in a flashback scene that opens the film and then not again until the very last scene. As for Knightley? Well, I hope you enjoyed her brief appearance running up that hill in the marketing campaign for the movie because that’s literally the only appearance she has in the movie. I struggle to think of any way that a movie this year will be able to insult its fans more significantly than Dead Men Tell No Tales has, but in 2017 I won’t put it past anything. They’ve certainly set a high bar, though.

 
 

Review: Baywatch

Director: Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Identity Thief, Freakonomics, Four Christmases)
Screenplay: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift
Producers: Michael Berk, Gregory J. Bonann, Beau Flynn, Ivan Reitman, Douglas Schwartz
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach,
Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 116 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


After the first two minutes of Baywatch I thought to myself that this has to be the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Trying to process the life decisions that had led me to pay $12 to put myself through this experience, I reasoned that surely it could only get better from there. No more than ten minutes later there was a scene lasting five whole minutes (it felt like hours) wherein the walking fat joke of a character (who nevertheless becomes a full-fledged lifeguard because he has “determination”) gets his erect penis and testicles stuck in between the panels of a wooden beach chair and a hot female lifeguard and Dwayne Johnson proceed to try and coach him through the situation while a beach worth of spectators look on and take video with their phones. Needless to say, Baywatch never did get better.

Purportedly trying to emulate the success of the Jump Street movies by taking a dated television property and turning it into a tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action comedy that’s aware of how ridiculous it is, Baywatch seemingly forgot to have any kind of awareness or really any comedy. Occasionally Zac Efron’s dimwit Olympic gold medal winning athlete turned disgraced rookie lifeguard will make a comment about how this is a job for the police, which is quickly dismissed as the elite squad of lifeguards try to take down the movie’s big bad villain Priyanka Chopra and her plan to buy up beach real estate to smuggle drugs. How captivating.

Another key to the Jump Street movies that Baywatch forgot to include was any actual comedy. You’d think by that I would mean that the movie tries to be funny and fails, but no what I mean is that there are barely even any attempts at comedy in this garbage fire of a movie. Speaking of fire, there’s a scene with a giant fire encompassing a yacht in the middle of the ocean that features honestly the absolute worst CGI I have ever seen in a major studio movie. It is… astonishing beyond words. Back to the point though, if the Jump Street movies were roughly 80% comedy and 20% action, Baywatch reverses that ratio and probably ups it to about 95% action and 5% comedy. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen almost every single “joke” that is present over the course of this movie, barring the aforementioned boner chair incident, and I guess the four or five dozen times that Johnson totally rips Efron by calling him absolutely hilarious and totally culturally relevant nicknames like “New Kids on the Block” and “*NSYNC”.

Instead of the self-aware stylings of the Jump Street series, Baywatch takes itself unbelievably seriously every step of the way, and this is a movie that is based on a television series whose popularity was entirely based on watching large breasted women in swimsuits running in slow motion on the beach, of which there is plenty here. That being said, in the movie’s one surprising twist, despite an R rating ripe for some knowing jokes about how a network television show entirely built around T & A could never actually show either, the only nudity here is one dead man’s penis. If you think that’s some kind of progressive statement though, don’t worry it’s not. The penis is used for one of the film’s many gay panic “jokes”. Nothing worse than touching a penis, am I right guys?

Anyway, this is a fucking movie where the characters played by Johnson and Kelly Rohrbach have the same names as the characters played by David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson in the series, which would lead you to assume that they’re the same characters updated for the new version, right? Somehow you’re wrong, because in a move that I still don’t entirely understand Hasselhoff and Anderson are both in this movie playing… the same characters? Don’t worry if you think that I just spoiled some big cameos though, because both of those original actors are credited in the opening titles, despite the fact that their appearances are both clearly teed up as if they are giant cameo reveals. Hell, Anderson doesn’t even show up until literally the final few seconds of the movie. It’s all well and good though, she’s got those boobies so who has time to spend on things like logic or common sense or anything resembling any sense of quality.

 
 

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn (Slither, Super, Movie 43)
Writer: James Gunn
Producers: Kevin Feige
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 136 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Three years ago, The Guardians of the Galaxy was considered the first big risk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, completely removed from the rest of the Avengers on other planets with characters even avid comic book readers weren’t overly familiar with, all led by an actor who was primarily known as the chubby goofball on an NBC workplace sitcom. To the surprise of everyone, the movie became an absolute juggernaut on release, a critical and commercial smash that immediately cemented itself as one of the most beloved entries into the franchise, even considered the very best by many. The fact that it was so much weirder and very different to the rest of the MCU ended up being the thing that people loved most. With an irreverent wit, a group of anti-hero characters who hated everyone as much as they loved themselves banding together to save the galaxy, and a bright, extravagant visual palette that popped in a way that directly opposed the bland, grey tones of the rest of the MCU, the first Guardians was lightning in a bottle that would be impossible to capture twice.

So how do you follow that up? The whole idea of the first Guardians was that it was fresh and unique, but even before it came out the film already had its sequel confirmed, which gave returning writer/director James Gunn (who recently announced that he’ll also be back for the third Guardians film) a tall task. His response, as is the case with most sequels, was more more more. That word defines The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and it’s got connotations both good and bad. Guardians 2 is weirder, more energetic, more colorful, with more action and even more humor than the first. It’s also jam-packed with more characters all fighting for more screentime, more plot, more exposition, more storylines, and more dead spaces in between all of the good stuff. It’s a fun ride, immediately capturing the spirit of the first, but there’s an undeniable feeling of simply returning to the well rather than bringing the kind of refreshing verve that the first movie brought.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a nice change of pace from the rest of the MCU (particularly its most recent entry, the unbelievably dull origin story Doctor Strange) but by its very nature as a sequel, it can’t pop to the full extent of its predecessor. Guardians 2 gets off to an excellent start, with an opening credits sequence that rivals the greatest of any scenes in the MCU to date. With all of the character introductions and the team established from the first movie, we’re able to slide right back into the groove of things as the returning quintet (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel) of the title immediately bring back the dysfunctional family chemistry that they formed so well three years ago. Things look like they’re setting up for an epic opening battle, the kind we’ve seen in most of the MCU movies, but right as the tension rises and their behemoth alien opposition arrives to the party, the focus instead narrows in on little Baby Groot, who kicks on the tunes and starts grooving. While the battle rages on out of focus in the background, we instead watch Groot dance around to “Mr. Blue Sky” with utter glee.

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Review: The Circle

Director: James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour)
Novel: Dave Eggers
Screenplay: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Gary Goetzman
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 110 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


After breaking out with his 2012 alcoholism indie drama Smashed, director James Ponsoldt has seen each of his subsequent films raise him to a new height, first with The Spectacular Now and then with the masterful The End of the Tour. It was inevitable that after building his name on these very low-key, intimate character dramas, Ponsoldt would eventually want to attempt an elevation into new territory, and that’s where he found himself with the prescient tech thriller The Circle, based on Dave Eggers’ acclaimed novel, for which Eggers and Ponsoldt collaborated on the screenplay. Unfortunately, this is a case where we see that while a filmmaker can do marvels in one area, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be a proper fit for another.

Following intrepid young rookie Mae Holland (Emma Watson) as she finds herself inducted into the hive headquarters of Apple-like tech conglomerate The Circle (with a Google-esque dual housing/work facility that its workers, known as Circlers, never seem to leave), Ponsoldt’s film begins by charting an incredibly familiar and shallow trajectory that we’ve seen in plenty of tales of tech terror like 1984 and Eagle Eye. Basically, The Circle is getting closer and closer to a kind of all-seeing, all-knowing dominion over the world where everyone is connected and no one has any privacy. Because somehow despite everything we’ve seen telling us how bad of an idea this is, apparently that’s still where we’re headed according to the movies. When the Steve Jobs type figure Eamon Bailey (a shrewdly cast Tom Hanks, subverting his America’s Dad image to play baddie for a change) introduces a new camera the size of a small marble that can be placed anywhere and sees everything, giving The Circle access to the daily lives of everyone across the planet, we all know where this is headed. Technology is good, until it becomes bad. The bad guys, including The Circle’s COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) want to rule the world by taking away the privacy of everyone under their iron fist, but of course their most important meetings all happen behind closed doors.

Initially feeling some hesitation towards the happy wonderland of The Circle where everyone kills with kindness, Mae slowly finds herself becoming indoctrinated to their ways (the second movie this year where Emma Watson falls victim to Stockholm Syndrome?), eventually going so far as to agree to let her life be filmed 24/7 and broadcast to the world, going “fully transparent”, as she coins it, in one of the many cheesy sell lines the movie gives its characters to shill out. This is where the movie goes in a slightly different path from the usual throughline of these tech thrillers, but instead of rising above the grain it takes this opportunity to drastically fall flat on its face. What follows is a series of increasingly insane events that take suspension of disbelief to impossible extremes and leave you stupefied wondering when this stopped becoming a film that aimed for a prescient vision of where our reliance on technology was headed and became a corny after school special from the ’80s warning us of a future that’s never going to happen.

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Review: Free Fire

Director: Ben Wheatley (High Rise, Kill List, Sighseers, A Field in England)
Writers: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Producer: Andrew Starke
Starring: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 91 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Two gangs meet in an abandoned warehouse to exchange a large sum of money for a large sum of guns. There’s some tension, maybe a small argument over how to trade off the goods, but it all goes well and the groups go their separate ways, with the A plot of the movie kicking in after that. That’s usually how a gun deal goes in a crime picture, but in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire we never make it out of the warehouse. A one-location movie occurring in real time, Wheatley’s latest is a very simple and low-key affair, a welcome change after last year’s ambitious but disappointing High-Rise. He’s certainly not taking it easy here however, as orchestrating an entire movie designed as one extended shootout is no small feat, and yet this time he absolutely nails it. With a great cast including Cillian Murphy, recent Oscar winner Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and more, Wheatley loads them with whip fast dialogue that flies as frequently as the bullets.

Ultimately, it’s the insults that the characters shout at one another across the blood spattered warehouse that makes more impact than any of the gunshots. Although for their part, it’s nice to see a movie that treats a shootout a lot differently and more authentically than we’re used to seeing in movies. Ricochets are aplenty and do a serious amount of damage, characters don’t die straight away from taking a shot, as most of them sustain several over the course of the movie, and best of all most of the shots the characters take actually miss. There’s no James Bond style assassin who hits a perfect shot every time while the supposedly trained henchmen fire off a hundred rounds that don’t go anywhere close to the leading man. Everyone is more or less on an even keel here, which makes it a lot more fun to watch them hiding and dodging the bullets as they fly all over this place.
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Review: Going in Style

Director: Zach Braff (Garden State, Wish I Was Here)
Story: Edward Cannon
Screenplay: Theodore Melfi
Producer: Donald De Line
Starring: Joey King, Ann-Margret, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lloyd, Matt Dillon, John Ortiz, Kenan Thompson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 96 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Hollywood has truly hit a point now where basically anything is ripe for a remake or reboot or revival, whatever they decide on calling it, with the end result ultimately being dredging up some title from the vault for a new coat of paint on the same old shell. We’ve gotten now to the extreme of seeing remakes of remakes, like last year’s Magnificent Seven and the upcoming Scarface. Instead of using acclaimed, still popular and widely seen sources like those though, which tend to give off the stench of being made primarily for monetary reasons, the more enticing remakes (which is admittedly a bit of an oxymoron) are ones of films that had solid concepts that maybe didn’t reach their full potential, or ones of films that have been long forgotten and aren’t known these days by the large majority of viewers. Going In Style would be an example of the latter, remaking the 1979 Martin Brest film starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, which was a minor hit in its day but has faded from the public awareness in the decades since.

The tale of three down on their luck pensioners who plot to rob a bank, this version stars Oscar winners Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, and is quite bizarrely directed by Zach Braff of all people, from a script by Hidden Figures writer/director Theodore Melfi. Thankfully, Braff holds off on the whimsy and indie cliches that have defined his previous directing efforts, instead delivering a straightforward and feel good little comedy that banks on the appeal of its starring trio more than anything else. In that regard it works in spades, as all three actors bring a different flavor to the mix that makes for a pleasant concoction, and they have wonderful chemistry with one another. Freeman brings his sage wisdom and gravitas, Caine is the suave gangster with dry British wit, and Arkin (who oddly starred in the similarly themed Stand Up Guys a few years back with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken) is the boisterous wild card who gets all of the biggest laughs.
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Review: 20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners)
Writer: Mike Mills
Producers: Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alison Elliott
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 119 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


MMike Mills has really found his groove as a filmmaker by mining his personal life in order to make semi-autobiographical love letters to each of his parents. His previous film, 2011’s Beginners, explored the many emotions that resulted when his father came out of the closet near the end of his life after decades of being married to his mother. The result was a tender, incredibly intimate portrait that is frankly one of my favorite films of all-time. His follow up, 20th Century Women, focuses on a woman very much inspired by his own mother, and on the experience of growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s, and it’s nearly as good. We all bring our own personal experiences into every film we see, or any work of art we explore really, and I have to say there’s something about what Mills has been doing with his two most recent pictures that strikes me on a profound level that no one else has really been able to tap into.

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Review: Split

Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender)
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, M. Night Shyamalan, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 117 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


As someone who has always considered themselves a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, it’s been a hard time this past decade struggling to defend him as he pushed out one abominable piece of nonsense after another. Once a compelling and exciting director who merged twisty plotting and interesting characters with really dynamic and effective work behind the camera, the filmmaker had drunk his Kool-Aid to such an extent that he became a self-parody and it looked like there was no way he could crawl back out of the hole that he had dug himself. Even when his last picture, 2015’s found-footage The Visit, garnered some serious acclaim and plenty of boasts of a “return to form” for the director, I found myself as put off by his work as ever, so when the buzz was coming up positive for his latest, Split, I wasn’t holding my breath. Thankfully, I can finally say that I genuinely liked an M. Night Shyamalan movie again, even if Split doesn’t quite measure up to his finer earlier works. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining little piece of camp that isn’t afraid to lean into the inherent silliness of its premise, something which the horror/thriller genre could use some more of.

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Review: Fences

Director: Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher)
Writer: August Wilson
Producers: Scott Rudin, Todd Black, Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 138 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


Adapting a stage play for the cinema is always going to come with the difficult task of transitioning the things that work in one medium to another. People may simply think that if something can work on the stage then it’ll work just as well on the screen, but that isn’t the case, and there is a reason why they are two different things. Each has their benefits, but making a successful film based on a play isn’t just an easy matter of bringing the material and doing the exact same thing over again. Yet that’s essentially what Denzel Washington has tried to do with Fences, and inevitably the film buckles under those constraints. Only the third film that the acclaimed actor has made as a director (after 2002’s Antwone Fisher and his last, 2007’s The Great Debaters), Washington certainly had familiarity with August Wilson’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning material when he decided to bring it to the big screen; the actor won a Tony Award of his own for starring in the 2010 revival of the production, to go along with the play’s Tony for Best Revival (and the many that it won during its first run on stage in 1987).

Watching Fences, the film, you can unmistakably see how this was made by someone who was an actor first and a director second – like the theater, it prioritizes the actors above all else, and doesn’t really afford much in the way of cinematic virtues. Washington is accompanied on screen by Viola Davis, who also won a Tony for that 2010 revival of the play, and got one of her first major roles in film from her director in Antwone Fisher, years before her cinematic breakout with her Oscar-nominated role in Doubt. The two star as Troy and Rose Maxson, a working class couple in 1950s Pittsburgh who eke out their day to day living while raising their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and finding happiness in one another, even if they can’t find it in the world around them. Troy is dissatisfied with his work hauling garbage every day, and drowns his sorrows and regrets in the bottle, and Rose stands by him as the picture portrait of a typical American family of the era. Troy loves to wax philosophical to anyone who will listen, namely his friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about all of his many opinions on the world around him. It’s a role full of meaty monologues and aggressive behavior for Washington to sink his teeth into and he does just that, capturing with gusto this domineering, narcissistic father who still has his charms, as he finds sincere moments of levity in the genuine love shared between Troy and Rose.

Nevertheless, watching Fences is like watching a train running toward an inevitable collision. Every moment feels like it’s building towards a major confrontation, with Troy as the ticking time bomb in the middle of it all. With all of the pressure that he’s put on Cory, and how taken for granted Rose is, there’s only one way that this can go, and of course it’s acting fireworks when the big blow-ups begin. Davis is a force to be reckoned with as she exposes this long-suffering woman who has stood by her man for so many years, and isn’t sure what for given the bitter, angry man that he’s turned into. Fences certainly makes itself worth the price of admission based on the backs of these two central performances, but beyond that Washington doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. As a director, the work is staid and very constricted by its faithfulness to the material, which Wilson had adapted himself before his death in 2005. That material is certainly befitting of the stage, as it is filled with those lengthy diatribes for the actors to really lash into, as well as its subtle as a sledgehammer themes and metaphors. As Troy works on building a fence in his backyard, Bono may as well be winking directly at the audience as he says “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.”, just in case you couldn’t pick that up. Simply put, Fences just isn’t as acclimated to the screen as it is the stage, and the fact that Washington doesn’t feel any need to make adjustments for the transition shows a lack of insight into what makes each medium work on their own individual terms.