Fences

Nick Bolton recently wrote in Vanity Fair about the death of traditional Hollywood. As Netflix, Amazon Prime and the market of digital streaming dramatically reshapes the landscape of the entertainment industry, the almost ritualistic practice of going to the cinema and sitting down in the dark to watch a film with a hundred or so strangers faces an ever-growing sense of becoming obsolete. Why go to the cinema and fork out all that money for your tickets and your drinks and your snacks and the parking? It’s inconvenient, and rarely does the cinema offer much sense of an occasion to justify the excursion. But amidst these uncertain times, the theatre remains a steadfast bastion of the traditional arts. People still go to the theatre in droves. People get all dressed up, go out for dinner beforehand, and discuss the production avidly after. A night at the theatre is always a night remembered. In adapting the late August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences from stage to screen, director Denzel Washington proves there is still a sense of occasion to be had from the cinema yet.

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In the mid-1950s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Troy Maxson (Washington) lives a life of hard graft and small comforts. Whilst his almost-two-decade marriage to Rose (Viola Davis) remains a largely happy one, his relationship with his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) has only ever been turbulent, and the weight on his shoulders is only further laden by an estranged son from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and his severely mentally-impaired brother (Mykelti Williamson). When Cory is scouted by a college football team, Troy is caught between his own fears leftover from past rejection as a sportsman, his devout belief in a man’s sense of responsibility, and jealousy at the son’s potential to outshine the father.

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Even to complete strangers of Wilson’s play, a mere ten minutes is all it takes for the film to convey its deep roots in the stage. Almost entirely taking place within the boundaries of the Maxson’s suburban property, Fences is a family drama that both fits tightly within Troy’s restrictive worldview and radiates out of the big screen as an immensely engrossing slice-of-life exploration into black communities of that time. Everything from the arrangement of the actors on-set to the limited background music to the lighting captures that feeling of not just watching everything unfold via countless pixels, but as if the screen has been physically reshaped into a three-dimensional space where its big-name talent is within touching distance. Even scenes in the street outside the Maxson residence, whilst the road itself clearly stretches off into the distance, feel like background pieces of the set, like incredibly detailed landscape paintings. The fact that despite all this, things never feel claustrophobic, monotonous or in the vein of a cheap ‘bottleneck episode’ set-up, further cements the film’s intuitive understanding of raw, engaging drama that knows how to connect with the audience.

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Indeed, rawness is the word here, as a simple Tennessee Williams-esque premise such as this ultimately lives or dies on the calibre of the actors in the spotlight. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are undeniably such actors, and both rise to the occasion to deliver utterly exquisite performances. Playing off each other with chemistry reminiscent of such classic pairings as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, every layer of who Troy and Rose are is slowly peeled back, and the currents of emotion underneath it all are laid bare. Washington’s performance alone is more than enough to steal the experience single-handed, pulling off every detail of Troy’s rough-edged, world-weary, heartfelt yet equally heartless existence. But Davis is nothing less than a one-woman powerhouse, a true showstopper and artist whose Rose is deserving of not only the highest acclaim and accolades, but of the history books.

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Washington at the helm of Fences delivers a cinematic work that is the definition of a labour of love, its every ingredient a clearly considered honouring of the late August Wilson’s keen human interest and insight. It’s a story of suburban blackness, and a dissecting story at that, but as Washington himself insisted during a February 8th discussion at London’s National Theatre, “it’s what you bring to it”. As closely confined as the borders and fences of the Maxson’s world may be, it’s a world that can speak to every visitor.

 

Quality: 5/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

“They fought like seven hundred”. It’s possibly one of the most famous taglines in film history, and when you look at the legacy of the original it’s easy to understand why. John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) was one of the first great cinematic throw-downs, the story of a ragtag band of gunslingers hired to defend a little Mexican village from bandits who vastly outnumbered them. Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Eli Wallach among others, it was The Avengers of its time, and to this day its impact lingers at the movies with every climax featuring heroes battling against hoards of enemies.

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2016’s The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, comes riding into a very different world from 1960. Try to make a film about trigger-happy Southerners taking on marauding Mexicans and you’ll quickly find yourself in Trumpsville. The spectacle that put the original on the map is now beyond oversaturated in cinema, and the kids have swapped their cowboy hats for capes. This isn’t so much a remake that’s got its work cut out for it, much like the Seven themselves, as it is a case of too little, too late, despite clear efforts to accomplish something in its own right.

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Denzel Washington heads up the admirably star-studded cast as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, hired by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to liberate her town from the abuses of corrupt industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), and to his credit the comparisons to Jamie Foxx’s Django (2012) are few and far between…but he’s no Yul Brynner. Joining his crusade, the quick-fingered Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), not much of a departure from Pratt’s amiable rogue routine but solid nonetheless, as well as Ethan Hawke’s ex-Confederate sharpshooter and his assassin comrade (Byung-Hun Lee, by far the film’s coolest customer). Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier make up the rest of the numbers as tracker Jack Horn, outlaw Vasquez, and Comanche warrior Red Harvest respectively. As ensemble casts go, it’s certainly leaning towards the magnificent end of the spectrum, but the film simply doesn’t afford its core characters the space to really flesh themselves out for the audience. Ethan Hawke is however a noteworthy exception, and he makes full use of it to provide the audience with the most human character the film has to offer, even if his story arc comes with little-to-no surprises. D’Onofrio also makes his character a standout where he can, continuing the ascent of his profile over the past couple of years. Supporting actors play their parts very much as the archetypes that they are, from the grieving widow to the sombre priest, except for Peter Sarsgaard’s villain who is less Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and more Blazing Saddles’ nefarious District Attorney. There’s a difference between a good old-fashioned villain, and panto. This verges on the latter.

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Indeed, there’s more than a little about Fuqua’s feature that evokes the Mel Brooks classic pastiche, just without the comedic angle. From the town of Rose Creek set upon by Bogue’s thugs to even D’Onofrio’s tracker begging God’s forgiveness as he pummels his enemies, it would be a hoot if it wasn’t all being done so seriously! Classic western gunslingers always came out on top, but they did so with a few scrapes and bruises as well as a good few shots missed. Here, the Seven are Terminators. Every shot fired, a KO. Every shot received, a minor setback (at times things get very ‘tis but a scratch’-like). There simply isn’t any sense of palpable danger, to the Seven, to the townsfolk, and so what excitement there is to be had is scatter-gunned across fleeting moments and the odd bit of clever thinking on any given character’s part.

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There’s a certain appropriateness to label The Magnificent Seven as ‘video game filmmaking’, but not quite for the reasons that term is usually prescribed. The issue isn’t an excess of mindless action, or the fact that in effect the Seven are pitted against countless, faceless ‘drones’. The action is, for the most part, well-choreographed, the audience maintains a fair amount of comprehension as to what’s happening where, and even the odd fatality has a certain ‘pop’ to it. The issue, rather, is just how easily everything feels handed to our heroes, like playing a new game with familiar mechanics on the easiest setting. It’s fun, to be sure, but fun that’s lacking by design. Fun without challenge, and therefore without much flavour for audiences to carry off into the sunset.

Quality: 3/5

Entertainment: 2.5/5

Final Score: 3/5