Fences (B), the movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington based on the play by August Wilson, is a work of profound acting and themes. It’s a treasure to have the celebrated piece of theatre documented as a film, but Washington as director missed some opportunities to steer it into fully satisfying or cinematically creative territory. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a bittersweet 1950s family drama about a larger-than-life Pittsburgh sanitation worker (Washington), his wife (the luminous Viola Davis) and the siblings, friends and children who live in the shadow of the man of the house. In a time and place in need of heroes, Washington’s character – living on the downward slide side of a minor baseball career – hits the harsh ceiling of his promise and struggles with how to successfully channel his charisma into effective relationships. Washington is in full command of his acting craft with a non-self-conscious portrayal of a man who is often hard to love. Wow, he is a mighty actor! Davis also masters a showy role as a long suffering spouse and does a delightful slow burn coming into her own. The film is best viewed as a showcase of impeccable performances; and the drama is deeply affecting. The subject matter presents challenges to “open up” since it is largely staged in a home and a yard. While the choice not to expand beyond this vista is true to the work, it also feels a bit stifling. The film is certainly recommended and is sure to get tremendous recognition for its heartfelt subject matter and characters.
Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods (B) is quite faithful in spirit to its fractured fairy tale source material, but the director fails to truly plumb the emotional resonance of its “beyond happily ever after” themes. The film involves a quest that brings together intersecting storybook characters; and although often episodic, it works best when a thematic through-line is evident. Emily Blunt, fresh off her triumph in Edge of Tomorrow, is the breakout musical star here as the baker’s wife on a journey to break a spell that prevents her from having a child. Portraying a lowkey and indecisive Cinderella, Anna Kendrick is also a delight. As the witch, Meryl Streep gets the songs right, but her performance could have used some tighter intentions. I blame that as well on Marshall: you have to edit pretty poorly to put Miss Streep in a bad light. The music numbers including “Agony” and “No One is Alone” and some humorous throwaway bits are highlights (Chris Pine is the male standout as a vain prince). The effects and the drab, monotonous look and feel of much of the film’s second half are drawbacks (No, Rob, shaking the camera is not equivalent to directing an action sequence). The piece famously changes tone midway, and Marshall isn’t quite up to the challenge of sustaining the momentum properly. Not as good or inventive as his Chicago but certainly more cogent than his Nine, this musical adaptation is straightforward but lacks the ambition that might have made it an instant classic.
Somewhere on the sliding scale far down from Terms of Endearment and even a few notches down from Beautiful Girls is Shawn Levy’s you-can-go-home-again comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You (C); and despite often amusing and sometimes touching ensemble work, it doesn’t necessarily add up to a cogent success or complete payoff. Faring best are Jason Bateman, Rose Byrne, Adam Driver and Jane Fonda in some affecting and bawdy bits. The very loose plot involves a family being grounded together for a week after the death of its patriarch right as their lives are unraveling and they really could use some good advice. The best parts of the movie are often told in the margins, which makes it a bit touch to break through Levy’s overproduced hucksterism. Dare I say on the first weekend of its theatrical release that it might make a nice rental?