Fences a Powerful Drama

FENCES (2016)
Directed by Denzel Washington
Paramount, 139 minutes, PG-13

Fences is a powerful drama sparked by two towering performances, those of Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as his wife, Rose. It is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and Mr. Wilson completed the screenplay before his death in 2005. Both the play and film have been hailed for their frank discussions of race, but Fences, if you will, goes well beyond the boundaries of race. It is also about patriarchy, psychological abuse, internalized anger, ageing, fidelity, and fealty. If, like me, you missed it at the theater, rest assured that it works very well on video because it is essentially a filmed play.

Fences is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and centers on Troy Maxson, who is equal parts proud and beaten down. Troy was a baseball star in the Negro Leagues, but was past his prime by the time Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier. Troy, however, sees racism, not age, as the reason he never got a chance to play, a self-deception fueled by the fact that life hasn’t dealt him the best of hands. He fled from an abusive father when he was just 14; has an older musician son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a relationship that ended long ago; is brother to the  harmless but mentally ill Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson); and works as a garbage man. About all he has going for him is his friendship with coworker Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), and his eighteen-year marriage to Rose, with whom he has another son, Cory (Jovan Adepo).

Troy’s is a life of over-compensation in which he lies to himself so he doesn’t have to face the fact that he is repeating the sins of his own father and adding a few of his own. His relationship with Bono is essentially that of celebrity and yes-man sycophant; he constantly derides Lyons, whom he sees—with some justification—as a no-account freeloader; brags at the local bar; and treats Cory more like a lowly vassal than a son. Through it all, Rose is the better angel who can free his emotions, buried desires, and sense of humor. She’s also the only one who isn’t afraid of him, calls him out, and has the strength to push him aside when he betrays her. 

Deep inside, Troy fears he is as psychologically scarred as his war-damaged brother, but without Gabriel’s sweet nature. Troy holds imaginary wrestling matches with Death and often takes bat to a bolted-through baseball hanging from a backyard tree, a symbol of both his derailed dreams and what he suspects is a path poorly chosen. Yet Troy rides roughshod over Cory’s dream of playing college football—a compensatory fear that if Cory broke the Maxson pattern of futility his own failures would be magnified. Troy steadfastly refuses to see—as Rose constantly reminds him—that times have changed and that both his patriarchal privilege and the model of raising subservient children with scaled-down dreams are outmoded. Troy uses his successful battle to become Pittsburgh’s first black sanitation truck driver as an aspirational triumph, yet rides Cory as if he were a field-hand slave driver, and fails to see the possibilities within the civil rights dramas occurring beyond his unfinished backyard fence. Is that fence taking (or failing to take) shape to keep Troy’s demons in or out?   

This is powerful stuff, even if it is often a mash of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. (Wilson always denied having any secondary inspirations, a claim of which I am dubious.) Washington and Davis are absolutely riveting in their reprisals of roles played on Broadway. Those reprisals raise issues, though. How much should a movie depart from a play in content and in look to be more than a filmed stage performance? I was blown away by the performances, but nothing was added by making Fences into a movie. Aside from a few street scenes, the camerawork is static, the drama is confined to two rooms and a backyard, and play’s acts are faithfully duplicated. This is something of a problem for the final “act,” which telescopes to 1962 as the family gathers for Troy’s funeral. On screen, what we see and hear doesn’t make a lot of sense. The differences in media come into sharp focus here. Live theater builds audience emotions in ways that encourage the filling in of narrative blanks, but the extra distancing of the screen generally requires more explanation. As great as the performances are—and they are stupendous—should reprised stage roles filmed qualify for film acting awards? I don’t think so, but I do think you should see Fences if you haven’t already. You will witness actors at the height of their craft and ponder issues deep and dark. And the next time you need to explain the difference between acting and celebrity, or art versus mere entertainment, you’ll have ammunition.

Rob Weir           


Kelley McCrae, Brian Alexander, I am Samson, Amelia Romano, Daniel Dorman

Goes Down Easy

The term "easy listening" is often slapped onto music so innocuous that it's little more than aural wallpaper. In this column I'd like to be more literal: music that's smooth and easy on the ears.

Kelley McRae is often called an Americana artist—perhaps because her music isn't quite folk and isn't quite country, but is too much of each to get called bluegrass. On her latest, The Wayside, you'll hear echoes of Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, and Lucinda Williams. Many of the songs come from time on the road. McRae is Mississippi born, but lived in Brooklyn for a while, until she and her husband, dobro/guitar artist Matt Castelein, traded their apartment keys for that of a van, their new home for a prolonged stretch. McRae's songs reflect some of the places, emotions, and deep musings that took place along the way. Hers are the small gems that come from fatigue, wonder, and long silences. A personal favorite is "Land of the Noonday Sun" in which she sings, "Time goes by like a dream/No matter how hard you run/Some things are better left unsaid/Some things are better left undone." Similar sentiments emerge in the title track—a road song that hints of being about something deeper: "And when my time comes to say goodbye/When the long day turn to night/I hope I've held close to the love that abides/And left the rest for/For the wayside." The album is filled with little insights such as this, another emerging in "If You Need Me" with its sleepy feel and the line "Anything worth holding onto is worth letting go." There is outstanding dobro, guitar, and harmony work by Castelein throughout, and Jon Andersen contributes tasteful, often understated, pedal steel. All eleven tracks are winners, but others that stayed with me were "Red Dirt Road," which is set in Oklahoma and invokes snippets of Woody Guthrie verse; the return-of-the-prodigal "A Long Time," and "Rare Bird," which seems to be about a person who flew too high when young and is looking toward home to roost.★★★★

 Brian Alexander has a soothing light tenor voice. His EP, Mountain (NoiseTrade), is five songs in the folk and folk rock vein. He grew up in Michigan, and the album's titular peak is a hill outside of his current Nashville home, but you can be excused if you think of him as a Colorado lad, as his songs deal more with the Rockies and points westward. He counts John Denver among his influences and we hear touches of that in his songs. "Telluride," for instance, deals with rogues as well as those who simply love high altitudes, but both are wrapped into a bright song with a refrain that will stay with you. The arrangement is the "western" part of the country formula: some pedal steel, steady percussion, some fiddle, and a cool bass riff. That formula repeats on the title track, with its hopeful message of feeling as strong‑and sometimes as lonely—as a mountain. "Night" is another winner—one that starts as if it will be a fragile acoustic offering, evolves into a bigger production with electric guitar and a hooky melody. Alexander is another promising new talent. Watch for him, but don't confuse him with the pop musician of the same name. ★★★ ½

I am Samson is the brother-sister collaboration between former Seattle (now Washington, DC) residents Josh and Anna Tigges. They call their new project, Humanity in Earth Tones, "songs for beautiful people," by which they mean the late 60s/early 70s version of beautiful—those holding human- and earth-centered values. They note that Samson means "bright sun" in Hebrew and that they are dedicated to "bringing truth and light to the world." It is an album in two parts, the first looking at what it means to be human and the second thinking of the "sounds and symbols" all humans encounter in the world. The album has a wholesome and hopeful vibe and the duo mesh well together. "Sorry Not Sorry" begins with Josh's call and Anna's response, transitions to a duet, and then ups the energy. "Are You Love" spotlights Anna's fragile vocals and emotional piano; "Sunflower" came from a dream of a woman with blooms sprouting from her head. A little New Age-like? Perhaps in sentiment, though the music is more consoling. One downside—though both have pleasant voices, neither has a clear one, so it's often hard to make out lyrics. Maybe a little less atmosphere and more articulation is in order. ★★★

Who can resist a striking woman in a blue dress and a blue concert harp? Amelia Romano takes that blue harp to intriguing places on New Perspectives. We seldom associate the harp with jazz, which is Romano's forte—mostly of the Latin variety, with some gypsy, experimental, and world music influences tossed in. She also likes to bring her personal experiences to the table. "Crazy Day" comes from her time in South Africa, here she lived in both the Townships and in Cape Town—studies in contrast if ever there were any. She uses jangly higher notes to suggest shaky stability and then anchors the piece with sturdy bass notes. The very next piece is about climate change, but is rendered in ways evocative of Tin Pan Alley, with her harp almost piano-like. There are also more conventional pieces—a harp turn on "Besame Mucho," a bolero penned by the late concert pianist/lyricist Consuelo Velázquez; "Baroque Flamenco," which despites its title, is of recent vintage; and a for-real vintage "I'd Rather Go Blind," a song popularized and co-written by Etta James. It's one of five pieces on which Romano also sings. She does a credible job, as long as you push James out of your mind, and she wisely gives it a different feel. Romano, a Bay Area native, enhances Latin tracks with the percussion of John Mellinger and Jackie Rago. On the title cut, though, she veers onto new turf by exploring ways in which the electric harp can move between melody and percussion. That works, as does just about everything else on the album. I will leave it to aficionados to judge whether Romano has a jazz voice, but I give thumbs-up to the harping. ★★★ ½ 

Live from Sean's Room is about as homespun as you can get. This debut EP from Toronto-based Daniel Dorman was done with a single mic, a single track, and a single take. The songs have that slightly hollow feel you get from recording in an actual room rather than a soundproof studio. Dorman plays spirited guitar and has a mid-range tenor voice that's strong and can reach to falsetto. His songs are personal and reflect his undergraduate studies in theology and English. "ABetter Man" is wistful—as it should be for a man regretting his numerous sins. Ironically, "A Sad Song" is brighter in tone, if not theme, and "New Orleans," though in no way Cajun, has jauntier feel. As we hear in "She is Goodness," though, Dorman is a young artist prone to being over earnest. The guitar tempos are quite similar on all five tracks. This is music naked to the bone—raw and spare. ★★ ½      


Light Between Oceans Shines but with Subdued Illumination

Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Touchstone Pictures, 133 minutes, PG-13 (brief nudity)

The Light Between Oceans is based on M. L. Stedman’s 2012 debut novel, a much beloved book about a lighthouse keeper at what could be considered the ends of the earth: a vest-pocket outcrop where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. The good news is that the movie is probably as good an adaptation of the novel that could be made. The bad news is that it’s still not a patch on the book.

First, more good news. The acting is superb and the film’s exteriors—shot in New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia—are gorgeous to behold. The script, which is faithful to Steadman’s novel, casts Michael Fassbender as lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne. The year is 1921—just after the World War I armistice and a time in which grisly reminders of the conflict are highly visible: ex-soldiers lacking limbs, those with suppurating wounds, and men hideously deformed from gas attacks. What can’t be seen are those suffering from psychological wounds—the kind we’d today label PTSD but were then simply called “shell shock.” The latter was so poorly understood that when Tom applies for the lighthouse job, both officials and locals from the West Australian port from which he will sail think he’s simply a man of few words. In truth, Tom is a tormented soul who has seen more death than any man should, and is happy to remove himself from society to see if hard work and isolation can heal his soul. Where better to do that than Janus Rock Lighthouse, a place so remote it’s only provisioned every six months.

Tom’s self-imposed exile might have worked were it not for occasional mainland shore leave, where he catches the eye of Isabel Graymark (Alicia Vikander). She shares Tom’s desires to live life on the margins, though in most other ways she is buttoned-up Tom’s opposite: vivacious, impulsive, talkative, and defiant of social conventions. Against his better judgment, Tom marries Isabel and takes her to Janus Rock, which she takes to like a seal in a fish-filled cove. Their idyllic world is marred by just one thing: Isabel’s miscarriages. Tom stoically and lovingly helps Isabel through the one thing that he most wants to avoid-—more death—but Isabel desperately wants a child. Then, one day after Isabel’s most recent miscarriage, a dinghy washes up containing a dead man and a living baby girl.

From here, the story veers from inner struggles to external questions of duty, situational ethics, and how one chooses whose pain matters most. In essence, does Tom report the wreck, per the charge of his commission, or should he and Isabel raise “Lucy” (as they infant is dubbed) as their own?

This film had just moderate box office success, returning $24 million on a $20 million outlay. Again, it’s beautifully filmed and the acting is superb. In addition to strong performances from Fassbender and Vikander, we are also treated to fine turns from Rachel Weisz, Thomas Ungar, and Emily Potts. It was a special treat to see Bryan Brown on the screen once again, an actor most of us haven’t seen since either The Thorn Birds (1983) or Gorillas in the Mist (1988).

As noted, this is probably the best film one could make from Ms. Stedman’s novel. This, however, raises the question of whether there should have been a filmed version in the first place. It’s always a daunting challenge to make movies about quiet characters. Stedman’s novel conveyed what is difficult to show in moving images: thoughts, turmoil, and moral dilemmas that are internalized rather than expressed. Fassbender’s plasticity gets us part of the way, but not even he can bring it all the way home. Director Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) ultimately relies upon cinematic mood-enhancing tricks such as color-soaked sunsets, gray cemeteries, howling winds, light shining across the water, and other such ilk that skirt the border between expressiveness and cliché. He also had to pare a 416-page novel, an act requiring elision. Even then the film clocks in at 2:13 and it seems longer given its need to show Tom as an emotionally closed man wrestling with sorrow and conflicting duties.

The bottom line is that this is a good film, but not a great one. Those who’ve not read the novel have an advantage on those of us who have: they won’t know what they’re missing.

Rob Weir