Tag Archives: The Help

Fences (2016)

Broadway to big-screen, Denzel Washington directs and stars in his adaptation of August Wilson’s hit play. He is Troy, a former minor league baseball player now working as a garbageman. He lives with his wife (Viola Davis; The Help) who takes care of him and his teenage son. The film centers on Troy as the bombastic patriarch of the family. He prattles on about his failed career as a professional athlete and lectures, or in many cases berates, his son for no apparent reason. His existence is fairly routine until key events change his relationships and his life forever.

At its heart, Fences is an acting showpiece. Washington and Davis have both performed these roles on Broadway many times and their experience is obvious. They know these characters inside and out and could deliver their performances in their sleep. Fortunately, their familiarity doesn’t lead to any complacence. Washington is obviously having a good time playing Troy. He happily rambles on telling the same pompous stories he has told a thousand times over. His only disruption is Davis interjecting truth into his tales. “That didn’t happen” is her most common line. Yet, as he incessantly continues, Washington hints that there is something deeper that leads to his behavior. That there are failures that require him to overcompensate. Even as the character becomes increasingly unlikable through his actions, Washington prevents him from turning completely unsympathetic.

Troy delivers several unwanted and uncomfortable lectures to his son.

Viola Davis is the real standout of the film. Her task is probably the most difficult as she has to balance the roles of loving homemaker and fed-up wife. Either could easily descend into caricature, but she easily balances the two with nuanced acting. Her scenes as a caring mother still show signs of a tough, no-nonsense woman that make her character’s growth believable. In climactic moments, her performance easily topples Washington’s and proves that her skill can imbue even the showiest scenes with veracity.

Beyond its acting, Fences doesn’t have much to offer. Washington has stated in interviews that he did not want to change much to adapt the play to the screen, but the end product suffers for this decision. Instead of taking full advantage of the format, the film is little more than recorded version of a well-acted play with decent production design. As a director, Washington offers no new insights or unique takes on the material with no particular panache to be found. The entire film takes place in one house with meager variation to the staging. Each scene is filmed plainly to prevent anything distracting from the performances. With so little added, it’s curious why this adaptation was even necessary. The play was already popular and the new format isn’t bringing any further value. The emphasis is so heavily placed on the acting that it can at times be a detriment. Washington’s performance can veer into “look at me!” territory where his confidence becomes irksome self-satisfaction. The story and the majority of the acting are strong, but, as a film, Washington’s banal direction prevents Fences from eclipsing its theatrical origins.

3/5 stars.

La La Land (2016)

The musical genre has been in decline for decades. There have been a few exceptions like Into the Woods and The Last Five Years, but the majority of music-heavy films have shifted towards movies like Pitch Perfect that feature music, but not as a means of narrative progression. Following up his successful Whiplash, Damien Chazelle seeks to curb this trend with La La Land, a modern day musical. Based partly on his time as a struggling artist, the film stars Emma Stone (The Help) as Mia, a part-time barista trying to become an actress, and Ryan Gosling (Drive) as Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The two have their own meet cute on a crowded LA highway and quickly enter a relationship. The film follows them as they pursue their passions with, or without, each other’s support.

Where Chazelle succeeds is balancing the tone of the regular and musical parts of the film. The musical numbers, while larger than life, seem slightly more grounded than a classic musical. Stone and Gosling are not professional dancers and their well-practiced but noticeably imperfect steps add a touch of realism. To contrast this, the non-musical scenes are heightened to a state of near-fantasy. The film blends retro stylings in the form of outfits and props with the modern setting and uses saturated cinematography (purple is a common color of the night sky here) to accentuate a dreamlike quality. Combining this with the long takes used in the songs, the film is able to move back and forth between its show tunes and dialog smoothly without creating a jarring disconnect. Both the music and the characters seem like they can exist in the same world.

The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.
The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.

There are many more technical marvels. The dance numbers can be epic in scale with dozens of performers each and the kinetic camera movements add a frenetic energy. Lighting will change at a moment’s notice, pushing a character from one of many to the sole focus of the viewer. Instead of just dancing in the streets, Chazelle adds welcome variety by shooting his characters ascending into the sky or in silhouette. His command of the screen and ingenuity during these sections is laudable and the inventive visuals are often mesmerizing.

The obvious influences here are the works of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Chazelle is going for the same memorable routines that burst out of any emotional peak. The ending sequence in particular is reminiscent of the finale of An American in Paris. Of course, expecting Stone and Gosling to rival the grace and charisma of Astaire and Kelly is unreasonable, but the unfortunate reality is that none of the numbers in La La Land have the staying power of its predecessors. Despite the panache on display, the biggest tunes are forgotten as quickly as they arrived. The only standout song is an aching ballad sung by Stone during an audition. The rest of the tracks are loud, but without feeling. The best comparison of the musical scenes isn’t their counterparts in a Vincente Minelli movie, but rather the explosions in a modern action flick. They are flashy, look expensive, and take a tremendous amount of coordination to pull off, but like in a Michael Bay film, they lack impact. La La Land is a well-intentioned throwback that showcases expertly staged but emotionally hollow musical numbers, bound to quickly fade from memory.

3/5 stars.