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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Fences

“Collateral Beauty” and “Elle” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

There is a love of language that flourishes throughout all of the best plays, starting with Shakespeare and continuing to present day with writers like David Mamet. Characters spar, dialogue, monologue, make quips, and tell stories mostly through language. Playwriting is a precise art form, where words are key and the playwright is the author.

So, to bring a play as eloquently written as August Wilson’s “Fences” to the big screen, it requires a director—normally a movie’s author—who recognizes the beauty of great language and is able to cast ego aside in recognition of the writer’s supremacy. In other words, it takes an actor to direct a film adaptation like “Fences.” While the movie may officially be a Denzel Washington film, August Wilson’s hand is clearly the most strong and influential one. It makes even more sense given that the movie is from Wilson’s own screenplay that he adapted from his play before passing away in 2005.



As director, Washington keeps things pure. Aside from a few added moments here and there, the action takes place in and around the 1950s Pittsburgh house of Troy Maxson (Washington). Washington’s approach is minimalist; his camera not flashy. We in the audience are like flies on the wall, watching the drama unfold as characters come and go through each scene, much like the way they come and go through Maxson’s life.

“Fences” is a spiritual cousin to other great stories about African-Americans in the 1950s. Watching it, characters and themes from the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin came to mind. The movie’s closest comparison is of course 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which is also based on a play adapted for the screen by its author (Lorraine Hansberry) and features the struggles of working class African-Americans during that time period.

The similarities end there, though, as Wilson’s characters are well-rounded individuals in their own right. Troy Maxson, at the center of it all, is so afraid that his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) will get the same poor treatment he received in the sports world that in protecting the boy he actually holds him back from realizing his potential. Troy has another son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who at 34 years old never learned how to be an independent, self-sustained adult. Troy does his best to impart this lesson on his grown son, but is interfered with by his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and wife Rose (Viola Davis). It’s possible that Troy’s love is doubly tough on Cory because Lyons is such a lost cause. The family dynamic is perfectly set up within the first act of “Fences,” and what happens in the movie flows naturally from there.


Viola Davis recently won the Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role for “Fences.” She is certainly a powerhouse in this movie, and has an angry, teary-eyed monologue that is an absolute show stopper. They say half of acting is reacting. It’s just as important for an actor to give and be generous when the spotlight is not shining on them as it is for them to deliver a good performance when the spotlight is on them. Pay attention to the look on Denzel Washington’s face as she delivers her speech. The look of heartbreak and defeat is palpable. Davis is great, but it’s Washington’s reaction that really sells it.

At the end of the day, “Fences” is a play—and movie—about people. Skin color, time, and place do not matter. The struggles of Troy Maxson and his family are very real and very relatable. Their conversations just flow a lot better than ours out here in the real world. Buy it on Amazon: Fences [BD/Digital HD Combo] [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Collateral Beauty

Love, Time, and Death. If these were real people rather than abstract concepts, what would you say? If you’re Howard (Will Smith) in “Collateral Beauty,” the conversation is not a pleasant one.

After losing his daughter to a rare form of cancer, Howard writes letters to Love, Time, and Death. He gets answers in the forms of Keira Knightley as Love, Jacob Latimore as Time, and Helen Mirren as Death. The concept is wonderful, and could have led to a brilliant, philosophical movie that deconstructs these concepts and gives them a thorough examination before leading, ultimately, to redemption. I can’t help but think that if a great playwright like Eugene O’Neill was given this concept, he would have taken off with it.

Instead, we get a screenplay by Allan Loeb, whose previous credits include “Just Go with It” and “The Switch,” and direction by David Frankel, who also directed “Marley & Me.” Frankel is back in tearjerker mode with “Collateral Beauty,” but the movie never quite gets to that point. The problem is that the story is muddled by Howard’s business associates Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña). They all need help too—from Love, Time, and Death, respectively—and as a result there are too many plot threads and too much heart-wrenching character drama being thrust into a 97 minute movie. The end result is that nothing is really focused upon long enough to have any sort of meaningful impact, and I was left feeling not much of anything, even during the big moments that inevitably come at the end. Stream it.

Elle

Paul Verhoeven made a name for himself directing some of the best erotic thrillers ever put on screen—namely, “The Fourth Man” and “Basic Instinct.” Imagine my intrigue and interest when I discovered that his new movie is about a businesswoman named Michelle (Isabelle Huppert) who plays a game of cat and mouse with a man who breaks into her house and sexually assaults her.

Then imagine my disappointment when the movie meanders from scene to scene as she deals with life issues, like her son Vincent’s (Jonas Bloquet) relationship with a mentally and emotionally unstable woman (Alice Isaaz), or her ex-husband Richard’s (Charles Berling) new relationship with a sexy, young yoga instructor (Vimala Pons). She also has business concerns. The new video game her company is developing is behind schedule, and a vulgar video involving her was emailed around the office.

I normally like character pieces such as this, but the people’s lives have to be interesting. Frankly, the only interesting thing about Michelle is that she’s simultaneously terrified and turned on by the thought of the masked man breaking into her house again. There is also a back story with a lot of potential involving her father being a serial killer when she was a child, but much like the home invasion plot, not much time or development is given to it to make it interesting. Basically, “Elle” is about a woman who, through the course of the movie, had some things happen to her, some were more serious than others, and she found a way to resolve them all to one degree or another. While nowhere near as compelling, suspenseful, or titillating as I thought it would be, it does at least pass the Gene Siskel test: this movie is more interesting than a documentary of the same characters having lunch. Stream it.

More New Releases: “Passengers,” a space adventure starring Chris Pratt as a man woken up from his hibernation chamber ninety years too early, and Jennifer Lawrence as the unsuspecting woman he wakes up to spend the time with him.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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