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Watching movies: "Fences"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 31, 2016

The best actors do not always make the best movies. Sometimes Denzel Washington simply lets his charisma get him through – “The Magnificent Seven” is one recent example – then in other movies reminds us why he ranks among our best actors/ The latter films include “Training Day,” “Flight” and now “Fences.". Even better in the case of “Fences,” he is perfectly matched by Viola Davis, an actress whose skills are as formidable as Washington’s.

“Fences,” which Washington also directed, is not a perfect film. Based on the play by August Wilson (credited as well with the screenplay), it never entirely makes the leap to screen, too often seeming as if we are watching something constrained by the sides of a theater set. For some, its bleakness will also be hard to take. (This has felt like a very bleak week in my own moviegoing, between this and “Manchester By the Sea.”) The failure hanging over the film’s characters is relentless. 

The main character is Washington’s, Troy Maxson, a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the late ‘50s. Once Troy was a promising baseball player, and he believes he could have succeeded in the major leagues. But racism in the form of baseball’s color line, age when the line was broken, and – we eventually learn – mistakes in Troy’s own life have kept him from the big chance he now longs for. His life should have its share of contentment – he has loyal wife, Rose (Davis); a good friend and co-worker named Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and a son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who holds the promise of a far better life than Troy had for himself.

But Troy is not content. Not even close. He is confrontational at work, where he sees the black garbage men denied privileges going to the white workers. He constantly jabs at his older, other son (Russell Hornsby), whom Troy sees as wasting his life. He is a brutal disciplinarian to Cory, trying to make him a better person but doing it in a way that denies the existence of love – and shuns chances for Cory because Troy is convinced they will lead to misery. And Troy does not seem to care enough about his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who needs extra help because of a wartime injury.

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A six-movie grab bag

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

Since school ended, I’ve been digging into movies that got past me in the previous months. Besides my two longer posts below (on “Manchester By the Sea” and “La La Land”), here are some briefs about other films, in alphabetical order.

“Doctor Strange.” A fine addition to the Marvel Universe, despite the obligatory Big Confrontation at the end, this benefited tremendously from the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is an acknowledged master at playing brilliant assholes. And Doctor Strange is very much that – pre-enlightenment Tony Stark to the nth power – nor does achieving great power diminish the arrogance. (On a side note, I fully understand the grievances against Tilda Swinton’s casting, even if she does not.) Fun talk, including some gibberish, about time, and a nifty post-credits scene pairing the Doctor with Thor.

“The Magnificent Seven.” OK, I usually like Denzel Washington, thought “Flight” could have earned him another Oscar and am looking forward to seeing “Fences” on Friday. But I LOVE the original “M7” (especially in a double feature with “The Great Escape”) and that cast is legendary (Bronson, Vaughn, Coburn, McQueen … perhaps not big names at the time – the star was Yul Brynner – but damn, they put on a show). Although the original has some dated elements, the new one is still just a rethinking of an old concept – I know, “Seven Samurai” before the westerns, just not as big on my radar – in a way that adds nothing to it. Scary villain, troubled heroes, big battle, OK. Still not something I would rush to see again, and I’d pause just about any time I came across the earlier version on TV.

“The Nice Guys.” Shane Black hit an action mother lode with the first “Lethal Weapon” and at times it has appeared that he has kept looking for another perfect buddy-action-comedy combo. (The Fox series version of “LW” is not it, BTW.) While this peculiar pairing of a grizzled old pro (Russell Crowe) and a young, slimy loser (Ryan Gosling) won’t make any forget Glover and Gibson, it has at least one merit: It is very funny. Much of the humor comes from Gosling and his character, who is not only moral flexible but far from the sharpest pencil in the pack. (A scene late in the film where he gets to be momentarily smart is one of the weaker bits.) Crowe plays along well enough, only much of the time there’s not much to play with: dangerous dames, nasty bad guys, a precocious child (Angourie Rice, very good), been there, seen that. Still, I enjoyed the two leads just enough to keep watching and laughing. I’d take it over “Suicide Squad” (see below) any time.

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More movies: "La La Land"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

With the first musical number in “La La Land” – a boisterous song and dance on a traffic-jammed freeway – I thought that I was in love. Unfortunately, as is the case with romance in the movie, holding onto that love was more difficult than I at first thought.

It’s not that I didn’t admire the film. I did, very often, and the performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are winning. In a movie with a publicly admitted debt to “Singin’ in the Rain” (and a significant nod to “New  York, New York”), they are indeed Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds (Stone so has her smart-girl-next-door quality), with Gosling channeling some of “NY NY’s” Robert DeNiro, too. The musical numbers work endearingly. The cinematography, sets and costumes are deliberately old-school fantasy in style; two people who are struggling nonetheless have plenty of snazzy duds, and Stone is highlighted by having her dressed more colorfully than the people around her.

The plot is vintage, too. Mia (Stone) is a barista who keeps trying to have an acting career. Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz musician whose purist approach to music keeps him from getting jobs with more commercially-minded performers. (Early on, he is fired from a restaurant job because he simply can’t stick to tinkling renditions of Christmas songs.) After crossing paths a couple of times in surly ways, they finally connect, and urge each other to pursue their dreams – although outside their own, tuneful world they have stalled careers.

Then careers change everything. Sebastian joins a band run by an old friend, Keith (John Legend), playing big, catchy, but not too inventive pop tunes. He likes the applause and the money, but Mia worries that he has given up on success on his own terms. Conflict follows, and then a change in her career prospects, and their love faces one more test.

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Watching movies: "Manchester by the Sea"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

Grief and guilt drive “Manchester by the Sea,” the new film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Every significant character is dealing with grief, guilt or, in many cases, both. Anyone who has felt the deep, unending pain from either will likely recognize the emotions at work in the film, and revisit the suffering that came with them. For that reason, “Manchester” is a tough movie to sit through; my mind kept drifting to the grief and guilt in my own life.

The center of “Manchester” is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an apartment handyman who resolutely refuses to make a decision for anyone, or to open himself up to others. His attempts at enclosing his own feelings are unsuccessful, though, and he is prone to bursts of rage, whether because he is being pressured or because of what he believes others are thinking. He has also abandoned Manchester, his home town, because of what it reminds him of.

What appears at first to be the best relationship in his life is with his brother’s son, Patrick (Ben O’Brien at first, then Lucas Hedges). But Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, and he has left Patrick in Lee’s charge, which is the last thing Lee wants. For one thing, it means he has to come back to Manchester. And the man who is revolted by responsibility has been handed a huge one – for reasons that are rooted in a ghastly tragedy in Lee’s life, the one that has led him to utter emotional isolation.

Making this even trickier is that Patrick is a teenager, confident and with a mind of his own, not to mention a lively romantic life. He is more than willing to talk back to Lee, or to explain how Joe would have wanted things (even if his explanations, we suspect, are sometimes self-serving BS). Even as Lee struggles to either pass Patrick to someone else or to figure out how he can do what’s asked of him, Patrick is working through his own grief, and a sense of loss that extends to his long-gone mother (Gretchen Mol), who has guilt of her own. Then there’s Lee’s ex (Michelle Williams), trying to make her own life better. But for so many of them, the old wounds are still open, the attempts at coping no match for the pain within them.

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