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Fences (2016)

Paramount Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/14/2017

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/3/2017

Is film the ultimate goal? It certainly seems that way at times, as we see books, television shows, plays, and even songs translated to the silver screen. The question can become, why are certain things made into movies, and what elements are to make the journey from end medium to another? For example, when you adapt a play, what is the appeal? Is it the story? Is it the dialogue? Will there be an attempt to free the play from the confines of the stage? These questions and more can haunt a filmmaker when something goes from Broadway to Hollywood. Let's examine these ideas with Fences.

Set in 1950's Pittsburgh, Fences focuses on Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a former Negro League baseball player who now works as a garbage man. He feels that life has cheated him and left him behind, and he takes out these frustrations on his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and teenaged son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory has the potential to play football in college, but Troy, having been burned by sports, discourages the boy from this path. Troy must also deal with his grown son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling musician, and his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose erratic behavior results from an injury received while in the military. Bitter and filled with anger, Troy enjoys lording over those around him and will seemingly do anything to keep others from succeeding or feeling joy. As the story progresses over several years, we see how there is seemingly no depth to Troy's self-centeredness.

Fences is based on a 1983 play by August Wilson. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play, as well as several other Tonys. James Earl Jones originated the role of Troy on Broadway, and the play has won worldwide acclaim. I had heard of Fences and I knew some of the basic premise, including how the fences Troy use to aim for while playing baseball were juxtaposed with the fences which surrounded his small Pittsburgh yard.

Therefore, I went into the film knowing little about the story. The main thing which I was not aware was that the main character is essentially the villain of the piece. As noted above, Troy is tightly-knit ball of bitterness and rage. His feelings are understandable. He apparently was good at baseball, but he played past his prime and being in the Negro League, he didn't get the recognition he possibly deserved. He went from that life to feeling nailed-down in a marriage and working a job where he is responsible for carrying away the trash of white people. He is the breadwinner in the family, and he feels that others don't carry their weight. There's also a sense of guilt for his desire to take care of Gabriel.

However, having an idea of why Troy acts the way that he does not make it easy to watch. The film opens with Troy and his co-worker/friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) working on their garbage truck. From this, we may have some pre-conceived notions about how someone in this position would behave. But, we immediately see that he is very cocky and opinionated. Once he arrives home, we quickly observe how Troy treats those around him. He disrespects Lyons. He refuses to assist Cory with his dream of playing football. There is a strong sense that he only uses Rose for sex. It doesn't take long for us to learn that Troy is not faithful to Rose. On the one hand, it's admirable that Troy works at a thankless job and that he provides for Rose and Cory. On the other hand, his undeniably cruel nature makes him impossible to like. As the film progresses, some secrets involving Troy and Gabriel come to the surface, and they truly push Troy into the realm of being a villain.

No one promised that Fences would be fun to watch, and Troy certainly solidifies that. But, how does it work as a movie? Have you ever watched a movie which is based on a play, and as the scenes move from location-to-location, you wonder what the original sets looked like? You won't have that thought with Fences. Save for a couple of moments, the entire movie takes place either in the back yard or just inside the Maxson's house. Does this matter? In the grand scheme of things, the answer should be no, but the fact the two-hours plus exists in an unchanging space constantly reminds us that we are watching a play. And then we have the acting...and there is a lot of acting here. Perhaps Denzel Washington, the director, forgot to tell Denzel Washington, the actor, that even though this felt like a play, it was a movie, as everyone here is trying to reach the back row with their performance. In theory, Troy should run hot and cold so that when he really lashes out and becomes a bully, it has a real effect. But, Denzel always seems to be dialed up to 9, so when he hits 10, it's doesn't have as much power as it should. Davis certainly earned her nomination (but not in the Supporting Actress category), and Williamson is moving in his role. But, it's Adepo who really shows his talent here, holding his own against such high-caliber actors. So, Fences certainly provides powerful material and some fine acting, but an unlikable main character and the fact that it simply looks like a play filmed in round make for a challenging viewing experience.

Fences gets a little heavy-handed with Gabriel's choice of musical instrument on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 28 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no notable grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, although Washington has chosen a very muted palette for the film, so any brighter colors really jump out. The image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail here is excellent, as we can make out textures on objects. The depth is also effective, as the image never looks flat. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track delivers clear dialogue and sound effects. During the opening scene, we are treated to a nice array of stereo and surround effects from the activities happening around the garbage truck. Following that, most of the film is set in the backyard, so we get some fleeting noises from the rear channel, but the track is mostly focused on dialogue from there.

The Fences Blu-ray Disc contains a few extra features. "Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen" (9 minutes) provides some background on how the group involved in this film performed the play on Broadway in 2010, where it won many awards. This leads to a brief look at the approach of making a movie of the play. "The Company of Fences" (9 minutes) examines the cast and characters, providing interviews with the actors. "Building Fences: Denzel Washington" (7 minutes) is an interview with the actor and director, who describes his approach to the character and also as the person behind the camera. "Playing the Part: Rose Maxson" (7 minutes) allows Viola Davis to talk about her character and how she chose to play it. "August Wilson's Hill District" (6 minutes) provides an examination of how the story's setting plays an important part in the movie and how actual locations in Pittsburgh were used.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long