Review – Make Good Neighbors? (“Fences”)

Based on the Broadway play of the same name that won both the Tony AND the Pulitzer prize, this movie has the dubious distinction of having several of the same cast members from the 2010 revival, which garnered both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis their Best Actor/Actress Tony awards. AND Washington is directing this film adaption as well. Not too shabby!

It’s 1950’s Pittsburgh and hard working man, Troy Maxson (Washington), lives with his wife, Rose (Davis) and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) in a lower-class neighborhood, while working as a garbage man alongside his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy’s older brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), sustained a head injury in WW2 that left him mentally impaired, and for that he gets a government pension which paid for the house. Gabe has since moved out, but still lives in the neighborhood where he often visits. And speaking of visits, so does Troy’s estranged older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a would-be musician and moocher who always pops-up on Friday pay-days to borrow money.

Troy runs a tight ship at home, constantly trying to put up a wooden side fence, and living with the guilt and torment of once being a top-notch baseball player that could have made it to the big leagues, but was denied because (according to him) the color of his skin. His son, however, has potential to be a great football player IF he gets the chance, but dad has other ideas: first work and a solid career, then sports. But Cory has other ideas, and fights his father every chance he gets on this.

Meanwhile, problems escalate at home: Troy might get fired at work because of a remark he made, his brother has been arrested for disturbing the peace… again, and the secret affair he’s been having for months has yielded a baby and he has no alternative but to tell Rose, in of the movie’s most riveting scenes. In fact, many of the scenes in the movie are confrontational, searing, moving, explosive, passionate, and sometimes just plain funny.

The final act brings it all together in a heart-breaking ending that makes this one of the most powerful, human movies I’ve seen in quite a while. An emotional roller-coaster that didn’t dissolve into a clichéd mess at the end. Bring your tissues, people!

All this thanks to the beautiful screenplay by award-winning author/playwright August Wilson. The man knows how to craft a scene and make the words flow with such eloquence and rhythm that you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Washington also directed and, while many actors who direct prefer to just act, he does an admirable job here, having not directed since 2007’s forgettable The Great Debaters.

But you have to have the right actors to pull off a great scrip, and you have them here: from their Broadway stage performance to the screen, Washington (sporting gray hair and a pot belly) and Davis (looking care-worn and lovely) are a match made in Heaven. Besides their undeniable chemistry, you have Adepo who crackles with energy as Troy’s put-upon son. Henderson also shines as Bono, Troy’s BFF and drinking buddy and Williamson is terrific in his role. Do yourself a favor and see this outstanding movie! I’m gonna go ahead and predict Oscar Gold for the actors and screenplay!

The Great Santini (1979)

Based on the novel of the same name, this gripping family drama centers around the tumultuous bond between a strict Marine fighter pilot Colonel and his just-turned-18 son. Although a theatrical release, it has all the earmarks of a made-for-TV-movie.

Robert Duvall gives a bravura performance as Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, aka “The Great Santini”, a rough ‘n’ tumble career Marine that treats his family the same as he treats his fighter cadets (he calls his children “hogs”). He gets transferred to Beaumont, South Carolina to whip some Top Gun pilots into shape, despite his families objections. There’s Bull’s charming and devoted Southern Belle wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner), oldest son Ben (Michael O’Keefe) who just made the local varsity basketball team, over-dramatic teen daughter MaryAnne (Lisa Jane Persky), middle girl Karen (Julie Anne Haddock), and young son Matthew (Brian Andrews).

Always in competition and feisty to the core, after Bull loses (for the first time) a friendly basketball to Ben, he starts to live vicariously through his son, even hounding him at a crucial basketball game. But sensitive Ben, who may or may not have feelings for the the local football jock, takes up a close friendship with his maid’s mentally-challenged son, Toomer (Stan Shaw), who has problems of his own.

In a side-story, Toomer has to constantly deal with a vicious bigoted co-worker (David Keith) named Red. During an escalating altercation that goes bad, Red accidentally kills Toomer and Ben is late coming to his rescue. Racked by guilt, Ben and his dad have it out in words and try to come to an understanding about each other, but this altercation only drives his dad to drink and Bull nearly punches out his wife.

The ending sadly doesn’t resolve any issues, as dear ‘ol dad is KIA and the family must up and move again to places unknown, making Ben the new patriarch of the family. Adapted for the screen and directed by Lewis John Carlino, this movie showcases Duval at his best, as well as O’Keefe. It also added Bull’s catch-phrase, “what’s new, sports fans!” into the lexicon at the time. Michael O’Keefe scored big here, earning him a nomination for Best Supporting Oscar, along with Duvall who got a Best Actor Nomination as well.

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