Fences • Sing • Rogue One
December 22, 2016
Fences (***) PG-13
Denzel Washington’s passion project Fences, an adaptation of the celebrated play by the late August Wilson, is a film filled with many moments of winning truth and insight. Washington not only stars in the film but he also directs this one. He and the film’s co-star Viola Davis originated their roles in the film on stage in a revival of the 1983 play in 2010, so they’re definitely no strangers to the material. As a film, it’s the type of thing that rewards viewers, but only those who are patient enough to stick with it during its opening hour. Today’s movie audiences are weaned on action and plot so that may be a bit of a tall order. For those who are attuned to the universe the film depicts, however, there are many pleasures to be derived from this labor of love.
Washington takes the lead role of Troy, a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy is a bitter man but he has good reason to be.
Denzel Washington & Viola Davis in Fences
We learn that as a young man Troy had the talent/drive to become a professional baseball player but was held back by the racial barriers that prevented minorities from participating in the sport in the days of his youth. Now in the present, Troy is saddled with the multiple responsibilities of taking care of a wife (Viola Davis), kids and his mentally challenged brother (Mykelti Williamson). He feels a yearning restlessness and a desire to do something memorable with his life but the best that life seems to offer him are days filled with picking up the refuse of others and repairing a broken down house at the day’s end. He spends his spare moments railing against the injustices of his life in the company of his lifelong friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson).
The first hour of the film is very stagey and mostly consists of Washington’s Troy character speechifying in his back yard for a good chunk of time. The film manages to break free of its stage bound conventions during its second hour when a plot surprise is revealed that sends the film’s story spinning into a totally different direction, supplying it with some of its best scenes.
The whole cast is superb. They never overplay it but hit all of the notes just right. Washington and Davis, in particular, are standouts and, as predicted should easily score some serious consideration during awards season. It’s a testament to the cast’s combined talent that the film succeeds so well.
Sing (***) PG
By Jocelyn Noveck
AP National Writer
One can imagine the pitch meeting: It’s American Idol, but animated, and everyone’s an animal.
We’ll star a cuddly koala. We’ll get McConaughey, Witherspoon, some other A-listers. We’ll throw in everyone’s favorite pop songs - get Legal on the phone! And hey, we’ll add a fart joke. How could it miss?
And actually, that pitch meeting would be pretty much on the money. Sing doesn’t miss, at all. What this new holiday entry from Illumination (Despicable Me, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets) might lack in originality of concept, it more than makes up for in execution - in smarts, energy, star power and plain old entertainment value. And with a satisfying ending that also packs an emotional punch, it’s hard to imagine you won’t exit the theater smiling, if not, um, singing.
The story, by writer-director Garth Jennings, revolves around Buster Moon, the aforementioned koala. A short digression here: why Buster doesn’t have an Australian accent or any discernible relation to Australia - he’s a KOALA! - is certainly curious. Then again, Matthew McConaughey certainly isn’t Australian. And we love his distinctive drawl. So, we’re good.
Buster is a theater owner, and his dedication to live entertainment will be touching to all those musical lovers out there (and this IS the season for musicals). However, he appears to have horrible taste in the shows he picks (War of Attrition is one of the amusing titles.) Times have been tough.
Matthew McConaughey as Buster Moon in Sing
So Buster decides to put on a singing competition. He scrapes together $1,000 for the cash prize. But due to an unfortunate typo on the flyers printed by his somewhat blind but lovable secretary, Miss Crawly (voiced by director Jennings himself), the prize is upped to $100,000.
Needless to say, hordes show up to audition.
Which is good, because who doesn’t love a good audition montage?
This amusing scene gives Jennings a chance to pull out all the stops. (Until the end of course, when he REALLY pulls out all the stops.) What ensues is a funny series of inappropriate animal/pop song mashups, like the snail singing Ride Like the Wind. You get the picture.
We also meet our main characters here:
-Rosita (Witherspoon) is an overworked stay-at-home mama pig - she has 25 kids and an exhausted husband, and it’s pretty hard to find childcare for 25 piglets.
-Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a gorilla with a Cockney accent who’s trying to break free of the criminal gang run by his father.
-Ash (Scarlett Johansson) is a teen porcupine with a jerky boyfriend and a hidden songwriting talent.
-Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is a rat with a Sinatra-esque croon and a spending problem.
-And Meena (singer Tori Kelly) is an elephant with a terrible case of stage fright.
Of course, when someone in an upbeat movie starts out with a case of stage fright, it’s pretty obvious what’s gonna happen by the end. So we won’t even leave you in suspense on that. But there are other questions to be answered:
Will Ash show her arrogant boyfriend what she’s made of? (With Johansson playing her, the odds are pretty good - and you knew Scarlett could sing, right?) Will Rosita break free of the burdens of parenting? Will Johnny settle into a preordained life of crime, or follow his musical dreams? And will Buster manage to make his theater solvent?
The answers come with the help of even more celebrity voices: Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, Jennifer Saunders, Rhea Perlman and, most spectacularly, Jennifer Hudson have cameos.
As mentioned, the best comes last. It’s hard to beat a good singing contest. And anchoring it all is McConaughey’s pleasing drawl. His koala is a nice balance, neither too sweet nor too nasty, neither too corny nor too cynical.
In fact - sorry, but we have to say it - it’s all right, all right, all right.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (***) PG-13
By Adam Long
I’m happy to report that the first stand-alone entry in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One, is a surprisingly entertaining affair that will not disappoint the die-hard fans whose world turns with each successive release of a new film in the series. It’s also rousing enough to keep casual fans like myself intrigued, especially during its last half. Given the stories of the film’s production woes that trickled out last summer it wasn’t a clear that this would be the case. The end result is a film that, for me, will certainly land a spot in my pick of the top five films of the franchise even if can’t best the first two entries in the Star Wars series.
For those who are unaware, Rogue One basically bridges the gap between the last of creator George Lucas’s ill-received prequels and the original Star Wars film from nearly forty years ago.
Diego Luna and Felicity Jones in Rogue One
To give you an idea of how closely the film follows the Star Wars mythology, Rogue One ends with the opening scene from the original Star Wars at its conclusion. Along the way the film manages to carve its own unique path while also throwing in nods to previous entries and characters in the beloved series. For instance, the iconic villain, Darth Vader, gets some of his best screen time in the entire series and this is only one of the careful throwbacks to the already well-established Star Wars universe.
Storywise, the film concerns the efforts of the Empire to build the Death Star and the attempts of the rebels to prevent that plan from fully coming to fruition. The rebels are lead by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father (Mads Mikkelsen) was crucial in the development of the Death Star. Jyn was separated from her father as a child but receives a message via hologram that sends her on her quest. From there she assembles a rag tag group to assist her in her mission, the most interesting of which is a blind warrior/monk (Donnie Yen) who is very strong in the force, but also includes (surprise!) a droid voiced by Alan Tudyk and an intelligence agent (Diego Luna).
Rogue One admittedly works best during its final hour after the premise has been set up and the audience can sit back and go along for the ride. This will be welcome news to those who only go to the movies to be entertained. If entertainment is what you’re after then hopping on board with Rogue One is a good way to go.
Questions or comments? Write Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.