Fences

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Director: Denzel Washington

Writer: August Wilson


Cinema and theatre are both very different mediums and the transition between the two is never seamless. Both have different means and limitations in how they can tell their stories which have a significant effect on their respective forms and structures. Film has a more fluid relationship with space and time than theatre does, but the stage allows for a greater level of intimacy and immediacy than film. Film is a constructed medium, one that is inherently abstract and artificial, whereas theatre is an altogether more physical and sensuous medium. Neither is superior to the other, but their differences mean that some stories work better on screen than they do on stage and vice versa. These differences were especially apparent for me when I saw Fences, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. Even if I hadn’t known beforehand that the film I was watching was an adaptation of a theatrical production, it would have become completely apparent to me within the first five minutes.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 53-year-old ex-con struggling to make a living for his family. He lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and works as a trash collector with his friend of many years Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Other family members include Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who was left mentally impaired by a head injury he sustained in the war, and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s estranged son from a previous relationship. Troy is an astoundingly charming and charismatic man who can talk for hours on end, recounting tales from his youth about what a great baseball player he was or about the one time he beat Death in a fistfight. Bitter about how he was turned down for the chance to become a professional baseball player, Troy forbids his son to meet with a college football recruiter. When Cory is caught neglecting his chores so he can attend football practice, Troy demands that Cory help him build a fence around the house as punishment.

Apart from the opening sequence right at the start where Troy and Jim talk while riding on the back of a garbage truck performing their rounds, just about every scene in this film consists of characters standing and talking. This is the kind of set-up that works far better in theatre, where the story exists entirely in the present and where the actor plays a far greater role in conveying the story than they do in film, than it does in the cinema. This set-up certainly can work in cinema, as it did in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but a translation has to take place that allows the set-up to be viewed in cinematic terms if the film is to truly flourish. In other words, there is a difference between a filmed play and a play that has been adapted into a film. In Fences the performance of each scene and the transitions between them have an inescapably stagey feel to them, such as in the way that characters enter and exits their scenes almost as if they were just off-stage waiting for their cues. This doesn’t by any means make Fences a badly made film (far from it), but it did make me wish that I could have seen it on stage where the theatrical qualities would have been less distracting and perhaps even more affective.

There is plenty to admire in this film, not least of which are the powerhouse performances delivered by Washington and Davis in their Tony Award winning reprisals. Washington plays the role of a deeply angry, prideful and stubborn man with all of the presence and swagger that he’s known for. Denzel is able to make Troy remarkably likeable and relatable while also maintaining a clear dark side that comes out when Troy is at his most enraged or vulnerable. Davis is every bit his match as the steadfast Rose, a woman who loves her husband dearly and who has had a strong influence in tempering his lesser qualities but who also has her limits. Whether she’s crying in an impassioned plea towards her husband or coldly dismissing in the wake of his betrayal near the end, Davis is utterly astounding. There is also August Wilson’s astonishing screenplay, a breathtaking exploration of legacies and how they are formed, shaped and remembered, with a strong racial context.

Through Troy and his family Wilson has provided an perceptive insight into how our environment shapes us and how inescapable our legacies can be. Troy grew up in a broken home with an abusive father and escaped as soon as he was old enough. He’s lived his life being held back by his circumstances, whether it’s his social class, his race, or his responsibilities, and getting trampled on. As a father he is a strict disciplinarian, showing no love or affection as he tries to teach both Lyons and Cory to take responsibility for themselves and to live their lives decently and honestly. His own failed ambitions however lead him to sabotage whatever chance Cory might have to make it as a football player, leading to deep resentment in their relationship. However noble his intentions Troy, in his harshness and inflexibility, is in many ways as abusive to Cory as his father was to him. Here Wilson finds that people cannot escape where they come from or how they grew up. We are either the products of our parents’ worse qualities, or we are the rejection of it. Cory learns to hate his father and resolves to reject the horrifying influence he’s had on him, but eventually finds that by doing so he perhaps learned some of his father’s lessons too well. Watching all of this unfold in the film was a powerful experience, how I wish I could’ve seen it on stage.

★★★★

Hidden Figures

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell

Director: Theodore Melfi

Writer: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi


One of the main messages driving this film, the message alluded to in the movie’s title, is how behind every great story in history are a dozen smaller stories we never hear about. Whether they’ve been overshadowed by the larger narrative, side-lined due to the prejudices of the time, or just plain forgotten, these are the stories that remain hidden in the past, waiting to be rediscovered. All too often these forgotten stories are those that involve historically marginalised groups such as women and people of colour (in this case both!). However impressive or significant these stories can be, it can take a long time for them to attain the publicity and recognition they deserve. Cinema is a great tool to bring these stories into the spotlight and Hidden Figures has a great one to tell. It concerns a division of NASA made up of African-American women whose efforts contributed towards what is arguably mankind’s single greatest 20th century achievement, the Moon Landing.

The film focuses on three women in particular who worked on the Mercury 7 mission in 1961 that allowed John Glenn (Glen Powell) to become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), an exceptional mathematician, is assigned to the Space Task Group directed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costenr) as a computer. She is met with derision by her white male colleagues, most notably Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), and finds her job to be nearly impossible under the Segregationist conditions she must follow. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer, finds that she must attend night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain her degree and must therefore go to court to get permission. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) oversees the coloured women’s sector at NASA in an unofficial capacity with the responsibility of a supervisor but not the recognition or salary. When her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) condescendingly denies her appeal for a promotion, Dorothy directs her efforts towards making her girls crucial to NASA’s mission.

In American history there are two particular social causes that made significant strides over the course of the 20th century: feminism and civil rights. This movie focuses on both and what it does very well is illustrate what a tremendous uphill battle these ladies had to fight on both fronts. While NASA was pragmatic enough to understand that they need to use every resource at their disposal if they want to beat the Russians to the moon, they weren’t progressive enough to extend the same rights and respect to the ‘coloured computers’ as to their white colleagues. Upon being reassigned to a department where she is the only person of colour, Katherine discovers that there are no bathrooms in the building that will accommodate her, leading her to take exhaustingly lengthy detours just so she can relieve herself. While some of the race and gender discrimination displayed can be somewhat simplistic (Parsons character is particularly cartoonish in his derision), the film does a good job of establishing the systemic and institutional nature of these inequities, calling out the white men and women who may not have necessarily advocated segregation but who also did nothing to combat or protest it. One scene I especially liked was when Vivian insists to Dorothy that her harsh attitude is not because she’s prejudiced, to wish Dorothy replies “I know. I know you probably believe that”.

Henson, Monáe and Spencer are the stars of the show and each one of them shines. As Katherine, Henson portrays both the determination and frustration of someone who’s just trying to do their job and is being punished for it at every turn. This climaxes beautifully in Henson’s majestic outburst where she delivers an enraged monologue to her callous co-workers and Costner’s reasonable but preoccupied boss, about the unjust bathroom situation. Henson can be fiery and passionate like nobody’s business and this is one of her finest moments. Monáe excels as the glamorous, self-confident Mary whose charming yet assertive petition to the judge is one of the movie’s most memorable and satisfying moments. Spencer’s Dorothy has perhaps the biggest burden to bear as she must stand up not only for herself but for all the women under her supervision. Fortunately she is as astute as she is capable and when she realises that the newly installed IBM computer will make her division obsolete, she set outs to make her girls indispensible by learning before anyone else how the machine actually works.

Although the movie can be simplistic and a little too on-the-nose at times, that can be forgiven in a film as crowd-pleasing as this. The film takes its subject seriously but injects some humour as well, allowing for a playful, upbeat tone that saves this movie from being as preachy or as sombre as it could’ve been. This isn’t a movie that simply sets out to let us know that discrimination is bad, nor does it present a revisionist narrative that dares to paint racism and sexism as relics of the past that don’t exist in modern society anymore. Hidden Figures is a tale of empowerment about three strong, courageous women who challenged a system that was rigged against them and achieved their own personal triumphs. Their victories may have gone unsung for too long and the inequalities they battled may be very much still around, but that’s exactly what makes films like these so important and so satisfying. Hidden Figures is well-written, well-acted, and well worth watching.

★★★★

The LEGO Batman Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Chris McKay

Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington


It’s interesting how in the space of a single year we saw the release of two films about Batman that could not be more different. One is a mature, gritty thriller in which Batman is portrayed as a brutal, grizzled warrior with a severe attitude and lethal methods. The other is a light-hearted animated family picture where the Caped Crusader is a narcissistic jerk who secretly just wants a family. What really surprised me when I saw both was how much better the ‘kids’ movie understood the character than the ‘grown-up’ film. Batman v. Superman was an altogether more serious film but its characterisation of Batman suffered from an inconsistent tone and an overly complicated plot. LEGO Batman is streamlined and simplified and it has a clear idea about the approach it wants to take with its main character. Following the success of Nolan’s trilogy, there emerged this view that ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, and ‘serious’ equals ‘better’. To me this silly, childish, over-the-top romp is proof that this simply isn’t the case.

The film starts with a typical day in Batman’s life as he beats up bad guys, foils the Joker’s latest plot, and is celebrated by the people of Gotham City as a hero and an all-round cool guy. Afterwards he retreats from the exaltations of his adoring fans and returns to his solitary life in Wayne Manor. There, without any companions save his trusty butler Alfred, Batman spends his nights feasting on lobster and watching rom-coms, all by himself. As Bruce Wayne he attends the city’s gala where the new commissioner Barbara Gordon announces her plans to restructure the police force so that they might serve without Batman’s help. This announcement is interrupted some of Gotham’s most prominent (and also some hilariously obscure) villains, led by the Joker who then immediately surrenders. A suspicious Batman determines that his arch-rival must have some secret plot and sets out to stop him with the help of his accidentally adopted ward Dick Grayson.

As a film in its own right, LEGO Batman is an utterly enjoyable and hilarious movie. It doesn’t quite have the timeless quality of The LEGO Movie but its jokes are a laugh a minute and it can be surprisingly poignant in its quieter moments. As a Batman movie it works both as a parody and a tribute. The Batman canon has a long and colourful history and this film embraces every side of it, including the campier side of West and Schumacher that directors like Nolan and Snyder might have preferred to brush under the rug. It’s easy to forget that Bob Kane’s character started out as a children’s comic book action hero before writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore discovered his darker side and reinvented him for a more adult audience. This film understands intuitively what works and doesn’t work about each incarnation and pokes fun at them all in equal measure. It speaks to the strength of the character that he can be subjected to this level of satire and still be treated with a deep level of sincerity, seriousness and respect, and that’s exactly what the film does in its characterisation of Batman.

The movie’s version of Batman is the same macho, egotistic Master Builder we met in The Lego Movie who believes he’s brilliant at everything and who rejects any kind of human attachment in all of its forms. Not only does he always work alone, he refuses to even acknowledge that he and the Joker are nemeses who share any kind of a special bond. His solitude is challenged both by the unintentional adoption of the wide-eyed and insufferably annoying Dick, whom we all know will later become Robin, and by the plan hatched together by the bitterly rejected Joker, desperate to prove that the unhealthily co-dependent relationship he shares with Batman is real. As Batman recklessly pushes himself further into this pursuit to stop whatever it is the Joker really has planned, it is Alfred who must try and reel him in. It is he who observes that his rejection of attachment is driven by the same fear that compels him to dress like a bat and beat up bad guys, the trauma of losing his family.

There is a lot going in The LEGO Batman Movie with jokes being fired on all fronts and a legion of characters to balance, but the movie knows when to keep things simple. Batman wanting a family is more than enough material for an enjoyable and compelling family adventure and the film uses it well. The movie is dumb and self-aware enough that it never demands to be taken too seriously. It’s a film which understands (in the same way that Deadpool understood) that superhero movies are inherently kind of silly and that’s okay. Unlike Batman v. Superman this movie isn’t ashamed to call itself a superhero movie and isn’t embarrassed of being childish, campy or light-hearted. The movie may have more in common with Adam West’s wacky adventures than it does with Nolan’s epic saga, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of the Batman name or any less of a treat for fans. This is not the Batman movie we need; it is the Batman movie we deserve.

★★★★

T2 Trainspotting

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: John Hodge


The big dread that comes with revisiting a film of this kind, an iconic, generation-defining film that was such a staple of the time when it was released, is that it won’t be artistically justifiable. Too often filmmakers revive old classics when they should’ve left well enough alone in the interest of cashing on the original’s popularity. Movies like The Godfather Part II, Chinatown and Wall Street all fell victim to this, receiving sequels that, while not necessarily awful, were just not necessary. In all of these cases, so much time had gone by that the sequels turned out to be too far removed from their predecessors. Part of this comes from an inability to recapture what was good about the originals, but part of it also comes from irrelevance. Unless the film is able to age with the audience, it loses any sense of relevance for them, even if they were alive at the time the original was released. This is the reason why T2 Trainspotting succeeds where many others gave failed.

It’s been 20 years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) left his friends and made off with the money they made in the drug deal. Now living in Amsterdam, he returns to Edinburgh to reconnect with the people from his past. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still addicted to heroin, which has now estranged him from Gail Houston (Shirley Henderson) and his son. Simon (or Sick Boy as he was formerly known) (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a cocaine-addicted pub owner scamming rich men with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is serving a 25-year sentence in prison and has been denied parole due to his volatile temper. As Mark reconnects with the past, he is drawn back into the crazy, chaotic life he’s spent the last two decades trying to escape.

What this sequel captures that so many others have not is that delicate balance between respecting the original film without being defined by it. This is not a remake of Trainspotting because the youthful energy and 90s edginess that it had is something that can never be recaptured, at least not by the same cast and crew that originally made it. They’re all older now and the world is a different place from what it was 20 years ago. They’re not the angsty young guys who lived their days precariously with the fiery rebellious spirit of youth any more. They’re old, wearied men who’ve found themselves in dejected states and are looking into the past, wondering how they got here. The triumph of this film is it takes these wretched, downtrodden characters that the first film did such a great job of portraying and embraces their aged conditions, bringing a strong sense of pathos to their stories. Trainspotting ended with a hopeful prospect, suggesting that things might get better for some of these characters, that Renton might turn his life around and make something worthwhile out of it. Now he’s two decades older and, apart from his sobriety, has nothing to show for it but disappointment, emasculation and disillusionment.

As we are reintroduced to Mark we find that he is certainly healthier than he was twenty years ago, but not much happier. He still feels lost and dissatisfied with the state of the world and now finds himself in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He returns to Edinburgh, whether to find comfort, understanding, or escape isn’t clear, and learns that his old mates aren’t faring much better. His reunion with Spud turns out to be a traumatic one as he walks in on him trying to end his miserable existence with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. His reunion with Simon doesn’t turn out much better as the two come to blows. A reunion with Begbie meanwhile is the last thing in the world that Mark wants, and it is one that promises to be as unpleasant as it is inevitable. Anyway, whatever it is that Mark is looking for by returning home, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught up in a web of blackmail, prostitution and revenge.

The film reunites the original cast and they all assume their roles in fascinatingly compelling ways. McGregor is great in his return to the role that made him a star, playing the recovering addict who finds himself drawn back to his former demons and wondering whether life had actually made more sense back in the day. Miller’s Simon is now a deeply bitter, resentful man, harbouring a grievous grudge against his former best mate whom he blames for his station in life. Carlyle plays the psychopathic Begbie with all the ferocity he brought the first time round, except this time there’s an extra layer of weariness and melancholy, much of it due to being estranged from his son, that makes the character more pathetic, and yet somehow sympathetic, than before. The standout performance however is Bremner as Spud, who emerges as something of a secret protagonist. As the most wretched of the four, Bremner is both comically and tragically fragile and resilient and ends up becoming the emotional centre of the film as he is encouraged to chronicle his life in a memoir, thus becoming the author of his own story. Boyle also returns as the director and does an admirable job of reviving the movie’s style with its frantic cuts and stark colours while still giving it a modern edge.

Although the film frequently features brief flashbacks and nods to the events of the first film, it never feels like an attempt to use that film as a crutch or to score nostalgia points. T2 is very much its own film, one that doesn’t need to rely on its predecessor. The allusions to the past are all there to serve the story and are all properly motivated by what the characters are going through. There’s a scene where Mark is on the run through the streets of Edinburgh and we see a quick glimpse of him sprinting down that very same road as seen in the opening scene of the 1996 film. The flashback works the way a memory might, coming into view for a couple of seconds and then disappearing just as quickly, giving us an idea of some of the thoughts going through Mark’s head and making us all the more aware of how far he has come just to end up in (literally and, in some ways, figuratively) the same place. It is astonishing to me that this film was made at all and, even though it might lack some of the bite of the classic, I found it to be an engrossing watch and entirely worthy as a sequel.

★★★★