Saturday, March 4, 2017

"Hidden Fences" is All Prestige

I was all set to write a fake review of the famous "Hidden Fences" from the Golden Globes, but after giving it some thought, there are a few things I want to say about "Fences" and "Hidden Figures" that require legitimate reviews for. So here we go.

"Fences," based on the August Wilson play, is an acting showcase for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. He plays Troy, a 1950s Pittsburgh garbage collector, whose genial exterior hides deep wells of dissatisfaction and bitterness with his lot in life. She plays his wife, Rose, who has remained loyal and supportive despite growing tensions in the family between Troy and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), an aspiring football player. Washington also directed the film, which he doesn't manage to make particular cinematic, but it works fine as a delivery mechanism for some excellent performances. Washington and Davis both played these roles on Broadway in a recent revival and won Tonys for their efforts. I'm not going to say they deserve Oscars for the film version of "Fences," but I wouldn't be surprised if either of them won.

But when all is said and done, "Fences" came across as pretty slight to me. Maybe it was the oddly toned epilogue and the ill-considered final shot. Maybe it was because as hard as everyone tried, "Fences" never stopped feeling like a stage play with too many important developments happening offscreen. It's a great looking film, with strong cinematography and production design. Maybe I was just disappointed that I didn't get to see more of this version of 1950s Pittsburgh, as the camera seems so reluctant to leave Troy and Rose's kitchen and backyard. I appreciate that August Wilson is a national treasure, but this is one of those cases where fidelity to the source material was a little too strong, to the detriment of the final film. And as good as the leading performances are, I can't help wishing I'd seen the Broadway versions instead.

Now "Hidden Figures" aims much lower, though it's still very much a prestige pic. It's a typical feel-good underdog movie, about three smart, talented African-American women overcoming adversity and prejudice. Set in the early 1960s, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e) work as computers handling complicated mathematical calculations for the Langley Research Center. The Space Race with the USSR is in full swing, and Katherine gets assigned to work on Project Mercury, which aims to put an American in space, under the prickly Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and dismissive Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Meanwhile, Dorothy contends with the incoming IBM computer threatening the computing group's jobs, and Mary struggles find a way to become an engineer.

To call "Hidden Figures" formulaic would be too kind, as it hews very close to the template of films like "The Help" and "The Great Debators," full of impassioned speeches against the racism and segregation common of the era. The melodrama is pumped up as high as it can go, and the films is full of shameless little fictions, like our three heroines being gal pals who gossip together after hours and rally to find Katherine a husband. There are some nice historical recreations of the Project Mercury tests, and science and history geeks should get a kick out of all the early technology on display. However, the story feels very obvious and calculated. I couldn't help rolling my eyes when Kevin Costner desegregates the ladies' rooms by going after the "Colored" sign with a sledgehammer. I mean, it's a great moment and it works in context - but it's so shamelessly over the top.

It's been heartening to see so many films about the African-American experience this awards season, even though many of them haven't been very successful. Both "Fences" and "Hidden Figures" have their flaws, but on the whole they're good, solid films, ones I'll be happy to point to as the ones that are getting it right. However, neither are really to my taste, and I can't help wishing that both sets of filmmakers could have done a little better, maybe taken some more risks. I mean, it's not like the source material didn't have the potential for greatness, right?


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