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Fences Blu-ray Review

Fences (2016) movie poster Fences

Theatrical Release: December 16, 2016 / Running Time: 139 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Denzel Washington / Writer: August Wilson (play & screenplay)

Cast: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson), Viola Davis (Rose Lee Maxson), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory Maxson), Russell Hornsby (Lyons Maxson), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel Maxson), Saniyya Sidney (Raynell Maxson), Christopher Mele (Deputy Commissioner), Leslie Boone (Evangelist Preacher), Jason Silvis (Garbage Truck Driver)

Buy Fences from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

Fences opened in theaters shortly before Christmas,
competed for major Oscars in February, and soon thereafter hit DVD and Blu-ray. That seems like a lot to accomplish in just under three months. But making Fences was quite the journey. Written as a stage play in 1983 by August Wilson, this drama would go on to win both a Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1987. Film rights were acquired shortly thereafter by Paramount Pictures and Eddie Murphy, who would also potentially act in it, revealing a more dramatic side than he previously had. Wilson wanted a black director at a time when there were few of those Hollywood entrusted with major studio pictures, which is one reason things didn't move forward.

Five years after Wilson's death in 2005, his play was revived on Broadway to the tune of further Tony Awards. Six years after that, the same actors who wowed theatregoers on stage would reprise their roles in this film adaptation using a screenplay Wilson completed before his death. Denzel Washington both stars and directs.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences centers on Troy (Washington) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis), a working class married couple. Troy was one of the best sluggers in the history of Negro League baseball. Now he's a garbage collector. He works hard for a modest paycheck and at the end of the work week, he drinks heavily with his co-worker and best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

Troy is a tale-teller, who will gladly recall the time he stood up to Death while in the Army or bought furniture from the Devil. He is not quite bitter that the world hasn't dealt him a better hand, but he is certainly hardened by his experiences, which is why he bristles at giving $10 to the 34-year-old son from his first marriage who is trying to make it as a jazz musician. And he is vehemently opposed to his and Rose's teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo) pursuing the college football opportunities for which he is being recruited.

The one source of comfort and joy in Troy's life appears to be his marriage to Rose, but even this is on the rocks, as Troy partakes in an unseen affair with major consequences.

A somewhat inebriated Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) animatedly tells the tale of how he told off Death, while his friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) listens on.

Fences doesn't have a plot so much as it has dialogue and characters. There is no mistaking it for anything other than an adaptation of theatre. It is filmed in and outside a real house on a real Pittsburgh street. Washington opens with him and Bono on the job right before coming home from work for the weekend. But there is little effort to open up Wilson's play with changes of scenery or some kind of motion. As a result, some might find Fences to be stagy, stuffy, or inert for cinema.

I couldn't have a much different reaction to the film than that. For me, story and characters are always what makes or breaks a film. In this one, the characters basically are the story and that's just fine because there is so much to these mid-century Pittsburghers that it is not a chore but a great privilege to watch them just sit around and talk for well over two hours. With this very intimate and specific portrait of one family, Wilson manages to comment meaningfully on the African-American experience as it was for many a couple of generations ago.

Universal topics of marriage, parenting, and making ends meet are applied carefully to these well-drawn characters to make something that is narrow yet far-reaching. It certainly helps that the characters are brought to life by some of the finest acting in years. Fences is a showcase for actors, as both Washington and Davis found out when they won Tony Awards for playing these parts on stage. That experience gives the two veterans some history and perspective, which seems to somehow materialize in their performances. While actors as gifted as these two leads would have had no problem tackling these roles in the usual fashion with a little time for preparation and rehearsal, there's a certain lived-in, three-dimensional quality to their work here. The actors have thought about these characters for years and that somehow translates to the film with little departure from Wilson's text.

Viola Davis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her focal turn as Rose Maxson.

Both Washington and Davis were nominated for Academy Awards. Washington won the Screen Actors Guild award, his first, which led to many seeing him as the frontrunner for winning his third Oscar, but he lost Best Actor to Manchester by the Sea's Casey Affleck, a rare, possibly unprecedented, but justified instance in which the Academy opted for the less showy turn. Davis won for Supporting Actress, a bit of category fraud that paid off in that it pitted her against actual supporting actresses with far less screentime.
Having unfortunately previously lost Best Actress to Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher impression in 2011's The Iron Lady, it's only right that five years later, Davis is finally an Oscar winner and her emotional performance here more than deserved the honor. Fences was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, losing both of those awards to Moonlight, which was widely perceived as offering a more daring and timely depiction of African-American life.

Nonetheless, by the time the Oscars arrived, Fences had already proven to be commercially successful. Virtually finished, it has grossed $57.6 million domestically on a production budget of just $24 M. At 62, Washington continues to draw moviegoers. Even if this wasn't the marquee attraction that his wider, much more action-driven signature vehicles is, it's still tough to imagine any other actor -- even Eddie Murphy back at the height of his '80s popularity -- generating this much interest in this particular story. (Coincidentally, Murphy's own period drama Mr. Church grossed under $1 million in a brief limited release three months before Fences opened.)

Paramount recently released Fences to physical media in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, the former also including Digital HD.

Fences: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: March 14, 2017
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($29.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Fences may not have been widely celebrated for its cinematic vision, but its 2.40:1 compositions are still treated to one of Paramount's characteristically excellent Blu-ray transfers. Nothing mars this sharp, clean presentation. The dialogue-driven soundtrack is also capably presented in 7.1 DTS-HD master audio, which may seem surprising given the film's nature. It certainly does the film justice.

A costume design envisions how Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) would dress in the film. A photograph shows the cast of the 2010 "Fences" Broadway revival (most of whom also appear in the film) taking their bows on stage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Fences is joined by five fairly short bonus features on Blu-ray and most of them could have been combined to form one big making-of featurette.

"Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen" (8:53) lives up to its title with a discussion of how the play became a film.

"The Company of Fences" (9:17) celebrates the entire cast but also the play that most of them have followed from the stage.

Denzel Washington directs Jovan Adepo in a period-inauthentic Adidas track suit. Viola Davis discusses the role that won her both a Tony and an Oscar in "Playing the Part: Rose Maxson."

"Building Fences: Denzel Washington" (6:56)

pays notice to the star-director and acknowledges how he shepherded this adaptation to the screen.

"Playing the Part: Rose Maxson" (6:57) turns our attention to Viola Davis' virtuoso Oscar-winning "supporting" performance.

"August Wilson's Hill District" (6:25) covers the Pittsburgh neighborhood where the playwright lived and where the film is set and was shot.

The menu loops an excerpt of piano score over a static, full-color adaptation of the Photoshop-heavy poster artwork's image of Davis and Washington looking happy.

A glossy slipcover reproducing the artwork below tops the eco-friendly keepcase which holds a Digital HD insert alongside the plain blue disc. The backside of the insert makes good on the slipcover sticker's promise to get a digital copy of Denzel's 2004 The Manchurian Candidate remake free with your purchase. Nice freebie, I guess, but Paramount probably should have offered Flight instead.

Troy's brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) blows his horn asking St. Peter to open his gates at the end of "Fences."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though it does not hide its stage origins, Fences still makes for riveting cinema driven by dialogue, characters, and outstanding acting. One of 2016's very best films, this demands to be seen and is easy to recommend in Paramount's agreeable Blu-ray edition.

Buy Fences from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
New to Disc: Silence 20th Century Women Live by Night Moana Jackie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Best Picture Oscar Nominees: Moonlight Manchester by the Sea Hell or High Water Arrival La La Land Hacksaw Ridge Lion Hidden Figures
Denzel Washington: Flight The Equalizer Unstoppable Deja Vu The Magnificent Seven
Viola Davis: The Help Doubt Suicide Squad Prisoners Beautiful Creatures | Mykelti Williamson: Forrest Gump Free Willy
Mr. Church For Colored Girls Guess Who's Coming to Dinner A Thousand Clowns
Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winners: Boyhood The Fighter Dreamgirls Chicago Rosemary's Baby

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Reviewed March 28, 2017.



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