Friday, February 17, 2017

"Fences" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Fences" as well as DVDs "The Immigrant" and "May in the Summer."  The Book of the Week is Oprah's new cookbook "Food, Health and Happiness: 115 On-Point Recipes for Great Meals and a Better Life."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Eclisse"]


Troy Maxson is a working-class African-American living in the 1950's, doing his best to take care of his family, but he is haunted by the demons of his past.

Troy (Denzel Washington) is a garbage man whose goal is to be the first African-American to drive the truck. That is what he aspires to. Rose (Viola Davis) is his long-suffering wife. Troy and Rose live with their teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and Troy's younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffers from brain damage from a war injury, and who wanders the neighborhood with a trumpet around his neck preaching about how to get into the Promised Land.

When we first meet Troy he's on the back of a garbage truck with his friend and co-worker, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), and after work they both go over to Troy's house and sit in the back yard with a bottle of booze.  We can tell right away this is a regular thing. Rose cheerfully sits with them, bantering, but Troy does most of the talking.  He is a charming, fast-talker, but as we get to know him, we realize he has some bitterness about the past.  He's an ex-con who made a name for himself as a baseball player in the Negro Baseball Leagues, but never went any further, which he blames on the color barrier, but which is actually hinted at in the story that it was his age that kept him back.  He is also bitter about the struggles he has had to endure as a black man in the United States, the unfairness that he perceives. But Troy has created a life that works for him and he has accepted it.  He believes it is what it is and that's how it will always be.

So he is not happy with the fact that his son, Cory, is not also accepting the life that Troy has accepted and is not following in his footsteps.  His son is a good student and has been offered a football scholarship to a college, but Troy is not having it.  He believes that Cory will also be discriminated against, like he was, when he tried to play baseball. What good is football?  Didn't baseball let me down?  What good is college?  Get a trade so you can actually earn some money. 

Troy also recounts a story when his own father let him down by making a pass at his girlfriend, and he had to get physical with his Dad. Troy beat his father down and Tory says, that's when he knew he was a man.  Well, wouldn't you know, history repeats itself.  Cory and Troy have a moment of reckoning when Cory, too, must stand up to his Dad and make a decision about his life.

Though Rose and Troy appear to have an easy and loving relationship, a secret comes to light that threatens to hurt their marriage

Fences.  OK.  Huge metaphor, especially when Mr. Bono says "Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in."  It's a rather obvious metaphor but here it works on many, many levels. 

There is the actual fence that Troy keeps trying to build and which acts as a device for characters to gather and where Troy can hold forth to his friend and his son about the unfairness of life.  Then there is the metaphor about the fences we have around us to keep others out - those fences that protect us from being hurt.  But then there are the fences that keep people from believing they can change their lives for the better, that hold then back, and those fences that block communication and engagement with others, especially those we love. And there is that damn racial fence, the one that Troy was fighting against his whole life.  Finally, though, there is the ultimate fence that Troy was building, that fence trying to keep something we all fear out: Death.

This is the role of a lifetime for Denzel, that one role that every actor hopes for and he rises to the challenge.  So now, the Oscars.  I thought that Casey Affleck had this in the bag after winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor and many awards since for "Manchester by the Sea."  But now?  After Denzel won Best Actor at the SAG Awards and after seeing this film, I am thinking that Casey's momentum has slowed and this is Denzel's year.

By the way, I hope Denzel doesn't mind my referring to him as Denzel.  I think of him as a one-name celebrity like Cher or Madonna or Bono.

And speaking of Bono, Stephen Henderson, who played Mr. Bono, Troy's partner-in-crime as it were, was wonderful.  His part was not a big one and he mostly acted as a foil and listener for Troy, but as an actor, listening is as important as emoting.  It gives the other actors something to play against and with, and Henderson was right in there with Denzel, helping Denzel along.

Likewise, Viola Davis is wonderful as Rose, the sympathetic, long-suffering wife who must come to grips with her role in Troy's life.  I am expecting that she will win an Oscar for this.

This is a faithful depiction of August Wilson's award-winning play of the same name (it not only won a Tony for Best Play, it won the Pulitzer Prize), which premiered on Broadway in 1987.  It is the 6th in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," and both Denzel and Viola starred in a revival of the play on Broadway in 2010.  That revival was nominated for ten Tony awards and won three:  Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor for Denzel and Best Actress for Viola. 

Denzel not only starred in this film, but also directed it, and I have to give him major props as a director.  It is not an easy task to bring a play to the screen.  A play is not by its nature a visual medium. It is a moment in time that is meant to be shared with an audience.  Plays are often very talky and when put on the screen, come off merely as filmed plays, rather than taking advantage of what film can do.  This film did not fall into that.  Denzel takes advantage of the visual power of film without changing the play, and the play actually benefits from that.  Denzel does a wonderful job of bringing this powerful play to the screen.

I have, however, one little, teeny, teeny tiny complaint. Viola, Viola, Viola. I could swear that you were wearing false eyelashes, at least in the early part of the film, and if I am right, would Rose in the 1950's, really be wearing false eyelashes as she works around the house?  At any rate, it was a distraction.  I didn't think housewives in that era wore false eyelashes while they were whipping up a meal.

But like I said, a teeny, teeny tiny little thing, the kind of thing I notice in movies, because, well, that's me,  but one that didn't stop me from crying at the end...and you know what that means...brilliant.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a brilliant play, a brilliant film and brilliant performances!

***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!


The Immigrant (2013)

It's 1921, and Ewa Cylbuski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda have just arrived at Ellis Island from Poland.  When Magda is deemed too ill to enter the country and Ewa can't verify where she will be living, the two women are separated and set for deportation and Ewa is left to not only make her way on her own, but must find a way to save her sister.

The film begins with the image of the Statue of Liberty as seen by immigrants as they approach Ellis Island, a poignant image considering what is happening to some immigrants trying to enter the U.S. today. 

Ewa Cylbuski and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan) have arrived in the U.S. but Magda is seen to have a lung disease and sent to the infirmary to recover.  If she doesn't recover in six months, she will be deported.  And to get her out, Ewa must pay for her care.  Ewa gives the agent at Ellis Island her aunt and uncle's address in New York. but he says that address doesn't exist so she is put in the line to be deported.  She is also charged with having low morals for something that happened on the ship, but we are not privy to this until later in the film.  Single women were not allowed into the U.S. in 1921 if they were deemed to have low morals.  Geez, does it never end for us women?  What about the guys with low morals?

Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) just happens to be there. He also just happens to run a burlesque house.  It seems he does some volunteer work to help immigrants, but there is the air of a predator about him. He spots Ewa and offers to help her.  He pays off the immigration agent and takes her to his theatre.  We soon realize that he not only owns a burlesque house, he is a bit of a loon.

Bruno talks Ewa into working in his burlesque show and when a man comes looking for a woman to initiate his young son in the ways of the world, Bruno talks Ewa into prostitution with the help of some drugs.  He manipulates Ewa into prostitution and she acquiesces in order to earn the money she needs to save Magda.  Classic pimp stuff.

When Ewa finally escapes from Bruno's clutches and makes it to her Aunt and Uncle's, she thinks she is home free until they learn of that immoral "thing" that happened on the ship and report her to immigration officials so once again she is up for deportation.  And once again Bruno gets her out.  She becomes hardened and determined to do what she needs to do to save her sister so she seriously embarks on a life of prostitution.

Enter Emile (Jeremy Renner), Bruno's cousin and would-be magician.  Bruno and Emile don't get along, and especially when Emile takes a liking to Ewa and tries to get her away from Bruno.  Ewa final explains to Emile what happened on the ship, when she was taken advantage of, and Bruno overhears it and has a change of heart, because he is actually in love with Ewa.  Throughout, despite the degradation that Ewa has had to endure, her faith and her morals have kept her above it all.  However, ironically, Bruno's love for Ewa beings him down, even lower than he was before.

Cotillard won many awards for her performance in this film and deservedly so, but strangely, no Oscar nomination, which is surprising.  She is a remarkable actress.  She has that face that evokes intense emotion.

Joaquin Phoenix has made a name for himself playing strange, twitchy characters and this time is no different.  But he is a compelling actor, kind of like a train wreck.  You can't take your eyes off of him and can't wait to see what he will do next.

Jeremy Renner is not one of my favorite actors, and I don't know why.  He is a good looking guy, he is a good actor but for some reason I don't get him.  He has a kind of standoffish quality that in turn puts me off.

Directed by James Gray with a script by Gray and Richard Minello, this is a grim and compelling story, though beautiful to look at, and a poignant reminder of just what a harrowing journey it is to move to a new country to start a new life.  Who would choose to do such a thing if they weren't desperate?

Rosy the Reviewer says...wonderful performances and a story that particularly resonates today.

May in the Summer (2013)

May Brennan (Cherien Dabis), a half-Palestinian, half-American writer, high on the thrill of having just published her first book, returns from New York to her home country of Jordan where she plans to marry her fiancé, Ziad.  She is reunited with her sisters and her born-again Christian mother, but soon realizes she has walked back into a minefield of family issues.

May Brennan has just had her first book published.  She is happily engaged to Ziad and anticipating her wedding back in her homeland.  But reunited with her family in Amman, it's not long before her happiness is marred by her mother, Nadine (Hiam Abbass) and her planned boycott of the wedding (she is a Christian and doesn't approve of her daughter marrying a muslim) and the silly antics of her younger sisters, Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf).  It doesn't help that her father, Edward (Bill Pullman), suddenly wants to see her after an estrangement, and Edward's wife (Ritu Singh Pande) confesses to her that she thinks Edward is having an affair.  Suddenly May is losing control of her carefully planned life. 

The film is divided into four parts:

1. "Every person is a child at home."

May is marrying a Muslim and her born-again Christian mother, Nadine, is not happy about it, even though May's fiancé is secular. In fact, Nadine is boycotting the wedding.  She doesn't believe in interfaith marriages, especially since her marriage to Edward, an American, didn't work out. Nadine has never gotten over her divorce from May's father, who is now married to a younger Indian woman. When the girls go to see their father, they meet his wife, Anu, who later calls May, worried that her husband is having an affair. When May discovers her mother playing with a prayer knot that is meant to break a bond between two people, May realizes what she is up against. 

2.  "Don't look where you fall, but where you stepped."

May must traverse the many family pitfalls she encounters on the path to her wedding.

3.  "Love is an endless act of forgiveness."

The girls have all had issues with their Dad because of the divorce, but his second heart attack brings them back together.

4.  "There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience."

We discover just who that prayer knot Nadine was working on was aimed at and secrets are revealed.

Written, directed and starring Dabis, this film is original in its depiction of a Christian family in the Middle East, something you don't see often.  It also reminded me of a Middle Eastern Woody Allen film. There is humor in the two storylines at work here:

May, her Muslim fiancé and her questioning their upcoming wedding, and the relationship between Nadine, her ex, Edward and his wife.

But Dabis also touches on an underlying serious theme of how life goes on in the midst of the unrest of war, especially vivid in a scene where the girls are having a bachelorette party and frolicking in the Dead Sea when a fighter jet roars overhead on its way to Palestine.  We see that life goes on despite living in a war zone.

In addition to directing, Dabis is also a lovely screen presence who exudes warmth and intelligence, and she has created and directed a story that does much to help understanding between cultures.  The other actors have created an ensemble that is a believable depiction of a dysfunctional but loving family, no matter the nationality.

In this time of divisiveness and suspicion of people who don't look like us, this film is a reminder that no matter what our religion or where we are from, we humans are all the same: we all have parents we love, parents who worry about us, dysfunctional families; most of us fall in love, marry and leave home.  We should look at how we are all the same instead of focusing on and fearing the differences.  We all have the same family issues.

Whether you live in Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, despite the political turmoil in the world, we are reminded that the everyday lives of us humans are not so different.  We live, we love, we grieve, we make mistakes, and we have mothers who try to run our lives. I know I did.

Rosy the Reviewer says.. a lovely small film that is big in helping us all understand each other.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

214 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

L'Eclisse (1962)

Two beautiful people meet and have an affair...and that's about all that happens.

Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a young literary translator, breaks up with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) after a long night of talking. Sometime later, Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon), her mother's stock broker, and they embark on
a brief love affair until the film has a very existential ending, which we have come to associate with Antonioni.

I first knew who Michelangelos Antonioni was when I saw "Blow-up (1966)."  If you remember the silent tennis match, you will know that Antonioni is all about faces and stillness and the camera lingering on shots.  He clearly loves Vitti because the camera lingers lovingly on her, and I get it. She is a beautiful woman.

But ten minutes into the film, not one thing has happened except Vitti looking tortured.  Enter Alain Delon.  Now we are getting somewhere.  What a handsome guy he was.

As I've said multiple times during this project of mine - to see all 1001 movies I am supposed to see before I die - I am struck by the fact that Italian Neorealism and French New Wave films blew me away back in my twenties. But I think I was tortured back then too.  Now, I get impatient and think "Get to the point!" or "People, get a life.  Quit moaning and staring off into space."

There is a lot of arty camerawork thanks to cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo - filming characters from behind, backing up, in a mirror, framed by a doorway.  At least the camerawork in Antonioni films are never boring - one interesting shot looks under a table and we see the table legs as well as Vitti's legs. 

But one must also wonder - what the heck are Antoniono's movies about?  They can be very opaque.  He likes a deserted, stark modern landscape and his characters saying existential stuff like this:

"There are times when holding a book or a needle or a man are all the same."

Well, I wouldn't go that far.

"We've avoided saying certain things.  Why bring them up now?"

Because I want to know what the heck is going on, that's why!

This is the third in Antoniono's trilogy about alienation and modern life (the others are "L'avventura" and "La notte"), and it is considered one of his best films.  Vitti and Delon, in addition to their exceptional good looks, also put in exceptional performances, despite all that starring off into space and moaning.

Why it's a Must See: "...conceivably the greatest film of [Antonioni's] career, but perhaps significantly it has the least consequential plot...though the stunning final sequence [is] -- perhaps Antionioni's most powerful accomplishment...[The film] is remarkable both for its visual/atmospheric richness and its polyphonic and polyrhythmic mise-en-scene."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...The film has its moments and the ending is provocative, but I can't help but wonder why a film about alienation needs to be alienating.
(b & w, in Italian with English subtitles)

***Book of the Week***

Food, Health and Happiness: 115 On-Point Recipes for Great Meals and a Better Life by Oprah Winfrey (2017)

A cookbook that also promises happiness and a better life?  I would expect nothing less from Oprah.

Leave it to Oprah to write a cookbook that will also inspire us.

"As long as I can remember, I've been the kind of person wh owants t oshare the things that make life better.  When I come upon something useful, something that brings me pleasure or comfort or ease, I want everyone else to know about it and benefit from it, too.  And that is how this cookbook came to be.  It's part of my life story -- the lessons I've learned, the discoveries I've made -- told through food...Because what I now know for sure: Food is supposed to be about joy, not suffereing.  It's mean to nourish and sustain us, not cause us pain.  When you eat consciously and well, you feed your body and your spirit.  And that makes all life more delicious!"

Oprah makes no bones about her struggle with food over the years but seems to have come to grips with it now that she has found Weight Watchers.  She can have bread again!  Though she attributes her success to Weight Watchers and gives WW points for each of the recipes, this is not a Weight Watchers cookbook per se, though the recipes are low fat, low calorie and "skinny" versions of comfort food.  It's more of a book of Oprah's reflections about food and her life with some great recipes thrown in.

Some standouts are "Smothered Chicken," "Fettucine Bolognese with Peas," "Pineapple Fried Rice," and "Indian Pumpkin Curry."

If you like "reading" cookbooks, this is a good one. It's almost Oprah's autobiography with recipes thrown in.

When The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air in 2011, I wrote about how much Oprah still mattered.  She may not have a daily talk show any more, but she is still relevant.  I love her.  I have loved her since her very first show and I sure wish she would run for President!

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you love Oprah, or if you just love really good cookbooks, you will love this one!

Thanks for reading!

See you next Friday 

for my review of

"Fifty Shades Darker"

The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)

 and the latest on

"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project." 

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Check your local library for DVDs and books mentioned.

Next time you are wondering whether or not to watch a particular film, check out my reviews on IMDB (The International Movie Database). 

Go to, find the movie you are interested in.  Once there, click on the link that says "Explore More" on the right side of the screen.  Scroll down to External Reviews and when you get to that page, you will find Rosy the Reviewer alphabetically on the list.

NOTE:  On some entries, this has changed.  If you don't see "Explore More" on the right side of the screen, scroll down just below the description of the film in the middle of the page. Click where it says "Critics." Look for "Rosy the Reviewer" on the list.

Or if you are using a mobile device, look for "Critics Reviews." Click on that and you will find me alphabetically under "Rosy the Reviewer."

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